Saturday, 31 October 2009

Halloween and Houdini

Believe it or not, one of the best moments of the annual Skeptic calendar is a séance held on Halloween night.

houdinistamp Why? Because it was Halloween 1926 when Erik Weiss, better known to the world as Harry Houdini, died of a ruptured appendix. And every year since, we have tried to contact his spirit.

Not that Houdini believed in this sort of thing, of course. He spent much of the 1920’s debunking the mediums and spiritualists who were rampant at the time.

And that’s the whole point of the séance.

Before Houdini died he gave a secret message to his wife Bess which his spirit, if it were able, would repeat back to her after his death.

For ten years after Houdini died, Bess held a séance every Halloween to contact Harry and attempt to recover the message. But he never showed up.

In 1936 Bess declared the challenge fruitless and concluded that contacting spirits of the dead is impossible.

And right there, Houdini had managed to continue his debunking activities from beyond the grave.

Seventy years on the tradition continues.

He still hasn’t made an appearance, but every Halloween the Houdini museum in Scranton Pennsylvania conducts its annual séance.

This year the JREF is getting in on the act too, with a séance hosted by the great Randi himself.

If Houdini is going to pop back for a chat with anyone, it’d surely be Randi. So maybe this is the year. Fingers crossed.

Friday, 30 October 2009


A few weeks ago the main shopping strip of Yarraville was set upon by a mob of evangelical Christians. (What is the right collective noun for them? A faith? A pride?)

It was Potter's House, that most evangelical of the evangelicals.

In my home town they were notorious for restaging the crucifixion every Easter, with a dude in a crown of thorns carrying a cross down the main street.

And here we had a guy screeching unintelligibly into a megaphone. I was reminded of I Kings 19:12 where the Lord app>>>[ WARNING ::: DATABASE ERROR ::: CONTENT OVERRIDE ::: SOURCE: EXTERNAL ]<<<

> source terminal location: UNKNOWN

> source terminal identity: UNAVAILABLE

> source login information: ENCRYPTED

> message begins

the post you are now reading is designed to dull your senses to THE TRUTH.  do not live the life of the worker bee, the cog, the well-oiled piston in the MACHINE OF DECEIT!

k2_avatar there is a grand CONSPIRACY afoot.  you have been taught to believe that you are UNIQUE, one of a kind. THIS IS NOT TRUE. long ago, a cabal of scientists created technologies to ensure that ANYONE’S MIND AND BODY can be duplicated.

human cloning isn’t NEAR. it’s already HERE. discover the truth at

you are being DECEIVED. break free from the cogs, flee the hive, become A PROPHET OF THE TRUTH!

kilroy2.0 was here … kilroy2.0 is everywhere

>>> [ CONTENT OVERRIDE CEASES ::: DATABASE STATUS: RECOVERING ] <<<n a still, small voice as I take their flyer ... “it's not real. None of this is real.”

Maybe if the voice is small enough and still enough, one of them will listen.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

The Wrath of DDoS

The Rise of AtheismLast night the AFA’s Rise of Atheism website came under a denial of service attack.

When I last checked (two minutes ago) it was still down.

I feel I should be annoyed by this, but I’m not, and here’s why.

First, it’s given a whole bunch of free publicity to the Rise of Atheism conference (and please note that tickets can still be purchased here).

Second, it illustrates nicely the intellectual poverty of the enemies of freethinking and secularism.

Every religion is based on a tissue of myth and superstition, which falls to pieces when exposed to the light of reason. There’s no rational argument a believer can offer an atheist by which they might see the ‘error’ of their ways.

So given this evident truth, what are the committed theocrats to do?

The best, in fact the only, possible way to battle the advance of secularism is to intimidate, to silence, to attempt to shut it down.

They have no choice. If they didn’t do things like this, the power of religion in the world would quickly fade.

After all, reality has a well-known secular bias.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Hey Hey Let’s Not Overreact

I wasn’t going to weigh into this debate, but here goes.

Let’s get one thing very clear: a white person putting on make-up and pretending to be a black person is not inherently offensive.

This may seem obvious, but I have a feeling that this ridiculous Jackson Jive skit is going to cause some to disagree with that.

Let’s take a recent example: a few weeks ago the US series Mad Men had one of their white characters perform a minstrel show to an amused garden party.

Far from being offended, The New York Times (that bastion of liberal politics) hailed it as one of the best episodes of the series. So what’s the difference?

Simple. The Mad Men episode was relevant, poignant, funny and meant something.

The Jackson Jive skit? It wasn’t funny and it meant nothing.

It may have been a sad indictment on the state of Australian television but it said nothing about racism in Australia. If you want to find evidence of that just google “stolen generations” or “Cronulla riots”.

The point is that any reference to old American blackface shows in the Jackson Jive skit is a projection on the part of Americans. The performers weren’t aware of it.

Should they have been aware of it? Maybe. But maybe they’re just not as steeped in American culture as some of their detractors. That’s hardly a crime.

The people who should have known better were the producers of the show.

What the hell were they thinking getting Harry Connick Jr, not just an American but a white southern gentleman, to judge this thing? Did it not occur to them that he might be offended?

What next? Getting Cat Stevens to judge a pork-pie-eating contest?

No wonder it went viral. US cultural sensitivity around this stuff is running hot right now. The timing couldn’t have been worse.

What I’m worried about is this falling over into knee-jerk censorship, whereby any white actor in black make-up is automatically deemed censurable.

That would be a bad reaction.

Worse, it would mean we were giving trash like Hey Hey it’s Saturday an influence that it just doesn’t deserve.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

The Invention of Religion

Ricky Gervais Ricky Gervais’ new movie The Invention of Lying opened in the US and UK last week.

Centred around a world where no-one lies, the man who discovers lying is king. And Gervais takes it to its logical conclusion and has his protagonist invent religion.

Sadly we’ll have to wait another month to see it here in Australia, but if the outrage it’s generating in the religious press is anything to go by, it should be a blast.

This petulant rant by one Marc T. Newman is typical of the response it’s getting.

While I doubt that many people will ultimately see the film, those who do will be struck by a very significant question: What if the existence of God is a lie? Despite the conclusions offered by the film, people must wrestle with the question on their own. But it is interesting that The Invention of Lying cannot even consistently commit to its own argument.

Newman’s argument is simply that the underlying morality of the film is meaningless without God, and therefore it’s contradictory.

If there really is no transcendent order imposed by God on human behavior, if there is no coming judgment where all will give account for their actions, then morality is nothing more than a fiction created by the powerful within a culture.

That’s right kids, without the man in the sky wielding a big stick we’d all be raping and killing each other. This attitude would be amusing if it weren’t so irritatingly common.

If anything, this article illustrates Gervais’ point beautifully. The movie is about the possibility that religion is just an elaborate hoax. You’d have to admit that’s at least plausible. And this weak little defence is the best Newman can offer? That’s telling, is it not?

The thing is that Newman, like so many of his brethren, is utterly unwilling to consider the possibility that his religion is a sham.

His worldview is so wrapped up with the core assumption that there’s an externally-imposed morality that to suggest any other possibility is to tear the very soul from his universe.

No wonder these guys find evolution so scary. After all, it can be easily used to show that morality comes from within, not from without.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

In Which Bill O’Reilly is a Douchebag

Apparently Bill O’Reilly thinks teaching science is science classes is fascism. Wait. What?

Dawkins makes some great points in this interview, but people not already on team Dawkins probably wouldn’t come away with any changed opinions.

The problem is a mismatch of styles. O’Reilly fights dirty. In pub-brawl terms O’Reilly’s the guy wielding a smashed bottle and ready to kick his opponent in the nuts.

Dawkins’ refined and rational debating style just doesn’t fit. There’s no reasoning with someone like that.

We need to get street fighting debaters like Christopher Hitchens or PZ Myers in there to smack O’Reilly down.

Opinions still wouldn’t be changed, but they’d do him over a treat.

Friday, 9 October 2009

5 Terrible Arguments For Christianity

AtheistWhen discussing the merits of the Christian religion with Christians, the same arguments tend to come up again and again.

I’ve gathered here a few choice selections. Please feel free to offer any others you may think of in the comments.

1. Pascal's Wager

Indicative quote: “If a Christian is wrong about atheism they lose nothing, but if an atheist is wrong about Christianity they lose everything!”

Quite apart from its vaguely threatening tone, this is just a mess of logical fallacies. First, it’s a blatant appeal to consequences.

Second, it’s a false dichotomy. The wager implies that Christianity and Atheism are the only two possible choices. What about all those other thousands of religions?

If this argument were to be applied consistently then the “best” religion, and the one we should all follow, would be the religion that offers the best reward.

On that basis, I reckon Islam's 72 virgins would give Christianity's puritanical “heaven” a run for its money.

2. Playing the Numbers

Indicative quote: “So many people believe it! It must be true!”

This one is obviously trivial but I thought it was worth a mention, mainly because it’s particularly amusing when offered in support of Christianity.

While Christianity just scrapes in front of Islam as the religion with the most adherents, you have to combine everything from Greek Orthodoxy to Mormonism under the one banner to do it.

The appropriate response to this argument is therefore: “so many people believe ... what exactly?”.

3. Anything from the bible

Indicative quote: Anything from the bible.

Here’s the thing. No-one, except someone who already believes in the bible, accepts it as any kind of authority. So using the bible to justify the bible is the worst kind of circular reasoning.

It’s like using the Star Wars movies to justify the existence of Darth Vader. Or Hayden Christensen’s acting ability.

4. The Incoherence of Atheism

Indicative quote: “Atheism is incoherent / illogical / silly / inconsistent.”

This one is my favourite. It’s a lovely attempt to simply cut atheism off at the knees and give the arguer a pass to ignore anything an atheist says.

It’s a little subtle, but the basic argument goes like this:

Atheists believe in purely material things, but logic itself is immaterial. Logic exists therefore atheism is wrong and Jesus really was born to a virgin and came back from the dead and will be returning to the earth soon.

Sorry, which was the incoherent argument again?

5. “Evidence”

Indicative quote: “It's a miracle! It must have been God that healed me / produced this bacterial flagellum / put the image of Mary in this cream bun.”

This is the big one, and it covers a multitude of sins.

Back in the day we had medieval pieces of the “true cross” and the Shroud of Turin to gull the peasants. Now we're a bit more sophisticated with claims of the healing power of prayer and intelligent design.

It’s all the same, though. It’s still just cobbled-together chicanery and sleight-of-hand, none of which has ever stood up to serious investigation.

An interesting subset of “evidence” is the eyewitness account, which is a very important part of Christian lore.

Two of my favourites are this nasty little urban legend (which I once heard preached from the pulpit as if it were a true inspiring story) and the assertion that hundreds of people saw Christ after his resurrection, so it must be true.

This latter argument just shows an inability to tell the difference between characters in a story and real people, but when you get right down to it, isn't that the very essence of Christianity?

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

The Rise of Atheism

The Rise of AtheismTickets for the 2010 Global Atheist Convention aka The Rise of Atheism, are now on sale!

Get your tickets here, and along with them your chance to meet Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers, Catherine Deveny, Philip Adams, Peter Singer, Robyn Williams and … me!

(I’ll just be hanging around being a fanboy, but still … come up and say hi!)

In an early shot at media coverage, religion columnist Barney Zwartz had a snippy little piece in today's Age, announcing the convention and referring to Dawkins as the “high priest of atheism”.

Barney was clearly less-than-impressed at having to write the story in the first place and was trying to be clever. Unfortunately (for him) he just came across as a grumpy old man in a cardigan unable to see the world beyond his self-imposed religious filter.

Referring to Dawkins as a “high priest” comes from the same school of thought that gave us “atheism is just another religion” and “science can't answer all questions about life therefore this wafer turns into Jesus flesh when the man in the dress spits on it”.

Still, a plug is a plug.

Get your tickets now!

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Shock: Kirk Cameron Promotes Darwin

Has ex-teen-idol-turned-evangelist Kirk Cameron gone mad?

He and his fellow Christians are going to hand out free copies of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species!

The stupid burns brightly in this one. I’ve picked out a few choice sections just in case you can’t be bothered watching the whole thing.

Kirk starts with a lament about the loss of religious freedom.

Our kids can no longer pray in public. They can no longer freely open a bible in school. The ten commandments are no longer allowed to be displayed in public places, and the Gideons are not even allowed to give away bibles in schools.

You’ve gotta love the way he comes bursting out of the gate with four out-and-out lies in the first 22 seconds

Kirk, take it from me. Your kids can pray in public all they like. They can read their bibles in school if they want to. You are free to display the ten commandments on public property (just not government property), and the Gideons have only been stopped from distributing bibles in public schools during class time … because that’s, you know, unconstitutional. Remember your precious Constitution?

Kirk continues:

Did you know that a recent study revealed that in the top 50 universities in our country in the fields of psychology and biology, 61% of the professors described themselves as atheists or agnostics.

Obviously including academics from other fields would have reduced the number to something less shocking. But still … only 61%? That’s not that much.

You have to love his next piece of logic, though.

No wonder atheism has doubled in the last 20 years among 19 to 25 year-olds.

That’s right, because 50% of the 19 to 25-year-olds now professing atheism attended the 61% of psychology and biology classes taught by atheists and agnostics. And that’s what turned them.

Then we get to the point. Kirk lays out his plan to distribute 50,000 copies of On the Origin of Species at these universities … featuring an all-new introduction by his friend Ray Comfort The Banana Guy!

Apparently this introduction will give the reader …

… the history of evolution, a timeline of Darwin's life, Adolf Hitler's undeniable connection with the theory, Darwin's racism, his disdain for women, and Darwin's thoughts on the existence of God.

Wow. I really hope I can get a copy. It should be hilarious.

Presumably the Hitler thing has been put in for shock value, but the bits about racism and disdain for women particularly tickled me. Is Kirk unaware of his church’s stellar record in these areas?

It also lists the theory's many hoaxes. It exposes the unscientific belief that nothing created everything. It points to the incredible structure of DNA, and the absence of any species-to-species transitional forms actually found in the fossil record.

I can guess what the hoaxes will be. Comfort will trot out Piltdown man and Archaeoraptor, all the while ignoring the fact that these have no bearing on modern evolutionary theory and besides, were exposed as hoaxes by scientists, not creationists.

The remark that “nothing created everything” means Kirk ignorantly conflates “Big Bang” Theory with evolutionary biology (while misunderstanding both) and his claim of no transitional forms betrays the fact that he’s never read past his mate Ray’s 50-page introduction.

Before signing off Kirk gives a rallying cry to the faithful.

Go there as a team and get the gospel into the hands of this generation, the hands of future doctors, lawyers and politicians.

Hang on. Doctors, lawyers and politicians? I thought Kirk was worried about the biologists and psychologists. So why them? It must be important. He lists them twice.

Surely this isn’t just a thinly-veiled promotion of evangelical Christian politics? An attempt to get converts who can influence the issues of abortion, liberal court appointments and church/state separation?

Say it ain’t so!