Sunday Assembly is not enough

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‘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

Review: Ghost Hunting – A Survivors Guide

A survivors guideIn ‘Ghost Hunting – A Survivors Guide’ author John Fraser demonstrates his knowledge of ghost hunting history, presenting a great overview of the past 2000 years of ghost hunting and how it has shaped into the modern landscape of multi-disciplinary paranormal research. He asks early on ‘Does the inclusion of more people and more ghost hunters mean there is more chance of finding evidence for a ghost, or are investigations too disparate and run on individualistic lines to be anything other than just an interesting experience for those who participate in them?’

It’s an interesting question, but one the book does little to explore. There is also a lot of irrational conjecture in the 184 pages of this book. For example, the first alarm bell rang when Harry Price was described as ‘a damned good, ground-breaking investigator, who may or may not have been tempted at times to fake phenomena.’ 

borley ghost brickAlthough Price was indeed an important figure in the history of paranormal research there is a lot wrong with his work – especially the indications that he faked phenomena.

I’m sure many will instantly think of a certain photo of a certain “floating” brick at Borley Rectory, for example…

As I read Ghost Hunting – A Survivors Guide I gained the impression that Fraser knows his stuff when it comes to the history of paranormal research, but that he is doomed to repeat it and all of it’s mistakes by offering up defence after defence of unscientific methods of paranormal research. He writes of personally using Ouija Boards, for example, and also of using Table Tipping, referring to it as ‘ a powerful, if somewhat unfashionable tool of investigation’. It isn’t. You can read my thoughts on those methods here if you’re interested. 

…and although Fraser seems to share my own reservations about EMF meters, he still thinks the right sort of EMF meter should be used by ghost researchers despite the problems with this equipment he outlines in his book. He also defends the use of other pieces of pseudo-scientific equipment too.

Of using thermometers to monitor alleged cold spots he says ‘there is no theory, to the best of my knowledge, to explain why temperature should drop when a paranormal phenomenon occurs. What there is though is a general hypothesis among ghost hunters that if the production of supernatural phenomena in some way uses energy from the atmosphere, this could potentially lead to a drop in temperature.’  This is not good justification for having this in your tool kit, it also assumes paranormal phenomena is occurring.

Fraser also suggests that tape recorders, despite the many shortcomings that he personally lists, are a vital piece of equipment, stating ‘While it may well be that EVP [Electronic Voice Phenomena] can be explained naturally, this has not yet been done conclusively. It is still therefore worth checking out time to time to see if there are any direct messages picked up by your recording devices.’

This is, I think, a form of cognitive dissonance – Fraser acknowledges the irrationality of numerous ghost research methods, but seems to ignore those problems in his conclusion that these methods should still be used.

In another part of the book about Residual Haunting Theory, Fraser writes about the research of Jacques Benveniste that incorrectly suggests that water has a memory of what it has come into contact with. Some think ghosts are recorded in both the materials of building- stone tape theory – and also in water (it is often said that underground water can cause hauntings.) Fraser writes ‘While not fully accepted by all scientists, the research of Benveniste has never been disproved.’

There is no mention that no double blind control was used by Benveniste during his research.

When the paper was published in the journal Nature in 1988 one of the conditions for publication was that editor John Maddox and skeptic activist James Randi supervised a repeat of the experiment. They observed Benveniste’s team repeating the procedure which seemed to be working and showing a definite difference between the plain water and the homoeopathic water. However, the assessment of the two types of water involved a subjective evaluation by a researcher – and the researchers knew which was the plain water and which the homoeopathic. When the protocol was tightened the results were not repeated.

I am disappointed that these details were omitted by Fraser in his book. I am disappointed that paranormal researchers, like Fraser, who have a lot if influence offer irrational ideas a legitimacy they do not deserve with their non-committal attitude. I recommend that those who read this book do so with a pinch of salt. It offers an interesting insight into contemporary paranormal research, but I wouldn’t take the authors word as fact, if I were you.

In defence of YOLO


I’m 16. I’m standing outside of my school and in my hand is a piece of paper telling me my GCSE grades. A mix of C’s and B’s. Average. My then-friend has achieves E’s and D’s. She is crying. Her life is ruined. Fuck, I’m not ready for this shit I think. ‘It will be okay’ I say, trying to convince myself as much as her.

‘What are your career plans?’ asks the straight A student I used to sit near in Double Science. She’s just had her photo taken by the local paper. They only photograph the pretty clever ones. I don’t know I think. ‘I’m exploring my options’ I say. Again. The same phrase I’ve parroted over and over to anyone who asks me the same question. A question that is too big to be asking any 16-year-old.

I’m 16. I haven’t even stopped growing but people want me to plan the rest of my life. In a year my shoes will be two sizes too small, but I’m supposed to have my career plan already laid out ahead of me. Fuck.

I’m 16. On the day I get my GCSE results I go to a local greasy spoon cafe and my grandparents buy me an all day breakfast as a congratulations because that’s how we roll. While my classmates are sorting out their A-level options I am eating bacon that is slightly over cooked and drinking a frothy coffee.

However, underneath lurks the familiar sense of dread. It has haunted me since Year 10. It’s the dread that I won’t get good enough qualifications, that I won’t get a respectable job with a high enough salary. I’m slightly scared that I won’t be able to drive, that I’m going to die poor because I won’t be able to draw a pension, or won’t have somewhere decent to live…

I was a teenager and I hate that these thoughts consumed my mind. I hate that this pressure was put on me and my friends before most of us had even finished puberty.

The sense of not being ready that I felt at the age of 16 didn’t leave me until I was almost 20.

At the age of 18 I had life saving surgery and it took ages to recover. I had finally enrolled at my local college on a course that I didn’t really care much about, but I had to go to college and study otherwise I’d be a failure.

Then came my illness. Then came the pile of unfinished coursework. Then came the surgery. Then came the decision that it would be best if I enrolled at college the following year instead. Then came the full time job. Then came the realisation that none of that stuff I’d worried about before actually mattered.

I realised, at the age of Nineteen, that since my mid-teens adults had groomed me to believe that their vision of success was my vision of success, and I was so caught up in achieving it (and so aware of how I was failing to achieve it) that I wasn’t actually getting anything from life. There’s this quote that says ‘happiness isn’t a destination, it’s a journey’ and I realised that I would never be happy fulfilling the life that others had decided was best for me and my classmates.

I was alive. I had survived and suddenly that was enough. Everything else was a bonus.

So I stopped living to other peoples standards of success, because YOLO.

Yes. I just YOLO’d. I know, it’s ghastly, right?

Yet, fuck it, I actually like YOLO. I think YOLO is spot on, and if it’s just the acronym that annoys people then I’m sure they can get behind the fact that young people are embracing the message that you only live once. 

I wish I’d embraced that message a lot sooner in my life. It would have saved me so much bother, anxiety and dread.

Sure, people say ‘YOLO’ to defend stupid and irresponsible things they’ve done, but then, we’ve all been idiots at some point. If you can’t roll with the rough then what do you get from life apart from the sense that bad things happen because of other people?

Often people dismiss people who say “YOLO” as being iressponsible kids who aren’t going to make anything of themselves, but that’s nobodys business other than theirs. They’ll make of themselves what they can, and as long as they’re content it’s all that matters. If they’re not content then I hope they can work through that like I did. Life is too short to tell kids to grow up and make something of themselves.

Happiness isn’t a destination, it’s a journey – so too is success and fulfilment. YOLO.

Perhaps if 16-year-old me had considered the things she dreaded in the manner I consider them now – perhaps if “YOLO” had been a thing when I was at school instead of “WASSSSUP?” – 16-year-old me would have ripped up her GCSE report, shouted “Momento mori, motherfuckers! Now, let’s go get all Carpe Diem on that cooked breakfast you promised me!’ *SWAG*

Only douchebags go ghost hunting at POW camps

colditz photo

A ghost events company called Compass Paranormal have come under fire from angry customers after a recent overseas ghost hunting event they held at Colditz was not as advertised and was, in general, apparently a bit crap. In response someone claiming to represent Compass Paranormal has made a comment suggesting they are taking legal action against those who have complained.

When I was shown this story I thought the person telling me about it was winding me up, but no, no they were not. These people really went on a ghost hunt at Colditz.

are you kidding me

I just… I can’t…

I will never be able to empathise with those who feel it is appropriate to go on a thrill-seeking ghost hunt in a WWII prisoner-of-war camp, just as I will never be able to understand why people visit Pendle Hill and scream at the alleged ghosts of women who were hanged for witchcraft, or why local ghost hunters once investigated the haunting of a local pub by the ex-landlady who had shot herself dead less than ten years previously.

I know that ghosts do not linger at these locations, and I know that the dead are not automatically deserving of respect simply because they’re dead, but there is a line and I think people who go ghost hunting in places at which great trauma took place are crossing it. Crossing it so much they can’t even see the line and wouldn’t know what the line looked like even if they could see it because they probably didn’t even stop to think about the line as they sauntered over it with their useless ghost hunting gadgets in hand.

It’s especially bad when there are people alive who remember people who may have died at that location or who may have been effected by the death or deaths as there are so many ethical problems here! Argh!

I genuinely don’t know who to think less of here: the people who organised a fucking ghost hunt in Colditz, or the people who booked onto a ghost hunt at Colditz and then complained that they didn’t get to visit more scary parts of the castle and surroundings. I mean, really. Really? 

Not cool, douche-canoes.

Douce Award

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.