Whose Responsibility is Forgiveness?

There is a strong narrative in many religions–in fact, as far as I can tell, it is every religion with a conscious God–that God is the only thing that can forgive us for our behaviour. In the Abrahamic religions, the narrative is clear: the Creator expects us to be perfect, but the Creator does not create us perfect and then the Creator blames us for how It created us; It then demands our love and servitude (and a human sacrifice, if you are Christian) so that It doesn’t hold us accountable for Its failure to make us perfectly.

“Created sick and commanded to be well”


There are no prizes for guessing whether I accept that narrative; I don’t. That narrative is not compatible with a loving God for many reasons: the narrative depends on a God without introspection and who is capricious enough to blame us for Its actions; God must be completely incapable of creating an improved human to whom the expectation God has is more realistic; God clearly isn’t capable of managing his own expectations and is comfortable defaulting to blaming us.

There is another reason I don’t accept this narrative as being compatible with a loving and moral God: it’s not Its job to forgive. The freedom to forgive a person, or not, is granted upon you when you become a victim. There is nothing just about an assailant asking God for forgiveness after stabbing a child; the forgiveness that person should seek is that of the child and family. Instead, the idea of the God has allowed institutions to set up based around the promise of something which appears, to an outsider, indistinguishable from self-excusal: religion.

When I was about 10 I was in a grading class for Kung fu. My friend Simon was there with his step dad. There were some youths (16 years old, maybe) outside making a lot of noise. Simon’s stepdad went outside to ask them to keep it down or move along so that we could concentrate. He was consequently and immediately stabbed in the kidney multiple times. I would find no peace in knowing the knife wielder has found forgiveness from God. The person he should seek forgiveness from is Simon’s stepdad. It’s not God’s kidney, and God is not the primary victim.

In 1260 AD Pope Alexander IV gave his Inquisitors the right to absolve each other of any “irregularities” that occurs during their investigations. That is what it looks like to ask the wrong person for forgiveness.


Something I find continually astounding is that there are people who genuinely would prefer it if the questions of morality were easy but horrifying, like that supposed by an objective dictated morality from God (where forgiveness is about saying sorry to the wrong people), instead of a complicated answer where the results can be about love and health and societal and personal wellbeing. Although the religious are often very quick to accuse the atheists of constructing a world where all things are permissible, think about the consequences of really believing the right thing is completely divorced from the world of human experience and that, in a complete role reversal, all things are permissible so long as you seek forgiveness from a Being that always forgives if you ask nicely.


Linguistic Ambiguity with a Personal Genie

Imagine I found a genie and it offered me two wishes. My wishes are to be fluent in all languages and to be the best person. What results would we expect?

When it comes to language, would being fluent in all languages mean I am an excellent musician and mathematician? Or are maths and music simply not language? I know a number of musicians and at least one mathematician who would disagree with you. Alternatively, is my best bet to persuade the genie these things are included in language? The answer is not objective because, unlike numbers, semantics are woolly with no clear boundary. And it is difficult to depend on some kind of Kantian realism to anchor the definition of words; so many words have migrated and evolved from other languages over time.

When I wish to be the best person, the genie is highly likely to ask “at what?” But, if I had said I wanted to be a good person, if would not have seemed ambiguous to you that “good” means moral. I think that is conditioning, and not at all necessary. As I have said many times before, a moral person is a person who does things deemed good in a moral framework. And, like Sam Harris, I think “good” in a moral framework is whatever best protects the wellbeing of others. (You could describe this as situationalist ethics, where doing the most loving thing in your given circumstance is the moral thing. I think this best describes Sam Harris’ Moral Landscape because it focuses on the intentions based on the information you have; this is how science can influence our human values.) The word “best” in my question, I think, demonstrates that good does not mean moral. I think it is important to separate good from moral.

Imagine I explained to you what the “water table” is; an imaginary surface underground, below which the soil is saturated with water. I then explain that if you dig a hole down to the water table you get a well that fills with drinking water. I then take you to a remote part of Africa that does not have enough wells to feed the people in the surrounding villages. What is the good thing to do? The most loving thing (and therefore the morally good thing–”moral” thing–, I would say) is to build a few more wells near the villages. However, the most profitable thing to do is build a very big well, cover it with a pump, build a fizzy drink factory around your new well and produce fizzy drinks while lowering the water table, stopping the other wells near by from working. This is profitably good (or “profitable”).

So, what can it possibly mean to be the “best” person? And… at what. Or, is that precisely the question: what is the best thing to be best at?

Does “Anecdotes” mean “Evidence”? Spiritual healing and public health

In my previous post I said anecdotes can be used as evidence, if the conditions are correct. That is a controversial statement, so does need to be explained. And, here I plan to do that by giving you one example of when anecdotes do work and when they don’t. In typical-teacher fashion, I am going to let you think about what the differences are. But I am going to illuminate the difference.

Spiritual healers

Imagine there is an illness that has a 1% survival rate untreated and a 5% survival rate treated (both over 5 years); that is a pretty horrible illness. If you get that illness, the bet to make at the bookies is against you. But assume this illness exists and a series of “alternative healers” (spiritual, Biblical and Raiki healers) have thousands of patients who have overcome the illness while visiting them. Thousands! There must be something in it, therefore God (or something). If I had to conclude from that evidence, I would conclude something in line with Occam’s razor: the power of psychology over the body. There is already evidence for that.

But instead of jumping to conclusions, we should be asking questions. How many people had the illness? How many people went to see an alternative healer? How many of them were still receiving medical treatment*? What are the false-positive diagnosis rates for this illness? Once we have the answer to these questions, we can start to look into whether the alternative medicine anecdotes really are evidence.

I’ll have to assume some data for the illness, because I’m making it up. Lets say 15 million people got the illness in the last 5 years, in the English-speaking world. 5 million of them do not get medical treatments because they can’t afford it (shame on you, USA), or for religious or personal reasons. Assume 80% of those people go to an alternative healer; that’s 4 million people. Untreated, they have a 1% survival rate. 1% of 4 million is 40,000. So, there’s 40,000 anecdotes. And 10 million people left to go.

The remaining 10 million people are receiving treatment, and have a 5% survival rate. Still, the illness means falling on pretty desperate times. Assume 10% of all treated patients are seek alternative healers. That’s 1 million people seeking alternative healers. If alternative healing is of no benefit, expect a 5% survival rate, 50,000 people. There’s a further 50,000 people who survived after seeking alternative healers.

That’s a total of 90,000 anecdotes, and yet the alternative healers don’t have a success rate higher than if they didn’t exist. There’s nothing in it.

*When I was teaching in Austria I remember meeting this one particular hippy Teacher who had some low-lying illness that she couldn’t seem to shift. She went to a doctor and the doctor gave her some antibiotics. After she read the possible side effects she decided they couldn’t be good for her, so sought an alternative healer. They gave her homeopathic medicine. And, voilà, her illness was gone. Evidence for homeopathy. Except, she was taking the antibiotics as well.

Public health investigations

Imagine you work in public health, and your associate NHS Hospital reports an increase in severe stomach upsets. How do you go about pinpointing the cause of this increase? First, you make some informed guesses: if the number has gone up from about 2 per day to about 16 per day, we’re probably not looking at a contaminated water supply. You would expect people to be coming in by their hundreds if that was the case. You have 16 people to start asking questions: where have they bought their food over the last week? What restaurants have they visited over the last week? Any overlap helps you find the cause of the illness. That is anecdotal evidence slowly becoming evidence.

Curing Hayfever, Science and the Interesting “Committee on Boring”

Somewhere in the dusty archives of the internet, there is reference to the “Committee on Boring Questions” or “The Ministry of Boredom”… or something like that. Their mission statement is “To answer seemingly boring questions”… or words to that effect. You can probably tell I have not been able to re-enter the murky depths of the internet to find these people again. And that’s a real shame, because I really liked their mission statement

The operative word in their mission statement (as I remembered it) is “seemingly”, because their implicit goal is to show that real questions are not boring, no matter how boring they superficially seem. One question I remember they tackled was the issue of whether milk tasted the same from different supermarkets. That is actually an interesting question; to answer it, they had to unpack an as-close-to-objective-as-possible way to measure taste. And if the answer was no they have to unpack why not. In turn, that shows us a little of the dairy industry.

If anyone thinks they know what I’m talking about and can link me to it, I would be much obliged.

I have a question, under a similar mission statement, I’d like to investigate. The implicit goals are to illuminate parts of the scientific method and perhaps to go some way towards explaining why some scientific experiments just haven’t reliably taken place. The question is:

Does eating a teaspoon of local raw honey every day help stop hayfever?


Many people swear by this. But there aren’t any experiments big enough to reliably say it works. There are plenty of anecdotal accounts of it working, but the plural of “anecdote” isn’t “evidence”, is it? The truth is that anecdotes can be evidence, but you have to be clever about how to use anecdotes.

Think about how you would measure the effects of honey on the symptoms of hayfever? Would you even measure the symptoms? You could go straight to the antigen levels in test-subjects blood, analysing the biochemistry of hayfever directly. That is a lot more work, and relies on expensive medical equipment. The options for data collection seem to be to record the symptoms through some sort of pollen-diary (which can be done remotely, making the investigation less invasive into the subject’s life), or to do blood tests (but that is invasive and limits you to a local sample).

If you use this year as your baseline year, next year will show an improvement no matter what; this year (in the UK) has had the worst pollen count in 50 years. The climate is a compounding variable. The other compounding variable is the real exposure to pollen; what if people don’t go outside? Perhaps you won’t choose to do a baseline test. Instead you will simply have a control group (no treatment) and a test group (honey all summer, winter, autumn and spring, ready for next year). But then you have two complications: ethics and exclusion.

The ethical dilemma is simple: can you demand some people not treat their hayfever symptoms? There is a related practical issue: if people have promised they won’t take any treatment, do you trust them to follow that when they are blinded, swollen, itchy, bunged up and in pain?

The exclusion criteria is more difficult. Before reading on, can you guess what kinds of people would need to be excluded from the trials? Hayfever will have to be your only known allergy, else your data can be skewed by dust allergies, pollen-induced asthma and other allergies. They would make me and my girlfriend viable test-subjects.

There is a way around this: do a retrospective study comparing those who do have locally produced, raw honey and those who do not, as a part of their daily routine. But then you have a self-selection issue: the only people who take honey for that purpose are people who think it works, for whatever reason. It might be that only people who have outgrown their hayfever take the honey, because they have convinced themselves honey is the reason they don’t suffer anymore. The other problem is that you don’t have any data on how severe the hayfever was before they self-treated with local raw honey, nor do you control any other treatments they take.

If I were to do this (and sell my finding to the “Committee of Boring Questions”) I think I would focus more on inclusion criteria. My study would be done on people with severe hayfever allergies. The definition of severe, in this case, would be that symptoms still persist when treated with 2 varieties of double-dosed antihistamines, nasal steroidal and nasal barrier sprays and steroidal eye drops. (I would also like to define “pathological hayfever” as when the symptoms that persist through the treatment I just described in such a way that significantly interferes with daily function. I have severe hayfever, my girlfriend has pathological hayfever. I made these definitions up).

The benefit of this kind of inclusion criteria is that subjects are permitted to to go about their normal hayfever treatment, and there will still be measurable symptoms; there is not the same ethical concern. There can then be a control group that goes about their normal treatment and a test group that tops-up treatment year-round with honey.

How many people will this study need to be reliable? 20 people in each group is a reasonably priced university study, but damned if the NHS would use it to support recommending honey. 5,000 people in each group is a bit more like it, but collecting all that data is suddenly a team effort. The question now is what team on the face of the planet cares enough to do it, has the resources, and doesn’t have a vested interest?


Mental Head Space and Confirmation Bias

I don’t know how you learn. But, as a teacher, I have seen a few papers here and there which attempt to make clear to me some ideas on how we learn. They’re a bit dry; instead I want to tell you how I learn and why understanding how you learn can help you to know more. My particular learning style predisposes me to confirmation bias. But understanding that has helped me to combat when I read your blogs. Here’s how it works.

Most learning is learner-oriented and relies on learner effort. You cannot easily assimilate information passively, by just being in a room with a person saying the right things. I, as a learner, have to do something to engage with and ultimately form a conclusion on an idea. Here is my process.

I create a mental head space where I organise the ideas in a fluent way, like a flow diagram. I then annotate that flow diagram with other related things I know already. Definitions of words (and debate, where debate exists) becomes an annotation. When someone uses a word and it is clear what they mean, but they have used the wrong word, an idea has to replace the word. I’m not doing this on paper, this is all in my mental head space. I then start to test the flow diagram of ideas by its own criteria. This is a way of checking the idea is consistent and sensible. If I conclude the idea is not sensible, I ask the appropriate questions in the hope that clarification is key to understanding.

For example, I was recently told that I must deliver my lessons more slowly, utilising more student-student talking time. The student should talk to each other (on topic). As far as possible, I should deliver only questions and the students should work the answer out for themselves (it’s often called “self discovery”, but that’s nonsense; we’re asking them to conceptually figure out the content on the syllabus).  As an aside, one of my favourite methods is to give my class all the data, or fragments of the data each, and ask them to piece it together. It is amazing how unambiguous evidence is, even in the creative hands of children.

Effective though this method is, its slow. My review also told me to speed up the pace of my lessons. This is a time where my slowly constructed flowchart of ideas starts to fall apart: how can I use an inherently slower process whilst also speeding up? The flowchart starts to collapse under its own weight, before I decide whether the ideas my bosses gave him is even consistent with context.

Organising information in your head is a very time-consuming thing to do. Asking clear questions to clarify points you don’t understand, engaging in the necessary conversation to build on it, and conceptually analysing it in your head merely adds to the challenge. So, for me to sit and consider an idea, I have to like the idea. This is not a conscious decision; it’s just if an idea doesn’t spark my interest I put in less effort, which creates a caricature  of the original idea. As a result, if I remember the idea at all, I carry around an unintended strawman in my head space. If I react emotionally to an idea, I get a similar murkily watered version of the idea. Before you know it, I’m in the People’s Republic of Strawman.

This means that I don’t reject ideas I don’t agree with, but on whatever conscious level I make a clear mental representation of an idea, ideas I react badly to don’t get fair treatment when I’m passively reading.

When I’m passively reading I’m reading on the assumption my brain will treat all ideas equally. Yet some ideas get fair representation and other don’t. I have to actively read. This means I have to concentrate on creating a fair representation of opposing ideas when I read blogs, something I have actively sought to do for a few years now.

To give you an example of what happens when I passively read (and I think a few atheists fall for this), then first time I read the moral argument for God, and the next few times after that, it clearly meant, to me, that atheists cannot be “morally good”. I read the same argument from another perspective, and I was under the illusion I represented the argument when I summarised it as what God does is moral. After a little while, after I focussed, it became clear that what people are saying that the meter stick of morality is God’s nature and that without a god morality is open to redefining.

Now I have to annotate that particular flowchart of ideas with questions like “what is the difference between a Thing’s repeated actions and Its nature?” or “How do you come to know the nature of a thing that is defined as not being explorable by investigation?” Sitting in a room and imagining the answers, something I am asked to do with students a lot often brings forward the wrong answers. None of the students are ever happy with why a thing is not the way they have just imagined it to be, until I give them evidence.

On the Contrary: defining “New Atheism”

Apparently, I am a New Atheist. In all meaningful timelines, this is true; I am only 25. On the scale of the universe, geology, biology, human culture or even Western Culture, I am new. But I am not sure the ideas I associate with nonbelief in a god are new. Atheism is the lack of belief in a god or gods, and I’d be willing to wager that atheism is older than theism. After all, before the first person came up with an idea of ‘a god’ (even if it’s the wrong one), all people must have lacked a belief in one. It would have been unremarkably common.

However, Wikipedia’s page on New Atheism defines it as

“a social and political movement in favour of atheism and secularism promoted by a collection of modern atheist writers who have advocated the view that “religion should not simply be tolerated but should be countered, criticized, and exposed by rational argument wherever its influence arises.””

The quote at the end it attributed to Simon Hooper for CNN. Am I the only one who notices the intentional pejorative here?

From this definition, it is not difficult to name New Atheists of Old: Epicurus (who died in 270BC–how old can a ‘new’ atheist be?) and David Hume (an 18th Century philosopher) both championed reason as a way of opposing religion. If it were the point of my post, I could probably find another 100.

“Epicurus’s old questions are still unanswered: Is he (God) willing to prevent evil, but not able? then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? then whence evil?”

David Hume

However, my real issue with the Wikipedia definition (which is the definition Google picks up if you type “Define: New Atheism” into Google–so this definition isn’t going away) is that is defines “New Atheism” in terms of seeking to challenge theism, instead of championing an idea on its own. I could, therefore, be persuaded to accept defining “New Atheism” merely in terms which restructure the definition above:

“A movement that promotes and uses rational arguments to challenge pseudo-science and dogmatically held beliefs.”


Although I could be persuaded to accept that definition, a definition that justifies its expansion from basic atheism, it is not the definition I’d prefer.

New Atheism, to me, is composed of three positions: critical thinking, secularism and humanism. Critical thinking is not necessarily the position that begets atheism (although, often, it probably is). I’d wager that humanism, the belief that human reason, sense of justice and basic decency supersedes any need for gods (and other needs).

I am not actually a humanist, at least not by dogma. Humanism is (again, using the Wikipedia definition that Google picks up on):

Humanism is a philosophical and ethical stance that emphasizes the value and agency of human beings, individually and collectively, and generally prefers critical thinking and evidence (rationalismempiricism) over established doctrine or faith (fideism). The meaning of the term humanism has fluctuated, according to the successive intellectual movements which have identified with it. Generally, however, humanism refers to a perspective that affirms some notion of a “human nature

Humanism, Wikipedia

But that’s not me. I have a more ecocentric position; the wellbeing of the natural world is important to me. In many of humanity’s endeavours we have to consider the trade-off between what we do and the ecological costs. But we only seem to consider the ecological costs that might come back to bite us in the arse: running out of resources, making the planet inhospitable for us and other economic costs. In principle, this narrow view is compatible with humanism (however, it is less common).

More broadly speaking, as I said earlier, humanism asserts that our own sense of justice and reasoning is enough. And with that, I can be assimilated along with the rest of the humanists. I do believe that, although we stumble, we are capable of making a world that maximises the happiness of creatures on the planet, and we can do so through a “rationalist outlook”. More importantly, basic human decency motivates us, no matter how it arose. (I know of a couple of theists who use religion to elevate that human decency in significance, and the  Ipsos MORI survey that Richard Dawkins commissioned in 2012 suggests that there are many, many more of the same ilk.)

New Atheism, then, borrows its moral ideas from humanism: “seek to live ethical lives on the basis of reason and humanity” (The British Humanist Association) or “trying to behave decently without expectation of rewards or punishment after you are dead” (Kurt Vonnegut). I don’t see how you can make a pejorative out of that.

A religious government necessarily favours one group of people over others. If you are an Islāmic country, you favour Islāmic definitions of domestic abuse, sexual abuse, marriage and religious freedom. A Christian government necessarily believes its moral ideas and definitions equally come from that religious context. Respectively, they exclude each other. As an aside, I would never move to a Muslim country and try to enforce Christian rights or secular freedoms, but I digress. Secularism is the only way to make sure equality in government. Secularism puts all religions on the same peg: not endorsed by the state. This includes lack of religion; religious buildings will not be banned or scrutinised more closely than other planning applications because a lack of religion is also not to be endorsed by the state. In terms of how to govern, again, critical thinking and human decency can prevail here.


~ In terms of the real issues that face us, like the Malthusian crisis that humanity has spent the last few centuries teetering on the edge of, it is by far human reasoning that solved the problems: the agricultural reform, SpaceX and mining of space. ~


This is New Atheism. It is applying human reasoning to dismantle and reveal untruths, poorly reasoned ideas and outright lies in the pursuit of truth. Although the name “New Atheism” roots itself very much in the religious debate, it extends itself to political discourse, helping find what the evidence actually says and not what the politicians favour; medicine, after all, most of those adverts saying they can cure cancer with a miracle berry or defeat fibromyalgia with a needle are lying; and even morality, helping us figure not only why we want to maximise happiness, but also how to get there.

New Atheism, despite of the way it is said, is not a pejorative.


40 Maps That Will Help You Make Sense of the World

Originally posted on TwistedSifter:

If you’re a visual learner like myself, then you know maps, charts and infographics can really help bring data and information to life. Maps can make a point resonate with readers and this collection aims to do just that.

Hopefully some of these maps will surprise you and you’ll learn something new. A few are important to know, some interpret and display data in a beautiful or creative way, and a few may even make you chuckle or shake your head.

If you enjoy this collection of maps, the Sifter highly recommends the r/MapPorn sub reddit. You should also check out ChartsBin.com. There were also fantastic posts on Business Insider and Bored Panda earlier this year that are worth checking out. Enjoy!

1. Where Google Street View is Available


Map by Google

2. Countries That Do Not Use the Metric System


3. The Only 22…

View original 640 more words


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