Author Archive

Was Paradise Lost?

Posted: May 19, 2010 by Tim Barclay in Religion

The story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is one of the most symbolically important in the Bible. Coming right at the beginning of the pentateuch, it acts as a necessary set-up to much of the rest of the Old and New Testaments and the religions they have inspired. The story holds within it one of the most fundamental tenets of Christianity – the inherent sinfulness of man – and therefore the entire justification for the sacrifice of Christ.

Being of such central importance, the Eden story is one of the best known of the Bible, taught early to young children. The story and its apparent message are ubiquitously known by anyone who has any knowledge of Christianity or Judaism:

God created Adam and Eve and put them in the Garden of Eden to take care of everything inside it. God told them that they could eat from any tree in the garden except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil – if they ate that, they would die. A talking serpent then approached Eve, tempting her to eat the forbidden fruit and to convince Adam to do the same. God found out and punished them (acting extremely surprised considering his omniscience), casting them out of Eden and never again allowing them the pure and idyllic life they had been blessed with before.

It has seemed to me for a long time that the general interpretation of this story, that the serpent leads the naive humans to sin and therefore turn away from God’s grace, is extremely skewed and that an objective interpretation, unencumbered by our society’s ubiquitous framing of the story, would lead to a different conclusion.

I believe a useful comparison to this story exists in sci-fi literature. This may seem like something of a digression, but bear with me a minute and consider almost any dystopian future story you can think of.

In Orwell’s 1984, for example, the society is ideal. There is almost no crime or disorder. Citizens are patriotic and dedicated to their land and their leader. But the cost of this apparent societal harmony is the ability of its members to question, to enquire, to think freely. Thought Police exist to make sure that nobody starts to question their situation or to pull away from the herd. If anybody does, they are quickly disciplined and brought back into line, or quietly removed so that the greater peace can be comfortably maintained. In many ways 1984’s society is without many of the problems that mar all modern civilisations, but the cost is true self-knowledge and the freedom to question.

Consider also the 2002 film, Equilibrium. Here the society has left behind crime, war and dissidence. People are comfortable, ordered and productive. But here the cost is emotion. Children are taught to suppress feelings and emotions and anything created to invoke these emotions, such as art, music and poetry, is destroyed. Mood suppressing drugs are routinely distributed to keep people in line and any dissent from the rules is dealt with quickly and efficiently by a military service comparable to the Thought Police. As in 1984, from which the film clearly take great influence, an apparently perfect society is created and maintained, but at the expense of its members’ humanity.

The message in both of these examples is clear: that cost is too high. Order in society is not worth giving up the freedom to question and to express ourselves. While the ideals of crimelessness and concordance are worth striving for, the costs involved in these fictional worlds are too high.

It has long struck me that Eden is very much like one of these warning fictional futures. Adam and Eve live in happy and idyllic harmony, but the cost is self-awareness, inquiry, free thought, the knowledge of good and evil.

Think through the story again. Is the pre-fall garden really the blissful heaven Christians invoke, or the controlled and ignorant oppression of Orwell’s vision? Is God really the benevolent and loving father disappointed by his children’s harsh disobedience, or the watchful and unquestionable Big Brother, angry that his control has been questioned? Is the serpent really the evil tempter or the liberator? Are Adam and Eve fallen or enlightened?

The story is clear: God lied to Adam and Eve that they would die if they ate the fruit. The serpent told them truthfully that their eyes would be opened. If George Orwell’s disturbing versions of the future taught us anything, which many claim they have, then is it really sensible to go on trusting this God?

The Story of Christmas

Posted: December 8, 2009 by Tim Barclay in Religion
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The following is from an advertising campaign which recently ran in the UK.

This campaign uses what is known as User Generated Content. By getting people to film and send in testimonies on webcams, the company not only saves time and money, but more importantly, it co-opts the apparently genuine, grass-roots nature of the amateur Youtube video blogger to lend unearned credibility to the product.

It is a marketing ploy, and a pretty cynical one at that.

During the 4th century, early Christians were busily spreading the message of Jesus up through Europe trying to gain support and converts as they went. All the civilisations they encountered had strong cultural traditions already which included various annual feast days and celebrations. The most important of which, in a lot of cases, was a midwinter festival some time around the equinox celebrating the end of bad whether being in sight and the eventual return of Spring.

Winter festivals, such as the Scandanavian Jōl, were deeply ingrained in their respective cultures and popular among their people. So the early Christians realised that forcing would-be converts to drop their dancing and feasts in order to accept a new message was going to be a hard sell.

So they adapted their message. Before the 4th century, there had been a certain amount of speculation about when Jesus had been born, but no date could be said with any real certainty. So the early church exploited this hole in their knowledge by creating a midwinter celebration of their own to mark the newly fabricated date of Christ’s birth. The actual date on which Jesus had been born was of little importance as long as they could nominally pin something onto a festival so that converts wouldn’t feel hard done by if they joined up.

Just like Confused.com tried to borrow the credibility of Youtube bloggers sitting at home with their webcams to attract customers to their brand, the early church co-opted the popular elements of the cultures it encountered to attract converts to their religion. ‘You don’t need to give up the fun parts of your present culture,’ they angled, ‘you can keep those bits and still join us.’

Christmas was, in short, a marketing ploy. And a rather cynical one.

This leads me to two conclusions. The first is that atheists should have no problem celebrating Christmas if they want to, despite the assertions to the contrary by some Christians. Christmas was created to avoid early European Christians getting jealous of their heathen peers by re-branding almost all the details of various pre-existing pagan festivals to be nominally Christian. So I see no reason why modern heathens shouldn’t celebrate their part in the holiday’s historical formation by acknowledging the normal traditions of the Christmas tree (Roman), gift-giving (Roman), Santa (Norse), feasting etc.

The other conclusion is that the typical annual outcry over the perceived rise of commercialisation subverting the real message of Christmas is unfounded. Considering that the concept of Christmas was little more than a marketing strategy in the first place, it seems rather fitting that its name should be employed by modern marketeers to shift their goods at this time of year.

Looking back at my original analogy now seems rather unfair. Christmas, for all its pseudo-historical shortcomings, is still founded on a rather lovely ancient tradition of feasting, enjoyment and the giving of gifts to others. The Confused.com marketing campaign is an artless and vacuous attempt to fool viewers into forming a particular, and probably incorrect, image of a bland corporation by creating some of the most intensely irritating thirty second pieces of film in recent memory.

Regardless of your beliefs, the Christmas period is one where we can remind ourselves to do all the selfless things we should be doing all year round. We can spend time with our families and reconnect with friends, give and receive gifts of wildly varying quality and enjoy the warmth of a season that, at least for a couple of days, encourages people to feel goodwill to all.

Just remember that not that long ago, it would have been Odin putting things in your stockings.

He Works in Magisterious Ways

Posted: November 3, 2009 by Tim Barclay in Religion, Science
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One area in which the so-called “new atheists” differ from what I can only assume are called “old atheists” is in their views on the possibility of harmonious co-existence between religion and science. Dawkins, Hitchens and Myers, while acknowledging that religious people can understand science and scientists can believe in God, see religious faith as either contradictory or, at worst, obstructive to good science. However, most moderate religious people, and a good number of atheists and agnostics, see no incompatibility between the two systems.

The most famous defence of the accomodationist position was made by Stephen Jay Gould in his definition of science and religion as “non-overlapping magisteria“. Science is the realm of the observable, the empirical and the testable, he claimed; religion is the domain of that which is beyond human experience. Many people, in my experience, sum this position up in something like the statement that science deals with the ‘how’ while religion deals with the ‘why’ (like answer ‘B’ on this page); scientists may be able to tell us how the Earth came to be formed and how life evolved on it, but it is to the clergy that questions about the meaning of that life ought to be addressed.

I disagree. The ‘how’ and the ‘why’ defence is an easy maxim to rattle off in lieu of an agrument, but does it really mean anything at all? Does science helpfully limit itself to the dry mechanistic explanations? And does religion respectfully keep clear of them, only to shuffle out when someone asks a more metaphysical question? Of course not.

The Bible is full of explanations of how things work and how things happened – from the beginning of the Earth to its end. How many of these explanations you may wish to write off as poetically pregnant metaphors will be decided by the particular strain of the religion you most identify with. However, with even the most modern and woolly tea-and-biscuit fuelled reading of the Bible, it is a stretch to imply that the Good Book completely steers clear of physical and biological explanations or politely holds its tongue when any other ‘how’ question is raised.

Similarly, it is only a uselessly simplistic characterisation that would suggest that science limits itself to the ‘how’ questions. The rapidly evolving and endlessly enlightening fields of psychology, neurology and genetics have given us myriad insights into ‘why’ questions that mere decades ago would have been left entirely to theologians and philosophers. In fact science is even able to study the ‘why’ of religion itself (search Pubmed for ‘religion’ and ‘brain’ for examples).

Of course it is possible for scientists to be religious or for religious people to believe in evolution or the big bang. However, this is not proof that they are mutually compatible worldviews so much as further evidence of humans’ ability to hold multiple incongruous viewpoints while coping with the resulting cognitive dissonance.

The cornerstone of science is scepticism of that for which there is no evidence. This is the reason scientists make hypotheses based on observations and then try to test those hypotheses to see whether they hold true after exhaustive efforts to falsify them. Any christian scientist (by which I mean a scientist who is religious, not a follower of Mary Baker Eddy) must either admit that they hold some parts of their life out of reach of the light of their scientific scepticism or tie themselves up in confusing knots of attempted justification and theological gymnastics.

The cornerstone of religion is faith in that for which there is no evidence, and it is for this reason that I see it as fundamentally incompatible with science. A christian (or muslim or jew etc.) who wishes to maintain their faith must approach certain questions without the genuine openmindedness that ideal science calls for.

Once again, I acknowledge that some scientists are religious and some religious people are scientists and I do not think it would be helpful to force polarisation on such people and make them choose one or the other. However, both worldviews cannot be held in one mind without the necessary compromise of one or both.

The religious scientist must protect his faith from the requisite questioning tools of his trade. The scientifically-literate believer must moderate the will, power and scope of their god so as not to to tread on the toes of what rational discovery has given us. Inconvenient as it may be, these are two almost entirely overlapping magisteria, both of which claim powers of explanation and enlightenment.

Astrology – A Test

Posted: October 20, 2009 by Tim Barclay in astrology
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A little while ago I wrote this piece about astrology, or more specifically about horoscopes. I explained that I believe any apparent correct predictions arrived at through the practice of astrology are due to a combination of vagueness the Barnum effect,  and wishful thinking on behalf of the reader, among other things.

Michelle Gregg, a consulting astrologer, disagreed with my analysis of her trade in the comments, explaining that I was being simplistic in writing off all of astrology on the basis of newspaper horoscopes, which she agreed are mostly for their entertainment value. 

So, based on Michelle’s defences of the specificity and accuracy possible in more in-depth astrological readings, I challenged her to take part in a little experiment, the details of which we have been hashing out for the last month or so.

I am pleased to announce that the test is now going ahead and, in the name of transparency, I will outline the full protocol being used here.

From a group of four people1, the time and date2 of birth of one person has been randomly selected3 and sent to Michelle. She will then give a reading for that date, attempting to make it specific and accurate enough that it would only apply to a person born at that time on that date, and send it back to me. 

I will circulate the email around the other three people in the original group and each of us will indicate whether we think the reading describes us. We will all do this without seeing each other’s responses. 

The test will be called a success for Michelle and for astrology if only the person whose date Michelle read for identifies him or herself in the reading.

In the case of any other result, the test will be deemed failed.

If nobody identifies themselves in the reading, or if the incorrect person does, the reading must have been wrong. If more than one person identifies themselves in the reading, this can be seen as support for my point about the “something for everyone” nature of Barnum statements.

The details have been sent today, so the test is now underway. We will keep you informed.

Footnotes:

1: The group includes myself and theenglishradical as well as two unidentified others.

2: All times and dates were given in their GMT equivalent to avoid any potential confusion regarding time zones or daylight savings adjustments.

3: To do this, I set up four web pages, each of which contained one time and date. I emailed the four numbered links to a third party, nominated by Michelle, so that she could choose a number, click the corresponding link and send those details on to Michelle herself. This would blind the test by ensuring that neither we nor Michelle could know for whose date the reading was being done.

How to Read the Stars

Posted: August 27, 2009 by Tim Barclay in astrology
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Today I got into a conversation about astrology with a work colleague after she told me that she found one paper’s horoscopes so much better than another’s (thelondonpaper’s are apparently better than the London Lite’s if you’re interested). Although I registered my disbelief in astrology, it was only later that I worked out what I should have said, by which time, as is so often the case, the moment had passed. So this is what I should have said to her:

The best way to demonstrate why I don’t think horoscopes should be believed is by telling you how to create them yourself. There are a small number of simple but effective techniques to use in order to easily convince people that you not only know a lot about them, but you also know what’s going to happen to them.

1. Barnum statements
So named because of P.T Barnum’s famous quote that his circus contained something for everyone, these are phrases that sound very specific to you but actually apply to almost anybody – and they’re incredibly easy to write. For example, almost everyone is outgoing and loud in some situations, and around some people, but self-conscious and quiet at other times. So if you tell someone that they are sometimes the life of the party but have a quiet side that occasionally feels very insecure, you’ll almost certainly be right.

In fact, by virtue of the fact that people are generally fairly complicated creatures and act differently in varying situations, almost any contradictory pair of traits will have the same effect. You are intelligent but occasionally you enjoy switching off your brain and watching really low brow TV… you like to try to stay fit, but some times you just can’t resist a naughty snack etc.

For a demonstration of these techniques in action, see Derren Brown or Penn and Teller (skip to about 3.30).

2. Compliments
Another way to be sure of hits is to compliment people on personality traits everyone likes to think they have. If you tell someone they have an excellent sense of humour, nobody will argue with you. Everyone likes to think they have a good sense of humour, whether they do or not, and it’s surprising how impressed people can be when they’re told about it.

Again this applies to almost any generally positive trait that most people either have or like to think they have – like trustworthiness, honesty or integrity.

More specific characteristics that are more likely to be wrong can also be used sparingly, as long as you keep in mind the principal I mentioned earlier about contradictory traits. If you tell someone they are tidy and they reply that they haven’t cleared away a plate in a week and don’t remember which pile of old papers the hoover is under, just come back that they are tidy in some important aspects of their life even though they are untidy in their flat. That may not sound very convincing written down, but that doesn’t matter when you bare in mind number 3.

3. People remember the hits
How many times has a horoscope predicted something that has never happened? Nobody can remember because there’s no reason to remember all the times you have been told you might be lucky with money and then haven’t been.

But how many times has a horoscope said something that has come true? Chances are, anyone who regularly reads horoscopes will have a bank of examples of times when something really did happen after it was prophesied in the paper that morning.

Hits are much easier to remember than misses, and that is also true in face to face readings, not just printed horoscopes. Once you’ve already impressed someone with your insights into their fantastic sense of humour and their saintly trustworthiness, people will find it very easy to overlook the odd misstep.

In a face to face reading, it can also be worth baring in mind the primacy and recency effects and using your most surefire and impressive items at the beginning and end of the session as these will be remembered significantly better than any of what happens in between.

4. Be vague
Horoscopes never contain really specific predictions like, “today you will meet your future husband”, “today you will get a promotion” or “today you will break your arm in a strange accident”. The reason for this is that the chances are very small that they’ll come true. If there’s more leeway in the phrase, then it’s much easier to interpret something as a hit. If, instead of writing “you will come into a large sum of money today”, you write “money will be at the front of your mind today”, an obliging believer will be able to re-interpret your statement in light of any number of different events that could happen during the day.

Of course, even if absolutely nothing applicable happens, there’s always good old number 3 to fall back on.

5. Make predictions
The problem with making any statements about someone, however woolly and likely to be true, is that you could still be wrong. Perhaps someone is aware that they really don’t have a sense of humour and despite your best contradictory wriggling, he won’t buy it.

No such problem exists when making predictions. If you tell someone that something will happen, especially if you make the time non-specific, nobody can ever contradict you. If you make the future event positive, their willingness for it to happen will make them even more glad to believe you.

Astrologers and psychics often tell people that they will find love. This is a perfect prediction because chances are that sooner or later they willl. If you give no specific date, then even if your subject sits reflecting on your prediction in their 70s as a spinster with their cats, they still can’t be sure that they won’t find love yet.

Another useful tool in face to face readings is the past to future switch, often used by John Edward and his peers to cover mistakes. This is simply the hasty re-labelling of a miss about something that happened in the past as a hit that hasn’t happened yet. For example, you come out with a solid line like, “you’ve recently met someone you feel you have a real connection with”, and they spoil it by disconcertedly saying that they haven’t – you can quickly smile, raise your eyebrows and say “ah, well look out for them then because it won’t be long!” This little trick has the added bonus of making it look like you’re so far advanced beyond this world’s trivial framework that petty human concepts like time hardly matter to you – an event that hasn’t happened yet is just as clear to you as something that happened last week.

It is these five remarkably simple tools that lie beneath the work of every horoscope writer and, along with cold reading and hot reading, also form the basis for all face to face readings by astrologers, psychics and faith healers. Perhaps they sound too simple to account for all the successes you have experienced and heard about. But in future, just keep them in mind when you read the horoscopes in the paper and make up your own mind with the honesty, intelligence and personal integrity that I can tell you have.

The Spinal Trap

Posted: July 29, 2009 by Tim Barclay in Science
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free debateIn April 2008, Simon Singh, author of the excellent Big Bang and Trick or Treatment: Alternative Medicine on Trial, wrote an article in the Guardian demonstrating the lack of evidence for the claims made by chiropractors. He pointed out that true chiropractic did not limit itself to helping back pain, but was in fact originally created as something of a panacea that could supposedly cure all manner of diseases and disorders through spinal manipulations. He demonstrated that, despite chiropractic’s success in hiding some of its pseudo-scientific past, many practitioners still do claim, without evidence, to be able to treat conditions such as asthma and colic.

The British Chiropractic Society disliked all this talk of lacking evidence and dubious claims and promptly sued Singh for libel. Note that they did not try to disprove his claims or present the evidence for their position as any proponent of a scientific position would, but instead used the conveniently prohibitive expense of the flawed English libel laws to silence the perceived threat.

Rather unluckily for the BCA, Singh happened to be in a position that allowed him to fight the suit rather than be chilled by it, and by doing so has vastly raised the public awareness of the complaints the BCA was trying to suppress. A classic case of the Steisand effect.

Much has been written about this case around the internet, so for the full story, I would direct you here, here or here.

Sense About Science have started a campaign to have the libel laws changes so that they can’t be used to silence important scientific concerns and stifle debate. You can sign your name to show your support.

Anyway, in a show of solidarity to Simon, many blogs and magazines are today, 29th July, reprinting a version of his original Guardian piece (slightly edited to remove the specific bit that the law suit is about). So I reprint it below:

 Some practitioners claim it is a cure-all, but the research suggests chiropractic therapy has mixed results – and can even be lethal, says Simon Singh.

You might be surprised to know that the founder of chiropractic therapy, Daniel David Palmer, wrote that “99% of all diseases are caused by displaced vertebrae”. In the 1860s, Palmer began to develop his theory that the spine was involved in almost every illness because the spinal cord connects the brain to the rest of the body. Therefore any misalignment could cause a problem in distant parts of the body.

In fact, Palmer’s first chiropractic intervention supposedly cured a man who had been profoundly deaf for 17 years. His second treatment was equally strange, because he claimed that he treated a patient with heart trouble by correcting a displaced vertebra.

You might think that modern chiropractors restrict themselves to treating back problems, but in fact some still possess quite wacky ideas. The fundamentalists argue that they can cure anything, including helping treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying – even though there is not a jot of evidence.

I can confidently label these assertions as utter nonsense because I have co-authored a book about alternative medicine with the world’s first professor of complementary medicine, Edzard Ernst. He learned chiropractic techniques himself and used them as a doctor. This is when he began to see the need for some critical evaluation. Among other projects, he examined the evidence from 70 trials exploring the benefits of chiropractic therapy in conditions unrelated to the back. He found no evidence to suggest that chiropractors could treat any such conditions.

But what about chiropractic in the context of treating back problems? Manipulating the spine can cure some problems, but results are mixed. To be fair, conventional approaches, such as physiotherapy, also struggle to treat back problems with any consistency. Nevertheless, conventional therapy is still preferable because of the serious dangers associated with chiropractic.

In 2001, a systematic review of five studies revealed that roughly half of all chiropractic patients experience temporary adverse effects, such as pain, numbness, stiffness, dizziness and headaches. These are relatively minor effects, but the frequency is very high, and this has to be weighed against the limited benefit offered by chiropractors.

More worryingly, the hallmark technique of the chiropractor, known as high-velocity, low-amplitude thrust, carries much more significant risks. This involves pushing joints beyond their natural range of motion by applying a short, sharp force. Although this is a safe procedure for most patients, others can suffer dislocations and fractures.

Worse still, manipulation of the neck can damage the vertebral arteries, which supply blood to the brain. So-called vertebral dissection can ultimately cut off the blood supply, which in turn can lead to a stroke and even death. Because there is usually a delay between the vertebral dissection and the blockage of blood to the brain, the link between chiropractic and strokes went unnoticed for many years. Recently, however, it has been possible to identify cases where spinal manipulation has certainly been the cause of vertebral dissection.

Laurie Mathiason was a 20-year-old Canadian waitress who visited a chiropractor 21 times between 1997 and 1998 to relieve her low-back pain. On her penultimate visit she complained of stiffness in her neck. That evening she began dropping plates at the restaurant, so she returned to the chiropractor. As the chiropractor manipulated her neck, Mathiason began to cry, her eyes started to roll, she foamed at the mouth and her body began to convulse. She was rushed to hospital, slipped into a coma and died three days later. At the inquest, the coroner declared: “Laurie died of a ruptured vertebral artery, which occurred in association with a chiropractic manipulation of the neck.”

This case is not unique. In Canada alone there have been several other women who have died after receiving chiropractic therapy, and Edzard Ernst has identified about 700 cases of serious complications among the medical literature. This should be a major concern for health officials, particularly as under-reporting will mean that the actual number of cases is much higher.

If spinal manipulation were a drug with such serious adverse effects and so little demonstrable benefit, then it would almost certainly have been taken off the market.

Simon Singh is a science writer in London and the co-author, with Edzard Ernst, of Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial. This is an edited version of an article published in The Guardian for which Singh is being personally sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association.

God Hates Us All

Posted: July 23, 2009 by Tim Barclay in Religion
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One of the most contraversial and widely hated groups in America is the Westboro Baptist Church. Following wide-spread media attention, and features by journalists such as Louis Theroux, their methods of picketing the funerals of victims of anti-gay hate crime, as well as service men, with slogans such as “God hates fags” and “Thank God for 9/11” have become well known and widely despised.

Westboro Baptist Church

Their behaviour has earned them myriad lawsuits and numerous arrests. For example, in 1995, Benjamin Phelps, the grandson of the church’s founder, was convicted of assault for spitting in the face of a passer-by during one of their regular pickets. In 2007, the father of a marine whose funeral was picketed successfully sued them for damages amounting to $5m.

Most people’s reaction to hearing or reading about this group’s actions tends to be disbelief and disgust. How could anyone be this callous? How could anyone show so little respect for their fellow humans? The answer, of course, is that they believe they are doing God’s work.

Homosexuality, they assert, “pose[s] a clear and present danger to the survival of America, exposing our nation to the wrath of God as in 1898 B.C. at Sodom and Gomorrah”. They interpret the Bible in such a way that they believe it is the job of anyone who truly believes in God’s greatness to war against “workers of iniquity”, and this includes gay people, and those who accept them and enable them to lead their lives. They picket the funerals of soldiers and service men because “they voluntarily joined a fag-infested army to fight for a fag-run country now utterly and finally forsaken by God who Himself is fighting against that country.”

Quite rightly, the WBC has drawn criticism from Christian religious groups just as it has from non-religious and other-religious groups. Perhaps Christians find their rhetoric more offensive because they claim to be speaking for God and on behalf of those who truly follow him. Perhaps they are also worried that actions like this from one Christian group will bring disrepute upon the whole church and be a shot in the foot for the whole mission of the glorification of God. Perhaps they particularly dislike the way they twist the words of the Bible to justify their hateful position.

To despise this group on humanistic grounds, for their hideous disrespect of humanity is reasonable and, in my opinion, absolutely correct. However to criticise them on religious scriptural grounds is not. The reason is that the WBC does not twist the words of the Bible to justify their position – they don’t need to – those hateful words are there already.

The WBC point to Psalms 5:5, “The foolish shall not stand in thy sight: thou hatest all workers of iniquity”; Proverbs 6:16-19, “These six things doth the Lord hate:… he that soweth discord among brethren”; Psalms 11:5, “The Lord trieth the righteous: but the wicked and him that loveth violence his soul hateth”; and Malachi 1:3, “And I hated Esau, and laid his mountains and his heritage waste for the dragons of the wilderness.”

The argument that the they are misrepresenting the Bible’s meaning, because really God loves everyone starts to look a little thin when you start to read a bit more of the Bible and come across these examples of God being unashamedly hateful towards, not just people’s actions, but people themselves. Indeed, as Skeptics’ Annotated Bible points out, one can hardly fault the group’s logic: God hates “workers of iniquity” (Psalms 5:5); homosexuality is “abomination” (Leviticus 18:22); therefore God hates fags.

I will reiterate quickly that I do not think this group deserves anything but the deepest contempt and condemnation, but for the religious to dispute them on scriptural grounds is hypocritical. What are they doing but validly, albeit selectively, quoting parts of the Bible? And this is exactly what every moderate sermon does aswell. For every John 3:16 quoted, there is a Psalms 5:5 being ignored, because to give equal weight to both would lead to so much contradiction and cognitive dissonance that no believer would know what to do with themselves.

In order for Christianity to function as a religion, the Bible needs to be read selectively, or at least certain passages need to be interpreted liberally. So it should be no surprise that there is one group that pays attention to those bits that everyone else leaves out, and who saves their liberal interpretations for those sections that others might prefer to take literally. This is the problem with the claim that the Bible offers any sort of revealed moral teaching – without engaging the evolved humanist moral sense to overlook the contradictions and to only pay attention to the positive messages, the Bible can be used to justify violence and hate just as well as it can love and compassion.

The Westboro Baptist Church are a disgusting group, but theirs are the same tools that are used in every pulpit every Sunday. A long, ambiguous book of myths can be used to justify any moral position, for real goodness, we must look to the evolved sense to protect ourselves, our families and our species that we all have without having to take any book’s word for it.