Mark Hewitt's blog

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Does Atheism Need a Makeover?

One of the most frequent criticisms of secular humanists and atheists is that we define ourselves in the negative - by what we oppose. In some ways it's the reason for this site's existence - the BBC's main defence of their "No Nonbelievers on TFTD" policy is the claim that atheists/humanists will use the segment as a platform to mock or attack religion (and Richard Dawkins, Teapot bless him, didn't help matters with his rabidly anti-religious diatribes when given a trial run at the slot).

It's an argument that's difficult to dismiss. In a world where organised religion and its diluted derivatives pervade popular culture and popular morality, where promiscuous, coke-addicted rock stars finish concerts with "God bless!", where the major news organisations are largely controlled by (publicly) religious neocons, it's pretty fair to say that we are defined by our rejection of the beliefs that a sizeable proportion of the world take for granted. So how do we find a positive voice and identity?

Some would say we don't need to, because have no evangelical obligation to convert others to our point of view, and atheism is a naturally dominant ideology which doesn't need our help to spread. But religion is a powerful machine - if you subscribe to the Dawkins memetic view of religion, it has evolved to be the most efficient parasite in the infosphere, exploiting every possible vector of attack to seize control of minds and reproduce.

And the fact is, religion is a great sell - a devout Christian can stand up and say "We believe that Jesus Christ died on the cross to save us and rose from the dead to return to heaven, that God created us, watches over us and punishes or rewards our actions, that one day Jesus will return again and remake the world, and that we can have all our sins washed away by believing in Him".

What have we got?

"Um...we don't?"

Religion clearly isn't going to disappear anytime in the near future, and most vocal atheists agree that the pervasiveness of organised religion in the world is a force for harm. So do we need to find a new, positive identity for ourselves, a more marketable image, a vision to get behind? Or does any attempt to spread our viewpoint just ally us to the principles we oppose?

Mark Hewitt is a writer, techie, foodie and philosopher. You can read more of his work at http://www.silverknife.co.uk



Tip for the day: There is no tip for the day today :(

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Fine-Grained Morality

A lot of the news and commentary I read is left-wing or liberal. But one blog I read which often throws up the other side of the argument is "Inspector Gadget" on the Police Inspector Blog. The anonymous writer is a police inspector in the "Ruralshire Constabulary". He's intelligent, expressive and brutally honest about the conditions in which he and his men have to work, and he often makes points which are...disconcerting.

They're disconcerting because they sound a lot like the morality we hear spouted in pubs, on daytime TV shows and of course in the tabloid newspapers every day. Dole scroungers and criminal underclasses on the estates, immigrant mafia, and a "liberal elite" trying to stop him doing his job of locking up the bad guys. But the inescapable fact is that, while his opinions may be almost diametrically opposed to mine, he reports the facts as he experiences them and references his statements well.

In the G20 London riots, my political leanings would place me firmly on the side of the protestors. But quite honestly, I can't see what good they could possibly have been doing. How is seeing blank-eyed teenagers with beards stuttering in front of the news cameras “Well, it's like, we've got to show them we won't take it any more!” going to inspire anyone to change this (admittedly appalling) system? And what change are firebombs going to bring, except further animosity and labelling of political activists?

When we choose political/social "sides", attaching ourselves to this wing or that, or using (and accepting) labels like "liberal" or "conservative", we are oversimplifying the vast and intricate world of human understanding. We accept a coarse-grained framework which tries to split the world into a small number of simple relationships, and place them on either side of the oldest artificial division of all – right vs wrong.

I feel we owe it to ourselves to question every assumption we have inherited from our upbringing, our political framework, our religious history, our peers, and discover for ourselves the fine-grained, shaded model of right and wrong that fits the complex and often paradoxical world we live in.

Mark Hewitt is a writer, techie, foodie and philosopher. You can read more of his work at http://www.silverknife.co.uk



Tip for the day: The cost of living.

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The God Hole

We seem to be programmed to search for an Answer in our lives. Since the earliest human cultures (that we know of), human beings have sought after an explanation for everything in their environment - the weather, the growth or failure of crops, health and sickness, the sun coming up in the morning.

For pre-scientific societies, this usually means turning to spirits or god(s). We saw that our actions had consequences, and therefore concluded that there must be actions unseen driving the consequences we saw, and god or gods filled that gap. The God Hole was filled, and human curiosity, at least for the majority, was satisfied.

But for some, that answer wasn't enough, and they kept searching. They looked for a better solution than the black box of God did it, immune to further dissection or understanding, and began to truly unravel the mysteries of the universe. Galileo rejected the theologically-derived notion that the universe must revolve around the earth, and created the roots of modern physics. Newton didn't settle for the metaphysical explanations of his time, and found mathematical answers to the movements of bodies in space. Darwin, unhappy with creationism as an answer to the diversity of species, developed the theory of evolution.

We are clearly driven to fill the God Hole by one means or another. If we refuse to accept the theological explanation, we are left with a gap in our understanding that may never be filled in a sense, we may never be truly satisfied. But maybe that hole, and our endless drive to fill it, is what makes the human race great. With that unfulfilled need always in front of us, we will always be driven to learn, to expand, to analyse, and thereby to develop a deeper and broader understanding of the universe.

Mark Hewitt is a writer, techie, foodie and philosopher. You can read more of his work at http://www.silverknife.co.uk



Tip for the day: The missing chapter from Ben Goldacre's book Bad Science has now been published here.

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Predestined to Prejudice?

By Mark Hewitt

Psychological research indicates that our minds work on a principle called the "cognitive miser". That means that our biological imperative is to find the way of thinking about things that requires the least mental processing. We tend naturally towards shortcuts, heuristics, rules-of-thumb.

One of the biggest jobs for the human mind is building models of the things we encounter. Building models of people is hardest of all, but our minds do an amazing job of it if they have enough information. Once you've known someone and spent a lot of time with them, you can predict how they'll react to many situations. Your mental model has become complex enough to begin to resemble your friend's mind.

The problem comes at the other end of the scale, when you have relatively little information about a person. Your mind is always looking for the most economical way of understanding something, so it's going to use the simplest way to begin building its model. It does this by using big overlapping groups, called "schemas". Those schemas might be "Male", "Adult", "Professional", each of which carries its own bundle of common characteristics. And of course they also include schemas like "Black", "Straight" or "Poor".

On the surface of things, this paints a pretty sad picture. We seem to be pre-programmed to tend toward prejudice, assumption and profiling. Even the most enlightened, thoughtful and open-minded of us can't escape the subconscious functioning of our own mind! But like pretty much any theory of predestination, it's flawed.

This isn't some kind of immutable fate, it's a tendency. We are also genetically driven to reproduce as fast as possible, and act selfishly unless there's something to benefit us (or at least our genes), but that doesn't mean we have to do it. It just means that moving in a direction contrary to those tendencies is a little harder than it would otherwise be. And isn't human achievement and greatness characterised by fighting against our natural tendencies and pushing upstream?



Mark Hewitt is a writer and blogger. You can read more of his work at www.silverknife.co.uk


Tip for the day: Visit the National Secular Society web-site.

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Secular Morality and the Examined Life

It seems to me that if you consider yourself an atheist or humanist, it is doubly important that you are thoughtful and aware of what you consider right and wrong, and more importantly why. If you are declaring yourself independent of religious dogma, then all right and wrong must be up for grabs - you can not just say "that's wrong" without knowing why, because you are open to the question "who says so?"

Of course, there are plenty of religious people who examine and test their morality. What is interesting is that so many people who consider themselves atheists/humanists go through life accepting what they are told and taught about right and wrong, without every questioning it. They accept "it's just wrong" as though it actually was some kind of unbreakable religious law.

A couple of years back, I had a discussion with a very intelligent self-declared atheist friend about this very issue, but when the discussion got onto public nudity (don't ask), her response was "Oh, that's just wrong. We just know it is, it's natural". She accepted this definition of right and wrong she had been taught as a child, and never thought to question it.

So how free are we if we are still living by definitions of right and wrong inherited from previous generations, and often derived from religious dogma?

I believe that if we fail to live the examined life, holding up our beliefs and assumptions to question as often as we can (busy and complicated modern lives permitting), we are no more free than the dogmatic believers from whom we chose to separate ourselves.



About Mark: Mark Hewitt is a former IT technician, security guard, cleaner, railway ticket inspector, graduate in Psychology and Art History, and a geek, foodie, philosopher, web designer and writer. He writes about technology, food, travel, philosophy and spirituality. You can find more of his work at http://www.silverknife.co.uk.


Tip of the day: Afterthought for the day is a delightful commentary on the BBC's Thought for the Day written in Richard Crowther's own flowing and natural style.

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