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Life, The Universe and Everything

By Frances Versluys

This time of year is a time of excitement for we keen gardeners.

Everything looks so dead, until you look really closely and there, just starting, are tiny green sprouts defying all this cold weather. I constantly patrol, checking things out. Has the frost completely killed some plants. But no, under the burnt looking foliage is life.

Nature is so fantastic, life overcomes seeming death. The snow sat on my new shoots and I thought all was lost, but it thawed and there were my broad beans peeking out, as happy as before.

We never get much snow in the South, and it did look lovely, but I was concerned too, in the especially cold weather, about all our small birds that visit the feeders but they popped up, busily tucking in.

Life is really incredible, and the survival of all these diverse beings is a huge lesson about Natural Selection.

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Politicians and Religion

By Delia Ives

To use a famous phrase many politicians in the UK "don't do God". What they really mean is that they want to hedge their bets. They don't want to upset any religious group sufficiently for them to withhold their votes or otherwise create a fuss . .

We always suspected Tony Blair was religious but he didn't come clean about it until he left office. Many might call that hypocritical!

We aren't sure about the strength of Gordon Brown's religious beliefs but why on earth shouldn't we know? Why shouldn't politicians be precise about their religious position when they ask us to vote for them? Are politicians in effect saying that we don't need to know because their beliefs don't make any difference to the way they act in office? They should ask themselves if beliefs like that are worth having anyway! And if their beliefs do make a difference to the way they act, aren't we, the voters, entitled to have chapter & verse? Perhaps at the next election we should all question our candidates much more searchingly on this subject so that we know exactly what we are voting for.

Refreshingly Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg has come out unequivocally as an atheist and the Lib Dems are promoting a Freedom Bill. Whether or not this is enough to persuade you to vote Lib Dem you can still help to roll back infringements of liberty by supporting the Freedom Bill.

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Morality and God

By Paolo Viscardi

The concept of ethics and morality being equated with a god is not unfamiliar and it actually ties in very well with some thoughts on the origin of gods, rather than the origin of ethics and morality. I consider gods to be just one of a number of cultural constructs used to reinforce behavioural guidelines and rules that are a requirement of any structured society.

Ethics and morality are the learned human mechanisms by which social structure is maintained. Other organisms have different mechanisms for maintaining social structure - ants, for example, have a range of simple inherent behavioural responses to a variety of biochemical stimuli, but the basis of morality can be observed in other primates, so there is little difficulty identifying that morality is a behavioural adaptation to social living that has evolved with us as a species.

Since morality is rewarded by society, it is good to be moral. There may be advantages available from behaving in an amoral or immoral way, but those advantages tend to be offset, since other members of a society will punish such behaviour. Of course, the behaviour can only be punished if it is witnessed, which brings us to the point where we invoke an omniscient god. Such an entity simultaneously assuages our anger at the thought of others getting away with immoral behaviour (since they will be found out) and it keeps us thinking that our own actions are being watched, which keeps us in check. A God also provides us with a mechanism by which we can earn a reward for our good behaviour and be punished for bad behaviour. As adults, we invoke the same rationale when we tell children that Santa Claus will bring them toys if they are good, but not if they are bad. Santa Claus is as real to a child as God is to many adults and he fulfills the same moral and ethical role, but with less dire consequences. The difference is that people are expected to grow out of a belief in Santa, whereas they are considered amoral or worse if they grow out of their belief in God.

The fear and hatred that some religious people feel toward atheists or members of other religions may well link back into the system of moral control. If someone does not believe in an omniscient god, they have no fear of reprimand by them. The uncomfortable fact that atheists can often be very moral people is often simply disregarded on the basis that morals are determined by God. Yet, we atheists don't need the threat or will of a higher power to stop us from behaving badly - we can understand how it damages our society and ultimately ourselves.
Moreover, we do not need a supernatural reward for being good - the act of doing good provides us with all the reward we need at a personal level.

The omniscient god method of behavioural control would be less irksome to us atheists if it had not been formulated by people with agendas beyond the functioning of society. It is those agendas that need to be challenged. Homosexuality, for example, may be abhorrent in the eyes of God, but it is perfectly natural in most higher social animals and it is no more socially harmful than heterosexuality. Indeed, in these days of overpopulation homosexuality seems to be more socially responsible than heterosexuality, yet it remains despised by religious groups who want more children ripe for indoctrination. Here lies the major problem with religion - its inability to change and its reliance on dogma over logic.

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It’s rational to be good

By Chris Brockman

To be the best person (individual human being) we can be makes good sense. A rational person naturally pursues his or her values, and the highest rational value is to be a good human being. Humanist ethics are based upon this truth. It is rational, it is reasonable, it makes good sense to be good. And, we as human beings have the ability to figure out what it means to be good and live our lives accordingly. (Again, this doesn’t mean that we always agree with one another or that we always come up with the right answer.)

People interacting as rational beings will necessarily work toward creating the best world for everyone. With human nature as the standard, people will be expected to live up to human nature. With this expectation, people will demand more of themselves, will get more from themselves, and will be rewarded with a better life and a better world. The expectation, the hope, and the promise of human nature, will be self-fulfilling.

The predominant religious view is that human nature is sinful and that people will necessarily be drawn to bad behavior. Since human nature, in this view, is weak and prone to evil, it becomes rational to do wrong; humans have to fight against their nature as rational beings. This creates an expectation that humans will inevitably come up short unless they surrender to the irrational. Rationality is defaulted to evil, and irrationality, in the guise of faith, is elevated to the highest virtue.

© Copyright 2009 - Chris Brockman - All Rights Reserved

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Black Hand of God

By Pulaski

© Copyright 2009 - Pulaski - All Rights Reserved

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Why does the Catholic Church behave like this?

The news that a Brazilian archbishop has excommunicated the mother of a child rape victim who helped her to secure an abortion makes me wonder just how many own goals the Catholic Church is capable of making.

This heartless act will add to the guilt and grief of the nine year old victim, who had allegedly been raped since the age of six by her stepfather. Why does the Church behave like this? Because it puts the value of the 'soul' - something that has never been proven to exist - ahead of the life of a living, suffering young girl.

Life is of course an incredibly precious thing - it has taken us 13 billion years to get where we are, on a lonely planet for a fraction of time and space - but is there really a place for religious dogma when it patently causes so much grief? As ever, the main victims in all of this are ordinary women. And how many ordinary catholics will bury their heads in the sand and try to ignore what is going on?

The schism between the views of ordinary Catholics and the hierarchy of the church is likely to grow as people throughout the world become more educated. How many pious catholics give willingly to cancer research when it is stem cell research that is increasingly producing the solutions? How many pious Catholics will start to question what they hear on a Sunday? Hopefully more and more as long as the Catholic hierarchy continues to exacerbate hurt and embarrass its followers in this way.

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By Toby Barrett

"My mind, it ain’t so open that anything could crawl right in" - Howard Devoto

Whilst I could argue for the greatness of the little-known Howard Devoto and his post-punk band Magazine, and lament the fact that I was unable to make it to one of their 2009 reunion gigs, it’s the meaning of the above quotation I want to consider.

We’re often told that being open-minded is a good thing or, more often, told not to be closed-minded. But how open should our minds be when dealing with new possibilities? It is claimed that homeopathy, for example, works by treating illnesses with substances that cause similar symptoms. Furthermore it is said that the more dilute the solution you are treated with, the more powerful the effect will be. Homeopathic practitioners apply this principle by diluting to such an extent that the resultant solution almost certainly has no molecule of the original substance. The power of the ingredient remains because water has a “memory”.

How open-minded should we be about this? If true, how much of the current scientific understanding of medical treatment, chemical reactions, etc, would need to be abandoned or radically changed? What of the conceptual difficulties: why should water "remember" the things that the homeopath wants it to, rather than all the other things (some probably quite unpleasant) that the water has come into contact with?

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t test such ideas experimentally; a real phenomenon may have been discovered, but its nature misunderstood. In fact, homeopathy has been investigated a number of times and the homeopaths do seem to be onto something: the placebo effect.

I don’t mean to single out homeopathy: we must constantly apply a plausibility test before we let any fantastical idea, medical, religious, political, crawl inside our minds.

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Bailing out the National Health Service

The National Health Service (NHS) prescription charges are to rise, though the British Medical Association has called for all prescriptions to be free. The story scratches at the surface of a much greater question - how and why we pay for healthcare - that is also being discussed by the new administration in the United States.

The US has the worst provision for public healthcare of any highly developed country, though its people pay more for it than anyone else in the world. For the vast majority of the population who fall into the gap between the destitute - who are entitled to free care - and the very wealthy - who can afford to pay whatever it costs - the only option is to buy private medical insurance.

Insurance works on the basis of risk. If you have what they describe as a "pre-existing condition", such as cancer or a genetic disorder, your risk of needing treatment is too high, and you will not be able to get insurance. This is not a minority problem: 47 million Americans have no insurance. Even if you already have insurance, and develop a condition that is expensive to treat, you may well find that the insurance company has included it on a list of exclusions for which it is not liable. You will end up paying for it yourself, even if it runs into tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. And, of course, you will then have a "pre-existing condition", and will never be able to get insurance again.

The only alternative is some form of socialised medicine, which spreads the risk around the whole of society, meaning no one is charged a sum they cannot afford. Research has repeatedly shown that some degree of public health provision improves the health of everyone in society - even that of the richest people. It is in the interests of wealthy people to help fund the healthcare of the poor and the middle classes.

Public healthcare is an issue in which rational self-interest and the ethical choice point to exactly the same conclusion. The only sensible option is to spread the risk, and fund a decent service available to all. To see what happens if we don't, you don't need to go to the slums of Mumbai or sub-Saharan Africa. You could just walk down an ordinary street in Louisiana or Mississippi.

It is up to our government to realise that, in a time when poverty - and therefore bad health - will be increasing, bailing out the NHS may be even more important than bailing out the banks.

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A line in the sand

By James Hill

A couple of months ago, I picked my three year old son up from pre-school. As we exited the gate he pointed across the busy road to the graveyard opposite and stated, "That's where your body goes when you go to heaven." He had also, the year before remarked - upon hearing me curse after dropping the sofa on my fingers whilst looking for something underneath it - that, "You should always say 'The *Baby* Jesus'"!

I thought to myself, what do I say to this? What do I do? The pre-school is non-denominational but there is obviously someone answering with Christian based rhetoric when certain questions popped up. My wife (an agnostic) thinks I worry unduly over such matters and I guess I do to some degree but I want my son to grow up questioning the things that he is told.

I remember that I once got in trouble for asking a primary teacher why we stuck to the Earth. She replied because it spins around. I thought about that for a moment then chimed up "But wouldn't we fly off..." I want him to ask the same questions and keep asking and searching until he gets a satisfactory answer, even if it is myself that gives him an answer he doesn't agree with.

I felt that I needed to counter what he had been told but I didn't want to go too far. I wanted him to have the choice. It galled me that somebody was filling his head with these ideas at such a tender age. Most adults fail to grasp the concepts of life and death and all the associated gumph that goes with it, let alone a three year old! But why should I be unable to give him another point of view when someone else is giving him their's?

Conscious of some imagined line in the sand, I took him aside, took a deep breath and told him, "Yes, *some* people do believe that when you die, you go to a place that they call heaven."
He nodded.

I continued, "Some people think that when you die you come back as someone else or even an animal." He smirked at me and giggled.

"Some people - like me - think that when you die, you don't go to heaven or come back, but you live on in the memories of those that loved you. As long as you are remembered fondly, you will live forever in their minds." He frowned. I wasn't sure that he got it.

"The truth is, nobody knows what really happens because when a person dies, they don't come back and tell us."


"Which is why you will hear lots of different ideas about it as you grow up."

He twiddled with his scarf and looked at the floor. Too much information daddy.

"Tell you what...", he looked up at me expectantly.

"Ask your mummy."

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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

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