Today is the inaugural meeting of The Sunday Assembly in Belfast (Yes I know it’s a Monday). The Sunday Assembly is often referred to as an “AtheistChurch” or “Godless Congregation” much to the chagrin of some fellow non-believers who seem reluctant to acknowledge anything remotely positive about the idea of a church regardless of what is being discussed (or preached) inside. The fear is that if people attend “AtheistChurch” then this will give ammunition to Theists who want to paint Atheism as a religion or a competing belief system. It should be made very clear that Atheism is not a belief system, it is a specific answer to a specific question : Does God exist ? There is no dogma or commandments to adhere to and no obligation to get up early on a Sunday morning. And it could be argued that if you are looking for an alternative world view then humanism already ticks that box. So why the need for The Sunday Assembly? Yes, there may be issues in the way it presents Atheism but the idea of community and getting together with people who share common values with you shouldn’t be under valued. We are social creatures and just because we have a problem with religion doesn’t mean we shouldn’t acknowledge any of the positive aspects, and that is what I think The Sunday Assembly is trying to do with its goals to celebrate life and help others. I had the pleasure of listening to Chris Steadman give his “Faithiest” talk at the black box a few weeks back and he believes we should be involved in multi-faith initiatives when it involves subjects of mutual concern to believers and non-believers alike, such as global poverty. If people value being part of a community why would we want to take that away from them? Acknowledging that one is a an Atheist can be very liberating for people but it can also leave them distanced from close knit church communities and all the social support that comes with that, so if people see worth in these projects who are we to say that there is none? I for one will be attending and singing from the same hymn sheet, especially as that hymn is likely to be don’t stop me now by Queen.
On Tuesday 12th March a proposed amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill, described as ‘entirely inappropriate’, ‘tacked on’ and ‘ill-thought out’, fell when it failed to gain cross-party support. This amendment was pushed by the unlikely partnership of the DUP and SDLP, and while I wouldn’t usually go out of my way to attack such surprising unity, in this case I and many others felt we had to. This amendment aimed to further curtail the rights of women in Northern Ireland by making abortion illegal outside of NHS premises.
Now what does this have to do with atheism, agnosticism, scepticism, secularism, etc.? At first it would seem not a lot as the vast majority of labels which the irreligious community tend to use describe only that, we lack a belief in the existence of deities. In many cases (though not all and it is in no way part of the definition) this extends to lacking a religion or any belief in the supernatural, and embracing the scientific method, as well as the vast majority of scientific knowledge. This is where I find the link.
In watching the debate I was appalled at the utter disregard many of the MLAs had for scientific understanding, not to mention their inability to grasp basic human biology. At one point an SDLP MLA was corrected on his spewing of nonsense, had it broken down and explained for him; his response, “Ah, well I don’t accept that.” That was seen as a win for the SDLP MLA. At various points MLAs even broke out into Christian sermons, quoting the bible and calling each other’s religiosity into question as a way to win an argument.
Even if we just look at this rejection and wilful ignorance of logical reasoning and evidence, there are grounds enough for sceptics (whether they prefer the C or the K) to be annoyed by this and pursue a course of activism. Likewise, secularists should be cringing and banging their heads upon tables in unison at the idea of not only religious groups having power over legislation, but that our political leaders personally and willingly bring it into this debate; turning a medical matter which they want to twist into a criminal one, somehow into a holy crusade.
Then I suppose the question remains, why call on the wider atheist community (by which I mean ‘a-theist’, lack of a belief in the existence of deities) to become involved? One argument I have heard against this is that anti-choice, so called ‘pro-life’, atheists do exist and that the atheist community must embrace them as well, unless we want to drive them away and reduce our numbers. Well likewise I’m sure that there are racist, homophobic and more widely sexist atheists too, but most atheist groups will have standards enough to say ‘change or leave’.
What I am suggesting is not a redefining of the word ‘atheist’, the religious do that enough for us, but rather that we use our numbers to affect positive change which would seem to fit the ideals of secularism and scepticism. If anything, this positive activism would attract more people and allow them to come out of the atheist closet than it would drive away. Plus, they’d likely be individuals you would rather spend time with over the bigots. If you want to see an example of a movement like this I’d suggest Atheism Plus.
I’d like to ask all atheist groups, no matter their focus, to support women in this effort to extend free, safe and legal abortion to Northern Ireland (I’d also love to see those in the south get involved as well). In doing so you’d be standing alongside the vast majority of medical and scientific evidence, that the limit should be set at 24 weeks and that women do not need to be ‘protected’, but should instead be trusted with their own bodies. I’m sure this argument could be extended to other causes as well and I warmly welcome that.
The debacle between the National Trust’s Giant’s Causeway Visitors’ Centre over the inclusion of a creationist exhibit has sparked some creativity in the form of limericks from those fighting to have it removed. Here’s a few of the best so far:
Of the Giants Causeway formation,
an audio exhibit does say,
though their minds are deluded,
some nutjobs concluded
that the debate continues today…
The debate of formation is over,
at our Giant’s Causeway,
although they are deluded,
the creationist has concluded,
to ignore evidence to contray…
Creationist understanding of science,
is really quite rudimentary.
Despite our groans,
They believe the Flintstones
is a documentary.
The National Trust have proven quite crazy,
Their understanding is very hazy,
Instead of just having fact,
They used a theory that’s cracked,
Will they sort it? NO, they’re too lazy.
The Caleb creationist Wallace
Does things that can’t fail to appal us.
The Causeway, he says,
Was made in six days,
Which we know is a load of old bollocks.
There was a story on the BBC news website a couple of months ago about a local paranormal research group who were seeking access to the city hall to do a ghost hunt. I had intended writing about it at the time, but as usual these things slip my mind. But I was reminded of the story by a recent episode of the Righteous Indignation podcast where Marsh, Hayley and Trystran spent a whole episode talking about the group. The group are called the North Belfast Paranormal Research Group – NBPRG (I’m not aware of a South, East or West Belfast Paranormal Research Group – so they could probably dispense with the North bit) As Marsh said it does remind you of some of the long winded paramilitary names you got in the troubles. Apparently the City Hall are taking this seriously enough that they are asking councillors to rule on the matter. As yet I have been unable to ascertain as to whether the council have made a formal response to the group. Hopefully it wont waste too much more council time.
Obviously there is a need within scepticism to examine claims about the paranormal and this has been done for years by the likes of Joe Nickell and CSICOP. But theirs is an approach that differs radically form the type of group that the NBPRG appear to be. Essentially the NBPRG are the type of group we are familiar with from programmes like Most Haunted who use Electronic Voice Phenomena, EMF Metres and Orb Photography as the tools of their trade. I wont spend any time here explaining the problems with these techniques as Hayley Stephens does it much more succinctly here.
But to be honest I’m not so much bothered about the NBPRG gaining access to the city hall, I’m more curious about how as skeptics we should respond to this kind of story. Shows like “Most Haunted” and “Ghost Hunters” are just the latest incarnation of a centuries old tradition of telling ghost stories. This is a tradition that encompasses cultures across the globe, and has been a way of expressing morality tales or just exploring our fears of the unknown with in the safe confines of an allegory. But where the ghost hunters differ from the oral traditions of old is their attempt to claim scientific credibility through the use of cod scientific methods.
So, how should we respond? Complaining may just confirm to people that we are the cynical kill joys that they already suspected we were. I think any approach needs to be humorous and educational rather than dry and hectoring. A letter to the Belfast Telegraph may have been appropriate but to be honest I think there are bigger fish to fry.
Many people watch “Ghost Hunters” because of its tongue in cheek style and the programme has virtually become a parody of itself – but it has fed in to this world of “big name” psychic readers such as Derek Akora and Sally Morgan, and it is with these high profile characters that the sceptical movement is now focusing its attention. Project Barnum was set up last year after Sally Morgan was accused of being fed information from somebody behind the scenes at her Dublin show. The site aims to provide information to people about the psychological tricks used by mediums to convince people of their “skills”. Sally’s story has remained in the news thanks to the efforts of Simon Singh and The Merseyside Skeptics Society. The latest incident relating to a reading given to Drew McAdam in Edinburgh after he had already e-mailed Sally with the details that she went on to supposedly reveal from the spirit world.
Both Sally Morgan and Derek Akora are “performing” in Belfast over the next couple of months. Although I wouldn’t want to support them by actually paying to hear them talk – it may be a good opportunity to promote the work of Project Barnum.
29th March – Sally Morgan at Belfast Waterfront Hall
18th May – Derek Akora at The Ulster Hall
We’ve created a place over on Tumblr to archive various bits of news, humour and other points of view that we find — Facebook/Twitter are all very well, but (Facebook in particular) is difficult to archive — and I do like the idea of posterity. These things we do and say on the internet are profound and our kids must see them etc.
And so I bring you the Belfast Skeptics Scrapbook. All things are to be taken seriously and lightheartedly. These are simply a collection of ideas. A myriad of thoughts.
Please offer any quotes, comics, sketches, videos, articles or anything else completely rediculous — just use the “submit” button at the top of the page.