Garth Stiebel

11 January 2005 : Garth
You are such a breath of fresh air.

You've wonderfully articulated many of the things I feel but have seldom articulated (mostly not to alienate friends or co-workers or get punched-out). The rationalist viewpoint you so assertively present blows away ignorance, mis-information, muddy thinking and wishfulness masquerading as faith.

Two comments: I've found that combating religion with rationalism is like trying to put in a screw with a hammer, wrong tool. The faithful often make the same mistake in reverse, by erecting rational 'proofs' of the existence of their God. The more intricate the structure they erect as my 'stairway to heaven' the more of a wall it becomes between me and any kind of spiritual truth. Spiritual experience is entirely subjective, therefore objectively improvable. In fact the movement towards objectifying the religious impulse, which led to the writing of the Bible, the Koran, the Crusades, Jihad and the current mess is entirely the result of trying to make concrete that which cannot be expressed. The fact that it cannot be expressed in any manner that that isn't exclusionary to someone, somewhere does not make it an invalid truth (as opposed to an objective fact).

If you haven't read any of Joseph Campbell, the mythologist, I would highly recommend him. Although he recognized the interchangeability of all the world's mythologies, as you do, he was, nevertheless, a highly spiritual individual. It sounds like you and he are similarly educated, as far as religion goes, yet you seem to have rejected the possibility of an underlying truth, because it couldn't be factually proven, whereas he seemed to have embraced the possibility of the 'unknowable' as a potentially valuable tool for living a productive life. I would ask you to consider the possibility of other modes of 'knowing' besides the rational.

My second comment is more brief but at least as paradoxical; the net effect of your incisive musings on faith and religion will hopefully wipe the sleep from some people's eyes and allow them to see reality in a whole new way (to them).

I find what you are doing to be a spiritual service and I hope you don't find this insulting. I'm not implying you're a 'tool of God' or some such nonsense. From what I've seen of your website your comments are constructive and intended to enlighten, and compassion is not something one can easily attribute to purely human origins.

16 January 2005 : Catherine
I fully agree with your first point, but my hope is that some people will actually read what I've written rather than what they think I have, which quickly leads to knee-jerk reactions.

I consider there to be a great difference between a physical and spiritual 'truth'. The former is there whether one experiences it or not, and will not disappear when we stop looking, whereas the latter is felt as an emotion or conviction and can best be expressed as a metaphor or analogy because it's a personal interpretation of something internal and different for everyone, though there are common frames of reference. Basically, if it makes you happy, then do it; the only proviso being that it mustn't harm anyone else against their wishes, though I know that such 'universal enlightenment' values are increasingly being challenged by a new form of racism known as cultural relativism, which is expressed as "It's all right for them to mis-treat their women because they're a different culture," and "it's more than acceptable for them to suppress their own people by whatever force they deem necessary to maintain the supremacy of the state".

From my point of view it's impossible to 'prove' the existence of something which by the believer's own admission is unknowable, invisible, intangible, etc., and being omnipotent and omniscient are in any case mutually exclusive attributes. The biggest problem is all the dogma of monotheism, the really rather petty "my god is the only one" which by necessity leads to the conviction that everyone else (and especially another mono-theist) is a pawn of Satan / heathen unbeliever / Pagan / Liberal who deserves to go to hell (and in the name of their God they'll happily send you there), which none of the classical polytheistic cultures suffered from, though even this originally tolerant pluralism has now been perverted by fundamentalists, as for example by the new wave of Hindus.

Lastly, and without wanting to sound overly deterministic, I would say that emotions are 'just' electro-chemical responses in a biological 'machine'; that doesn't mean they're bad, and for real life I don't reduce them to such things, for like most people I enjoy being happy and I fully enjoy the feeling of watching a sunset, walking through a park, conversing with people. That I know the origin of the feelings I experience doesn't in any way detract from my pleasure in them, and the last thing I do in the moment is to analyse and reduce them to mere 'components' in the greater whole of my body: that's more than silly, it completely defeats the enjoyment of the feelings in the first place.

That we are, that we exist at all, is a wonder in itself, and certainly for me knowing the chances and the reasons (that is in a chemical rather than a teleological manner) only makes it more wonderful, and of course unlike most religions I'm free from the self-destructive possibility of being the slave or property of an unaccountable God who, even before you're born, decides to send you to hell no matter how good you are in your life.

21 January 2005 : Garth
You've given me much food for thought and I'd like to try to respond to some of your points, in the spirit of sharing differing perspectives. People do definitely project their own attitudes on what they see and hear, especially since we tend to make up our minds without really evaluating the other person's position. This is as true for rationalists as much as it is for those who are faith-based. Ironically, one usually gets a much clearer picture of the internal biases of the latter, since they're usually convinced that they are the custodians of 'truth' and aren't shy about telling you. On the other hand, getting a rationalist to investigate, let alone admit that they might have a bias based on the nature of the intellectual and physical tools they are using is rather more difficult. For instance, consider a tree. The word 'tree' is a generally agreed-upon metaphor for an object that is itself an energy field of an infinite of particles so small they can only be perceived by the traces they leave as they vibrate, so small relative to the distances between them that what our eyes perceive as a 'tree' is, seen from another viewpoint, mostly empty space. This almost mystical description is a product of the rational science of quantum physics. So, even the most ardent intellect is bound by the limitations of the five senses and the mind that is conditioned by them. That is truly wondrous — makes me wonder what we're missing out on!

Language itself is totally arbitrary. Write the letter 'A'. Why should it sound the way it does? Why should it be shaped the way it is? It, too, is a metaphor, something that stands in the place of something else; the sound, which is also a metaphor, especially when it is put together as a series, e.g. the sound of 'tree'. All, with infinite potential and no rational reason for their existence or meaning, yet forming the bases for all the sciences, religions, cultures that have ever or will ever exist.

Anyway, the point of the foregoing is that maybe physical truths and spiritual truths aren't that far apart after all. The internal and the external cannot exist without each other. Subjective and objective are largely illusory (I say largely because I have no definitive proof, being part of each).

I couldn't agree with you more — doctrine, dogma, intolerance are the root cause of the world's woes. At the heart of fanaticism is an unutterable fear that they may be wrong and they must eliminate any who cast aspersions on their faith, or convert them, on the principle that 'If you can't get them to join you, then beat them.' I'm not sure I agree with your comment re the "classical polytheistic cultures" being tolerant. The Mayans, for instance, happily enslaved and sacrificed those unfortunate enough not to worship the same gods. I'm not sure such a 'Garden of Eden', excuse the reference, ever existed. Which cultures are you referring to?

I'm glad you don't reduce your emotions to their components as you're feeling them — I know people who do and they're not very happy. I tend to compare the practice to that of writing the notes of a work of music on a page as you're creating it. I wouldn't call it reductionist as much as phrasing the event in another language, that, like all languages, is limited in what it can express by it's medium. The written notes and the sound exist separately and yet, paradoxically, they may be both the cause and effect of each other. The musician is the creator of each, simultaneously.

Anyway, I've found that there are philosophies of life that are more inclusive than either rationalism or faith. As I get older, I seem to become more aware of possibilities I hadn't considered in my youth.

28 January 2005 : Catherine
Though many of like to think otherwise, absolutely everything we experience is an interpretation, and it undergoes 'translations' when we sense them, when we try and store them accurately, and later recall those imperfect memories. Social cohesion is maintained by agreed upon definitions ('tree', 'blue', 'up') which though descriptions of actual phenomena are by themselves merely abstract sounds or patterns of ink or dots on a screen that further represent those sounds and are therefore another stage removed from what they're attempting to quantify.

As with most rationalists, I do of course like to think I have an open mind, though not so open I'll accept anything that falls into it! To summarise what I've written elsewhere: I have no belief in gods (or what humans have deemed as such) in the same way I have no belief in gryphons: no evidence. Show me one and I'll believe it exists, in the same way I believe that when I awaken each morning (assuming I haven't died in the night in which case my lack of consciousness wouldn't be aware of anything at all and whatever constituted the 'I' of myself will have ceased to exist), I believe gravity will have kept me in my bed and stopped me from drifting all around the bedroom; in this instance, my use of the concept 'belief' is 'projecting into the future based on past evidence', rather than in the religious sense of 'knowing' something exists without any direct evidence. The example of gravity may have been a silly example, but I hope you get the point.

However, I think there have to be limits. Whilst I fully support the right (in practise as well as theory) for someone to believe the Earth is flat or inside-out, and would never prevent them from trying to spread their beliefs, that doesn't then mean the belief itself should automatically be immune from analysis or even ridicule if it is shown to be against common experience (by which I don't mean winning an argument by weight of the number of believers, which is one of the grossest logical fallacies). That is what nearly all major religions are now demanding, falsely equating a criticism of the belief with a desire to enslave or kill the believer (comment on Israel's military policies and you're an anti-Semitic Nazi, or an Islamophobe if you point out the Qur'an's misogyny), and they all claim to be 'offended' at the merest hint of derision, demanding that because they believe it, it is sacrosanct. Sorry, nothing is, or should be.

With regards to the last part, I was thinking primarily of Romans and 'that Greek', Alexander, though there were also a few Far Eastern conquerors who followed a similar path. The empire itself was expanded by the usual method of military force, but once the areas had been subdued, although they then introduced their own gods as their own people took residence, they also absorbed local deities and either incorporated them into the existing pantheon or simply added them because they were lacking (though they might originally have sacked the physical temples, they didn't usually try and kill off belief in the gods, merely point out how ineffectual they were at not preventing the looting). Isis and Mithra(s) and Sabazios are famous cases which swept through the Roman empire for all classes, but there are countless others, and for people who believed in such things there couldn't be too many gods: if one got the huff with you then another might be more favourable.

Being utterly reductionistic as I mentioned is, to me, a denial of the very feelings themselves. To use your analogy of music: I know all the ratios and scales, but that's the last thing on my mind when I listen to the symphony or the heavy metal. Finally, to round this off (and this may sound strange), I do now think of myself as fairly 'spiritual' (a loosely defined term at best), for I feel much and enjoy it; even negative things such as pain are evidence of being aware and alive, and it's that life which I enjoy. I love experience in and of itself, but not in a hedonistic way: I had a nice work-out, ate a lovely meal, listened to the rain, enjoyed a few minutes of dolce far niente.

PS. I forgot this point: the older religions were generally divorced from ethics, which was the province of philosophy: from that they learned about how the world functioned and everyone's place in it, though there were of course different schools of thought — Stoic, Cynic (not in the modern sense of the word), Platonist, Epicurean, etc. From these came the rules that governed social behaviour, sense of right and wrong, moral duty to others, and so on. Only later did religion take on this role and become a total system for living.

04 February 2005 : Garth
My interest in language tends to be an over-riding theme in most of my pursuits; semiotics in general actually. The strength of language can be its specificity or its ambiguity and, depending on context, so can its inadequacies. So, if I indulge in a little close reading of your responses, please don't think I'm being unreasonably picky — I merely want to indicate what I am grasping of your thoughts and, occasionally, questioning your assumptions. For instance, when you claim 'everything we experience is an interpretation' that undergoes 'translation' the assumption seems to be that there is an original 'language' that we are translating from. Is there more than one, depending on the sense employed e.g. sight vs sound? Or is there only one that is transmuted by our senses into useable data? If that's the case, it's as though the nail changed to a screw when we put down the hammer and picked up the screwdriver! I realize we're straying into philosophical territory here but only from the observed facts do we do so. That would mean that the nature of Reality is infinitely malleable, depending on the nature of the instrument through which it is observed, by which it follows that it is totally dependent on the instrument for it's expression. Startin' to sound a trifle religious, if you ask me...

You make an interesting point re the multiple 'translations' done at the perceptual stage, then, almost simultaneously, at the storage stage (which, as an aside, seems to be done more efficiently with some senses than others) and then, the recollection stage. When we read a book, we aren't simultaneously transcribing it's look, feel, smell; we don't memorize it; when we listen to a conversation, we don't record it with our brains, absorb the smell of the speaker as well as the sight of everything they're wearing and how they're standing — we seem to pick salient features, through some, only partially understood mechanism, involving our physical and mental states, our environmental and cultural context and who knows what else. When we recollect the event, that too depends on when and where we do so, as well as the afore-mentioned contexts.

Your example of what you believe happens (or does not happen) while you're sleeping struck me on several fronts;

  1. your assumption that death means the cessation of consciousness and that you will cease to exist. IMHO, intellectual rigour demands that you make no assumption either way until the evidence is in;
  2. your use of the phrase 'common experience', by which I understand to stand in for 'common sense.' I think it was Churchill who characterized common sense as all the biases and prejudices one accumulates before the age of 17. The common experience of a culture may be unscientific and often is, but it is usually the deciding factor in social affairs, like it or not. And I'm not sure I would have it any other way. This attitude doesn't exclude rational viewpoints; it gives them a voice as much as any other, proportional to their usefulness. One example — mad cow disease in Britain. For many years, the media and other non-scientific types said, in effect, 'our cattle are causing medical problems, we should stop buying beef until it's fixed'. The beef industry fought tooth and nail against this 'common sense' viewpoint, resting its argument on the ' unscientific' methods of its critics and demanding definitive proof that the problem lay in its products. By the time the science confirmed it, the British beef industry was devastated, its reputation in shambles, even now, where a case of CJD in Japan has been traced back to a one month visit to Britain in 1989. If they'd listened to the majority of so-called irrational fear-mongerers then, we might still have a British beef industry. But I digress..
  3. a comment on your version of belief as 'projecting into the future based on past evidence' This may have been what the citizens of Hiroshima were doing just before they were vaporized 60 years ago, unable to conceive of what was about to happen because it had never happened before. I don't mean to be flip, but there doesn't seem to be much room for imagination in that concept.

I must also comment that I find many of your comments on religion to be accurate only as they are applied to the more radical, fundamentalist fringes of the world's major religion. I know many individuals of moderate religious views who, I believe comprise the majority of their particular faiths.

Your last point, perhaps the Classical Western philosophers did codify social behaviour but they certainly did not invent it. Polytheistic and monotheistic religions of all stripes have, for millennia, been so inextricably woven into the fabric of their adherents lives that their social behaviour was merely another expression of their faith. To say that 'only later did religion take on this role and become a total system for living' not only gives the Greeks and Romans way more credit than they are due, it also fails to take into account the pervading influence spiritual beliefs of all stripes, the world over, have had on people's daily lives for almost as long as there have been people!

12 February 2005 : Catherine
No, I don't think you're being very picky, and at least any comments you make prove you've read it!

The last thing I want to be is misunderstood as agreeing with the assumption of 'reality' being determined by the observer, which is a (deliberate) distortion of the weirder parts of quantum-theory; the inference from this is that there are as many valid and 'right' realities as there are those who experience it, which is an horrendously PC concept where everyone can be right and thus no one is 'offended'. My stance is the complete opposite: on the macro level there is an underlying and very solid reality which can be found and measured to as much accuracy as you like or require: the view from my window exists whether I'm there to see it or not; the tree falls in a forest even if no one's around to hear it. Granted, at the quantum level things get extremelystrange with observer effects having ever-greater prominence until they seem to be creating rather than recording what's there (collapse of wave function, "spooky action at a distance", etc.), but for everyday life it's the smoothed-out average of this randomness and inherent unpredictability that holds true, and we don't need anything else. In theory, I could toss a coin and it will neither land heads nor tails nor even perfectly on its edge, but vanish as its molecules lose cohesion and disperse into the air; the chances of this actually happening, however, are so remote as to be dismissible.

As for consciousness surviving death, given there is no evidence this can happen (what's the driving mechanism? where precisely does one's consciousness exist and from what does it take the energy it requires to continue processing and simply being?) I don't consider it an unreasonable assumption, and though 'wait until it happens' is good practise for most things, if once the body dies and the consciousness goes with it, then the consciousness will not be self-aware to know what's happened: only if it survives can it know it has.

I meant 'common experience' as precisely that, not 'common sense', which nowadays is virtually an oxymoron. (Example, if you say to people that half the population have below average intelligence, they'll be offended when it is merely a statistical fact and they have no understanding of the term 'average'.) All but a few people agree on what constitutes a tree or the colour blue (assuming they're not colour-blind).

Your example of Hiroshima was a good one, as it was utterly beyond the comprehension of all but those few who created and demonstrated it for the military; now it's part of our common pool of experience, though thankfully not directly. I have no wish to denigrate the victims, nor dismiss what happened, but speaking purely of conceptual limitations rather than the actual and terrible events: Knowing of bombs in general, the victims might have imagined it happening by multiplying the devastation of a normal bomb by various factors until it was powerful enough to destroy a city, as indeed it did. I can very easily imagine a bomb with potential to crack the Earth's crust and allow magma to burst forth like the volcanos in Hawaii; I can also imagine popular uprisings against the corporate bribery of politicians who allegedly represent the people who voted for them, but I think the first imagining far more likely! ;-)

Imagination is a wonderful thing, as it's one of the things that drive me and allows me to create the stories I write as one of my numerous hobbies, but even imagination has certain limits, it still requires basic building-blocks of prior experience. The only case where this isn't valid is when you meet someone such as an Amazonian who has no knowledge of such things and therefore cannot imagine it up to a point; they can imagine devastation from storm and flood, and perhaps project that to be caused by other people, but could they imagine the underlying principles, an actual explosion of such force as to wipe out an entire island? I can imagine a 20-mile long spacecraft, but if I ever saw one, though I'd hopefully recognise it as such, it wouldn't be anything like I imagined. People from classical Alexandria might have imagined a flying vehicle as some kind of chariot pulled across the sky by a winged animal (though they knew such beasts were mythical rather than actual), but could they have imagined a small aircraft or helicopter that's not only heavier than air (i.e., not a hot-air balloon) but also carries its own power inside?

Yes, definitely, my criticisms of organised religion are only aimed at the extremists (and literalists, where logical inconsistencies and sheer idiocy abound), for it's only they who want to impose their will upon others and demand everyone else pander to their views, including the more moderate brethren of their own religions. Also, you're correct about the last point, for I was speaking purely of the central Mediterranean religions prior to the uptake of Christianity. There was of course contact at that time with the near- and far-Eastern religions, which were far more holistic in their approach and offered a 'complete solution' to living, saying why as well as what, and often without resorting to threats of what would happen in the 'next' life (karma was your own and you took it forward with you to the next cycle, you didn't spend the rest of eternity screaming as you were boiled in hell as so picturesquely described by the Qur'an).

I would however have to disagree that I'm giving them more credit than they're due, as I don't think there is enough: they were just as aware of human failings and achievements as we, analysed the world around them as best they could with the means available to them, discoursed on what the world was and why it was as it was, how things worked, etc. For example, Lucretius correctly describes the water-cycle (ocean, evaporation, clouds, rain) and many other things; others are of course completely wrong, as were theories of less than a century ago, but the means of questioning is essentially the same; they had philosophy that told them either just observe and learn, whilst another school argued that experimentation was required, and so on as different ideas took hold and usage/experience combined to determine which produced the best results.

18 February 2005 : Garth
I appreciate this dialogue greatly; few people are willing to converse on these issues without an agenda of their own beyond a simple exchange of views.

When you refer to the PC concept where everyone can be right and no-one is offended, I did not, at the time, have ethical concepts in mind – I was speaking of physical reality only. However, the "macro level" you mentioned I would characterize as the perceptual level, bearing in mind it is the limitations on our perceptions that restrict us to those ranges of energy they can detect (vision, for example, sees only a small fraction of the light spectrum). For everyday living you're absolutely correct; it's all we need. Nevertheless, you seem to be discounting the long term effects of some of the marvellous discoveries that have been made in, for example, quantum physics. It seems to be the same kind of argument that may have been made to discredit, for instance the flat earth theory i.e. that whether the Earth was flat or spherical made no difference to how people lived. Obviously, it ultimately did, inconvenient as it may have seemed at the time.

As I've implied, your "smoothed-out average" is a function of our senses, nothing more (or less). The fact that everyone's perceptual tools are constructed similarly means that we all create patterned predictability out of chaos. Humankind has always had curiosity as to the composition and behaviour of the so-called 'bases' of our reality and how we relate to them. The results of this continuing search have an effect on our behaviour, as they should and that includes moral behaviour, which doesn't need to be religious in nature. If the scientific facts were put forward as forcefully as most of the religious claptrap we're force-fed, instead of being given only 'equal' billing, we'd be better off!

I understand, now, what you mean by 'common experience' but I still consider "common sense" to be a sub-set of it, being the less obvious shared experiences of a culture, including morality, art, religion, social customs, attitudes etc. Cultures make decisions based on all that and more and to say that those decisions should be made based purely on one or two principles, such as science and imagination is utopian in the extreme. Among other things, the Japanese' misplaced faith in their Emperor and their convictions of cultural superiority prevented them from imagining even the scientifically theoretical possibility that they might be bombed into oblivion and therefore should be preparing for the happenstance. To "speak purely of conceptual limitations" is an academic exercise for ideologues and has the same place in the real world as the idea that simply 'loving thy neighbour 'will cure the world's woes, i.e. dangerous on its own, might be considered a starting point for discussion only. Sorry if this sounds harsh. Anyway, as societies accrete values, laws and so on, usually the best we can hope for is that a significant portion of its citizens are intelligently involved in the process, not blindly accepting received wisdom or considering too few factors!

Actually, common experience provides one with the starting point for the search for meaning we all go through from birth to death. One of my consuming interests is how meaning is arrived at and accumulated by individuals and societies. A vast subject but endlessly fascinating.

Your bio particularly intrigued me, as your education seemed to have results diametrically opposed to the intentions of your teachers and probably assertively different from many of your classmates. It brings to mind what is probably a parable of sorts; the tale of two brothers, one a pillar of the community, one a drunken lout, both of whom cited the same reason for their situation — an abusive father. What is it in a person that can create such different results if exterior circumstances are the same? Are we back to the same theory about the observer's perceptions conditioning their perception of the observed? Unfortunately this lends credence to the moral relativists who would have us believe that all attitudes are equally valid and we shouldn't be upset if they beat their women — it's just part of their culture. And that's not my intent. Free will is involved and similar formative circumstances for children obviously don't necessarily lead to similar adult behaviours or beliefs — nor should we judge the results as equally acceptable because the original conditions were.

No need to apologise for the length of your letter — I love long, meaty epistles, it's a lost art.

27 February 2005 : Catherine
Yes, I agree, it's nice to converse just for the sake of it, to express viewpoints and opinions rather than as a means of demanding agreement.

I cannot agree with you more about religion's self-righteous and self-appointed crusade as guardians / purveyors of morality, for such social constructs are flexible doctrines at best, and always oh-so-conveniently ignored by those same religions (or as they excuse it, 'interpreted') when it suits them, to expand their ideologies and gain converts (voluntary or enforced, it doesn't matter). I'm sure I don't need to cite many examples: Moses ordering the slaughter of the idolators as soon as he came down from the mountain with the overly-lauded commandments; missionaries killing the South Americans (who in turn killed their own people); and every religiously- motivated atrocity in the past 4-5 millennia, though it's been far worse since the advent of the 'my god is the only god' mind-set, and added to this were the cult-of-personality religions such as Mao, where perfectly normal people suddenly became mindless robots and turned on member of their own families.

With regards to my childhood and upbringing, it was the sheer pressure to conform at secondary school that shaped a lot of my early life, for wherever I went, I never felt I belonged; I was always an outsider looking in, but not like through a sweet-shop window where I wanted what was on the other side, rather from the point of view of an observer who saw but could never understand what was going on. I only ever studied things in which I was interested, though I'm only too aware of how lucky I was, for home was filled with books and within limits anything I wanted was available to be read as and when I wanted to. The biggest problem for me was I never saw any reason to remember rote facts (underlying reasons were never analysed, let alone questioned or placed into social / historical context) because I could just look them up in a book, so I left school with only 3 exams, and I'm still useless at recalling such things. Also fortunately, at that time, employers actually interviewed people and so it was easy for me to talk my way into a job, though by that I don't mean the modern definition of bluffing or plain lying, but in communicating one's personality and experience to someone who was used to interacting with people rather than an OCR program searching carefully laid out CVs for this week's buzz-phrases (team-player, interpersonal skills, career-orientated, blah-blah, waffle, etc.), and recognising their education and general level of intelligence; 30+ years later, and I'm still there, having survived more changes of company name and management than seems possible.

In all other aspects I'd say I was a product of the environment in which I grew up and played, a fair and stable balance of nature & nurture, though currently there are various proponents who want to claim that only one has full influence on someone's life, which personally I think is silly. Granted, genetics has a major influence on one's physical development and in the worst cases can have negative influences on someone's behaviour (e.g., predisposition to violence), but for everything else one's upbringing and, just as importantly, one's own desire to change have just as much sway. It's wonderfully surprising what people can do to change their lives for the better, whether losing their dependence on addictive drugs, leaving abusive relationships, walking away from peer conformity such as gangs or cults, and other things. Once someone has been taught to recognise potential, or has been given (or better yet, found for themselves) their self-confidence, anything is possible. It's this that keeps me fairly optimistic about our long-term future, though at the moment I think we're heading for a repetition of the kind of world that existed between the end of the European Dark Ages and the start of the Middle Ages.

I would definitely agree that upbringing and preconceptions (social programming and inherent bias) influence one's viewpoint, especially when confronted with new phenomena, or existing things in new surroundings (which because of the new environment might not even be recognised as the same thing), but I would never countenance cultural relativism of any kind unless it's something we have absolutely no control over, such as everything we do being by definition 'speciesist', because at the moment we cannot get any other point of view except from another human being. That, however, is a known observer bias, and doesn't have any influence on such things as 'honour (sic) killings', clitorectomy, child-rape to 'cure' HIV, and similar crimes.

(As a quick aside, it's also interesting that other animals which have a certain level of intelligence as well as a complex social structure, like other higher primates, also have the same negative qualities as we do, such as murder, and even male dolphins gang up to rape, so why are the two things apparently linked? Something to do with a long-distant common ancestor, or just the way the brain evolves in layers of 'good' wrapped over baser instincts related to primal survival?)

21 March 2005 : Garth
I've been sick for the past few weeks or I would have written sooner.

The religious right in this part of the world has been flexing its righteous muscles in its usual unwholesome manner lately, over a number of issues that, in a world that had its priorities right, wouldn't even make the back pages of the local paper. I'll give you a few for instances — same-sex marriage in Canada is on the verge of becoming an institution on the same footing as heterosexual marriage, with the legal definition of 'marriage', as between a man and a woman about to be changed to reflect that fact. Gays and lesbians already have most of the same economic and social benefits of straights, which didn't seem to cause the zealots too much angst but when word came that they were actually going to be declared equal, well that was just too much. I compare it to the civil rights movements many years ago, where the segregationist credo was 'separate but equal'. Separate has already been shown to be anything but equal when it comes to the treatment of those with other skin colours, now it's time to demonstrate its inapplicability to those of other sexual persuasions. In Canada this debate is in much less danger of being hijacked by organized religion than it is in the States where religion is such an integral part of their political life that many Americans consider George Bush to be a messenger from God. But how can you have a realistic debate with people whose ultimate answer is "God told me so"? I don't deny that those with religious feelings should be able to express their opinions but they shouldn't claim to represent the majority, nor have they cornered the market on ethical pronouncements, nor are they immune to cricism.If we bend to the wishes of those noisy minorities who claim moral authority in the name of a cultural myth then we are headed down a dark road of intolerance, repression and hate.

Unfortunately, I do tend to agree with you that we are headed for a new Dark Age. This will probably coincide with the draining of the world's last oil reserves sometime in the next century. I hate to lump myself in with the 'end-times' conspiracy freaks but there are quite a few signs, including the increasing gap between rich and poor, the oligarchical tendencies of some the world's most powerful institutions and governments, like the Catholic Church, the U.S. government; the polarization of opinion, discouragement of debate, demonization of opponents. There is a siege mentality evolving in the developed world, on the economic, moral and religious levels that can only lead to more conflict. Sound familiar? Yes, it's in your Bible because it's happened before and we don't learn! Not that I'm saying that God has punished us for turning from Him, and is going to punish us again because we're a bit dim when it comes to Divine Retribution. Nonsense! What we haven't learned is how to live together harmoniously, and religion, contrary to popular belief, is a prime cause of that inability. It's amazing to me that those who look to the Bible for guidance completely miss the lessons of history embodied in it and would rather put their faith in the rationalizations of (in the Old Testament) Jews, who want to attribute Divine intervention to the chronology of their race's bloody story and spend a lot of time molding it to fit prophecy, and in the New Testament, where a fledgling Christian church suppressed dissent and hid the true facts of their religion for political reasons. Imagine if it could be demonstrated to believers that the Resurrection was fabricated to conceal that Jesus had not only survived the Cross, but was a fugitive from Roman justice? One early Christian cult, the Essenes, claimed this, among other things, but they were exterminated in the sack of Jerusalem around 70 A.D. Their legacy is the Dead Sea Scrolls, of which only about half of the 800 found and collected by Catholic scholars have ever been published. What if Jesus was not meant to have been a spiritual leader but merely a political one? Christianity would fall apart like a house of cards. And good riddance to any system of values founded on lies.

By the way, I just recently discovered the origin of your website name, very clever, Palmyra, the intersection of the roads to Damascus and Baghdad, in Syria. Fascinating Greco-Roman ruins I understand; love to visit the place someday.

The virulence of the response to any attack on the R.C. Church far outstrips any threat that be may be present. Their recent official reaction to the work of fiction The DaVinci Code is absolutely ludicrous — they now feel compelled to defend themselves against murder mysteries?! Their credibility has dropped yet another notch, even in the eyes of some of the adherents to that cartoon religion, run by a drooling Elmer Fudd.

Another for instance of blind ideology intruding itself into personal affairs is the story out of Florida of that poor woman, who's been in a vegetative state for 15 years and her husband is attempting to follow her wishes and remove her feeding tube, thus allowing her to finally die with a semblance of dignity. Unfortunately, her parents (who are not her guardians) have successfully lobbied everyone up to Bush to prevent this and, apparently, the U.S. Congress (Republican-dominated) is going to enact legislation to, as they say "come down on the side of life." What life — that of an empty shell whose brain shows no activity whatsoever? The same views that would prevent abortions and stem-cell research, have students recite the Lord's Prayer every morning, regardless of their beliefs, repress healthy sexual urges, shun homosexuals, ensure marriages within one's own race only, bomb other countries into democracy and so on, are exerting their increasing influence in varied and frightening ways. The one thing they have going for them is unity; their views are quite similar no matter where you find them, which gives them an extraordinary power base, unlike liberals/rationalists who are willing to tolerate, indeed encourage, diverse intellectual positions and debate, a weakness when it comes to attaining political power. It's too easy for their opponents to accuse them of inconsistency, hypocrisy and pragmatism, therefore being unfit to govern.

I've been boning up on the Greek philosophers lately, for which I have you to thank for motivating me. Athens must have been a marvellous place in the time of Pericles — the center of art, a hotbed of intellectual cut-and-thrust, yet withal a tolerance of pagan activities and beliefs. From what I understand, it was there that the scientific method separated itself from theology, where the 'why do things happen' became the 'how do things happen' and the search for knowledge became more 'what are the physical causes' and less 'what is its (divine) purpose'? It's an incredible anomaly when you consider that they existed in the same world as the 'living gods' of Egyptian royalty, whose nation they would shortly rule through Alexander the Great.

03 April 2005 : Catherine
What a nice rant — unfortunately, you're preaching to the converted! I hope you weren't down with Gastroenteritis, whose after-effects still affect me even now, six weeks later, never mind the bruises where I was on a drip (pump, really, they couldn't get the fluids in fast enough) in hospital for a couple of days.

Whilst it's true that previous long-term coma and other diagnosed-as-PVS patients have shown sudden and remarkable recovery, being the centre of a dispute is hardly the most dignified way to go, and if the poor woman had been in any way aware of her condition since the beginning, by now she's been completely insane for years, having been locked-in and unable to communicate. From what I've read, apparently even some Republicans were unhappy about this case, from the viewpoint of government intervening in what is supposed to be a private / family matter, and another meaningless pole shows Bush's ratings fallen even further. Still, BushCo is always ready to cross line that others did not ("see, daddy, I beat yah, I beat yah at sum'in'!"), and now … let's ruin Alaska for the sake of a few years' worth of oil. The whole GLBT thing would be pathetic were it not so insidious, but it's just another manifestation of extremism (whether of right or left variety, they're both the same with their pogroms and informers and justification of 'the state'), and in the current climate, to be expected.

Not only the Essenes, but the many others deemed 'heretical' by the early RC church who wanted to create on earth a reflection of what they considered the celestial tripartite hierarchy, but it was really all about power: people mustn't be free to ask questions lest they challenge self-appointed authority, only do as they're told by the Papal Mafia — all for their own good, of course, or at least their immortal souls, as the body and any suffering it endures isn't really relevant. Besides, suffering is good for you — just look at that shrivelled walnut of a 'saint' (I know ad hominem attacks are cheap, but in this case undeniably true), Mother Teresa refusing to use anaesthetics and instead of spending the millions of £/$/€ she'd been sent by dupes who thought they were outfitting hospitals, added it to the Vatican's already overflowing coffers and simply told her agonised charges "You are suffering like Christ on the cross. So Jesus must be kissing you." Why all the fuss about the Pope dying? he's only another figurehead spouting the party line: it's the underlying doctrine that needs to be changed. They ought to be charged with murder, what with their lies about condoms spreading HIV, and they have a ready audience in Africa and other nations whose acceptance of church decrees is unquestioning because they equate it with challenging their god.

I've been doing a lot of reading of Gnostic texts where the Christian God, though the creator of the world, is depicted as a demiurge, basically a petulant child boasting of his own power and denying the power and even the existence of his own parents (one of whom was Wisdom). What made this sect a particular threat was not only their acceptance of women (and as teachers!), but mainly their complete disregard for established church authority; neither did they have leaders amongst themselves but took it in turn to teach and impart their wisdom, which meant their experiences were different and there was no formal dogma, for they saw resurrection not as a physical thing that happened after you were dead (by which time you could hardly claim false advertising), but rather a spiritual awakening and the discovery of Christ within one's own self, when you then had a direct connection to God: what need, then, for a church? (If you're interested on more information, visit, and if you'll forgive the shameless plug, the Mystery section of my own Jesus The Christ page.

The city is one of a few favourites of mine, along with Lepcis Magna and Sabratha, but it also bears an uncanny similarity to my surname of Palmer.

Although they did of course exist on a state supported by slaves, and like the Romans who followed them, they never questioned the necessity of either slaves or the State itself. For an overall cosmopolitan atmosphere and a merging of many different cultures, where different thoughts were welcome and collected, I would think Alexandria was one of the best, with all the known works from the Classical world as well as all the Middle-Eastern ones. Then Christianity came along and killed their famous philosopher & mathematician, Hypatia, who with her "Satanic wiles" used music and astrolabes (one type of which she reputedly invented, along with other scientific instruments); that she was also a famous and free woman also riled them. Needless to say, the man who incited the mob was sanctified, as he'd met the criteria by killing not only a pagan but also a woman.

22 December 2005 : Garth
I see it's been about a year since we last spoke and the quantity of virulent emails condemning your position on faith and religion seems to have diminished significantly (or are you simply not posting them in the interests of not being boringly repetitious?) Here in North America the far-right fruitbars have just being dealt a decisive blow in the courts, to whit; their Intelligent Design theory (another version of Creationism) has been denied status as a science and cannot, therefore, be taught as an alternative to the Theory of Evolution in schools, as many zealots, including George Dubya, had devoutly hoped. Same-sex marriage is alive and well in Canada and we currently also have the dubious status of being the only country in this hemisphere to have a municipally-sanctioned safe place to inject yourself with illegal drugs (Vancouver). The Supreme Court in the States may re-consider whether to criminalize abortion and Christian groups are boycotting Wal-Mart for insulting their religion by advertising "Happy Holidays", not "Merry Christmas". And who says the world's going to hell in a hand-basket?

Have you ever done any research on the creative principle/process, what it is, how it works? I'm also researching the history of Freemasonry, including the Templars and the so-called Rex Deus families — your site doesn't appear to have anything on it in that regard; I was wondering if you knew of any reliable sources.

Anyway, have a Happy Christmas, as my Mum would say, in whatever way you celebrate the season.

26 December 2005 : Catherine
Nice to hear from you again. There have only been a couple of such emails in recent months, of the 'you poor lost soul' kind.

With regards to the Dover ID case, you must get a copy of Judge Jones' final opinion — it's both fascinating (the analytic process) and scary (how the IDers twist everything). Jones lambasts everyone involved with trying (and in his court at least, failing) to justify ID as 'scientific', exposes their false dichotomy of 'if it isn't evolution it must be design', and basically says that their star witness, Michael Behe, is an inconsistent idiot who redefines things to suit himself, deliberatrely avoids the peer-reviwing process by non-ID (i.e., real science) journals, and has extended his idea of science to such an extent it would include astrology. Hopefully this judgement will set a precedent, just like the original Scopes trial, though unlike then there is now a government actively pursuing the cause who is more than willing to see its universities churn out IDiots along with sports-related diplomas.

Civil Partnerships have just started over here. They are gay marriages in all but name as they accord full legal rights and recognitions for same-sex partners, and about time too.

Anyone who urges and is involved in a boycott of Walmart ought to be supported (especially if they have a fleet of bulldozers), though this is taking things a bit too far, as the Religious Reich do simply by existing. Even as a fairly hard-core atheist I have no problem whatsoever with the whole "Happy Christmas" thing (apart from the sheer scale of the rampant consumerism and utter waste of food and unwanted goods), even though Chistmas as we do it now is a recent (Edwardian / Victorian) invention and has many elements copied from the Pagan feasts it supplanted, but given it's celebrating something that was supposed to have happened two millennia ago, I would say it's fairly well established. As for whatever phrase is used, sheesh, get a life. What's wrong with the equally inclusive "Season's Greetings"? which is a standard and very Christian greeting used for a couple of centuries. Only some ultra-bland PC type could have come up with "Happy Holidays" so as not to 'offend' anyone. The risk of being offended is one of the conditions of living in a so-called 'free' society; you only have to look at cases such as The Satanic Verses, the Bezhti affair, the storm over BBC showing Jerry Springer The Opera, and xians everywhere burning Harry Potter books to see what their true goals are.

One of my managers at work is a Freemason, but as with all the newer lodges (by 'new' I mean the past 2-3 centuries) it's basically little more than an old-boys' network cum social club and sort-of charity function; they have no power within our corporate world where everything is driven by results. Depending on who you talk to, that's all they are, or else they're behind every conspiracy theory going, including the all-seeing-eye and the New World Order. I don't know much about the Templars beyind their genuine historical context, but there's an awful lot of crud out there to sift through for both groups, mainly involving them keeping the secret of the 'Grail' / bloodline of Christ and Mary / the whole Merovingian dynasty, and abuses of power. Probably the best of these (if 'best' is the right word) is The Templar Revelation by Lynn Picknett & Clive Prince: they take what are known facts and weave them together to a pre-ordained conclusion, not only ignoring other facts but even contradicting things in their other books. Another theory of theirs is that all the various ideas about alien invaders (either past or current and hidden behind the scenes) is part of a deliberate disinformation plot by governments to condition their people into obeying anything that claims leadership; this ignores the fact that most people are already so duped by advertising-sponsored TV with its info-mercials and so-called documentaries with their uncritical analysis, that they already do what they're told, and most of them haven't been taught to think for themselves and ask questions — such qualities are deliberately discouraged from an early age, in opposition to my own childhood where it was encouraged. As is usual for such things, it's the poorest segments of society who suffer the most.

19 January 2006 : Garth
I have read summaries of Jones' opinion (he's a Republican, BTW, so apparently not all of them have lost their objectivity) and articles/blogs of opinion of his opinion. Some of the more salient points are symptomatic of the wave of inappropriate subjectivity that is sweeping the planet. Not that I think either objectivity or subjectivity can be clearly defined but the effort to articulate them has, at least since the Greeks distinguished science from opinion and, obviously the battle continues. It's too bad that the Idiots and their ilk must resort to subterfuge — it seems, in their world, that the end justifies the means and misrepresentation as well as misdirection are considered legitimate tools in their war with Satan, for example:

Creationism itself, at least in Christian thought, dates back to Thomas Aquinas, experienced a revival from various 19th century Christian apologists and has been discredited time and again. Renaming it changes nothing. Speaking of Christian apologists, what do you think of C.S. Lewis' "Narnia" on film? Or are you waiting for the DVD :)?

On the subject of Templars and Freemasons, I've done a lot of entertaining reading lately of so-called 'secret histories', actually mostly by British writers, Knight, Lomax and, most recently, Lawrence Gardiner whose Grail lore can be repetitive but he does have a knack for picking out inconsistencies in the Bible. The Grail and its attendant Arthurian legends, as well as the Celtic Church are recent fascinations for me; I must visit Glastonbury one day.

The most outstanding characteristic of all this literature, and I use the term advisedly, is its huge anti-Catholic bias, which I find myself tending to agree with. I find more and more evidence, from legitimate sources, of 2000 years of corrupt, venal, power-seeking avariciousness on a grand scale, right from the Roman naming of Christianity as the state religion for purely political ends, through centuries of manipulation, censorship, distortion and outright suppression of the words of a man who merely wanted to cut through the jungle of conflicting and inflexible Judaic religious practice to a more universal model of moral behaviour, inseparable, of course, from his religion (and incidentally, unite the Jews against the Romans).

The Churches of today are in much the same boat, with no Messiah in sight (unless you count George Dubya, and some do!). I wade through this torrent of words with the intention of finding a better representation of what was actually spoken and done two millennia ago than the conventional wisdom and traditional sources can supply, hoping that a rational approach, as well as some sense of discrimination, gained through experience, will give me a truer picture. You're right, most current Freemasons have little idea of what they practice, it's antecedents or implications — a friend of mine, a Mason of high degree, is only now doing the research to find out what it all means from a more esoteric viewpoint. He is no more interested in faith than I am, merely an enhanced understanding of what some view as ultimate reality and others as the genius of the human mind to construct sophisticated cosmologies through an innate need to impose meaning on the world. I'm still on the fence on that one. What I am convinced of is the necessity and awards accruing through creative and productive relationships, even long distance ones!

26 March 2006 : Catherine
Lying for God is something that was deemed good by the early church, witness these representative quotes from Eusebius :

And for many centuries after this time, there were numerous outright forgeries consisting of entire gospels or letters from various prophets and saints, letters from Roman and other statesmen in clear opposition to their known views, supporting Christianity when in fact they thought it silly, and politically even more dangerous than the "we're God's chosen people and so better than everyone else" attitude of the Jews.

Being anti-Catholic is almost a de-facto position if you've read enough early history, much as one would be anti-Nazi having read of WWII.

Glastonbury and the surrounding area is (or at least was, when I visited it over 20 years ago) a fascinating area, full of history and legend, and of course the abbey itself which is wonderful architecture regardless of its religious significance. Also, further north, Silbury Hill (now too dangerous to climb due to erosion), and Avebury, West Kennet, and beyond that the Roman town of Cirencester, or west to Bath.

I'm currently getting very peed off about the IDiots and the recent cartoons fiasco, especially given the latest 'miracle', and have managed to shape what started out as a barely-legible rant into some form of coherent statement; I'm doing something similar to my 9/11 page to add critiques of the police (7/7 and all that), and how they're now nothing more than another armed and unaccountable force of the state.
Sam Harris's End Of Faith was an easy read, but unfortunately, as with Dawkins, most of the audience who might benefit from it would never go near it because it subscribes ideas which mean thinking about what you believe and why: centuries-old argument from authority, desperate belief in the impossible (transubstantiation), and so on.

24 March 2006 : Garth
Death and the Midden
Sorry about the bad pun on a mediocre movie's title (Death and the Maiden) but I just buried my uncle last week, a Londoner, born and bred, who was a paratrooper in WWII and spent two years in a POW camp. Nevertheless, he survived, in good health, until the age of 90 and his wife, my mother's sister is still kicking (from her wheelchair) at 91. The rituals of death seem to be in a state of transition these days; for example, the memorial at the funeral home was an Anglican ceremony but no-one knew the hymns and none of my family has been near a church in decades. Yet somehow, a religious ceremony was what seemed appropriate, if not ardently desired by my uncle's immediate family. Secularism has not yet found its way into our methods of coping with death as much as it has with our ways of dealing with life. It all seems so desperate, these 'death-bed' conversions, just in case there actually are places called Heaven and Hell. Possibly because we don't want to deal with life's ending at all, until it's virtually upon us, that we grasp at stale tradition because it offers the illusion of certainty in the face of irreparable loss. We need to find meaning in suffering or we give in to despair. So we invent faith, no small thing — it has been known to move mountains! In the absence of absolute knowledge about those things 'beyond mortal ken' can resolute rationality offer comfort to human beings who, uniquely among all creatures, are aware of the inevitability of their own deaths? I don't believe it can but I'd like to hear your point of view on this. Abstract philosophical concepts are fine in the drawing room but don't seem to cut it in the funeral parlour. BTW you never did respond to my last epistle — I look forward to it.

01 April 2006 : Catherine
First of all may I offer my condolences on the death of your uncle. I don't know how close you were to him, but given his age he certainly seems to have had a good life; hopefully the end wasn't too painful. From the point of view of the bereaved, I'm still uncertain whether it's better to learn that someone has died suddenly (heart attack, fatal car accident, etc.), or has finally died as the result of a lengthy illness whose ending was inevitable. The first allows no preparation and has a high shock value, whereas the latter allows acceptance and perhaps even resignation to settle in; in both cases "death is harder on the living", as the saying goes, and as long as the recently deceased had a good life and died without pain, I would say that was the main consideration. It is also, of course, a demonstrable reminder of one's own mortality.

Fear of an ultimate loss of consciousness is, I think, a fairly natural attitude to take, especially if you enjoying living; by that I don't mean taking things to excess, but merely the enjoyment of being: able, as a sentient (and sensory) animal, to experience music and art, vast landscapes and rain on your face, and interacting with other creatures. Going to sleep is usually only without fear because we have an assurance of awakening the next morning, and though on a purely pragmatic level one could argue that death is like going to sleep and never waking up, it's that 'never' which is the cause of all the anguish.

Although many of the ceremonies have been stripped of their deeper significance, I still think they can perform vital social functions, both in bringing together relatives and friends to speak of the deceased and so keep their memory alive, which in a way helps deal with the fact that they are actually dead, and to help the grieving process by beginning to acknowledge that they have indeed passed away rather than "passed on" to the next stage of a journey for which, despite belief or need, there is no evidence.

My own parents died a few years ago, Mother in March 1990 and Father in July 1991. Losing my mother affected me terribly, and as with father just over a year later I was in denial for ages (thankfully the sense of betrayal I also felt vanished long ago, and I learned that such feelings are not at all unusual), for we were a somewhat insular family and considered one another friends as well as the only relatives we had. The down-side to this was that when we argued we could get rather vicious because we knew one another so well, but those occasions were rare. Both were cremated, but because of my own problems I didn't attend either ceremony, and even now I wonder that had I been more receptive at the time if the ritual good-byes would have done any good. I like to think so.

Even now I still feel their irretrievable loss, and like everything that is aware its own mortality I want there to be 'something else', because I don't want the end of this existence to be the end of me, but unless I experience something other than dreams that leave me crying when I awake, my throat constricted with grief, there is nothing to make me even consider (let alone believe) the possibility there actually is anything. Is that too deterministic? I think it may be for the same reason that I've never had what might be called a paranormal experience; never have I seen or felt anything that might be construed as a ghostly presence, even though I want to see my parents again and know that some part of them has survived. All I have ever had are creaking floorboards due to cooling structures, vague shapes out of the corner of my eye from minute pieces of fluff drifting down the lens of my eye, and draughts from badly-fitting windows. How unromantic is that?

With regards to the belief itself, and the need for it, I would have to say that if what amounts to a delusion provides comfort, then based on my own feelings, that all that matters to those concerned is that it does give them that reassurance, no matter how desperate it may seem to an outsider. Having said that, you might say the same about religion giving hope to those who believe in it, but I consider there to be a difference because religion is an active system of belief that requires people to do something with it, usually spread it, either by word or sword or, nowadays, threatening accusations of 'intolerance', as well as forcing people to behave in certain ways that don't 'offend' anyone (whether the believer themselves, or the believer taking umbrage on behalf of their god).

Life as we currently live it, and by that I mean those of us fortunate enough not to be caught in something like the Rwandan civil-war, or any of the Asian natural disasters, is free from most true suffering except for those who impose it upon themselves as part of their faith, and that is certainly their right as long as they affect no one else.

As a follow-up to my last post, consider this quote from Afghan judge Ansarullah Mawlafizada regarding Abdul Rahman, who converted to Christianity, and so under Islamic law was guilty of apostasy, punishable by death :

Never mind the sheer hypocrisy, what kind of mind-numbing self-deluded reality-disconnected cognitive dissonance (phew!) does to take to come out with such a blatant contradiction, or am I assuming too much in thinking he actually realises what he has said rather than merely spewing out entrenched dogma whilst appeasing to the baying masses who clamour for death at every perceived insult? Why, in fact, if their belief is so firm, are they vehemently opposed to any form of comment (never mind the unforgivable sin of criticism) at all?

In truth, that's precisely what they are afraid of: not that their book is perfect (because it is, it's from God v3.0, the latest and best operating system for your life) but rather that anyone else might point out how vapid and inconsistent it is, and thus, because they have nothing else to sustain them, undermine their entire system of behaviour. They're no better now than the Christians of a few centuries ago, and for comparison you only have to look at what the Muslim date is; the difference now, though, that they are using the politics of victimisation to get everyone to accept them, and the fanaticism seems to be an integral part of the general population rather than residing just the priests and clerics as it was with Christianity. It appears they are only 'moderate' (in the loosest sense) when they are in the minority; as soon as there are enough of them, they demand everyone else do as they say, and go on rampages when they don't get their way. And there was a sickening incident recently where an ignorant mob slaughtered most of a family because they were 'witches'.

Yet, there is still hope, a few candles fluttering against the encroaching darkness (apologies for the purple prose!). A dozen western (and highly literate) Muslims (Rushdie, Nasreen, Manji, et al) have signed a declaration against Islamism, and in return received even more death-threats than they usually get; the extensive use of phone-texting abbreviations, combined with an overall lack of grammar, would be sadly pathetic were it not so driven and dangerous. Add to this the Anglican church being further weakened due to infighting over the incompatible stances on homosexuality within their various sects, and there are at least some voices rising above the general malaise of appeasement. On the scientific front, MRO successfully entered Martian orbit and returned a very detailed hi-res calibration image which augurs well for the mission, Cassini is returning images of outstanding clarity, both Martian rovers continue to function far beyond their initial mission times (one of them isn't as mobile as it used to be, and most of their drilling tools are worn out due to extended use, but the cameras and other sensors all work perfectly), and ESO has discovered yet another extra-solar planet. Also, new species of animals such as the 'hairy lobster' are being discovered almost as fast as those we know of are becoming extinct, so Nature's apparent underlying principle of "life everywhere that can support it" is demonstrated once again, and that this is at a depth of over 2km around hydrothermal vents adds more fuel to the possibility of life on the moons of our own solar system, never mind the planets of others.

To end on a somewhat lighter note, isn't the way we use and interpret language sometimes weird? If I asked someone what was the oldest thing they had (perhaps a fossilised crustacean), they would invariably respond with what they had possessed for the longest time (a childhood toy). Yet, if I asked someone precisely what they had owned for the longest time, I'd be thought odd, or just extremely literal.