Saturday, December 4, 2010

An Apology and an Update

It appears that I have fallen behind when it comes to maintaining this blog. This is not for lack of interest, mind you; I don’t like writing unless I am sure that what I am writing is worth reading (to someone at least) and have not been feeling that spark that I usually do. Fortunately, it appears to have returned, so I figured the first place to start is to review all the books I have read since my last review (which is a lot, so they will be short and to the point).

I have also created a ‘Top Ten Book' list and will update it when need be. This will save me from having to rank each new book I review in the review itself, thus allowing me to talk more about the book itself.

Also added is my 'Websites Worth Visiting' list; this is most comprised of blogs that I often read and find the topics discussed to be of a high intellectual standard. I shall add to it as I come across more sites worth visiting.

You may also notice that I have changed the format/design of my blog. Hope you don't mind the change.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Book Review - ‘You Can Lead an Atheist to Evidence, But You Can’t Make Him Think’ by Ray Comfort

This book stands out from others that I have read in that it is one that I purchased expressly knowing it had a premise that I disagreed with. If anyone is familiar with Comfort, they might accuse me of intentionally picking someone who has a weak counter-position to my own. This may be true, but I first wish to acclimate myself with the ‘every man’s’ argument for Christianity. To me, this should be the one worth listening to, especially if Christianity is meant to be a belief system for everyone, not just high-end theologians with weird esoteric views of what God is and wants.

Unfortunately, Comfort is more ‘preaching to the converted’. Many of his arguments require that you accept certain premises which he fails to prove or give valid reasons of why we might consider them. Another important point is that many of his analogies are painfully flawed. Not in the sense that the analogy doesn’t hold true when viewed in high detail (as all analogies break down when viewed under a microscope), but they often don’t even hold true on the most basic level. One of his favourite is the ‘creation is proof a creator’ argument, in which he uses the example of a painting; if you see a painting, you know there must be a painter because paintings don’t just create themselves. He then attempts to link this up to humans/the Earth/the universe; because these things exist, they must have a creator i.e. God. The problem is two-fold; firstly, we have no evidence of a natural process that can create a painting, but we have some evidence of natural processes that can create humans (evolution) and planets (stellar formation). The second problem is that he is jumping to his preconceived conclusion. The best we could say is that the universe had a cause, not that it had a creator. Using the term cause doesn’t rule out creator; it is just more inclusive of natural possibilities which we have yet to discover. Comfort instantly jumps from ‘cause’ to ‘Christian God’ (arguably because he was already at that point).

So, would I recommend this book to others? In a roundabout way, yes I would. Not because it contains any points of intellectual value (though it is a good mental exercise to see if you can see how he is wrong), but simply because it is an insight into how fundamentalists view the world.

1.5/10

Another Your Say Letter... This time about gay marriage!

If anyone can grab a hold of the 3rd of December, 2010 copy of the Geelong Advertiser, they can read the letter to which mine is responding to (entitled 'Same-sex marriage against beliefs'). For those of you that can't, the general tone of the letter is a 'the Bible says homosexuality is wrong, I believe the Bible, therefore I win' type argument. This I couldn't let slide. Here is my response:

"In responding to Dennis Irvine’s letter regarding gay marriage (3/12), it is hard to believe that a person could be so disconnected from the facts.

Firstly, a literal reading of the Biblical account of creation (i.e. Adam and Eve) has been disproven by science. The evidence shows that humans evolved from, and still are, animals.

This does not disprove God, of course. It merely disproves that the Bible has an accurate portrayal of the origins of humanity.

The second point worth mentioning would be that it appears that Mr. Irvine is being selective in what he takes from the Bible.

In the same book that prohibits homosexual interactions, it also prohibits trimming the sides of one’s beard.

I doubt Mr. Irvine would write such an impassioned objection to the ‘immorality of beard trimming’.

The more relevant correction would be that there is no evidence that raising children in a same-sex environment is detrimental to their development.

It appears that the more important factor is whether children are raised in a loving environment, regardless of the gender of the parents.

Finally, it should be noted also that our society is a secular one. As such, our laws must have a reason that is not specific to religion. The justification must be relevant to all individuals, be they religious or non-religious.

Secularity is the only way in which a society that is comprised of religious and non-religious individuals can interact without the oppression of one group or the other.

Therefore, if you wish to argue that the law should not recognize gay marriage, a secular justification needs to be provided, not one based on personal religious beliefs."

As always, if I get a response, I will post more details.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Movie Review - Deliver Us From Evil


I recently watched the documentary 'Deliver Us From Evil'. Information about the movie can be found here and here, but it tells the story of both Oliver O'Grady, a Catholic priest convicted for molesting children, and several of his victims. What first drew my attention to this movie was the fact that O'Grady is actually featured in the movie, giving his own memories, thoughts and feelings on his crimes. To sum up my overall thoughts, I consider this to be one of the most powerful documentary I have seen. Others seem to agree, as it has won several awards, though it narrowly missed out on the Oscar for Best Documentary, losing to An Inconvenient Truth. While I did enjoy Gore's movie, I don't think it is anywhere near as good as Deliver Us From Evil. But I digress; on with the review.

NOTE: If you have not seen the film, I would recommend you stop reading now and go watch it. My review will spoil some of the aspects that, in my opinion, make it so hard-hitting.

Rather than detail the content of the film (as you should all have gone and seen it before reading this section), I want to touch on what I thought was the aspect that gave it that extra something.

For me, it was the editing that made it magnificent. Throughout the first half of the movie, while not ever denying that he committed the crimes that he did, the movie does take a 'soft' approach to it; the words used to describe his actions are along the lines of 'touch', 'rub' and 'play with'. Not only that, O'Grady often expresses how shameful he felt after each act and how he swore to himself he would never do it again. These two aspects combine to make you a feel almost sympathetic towards him; rather than portraying him as a predatory monster, he is at first painted as a flawed, sick human being.

This portrait is shattered midway through the movie however. The language used in describing his acts dramatically changes, detailing how brutal they actually were. O'Grady even seems to become less ashamed of what he has done. And that is what I thought made it so powerful; the movie tricks you into feeling sympathy for him, then WHAM!, he is revealed for the monster he is really is. This made me feel terribly bad. How could I have ever been sympathetic to such a horrible human? It made me feel bad enough that I was crying significantly when Bob Jyono broke down. Then it dawned on me; that must be similar to what his victim's families felt. They let what they thought was a nice priest into their lives, only to have him molest and rape their children.

So that is my take of the movie. If you agree or disagree with my interpretation, let me know.
UPDATE: It seems O'Grady is in trouble again.

Monday, May 10, 2010

My Moral Framework

I recently completed an assignment on my values and moral framework. As I scored fairly well (23 out of 25) and that ethics and morals are a subject that interest me, I decided to share my essay with you. Would enjoy any feedback, positive or negative.

"1. Introduction

An ethics and moral framework is an important component of any worldview. It enables us to make choices on how we should act and how we should interact with others (Thiroux and Krasemann, 2009). As there are many frameworks in the world, choosing one requires exploration of what each individual values and then a comparison to find a framework that incorporates those values.

2. Personal Values

The following are the values that I have identified as being of importance to myself. I hold each of them in the same regard.

2.1 Truth

Truth is a fairly expansive value. I am applying ‘truth’ to cover all types of truth; be they personal, historical, scientific or any other kind. The main reason for valuing this is that I believe that to determine the best course of action in a specific situation or the best way to live in general, an individual needs as much true information and as little false information as possible. This is demonstrated in Appendix 1; if you have incorrect information, you are more likely to draw incorrect conclusions. I have discussed this issue in regards to creationism (Appendix 2). As stated, I believe that denying evolution and promoting creationism in its place is spreading misinformation, thus promoting people to draw conclusions on other issues that could possibly be incorrect.

2.2 Equality

The equality I speak of is slightly different from the normal concept of equality; that all men (or people) are created equal. I do hold that everyone should be treated equally. However, there are differences, often subtle, between men and women, between people of different ethnicities and between people of different cultures and countries. The equality that I value is that an individual is judged as an individual, not by the various groupings they belong to. For example, women on average have lower physical strength than men (Martini, 2006). If a woman is applying for a job that requires physical strength, she should not be judged by her gender’s average physical strength, but by her own personal strength.

2.3 Liberty

Liberty is defined as the ability of an individual to act occurring to their own will (Carrier, 2005). Before including it as a value of my own, I would add a qualifier; provided their actions do not infringe on the liberty of others. Preventing an individual from infringing on the liberty of another (i.e. stopping a person from killing another) is an action I would say is permissible, as the killer is violating the liberty of the victim in the first place. An example of my value is my position on drug legalisation and use (Appendix 3). My opinion on this issue is that anyone should be allowed to consume any substance, provided they do not interfere with others while under the influence. For example, a person who drinks alcohol yet does not harm anyone while intoxicated should be allowed to continue drinking. The simple potential of alcohol contributing to violence in some individuals is not sufficient to disallow others from using it.

2.4 Altruism

Defined in the ethical sense, altruism is the idea that individuals should take actions that help, benefit or otherwise improve the lives of others, possibly even with detriment to one’s own life (Carrier, 2005). Altruism can be derived into two categories; reciprocal altruism and true altruism (Appendix 4). The reason I put forward that altruism is a value worth having is that the significant majority of humans want to both live and to avoid suffering (Appendix 5). Following from these observations, it could be concluded that if everyone wants to avoid suffering, it should be in our best interest to work together and consider the suffering of others as equally as our own. Example being that if you are in a well-off position in life, considering others who are not as well off and trying to help them is something you should strive to do.

3. Framework

The following is the framework that I found to fit best with my values. It should be noted that, as the framework was not constructed by me, it is not a perfect fit.

3.1 Secular Humanism

Defined simply, is a worldview that places value on the progress and betterment of human life, without having to lean on supernatural ideas (Carrier, 2005). While having specific tenets (Appendix 6), these are not rigid rules that cannot be changed but more a guide on how to live. As to what Secular Humanism is in terms of morality, I personally see it as a combinational approach between utilitarianism and virtue ethics. Why I considered Secular Humanism to be the best fit with my values is as follows.

Truth is perhaps the most obviously compatible with Secular Humanism. Points one, two and four of Appendix 6 all demonstrate a commitment to search for truth and to always demand factual support for claims. Equality seems to conform with points five and seven; treating people equally and by their individual abilities would help to reduce inequality and the suffering caused by it. Point six seems to espouse liberty; that individuals have autonomy over their actions by making them responsible for them. Finally, altruism is demonstrated in points two, three, five and seven as they ask us to take into account the well-being of the entire human race, rather than just ourselves.

The final critical point of why secular humanism is my framework rather than simply humanism is that secularism is what works best for everyone (Appendix 7). As stated, secularism prevents a religious majority from imposing their will, good or bad, on a minority who do not share their religious convictions. It does not suggest that people should not have religious beliefs, just that their beliefs are personal in nature and do not apply to everyone.

4. Conclusion

While more being a guide than a perfectly constructed moral and ethic system, secular humanism still has a lot to offer humanity. It should be noted, however, that secular humanism does not require everyone to follow its rules; just to respect the opinions of others.

6. Appendix

Appendix 1

Taken from HBS300: Ethics – Frameworks and Decisions Discussion Board: 4.1 Earthquake in China.

“We make the best decisions we can with the limited amount of information and brain power we have at our disposal. Sometimes it turns out good (as it did in this scenario), sometimes it turns out bad.

The only way we can make sure that our decisions go in our favour is by making sure we have as much good information and as little bad information as possible.”

Appendix 2

Taken from ‘Creationism and the spreading of misinformation’ (Bishop, 2010a).

“So on one side of the coin, we have experts saying that evolution is correct. On the other side, we have ‘experts’ saying that evolution is incorrect. How is your average individual, with very little understand of how science actually works, going to be able to tell the difference between the two? From the laymen perspective, it could seem like scientists are ‘divided’ on the issue of whether evolution is right or wrong (more accurately, indicated by the evidence or not). This is possible the main reason I choose to speak out against creationism/other pseudoscientific claims whenever I get the chance; it spreads misinformation among the general population. And being most people have very little time/interest in going to check if a claim is true (assuming they would even know where to start), a fair number of individuals will accept what these groups say as truth.

Being ignorant of a subject is bad enough, but lying to disprove it is infinitely worse.”

Appendix 3

Taken from HBS300: Ethics – Frameworks and Decisions Discussion Board: Drug Legalisation in Australia

“An individual is responsible for his or her own actions, even if their actions are being influenced by other factors, in or out of their control. (example being mentally ill; even though they may not be in direct control of their actions, we still lock them up if they harm others).
Following from this premise, one can draw the conclusion that ingesting any substance is permissible, so long as the individual accepts responsibility for the actions they take while under the influence.

Example being the difference between happy and angry drunks; if you know you get angry when under the thrall of alcohol, you should not drink.”

Appendix 4

Taken from HBS300: Ethics – Frameworks and Decisions Discussion Board: Virtue Ethics

“Well, I would divide altruism into two types; reciprocal altruism and true altruism. Reciprocal altruism is helping others so that they may help you at some point. True altruism would be helping others at a detriment to yourself that may never be paid back (or with no intents for it to be paid back).”

Appendix 5

Taken from HBS300: Ethics – Frameworks and Decisions Discussion Board: Earthquake in China

“1. Everyone wants to live.
2. Everyone wants to avoid suffering.

I perfectly understand that neither of those are entirely universal (though near enough). Also, premise 1 overrides premise 2 (i.e. ending someone’s life to prevent their suffering is not okay, unless of course they want to have their life ended).

Yes, those two premises are my opinion. But others opinions would overrule them if I had to deal with those people (i.e. if I was in a disaster situation like the one described and someone said 'I'm in too much pain. Just leave me to die', I would consider respecting their wishes). They are just general rules I go by until presented with exceptions.”

Appendix 6

Taken from ‘What is Secular Humanism?’ (Stevens et al., 2010)

“Secular Humanism is a term which has come into use in the last thirty years to describe a world view with the following elements and principles:

• A conviction that dogmas, ideologies and traditions, whether religious, political or social, must be weighed and tested by each individual and not simply accepted on faith.

• Commitment to the use of critical reason, factual evidence, and scientific methods of inquiry, rather than faith and mysticism, in seeking solutions to human problems and answers to important human questions.

• A primary concern with fulfillment, growth, and creativity for both the individual and humankind in general.

• A constant search for objective truth, with the understanding that new knowledge and experience constantly alter our imperfect perception of it.

• A concern for this life and a commitment to making it meaningful through better understanding of ourselves, our history, our intellectual and artistic achievements, and the outlooks of those who differ from us.

• A search for viable individual, social and political principles of ethical conduct, judging them on their ability to enhance human well-being and individual responsibility.

• A conviction that with reason, an open marketplace of ideas, good will, and tolerance, progress can be made in building a better world for ourselves and our children.”

Appendix 7

Taken from ‘A Response… But No Apology’ (Bishop, 2010b)

“Our government is secular, as stated in Section 116 of the Constitution:

“The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.”

This part of the constitution is incredibly important; it is what keeps the religion that is held by the majority (Christianity in Australia) from imposing its will on the minority (Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, atheists etc.). Statistically speaking, the amount of representatives in the government would more or less reflect the averages of the population; we have a majority of politicians being Christian. If it were not for this law, there would be nothing stopping them from passing laws that restrict other religions and promote Christianity. The same goes the other way of course. In Japan, where around 65% of the population is non-religious, they are prevented from passing laws that restrict those who are religions by Article 20 of their Constitution:

“(1) Freedom of religion is guaranteed to all.
(2) No religious organization shall receive any privileges from the State, nor exercise any political authority.
(3) No person shall be compelled to take part in any religious act, celebration, rite or practice.
(4) The State and its organs shall refrain from religious education or any other religious activity.”
This is the fairest system one can have in place, as it prevents any majority, be it religious or atheist, from imposing their views on the minority. This a major problem with any dictatorship, be it an atheist or religious one.” 

7. Bibliography

BISHOP, J. R. 2010a. Creationism and the spreading of misinformation. Lord Bishington's Thoughts [Online]. Available from: http://lordbishington.blogspot.com/2010/03/creationism-and-spreading-of.html [Accessed 21/04/2010].

BISHOP, J. R. 2010b. A Response... But No Apology. Lord Bishington's Thoughts [Online]. Available from: http://lordbishington.blogspot.com/2010/04/response-but-no-apology.html [Accessed 21/04/2010].

CARRIER, R. 2005. Sense & Goodness Without God: A Defence of Metaphysical Naturalism, Bloomington, Indiana, AuthorHouse.

MARTINI, F. H. 2006. Fundamentals of Anatomy & Physiology, USA, Benjamin Cummings.

STEVENS, F., TABASH, E., HILL, T., SIKES, M. E. & FLYNN, T. 2010. What Is Secular Humanism? [Online]. Council for Secular Humanism. Available: http://www.secularhumanism.org/index.php?section=main&page=what [Accessed 24/04/2010].

THIROUX, J. & KRASEMANN, K. 2009. Ethics: Theory and Practise, Pearson International Education."

Monday, April 12, 2010

Book Review - 'The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature' by Steven Pinker

I started reading ‘The Blank Slate’ back in late February and finished it just last week. You might be thinking that it wasn’t a good book, being it took me so long to read.

You would be wrong. If I had the time, I would have not put it down.

This book is perhaps the best book I have read so far in my life. That might not be saying much, being I haven’t read a lot (something I plan to rectify).

The central theme of the book is human nature and what causes it. To me, I had always thought it to be quite obvious that both our genes and environment contribute to our behaviours. However, as noted by Pinker throughout the book, many individuals fall into the false dichotomy between nature and nurture; it is either one of the other in their minds. Rooting those who fall on the side nurture is the dogma of ‘the blank slate’; the idea that, at birth, our minds are blank slates, filled by what our parents and society teach us. Following from this premise, one can conclude that the problems of society are learnt, not inherited.

Pinker spends the first part of the book explaining the official blank slate theory and the other ideas that seem to be connected to it (the Noble Savage and the Ghost in the Machine), why they are not supported by the evidence and the current ideas that are replacing them. In the next part, he goes through why the idea has taken so long to be proven ineffective (and, in a more general way, why science and politics shouldn’t mix). In the third section, he explains the reasons why people wished the blank slate idea to be true and how to overcome their fears of the alternative. In the final two parts, he goes on to show how the current ideas of human nature can be applied to many fields, from understanding language to childrearing.

The book has its flaws, but they are few and far between. I would recommend it to anyone, from your average lay person to anyone studying psychology, and everyone in between.

9.5/10

Thursday, April 1, 2010

A Response... But No Apology

For those who did not see the opinion piece published by Peter Kavanagh in response to my letter, you can find it here.

Needless to say, I still was not impressed with his superficial analysis of the issue and that he had ignored my discussion on secularism. Rather than write into the Advertiser again (that word limit is a bitch), I decided to email him directly. If you feel like doing the same, his email address is: peter.kavanagh@parliament.vic.gov.au But please, keep it civil.

Here is my own email response:

"Greetings,

My name is Jason Bishop and I was the one who responded to your letter regarding atheism’s connection to the governments of Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pot. I read your response today and felt I had to reply once more. However, given the amount of time it takes for a reply and the word constrains on letters into the Advertiser, I thought email would be the best approach.

Hitler’s religious beliefs may not be known entirely or accurately, but he was most definitely not an atheist. He may not have believed in the Christian God, but he most certainly believed in a Creator. Unless you define atheism as ‘not believing in Christianity’, which would be ridiculous, he was not an atheist.

While I would definitely agree that Hitler expressed mixed messages regard the Catholic and Protestant churches, this does not mean he was an atheist. The reason why this is the case is that being critical of a religious organization does not mean you are critical of the religion; just the way they practice it. I have heard and read many complaints from Baptists about how the Catholic Church has it all wrong and visa versa, with every denomination.

Communism may have a more superficially plausible connection to atheism, yet I hope to demonstrate why it wasn’t their motivation. Most Communist regimes were based the works of Karl Marx, who wrote that religion is a tool utilized by the ruling classes whereby the masses can briefly relieve their suffering via the act of experiencing religious emotions, thus preventing them from questioning the real source of their suffering (the upper class and the economic system according to Marx). He refers specifically to religion, not a belief in God. While you may see it as splitting hairs, I do not. I know many people who dislike religion, yet still believe in a God. They see religion as a institution.

It is true, however, that the Communist regimes of did have state supported atheism. The link though between atheism and the genocides committed is still non-existent. The logic behind this is that atheism by itself wouldn’t have lead to these atrocities. It had to be coupled with another belief system (Marxism) to lead to those outcomes. Marxism can lead to genocide, if interpreted as that all the groups he mentioned (upper class, intellectuals, religions, ethnic groups etc.) stand in the way a society in which everyone is happy. The problem isn’t that Marxism was tied to atheism; the problem is that people mindlessly followed the dogma of Marx without thinking about it. Atheism has no dogma to follow. It is a position on one question; do you believe in a god?

The more important part of my response was the part about secularism and why it is not the same as atheism. Our government is secular, as stated in Section 116 of the Constitution:

“The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.”

This part of the constitution is incredibly important; it is what keeps the religion that is held by the majority (Christianity in Australia) from imposing its will on the minority (Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, atheists etc.). Statistically speaking, the amount of representatives in the government would more or less reflect the averages of the population; we have a majority of politicians being Christian. If it were not for this law, there would be nothing stopping them from passing laws that restrict other religions and promote Christianity.

The same goes the other way of course. In Japan, where around 65% of the population is non-religious, they are prevented from passing laws that restrict those who are religions by Article 20 of their Constitution:

“(1) Freedom of religion is guaranteed to all.
(2) No religious organization shall receive any privileges from the State, nor exercise any political authority.
(3) No person shall be compelled to take part in any religious act, celebration, rite or practice.
(4) The State and its organs shall refrain from religious education or any other religious activity.”

This is the fairest system one can have in place, as it prevents any majority, be it religious or atheist, from imposing their views on the minority. This a major problem with any dictatorship, be it an atheist or religious one.

Thank you for your time,
Jason Bishop."

Let me know if you think I missed anything or have incorrect information.

Lord Bishington.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Peter Kavanagh: Immoral Man?

Last night, I returned from Melbourne after having just finish my GAMSAT (went well, if you were wondering). I decided to have a read of the paper, as I do almost every day. When I reached the ‘Your Say’ section, I came across the following monstrosity of a letter:

Anti-religious calls not new.

Contrary to common presumptions, demands for anti-religious governments by atheists are nothing new.

Such movement resulted in places like Auschwitz, the gulags of the Soviet Union, famine and extermination campaigns in China and the killing fields of Cambodia.

Among the ideological underpinnings for these massive atheistic slaughters was surely the belief that human beings are not creations of God.

Assumptions of intellectual superiority by atheist are not restricted to Melbourne’s recent ‘Atheist Conference’.

I have found few atheists have even considered why, if religious convictions of others must have no influence on government policy, their own political convictions (based on anti-religious beliefs) should not also be ‘separated from the state’.

Peter Kavanagh
DLP, Western Victoria”

Suffice to say, this motivated me to write my own response (and if you feel as outraged as I do, I suggest you do the same). Here it is:

“I was shocked and disgusted by the blatant dishonesty displayed by Peter Kavanagh (GA 20/3) in suggesting that the atheist worldview is responsible for the worst genocides of the last century.

Anyone who has even a basic understanding of these horrible events could see why Mr. Kavanagh’s view is flatly wrong. For those of you who do not, here is a quick overview.

Hitler, the main individual responsible for the Holocaust, considered himself a Catholic. He also believed that his ‘final solution’ was ‘God’s will’. He was most definitely not an atheist.

The slaughters committed under the rule of Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot were done in the name of Communism. Their suppression of religion was based purely on the fact that religious organisations posed a political threat to their regimes, not because they didn’t have a belief in God.

Mr. Kavanagh goes on to confuse the distinction between secular and atheist. Secular, which is what our government is, means that you do not take a side on religion in official policy. It is a private matter for each individual to decide upon for themselves, not to have dictated to them by an oppressive government.

The ‘intellectual atheists’ Mr. Kavanagh refers to support secularism. While they would rather each individual rationally looked at the evidence and came to the same conclusion they have, they are not trying to invoke policy to make religious belief illegal.

I demand that Mr. Kavanagh make a public apology for his misrepresentation of history. Not to me, not to atheists, not to everyone who support secularism, but to the millions of individuals who died under the dictatorships of the previously mentioned individuals. He has disgraced their memory by distorting the motivations that lead to their deaths, all to bolster his own position.

He should be do the right thing and apologise.”

At the time of writing, it has yet to be published, so keep a look out for it. If I get a response from Mr. Kavanagh or anyone else, I will be reproducing it here.

Lord Bishington.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Creationism and the spreading of misinformation

A few weeks ago, I attended a screening of ‘Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed’ at the local Baptist church. I knew what the premise of the movie was and had heard/read various criticisms of it, but I had held off viewing the movie/forming an opinion as I wished to take my own notes and come to my own conclusions. In hindsight, I think I wasted 97 minutes of my life. It was possibly the most horrid movie I have ever seen. And no, I don’t mean just the message itself; I have seen other intelligent design/creation/anti-evolution movies that were ‘worth’ watching (The Voyage That Shook The World was bearable). It was the tactics the movie employed in delivering the message. I found this to be quite amusingly contrasted with the statement the pastor made before the movie: “This is an academic topic and to ridicule Intelligent Design advocates is dishonest to academic truth” or something of that effect. For those of you who have seen the movie, you will know what I am talking about. For those of you that haven’t, many actual scientific ideas such as the ‘Clay Theory of Abiogenesis’ were mocked by Stein as being science fiction, when, in reality, many tests have been done that demonstrate that it is at least a possible avenue by which life could have arose.

After the movie, leaflets and books were handed out with more information about the issue. One was just a summary of the points made in the movie (didn’t really need it, as I wrote around four pages of notes while watching it), the other was a book entitled ‘Answers to the 4 Big Questions’, made by Answers in Genesis. The four ‘big questions’ they ask, and supposedly answer, are ‘Does God exist?’, “What about Evolution?’, ‘Where did the ‘races’ come from?’ and ‘Who was Cain’s wife?’. While I happen to disagree that these are the most important questions we could have answers to, that is a topic for discussion at another time. I decided to put my complaints about the questions aside and see what they had to say. I made it through three lines before putting the book down, in fear I might have a stroke. I will replicate here those three lines:

"Once great nations are in social decline. Family breakdown and crime are increasing. An epidemic of youth suicide afflicts nations where there would seem to be everything to live for. What accounts for this?"
Literally the first sentence of the whole thing made me cringe. I mean, people could and have written entire theses, taking them up to a year to write, on the topic, debating all the factors. And yet, Answers in Genesis feels they can make a single statement on the issue and that is that. Not to mention that a lot of people feel the exact opposite. After a few minutes of not reading the book, my blood pressure had returned to normal and I decided to continue reading. I wanted to know what they thought was responsible for this (I already had an idea of what they might say, but I wanted to confirm it). And low and behold, I was right: evolution is to blame. More accurately, that we are teaching evolution to our children; that they came from ‘monkeys’. As I read on, I began to notice a common trend: just as with the introduction, wide sweeping statements were made on complex issues/ideas, usually glaringly wrong to anyone with even a mild understand of the topic in discussion. A single sentence that they made could require reading an entire book to demonstrate why it is wrong.

As I have a moderate level of knowledge of arguments and tactics used by both sides in the evolution/creation debate, I recognized this ploy immediately. It is colloquially known as the ‘Gish gallop’, made famous by the creationist Duane Gish. It is where, during a debate, you make so many simple statements that are wrong and require lengthy responses that your opponent is either unable to respond to most of them or gets bogged down trying to and doesn’t get to address your actual argument as they are too busy trying to show why your points are wrong. It is even more effective when the topics being discuss are issues your target audience is more than likely not familiar with (that way, they have no means of determining the validity of what you have said, it will more than likely accept it as truth, especially if it supports their currently held worldview). While this isn’t so much of a problem in book form, as you have all the time in the world to write a counter-argument, I do think it presents a problem.

As humans, we tend to accept information given to us by authority figures; our parents, teachers, preachers, politicians. Sometimes it is good to accept what an authority has to say with minimal self-investigation (i.e. asking a lawyer for legal advice), other times it is a bit murky (i.e. listening to a politician say a certain policy is ‘for the best’). As the writers of this book have science degrees, they do give off an air of authority. But when they say things like ‘mutations only lead to lose of information, not increase’, a stark contrast to what most biologists say, it does becomes questionable. It is even worse when you realize that there are many examples of mutations that have benefited the organism and increased the information in its genome, so it seems like they are outright lying.

So on one side of the coin, we have experts saying that evolution is correct. On the other side, we have ‘experts’ saying that evolution is incorrect. How is your average individual, with very little understand of how science actually works, going to be able to tell the difference between the two? From the laymen perspective, it could seem like scientists are ‘divided’ on the issue of whether evolution is right or wrong (more accurately, indicated by the evidence or not). This is possible the main reason I choose to speak out against creationism/other pseudoscientific claims whenever I get the chance; it spreads misinformation among the general population. And being most people have very little time/interest in going to check if a claim is true (assuming they would even know where to start), a fair number of individuals will accept what these groups say as truth.

Being ignorant of a subject is bad enough, but lying to disprove it is infinitely worse.

Friday, January 15, 2010

A compilation of my 'Your Say' letters

Occasionally while reading the Your Say section of my local paper, I find a letter that just gets under my skin. Usually it is some gross misrepresentation of the facts or outright lies. I figured I would make a compilation of those letters for those who either missed them or never had the opportunity to read them at all. I must point out that there is a word limit, so my responses are not as extensive as I might have liked.

06/02/09 – This letter was in responses to one that was complaining about ‘Satanism’ being part of a human rights declaration protecting religion.

“RE: Freedom of Religion (GA, 6/2). I always find it amusing when I hear or read people like Mr. Clapinski’s misguided views on Satanism.

Before I go on, I would like to point out that I am not a Satanist, or ever have been. If questioned, I identify myself as an ‘agnostic humanist’. I just like to know about viewpoints other than my own.

A Satanist, as it was originally envisioned by Anton LaVey, is an individual who follows a belief system that in no way involves an attack on Christian beliefs. In fact, one of the main doctrines of Satanism is tolerance (Rules 1 and 11).

Another common misinterpretation is that Satanists actually worship Satan. In actuality, most Satanists are atheists or agnostic. The ‘Satan’ of their religion is more a symbol of their beliefs (individuality, self indulgence etc.), rather than an actual being.

I will concede that there are some followers of Satanism, albeit, misguided ones, who think that it is the goal of their religion to undermine and destroy Christianity. But these are extremists, in the same way that Islamic terrorists use their religion to justify their actions. You wouldn’t say that Islam should be excluded from the HREOC because of the actions of a minority?

I understand that Christians may feel a certain level of fear from Satanists, being that many of their beliefs are in direct opposition. But trying to bad mouth and exclude them from things like the HREOC will only lead to more ‘extremists’.”

NOTE: I have since changed my how I convey my position. I now identify as atheist, not an agnostic. My views have not changed, just my interpretation of those words (thanks Non-Prophets).

14/03/09 – This letter was in response to an individual comparing Barrack Obama to Osama bin Laden. This was just after Obama announced he was lifting the regulations Bush had put in place regarding abortion. The comparison was that Obama would be killing more people than Osama, so he would be remembered as the worst of the two.

“RE: Who will leave the worse record? (GA, 14/3). I found Mr. Westaway’s comparison of U.S. President Barrack Obama to terrorist Osama bin Laden to be quite crude, and frankly, downright inaccurate.

The topic of abortion will always be controversial, but blaming it all on Obama is unfair. The global abortion rate has been estimated at forty six million a year. However, only twenty six million are performed legally. So it appears to be quite clear that abortion will happen, regardless of its legal status.

Even if those twenty six million abortions could be stopped by Mr. Obama changing his position (which they couldn’t, because a lot of them are European countries that the US
has no control over), that still does not make him solely responsible for them. The choice to have an abortion still rests with the individual, as it rightly should.

As to Obama ‘forcing’ medical workers to provide information on abortions, regardless of conflict with their own beliefs, this is already common practise. It would be entirely unethical for a medical worker to leave out information of any kind, based on their personal beliefs. They should, and as far as I know, are required by already existing law, present patients with all their options. This allows the patient to make an informed decision based on their own beliefs, not those of the medical worker.

I personally think the world will be a better place when Barrack is done in the oval office, so I would say Osama will be the one who leaves the worse record.”
NOTE: After this letter and another two expressing similar sentiments, the Your Say section was full of letters for the next few weeks in dealing with the whole abortion issue.

19/04/09 – This letter was in response to a specific letter that attacked my position directly, imply ideas along the lines of ‘repent or burn’.

“In Mr. Guinane’s letter to the Your Say section (GA, 9/4), he states that individuals who support abortions are forgetting the rights of the child. I think there are a few scientific facts that he, and the public in general, should be aware of.

Before I do though, I would like to say that I personally do not support abortion (as in, I would never suggest to a partner that they should have one). I think that people should more take care to avoid unwanted pregnancies. I do, however, respect a woman’s right to choose.

The first fact I would like to bring up is that up until a certain time, foetuses are incapable of survival outside the womb. So, if a woman doesn’t want to have a baby, she would be forced to carry the baby to term, causing unwanted emotional and psychical problems.

The second fact I would like to illustrate is that the subject of fetal pain is, at best, debatable. Much scientific research has been done, with the general consensus being that fetus does not develop the ability to perceive pain until near full-term. The movements of a fetus during the early periods are no more than reflex actions (i.e. a movement that is not controlled directly by the brain). Being that pain is perceived in the brain and that the connections to brain are not developed until near birth, the fetus would not be capable of feeling pain.

The final, and I believe most important fact, is that not everyone follows your religion (which I am guessing is Christianity). Yes, from your point of view, God is the creator of all laws. But not everyone shares your view.

My point through all of this is simple: if you don’t support abortion, don’t get one.”
19/04/09 – Every response to the letters I and others expressing a pro-choice viewpoint was along the lines of ‘God forbids abortion’. This is why I chose to respond in this way.

“In the letters I have written into the Addy over the past few weeks, I have avoided comment directly on religions. This is because I respect that individuals are allowed to believe whatever they want to believe. However, every letter that has been in response to mine and others who have written that women have the right to choice in having an abortion has ignore the facts and arguments we have put forward and simply return to the argument that ‘God does not want it’.

I have had many discussions with Christians about why they believe what they do. Some have actually thought about it and even agree with me that it is impossible to tell if what they believe is right. Others, however, maintain that they are 100% right. Even I don’t claim to know for certain that my belief is perfectly accurate (that there is no god).

When I ask these ‘devout’ Christians how they know that God is real, the most common response is ‘because the bible says so’. This no more proves that Christianity is true than it proves Islam, Judaism or any other religion with a sacred text is. And even if we could somehow eliminate all the other religions from being true, there is still the issue of authenticity.

For example, in 200 years, someone could read the Harry Potter books and decide to believe that it is based on true events. When told it was written as a fictional story, they would counter with “no, JK Rowling was really a witch writing about her own world”. When asked to prove that this is true, they could respond with “If I gave you proof, the wizards could make us all forget because they can do magic”.

The bible doesn’t prove anything, so if you are going to believe, at least think about it rationally.”

01/05/09 – This letter was in response to a letter suggesting that I enjoy the idea of ‘innocent babies dying’. I’m not entirely sure if this was actually publish or not, but I will still include it.

“In Mr. Guinane’s letter (GA 1/5), he suggested that I supported abortion by supporting a woman’s right to choose and that I should further investigate the subject of fetal pain.

Firstly, my position of not personally supporting abortion, but still believing that woman have the right to choose is because I believe that, in any free nation, we should not be able to impose personal views on others who do not share them.

The more important point is that neither Mr Guinane nor I are female. How can we, as men, tell a woman what she can and cannot do with her own body?

The reason I don’t support abortion personally is that, if I was in the situation of an unwanted pregnancy, I know that, given my situation in life (financial, family support etc.), I would be able to give the child a decent life.

Secondly, my source of information regarding fetal pain is a meta-study (i.e. a review of all the other studies that had been done) conducted by the American Medical Association, entitled “Fetal pain: a systematic multidisciplinary review of the evidence”.

The conclusion of this review was that fetal pain was not likely to be developed until the 29-30 week mark. Being that the current Victorian law allows abortions up until 24 weeks, this gives a five to six week margin of error.

I would actually have to agree with Mr. Kavanagh (GA 28/4) in that, until we know for certain, pain relief should be given as a precautionary measure.

My point, as it has always been, is that it is up to individuals to make the choice themselves.

I would also like to add that I will no longer be responding to letters in relation to this topic, as I feel I have addressed all the relevant points.”
As a final point, I have actually changed my views on abortion slightly. Not only do I think that it is a choice that everyone women should rightly have, I think it would be a more preferable option to adoption. My reasoning for this is that the world is beginning to overcrowd as it is. We face a future where one-child laws like China has may one day be the international standard. I would much prefer that people practise safe-sex than to have an abortion, but it is definitely the preferred option once conception has occurred (again, I still think it is a choice that we should leave up to the women involved).

Lord Bishington.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Amway: Because they won't let you do it your way

Before I beginning, I just want to say my inspiration for writing this entry is due to having read Russell Glasser’s excellent webpage discussing his own experiences with Amway. I highly suggest reading it if you want another perspective: http://www.apollowebworks.com/amway/amintro.html

While out the other night for a friend’s 21st, I ran into an old friend as I was leaving. Now, this wasn’t just an old acquaintance that I saw every now and then, but someone I saw at least four times a week at the height of our friendship and could talk to them about anything during those times. If asked then, I would have said they were my best friend and that we would always be best friends. Anyway, the conversation that ensued went virtually as follows:

Me: “Hey, haven’t seen you in ages.”

Them: “Yeah, I know. What have you been up to?”

Me: “Just uni really. How about you?”

Them: “Oh, just the business.”

Me: “Oh yeah” *Awkward silence* “Anyway, I have to head off. Good seeing you.”

You might be wondering why two individuals who were as close as we were could now be so distant. What could possibly have happened that drove us apart? If you guessed Amway, you are right (though it was an obvious guess, being that is what this blog is about).

Before getting to how it destroyed our friendship (and other friendships of his too, from what I have heard) and why I left Amway, I will start from the beginning.

1987: On a mid-August night, my parents lay in bed together, as husband and wife often do.

Okay, too far back.

2007: I had just finished high school the previous year and was just about to start at university. While I was looking forward to the new experience that university had to offer, I wasn’t overly excited about my course. Throughout high school, I didn’t really have any aspirations in life and was looking for a job just to pay the bills. I had always had an interest in computers and games, so I figured game design would be a logical choice (in hindsight, I probably should have given it a little more thought). I was also working part-time at McDonalds, a job which I had a love-hate relationship with (loved the money, hated the work). This was the time at which I was friends with the above mentioned individual, who I shall refer to as Luke to keep his identity private (for those of you who knew me during that time and know who I am speaking of, I would ask you do the same).

Now, Luke had been telling me for awhile about the business he was starting up. For a long time, he never really went into any detail when I asked him what it was. One day, I was mentioning to him how I didn’t really want to have to work to live for the rest of my life and would rather just spend my time travelling and exploring the world (wouldn’t we all?). It was then that he suggested that I should get involved in his business. Of course, my first question was “but won’t that mean I am just working for you?”. To this he replied “no, I mean you can start your own”. This raised more questions than it really answered, so he told me I should come along to a meeting and hear all about it. Being my position in life at the time, I figured I had nothing to lose. I went with him over to a house of another ‘business owner’ Kate* (again, real name changed). It was here that they had David*, who was a lawyer and also in ‘the business’, explain it to me.

Being that this is the part where I had ‘the business’ (this was how they referred to it, rather than Amway) explained to me, I figure it would be a good point to explain it to those of you who are unfamiliar with it.

Amway is what is known as a Multi-Level-Marketing (MLM) business. You pay a yearly membership fee, and for that you can have access to a wide variety of products at a discounted rate (in reality, most products are more expensive than they would be retail, plus you pay for shipping). You also get a rebate of 3% every month on the products you have bought or sold to others (if you buy 100 points worth of products a month, that is). The real money (or so you are told) is in ‘sponsoring’ others to join the business. For every person you sponsor who buys and sells products, you get a cut of their rebate. So the more people you sponsor, the more money you get. Also, the more points generated in your ‘business’ (your purchases plus all those you have sponsored/who they have sponsored etc.), the larger your rebate becomes. The highest rebate attainable is 21%. If you maintain a rebate level of 21% for six months, you become what is known as a Diamond and you ‘breakaway’ from the person who sponsored you (in reality, they still get 4% of all the money that goes through your business). At the Diamond stage, it is said that individuals earn around $4000 a month. And once it gets to that stage, you just have to sit back and watch it increase.

Sounds impressive, no? $4000 a month or more for simply getting people to join your business and helping them to get people to join theirs. It is only when you realize where that money is coming from that it starts to become a little murky. Being that the significant majority of products bought are by the ‘independent business owner’s’ (IBO’s) of Amway (in fact, selling products to people who aren’t part of Amway is discouraged), all the money comes from the IBO’s themselves. Amway is best described as a ‘zero-sum game’: when everyone in the company adds up all the money they have made and lost through the business, the total sum is zero. A better way to look at it (thanks Russell) is as a game of poker you play with your friends: you all put in $10 to start the game. Some people walk away with more than $10, others with less. The point is that you can only make money if someone else loses money. This is exactly how Amway works. All the money that those Diamonds are making is coming from those on the bottom level. Sure, those at the bottom could one day become Diamonds and make it all back, but they would be taking money from others who are now at the bottom. This becomes a problem when you realize that the population of the Earth (or more accurately, the population who are able to even join Amway) is finite. Eventually, someone will be stuck at the bottom, unable to make their own way up the ladder.

Now as you can imagine, this wasn’t how it was presented to me. The real presentation was full of sugar-coating and sweet-talking. Add to that the extra ‘argument from authority’ given by David, who explained that he had gone over the whole business concept as a lawyer, concluding that it was both legal and moral, and I was sold. Looking back, I cringe that I accepted his conclusion simply because he was a lawyer, given that I can easily spot an argument from authority nowadays. Anyway, I was in like Flynn. I told them I wanted to join up. They were quite enthusiastic (and why wouldn’t they be? They just got another person who will make them all money). When they asked if I had anyone in mind that I could sponsor, I immediately thought of my parents. They suggest that when presenting it to them, I should avoid using the name ‘Amway’. When I asked why, they said it was because there had been some ‘negative press’ of the company a few years earlier and that my parents might remember it and reject ‘the business’ without listen to it. Being that I am openly honest with my parents about most things, I disregarded this advice and told them straight up. And being that I thought at the time that it was such a good concept, I couldn’t see why they would object to me being involved/not want to get involved themselves. Ah, to be young and na├»ve. When I told them, they were less than pleased that I was involved and didn’t want any part of it themselves. They didn’t, however, tell me that I should get involved; more that I should just not be disappointed if it doesn’t work out. In retrospect, I think this was the best move they could have taken, as I probably wouldn’t have listened and it would have made me more resistant to the later problems that I saw.

Despite the cautious advice from my parents, I joined up. Within a few months, I had already sponsored two people, one of whom had sponsored another. I figured it wasn’t long until I could sit back and watch as the money came pouring in. During this time, I came to develop a deeper understanding of what ‘the business’ actually entailed. My first real objection was when I discovered that it was a zero-sum business. So I came forward to David, being he was the lawyer and I thought the person who would be able to give me the most comprehensive answer. I asked him “if everyone in the world joined up, wouldn’t the people on the bottom just be essentially giving their money to the ones on top?”. After some crafty non-answers (“not everyone is going to join up” and “the people at the top worked (*cough*) to get there”), he eventually said “sure, but isn’t that how the world works at the moment? There are people on the bottom who do all the work and those on the top who get all the money”. At first, I had to agree with him, because that is how the world works. It was only later as I was driving home that I realized the absurdity of what he had said.

Firstly, and most simply, just because the world works like that doesn’t mean that everyone else does. I saw what he was saying as a virtual “I did it because my brother did it” type justification kids give when they misbehave. Secondly, while the world may indeed work like that, the difference is that in the real world, you can actually change your position. For example, a person from a less-than-well-off family could go to university, get a degree in business, start a company and make millions. Yes, this doesn’t happen often, but it can happen. The difference with Amway is that it can’t happen. You will always be in the position you are on the ‘chain’. Sure, you may get more people under you so you are actually making money, but they will be in the exact same position you were.

While this should have been more than enough to get me to rethink what I was involved with, I decided that, while I thought the concept was less perfect than I thought, I would continue for the moment. It was a few weeks later that the ‘last straw’ came up. You see, Amway is very into the whole ‘motivational’ angle. While I do definitely agree that having a positive attitude when approaching a task can make you more likely to success, all other things being equal, they take that concept and run a marathon with it. To them, having a positive attitude is the ONLY thing that is required to do well in ‘the business’. Now, I didn’t really have much of a problem with this (though I did have to fake a lot of outward emotions), but it was when they took that concept that was already over-stretched and decided to try to fly to the moon with it that I had a problem. I came over to Kate’s house one day for a group meeting as I often did and she told me that they had a video to show me. I asked what it was about and she said “it is the only video I needed to see to become a Diamond”. I was intrigued until a minute into the video when the title came up: ‘The Secret’.

Wait, what!?

For those of you who are unaware, The Secret is a new-age belief that the universe rewards positive thought. Want a car? Think positively about it and you will get a car. Wait, you didn’t get a car? Well, you didn’t think positively enough obviously. Not only is this worldview tantamount to victim-blaming (all those people in third-world countries just aren’t thinking positively enough), it is downright unfounded on anything in reality. The video contains a lot of people trying to make it sound scientific by using terms like ‘quantum mechanics’, ‘energy’ and other words that have meanings that are far removed from what these people believe they mean.

Now, I was already well-versed in what The Secret was and why it was intellectual onanism with no basis in reality. When I saw the title come up with ‘The Secret’, that was the final straw for me. I could almost describe it as having a veil lifted from my eyes. I finally saw Amway and ‘the business’ for what it really was: a scam. I left Kate’s that night knowing I would not longer be a part of such an organization. Unlike Russell, however, I chose not to take the ‘lone ranger’ approach and try to save people from Amway. I was and am convinced that, at some level, they know it is a scam, but justify it because of their own greed and poor comparisons like the one David made. I, instead, chose to just slip away. I stopped attending meetings, making excuses at first and eventually just not returning calls and messages.

And how did this affect my friendship with Luke? Well, at first I wanted to maintain the relationship we had. But as time went on and I was missing more and more meetings, he began to pester me into coming along. We could no longer hang out without him somehow bringing up ‘the business’ in conversation. It was all he seemed to care about. I also found that he was not the same person he was before he was involved with Amway. It was from this observation and retrospective analysis of others in ‘the business’ that I came to the conclusion that the organization is more or less a cult. Not only are members told not to associate with individuals who are negative of Amway, they lose the capacity to be critical of ‘the business’, even when the flaws are literally smacking them right in the face. I’m not saying that they are unintelligent people (and research shows that most people who get involved with cults are of normal intelligence), I am simply saying that our human urges to be social, to be accepted and to have as much money/items as we can for as little work as possible can be quite overpowering; enough to disable logical thought.

From viewing other blogs that have been critical of Amway, I am expecting at least some negative feedback from the ‘Amway drones’. Before you post saying how much money you are making in Amway/that I am a loser for not being able to make ‘the business’ work, please reread and try to absorb the message I have tried to convey. I never said that no one can make money in Amway, just that the money you make comes from those who are below you and eventually someone will be stuck at the bottom. In regards to my comments about Amway destroying relationships/that it fosters a cult mentality, take look at your friend network and whether it is predominated by other IBO's. Not everyone will see the same thing I did, but I know many out there feel the same as I do.

Anyway, I hope you all enjoyed my story/rant on my experience with Amway.

Lord Bishington.