Current Affairs Religion

Ye shall know the truth…

…and the truth shall make you free. (John 8:32)

Parents, teachers, and religious folk may not always agree on all aspects of child-rearing, but it’s likely that they’ll all agree that “tell the truth” is an important rule. Perhaps that’s why it’s so disappointing when the grown-ups, the role models, and the moral compasses of this world choose to lie to impressionable children to further their own beliefs, or to gain.

Recently, a friend of mine tweeted a link to an article in the Irish Times about the Knock Summer Festival, a Catholic Youth Festival with prayer, reflection, talks, song, and a whole host of wholesome and religious activities. The article itself is not particularly noteworthy, featuring benign quotes from various organisers interspersed with local history facts and comments on some of the activities that took place. What struck me, however, were the comments made by one teenage attendee regarding a talk given by one Patrick Reynolds, entitled Love and Relationships, quoted below for clarity:

They have just been at the workshop on relationships given by a lay Christian, Pat Reynolds. Reynolds is Glaswegian, funny, engaging and deeply sceptical about the reliability of both the condom and the contraceptive pill, issuing several statistics on safety and health risks along with the story of his life as a single lad prior to meeting his wife in Knock five years ago. His talk is deeply personal: “We have three beautiful children with us and one in heaven.” And while nothing is hammered home, his talk subtly nudges listeners towards thinking about attitudes towards contraception and sex.

“The relationship yoke, my friends would have enjoyed that,” Tania says. “I am 16 now and I was thinking of going on the pill and wouldn’t touch it after that. No point in getting the pill if it is going to kill you.”

I have searched long and wide, but have not been able to find a video or transcript of this talk (although I did find Patrick on facebook and intend to ask him about the talk), but based on his position as a contraception skeptic, and the comments about it, it seems that the talk highly discouraged the use of contraception. More than this, the talk seems to have highlighted, and over-emphasised, the risks associated with the pill, such that teenagers attending the talk left with the impression that it was somehow lethal.  I wish this were an isolated case, but even a cursory internet search will find numerous websites and Christian and Catholic groups preaching about contraception, and in many cases, the information given is more than a little biased.

Websites such as The Pill Kills are not uncommon, and seem to primarily engage in the same tactics used by many woo-peddling charlatans previously featured on this blog – focus only on the statistics which support what you want to say, and ignore those which do not. Proponents of NFP (Natural Family Planning) quote figures of 99.5% success in preventing unwanted pregnancy, which they say is much more effective than the pill. Only sometimes is this declaration accompanied by the “when used correctly” caveat, and almost never is it displayed alongside the actual success rates (i.e. those based on typical, rather than perfect, use). In that instance, we can turn to a more neutral party to discover that NFP has success rates of just 73-75% – a stark contrast from the 99% ideal and 92% actual effectiveness of the Pill. Studies have found that NFP methods are only effective with continuous intensive coaching and monthly review – a tall order when compared to taking a daily tablet, or a monthly injection.

When not focusing on the relative success and failure rates of the different contraceptive methods versus NFP, these groups highlight the medical risks associated with taking the pill. In this respect, they are technically correct (the pill does have some potential side effects) but morally questionable. Every medication has side effects, and in order to market medications, the list of side effects must accompany the medication. However, when these lists are displayed, they are categorised by relative risk (e.g. common side effects to extremely rare side effects), and most often with the percentage risk too. This is to enable a patient to make an informed choice about the medication, and displaying these risks without the full information is purposely sensational, and more than a little underhanded.

As we are discussing side effects, I would also like to briefly discuss the side effects of another related condition:

  • Anemia
  • Lumbar pain
  • Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
  • Constipation
  • Edema
  • Vomiting
  • Heartburn
  • Nausea
  • GERD (Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease)
  • Haemorrhoids
  • Pelvic Girdle Pain
  • Depression
  • Psychosis
  • Round Ligament Pain
  • Urinary incontinence
  • Urinary Tract Infection
  • Varicose Veins
  • Diabetes
  • Death
  • and many more…

What else could these young innocent children have to face with so many risks? Pregnancy. In addition to the above risks which are associated with every pregnancy (including pre-eclampsia, eclampsia, and a number of conditions affecting the foetus, to name a few conditions not listed above), a number of specific concerns relate to teenage pregnancy. Incidences of low birth weight and premature birth are higher in younger mothers, and they are less likely to seek and receive prenatal care, putting them at higher risk for a number of life-threatening pregnancy-related conditions. Risk of death as a result of pregnancy is twice as great for mothers between 15-19 than for those who are 20-24, and it can be up to 5 times higher for girls who are between 10 and 14. Obstructed labour, often caused by an underdeveloped pelvis, is extremely common, leading to Caesarean section (which itself carries all the risks of major surgery), and the risk of pre-eclampsia and eclampsia is higher in young women who are pregnant.

Of course, it would be remiss of me to present only one side of the coin – the risks of pregnancy, for many, do not outshine the potential gains, and for most pregnancies, there will be few, or no, problems. Presenting biased information that shows only one side, however, is exactly what these organisations and people are engaging in, and it’s deceitful and wrong. If you want children to understand your belief that contraception shouldn’t be used, or is a sin, do so by explaining it properly, rather than lying to them, exaggerating the risks, and discouraging them from seeking contraception at all.

If you look hard enough, it’s easy to find enough information to support almost any argument, but I have yet to find compelling information that would make me support outright deceit on the part of those supposed to nurture and teach impressionable young minds. The pill probably won’t kill you; ignorance, on the other hand, just might.

Current Affairs Religion Science

Science is not my god

Dear Deborah Orr,

When you next choose to write a small piece for the Guardian’s Science section, please do try to include some actual science. It’s considered good practice by scientists to label correctly what you do, and by no stretch of the imagination could said piece be considered science.

I consider myself to be a good scientist – I try to be thorough in my research, I do my best to be balanced, and I always explain my work. That’s why, rather than simply complaining that your piece is shallow, inaccurate, misleading, and, lets face it, a bit rubbish, I’m also going to explain why.


Thrilling news from Geneva. Scientists at Cern have captured some of those elusive antimatter atoms. We’re a tiny step closer to corralling the God particle. If, of course, its predicted existence is correct. I love that nomenclature, “the God particle”. It is a sign that scientists sometimes are unabashed about acknowledging what atheists are often reluctant to grasp: that “believing” in science involves faith too.

Faith in science is far more practical than faith in the idea that a big, omnipotent boy did it and ran off. Or I place my faith in that argument anyway. But it’s still faith, not fact, so sneering at faith per se is not a very reasoned or logical mode of argument.

Source: The Guardian, 9/6/11

  1. The God Particle – I’m glad that you enjoy the nomenclature, since an awful lot of real science nomenclature is rather stuffy, being based mostly Latin and/or Greek. I expect that someone else who’ll be glad is Leon Lederman, the author of the book “The God Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What is the Question”. It is, of course, this book which has led to the media dubbing the Higgs boson particle the God Particle. In fact, take a brief look at the term (and in this instance, you need not look any further than another article from the Guardian) and you’ll find that, for the most part, scientists don’t use the term God Particle. They don’t like it, and tend to think that it portrays scientists as arrogant, and overstates the importance of the particle, which, funnily enough, is rather similar to what you’ve done in your piece. In short, it is people like you, with an extremely poor understanding of science, and 5 minutes to search the net, that keep propagating this term by using it, even though science never has.
  2. Faith – OED defines faith as:  Confidence, reliance, trust (in the ability, goodness, etc., of a person; in the efficacy or worth of a thing; or in the truth of a statement or doctrine) and contrary to your apparent belief, there is no stipulation that faith is something which must be blind. While faith is most often used to describe the fact of belief in a religious context, that’s far from the only meaning of the word. Faith and belief are not dirty words simply because they are also used in a religious context. They both simply mean that you accept that something is correct, true, or trustworthy on the basis of the evidence that you have. Blind faith is just a little bit different, since that is accepting that something is correct, true, or trustworthy in the absence of evidence, or indeed, in spite of evidence which is proof of the lie.
  3. Faith in Science – Faith in science does tend to be a good deal more practical than faith in many other things. For example, I have faith that, should I jump off a bridge, gravity will ensure my speedy reunion with the ground. I have faith that if I combine hydrogen with oxygen, I will have water. Why? Because these things have been proven, demonstrably, to be true. Theories in science are rarely just flights of fancy – they are usually based on existing principles which have been proven to be correct. Additionally, a key difference between “science” and “blind faith” is that, while “blind faith” refuses to change, “science” redevelops its theories when new, more accurate evidence comes to light, even if that means contradicting something which was earlier thought to be true. For example, should there prove to be no higgs boson particle, scientists will not continue irrationally believing in it, but will instead accept that the hypothesis has been dis-proven, and move on.
  4. Logical mode of argument – As we’re conversing about modes of arguing, I suppose that I should bring up a construct known as a straw man. This is when someone sets up a falsely weak argument (e.g. linking science and God in a title by way of a particle named by the media and not scientists) and then proceeds to knock it over. While you may appear to have scored a point, you haven’t really tackled the core issue at all, merely the straw man which stands alongside it (and is loosely related to the argument, but is not the same). It’s considered a pretty poor technique, and is often used by people who don’t have a full understanding of the issues, but who just want to appear right.


Science is a popular target indeed. You can’t comment on people’s religious beliefs without being labelled a bigot, but mock someone for being a scientist, and you’re likely to wind up published in the Guardian. Science is based on fact. When scientists are trying to prove that something exists, that is not based on “blind faith”; it is based on evidence from previous experiments, established scientific principles, and facts which have been proven correct to the best of our ability.

It’s much easier to sneer at science than it is to sneer at faith, but perhaps you should consider the fallacy in your argument (one I expect was unintentional); if science truly is a faith, then aren’t you just as bad as the rest of us scientists?

With warmest regards,