The Dawkins Problem


Richard Dawkins was right when he recently said that ‘Nothing should be off limits to discussion.’ It was a point he made in a recent blog post following the fallout that happened after he tweeted comments comparing different types of rape and paedophilia.

Yet it is also true that no comment made can ever be made away from the context it is made in and without the historic behaviour of the commenter being added to it. The hypothetical questions above would have touched many nerves regardless of who the author of it was- why use rape or child abuse as examples at all -the fact that it was Richard Dawkins saying it made all the difference here.

Dawkins has previously belittled the problems faced by Western women. He once wrote a fictional letter called Dear Muslima in which he compared one particular experience that Rebecca Watson had with the plight of Muslim women. ‘I know you aren’t allowed to drive a car, and you can’t leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you’ll be stoned to death if you commit adultery. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with ‘ he wrote. You can read it in full on the Skepchick website here but you get the idea from that quote.

Leaving aside the obvious issues with referring to ‘Muslim Women’ and ‘American Women’ as mutually exclusive groups that can be compared to one another, and the downplaying of the abuse that women in the Western world face (like being killed by abusive partners, being blamed for their rape or having their reproductive rights taken away by men in authority and more), these comments from Dawkins (unintentionally, I’m sure) gave other men and women the green light to further harass Rebecca Watson and other women within the skeptic and atheist communities for simply daring to speak out about experiences that had made them feel scared, unsafe or uncomfortable. In fact, the harassment that came as a result of what has been named “elevatorgate” is still ongoing and has seen many men and women who supported Rebecca Watson being harassed themselves.

This is why I find the joint statement by Ophelia Benson and Richard Dawkins condemning such abuse difficult to swallow, and it is why I felt really annoyed at QEDcon when Dawkins was interviewed on stage and was not questioned once about such comments and the impact they have had on the very community he was on stage in front of.

Are we supposed to just forget that this man has said terrible things just because he’s written some great books and speaks well about Evolution? How many evils can one get away with just by being a hero figure in the atheist or skeptic communities? Lots, it seems…

So, when I read the tweets from Richard Dawkins rating different types of rape and paedophilia in comparison to one another my instant reaction was ‘not again…’ and my mind went instantly to Dear Muslima. Dawkins may not have been saying that compared to those who have been violently raped those who have been raped by friends have nothing to complain about nor may he have been saying that those who have suffered ‘mild paedophilia’ have nothing to complain about compared to those who have suffered ‘violent paedophilia’ but it still made it difficult to not be annoyed by his audacity to assume that he has any authority on the experiences of other people.

In summary, although nothing should be off limits to discussion if you’ve a track record of being a bit of an insensitive ass about the traumatic experiences of others you’re probably going to be treated like an ass when you speak about a subject with an authority you do not have. Especially when the data shows that your presumptions are wrong.

Sunday Assembly is not enough

thumb peace

‘The philosophy of Atheism represents a concept of life without any metaphysical Beyond or Divine Regulator. It is the concept of an actual, real world with its liberating, expanding and beautifying possibilities, as against an unreal world, which, with its spirits, oracles and mean contentment, has kept humanity in helpless degradation.’ – Emma Goldman

In her essay The Philosophy of Atheism Emma Goldman groups religion with other man-made systems of domination.  The essay came to mind recently while reading an Alternet article by Alex Gabriel titled 10 Ways to Make Sure the Atheist Movement Is Not Just for the Wealthy. His experiences with religion were much harsher than mine and the piece is eye-opening to a whole new experience of discovering atheism. One in which the author and his family would have been unable to leave the church if they’d wanted to because of how much they depended upon it for support. In his article Alex tells those claiming to offer ‘alternatives to church’ to offer more, writing: 

When I was five with a mum on benefits, we had intense beliefs, but mainly church meant help. Our priest wrote a check when she needed money. Church friends offered food when we had none. Cast-offs were donated when I needed clothes. Lifts were given when we had to travel.

This help was paid for in religious loyalty. It’s easy to demand people quit their churches, but quitting’s sometimes impossible. Where would these things have come from had we left? If you want to replace religion, don’t just replace the abstractions the middle-class get from it. Replace the food and clothes. Find out who needs a fridge, a lift, a babysitter. Keep track of this. Put volunteers and email lists in place.

And don’t just do what churches do, do what rationalists do. Distribute food and clothes and condoms. Support meetings for humanist choir practice… and a secular sobriety circle. (Looking for class-related issues faith groups hijack? Substance abuse should be high on your list.)

Today I read a piece written by Simon Clare titled I have left Sunday Assembly. It’s important to me to point out that I have a lot of respect for Simon and how he approaches ideas. When Simon writes ‘I love the idea of reclaiming the positive aspects of traditional churches for humanity, but those in charge of the Central Sunday Assembly (SA) group have lost sight of this aim, allowing SA to succumb to the same flaws that twisted the institutions we’re supposed to be providing an alternative to’ I pay close attention and think others should too. I’d recommend reading his piece before continuing. 

I have written my thoughts about Sunday Assembly before, concluding that if it floated your boat that was great, but that I hoped you’d also find something to float your boat that didn’t mimic religious traditions. Sunday Assembly, you see, offers those abstractions that Alex Gabriel wrote of. The nice bits. The feel good bits. The singing and the assurance that life is good, that you are good, and that there is purpose for the non-religious. However, I’ve changed my mind. I don’t think what Sunday Assembly offers is enough. Even if it does float your godless boat.

‘Man must break his fetters which have chained him to the gates of heaven and hell, so that he can begin to fashion our of his reawakened and illumined conciousness a new world upon earth.’ – Emma Goldman

A friend recently wrote “Until I attended the Sunday Assembly I thought my problem with religion was God. As it turns out, my problem with religion is church.” The church service, in my humble opinion, is one of those chains that Emma Goldman writes of. A fetter to be broken. That whole communities have, for centuries, been built up around the local church, that our ancestors were suspected of devil worship if they did not attend their local church service is disturbing. (Conflict of interest declaration: Somewhere in my family tree there are Pendle witches…)

When I have been vocal about my dislike of Sunday Assembly people have asked me ‘what’s the harm?’ and while there’s little harm, we do risk becoming complacent in our opposition of the dominance religion has in modern society. I’m sure that many who attend Sunday Assembly support other organisations who actually work in communities to help those in need which is great, but the point of Sunday Assembly then, is completely lost on me.

That the most popular alternative to religious church ceremonies mimics church ceremonies so closely is unsettling. If secularists want to reclaim the good of religion and forget the bad then they need to forget religious traditions altogether.  We already know that as secular people we can do good without any mimicking of religious traditions or settings. 

People don’t need church and Alex Gabriel is right when he talks about access to the vital things in life being more important; access to education, to food, housing, addiction treatment programmes, counselling, health services and more… services that, at the moment, are often heavily influenced by the church.

So, while Sunday Assembly pays their CEO to do what he does so that godless people can feel good, I hope others will continue supporting secular causes that reach out for humanity in the dark corners of society where no singing can be heard…

Abortion Rights
Age UK
Amnesty International

British Humanist Society
Fairtrade Foundation

Oxfam UK 
Medecins Sans Frontieres 
National Aids Trust

National Secular Society

Abortion, AIDS, and Sarah de Nordwall on The Big Questions


This morning on BBC One’s The Big Questions (Episode 15 of Series 7) Sarah de Nordwall of Catholic Voices defended Joseph Ratzinger (the previous pope) and his argument that ‘the distribution of condoms aggravated the problem of HIV/AIDS, rather than helping to contain the virus’ [Source] by herself claiming that abstinence was better at stopping the spread of HIV/AIDS and that “condoms don’t stop the spread of HIV.”

Technically having no sex is a better method of preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS than having sex with contraception in place, but it simply doesn’t work because humans like having sex and being horny can cloud your judgement. Also, systematic reviews of research into the effectiveness of abstinence-only sex education has shown it is ineffective at preventing unwanted pregnancy or the spread of STIs. [Source] Why let facts get in your way though, right Sarah?

At QEDcon earlier this month I had my eyes opened by the talk delivered by Elisabeth Pisani about HIV/AIDS and what does and doesn’t work in their prevention. Pisani is an epidemiologist who has spent over a decade working with the Ministries of Health of China, Indonesia, East Timor and the Philippines, and has also provided analysis and policy advice to UNAIDS, the World Health Organisation, the World Bank, US Centres for Disease Control and more.

Pisani has criticised the Catholic Church’s prohibition on condom use as a means to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS. In a 2008 Guardian feature about the launch of her book ‘The Wisdom of Whores’, Pisani criticised money being spent on ineffective prevention programmes. ‘Even the 20 cents in every US dollar allowed to be spent on prevention is wasted … a third of the prevention budget has to be allocated to faith-based organisations, which refuse to distribute condoms and will promote only abstinence before marriage. The failure rate of “virginity pledge” programmes among young Americans in the US is about 75%; condoms’ failure rate is roughly 2%.’ [Source]

I recommend people also read this 2009 Guardian article by Pisani, buy her book The Wisdom of Whores, and watch her TED talk ‘Sex, Drugs and HIV – let’s get rational to learn more.

Further into the programme Nordwall also made the claim that abortion “kills millions” . This, again, is nonsense. I am starting to see a pattern emerging…

Without access to legal and safe reproductive services women will die. They will die as a result of unsafe “back street” abortions or as a result of pregnancy-related illnesses and conditions. In 2013 it was ruled that Savita Halappanavar died as a result of being denied an abortion that she requested. [Source] In 2012 we heard the story of a British woman, Katherine Furey, who attempted an abortion at home by drinking industrial vinegar that she had been told would induce a miscarriage. [Source]

These are not isolated incidents.

Women who are denied access to legal abortion often take things into their own hands and, in desperation, seek out illegal ‘back street’ or ‘do it yourself’ abortions. With these procedures come risks of permanent internal damage, uterine haemorrhaging, viral infections, septis, vaginitis, and death. DIY abortions are still an issue in this country despite abortion being legal, with A 2007 BBC investigation revealing that pills and herbal medicine designed to induce miscarriage are readily available on the black market. A Manchester doctor told the investigators that his team regularly came across patients with extensive bleeding after taking herbs sold to them to induce miscarriage. [Source]

Basic human rights are violated when the moral and religious beliefs of others are allowed to influence the health care that others receive – especially when that health care is delivered without the best interest of the woman in mind.

In Poland, a woman named Edyta was diagnosed with colon cancer that her doctors refused to treat because she was two months pregnant. Months after diagnosis Edyta miscarried the pregnancy, and then died.[Source] Another pregnant Polish woman was advised her pregnancy would worsen her already severe eye disease. She sought an abortion to stop this from happening but the abortion was denied. The woman was forced to carry and deliver her third child. This resulted in her becoming blind.[Source]

In Peru, a 13 year old girl repeatedly raped by a 34-year-old neighbour became pregnant and attempted suicide by jumping off the roof of a building. Despite doctors concluding that her spine needed to be realigned immediately to avoid lifetime paralysis, they refused to perform the operation because she was pregnant. By the time she eventually suffered a miscarriage, it was too late to perform the spinal procedure, and the girl remains in a wheelchair.[Source]

It is well documented that the restriction of reproductive health services – including access to legal abortion, can result in serious injury or death for the women not being allowed to make decisions about their own bodies. The restriction on these rights comes about because of misinformation presented as fact by people like Sarah de Nordwall.

People shouldn’t pretend to have the best interests of others at heart when really they’re just judging them based on their own dodgy moral standards and Catholic guilt.

Can prayer cure illness?

screenshot mid-broadcast

If you happen to watch BBC1’s The Big Questions on a Sunday morning then you might have spotted me among the guests this morning. I was invited onto the show to debate the question ‘Can prayer cure illness?’ because of my involvement in the ASA complaint against Healing on the Streets in Bath.

I was joined in the ‘no’ camp by Kevin Friery of Hampshire Skeptics, and I owe him huge thanks for helping calm my nerves about my first live TV experience. I also think he deserves credit for the comment he made about praying for traffic lights to stay green!

In the studio pre-broadcast
In the studio pre-broadcast

Although all the evidence shows that prayer doesn’t cure illness some of the other guests would have you believe otherwise. You should watch the episode on BBC iPlayer if you can to see the bizarre nature of the arguments in favour of faith healing. The segment is also available to view online on Youtube by clicking here. I don’t think I can do them justice in this post. Needless to say, all of the arguments contained subjective personal anecdotes which don’t hold much weight at all. Studies into whether prayer can help cure or heal people have shown little to no effect, with the studies that have the most scientifically rigorous methodologies providing no positive results. The meta-analysis studies are the most interesting, with some suggesting that further research is pointless.

It’s most likely that any positive result is caused by a prayer related placebo effect. Humans are very susceptible to suggestion, after all. Even Wes Sutton, a healer himself, stated that prayer doesn’t offer a cure all of the time, and guess what else doesn’t work for everyone every time? The Placebo effect, and Placebos are not a valid replacement for medicines or treatments that have reliable results.

screenshot mid-broadcast

I was glad to hear that none of the people on the show that believe they can heal others through prayer or the laying on of hands would suggest people stop their conventional treatment for their illnesses, but the fact does remain that there are faith healers who do this and that people die because they prayed for healing rather than seeing a doctor. Parents end up in prison because their child died needlessly, and the sick are offered false hope in their most vulnerable and desperate moments. The Adrian Pengelley case is a good example of this, and you can find many stories of this happening on the ‘What’s The Harm?’ website.

The take away message here is that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence and personal testimony isn’t evidence enough.

photo: Kevin Friery / screencap: Alastair Coleman

p.s. at one point during the show another guest stated it was sad that people felt so callous about god, and he pointed towards me and Kevin. Callous doesn’t cover it.

De mortuis nihil nisi bonum


Sir Michael Parkinson once said that British reality-television star, Jade Goody, had come to represent ‘all that’s paltry and wretched about Britain’. He was criticised for his comments because Goody had recently died of cancer at the age of 27. Had his comments been made when she was alive and not dying hardly anybody would have cared because his comments were harsh but fair.

The criticism came because of his timing.

In Thoughts for the Times on War and Death Freud wrote that society seems to adopt ‘a special attitude towards the dead, something almost like admiration for one who has accomplished a very difficult feat. We suspend criticism of him, overlooking whatever wrongs he may have done … This consideration for the dead, which he really no longer needs, is more important to us than the truth, and, to most of us, certainly, it is more important than consideration for the living.’

Speaking ill of the dead is considered socially inappropriate even to those who do not believe the dead continue to exist in some form post mortem. Although it’s true that even the worst people have good qualities and that death is a time for reflection it is slightly baffling that people refuse to speak ill of those no longer living.

Ignoring the terrible qualities or actions of a person just because they’re dead isn’t honest and is unfair to those who fell victim to those qualities or actions. Death doesn’t cancel out the life you lived so why do we pretend it does?

I write this on the day that the news has broken that Fred Phelps of  Westboro Baptist Church [WBC] fame has died. Phelps hurt people through the actions of the WBC and through his words. WBC protested at the funerals of strangers with him in command, they set up websites to monitor the length of time gay men had been in hell following their deaths, and they are abusive and repulsive on every platform they are ever offered. His death has been welcomed by many because he was a horrendous, hateful, intolerant and angry person.

Fred Phelps

There is talk of people protesting at his funeral and people are debating whether it’s a good idea or not. People have criticised the idea as distasteful and sinking to the level of the WBC, others feel strongly that a taste of their own medicine would do the Phelps family good, and then there are those who just want to lash out. The anger and hatred of Fred Phelps is justified, but so too are the questions of the tastefulness of protesting at his funeral.

There are no winners in this game, and although a bad man died today the world didn’t change. The earth belongs to the living, not to the dead and so the Phelps legacy lives on regardless of how we speak about a dead man. With this in mind I have instead made a donation to Stonewall and the Terence Higgins Trust in memory of Fred Phelps. It’s the best ‘fuck you‘ I can muster. I’d urge you to do the same.