the story story

A few weeks ago, the epic Story Musgrave came and spoke at the company I work for. It was as amazing and awe-inspiring and humbling as you can imagine (however when our VP thanked him at the end and commented that it had been humbling, Story shot back “well, it shouldn’t be.”) Because that’s the kind of straightforward, down-to-earth, get-things-done kind of guy Dr. Musgrave is.

Story Musgrave

So at the end of his talk, he opened it up to questions from the group. My boss, grinning, asked “so, have you ever seen a UFO?” Story’s answer was serious: first, he talked about the vastness of the universe and the strong probability that other civilizations exist, and that they very well may have the capability of interstellar travel. “But I have no evidence that they’ve been here,” he said, “and why would they want to? There are forty wars going on right now. Forty wars – there are two we hear about most, but right now, on this planet, forty wars. We’re killing each other all over the place. Why would a visitor from an enlightened civilization want to come here? If they did, we wouldn’t send communicators, we’d send guns.”

He paused, then repeated “Why would they come here?” He shook his head. “They wouldn’t.”

So straighten up, people. Get it together, stop all the damn killing. Nobody wants to visit a bunch of murderous assholes.

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lawlessness and godlessness

story number one:

My son’s bicycle was stolen this morning. He is a good, honest boy who’s never stolen a thing in his life, it’s not in his nature. He was devastated; it was a cool-looking bike, not expensive but with all the fancy things a tweenage boy loves in a bike. And it was his transportation home from school, two miles with a thirty pound backpack. He’s on a scooter until we replace the bike (soon, just not right this minute).

Now, the worthless sort of human vermin who steals slightly beat-up, inexpensive kids’ bikes is overwhelmingly likely to be incarcerated fairly regularly, and like most petty criminals, when he sobers up in jail, gets religious to pass the time and earn good points. And, if he does, and if accepts Christ and asks forgiveness for his crimes, according to the Christian rules, he gets to go to heaven. I’m not saying this is the case with the thief that took my boy’s fire-orange Mongoose, but there are good odds it is.

My son, the sweet, honest boy who is by choice, an atheist, would burn in eternal hell by those same rules.

story number two:

Years ago I knew a lovely woman, a devout Catholic. She lost her husband of some twenty-five years, and after an appropriate interval as a widow, met a nice man in the church. He was also a very devout, strict Catholic, a teacher of music at the local seminary, a tireless volunteer for Catholic youth groups.

You know where this is going, right?

The nice-seeming man raped the lovely woman’s grandson. The woman was, without question, the most forgiving person I have ever met; her forgiveness was based in her faith, and her faith was based in complex rituals which, if followed devoutly, guaranteed forgiveness. The rape devastated the victim and the family, and if the nice-seeming rapist was like virtually every other child rapist who volunteers for youth groups, there were many other children and families similarly devastated by this dried-up amoral pathetic excuse of a man.

The lovely woman forgave him, and the family never called the police; Catholics, as a group, have little use for the laws of man, and frequently go to great lengths to assure that they answer only to their religion’s sick ritualistic system, in which their sins are dealt with as a private matter between them and their god, a system in which the victim is largely overlooked.

The withered-up husk of a child-rapist went to his death in a state of grace, a priest by his side — according to the rules, he is now in heaven. The boy who was raped is now in his thirties. He spent years in therapy and his faith was permanently shattered; he is not now nor will he likely ever be in a state of grace, so when he passes away, according to those same rules, he will be cast mercilessly into the lake of fire.

and yes, i digress:

Any Christian will tell you that it’s not OK to commit sin knowing there is forgiveness available, but you cannot tell me that this aspect of their religion does not affect the decision process. How easy is it for someone who habitually steals or rapes to convince themselves that they are sick, pray for help, and when none comes, continue on their criminal path. By the rules, they get credit for that prayerful effort, and ascend into paradise when all’s said and done.

So when someone tells you their morals come from their faith, remember that in their ethical universe, they are virtually guaranteed to be forgiven by their god, even if no one else would even consider forgiving them. They have a get-out-of-hell free card, no matter how much sadness and ruin they leave behind. How could this not have an effect on their actions in this life?

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trust the wisdom of children

I raised my children with the choice of any faith available, and provided them with the means to explore the options. My daughter and youngest son are atheists, my middle son is a Christian (he is a gentle, kind young man who would never hate or exclude anyone from anything, and he likes science).

In fact, on any issue, I always found my absolute best response to my children was “I trust your judgment”, rather than to lay down strict rules — it made them think about the consequences of their actions from a position of ownership of those actions — and it was remarkably effective.

Australian student Dylan O’Beirne is the sort of young man whose judgment is imminently trustworthy:


Dylan O’Beirne is open to finding out whether there is a god.

But the 16-year-old hasn’t yet seen strong evidence.

“If there was evidence to support a god, then I would believe in it,” he says.

“I choose not to believe, but I’m not going to dogmatically reject it.”

Dylan is in year 10 at Kingswood College in Box Hill.

He was never baptised and says his parents were happy to allow him to decide whether or not he believed.

“Mum and Dad raised me to know it was my choice,” he says.

Religious education classes in year 5 first prompted Dylan to question the matter.

He asked to be excluded because he found the classes boring.

But a Muslim student, also excluded, had him thinking.

“I thought, if she believes something else, why aren’t we taught about that?”

In year 8, Dylan’s mother presented him with the best-selling book, The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins.

“Everything came out with such clarity. But I didn’t just take his word for it; I started investigating what sceptics and atheists believe.”

Dylan says a visit to his school by the Jewish Christian Muslim Association revealed many of his peers are quite religious, but most rarely discuss it. He enjoyed the visit and has no intention of pressing his views on anyone.

He see Christmas as time for a family celebration.

“It’s not around messages about Jesus Christ, but more a time to get together and for Australian society to get together. Most of my family are somewhat religious.”

Teach your children to think and make informed choices, and trust their judgment, unless of course they demonstrate an inability to make good decisions — but if you start with love and trust, chances are, the decisions will be good ones.

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asking the right questions

First of all, fantastic and thought-provoking post on Scienceblogs, “Creating God in one’s own image“, about a study which concluded that God is a sockpuppet (see illustration) — and this does appear to have a scientific basis in fact, not based just on the answers, but on the methodology of the study. It’s all in how you ask the questions.

with thanks to
with thanks to

What fascinated me most about the study was the methodology, and the changing of minds.

And as better evidence of causality, Epley showed that he could change people’s views on God’s wills by manipulating their own beliefs.

He showed some 145 volunteers a strong argument in favour of affirmative action (it counters workplace biases) and a weak argument opposing it (it raises uncomfortable issues). Others heard a strong argument against (reverse discrimination) and a weak argument for (Britney and Paris agree!). The recruits did concur that the allegedly stronger argument was indeed stronger. Those who read the overall positive propaganda were not only more supportive of affirmative action but more likely to think that God would be in the pro-camp too.

In another study, Epley got people to manipulate themselves. He asked 59 people to write and perform a speech about the death penalty, which either matched their own beliefs or argued against them. The task shifted people’s attitudes towards the position in their speech, either strengthening or moderating their original views. And as in the other experiments, their shifting attitudes coincided with altered estimates of God’s attitudes (but not those of other people).

He “asked people to write and perform a speech” — he asked them to think. Thinking changes minds, and believing involves being taught to obey rather than think. This study involved more than just surveying the respondents and recording their answers, it explored the way their brains worked, and in doing so demonstrated that it’s not terribly difficult to change minds. It starts with asking the right questions, and providing an atmosphere in which it is not a threat to one’s belief to think about the answers (for instance, consenting to a study they felt would help demonstrate their godliness).

This tends to reinforce Michael Shermer’s view that talking to theists can and should be done in ways that do not threaten their faith, if only because of the importance of educating people that science is not the enemy and should not be attacked. And the methodology used in the study could help inform conversations with the faithful.

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