MILITANT ATHEISTS

The saying goes something like “But how can atheists be militant?  They are defined by their absence of ideology!”, usually said in the company of other cookie-cutter Straight White Male atheists, with all the self-awareness of a baboon’s arse.  Well, there is such a thing as a proselytising atheist, and this is what they look like from the outside:

 

Oh noes!

 

As much as I want to find this caricature unbelievable, I do sometimes find myself in the company of those whose mouths are bigger than their modesty.  And it is so tedious.  We don’t need to “debate” this stuff, it achieves nothing.  This Easter, let’s celebrate by keeping our mouths full of chocolate, and free from bluster.

 

WEALTH, HEALTH, AND WOO

Very often when skeptics discuss alternative medicine, they look at the problem only from their own perspective.  We know the facts, why won’t people listen, etc, etc.  But that ignores the real reasons why people choose alternative medicine.  The evidence is enough for us, but it isn’t for some people.  And those people tend to be at the more affluent end of the scale.  I don’t know whether anyone has studied or theorised on this previously, but there’s a few reasons that I think are behind this:

Wealth is the best single indicator of healthcare outcomes

There are many factors that contribute to this whole, most of them related to the opportunities made available to those with more money.  Richer people can afford to partake in more physical and enriching activities, can afford to eat better food, are generally better educated, and are more likely to have access to private health treatments.  The rich are already at an advantage, health-wise.  Because of this, they’re more likely to pay attention to their health and avoid unhealthy environments, and therefore are already going to be healthier overall.  If they don’t experience any medical catastrophes (life threatening illnesses, accidents) then they might suffer the odd minor thing here and there that can be treated at home, and these are the kind of things that clear up by themselves in a few days anyway.  These are also the types of ailments for which there is a booming market in alternative remedies.  It’s not difficult to see how one might think that taking one of these remedies has “cured” the illness – because it would get better by itself anyway.

Alt med is a luxury product

Homeopathy, herbal treatments, and spiritual healing aren’t offered by the NHS.  There’s a damn good reason for this – they don’t work.  But manufacturers and vendors of these products and services market them as a life-enhancing extra.  The NHS is there for emergencies, they say.  But this is the good stuff.  And given how expensive it is, it gives the illusion of quality.

High-profile celebs endorse it

The Royal family are mega-homeopathy fans, and the Queen’s 90, so it must be good right? (bear in mind what I said about affluence above)  Not to mention the polished and glowing celebrity wellness gurus hawking their latest juice cleanse or fanny rocks.  As well as being a luxury product, alternative medicine is a fashion accessory.  Fashions tend to spread within peer groups, and alt med crap is marketed almost exclusively to middle-class women with traditional responsibilities and high disposable income (yep, the marketing is sexist as well as elitist).  Which explains the tendency for lovers (and pushers) of alt med to be female.

Alt med gives you the warm feels

Science and medicine deal in evidence and cold, hard facts.  Our health service is underfunded and overstretched, and there just isn’t the time to give every patient a cuddle.  There are strong arguments for improving communication, bedside manner, and making care more compassionate, but the present political climate doesn’t allow it.  As a former private patient, I know that private healthcare offers more in terms of personalisation, time for the patient, and looking after one’s feelings.  This offers benefits in terms of how patients view their recovery and illness; it’s certainly more pleasant to feel like you are “looked after”.  Most private hospitals are completely legit, offering speedy, effective, and dignified care.  But the one thing they share with the woo-woo clinics is the compassion.  Paying for alternative medicine satisfies the yearning that people have to fell like they are “treating the whole person”.  Trouble is, that’s all the alt-med will give you.  If you want a genuine treatment, you have to defer to the science, sorry.

It’s deceptively alluring

All of the above reasons are driven by emotion, and emotion is an extremely difficult thing to bypass.  People cling to delusions and snake oil because it satisfies their need for empathy, and because to shun it would mean leaving behind a part of their identity.  Alt med is a lifestyle choice.  Based on this, our current tactic of blinding adherents with science is obviously not working.  Now that knowledge of the Backfire Effect is spreading, we know that we could be making their views even more entrenched.  So what do we do?  Whatever technique we use, we have got to remain true to the evidence.  Lose our integrity and we’ve had it.  Promoters of alt-med are well-versed in persuasive argument techniques and will pounce on the slightest slip-up.  I feel that bearing the emotional factor in mind, acknowledging it and discussing that with alt-med users could work.  It addresses the issue honestly and would give them something to consider about why they really use alternative remedies.  Another tactic is effective science communication, done in a conversational way, involving scientists from a similar societal group to the audience.  They need to be relatable, and they need to demonstrate an ability to understand.  Simply throwing facts at people and not engaging with those who “disagree” achieves nothing.  We need to at least start those conversations, because the most effective way of changing someone’s mind is to get them to reach the conclusion on their own terms.  You can sow the seeds and nurture them, but you cant force a change in mindset.

(NEW) ATHEISM (PLUS)

I feel that I’ve missed the boat somewhat here, as this is a conversation I had way back in the days of my first steps in the skeptical movement.  But it came to mind because I had a question that I wanted to pose to the Atheism+ people, and I just discovered that their website no longer exists!  I am disappointed, because I feel that their movement has a lot to offer atheists, humanists and skeptics.  I hope that they still exist in some incarnation, because it would be a shame to lose a more compassionate atheist angle.  As well as that, they seemed to be the ones actually doing critical thinking about social and skeptical matters, unlike the self-proclaimed rationalists who would tear them down at every opportunity that they see someone tapping on their glass case of privilege.

But the conversation I had was about the dichotomy of New Atheism vs. Atheism Plus.  And, you guessed it, all dichotomies are false dichotomies.  Most of my social circle would err more toward the New Atheist end of the spectrum, and I do criticise their arguments and pose questions that their brand of atheism doesn’t always have a satisfactory answer for.  They’re free to do the same in turn for my atheism, but very often they would come at the argument from an extreme position “calling out” the other end of the scale – assuming that I was querying their viewpoints because I was some fringe lefty.

But this is not an either/or problem.  I find much of what the New Atheists say in terms of ideas to be useful, and I find the way it is presented to often be extreme and repugnant.  In terms of Atheism Plus, I find their philosophy far more welcoming and pragmatic, yet the practice is often exclusionary due to its adherents jumping to conclusions about atheists who don’t exactly fit their mould.

Very often, New Atheists make sole claim to all that is reasonable and rational, and then jump on whatever bandwagon is steamrollering itself over an oppressed minority (because down with social justice – booooooooo!).  But I’ve found Atheism Plus to be too defensive when genuine questions are asked.  I know that this stems from the phenomenon of “Just Asking Questions“, which New-Atheist trolls are very good at, but it unfortunately spills over into suspicion of people who are genuinely curious.

In my response to the question of whether one is “better” than the other, or whether they can even co-exist, I sort-of said that I thought it was the wrong question.  Because I do think that they can co-exist, but more than that, that they aren’t mutually exclusive philosophies.  There are going to be disagreements between these groups on certain, nay many, points.  But that’s half the fun of thinking skeptically – you ask two intellectuals a question and you get five different answers.  Atheism, skepticism & humanism aren’t any different, and it shouldn’t be seen as a problem if there are disagreements, or divergent viewpoints on some issues.  I suppose we come into difficulties when extreme views are involved; say a New Atheist with anti-feminist views wants to “debate” Atheism Plus, well that’s obviously going nowhere.  But then we get into absolutes again – many progressive people would say that to be anti-feminist is a right-wing and backward ideology, but the counter-argument is that to be feminist is an ideology (no, no, no, it isn’t – but that’s how the arguments go).

So I suppose the problem here is that there are people who decide that they are very much on one side or the other, and that they quite like there being two “sides”.  New Atheism and Atheism Plus can coexist in the same brain, so I don’t see why there’s so much unease at them existing in the same movement.  If we adhere to one school of thought too rigidly, or define it too narrowly, we’ll come up against conflicts both internally and externally.  It is one thing to be able to hold two contradicting ideas simultaneously (which we can all do), and another to simply hold an array of beliefs that have no contradictions, but come from different sources.  Um, isn’t the second one actually easier…?

NOTES FROM A SMALLER ISLAND

A while back, I posted about UK immigration policy (this was pre-Brexit, before Brexit was a twinkle in Boris Johnson’s eye, even) and I mooted the idea that our government might be steering the UK towards a lower, and hopefully sustainable, population with a correspondingly smaller economy.  Well, recent events suggest that this could be a possibility.

I attended an event held by GMSS, on “Misrepresenting Reality” – a critique of the information provided by the Leave campaign (most of which turned out to be lies and/or appeals to nostalgia).  Well, I say attended, what I mean is that I missed the whole talk but snuck in during the extended Q&A (hey, I have a demanding job).

One of the questions asked of the speaker (who is a Professor in European Law, so they know their stuff) was whether they had heard any good arguments in support of Brexit.  They said no, but there was one possibility that no-one has mentioned – that Brexit would result in the UK’s population and economy reducing in size and resulting in a smaller, sustainable nation with comfortable living standards but no aspirations to be anything greater.

Personally, I don’t think that would be a good thing, but it would be an argument that actually held some water, in comparison to jingoistic ranting and slogans painted on buses.  It seems that there are decisions happening as to where our country is headed.  I see it as being in one of two broad directions:

  1. Economic growth, high population, high output – We aim to keep producing, innovating, and competing as a first-world player.  We take an active role on the world stage, with diplomatic and military influence and an international outlook.  In order for this to happen, our infrastructure and population need to consistently grow, and we have to be able to maintain this growth against competitor nations who may have an advantage in terms of efficiency in terms of production and labour costs (I’m looking at you, China and India).  High immigration is necessary to bolster the population, due to the below-replacement birth rate of indigenous Brits.
  2. Declining economy, low population, low output – we accept that other countries will overtake us, and we make the decision to go quietly.  We reduce our population by curbing immigration, and continuing with policies designed to discourage people from having large families.  We maintain a decent quality of life by relying more on our own industries, with some overseas trade in specialised products and services.  We maintain a foothold in international politics, but our role is far less significant.  The capacity of our armed services is whittled down even further and take a more ceremonial and/or peacekeeping role.

You may decide that you prefer one or other of those options, or neither, or you might not have any strong feelings on it.  But one thing we do know is that this was not the Brexit Britain we were promised.  We’re not going to bring The Empire back – and I’m sure there will be many disappointed Leavers who feel they got sold a pup.

THE REGRESSIVE LEFT FALLACY

Here we are with another example of skeptics making thinking errors that they’d pick up on if someone else did it. However this is a bit more than just a failure of logic – it’s also a distortion of the original term. While words can and do change meaning, it doesn’t mean that we can appropriate a phrase and twist it to mean whatever we feel like. We get all pissy when “deniers” are referred to as “skeptics”, so let’s not be hypocrites as well, eh?

The “regressive left” was coined by Maajid Nawaz in his 2012 memoir “Radical: My Journey from Islamist Extremism to a Democratic Awakening“, describing ‘”well-meaning liberals and ideologically driven leftists” in the United Kingdom who naïvely and ‘ignorantly pandered to” Islamists and helped Islamist ideology to gain acceptance.’  It is related to another of his phrases “the racism of low expectations“, which refers to the application of lower moral standards to people within minorities, based on the notion that they are unable to take criticism or adopt universal standards of morality, due to their being backward or uncivilised.

However, this phrase is really doing the rounds on the internet at the moment, applied to anyone who is prepared to step outside of their comfort zone and find common ground with those who are different.  A significant part of the problem is hostility to religious folk, something written about here, by Hayley Is A Ghost.  And the atheist community’s favourite example of such “loony left” behaviour is the Goldsmith’s LGBT Society’s support of the University’s Islamic Society.

Here’s a summary of what happened:

The SU’s Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society invited Maryam Namazie to give a presentation.  Some members of the Islamic Society were unhappy about this and attended the talk with the intention of interrupting her and preventing her from speaking.  With SUs being what they are, and student bodies being willing to support the oppressed, reports of what happened were misrepresented as the event being discriminatory to Muslims, and many people were outraged about it (which would have been a fair response if that was what actually happened).  Other student societies who campaign for social justice stood in solidarity with the Islamic Society, because they saw an alignment of principles.  And this is where it started to go really, really wrong.

Now, the LGBT & Feminist Societies aren’t populated by idiots.  These are educated, if idealistic, young adults standing up for human rights in spite of the knowledge that Islam isn’t totally OK with women and The Gays.  It was the problem of perceived oppression that was the issue.  It’s something that many of us would do if we believed that people were being unjustly treated, even if we don’t personally share all the values of the group we seek to assist.

In keeping with their behaviour at Namazie’s talk, the Islamic Society then behaved in a not-entirely-honourable fashion:

Tweet by Goldsmiths Islamic Society's then-president
Oh dear.

Tweets by Goldsmiths Islamic Society's then-president
#cringe

It was rather amusing to see this clash of cultures played out in the Twittersphere, but I never thought of it as anything more than an awkward misjudgement of the character of others.  The LGBT and Feminist Societies acted in good faith, and perhaps naively, expected others to do so as well.  Anyone with half a brain knows that #notallmuslims are like this, and it should have just ended as an unfortunate incident that hopefully teaches us to be more aware of others’ motivations.  But no!  Never ones to miss an anti-theist bandwagon, it really captured the imagination of the skeptical movement, and not to be discriminatory in their nature, they then aimed their mockery at SUs as well as Islam – in particular any of the left-leaning societies (this is a weird thing, most skeptics I know are left-of-centre, yet right-wing ideas are very popular if they push the right buttons.  Maybe we’re not sceptical enough).

One thing I heard was that they were like “turkeys voting for Christmas”, and that Skeptical Trump Card, The Regressive Left (booooooooooooooooooooo!).  Well, at the time, I felt quite off about it, but it wasn’t clear enough in my mind to articulate my opposition to it.  But the popularity of this idea grew, and it got more tiresome with every minute.  And so, here’s some commentary from the recent #womensmarch:

I wonder how much this person cares about women’s rights on days they can’t point out a contradiction?

 

It featured heavily on my timeline, and, well, I’m not one to let these things slide:

The Regressive Left strikes again!
Of course I had to weigh in. Friends don’t let friends make dumbass mistakes like this.
This person, commenting elsewhere, summed up how I feel about the whole debacle:

I decided to educate myself on the identity of woman in the picture, with the US flag headscarf. Her name is Munira Ahmed, and she intended the image to demonstrate that she, as a Muslim, is as American as anyone else.  And it’s an important point: Muslims are as diverse as just about any population you can think of.  The caricature of Muslims perpetuated by the New Atheist Movement is horribly simplistic and creates division.  We can’t say with any integrity that we will not support those women who look different from us, or those who are oppressed by our country’s actions.  And what about Muslim women who do feel oppressed by the headscarf?  Do we support them, but only as long as they take it off when in our presence?  Of course it is possible to hold both beliefs: that Muslims are human beings who we should care about, and that the headscarf can be a tool of female oppression.  That doesn’t seem so regressive to me.

THE GOD OF THE GAPS FALLACY FALLACY

“The God Of The Gaps” is something I hear mentioned a lot in skeptical circles. The concept is that because it has taken humans many thousands of years to develop the scientific knowledge we now collectively hold, that religion was used as a placeholder while we caught up with the facts. But I can see numerous problems with this idea – which, as I discovered while researching this article, never originally meant what skeptics take it to mean nowadays. It was actually a term used by Christian theologians to caution against the type of argument in which believers would say “well, science can’t explain this, therefore God”.  And that’s actually a pretty smart argument – if you’re a person of power within the Christian religion (or any religion), things are going to get awkward when your evidence for God’s existence is progressively overturned by advances in science.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/God_of_the_gaps

However, in popular modern usage, it means something rather different; a version of the argument-from-ignorance fallacy, that:

  • There is a gap in understanding of some aspect of the natural world.
  • Therefore the cause must be supernatural.

But this is a huge simplification, nay, thinking error, in terms of what’s actually happening in the minds of believers.

Categorising the argument this way is useful for understanding the history and philosophy of religion and science, as we can see the pattern of questioning and rejecting religion during the enlightenment years of scientific inquiry & discovery.  This is an important part of history that we must understand & record, but we mustn’t make the error of thinking it was a well-executed plan. We can look back and observe the changes, and learn from how the knowledge spread. But to conflate the evolution of human learning 200 years ago with the reasons that people choose faith over reason today, doesn’t make any sense.  It is effectively a post hoc, ergo propter hoc argument on our part.

1. While there are some unknowns about many areas of science, we know enough about the scientific origins of just about everything now to only have gaps that would accommodate a vanishingly tiny god. There are many religious sects that keep their adherents ignorant, precisely because of the risk of them abandoning their faith if they were to hear of alternative explanations. There are no more significant gaps.

2. A common mistake skeptics make is to assume that other, ordinary, people make choices based on logic and reason. Trying to “debunk” faith with science is like arguing with the archetypal chess-playing pigeon. It is completely pointless. Both sides leave the discussion thinking that they’ve “won”, having achieved nothing. Faith in anything is just that: faith. And faith occurs independent of any knowledge to the contrary. It is powerful, illogical, and rooted in emotional needs. The devout are able to hold their strong beliefs in a world of information because of cognitive dissonance.  The gaps may get smaller, but the faith does not contract in turn.

3. Not only is it a mistake to think that one can argue on a rational basis with a fundamentalist, but it is to fall into a trap from which one cannot escape. To think that the deeply religious are less intelligent than the rest of us is naive and dangerous. Our religious debating opponent is not stupid – they are well-practised in arguing against attacks on their beliefs, and one useful tactic is to play it coy, to let us believe we have the upper hand, and then pull the rug from under our feet. Arguing against belief with science will never be successful. If someone is to leave their faith, they must arrive at that conclusion by themselves.

To summarise, The God Of The Gaps Fallacy Fallacy is one argument we really need to drop. We’ve been arguing this point for decades and have gained no ground. If anything, it’s made the faithful even more firm in their convictions. And it reinforces the stereotype of the hard-hearted, uncaring, dogmatic atheist. We need to stop picking fights that we’ll never win. It’s not a betrayal of principles; we spend much of our time firming them up and confirming our convictions anyway! If the faithful can hold such stock in their stories in the event of conflicting evidence, why can’t we trust in what we know to be fact?

LOSING MY RELIGION

Maybe the title of this post is a little inaccurate.  I never really had religion inside my heart or my mind, but it was very much a part of my life as a youngster.  I grew up in an isolated community in which the church played a big role, and even though I attended non-faith schools, religion was still ubiquitous.  In my first two schools, the legal requirement for an act of daily worship was strictly adhered to; we regularly had visits from church groups to teach us dubious moral lessons, and religious dogma permeated the syllabus.  And this was in an ordinary, non-faith school system.  I’ve heard of the experiences of those who did attend religious schools, and their stories range from the casually harmful to the downright monstrous.  In addition to the formal aspects of education, the ethos of the schools was very much focused on discipline and shame.  We were not educated about drugs, alternative lifestyles or sexuality, or even about our bodies and sex in anything but the most clinical and limited terms.  I think the idea was that if we were shielded from it, we wouldn’t do it (this presents a kind of magical thinking about the teenage brain).

My family were incredibly religious, attending church at least twice a week.  My childhood was overseen by good old-fashioned Christian discipline, with certain topics off-limits for discussion (anything about the human body, sex, or social injustices), and certain viewpoints the unquestionable truth (homosexuality = bad, nuclear family = good).  The way this was instilled within us was by fear.  Disobedience or blasphemy (yes, as a child I was instructed to limit my speech, and by extension, my thinking) were punished by a beating, or at the very least by being yelled at.  No opportunity for reflection was given, so that I could figure out what I’d done wrong – I just learnt to know what I could get away with around whom.

Throughout my school career, there was a noticeable divide between those who had religion, and those who didn’t.  Although our community was cut off, plenty of families were more outward-looking and didn’t get caught in the trap.  At the time, I thought that the children from those families were mean and spiteful and bad.  So it was a difficult dance to perform at school – I wanted to have friends, but I also knew that the kids I wanted to hang around with were prone to taking the piss out of the religious, and it made me feel really small.  Even though I didn’t believe in it, there was a feeling of “wrongness”, like these words were a personal attack on me.  In these situations I just kept my mouth shut and hoped they would stop, and (please, please, please!) not turn their attention on me.  Not having anywhere to turn while trying to leave religion behind was so awkward for me.  I wish that I’d discovered atheist groups before my thirties, my formative years could have been so much more enjoyable.

In my late teens, a family friend encouraged me to get confirmed.  By this point in my life I was unsure how I felt about religion, but it was something that we just “did”, so I went along with it.  Unfortunately this then imposed all kinds of expectations on me, that I would attend church more regularly, that I would take communion (I felt so uncomfortable about this – like I had been coerced into a ceremony I felt no connection to), that I would live my life in a certain way, and most insidiously that I would “find some new friends”.  I toed the line up until the first opportunity arose that gave me a chance to leave, which was going to university shortly after I had turned 18.  My parents were dead against it (it’s a dangerous world, there are all sorts of bad influences out there, etc, etc), but I already had a reputation for being headstrong (I wasn’t really, I was just normal, but my parents didn’t want to have to deal with “normal”).

So by the time I arrived at uni almost 20 years ago (I know!), I was simultaneously glad to be free, and quite fearful of the myriad opportunities for transgression that were available pretty much as soon as I was left alone in a strange city for 5 minutes.  I wasn’t good at making safe choices, or controlling my impulses, because I’d never been allowed to make mistakes as a child.  Religion may well keep its adherents on the straight and narrow, but only because it prevents them from figuring things out for themselves.  Take someone out of that environment, and they have a LOT of catching up to do.  I was all sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, and very little study.  I learnt so much about myself that first year away, but I did it the hard way.  I made all my social mistakes at once, and got myself into some rather sticky situations that I found it difficult to extricate myself from.  I discovered that left alone to develop my own morals and beliefs, I was becoming quite a different person to what my parents had told me I was.  My year 1 flatmates didn’t really like me, and one of the reasons we didn’t get on was that I just wasn’t at the same stage of development as them.  I went it alone a lot of the time, and didn’t always reach the healthiest conclusions.  I would never have wanted to admit at the time that I was vulnerable, but I was.  I wasn’t self-aware or resilient enough – if I had been, I’d have dropped religion a lot sooner.

By this time religion was just something that one did, I certainly didn’t feel an attachment, or find meaning in any of it.  There had been times in my teens when I had enjoyed the collective euphoria of a religious service, or the community aspect, but I never really believed it.  I assumed that other people at church must have felt the same way, but I’ve since met many people of whom it is clear that they really do believe (I try to understand their views, but it’s almost like the “religion” part of my mind doesn’t really work.  The “philosophy” part, however….).  I wonder if the first red flag occurred with Santa Claus.  See, I hear of many stories when someone first realised that Santa wasn’t real.  Well, I don’t have that memory.  Santa was spoken of in our house, I was told the stories about him delivering all the presents on 24th December and sneaking in down the chimney to drop them off, and many of my Christmas presents were “From Santa”.  But even my 4- or 5-year-old self knew it was a crock of shit.  I clearly remember knowing while that age that Santa was just a story.  As was the tooth fairy.  But the thing to do was to play along because it was kind of fun, and involved getting presents.  This could well have laid the foundations for my shallow acceptance of religion growing up.  I knew that with non-religious peers and adults, I could do and say one thing, and with my family or at church I must do another.  It was complicated by the overtly religious nature of my schooling, because the lines between religious instruction and the real world were blurred.  I had to discern which role to play in which circumstance, so while I lacked some social skills, I became very good at reading people’s intentions.  I also knew how to give people what they wanted, which became dangerous as I also learnt that I should always please others.  That’s a hard one to shake, and I’ve still not really got there.

One thing that I really struggled with was that adults who knew the family, even if they weren’t religious themselves, had expectations of me being religious.  I had to act out scenes which I really didn’t believe in.  It felt hypocritical.  I felt uncomfortable going through the motions, because I knew it wasn’t me, but I also couldn’t tell my parents how I felt – they totally lost it if I repeated a religious joke, so telling them I thought it was bullshit was probably not going to go down well.

So I was away from home, feeling gratitude that I could live my life the way I wanted, but also still holding on to some “god-fearing” beliefs.  To this day, I have anxiety about taking the Lord’s name in vain, even though I know it’s entirely inconsequential.  It’s like I retained all the bad bits and lost any good bits from religion (fortunately there aren’t that many).  Over the years my confidence grew, and I’m a lot more outspoken about my beliefs.  I also don’t put up with other people’s false assumptions about me.  I only wish I’d managed this quicker than I did.

I used to hold some really objectionable opinions that were completely baseless when I actually thought about them logically (for example, I inherited – and subsequently disinherited – homophobia from my parents, while also knowing that it was a stupid and harmful belief.  That’s cognitive dissonance for you!).  And that was one thing that changed in my mindset – I had no problem logically seeing that the religion itself was a fantasy, but the baggage that came with it went unquestioned until I was out of the bubble.  Deconstructing these beliefs and opinions also took time, but it was a necessary process.  My politics and views on oppressed minorities are so changed that my personality is unrecognisable now, and I cringe at some of the views I held up to be true.

Actually leaving religion – that was the hard bit.  I had no resources to safely get away, or to prevent well-meaning family from trying to rein me back in.  Leaving home was the only way that I could do it, and it had to be far away.  Living just down the road would not have been enough distance.  It’s one thing that makes me wary when people mock the religious: like at school, when kids from the more enlightened families would poke fun at religion.  I shared their views, but I could also tell that they saw me as one of the religious types.  The joke kept me in my place.  Having met many people who’ve desperately searched for a way out, I exercise caution in this respect.  Sure, it’s one thing to ridicule from afar, but how many closet atheists are we preventing from finding freedom?  We have to be welcoming to those who retain their faith, to those who question it, and to those who we have no idea of their intentions.  Leaving religion is a journey, and there’s no set course.  Assumptions harm, and as skeptics we should be especially wary.

THIS IS NOT AN ANTIDEPRESSANT

Before I thought rationally about my mental health, I bought into the idea that antidepressant medication was bad for you – that it would somehow permanently change my brain and personality, that it was an unwanted intrusion into my person. I eventually went to see my GP when things got too bad for me to bear anymore, and I realised that the medication I was given did alter my mind – to allow me to be the person I was before I got ill. There is a ton of dodgy advice out there pushing the “natural” option, 99% of which is from people with no medical qualifications. There’s a conspirational-level anti-psychiatry movement, whose followers seem fixated on the idea of “mind control”. With so much nonsense being spewed under the guise of advice, it’s no wonder that there are misconceptions about mental health and treatments. And this gem appeared on my Facebook feed earlier this week (I suppose this is the downside of having unlimited information at one’s fingertips); which is just bloody dangerous and irresponsible:

FFS

Fortunately, someone fixed it for them:

 For Real.

And there are plenty of variations on this theme out there. And you know what Google is for, so go discover them yourself! But although this debunking seems like light-hearted fun, the attitudes behind the original post can have very damaging consequences. Pseudoscience kills. We could also do better with science reporting, too. This BBC News article has a valid point to make, but saves the good stuff until after the sensationalistic claims (the “extreme” side-effects described are well-documented and are listed in information leaflets accompanying the medicine.  They are manageable, and should be monitored by a doctor, who may prescribe something that suits the patient better.  I’ve used medications that really didn’t suit me, and so I worked with my doctor to find ones that did.  There’s no one-size-fits-all, and zero-nuance articles just make life more difficult for doctors and patients). Science communication is important, and we have a responsibility to do it properly – else there is little for the unwary to distinguish between actual science and fantasy-holistic-woo-woo.

YOU’RE WELCOME, DELIVEROO.

I was on my way home from work this week, and I saw a new advert on the billboard near my flat.  But there was something not quite right…

WTF is this shit?!

Can you see the deliberate mistake?  It’s ok, I fixed it for them:

That's better!

Ah, normal service is resumed.  Seriously, when I order a takeaway, I want to be consuming a heart attack in a foil container.  Detoxing is bullshit in itself, but using it to flog (and forever tarnish) decadent greasy food is worse!

I WENT TO CHURCH AND I LIKED IT

“I went to church and I liked it;
hope my boyfriend don’t mind it”

Is what I’ve had going round in my head for the last 24 hours (thanks, OCD!).  But at least it helped me to remember to write this post.  I’m pretty sure that Mr. Science Gentleman will be concerned about my Skeptical Muscle after I confided in him by text that I actually felt really positive about attending a church service.

The occasion was a family funeral, and I felt strongly that the local church was the right place to hold it. My relative had been a regular attendee, and part of the “family” in the church community. Their funeral was well-attended by people from many parts of the community – turns out that my relative was something of a social butterfly (amongst the pious, at least). The service was conducted by the old vicar who was brought out of retirement for this funeral. They knew each other well, and the vicar’s family was almost like a distant branch of ours (I may be the first instance of an atheist being on first-name terms with the local clergy). And I felt it was totally appropriate for him to conduct a traditional Church of England ceremony in a church that I’d not set foot in for almost 20 years.

The experience really reinforced the attraction to religion for both those who are strong believers, and those who are not.  The church back home has over 1000 years of history (I grew up in a place that was pivotal to British history in almost every era – it’s kinda cool, here‘s a good starting point if you’d like to find out more), and that history is a part of what made me who I am.  Even though my relative’s funeral was a religious one, it was highly personalised and because the minister knew them well, he relayed some anecdotes about them in the sermon – some of the stories were things that I didn’t even know about them.  Even though I have a lot of anxieties about churches and religious figures (again, thanks for that, OCD) being inside The Abbey felt comforting and safe.  It was a known quantity, and a place of familiarity after so many years away.

So what now?  Am I going to convert back to Christianity?  Not likely.  I still feel strongly that a church is not a place for me, and not only do I not want any of my milestones celebrated in a church ceremony, I also feel that I would be a hypocrite if I did.  The experience has alerted me to the role that humanism can play in meeting the needs that religion often caters for.  A need to celebrate and affirm life events, a sense of togetherness, something to identify with.  I don’t buy into the idea of a humanist congregation, or feel that my humanism is part of a faith group, but I like the fact that humanism is flexible enough to accept everyone without forcing a set of rules on those it serves.  For me, losing religion was about leaving behind the shackles that chained me to a limited life.  As a result, I don’t like the ideas of the “humanist community”, or “sceptical community”, even though I participate in both.  I am a humanist, and a skeptic, but that’s not all I am.  Defining me only as that would do an injustice to the exciting, varied, and unrestricted life I have chosen.  You don’t gain freedom by choosing a new captor.

I would strongly recommend a humanist ceremony to anyone who wants the experience of a formal ceremony, but without the “God” bit. I’ve not attended any humanist funerals yet, but I have been to a few humanist weddings. These were a far better reflection of the couples’ aspirations and beliefs about marriage than a rigid, religion-based ceremony could ever be. My relative’s funeral was a perfect send-off because it shared with humanism so many of the aspects that made the ceremony appropriate and memorable; not because it was in a church.