The Greatest Sin of All

The world has never been easy. Let’s face it, there’s a lot out there that’s downright dangerous,  misunderstood and unknown. Even walking to the bus stop can get you killed these days. Terrorism, poverty, global warming, pollution…Homo sapiens has done a pretty good job screwing up a planet that had been just great for billions of years. And we’ve only been doing it since the last few thousand years, since we stopped being hunters and gatherers and settled down into communities.

And there are many reasons why we’ve done that. Not settled down, I mean screwed up the planet. But there is one thing that drives the destructive gene in human beings, that is the seed, as it were, for all the other stupidity we’ve managed to pull off since we climbed down from the trees and decided walking on two legs was a good idea (which it wasn’t).

I’m talking about ignorance.

You know what that is. We’ve all been guilty of it. Hell, I’ve managed to look pretty dumb on the odd occasion. But by ignorance I don’t mean just not knowing something. I mean deliberately deciding not to know something.

There are four types of ignorance. I mention these in my novel Plato’s Cave, but here they are again:

(1)   What we know we don’t know. For example, we know that we don’t know if there is life on other planets.

(2)   What we don’t know we don’t know. Until we know about it, we can’t actually know that we don’t know something.

(3)   What we think we know, but don’t. Maybe apples don’t really grow on trees, it just looks that way. We’ve been fooling ourselves with appearances.

(4)   What we don’t think we know, but do. Maybe we already possess the key to time travel. We just haven’t realised it yet.

Those types of ignorance are fine because they allow the possibility that our ignorance will one day be lifted. If we keep asking enough of the right sort of questions and keep looking for the answers in a practical way, there’s a chance our ignorance will change to knowledge. In other words, the four types of ignorance listed above are scientific. Used properly, they have the ability to lead a sufficiently curious anthropoid ape towards the truth.

But there is another type of ignorance that actually lies beneath these four. And that is the type I’m calling the greatest sin of all.

(5) What we choose not to know.

For many reasons, there are people who deliberately decide not to know about something. The knowledge they eschew might conflict with their own personal beliefs. If they accepted the truth, it would contradict what they choose to believe, and that keeps them ignorant. Or, they might think that discovering the truth is too much like hard work. Or it requires them to associate with people they don’t wish to acknowledge. There are many reasons. None of them are legitimate.

This is what makes that type of ignorance a sin.

A few examples:

  1.  Homophobes choose to be ignorant about why people are LGBT. They think there is a choice in the matter, that gay people somehow, at some point in their lives, choose to be gay. The homophobes don’t want to know that gay people are gay because they are gay. They were born that way. Maybe homophobes object on religious grounds. Maybe they think gay people have some kind of hidden plan to steal children because they can’t have their own. Or that there is some kind of  “gay agenda”. (If there is I missed the memo). All poppycock of course. It’s worth remembering that the word “homophobe” means “fear of man”. That’s what their hatred stems from. Fear. Not knowledge.
  2. Literature.  Love it or hate it, it’s still a necessary part of our lives. I am a teacher and when I teach poetry I tell my students that there are only two types of people who read poetry: other poets, and students who are forced to read it by their teachers. That’s not true, of course, but it breaks the ice. I then tell them that the reason people don’t like reading poetry is because it forces them to think. And who wants to do that? Then I ask them what pop songs they like and get some responses. Their interest in poetry usually shifts after I explain to them that songs are just poetry set to music. They already like poetry, they just weren’t aware of it (see types of ignorance number 4 above). So too with other types of literature. Reading helps relieve ignorance. But some people choose not to read because it interferes with their decision not to think about things, or it’s too much hard work.
  3. Global warming. Most people accept global warming. A few don’t. A dangerous few. They have chosen to be ignorant for commercial reasons. Because the fact of global warming interferes with their desire to make enormous wads of cash they refuse to accept the truth. These people unfortunately have the capacity to influence politicians who decide to accept their dangerous disbelief because it keeps them in power.

There are many other examples. War. Religion. Conspiracy theories. World hunger. Terrorism. Astrology. All of these stem, ultimately, from deliberate ignorance.

That’s why I became a teacher. I help take some of the ignorance away from the world. Sometimes I despair when I go on the internet and find someone touting homeopathy, or warning that the world will end next Tuesday week. But I keep trying, because deliberate ignorance can be fought and defeated.

Russell Proctor   http://www.russellproctor.com

 

Why Nothing Works

I’m going out on a limb here. I’m going to say something totally radical and see who tells me I’m a complete moron. I’m also going to see who agrees with me and who says ‘Yes, you have a point, but…’

Because all of those points of view are valid.

So this is what I’m going to say: No one is right.

That’s right. No one is right. Right?

As we grow up, various people tell us what is right and what is wrong. Most of the time, at least during our early years, these people are relations. Parents, uncles and aunts, well-meaning (and sometimes not so well-meaning) brothers and sisters and cousins unto the fourth and fifth generations. Later on, these people are teachers, and friends, and then celebrities and even later on, they are our own children and then grand-children and basically the rest of society telling us do it this way or get out of town.

But in the end, the only person you should listen to is yourself.

And here’s the rider on that last statement that completely throws caution to the wind: not even you are right.

You’re wrong, ok? And so am I. And so is my mother, and your mother, and Kanye West and your favourite teacher in primary school and that man up on the pulpit telling you what you have to believe, and your favourite song and that inspirational meme you found on Facebook this morning.

Inspiration1

None of them (us). Because none of them (us) has the slightest idea what they’re (we’re) talking about. And they (we) never have.

You see, life doesn’t come with an instruction manual. Every single one of the 108 billion people who have ever lived has had to wing it. That isn’t to say we haven’t looked for guidance, or embraced life lessons with a fervour that has often led to misunderstanding. Religion has brought comfort to billions of those billions, and yet has also caused divisiveness on a global and catastrophic scale. Worldly wisdom is both comforting and self-contradictory. Science strives to give us answers and yet produces more questions. Even your mother (sorry to bring her up, but she is important) has changed her mind about how best to raise you. But none of them, I venture to say, has the slightest idea what they’re talking about.

And this is perfectly natural. Because every one of those 108 billion people has been an individual. Unique. As a teacher, I try to instil the art of critical thinking in my students. ‘Question everything!’ I demand. ‘Even what I’m saying to you now!’ The ability to ask questions is the single greatest ability of the human mind, which is the single greatest and most complex organ in the known universe. ‘The worst reason for believing something,’ I continue, foam often frothing in the corners of my mouth, ‘is that someone told you it was so!’

I have no idea if any of my students have ever done what I have implored. It may well be a good thing if they haven’t. Because knowing that life is basically a make-it-up-as-you-go scenario and nothing anyone has ever said actually means squat is not the most comforting way to live one’s life.

Let me give you an example. Maybe more than one.

I’m a writer. I’ve had books and short stories published. This makes me feel good. I enjoy knowing that people are reading what I’ve written. I have so far made a bit of money from my writing. Not much, but making money isn’t why I write.  If I was slaving over a hot computer in order to make money I’d be in the IT industry or something to do with computers that actually made money. That’s my conscious decision and I’m fine with that. But I’ve read a lot about how to write books, and how to promote what I’ve written and how to make sales and I’ve also read a lot about how what I read about promotion actually doesn’t work and even the Big Five publishers have no idea what they’re doing and if I listened to both sides of the argument my head would explode. So nobody knows what they’re doing.

Take elections. Any elections. Nothing divides people more completely than politics. Except maybe religion. Both politics and religion have been responsible for an immense amount of human suffering, possibly to the same degree. But let’s take politics, because if you started me on religion my head would explode, and it’s already done that once so far since you started reading this. It doesn’t actually matter what politics a particular candidate wants to follow. Because all politicians are united in one way: a politician is utterly useless unless he or she is in power. So a politician’s whole agenda is geared towards getting into power, by whatever means possible. Once in power, he or she has the sole agenda of staying in power as long as possible, because otherwise they have no meaning. So politics is pointless, because ultimately nothing they do makes any point, because their whole agenda is self-centred.

Take science. I love science. Science has put people on the Moon and created this computer I’m typing on now and even saved my life when I was nine years old and was very, very sick. I have nothing against science personally. But it really does make life difficult. It’s got hard mathematics and big words and forces people to think and let’s face it, most people don’t want to think. They want answers, and all science does is provide ones they don’t want to know about. Global warming? Way inconvenient! Vaccines are safe? But that means the ‘research’ I did on the internet about how it causes autism is wrong! Evolution? But that means God may not actually exist! Excuse me, but I’m not sure I want to know that! And then you get scientists who don’t agree with each other. Where is that going?

Take human relations. I’m divorced. I got married and it lasted less than a year before my wife and I separated. I’m not casting blame here; it was the fault of both of us. We applied for a joint dissolution of marriage and were quite amicable about it. I even remember that after the divorce we both went to lunch together to celebrate. Human relations (love, romance, sex) are so unbelievably difficult that people like me just have no idea what is going on. There are a million how-to books and websites on obtaining a mate, and dating services and copious amounts of advice from friends and relations. And in the end we end up (or don’t) with someone. They may be the person of our dreams, Most often they aren’t. But most of us end up pretty much more or less happy. Usually. Or not. Because in the end, no one has the slightest idea about how to go about finding the right person to wake up next to forever.

Take diets. No, actually, don’t. Literally.

Look, I could go on. But basically, the point I’m making is that in every field of human endeavour there is a large number of people who spout all sorts of wisdom and how-to suggestions and tell us what it’s all about and what works and what doesn’t and what we must do in order to succeed or at least not fail or avoid fiery pits of eternity and in the end none of them actually have something that necessarily applies to us. We are all individuals.

What works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for you. Or me. Or anyone else. In the end, we’re all just making it up as we go.

I’m sorry if that’s depressing. But there’s nothing I – or you – can do about it.

Just do your best. That’s all anyone can ask of you.

 

Russell Proctor http://www.russellproctor.com

 

 

 

 

Being Dead

Recently, I’ve thought about  being dead. Not that anyone I know has died lately, and I don’t have a terminal illness and I’m not thinking of shuffling off my mortal coil anytime soon. But it’s an interesting thing to think about nevertheless. After all, it’s something that we all have to do eventually, like it or not, so we may as well accept the inevitability of it. Because people are different, they have different attitudes to death, and most of these are determined by what they think will happen afterwards. Religions favour the idea that a good life will be rewarded and a bad one punished – although the concept of eternal punishment for a temporary sin is a weird one when you think about it, and more than a little unfair. But is it a given that anything at all will happen?

I mean, I know things will happen after my death. The world will keep turning, seasons will change, events will continue in their inexorable way. It’s just that I’m not going to be around to see them. So yes, there definitely is life after death. It’s just not a life I’ll be participating in. The universe seemed to function moderately well before I was born and I have the feeling it will continue to do so after I’m gone.

But of course, that’s not what most people worry about. They are more concerned about what happens to them. Which is understandable. But is an afterlife all it’s cracked up to be? Is it actually a ‘consummation devoutly to be wished’ as Shakespeare put it when Hamlet was considering not bearing any fardels (He actually uses the word fardels  – check it out at Hamlet III, i).

There are many considered possibilities about what happens when we die, and  I’ll address some of them. They aren’t all of the possibilities I’m sure, but they are the major ones people tend to consider as possible outcomes of this brief mortal span of ours. And bear in mind, this is just my opinion. People are free to believe other things if they wish.

All right, so let’s assume I’m dead. There are a myriad of possible causes of that. Extreme old age is about as attractive as I guess it gets, so let’s pretend I’ve just popped off after a good sojourn on this turgid little planet. So, what happens to me now?

1) I’ll go to heaven, or achieve some state of life after death where I am rewarded by  an applicable deity.

I won’t suggest any particular version of heaven or specify any actual deity, as  there are a lot of religions around. Some scholars put the number of different creeds at about 4,200. I don’t know which might be the “right one”. If we were honest, we’d have to admit no one does.  Nor is there being a right one required for this topic. Seriously, most people are the same religion as their parents. Coincidence? Of course not. Children are indoctrinated into a particular religion depending on what faith their parents have. Some change later in life, of course, but mostly it’s a safe bet that a person was raised in the same church as the rest of their family. So it’s just an accident of birth that anyone is the religion they are.

Now, whatever the version of heaven being considered here, it’s probably not going to appeal to me. Think about it. No one is actually sure what’s going to happen even if you do go to heaven. Look at just one viewpoint, which asserts that Lazarus spent four days dead. This would be a great opportunity, one might think, to bring back some details about the place. But he didn’t. No one knows. Even those “psychics” who reckon they can channel the dead never ask what’s it like? All we get are vague things about forgiving those left behind and “I feel fine”. Details, please! And if the glory of heaven is too great for mere mortals to explain to other mere mortals, then it’s beyond our comprehension and therefore meaningless. Check out my novel Plato’s Cave for more information about that viewpoint.

Recently, a boy who wrote a book (with the aid of his father) about dying and going to heaven admitted he’d made it up. It was a bestseller because it satisfied people’s preconceived notions about heaven; it told them what they wanted to believe. But no one actually knows.

My point is, I don’t know if I’d like it. Imagine if everyone in heaven is so holy all they do is talk about God for eternity. If God arranged it that way, he’s been a bit selfish. If he is an eternal deity, he doesn’t need constant praise. That just makes him human.

Others say you get to be with your loved ones. Fair enough, I love my family, and it would be great to see my Dad again, but I don’t want to spend forever with them. Get together occasionally and have some fun, sure, but not forever. Let’s face it, that’s a long time.

If we believe some commentators, we’ll be “one with God”. What does that mean? Are we actually a part of him, like another limb or something? Are we spiritual part? If so, what does that mean? God has given me no peace in life, so I doubt I’ll be terribly comforted by being a part of him after death. If I’m to learn the love and truth of God only by dying and becoming a part of him after I’m dead, it’s a bit late.

Many religions, if not all, focus on the afterlife because life itself actually sucks for a great many people and it’s a comfort to them to think they have immortal and eternal souls beyond the ability of mere physical laws to detect or explain. It gives purpose to their lives, maybe. That’s good. But making the most of our time while alive is important too.

Whether we are talking Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, or any of the others, details of what happens in heaven are actually rather vague. They shouldn’t be.

So I think I’ll pass. I don’t want to spend eternity somewhere if I haven’t read the brochure.

 

2) I’ll go to hell.

Another tricky religion-dependent concept. Hell, of course, is an invention, because churches needed to frighten people into believing, because having faith is really hard and so a threat of eternal punishment would give them incentive. Even Pope Francis has stated that there is no Hell.

So, no. I’m not going to a place that doesn’t exist. Besides, it’s not fair to have an eternal punishment for a temporary sin. I steal a loaf of bread to feed my starving family and I get punished FOREVER? That’s not justice.

 

3) I’ll become a ghost or spirit or something paranormal.

This means people who fancy themselves as TV hosts will come along with torches and delicate recording equipment and attempt to find me or exorcise me or something. I don’t fancy hanging about the same place, presumably the place where I died, for eternity. I wouldn’t do it. If I had the ability to walk through walls and be invisible I’d put those abilities to some good use, not hang about twiddling my ethereal thumbs waiting for some idiot with a camera to spend their time looking for me.

Have you ever noticed on those TV shows where they look for ghosts or Bigfoot or the Sasquatch or whatever spooky critter has taken their fancy that they never actually find one? Ever? I wonder why. Are the hunters that unlucky, that incompetent, or is it that the things they are looking for don’t actually exist? Maybe a combination of all three.

Of course, believing in ghosts is easy, because you can’t be disproved. If I say ‘Ghosts aren’t real’, it’s easy to prove me wrong – just find a ghost. But if I declare ‘Ghosts are real’ it’s impossible to prove me wrong. When asked for evidence, all I have to say is ‘We haven’t found one yet.’ Science is falsifiable. Faith is not.

 

4) I’ll reincarnate.

If I’m supposed to improve as a person, at least let me remember what I did wrong the last time so I have some kind of chance. If I’m going to come back as an ant or a toad or something because of mistakes I’ve made (see my above thoughts on unfair punishment) then some idea of precisely what it was I did wrong might help.  You take your chances.

Sure, religion give us an idea of how we should behave in real life, but that pesky Karma idea means I’ll be sent back again and again to have another go, like a kid who keeps failing his exams and is held back until the other kids laugh at him. Maybe I should study for my exams a bit harder, but this just makes it my fault, which doesn’t tie in with forgiveness and divine mercy. It’s just petty. I’m being told how to behave, and even if I do achieve relief from reincarnation the whole problem of what happens then is still there. The doubts and uncertainties and the fact that no one actually knows remain unresolved. It solves nothing in the end.

 

5) Nothing will happen.

You see, the problem with possibilities 1 to 3 above is that they depend on the idea that I will have some sort of consciousness after I’m dead. But there’s no evidence I will. Possibility 4, reincarnation, means I don’t have any conscious memory of my previous lives, and that’s unfair.

The most attractive possibility, therefore, is this one. Number 5. Nothing will happen. I won’t be sitting there going ‘Hmm, I’m not supposed to do what I did last time but I don’t know what that actually was.’ I won’t be praising some deity that made me flawed in the first place and gave me the choice whether to have a good time or not and I choose having a good time and then he gets mad because he didn’t want me to. I won’t be going to Hell, because it doesn’t exist. And being a ghost would be really, really boring and if I did have ‘other business’ I’d make sure I did it and got the next bus out of there.

So I’m looking forward to number 5. I will have moved on. It won’t bother me. I don’t have to be concerned about anything at all. The universe will go on without me very well.

If the history of the universe is a line from the Big Bang up to the moment you are reading this, like so:

____________________________________________

and I was to pick a random point on that line that stretches for more than 13 billion years, the overwhelming possibility is that I wouldn’t exist. I am now 57 years old. So the chances of picking a year on that line that falls within my lifetime is 57 out of 13,000,000,000. Or, as Douglas Adams would have put it, ‘as near to nothing as makes no odds’. So really, I’m not very important at all. None of us are, in the cosmic scheme of things.

This is an idea that a lot of religious people have an issue with. They want to be important. They want to matter. That’s fair enough. Be important. Write a book. Save children from starving. Rescue animals. Do something that makes you important NOW, while you’re alive, not after you’re dead. It’s too late then.

So believe what you want. This is a personal reflection about me. Just make the here and now as useful as you can, because it’s your one shot at it.

Russell Proctor  http://www.russellproctor.com

The Magnificence of Being Insignificant

The Cassini spacecraft has taken a picture of Earth and its moon from out near Saturn. It is an evocative one (see above). Taken on 19 July 2013, the picture isn’t the first of its kind. We’ve had the famous  Pale Blue Dot picture taken by Voyager in 1990. And the Cassini picture will be added to with other things eventually. Photo time is precious out near Saturn, and there is much work for the spacecraft to do. But this is what we have so far. Earth is the bright shiny bit in the middle; the smaller dot is the Moon. (Picture courtesy of NASA).

It stirs my blood that this picture captures every single one of the 7 billion people on Earth. Everything we’ve done, everything we’ve achieved, all the stupid mistakes we’ve made, all of history, and all of life as we know it, happened on that tiny bit of dirt in the immensity of space.

It is hard to look at this picture and not feel conflicted. On the one hand, we have an overwhelming sense of isolation and insignificance. The universe is so big it contains absolutely everything there is. It is so bizarre we are only just beginning to understand how bizarre, much less comprehend its weirdness and explain it. And there we are, so small that if you dropped into the Cosmos randomly, the chances of being anywhere near enough to even notice the Earth exists are not far removed from infinity to one against. It is hard to accept that some god or gods created this enormity and then made Earth so utterly pointless.

On the other hand, the picture tells me we are utterly amazing creatures. The very fact that we can take this picture, or the Pale Blue Dot or any of the others, is an indication of just how bloody brilliant we are when we try.

If we are the only sentient beings in the universe, as Carl Sagan pointed out, then we have an enormous responsibility to get things right before we become extinct. If the universe has life other than us in it, then it must be so far away the chances of ever meeting it are next to none. If the universe is teeming with life, then what a magnificent opportunity to “join the club”.

Cassini-spacecraft_0-580x435

 

It’s a shame, then, that we waste so much time on dumb things. Being sentient takes its toll. The fact that we can think makes us think we are enormously important. We are selfish, wanting to be important, successful and meaningful. We only have one shot at this, so we want it to work. Evolution has required us to be competitive, and we are, to the point of destroying others and ourselves. To the point of screwing up the little we have. People invent gods because they are frightened of oblivion and because they require meaning (even if most religions say we are incapable of understanding god’s plan anyway). We worship technology because it is a way of learning about the universe and also because it helps to provide the instant gratification our short, violent lives require. We fight among ourselves because the orthodoxies we embrace only make sense if others believe them too. We have to feel special, so we make sure everyone else suffers.

But then we go and take this picture, and suddenly it all gets put into perspective. We are both insignificant and mind-bogglingly amazing at the same time. For a little patch of over-emotional DNA, we haven’t done that badly. The more people come to appreciate a picture like this, the more hope there is that we come to terms with it.

Is destroying this beautiful blue little world worth being selfish? Is the brief glimmer of life you have worth wasting on triviality? I’m not asking everyone on Earth to achieve greatness. There isn’t room for that.

But try, ok?

The Bisexual Atheist

atheism symbols and richard dawkins and out campaign

bisexual

I am a bisexual atheist.

It’s a very liberating combination, actually. Let’s consider them separately.

Bisexualism allows you to form a relationship with anyone completely unfettered by expectations. There is no need to act in a particular way because you are friends with a man or a woman. People are equal in your eyes, at least as far as gender issues are concerned. And let’s face it, there are a lot of those still hanging about.

When I was younger, and still went to parties, I noticed the men congregated with the other men, and the women with the women. I liked to mix with both equally. In fact, I confess to feeling rather left out of a lot of male conversations. I would end up with the girls, talking to them. But it’s an interesting phenomenon which I am sure you have noticed, too. The sexes seem to feel safer or more comfortable with their own sex. Bisexualism allows you to feel comfortable with both. I guess it’s about those expectations I mentioned: we feel the need to behave in a certain way, so we gather with those who feel the same need.  It’s natural.

Bisexuality allows me to be comfortable with anyone I like.

Now, atheism. Again, liberating. I don’t feel I need to conform to any set guidelines of behaviour, nor do I have any burden of guilt hanging about me. I am a moral person because that is the intelligent, proper way to behave, not because long ago some men laid down rules for their society (which might have been fine at the time) and pretended they came from a god.

Atheism lets you breathe. I don’t believe in a god because there is no proof of one. Faith is an excuse invented by people because they couldn’t explain the lack of evidence for their god, so they pretended they didn’t have to.

I am happy for people to believe if they wish. I just ask that they don’t hurt anyone, including themselves, with their belief. I don’t believe, that’s all. There is still freedom to do that in this world. If god wanted us to believe in him he would make his presence known in an overt way rather than through the intercession of people. The mere fact that there are a variety of religions shows that god isn’t doing a very good job at being specific.

I have the freedom, too, to be bisexual. I have made the choice to follow both of those freedoms.

Fortunately for me, when I have announced to someone I am bisexual, only occasionally have I met someone put off by the idea. Most accept it unconditionally. Some have even been jealous. When I announce I am an atheist, again, almost everyone has been amenable to that. Only occasionally has some religious person taken offence. But the world is full of people waiting to be offended.

So that’s me. Middle of the road, uncommitted, average. The best of both worlds.

Enjoy life. Mine is great.

 

I Want a Real God

It would be so cool if God existed.

I mean a real God, not one of those crazy guys we have at the moment.

I mean an obvious god, one that reveals itself unambiguously to all. One that doesn’t need interpretation, or faith. One that gives us a holy book we can understand without going round in circles, and we don’t have to argue with others about what it means. One that rewards sensibly those who are genuinely good and punishes fairly those who are bad. One that doesn’t lay down a moral code that denies unselfish pleasure. One that is tolerant of all, even those who don’t wish to believe in it. One that is beyond gender or race or sexual orientation.

That would be so cool.

Wouldn’t it be great of God was a law, like gravity? Have you noticed that gravity exists even if you don’t believe in it? Gravity works everywhere, all the time, not just only with certain people who want to believe in it or surrender to it. We can’t help but surrender to gravity. If God was like that, we wouldn’t have to fight wars over how we believe in it.

But we don’t get that. All we get is a washed-out god, one that reflects the fears and jealousies and hopes and dreams and selfishness of human beings. We get a god that looks so lame, that is almost powerless, that can’t even get the universe right or design a sentient creature that doesn’t run a fairly good risk of destroying itself. Noah’s Ark? We don’t need a god to punish us for our sins, we are doing a great job all by ourselves.

We get a god that doesn’t accept its own creation, that has to fit science into the cracks in the faith it is supposed to have in itself, like a sort of apology.

I’d love to be able to pray and zap! – what I prayed for happens. No problem – just suspend the laws of physics for my own benefit. It would be awesome if miracles actually happened without the need to test whether they really are miracles or just that damned science getting in the way again. If I lost a limb I could just ask for another one, a real one, as good as before. What if Muhammad really had split the moon? No problem: he fixed it up again, but it would have been so amazing to see that.

It would be fantastic if that face I think I see on my slice of toast or in that tree bark or in the clouds really is the Lord. How wonderful it would be to know that god is there, watching me always, caring for me. Really, really concerned for my welfare. Not just some other person telling me that’s what god is doing.

The god we have at the moment – the gods we have – are such a disappointment. They’re so…well, just so human. Like they were invented by people. That’s a shame.

If God existed, it would be something really, really, cool. And I’d love to meet it.

Until that happens, I guess we’re stuck with our imaginings.

Not Good News: Religious Indoctrination of Children

A Queensland mother has complained to the Education Department about Bibles being handed out to the children at her daughter’s school. Apparently it was the Gideons paying a visit and leaving the books with the kids.

Now, I don’t care – not really, not usually – about what religion you follow or whether you have one in the first place. But I have two rules for people who do follow any religion:

1) You must not allow your beliefs to harm anyone, including yourself;

2) You must not try to convert anyone to what you believe.

These are really bad things to do. I think the first goes without saying, but the second may raise a few eyebrows. It’s called proselytising, and it’s just about the most arrogant thing anyone can possibly do.

I don’t care what religion someone is. They should not go around telling people to believe what they believe. It’s just seeking safety in numbers. If others believe what they believe, they feel more justified. It’s got nothing to do with bringing unbelievers to the fold. It’s all about shoring up their own uncertainties.

As Richard Carrier says in his book Why I Am Not a Christian , “If God wants something from me, he would tell me. He wouldn’t leave someone else to do this. And he certainly would not leave fallible, confused and contradictory humans to deliver an endless plethora of confused and contradictory messages.” If God wants us to be whatever faith you care to name – Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Animist, whatever – he would tell us directly.

Carrier makes the point that the fact that God does not do this is a demonstration of the fact that he does not exist. Fair enough, I am happy for people not to believe in God as much as I am happy (with reservations) for them to believe in him.

 But lay off the children. The concerned Queensland mother, Bridgette Linding, deliberately put her daughter in a government school because such schools do not have religious education. It was a further demonstration of her fortitude that she offered to distribute the Koran and Buddhist texts to the same kids. Good for her – give them freedom of choice about what they want to believe, including the right not to believe at all.

The indoctrination of children into religion is an appalling denial of their rights. When they are old enough to make up their minds, let them do so free of any attempt to sway them one way or another. The presentation of religious education must be balanced if it is done at all. All right, let the Gideons give them a Bible if it makes them (the Gideons) feel better but, as Mrs Linding suggests, give the children other holy texts as well. And give them the choice as to whether they want to know about it at all.

I’ve always felt that if you constantly have to persuade people that your religion is the right one, if you have to reassure each other that you are praying the right words or following the right ceremonies, if you have to threaten people with either worldly or after-worldly punishment if they fail to follow what you believe, there is probably something wrong with your religion.