Sunday, April 25, 2010

Atheism is a religion

No. No, it isn't.

Aside from a minority of highly ignorant people who equate atheism with devil worship (or the like), there are a worryingly large number of normal people who see atheism as just another one of the vast array of often conflicting religions on offer on this planet. I'd just like to make it clear that atheism is not a religion; it's not even accurate to describe it as a movement. I'll try to explain...

The Oxford English Dictionary* defines religion to be:

1. The belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.
2. A particular system of faith and worship.
3. A pursuit or interest followed with devotion.
— ORIGIN originally in the sense life under monastic vows: from Latin religio ‘obligation, reverence’.

And atheism to be:

The belief that God does not exist.
— DERIVATIVES atheist noun atheistic adjective atheistical adjective.
— ORIGIN from Greek a- ‘without’ + theos ‘god’.

I'll address each of the three definitions of religion with reference to that of atheism:

1. The belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods
This is self-evidently at odds with the definition of atheism: One is almost the anti-statement of the other, as atheists do not believe in or worship any superhuman controlling power, whether or not that would be a personal God or gods. I have been told that the very act of believing that there is no God means that atheism is a religion because it involves belief. Nonsense! Whilst I definitely disbelieve in any god that I have been made aware of so far, I just as fervently disbelieve in the existence of entities such as the Easter bunny, the tooth fairy and the monster under my bed. Do these disbeliefs count as religions as well? If not, what's the difference?

2. A particular system of faith and worship
This seems self-evident to me, but I've had a lot of people who follow particular religions cite this one as being evidence that atheism is a religion so I'll talk about it a bit more.

Atheists, by the definition of the word, share one thing and one thing only: They do not believe in a God, gods, deities, or any other superhuman, supernatural entities. That is the only thing that all atheists have in common. Of course, two or more individual atheists may be in agreement with regards to world view, moral values, political inclination, sexual orientation, favourite colour and whether or not they're a morning person, but this is categorically nothing to do with the fact that they are atheists. Atheism is not a club that dictates thoughts or viewpoints; there are no rites or rituals, there is no system to follow, and you can't be 'thrown out' for not following any piece of doctrine because there simply is no doctrine to follow.

Atheists don't believe in gods: simple.

3. A pursuit or interest followed with devotion
Yes, many atheists are particularly devoted to their non-belief in supernatural entities and in this respect could be described as 'religious'. But many people follow many and varied aspects of their lives with equal (if not superior) levels of devotion: work, study, hobbies, political matters, even the progress of  television shows. If an atheist is to be deemed religious on these grounds, then so must anybody who is devoted to their job, works tirelessly for academic achievement, campaigns for their political party, or puts in the hours to improve themselves at sport, music or any one of an endless number of other activities.

Another statement that I have had thrown at me recently which I feel fits in here implied that religious types are better people because they do not go around telling children that God does not exist. I feel it necessary to respond to that here as there appear to be some crossed wires:
Intelligent, thinking atheists do not go around telling children (or anyone else) that God simply does not exist. In my position as a teacher I would feel not only morally but also professionally misguided were I to dictate my own viewpoint on such a contentious issue to the impressionable people in my care. Intelligent, thinking people of any variety encourage people to think for themselves and to reach conclusions based on the evidence that is available. I am perfectly happy to discuss my viewpoint with anybody (children included) if they should wish to do so, and I will happily put forward the reasons behind my thoughts. I will not, however, tell anybody how or what they should think. This, I feel, is one of the more important distinctions between being an atheist and following a religion.
On the other hand I am dead against children being taught to follow any particular religion; the practise of indoctrinating children from birth towards a particular religious standing is, in my view, morally reprehensible. But this is a rant for another post!

* A standard reference in the cause of semantic arguments, I think!

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Work. Of. Art

It's Aliiiiive!

A home-made lettuce, tomato, potato salad, red leicester mini-cheese, smoked mini-cheese and scotch egg baguette. Subway can kiss my white bits.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Your Horoscope with our resident Astrologer, Madame Teakay: Taurus (April 21 - May 21)

Taurus - April 21 - May 21

Goats and strange, sultry women cross your path this month, but it's up to you whether this is a positive or negative experience. Whatever happens, try to avoid doing entirely pointless things that, if having any effect at all, can only serve to make a situation worse. You're all revved up with no place to go as the Moon turns new on the 14th. Put this pent-up energy to good use; try out a new hobby, exercise like your mind and body depend on it, or just don a cape and mask and wreak vigilante justice for the duration. In other news, you really should stop relying on imaginary sky-people for moral guidance and help with life choices: it's all there inside you already; you just have to look for it.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Why, oh why...

... didn't I have the foresight to book myself a holiday for this Easter break?

Just a subliminal blip or two sent back from the near future would have been enough to encourage me to make the necessary arrangements. I guess it's a game you play: the holiday lottery. The jackpot? Being able to phone work and say something like "I'm so sorry I can't come in! I'm trapped on this hideously beautiful beach because there are no planes going back to the UK and I'm just not a strong enough swimmer for the alternative: I tried, honestly I tried, but I had to turn back." before adjusting your sunglasses and signalling to the waiter that you'd feel most comfortable with an extra strawberry daiquiri for the other hand as well, just for medicinal purposes you understand, in order to drown your more immediate sorrows about not being able to leave this island paradise and instead having to stay right here and have sunblock massaged into your shoulders by gorgeous people.

As far as natural disasters go, this has to be one of the best: Whilst a few hundred people have been evacuated from the area, Eyjafjallajoekull*'s eruption doesn't appear to be putting anyone in any real danger. Many, many people have been inconvenienced by the situation, but when life gives you lemons shouldn't you just have a go at making a soufflĂ©?

Volcanoes and such things fall into the category of 'Things I Find Really Interesting,' and I've found this nifty graphic that explains a little of the geography (and geology) of the area. I lifted it from this page on the BBC news website which has some interesting information about Iceland and its volcanoes. It's worth having a read if you're at all interested in things like how this planet works and why it does what it does. I remember studying the 1973 Heimaey eruption in my geography lessons at school: it was one of the few aspects of the subject that managed to grip me in any way.

There's some interesting and impressive footage of the Eyjafjallajoekull eruption in the video embedded below. It helps to get some idea of the scale of what's going on; some of it just looks unreal!

* It seems to be pronounced something like "Ay - yeff - ell - oke", with the stress on the first syllable. But don't quote me on this.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Why does sunlight make you sneeze?

@sarahnb1 just asked this question on twitter, and I was interested because it links up with my previous post on sneezing and my interest in astronomy (vaguely...).

I've just had a quick look around the interweb, and apparently this phenomenon only affects a certain percentage (different sources suggest somewhere between 18% and 35%) of the population, of which I am one! As is my dad and, I'm assuming, @sarahnb1.

It's known in scientific circles as the photic sneeze reflex which has a certain ring to it, I think. It has been noticed and studied since at least Aristotle, but no conclusive scientific explanation has been decided upon. Historical hypotheses include the reflex being caused by heat (refuted by Francis Bacon who attempted to recreate the situation with his eyes closed*) and moisture (the idea being that the sunlight made the eyes water, which leaked into the nasal passages**).

The most commonly accepted partial explanation appears to be a certain cross-wiring in the parts of the brain responsible for processing input from the ocular and nasal senses. Put simply, a sudden inrush of light information from the eyes is misunderstood by the brain and taken as information being sent from the nerve endings in the nasal passages. This means that the brain thinks something unusual is up the nose, and orders a sneeze as a result.

The condition is not seen to be harmful in any way, and no studies have shown it to be linked to any other more serious illnesses or complaints, which may go some way to explaining why it has gone so long without a proper explanation. Some sources I came across suggest that some scientists are hoping that studies of the reflex may provide insights into how the brain processes light signals which are relevant to learning about conditions such as epilepsy and migraine, both of which are known to have light-sensitive triggers and effects.

Here's a video of a kid photic-sneezing. It goes without saying, I'm sure, but please, please, please do not look directly at the sun, even if you're trying to find out if you're a photic sneezer. Sensitivity evidently varies with this one- some 'sufferers' say that they can't go outside on a sunny day without sunglasses because they just can't stop sneezing. Personally, it happens to me when I move from a darkness into bright light, such as leaving the cinema on a sunny day; once I get used to the new light levels, the sneezing stops.

* All conditions were the same apart from the presence of light; the sneeze did not manifest where previously it had.
** More recent experimentation has concluded that the sneeze comes about far too quickly for this to be the case.

Why does pepper make you sneeze?

@annaleeb just asked why does pepper make you sneeze? on her twitter feed. I thought it was an interesting question...

We sneeze when something irritates certain nerve endings in our nose: sneezing is your body's way of clearing things that shouldn't be there out of your nasal passage, and is a reflex much like coughing or vomiting (which have similar purposes). When you sneeze, mucous membranes are activated to produce snot which helps to flush out the offending substance.

Pepper, more specifically one of its constituent substances piperine, is particularly irritating to those nerve endings and so is particularly effective at inducing a sneeze.

And just so this post isn't all text, here's a video of a baby panda sneezing. To my knowledge, no pepper was harmed in the making of this video.

The General Election: Who to vote for

After my 'Calling all Political Activists' post, only the Lib Dems rose to task*. Unfortunately, that probably says more about the state of my blog's readership than anything about proponents of any particular political party so it's back to the drawing board for me.

Fortunately, my attention has been drawn to a couple of websites with promising titles with regards to doing the leg work in my quest to find out who I should be voting for in the looming general election:

My attention was drawn to this website by @Dr_Black in my Twitter stream. It's fairly easy to use- you enter your postcode and then answer three sets of questions:

The first involves a series of statements on various issues, and you choose whether you agree, disagree or are open minded. You can skip ones that you're unsure of, don't care about or are undecided on. The statements are short, sweet and simple, but there's no easy way to get further information if (like me) you're a little unclear on many of the policies and promises being bandied about. For example, one of the statements is "Education: University tuition fees should be scrapped." I agree with this in certain circumstances and understand that certain changes would have to be made to afford this. Whether I support it totally would depend on what these changes were. Others that I'm a bit sketchy on would help me out if they included an idea as to what the alternative is.

The second section provides you with a bunch of general issues and you choose the ones that are most important to you. I noticed a conspicuous lack of a 'science & technology' section, which is weird because one of the few things I've picked up about this election is that science appears to be playing a big part**.

Lastly you pick from a list of parties the ones that you would be willing to vote for, missing out any that are a definite no-no.

My matches
My best match was the Green party at 48%, followed by the Liberal Democrats at 44%, the Conservatives at  39% and Labour at 18%. I didn't include UKIP or the BNP in my results because that's just not going to happen. There are links to further information, but I haven't investigated these fully: the biggest reason why I'm using this site in the first place is that I'm politically lazy.

Here's a nifty widget for finding your best matches via VoteMatch. Feel free to comment with your results:
I'd like to see sites much like these that cater for people like me in that they give different statements to agree or disagree with, but also provide an idea of the types of concessions that would have to be made to implement them as well as possible consequences of their implementation. What are the main arguments being made for a specific issue? What are the arguments against? If somebody could paraphrase these issues with this information I would find these websites much, much more helpful.

Who Should You Vote For
This link was brought to my attention, again via Twitter, by @miss_s_b. The idea is much the same as with VoteMatch, but delivered in a slightly different way.

This time you have a page of statements with five radio buttons next to each allowing you to choose your position, from strongly opposed through completely undecided and on to strongly agree. When you've done that they ask for your age and an idea of who you think you'll get as your highest match, then you submit the results and they give you something like this:

Take the Who Should You Vote For? UK General Election quiz
UK Independence8
Liberal Democrat5
You expected: LIB
Your recommendation: Green
Click here for more details about these results

This site gives a bit more information on each statement in the form of hoverable question marks, but they mention each party's stance on each one which strikes me as a decent way of introducing bias into the results (even I have certain prejudices in mind with regards to certain parties. Knowing that one statement is supported by the Tories, for example, may push me slightly further towards disagreeing with it if I would otherwise be on the fence). My advice would be to choose your response and stick to it before looking at the extra info. Again, I would like to have seen some more general, non-party-specific comments on each statement: why's it an issue? What are the main arguments for and against?

And again, there was very little in the way of representation of science and technology policy, and even educational matters get only a fleeting mention. For you this may not matter, but for me they are the two key issues.

So, whilst feeling slightly more clued-up, I'm still undecided and politically virgin-pure. It seems to me that none of the main parties feel particularly strongly about the issues that are most important to me, but I have had the Green party brought to my attention as my possibility.

As always, anyone of any political persuasion is most welcome to contact me in order to tell me why I should vote for your party. Please do NOT tell me why I shouldn't be voting for other parties unless it is directly relevant, i.e. a contrast with your own policies within my stated key issues. Simply telling me that all other party leaders have crap hair will bore me and turn me right off: I covered my main reasons for being bored to death by politics here. Please read it before attempting to convince me to vote for your party!

* Feel free to rectify that, anyone of a Conservative, Labour, Green, hell, even BNP(*) disposition.
** Or is that I've noticed the sci/tech bits because that's what I'm interested in? Cause or effect, I wonder?

(*) We all love a laugh, don't we?

Monday, April 12, 2010

Party in the Peaks Weekend 26/03/2010 - 28/03/2010: Photos and comments

So it was two weeks ago now, but I wanted to put all of my links and pictures from the weekend in one place...

A bunch of friends and I went on holiday to the Peak District. We rented a gorgeous cottage between ten of us that was somewhere near (but not too near) Leek at the Staffordshire end of the peaks.

Chris picked us (myself and Emma) up after school, and the Party Bus wung its way northwards. Dan and Ellie were already there, having been off work that day, and they had done all sorts of grown-up things like sorting out sleeping arrangements and buying food for the weekend.

There was no mobile signal at the cottage (it was in the middle of nowhere from any angle you cared to look, even a digital communications one), but the next day I posted a picture of a view of our cottage from the main road. If you look at that image about 1/3 of the way in from the top and right-hand side with your nose up against your screen you might just about make out a roof peaking above a clump of trees. That's where we stayed.

Having not seen each other in a while (a couple of years in some cases), Friday night consisted mainly of pizza, alcohol and catching up. --Quote of the night--

The view from our bedroom window on Saturday morning looked very much like this...

... but the fog cleared fairly quickly and the day turned into a really sunny, gorgeous one so I took the opportunity to take a couple of snaps outside...

... then we hiked across the peaks to Leek, where we found a pub called the Cock Inn. It was a nice place with decent beer, and the food was nice enough if a bit basic.

That evening we discovered and booked a table at a pub/restaurant called the Red Lion in a village called Thorncliffe, which I think we'd all recommend to anyone who's in the area and looking for some grub.

Sunday morning saw an enormous fry-up for eight people followed by packing the vehicles for the trip home. We decided to call in at Shugborough Hall on the way where much fun was had. It was a bit pricey to get in (£12 each) but worth it, I think, for a one-off trip as there was plenty to do including a ride on a road train, a working demonstration of a water mill, a look around a big ol' posh house and a cafe. We even saw the aftermath of a trio of lambs being born.

Then we went home and went to sleep the end.

Some more photos are available for the privileged few (Facebook friends):

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Severn Estuary

The view from Pontymoel Golf Club on the tallest peak in the world: a full 9 inches higher than Everest.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

How long have we got left?

A question from Jo via my Inspire Me form:

'Following all the hoo-hah and scaremongering over the Large Hadron Collider possibly creating black holes and ending the world, my question is this:
If the LHC did create the tiny black holes that the doom-mongers say it might, how long would it take for the world to end? And on that note, what actually would happen to it and, more importantly, me?! What might I notice/feel?'

First up:

A crash course in creating black holes (don't try this at home)
As far as I understand it, there are two ways to create a black hole:
1. Get lots of matter and put it all in the same place. By 'lots' I mean at least three times as much stuff as there is in our sun.
If you have enough mass, it will collapse in on itself. Now, gravity is a very weak force which is why you need so much stuff to make it all worthwhile; too little stuff and you get things like planets forming instead of black holes. A bit more stuff, and you get things like our star: the matter collapses in on itself until the energy released from this collapse ignites the matter and you get the big burning fireball that allows us to live. When the fuel for this fire runs out, the sun's matter will collapse a bit more and form a white dwarf, eventually cooling to become a brown dwarf, but not a black hole.
Even more mass in one place, and you still get a burning fireball, but more interesting things happen once the fuel has run dry. If your leftovers have a bit more mass than the sun has, they'll collapse further than the white dwarf stage and form a neutron star. This happens when there is enough mass to ensure that the combined forces of gravity can overcome the much stronger forces inside an atom that keep the protons and electrons apart: ram them together and you get neutrons.
With even more mass left over (I repeat, at least three times what's in the sun), even the forces that stop neutrons from being crushed into other neutrons (known as the 'neutron degeneracy pressure'*) are no match for the force of gravity, and everything goes weird: a black hole is formed.

2. Get a couple of particles and smack them into each other at very, very, very high speeds.
Whichever way you want to make a black hole, neutron degeneracy pressure has to be overcome. One way to do this is by crushing lots of mass together as above. Another way is to crash two particles together at very high speeds (or energies). One possibility for this is high energy cosmic rays striking the Earth's atmosphere. Another is within the confines of a particle accelerator experiment, such as the LHC, the Large Hadron Collider.

So is the unthinkable likely to happen?
Anybody who has seen any kind of science fiction film, or has any kind of interest in space science at all knows that nothing can escape from a black hole. One thing that most people don't know is that black holes aren't completely black. They give off energy called Hawking radiation** which actually causes a loss in mass of the black hole. Now, for really massive black holes the amount of energy lost is a lot smaller than the amount they absorb just from the cosmic microwave background***, so the net effect is that they keep getting bigger. But an interesting effect of the calculations is that the smaller a black hole, the more radiation it emits. So, for a really small black hole, of the kind of size we're talking about being possibly created in one of the LHC's experiments, the science predicts that it will evaporate in a tiny, tiny, teeny, insy-winsy spider-sized fraction of a second after it has been created. It wouldn't have time to start accreting matter, and the biggest problem facing particle physicists would be even noticing it was there in the first place.

In short, the processes that CERN's scientists are trying to recreate have been happening around us naturally for billions of years. We're unlikely to be swallowed up by a black hole of our own making; if it was going to happen the odds are that it would have done so by now!

But what if...
O.k, o.k, just saying it's incredibly unlikely and leaving it there is a bit boring, isn't it? I'm afraid the "yeah, but what if it did happen," response isn't that interesting either.

What would you notice? Not much. You wouldn't have time. If we were sucked into a microscopic black hole, everyone and everything you have ever known would be collectively crushed down to occupy a space around the size of an average garden pea. This would happen in less than a second. It would be accompanied by a belching of radiation off into space, but you wouldn't be around long enough to notice it.

Interestingly, because the mass of the Earth would still be the same, if occupying a significantly smaller volume, it's gravitational effect on the surrounding space would be the same as always. The Moon (and any other satellites, natural or artificial, that had escaped the collapse) would orbit just as they had before: to a casual, visual observer it would look like they were orbiting nothing at all. Weird.

* How Star Trek is that?
** Go on; see if you can guess who worked this out...
*** Radiation energy left over from the big bang

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Atheist Easter

"So how does a chocolate loving atheist approach Easter?"

It's a decent question to ask somebody who's thoroughly opposed to organised religion.

My initial response was that 'chocolate eggs are hardly the most religious thing in the world,' and then there's my stock response to such questions, whether they centre around Easter, Christmas, or any other such nationally-accepted holidays that started off from a religious base: I see no harm in having one more excuse to be nice to people for a day and exchange gifts.

They way I see it, Easter is a national holiday in the UK, and there are a few ways of dealing with it:

  1. Embrace the religiousness, try to convince myself that some dude died for my sins and then came back to life to prove a point before ascending into heaven on his terms rather than those of damned unbelieving heathens. - No chance.
  2. Grumble and moan and complain and hide away at home until it's all over. - What's the point? No one would notice any difference from me anyway.
  3. Actively take steps to ban it. - Why bother? It does no real harm in and of itself (that's not to say that others can/do not use it for such practises as attempting to stifle free thought and indoctrinate children, but show me an occasion- secular or religious- when this is not the case).
  4. Take the opportunity to be nice to people and gratefully accept chocolate based gifts*, understanding that some people like to talk to sky fairies on days like these.
I have known followers of various branches of the faith system that can be loosely bundled together as "Christianity" who have taken great offence at my casual use of their religious festivals to take time out, have some fun and be nice to people. I find it difficult not to label such people raving, rampant hypocrites: at the very least, they have evidently put little time into learning about the origins of the faith that they have claimed as their own! If you are the type of person who takes offence when people of no religion (or, indeed, alternative religions) use what you see as 'your' religious festival as an excuse to watch telly, have friends over, do something special, exchange gifts or just kick back, please, please do some serious investigation into the roots of your own religion. You will find that many of these occasions were 'borrowed' from other faiths or hijacked from the secular community in one of history's most successful** advertising campaigns.

If, on the other hand, you're the kind of person who sees value in people who do not share your faith nevertheless taking the opportunity to have some kind of secular celebration without feeling the need to get all righteous on my ass, then I thank you, and suggest that we should play MarioKart together sometime.

Change happens; the zeitgeist evolves. Religion is no longer necessary for living a whole and fulfilling life, or even for answering the difficult questions, but what's wrong with using the friendlier parts of their legacy as ready-made bases for secular interaction, holidays and partying?

* Though please, for future reference, it works out a lot cheaper, penny for penny, if you just buy me a bar rather than a ludicrously expensive egg. It all ends up in the same place eventually.
** And lengthy. And bloody.