Monday, 10 March 2008

Some say language is a serious matter not to be made fun of. What a shame to waste such a playful thing so suited to games.

Monday, 21 January 2008

The price of morality

I've been following Hugh's Chicken Run with interest the last few days and have the highest respect for what he's trying to achieve. My wife and me being vegetarian means intensively farmed chicken never finds it's way into our supermarket trolley, but we do eat eggs and can honestly say that only free-range and organic eggs enter our fridge. As we became better educated we realized that the vast majority of products contain eggs from battery hens; be they cakes, pasta, sauces and much more unless they are organic or, in the rare cases - M&S/Co-op free-range egg sandwiches (had some today: yummy) - marked as free range.

Hugh's Chicken Run is a genius piece of television; not only does is it an educational - a modern public information program - documentation of a moral campaign but it has included the "scream at the tv" moments which are all but compulsory for modern entertainment. By the time people were proceeding to buy two intensively farmed chickens I was out of my chair and gesticulating, especially as Hugh had already demonstrated how easily a large family (of six no less) could be fed twice on a single chicken. After being caught they protested that regardless of how cruel intensively farmed chicken was - and they agreed it was very cruel - it was all they could afford.

I do not doubt that a free-range chicken everyday is beyond the reach of many households, however there is a fallacy that we have some sort of right to eat this high frequency of chicken; eating chicken on this regularity is a recent occurrence, go back just a few decades and chicken was eaten, on average, once every four weeks, now we eat (again on average) 30 chickens per person per year (that's over half a chicken a week).

The option of "well you can go without all that chicken" (especially the obviously overweight family who 'struggled' to fill their huge stomachs on their tight budget) never occurred to them. I was soon shouting "A family of four can survive on one chicken a week - you don't *have* to have two". It may further baffle them to realize that not only are five fruit and vegetables a day far more important to one's diet than a chicken pumped full of enough chemicals to start a war, but they are far cheaper. I was up off my slim vegetarian arse shouting "hey, how about replacing the chicken with some potatoes, or broccoli, or carrots or any other foodstuff out there - your only going to douse it in Uncle Bens and it'll all taste like shit anyway". Just because it says "Chicken Tonight" on the jar doesn't mean that's your only option.

I wish to make clear this is not a bash at people in poverty - though nutritional arguments such as "we can't mark products with 'this will make you a fat bastard and will give you a heart attack before you're 25' because people in Glasgow can't afford anything else" have always confused me, especially as good quality fresh nutritional food is far cheaper than ready meals or a KFC bucket and a vegetarian diet is cheaper still - my issue is that poverty is not an excuse for cruelty, phrases such as "they don't know any different" (the Chicken's not the poor people who have to eat the shit) or "it's peoples' livelihoods" are pathetic excuses for shrugging off a moral issue.

The poverty excuse doesn't fly anyway: 95% of chicken sold is cheap intensively farmed chickens, if only poor people are buying it then there must be a fucking lot of them or they are far richer than we think. It is certain that 95% of Britian doesn't fall into the category of people who, if they spend a few quid more for a chicken, can't afford essentials (an extra pint down the pub per week doesn't count as essential). As the third richest country in the world a significant percentage cannot play the "I can't afford it" card and the rest - for whom buying ethical food means downgrading the Sky TV subscription, knocking £100 off at least one of their annual foreign holidays or trading in the gas guzzler for something a bit more economical - require a re-evaluation of their priorities.

We don't just do this with chickens we do it with everything: clothes, food, electronics, you name it. We demand cheaper and cheaper produce (we already pay the lowest price for food relative to income than any other European nation) and we don't give two shits about the process to get it into our homes; whether intensly farmed animals (because it's not just chickens kept in those horrendous conditions, it's pigs, cows, sheep the lot), sweatshop labour, deforestation or environmental damage. The first answer to any challenge to these issues is always a pathetic economic argument to defend our morally indefensible "shitting on foreign people keeps us rich" attitude. Similar excuses were used to defend great human atrocities such as slave labour (which is still how much of our goods are produced; for those moaning they can't afford free-range chickens ask the poor Burmese child who made your Nike tracksuit whether she can even afford her own toilet paper), the treatment of factory workers and women.

The developed world is creating a moral crises through the consumer demand of "I want it cheaper". John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath deals with the issues of a nation detached from the land. The result is the abuse and rape of the land and businesses demanding higher yields and cheaper prices to feed the never ender hunger of the ignorant consumer. Not only did the demand for cheap produce ruin the land, making farms unworkable and creating the great dust bowls, but it caused thousands of families to lose their homes creating economic refugees within a nation. The US then took advantage of it's own impoverished and displaced citizens to drive down wages for farm workers to virtually nothing, then takes advantage of their impoverished situation (yet again) and lack of mobility (as they can't afford the gas for cars) charged them extortionate prices for essentials keeping them locked in poverty. So great were the crimes and so controversial was Steinbeck's novel that it was banned in parts of America.

Valuing things by price alone is morally reprehensible but it is also suicidal: by driving down prices to increase our own fortunes (mainly by lowing ethical standards) it will be our own value that will eventually be questioned. This is already happening: as the relentless drive to cheaper and cheaper marches on, thousands of people are loosing their jobs to developing countries such as India, China etc. As price is all we value, and people from developed nations cost a fraction to do the same job as you, the karma is ironic and almost instant. So just think about your job for a second: you want a good wage, but what if your employer took the same attitude towards you as you take towards goods? This is apparent in the "labour" market: the middle classes in shock that plumbers should take home wages of £30k a year, that someone whom you hire should dare charge you £100 a day labour (if every *working day* was filled, less statutory holiday, that would earn £23,500 per annum without sick pay minus any operating costs, tools etc.) to plumb in your new bathroom when they wouldn't accept a contracting position for less than £450 a day.

We've got to stop valuing things on cost alone. There are other things other than price which make things good value. Which values do goods value? Don't ask why the other is more expensive but ponder on how did they make it cheaper: what did they sacrifice (and you can guarantee it wasn't they're profit margins)? We, as consumers, drive the market in the direction we demand, ignorance is not an excuse. Companies base success on sales, the more you buy the more they will do what they are doing; every time you buy a product you are endorsing the methods used to create it. We can't blame the companies either because it is us who run the companies, work for them, design, build, source, market and manage their products.

Knowing and understanding where our products come from and how they are made is a moral responsibility of every consumer, we cannot just play dumb and continue in our madness without suffering the consequences.

Saturday, 13 October 2007

Does religion stifle morality?

Religions seem to constantly remind us of our failings and ineptitude. Christianity in particular bases itself around the fact that we are so rotten God had to sacrifice his only son (why did he only have one, he's omnipotent he could have as many as he bloody well likes) to save us from all the evil we are. Religion seems to preach and view humanity in a constant state of hopeless failure and evil which only God can free us from (then why doesn't he?). This message is so strong that when God does create himself in human form he is so overpowered by our destructive tendencies that he battles against temptation and even looses his temper and starts attacking people and smashing things up (Matthew 21:12-13; Mark 11:15-18; John 2:13-22). Though that's not to say as God himself he wasn't prone to a bit of cruelty and violence in his time.

The effect of religion to suck all hope from us cannot be understated, thousands of years of indoctrination have taught us that we are failures and disappointments to God. Though how can we disappoint God? God created us and is omniscient so being our creator he knew exactly how we'd turn out. How can the flawless God design something that would disappoint Him because of its flaws? It is impossible for us to disappoint or fail God because He made us that way. If he is a little peeved by our behaviour then it's his own fault: what did he expect? He saw it coming after all!

Jesus being apparent pure good (though by today's standards his acts aren't as loving and kind as you'd think) is also a huge psychological barrier. First we are told we cannot be good then we are given an example of what pure goodness is (free of sin) and are told that we cannot compare to it.

Religion seems bent on putting humanity down claiming that there cannot be true morality without God, which is to say humans are incapable of knowing good without God (to the extent that a rejection of God is a rejection of all that is good and only through God can good things be done). All of these aspects of the religious doctrine are hugely pessimistic and modern psychology is only too aware of the effects of behaviours on those bought up in a pessimistic environment: the child who is constantly told they will fail is likely to fail. If the Bible is God's word and it is from the Bible all this pessimism spouts is it that God actually wants us to fail?

If religion is there to save us from ourselves and the horrors we cause then why have we left a trail of historical atrocities behind us despite our strength of religious conviction? If God and His goodness have existed before man then why has the continued worship and following of His guidance borne our history?

Religions greatest trick has been to boast that without God there is no morality and without God we descend into a moral vacuum. Not only is this a big fact lie but another self fulfilling prophecy as culturally we start to accept that without religion we are lost to evil and therefore we succumb to it. The religious point to the state of the modern world as constant evidence of this fact yet they seem to neglect the many stories in the Bible of such awful societies of depraved and evil beings that God's hand is forced and he either carries out or orders their destruction (he rather enjoys this work and does it a lot). So if we us modern humans are so dreadful and far off the good path why has there been a distinct lack of righteous Biblical genocide (you will find few who would claim our modern equivalents are the works of God)?

We have to reclaim goodness as a human right and a natural human condition as strongly as the religious claim evil to be one. We are capable of being good and pure, beyond Christlike (after all isn't Dostoevsky's's Prince Myshkin more than believable or Gandhi as pure as Christ?). We are capable of goodness, despite what religion says we can aspire and work to become morally pure. This is a concept which hasn't passed Buddhists or Hindus by but only by shedding these ridiculous indoctrinations of our moral limitations which have seeped and corrupted into our cultures and conditioned us since birth do we have the slightest chance. We may even fail at first to achieve this but already we will be better than we are.

For a more coherent version of these ideas see Humanity: God's Little Disappointment

Friday, 21 September 2007

The Drowning Fish

If there was a fish, that through some genetic freakyness, was born with a defect that meant it couldn't breath in water - and instead had to go to the surface for air - you'd think "what a dumb fish". In terms of fish this one has a serious defect, this fish surley can't be any good, a fish that can't breath in water is a stupid, useless fish: it deserves to drown and die, particularly before it has the chance to procreate and give birth to more stupid fish that drown in water. Maybe though that fish isn't so dumb, maybe that fish lives in shallow waters and can afford to come up for air every now and again, maybe that fish, because it can breath above water, can bury itself in the sand and sleep and lay its eggs out of the danger of predators. Maybe that dumb fish that drowns gives birth to an even stupider fish; one that can barely swim because it's got two thin inefficient sticks instead of fins. All the other fish are really laughing at this fish (even the fish that can't breath in water): not only will it drown in water the dumb fish can't even swim! Surely that stupid drowning, sinking fish needs to be given a good dose of natural selection and killed off? Maybe though that fish isn't so dumb, maybe that fish can use its thin sticks to drag itself allong the sand and go rummaging for food or bury itself further away from the water and lay its eggs in a nice dry warm place where its offspring have a greater chance of survival. Maybe one of those little drowning fish that can't swim gives birth to another fish that isn't even a fish at all anymore but something quite different that lives on land and couldn't survive in water at all.

The point to my little story isn't to demonstrate the workings of evolution (they are such an oversimplification and acceleration that is quite probably inaccurate) but they demonstrate a valuable point: something may appear as a defect when held up against the norm but in the longer term that defect may place its host at a distinct advantage. The question should not be whether the mutation is at an apparent disadvantage compared to its peers but whether it survives and is successful. Likewise taking an existing mutation and placing it a past environment is not an accurate measure of its success: to try and state that the last fish in the sequence is defective because it wouldn't survive in its previous environment of water is a fallacy: although not descended directly from a gorilla stick me side by side with it in an environment similar to one of our far, far ancestors (i.e. one similar to its own) and the thing would probably kill me within minutes if I'm lucky to survive that long. Though stick a gorilla in my environment: get it to put on a suit everyday, commute to work, earn its keep and do the shopping the poor thing would survive maybe a little longer than I did but it would soon starve to death or end up in a zoo (possibly a smart move: free lodgings and feed). From the gorillas point of view within his environment I am defective but within my own I am (as a species) very succesful.

For some reason we have a strong cultural prejudice against mutations in our race - ADHD, autism, dyslexia, bi-polar disorder to name a few - and we view these things as something that needs repairing, more specifically we view them as drowning fish. We need to adjust this view and start looking at the advantages these mutations give us in our environment. After the hysteria of the MMR jab I listened to the head of the society on Autism explain the important and irreplaceable role people with autism have played throughout our recent history from breaking the German's codes, designing and building aircraft and ultimately helping us win the second world war to designing and building our modern communications systems and computer software. Likewise the cultural and economic contribution made by people who "suffer" from the so called "unstable" and "mentally ill" condition of mania such as Stephan Fry, Thom Yorke, etc. These drowning fish have enriched our society and pushed our cultural, intellectual and technological evolution on faster and beyond anything our race could have achieved without these 'defective' genes in our pool.

The measure of whether a gene is successful is if it can propagate and ultimately survive and if it can then by definition it isn't defective: in fact it may serve a purpose (in other species it has been suspected that genes that cause suicidal thoughts could be an evolutionary method of population control). The fact that in our current environment, like our drowning fish, they appear to suffer is also no indication of a defect as maybe in our modern fast changing, heavy paced life these peoples adaptations may place them at an advantage to be better able to cope with that future environment. Or perhaps these so called 'defects' are part of our species make-up to deliberately produce small pockets of mutations to ensure our adaptation and ultimate success.

Monday, 30 July 2007

A Great Tradition

Saturday night was of course the busiest time and the closing of the public-houses the busiest hour. Men would be brought in by the police dead drunk and it would be necessary to administer a stomach-pump; women, rather the worse for liquor themselves, would come in with a wound on the head or a bleeding nose which their husbands had given them: some would vow to have the law on him, and others, ashamed, would declare that it had been an accident... The wards were crowded, and the house-surgeon was faced with a dilemma when patients were brought in by the police: if they were sent on to the station and died there disagreeable things were said in the papers; and it was very difficult sometimes to tell if a man was dying or drunk.

You could be forgiven for believing that this was an interview with a medical student straight from an upcoming Panorama special on alcohol related injuries. In truth it is an excerpt from W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage published in 1915 and the scene is set at the turn of the centaury during the beginning of the Boer War.

It provides just a small piece of evidence that today’s weekend behaviour is merely part of a long standing tradition.

Wednesday, 25 July 2007

Are atheists intollerant?

Amongst some atheists there is a very vocal and often aggressive anti-religious stance. In particular when G.W. Foote created The Freethinker journal he did it with the "chiefly aggressive" purpose to "wage relentless war against superstition in general, and against Christian superstition in particular.". These are pretty strong words and some critics (mostly religious though some atheist and agnostics as well) attack known anti's, such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, as being intolerant to an extent that is zealous.

The above atheists are very clear in their personal view that the world is a better place without supernatural and organised religion (note this is normally aimed at the Abrahamic religions) and that these religions are a large cause of many of societies issues. The problem, especially for Christians, is that they don't have a very good track history to refute this claim with some of the most awful atrocities over the last 2000 years attributed to a Christian belief - including, of course, the Spanish Inquisition, Witch Hunts and Nazism - "The work that Christ started but could not finish, I--Adolf Hitler--will conclude" to name but a few.

Even dismissing historic events atheists often take issue with the Bible's teachings itself; to start the Bible records God's death count of over two and a half million and credits Yahweh for some extremely awful moral atrocities including (but not limited to): God's instruction that natural disasters are his wrath, genocide and ethnic cleansing, human sacrifice, condonance of slavery, the general treatment of women, claims that God himself is evil, the strange demands to eat feces and overall having more passages to do with killing than love.

Furthermore the Bible doesn't seem to display much tolerance to those who do not believe in God or Christ repeatedly calling for, and carrying out, their death; Jesus himself calls for all non-believers to be slain before him and curses those who disbelieve his miracles to hell. The old testament is equally harsh calling for non-believers to be hounded out and stoned to death, including family members and even whole towns (including livestock) if non-believers are discovered amongst them. Note that these passages are not limited to the Old Testament as some Christians have argued and even if they were that does not necessarily exempt them and some willingly follow their example.

Some would argue that this is all in the past and modern religion in a great framework for promoting strong morals yet many theists are way out of step with current moral values and religion is often used as a means to prevent progress on ethics. Today, in the developed world, religion is used to justify strong prejudices on sexuality, and gender to the extent that in most secular countries organised religions are often except from discrimination laws (note the wording as "circumstances where an employer may discriminate"). There are also still a significant number of Christians who subscribe to the Biblical view points.

Does the fact that religion gives justification to moral stances which would be ironically viewed as reprobate by your average atheist justify atheists apparent intolerance? After all many religious leaders spread the message of love and peace. One of the common arguments is that the moderate religious leaders actively condone these prejudices, despite the Church of England's 'progressive' attitudes on ordinating women many organised religions still do not allow it and still officially site homosexuality as a sin and even under circumstances where the position on sexuality and gender is soften it is still very weak compared to modern values and even the so called progressive such as the CofE are still found guilty in a court of law of prejudice. It is argued that this attitude from the leading groups give acquiescence to the more extremest views: after-all the Church does not outright condem these prejudices, instead it sights itself as exempt from them so therefore anyone who is a follower of that religion is also exempt from that prejudice. The argument is that because the CofE and the Roman Catholic church etc. do not step up to the pulpit to condemn such views then the more extreme element can get away with sites like these:,, and, the same charge is continuously labelled against Muslims by our politicions.

The danger is that if atheists pursue a strong non-religious agenda do we not end up with even more atrocities such as those committed in the name of communism? Amongst intelligent people there is no danger here as the vast majority of atheists do not promote violent eradication of religion or immorality (in fact I know of none that do) but instead believe in education and in particular the promotion of true secularisation which promotes the freedom of religion but instists on its seperation from state (removal of religious schools, religious laws etc.). Even the most outspoken atheists such as Dawkins would never condone prejudice against peoples personal beliefs but believe that religion should not be given any special status in secular society, especially in law, and especially in terms of argument. It is this strong view, especially with books such as the God Delusion, that religion should not be protected from ridicule and criticism which seems to upset a lot of theists who promote the intolerance claim. Atheists argue they are attacking an idea, like Communism or Conservatism or Capitalism but many theists believe that to attack their beliefs is far worse than attacking an idea (and in fact classing their belief as merely an idea is an attack in itself). The problem lies in the concept of blasphemy which - though mostly focused in the media on Islam is no less viewed by Christians - as the Bible clearly states is a sin punishable by death. The basic problem lies in the example that where a humanist vegetarian is 'merely' offended by the eating of meat on personal ethical grounds to a Jew or a Muslim the eating of pork is the breaking of their religious law and therefore the word of God. To criticize the vegetarian (even if they are the anti-christ) is acceptable but to criticize someones religion, though not entirely blasphemous, is still to attack the word of God, therefore the religious doctrine stands above the personal ethical desicion. This of course becomes ridiculous as the follower of one religion believes itself correct over all others yet by definition of the fact that their beliefs differ are in open criticism of each other, so a Christian has no issue in blaspheming Mohammad - and in fact almost actively has to in order to deny him - just as a Jew does Christ. The fact that blasphemy laws still exist in many countries including the UK does not help this issue.

"Tolerance is only another name for indifference" - Somerset Maugham. Everyone has the right to believe what they want, on that nearly all atheists agree (even if the Roman Catholic Church doesn't) and, unlike some of the religious, atheists do not see those people with religion as inferior citizens, human beings, or inferior intellectually or suggest they have less rights (including their rights to believe) or less/more capacity for love or that they should be imprisoned for their beliefs (or sexual preferences). Atheists respect (and instist) your right to believe they just may not respect what you believe, in a twist on Voltaire "I may not agree with what you believe, but I will defend with my life your right to believe it." but like free speech the atheist also reserves the right to criticize and disagree. The definition of intolerant is as such:

a) Unwilling to tolerate differences in opinions, practices, or beliefs, especially religious beliefs.
b) Opposed to the inclusion or participation of those different from oneself, especially those of a different racial, ethnic, or social background.

By this definition atheists are not intolerant as they are neither unwilling nor opposed to those concepts, even the FreeThinkers strong words do not call for the eradication or forceful prevention of religious thought but instead:

"It will do its best to employ the resources of Science, Scholarship, Philosophy and Ethics against the claims of the Bible as a Divine Revelation; and it will not scruple to employ for the same purpose any weapons of ridicule or sarcasm that may be borrowed from the armoury of Common Sense."

The language is colourful - deliberately biblical - but the 'war' is only in terms of intellectual argument and nothing else and although it is offensive (I myself often feel the FreeThinker goes too far) it is debatable if it crosses the line to intolerance.

To conclude atheists are not intolerant to religion; atheists disbelieve, criticize and disagree with religion, atheists may class religion as silly, irrational, delusional or even dangerous, some atheists believe that religion should have no special rights, privilages or exemptions (including religious dress in schools) but they do not seek to change, silence or suppress people with religious views.


The opinions on the linked websites and are including as evidence to the arguments I have presented and are not necessarily my own and should not be used as indication of my opinion or the opinion of any other group, religious or otherwise.

I would also like to say that although many of the arguments I have put forward place religion (especially Christianity) in a negative light this is not a reflection of any individuals interpretation of the religion and many Christians would feel as equally upset by these sites as any non-believer would and may also feel misrepresented by the authors of those sites.

Monday, 23 July 2007

Is travel good for us?:

The old proverb states that travel broadens the mind where as the truth amongst my fellow countrymen seems to be closer to it merely serving to broaden the alcohol consumption. This is to such an extent that us Brits are gaining an even poorer reputation abroad thanks to our alcohol inebriated ambassadors who seem intent on using travel to emancipate themselves from the restrictions of their home country and subject our cousins to the best of British hedonistic frenzy. Sadly it seems that this is nothing new but the advent and rise of low cost holidays has enabled mass export of the best of our empty minded British citizens and their values.

So does travel broaden the mind of our holiday going Brits or just stretch it to breaking point? G. K. Chesterton amended the proverb to say "They say travel broadens the mind; but you must have the mind." and Francis Bacon offered good advise to the citizens of the 17th Century Britain which reverberates today: "He that travelleth into a country before he hath some entrance into the language, goeth to school, and not to travel." My own take is that "Travel may broaden the mind yet something must fill it" and unfortunately we all know what the Brits like to fill it with!

Thursday, 28 June 2007

Just how bad is New York's subway?

I am currently reading Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities and I just read the following passage:
Why was it that in the gross fat country, with its obscene heaps of wealth and its even more obscene obsession with creature comforts, they were unable to create an Underground as quiet, orderly, presentable, and - well decent as... Because they were childish. So long as it was underground, out of sight, it didn't matter what it was like.
To shock and stun you the Undergrounds being compared are New York and London. And no, New York isn't the "quiet, orderly, presentable and decent" one LONDON is!

Now I know the book was written in 1987 but either; Wolfe had never used the London Underground - if he had he wouldn't have picked those adjectives - or London Underground has gone down hill a hell of a lot since 1987, or New York's was in some seriously bad trouble!

Either way it's a seriously big insult to be compared to London Underground in that way - even if it was in 1987: New York you should be very ashamed - even more than us users and hosters of the 2012 olympics at the world's greatest capital city are!