An evidence challenged world.

Imagine the following; you believe you have an epiphany, a life changing experience. You believe you have just communicated with your beloved creator. You are transformed by this and all your previous thoughts and ideas become anathema to you. You become so convinced of these new ideas that not only do you immediately set about to act on them, but also believe that it is your divine duty to ensure others abide by them too. You set to work, radically changing how you live your day to day existence.

You believe that methods of mass communication are an inherent evil and destroy every television, radio and computer in your home.  Photography is also forbidden so you destroy your camera. Other items, to go out with the scrap, include your razor. It is your god given duty to grow a beard of a minimum length, so as can be grasped in a fist and to cut your hair so it is short. You believe god has commanded to dress in a certain manner, and so you discard all of your existing clothes in favour of religious garments. You believe music is the work of the devil and set about trying to rid the world of all music with the exception of the chants of your religious devotion. All sport and games may distract you from the worship of your creator so you wish to enact legislation banning the playing of football and other sports even going so far as to seek to stop children flying kites.

Part of your new religious regime is an abhorrence of recycling and you argue for edicts to ban the manufacture and sale of paper bags, lest the pages of your holy book be accidentally used in the recycling of paper.  You despise all other books, ridding them from your home, and set up a plan to rid your country of book stores. You become overly concerned about public displays of celebration and jubilation and seek to outlaw loud clapping, laughing, shouting etc.

Your harshest beliefs are reserved for the treatment of women in your society. You are sincere in the conviction that your creator has told you of the grave threat that woman pose to the sexual morals of males. This is so important that it takes centre stage in how you wish to establish a criminal justice system. All other crimes, with the possible exception of murder, blasphemy and sorcery, are of lesser importance than the maintenance of sexual honour. You perceive an ever present danger that the males of your society will succumb to this temptation and become impure. You paint the windows of your home with black paint to prevent even the remote possibility of a non-related male getting a quick glance at your wife or daughters. You remove all cosmetics from your home and seek to have them removed from your local pharmacy chain. Pictures of women are removed from your home and elsewhere. You seek to have the names of streets renamed, if they have been called after a woman. You command the women in your life never to leave home without you, and when they are outside; to wear a garment that renders them invisible from head to toe, with only a mesh to see through.  You seek to ban high heels and ladies shoes that make noise when they walk, as this maybe sexually suggestive.  You seek for laws to establish sexual segregation and an outright ban on girl’s education or employment.

Needless to say if you held such views in western society you would soon gain the interest of the psychiatric community, but in Afghanistan, from 1996 to 2001, these are the set of ideas that won favour in the governance of a country of over 35 million.

It is all too easy to dismiss this regime as an inhuman abhorrence or a freak of nature. However such a view would be intellectually dishonest in the extreme. The fact is, Taliban society was no more irrational, than many human societies that existed prior to the last 4 or 5 hundred years. Even in the last century we have witnessed the demise of many societies to the worship of political or religious figures ranging from Ayotollah Khomeini to Adolf Hitler. Catastrophic failures of human reason are not unnatural, in fact quite the contrary. The scientific advancement of the last 300 years has given us a means of unnaturally manipulating ourselves and our environment in a manner that the evolution of our species through natural selection was unable to achieve. A species becomes more complex through random mutation, most of which are deleterious and result in death. However in the struggle for food, water, shelter and other life sustaining factors, a mutation that is advantageous; for example an eagle with better eyesight or a cheetah with better camouflage will be statistically more likely to outlive those who don’t share this trait. However this biological arms race grinded to a halt when Homo sapiens no longer had to compete with other species in this tough Darwinian model. The late Christopher Hitchens summed up this human predicament in usual characteristic form.

“Evolution has meant that our prefrontal lobes are too small, our adrenal glands are too big, and our reproductive organs apparently designed by committee; a recipe which, alone or in combination, is very certain to lead to some unhappiness and disorder.”

Superstition is not only innate to our species but is also present in other higher animals. Psychologist B.F Skinner brilliantly showed that pigeons could be conditioned into superstitious reward seeking behaviour by placing them in an operant chamber. Food was delivered by a device at random intervals. The birds attributed whatever actions they were doing immediately before the food delivery as being the causal agent and repeated the action even though the next time no such reward was achieved. The birds developed ever increasing behavioural problems such as repetitive turning, bobbing, pecking etc. The same experiment has been carried out on humans several times using a points based reward system. The bad news is, we are no less superstitious than our feathered cousins.

The reason for this is those who would try to determine correlation between an action and a subsequent outcome would be statistically more likely to live and reproduce than those who were more apathetic. Most sceptics and those with a grasp of psychology will be aware of the concepts of cognitive bias, but I will briefly outline the principle. Imagine you are an African nomad 50,000 years ago and you go to the lake to fetch water. You spot a large floating object. You form the belief that this is a crocodile and turn away from it and leave. The object turns out to be a decaying log. This is known in psychology as a type 1 error. In this case, the individual has erroneously attributed both agenticity and patternicity where they are non-existent. In the second scenario the individual goes to the lake and spots what he perceives to be a log when in fact it is a crocodile. In this case the individual has failed to detect genuine agenticity, that is an animate being which poses a direct threat. The latter is known as a type 2 error. Natural selection favours the former for obvious reasons. It is safer to erroneously detect a pattern or intent that is in fact random than to fail to detect a pattern or agent that is real. The term apophenia was coined for this phenomenon by Klaus Conrad in 1958. A variant of this is that we are also primed by evolution to have a positive bias for facial recognition. Young babies will react positively to a picture with just two dots, a vertical and horizontal line. This reaction is not elicited when one of the dots is taken away.

Studies have shown that religious people have a higher propensity to make type 1 errors than sceptics. This phenomenon increases in both religious and sceptics under stressful environments.  This may partly explain why poorer nations are generally more superstitious than richer nations that have a greater perception of personal security and prosperity. Our brain is made up of an almost infinite number of non-connecting neurons (nerves). The gaps between individual neurons are called synapses. Our brain neurons work by regulation of neural sodium and potassium channels that generate an electrical signal. If the voltage is not of sufficient strength, the neuron remains inactive, but if it exceeds the threshold, it forces the nerve to release chemicals known as neurotransmitters that act as messenger signals between one nerve and the next. Two of these of importance are serotonin and dopamine. Reduced levels of serotonin in the synaptic gaps are associated with clinical depression and mood disorder. Antidepressants such as Prozac are known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. They work by reducing the capacity of a firing neuron to reabsorb serotonin from the synaptic gap when it becomes relaxed. The increased serotonin in the synaptic gap is attributed to the alleviation of depressive symptoms. Dopamine is associated with feelings of pleasure and reward. It is released during orgasm and after cocaine and amphetamine use. Increased levels are found in those with psychotic conditions such as schizophrenia (however in recent times this causality has been challenged). Parkinson’s disease is associated with low levels of this neurotransmitter and is treated using agonists of dopamine such as L-dopa. A reported side effect of this medication is psychotic symptoms such as hallucinations and general confusion often resembling the symptoms of schizophrenia. Dopamine maybe involved in helping us to decide the basis of causality. Studies have shown that religious people and those more prone to believing in paranormal events such as alien abduction and UFO’s show higher levels of dopamine than sceptics. Furthermore administering L-dopa increases false pattern recognition in both groups.

Four other arguments from an evolutionary psychology perspective also predispose us to superstition on a societal scale. We are predisposed to rally behind charismatic leaders. We are also more likely to believe their advice and teaching without question. A common belief identified kinship among people even if it was patently false. Such a tendency acted as a focal point to gel societies together in more primitive times. Larger organised societies offered safety in numbers and new ideas could be exchanged, greatly increasing the chance of survival. This is why democracy was such a late arrival in the history of human development. We can see the precursor of this evolutionary trait in other animal societies that operate in a hierarchy. Dogs, cattle, sheep, elephants and many others rally around a dominant male and this hierarchy helps them in the battle to outlive rival species. Secondly gullible believing children are favoured by natural selection. They do not have the requisite knowledge to enable them to make rational independent decisions. A child sceptical of his mother’s advice not to play outside because of wild animals would be at an evolutionary disadvantage to one who believed everything his parents and other adults tell them. This inherent gullibility means that irrational ideas can be passed in a non-critical way from one generation to the next in a way comparable to genetic inheritance.

The next point worth noting are peoples claims of transformative experiences. There are several reports of people claiming to have seen apparitions of deities, deceased relatives or to have received some other form of revelation. While some of these are obvious hoaxes, many undoubtedly represent genuine subjective experiences. Michael Shermer, president of the US Skeptics Society, described several induced examples of such experiences in his book” The Believing Brain”.  Climbers at high altitude often experience the felt presence effect. This is where they claim to feel the presence of another person or guardian angel. He also gave an account of documented hallucinations of participants in the Iditarod sleigh dog races from Anchorage to Nome in Alaska. The itinerary took between 9-15 days to complete and hallucinations were common. Those suffering from a condition known as sleep paralysis often claim to be visited by malevolent entities or demons at night. They report the feeling of a presence that is pressing down on their chest and stopping them from breathing or the feeling of sinking into the bed. This is one of the origins of the exorcist myths that Hollywood like to portray. Those suffering from right temporal lobe epilepsy are often hyper-religious and report visions and visitations from deities.

Other people report phenomena such as out of body experiences. Dr. Henrik Ehrsson from University College London devised an experiment to replicate this genuine experience reported by many people. Dr Persinger at the Laurentian institute in Ontario was the first to electrically stimulate the brain to induce the felt presence effect using an invention he referred to as the god helmet. While his results are controversial, they do match with evidence of the role of the right temporal lobe in religious experience. Similarly so called near death experiences (NDE’s) have changed the lives of people who claimed to have experienced them. However despite the genuine nature of many of these claims, there is again a wealth of evidence to suggest that they happen locally in the brain. They have been experienced by fighter pilots undergoing high speed centrifugation training. In these cases it is a clash between real but subjective experience versus objective science. In a world that wants to believe, the former all too often wins out.

Finally the fear of death is likely to be a major factor contributing to human irrational behaviour. Gabriel Byrne presented an excellent documentary (Flight From Death: The Quest for Immortality) which looked into experiments linking foresight of our eventual demise to irrational and disturbing behaviour at both personal and societal level. One of the experiments showed that court judges were more inclined to hand down harsher sentences when given subtle queues of mortality and death. Religious and cultural ritual became more pronounced and more hostility to outside groups was observed. The ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead provides a great insight into our innate capacity for self-deception. In their world, the deceased person literally walked into the afterlife, albeit through a perilous route to the underworld. Mummification protected the body and the heart was especially important to preserve, as it was the source of intelligence and life force. The person would navigate through caverns and be faced with fearsome mythological creatures. The recitation of spells, from high priests, was necessary to protect the individual from these gruesome creatures. If the departed successfully avoided the wrath of these beasts, they then faced the weighing of the heart ritual. This is not unlike the concept of meeting St. Peter at the gates of heaven. They were led by the god Anubis to Osiris. They then read a negative confession that they have not committed any of 42 sins from the Papyrus of Ani. Delusions of immortality are not unique to religious teaching. Many political regimes throughout history have also elevated former leaders to immortal status, most notably, Kim il Sung, of North Korea. Despite knowledge of conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, where one observes a gradual erosion of both personality and memory, aligned to advancing brain plaque lesions or the effect of anaesthesia and coma on memory and perception; most people will intuitively identify the brain and mind as being somehow separate.

Our predisposition to see intent when it is not there and to see patterns in randomness, as well as our primal desire to worship charismatic leaders, and the inherent gullibility of children all predispose humans to adapting superstitious behaviour and passing it on through successive generations. This may well have provided an evolutionary benefit in our past, but with the advent of 21st century science that can determine causality in a manner that was unthinkable for our earliest ancestors; our natural yearnings are almost perfectly maladapted for humans to thrive.

One argument that regularly falls from the lips of religious when debating their position is that they are the majority. Undoubtedly this is true. While the numbers of Atheists is increasing in developed countries and is proportional to factors such as level of education and wealth, they are nonetheless in the minority. If put to a vote worldwide, the vast majority would agree with the statement that intervening agents answer prayers, preside over a celestial judicial system and that human consciousness is eternal. Furthermore these views are not only confined to those of lower educational attainment.

The 2011 Irish census put the figure for non-religious at 6%. This is undoubtedly of great comfort to religious people.  A staggering 84% of the Irish population are declared Catholic. This contrasts with just under 3% for Church of Ireland.  I’m of the opinion most people would agree that the vast majority of these are cultural Catholics and not necessarily religious, but undoubtedly a significant minority are religious Catholics. It is certainly true that those who do not believe in such things as intercessory prayer, divine justice, and everlasting life are greatly outnumbered. Even among religious Christians, if we were to take the census figures at face value, the vast majority of Irish people not only proclaim that a middle eastern Jew born by divine impregnation of a middle eastern woman, was killed, returned to life, left this planet and will one day return again, but in the intervening period, engages in divine celestial intervention of our thoughts and actions, but the same 84% decisively are of the opinion that they can literally eat his flesh every Sunday if they go to church. It contrasts with the almost 3% who believe everything above with the exception of the last statement.  This group are somewhat sceptical of the literal eating of the flesh of a 2000 year old Israelite, but subscribe to all the other propositions.

Undoubtedly religion provides the lion’s share of irrationality within our world. It is the one source of human discussion that actively discourages the quest for evidence to validate ones belief and sees such practice as an inherent weakness, one in which we should beseech the creator for the strength to subdue. However evidence denial extends much further than the threat posed by religion. Similar dogmas apply to climate change denial, those who link vaccines to autism, those who believe in alien encounters, psychic phenomena, homeopathy, crystal energy, dowsing and a plethora of other non-evidence based beliefs.  Our biological hardware, evolved over millions of years, has inadvertently given us reasoning issues. Recent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies really show that belief comes naturally whereas disbelief and scepticism are quite the opposite. Our brain processes non evidence based (and often ludicrous) belief in the same fashion as lifesaving evidence based facts.

Sometime our inherent superstitious tendencies can have lethal consequences. One such example is bomb detection in Iraq and Pakistan. The security forces in these countries regularly use a device known as an ADE 651 to supposedly detect bombs and explosive material. The Iraqi government are believed to have spent as much as $85 million on equipment that is not only useless but potentially extremely dangerous. The principle of dowsing has been discredited as being no more likely to find the desired material than random chance. In 2010, the British government announced a ban on the export of this product and the company director of ATSC was arrested on suspicion of fraud.

The 2009 movie “The Men Who Stare at Goats” was based on real research carried out by the CIA in 1979. Cold war America became ever more paranoid that the Soviets were developing psychic (Psi) technology. Under the auspices of a former Vietnamese POW the CIA looked into such practices as remote viewing to see if the concept was scientifically credible and if it had potential military applications. The term quantum biology was coined and a theory of quantum mind was developed. This theory held that psychic ability could be explained using the theories of quantum physics. Research was undertaken to determine if injury could be inflicted on enemy combatants by thought alone, hence the attempts to kill goats by simply staring at them. Much excitement was generated when a goat onsite did actually die, although highly unlikely due to anything of a psychic or paranormal nature.  The website whatstheharm.net outlines a dossier of other superstitious endeavours and the harmful consequences that have resulted from their practice.

When we apply reason, science and critical thinking to the problems of our world, we can go a long way towards alleviating them. Science has reduced infant/child mortality from as high as 50% to well under 1% and life expectancy has been almost trebled.  We have explored the surface of Mars and made global transportation available to the masses. We can access newspapers from every corner of the world in less time than it takes to walk to the local store. We can alleviate pain, undergo extensive organ transplantation, yet we are still prone to the superstitious pangs of our centuries old ancestors. We are still imprisoning witches, murdering blasphemers. Ayatollahs as well as senior US Republican Party members are declaring floods and earthquakes as being the work of gods who are vengeful at society not obeying their every edict. Health systems around the world are still promoting such bunkum as homeopathy and alternative medicine is growing at an alarming rate. Deaths and sickness from those relying on prayer and religious practices, instead of conventional medicine are still with us.  The psychic industry is peddled on television and is even being used in criminal investigations.  Society has a love/hate relationship with reality, we all claim to want the truth, but when evidence based fact does not grant the comfort and solace of ones non evidence based personal convictions, it can very quickly be deemed surplus to requirement. For all our monumental progress that science has granted us, we still live in an evidence challenged world.

Islamophobia – A word that should cease to exist

While on holiday in Turkey, a few months ago, I witnessed an all too familiar clash of civilisations. While taking what I thought would be a quiet walk to the blue mosque in Istanbul, I came across a sight that would not be out of place in a Hollywood blockbuster that would have Bruce Willis in a leading role. My initial impression was that the Turkish police were preparing for the scenario of an all-out collapse of law and order on the streets of Turkey’s capital.  It was as if all the police in the city had been drafted in to the blue mosque area. Full size coaches with police markings aligned the streets of one of Istanbul’s most famous sites, for as far as the eye could see. Long lines of police in full riot gear, armed with tear gas and water cannon truck, were all too visible. Riot helmets were neatly arranged so as to be readily available should they be required.  Tourists were blissfully unaware of the situation that would await them when they arrived at the mosque. One elderly American lady, so overcome at the display, grabbed the only recording device available to her and started taking video footage on her ipad.

My initial shock at the scale of police manpower was shortly replaced with an insatiable desire to find out what was behind such a police intrusion in the capital. It wasn’t long before I stumbled on the answer I was looking for.  What happened in the next half an hour could only have been described as surreal, and felt as If I had now been dragged into yet another Hollywood blockbuster, this time depicting that of an Islamic revolution.  Islamists in the thousands had now congregated around the mosque and chants of Allahu Akbar and raised arm salutes united the masses of an increasingly angry mob. Radical clerics distributed Hamas bandannas and improvised cardboard prayer mats to eager purchasers. My sense of self-preservation was overruled by an even stronger sense of adventure thrill seeking, and rather than leaving swiftly, I started recording the unfolding events. A non-violent stand-off between riot police and protestors remained for most of the day. Just what could have generated sufficient rage and sense of grievance so as to motivate such large numbers of Muslims to feel the need to take such a course of action? To find an answer to this I would have to go to the riot police myself. One such gentleman law enforcer was kind enough to fill me in on what was happening.  A parade of Muslims from Sofia who wished to march in Istanbul had been banned under Turkey’s secular constitution. The secular Republic of Turkey, the last bastion of democracy in the Islamic world was now under attack for the entire world to see.  The founder of modern Turkey would surely have turned in his grave were he to witness the scenes  of Islamic revolt in a country that he took from the hands of clerics and tribal warlords in 1923 and destroying the Islamic caliphate of nations in 1924.

These events should not be under estimated, as Islamic apologists have always used the example of Ataturk (a figure who rightly deserves respect) with the compatibility of Islam with democracy.  Despite a secular constitution, Turkey is now governed by an Islamist government. Last week, news broke of a pianist, Fazil Say, who is facing charges of blasphemy for insulting Islam, for comments he made on a twitter post.  I have deliberately started with Turkey because many Islamic apologists accuse me of citing the worst extreme examples when dealing with Islam. So in this instance I have made a concerted effort to take the best case scenario. Islamic countries do not get more liberal than Turkey and from here on, the Islamic world spirals uncontrollably into the abyss.

One of the more successful strategies of political Islam has been the coining of the term Islamophobia. A phobia is an irrational fear. It is misplaced caution or undue cynicism. None of the above can apply in any objective manner to those, including myself, who believe that Islam poses a unique risk to society and human wellbeing that are not present in other religions. This is in no way to praise the historic role of Christianity, that for centuries, presided over even more barbarity than Islamic culture, but which was partially reigned in by the principles of the enlightenment, where people were taught to ignore the more violent, misogynistic and homophobic elements of the Bible.  It is true to say that both the Bible and Koran mandate the stoning of adulteresses, but we are unlikely to find a British, German or even US court willing to prescribe these edicts as punishments. This is not the situation in many Islamic nations. It is true to say that both the Bible and Koran display misogynistic tendencies that should be considered pathological, however Europe and the US, while not perfect, at least give lip service to the notion of equality of the sexes. Liberal Christians have become so used of the concept of feminism that they are largely ignorant of the misogyny within their religious texts. Western nations enact laws that grant equal pay to men and women. Wahhabi Islam dictates that the evidence of a woman is worth half that of a man, resulting in the female victims of rape being flogged because their testimony does not carry the same weight as that of the perpetrator, as a result she is now accused of adultery.

Several studies have shown that Atheists in the west are more knowledgeable of the Bible than the Christians who proclaim a belief in the divinity of this book.  This certainly does not apply to the Islamic world. In many less enlightened Muslim countries, an education consists of mindless route learning of the Koran in madrassas. Vulnerable children are told that it is their duty to ensure the moral purity of their wives, and that slapping them or banishing them to their room constitutes a legitimate punishment for disobedience. Most parents’ worst nightmare would be having their 9 year old girl snatched by a middle aged man, but in tribal Pakistan, selling ones daughter is the best thing that can happen to her, as an early marriage ensures her sexual purity. This is of utmost importance and takes priority over an education or years of sexual abuse.  Christian extremists such as Rick Santorum keep their children out of school for homophobic or other equally bizarre religious notions, but Islamic extremists shoot girls in the head for going to school.

What deserves the title of a phobia is our inability to discuss the obvious incompatibility of Islam with civil secular society that has due regard for evidence based human rights. Such societies only exist unthreatened when Islam is a minority religion. It is no coincidence that Islamic societies produce so few Nobel Prize science winners, as religious and cultural dogma is significantly greater than Christian or Jewish societies of similar wealth.  If a political regime led to the spectacular failures associated of almost every Islamic society, we would not hesitate to point such faults out.  We rightly denounced the racial apartheid of South Africa or 1950s America but accuse those who criticise religions that persecute women, gays and non-believers as being somehow racist. Liberal Islamic apologists say that it is OK to criticise religion but not acceptable to notice differences in the human rights abuses of different religions.  This is the equivalent of saying crime is crime whether it be a parking ticket or first degree murder. This is irrational in the extreme.

A 2006 study in Britain found that while a large majority of 91% of British Muslims felt loyalty to Britain, 41% wanted the imposition of Sharia law. 20% had sympathy for the July 7th London bombers. 33% of British Muslims supported the establishment of a worldwide Caliphate or Islamic Council. The statistics of those who support the death penalty for apostates is equally appalling. In Egypt, the figure is as high as 84%

The thorny issue of blasphemy in the Islamic world was again exposed last month with the ridiculous response to the innocence of Muslims film. It would be laughable if it hadn’t led to loss of life. The lengths which Islamists will go to promote the virulent idea of religious outrage was exposed again last week on the RTE programme beyond belief, when Kamel Ghamen, a former Algerian Muslim who has lived in Dublin for 30 years abruptly warned that he will not tolerate insult to Islam. The presenter then asked him what he would be prepared to do about it. His response was that he would go to his solicitor. This response came after all involved agreed the blasphemy law in Ireland was unworkable and as such represented a thinly veiled threat.  A similar chilling warning was issued by the Muslim Brotherhood spokesman in Ireland, Ali Selim on RTE’s Prime Time debate when the blasphemy law was originally enacted in 2010. These are not the Islamic extremists; they are the appointed spokesmen for Islam in Ireland. These are the people picked by the Islamic community to put its best foot forward.  If these are the most moderate advocates for the religion, it is not grounds for optimism.

It is important to stress that Muslims and others who come to live and work here should have every right to do so. It would be unjust to place any discrimination on entry to Ireland purely on the basis of religion. However it is not unreasonable to demand a certain standard of behaviour that is necessary for the upholding of democratic liberal values. Citizenship education prior to being granted residence should be based on an understanding of what it means to live in an open democracy that respects free speech. A condition of entry should be that everyone must tolerate dissent of anyone’s belief system regardless of how sincere that belief may be.  New entrants should be made aware from the onset that western legal systems are established on the basis of reason and that there can be no alternative. The organisation one law for all in the UK are currently trying to roll back on the implementation of Sharia courts there. The syllabus should also outline the importance of equality for women,  gay rights etc.

To quote Ayan Hirsi Ali “tolerance of intolerance is cowardice” There are no easy answers to the problems associated with the spread of Islam throughout the world, but we must start by acknowledging they are real.  I believe a strong secular government is the best safeguard against the deleterious effects of Islam and other religions.

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Abortion & Religion

One thorny issue that never ceases to invoke outright zealous resistance among religious is that of abortion. The subject was again bought to the fore, last month, with a motion in the Irish parliament to introduce long overdue legislation on the infamous X Case, and only this week, with the opening of the Marie Stopes family planning clinic in Belfast. The centre will allow limited abortion up to 9 weeks. The furore is unfolding by the minute, with new as well as old pro-life groups clamouring to fight what they see as one of the biggest threats to humankind.

The language used by religious organisations such as the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child and Youth Defence, is highly emotive, yet grossly scientifically inaccurate. There is a fine line between outright fanatical delusion and deliberate lack of regard for facts. The boundary between the two becoming so blurred that it is often difficult to distinguish.  Pro-choice groups are accused of seeking legislation that would allow the murder of babies and children.  One of the contenders of the last Irish presidential election, Gay Mitchell, even went so far as to compare abortion to the Nazi holocaust. As someone who visited the concentration camps of Auschwitz, this rhetoric was more than disturbing. It was never my intention to get involved in pro-choice debate, but it almost seems an inevitable consequence of being a rationalist, that one is automatically drawn into this emotive quagmire. As with the subject of religion, the offer of evidence and facts do not offer a lifeline to any form of unanimous consensus. The religious right position themselves, as being on a god given mission to save human souls from what they perceive as the grave evils posed by modern day family planning clinics. Sam Harris pointed out the absurdity of the Catholic Church’s position on this by citing one of many speeches made by Mother Teresa on the issue.

“ But I feel that the greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion, because it is a war against the child – a direct killing of the innocent child – murder by the mother herself. And if we accept that a mother can kill even her own child, how can we tell other people not to kill one another? How do we persuade a woman not to have an abortion? As always, we must persuade her with love, and we remind ourselves that love means to be willing to give until it hurts. Jesus gave even his life to love us. So the mother who is thinking of abortion, should be helped to love – that is, to give until it hurts her plans, or her free time, to respect the life of her child. The father of that child, whoever he is, must also give until it hurts. By abortion, the mother does not learn to love, but kills even her own child to solve her problems. And by abortion, the father is told that he does not have to take any responsibility at all for the child he has brought into the world. That father is likely to put other women into the same trouble. So abortion just leads to more abortion. Any country that accepts abortion is not teaching the people to love, but to use any violence to get what they want. That is why the greatest destroyer of love and peace is abortion. ”

Everyone of my generation and those before will remember the heated debates that took place over the last 20 years.  I can even remember the rhetoric surrounding the abortion referendum of 1983, although it was passed a few weeks before my 9th birthday. Just like Gerry Adam’s infamous description of the IRA, it seems the thorny issue has never gone away in the intervening third of a century.  The length at which the religious pro-life movement was prepared to go to stop women receiving abortions abroad was laid bare in the aftermath of the X case. A 14 year old girl became pregnant as a result of statutory rape. She tried to seek an abortion in the UK, only to be stopped by the Irish police on the basis of the 1983 amendment.  The Supreme Court overturned this original order and she would have subsequently been allowed to travel.  This gave rise to three further referenda.  The twelfth amendment proposed that suicide would not be considered grounds for abortion. The thirteenth amendment proposed that the ban on abortion would not infringe on the right of the individual to seek services that are legal abroad. The fourteenth amendment proposed the right to distribute information about abortion.  The twelfth amendment was rejected by the 65% of Irish people and the latter two amendments (the right to travel and the right to information) were also passed by a significant margin. Another referendum on the issue of suicide and abortion, put forward by the Fianna Fail/ Progressive Democrat coalition government in 2002 was also defeated, albeit by a narrower margin than the original X case referendum.  I am at a loss to understand as to why significantly more people voted in favour of this referendum than its predecessor, as it was even more draconian in its intent than the original, (one of its propositions was a maximum of 12 years in prison for anyone offering abortion services).

The abortion question is essentially one of many clashes between religious tradition and the scientific method. It is one based on traditions first established among desert dwellers, ignorant of their place in this world and dating back 3500 years, versus a revolutionary method that was in its infancy only 250 years ago. Needless to say mankind has prospered more in the latter 2 centuries than we have since the first recognisable homo sapien walked the planes of the African savannah some 50,000 years ago. Despite these obvious facts, if put to a vote, the majority of people on earth would still see religious opinion as a superior source of wisdom. There are many psychological, evolutionary and social reasons for this that is beyond the remit of this blog, but it is sufficient to say that these same impulses drive the pro-life movement.  Once” tradition” can give rise to the same cognitive properties as empirical evidence (and 21st century neuropsychology shows it does), evolution has left us with a reasoning problem. If our innate neural hardware can make us believe that on the basis of culture,( for example, to use a Hindu analogy of the elephant god Ganesh, that one day a boy fashioned by clay and the perspiration of its mother was beheaded by the destroyer Shiva, and who, in remorse, moulded the head of a baby elephant to the boy’s body and bringing him back to life), with the same vigour and ferocity as we believe that antibiotics can kill susceptible bacteria, then it follows from this that if figures of religious authority proclaim a foetus to be human, then to the believer that is exactly what it is.

Once the pro-choice side see this anomaly, it is somewhat easier to understand the degree of enthusiasm that is on the so called pro-life side. After all no one is in favour of killing defenceless babies or children, in fact nothing could be more abhorrent.  The most sincere and fervent belief that a fertilised zygote is in fact a living human being, that has human rights similar to an adult is an immediate conversation stopper. It is an unwinnable clash of a very large degree of evidence versus an equally large degree of non-evidence based belief. The casualties of this struggle are facts, evidence and most importantly female emancipation.

The reason why most civilised countries allow abortion is based on strong medical evidence that a fertilised human egg is no more magical or human than the set of genes prior to fertilisation.  Both the fertilised egg and the millions of sperm and unfertilised egg that preceded it all have the potential to develop into human life.  The Catholic Church’s absurd view that even contraception is evil is based on the bizarre belief that even sperm and egg are sacred. The sperm and the egg that will fuse have exactly the same genetic makeup before and after fertilisation. This step on the road to becoming human is only one of several stages. Whether the fertilised egg is successful or not will depend on multiple factors such as the environment, the genetic makeup of the mother and that of the newly developing embryo, as well as the actions of the mother. All of the above are subject to arbitrary luck and random chance. The first stage of random genetics is the fact that the egg is exposed to the chance of being fertilised by any of 250 million individual sperm. The process is not driven by god, who wishes to bring John or Mary into the world, but by a genetic lottery with odds against anyone sperm getting fertilised greater than any lotto draw we play. The potential for a game loss isn’t over there. The fertilised egg now only has a 33% chance of making it to becoming a live baby. Over the 6 days following fertilisation many will be ejected by the mother and not make it to implantation. It seems like god has yet again to go back to the drawing board to bring little John or Mary into the world. Even after implantation of the embryo into the uterus wall, there is a 25% chance of miscarriage. So it seems that god is an indecisive creature and is the biggest abortion provider of all.

It is for these reasons that medical science has the difficult task of defining when a developing foetus should be considered an independent entity of itself and most obstetricians put this at approximately 24 weeks. This is the late stage in foetal development when, with the best medical intervention, the foetus maybe viable outside the womb. Most would argue that abortion should be carried out as far before this time as is practically possible, but 24 weeks is set as an absolute limit. This limit is supported by a wealth of studies. A 2006 study in the US shows that only 1.5% of all abortions happen after 21 weeks and that nearly 80% are carried out before 10 weeks of pregnancy. These are broadly similar to abortion figures in the UK. These facts all too often get lost in religious vitriol.

These hard statistics cannot be refuted as they are backed up by several studies. While abortion is never an easy option, and society should do everything in its power to prevent women getting into this situation in the first place, by dealing with issues such as sex education, access to contraception and overcoming poverty traps.  Ultimately human development is not one magic act at fertilisation, overlooked by a cosmic sky lord, but a step of natural processes, if all conditions allow, will result in childbirth. These conditions as mentioned before, include genetics of the mother and foetus, environmental factors, but most important of all should be the will of a sentient human to bring another into the world.

Ireland and the UN should take action against the concept of blasphemous libel.

A man is escorted into a courtroom shackled and anxious. He enters the room, a social pariah, an outcast, rejected by society. The crowd outside the court is growing bigger by the minute, and an air of almost uncontrollable outrage fills the environs, before the judge utters the first word to begin the proceedings. The ensuing mob would happily take the place of judge and jury and convene a quick execution, praising their creator as the last drop of blood falls from his lifeless body. The court quickly assembles, and an eerie silence is interrupted as the judge calls the court into session. The defendant will face an execution by beheading, if found guilty. He weighs up the prospect of life after the trial and considers the prospect of a swift and imminent death, the lesser evil. His will to live is further diminished by weeks of solitary confinement in prison and arbitrary torture at the hands of overzealous guards. One of three judges read out the charges. He stands accused of blasphemy. The judgement is swift, he is found guilty.  The defendant breathes a sigh of despair as he is dragged past the heckling crowds to await his fate. The spectre of a savage execution in the public square races through his mind and despair quickly turns to mortal fear. He has one more opportunity to save his life. If he pleads for a royal pardon, the king may find it in his heart to forgive his crime. He is successful. The defendant is Sabri Bogday, a Turkish national. The year is 2007 and the country is Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately Saudi Arabia is only one of many countries who will imprison, torture and all too often execute people for this perceived crime.

The movie Innocence of Muslims rekindled global disturbances in the Islamic world last month. The film, approximately 14 minutes long, depicts the prophet Muhammad as a philanderer, child molester and general warlord. Despite the fact the movie never made it to television in the west, (possibly because it is extremely badly made and has no intellectual or comedic merit whatsoever), it nonetheless led to cries for the US to introduce an anti-blasphemy law and arrest the movie producer, who is in fact an Egyptian born Coptic Christian, by the name of Nakoula Basseley Nakoula. He had produced the movie under the alias of Sam Bacile. The same producer also has a criminal record. Despite these facts, Islamists held the US responsible and its embassies were burned and looted throughout the Islamic world.

These events have reignited the call for a United Nations resolution to make religious defamation a crime internationally. Such efforts almost exclusively come from Islamic nations. The drive to suppress free speech was further bolstered by the Irish government, when Fianna Fail introduced the concept of religious libel in the 2009 defamation act.  Ireland was subsequently praised by Pakistan and other Islamic nations for this legislation. Efforts to impose such laws at international level have been on-going since 1999. In the aftermath of the movie, several Islamic States have cited their intention to press for global criminalisation of religious defamation. These States include Pakistan, Iran, Libya, Egypt and Indonesia to name but a few. The rhetoric of their leaders, in relation to the concept of blasphemy, is that religion is so sacred that the hurt caused by religious insult would be too much for society to bear.

The problem with this concept of human sensitivity is it is at best empirically both false and shallow, and at worst murderous. Human civilisation has always thrived on the challenging of some bad ideas, and the outright ridicule of others. The consequence of blasphemy laws, in the European dark ages, was that they granted the right of religious leaders to burn blasphemers and heretics, at the stake, at will. There can be no greater irony and tragedy than to find out that after centuries of countless deaths, that such practices were surplus to requirement. When European countries had anti-blasphemy statutes, their record on human rights was abysmal. Societies went to violent extremes to protect the most delusional beliefs and this resulted in unquestioned power being granted to the most tyrannical religious leaders and institutions. Unquestioning loyalty to the Catholic Church, both out of fear and ignorance resulted in rampant institutional corruption. This ultimately led to the Protestant reformation of 1517.

We can trace the same unquestioning devotion to secular equivalents such as Hitler, Mao and Pol Pot of the 20th century and also the absence of democracy and human rights in the Islamic world. The moral of the last two paragraphs are individuals are free to choose which information they want to digest, but when we introduce a restriction on debate, satire and sometimes outright argument, the consequences have always been dire. We have the choice of respecting beliefs or respecting people, but history has shown us that the two are not mutually compatible. The evidence is glaringly obvious, that societies, who respect the right of free speech and expression above anything considered sacred to anyone, prosper both materially and ethically. All the political ills of the last two centuries show that censorship and delusion among the populace gives rise to unjustified power being granted to people incapable of governing.

If you are in any doubt, just take a look at the human rights record of the Islamic nations calling for these laws, and those who have them at national level. Indonesia, a so called moderate Islamic country has currently imprisoned Alex Aan for posting god does not exist on his facebook page. The presence of an anti-blasphemy law in that country made his work colleagues believe they had the right to assault him because of their religiously motivated offence. The police concurred with them and the crime of blasphemy was favoured over that of assault.

In Pakistan, the penalty for blasphemy is death. There are several cases relating to children being incarcerated for alleged desecration of the Koran. The latest being that of Rimsha Masih, a 14 year old girl with learning difficulties. In March 2011, the minister for religious minority affairs in Pakistan, Shahbaz Bhatti, was shot dead by gunmen who ambushed his car, for his calls to reduce the severity of the country’s blasphemy law. This followed the earlier murder of the governor of Punjab Province, Salman Taseer, by his own bodyguard, for his criticism of the same statute. The gunman was praised by many of the local people.

 Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued his infamous fatwa against Salman Rushdie for his writing of the Satanic Verses in 1989. The then British residing author issued a carefully worded apology to which the Iranian supreme leader replied – “Even if Salman Rushdie repents and becomes the most pious man of all time, it is incumbent on every Muslim to employ everything he has got, his life and wealth, to send him to Hell”. In the aftermath of the Innocence of Muslims film controversy, an Iranian State department suggested that this film would not have been produced, if Rushdie had been killed, and increased the bounty on the writers head to $3.3 million.

 While Islamic nations regularly use blasphemy laws to persecute people of other faiths and non-believers, they are not alone. The Catholic Church, in India, has still not learned the lessons painted in the blood of countless Europeans throughout the dark ages, in relation to the concept of blasphemy. Sanal Edamaruku, an Indian sceptic debunked a reported miracle of the weeping cross in Mumbai by asserting that the liquid produced on the cross was caused by capillary action of liquid near a leaking drain. Local Church officials asked him to retract his scientific explanation, and when he refused, they had him arrested under the country’s religious defamation act.

 More recently, the trial of Pussy Riot in Moscow had all the signs of a medieval blasphemy show trial, as opposed to the legitimate charge of anti-social behaviour. Putin appears to be using the new found popularity of the Russian Orthodox Church to bolster his own political agenda.  This is yet another example of how the protection of religion against criticism can be used, not alone by corrupt religious officials, but equally by politicians to serve their own selfish interest.

 The lessons to be learned from this are that Ireland needs to send a strong signal that blasphemy is not a crime, and should never be considered as such. The law should protect everyone’s right to practice peaceful religion, while simultaneously protecting the rights and the public space of those who choose not to. The State should have no duty of care for anyone’s private beliefs. Anti-blasphemy laws provide the necessary conditions for religiously motivated rage to flourish. This is not in the best interest of modern society. The presence of this clause in the Irish constitution, and the proposition of such a clause being entertained at UN level is a tacit endorsement of a medieval and backward concept. Ireland’s example is harmful internationally, even if the law is never enforced, as it provides an example of a modern European State with an anti-blasphemy clause. Instead of State leaders promoting the concept of religious defamation, they need to send out an unequivocal message that we all need to adjust ourselves to become comfortable with those who criticise our beliefs, no matter how strong and passionate we are about them, and if deemed personally necessary, to either learn from such criticism or personally reject it without resorting to violence, intimidation or irrational claims of offence. In short Ireland should, without haste, propose a referendum to remove this outdated notion from its constitution, and the UN should take similar steps to stop the international threat to free speech and human enlightenment that blasphemy concepts pose.

Promoting Science Reason & Atheism

Thank you for showing an interest in my blog. The general theme of my posts will be the promotion of a secular worldview, where religion and superstition do not frequent the halls of power within government, or falsely promoted as having an educational merit. I believe that secular governments, with absolute separation of Church and State, are in the best interest of religious and non-religious alike.  This is because secular democracy protects the right to personal belief and expression of such belief for everyone, while facing down, any element, of any religion that would seek to oppress others. It is possible to be deeply religious and still support the idea of separation of Church and State.  While I acknowledge this fact, I am still of the opinion that secular society is best achieved by becoming an irreligious society in the first place. This belief is fuelled by the history of countries with deeply religious majorities.

I acknowledge that many wish to entertain religious belief and respect their right to gain consolation from it. However respect for the right to believe does not confer an automatic respect for any particular belief. The subject content of my blogs will offend those who are hard in their conviction that everyone’s opinion carries equal weight.  I will argue two different notions of tolerance, the first being, that society must be tolerant of everyone’s right to voice an opinion and that offence should not be a barrier to such a discussion. However I will argue that if we are to advance as a society we should be intellectually intolerant of ideas that are not substantiated by empirical evidence. This should not be particularly controversial for the most part, as it is essentially the scientific process. We are already intellectually intolerant of many non-evidence based notions.  Our schools and universities no longer see alchemy as a valid alternative to chemistry or astrology a valid alternative to astronomy. Unlike our ancient ancestors, our medical schools no longer believe that conditions such as epilepsy or schizophrenia are the result of possession by malevolent entities.  Such ideas were believed by the intellectual elite of their day despite the absence of evidence to support such fantastic claims. Today, any politician or academic leader entertaining such ideas would be automatically cast to the sideline and ridiculed at every opportunity.  One would not be considered a bigot or accused of being intolerant for being openly critical of those who would promote any of the above as a legitimate intellectual position. This is probably the single most important cultural shift that separates 21st century society from the dark ages and the piles of human misery that stemmed from it.  Prior to the enlightenment of the 18th century, that spread through Europe, the notion of evidence based belief took second stage to entrenched beliefs, formed on the basis of Bronze and Iron Age religious tradition, as well as the uttering of the most powerful, and those considered to be “wise” by the societies of less enlightened Europe.

Most would consider themselves to be intellectually above superstition; however nothing could be further from the truth, as we are all biologically hardwired to be superstitious, for very good evolutionary reasons. Humans and other animals that tried to establish causal relationships between an action and a subsequent outcome would be more likely to outlive those who did not share this useful trait. This would be beneficial, even if the hypothesis was incorrect 90% of the time. The 10% who derived an accurate assumption of cause and effect would gain potentially lifesaving data. Consider the hunter gatherer of 50,000 years ago who ate poisonous berries. Those who would try to determine the link between death and eating poisonous fruit would be statistically more likely to outlive more apathetic tribes, even if they attributed the death to several superstitious notions such as, curses from dead ancestors or offending the gods etc. This is because innate curiosity would lead a few to determine the correct causal relationship, which is, eating poisonous berries and subsequent death. Indeed superstition precedes humanity itself and has been observed experimentally in other species, the most notable experiments being those carried out by psychologist B.F Skinner on pigeons in his operant chamber.

While superstitious behaviour was more advantageous than apathy throughout our evolutionary history, in the scientific age, it becomes a liability. The reason being, the scientific method is dramatically better at separating true causal relationships from those which are a mere coincidence.  The scientific method no longer takes the view of any one individual claim, but concedes that large scale studies need to be undertaken before any claim of a cause and effect relationship can be established, when it comes to claims such as, efficacy of new medicines, or treatments, or whether or not global warming is real, and whether or not it is manmade.  The elimination of many erroneous concepts by the scientific process has been a milestone that allowed us to manipulate the world in a way that our innate biology failed to achieve, not least, the industrial revolution. The problem is our most visceral instincts are waging a war against the scientific method itself. The conflict is by no means confined to the uneducated and marginalised and its battleground is marked out right up to the highest levels of international power. Despite the empirical evidence of the validity of the scientific method above any other means of determining our best understanding of the true nature of reality, our instincts still perceive the edicts of leaders, both political and religious, as well as uneducated celebrities, to be of superior intellectual value to ideas derived through painstaking research and validated by multiple experiments.  This affects every part of society, from how we derive our ethics to how we treat the sick.

Superstition is literally killing people, and forcing societies to live under self-imposed slavery. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Islamic world.  Saudi Arabian Wahhabi Islam declares that a woman’s evidence is worth half that of a man. It mandates the death penalty for imaginary crimes such as witchcraft and sorcery. Visceral beliefs, such as the bizarre notion, that the Creator of the Universe has such a keen interest in human sexuality (as opposed to other species) as to impose laws, which carry the death penalty if breached. In former Taliban run Afghanistan, the fear of men getting illicit sexual gratification from women, led to imposition of laws that required the windows of houses to be painted. The low level of exposure to sunlight gave rise to a huge rate of suicide among women. The regime also deemed that the education of girls was an inherent evil, even more so than the punishment for this crime, where many schools were burned to the ground.  Edicts that women who were not wearing the burqa could not be medically examined by men led to one of the highest rates of female mortality in the world.  Other imaginary crimes include blasphemy, again which regularly carries a death sentence. This punishment is often endorsed by the governments of these countries and not only by the fanatical religious mobs.  The most obvious example being the Ayatollah of Iran calling for the death of Salman Rushdie and who offered a handsome bounty for anyone who would carry out the murder of this innocent writer.

Superstitions religious intrusion in State affairs is not only confined to Islamic nations. Only last week (at the time of writing), a member of the US Republican scientific committee came out firmly against biological evolution through natural selection, and the big bang theory. It is an obvious statement that these are among the most important scientific concepts of the last two centuries.  Ireland’s culture of Catholicism infiltrated every layer of government. Women were forced out of the workplace after marriage and were denied basic reproductive rights.  Progress in IVF technology and embryonic stem cell research were delayed, as legal systems gave equal status to embryos, as to infertile, disabled or sick adults. Couples trapped in a bad marriage were not allowed a fresh start as the Irish constitution forbade divorce. Homosexuality was outlawed and the priesthood was seen as an elite and prestigious position. The resulting consequences of this require no explanation.

Genuine medical treatments are currently being compromised by a huge growth in so called alternative medicine, an industry that is making millions of dollars yearly, despite the absence of a shred of evidence to support efficacy beyond placebo. Charlatan psychics are getting airspace on television and idiotic superstitious notions are becoming ever popular in celebrity culture. All of the above, while admittedly giving solace to some, pose long term problems, undermine scientific progress and the drive for a society, which sees all of its adult citizens possess a level of scientific literacy.

If my blogsite can make a few people reconsider their attitude to the growing problem of irrationalism within society then it will have served its purpose. If not, I hope you are at least entertained and challenged.

Cyril Butler