Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Do atheists have the moral high ground?

Theists claim that their sense of morality, of right and wrong, comes from their particular holy text. If that is the case, then where does an atheist get their sense of morality?

Atheists are capable of performing moral, good deeds, just like a theist. The difference is that they do so without resort to a holy text to tell them what is right and wrong. If you need to resort to a holy text to be told what is moral, good behaviour, then you surely cannot claim that your morality is innate. You are only appeasing your particular deity, rather than doing it for the simple reason that it is the right thing to do.

Religious texts define morality in very blunt and simplistic terms. In Christianity, the Bible states that it is a sin to tell a lie. This is not always a black and white statement. If you were a Jewish sympathiser during the time of the War, and a Nazi knocks on your door asking if you know the whereabouts of any Jews, then according to the Bible, you should reveal the location of the Jews. Surely, in this scenario, it is a lesser moral evil to tell a lie and protect the safety of the Jews.

Atheists consider what is right and wrong on the merits of each individual situation. They have no need to be told what is right and wrong from any text that claims moral authority.

If atheists are capable of behaving in a moral way, then where does this tendency come from. Morality is very closely aligned to empathy. The ability to feel what another person feels. With the exception of psychopaths and sociopaths, most people are capable of feeling empathy towards another person or animal. Empathy is innate. It cannot be taught or learnt from a religious text. If you come across a person who is clearly suffering, such as involvement in a car accident, your immediate response is to help them. This is a response that has nothing to do with what you have been taught from a religious text. It is simply the right thing to do, to help someone who is suffering or in pain.

This leads to a curious question. If an atheist is capable of conducting themselves in a moral way, then is it possible for theists to do the same? The simple answer is a definite yes. Morality and empathy are innate traits, every human being possesses them. Theists, however would much rather accept that these traits come from a higher power, or deity. Atheists on the other hand, would rather believe that we do good things for the simple reason that they are right. Not because they have been told it is right.

Surely it is more satisfying to believe that human beings are born with the innate ability to be good. This also must be true, as where else would atheists get their morality from. This is a better explanation of why morality is so universal. People tend to behave in morally similar ways the world over, irrespective of religious belief, culture or creed. If we accept that morality is broadly similar across such disparate people, then the only explanation is that it must be innate. If that is the case, then we have no need for religion to teach us morality.

I would much rather believe that the human species is capable of great deeds and of being moral, as a trait that we are born with, not something we need to learn and be taught.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Are you a Tigger or an Eeyore?

In the Winnie the Pooh books by A.A Milne, Tigger is happy, positive and bouncy, whereas Eeyore is miserable and negative. Whilst most people don't fit squarely into one or the other of these descriptions, most people will broadly fit one of them, most of the time

Which one we fit into is entirely our own choosing. You can choose to be positive, or you can choose to be negative. Anyone can make a conscious decision to be positive. That is the first step anyone can make to improving their life!

What I find interesting is that most Eeyores don't even realise they are being negative . They genuinely believe that they are perfectly normal, and that being permanently positive is the stranger behaviour. Personally, I find going around complaining and criticising much stranger behaviour!

Being a Tigger is not about going around looking as if you are permanently dosed up on Prozac - it's about your attitude. Instead of criticising, try to be complimentary. Instead of complaining, try commending. Try and make not just yourself happy and positive, but try to make those around you happy and positive too. Make it your daily mission to make someone smile, or better still, to inspire someone. Everyone has an impact, make yours a positive one!

Let's face it, would you rather hang around with Tigger or Eeyore?

Friday, 17 July 2009

The Wrestler

The film centres around the character played by Mickey Rourke, who plays a once famous wrestler, but who is now a washed up version of his former self. In his heyday, he appeared on the front cover of magazines, sports journals and television. Years later, where the film picks up, we see him working in a supermarket, wrestling at the weekends for rent money.

The film focuses on Randy 'Ram' Robinson (played by Mickey Rourke), and his relationships with his daughter and lap dancing girlfriend. The two key elements that make this film special are the direction by Darren Aronofsky (Pi, Requiem for a Dream), and Mickey Rourke.

Darren Aronofsky uses an almost fly-on-the-wall style of direction at times, where you really feel as if you are getting up close to Randy's character. He also bases the film around small town America, which adds a level of authenticity. There are no glamorous apartment blocks or shopping malls. Instead, we see a side of America that rarely makes an appearance in films, but which probably shows America as it really is, and this in itself is refreshing.

Mickey Rourke is mesmerising, and delivers a power house performance. He plays Randy with equal measures of rawness and pathos. It is hard not to feel sympathy for his character. He is a shadow of his former self. He struggles to pay his rent, sleeps in the back of his van, has a broken relationship with his daughter, and struggles to cope with his fall from fame and glory.

The scene where Randy opens up to his daughter, where he explains to his daughter why he made so many mistakes as a father, and is now trying to make amends, is truly genuine and touching. There are small details that add to the film, such as the fact that Randy wears a hearing aid. This is never directly referred to in the film, but there are a couple of scenes where Randy has to ask people to repeat what they have said.

I really enjoyed this film, and would strongly recommend anyone who has not seen it to watch it. You will not be disappointed.

Following a blog

Practically every blog, including this one, can be followed. What exactly does this mean? Simply put, following a blog shows the blog author that you have expressed an interest in the content of their blog. It also lets other readers, be they casual readers, or followers, know that they have an interest in it.

To give an analogy for those of you who use Twitter, it is very similar to the following concept of Twitter. You are expressing an interest in their updates. Likewise, with a blog.

You can follow a blog either publicly or privately. As their names suggest, following a blog publicly means that other people are able to view your interest as it will appear on the blog home page. Following privately means that you can still keep up to date with the blog, but your interest in it is private, and so you do not appear on the blog home page.

To follow a blog is simple. All you need to do is click the 'Follow' or 'Join this site' button (the exact wording may be different between different blogs).

You may also keep up to date with a blog by subscribing to it. On my blog to the right, you are able to subscribe to the posts and/or the comments, the choice is yours. At the bottom of the page, you can also subscribe to the blog using an Atom feed. This is simply an RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feed.

Most bloggers, including myself, will also subscribe to other blogs. This is called the blog roll. My blog roll is located on the right hand side, under the heading 'Blogs that I follow' (as not everyone will know what a blog roll is). These are the blogs that I follow, and have an interest in. They cover a wide range of topics and subjects, from software development, to atheism, to animal welfare to name a few.

So if you come across a blog that interests you, be sure to follow it. It lets the blog author know that what they are writing about is considered interesting by other people, and that you value their efforts. I would also encourage people to leave comments on blogs.

So there are several ways to keep up to date with your favourite blogs. Go ahead and give them a try.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Fundamentalist Atheists

Just to be clear from the outset, I am an atheist. My worldview is naturalistic and free from supersition.

I have heard and contributed to several discussions debating whether the term 'fundamentalist atheist' is a valid one. In my opinion, it is. The term 'fundamentalist' can be applied to an atheist, as well as to a theist. Although few atheists in practice fit the description, the term is a valid one nonetheless.

It is easy to see how the term can be applied to a theist, but how does it apply to an atheist? As atheism is the absence of religious faith, is it not a contradiction to describe an atheist as a fundamentalist? The short answer is no. A fundamentalist is a person who has a strict belief in a doctrine, belief system or point of view, to the exclusion of others. Any atheist who takes such a strict advocacy may reasonably be labelled as a fundamentalist atheist.

It is the lack of doubt that is the defining quality of a fundamentalist.

The blogger Austin Cline of atheism.about.com, argues that fundamentalist atheism does not exist, because it cannot exist on the grounds that atheism has no fundamental doctrines, and that fundamentalism is not a personality type. I disagree with this statement. I think it is perfectly possible to take a strict atheist stance. Atheism may lack fundamental doctrines, but it does have defining attributes, such as a naturalistic wordview that is devoid of superstition which can be held strictly to the exclusion of other worldviews.

Any belief can be held so srictly that it becomes a fundamentalist belief.

Richard Dawkins has stated that, unlike religious fundamentalists, he would willingly change his mind if new evidence challenged his current position. This is the more reasonable position that the vast majority of atheists take, and is the polar opposite of the fundamentalist atheist.

As atheists by their very nature tend to be open minded, as they have actually taken the time to consider their worldview and what it means (a claim which sadly cannot be made for the majority of theists), then the term 'fundamentalist atheist' will rarely apply, but it is worth setting the ground rules for its definition.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Is Your Worldview Naturalistic?

What is a bright?

A bright is any person who can claim to have the following qualities:

  • A bright is a person who has a naturalistic worldview
  • A bright's worldview is free of supernatural and mystical elements
  • The ethics and actions of a bright are based on a naturalistic worldview

So a bright is a person who does not rely on gods, superstitions, holy texts and the other accoutrement's that are associated with organised religion.

There are plenty of well known and well respected brights, including Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Steven Pinker to name just a few.

Organised religious groups are more than adequately represented within society, and on many different levels:

  • Demand for special favours, even when those favours contravene current British law (see my earlier blog relating to Religion's Abuse of Animal Rights for a specific example of this)
  • Have faith schools with higher concentrations of their own religious faith in attendance
  • Prejudice and/or discrimination on religious grounds is recognised in law

For anyone who does not belong to an organised religious group, this may all strike as a little unfair. It would be all too easy to argue that, in fact, it is people who do not belong to an organised religion, who are the victims of discrimination!

The Bright movement attempts to redress this imbalance. It is both a movement and a community for those who share a similar worldview, rather than being a religion in itself.

The Reason and Purpose of the Brights Movement

Currently the naturalistic worldview is insufficiently expressed within most cultures, even politically/socially repressed. To be a Bright is to participate in a movement to address the situation. (Note: the upper case Bright signifies someone who fits the definition and registers on this Web site.)

There is a great diversity of persons who have a naturalistic worldview (free of supernatural and mystical elements). Some are members of existing organizations that foster a supernatural-free perspective. Far more individuals are not associated with any formal group or label. Under the broad umbrella of the naturalistic worldview, the constituency of Brights can undertake social and civic actions designed to influence a society otherwise permeated with supernaturalism.

[Extracted from the Brights web site]

The movement has three major aims, again extracted form the Brights web site:

  • Promote the civic understanding and acknowledgment of the naturalistic worldview, which is free of supernatural and mystical elements.
  • Gain public recognition that persons who hold such a worldview can bring principled actions to bear on matters of civic importance.
  • Educate society toward accepting the full and equitable civic participation of all such individuals.

If you share this vision, and these values, then visit the Bright's web site for more details. If you do, I would encourage you to sign up, and have your voice heard. We've had organised religion having its voice for long enough, isn't it time we had ours heard?

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

A day in the life of a local government software developer

I work in local government for East Northamptonshire Council as their Senior Systems Developer. Since April 2008, East Northamptonshire Council and Borough Council of Wellingborough have formed an ICT partnership. What this means is that East Northamptonshire Council provide ICT support to Borough Council of Wellingborough. Therefore my job spans across two local councils.

The purpose of my job is as follows:
  • To act as both Council's key system development resource
  • To investigate, analyse and design systems that will allow the efficient use and sharing of business critical information
  • Increase the efficiency and effectiveness of the ICT infrastructure through the creation of new software and the integration of existing systems
  • To create and maintain a customer focused website and intranet across both councils
As well as being the key development resource, I am also the manager of the ICT Development Team, which includes managing the Web Developer.

There is certainly not enough room to describe everything that I do, but some of my main areas of responsibility would include the following:
  • Manage the development and deployment of new software applications, systems software and/or enhancements to existing applications throughout the Council
  • Ensure that development projects meet business requirements and goals
  • Lead on web development projects across both Councils
  • Manage the annual development budget
  • Manage the Development Team

One of the things I like most about working in my job is the sheer variety of work. I get to use a large variety of tools and technologies including Microsoft .Net, Internet Information Services (IIS), SQL Server and SharePoint to name just a few.

My background prior to this job was working for software houses in the private sector, where you generally work on the same product or application. In the public sector, there is definitely more scope to get hands on experience in a wider range of technologies, because you are developing a much wider range of applications across a much larger enterprise.

I am currently involved in a very exciting project to replace East Northamptonshire Council's Content Management System (CMS). This is the application that our Web Content Editors and my team use to surrender content to the web site. Our new partner is Jadu. I am also responsible for defining the necessary business transformations, project management and driving the project to completion. Once the web site is live, I will investigate how I can integrate it with Web 2.0 / social media, and leverage the benefits of those technologies.

I am also involved in upgrading the CMS for Borough Council of Wellingborough, using the same partner. This will involve re-designing their web site, and re-categorising their content as they are moving their content taxonomy over to the Local Government Navigation List (LGNL). All local government services are categorised in a standard way to make them consistent between different councils. So a bin collection in Northamptonshire will be categorised in the same way as a bin collection in London. This helps with navigating and searching for content on local government web sites. So changing their underlying taxonomy is not a trivial challenge, as all content will be affected.

Working in local government as a Senior Systems Developer is exciting and challenging in equal measure, and I consider myself very lucky to enjoy what I do.