Current Affairs Religion

Tiny steps

It’s Tuesday, and the internet is still offended. Why? Because a store owner in Missouri posted an ill-advised sign in his window, which was spotted and widely circulated on the internet. It read:

Skepticon is NOT welcomed to my Christian Business

The owner of the Gelato Mio store saw something at Skepticon that upset him, which prompted him to put up this sign in his store window. You can read more about this on Hemant Mehta’s blog, which details the incident, and the response to the posting of the sign once pictures of it were circulated on the internet. Mehta’s blog is also the place to go to see a further apology from the owner of the store, which is as follows:

To the World:

Hello, my name is Andy and I’m the owner of Gelato Mio, a gelato shop located in Springfield, Missouri. There has been quite a lot of buzz and discussion concerning a picture of the sign I briefly posted in my front window Saturday evening. I’d like to take this opportunity to tell my story and offer a heartfelt apology to your community. I messed up, plain and simple. This is NOT an excuse, but how it happened from my perspective.

I decided to welcome the convention downtown by offering the attendees 10% off their purchases at my store. A lot of the group from the convention were stopping by, being very polite and enjoying my Gelato. Saturday night started out as a great night. Once the store slowed down, I decided to walk down the street to learn more about the convention, fully thinking it was something involving UFOs (“skeptics”). What I saw instead was a man conducting a mock sermon, reading the bible and cursing it. Instead of saying “Amen”, the phrase was “god damn”. Being a Christian, and expecting flying saucers, I was not only totally surprised but totally offended. I took it very personally and quickly decided in the heat of the moment that I had to take matters into my own hands and let people know how I felt at that moment in time.

So, I went quickly back to my business, grabbed the first piece of paper I could find, wrote the note and taped it in my front window. This was an impulsive response, which I fully acknowledge was completely wrong and unacceptable. The sign was posted for about 10 minutes or so before I calmed down, came to my senses, and took it down. For what it’s worth, nobody was turned away. I strongly believe that everybody is entitled to their beliefs. I’m not apologizing for my beliefs, but rather for my inexcusable actions. I was wrong.

Guys, I really don’t know what else I can do to express my apologies. I’ve received dozens of calls and hundreds of emails since the incident, and have done my best to reply to each and every one and express my regret for what happened. For the thousands of you whom I’ve offended, I sincerely apologize. I hope you can find it in your hearts to forgive me. This is me as a human being sincerely apologizing for my actions.

To those of you who accept my apology, Thank You; it means a lot. To those of you who haven’t, I hope you will. I’m just a 28 year old small business owner who made a big mistake. I hope you see that I have not made any excuses, I’ve owned up to what I did, and I apologize.

For what it’s worth, an Atheist reached out to me to help me work through all of this and contact your community directly. I graciously accepted his offer.

I will give everyone who comes to my store this week 10% off as a token of my apology. Really, what’s more universal than ice cream?

Sincerely, Andy

So, Andy acted impulsively, realised the mistake he made, and apologised. End of story, right? Sadly, no, because there are still people out there who would rather make an example of Andy than accept the apology and move on. PZ Myers disagrees, and his objections are now posted as part of Mehta’s blog (and you can see a selection of tweets here). The comments for Mehta’s blog contain a disappointing amount of hate, hurt, and irrationality, and readers seem fairly split about whether or not the apology is to be accepted or not. I’m afraid that I’m going to have to come down on the “accept the apology” side of things, and risk the ire that this will, doubtlessly, bring.

I tend to subscribe to the “don’t be a dick” philosophy, because being a dick doesn’t help get the point across, and mostly just tends to upset and alienate people. For anyone who would like to respond by telling me that they are a discriminated against minority who face abuse every day, and therefore have the right to be a dick, I will pre-emptively counter by reminding you that I live in a country which has, enshrined in it’s employment equality law, the right of a religious, medical, or educational organisation to discriminate on the grounds of religion, and where the vast majority of schools fall under religious patronage, meaning that it is almost impossible to educate one’s children without faith. With that said, please do me the courtesy of not dismissing what I say because I “don’t understand” the discrimination people face.

I think that Andy, like all of us, is human, and that he responded stupidly to something that was designed to provoke a response. He is by no means the only person guilty of such a crime, and I would wager that, if we were to check our own blogs, emails, and Twitter feeds, we’d probably find messages that we regret posting, or that we think now, with hindsight, were posted too hastily. Many people who believe strongly in religion do not merely see religious criticism as criticism of the religion, but as a very personal attack too – I could talk here about the various regions of the brain thought to be associated with religious thought, and the psychosocio-development of religion, but it’s probably more succinct to say that religion and faith are very personal and important things to those who believe, and those who believe tend to identify that belief as a large part of themselves as a person. In short, Andy, as a believer, has an emotional attachment to his faith, and when he saw something that ridiculed that faith, it also felt like something which ridiculed him directly, and his feelings were hurt. He acted, like many of us with hurt feelings do – by lashing out.

Am I aware that it’s irrational? Yes. Am I aware that it is illegal? Yes. Do we all sometimes do irrational, and possibly even illegal, things when we are feeling hurt and upset? If we’re honest, yes. Do we all apologise, publicly, for our irrational behaviour once the fog of upset has cleared? Well, no, actually. Mostly, we don’t. We shroud ourselves in a cloak of indignation, rights, beliefs, and other such emotional things, and declare that we were right anyway, or that it’s a matter of opinion, or other such placations. We use the cloak of indignation to bat away anything that might damage or tear the cloak, lest it expose the flawed logic beneath it. Privately, we might admit that we were hasty, but publicly, we do not want to lose face, so we gather our indignicloak about us and continue on. Does that sound like the kind of behaviour that skeptics revere, or more like the kind of thing that we are renowned for ridiculing? It is, I think, much easier to maintain an air of indignant offense than it is to accept that trashing a menu online  or posting hundreds of fake bad reviews was also an emotional reaction that, in hindsight, may be unjustified.

I’m not saying that what Andy did was ok – demonstrably, it wasn’t; it was offensive, and illegal. What I am saying is that he seems to have realised that his behaviour was offensive and illegal, and taken steps to remedy it. Frankly, he could have simply left the sign there, turned away patrons, and picketed the con for the rest of the weekend, and depending on the area he was in, he may well have received popular support for such actions. The fact is that that’s not what he has done. He took down the sign once his initial upset had cleared. He apologised, and has done so again, explaining (but not making excuses for) his behaviour.

People like Andy don’t understand our beliefs (or lack thereof) simply because we browbeat them into submission. People like Andy may never understand how or why we don’t believe in Jesus or Mohammed or any other deity. It would be nice if, in the future, everyone understood everyone’s beliefs, but if we are honest with ourselves, we might realise that, while we know about the beliefs of Christians, for example, we don’t understand them. I can think of many reasons why someone might have faith, but I don’t understand them because, to me, they seem illogical or hollow or simply weak. I speak the language of science, and evidence, and proof, and they speak the language of belief and faith.

I’m not saying that atheists should lie prone on the ground and allow people to walk all over them, but what I am saying is that responding like an aggrieved extremist group does not do anyone any favours. Do you honestly think that, if his shop goes out of business, he’ll suddenly have a conversion experience, become an atheist, and start attending Skepticon himself? Do you think that a non-acceptance of, what really appears to be, a sincere apology makes you seem like the better person? Do you believe that making a loud example of this person will help anyone, in any way? I don’t. Tiny steps matter.

Current Affairs Religion

Slings and Arrows: Confessions of an Atheist

It’s a rough time to be a Catholic priest. Everywhere you go, people are doing unreasonable things like expecting you to obey the law, take responsibility for crimes you’ve committed or helped to conceal, and respect those who don’t believe in organised religion or a god. Truly, the church has been “rocked by the barbs of a secular culture”. It’s gotten so bad, that we may never see another papal visit. Oh, and I suppose there might have been some small indiscretions by a small minority of priests too, but let us focus on the real problem: atheists.

The Raphoe report, the result of an investigation by the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church into allegations of clerical child sex abuse made to the diocese from 1975 up t0 2011, is expected to be published later this month. This report will add to the growing scandal fuelled by the Ryan and Murphy reports, the Cloyne report, and other articles and allegations made against the Church which appear to make the aforementioned national board a necessity. These abuses, and the depth to which they were covered up, have rocked the Church to its foundations, and since the publication of the first report, public opinion has turned against the Church in a way that we have not previously seen. People may still believe in god, but such is the volume of people leaving the Church that they’ve even taken away the ability to defect. I can’t help but wonder if there will come a point when priests such as Bishop Boyce and Pastor Stahl realise that the decay they see has come from within, and stop looking to place the blame for this loss of popularity squarely at the feet of atheists and secular society.

Pastor Stahl wants to protect his community from the atheists who are on a par with all sorts of unsavoury characters. The full text of Pastor Stahl’s blog has been reproduced on the Pharyngula site, and though I can provide you with a link to Stahl’s blog, I can’t promise that you’ll be able to read it, as that is a privilege afforded only to invited guests. To summarise, Stahl wants a registry of “known athiests” so that a good and god-fearing christian can look up atheists in their home town and make sure that they aren’t influenced untowardly by the close association that atheists have with satan. The irony of proposing a connection between atheists and satan is obviously lost on Stahl, but perhaps more worryingly than the comparison with an imaginary being is the comparison and implied link between atheism and paedophiles and sex offenders.

Brothers and Sisters , I have been seriously considering forming a ( Christian ) grassroots type of organization to be named “The Christian National Registry of Atheists” or something similar . I mean , think about it . There are already National Registrys for convicted sex offenders , ex-convicts , terrorist cells , hate groups like the KKK , skinheads , radical Islamists , etc..


Now , many (especially the atheists ) , may ask “Why do this , what’s the purpose ?” Duhhh , Mr. Atheist , for the same purpose many States put the names and photos of convicted sex offenders and other ex-felons on the I-Net – to INFORM the public !


Or perhaps they are radical atheists , whose hearts are as hard as Pharaoh’s , in that case , if they are business owners , we would encourage all our Christian friends , as well as the various churches and their congregations NOTto patronize them as we would only be “feeding” Satan .

Frankly , I don’t see why anyone would oppose this idea – including the atheists themselves ( unless of course , they’re actually ashamed of their atheist religion , and would prefer to stay in the ‘closet.’ ) .

Oh dear. This implied connection is not just irritating and, frankly, offensive, but it’s also a laughable example of someone who cannot see the speck in his brother’s eye because of the plank in his own. Given the proliferation of allegations of child sexual abuse within the church, it seems foolish to suggest that only atheists might engage in such behaviour, and that only atheists might damage the innocent children. As to opposition of the idea, well, in a society such as the one we live in, it is not always a popular thing to declare that you do not believe in god. While I have no particular problem in doing so myself, I am also aware that employment law in Ireland holds specific provision for an employee to be fired from an educational or medical institution on the basis of their religion. In a country where you cannot be discriminated against because of your gender, age, race, etc., you can still, legally, be discriminated against for your religion, or lack thereof. Until these provisions are removed, I can understand why people would feel it best to not appear, name a photo, on a public registry of people who think that god is nonsense. It would be fair to say that Stahl is an extreme example of clerical overreaction, and as he is unlikely to be able to create such a registry, I feel we have little to fear. As it has been some time since his original post, and the list has yet to materialise, I suspect that it never will. However, while Stahl is an extreme example, there are others, much closer to home, who also seem eager to look outwards and point fingers when examining the declining popularity of the church.

Bishop Boyce, who will soon be publishing his own report into clerical sex abuse, seems equally eager to apportion blame where it is not due. While his comments briefly acknowledged the fact that clerical sex abuse was a problem, he was quick to remind us not to ” worry and fret [as this] makes the anguish fester within us. We do not deny them but rather take them as our share in Christ’s redeeming sufferings.” While those who suffered at the hands of the abusers are still, in some cases, fighting for that abuse to be acknowledged, we may all be relieved to learn that the priests, too, are suffering because the ramifications for covering up the abuse for so many years are akin to the suffering of christ, and while it may seem trivial, it will ultimately bring them closer to christ the redeemer, and the peace and happiness they so richly deserve. Quite.

I suspect that the reason people are turning away from the church is not down to the influence of secular society or demonic atheists, but because they have become tired of hearing about abuse stories, and tired of the cover-up culture that has, sadly, become synonymous with the church in Ireland (and abroad). Even as evidence of more wrong-doing is uncovered, some within the church continue to make excuses – Monsignor O’Callaghan, of the Cloyne diocese, maintains that the abusers should not be held to account because many of them are now old and ill (though, somewhat hilariously, he has been told to shut up and stop helping by his former peers), and at the suggestion that the seal of confession should be broken where the confession concerns child abuse, Cardinal Brady was quick to claim it as a treasured right, and mark the debate as one of religious freedom and not law:

Freedom to participate in worship and to enjoy the long-established rites of the church is so fundamental that any intrusion upon it is a challenge to the very basis of a free society.”

“For example, the inviolability of the seal of confession is so fundamental to the very nature of the sacrament that any proposal that undermines that inviolability is a challenge to the right of every Catholic to freedom of religion and conscience.”

Brady is not alone in this opinion, and several priests and religious people have come out in support of this position, some stating that they would rather go to jail than break the seal of confession. By dressing this up as a religious rights issue, it is easy to avoid the reason for the debate in the first place – no one is saying that religious freedom should be suppressed, but child abuse is not a fundamental part of the catholic religious dogma, and covering it up is not a religious issue, it’s a legal one. The laws of the country are there to be obeyed by everyone, and that means that when a priest confesses to child abuse, more than 1500 times, it is not ok to conceal that fact simply because you said a prayer afterwards, or because he told you while you both sat in a special box.

There are so many examples like this that it would be impossible to link to them or discuss them all. It is all behaviour which speaks to a lack of maturity and an unwillingness to take responsibility for one’s own actions and I believe that it is this, and not the mere existence of atheists, which has fundamentally damaged the church and encouraged believers to turn away. For as long as priests continue to make excuses, conceal abuses, and blame problems on external influences, the decaying heart of the church will continue to fester, and people will continue to leave. It should be clear to those involved that people are not interested in hearing the justifications of desperate men and women, and that “it was a long time ago” or “he’s very sick now” are not considered valid excuses. It should be clear that caveat-filled apologies are not sufficient to restore the faith of the abused and their communities. It should be clear that it is time for genuine repentance, and genuine change. It is time to stop focusing on the outside, and look to the problems within. It is time, quite literally, to practice that which you preach.

Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye. Matthew 7:5, King James Bible


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,