When is a skeptic not a skeptic?

I’m looking forward to giving this talk for the UoN Agnostic, Secularist and Humanist (UNASH) society (“Think Rationally, Act Compassionately“) on Wednesday…


The ‘blurb’ is as follows…

Everyone is a sceptic these days. The death of expertise, as described so compellingly by Tom Nicholls in his recent book, has unleashed a tsunami of wilfully uninformed ‘critiques’ of everything from the shape of the Earth to the ability of women to do physics. This toxic blend of ignorance, arrogance, and unblinking credulity now fuels a very significant fraction of internet bandwidth. A little learning is indeed a dangerous thing.

In this talk, I’ll focus on the thorny problem of just how we counter the type of scepticism that brought the world Pizzagate, the ‘truth’ about 9-11, and an ever-expanding set of ever-more-ludicrous conspiracy theories. On the way, we’ll consider the style-over-substance rhetoric and pseudo-scepticism that internet gurus like Deepak Chopra and Jordan B Peterson exploit to woo uncritical audiences (of self-proclaimed sceptics.)

I’m hoping that some robust discussion and debate will ensue…

Atheism poisons everything?

I very much enjoyed Pascal Leroux‘s thoughtful, thought-provoking and eloquent discussion of the tribalism and polarisation that underpins what is perhaps best described as nu-atheism…

As Pascal highlights so well, and harking back to the theme of my previous post (and others), it’s amusing and frustrating in equal measure that those who would vociferously claim to be ever-so-rational, ever-so-reasoned (if not reasonable), and ever-so-logical in their analyses can’t apply that type of thinking to their own worldview.

Welcome to the Bear Pit: When Public Engagement Goes to Pot

The last time I wrote about the importance of academics engaging with the public, I finished on this upbeat and sweary note: “…you’re an academic, FFS, why aren’t you involved in public engagement?” (It’s perhaps worth reading the blog post in question to put that call to arms in context).

This post is going to be a rather more cautionary tale. That’s not to say that I’m suggesting we academics shouldn’t continue to engage — or at least attempt to engage — with a broader audience than just our students, peers and colleagues. Indeed, although I have been a long-standing critic of the research councils’ impact ‘agenda’, it’s resulted in more thought being paid to how we communicate our research outside our academic circles and that is clearly a very good thing.


Here’s a recent comment posted under a video I uploaded at my YouTube channel:


That particular piece of vicious libelous abuse — spinelessly issued under anonymous cover, of course — is admittedly rather nastier than what’s usually posted. Here’s another, in the discussion section for the channel, which is a rather more common type of juvenile slur:


I should stress that the levels of bile and vitriol I receive pale into insignificance against the torrents of abuse that many other YouTube video-makers — or, to use the jargon du jour, content creators — have to endure. I’ll get back to that very soon. First, however, I need to explain just why I’ve started to attract the type of comment above. (Regular readers of Symptoms… (both of you) will be well aware of the reasons underpinning the less-than-erudite feedback that has started to appear at my channel and here at the blog. Feel free to skip past the next section.)

There’s no justice. There’s just us.

If you haven’t yet encountered the pejorative “SJW” (social justice warrior) or its corresponding antiparticle, the “anti-SJW”, then count yourself very lucky indeed. There are battles raging across vast swathes of the internet where those who would identify as proponents of social justice (in the sense described by John Rawls, for example) are pitted against those who see progress towards social justice as being a direct infringement of their basic civil liberties — including, and especially, freedom of speech — that will ultimately result in the fall of western civilisation as we know it. Those who would classify themselves in this latter category tend to be incensed by the notion of political correctness.

I generalise, of course. And that type of sweeping generalisation is a major part of the problem. It’s exceptionally tribal out there. Many of those who claim – vociferously — that they’re independent, free thinkers too often gleefully succumb to mob mentality, labelling those who express opinions counter to theirs as The Other. (More on this towards the end of this post). Similarly, those who would claim that it’s the “left” who want to trample on free speech should pay attention to the opprobrium that Gary Lineker has attracted (including calls for him to be sacked) for this important tweet:

How did I get drawn into the “SJW vs anti-SJW” war of attrition?

I’ve been involved with making videos for YouTube since 2009 via Brady Haran’s channels (largely Sixty Symbols, but I’ve also enjoyed contributing to Numberphile and Computerphile. And I’ve even crossed the physics-chemistry trenches for an occasional Periodic Video).  That has led to quite a bit of online discussion in the comments sections for those videos, which, as I discussed in this Physics World article a couple of years ago, was largely intelligent, engaging, fun, and not infrequently made me reconsider just how I was teaching physics. More recently, public engagement via YouTube has even led to an undergraduate research project (with a publication to follow in hopefully the not-too-distant future).

Many of my colleagues (including postdoctoral and PhD researchers in the group here) thought I was mad for engaging in the comments sections of those videos. (They still do. But even more so now). For them, “below the line”, in just about any online forum, too often represents the condensed collective stupidity of humanity. No good can come of wading into those murky, and grammatically challenged, waters they tell me. But I’d in turn point out that I’ve gained quite a bit out of engaging online and have not had to tolerate any type of bile or abuse at all [1].

Until recently. Being involved with Sixty Symbols and Brady’s other channels has meant that I get invitations to different podcasts/events on a reasonably regular basis. One of these was something called the Magic Sandwich Show. A regular contributor to the MSS for a number of years was a certain Dr. Phil Mason (aka ‘thunderf00t’). On an episode of the MSS last year, he and I clashed on the question of the role of sexual dimorphism as a determinant in the gender balance in physics. I’m not about to revisit that lengthy saga here, you’ll be relieved to know. Here’s a summary.

That spat with Mason was my gateway to the Social Justice WarsTM . I’ve already spent too much time writing about the various YouTube channels which underpin a great deal of the bile and vitriol (see this blog, passim), so I’ll defer to Hank Green for a pithy summary of a key aspect of the problem:

Now, before the keyboards start a rattlin’ among a certain online ‘demographic’, am I saying that all who don’t identify with the social justice position are hate-filled teenage boys? No. Of course not. And I was at pains in this recent video to argue that we shouldn’t generalise:

But let’s not be silly here. There’s clearly a pattern of behaviour in certain online “communities” (and I use the term advisedly) that frequently results in certain channels being swamped by torrents of abuse. Let’s take a look at one prime example.

If you go down to the woods today…

There is a culture among subsets of the subscriber bases of certain YouTube content providers video-makers [2] of posting vicious bile and vitriol under particular videos. The videos in question tend, ever so coincidentally, to be those which that particular video-maker has recently targeted for critique. Here’s a particularly apposite case in point:


That cartoon is the avatar for a YouTuber called Bearing. I have no idea as to his real name. To the best of my knowledge he has not ever revealed his identity and prefers instead to conceal himself behind the cartoon bear shown above (which he’s borrowed, apparently without attribution, from a show called Total Drama ).  

This ‘Bearing’ person has a tendency to make videos critiquing and criticising (to use terms he would prefer) feminist channels. Here’s a recent example. And here’s another. And another. It turns out that there’s a rather strong correlation between the amount of abuse these feminist channels/videos receive and whether or not they’ve been recently critiqued by the guy behind the cartoon bear. The comment section of a video selected by ‘Bearing’ for critique tends to be flooded with abuse, to the point where the video maker either deletes the video entirely from the channel or makes it private. Like this. Or this.

The most recent target of ‘Bearing”s criticism is [EDIT 18/12/2016Removed name of YouTuber so as to ensure her channel does not receive more abuse via this blog post. Henceforth referred to as “Jane Doe”]. “Jane” has not taken down her video but has disabled comments and likes/dislikes. Just to give you an idea of how vicious and pathetically immature the behaviour of this online mob can get, here’s a sample of comments under one of the other videos at “Jane”‘s channel…


Note the response directly above from “032 Mendicant Bias”. They’re laudably trying to point out the despicable behaviour of the mob. One other person attempts to do this elsewhere in the comments. Note the response.


(…and that’s not the end of ‘Sarah Benton’s diatribe. But what I’ve included of the comments here is already dispiriting enough).

As “Overlord Penmaeda” points out above, the video under which this bile has been posted has got nothing to do with feminism. Yet the mob is so incensed, they target her in any way they can.

As if the viciousness of the comments wasn’t enough, there’s this galling and deeply hypocritical comment (note the number of “likes”):


A person cravenly hiding behind a pseudonym and an avatar, in common with the vast majority of those who post abuse, is whining about the perceived ‘cowardice’ of someone who uploaded a video where she doesn’t attempt to hide her identity in any way and speaks her mind. I think we can all see who the coward is in this case. [3]

It’s worth noting that the comment above wasn’t posted under one of “Jane”‘s videos. It was posted at ‘Bearing”s channel. Along with quite a lot of other vitriol along the lines of that above.

Now, the guy behind the cartoon bear argues that he is not responsible for what his subscribers do. He even laudably includes a disclaimer in the information under the videos he uploads.

First, having worked with Brady Haran for quite some time on YT videos, let’s just say that I’m not entirely convinced of the efficacy of including anything in the video information. In this video, for example, I misspoke towards the end. We included a correction in the video information. Yet I receive a steady stream of e-mails asking me about precisely that misspoken point.

But let’s give this ‘Bearing’ character the benefit of the doubt. Let’s assume that he’s sincere in the intention given in his disclaimer. Yet, strangely enough, every time he uploads a video criticising a feminist channel or video, shortly afterwards spiteful and vicious abuse is posted by spineless, faceless idiots at that particular channel/video. Most of us would notice this rather strong correlation. This ‘Bearing’ chap is clearly not exceptionally stupid so I find it somewhat difficult to believe that he too has not noticed the correlation, particularly as it doesn’t take very long to find comments like the following posted under those particular videos before they’re taken down:


Now, the guy behind the cartoon bear argues that he’s not responsible for the behaviour of his subscribers. I agree. He can’t dictate what they should or should not do. But I, for one, would be appalled to think that any video critique I made would result in the subject of that criticism being targetted with vicious, spiteful abuse. I might be rather ashamed to have any type of connection between the critique I posted and that type of hateful behaviour. I would be particularly aghast to find that an especially cowardly and vicious subset of those who had subscribed to my channel were responsible for that anonymous abuse and that I was therefore indirectly the origin of the mob’s abusive comments.

But that’s just me.

Oh, and some others…

As for those hiding behind pseudonyms and avatars, lacking the courage and integrity to stand behind their slurs while they complain about others being “delicate flowers”, they shouldn’t think for one minute that “words on a screen” can’t have real world impact. Others might also want to bear that in mind.

Freeze Peach

I have long had a policy at my blog and YouTube channel that I wouldn’t moderate, censor, or edit comments in any way. I describe my motivations for this stance in the second half of this post. A recent article by Hank Green (yes, him again), Stop Screaming In My Home,  and discussions with friends and colleagues have made me reconsider that stance.

Just as for the feminist channels described above, I have recently seen a sharp increase in the number of dislikes for videos (posted years ago) that have nothing to do with my criticism of that certain clique of YouTubers and their views. Similarly, comments related to my spats with Philip Mason and others have been posted under entirely unrelated videos focussed on physics, or music, or both. This is juvenile behaviour.

I’d use a slightly different analogy to that Hank Green outlined in his article. To me, it’s like trying to give a lecture to undergraduates while there’s a bunch of particularly immature kids sitting in the corner of the lecture theatre shouting out “Hey Mr Poopy Head” every minute or so. They’re not there to give constructive criticism — they’re there simply to be disruptive. Free speech doesn’t come into it.

Moreover, I have long been a critic of reducing any type of activity down to simplistic numerical metrics. Usually I’m bemoaning the use of h-indices, impact factors and the like in academia, or the pseudostatistics of primary school assessment, but much the same arguments hold for likes vs dislikes for a video. Moreover, when a 37-minute-long video can receive a number of dislikes within a couple of minutes of being uploaded, one has got to start to question the validity of the “data”. And, sure, the number of likes far outweighed the dislikes in that case. But so what? Those figures reveal nothing about the quality — as opposed to the popularity — of the video. And if the data are being contaminated by noise, I’d be a pretty poor scientist to not attempt to remove that noise.

So from now on, I am shutting down the likes and dislikes for all videos which are not related to the themes discussed above, for the reasons discussed above. Similarly, if comments are posted under a physics-only video related to the themes discussed above, then I will screenshot that comment, remove it, and instead include the screenshot in a (continually updated) post here at the blog [Edit 09/11/2016 I decided instead to simply append the comments in question to this post. See below.] . That way I can sift out irrelevant comments and also have a rather helpful record of the, let’s say, less erudite feedback posted at the YouTube channel.

The Mob Rules

In the “Reacting to Reactions to Reasonable Questions…” video embedded above, I spend quite a bit of time responding to comments from Noel Plum. While Noel and I quibble about certain topics, on the subject of online bullying and posting bile/vitriol/abusive comments I think we’re broadly in agreement. Noel’s recent comments regarding psychological damage (in this recent video) would appear to chime rather closely with my thoughts on the issue. I look forward to having a discussion with Noel on this, and other, themes when he and I can both carve out some time for an online chat.

There’s another reason I wanted to bring up Noel’s recent video, however, and it relates to something I alluded to above: the mob mentality. In the comments section under Noel’s video there’s an hilarious thread which runs to, when I last looked, 75 comments debating whether or not I should be called a “social justice warrior”. The pathological need to label me and put me in either the “SJW” or the “anti-SJW” camp is farcical in the extreme (and Noel interjects at one point in the thread to point this out.)

“He’s definitely an SJW. Burn the heretic. Stone him. Run him out of town. He’s one of them, I tell you. One of them.”

And with that, I’ll leave you with a classic, and rather pertinent, Rush track…

[1] Actually, that’s a little bit of a fib. We did a video on the physics of a game called Portal 2 a while back where I pointed out that the momentum of the main character isn’t conserved. The morning after that video was uploaded I opened up my e-mail box to find a number of missives from rather irate Portal 2 players who castigated me in no uncertain terms for deigning to critique the game in the mildest possible way. And this was despite the fact that I had actually praised the game. The extreme sensitivity took me aback.

[2] My back is now hurting badly from having to bend over backwards to the extent I do here so as not to generalise.

[3] I find that even exceptionally mild criticism of anonymity tends to lead to a significant number of comments about “doxing“. For the record (and for the n^nth time), I am not suggesting for one second that anyone be “doxed”, nor that the apparently sacrosanct right to anonymity be in any way compromised. I am simply pointing out just how spinelessly hypocritical it is to hide behind cover of anonymity to slag off another person, while all the while whining about how much that person is a “delicate flower” because they decide they’d prefer not to read hateful anonymous abuse.

The Whining Wall

I may not agree with you, but I will defend to the death your right to make an ass of yourself.

Oscar Wilde (1854 – 1900)

As noted in the post above, in the following section I’m going to append screenshots of the less ‘insightful’ and/or relevant and/or spam comments I receive.

My erudite pseudonymous friend Enkidu has the honour of the inaugural whine. They seem to have a rather weak understanding of just what is meant by censorship. Here are their words of wisdom for all the world – well, that infinitesimally small subset of the world that visits this blog – to see…



Preaching to the choir: The cult of online atheism

Christ, but it’s getting ever more embarrassing to identify as an atheist these days. To admit to my atheism means that, Zarquon forbid, I could potentially be mistaken for someone who subscribes to the rhetoric of any one of a number of vitriol-driven online nu-atheists including, in particular, the modestly monikered The Amazing Atheist.

The Amazing Atheist, real name Thomas James (TJ) Kirk [1], has a subscriber base for his YouTube channel approaching 1 million viewers. I didn’t know about Kirk’s channel, however, until my recent spat with another nu-atheist, Philip Mason, aka thunderf00t [1] (The “00” isn’t a typo or a screw-up with the text formatting, by the way. Mason prefers “00” to “oo”. Branding is of course very important for any online business, so let’s humour him.)

One result of the exchange with Mason, and the subsequent online discussion, is that I became aware of a variety of new YouTubers. (New to me, that is). Some of these I was really pleased to have found (see below); others, like The Amazing Atheist and the odious Carl Benjamin, aka Sargon of Akkad [1], I was somewhat less delighted to have encountered.

One channel that very kindly mirrored the video I made to accompany the “Faith and Fables of Thunderfoot” blog post was chrisiousity. (This video is a great introduction to what Chris(iousity) is all about). Chris also contributed many intelligent and perceptive comments under the “Faith and Fables…” video. So I’m at a little bit of a loss to understand why it took me until the end of last week to subscribe to her channel. I’m extremely pleased I did, however, not least because I might otherwise have missed the insightful video below which she uploaded about The Amazing Atheist (TAA)’s recent diatribe (this time targeted at Steve Shives, who describes himself in his Twitter profile as follows: “Guy on YouTube. Liberal. Progressive atheist. Supporter of feminism and social justice. Weirdo with weird friends. Tries to do good.”)

It’s worth taking 45 minutes of your time to watch, or, as I did, listen to, Chris’ video. Her calm, measured tones contrast starkly with TAA’s overblown playing to the gallery. More importantly, Chris highlights fascinating parallels between the treatment of heretics over the ages and the opprobrium meted out to Shives and others like him who dare question the orthodoxy of TAA and his close-to-one-million-strong following.

There’s a PhD thesis — indeed, a series of PhD theses — to be written on the question of heresy in this context, but I want to focus here on just one aspect of TAA’s approach to criticising Shives (and, by extension, ‘SJW’s like him [2]). The last couple of minutes of Chris’ video, starting at about the 42:00 mark, are flat-out astounding. Chris includes a clip where TAA launches into a tirade which can be accurately summarised as follows: “I’ve got nearly 1 M subscribers. My message resonates with all those people. How great am I? I win. I win.

As textbook examples of argumentum ad populum go, it doesn’t get much worse than this. Someone who, let’s not forget, has the temerity to call themselves The Amazing Atheist, is crowing that the size of their audience has a key bearing on the validity of their position. Mr. Kirk, please stop identifying as an atheist, amazing or otherwise, if these are the depths to which you’re going to stoop; it’s deeply embarrassing for the rest of us. We attempt to argue that atheism is a rational choice, as compared to the myths and fables of religious faith, and then “The Amazing Atheist” acts like the worst type of self-aggrandizing televangelist, validating his message by pointing to the size of his flock. (I’ve got to thank TAA, however, for putting me in mind of this classic Suicidal Tendencies track. It’s been too long since I dusted that one down and gave it a play).

As of 2014, 3% of the US population identified as atheists, and 5% as agnostics. Look at those subscription numbers, as compared to the percentages of those who have faith in some sort of a divine being. We must be in the wrong, right? [3] We lose.

TAA’s tribalism, and the associated cult of ‘personality’, does atheism a deep disservice. But, and it pains me to have to say this, I cannot condone, on the basis of similar ‘tribe-centric’ arguments, Steve Shives’ auto-blocking of those he suspects might disagree with him (much as I agree with Shives on many other issues). TAA bangs on about this in his own, inimitable, high decibel manner in his video. If we cut through the hyperbole and drama, however, he’s got a point.

I am well aware of the type of abuse that is doled out by members of the Tribe of The ‘Foot, Akaad, TAA, et al. (Very many of these followers, of course, follow the example of their favoured iconoclasts [1] and are wrapped up in the cosy warm blanket of anonymity). I have only experienced an infinitesimal fraction of the vacuous name-calling that Shives and very many others have to experience, and even I can understand entirely the appeal of attempting to preemptively block those whose allegiance lies with #TeamAmazing, #TeamFoot, #TeamAkkad etc. But blocking only cedes the high ground of the debate to those who so often can’t begin to construct any semblance of a coherent argument. Once blocked, they’ll make a big song and dance of it. (Look no further than the video above for good evidence of this). Even if they didn’t have any type of credible argument to begin with, as is so often the case, by being blocked they gain an entirely undeserved credibility (especially within their tribe; they wear the block as a badge of honour).

When I had a Twitter account I didn’t block for precisely this reason (nor do I moderate/censor/delete/edit comments at this blog (other than removing obvious spam) [4])). And, yes, it was sometimes very time-consuming to address entirely vacuous tweets. But blocking is entirely counter-productive. I’ll reiterate: it cedes too much ground to those who are entirely incapable of constructing an argument. We should ignore the abuse and counter evidence-free arguments when they are put forward. (Moreover, I am firmly of the opinion that while Twitter has its upsides, it’s hardly the most appropriate platform for reasoned, credible debate. The 140 character + hashtag format is almost custom-designed to entrench tribal behaviour. So, for reasons I detailed at the time, I killed my Twitter account. (In any case, and as I’ve said elsewhere, I’m Irish. Communication limited to 140 characters fundamentally goes against the grain.))

To close, let’s return to the heresy theme that Chris(iousity) so aptly identified. This is a classic from Nine Inch Nails…


[1] Many of those who rant at length about “delicate flowers”, “safe spaces”, “professional victims”, and what they see as the over-sensitivity of those who have to face torrents of online abuse, have delicately hidden behind a pseudonym for some, or all, of their online ‘career’. As I’ve noted previously (with, I’m afraid, tedious regularity), those who feel the need to hide within the safe space of anonymity are in no place to complain about what they see as the sensitivity of others. (And, no, it’s not an “ad hom” to point this out. Please see footnote #1 at the bottom of “The natural order of things?“)

[2] I realise that there are those out there who are easily upset by the merest mention of social justice. My apologies. I should really have included a link to the ‘trigger’ warning at the start of “When Atheists Ape Creationists…” before now.

[3] Alternatively, consider this chilling factoid: One Direction has outsold The Beatles (at least in the US and, for all I know, worldwide. If this is indeed a worldwide phenomenon, please don’t feel the need to tell me. I really don’t want to know). Clearly this must mean that the former are more artistically and culturally relevant than the latter.

[4] …even when those who are vociferous supporters of freedom of speech ask me to censor a thread.




Yes, we’re all individuals

…or Why I Disagree with Telescoper: Religion Is A Diversity Issue

A few days ago, Peter Coles, aka Telescoper, wrote a typically punchy and engaging post on the question of where religion fits within the equality and diversity programme in higher education. (I’d have responded sooner but a workshop on Monday, a conference on Tuesday, and this last night meant that I’ve been otherwise engaged. I know that Peter will be especially interested in the latter).

Peter writes at the start of his post,

I gather that there are some who find the inclusion of “religion” to be somehow inappropriate…

I suspect that Peter may well be referring to yours truly. It could be entirely coincidental, of course, but shortly before his blog post appeared I sent Peter — who was a colleague here at Nottingham for quite a number of years — an e-mail highlighting both the STFC statement and the Times Higher Education article on religion as a diversity issue to which he refers. Only Peter knows whether his post was indeed prompted by my missive.

On very many issues, Peter and I are very similar in our views (at least going by what he posts online). I’ve learnt a great deal from Peter’s In The Dark blog over the years, particularly on the subjects of Bayesian statistics and jazz. And with regard to certain  key aspects of diversity and equality — I should note before I go any further that I am a member of our School’s Diversity Committee — Peter and I are in full agreement.

But, as a certain former Professor of Public Understanding of Science based at a university somewhat south of Nottingham has said, a “flabbiness of the intellect afflicts otherwise rational people when confronted with long-established religions“. I was rather disappointed to see lazy age-old arguments — comprehensively rebutted time and time again but they keep on coming — about the perceived value of religious faith pop up in Peter’s post. He argues that many smart people he knows are religious. Sure. And very many smart people believe very many silly things indeed (including, as Peter himself points out, Issac Newton). So what?

I agree entirely with Peter that everyone should be free to believe whatever they like. Of course. Who could seriously argue with that? I, for one, have always been particularly keen on Douglas Adams’ wonderful Great Green Arkleseizure creation myth (and the impending Coming Of The Great White Handerkerchief), although my children are rather more taken with the Flying Spaghetti Monster. (Heretics.) There’s a whole smorgasbord of myths out there to choose from — knock yourself out for all that I care.

But the freedom to believe in whatever you choose comes with a proviso. A big proviso. Believe whatever you like… as long as your beliefs do not denigrate others. Even then, you’re still of course entirely free to place your faith in whatever belief system you like. But don’t expect not to be challenged about it. However much we might skirt around this issue in order not to offend anyone of faith, it’s clearly the case that religion too often embodies offensive and divisive beliefs.

Here’s one example. (I wrote about this at length, as is my wont, here.)

Here’s another.

And here’s another.

Frustratingly, the Equality Act 2010 gives special provision to religious faith. It actively bolsters the type of bigotry embedded at the heart of many faiths, as the British Humanist Association has highlighted.

Some are more equal than others.

Throughout history, religion has had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into a world which has moved on in terms of womens’ rights, LGBT rights…human rights in general. Religious faith generally acts to impede progress towards a more equal and diverse society — it is divisive and tribal at its core.

Of course, I’m not saying anything startlingly new here. And many of you may well dismiss everything above — if you’ve got this far — as Dawkins-esque in its stridency. But it’s no use lazily dismissing Dawkins as a fundamentalist, as Peter does. Ad hominem slurs are easy. Let’s instead play the ball…

Although I’ve got two copies of The God Delusion on my shelves — I bought myself a copy the day before a graduating PhD student got me the book as a thank you present (unbeknownst to me, of course) — I’m certainly no cheerleader for Dawkins. A hell of a lot of what he’s said over the last few years has been appallingly stupid, exceptionally damaging, and sexist to its core. But as regards his views on religion, dismissing the well-reasoned arguments in the following video as “fundamentalist” is not, it must be said, the most powerful of rebuttals.

Similarly, for those of us who have sat through countless hours of scripture readings during various religious services, his character reference for the Judeo-Christian god is clearly spot on. Even a cursory reading of the bible will confirm that.

[God is] a vindictive bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser , a misogynistic, homophobic racist, an infanticidal, genocidal, phillicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully

Peter argues that it’d be unprofessional and simply inappropriate to challenge religion in the context of, for example, the STFC summer school. I largely agree. Perhaps surprisingly, I’ve managed to get through a considerable number of scientific conferences without once standing up and criticising a speaker for their religious beliefs. Indeed, by my reckoning, this is true for all of the conferences I’ve attended. I’ve also sat through very many weddings, funerals, and baptisms and bitten my tongue. Hard. In fact, I’m godfather for children of friends and relatives. Hypocritical? Yes, but, like Peter, I’m just as capable of being the soul of discretion and not challenging religious faith every waking moment. (Well, OK, “soul of discretion” is perhaps just a little bit of a stretch.)

But Peter misses the point. First, it is not necessarily the case that criticism of religion would be inappropriate at a scientific meeting, including that STFC school. What about a throwaway, off-the-cuff remark on the ludicrous claims of creationism in the context of our understanding of the evolution of the universe? Offensive or not? To whom? And who decides?

But it’s the broader aspects of including religion within the diversity agenda in higher education, highlighted by the THE article, which are my key concern. I’ve repeatedly heard it said that, for many, their religious faith is as immutable as their race. For all of the reasons discussed in this powerful article, this makes no sense at all. The idea of immutable faith particularly, and especially, has no place within a university. Universities are about challenging ideas, concepts, values, and beliefs. Immutability is simply not an option.

Homophobic Christians are fond of saying that they hate the sin, but love the sinner. When it comes to religion as a diversity issue, I respect people of faith, but will always disrespect their faith.

Sure you’re not meant to take it seriously


Originally published at physicsfocus.

It’s a little over two years since my first post for physicsfocus and I’m sad to say that this one is going to be my last. I found out last month from Chris White – the physicsfocus editor, self-confessed word monkey, and the bloke who’s been in the unenviable position of having to edit and upload my ranty, vitriol-fuelled posts for much of the time I’ve been writing for the blog – that the site is going to be discontinued in the very near future. *Sob*

I was invited to contribute to physicsfocus in late 2012 by Kelly Oakes, who established the blog and whose infectious enthusiasm for, and commitment to, the project played a major role in my decision to start blogging. (Kelly moved to take up the role of Science Editor for Buzzfeed towards the end of the first year of physicsfocus.) Prior to physicsfocus I had eschewed blogging with the usual, somewhat sniffy, “I could never find time for that” excuse, which, as my physicsfocus colleague, Athene Donald, points out, is a far from compelling reason not to blog.

I owe a great debt of gratitude to Kelly for the invitation to write for physicsfocus. Over the last two years I’ve found blogging to be not only a great form of catharsis, but an especially useful way to hone my writing and to train myself out of the staid, formulaic style that is the hallmark of the academic paper. (You know the type of thing, “In recent years, phenomenon X has become of increasing interest…”. Yawn.) And, more simply, I just enjoy blogging, even if I agree entirely with Douglas Adams: “Writing is easy. You only need to stare at a piece of blank paper until your forehead bleeds.” (I’ll add a belated #TowelDay hashtag in honour of Adams. I’d very likely never have signed up to the burble of Twitter either if it weren’t for physicsfocus.)

Given the title above, and the preceding few paragraphs, you could be forgiven for thinking that this is going to be a rather light-hearted swansong post. ‘Fraid not.

Something absolutely momentous happened last month in Ireland and I could never forgive myself if I let the moment go without getting my thoughts down on paper (well, in pixels at least). I was in tears at times as I followed the #MarRef tweets, and overjoyed by the final result: 62.1% yes to 37.9% no. (1,201,607 votes to 734,300 with a turnout of 60.5%). I found this tweet particularly affecting:

And this brought another lump to my throat:

I was raised in the heart of rural Ireland, in the 70s and early 80s, in a border county (Monaghan) and in a strongly Catholic environment: rosary every night, mass as often as was humanly possible, First Holy Communion, Confirmation, Catholic primary school followed by an all-boys Catholic secondary school (nicknamed The Sem because it used to be a seminary), sacraments, the Stations of the Cross, confession. (Christ. Confession. I still shudder when I think about walking into that darkened – and too often dank – cubicle to confess my sins.) In other words, I experienced the full gamut of the pomp and circumstance that is the Catholic faith.

And I despised it.

The dismissal of my faith, such as it ever was, happened when I was a teenager. As a young child, I was, however, deeply confused and concerned because I simply couldn’t understand what was wrong with me. Why couldn’t I just believe like everyone else at school? Why did I have these doubts? Surely I was destined for hell if I didn’t just accept what I was told in church? After all, Jesus was clearly not best pleased with Thomas when he asked for evidence (John 20:24-29).

Thomas was rather an inspiring character for me. He did exactly what the majority of us would have done in his situation: he refused to put his trust in hearsay and asked for evidence of the resurrection. And yet, throughout my days at school and church, Thomas’ entirely reasonable doubt was portrayed as a major character flaw – something to be avoided by true believers. Jesus certainly saw it as a problem: “Then Jesus told him, ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed’.” (For those who would argue that science and religious mythology should coexist happily, they need to tackle Jesus’ clear admonition of Thomas using rather more compelling arguments than the type outlined here. Faith is anathema to science. This letter in New Scientist a few weeks ago makes the point rather well.).

As a young boy the fact that I could strongly identify with Thomas’ scepticism, despite the fact that his justified doubt was very much frowned upon by priests and teachers, continually worried the bejaysus out of me. It was, however, a couple of defining, and unsettling, moments in class that began to set the seal on my rejection of Catholic beliefs and dogma (and, ultimately, of religious mythology in general). The first of these I describe in the video below, filmed by Brady Haran almost five years ago and which – as you’ll see if you visit the YouTube site – has now accrued well over 12,000 comments. (I’ve noted before that Brady’s videos often attract comments and discussion ‘below the line’ which are significantly more intelligent and better informed than is the norm for YouTube comments sections. This, unfortunately, is not quite the case for the “Do physicists believe in god?” video.)

The second, particularly unnerving, episode at primary school happened when the teacher asked the class the following question (I can’t remember in what context): “If you could be anyone for a day, who would it be?”

Hands shot up around the classroom. “Superman”. “The Six Million Dollar Man”. “The Bionic Woman”. “Luke Skywalker”.

My answer?

“God, sir”.

I truly believed that my teacher would be really happy with that answer – after all, who was the most important being in the cosmos? Who had we been told was the most wonderful, all-loving father? On that basis, who wouldn’t want to be God for a day and experience all that love?

My teacher’s response? “Satan wanted to be God”.

I was nine. I had nightmares.

A common response to these anecdotes goes something along these lines: “Oh, dear. That’s shocking. But that was a problem with your particular over-zealous teacher, it’s not a problem with Catholicism/faith/religion per se. Our faith is all about acceptance, love, and reasoned belief”. Except, demonstrably, it’s not.

The events surrounding the same-sex marriage referendum in Ireland have brought home the appallingly divisive and prejudiced attitudes that are often borne of religion. What reason, other than prejudice – bolstered, if not engendered, by religious belief – could there be for a no vote? (This is a genuine question and if you have an answer, please let me know in the comments section below. But please don’t tell me it’s about the supposed negative effects of same-sex parenting on children. My fellow Dublin City University alumnus, David Robert Grimes, dealt with this issue conclusively in The Guardian on the day of the vote).

How can anyone claim that religion invariably provides a superior ethical/moral framework to humanism when the Catholic Church has said that Ireland’s yes vote is a defeat for humanity? How can anyone who would like to establish a fairer, kinder, more equal society – i.e. the very virtues Jesus proclaimed (and I can quote chapter and verse if you’re interested, one of the questionable benefits of spending a good part of thirteen or so years on your knees in the name of Catholicism/Christianity) – identify with that type of prejudice? Why in the name of the Almighty Zarquon would anyone with any scrap of compassion and respect – let alone love – for their fellow humans vote no if it weren’t for the stranglehold of religious faith?

The title of this post is taken from the insightful musings of the delightful Fr. Dougal McGuire in the very first episode of Father Ted: “Sure it’s no more peculiar than all that stuff we learned in the seminary, you know, heaven and hell and everlasting life and all that type of thing. You’re not meant to take it seriously.” (Coincidentally, Ardal O’Hanlan also grew up in Co. Monaghan.)

Dougal further expounded on his difficulties with religious faith in a discussion with Bishop O’Neill in the Series 2 episode entitled “Tentacles of Doom”. Here we can clearly see that his doubts are not just related to Catholicism but are truly ecumenical in scope:

Bishop O’Neill: So Father, do you ever have any doubts? Is your faith ever tested? Any trouble you’ve been having with beliefs or anything like that?

Father Dougal: Well you know the way God made us, and he’s looking down at us from heaven?

Bishop O’Neill: Yeah…

Father Dougal: And then his son came down and saved everyone and all that?

Bishop O’Neill: Uh huh…

Father Dougal: And when we die, we’re all going to go to heaven?

Bishop O’Neill: Yes. What about it?

Father Dougal: Well that’s the part I have trouble with!

I would very much like to believe that Father Ted played a big role in helping to secure the Yes vote. Others have certainly pointed out the importance of Ted in accelerating the decline of the church in Ireland: “a comedy that affectionately mocked the old ways while simultaneously, mercilessly exposing them”.

At this point those of you familiar with WB Yeats’ take on the Irish – “Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy” – may well be nodding sagely to yourselves. I’ll admit that it does seem rather mean-spirited to be berating Catholicism to this extent when it was so soundly defeated last month. But the issue here is much, much broader than just Catholicism.

This upsetting article is from the Guardian last week. We live in a world where we can communicate virtually instantaneously with friends and family across the world, observe the universe as it was roughly 13 billion years ago, and mimic the conditions present only fractions of a second after the big bang. And yet a huge proportion of humanity remains in thrall to Bronze Age/Iron Age/New Age myths (of a staggering variety of hues).

“An abiding sense of tragedy”? Yep. Yeats was spot on.

I’ve really enjoyed reading my colleagues’ posts, and occasionally venting my spleen, for physicsfocus. I’ll miss the site immensely. I’m going to sign off with the signature closing words of the late, great, and brilliantly acerbic Dave Allen: “Thank you, good night, and may your god go with you”.

Image: The incredulity of St Thomas, by Caravaggio

6 Responses to Sure you’re not meant to take it seriously

    1. transcendentape says:

      If you plan to continue blogging elsewhere, please post it here or through one of Brady Haran’s hundreds of youtube channels. I was lucky to happen upon your writing through Brady, and I’d hate to miss it if you carry on in a new location.

    1. Hamish Johnston says:

      Perhaps the most interesting question is why it took so long in Ireland? Most other staunchly Catholic western societies liberalized decades ago. A classic case in point is Quebec, which 60 years ago would have been very similar to Ireland both in terms of its Catholic nationalism and cultural isolation. Yet Quebec went through a rapid “quiet revolution” in the late ’60s and is now one of the most liberal societies in the west.

    1. Kuldeep Panesar says:

      I have enjoyed immensely your posts over the years, which have contained much food for thought, humour, and a refreshingly frank and honest critique of the nonsense that surrounds scientific research. If only there were more voices like yours, and people brave enough to stick their head above the parapet.

      I hope that your blogging continues elsewhere.