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Religious Art is Useless

October 6, 2010 4 comments

Even some atheists are prone to giving religion credit for producing great art as a happy byproduct of its dangerous and deluded superstitions. Such arguments always remind me of the first line in Act 2 of Tomfoolery, a musical in which I once appeared as the non-singing narrator:

    World War II produced many great songs, but it was not primarily a musical

Of all the lines I stumbled on and over during my short and unspectacular career in amateur theatre, this was my favourite. Even with the sober midweek audiences, it never failed to get a laugh and, with it, a perfectly timed shot of adrenaline (if the first joke of Act 2 flops, it is bound to be a long night — for all involved).

Back to my original point: great art came out of religious faith and it would be churlish for even non-believers to deny it…so goes the theory at least.

Bollocks.

As I write this, I am at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, my favourite of all the city’s many fine cultural institutions. As I wander around, I am struck again by the repetitive nature of religious imagery on display here, especially in exhibits of any century up to and including about the 17th.

This seems to be such a waste of artistic talent for one thing — imagine if all those artists felt able to produce original work instead of endless covers of the same song.
It is even a greater shame when you consider the extent to which this constricted artistic menu has affected our capacity to understand the past. Artists provide a unique window into life in past centuries in the absence of photographic or other records. And yet, most of the artistic record is completely useless except in telling us that people were (a) quite religious and (b) convinced that Jesus and family were Scandanavian.

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Does Atheism Poison Everything — Recent Hitch Appearance #5

September 28, 2010 Leave a comment
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Pew Religion Survey

September 28, 2010 Leave a comment

This Pew Religion Survey is quite interesting, and worth taking if you are not feeling sufficiently smug today. There are widespread media reports about how this reveals that atheists know more about religion than botherers of god. How is this news? I got 14 out of 15 by the way.

Catholics do notably worse than Protestants, which is not surprising when you consider the biblical slant of the questions. Vaticanland has never been big on talking up the bible. Mormons score highly for the obvious reasons that the only people that would admit to being Mormon are, by default and definition, religious fanatics.

UPDATE: Another reason for good showing by members of the Church of Latter Day Saints occurred to me. One of the 15 questions in the survey was explicitly about Joseph Smith, the deluded illiterate responsible for the epic silliness of the Mormon faith. This gives members of that particular sect an obvious head-start, since Smith is far, far less likely to known by non-Mormons. Some will rebut this by saying that there were questions about mainstream Christianity, Judaism and Islam in the survey that were similarly helpful to members of those respective factions. This doesn’t stack up for me. While all religious belief is absurd, Christianity, Judaism and Islam are at least well-known. Questions about the big three monotheistic religions fall under the heading of “general knowledge”, and this is evidenced by the fact that the dogma-free — atheists and agnostics — scored better than Christians, Muslims or Jews. Only 47 percent of respondents to the Pew Survey knew that Smith was Mormon — compared to, let me guess, 100 percent of Mormons — this gives them a small but significant advantage when the survey consisted of only 15 questions.

Why do I care so much? Mainly because I resent the proximity in a knowledge-based survey between non-believers and believers of any stripe — and none more so than Mormons, a group I have made a hobby of mocking since they tried to convert me in Japan in 1987.

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Pell Pill Punditry, cont.

September 25, 2010 11 comments

Cardinal George Pell sits somewhere between “irresistible” and “too easy” on the ridiculometer. Like many gay men and/or virgins of his advanced years, he is a silly and fussy and anachronistic person. When you consider his outlandish costumes and fetish for arcane rituals, Pell, like most of his priestly colleagues, is not an actual person at all: he is an elaborately manufactured persona. He is an avatar in a carefully crafted other-world: Vaticanland. Like Hogwarts or Narnia, Vaticanland is an brilliant fictional construction, with its own rules and shared history, its own myths and shibboleths, its own secret rituals. By grasping this, we can begin to understand how Vaticanland fanboys, in glorious regalia, can debate for days — with straight faces if not inclinations — how many angels can fit on the head of a pin, or how long a dead, unbaptised newborn must linger in purgatory.

Mocking Pell, therefore, requires all the imagination and effort of teasing Dungeons and Dragons fanatics or making fun of Trekkie conventions: tempting, for sure, but hardly satisfying.

But Pell will insist on engaging in the “public discourse”, as if he feels bound to speak out on behalf of the “Australian Catholics” he “represents”. This tips his delusion status to extreme.

Australian Catholics, like their counterparts in other country’s where literacy prevails, are no more aligned with Pell on matters of philosophy, morality and politics than I am. Even on “deal-breaker” issues like abortion and pre-marital sex, Catholics in the US, Western Europe and Australia are slightly less inclined to support Catholic teaching than non-Catholics. They are more politically liberal, less prone to fundamentalism, and more respectful of science and reason than the general population. A survey reported in July that 57% of of Latino Catholics in the US support same-sex marriage compared to just 22% of of Latino Protestants. This suggests that “mainstream” Catholics are quite capable of adjusting to the real world when the lights come up on the once-weekly screening of Vaticanland. Pell himself acknowledges the daylight between Catholic teaching and mainstream Catholic opinion, but does nothing whatsoever with the insight.

Pell has a new ghost-writer — I am guessing male, quite young and easy on the eyes — and he has found in Murdoch’s Australian a newspaper willing to publish his little fictional forays. Pell should thank god that god does not exist. After his craven little effort on Saturday, Pell would surely be destined for an eternity in that corner of hell reserved for the rhetorically dishonest.

I will leave it to well-credentialed feminists to demolish the central argument — that the contraceptive pill has actually deprived women of economic and political power, based on a single article in a Vaticanland fanzine of no apparent credibility — and will comment instead on an area where I am feel amply qualified: Pell’s fraudulent presentation of polling data.  Here is the key sentence:

A May CBS News poll of 591 adult Americans found that 59 per cent of men and 54 per cent of women believed the pill had made women’s lives better.

This poll result is clearly presented to support Pell’s argument that, despite what you may think, the pill has been bad for women — because, he uses this finding to assert, women themselves acknowledge this in greater numbers than men (thus the 5 percent gap between the sexes). This is brazen bullshit:

  1. The poll itself concedes a margin of error of 6 percent for the sample of men, and 5 percent for women. With this taken into account, the percentage of men who believe the pill has been good for women is anywhere between 53 and 65 percent and, for women, between 49 and 60 percent. This is the dictionary definition of a statistical tie. It is sad and revealing that Pell’s ghost-writer would cling so gamely to such insignificant findings.
  2. Pell’s ghostwriter has mysteriously reported only the percentage who support the Pill — odd, given his overall argument. When you examine the poll, it is soon clear why: only 6-8% of women, and 9 percent of men, believe that the pill has made women’s lives worse; the rest say it has made no difference.  By failing to account for the “no difference” crowd, this was a misleading attempt to present the findings as if the public are quite evenly split on support for the pill, when nothing could be further from the truth. The CBS poll (in full here) is exhibit A in the case against the Pell critique, and his audacious and selective use of the findings is staggering. This is the intellectual equivalent of very loose morals indeed.
  3. Other findings of the CBS Survey neglected by Pell’s ghostwriter include: 99 percent of women believe it has either improved or made no difference to their career prospects, and 84 percent believe it has either improved or made no difference to their family lives. Both these data points are utterly devastating to the Pell-ghostwriter thesis, and go unmentioned in favour of one statistically insignificant half-finding.

It is pointless to ask the shameless to hang their heads in shame — and this goes for Pell, his twinky ghost-writer and the the opinion editor at the Weekend Oz who made the decision to publish this nonsense without questioning it even slightly.

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Pell on Pill a Piss-take?

September 24, 2010 1 comment

Has the Australian newspaper lost any sense of decency or has it been concealing a wicked sense of humor all this time?

In today’s Australian, they publish a piece by Catholic Cardinal George Pell’s ghost-writer arguing that the contraceptive pill has been bad for women over it’s 50-year history.

I will address the substance of the matter tomorrow by seeing whether exactly five minutes’ research on Google is enough to debunk each and every lame argument used by Pell’s ghostwriter.

In the meantime, there is a glaring judgment issue here: on what basis does the Australian think its readers need a lecture about sex from a Catholic priest, let alone sex involving females, let alone females old enough to menstruate?

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The Pastor and the Glam: DC Eavesdropping

September 20, 2010 2 comments

N.B. Wikipedia does a good job of describing the Tea Party movement here if some references below don’t resonate with non-American readers.

I feel nauseous — and this Starbucks latte is only partly to blame.

Since I moved to New York about a year ago, I have operated under the happy delusion that conservative Christians and tea-party supporters exist in a parallel universe that will never intersect with my own. After all, the only Republicans I have encountered in twelve months are the tourists from flyover country I swerve to avoid on those rare occasions I venture into Times Square.

That’s all changed. As I write these words, I am at a Starbucks in DC, and two far-right Christianist lunatics have just brought to an end a meeting they conducted, at full volume, well within ear-shot. They had interrupted some very unchristian daydreaming when they sat down across from my table in the corner.

She is an extremely glamorous woman in her mid-30’s or so, with a lilting Southern accent she may or may not have acquired only after she adopted theocratic fascism as her life’s mission. He is a white-sounding African American reverend with a meticulous hairdo, a million-dollar wardrobe and a watch that screams “embezzler!”. The pastor and the glam.

I took it from their conversation (it was obviously their first encounter) that she was an ultra-conservative political activist who wanted to know how to persuade more black voters that homophobia is sufficient common ground for them to abandon Obama and the Democrats. It was also a strategy discussion about how to recruit more black faces to the tea-party, the populist movement that is in the process of sending the Republican Party, hurtling, to the fanatical fringe. Even though the ideological dialect couldn’t be further removed from my own, the language is the same: campaigns and elections, numbers and electoral districts; the bad-mouthing of factional enemies, the self-serving anecdotes, the subtle and not-so-subtle one-upmanship. I understand this better than English.

The duo opened with a familiar tune, castigating Obama for trying to lift the ban on homosexuals from serving in the US military and praising John McCain, once a moderate, for leading opposition on the issue. Having established that they hate the same people with more or less the same degree of animus, their courtship entered the next phase.

Glam was interested to find ways to help the conservative Jesus freak running against the Democratic Congressman from Virginia’s 2nd District, Glenn Nye. As they were talking, I googled Nye and it was soon apparent why they would have him in their sights; he is their least favorite kind of Democrat. Nye spent 10 years in the intelligence services and served in Iraq as a reservist. He is good-looking, Christian and clean-cut — and therefore near-impossible to vilify as a godless Nancy-boy, their preferred characterization of liberal opponents. The district Nye represents includes large African-American pockets, and this was the nub of the discussion: how the GOP could peel away some “minority” support by playing up social issues that they believe should send more black votes in their direction (but never does): aka gays and abortion, in either order.

The pastor then took a call, which he announced was from “Bishop Jackson”. Google soon informed me that Jackson is this region’s leading black conservative, a tea-party apologist and fire-breathing, gay-baiting bigot. Take this report from Daily Caller from last week:

Last December, shortly after the D.C. City Council passed a bill extending marriage rights to same-sex couples in Washington, D.C., Bishop Harry Jackson, the Maryland-based religious leader fighting marriage equality in the District, promised a “bloodletting.”

“In future races, religious people are going to start going after people’s political careers,” Jackson, the head of Stand4MarriageDC, told U.S. News and World Report. “You’re going to see a bloodletting that is going to mark a new style of engagement for people who are against same-sex marriage.”

Luckily, it turns out that Bishop Jackson is more hat than cattle on the “blood-letting” front: despite all his best efforts, the only gay-friendly DC politicians who lost in recent primary elections were defeated by candidates who are just as gay-friendly, if not more so. A bad day for the Old Testament.

Glam was clearly impressed by the sudden arrival by phone of this notorious gay-basher. The Bishop is, according to my typically thorough research, the most vocal African-American leader anywhere in the US to defend the tea-party against fairly self-evident charges of racism. Jackson is, therefore, a priceless asset — the race-traitor-in-chief.

The pastor made short work of the phone-call, and the couple soon turned their attention to Christine O’Donnell, the tea-party favourite and masturbation-is-adultery advocate, who just rocked the Republican Party establishment by winning its Senate Primary in Delaware. Glam and Pastor clearly approved of her victory in theory (O’Donnell defeated the kind of middle-of-the-road Republican disdained by the Christian Right) but were both concerned about the practical implications.

Quick, and relatively accurate, radio play:

Starbucks ambience: soft-rocky folk, subdued chatter, machines pretending to make espresso, sporadic retching.

Glam: There was panic at the Values Voter Summit about her going on the Sunday shows. But luckily, so-and-so managed to convince her to pull out in time.
Pastor: Good on so-and-so. It would’ve been ugly.
Glam: You know what, Reverend? O’Donnell doesn’t even have a scheduler!
Pastor: (very caucasianishly) Oh dear. So her campaign really is a…?
Glam: Yes, it really is a….”.

Fictional detour

PQ: I think the phrase you’re looking for is ‘cluster fuck’.

They left soon after this exchange. The Pastor reassured Glam that African-Americans are coming around to conservatism, and Glam was either dumb or polite enough to either believe or pretend to believe him. Pastor then received another call as she left. “You know it!” he said, ending a brief but delirious conversation about the coming tea-party revolution and the end of Obama, “we’re gonna drain this swamp.”

How very holy, I thought.

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90% of Statistics are Bogus, But….

September 19, 2010 1 comment

One of my first acts as a opposition researcher with the NZ Labour Party, aged about 7, was to put together a graph that purported to show a sharp increase in violent crime in a provincial town; which one I can’t recall. It was a stunning revelation to me at the time that, by fiddling with the parameters of a graph, you could dramatically increase its impact. If, for example, there were six armed robberies in Wanganui in 1992 and nine in 1993, by starting the Y axis on a bar graph at five you can create an instantaneous crime spree. Because the average Wanganui (Taupo? Bay of Plenty?) journalist is probably as scientifically rigorous as I am, it dominated the headlines for at least one news cycle and earned me some welcome kudos along the way. In retrospect, this very unsophisticated statistical trickery taught me three lifelong lessons, namely:

Never trust a statistic when it supports the agenda of the person who came up with it;
There is no such thing as an objective fact;
It’s much easier to win an argument when you set the rules of engagement.

My little Wanganui (or Taranaki? Hawkes Bay?) crime wave produced a treasure trove of Machiavellian insights, foremost among them being that the presentation of statistics as a proxy for ‘objective truth’ is one of the most pernicious and pervasive forms of bullshit in the world today.

Having said all that, there are some statistical findings too sumptuous and gratifying to resist. Okcupid, an online dating site, has recently crunched its member profiles to gain a better understanding of its target audience. They sliced and diced this data in many revealing ways, but most interesting to me was how they used the Coleman-Liau Index to approximate the U.S. grade level necessary to comprehend the self-composed profiles of each of its 500,000 plus members. They then cross-referenced the findings with religiosity — as well as degrees of religiosity (i.e. strong or weak belief). Here is the delectable outcome:

Now, I am not saying that reading age is a perfect indicator of intelligence. Sorry, let me correct myself: I am saying that.

I can’t decide which of the following findings I like the most:

The highest reading age of all is among half-hearted Buddhists
Whereas strong religious belief has a negative correlation with reading level, the opposite is true of atheists who appear to become smarter the further they move from god.
Protestants are dumber than…well, everybody, and Muslims are smarter than Catholics (though less so than Jews, which must sting a little).

To highlight what this means in practice, especially for people who don’t immediately grasp the US grade system, here is a representative sample of books and plays recommended for 7th graders — or very committed Protestants:

Anne of Green Gables
Izzy, Willy-Nilly
The Miracle Worker
Harry Potter books
Chronicles of Narnia

In contrast, atheists and non-committal Buddhist are reading at a 9th grade level:

Slaughterhouse Five
Jane Eyre
All Quiet on the Western Front
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Grapes of Wrath
1984

Most pointedly, though, consider this: the most popular translation of the bible — the New International Version — requires a reading grade level of 8.4. In other words, the only Christians able to read and comprehend it are lapsed Catholics — or, to frame yet another way, the less you comprehend the words of the Bible, the more you are likely to believe them.

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