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Sunday, July 27, 2008

Musical Messages. The Shins: Fighting in a Sack

I've decided that I might start combining my interests in music and critical thinking. There are loads of songs out there with pretty good messages in them (and plenty of crap ones too) and I thought it might be interesting to have a bit of a look at some of them in a bit more depth than you might have done in the past.

To kick it off, I'm going to be looking at 'Fighting in a Sack' by The Shins. It's off their 'Chutes too Narrow' album, which is one of my favourites. There's lots of interesting themes in the lyrics to, if you can figure out the poetry.

The Shins Lyrics
Fighting In A Sack Lyrics

Well, I see this song as a journey through a deconversion experience, where the believer goes through stages of doubt, then disbelief, then leaves the religion and is able to look back and see the futility of the religious system.

I'll go through the lyrics and see if I can explain what the song means to me.
To keep this boat afloat
There are things you can't afford to know
So I save all my breath for the sails
Basically, the boat is an analogy to faith. To maintain one's faith, you have to be able to compartmentalise, or be able to discard those things that are in conflict with your beliefs. We see many religious believers doing this all the time. When a particular scientific finding conflicts with their faith, they have to create apologetics, or come up with (usually flawed) contrasting evidence to support their position (like AIG do). To keep their faith going strong, they have to put all of their effort towards the apologetics, hence to 'save all their breath for the sails'.
But you'll find those lingering voices
Are just your ego's attempt to make it all clean and nice
And make a moron out of you
I would say that the 'lingering voices' are the thoughts about the conflicting ideas leading to the apologetics used to reconcile the divide between beliefs and fact. Cognitive dissonance is the psychological conflict that results from holding beliefs that are incongruent and can lead to severe psychological issues if not dealt with. When a believer holds a religious belief (say, creation), but is also made aware of the objective facts relating to the issue (evolution), they often reconcile them through the path of least resistance (evolution is just a theory). If they were to attempt to disprove evolution scientifically, or discontiue believeing in creation, it would take much more mental effort than to dimiss evolution, as above. They have, in this case, settled for the easier alternative, rather than the most correct. This is a commom theme among religious apologetics.
Walking a bridge with weakening cables
Huddled up in fear and hate because we know our fate
And it's a lot to put us through
This section really speaks for itself. Their faith is based on weak reason, the believer knows that at some point they are going to learn that it is untrue, which is difficult for them to accept.
Most ideas turn to dust
As there are few in which we all can trust
Haven't you noticed I've been shedding all of mine?
So let's abandon that track
And leave our fathers fighting in a sack
Cause we are way too wise-assed for that.
This verse deals with the acceptance of the irrationality of religion and the choice to shed the ideas that have been shown to be wrong. It is the moment of deconversion, when reason wins out over the irrational beliefs of religions. The second part is the choice to move away from what is now seen as a waste of time. They make the decision that they are now headed in the right direction and will leave those who still believe behind 'fighting in a sack'.

This is the pivotal point of the song and characterises the point of deconversion quite well. When you go from believer to doubter, you have to go through a time of shedding your preconcieved notions of the world and adopting new foundations for reality. Then you have to make the decision to move away from those that still believe through quitting the church.

The next part is my favourite:
You might find some fools at your doorstep
Hustling the latest changes to the book
That's the strangest in an attempt to multiply
Marionettes on weakening cables
Huddled up with fear and hate
Because they know their fate and it's a lot to put them through.
This is in relation to the doorknock evangelicals, who try to push 'new ideas' about their beliefs on you with the hope of recruiting them to their religion and increasing the number of people whose lives they can control. But, as we saw earlier in the lyrics, the believers will move towards doubt at some stage and some will drop out of the religion. The doorknock evangelicals know that this will eventually happen and can see the futility in what they are doing, since it's a neverending loop; recruit members, members become doubters, members leave, need to recruit more members etc... This realisation makes them lose heart in what they're doing.
We've taken on a climb
And it's long enough to put the best of us on our backs
Walking up a slide
And there are those we know who'd have us five miles off the track.
This part deals with the difficulties of the new found disbelief. It takes a lot of self-directed learning to get yourself into a position where you are comfortable that you have taken the right direction. Also, there are always people out there trying to misdirect you through offering misleading information, trying to obscure the truth like the 'teach the controversy' crowd.

I find that this is the most difficult part of being a doubter. The religious crowd have their meetings that they go to to learn about the basis of their worldview in the company of friends and in a nice sociable pleasant way. As an atheist, there are few places that you can go to and get a similar experience. Most of the learning you do is self-directed and there are generally few supports. We are lucky to have a really great Atheist group in Sydney that hold both informative and social events, which helps us to feel like we belong to something. The only peoblem is that it is so small. I would like to see these kinds of groups flourishing all over the place, giving rational thinkers a place to get together and discuss their ideas and get information about where to look for answers.

I like this song on a bunch of levels. The music is great for starters, which is a big plus and the lyrics are poetic yet convey a really interesting story, without getting 'preachy'

And if that wasn't enough, the clip of the song on YouTube contains a bunch of escape artists, which just sweetens the deal in my opinion. Magicians are often involved in sceptical societies and atheist movements and they have been really good at explaining to the public how easy it is to be fooled.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Voices of Science

If you haven't seen the new Richard Dawkins Videos, You don't know what you're missing. Voices of Science is great, we'll be ordering our copy asap.

Richard Dawkins & PZ Myers

Richard Dawkins & Lawrence Krauss

Richard Dawkins & Steven Weinberg

Oh, and it's available to purchase as a DVD too!

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Violent Pilgrims VS Positive Atheism (Part 2)

When we arrived at Taylor Square, there was already a gathering of protesters gathered around.
We distributed some fliers with the even's timetable on it throughout the crowd and telegraph poles, then got the Sydney Atheists Flag out and found a prominent place to display it from.

There was a bit of a rally, with the Raelians destroying a bit of the credibility of the protest by arriving with a pink alien called 'Pope Alice' with a Vagina for a pope-hat and another one on her chest with an inflatable green alien inside (do they think that's going to gain them any credibility at all? seems to me like they're taking the piss). Then we started the march, with the world truth day's pope-mobile leading the way (followed by pope Alice, but we'll ignore that for now..) There was chanting and yelling, mostly about the Catholic Church's stance on safe sex, homosexuality and particularly condom use.
We walked for 1km or so through the streets and ended up at Moore park, where we were able to stand alongside the pilgrim parade, with a police barricade to protect the pilgrims from rational thought.

We were there for about an hour and there were seas of pilgrims walking past. The Sydney Atheists had their sign up at the first spot in the protest, so the pilgrims saw us first and got our message of positive atheism before the chanting and yelling of the main body of the protest. We can only hope that some people may have been interested by our message and go find out about atheism.

We were saying things like 'There is no God, sorry", "Fairytales are for children", "Jesus is a myth", "I like zombie stories too". The interaction from the crowd was generally acceptable, they were singing religious songs and chanting "Benadictus!" (to which we responded "nice as eggs!"). There were some with strollers, to which we said "your baby is an atheist, you know" and there were some with pets "your dog is an atheist". Some took umbrige to our protest and yelled abuse at us, stuck their fingers up, but nothing too bad. Except there was one guy who decided to go AWOL at us . When he saw the protestors, he began screaming all kinds of obscenities. We said "that's the christian spirit, why not turn the other cheek" and he broke through the barricade of police (obviously a semi-permiable membrane) and hit the guy next to me in the throat.
He was all right afterwards, just a bit shocked, but it has been all over the media, which is good. The only altercation throughout the whole day was a catholic nutjob punching a protestor, which does a lot for our side. The protestor was filmed and photographed for the news and was one of the big stories of the nightly news.

Not long after that, we all marched back to Taylor Square (and straight into a pub) where everyone had a good time chatting and swapping stories about the day and their opinions on the whole event of world youth day.

It was a fun day, we got the message out there and there was plenty of news coverage and there was only one personwho took things too far, which was a Catholic!

I just hope they have as much fun when the Madrid atheists get their chance to protest in 3 more years time.

Here's a video of the Sydney Atheists' involvement in the protests

Violent Pilgrims VS Positive Atheism (part 1)

What a big day we had.

Saturday (19/7) was a great day for reason in Sydney. The pope has been in town for a few days now and Saturday was the day that the pilgrims would be going on a 10km exodus across the Sydney Harbour Bridge, through the city streets and over to Randwick Racecourse o hear an 81 year old virgin in a dress tell them about proper sexual practices (among other things)

Saturday morning started early, we were lucky to have been able to stay in north Sydney at our friend's apartment (Thanks Fleur). Just let me add that it is perhaps the most amazing views of the harbour that any residential address has. We melted out of bed at 5am still suffering from the effects of a party not long diffused and we met up with the other early morning atheists for a march to Observatory Hill where we welcomed the pilgrims as they crossed the bridge.

We were met by around 15 police as we were getting ready for the morning walk (not bad for 8 atheists!) who were just there to make sure it all went smoothly. When we got to the observatory, we were given a specific patch of grass to stand on and were told that we would get arrested if we got any closer.

As the pilgrims crossed the bridge, we were waving and welcomed them to the city. The point of the protest at this point was just to be a presence and to show that the atheists weren't going to make a nuisance of ourselves. There was a bit of interaction with the pilgrims, singing John Lennon's 'Imagine' to them and being told that Jesus loved us.

The morning went well and we were there for over an hour as the sun rose and were seen by a great deal of the pilgrims.

Afterwards, we all split up. Many went home, but Rach, Tynan, Dave and myself decided to hit the streets for a bit of close contact with the pilgrims to pass the time before the afternoon's major protest.

We had a few discussions with people that we met on George st, mostly about whether the funding for World Youth Day should have been covered by the catholic church or the Australian taxpayer. There were no confrontations and everyone was really nice, emphasising that it is not the believer, it is the institution that causes the problems.

We then decided to look in the merchandise store and were stunned by the official WCYD bible passage "you will know the power of the lord when the holy spirit comes over you" !!!! Couldn't they have picked something with less of an explicit sexual innuendo to it? There's children there wearing this on shirts, hats, keyrings and scarves! That's catholicism for you.

It was at this point that one of the security guards came over and told us that we would be kicked out if we didn't stop laughing at the trinkets. We calmed down a bit and got to see the Jesus and Mary from the stations of the cross talking about being able to feel Jesus and being brought to tears as he was taken off the cross.

There was a statue of 'Unlucky Jesus' (a name we gave him because he was made of broken mirrors) and when we were leaving the park, the Pope was doing his apology to the victims of sexual abuse in the church and a reporter from SBS radio came and interviewed Tynan about it.

We then made our way over to Taylor Square where the major protest was going to take place...

(I'll split this into Two separate posts, because this is getting pretty long)

Friday, July 18, 2008

Breakfast TV atheism

It seems that someone in channel 9 must have seen the 'Faith Off' and thought that it was a bit of allright. Soon after the videos went to air on, we were contacted by the Kerry Anne show about being interviewed as a panel.

The interview went allright, Kerry Anne was a bit hard on the Muslim girl and the questions were quite divergent from those that we were expecting (we were emailed a list of questions that were the same as those we had answered in the interview), but all in all, I think it came out allright.

Before the show, there was quite an interesting discussion going on between the Catholic, the Buddhist, the Hindi and I about the psychology of faith, creation stories and world youth day. It was a much more interesting discussion than the one on air and we were all a lot more candid when we weren't being filmed.

The videos have been put up on youtube (thanks John) and have been split into two blocks to remove the ads (no free advertising's getting on this blog!)

This is the first section:

And here's the second bit:

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Faith Off!

It's taken it's time, but the Faith Off clips have finally been put up on the site.

The videos are a series of clips compiled from individual interviews into sections that each addresses a single topic. The topics are Sex Before Marriage, Homosexuality, Life After Death, Fitting In, Theory of Evolution and World Youth Day.

I am quite happy with the editing, which didn’t misrepresent my opinions like so many of these types of things do. My quotes include “As far as we know, when you’re dead, you’re dead. So you may as well make the most out of living” and “Evolution is as close to a fact as any scientific theory can be."

The site is kinda cool, there's a nifty interactive component through which you can learn a little more about each person's position on religion by clicking on them.

I had a great time doing the interview and found the interviewer to be quite receptive and interested about my position. After talking to the other participants, it seems that I was the only one to deviate from the predefined list of questions and that some of the others were referring to their notes throughout the interview so as not to misrepresent their dogma.

I am also happy with some of the responses of Richard, the Buddhist, especially his response to the World Youth Day; “in my mind, if it’s just a lot of people getting together and hearing the same old dogma and having that reinforced to the expense and to the exclusion of people using their own minds […] then they might just perpetuate a lot of the division we have in society”

Just an interesting fact, only one of us eats pork. Can you guess who?

Sunday, July 6, 2008

The Amazing Spoon Bending Video

Richard Wiseman's 'Amazing Spoon Bending Video' has just been released.

Wiseman's talk at TAM6 culminated in a demonstration of how to bend a spoon using 'psychokinetic powers' (ahem) by Teller of Penn and Teller. He then proceeded to distribute 816 spoons throughout the audience which were skeptically scrutinised before being melted right before the camera!

Now, as far as I can recall, I have only seen Geller bend one at a time. This sugests to me that his psychokinetic powers are only strong enough for single cutlery mutilations. The audience at TAM however, were able to bend 816 pieces of cutlery without a whiff of pychokinetic abilities.

As Randi says, 'If he's using his mind, he's doing it the hard way.'

Click here for the youtube video, or go to the Quirkology Youtube channel to find it.


And if you want to see some truly groundbreaking metal manipulations, check out this video by a good friend of mine. You can see his whole catalogye through his YouTube channel here. The point being that there is no reason to think that it requires any powers whatsoever to bend metals.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Atheist interview promo released

A few months ago, I did an interview for

The premise was to get a group of young people from a variety of religious perspectives together and get each to answer questions about 'Hot topics', such as abortion, homosexuality, afterlife theories, evolution and sex before marriage.

It was going to be a forum/debate, but for various reasons, the producers opted to change the format of the interviews. Each interviewee was to be interviewed on their own and asked a standard set of questions. In editing, they would then be able to splice together each person's answer to the same questions, showing the range of responses.

The fist promo for the interviews has just been released, and can be watched here.

The final interviews will be up on Tuesday at, Ill keep you posted...