About Eshu

My mischeivous pseudonym Eshu is a deity of the Yoruba mythology. "Eshu is a trickster-god, and plays frequently tempting choices for the purpose of causing maturation. He is a difficult teacher, but a good one. As an example, Eshu was walking down the road one day, wearing a hat that was red on one side and black on the other. Sometime after he departed, the villagers who had seen him began arguing about whether the stranger's hat was black or red. The villagers on one side of the road had only been capable of seeing the black side, and the villagers on the other side had only been capable of seeing the red half. They nearly fought over the argument, until Eshu came back and cleared the mystery, teaching the villagers about how one's perspective can alter a person's perception of reality, and that one can be easily fooled." - from Wikipedia.org

Seek And You Will Find

Bordeaux ObservatoryI have been debating on Fallen & Flawed again. This time myself and a couple of other skeptics have become engrossed in a long conversation with guest poster Rob, who has shown considerable determination to answer our questions and protests, despite moving house over the past few days. I expect he is a competent juggler too.

My most recent comment became so long that I thought it worth making an entire post out of it. It’s also a theme that I’ve heard before but never directly addressed. The quote below is Rob touching on a subject of some interest to me, that of divine concealment. (Unsurprisingly we’d deviated significantly from the topic by this point).

I personally find myself not seeking Him more than Him hiding from me. Something about if you seek you will find.

I think I understand what Rob is saying. If he believes something with certainty, it must look like laziness or stubbornness on the part of non-believers not to see what seems so obvious to him. However, I think there are some problems with the claim “seek and you will find”.

Firstly, many atheists have spent a good deal of time seeking and never finding anything more than our own feelings, fellowship of others – nothing that could fairly be called “God”. That’s why we ended up atheists. A few of us have never believed nor tried to, but most have given at least one religion a go. To the believer perhaps this means they “Weren’t truly seeking”, but to me it shows that “seek and you will find” is often false.

Secondly, this kind of justification can be used for pretty much any belief system.

Imagine you’re a Sihk who is doubting their path. Perhaps the Sikh religion is an interesting idea with some worthwhile moral lessons, but also falsehoods and irrelevancies that can put unnecessary divisions between people when they disagree on points of doctrine. Another Sikh gives this advice.

“At the end of the day, Guru, Shri Guru Granth Sahib [Sikh holy book] is the door to Waheguru [God/Wonderful Teacher].”

Muslim woman at prayerWhat if you’re a Muslim who isn’t feeling Allah’s love? Maybe Allah isn’t there at all? No, apparently you’ve just got to take the time to study harder.

Say you’ve tried Buddhism, but you’re struggling with meditation and still experiencing a life of suffering.  Perhaps Buddhism is not the answer to everything? No, apparently you’re just not doing it right. Obviously it’s because you still have an incorrect understanding of your own person and have not yet eliminated the negative actions which are affecting your Karma.

You’re not trying hard enough

The same thing seems to happen with prayer. When it doesn’t work this can’t, for some reason, be counted as evidence against the chosen deity, despite what the Bible says. No, when it doesn’t work it’s not that the god simply isn’t there. It’s because you’re doing it wrong in some way. I’ve already covered why I think intercessory prayer is a ridiculous idea, so I won’t get started on that again.

Now, I’m not saying that the near-universal, “It’s your fault” response to religious failures is necessarily wrong. If there’s anything to these world views it’s perfectly possible that people are just not getting it right.

My point is that it is definitely not the only possible explanation and to suggest otherwise indicates bias.

However, it is a very convenient explanation and, as we’ve seen above, it’s a great way to justify something whenever the evidence contradicts your claim. It’s like a Joker/Get out of jail free card that religious believers of all stripes can deploy when their claims fail.

Atheism, Agnosticism, Definitions and Misunderstandings

Leprechaun with goldIt seems some things need repeating. RD Rauser at Christian Post recently demanded evidence for atheism. Despite a number of atheists taking time to explain that it doesn’t make any sense to provide evidence for something’s non-existence including some excellent analogies using leprechauns, it seems the believers on the site still didn’t get it. Disappointingly, neither did he try to provide evidence for the non-existence of leprechauns. That would’ve been good.

One thing they insisted on repeating was that atheists are making a positive claim about the non-existence of God (we’d say “gods”, actually). Apparently, unless we’re certain, we should all be calling ourselves agnostics. Not shy of telling atheists what it is they believe, paracletus commented,

“Atheism” (speaking slowing with only the slightest bit of condescension) means belief in the non-existence of God.
And, once again, if one has BELIEF in the non-existence of God, one has a belief. One does not have the NON-BELIEF in God, which is agnosticism; one has the BELIEF in the non-existence of God.
I honestly don’t care what you are, but the term means something.

Here’s how I understand the difference between atheism and agnosticism. Atheism and theism describe beliefs. Theists are people who believe in one or more gods. Atheists are people who do not believe in gods.

People in either of these groups can also be agnostic. By agnostic I mean “without knowledge”, uncertain.

Theists believe in a God, but some may not be completely certain about it. They are still theists. They believe, but they do not know. We might call them “agnostic theists”.

Likewise atheists can lack a belief in gods, yet be agnostically uncertain about that. They may have considered various forms of theism carefully and found them lacking (Explicit Atheism), or, as in the case of a new-born child, they may never have considered the possibility of gods (Implicit Atheism).

Varieties of atheismI think it’s still correct and normal to call all these people “atheists”. More specifically this is sometimes called “agnostic atheism”, “weak atheism” or “negative atheism”. Wikipedia.org provides a more thorough explanation. However, “atheist” is a shorter and simpler term which encompasses all these things. Most atheists are not philosophy geeks (despite what you might think from reading the Internet), so I can’t blame them for using the single word to describe their non-belief.

As PhillyChief pointed out, the vast majority of atheists are “weak atheists”, those who’d say, “I don’t believe in a god”. They don’t “claim knowledge of the non-existence of gods”.

I think the confusion arises when a weak atheist describes their belief by saying something like,

“There are no gods”.

At which point a theist jumps up and points at him with a retort along these lines,

“Ah-ha! You made a positive claim, provide evidence or you’re just as irrational as believers!”

Strictly speaking the theist is right. It is a positive claim. However, I think unless stated otherwise this is generally the weak atheist being lazy in their speech. The majority of atheists who say this kind of thing are not claiming 100% certainty, nor intending to make some positive truth claim.Gruffalo book

To be completely accurate, they should say,

“I do not believe there are any gods.”

But most people aren’t concerned with being completely accurate in their everyday speech, so we fall into bad habits. When I say,

“There’s no such thing as a gruffalo.”

I am expressing my fairly-confident belief, not a 100% certainty. But yes, to be completely accurate perhaps I should say,

“Based on my experience, I do not believe that gruffalos exist.”

With self-proclaimed “professional philosophers” such as paracletus around I guess I should be using the latter phrase in all cases. Presumably even if it spoils the rhyme. If I don’t then I could be asked to provide evidence for my claim about gruffalos.

Why all the fuss?

If you read the comments following RD Rauser’s post, you’ll see a great deal of effort on both sides of the debate (some 84 comments at the time of writing). When paracletus said, “I honestly don’t care what you are…” he was telling a bit of a fib. Yet, to the rest of the world the distinction is academic and I’m sure most people I know would exasperated by the amount of electronic ink being spilled over it. Why do theists care so much about the precise definition of an atheist?

I can only speculate. My guess is believers feel that agnostics can be more easily ignored; after all, they’re not sure. Meanwhile if all other atheists can be characterised as strong atheists, they bear an equal burden of proof as theists and arguably look equally irrational. Perhaps this is an unconscious “smear” tactic by believers who, on some level, know their beliefs are irrational and so insist that everyone else’s beliefs are likewise.

Atheists care about this issue in part because it is their own beliefs being discussed and their rationality questioned. I think it’s important that atheism is understood by all and not allowed to become the subject of unchallenged ridicule and demonisation. I applaud sites such as Ask The Atheists for their helping people to understand atheism better. I get the impression that RD Rauser and friends are more interested in derision than understanding.

Review: The Case For Christ

Back in January, I agreed a book-swap with US-based Christian blogger, Clark Bunch. I suggested that he read Dan Barker’s Godless and he recommended Lee Strobel’s The Case For Christ.

So I’ve read The Case For Christ, although it’s taken me quite a while as I was distracted by other books and spent some time reading up on certain points, not least from Earl Doherty’s cross-examination, “Challenging the Verdict”. Clark and I have already had some discussion of Lee Strobel’s book, but as far as I know he hasn’t yet got around to reading Godless. I’ve sent him another email reminder when I published this post, so hopefully he’ll respond.

Strobel is a journalist and accomplished writer. The Case For Christ has a narrative, rather than academic style, which no doubt adds to its accessibility. Each chapter begins with an anecdote, presumably from his journalistic coverage of criminal trials and investigations, to illustrate the point of the chapter. These introductions set the scene and certainly make the book more readable. Next follows the introduction of the interviewee, a page or two listing their qualifications, publications and academic posts, that kind of thing. All very impressive-sounding, but the author is also keen on including little details about their appearance, the photos in their office and so on, to turn these scholars into fully-rounded characters. I said it was a narrative style. Presumably this is to build the reader’s trust and establish the credibility of the interviewees. I’m sure many readers love it, but at least a third of the book is not making the case for Christ and the curious skeptic in me is yelling, “Get on with it!”.

When we get to the meat of the arguments, Strobel and his interviewees consider the various kinds of evidence for Jesus in keeping with the courtroom trial theme. I’m no expert on these matters so I can only comment on what has been included, not what has been left out. To be fair, skeptical objections and ideas from groups such as the Jesus Seminar are also considered, but never too deeply. There is always a quick and confident reassurance provided that these arguments don’t amount to much nor cast any doubt on the historicity of Jesus. However, I think this approach sometimes backfires. For example, when considering the Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus who allegedly referred to Jesus in his writing, Edwin Yamauchi admits that there are phrases unlikely to have been written by a Jewish historian and that these are likely to be “interpolations” by Christian copyists [Specifically that Jesus was more than human, that Jesus "was The Christ" and that Jesus was resurrected]. The final reassurance is less than convincing,

“What’s the bottom line?”
“That the passage in Josephus was probably originally written about Jesus, although without those three points I mentioned. But even so, Josephus corroborates important information about Jesus: that he was the martyred leader of the church in Jerusalem and that he was a wise teacher who had established a wide and lasting following, despite the fact that he had been crucified under Pilate at the instigation of some of the Jewish leaders.”

Now for me this section only casts more doubt on the historicity of Jesus. At the very least the writing of Josephus has had convenient insertions by Christian copyists, presumably with the intention of bolstering the case for Christ. This shows that they were not above this kind of corruption of the evidence. It makes me wonder what else may have been tactically edited by the earliest Christian copyists. Further reading in Challenging the Verdict thoroughly reviews the issue, and shows that Josephus’s “Antiquities of the Jews” arguably reads more smoothly without the quoted paragraph mentioning Jesus. The entire thing could have inserted.

Obviously there’s little certainty here, as all the evidence is so old, but Lee Strobel’s interviewees regularly take a simple passage or ambiguous Biblical cross-reference and proclaim it as very impressive evidence. Invariably this seems to be a case of reading too much into some text with a certain agenda in mind.

The main example is the reading of 1 Corinthians 15 – which speaks of Christ being raised and appearing to people – as if it refers to a physical person. Earl Doherty points out that this assumption comes from the gospels, which were written after Corinthians. He suggests that there’s no reason to suppose Paul’s use of “raised” refers to a physical resurrection.

What does all this show? At the very least it shows that there’s more complexity and uncertainty to this issue than I have the time or patience to grapple with. However, you’d never guess it from the confidence with which Lee Strobel and his carefully-chosen scholars assert their claims.

“All of the gospels and Acts evidence – incident after incident, witness after witness, detail after detail, corroboration on top of corroboration – was extremely impressive. Although I tried, I couldn’t think of any more thoroughly attested event in ancient history.”

In fact, when compared for example to the accounts of the destruction of Pompeii in 79 CE, there a great deal of tampering with the evidence, uncertain dating and insertions/interpolations in Biblical history leaving much room for doubt over what Jesus did or didn’t do.

The Case For Christ is well written and, for the most part, I am not knowledgeable enough to check out all it’s claims. However, the few places where the obvious problems are confidently swept aside reveals the unrelenting agenda to promote the authenticity of the Bible above all.

A Mormon No More

250px_mormon_spiresMy guest poster today is a friend of mine, “S” – a student from the San Francisco Bay Area. She was brought up as a Mormon but changed her beliefs in early adulthood. I found her story intriguing partly because Mormonism is unfamiliar to most of us in the UK and partly because of the parallels with stories from other belief systems.

….

“There’s a reason I’m anonymous with this posting, because there are family members I still respect who are in the religion. I’m not ready to confront them about the one thing in their lives that keeps them together. Someday.

I grew up in a Mormon family of eight in a central California town, a far cry from the stereotypical hippie land that California is made out to be. The Central Valley is about 42,000 square miles of culturally-conservative farmland. It’s called by some as the West Coast’s Bible Belt.

So as you can see, I was surrounded. I can’t blame myself for being mistaken, because it’s simply how I grew up. Though many of the Christian Central Valleyites thought Mormonism was a cult, we still shared the mindset of religion, and it was hard to give it up totally when it no longer served me.

I left the church when I was 20, and it’s hard to define what I currently believe simply because it changes from day to day. I can say that I still believe in a higher power. Whether you call it God or nature or the laws of physics, I’m not particularly picky.

It’s just easier to say what I don’t believe anymore, and I no longer believe Mormonism is the “one true church on the face of the earth,” like I thought it was.

There were the good, moral things Mormonism taught, and I credit my religious upbringing with instilling a sense of integrity and responsibility in me. But what level of deception was it worth?

I remember being at the library at my community college when I was about 18 and stumbling on a book about Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism.

I wish I remember the name of the book, but it was an objective and fair collection of first-person accounts from people who interacted with him during his lifetime in the early 1800s.

It painted an entirely different picture of the man I grew up to call a true prophet of God.

I grew up believing that when the last direct disciple of Jesus died centuries ago, God took his true church from the earth until Joseph Smith restored it in the early 1800s.

I grew up believing the Book of Mormon was a holy scripture translated through Joseph Smith by the power of God, and it contained the truth about the original inhabitants of the North Americas and how Jesus visited them shortly after his crucifixion.

This book I found at the library told me that Joseph Smith was just a guy who thought some crazy things and was able to convince a lot of people that these crazy things were true.

I can’t believe I never saw him in that light before. I never thought it was weird that a 22-year-old man in 1827 could translate by the power of God some lost ancient script written in gold plates.

I mean, it’s GOD. He can do anything.

Right?

I saw this book, its references, its research, and knew it was more accurate than anything within my Mormon framework could tell me.

I later picked up a book called Conversations with God, a new-agey tome that had me hooked. It emphasized free thought and creative expression as what God really seeks, not man-made structures and controlling dogmas.

250px_LOGAN_TempleThough I no longer agree with many of that book’s claims – namely that we are each the center of the Universe – reading it was still pivotal for me. The book showed me another way to believe in God without having someone else’s laundry list of doctrines to follow.

It took me until I was 20 to finally confess to my parents how I felt, and I risked being disowned like other Mormon children who have become “rebellious” or “apostates.”

Luckily, my parents didn’t disown me, or my three other siblings who each left the church on their own.

Because just two years after I made my announcement to them, my parents made their announcement to all of us that they were leaving the church too.

This is practically unheard of in my Mormon community. Kids leave the church all the time, but entire families leaving the faith is a big deal. I know it happens, thanks to the Internet, but I haven’t heard it happen in my area before or since.

Today only one of my sisters remains in the church, as well as my cousin and her six children.

I don’t talk about religion much with any of them. I simply don’t know where many of them stand, and I don’t much feel like bringing up old complicated pains.

It’s just so difficult to realize that what you’ve been told all your life was no longer necessarily true.

I grew up believing that you couldn’t obtain the highest of highs in heaven unless you were married in the temple, and you could only enter the temple if you were a faithful Mormon and passed the interview with your local bishop.

I grew up believing that people existed as spirits in heaven before birth and wanted to come to earth, and that denying them that opportunity was the most selfish thing imaginable. (This is why Mormons have such big families.)

I grew up not only believing, but KNOWING – as it is encouraged in the Mormon culture – that Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God, that the Book of Mormon was the word of God, and that Jesus Christ was the Son of God.

And we would all be encouraged to repeat these truths to each other once a month during “testimony meeting,” where members of the congregation are invited to speak at the pulpit as the spirit moved them and share all the things they “know.”

It was sort of an open mic, except the scripts never deviated from the pre-approved Mormon ideals.

Kids learned they would earn their parents’ love and other social brownie points if they rushed the stage and rattled off the typical basic script: “I like to bear my testimony that I know this church is true, I know Joseph Smith is a true prophet and I love my mom and dad and IsaythisinthenameofJesusChristAMEN.”

You have to marvel at the invisible social controls in Mormonism. In my 20 years as a Mormon, I never recalled anyone using testimony meetings to openly question what was being taught.

When I was 20, I seriously considered doing it myself.

I wanted to ask them why any sort of loving, omniscient, all-understanding God would require some bizarre temple ceremony to find the secret password to the highest of heavens.

Or if they knew how Joseph Smith had three distinctly different versions of his first meeting with God – the “First Vision,” as it’s called. They don’t tell you that in Sunday School.

Nor do they tell you much about the early church’s polygamist practices. Any time someone would ask about it, the teacher would somehow avoid the answer or say “now is not the appropriate time to talk about that.”

Same thing with blacks not holding the priesthood until 1978.

They never mention the Mountain Meadows Massacre in 1857 either. Google that one for kicks.

I have half a mind to return to a testimony meeting and inform them of all the things the church leaders fail to tell their members about their own faith.

Now that I think about it, there wasn’t anything in my old congregation that would stop a random stranger from giving their “testimony” either. A former Mormon, an atheist, even a disagreeing Christian, could probably have everyone’s undivided attention on the first Sunday of every month.

london_mormon_templeAll they’d have to do is show up dressed in their Sunday best, pretend they are simply curious about the church (because if it’s a close-knit congregation, a new face will not go unnoticed), and when the time comes during the meeting, they would take to the stand and say their piece.

If they sounded Mormonly enough, they’d probably be able to hog the microphone for the rest of the meeting.

If it sounded too deliberately non-Mormon, they would probably be escorted out of the building in the middle of their “testimony,” but what they say could change someone’s mind.

Will I ever have the courage to do this? I don’t know. It’s possible, it’s nice to think about, but to be completely honest, it will be difficult for me to stomach another Mormon service. There are too many people who need a wake-up call, and it deeply saddens me to know I won’t be able to change everyone’s mind.

But I know it’s not futile. I could change one person’s mind. I just don’t know if I can face all the old anger, disappointment and resentment again.

The past is past, and for now that’s where it belongs for me. I have to save myself first. Then I can think seriously about being brave and confronting the faithful with truth.”

Many thanks S, for taking the time to share your story with us.

I hope you one day feel able to confront Mormons about their beliefs, although I appreciate it would be an emotional undertaking. I’m coming to the conclusion that people often do more to change other people’s minds by their actions, such as your leaving of the Mormon church, than with words and arguments. I wonder if your parents’ decision to leave the Mormon church was influenced by your own?

Regulation Of Herbal Medicine

sassafras170In the UK there has been a drive to add medical herbalists to the growing list of health practitioners subject to statutory regulation (SR).  In fact this is government legislation we’re talking about, so the drive has been going on for over ten years. The stated motivation is, as usual, to ensure public safety.

However, many herbalists are fuming over the recent proposals. They claim that this regulation will take herbal medicine away from ordinary people whilst doing nothing to improve safety. They’ve even organised a rally in London and an online petition.

I’m in two minds about this. On the one hand, there is the rallying herbalists’ tendency to spell traditional with a capital T and employ the attendant fallacies of “traditional” or “natural” things being automatically better. On the other hand, some of their concerns may be valid.

Health risk mitigation

In particular, in their response to government consultation (PDF see questions 1 and 2), they question what risks there are to the public that SR would mitigate.

In fact, they are unwilling even to acknowledge any harm from traditional herbal medicine (they like to stress the traditional bit). And yes, some of the cases of harm have been outside of existing laws or regulatory advice, so presumably, by their definition, not traditional.

As far as we are aware, there is not any evidence of harm to the public. Replies received from the MHRA [Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency] and DH [Department of Health], our combined clinical experiences and research that we have undertaken cannot point to any evidence of harm. There has possibly been the odd one or two who have broken current laws.

However, a little more digging shows there is evidence of harm to the public as a result of herbal remedies. Here’s one example from the MCA report on the safety of herbal medicinal products (PDF).

In 1996, the UK the MCA extended its ‘Yellow Card Scheme’ to include reporting of suspected adverse reactions to unlicensed herbal products. This followed a report from Guy’s Hospital Toxicology Unit on potentially serious adverse reactions associated with herbal remedies. Twenty-one cases of liver toxicity, including two deaths, were associated with the use of TCM [Traditional Chinese Medicine].

Some of the more extreme and newsworthy examples of harm caused by herbal medicine from around the world are listed on the What’s The Harm website’s herbal medicine section which makes for grim reading.

So, there certainly are risks involved with herbal medicines, whether it’s the traditional use of heavy metals in traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic remedies, traditional plants with toxic constituents, allergic reactions or the interactions of herbal medicine with conventional medicine. That and the traditional risk of being ineffective (more on that later).

However, what is unclear is whether the proposed regulation would do any good.

SaveOurHerbs also state (PDF) that they are not aware of any research on whether SR lessens harm, so instead they list their perceived disadvantages with SR. Here’s a sample:

Loss of traditional philosophies and diversity of practice due to orthodox standards in education, science and CPD.

Diversity of practice? Isn’t that a bad thing? Surely if there’s a right way to do something, then everyone should be doing it that way. Are they suggesting that all methods of treatment are equally valid?

State regulation will be extremely and unnecessarily expensive to the tax payer, as are all these repetitive committees, reports and consultations.

OK, I’m sure legislation and regulation would cost the taxpayer, but even this has to be weighed against the possible benefits.

The state regulatory body will be based on a system whereby the majority of board members will be from professions who do not share the same philosophies or training and will be biased towards orthodox standards and philosophies that may be inappropriate, restrictive and damaging.

hbst200This seems to be a case of needing special rules for herbal medicine in order for it to be seen as safe and effective.  Without a recognised framework to sort the safe, effective treatments from the ineffective or dangerous, researchers are stumbling in the dark, not learning or discovering but guessing. Unfortunately guessing leads to bad decisions and lost lives.  Any treatment should be able to undergo testing for efficacy and it is irresponsible to try to circumvent this.

Statutory regulation

I can’t claim to have read all the consultation papers in detail, but I did gather that SR would mean practitioners will have to be suitably qualified and able to show certain competencies in order to maintain their regulated status. These competencies (PDF, page 44) include such good things as knowing their limits and referring patients appropriately when a case is beyond their expertise. While this all sounds nice, I’m far from convinced that it would be effective in practice.  It’s only slightly better than a code of practice that says practitioners must dress smartly and have a degree.

Government regulation of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) has not exactly got a glowing record of separating the safe, effective practices from the rest. The Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council CNHC (aka OffQuack) set up to “regulate” alternative therapies seem to be uncertain as to whether they are regulating or promoting CAM. As Matt Robbins of The Lay Scientist points out:

…this blatant conflict of interest is enshrined in their mission statement:

“CNHC’s mission is to support the use of complementary and natural healthcare as a uniquely positive, safe and effective experience”

Uniquely positive? Uniquely effective? How on Earth can they make such claims when they can provide nothing in the way of evidence to back it up? And why on Earth is a government sponsored regulator behaving like a bunch of lobbyists in making these claims in the first place? How can the body responsible for regulating therapists also be allowed to promote them? Again, if a pharamaceutical regulatory body behaved in this way, alternative medicine advocates would (rightly) be up in arms about it! It is utterly scandalous.

The government seems quite happy to gloss over this issue. In response to a petition demanding basic efficacy and safety requirements of all CNHC registered practitioners, they replied:

The Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC) does not promote the efficacy of disciplines practised by its registrants.  The aim of the CNHC is protection of the public. Registration means that the practitioner has met certain entry standards (in terms of having an accredited qualification or relevant experience) and that they subscribe to a set of professional standards…

That’s not enough. I think all healthcare providers, whether registered and professional or not, have a responsibility to ensure their treatments are effective. Anecdotes and personal testimonies, for example, would not be sufficient to prove conventional medicines and they’re not sufficient for alternative therapies either.

Incidentally, many herbalists are already voluntarily regulated, the way many professions are, by an independent governing body for that purpose. In this case the National Institute of Medical Herbalists (NIMH). Disappointingly, the NIMH don’t appear to be regulating in the much-needed sense either.

“The Institute promotes the benefits, the efficacy and safe use of herbal medicine.”

Interesting that – “promotes”. Not “regulates”, not “ensures”, not even the legally arse-covering, “strives to ensure”. No, what they do is promotion.

Safety and efficacy

hbengl200Safety and efficacy are not unreasonable things to insist upon. They seems to me to be the most basic requirements of a medicine. Safety is enshrined in the Hippocratic Oath – “First,  do no harm”. Safety and efficacy are intrinsically linked; if a treatment is ineffective, that puts the patient at risk. A patient taking an ineffective alternative treatment is more likely to forego conventional evidence-based medicine. Even when the alternative therapy itself doesn’t directly injure the patient, avoiding an effective treatment can be fatal. I don’t think I’m exaggerating. Consider the distressing case of baby Gloria Thomas.

In the last months of her life, baby Gloria Thomas suffered such terrible eczema her skin would weep and peel, sticking to her clothing when she was changed.

Despite her bleeding, crying and malnutrition, her mother and homeopath father failed to get conventional medical help before she died a painful death, a Sydney jury has been told.

Note, I’m not trying to conflate the different practices of herbal medicine and homoeopathy, just to show that serious harm can occur indirectly even when harmless treatments such as water drop or sugar pills prescribed by homoeopaths are used. It seems any treatment which discourages the use of evidence-based medicines could have these kind of effects. Prayer is another example.

So, I think the herbalist campaigners are right to be suspicious of statutory regulation, but for the wrong reasons. I suspect deep down they are concerned that SR might one day be used to demand efficacy of their treatments. Conversely, I am unconvinced about SR because it doesn’t (yet) demand efficacy.

[BPSDB]

Alpha Course Poll Forces Voters Hands

alph_course_pollBy now it’s old news that the UK’s Alpha Course ran a poll asking visitors whether “God” exists, by which they presumably mean their god. It’s also been well reported that atheists got wind of the poll and surfed over in large numbers to vote “No”. It’s not the only Christian Internet campaign to fall on its face recently.

All this is amusing, but doesn’t really tell us much. It certainly doesn’t say anything about the existence or not of any god and it’s only representative of the people who happened to visit their website. I think the BHA took it far too seriously when they responded by saying,

That this poll has revealed such a high number of non-believers, and such a tiny proportion of those who do believe in a god, is really no surprise. This poll only supports what we know already – that most people either do not believe in god or that they simply do not think about the question because it is not relevant to their lives.

The UK does have a relatively high proportion of non-believers, but in every other poll it’s more like 25-35%, not 98% – besides, votes on this poll were not limited to the UK. We might be better off drawing the conclusion that there are a lot of motivated atheists on the Internet who are up for a prank.

Question Phrasing

What I think is worth investigating is the way the question – and in particular the answers – were phrased. It seems to be a clever piece of marketing.

These ads are up on billboards all over the place, but I first saw this ad on a poster outside a church. My reaction was, “Where’s Probably not?”. Or even Maybe, or I don’t know or the Igtheist position, What do you mean by “God”?. I wasn’t expecting them to have the equivalent of the 7-level Dawkins Scale of Belief, but a few more options would’ve been nice. As it stands, the poll only allows for Certain Theists, Agnostic Theists and Strong Atheists. The results aren’t going to be very representative.

dsb-example_dark

I wondered about this for a while, before slapping myself on the head in realisation. Of course, that’s not the point! The Alpha people were not trying to prove anything with their poll. The results were always intended to be meaningless. They were probably only trying to generate debate around a subject that, in the UK at least, is becoming irrelevant and uninteresting to many people.

Furthermore, I suspect that limiting the options is a tactical choice.

Those who vote Yes or Probably might be persuaded that, having admitted it, they shouldn’t stop there, but take the course and be led into the Alpha brand of Christianity. The rest are left only with the No choice – Strong Atheism – 7 on the scale above. It’s about as far towards the other end of the scale as you can get. A bold position that, in practice few atheists hold. Richard Dawkins, for example, says he’s at 6. The idea being to include an atheistic position that as few people as possible will completely agree with. This presumably in the hope that more people will end up in the Yes/Probably category of potential Alpha delegates. The poll is, after all, advertising and intended to get more people onto the course.

Plus, it helps them to label atheists and agnostics as ridiculous extremists.

Imagine a fiercely nationalistic group asking in a survey, “What should we do about immigrants?” and only providing the options: “Confine them to forced labour camps”, “Send them all home”, or “Give them each a free house and abandon all border controls”. Where is the reasonable, liberal option? Ordinary people answering such a poll would be forced into an extreme position that doesn’t properly represent them. A position which can be ridiculed.

So I expect the non-theists who made up the 98% of voters on the Alpha poll will be labelled by some as “extreme” or “fundamentalist”. However, strong atheists are pretty rare. Few people feel they can actually prove the non-existence of all kinds of deity, especially if we’re talking about the vague and woolly non-interventionist kind.

But rather than go into the philsophical subtleties, it’s simpler to say, “There are no god(s)” or just vote “No”.

Irrational Beliefs As Blind Spots

I’d like to make something clear. I don’t think that religious believers or superstitious people are stupid. Far from it. In fact, contrary to what believers may feel, most atheists don’t think that religious people are stupid. They just think that they’re wrong about one particular thing.

Part of the reason this blog exists is my curiosity with the fact that intelligent people sometimes believe weird things. Intelligence doesn’t seem to be any guarantee that a person will be free of irrational beliefs.

elvis-glassesI’ve debated with people who believe a variety of apparently irrational things, from palmistry to faith healing. By and large the people I disagree with are not stupid, they’re usually pretty intelligent. I’ve even worked with people whom I’d judge to be more technically proficient than myself, only to be shocked to discover that they’re creationists who believe that dinosaurs and humans coexisted. It’s rather a staggering revelation, as if they’d suggested that Elvis was still alive or that photographed orbs were really spirits.

It seems this kind of weird belief coupled with intelligence is not unusual. I’m sure there are many more examples, but two spring to mind. Isaac Newton, one of the brightest minds in the history of science, spent less than half his time on the physics for which we remember him, the remainder of his efforts being devoted to Biblical study and alchemy. In more recent times, Larry Wall, the inventor of the programming language Perl, is reputed to be highly religious.

[As an aside, Rules 1 & 2 describing how Perl development takes place have an uncanny religious undertone, in my opinion.]

All of which makes me wonder – are these people not as smart as they seem, or are they right in their weird beliefs?  Is it me who is lacking something between the ears?

In considering why even intelligent people believe weird things, Michael Shermer concludes,

Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.

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I suspect he’s right about that, but it raises further questions. Such as why smart people are taken in by “non-smart reasons” in the first place?

After Googling this subject it seems I may have missed the point. Intelligence is thought to be independent of rationality. Intelligent people can be irrational or not, likewise the less intelligent. For example, Kurt Kleiner examines Professor Keith Stanovich’s take on rationality and intelligence:

“[Stanovich] proposes a whole range of cognitive abilities and dispositions independent of intelligence that have at least as much to do with whether we think and behave rationally. In other words, you can be intelligent without being rational. And you can be a rational thinker without being especially intelligent.”

I’ve long thought that there are many functions of the brain which are outside of the traditional definition of intelligence. Physical co-ordination, the ability to understand and reproduce melodies and rhythms, social skills, observation skills, emotional control, personal motivation and probably many more. I don’t want to get into whether or not we should broaden the definition of intelligence to include these things. What I take from this is that rationality appears to be yet another aspect of the brain’s unrecognised work.

Pirate_eyepatch180I’m reminded of a guy I knew at school who was usually top of the class in all subjects. Certainly he was a gifted scientist and quite competent with languages. Anyone would’ve said the guy had a good brain. What was surprising was watching him try to play tennis. He could barely hit the ball – even when it was thrown slowly towards him. Apart from making the rest of us feel better about our mediocre academics, this shows how people with generally highly effective brains can have blind spots in their mental abilities. Similarly, other people might be tone-deaf , socially awkward or like me, slow with numbers. In the more obvious and severe cases these “blind spots” are diagnosed and given names such as Dyslexia or Asperger syndrome, but the gaps in people’s abilities are no less real for the lack of scientific names.

As you’ve probably guessed, I think that irrational beliefs such as religion, superstition or pseudoscience can be considered blind spots in a person’s thinking in the same way that having “two left feet” or never getting the joke can be. These things are independent of intelligence as it is usually defined.

I guess the next question is whether these blind spots are innate or something that can be developed or reduced. Some of us are probably innately more rational than others, automatically looking for all possible explanations. And perhaps certain irrational ideas are accepted at such a young age that they’re not given much critical thought. Nevertheless, critical thinking is something which can be improved with practice, so there’s still hope for those of us who don’t naturally think of all the alternatives.

I faired only slightly better than average on rationality tests recently, so it’s something I plan to work on.

Category Reorganisation

Just a quick post to say that I’ve reorganised my categories so that they indicate the reason for the post or the approach I’m taking in writing it, rather than the subject matter. Gone are categories like “pseudo-science” and “Mainstream religion” to be replaced with seven others, including “Thinking”, “Debating”, “Reading”.

For a brief explanation of what each category means, check out the archives page (see the link, top right). For those who are interested in posts on a particular subject, the archives page also has a tag cloud.

Free Kareem Amer

I’ve never done this sort of thing before, but I’ve just written to Mohammad Hosni Mubarak – President of the Arab Republic of Egypt. Ebonmuse of Daylight Atheism recently highlighted his imprisonment for his blogging which was critical of the government. This is what I wrote:

I’m writing to you in the hope that you will ensure the release of the blogger Kareem Amer. His detention is of great concern to people internationally who value the freedom of expression.

Attempts to silence criticism by force imply that a government is fearful or corrupt. Such authoritarian actions encourage further criticism, both nationally and internationally.

Your decision to free Kareem Amer would grant you and your country a new respect from people from all over the world.

I hope you will consider this carefully and act wisely.
Sincerely,
Eshu

WHW_Terrier170The front of the card I sent had a picture of a West Highland White Terrier, which I feel has got to melt anyone’s heart.

Obviously I have no idea if he’ll ever read it, or if it will have any effect, but it is very little effort on my part, so I’m willing to give it a go. Amnesty International who are campaigning for Kareem Amer’s release assure us that “Personalised messages are more effective.”, perhaps because they are harder to ignore than bulk facsimiles.

New “Conservative” Translation Of The Bible

http://conservapedia.com/Conservative_BibleApparently the Bible is not conservative enough for some people.

The folks who brought us Conservapedia – the alternative online encyclopaedia free from all that pesky liberal bias and concern for what’s actually true – have started a new project. It’s the imaginatively-titled Conservative Bible. Presumably Deutronomy 13 wasn’t conservative enough for them.

In reaction liberal Christians and some more knowledgeable atheists have been enthusiastically quoting all those “Don’t change the Bible” verses. One favourite being:

“You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you.” – Deuteronomy 4:2

The many comments in response to WorldMag.com’s article on the new translation are along the same lines: “Leave the Bible alone”.

No doubt the conservatives behind this project will argue that theirs is the more accurate translation, while liberals have, over the years, polluted the original meaning of the Bible.

They’re not the first and will probably not be the last. For example, the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures, translated and authorised by the Jehovah’s Witnesses includes some subtle but important changes. When I spoke to them last year, the JWs played down the differences and claimed it was just a slightly more accurate translation. Here are a couple of examples – what do you think?

In the KJV of the Bible, 1 Chronicles 16:30 reads:

Fear before him, all the earth: the world also shall be stable, that it be not moved.

While the same verse in the New World Translation favoured by Jehovah’s Witnesses reads:

Be in severe pains on account of him, all YOU people of the earth! Also the productive land is firmly established: Never will it be made to totter.

It looks like the NWT was translated with an intention of making the Bible say what they’d like it to say. In the first case, the original KJV translation “stable… not moved” is clearly at odds with modern science which tells us that the Earth not only rotates on its axis once every 24 hours, but orbits the sun once a year. The NWT tries to hide this glaring inaccuracy by translating the Hebrew to “productive land” rather than “earth”.

In the KJV Isaiah 45:7 reads:

I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things.

Which the NWT translates as:

Forming light and creating darkness, making peace and creating calamity, I, Jehovah am doing all these things.

Again, the idea of God creating evil is completely at odds with other parts of the Bible and subsequent theology which describes him as good in every way.  I’ve even heard that “god” and “good” have similar etymological roots. The NWT use the alternative translation of “calamity”, which is still not exactly benevolent, but not quite as clear cut as “evil”. Ebonmuse discusses this discord in detail as part of his Little Known Bible Verses series.

I’m not claiming to know what the original authors of the Bible really intended. But whatever the truth about these kinds of claims there’s a danger inherent in any kind of investigation, be it scientific or linguistic which aims to “discover” a particular, predetermined outcome, rather than work out what is true. It’s a kind of wishful thinking. I can imagine Conservapedia translators saying, “We’d like the Bible to be more conservative, so when we re-translate it, we’ll make sure that is what we find!”.