Thursday, August 30, 2007

Sin & The Law

It seems to me that a lot of people at what most consider to the be extremes of religious zeal devote a lot of time and effort to the goal of making it illegal to sin.

Sin has been a very useful concept to the monotheistic religions. It's vagueness means that it can be liberally applied so that everyone is a sinner, and with a bit more twisted thinking, even an innocent, new-born baby has been "tainted". This gives some religions the opportunity to claim that we all really need them in order to secure redemption for ourselves, and guarantee ourselves a happy afterlife, featuring 72 white raisins, or choirs of cherubim and seraphim, depending on the flavour of the Judaic derivitive being peddled. (Both options sound like hell to me!)

This vagueness cuts the other way, though, when it comes to trying to make it illegal to sin, because for laws to work, you have to be pretty tight on your definitions, and have an agreed definition of what a sin is. And of course, if we are all born tainted by original sin, we might as well incarcerate new-born babies as soon as the cord is cut.

There is a deeper problem with the whole sin = lawbreaking approach. If we are not legally free to do things that are considered (by some) to be sinful, then we might spend our entire lives free from sin, but only because we feared prosecution. If I were god - and I'm glad I'm not, because I recently grew a beard, and I don't think it suited me - I would find it very unsatisfying to welcome people into my kingdom because they didn't break the law (i.e. they didn't sin), even though I would know how much they might have wanted to.

Of course, the argument would then run "Yes, but god sees what is in your heart, and judges you on that". In that case, what difference does it make if sinning is illegal? Not being allowed to sin by law isn't going to save me if I still want to break that law. So, making sin illegal isn't going to save any more souls than leaving us all alone to judge for ourselves what we consider to be sinful or not.

I'm very much with John Stuart Mill on this one. We should all have the maximum amount of liberty that is compatible with other people having the same amount of liberty.

I've had a couple of discussions recently about theism, atheism and agnosticism. I've heard from a couple of places an argument that tries to reclassify most atheism as agnosticism. As a professed atheist myself, I'm not keen on this downgrading of my position.

As far as I can tell, there is insufficient evidence to demonstrate the existence of a deity, and I'm pretty convinced that there will never be enough evidence. The fact that this does leave a gap for me to be proved wrong shows that I not close-minded, just as I am open to the laws of physics being refined and modified as we approach a better and better understanding of the universe. However, unlike the possible existence of Higgs Boson, the discovery of which will go a long way towards providing solid evidence in support of the Standard Model of physics, in the case of a deity, I really don't expect that evidence will ever arise.

There is some "belief" involved in atheism. On the basis of the evidence to date, I am not convinced that there is a god. I proceed on the basis of the belief or assumption that there is no god. My "leap of faith" in this case takes me from an observation that there isn't much evidence that supports the god hypothesis, to a conclusion that this probably means there isn't a god. As leaps of faith go, it's not a very big one. More of a small step, really.

It has been argued that my position is one of agnosticism, because I am still open to the possibility of being proved wrong. Nonsense, I say. To purloin an example from Bertram Russell and abuse it for my own ends, someone might claim there is a teapot orbiting the earth. I might not accept their claim, and can express strong scepticism about it, but the fact that I remain open to being proved wrong doesn't make me agnostic about the teapot. For all intents and purposes, if it comes to a question of belief rather than fact, I do not believe. When it comes to a question of fact, the answer is a little greyer, but not much. I very strongly doubt it, to the point that I would be very, very surprised if presented with evidence that proved me wrong.

Another argument I've had in this area goes something like this: to define yourself as atheist is to define yourself in terms of something that you are not (a believer) or in terms of something that you do not do (believe). Why would anyone make such an effort to deny something, unless there was something at the root of that refusal to believe. Hmm. Let me think about that. Yes, there is something at the root of my refusal to believe. It's that so many people do believe, and as an atheist, I feel I have to stand up and be counted as one of those who actually says "You know what? I don't." If belief is the norm, then I have to define myself in terms that indicate that the normal assumption (most people believe) does not apply in my case.

I'd rather do that than be one of the masses (sic) who are assumed to be believers, and often are "lazy" believers. They've never really thought about it, so they just go along with whatever they've been told.

So, yes, it is defining myself in terms of something that I don't do, but that is only necessary because a contrast has to be made between the majority, who, in however half-hearted a manner, do believe.

That said, a lot of lazy belief in god is similar to the lazy beliefs about how the positions of the planets at the moment of your birth (according to an innaccurate astronomical calendar) affect your personality; that you can influence the outcome of a roulette wheel; that you might be pyschic because just as you went to phone your friend, he or she phoned you; that homeopathy works because it works on animals and children, and they are not susceptible to the placebo effect.

On that last subject, I feel obliged to note that when an animal is treated with a homeopathic remedy, more effort is made to ensure that the creature is looked after, gets rest, attention, etc. It is this care of the creature, not the shaken-up water, that does the trick. And kids? Puleez! My mum used to give us butter rolled in sugar to soothe us when we had a cold. And it worked. Kids, trusting little things that they are, are more susceptible to the placebo effect than adults.

Incidentally, there's loads of this stuff in Derren Brown's book, and it's an excellent read, and sometimes quite naughty. I've always liked his writing, having bought his first two books, which were aimed at magicians. The most recent one is aimed at the general public, and it's terrific.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

It's the one that's best of all

We're just back from a longish weekend in Edinburgh, during which we caught up with family and old friends, and watched a few shows, including Son Of A Preacher Man (funny), Four On The Floor (marvellous), Shoo Shoo Baby (excellent), Poof Loose (dull), Phil Kay (genius), Hatty Heyridge (great).

Oh. I've run of of things to say now. Damn. This was going to be a long one, too.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Ho Chew Ing

A few nights ago, myself and the Lovely Husband™ were on our way home, a little bit tipsy, but not in a bad way. We were unable to get a seat, so were obliged to stand for most of the journey, as did a youngish (well, maybe early 30s) Chinese* woman. After a while, I noticed that she must have something caught in her teeth, because she was gurning and grimacing, and contorting her face in all manner of amusing ways.

Where I was standing relative to her allowed me to see just enough of her face to have an idea of which way she was screwing it up, but didn't afford her a similar view of me. So I'm rather afraid I took complete advantage of that situation and started mimicking her. After not very long, the Lovely Husband™ cottoned on to what was afoot, and starting laughing. The longer it went on (and it did go on for quite some time), the harder he had to fight to keep from losing it completely. And of course, that only spurred me on. A man at the far end of the carriage also realised what was happening, and he ended up in fits of the giggles, too. He was far enough away from the action that his laughter wouldn't necessarily have raised the suspicions of the target of this comedy effort. If only with we'd filmed it!

I do like making people laugh on trains. I've reduced my brother and sister to tears on busy commuter trains from Glasgow to our home town, simply by staring in a slightly odd manner, or allowing one of my eyes to wander a bit but keeping the other completely still. The number of times they ended up being tutted and scolded made it all worthwhile :)

* This isn't a guess. The Lovely Husband™, having taught English as a foreign language for several years, had an uncanny ability to identify peoples' nationality. I've never known him to be wrong. He said Chinese, I believe him.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Had Its Day: The Bathtub

For many years, I have had a very strong preference for proper shower units rather than a shower-over-bath (SOB) setup. This morning, when I almost slipped whilst drying myself post-shower, that strength of feeling was redoubled, and I found myself thinking that bath tubs have had their day.

Estate agents (which I think are called realtors in some countries) are quick to dissuade us from removing the bath from a property. To do so will lower the resale value significantly, we are informed. I think, or perhaps I merely like to hope, that this will change as people come to see the wisdom of only having a shower. Let me count the ways in which proper showers are better than SOBs:
  • They are easier and safer to use.
  • The proportions of the space are generally better.
  • They better lend themselves to sexual shenanigans.

And how showers are better than baths in general:
  • They take up less room.
  • They are most cost-efficient.
  • They are better for the environment, using less water and less electricity.
  • It's quicker to have a shower than a bath.
  • You're not swirling around in your own filth.

In fairness, I should now consider the advantages that a SOB has over a proper shower:
  • You get the choice of shower or bath without needing space for both.
  • Only one area to clean, and (in some cases) one of set plumbing to go wrong.

My counter-argument to the first of these is that I have to compromise the quality of one of the facilities (the shower) in order to gain the option of the other (the bath). But I use a shower every day, and almost never use a bath, so the compromise isn't worth it. As for the other point, if I only had a shower, I wouldn't need to worry about cleaning the bath anyway, and showers are often plumbed separately from the bath, even with a SOB.

To complete the picture, here are the advantages of baths over showers in general, as I see it:
  • You can more readily relax and unwind in a bath.
  • They're better, and may be essential, if you have kids.
  • They tend to be better for people with impaired mobility.
Personally, as an able-bodied person who doesn't have kids, I don't find these reasons especially compelling. We have a bath in our house in Auckland, and I've used once. I would rather get rid of it and get a really good shower. Babies are usually bathed in little tubs until they're a certain age, and when they hit that certain age, they can have a shower rather than a bath. I suspect - and I'll look for any lesbian readers to confirm or deny - that a romantic, candle-lit bath may feature more prominently in the lives of ladies who lick. I don't think I've ever done one of those - not least because we probably wouldn't both fit comfortably in the tub.

I'm hoping that over the next few years, the environmental argument will change public opinion, and the perception that estate agents have - that to remove the bath is to reduce the value of the property - will change accordingly. Then I can rip out the bath when we get back to Auckland, and turn the entire bathroom into a much more luxurious affair with a really good shower, and decent storage space - rather than squandering a load of space on a facility - the bath - that we simply don't use, and that deprives us of a lot of room.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Preacher Screecher Kreature

Last week, Thursday I think, I found myself on the Central Line around 10 in the morning, heading in to Liverpool Street from the delightfully leafy slice of green loveliness wherein my Lovely Husband™ and I make our current abode.

There was an old woman sitting a couple of seats along from me. Not very long after she got on, she started "preaching". I think she had some medical problem with her throat, because if she wanted to be heard at all, she had to raise her voice, and when she did, it became a really grating screech. My initial thought was, "poor thing". Then, alas, I began to make out the kind of things she was saying. Not talking to anyone in particular, most people being wary of catching her eye in case she took it as a sign of encouragement, she started spouting all sorts of religious claptrap of the xtian variety, with very few references to anything approaching or resembling orthodox xtian theology. Interspersed with references to god and jeebus were guttural condemnations of lesbians and gay men. It became hard to tell whether she was more interested in letting the world know about her love of god or about her complete and utter hatred and contempt for anyone who doesn't happen to be straight.

Needless to say, this very quickly damped any thoughts of feeling sorry for her. The things she was saying were so vile, so distasteful and so pointlessly offensive, that sympathy dried up and shrivelled on the vine. I feel angry towards whoever brainwashed her into being like that, but that doesn't make me feel sorry for her for being that way; in much the same way that I can still condemn a serial killer whilst also feeling anger towards the people whose abuse or neglect made the killer that way.

We went to Brighton Pride on Saturday, and had a wonderful time. At the entrance to the park, there was a motley group of placard-waving god-botherers, there to tell every attendee about how the wages of sin are death. I wanted to stop and tell them that actually, death is the wage that you get for having lived, regardless of how you did it, but why bother. Surprisingly, at least one of the placard-wavers looked really, really gay himself. The kind who probably just needs a nice big cock up his arse to reset his perspective to something a bit more sensible.

The event itself was great. I caught up with an old work chum with whom I have passed many a tipply evening in a hotel bar. We then met up with other friends and wandered around, enjoying the sunshine (finally), having a bit of a boogie, and eventually heading off to catch a chuff-chuff back to London. I ended up doing some magic for a lesbian couple we met on the train, and I suspect I might be getting a booking out of that, so yay.

And I think that's probably enough stream of consciousness for now.