Atheists score higher on religious knowledge

September 29, 2010

Well what a surprise… The Pew Forum carried out a survey where they asked questions about various different religions, and on average, atheists and agnostics got the highest scores, followed closely by Jews and Mormons. You can take a shorter quiz yourself and see how you do. It’s no surprise whatsoever. In fact I’ve been saying it for years, an atheist is more likely to have read the Bible in detail than a Christian. Particularly from my experience in the Catholic Church, people don’t read the Bible that much, they just hear it from the celebrant in mass (who is free to interpret it however he wants), and maybe learn about it in school. It was only after I read the Bible cover to cover that I became an atheist. So for me, Dave Silverman from American Atheists really hit the nail on the head when he said:

I have heard many times that atheists know more about religion than religious people. Atheism is an effect of that knowledge, not a lack of knowledge. I gave a Bible to my daughter. That’s how you make atheists.

Comedian David Cross made a similar statement on Countdown with Keith Olbermann. But there are other, more worrying stats coming out of this report which have little to do with the Bible. 45% of self-identifying Catholics did not know about transubstantiation, the belief that the bread and wine of the Eucharist literally become the body and blood of Christ. Now they might not believe that themselves, and I think the majority of Catholics don’t, but they should still know that that’s what their church teaches. Asked whose writings inspired the Protestant Reformation, a majority of Protestants answered incorrectly, compared to 68% of atheists who gave the correct answer, Martin Luthur.

There have, however, been other reasons put forward. Tom Flynn from the Council for Secular Humanism said that as part of a fairly marginalised group, atheists and agnostics often have to defend their position, and that involves gaining knowledge of religious texts as a way to know your enemy. Penn Jillette quite correctly said that the results aren’t surprising at all, because atheists are more likely to be more educated in general:

Indeed the poll also asked 9 general knowledge questions and found that atheists, agnostics and Jews were also more likely to score highly on those. It asked the level of education received by respondents, and found a correlation between level of education and religious knowledge. The pollsters also differentiated between white Catholics and hispanic Catholics, as well as between white evangelical Protestants and black Protestants, and again it found that those ethnic groups that usually receive less education were more likely to score lower.

Gay marriage

June 7, 2010

Congratulations to Portugal on becoming the latest country to legalise gay marriage. The new law came into effect today and people have taken the opportunity to get married now, perhaps fearing the law will be overturned, perhaps just because they’ve been waiting for a long time. I thought as a sort of celebration I’d go through the arguments given against gay marriage and show why they’re bunk, or at best apply both to heterosexual and homosexual marriage.

The most boorish comment you’ll get is the completely original and totally hilarious ‘God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve’, to which the very simple response is, “No he didn’t you fucktard. Go and read a science book.”

“But homosexuality is un-natural!” they’ll say, whilst they have no problem talking to someone hundreds of miles away on a mobile phone powered by a battery, or getting into a big metal vehicle that flies, or wearing clothes made from artificial materials, or sitting on a couch watching a massive screen that receives images captured by another device and stored through time before being transmitted through space. There are lots of things that are unnatural, that doesn’t make them morally wrong, or something that should be banned. It’s strange that people use this as an argument against gay marriage, because really it’s an argument to ban all homosexual activity, that being gay itself should be a crime. Noone but the most ridiculous knuckle-dragging fools suggest we go back to Victorian Britain in that respect. Of course homosexuality isn’t really unnatural at all. Individuals in various other species also exhibit homosexual behaviour, but my point is that even if it is unnatural, that doesn’t mean it should be banned.

Lots of people will claim that the purpose of marriage is bringing up children, and since gay couples can’t have children, then they shouldn’t be married. Never mind that lesbian couples can turn to donor insemination and have their own biological children (well, biologically from only one of them), something that most of the people arguing against gay marriage will have no problem with when it’s used by straight couples. Never mind that straight people can get married if they’re infertile, or if they have no intention of having children. We don’t wait until a couple hits 50 and then march through the door with divorce papers. We also allow unmarried people to have children. Clearly marriage is not just about raising children. If you want to argue that it is, then ban all marriage that isn’t specifically for procreation, not just gay marriage. On a related but more general point, people will say things like ‘if everyone was gay, the species would die out’, but if everyone was male, the species would also die out, but we don’t ban people being male. At the moment, underpopulation isn’t exactly a problem.

Lots of people claim that a homosexual marriage is an unsuitable environment to bring up a child, and use this as an argument against gay adoption. There have been many instances, following equality legislation, of Catholic adoption agencies refusing to put children with gay couples. In fact IIRC in Washington DC, a Catholic charity said it would be ‘forced’ to stop public services such as homeless shelters if its adoption agencies were not allowed to discriminate against gay people. Good Christian example they’re setting there. There probably is something to the argument that for a rounded upbringing, a child needs both male and female role models, but that isn’t to say that those role models must be the parents. A child brought up by a gay male couple will still have grandmothers, aunties and family friends. There will also be the same proportion of role models of each sex as for a child brought up by a single parent, and we don’t ban single people from adopting kids, so why should we ban gay couples from it when at least then there are two parents? There is also the assumption that because an environment may not be entirely ideal in this one respect (and remember that no couple, gay or not, will be entirely ideal), then that justifies banning gay couples from adopting children. But there are kids out there at adoption agencies who are in desperate need of a loving home, and to deny them that on a suspicion that there won’t be enough role models of a particular sex is morally wrong, in my opinion.

Other people claim that a child brought up by a gay couple is more likely to turn out gay, to which I have 3 responses. Firstly, prove it. There are plenty of countries where gay marriage is now allowed so there should be some early stats on it, but I’ve never seen them. On top of that, they’re forgetting about all the gay people that were brought up by straight parents. Obviously they couldn’t influence the child to be straight so why do they think gay parents make their kids gay? But on a deeper level there is the assumption that being gay is a bad thing that should be avoided. We wouldn’t ban liberals (or Chelsea fans) from adopting children because it means their kids will be liberal (or Chelsea fans), and those are things that actually do have a high correlation. Some people try to argue from the child’s viewpoint and say that the child will be bullied at school if they have gay parents. I say they’ll be getting bullied by the kids of the kinds of troglodytes who argue against gay marriage. We fight against the prejudice, not against the object of prejudice. That’s the same kind of argument that was made against interracial marriage back when that was taboo.

Especially in America, many people will claim that the definition of marriage is a union between one man and one woman, or that gay marriage threatens the traditional definition of ‘family’. First of all, no it’s not. There are plenty of places where a man can have seven wives (not so many places where the opposite is true but there you go). In American, Mormons used to be polygamists. Besides that, however, the argument has an inherent conservatism in that the way things are now are the way things should always be. Definitions don’t work like that, they are descriptive rather than prescriptive, and they change all the time. It’s the same with legal definitions, we can change them if that’s the right thing to do. The question shouldn’t be “what is the definition of marriage?” but instead “what should the definition of marriage be?” If we took the position that things should be the way they’ve always been, then we’d still have absolute monarchy, we’d know nothing about the natural world, and we’d still have slavery. It’s the same with undermining heterosexual marriage, what the hell is that about? Noone is suggesting that we should ban heterosexual marriage, just that we allow the same rights to gay couples as to straight couples.

Hmm, that massive block of text just grew and grew.

Morningside Baptist Church

December 15, 2008

So tonight was the night of the eagerly awaited alternative christmas service at Morningside Baptist Church. You know that ‘root of all evil?’ documentary where Richard Dawkins comments that the New Life Church is a bit like a rock concert? It reminded me of that quite a lot. This sounds stupid, but it was weird being in a round church. Every other church I’ve been in was cross-shaped. And there was a big screen at the front with images projected on it, and there was a very enthusiastic pastor (can’t remember his name). He actually seemed nice though, I don’t think he’ll go like Ted Haggard…

So I noticed there wasn’t a lot of religion involved at first. We walked in to Christmas songs played by the brass band, and then the pastor spoke about the “Just Christmas” thing, a kind of campaign where they want people to spend half as much on Christmas as the normally would, and donate the other half to the church which will send it off to a good cause. Last year they raised £60,000 and built a school for children in the Dalit (or untouchable) caste in India, the pastor said the money would be being sent out to ‘those guys’, so I presume it’s the same cause this year. All the way through there were a group of people at the back of the stage painting a canvass of a landscape, which they then covered up in adverts to show how humans had ‘ruined it’. When the congregation Then he invited his friend Howard onto the stage who did a standup routine! There was a bit more music by Hannah, the President of the CU (this particular church seems popular amongst CU members), a cake baked by the pastor and his wife got auctioned off for the charity (£250, seemingly quite a well-off congregation – I’ve also just realised that it sounds like his wife got auctioned off but she didn’t, it was just the cake), and there was a bit of an interval, complete with a snow machine spraying fake snow on everyone from the balcony above! Not a whole lot of God going on, I was impressed!

The second half was much more godly, Howard came back on and did some more comedy from Joseph’s perspective which was funny, but ended on the rather sober point that Jesus wouldn’t grow up to be a carpenter because he was destined to die to save humankind from sin. Then there was a mini dance-drama put on by the children where they used no props except for some identical sticks and no costumes, just identical teeshirts, but tried to show the Christmas and Easter story from the perspective of Mary, with the recurring message that Jesus was still her little child right through his crucifixion (that was surprisingly creative and well-coordinated, actually).

Then a woman came on stage and gave a really enthusiastic sermon/diatribe on the true meaning of the virgin birth with really dodgy theological statements such as (paraphrasing) “so a man called John was sent to show the way to the life-light which was Jesus, and so he’d come before Jesus, but really Jesus was before him because he was there from day one”, with noone pointing out how absurd what she was saying was. She also claimed (and it was later repeated by the pastor) that noone had ever caught even a glimpse of God before, noone knew at all what he was like, and Jesus was putting God right in front of everyone in plain sight. I felt like pointing out that actually Moses saw God face to face, but I didn’t really want to make a scene. We sang some carols (O Come All Ye Faithful and Hark the Herald, so nothing too offensive, at least not of Onward Christian Soldiers proportions), and we went through into the back (the building was deceivingly large) where there were refreshments and everyone could chat more informally.

It was great, I thoroughly enjoyed it (thanks for inviting me, Ruth) and only a couple of times did I cringe (such as when the pastor reflected on us having a relationship with God – I hate that expression, and when some people started singing really enthusiastically, eyes closed with one palm high in the air like you’d expect at an American church, that was quite… unexpected). It was totally unlike any service I’ve ever been to in the past, in a good way, although my Catholic friend Womble would refer to it as ‘happy-clappy’ (as did the pastor at one point). I suspect that, had I gone to a church like that in my youth, I’d still be a Christian.

It also reminded me of something I miss quite a lot about being an active member of my parish, and that’s the sense of community. At several points we were encouraged to talk to the people around us, and I got the distinct impression that most of the congregation knew each other. Humanism is nothing like that; other than sharing a worldview, we have very little in common. Humanist organisations are also fairly poor bases off which to do charitable work and I think there is considerably less opportunity to get involved in charity outside a congregation than within one. I know at school and church I was always involved in some kind of fundraising or something else, but since leaving I haven’t, really. It’s partly to do with time, partly to do with lack of motivation, but I think most of it is lack of accessibility. Don’t worry, these aren’t the kinds of things that would turn me back to Christianity, but I’m increasingly starting to think that the view of humanism as ‘all the goodness, none of the bullshit’ isn’t strictly accurate.

Sorry this was a bit long, hope it wasn’t boring.


October 13, 2008

David Robertson mentioned (at the Is Faith in God a Delusion? debate), in response to a question about how atheists are religious, that we all have our rituals. Of course he’s totally missing the point, there’s a difference between doing something because you’re used to doing it and doing something because it’s written down in a magic book. But there are other kinds of ritual that are common between atheists and religious people (in the conventional sense); the kinds of rituals that celebrate the various stages of a persons life. I’m talking about things like weddings, naming ceremonies and funerals.

For many people, these kinds of ceremonies are the first point of contact with humanism. When I mention that I’m a humanist, people often say “Oh, my Uncle Bob had a humanist funeral, it was really good!” (well, they don’t say that if they don’t have an Uncle Bob, but you know what I mean). Just this Saturday gone I overheard an old woman who drinks at my work fairly often talking about a humanist funeral she’d been to, and when I mentioned that I’m a humanist, she said “so… you want all the ritual with none of the spiritual!” as if it were a bad thing, and I replied “Yeah, all the goodness, none of the bull!” I don’t think she realised that humanist organisations do a lot more than just bury people and marry them (not the same people you understand), but nevertheless the ceremonial aspect is important for a lot of people.

I was talking to a friend of mine about trying to get excommunicated from the Catholic Church (still no sign of my baptism certificate. Not being at home I can’t really go searching for it). She said that I shouldn’t do it because then I wouldn’t be able to get married at church. In reality this is one of the few things holding me back from making a real effort to find it and get ranting about it. Say I want to get married, and my future wife wants to have a church wedding, we won’t be able to and it’d be a great shame just because I didn’t want to be associated with the Catholics. But at the same time, is it not very hipocritical of me to keep my membership just for the associated benefits, when by any measure of the word I am no longer a Catholic? Undoubtedly it is. Perhaps I might go back to Christianity one day? I’m fairly sure that’s the reason my mother won’t hand over my baptism certificate. But even in the extremely rare event that some kind of proof of God is discovered, and I do turn back to Christianity, I’d never go back to Catholicism (too much human input to dogma), so it’s irrelevant.

I think I may be hunting out that certificate when I go home for Christmas.

Evolution vs Intelligent Design

September 5, 2008

Last night I attended a talk at the Edinburgh Zoo given by Stuart Ritchie, President of the Humanist Society at the University of Edinburgh, as part of the Darwin 200 celebrations. Stuart is a good friend of mine and I looked forward to the talk a lot, as I know he’s very enthusiastic on the subject of creationism.

Basically he outlined the difference between Creationism and Intelligent Design (ie. not much, according to the Wedge Document), then outlined the theory put forward by evolutionists. He then took arguments used by Creationists and Intelligent Design proponents in turn and demolished them as he knows how to do so well, incorporating the circular logic of the Bible, information theory, the bacterial flagellum, the Climbing Mount Improbable analogy, the scrabble analogy, and pretty much everything important that needed to be included, although I’m sure he could have continued for much longer afterwards if he’d had the time. He placed evolution side-by-side with both creationism and Intelligent Design to see which one stood up to scrutiny, and lo and behold evolution came out on top.

What interested me was the Q&A section towards the end. Several people who appeared to be from a religious background said that Stuart was simply bashing religion and its theories in the same way as ID proponents bash evolution. This is completely untrue! If ID theorists stood their own theories up to half as much scrutiny as Stuart did to evolution, I would be a happy man. In reality it is a blinkered, religiously motivated view which holds them back from seeing the truth and leads them to take others into their false beliefs. And if nothing is done, they will still be doing it when we’re celebrating Darwin 300.

Another man who confessed to being a Christian and a former RE teacher said to me afterwards that really both his position and that of Stuart were against fundamentalism. Whilst Stuart repeatedly said he had no qualm with religious people who kept their beliefs out of science (I happen to know otherwise 😛 ), my major problem with the so-called “religious moderates” is that they rarely, if ever, speak out against fundamentalists within their ranks. How often do we see the British Muslim Council speak out against lies told in the name of Islam? How often do Christians turn on creationists and say “hold on a sec, you’re talking rubbish, I’m not letting you represent me”? We only ever see religious people speaking out against fundamentalism after a serious terrorist attack, when they’re effecively forced to. Instead the debate is between different faiths, or between faith and science, and too seldom do religious people scrutinize themselves. I suspect there’s a reason for that; if they did, there wouldn’t be too many religious people left.

In any case, I fully support the Darwin 200 events, and urge anyone who’s remotely interested to get along to one of the many events happening nationwide. You won’t regret it. I think we’ll be getting Stuart to do the same talk again in the Humanist Society’s first semester programme, too.

Pride Glasgow 2008

September 3, 2008

Humanists and atheists alike are often accused of being a negative group, in that they don’t really do anything positive, just bouncing off religion in a negative way. This event is one way that I can show humanists being positive in their outlook, in contrast to the intolerance of some religious people towards other social groups.

The student humanist society decided to run a stall at Pride Glasgow mainly for three reasons: 1, to show that we as humanists support LGBT rights. 2, to promote humanism in the community. 3, to have a good time experiencing a less than ordinary event, and get to know better a section of society that perhaps normally we would not. It followed on from our attendance at Pride Scotia in Edinburgh last year, an event which we will likely be attending again next summer. This time Gareth and I went to run the stall as lots of the society were busy with one thing or another.

The parade itself was nothing like I’d ever seen. Aside from the usual revellry which I’d seen on TV, there were groups of people there that I didn’t expect. Generally I was quite surprised at the wide variety of people wandering through the stalls, from people I’d normally call neds or scallies all the way over the spectrum to metalheads covered in piercings, incorporating in between normal looking people who could’ve been strolling through the streets of Milton Keynes. I was happy to see the Buddhists there, but nobody from the University society BLOGS was represented, much to my surprise. That said, the Glasgow student union marched in the parade, and there were plenty of other groups that I knew nothing about. I was also surprised to see a Christian organisation there (the Metropolitan Community Church, I think they deserve a post of their own), and I was very surprised when I saw the Conservative Party with a stall.

All in all I enjoyed the day. There was a lot of variety, people seemed interested in humanism and we even got some people from the University interested in coming to some of our meetings. We were giving out materials from GALHA, the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association, but it was a shame that we didn’t have any materials about humanist partnerships from the HSS. Apparently the courier who was supposed to deliver them was involved in a road accident so I hope they’re not too badly hurt. I was particularly impressed when they got the rainbow flag hoisted up above the city chambers, which apparently is the first time that’s happened. Hopefully this reflects a greater degree of acceptance of LGBT people in the community.

Humanists in Education

April 23, 2008

One thing that a lot of humanists like to get worked up about is education. I don’t know if it’s the terrifying thought of all those little kiddies being brainwashed in faith schools or what, but something about it makes our blood boil. But as one of the key functions of the state, the education system is something secularists of all types like to concentrate on.

This year education has become a big feature of Scottish humanism. The Humanist Academy has been slogging at the issue for a while under the enthusiastic June Maxwell, and has a humanism course available for the national curriculum for 16 year olds in the Scottish education system.

Seeing her getting things done, the HSS have doubled their efforts to outdo her (for some reason I don’t fully understand the HSS and the HA don’t get along too well) and are making education their prime target, launching their education programme this weekend at Our Dynamic Earth (what a venue) which, as an officer of the Student Humanist Society, I’ve been invited to.

And whilst these two heavyweights battle it out, the rest of the humanists in Scotland sit back and reap the benefits. Magic!

Hopefully the BHA will get moving on it so these benefits can be nationwide. What they need is an arch-rival counter organisation right on their patch to motivate them. Maybe we should start a fake one just to annoy them. We’ll call it… the People’s Front of Judea! Even better, the Judean People’s Front! Maybe not.