Month: June 2012

Overcoming tragedy

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Correspondent rationalfollower reminds us all that it often takes a community campaign such as this one to really come to terms with tragedy.


Morality as an evolved trait

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If you’re regular follower of this blog you’ll be aware that one of my pet hates is the assertion by the religiati that morality is god-given, or, conversely and usually said with a supercilious grin, that atheists have no basis for morality (see here, here and here for a sample).

Rather than just dismissing their argument as bullshit of the highest order (I know, very persuasive, right?), and arguing that it’s just not sustainable given that there are clearly atheists who are moral, it’s nice to be able to provide some real evidence, after all, that’s what I’ve been banging on about ad nauseam.

This week’s Science Show, on ABC Radio National, featured a talk at the AAAS conference in Vancouver earlier this year, by Frans de Waal, a primatologist and ethologist, who has been studying this very question, and has some fascinating (and hugely entertaining) insights to share (although I don’t think that the religiati will necessarily find them all that entertaining).

In summary, he argues that morality is an evolved trait (thanks again Charles Darwin), and this is a fact which is supported by decades of experimentation now. The experiments in primates and other species clearly demonstrate that all the behaviours we associate with morality can be traced to directly to three key sets of behaviour:

  • empathy & consolation
  • prosocial behaviour (including cooperation and altruism)
  • reciprocity and fairness

These can all be demonstrated in other species, making them appear to practice morality. Now, I suspect the religiati will argue that, well, god made the other species too, so it’s no surprise that they display this behaviour, but that can’t be very satisfying. Isn’t there something about faith being required? And god made atheists too, didn’t he?

The video below presents the highlights of this very entertaining and informative presentation, with some stunning examples of cooperation, fairness, empathy, altruism, and so forth. In particular, watch for the fairness experiment (at around 13:00) featuring grapes and cucumbers – it’s a laugh out loud moment, and one which should leave no doubt about the common ancestry between humans and the capuchin monkeys shown. De Waal also tells us however that this has been replicated with dogs and birds, so it’s not just a primate thing.

So sit back and enjoy the video. I look forward to some tortured justifications and special pleadings by the religious community.

An Evening with Ray Bradbury

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While we’re still mourning the loss of Ray Bradbury, here’s a belated look at a talk he gave in 2001.

His insights early in the talk about his early influences and his own path to becoming a writer are very revealing, and reinforce his love of the short story, and of literature in general.

For the afficionados, from about the 30 minute mark we hear the genesis of his major early books.

We hear about how destitute he and his wife were when he went to New York to try to sell his short stories, to be met with publishers who insisted that short stories would just not sell. Fortunately, one man recognised the possibilities, and asked him to join up all his martian stories into The Martian Chronicles, and gave him a hefty advance.

We hear about the summers as a boy, where every sound and smell stimulated a short story, which became Dandelion Wine.

We hear about the painting of a gothic train in the darkness, which was to be the spark for Something Wicked This Way Comes.

His over-riding message to budding writers was to write from within, not for commercial purposes, and after hearing the stories of how his major works originated, and being intimately acquainted with those works, no truer words have been spoken.


Central State and The Age – I’m really spooked now

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Just what this video was doing on the Melbourne Age website I have no idea. They’ve started this ‘Age.TV’ section, and I suppose they have to publish something.  And I’m sure the quality of the content can only improve after the planned sacking of 1900 staff.

It’s a ‘documentary’ about ghost hunting, set in a disused mental institution called Central State, which apparently closed in 1994, and of course is full of tortured souls.

I really hope I’ve missed the point of this movie – that it’s satire. But I don’t think so. It’s just another execrable piece of self-delusion by people who really want to believe in ghosts. Naturally these people are easy fodder for film-makers who want to cash in on their fantasy.

Yes, it’s another bunch of people who’ve drunk the kool-aid of the paranormal, much like our friends at MyTelekinesis. (Hi guys, where ya bin? It’s awfully quiet when you’re not around. I know, too busy moving stuff around by thinking about it, right?)

I thought we were done with this sort of thing. Dimly lit scenes, inexplicable sounds, ghostly images in the lens, and ‘experts’ who can feel the energy of those poor, tortured souls.

Please don’t bother watching the whole thing. Just skip through randomly. I guarantee that every frame you randomly select will contain the same crap.

In fact, just watch the first few minutes to get the flavour. You will be greeted with the horrifying footage of a ghostly visage in one of the windows, which sends our intrepid film crew into a frenzy. No matter that this ghostly visage clearly looks like a knotted up bed sheet.

What follows is an exploration of the building, in which there’s never enough light. Funny about that. A couple of generators would fix that, but somehow no-one thinks of it. So we have a bunch of brainless twits following each-other through tunnels, bullshit-detecting equipment flashing away, sampling synth stuck on ‘Ghosties’,  mouthing inanities like  ‘yeah, definitely a totally different energy in here’ and ‘there’s something here’. Well, duh. My guess would be half a dozen or so morons. But there I go being all skeptical again.

Really people, can’t we move on from ghosts, holy or otherwise?

And if this is the type of content which The Melbourne Age will have behind it’s shiny new pay-wall, then their new business model will be a bigger disaster than everyone is predicting. I think in future I’ll be getting my news and analysis from The Conversation, unless a mining magnate buys that as well.

Thought for the week

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Someday it would be nice to win a Grammy. Or just have a printer that fucking works.

-George Hrab

Chaplaincy Program – the good news and the bad

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Way back in February 2011 I wrote about the efforts of Ron Williams to derail the national schools’ chaplaincy program. At issue is the nearly 1/2 billion dollars of public money handed out to the Scripture Union and Access Ministries, to embed their disciples in public schools. These disciples are known to be carriers of the now-famous reliobacter rationalbrianius germ, hence Ron’s concern for his children.

Ron took the the case to the High Court (the peak federal court in Australia), challenging both the right of the federal government to fund such things and also the church-state separation issue.

Well the decision has finally been handed down, and while the press has all been about how Ron Williams took on the system and won, I’m afraid he and his supporters will, on reflection, consider it a hollow victory.

The good news is that the High Court ruled (6-1) that the Commonwealth government did not have the constitutional right to make such payments, without the backing of legislation, which is the case for the chaplaincy program.

The bad news is three-fold: Firstly, the other proposition being tested, that public schools should not be a vehicle for the promotion of religion, was defeated. This is most unfortunate since in my mind it is the main game. Many, if not most, people want to send their children to school safe in the knowledge that they are not being infected with anything, other than a deep curiosity about the universe, and perhaps the ability to spell and add up a little bit.

Secondly, the federal government has been moved to re-affirm its spending on the chaplaincy program, regardless of the decision. In other words, they will find another way to make it happen, possible through new legislation, or, channel it through the states.

Thirdly, and most unexpectedly, the decision that this type of spending is unconstitutional has broader application than just the chaplaincy program. It may be that a lot of other very worthwhile programs may be cut or derailed as a result of this decision.

Brave attempt Ron, but if ever there was a time for a face-palm, or a Simpsonesque ‘Doh’, it’s now.

And I can just hear those jackals at the Scripture Union and Access Ministries cackling away.

PZ Myers in full flight

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I didn’t make the Global Atheist Conference in Melbourne this year, but if I had, this talk would have been my highest priority.

This fabulous talk by PZ covers the full range of atheist issues in a most entertaining way.

Sit back and enjoy.