• warning: Creating default object from empty value in /var/www/sect/modules/fivestar/fivestar.module on line 930.
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  • warning: Creating default object from empty value in /var/www/sect/modules/fivestar/fivestar.module on line 930.
  • warning: Creating default object from empty value in /var/www/sect/modules/fivestar/fivestar.module on line 930.
  • warning: Creating default object from empty value in /var/www/sect/modules/fivestar/fivestar.module on line 930.
  • warning: Creating default object from empty value in /var/www/sect/modules/fivestar/fivestar.module on line 930.
  • warning: Creating default object from empty value in /var/www/sect/modules/fivestar/fivestar.module on line 930.

Freedom of Information

One thing that has come from the current expenses scandal is that even if this information had been made public under the Freedom of Information Act, much of the detail would be hidden and the full impact would not have been felt. This means we need a fundamental change to this Act.

We need the presumption that all government information, expenses, advice, minutes of meetings etc should automatically be made available and put on line. The government should have to make a case for keeping information secret (and there are reasons for keeping information secret, such as information relating to court cases or which would impact on the privacy of citizens) but all government advice and briefing papers – which we pay for with our taxes – should be available to us, by default.

We should be able to know on what basis politicians have made decisions, what advice they have received, if the advisors had any kind of interest in the outcome and if the various different options were explored equally vigorously. No more secrecy can be tolerated. If they are doing a proper job, and have nothing to hide, then they should have nothing to fear from this.

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Absolute Truth

What is truth? I tend to go with the 'things that are true' definition, but that's obviously pretty glib. There are all kinds of other definitions. Some are based on coherence; some on consensus; others on repeatability and the scientific method. Some stress logic; others stress parsimony. Some hold that truth is universal and absolute while others claim it's in the eye of the beholder. This is not a question that keeps me awake at nights, to be honest, but I'm damn sure truth isn't something you can vote on.

Recently, the Texas School Board added to its shame by voting 11:3 that Texas school books should include weasel text to make the scientifically determined age of the universe seem controversial - when it is not - ostensibly to open the door to teaching creationism.

There are objective ways to decide what's true and what isn't. Voting on it sometimes has the guise of objectivity, but it's doing it wrong.

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The Happy Human

The 'Happy Human' is the symbol of the British Humanist Association and humanists often say that the purpose of life is to be happy. The Atheist Bus campaign illustrated this admirably by putting the slogan 'There's probably no god now stop worrying and enjoy your life' on the sides of numerous London buses. But I'm not so sure. A few years ago I devised a thought experiment to see if a hunch I had was right or wrong and I posted it on my web site.

This is how it went:

Alien invaders want our planet. They guarantee perfect happiness for everyone alive in return for the sterility of the human race. When human beings have become extinct the aliens will take the planet for themselves.

A human resistance group can guarantee to defeat the aliens forever but most people now alive will die in the conflict. The survivors will be able to continue the human race.

Would you...

Accept the aliens' offer of perfect happiness in return for extinction?

Support the resistance group although it means the death of most people in the conflict?

Well over 1000 responded to the poll and only 13 percent chose to accept the alien's offer (and would, I suspect, change their minds if confronted with a real situation). Try it on your friends. The rest opted for a life of misery to achieve the survival of the species. 'Happiness' in the ordinary sense of the word - enjoying yourself - doesn't seem to be our purpose in life, except perhaps, for a minority.

Happiness is not merely enjoying yourself. If the human race had decided to accept the aliens' offer we don't really believe they would be happy. They'd be miserable because they had rejected a greater moral good – the survival of the species.

After all, what is happiness? A typical happiness scenario would be lying in the sun on a tropical beach after a good meal looking forward to an evening of lively conversation and romance with a partner. Or happiness could be composed of elements of this scenario. Or it could be an afternoon spent having fun with the kids. Physical comfort shows that all is well in terms of immediate survival and romance and kids show that all is well on this score as far as the future is concerned.

Of course, lot of truly miserable people 'enjoy themselves' in the course of a wild night out. I suppose we could say that these people (the miserable ones) are really simulating happiness rather than actually being happy.

It seems to me that happiness is a means to an end - a pointer that you're going in the right direction. That you're leading a life which will promote the furtherance of the species. And if it's DNA you're thinking of, it's a good explanation for the sympathy many of us feel for all forms of life on Earth - we share a remarkable genetic heritage with even the most humble organisms.

It would seem that happiness and the moral good are equivalent in some way. The ultimate moral good is the survival of humanity, possibly with those who share our genetic heritage, and happiness stems from any move in the right direction.

It is a dangerous philosophy if pursued clumsily. It is no argument for the 'survival of the fittest' or the condemnation of those who do not reproduce. But it is a measure when deciding to separate conjoined twins or carry out stem cell research. It is a principle we can explore, and not a moral straitjacket of religious laws.

Alan Urdaibay

Tip for the day: Sign Alan's petition at

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Does Atheism Need a Makeover?

One of the most frequent criticisms of secular humanists and atheists is that we define ourselves in the negative - by what we oppose. In some ways it's the reason for this site's existence - the BBC's main defence of their "No Nonbelievers on TFTD" policy is the claim that atheists/humanists will use the segment as a platform to mock or attack religion (and Richard Dawkins, Teapot bless him, didn't help matters with his rabidly anti-religious diatribes when given a trial run at the slot).

It's an argument that's difficult to dismiss. In a world where organised religion and its diluted derivatives pervade popular culture and popular morality, where promiscuous, coke-addicted rock stars finish concerts with "God bless!", where the major news organisations are largely controlled by (publicly) religious neocons, it's pretty fair to say that we are defined by our rejection of the beliefs that a sizeable proportion of the world take for granted. So how do we find a positive voice and identity?

Some would say we don't need to, because have no evangelical obligation to convert others to our point of view, and atheism is a naturally dominant ideology which doesn't need our help to spread. But religion is a powerful machine - if you subscribe to the Dawkins memetic view of religion, it has evolved to be the most efficient parasite in the infosphere, exploiting every possible vector of attack to seize control of minds and reproduce.

And the fact is, religion is a great sell - a devout Christian can stand up and say "We believe that Jesus Christ died on the cross to save us and rose from the dead to return to heaven, that God created us, watches over us and punishes or rewards our actions, that one day Jesus will return again and remake the world, and that we can have all our sins washed away by believing in Him".

What have we got?

"Um...we don't?"

Religion clearly isn't going to disappear anytime in the near future, and most vocal atheists agree that the pervasiveness of organised religion in the world is a force for harm. So do we need to find a new, positive identity for ourselves, a more marketable image, a vision to get behind? Or does any attempt to spread our viewpoint just ally us to the principles we oppose?

Mark Hewitt is a writer, techie, foodie and philosopher. You can read more of his work at

Tip for the day: There is no tip for the day today :(

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Some years before the World Wide Web was a twinkle in Tim Berner-Lee's eye, the power of modern communications bought harrowing images of poverty and starvation in Africa into our living rooms, somehow emphasising what a small place the world had become. This stimulated urgent appeals from Oxfam, Band Aid, Live Aid etc. Backed by popstars and the power of television these became runaway successes and raised large sums of money in relatively short spaces of time. Faced with the competing claims of mortgages and other living costs one did one's best to respond. This was a 'fire brigade' action to alleviate an emergency and no alternative solutions were available; but I am sure we all felt the disconnect between giver and receiver and wondered how much of our donation would get to the intended recipients. Which one of us who watched the reports from Ethiopia would not have preferred, had it been possible, to have immediately passed the contents of our larders through the television screen directly into the laps of the starving.

Then in 1990 came the World Wide Web and, over the ensuing years, the explosion in communications it made possible.

In 2004 Matt Flannery and Jessica Jackley witnessed the power of microfinance firsthand while visiting East Africa - Jessica working for the Village Enterprise Fund and Matt filming interviews with small business entrepreneurs - they were able to see and hear first hand how small grants of only $100 - $150 had been used to build small successful businesses which could then support a family. Microfinance is about giving poor people a ‘hand up’, not a ‘hand out’ by providing them with expanded cheap access to financial services. It recognises that people, whatever their situation, are well equipped to help themselves once they have the necessary starting capital, the 'seed-corn', so to speak, of their enterprise.

Matt and Jessica returned from Africa determined to use the internet to expand the flow of funds to microfinance institutions. Their aim was to to make it possible for donors from anywhere in the world to select the individuals, groups or small businesses they wished to help and to then follow their progress. In October 2005 the first peer-to-peer microlending website "Kiva" was announced to the world. ("Kiva" being a happy choice from Swahili embodying the meanings of "agreement" and "unity") Shortly afterwards the US weblog Daily Kos discovered Kiva and broadcast the website to hundreds of thousands of its readers. The word was out... and the rest is history.

Anyone with a paypal account and internet access can donate through Kiva and millions in the developed world have already shown they are very willing to afford at least the minimum amount of $25. The individual donor chooses an entrepreneur according to gender, sector or region and their donation is then pooled with others and passed on as a repayable loan. The only element of charity in the transaction is the loss of interest suffered by the donor which, of course, as rates stand at present, is negligible. The lender is kept posted at regular intervals of the progress of the chosen business, and when the load is repaid at a previously agreed date the donor can choose whether to retain it, relend it, or donate it to Kiva.

A further interesting feature of Kiva is that one can choose to lend as part of team self-selected by a common interest or other grouping. All sums lent by each member of the team, irrespective of its destination, adds to that team's total, thus introducing a minor element of competition. There are thousands of teams to choose from or one can start one's own.

Since its birth Kiva has grown from a small personal project to one of the world's largest microfinance facilitators, connecting entrepreneurs with millions of dollars in loans from hundreds of thousands of lenders around the world. The top lending team with, at the time of writing, $429,425 to its credit, is called the "Atheists, Agnostics, Skeptics, Freethinkers, Secular Humanists and the Non-Religious". It would be good to keep them top. Their next "Loan-a-Thon" Day is on July 1st. and the team have set a target of loaning $1,000,000 before the end of 2009.

Tip for the day:

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Corrie finds humanism!

I have always appreciated how Coronation Street has touched upon current issues in a sensitive and often amusing way (compared with the brute force and gloom of East Enders) and so given that there has been a surge in support for humanism it was hardly a surprise that the subject would be mentioned, eve if it has taken nearly 50 years.

Entirely predictably the mention of humanism caused a storm of protest from religious fascists. Much was made of the fact that it occured over easter, though I dare say that there are plenty of other times of the year to take offence. In fact I felt it was a pity that Ken was displaying his humanism at the same time that he was thinking about betraying Dierdre - it implicitly associates humanism with a lack of morals, which every independent piece of research seems to contradict. But I don't have the oversensitivity and defensiveness of the god squad and felt that the average intelligent viewer would not suspect that there was any connection to be drawn. Nor did I object when one of the younger charcters found god! Or that Emily Bishop has been a churchgoer since I was in nappies!

However there is clearly a group of religious people who feel that alternative opinions should not be aired. I can see a parallel here between their views and those of the Muslims who objected to the cartoons of Muhammed in the Danish press - intolerant and bullying. I am pleased that you are standing up to them and look forward to positive portayals of the role that humanists play every day in the diverse society in which we live.

Tip for the day: Take a look at Andy's paintings of Frigiliana at

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Fair weather citizens

I am no fan of Gordon Brown and the Labour Party or their response to the current financial crisis. In response to his 50% tax rate on earnings over £150K has produced the usual whining from the City of London, Dragons in their Dens etc. They won’t be motivated to start businesses or do the deals that make them the money. They’ll go to someplace overseas (although they never specify where they will go). They insist that they deserve to keep their money.

The current financial crisis has been brought about in no small part by these very people having free range to run riot with the financial laws. They have already made millions for themselves feeding at the trough provided for them by a government too timid to regulate them. Now that things are not so good, is it really too much to ask these super rich egos to contribute a little more to rebuild the future? Surely accepting a higher tax rate once they have earned more than enough for anyone to live comfortably in this country should be seen as an act of patriotism? As they gained more than most in the good times, they should be prepared to shoulder more of the pain in the downtimes. They demand honours such as knighthoods and medals and to be lauded as great citizens who have done so much to bring prosperity; now in the downtime, what sort of citizen sulks and threatens to leave just because they have to pay a little bit more? Perhaps, to coin a phrase, they should ask not what their country can do for them but what they can do for their country.

Tip for the day: Progress at the BBC

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Fine-Grained Morality

A lot of the news and commentary I read is left-wing or liberal. But one blog I read which often throws up the other side of the argument is "Inspector Gadget" on the Police Inspector Blog. The anonymous writer is a police inspector in the "Ruralshire Constabulary". He's intelligent, expressive and brutally honest about the conditions in which he and his men have to work, and he often makes points which are...disconcerting.

They're disconcerting because they sound a lot like the morality we hear spouted in pubs, on daytime TV shows and of course in the tabloid newspapers every day. Dole scroungers and criminal underclasses on the estates, immigrant mafia, and a "liberal elite" trying to stop him doing his job of locking up the bad guys. But the inescapable fact is that, while his opinions may be almost diametrically opposed to mine, he reports the facts as he experiences them and references his statements well.

In the G20 London riots, my political leanings would place me firmly on the side of the protestors. But quite honestly, I can't see what good they could possibly have been doing. How is seeing blank-eyed teenagers with beards stuttering in front of the news cameras “Well, it's like, we've got to show them we won't take it any more!” going to inspire anyone to change this (admittedly appalling) system? And what change are firebombs going to bring, except further animosity and labelling of political activists?

When we choose political/social "sides", attaching ourselves to this wing or that, or using (and accepting) labels like "liberal" or "conservative", we are oversimplifying the vast and intricate world of human understanding. We accept a coarse-grained framework which tries to split the world into a small number of simple relationships, and place them on either side of the oldest artificial division of all – right vs wrong.

I feel we owe it to ourselves to question every assumption we have inherited from our upbringing, our political framework, our religious history, our peers, and discover for ourselves the fine-grained, shaded model of right and wrong that fits the complex and often paradoxical world we live in.

Mark Hewitt is a writer, techie, foodie and philosopher. You can read more of his work at

Tip for the day: The cost of living.

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There, But Not There

Every time something amusing happens in our house, whether it be a wacky, shampoo-held hairdo at bath-time or the dog pulls a funny face, my children implore me to grab a camera and preserve the moment for…well that’s my point. For what?
This reflexive urge to photograph every passing event and nebulous circumstance means that, as a household, we now own 9 cameras in various incarnations. We photograph anything from the children’s latest Lego creations (preserved perversely I believe, much against their natural transitory state) to, bizarrely, pencil and felt-pen drawings they’re currently proud of. It’s as if something must be photographed and uploaded to gain validation.
I’m no Luddite, yearning for the days of sepia and Daguerrotypes but I look through photographs from my childhood in the 1970’s and ‘80’s and can see that each picture represents an event that held value in its preservation.
Of course, there are myriad advantages to the accessibility of photography today. I’m grateful that I can email digital photos to family and friends.
I don’t have to go to a chemist or wait for prints to arrive in the post and I don’t have to worry that the genuine magic moments will be missed.
Someone will always have a camera.

One photograph I still look at with wonder shows the end of a Christmas party in 1978. Numerous members of my extended family all strained inwards, ensuring at least their faces were included in a huge group shot that encompassed everyone from my great-grandparents (sitting at the back, frothy ale in hand) to my 2 year old sister (teary-eyed and tired, sitting on the floor at the front).

So much is happening in this photograph, so many lives are shown, some since ended; a record of relationships and interconnections are represented, and it leaves me emotionally worn out to give them too much thought. I love that photograph and everyone in it.

It wasn’t taken innumerable times on different peoples’ mobile phones and digital cameras. It could never have been re-sat, re-touched, shared on a social networking website or ‘tagged’ with everyone’s names. There is only one copy. My mother had it in a shoebox until the year 2000 when she died.

Now I have it, in a shoebox.

Tip for the day: Reduce, reuse, recycle: Disney style

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Church Wars

Tip for the day: A puzzle for you today. Read this.

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