30 November 2012

On Using Demons to Explain Personal Struggles

[Warning: This is a ‘rantish wordy’ post, not a ‘pictures with amusing captions’ post]

Earlier I wrote a quick post about some fundamentalist loonies blaming demon sex as the cause of some people’s homosexuality. While I think it is easy to dismiss these particular arguments as the unfounded and misguided sputum that they are, it nevertheless got me thinking about how often demons are genuinely invoked as having an effect on people in the real world.

Like many of the things that I object to in religious thinking, the idea of demons as an explanation for any problems we have appears too easy and convenient an answer. It seem to clearly human in its motivation. Sure this kind of explanation may have held water when our species lived in the ignorance of the Bronze Ages, much like how gods could be invoked to explain thunder; because we didn’t know any better, and it was easier. These days however, relying on such external agents as demons to explain away personal struggles and mental problems is just a cop out.
You see this all the time when people talk about battling their demons, whether it be in the form of alcoholism, depression, or any other negative aspects of their lives. It is a handy way of making it seem like the problem you are having isn’t something intrinsic to you, but rather something happening to you. In this sense it isn’t your fault.
Doing this you effectively externalise your problems, and can even further romanticise this by calling the process a struggle. It allows a certain level of detachment from responsibility, and can also make the whole thing seem less futile. To some, battling a demon is something that can be won, whereas dealing with an inherent problem within yourself can seem like an impossible task.
To a certain extent, these externalisations are not all bad things; however I think this approach gets more wrong, than it does right. This demopomorphising (can I copyright that term?) of ones problems can actually make a lot of sense when you consider the fact that in many cases, these are things that are simply beyond our control. We don’t choose to be depressed, nor do we choose in the strictest sense to be alcoholics.
In many instances things like mental illnesses are a fact of life, and so they can in effect take on the same attributes as some mysterious external force acting upon us.
But I can’t help feel that it is much better to accept that these forces which are external to us can nevertheless be contained entirely within our physical body, and that they don’t require a supernatural explanation. Our brain can work against us, without our consent, or knowledge, and bring about conditions that affect who we are, without necessarily having to be considered an intrinsic part of who we are.

Of course I realise that many instances of evoking demon battling is done in a purely figurative manner. It is however important to realise that a good deal of the public actually do believe in demons actively influencing people’s lives in the literal sense. And there are the more amorphous concepts of demons out there that others adopt. 
A man I previously worked with surprised me one night by revealing that he was a Buddhist. I had heard there were many around these days, but to have a live one in front of me seemed like quite an occasion. Much like when I manage to find a real Christian amongst the throng of unbelievers, and even though I know that Australia is apparently rife with them, they so seldom make their presence known.
Anyway, this real life Buddhist co-worker replied in the affirmative when I asked him if he believed in demons, as I had heard many Buddhists do. As I prepared to place my arguing hat on, and steeled myself for a rhetorical battle to defend reason, I was slightly dismayed when he explained that these demons weren’t supernatural beings. “It’s more like accepting that alcoholism is something that can affect all our brains, it’s something that we are all susceptible to.  There are others too; other things which can affect us negatively in similar ways. And these things are also like demons”
While this explanation doesn’t really sit quite well with me, it was nevertheless a more rational response that I was used to hearing.
Fine, I suppose if you want to refer to these negative aspects of the human condition as demons, I guess I can’t stop you.
But at the end of the day it still seems to me that to describe these negative aspects of our lives as demons just adds unnecessary nomenclature to the situations, which muddies up the waters. Similar to the folly of an atheist talking of the soul, when what they are really just referring to is their inner convictions or mind. Or when people invoke the analogy of ones heart as the seat of their emotions, rather than a muscle to pump blood. Just cut out the superfluous terms and stick to more direct explanations, it often will not only lead to less confusion, but also give a more accurate understanding of what is really at play.

I think Douglas Adams made a fine point of it when he remarked on one of his own mental quibbles, in this instance lacking confidence;
"I have terrible periods of lack of confidence [..] I briefly did therapy, but after a while I realised it was like a farmer complaining about the weather. You can't fix the weather – you just have to get on with it"
Mental problems are things to be dealt with as best we can. They generally aren’t there due to any fault of the person in question, nor are they there for some esoteric religious or mythological sense. They just are.
To try and pin meaning, or intent, onto the things that befall us leads to confusion, halts any real and effective treatment, and places blame in all the wrong places.

Of course this is all just my opinion, and I have absolutely no grounding in any of the relevant sciences in order to make these statements with even the ghost of authority (an I realise that I kind of ended up aiming this rant in the direction of mental illnesses). But hell; isn’t this what the internet is for?
Let me know your thoughts in the comments, particularly if anyone out there has any actual expertise in this area (if this even is an area one can be expert in).

29 November 2012

A Brief Post on Demon Sex Turning You Gay

Sometimes I hate the catchy brevity of news article headlines as they attempt to surmise their points in as few words as possible, often to the detriment of the English language. Other times however, I really enjoy the stark contrasts they can bring about. Take today’s article of interest for example:
“Christian group says demon sex makes you gay”
I love how simple it makes the whole prospect seem, and how well it highlights the inherent absurdity of the claim. Though perhaps I must also caution myself against forming an opinion too rashly; after all they might have some good points backing this claim up if one looks at their argument in its entirety.
Then there is the subheading:
“A Christian magazine warns that homosexuality is caused by sex with succubi -- and that's just the beginning”
I guess this could conceivably turn you off women...

Well I suppose I was right in that there is more to it,though I had hoped for something more than just specifying which type of non-existent being could turn your straight parts bent.
To be fair, the article I read was based on an article from a Christian magazine whose preface to the story in question began with the proposition “Can demons engage in sexual behaviors with humans?”. So at least they had the pretence of scepticism present (even if it is only in their headline).
The article quickly goes on to assert that yes these things can happen, and quote Contessa Adams, a former stripper and now minister, who herself battled with demons (literally, she would have us believe; not figuratively) which threatened to turn her into, of all things, a lesbian.
Admit it, after reading the name Contessa Adams, this is who you pictured
Indeed Contessa was once possessed by sexual demons (which apparently isn’t as fun as it sounds), and was quoted as saying “Anybody that has been attacked by them will tell you … they’re worried [that] they could not find that pleasure with mortal people,” If anything, it reminds me of the first season of True Blood, when we discover that not only are vampires real, but they are apparently adept at showing mortals quite a good time.
An actual billboard for true Blood in New Zealand. Sums up the show quite nicely.
Seriously though, it is worth noting that the group of extreme American Christians who believe in demons stalking the land to turn people homosexual are the same group that encourage and fund the current homicidal regime intention killing gays in Uganda.

25 October 2012

On Republican Gaffes, God Sanctioned Rape, and the Dangers of Divine Plans

Well what do you know, another month goes by, and another Republican politician in the United States confounds the public with his views on rape. Last time it was Todd Akin who showed his ignorance of human physiology when he asserted that women physically cannot fall pregnant if it is ‘legitimate rape’, which then has people wondering what the corollary to this term could possibly be (illegitimate rape?). This time we have Richard Mourdock from Indiana, who dropped this interesting quote during a debate:
“I struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realise that life is that gift from God, and I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something God intended to happen.”
Mourdock is an anti-abortion candidate, which is an odd enough concept that begs us to consider the converse side; a pro-abortion candidate. But in this instance he was outlining why he believes that abortions performed after rape should be outlawed, and the only time such procedures be allowed is when the mother’s life is in jeopardy.
Now I find the abortion issue to be a contentious one at the best of times, but moving past the inherent grey areas that this inevitably invokes, I can’t help but think that the backlash faced by Mourdock because of his words is a somewhat undeserved and hypocritical reaction by a lot of people who would generally consider themselves a Christian.
Don’t get me wrong here; I think that the idea of a divinely sanctioned rape reaches for the heights of absurdity. But that being said, the view he is expressing is far from inconsistent with mainstream Christians thought.

How many times, upon hearing some bad news, or even in general discussions with Christians, do you hear the plan of a god invoked as the ersatz explanation. We may find it hard to face the capricious nature of things such as cancer striking down people seemingly at random, and thus hope to find solace in some reason for this happening. But the fact of the matter is that some things in this world are not only beyond our control, but also beyond meaningful interpretation.
By this I mean that not everything has a purpose, and though it might seem easier to bear the hand that life has dealt us if we are willing to take on faith that everything has a purpose, this view not only has the bulk of history working against it (why I ask you was the holocaust necessary?), but it also has a lot of dangerous implications.

If you do take the view that a god does have a plan, and that we are all slowly meandering through life on paths set in advance by the almighty, then you have to accept the full implications of this position. If there is a plan, then things such as rape, cancer, murder, the holocaust and so on; all these things must be a part of this plan. After all, if they weren’t a part of the plan, then surely they would have had a massive butterfly effect on things by now.
Not only do I find the divine plan way of thinking unsatisfactory, and uncaring, but I also see the inherent dangers in living your life on what is essentially an amusement park ride; where you have no control, and are just along for the trip.
Something that can be used to retroactively permit and explain any action can also be used in the present to justify any future actions. This is where the danger lies. Accepting things that have happened as a part of a god’s plan strips you of any responsibility of your own; it leads to fatalism, and to an acceptance of whatever situations arise.
The idea of a divine plan is untenable at the best of times, and dangerous at the worst. It can offer consolation, but as we have seen in the case of Mr Mourdock, it can also offer a twisted sense of justification and acceptance after the fact.

Let me know what you think in the comments, especially if you are a Christian (or otherwise) who hold to the view that everything happens for a reason.

19 October 2012

Dad Tip: Teaching Evolution

[I am thinking this will be a semi-regular thing on my blog now. Sure I am not the greatest Dad in the world, and my experience is limited to a single son; but at the end of the day every little step along the way is an important one, and perhaps some of my experiences will have merit beyond my own doorstep. Let me know what you think in the comments below.]

In my six odd years of having a son, I have discovered that one of the hardest things to try and explain to him is the concept of evolution. I see this as a bit of a problem, as being a dinosaur nut like his old man, evolution is vital to his understanding of these creatures.
From our recent trip to the Melbourne Museum, where Harrison could finally tell me most of his favourite dinosaur's names. #DadPride
This problem can be doubly difficult because at its most basic level, the theory of evolution is a very simple concept, however it relies on a lot of concepts and grounding that is just out of reach of young children.
Saying to your child that evolution is how animals change over time to adapt to their surroundings can lead to a lot of misunderstandings of how exactly they change, and how they adapt. I often found myself getting exasperated trying to explain through simple examples such as a giraffes neck; explaining how having a longer neck helps them reach higher food, but then being sure to stress that the individual didn’t get a longer neck because they want one, but that their children, if born with a slightly longer neck, will pass that trait on down.
Before you know it, your explanation has gone on longer than you wanted it to, and has included too many new words and concepts for your child to really stick to the point.
Don’t get me wrong, my son is one bright kid. Ask him what light is made of and he has two answers; a joke one (light is made from torches), and the real one (light is made of photons). It is just that getting kids’ minds to work on the scale of evolution takes a lot of mental effort on their part. Kids very rarely want to think of the consequences of their actions beyond the days play, let alone the consequences of animal’s actions across the generations.
Over the years my son’s understanding of the natural world has progressed quite well, and I am very proud when he talks about biological features as evolved, and ponders what their purpose is in helping the animal survive. But it was just the other day when we were discussing evolution (yes this is what my son and I do sometimes) that I hit on a better way to explain it to him.
I don’t quite recall how we got onto the subject, but I shocked Harry by telling him that our dog was descendant from wolves. Now perhaps this isn’t the most surprising fact for a child, but consider my dogs appearance:
This is why when i write of my dog, i often put inverted commas around the word 'dog'....
 That’s a wolf?!” He exclaimed (with an inflection well worthy of an interrobang).
I explained that back when man was still living somewhat in the wild, we domesticated wolves for companionship and to help make our lives easier.
I reminded him that a lot of traits in animals can be inherited from their parents (he is aware that he got half his DNA from me, and the other half from my wife, but luckily he hasn’t asked how they got mixed yet…), then asked him what would happen if we picked the ‘nicest’ wolves, got them to have babies, and then keep picking the nicer, friendlier, ones to have around us. He was pretty quick in understanding how these traits could be selected, and bred into the population. It was working a treat.
Next example I used was the domestication of the cow. I explained how we domesticated them from Aurochs, creatures that were twice as big, and quite nasty customers. Picking the smaller, more docile ones each time and having only those in your paddock, I was able to show how this selection can likewise change a population over time.
Perhaps I should have caught onto utilising artificial selection as a way of explaining this long ago after all Charles Darwin, the great man himself, used this introduction to his theory of evolution in On the Origin of Species.
Once this fundamental concept is understood, it is pretty easy to cross from artificial, to natural selection. All that has to be explained then it how animals in the wild aren’t selected by people because of the traits they want to propagate, but instead the individuals are ‘selected’ by nature, because they are the ones that survive better and have more kids.
It is a great feeling to see that you have successfully explained something to your kids, when you see that little click of comprehension, and the pride they feel having learnt something new. The only thing that worries me now is that he is garnering all of this information at a rate that much exceeded my own at his age. If our generation isn’t careful, these guys will be taking over in twenty to thirty years……

16 October 2012

Write What You Know

Write what you know. This is often advice given to people who want to write, but don’t quite know where to start. Some may have ambition to spare, but can’t quite get things rolling, or when they do, they find it careening off in a direction that they are unhappy with. To write what one knows is supposed to help corral ones prose into a direction that they can competently remark on, and give a detailed, and hopefully cogent, piece of writing at the end of the day.
This, like many things, is all good in theory.
I love writing, and I want to write more and more as the days go on. I find myself in the curious situation of wanting to write, and (I think) improving my writing every day, and yet I have nothing to write about. I am not in school or university anymore, I don’t have a job that requires me to utilise any of the things I have been learning about the proper application of the English language (indeed, I have been told to tone down my use of ‘big words’, lest people don’t know what I am talking about).
So in the past when I didn’t want to write, I had essays demanded of me. Yet now when I have a desire to put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard), I have an annoying lack of venues to expend this on.
That is of course, how things look on the outside. Luckily for me, there is this wonderful thing we call the internet, and the proliferation of tools now available to help me write and put my words out there, regardless of the lack of interest, and lonesome chirping of crickets that await me.
But again I face the conundrum of what to write.
So far I have managed to fill the page with three hundred words of blather, yet a growing word count doesn’t give the same sense of satisfaction as it did in the old days, when I judged my writing solely on its ability to reach the teachers prescribed word limit. Now I want my writing to have a purpose.
So I fall back on to the mantra of writing what I know, only to realise that like a more true to the point Socrates, I know next to nothing. I am aware of the limitations of my knowledge, but this awareness doesn’t really offer any further avenues for me to traipse down.
I know a little about a lot of things, but there are a lot of things I know little about. Two statements that appear very similar, but paint contrasting pictures.
Perhaps this is why for my last NaNoWriMo I focused on a science fiction setting. True there can be a lot of reality packed into such tales; they are after all generally populated by people, with the same virtues and vices known to us. But at the end of the day if you are so inclined you can cram your story full of spaceships, robots and other such distractions in order to invent your own field of expertise. In this sense it is now only important to know what you write, as once thing that is paramount for such self-contained and speculative worlds is a firm sense of consistency.

And so, with my ersatz relaunching of this blog the past day, I will seize this opportunity to refocus the purpose of my blog more explicitly. It is not just an outlet for my thoughts, or a place that I can share some latest news story with my unqualified opinion. Rather it is a place for me to indulge in my passion for writing, and hopefully to help me find what it is I should be writing about.
Thus I am taking a somewhat converse and convoluted position from the title of this post; I am writing in order to find out what I know, so that I can write more effectively.
I hope this will be in some way enjoyable for you too valued reader, and look forward to hearing from you, should the need arise.

15 October 2012

Here It Goes Again

Well, this was quite a hiatus for me from the world of blogging. It has been a tumultuous time of late, working two jobs for a while, buying a house, and so on. And sometimes once you have broken the chain, it is hard to but the links back together again, so for a while I gave up on updating this blog. Slowly the postless days turned into weeks, and the weeks into months, until before you knew it I had gone five months without a single post springing forth from my clumsy fingers.
Sure I had material along the way, and wrote some half-arsed posts on the new Spiderman film, or our recent robotic mission to Mars (yes NASA, take that; I am claiming everything you do for humanity as a whole), but none of it ever manifested as an actual resolve to posting.
Slowly I began to lament my lack of blogging, and worse yet, I realised that whenever I did post next, I would have to explain my absence (which I recall doing multiple times in the past; not a good sign). Not only that, but my first post back should surely be a momentous one; one to distract from my previous neglect. And so I was further dissuaded from posting by my own eccentricities, but then today I had an epiphany.
Who cares?
My blog isn’t really that important, hell it isn’t even that good; it’s just my inner musings, distorted and extracted from my mind by my novice writing abilities for the public to see (but for most of them to ignore entirely). So why was I bothering to worry about the reception my new posts received?
The important thing after falling off a horse isn’t to vault back on Cossack style it’s just to get back on the damn thing, no matter the fashion.
So here I am, dusting off the reins, and strapping myself back in.
Hopefully some of you out there are looking forward to this, perhaps you enjoyed my posts in the past, and as I had no real talent or expertise to let wane over my absence, you can be assured that the same quality (or lack of it) will remain in future posts.
I’m looking forward to it.

[Interesting sidenote: During my hiatus I was still getting around 15 daily views of my blog, so if anything at least this break has provided me with a nice benchmark to winkle out the bot visits, and focus on the people really drawn to my musings.]

15 May 2012

Preparing Young English Boys, and Lawsuits

Some of you may remember this little meme from a previous post of mine that found its way astonishingly quickly onto the internet after the Dawkins/Pell ‘debate’ on the cusp of this year’s Global Atheist Convention.
[Before I go on here, just a quick note to point out that though I previously indicated my mate Sam Dekok as the originator of this meme, he was merely an agent through which this cultural gene proliferated. Considering the furore created by these thin skinned, lawyered up believers, I thought it might be worth mentioning on here.]
I am reiterating this because apparently the innocuous piece of photoshop didn’t escape the attention of Mr Pell, who promptly threatened to sue Twitter for defamation and loss of reputation, after comedian Catherine Deveny tweeted a link to the 'offending' image. As if his own performance on the night, whether it be questioning the intellectual capacity of ancient Jews, or stating that man evolved from Neanderthals, didn’t do more harm to his reputation.
Now my opinion of people hiding behind the ability to take offense at anything they are opposed to has been well documented on here, but I couldn't help writing a quick rant in response to this.
The theory behind Pell's litigious paroxysm is that the aforementioned image suggested either that Pell was a paedophile himself, or that he was complicit in the sexual abuse of children. One would think that given the state of affairs in the Catholic Church at the moment, Pell’s mere mention of involvement with children is suspect enough, and that any overt suggestions of a link, are only there to highlight the preexisting connection between the Catholic Church and child abuse.
Perhaps it is worth noting here that I am not insinuating that all Catholic clergy are latent abusers; I am just pointing out that the link between Catholic Clergy and the abuse (let’s call it what it is; rape) of children is so ingrained in the public conscious to the point that one hardly needs to remind people explicitly of this connection.
But you have to wonder how it could get to the point where one party can be threatened with legal action simply for redistributing something that another party said, regardless of if it was a mere snippet of the original, and could be taken out of context.
I mean, wouldn’t the joke work pretty much the same even if the ‘for communion’ kicker were thrown in? After all, the joke does not rely on the omission of the communion part of the anecdote in order to get its laughs. Rather it simply rests upon the dubious notion of Catholic priests ‘preparing’ children in any circumstances. The verb ‘prepare’ is not where the negative association lies, nor would the supposedly slanderous implications inherent in this half quote somehow be negated by the addition of the boys being prepared ‘for communion’. Instead, the Catholic Church takes the brunt of the irony in this situation, as the unfortunate state of affairs at the moment mean that the mere mention of Catholic clergy, in particular around children, inevitably brings about the notion of abuse.
And with good reason.
If Pell and his cronies don’t want to have their religion and its employees associated with such slanderous possibilities, then perhaps they should reconsider policies that have not only helped to cover up abuse in the past, but which also facilitate further abuse and the circumvention of justice, by knowingly ferrying rapists across the country.
Just a quick rant tonight.

08 May 2012

No More Encyclopaedias

Quick, when I mention the word Encyclopaedia, what brand springs to mind? Depending on how recently you were born I would wager that you either said Encyclopaedia Britannica, or else Wikipedia. True there may also have been some Encartas thrown in there, or if you are like me, a reference to good old Funk and Wagnall’s. But chances are that Encyclopaedia Britannica, once considered the epitome of condensed and categorised knowledge, was the first brand to spring to mind.
It bugs me that this image has disorganised books a little too much....
But the times have changed. To those of you who have only just discovered the internet and this so-called information revolution (there might be some of you out there), it may shock you to discover that electronic mediums are slowly replacing many forms of physical ones. However, to the rest of us living in the modern world, this has long been an accepted turn of affairs. The latest casualty of this natural progression is the aforementioned repository of earthly knowledge.
That's right, the last edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, edition 15 which was printed in 2010, will indeed be just that; the last one ever printed.
2010 took both Britannica and Lost from us; it was a tough year.
I feel a slight pang of nostalgia here, as having hailed from the days before the internet I fondly remember constantly flicking through my parents Funk and Wagnall’s encyclopaedias, and searching for answers on a variety of unrelated questions. I was a very curious child, and had the questionably endearing quality so often prized in children of asking ‘why, why; why!’ of everyone until invariably I had to move from reluctant and annoyed people, to amenable and complacent books.
Ah books, you shall never call me annoying, nor implore me to shut up.
But all that being said, any sadness I feel at losing these old physically bound books pales in comparison to the excitement (and thinly veiled jealousy) I feel every time my son and I consult the internet, with its vast catacombs of information, at his persistent (and I wish I could claim genetically inherited) requests of ‘why, why; why!’. After all, things generally find themselves being replaced by more fitting alternatives; such is the nature of progress. Who can deny that the new mediums of computers, the internet, and a multitude of other connectable devices, have far greater capacity for the advance of knowledge than the still admirable, though wholly innovation saturated, physical books?
However Britannica lovers out there, do not despair; the Encyclopaedia bearing its name isn’t disappearing entirely. The company responsible for its creation is simply doing the smart thing and embracing the online frontier, with their focus now being delivering their lauded product in the digital arena.
At least the ascension of Wikipedia means that given we are looking at an Americanized (the 'z' in there is on purpose) information source as the go to receptacle for this generation, I won’t have to try and remember which order the 'a's and 'e's go in 'paedia'.

24 April 2012

A little post on a littler man

Just a quick post here about something that recently blew my mind.
Meet Chandra Bahadur Dangi, not only the new smallest man in the world today, but the smallest human being who has ever lived (at least as far as our records go).
546 mm tall!
A full 25.5 mm shorter than the previous claimant Gul Mohammed, Chandra isn't only smaller by a significant degree; he has managed to live a further 32 years longer than the previous record holder. Look at the image above; this man is in pretty good nick for a 72 year old!
Chandra is a primordial dwarf, unlike one of my favourite actors at the moment, one Peter Dinklage; who isn't a primordial dwarf, but actually just a plain awesome one.
The more we see of Joffrey in Game of Thrones, the more I enjoy re-watching this
I couldn't help but think upon reading the term 'Primordial Dwarf' that there was something slightly Tolkienesque about the title. Then when I stumbled upon this picture of the pint-sized Nepali, no doubt off on some adventure, it further reinforced the fantastical elements of this story for me.
You can read a bit more about how Chandra was'discovered' (which seems an odd verb to apply to a human) over here, and hear a bit of what he has to say about the titles inferred upon him. Seems like a nice bloke.

19 April 2012

A Development on Tolkien’s Monogram

Here at Thoughts From The Antipodes I am rather keen to get comments, and hear what people think about my posts, or the subjects they deal with. However up until a while ago comments could only be entered if you had certain compatible accounts. So once a few people highlighted this restriction to me I figured out how to enable anonymous and guest comments here on my blog, and it is already paying off.
During a recent post on a Tolkien themed monogram I created for myself, I lamented the fact that my research turned up little in the way of a background for Tolkien’s own symbol. Apparently I am not the only one interested in such things, as I got the following anonymous comment earlier in the week:
“I was also doing a little research on that monogram and I couldn´t ignore the resemblance between that monogram and a chinese character (i´m studying mandarin) it looks almost the same in my opinion, and since I heard that Tolkein was fluent in many languages maybe he knew a little chinese as well and was inspired by this character, this is the one i´m talking about "" it means to bind, to restrain to control, makes you think about the quote: "one ring to rule them all".
This is why I love the internet: there is always someone out there with similar interests, and generally more capabilities (or at least a different enough approach to your own).
Upon looking into it, there is quite a curious resemblance between the two symbols; check it out for yourselves:
The Chinese character shù - 
Tolkien's monogram - 

Then there is the possible connection between the proposed meanings, and Tolkien's work. Shù can mean to bind or control. And as the anonymous commenter pointed out, one of the more famous quotes associated with Tolkiens masterworks reads:
"One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them."
But then again, what random verb probably couldn't be tenuously linked to something significant in Tolkien's legendarium?
I just wanted an excuse to get this picture in here, so a connection to Gandalf will have to do......
Again though, I find the internet is great at peaking my curiosity, but not so good at sating it. Even with this new possible clue as to the inspiration, if not origins, of Tolkien’s monogram; I am unable to find any more definite answers. In fact as far as the resemblance goes, the only other mention I can find is on a forum discussing the Japanese translation of Tolkien’s works, found here.
Though this is just a quick mention of the similarities between the two characters, it is also slightly interesting to look over the rest of the forum page, and to see just how translating a written work from one language to the next can be so fascinating.
The posters in the forum are correct in that Tolkien was a prodigious learner of languages, and apparently spoke around 12 fluently, and was competent in another 13.
Plus he rocked an awesome pipe.
However if you look at his background in languages, it does not look as self evident that this would lend credence to him borrowing his monogram from the Chinese character as it initially appears. Tolkien was twice elected to the post of professor of English Language at Oxford; but as the title suggests, this is specifically relevant to our mother tongue, not languages in general. In university after he shifted his major from classical studies to the English language, it was a specialty in Norse languages that defined his time there. This, along with a general Euro-centric mythological vibe in his fantasy books, seems to highlight his limited scope regarding the languages of the world.
But at the end of the day there is no way to know for certain. After all, history may record our major drives, accomplishments and influences; but it can’t always be privy to our day to day whims, happenstance or coincidence. So who is to know if perhaps upon a trip to the university library, Tolkien happened upon a book of Chinese characters, and noted the inherent possabilities imbued upon shù, and how its composition managed to draw a rough outline of his initials?
Anyhow, I just thought this little find was a bit interesting, even if it were ultimately not true.
What do you all think? Is this symbol similar enough to Tolkien's to make you think twice about its origins?
Let me know in the comments.

Since writing this I also noticed this forum, where the same resemblance with Chinese characters was noticed, however this time there is a different theory offered. However I have been unable to find an example of the character they refer to here:
"The reason for me to post about this subject is related to... chinese characters.
In fact, Tolkien's logo is very similar to a specific chinese character named Haikka.
The meaning of Haikka is "center", "land in the center", "Land in the middle of...".
In resume: it is the chinese symbol to... Middle-Earth.
Well, Tolkien knew it, I think.
So maybe the logo creation is linked to this chinese character."

13 April 2012

Influential Biologist or Mediocre Bond Girl

A bit late for a Wednesdays words, but I couldn't help post this about today's quote:
“One can start from the perspective of a religious naturalist or from the perspective of the world religions and arrive at the same place: a moral imperative that this Earth and its creatures be respected and cherished” - Ursula Goodenough
I feel bad saying this, but to be honest the first thing I thought about when I saw this quote was not the quote itself, but rather the originator of the quote: Ursula Goodenough. It sounds like a mediocre Bond girl’s name.
Ursula, meh; good enough.

I’m Back

Oh my how it has been a busy past few weeks. Hell, a busy past month!
It has been far too long since I posted regularly on here, and for those few of you who enjoy reading my esoterically themed posts, I apologise. Indeed you can take my previous six-thousand word strong post as something of a compensation for this (I hope it wasn’t too long). But there has been a lot going on lately which explains this absence.
First, there was my favourite day of the year, St Patricks Day. Expect a post on this one soon or at least something outlining my maleficent love of Guinness, and my recent membership to the 100 pint club. Then there was my mates wedding, where I was one of the best men, and agonised over the prospect of doing a speech which apparently went down alright in the end, but about which I have little to no recollection of right now (not to mention the random singing of a Eurovision song as demanded by the father of the groom....). Then the Easter break came along, and a long weekend of caravan parking, and beer drinking, left me thoroughly off the radar on all accounts.
Oh and did I mention that in the midst of this I decided to take up a second job tutoring at university, have yet to figure out how this will work with my current full time job, and am still trying to convince my work that this will in some way offer positive benefits?
Anyhow, this is in part the reason for my absence, and I shall endeavour to rectify it as soon as possible. In the meantime, enjoy this random Hitchens quote and unrelated gif:
 “We are the offspring of history, and must establish our own paths in this most diverse and interesting of conceivable universes - one indifferent to our suffering, and therefore offering us maximum freedom to thrive, or to fail, in our own chosen way” - Christopher Hitchens

Dawkins v Pell: My Commentary

I have been away for the Easter holidays (which in some part explains my lack of blogging lately), but was delighted to find that as I came home Monday night, there was to be a televised sparring between the venerable Richard Dawkins, and the........ well, and George Pell.
It is always great to see Dawkins on the fly. So often news reports depict him as a militant atheist, who is rude, or arrogant, and attacks religious belief with wanton disregard. Then when I watch his appearances, I am always reminded of just how polite and British the man is. His worst retorts after all are generally along the lines of an Oxfordian “utter nonsense”, or “patently absurd”.
If this is considered the epitome of a rude atheist, then I must be a positively abhorrent one.
During the show I was surprised at how flimsy Pell arguments were. No doubt I was always going to come out in support of Dawkins, but I had expected there to be more formidable arguments either for religious belief, or else against atheism. Yet I found myself being able to predict the weak arguments before they were pulled out of what must be quite a tattered bag of apologist tropes.
Hitler was an atheist, or social Darwinist; therefore evolution can’t be a good thing. We evolved from Neanderthals. If there were no justice after death, that would be very nice, therefore, there must be. Darwin was a theist. And so on.
All in all I had a great time watching the show, and though I had promised myself that I wouldn’t go into a twitter overload, I ended up tweeting around 22 times during the fifty-odd minute show. Not too bad an outcome though, as I managed to get one of my tweets up on screen to be seen by 863,000 Australians, which is around 4% of the population, so I am happy with that. It also got me a sizable new chunk of followers on twitter, and it is always nice to know that your crazy twitter rants are appreciated.
Then as I decided to write a blog on this episode of Q&A, I quickly found my initial thoughts on the program spiralling out of control into an almost blow by blow account of the interaction. So rather than make this solely a reflective piece, I have decided to make it a sort of running commentary of my favourite bits of the night, supplemented with quotes from the transcript.
This ended up running into around five thousand words (I remember uni days when such a word count would have killed me), but I hope it is somewhat entertaining for those of you who watched the show, and perhaps even those who missed it.
So yes it is rather longer than my usual posts, and doesn't have as many interesting pictures to look at, but it is just a culmination of a lot of stuff i wanted to get off my chest after watching the show.
Here goes.

The first question was quite a stock standard one, regarding whether or not an atheist can essentially be a good person. It is one often brought out in these debates, but also one that most people know the answer to from either side; yes, but with some conditions.
Dawkins points his response that “it is true that Christianity has adopted many of the best values of humanity but they don't belong to Christianity or any other religion”, and goes on to point out the bad things espoused in the Bible, both New Testament and Old. Then Pell counters with a quote which seems to me a bit too understanding of Christianity’s nature as a created religion, not a metaphysical truth:
“We’re Christians, we're New Testament people. There was an evolution in the Old Testament. There are some awful things there. It developed. The notion of God was purified as it went through the Old Testament.”
It seems odd for him to be talking of the notion of God changing, and of parts of the Bibles teachings being awful.
Now on to audience question number two, where things start to get moving along quicker:
“Religion is precisely often blamed for being the root of war and conflict but what about all the good it has done for society. God-centred religion has been the birth place of schools, universities, hospitals and countless developments in science. Richard, if you believe the human drive to seek the truth and to constantly improve ourselves is merely a mechanism for survival, then what’s the point and why should I bother? ”
This second question was a bit all over the place. First it is talking about remembering all the good things that religion has done rather than focusing on the bad things, then after simply stating that as if it should be a powerful point, the questioner quickly darts aside and asks ‘what’s the point’ if we are products of evolution.
I mean, perhaps a pertinent question, but where is the lead up, and what’s more; where is the alternative? It is all well and good to say, ‘what is the point if we are the product of evolution’, but perhaps if you are arguing for religion as the alternative, you should at least offer a reason why us originating from a god’s creation would imbue us with any more purpose, beyond that of merely being created by a god.
As Dawkins said “We have to find our own purposes in life, which are not derived directly from our scientific history”, which I agree with completely because I think that any purpose we want to derive for ourselves should depend on our own qualities and attributes, not just our physical origins.
Pell isn’t brought into the debate here, which was a pity if we wanted to hear an alternative purpose of life. But nonetheless, the third question quickly followed as a bit of an extension of this:
“Okay, my question for you today is: without religion, where is the basis of our values and in time, will we perhaps revert back to Darwin's idea of survival of the fittest? ”
Having read a lot of Dawkins writings, I knew he would have an answer for this which really seems like common sense to anyone who understands science’s place in our lives. That answer is simply that Darwinian principles explain how we got here; they are a physical law and shouldn’t be used to determine how we run our society any more than the theory of gravity should. Dawkins says this, and states emphatically that he would definitely not like to live by Darwinian principles.

The discussion then went towards science, and how it can tell us about why we are here. Pell, being a self stylised authority on why we are here, leapt on this chance, which lead to this little exchange:
GEORGE PELL: Well, it’s interest because I think in the space of about two minutes, Richard has said two different things, one of which is that science can't tell us why we're here and then in the next minute, trying to say that it does.
RICHARD DAWKINS: No. No. I said it can tell us why we're here.
GEORGE PELL: It can't.
RICHARD DAWKINS: Well, I simply contradict you in that case.
Here we begin to see the germ of a core misunderstanding between Pell and Dawkins as one talks about why we are here in a sense of ‘what is our purpose’, and the other talks about why we are here in a sense of ‘what caused us to be’.
Dawkins put it nicely, and with his trademark scientific air:
“Why we exist, you're playing with the word “why” there. Science is working on the problem of the antecedent factors that lead to our existence. Now, “why” in any further sense than that, why in the sense of purpose is, in my opinion, not a meaningful question. You cannot ask a question like “Why do mountains exist?” as though mountains have some kind of purpose. What you can say is what are the causal factors that lead to the existence of mountains and the same with life and the same with the universe.”
This is the age old ‘science can answer how, but not why’ argument, where those in favour of this rhetorical side step fail to elucidate why there must be a why, as opposed to simply just a how.

Then, at around the 9 minute mark I believe it was, Pell proved himself to be quite a premature invoker of Godwin’s Law when he took what is considered a fatal step in internet arguments, and committed a Redictio Ad Hitlerum:
“[...] it’s not Maggie Thatcher who was in the epitome or the personification of social Darwinism. It’s Hitler and Stalin. [........] Because it is the struggle for survival, the strong take what they can and the weak give what they must and there is nothing to restrain them and we have seen that in the two great atheist movements of the last century.”
Not only is this a premature appeal to Hitler, but also the classic mistake of counting him, and his Nazi cronies, as vanguards for atheism. Dawkins of course being a veteran of these unctuous arguments was quick to label this as ridiculous and again pointed out that:
“That’s exactly why I said that I despise Darwinian natural selection as a motto for how we should live. I tried to say we should not live by Darwinian principles but Darwinian principles explain how we got here and why we exist in the scientific sense”
At this point we reach the first of a few instances where a group of the audience flat out laughed at sporadic points during Dawkins explanations, to which he would ask the audience ‘Why is that funny?’ but never got a direct response. The laughter in this case was caused by the statement from Dawkins:
“Now, Cardinal, you said it’s part of human nature to want to ask the question why in the sense of purpose. It may very well be part of human nature but that doesn't make it a valid question.”
They laughed, Dawkins asked why, but I don’t think he got a response.
As this went further, and Dawkins further explained why he believes that a question like “What is the purpose of the universe?” is a silly question, Pell interjected to say “I think it’s a very poignant and real question to ask, “Why is there suffering?””.
Well it may be poignant, and real; but it has nothing to do with the question they were talking about!
On talking about suffering Dawkins later pointed out that “it is a natural part of the living condition. It is a natural part of Darwinian natural selection, which is one of the reasons why I was so keen to say that I didn't want to live by Darwinian principles.”
Again a clear explanation of what he believes to be the place of science and evolution in human affairs, but one which is constantly ignored by his detractors.

Next a question was directed toward Dawkins about his use of the label ‘atheist’ despite the fact that he has self-identified as being an agnostic in the past. Even Tony Jones seemed uncharacteristically uninformed about this distinction, but Dawkins seemed to explain it rather succinctly (with examples from his book The God Delusion), and a nice reference to the Easter season we find ourselves in:
“I live my life as though there is no God but any scientist of any sense will not say that they positively can disprove the existence of anything. I cannot disprove the existence of the Easter Bunny and so I am agnostic about the Easter Bunny. It’s in the same respect that I am agnostic about God”
Though I was happy to see the whole agnostic/atheist thing brought up with regard to Dawkins beliefs, I couldn’t help but think it could have been handled a bit better. I am of the ilk that describes ourselves as agnostic-atheists; we don’t believe in god, but we also don’t claim to know that there is no god. The label agnostic can be applied to any number of propositions, as Dawkins points out, as it deals with claims of knowledge. Atheist however can only be applied to one proposition, namely ones beliefs regarding deities. It deals only with these beliefs, and not the nature of whether or not the validity of such beliefs can be known with absolute certainty.
It is in this way that I think it is pertinent that we use the label atheist to describe ourselves, rather than just agnostic, as it gives a true indication of what our beliefs are, not just how certain we can claim to be regarding them.

The discussion then went towards what proofs would sway Dawkins mind, to which he had no direct answer, and was open in admitting this and the questions tricky nature. Tony then asked Pell whether he would be able to provide Dawkins with some of the proof he would require, to which Pell replied:
“No, because I think he only accepts proof that is rooted in sense experience. In other words he excludes the world of metaphysics, say the principle of contradiction, and he excludes the possibility of arguments that don't go against reason but go beyond it.”
Arguments that go beyond reason....... I don’t know what to make of this.
Tony then presses Pell a bit further with a great question regarding why this god would choose a small group of Jews 2,000 years ago, and make no subsequent proof after that. George Pell then digs himself a nice little hole to sit in when he remarked that the Jews were intellectual inferiors to their contemporaries, which led to a bit of ribbing by the host:
GEORGE PELL: They weren't intellectually the equal of either the Egyptians or the...
TONY JONES: Intellectually?
GEORGE PELL: Intellectually, morally...
TONY JONES: How can you know intellectually?
GEORGE PELL: Because you see the fruits of their civilisation. Egypt was the great power for thousands of years before Christianity. Persia was a great power, Caldia. The poor - the little Jewish people, they were originally shepherds. They were stuck. They’re still stuck between these great powers.
TONY JONES: But that’s not a reflection of your intellectual capacity, is it, whether or not you're a shepherd?
GEORGE PELL: Well, no it’s not but it is a recognition it is a reflection of your intellectual development, be it like many, many people are very, very clever and not highly intellectual but my point is...
TONY JONES: I’m sorry, can I just interrupt? Are you including Jesus in that, who was obviously Jewish and was of that community?
TONY JONES: So intellectually not up to it?

The next viewer question was my favourite, so I shall show it in its entirety, as well as link to it:
“Question for Richard Dawkins. The big bangers believe that once there was nothing, then suddenly, poof, the universe was created from a big bang. If I have nothing in the palm of my hand, close my fingers, speak the word bang, then open my fingers again, still I find there is nothing there. I ask you to explain to us in layman's terms how it is that something as enormous at the universes came from nothing? ”
First of all, Big Bangers; I love this label.
I like his little experiment, and the challenge he puts forth as if he has shook the foundations of the Big Bang theory, but at the end of the day this guys argument about closing and opening his hand is as laughable as the old ‘Peanut butter proves that there can be no abiogenesis’ argument.
I still cant believe this guy is serious.....
I also have to ponder why it is he thinks that the enormity of the universe would impact on its ability to come from nothing. This is particularly important to note as after all, the Big Bang theory tells us that the universe was once super condensed, and as such was not all that enormous (though still contained all the energy/mater we have today apparently).
People want a simple answer for the beginning of the universe, and then balk at the mention of anything that might sound a bit beyond their understanding. If an answer cannot be understood by them intuitively, then they don’t believe it has any weight as an explanation, This may well be a good argument if you think you live in a world where such explanation usually are intuitive. But talk to any physicist and you will soon find that much of the way the world works isn’t intuitive; just Google quantum mechanics and you will see how far the rabbit hole goes.

When the discussion continues and talk of new theories regarding the appearance of the universe gets moving, Pell attacks some of Dawkins arguments, and invokes what must be one of the biggest cop out arguments in the arsenal of the Christian apologist:
“he dumbs down God and he soups up nothing. He continually talks as though God is some sort of upmarket figure within space and time”
‘Within Space and time’ is the important part there. You will constantly hear people saying that their god is outside of space and time, and thus not subject to its ways, but you never hear an explanation of what this means, and how it can be reconciled with other forms of thinking prevalent in their theology. For instance, if this god is outside of space and time, how can he create a universe? The very act of creation requires time to already exist, after all you can’t have a ‘before and after’ the universe, without having time. And you can’t have a universe, without having space-time.
Regarding the outside of space and time excuse, Dawkins replied:
“it is no good invoking Thomas Aquinis and saying that God is defined as outside time and space. That’s just a cop out.”
FYI, I didn’t realise Dawkins phrased this almost exactly as I did above, but I am nonetheless pleased by it.
I think some more direct audience participation with Dawkins would have been good. After all, so many times when the audience laughed at something he said, Dawkins wanted to know why it was funny, but received no explanation. It made him seem more offended by their laughter rather than genuinely curious and ready to engage, as I believe he was.
This second bit of audience participation was spurred on by this remark:
RICHARD DAWKINS: You can dispute exactly what is meant by nothing but whatever it is it’s very, very simple.
RICHARD DAWKINS: Why is that funny?
GEORGE PELL: Well, I think it’s a bit funny to be trying to define nothing.
Of course you do George, because you are not a philosopher or a scientist, so you don’t have to define or describe things; you are a theologian, and as such simply have to interpret things within your own stationary worldview. The Cardinal talks as if definitions in a philosophical or rational debate aren’t worth ruminating over.
The audience members who were snickered here no doubt consider such things equally absurd, because like most philosophical debates worth having, there is an instinctive answer that some are just willing to accept. We think it is silly to try and define nothing, because we have our own understanding of the word built up since we were a child. Much like if people are asked to define what happy is, or sad, they will probably shy from the task, because rather than question their own personal understanding of the concepts, it is easier to treat them as self-evident truths and be done with it. Perhaps more pragmatic, but by no means philosophically satisfying.

Next came one of Pell’s biggest slip-ups which unfortunately I believe wasn’t properly debunked. That is Pell’s insistence that Charles Darwin was a theist.
The exchange went like this:
GEORGE PELL: Darwin was a theist because he said he couldn’t believe that the immense cosmos and all the beautiful things in the world came about either by chance or out of necessity. He said, “I have to be ranked as a theist.
RICHARD DAWKINS: That just not true.
GEORGE PELL: Excuse me it’s...
RICHARD DAWKINS: It’s just plain not true.
GEORGE PELL: It’s on page 92 of his auto biography. Go and have a look.
Dawkins displays his incredulity at this falsehood, but as the discussion is quickly moved along by Jones; there is no real room for rebuttal. But there is room on this blog for all manner of things I would wish to rant about, and so here I shall!
In a sense Pell is right about Darwin having been a theist, however not in the sense he actually wants people to believe. Darwin was a theist, much like he was a baby: but then he grew up. He was a theist, but then he lost this faith, and the quote in his autobiography as reference by George was clearly talking about beliefs Darwin had had, not ones he maintained at the time of writing. In fact if he had only read a few pages further, to page 94, he would have read Darwin affirming himself as an agnostic, and then elucidating just how one can go about living according to this, without recourse for a god to explain things.
The night of the show I looked up page 92 of his autobiography and got a nice link to Darwin’s online writings. However if you search for a similar thing today, you will find links to heaps of blogs discussing the very thing I am discussing now; the use of this by Pell on Q&A. The misinformation patrols are quick at work for our religious friends however, as one Catholic site is already exclaiming “Cardinal Pell shows up Richard Dawkins ignorance about Charles Darwin”.
Then, having failed to understand the history of Darwin’s religious beliefs despite the fact that he was claiming to have read his autobiography (which is a nice read and like all of Darwin's work, available for free online), Pell exposed his lack of understanding with regard to mankind’s evolutionary history with this startling exchange, which seemed to enliven Dawkins from his jetlag:
TONY JONES: Sorry, can I just bring you, in a sense, to the point of the question? Do you accept that humans evolved from apes?
GEORGE PELL: Yeah, probably. From Neanderthals, yes. Whether...
RICHARD DAWKINS: From Neanderthals?
GEORGE PELL: Probably.
RICHARD DAWKINS: Why from Neanderthals?
GEORGE PELL: Well, who else would you suggest?
RICHARD DAWKINS: Neanderthals were our cousins. We’re not descended from them and we’re both descended from...
GEORGE PELL: These are extant cousins? Where will I find a Neanderthal today if they're my cousins?
RICHARD DAWKINS: They’re not extant, they’re extinct.
GEORGE PELL: Exactly. That’s my point.
RICHARD DAWKINS: Your point is that because they're extinct they can't be our cousins?
GEORGE PELL: I really am not much fussed.
RICHARD DAWKINS: That’s very clear.
GEORGE PELL: Something in the evolutionary story seems to have come before humans. A lot of people say it’s the Neanderthal.
Sure perhaps it is a bit much to attack the Bishop for this mistake; after all he has no expertise in the matter whatsoever. But nevertheless, Pell should have just pushed it aside by saying, ‘oh well, I don’t really know much about mans evolutionary history’, rather than trying to argue about the relevance of this other species of human being extant, or cousins. He even goes on to state how Neanderthals weren’t the equivalent of humans because they didn’t draw on cave walls, even though there is new evidence that they in fact did do just that.
As the discussion continued about mans evolution and the implications of this toward those religions that believe man in unique and has a soul, I think there was further evidence showing Pell’s ignorance of modern evolutionary theory. For example he shows a misunderstanding of the continuous nature of species here:
“so we can't say exactly when there was a first human but we have to say if there are humans there must have been a first one”
There doesn’t have to be a first human at all, just because there is a human now. There is gradual change, so that no parent and offspring would be so dissimilar as to be labelled members of different species, yet these gradual changes would nevertheless compound over time to inevitably change the species (Dawkins in fact goes over this briefly, but adroitly, in a later segment, to which Pell inanely replies “if there is no first person we’re not humans”).
In talking about these ‘first people’ Pell made some headlines (virtual ones at least) in this article when he referred to Adam and Eve as mythology, and not fact.
When he started going over this mythology, Pell highlighted one of the things that I believe is a major difference between a theist’s mindset versus that of an atheist’s:
“[...] the key to the whole of universe, the really significant thing, are humans”
A very self centred view of the nature of existence I would think. What do you know, it is all about me after all. It’s like Phillip J Fry once said: “So I really am important? How I feel when I'm drunk is correct?“
“and, [...], it is a very sophisticated mythology to try to explain the evil and suffering in the world.”
I will just say quickly about the above that I don’t believe it is very sophisticated to assert that sins can be inherited, and that people are born, as Hitchens used to quote "created sick, commanded to be well”.

A while later when the talk again moves towards Richard’s expertise in science my favourite moment of the night appears. Take a look:
George Pell: You have to reason about the facts of science, ask whether you believe the suggestion that, you know, random selection is sufficient and also most evolutionary biologists today don't believe that.
RICHARD DAWKINS: Don't believe what?
GEORGE PELL: They don't believe in random so this crude fundamentalist version of random selection that you propose
RICHARD DAWKINS: I do not propose it and I strongly deny that evolution is random selection. Evolution is non-random selection. Non-random.
GEORGE PELL: So there is a purpose to it is there?
GEORGE PELL: Could you explain what non-random means?
RICHARD DAWKINS: Yes, of course I could. It’s my life's work!
I love it, especially because so many religious apologists seem to forget that these scientists do have a whole lot of research behind what they are doing, and unlike a lifetime built up on theological ideas, they can explain them with due recourse to facts and observations. It just goes to show how much of religious disapproval of evolutionary theory is based on an unchanging image of the science as constructed by apologists, rather than an active understanding of the theory. That evolution is still considered by many who don’t understand it as a random process, is something which must infuriate Dawkins, and other evolutionary biologists, to no end.
Dawkins great strength is how he can explain something so well, in so few words. Take for example the explanation of evolution’s non-random nature which he gives to Pell:
“There is random genetic variation and non-random survival and non-random reproduction which is why, as the generations go by, animals get better at doing what they do. That is quintessentially non-random.”
Next, an atheist asks a question about what will happen when he [the atheist] dies and we get a long response from Pell (prodded by Tony of course) which goes into some of the intricacies of the Christian mythology, but again I like the concise and rational nature of Dawkins response:
“Well, the answer to the question of what’s going to happen when we die depends on whether we're buried, cremated or give our bodies to science.”
Bam, done.
As the discussion delved into more Christian mythology, and Pell defended such things as bodily resurrection and transubstantiation, he again hinted toward the mortal origins of Christianity upon acknowledging the adoption of yet more Greek culture and thinking into the Christian ethos:
“I understand it [edit: transubstantiation], according to a system of metaphysics. It was spelled out by the Greeks before Christ came, which we have adopted [......]”
Though I suppose it could be said that the referrals back to a previous culture don’t just show the human origins of religion, but rather that it may reflect a universal truth not quite grasped correctly by the Greeks. But honestly; which is the simpler explanation?
Dawkins calls out another tricky tactic of the religious apologist when he continually tries to get Pell to explain how some of the language he is using actually applies to real world usage, and our way of employing the English language. When Pell tries to explain how the wafer does become the body of Christ via transubstantiation, but remains as a wafer for all intents and purposes, Dawkins retorts:
“I mean I use - English is my native language. The wafer does not become the body of anybody in the English language.”
However as Pell had previously said:
“I believe it because I believe the man who told us that was also the son of God. He says, “This is my body. This is my blood,” and I’d much prefer to listen to him and take his word than yours.”
It is clear that a rational discussion about language and how it should be employed (with common definitions and syntax) is useless against someone who defines words by divine fiat, not in any proper linguistic fashion.

Seeing that this discussion was going nowhere, Tony interjected with a new, and refreshingly brief, question from the audience:
“Is it okay to tell a child that God doesn't exist? ”
This is one I have thought about a lot as my son is growing up in a culture that frequently talks of God, gods and heaven, albeit generally in a metaphorical or profane (“God damn it!”) sense. Dawkins does well, saying that he would prefer for her to figure it out based on the evidence [he has a great open letter to his daughter, hence the ‘her’, that can be found over here]. After all, he is an agnostic atheist, and would not be willing to tell his child that a god doesn’t exist with 100% certainty anyhow.
Then when Pell was starting his response to this question, he unintentionally got the biggest laugh of the night with this statement, which were it not coming from a member of the catholic church, would barely have registered a stifled giggle:
“I remember when I was in England we were preparing some young English boys”
I smell a meme on the way!
Thank you Sam Dekok for being so on the ball making this
Some people have said that it was a bit crass of Dawkins to laugh when the audience took amusement from Pell reminiscing about ‘preparing’ some English boys, but I think that given the Catholic Church’s history in this regard, it is hardly an unwarranted jest.
Then when the laughter dies down, and he finally gets it out, Pell’s self styled ‘simple’ answer to the question of whether kids should be told they are going to hell is this:
"Hitler. You think Hitler might be in hell? Started the Second World War, caused the death of 50 million or would you prefer a system where Hitler got away with it for free?"
Would you prefer it? As if preference has a bearing upon reality. I am sure the kid would prefer a universe where suffering such as the like committed by Hitler, was simply not possible.
This personal drive for justice to be handed out even after the grave is brought home when Jones presses him further (as he is sooooo good at doing):
TONY JONES: What about a system where he was obliterated and didn't exist anymore?
GEORGE PELL: Well, he would have got away with too much, as far as I am concerned.
But Pell doesn’t give up, he is determined to show that simply wanting the universe to be a preferable and just one is somehow an argument for it actually being such a universe.
“But I believe on behalf of the innocent victims in history that the scales of justice should work out. And if they don't, life is radically unjust, the law of the jungle prevails.”
‘On behalf of the innocent victims’, implicitly suggesting that those atheists who don’t believe there is justice in the universe from some divine after death source, are somehow not on the side of the victims.
True, a world where the Hitler’s and Mengele’s can simply die and escape justice may not be a just world at all. However saying this doesn’t really add weight to the argument to that your idea of what the world could be like is nicer than an alternative, and therefore that it must be true.
I believe that the world is essentially an indifferent place, which is why I don’t think that justice is something to be doled out from beyond the grave, but rather that justice, like ethics and happiness; is an entirely human affair.
Dawkins likewise is having none of this, and simply responds to the question of which reality is more preferential with this little nugget of rationality:
“I’m more interested, however, in what’s true than in what I would like to be true.”
Any talk of suffering or justice in regard to a religious worldview is bound to ask the question of why an omnipotent god would allow such things to happen. Pell offers up the same ‘free will’ argument so often employed, yet very rarely explained:
“That’s a very good question but if God is going to allow us to be good he’s got to give us freedom.”
Freedom perhaps, but ability; no. We can easily be given the freedom to do things, without making every possible action available to be done. For example, we have the ability to kill, and maim; but is this physical reality required in order for our will to be truly free? I don’t think so. We could have bodies incapable of feeling pain, or being killed, whilst retaining our free will, so this reality still needs to be accounted for.
As the night quickly came to an end, I think Pell was beginning to lose interest in the whole affair. He had shot himself in the foot a few times along the way, and then added this nice snafu to the mix when talking about secondary causes in regard to how a perfect god would design a just universe:
GEORGE PELL: It is interesting through these secondary causes probably no people in history have been punished the way the Germans were. It is a terrible mystery.
TONY JONES: There would be a very strong argument saying that the Jews of Europe suffered worse than the Germans.
George Pell, you have been Tony Jones’d.
As if that weren’t enough to highlight Pell’s mounting disinterest in his side of the exchange, his final words for the night consisted of this exchange:
GEORGE PELL: [...] my life would be much simpler and much easier if I didn't have to go to bat for a number of Christian principles.
TONY JONES: Have you ever regretted that you do?
GEORGE PELL: Sometimes I wonder.
TONY JONES: Seriously?
Ah yes, if only it was the good old days, when Catholic Cardinals didn’t have to try and explain themselves to the people, and could just force through their will with divine right.

Anyhow, that is my commentary on the Dawkins v Pell episode of Q and A. I hope it was enjoyable.

Oh, and one quick last minute mention of another meme created after George Pell replied to a question about the existence of gays within his god's master plan in this exchange:
TONY JONES: Can I just interpose a quick question on this. We are running out of time. I mean do you believe that homosexuality, since it’s not a question of choice, is part of God's natural order? GEORGE PELL: Creation is messy. I think it’s the oriental carpet makers always leave a little flaw in their carpet because only God is perfect. 
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