Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Free Speech

Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s autobiography Infidel is a very powerful book. Her life and experiences as a young Muslim woman and later move towards atheism is inspirational and disturbing in equal measure. I would recommend this book to anyone as it gives a unique insight into the mindset of the Somali people, tied or opposed to each other by clan affiliation as well as religious and political ideologies. Every chapter is scary and revealing, with women suffering under strict social conventions all drawn from religious justifications and yet an inspirational story when seen as a personal liberation from that oppressive life. The only problem I had with the book, however,  was dealing with how angry and frustrated I got whenever I sat down to read it. Not wanting to give away too much, the book is an autobiography leading up to Ayaans eventual entry into politics and political office. From there she fights and speaks out against the injustices of Islam, particularly those visited upon the women in refugee communities in the Netherlands. The book opens with an account of the murder of her colleague, Theo Van Gogh, by a zealous Muslim in response to him releasing a film with her that criticised Islam. The account of the fallout of that film is genuinely scary and Theo’s death is only the beginning. What this story represents to me is how important free speech is to society and how much of a threat Islam represents to that right.

ayaan-hirsi-ali-wi-0207-medium-new

As I read, I saw parallels with the Dutch culture of Ayaan’s book and the current climate here in Ireland. We are becoming a more and more multicultural island every day and with that, cultures and practices from all over the world are being introduced to Irish society. I welcome this completely and think it’s an exposure that Ireland has been too long without. The risk for us is only that we don’t do enough to support this integration and that a sense of alienation might fester and force minority groups to associate only within their own culture. This is a situation which can lead to a lot of social unrest and at the minimum can prevent a means of dialogue between cultural groups. Last year there was a march on O’Connell street in Dublin in opposition to blasphemous material on YouTube  It was a call for the suppression of ideas and it was, as is usually the case, driven by religious justification. We already have a widely mocked blasphemy law in this country and despite its lack of enforcement we don’t need to be fighting this battle on yet another ground. The cultural isolation of groups who support the protest will only make it harder for us to convince them and oppose their efforts. Then there is the matter of us being able to prevent injustices within those societies especially when it comes to the rights of women, homosexuals and just people with sense enough to see that their faith is drawn from the plagarised rantings of a man who most likely just had epileptic fits in the desert and who we now can’t draw pictures of.

I would bet money that a lot of people will argue that these immigrants are entitled to continue the traditions of their homelands and I definitely agree. I think certainly as much effort should be spent introducing us to their customs as is spent acclimatising them to ours.  However, this can only happen when people understand that  those traditions can’t impose on the principles of the country they are now living in. I’m sure that some people will accuse me of Islamaphobia also, which when googled will return the definition ‘Irrational fear of all Muslims’ but that is not the case. The truth is I am afraid of Islam itself and with good reason. I am afraid, because even Islam’s claimed message of peace is delivered at a knife end. Accept us as peaceful and benevolent, or else. I also fear the capitulation of governments and the accommodation of Islam beliefs within our societies especially with regard to the barbaric Sharia Law. Respecting a religion’s right to be practiced and deciding when that practice infringes on the rights of the individual is dangerous political ground but nonetheless the decision is obvious. My opinion on the rights of women or the legitimacy of homosexual lifestyles for example should have no impact on how they are treated with respect to everyone else and no one should be allowed to step outside the law and impose their own judgements on others. We must fight for everyone’s rights to be exactly the same as our own. Despite it being obviously morally wrong, to do otherwise would be to invite infringement on my own rights by setting a precedent whereby this is seen as acceptable. The right to religion and religious expression and the right to freedom of opinion and free speech are one and the same.  They should be fought for equally but never at the expense of the other.

It’s important to note that I know that not all and in fact the majority of Muslims are opposed to Sharia with respect to the more extreme practices but they give support to those who do follow them by saying that Islam is the truth and is the final revelation.  In a world where tolerance for other religious ideologies is regularly called for, you only have to look to the recent case (here:  http://www.independent.ie/world-news/asia-pacific/teenage-rape-victim-sentenced-to-100-lashes-in-maldives-29165507.html) of the girl in the Maldives sentenced to one hundred lashes for the crime of engaging in premarital sex to see that tolerance is not always an option and that outright condemnation is needed. The sentencing in this horrible story is made even worse when you find out the sexual act was discovered while she was being questioned by the police about being raped by her stepfather. The stepfather also allegedly killed an infant child that the girl had conceived as a result of the rapes. This is an account from a supposed modern day culture that regularly has visitors from Irish and other Western countries and this is not reflective of the view most people have of the Maldives. Just because it isn’t obvious doesn’t mean it’s not there though and complacency is a crime in itself when it means the suffering of innocent people at the hands of religious zealots, especially when they are the people charged with protecting you.

Whether it’s holidaying in the Maldives or welcoming new peoples to setup lives in Ireland, we have a responsibility. If we live alongside these cultures, by ignoring the injustices they promote or merely being ignorant of them, we lend tacit approval to them. From the shadows these beliefs and practices inevitably rear their ugly heads and we have an obligation, not to react but to preemptively condemn them. The teachings of Islam are in direct opposition to the values of free speech and the rights of the individual, especially the women who are born into these societies. Public awareness and understanding about the religiously driven foundations of these beliefs is the best mechanism by which we can educate ourselves and fight against its influence and the inevitable influence its will demand to have on the basis of equality and religious tolerance. You have the right to hold any belief you choose as long as that belief doesn’t infringe on my rights. For that you need justification outside of a faith and more than a poorly founded understanding of morality drawn from ancient texts. I can criticise you and you can disagree and fight me on it but you cannot hold a knife to my throat and say that me voicing my opinions is justification for that violence. No reasonable and correct view would require that kind of coercion and I won’t respect any that uses it.

Holistic Therapies: Access Bars

This week is Access Bars, which I happen to find at random one day when I first discovered the directory and I was taken aback by how ridiculous it sounded and amazed that it could ever be taken seriously by any thinking person. Access Bars is the brain child of a man named Gary Douglas who can be found on his site grinning back at you with the intellectually secure, knowing look of the ‘guru’.  The website also has the inevitable links to testimonials that always accompany pseudo scientific crap that has either been disproven by scientific testing or is non-falsifiable. These tales, as a lot of skeptics know, unfortunately speak more to people’s daily lives than the cold facts associated with evidence based reasoning and are more convincing as a result. Despite the number of these testimonials and the fact that they come from people probably convinced of their truth, we all know that the plural of anecdote is not evidence.

 

Mr Douglas – humble black and white photo with

a disarming and knowing head tilt? Sign me up!!!

The core concept behind Access bars is the idea that there are “32 points on your head which, when gently touched, effortlessly and easily release anything that doesn’t allow you to receive? These points contain all the thoughts, ideas, beliefs, emotions, and considerations you have stored in any lifetime. This is an opportunity for you to let go of everything!” Activating these bars, it is claimed, will allow energy to flow and open new possibilities for self improvement and the site poses you the question – “As there are Bars for every aspect of your life do you think its possible that you could clear limitations relating to money, healing, body, control, awareness, creativity, communication, hopes and dreams, sadness and joy, aging and money?” (On a personal note, I love the fact that they mention money at the start of the list and at the end of it too. It gives me a warm feeling inside. Also, AGING?) The neurological literature behind these claims is unfortunately not linked to but I would be happy to give it a layman’s look over if somebody can provide it, although I doubt people will consider me cynical if I were to suspect that it doesn’t exist.

Something that concerns me about the majority of sites that are selling the benefits of Access Bars, that I looked at during my research, is that there was a surprising amount of preamble that you had to get through to find out these core beliefs. You are seduced with promises of life affirming changes and great developments using the all too familiar sales pitch of alternative therapies that could easily be whittled down to something similar to “Are you a person? Do bad things happen that you don’t like and want to fix? Have previous attempts at fixing these problems been bad? Well we have the solution”. (NOTE: the previous sentence is to be read in the tone of a QVC shopping channel presenter). The site was one of the more transparent sites I found and it begins on its home page with the promising line Aren’t you just a little curious what Access is all about? and (wait for the sarcasm) follows it up with some informative, beautifully constructed and easily intelligible sentences such as Access consciousness is about empowering you to know what YOU know. So that YOU have the life YOU truly desire. What if you’re the creator of your life? And if you’re the creator, you can change any part of it?”. The details of what ‘Access Bars’ are, however, isn’t addressed on this page so you move on to ‘The Bars’, a section on the site which gives you the lowdown on the 32 Bars and provides you with a helpful graph:

 

Reading more of the details on the site left me scratching my head between the bars for ‘creating life forms’ and ‘money’ (which surprisingly didn’t result in any Leprechauns. Go figure?), and ruminating on a final couple of sentences I read. “At worst you feel like you have just had the best massage of your life. At best your whole life can change into something greater with total ease” and “And if you’re a healer or practitioner of any kind, how excited would your clients be if you were to add this to your list of service?”

The first sentence could apply to a lot of alternative therapies that usually involve a hands on approach (unlike Reiki for instance) but it was the last sentence that I dwelt on most of all. These sites are selling to an audience, not only of prospective customers of ‘Access Consciousness’ but also practitioners who want to add to their repertoire of alternative treatments. AccessBars.ie has a course advertised where you can, for an investment of 160 (80 for repeats), be guided through the first steps of Access consciousness. I can only assume this is 160 euros as it’s not actually stated on the site but it could be space hugs for all I know and I’m reluctant to assume anything when dealing with people so divorced from reality. Likewise the access consciousness site itself has a page () with details on how to become an access facilitator for the currency specific amount of $100 which is to be paid on an annual basis so that you can keep your ‘license’. Access facilitators appear, at least from my interpretation, to be a self regulated group. I suppose doing essentially nothing, for money, could hardly be seen as harmful outside of the financial costs incurred by the credulous but it is this approach that lends a false legitimacy to innumerable forms of quackery and helps them to present themselves as something other than fantasy bullshit. Access Bars appears to just be another form of magical thinking that if believed by its proponents has no real effect outside of head massage. For those practitioners who don’t believe in its claims, it is just a well packaged, self regulating school of crap that you can practice with all the bells and whistles of accreditation for an annual fee and a suppression of your moral instincts.

My New Project: The Irish Holistic Directory

My Blog posts have fallen off as of recently and I think the main reason is that I don’t have a project to tackle. In my previous posts I have taken a look at some of the pet peeves, like my annoyance at  gurus like Eckhart Tolle or frauds like Sally Morgan, that I have and  tried to stay topical but I don’t think that’s really what people are interested in. So I came up with a solution. I am going to try and pick apart the Directory for Holistic Practitioners and the therapies they have up on their site. Here is the list as it appeared on their site at the time of this post:

5 Rhythms Dancing

Abundance

Access Bars

Accredited Supervisor

ACT (Acceptance and CommittTherapy)

Active Birth

Acupressure

Acupuncture

Acupuncture Supplies

Addiction Counselling

Alexander Technique

Allergy Testing

Amatsu

Angel Card Reading

Angel Healing

Angel Readings

Angel Shop

Angel Workshops

Animal Healing

Animal Kinesiology

Aromatherapy

Aromatherapy and Healing Massage

Art Therapy

Artists Way Workshops

Assertiveness Training

Astrology

Aura Imagery

Aura Photography

Aura Soma

Autogenic Training

Ayurveda

Baby Massage1

Baby Sign Language

Bach Flower and Bush Remedies

Beauty Therapy

Bi-aura

Bio-Energy/Healing

Biodynamic Massage

Biodynamic Psychotherapy

Biofeedback1

Body Harmony1

BodyTalk System

Bootcamp classes

Bowen Technique

Brainwave Optimization

Brennan Healing Science

Bush Flower Essences

Career Evaluation

CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy)

Chakras

Chi Kung

Chiropractic

Coaching

Colonic Irrigation

Cosmetic Acupuncture

Counselling

Cranio-sacral

Creative Dance

Crystals

Cupping

Cutting the Ties

Dance

Dance Movement Therapy

Deep Tissue Massage

Divining

Divining for Water

Dorn Method

Dowsing

Dream Interpretation

Dry Needling

Ear Candling

EFT Emotional Freedom Technique

EMDR

Emotrance

Energy Healing

Energy Pschology

Enneagram

Equine kinesiology

Equine Touch for Horses

Feldenkrais Method

Feng Shui

Fertility Treatment

Food Intolerance Testing

Geopathic Stress

Gestalt

Gift Vouchers

Hair Mineral Analysis

Hawaiian Lomi Lomi Massage

Healing

Healing Massage

Healthfood

Heavy Metal Detoxification

Herbalist

Holistic Law

Holistic Massage

Holistic Pet Products

Home Birth

Homeopathy

Hot Stone Massage

Human Givens Therapy

Human Infrastructure Healing

Hypno-Band Weight Loss System

HypnoBirthing

Hypnosis

Hypnosis for Birth

Hypnotherapy

Indian Head Massage

Infant Massage

Integrated Energy Therapy (IET)

Iridology

Kinesiology

Laser Therapy

Laser Weight loss

Law of Attraction

Life Coaching

Lomi Lomi Hawaian massage

Louise Hay

Loving Relationships Training (LRT)

Magnified Healing

Manual Lymphatic Drainage

Martial Arts

Massage Therapy

Medical Doctor

Meditation

Medium

META-Medicine

Metamorphic Technique

Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction

Mindfulness Meditation

Moxibustion

Naturopathy

NLP (NeuroLinguistic Programming)

Numerology

Nutrition

Osteopathy

Pain Management

Palmistry

Panic Attacks

Parenting

Past Life Regression

Personal Fitness

Personal Training

Physical Therapy

Physiotherapy

Phytobiophysics

Phytotherapy

Pilates

Play Therapy

Polarity Therapy

Pranic Healing

Pregnancy Massage

Prenatal Pilates

Prenatal Yoga

Primal Integration

Primal Integration Facilitation

Psych K

PSYCH K facilitator

Psychic

Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy

Psychologist

Psychotherapy

Qi gong

Quantum Touch

Raynors Massage

Rebirthing

Reconnective Healing

Reflexology

Regression Therapy

Reiki

Retreats

Rolfing

Scenar Therapy

Seichem

Sexuality Issues

Shamanism

Shen

Shiatsu

Smoking Cessation

Soul Retrieval

Sound Therapy

Spiritual Healing

Sports Massage

Stop Smoking

Stress Management

Structural Integration

Swedish Massage

Tai Chi

Tantra

Tapas Acupressure

Tarot

Thai Massage

Thai Yoga Massage

The Secret

Theta Healing

Thought Field Therapy (TFT)

Time Line Therapy

Touch For Health

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)

Transference healing

Transpersonal Psychotherapy

Tui Na Massage (Chinese Massage)

Unconditional Energy VibratiWorkshop

Weight Loss

Weight Management

Workshops

Yoga

Yoga Therapy

Zero Balancing

Zumba

 

 

 

Yes, I know it’s a LOT of bollox to put up on one site and a lots of these ‘therapies’ will probably be loafed together rather than given a whole post but I think I can eventually get through it. The idea is that I, and hopefully you, get a better understanding of the some of the crap that’s being peddled right under our noses that mightn’t get the attention that Homeopathy or Reiki get and believe me, even a brief glance at some of the magic potions on offer shows you there is no shortage of magical nonsense to throw your money at.

The plan is for a post every week tackling one or more of the therapies and each one will be chosen at random until I get through the list. I have started with Access Bars as my first post and I will post it by the end of this week. (Believe me, it’s a doosie). Any comments or feedback would be really appreciated and I mean on the posts themselves or on whether you think this is a good idea.

 Note: There are some legitimate therapies here which have the support of scientific assessment/evidence and unlike the majority of the practices they also hold a grain of plausibility too. Weight Loss and Psychotherapy are mentioned in the list and you would be at a loss to find fault in them unless you’re a feeder or a Scientologist respectively. These topics I will only touch on as they have a weight of evidence surrounding them that is hard to contest and the point of this blog is to show the crap out there and unfortunately that’s a big enough task as it stands.

Dr. Spirograph says no to Vaccines

Vaccines save countless lives every year. Whether it is the MMR vaccine, Flu shots or the Polio vaccine, people are afforded immunity to otherwise potentially dangerous diseases. This practise, backed by rigorously tested scientific principles, should really be uncontroversial and you would imagine the obvious benefits would be apparent to all, regardless of cast or creed. This unfortunately is not the case and the objections are coming from many different regions.

In the United States, there is a movement dedicated to ignoring the scientific evidence and raising ill founded concerns about the safety of the vaccine programs. These AntiVaccers are blessed with the convenience of not being subject to the facts around the efficacy and dangers of vaccines and like all well organised true believer organisations, they are usually just ignorant marketing machines. They also usually have one or more public figures that represent their fear mongering pseudoscientific nonsense.  They range from celebrities like Jenny McCarthy who, with no scientific background or training, feels free to bandy about ‘facts’ with no regard  for their truth value; to disgraced doctors like Andrew Wakefield who holds a privileged position in the movement due to his fraudulent and unethical paper and work on the MMR vaccine.

In other countries the problem stems from a very different place. The house of god also apparently takes exception to vaccination in the form of Muslim fundamentalists in countries such as Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan. You may scoff and say that to expect to have healthcare available properly in countries that are suffering through war is unfeasible, but the truth of the matter is that vaccination programs were in place and Polio was essentially on its knees. This program could have eradicated the disease and confined it to the annals of history but this western influence however was seen as a threat by the Muslim fundamentalists who, in their eyes presumably saw a threat to their privileged position of shepherd to their flock, issued fatwas denouncing vaccination. They claimed it was an American plot to impede the will of allah and that it was a means of covertly sterilising the population. Fear tactics were also employed to scare away those administrating the vaccine and this was the catalyst for Polio resurgence in those areas and its liberation from the influence of those trying to remove it.

Both of these influences, you could speculate, are driven by a similar desire but in very different ways. That drive is the need for power and influence. The desire not to be displaced from a position of influence might explain the religious objections while a need on the part of those like Jenny McCarthy to absolve whatever undeserved guilt may come about from having a child stricken by a developmental disorder like autism is a way to reassert a similar kind of influence. I imagine that at the root of the agenda of those like Jenny McCarthy there is a genuine belief that her cause is just and righteous but her approach genuinely leads to death and suffering that could easily be avoided. To be so passionate about the topic may speak to her desire to do justice for her son but it’s irresponsible to do it from a perspective of ignorance. The other side of the Jenny McCarthy story is the mechanisms by which she sells her position. She regularly invokes her ‘Mommy Instinct’ as though this gave her a privileged position that allowed her to circumvent all the scientific evidence that stands against her. This emotionally provocative tactic is unfair to the science and those being manipulated by its misinterpretation and dismissal.

These well funded Anti-Vac groups are selling the false claims in the shape of sophisticated arguments that create false controversies very similar to those put forward by creationists and their ilk. The main campaign which was spearheaded by Jenny McCarthy and her equally deluded partner in crime Jim Carrey was the one for ‘Green Our Vaccines’. This admittedly brilliantly word campaign is designed to illicit fear using the naturalist language that is so often bandied about to give an impression of a communion with mother nature which is rarely a view held with regard to the pharmaceutical industry. Claims of mercury poisoning from the preservative thimerosal were given as reasons for the alleged outbreaks of vaccine related autism and after sufficient pressure it was removed from the majority of vaccines. This was the first major claim and it lent itself to scientific scrutiny because if it were the cause of the autism incidents then its removal should coincide with a sharp drop off in the diagnosis rates of vaccinated children. This was put to most advocates for thimerosal’s removal and they all mostly agreed that this drop would be found. The drop never happened however and unsurprisingly this had no effect on the AntiVaccers who merely made the highly improbable claim that the benefits seen from the removal of the mercury preservative was perfectly counteracted by other toxins in the vaccines which had a similar effect. This is the logic employed by these people and this is the irrational approach that we have to fight against. Evidence isn’t something to be considered instead it’s just a resource from which they can cherry pick the data that they can sufficiently misinterpret to bolster their bullshit claims.

One of their other provocative claims is that there is a right for the individual to abstain from the vaccines that are mandated by governments and that to prevent people from opting out is an infringement on individual rights. This argument holds sway especially amongst Americans, with the concept of freedom being so integrated into their vernacular. The argument is remarkably short-sighted, however, as it ignores, once again, the science. The function of vaccines is not only to prevent the infection of those receiving the vaccine but to also to prevent the infection of people who, for some reason or other, cannot be vaccinated. The immune-compromised rely on the vast majority of those around them being free from dangerous diseases that they themselves are ill equipped to deal with. Herd immunity, where a group is statistically immune to a disease to the point where it is unlikely to spread successfully, is dependent on 9 out of 10 individuals in that group being vaccinated. This gives those most vulnerable members of the group the opportunity to avoid risks that they would be otherwise susceptible to. This is why in areas around the world where vaccine programs are being undermined there are outbreaks and subsequent deaths happening with alarming regularity. The argument that you child should be free from vaccines with which you don’t agree, doesn’t only have implications for your child, and as a result the laws surrounding immunisation need to reflect that.

Post Vaccines Ergo Propter Vaccines

The whole issue of vaccines and autism recently attracted fresh attention when Donald Trump, on the Fox News channel, came out against vaccines with what was essentially an anecdote about a friend of his which was completely divorced from the scientific facts around vaccines. He claims that he is not ‘anti-vaccination’, but then goes on to betray his ignorance on the subject he is about to publicly undermine. Firstly, he alludes to the increase in autism diagnoses that have persisted in the last ten years, and commits the ‘post hoc ergo propter hoc’ (after this therefore because of this) logical fallacy to say that this is related to increases in the vaccine schedule. His nostalgia tinted view on the good old days when doctors just tossed your hair playfully and sent you on your way with a lolly pop so he and your father could share a pipe and mid afternoon brandy, ignores the fact that there are no ties between these changes. Autism rates are increasing because of the change of criteria for diagnosis and the vaccine schedule has no effect on this. This is a difficult point to accept, admittedly, for any parent dealing with autism who wishes to find reasons behind their circumstances, but it’s tantamount to saying that ice cream and drowning are causally linked even though you are ignoring the fact that ice cream sales and swimming both go up in summer time. This is the kind of reasoning that reminds me of the crazy scientist in the old building who says to Bart in an episode of the Simpsons “Wait: did you know that there’s a direct correlation between the decline of Spirograph and the rise in gang activity? Think about it”. As with Dr Spirograph this needs to be treated in the same way, dismissal. Being a victim of your own stupidity is one thing but keep your misconceptions to yourself, preferably locked away in an abandoned factory like Dr Spirograph.

Image

 Bart visiting Dr. Spirograph or Jenny McCarthy, I’m not sure.

The main problem I have is with the media handling of this and the fact that Donald Trump, Jenny McCarthy, and other Dr Spirographs are given equal time to spout their nonsense. This false balance added to the fact that it’s broadcast on a ‘news’ network as powerful as Fox’s creates the false impression that there actually is a controversy. The video I watched of Trump (http://bit.ly/HHsw1Q) has streams of supportive messages for his stand against the dangers posed by ‘Big Pharma’ and its child killing drive for profits at any cost. The informed and scientifically literate do arrive to save the day and do a great job of lining out the facts and figures in a reasonable way. The problem doesn’t lie however in there being no answers to these questions but more in the fact that we have a culture that respects the anecdotal opinion of celebrities more than scientific consensus and furthermore we have a global mainstream media that exploits this to bolster ratings and drive controversy for cheap ratings and to give an impression of standing up for the little man. Unless this is tackled, diseases that have been of late exclusively confined to history books will re-emerge, and the fallout will be the death and suffering of innocent people. At the minute, we could be compared to the fervent pen of Dr Spirograph. We are mostly turning in circles and getting nowhere and in the end all we end up with is a pretty picture for Fox to pin to the fridge.

Religious Discourse

I have been remiss in my blogging duties as of late but there is nothing like anger to fuel the inspirational juices and what better platform by which to be exposed to the disgusting religious ideologies that tend to bring it out in me, than Twitter. Twitter provides a forum for discussion with all extremes of religious viewpoints, from the demonstrably evil and ill informed to the moderate and self congratulatory whining of those willing to accept the ‘difference of opinion’ with regard to faith, while they simultaneously lend credibility to the views of the extremists. In fairness, once you give a pass to just one of the ridiculously childish, narcissistic or downright evil views held by all of the major faiths, you will be forced to give credence to the more extreme views, purely because they possess just as much truth value as the rest, and by that I mean NONE.

Two arguments are generally had when you engage the faithful on Twitter. The first is the argument surrounding the plausibility of the god hypothesis and it is the initial catalyst to conversations in most cases, at least for me, and yet it is rarely the common theme throughout. Inevitably you are faced with some abhorrent and self-righteous viewpoint that burrows its way into the dialogue. An initial courteous exchange of proofs and their dismissals is taken upon by both parties where a veneer of respect for the opposing position is held up to afford enough time for you to point out the legitimacy of your position and the lack of legitimacy behind theirs. Simple right! Fuck no! The acceptance, by your opponent, of the points you make such as the fallacy of the prime mover argument and the circular logic of inferring the truth claims of the bible because the bible itself says that is always right (It is called ‘gospel’ for a reason you know), are progress you tell yourself. “I am getting through to at least ‘some’ degree”, you mutter to yourself as your enthusiasm for the debate increases. Then after a while you have a point in the conversation where they need to make the concession that faith is the only position they can legitimately hold. This has to happen by the way. From an evidence based position, they don’t have a leg to stand on and you know it, but do they? Of course not, and now is where you can see the conversation and work you put in, unravel in front of your eyes. They will suddenly start bringing back up points that you spent a lot of time deconstructing and that they have previously conceded to. They will highlight perfectly that any and all concession were made to provide them time to find a point you can’t deconstruct and in that gap they can assert god and move one. This, in most cases, leads to a certain level of frustration on the part of the Atheistic debater and may lead to obscenities, which then also leads to the inevitable accusations of irrationality and zeal from the right honourable gentleman that you have been debating.

The second type of conversation is the more initially offensive debate, usually in response to an outrageous fundamentalist’s tweet about the sin of homosexuality or contraception. You know, the kind of small minded vitriol spouted by members of the Phelps family or some similarly deluded piece of shit. In these cases your initial disgust is usually mirrored by the majority of people on twitter and I include the religious in that group. Most moderate theists are as disgusted by that crap as anybody else and they join in with the condemnation. The initial outrage then usually subsides and turns to ridicule and humour usually because you know debate isn’t on the agenda and most people just revert to dismissing their vile crap out of hand and get back to making bad jokes and tweeting about their lunch. Even though these views are way more disgusting than anything put forward by the majority of moderate believers, it ultimately annoys me less because at least its glaringly obvious what position is being taken by the human stain that’s putting it forward. With the believers in scenario one there is a false impression of intellectual inquiry and integrity that is consistently not met. The fact that it cannot reach this goal is not necessarily the fault of the believer but of the belief itself. Religion is not a matter of fact or science. It can attempt to answer questions in these fields if its proponents want to but it deserves no special treatment when it does. Its sciences’ house so you play by sciences’ rules.

The difference in outcomes of these two approaches on the part of believers is very important in my opinion because it gets to the root of what I disrespect most about the religious discourse in countries all over the world.  The type of person that engages in conversations of ‘type one’ kind are those who believe that religion has a position outside of personal belief. They are the foundation from which campaign are built that have effects in real world circumstances and social policies of governments. Religious claims are, as I said, not scientific and they are not based in any way on the real world around us. Because of this they have a position that should be exclusive to the individual and should be restricted in influence to the churches, mosques and synagogues of their respective faiths. Religion should stop butting its nose into the lives of others and demanding special privileges as it does it. People who stop asking questions about the most important issues, the religious, should have the right to preach their views and expose their ignorance for all to see and then be relegated to the white noise that can be blocked out while the grown-ups talk. Censorship is not what I’m calling for. In fact I am insisting that, as individuals, they have the right to very explicitly express their views on abortion, marriage, homosexuality and whatever theme of the day arises. When they put forward a salient point that’s not driven by the insistence that the creator of the universe told them, then we should listen to it. When they spout scripture after getting that nagging uncomfortable/intolerant feeling when they see two boys holding hands etc, we should tell them where to go (I’m trying to temper my language a bit here). As an organisation they, however, deserve no platform for opinion. Just because in most civilised discourse, your views are met with tolerance and only, as Sam Harris puts it, ill-concealed laughter on the part of those with rational views, doesn’t mean that those views should be granted rights outside of that conversation. Enjoy your tax exempt status and your reassuring sense of communion with a higher power who passes judgement on your thoughts and actions constantly. Just leave us out of it.

I realise there are those who will read this who will object to my opinions on the place of religion in modern culture and claim that I am intolerant and that my atheism is just as fundamentalist as the extreme religious. The truth is that for every argument you put forward for tolerance because of your ‘broader cultural viewpoint’, I think to myself BOLLOX. Stop lending legitimacy to the extremist, albeit fringe, contingent of these faiths. I’m tired of being labelled strident and ‘fundamentalist’ when arguing against religion when the only fundamentals I hold as an Atheist are regarding morality and fairness and the rights of the individual to be informed and treated correctly outside the authoritarian demands of the deluded faithful. The other charge against me may be that I am taking the example of Twitter too far and that it doesn’t reflect the way the religion interacts in the majority of cases. Well, living in a country that opposes gay marriage, the rights for women to fully control their bodies and which only recently came about to the idea of divorce, I can comfortably again, cry bollox. Religion affects and infects all of society with its assumed moral high ground and its archaic and inflexible world view. A great example of this was the debate on Frontline, an Irish television current affairs program where the topic of secular education and freedom from religious persecution was discussed recently. The religious argument was unashamedly an argument that special treatment should be afforded to the majority of Irish citizens who believe in a Christian god at the expense of the minority who either believe one of the other major religion or have the good sense to see through the childish reasoning of the past. I know the debate will go on and unfortunately it will most likely be a ‘type one’ conversation, with the secular approach being labelled intolerant and inherently designed to persecute the faithful while the religious side will push their faith based view into every aspect of life that they can warp it to fit. Religion will hide behind its all too commonly unquestioned public image and continue to influence and distort the issues it has no right to affect. Whether it’s the strident approach taken by the dress wearing, child abuse concealing, aids denying bastards in places like the Vatican or whether it’s the cap in hand, eyes to the floor while twisting your foot around on its toes, unassuming priest on the school board, they will make a case for special privilege and people will give it to them. The stage is set for a long debate and a serious change in public mindset that can’t be driven by circumstances like the child abuse scandals or actions of individuals in the religious organisation. To do that would lead only to discussions about those individuals and not the institutions that harbour or possibly create them. We need instead to change the mindset of the legitimacy of where religion should sit and where it should be hushed into a humble and appropriate silence. As much as ‘type one’ conversations annoy me and as rarely as they have an effect, they must be had and had and had until the message becomes clear to all or until it’s at least heard by the undecided and unaffected by indoctrination of childhood religion. I expect to be a bald and probably very frustrated man in the future. Hopefully the frustration will be with the minority and not the majority that exists today.

 

Note: I am aware that my use of the comma is quite liberal and not always correct. I will be buying an issue of Eats, Shoots and Leaves (weird, I nearly wrote ‘Of Pandas and People’ instead) in an attempt to fix this. Also, please excuse if the above rant was a little disjointed. I wanted to get it out quickly as its been a while and anger sometimes effects the clarity of my message too.

Paying the Tolle on the road to ‘Now’

This is the fourth instalment of my weekly, well almost weekly, blog on Skepticism/Atheism/Science. This week I have the subject of a spiritual guru, although he prefers not to be called that, in the form of Eckhart Tolle. Our buddy Eckhart is one of the leading spiritual authors around and a firm favourite of, if book sales are to be trusted, tens of thousands of people. He preaches, if that’s a suitable description, a kind of “live for the now” philosophy which I find disturbingly similar to a “take no thought for the morrow” approach of a slightly better know Jewish carpenter. Proponents of Tolle’s approach say that he is a guiding light and inspiration to them and that his philosophy of appreciating the now is a true key to happiness. Critics would be more along the lines of saying that his pointless rambling, works only to confuse and disorientate the reading into assuming there is actually more being said than we can hear. Well, maybe that’s just my opinion, but with vacuous statements like “stillness is the only thing in the world that has no form”, I’m just happy that my previous sentence was typed without my bullshit induced, keyboard tourettes kicking in.

Tolle has, to date, at least according to Wikipedia, released seven books, five DVDs and hosted an online seminar. The main message of these works is to convey the idea that the Now is what is important and that dwelling on the past or future only serves to prevent happiness and improperly guide our decisions. This in itself is a fairly noble and possibly  partially correct ideal, in principle, that I think should be at least considered by most people at some point. This, however, is not where Tolle stops with this broad analysis. Oh no, no! You don’t fill seven books and five DVDs unless you are a talker and our buddy Eckhart is an expert at speaking at length while managing to say sweet fuck all. Let’s take some examples shall we so we can get a proper appreciation for his message?

I mentioned above, the quote about stillness being the only thing in this world that has no form. This quote has a similar relationship with a meaning, as stillness claims to have with form, and by that I mean it lacks one. This quote is what Daniel Dennett might refer to as a deepity. An example of a deepity would be the phrase “Love is only a word”. On the one hand, this statement is true but lacks any fucking meaning whatsoever. Love is a word and so fucking what. On the other hand, it’s deep while being completely incorrect. Love is much more than a word in this case, it is about dedication and sacrifice and a desire to help make someone else’s life better, occasionally, at your own expense. I’m fairly sure I’m selling love short here but you get my meaning nonetheless. Eckhart’s stillness quote is the same in that it only ventures into the realm of depth when it becomes untrue. Even when depth is granted to it, the statement is dependent on appreciating the sentiment rather than listening to its content. The full quote is -

stillness is the only thing in the world that has no form. But then, it is not really a thing, and it is not of this world.

Way to be specific Ecky (my new nickname for him) and not leave any room for interpretation. The vagueness of the statement and lack of any point whatsoever serves to insulate it from criticism. If you are saying nothing, then what is there to criticise? The only truly revolutionary thing going on here is strangely related to physics. It is, by all conventional wisdom in the physics world, impossible to destroy information, yet Eckhart Tolle seems to be doing the closest approximation to it when he speaks. I can almost feel the anarchy take hold of my mind and the information disappearing, never to be retrieved again.

Watching Tolle’s videos is a similar experience. You get the distinct impression that there are many words missing from each of his sentences and you are left unsure as to whether this is intentionally done to create effect or not. Eckhart utters sentences like -

Life will give you whatever experience is most helpful for the evolution of your consciousness. How do you know this is the experience you need? Because this is the experience you are having at the moment.

This appears intentionally vague and misleading. His confident leaning and flippant laugh seem to be tailored to provide misdirection and to invoke doubt in the mind of the listener in the event that they choose to dismiss his teachings too quickly. This leads to people like me straining to maintain an objective view on what he is saying and waiting for the message to become clear or even show any signs of existing at all. Remaining open minded is only a virtue up to a certain point; when that point is reached, then you are obliged out of self respect to cry “Bollox”! This is a common topic in alternative philosophies and something skeptics will regularly have thrown back at them when expressing criticism. Cries of an intolerant mind, bound by the overly rigourous constraints of modern thinking and the scientific dismissal of the transcendental, can be heard from the herd if you will excuse the use of homophones so closely placed in a sentence. All this ambiguity has a solution however, because help is at hand. Those missing words, that are so glaringly absent and that could turn what seems like a bunch of circular, nonsensical shit into a meaningful message are all apparently stored in his numerous books. Books on how to “Live in the Now” and become ‘insert vague, non-descript bullshit here’. It has to be pointed out that for a guy who describes his philosophy as being incredibly simple, he sure has a hard fucking time describing it and a constant stream of books would lend credence to the notion that maybe, just maybe, he doesn’t have a fucking clue.

Moving on, I look for another pearl of wisdom and after a quick search about Eckhart on Google, I come across one of his many YouTube videos. From one of these gems of insight, I get this direct quote (grammar might be a little changed due to his liberal association with proper sentence structure):.

            Instead of going through life and reacting to the content that arises in your life, continuously new things, thoughts, emotions, external events, people, places, the scenery around you changes continuously, that’s all content. Instead of reacting to content, the content is allowed to be… and then you are aware of and just being aware of identified with what arises in the now you become aware of the now itself, beyond the phenomena that arise in it. That is the miracle of transformation of consciousness.

Well, I think we can all agree that nothing more needs to be said on that point. Fairly self explanatory really! In case you missed it however I will add some key behavioural nuances that might be lost in the transcription from video material to written quote. Here is the actual quote -

            Instead of going through life and reacting to the content (pause to allow people to absorb) that arises in your life,(run on sentence so you don’t dwell too long on what is or is not being said) continuously new things, thoughts, emotions, external events, people, places, the scenery around you changes continuously, that’s all content (still said nothing but he’s smiling as though you as an audience member should be nodding in agreement and realisation). Instead of reacting to content, the content is allowed to be (btw, this is not him saying that content is allowed to exist, it’s him not finishing his fucking sentence, honestly check it out http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yW6-iD713No&feature=related )… and then you are aware of and just being aware of identified with what arises in the now you become aware of the now itself (smile as though you have actually made a fucking point), beyond the phenomena that arise in it (a sound of popping coming from the exploding heads of anybody with a skeptical tilt who happens to be listening to him). That is the miracle of transformation of consciousness (close eyes for a couple of seconds to add effect).

Excellent, how about one last final gem of wisdom and see if we can gain as much sense from that as we did from the quote above -

Where does your sense of self come from, the conceptual? The concepts in your mind? Or does it come not from any kind of thought, but from that which is deeper than thought. The stillness, the depths, the presence that you are. And that’s the, that’s the liberation, it’s when the sense of who you are comes out of the presence of… of who you are in essence which is the consciousness that you are… It is no longer of absolute importance what your life situation is. (Eckhart then goes on to describe the “now”).

So the question is, does either of these messages deliver a piercing insight into the pitfalls of the human condition? Are the day to day challenges faced by every one of us now put into perspective, leaving them seem insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Have we reached, dare I say it, Nirvana? No? Ah well, you can’t say that we didn’t try.

If I am to give my honest impression of Mr Tolle it is this – his teachings are hugely open to interpretation, which although useful when reinterpreted into something positive, don’t actually have any worth in themselves. His lecture or talks are littered with hugely ambiguous sentence structures that trigger suspicion on my part that his transformation to a being of complete contentment was somehow linked to a neurological problem. It is almost as though he has fabricated a persona that looks to exploit the patience we have when talking to people with stroke-like symptoms and our need to simplify the more complicated aspects of our day to day lives. His philosophy could be argued as a way of forcing you to discover your own interpretation, and apply it to your self. If this is the case then it is an expensive and highly suspect approach and one that I am not willing to believe in. It’s true to say that any philosophy when interpreted in a certain way can lead to positive changes in somebody’s life, but it says nothing about the truth of that philosophy but instead only points to the fact that it is sufficiently vague. Rather than giving people the tools to focus the drives and ambitions they have, he tells you “to generate negative fields of trying to find the self”. I don‘t see how confused language like this, which incorporates and exploits scientific misconceptions amongst the general public, can be anything other than a scam, even if it is one that is believed by the messenger himself

I know that I can be condemned by proponents of Tolle’s philosophy for having a closed mind or being unable to appreciate the message he is trying to convey. These people may be right but in my opinion they are bleating after a false prophet who has little of nothing to say. This smug rodent-esque little holy-man (and he is a holy-man in the most pejorative sense of the term) has little or no value to people with real problems. He is the placebo to philosophical thought. Somebody whose teachings act as a mental sugar pill aimed at convincing his listeners that they are witness to a privileged understanding of the universe. It’s the age old promise of knowledge that is exclusively yours, at a price, and entitles you to a unique status, at least in your own mind.

A Skeptic in Paris

My plans for a blog entry this week were supposed to be around an advertisement for a perpetual motion machine that I had seen whilst watching a match earlier in the week. Unfortunately there was a death in my girlfriend’s family and I had to travel to Paris for the week. This by the way is my excuse for the delay in my post. The trip did however bring up a lot of skepticism related topics that ranged from homeopathy, dowsing and my all time favourite subject Religion. When it comes to subjects such as this I think of myself as one of those old water features you see in Japanese movies. The ones where the water drips slowly into a container until finally it reaches the point where it is heavier than the counterweight keeping it in place, and the water spills over. For me, the drip, drip, drip of pseudo-scientific claims and religious observances take their toll in the same way.  The murky waters of woo eventually overcomes the resistant counterweight of tolerance and topples the container. The question is did I manage to prevent that happening whilst doing my utmost to support my girlfriend in her time of need. Well let’s see…..

I knew going away that with a catholic ceremony ahead of me there was going to have to be some lip biting and tolerant nodding on my part. This is usually quite difficult for me as I have an especially low tolerance for religious bullshit at the best of times and the temptation to pipe in with even modest criticism is usually a stepping stone to scenes of me spewing a constant stream of argument at an unsuspecting believer. This tends to be punctuated only by whiskey travelling at the same rate in the other direction with predictable consequences. I have to mention this is also not helped by my limited grasp of the French language. Not only does it result in many things getting lost in translation but the scent of a discussion related to any sort of ‘Woo’ is very seductive when your previous five conversations have revolved around such lofty topics as the weather, me being Irish and how tall I am. (It’s my fault entirely to be fair, I’ve had 6 years of French in school and a girlfriend who teaches French for an addition 6 years and yet I learn nothing). Faced with this religious ceremony I took care to ensure I was respectfully dressed in my best (and only) suit and that my diplomacy dyke, as Tim Minchin would put it, was as strong as it ever was.

The first drips started soon. With the ceremony in French I was insulated from a lot of the language of the mass but my familiarity with the whole ordeal from my time as an altar boy, six years to be exact, left me with a rosetta stone of bullshit with which to decipher what was being said. It was the usual servile crap about the wisdom and beauty of god and how we are merely granted time in this world at his pleasure. The donation basket was bandied around the church with obvious intent. Like religion does best, it was taking advantage of people at their most susceptible. The majority of the people in the room, my girlfriend assured me, were actually Atheists. Some believers I’m sure were there but when we were asked to place our hands on the coffin to pray, everybody complied irrespective of their beliefs. Everybody that is but me! I admit that at first I was going to join in so I wasn’t making a scene but I held back and luckily there was no, discernable, reaction. The next part of this grandiose ceremony had the holy water being passed around with what looked like a metal baby-rattle for us to all douse the coffin with. After my heroic stand (shut up it was) against the last peer pressure ceremony, I reluctantly took the magic stick and sprinkled the magic water on the coffin. Honestly, I just didn’t want to give the impression that I was showing disrespect. I barely knew my girlfriends grandfather but I knew enough about him and what kind of person he was to respect him greatly. Cracks were forming in my respectful facade, however, and eye rolling was becoming an unconscious and all too frequent response. I was far from breaking though and even managed to resist saying something ‘disrespectful’ as the numerous ten euro notes were placed in the collection basket as people left the church.

Onto the short journey home with my girlfriend, her father, her mother and myself in the car ,where a conversation had started between them about a friend of Fanny’s mother. I will qualify this story with a description of Fanny’s mother first. Angel is her name, pronounced On-Gel, and she is, without doubt one of my favourite people. She is a genuine, caring, intelligent and remarkably loving person. She holds beliefs that are completely opposed to me but never condemns me as close-minded or zealous, which is something all too common amongst most true believers. Angel does however hold a lot of superstitious beliefs. She visits a psychic and gives readings herself to people over the phone. This is not with the aim of getting money out of them, I will add, but with the aim to help them. She is also a big proponent of homeopathy which I know can’t be true, never mind just being improbable. For homeopathy to be true, physics and chemistry have a lot of explaining to do. The story of Fanny’s mother friend, you with me?….ok, we’ll call her Suzie for convenience sake, is that Suzie has cancer and a pretty aggressive form of it. The conversation in the car revolved around how it was horrible that Suzie needed to take over 50 pills a day. I sympathised and asked what she was on. (I take methotrexate for Arthritis and knew it was used in some cancer treatment but, honestly, I really just wanted to have something to say). The pills however turned out to be most homeopathic, or in other words, fucking useless. I raised my concerns about this slightly hoping not to rock the boat. No real response! The conversation passed on as the drip, drip, drip continued, albeit quietly, in the background.

Drips continued over the day in the form of references to the afterlife and granddad looking down on us. The kind of thing you can brush off and allow as the day to day approach that a lot of people have. So, dinner done with, and Fanny off to bed after a long day, Alain, Fanny’s father, and I had our usual drink and discussion about life the universe and everything. This is where the cracks really started to show. Now, Alain and I agree on a lot of things and he is a very rational man but occasionally we come across a topic that we both hold firm positions on and things can get heated a little, however when they do, a level of respect always keeps it just below the boil. Further to the drips of the day that lay lingering in the background, there was the addition of a dousing session by Angel using a pendulum and chain to predict to future. Add to that a large quantity of alcohol, consumed by yours truly, and my cup overfloweth.( The dousing  by the way was explained to me as Angel’s body’s intuition, feeding information to her brain which then travelled to her arm and manifested as a circular pendulum motion for yes or a back and forth motion for no. Questioning why she couldn’t just intercept it when it got to the brain was met with no reaction. That comment was a sign that I was already teetering on the verge) Alain and I went on to talk about science and the emergence of society and culture and whether it existed outside of the human species and to what degree. You know, the kind of light and fluffy topics that pepper most nights of drinking. This continued with varying degrees of success due in part to alcohol and in part to the language barrier. So it went on until we reached the topic of homeopathy and vaccines. Now, having listened to a lot on both these arguments I have a fairly good command of the facts. I know the facts of herd immunity and the fabricated controversy over thimerosal that was regularly fuelled by ignorant irresponsible celebrities like Jim Carrey and Jenny McCarthy until it was eventually removed and shown, as predicted, to have no fucking effect. Because of this information I am particularly susceptible to reaching a, what’s a good way to put this, agitated state. These fuckers are ignorant of what the truth is and they are endangering people because of it. It’s amoral and it’s supported by the TV evangelists like Oprah who preach it to their slavish followers. The same ignorant masses that depend on the opinions of these morons so they can decide what clothes to wear and what books to read. The blood boiled as similar ideas ran through my head and they, unfortunately, came out in my conversation with Alain. He was giving credence to the idea that homeopathy was scientifically invalid but still felt it had a place in medicine because Fanny was always treated by a homeopathic doctor. Pointing out the non-validity of anecdotal evidence and the logical fallacies in his arguments only drove us deeper into our positions. The accumulation of two days of ‘grin and bare it’ led to a proper row with him doubting vaccines and supporting homeopathy, and me, driven by what I considered a justified position, arguing against him and calling into question his morals.

Ok, so that was a bump on the road to being the supportive non-judgement boyfriend, here to help, that I wanted to be. Fortunately, Alain and I are practically impossible to offend. We hold our opinions out of what we at least imagine is a reasoned position and we respect that the other person holds that view for their own reasons, even if we disagree. So things moved on. That was Wednesday and I worked for the next couple of days from their house in Paris and in that time I got into a few discussions on twitter. With twitter, I generally seek out those people who hold opposing views to me. I love debate and more importantly I always want to put myself in the mindset of the person who believes in something that I can’t believe in. The arguments are usually futile to be fair but they do give you a unique insight. On twitter you are occasionally faced with people who will never change their minds about something. This is mostly due to the fact that I generally argue with fundamentalist Christians and there is rarely any place for facts in their philosophy.(I like to say that debating fundamentalists is like playing charades in a straight-jacket, unless the answer is crazy, you don’t stand a chance) It did, however, draw a comparison for me with the discussion with Alain. After days of suppressing my skeptical muscles I was entrenched in that mindset. Not voicing it just made it all the louder in my head. The reason I saw this was because, in our discussion, Alain was not voicing his objection to vaccines in the way that the moron Jenny McCarthy does, he was actually looking at it from a statistical risk perspective. I still think he was wrong but I didn’t see his argument for what it was at the time. I was too determined to vent some of the pent up frustration of the previous two days and because of it I defaulted into what I had read before about this argument. These were positions that Alain knew about but just didn’t agree with. Now, just to be clear, Alain is wrong regardless of the reasons why, so don’t think that I am justifying his position. The point is, that because of my blurred perspective at the time, there was no hope I would ever turn him around to see my position. I wasn’t arguing his points, I was fighting Jenny McCarthy. I was referencing my book of information to dismiss his position without really listening to it and because of that I was as bad as the guys who quote verse to me over twitter. Skepticism and a natural offshoot of that in my opinion, Atheism, are both reliant on reasoned discussion. That’s what this blog is about for me. Learn the arguments and know how to convey them. Don’t memorize the lines but instead learn the subject so you can help other to understand it. There are many paths to the wrong understanding of something and because of that it’s not just one battle of ‘Us against Them’. ‘Them’ is a group of people who believe something that we might see as unreasonable but possibly for very different reasons from each other. Unless those reasons are addressed specifically we will never change minds.

Doing my part to highlight Woo and Bullshit

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