Welcome to Babylon

It’s pretty insulting to tell a musician that their music is an instrument of torture. Not that many musicians seem to care. Metallica (crappy band, of old-Napster-destroying memory) are quite unconcerned that their music was a Gitmo standby.

Unfortunately, some artists are not offended by their work being used to torture. “If the Iraqis aren’t used to freedom, then I’m glad to be part of their exposure,” James Hetfield, co-founder of Metallica, has said. As for his music being torture, he laughed: “We’ve been punishing our parents, our wives, our loved ones with this music for ever. Why should the Iraqis be any different?”(from Clive Clifford Smith in the Guardian 19th June 2008)

So respect is due to David Gray for speaking out about the use of his “Babylon” track. He, at least, doesn’t find what the US call “torture lite” particularly amusing:

“That is torture,” the singer-songwriter told Radio Four’s World Tonight programme……
..”No-one wants to even think about it or discuss the fact that we’ve gone above and beyond all legal process and we’re torturing people,” he added.

The Guardian piece had a few words from someone on the receiving end of torture-lite. (Is that almost the most chilling phrase you’ve ever heard)

Despite this, to date, the Pentagon’s semanticists have achieved their purpose, and many people think that torture by music is little more than a rather irritating enforced encounter with someone else’s iPod. Binyam Mohamed, the British resident who is still held in Guantánamo Bay, knows a bit about such torture. The CIA rendered him to Morocco, where his torturers repeatedly took a razor blade to his penis throughout an 18-month ordeal.
When I later sat across from him in the cell, he described how psyops methods were worse than this. He could anticipate physical pain, he said, and know that it would eventually end. But the experience of slipping into madness as a result of torture by music was something quite different.
“Imagine you are given a choice,” he said. “Lose your sight or lose your mind.”

David Gray pointed out that there might be legal implications in using music tracks without permission:

The singer wonders whether governments who use music as a torture technique without asking permission from the artists involved could face legal action. “In order to play something publicly, you have to have legal permission and you have to apply for that.(Guardian)

Just saying… VirginMedia have responded to pressure from the BPI by sending out threatening letters to customers suspected of sharing music illegally. Shouldn’t these copyright protection agencies be suing the US government, instead, if it turns out that they haven’t applied for permission, or paid for the rights, to broadcast music in their Gitmo free concerts?

Also on the endlessly enraging topic of torture, immense respect is also due to Christopher Hitchens for undergoing the euphemistically named “waterboarding” and reporting on how bad it was, even for a volunteer who knew he wouldn’t die and could go home at the end of the experience. (Hat tip to Quintessential Rambling for the link to this story.)

“Waterboarding” sounds so much like a fun new extreme sport, whereas those old-fashioned words like torture sound so cold and depressing. “Torture-lite” sounds so ironic and post modern, as if it’s not really torture at all. Something like being stuck in traffic on a really hot day. It seems that Newspeak can change anything from “morally abhorrent” to “familiar and acceptable.”

(There’s a good thought-provoking video of Stephen Pinker’s talk at the RSA, about how we use language – including the uses of euphemism.)

Atheism, Faith and Idiotic Confusion

It seems that all the PR work by Dawkins, Hitchens, PZ Myers, Harris et al., is still not fully driving home the message of what atheism is and what atheism means. Part of me feels that, for all the good intentions in the world this is something they will never achieve, and a small part of me feels that “organised” atheism is seriously a step in the wrong direction.

At its most basic level, being an atheist implies nothing about a persons intelligence, rationality, political leaning, attitude towards others, scientific literacy, education (and so on). All being an atheist means is the person does not believe in gods. Nothing else. Al Kafir Akbar is a recent example of an atheist who is not rational, intelligent or scientifically literate (and I dread to think what his political leaning is… 🙂 ). Campaigns such as the “Scarlet A” and “Brights” are, IMHO of course, eventually doomed to failure as the differences between any two atheists start to far outweigh their single shared characteristic. In the past people have mooted ideas such as atheists becoming “politicised,” will such a thing ever work? Would you, for example, vote for a raving right / left (depending on your own orientation) lunatic simply based on his atheism?

For me, the worrying thing about all this – along with the growing sycophancy which surrounds the more prominent atheists (Dawkins lost a bit of support when he dropped a clanger and used the term “Jewish,” but the others still get the hero worship…) – is that it starts to scream “religion.” I am sure everyone remembers election campaigns where one church or another pledges the support of its followers to Politician X because of his beliefs, as soon as the prominent atheists pledge their support (and the support of their sycophants, followers, readers) to a politician because s/he is an atheist the final difference will be gone [*].

In recent months, the furore over the the Scarlet A struck cynical old me as if people were starting to demand an atheist doctrine which was going to be laid down by the high priest (pontifex maximus? We all know where that took us…). People who disagreed with PZ Myers over the “A” for example, were savaged (online, rather than a visit to the lion enclosure) and for one reason or another, large numbers of atheists have fallen in line and display the A on their sites. Now, I must stress, I do not think this is a bad thing in general. If you want to put an A on your site to denote you are an atheist, great. I think it is really cool. I am concerned about the process which brought this about though.

Reading through the ever entertaining times online today, I came across an article by “Dolan Cummings” in the “Battle for Ideas” section. Titled “Count me out of atheism’s creed,” this article expresses some of the points of view I am trying to make, but mostly in a more readable manner… I found this bit quite relevant: (emphasis mine)

From attempts to popularise the term ‘bright’ as a positive identity to calls for atheists to be included on the roster of BBC Radio 4’s ‘Thought for the Day’, it seems that some want to establish atheism as an alternative, non-religious camp for people to belong to. But atheism itself ought to be the least interesting thing about atheists, who surely have various and often conflicting beliefs and passions of their own.

Everyone who writes for this blog is an atheist, yet Heather and I have (at times) viewpoints which are at polar opposites. Calling us “atheists” with an implied commonality of purpose seems to gloss over that. If you search around the various atheist blogs, there are mountains of interesting, entertaining and educational blogs – all written by atheists. There are also lots (sadly too many on the blogroll now) of blogs which are little more than people shouting “I am an atheist” over and over.

For a long time people (famous or otherwise) have been trying to get the unthinking masses to realise that atheism is not a religion, chanting is as a mantra sets that task back considerably. If people want to challenge irrational belief then it needs to be done with logic and reason, not with formulating a “counter-church” for people to rally around. Take this idiotic comment on the Dolan Cummings’ article:

Atheism is not non-belief – it’s active faith in the non-existence of God – an unprovable hypothesis. Atheism is just another religion. Richard, Colchester, UK

Pure stupidity. Sadly, as atheism becomes more of an “active” process, people may start to think this even more.

Before I finish, I think I should stress I am not a supporter of the quisling atheists who seem to think religion should be tolerated and pandered to. Religion (any) does not deserve special status or special treatment. Irrational idiocy should be challenged at every juncture. I love to read Sam Harris, Pharyngula, Dawkins et al. I agree with an awful lot of what they have to say. However, there is no holy doctrine of atheism and I do reserve the right to disagree with the prominent spokespersons when they are (IMHO) wrong.

The greatest challenge for atheism is learning how to “cure” people of religion, without becoming a religion. Are people up to that task yet?

* I am more than aware that the chances of a prominent public figure in either the US or UK coming out as an atheist is close to zero at this time, the future may be different. Also, rather than the politician being an atheist per se, s/he could simply espouse atheist-friendly policies.

Happy Solstice to Hitchens

I admit I’ve not read Hitchen’s “God is not Great” but that has never stopped me pontificating before, so here goes.. I might though, on the basis of a really well-written review by Johann Hari that appeared in the Independent on Monday 20 June.

Hitchens has passed through many phases in his political life, from Trotskyite leftist to Wolfowitzian neoconservative, but there has always been a single animating core to his thought: an intense loathing of religion. He is not merely an atheist. He is an anti-theist, deeply convinced that the idea of God has been a disaster for humanity, leading us up a hundred blind-alleys of sexual repression, hallucination and sectarian slaughter. Here, he redefines organised superstition – ‘religion’ – as humanity’s real “original sin”.

Well, granted he lost me there a bit with “Wolfowitzian neo-conservative.” Who is/was Wolfowitz? Although linking his name with “neo-conservative” doesn’t inspire me with much confidence that I want to know. Still, it’s pleasingly novel to find a neo-conservative who isn’t in thrall to the Big Guy’s rules.

All the same I like the idea of anyone being anti-theist. And I am impressed by this bit:

The answer, to Hitchens, is obvious, and derived from Ludwig Feuerbach’s great insight: God did not create man. Man created god, cobbling him together from a string of half-understood events and rumours.

Impressed because I have heard of Feuerbach and because it gives me the opportunity to recommend Terry Pratchet’s ideas about Gods, which express this idea in so much more of an enjoyable read.

On Pratchett’s “The Lost Continent” there is a god so beneficent that even he provides a tree bearing such pleasures as roll-ups for the lost Unseen University academics. It’s only this god’s interest in cockroaches that impels the Lecturer in Recent Runes (or something) to decide not to be his assistant.

In “Small Gods” it is made quite explicit that gods draw all their power from their acolytes. Those with hardly any believers end up being insignificant “small” gods of things like “the bit of plastic round a roll of sellotape that is supposed to let you break off a piece.” (I made that one up, being too lazy to do the research.)

Great quotes from the Hitchens book in Hari’s blog include that the Church of England is what you get when you “build a religion on the family values of Henry VIII.”

However, I have to argue the toss over religion being bad because it’s organised superstition. Well, fine on the “organised” bit.

But I will admit to being as superstitious as the next person – if that person is touching wood while counting magpies after washing their face in the May dew……

Superstition seems to me to be a based on an intrinsically magical view of the world, which is pretty illogical but not taken seriously. So it’s just one of many poetic and metaphorical ways of looking at the world.

Some superstitions are based on observations over centuries, some even fed into science and became proven knowledge. Most are made up on the spot and discarded at will.

Noone really believes in “superstitions”. Even the most rabidly superstitious person is well aware that they have no impact on non-believers. They are a sort of kneejerk spirituality, evening out our joys and sorrows by keeping us aware that the Universe does indeed operate on chance.

A religious world view is quite distinct from a magical one. Superstition puts the individual at the illusory centre of his or her destiny.

Religion puts the organisation at the centre. Religion is nothing if not authority and organisation and power. In return, it sucks out our awareness of how we are subject to chance, as well as our innate sense of wonder at the universe. It redirects them to a magical super-being whose ineffable ways and laws can be got round through devotion, mediated through the priestly caste with preferential access to the big ear.

[tags]atheism, christopher-hitchens, magic, religion, small-gods, superstition, terry-pratchett[/tags]