Carl Sagan

Still working on the post about development of life and awesome nature, but, here is an awesome video I came across tonight.  Carl Sagan is always good to watch, but this one is one of the best videos I have seen.


How I got to this point

I wanted to write a bit to explain how I got to where I am today, maybe just to be cathartic, but also because I do not think I have coherently put down why I think what I do.

Coming to think the way I do today has been a long process, and it still is not over, I am still not quite at the point where I can use a label to say “I am a X”, so I usually just say “God? Don’t really think about it”

But anyway, the best place to start is always the beginning, so lets go there.

When I was very young, my parents were into hippy type 80’s things, we went on  pagan retreats, my mother was into ley-lines and associated woo.  This didn’t have too much impact on me, apart from the lucky side effect of my parents making sure I knew all the names of plants and animals in the forests, and going badger watching etc, as well as getting me into literature via Arthurian stories and Norse mythology.  The retreat was fun, as far as I remember, bloody cold, because they had no heating, and we went in January or February, but great fun doing things with the other kids building rafts and running around the forest.  My mum was also a Greenham Common woman, and a member of CND, going on frequent protest marches and blockading stuff, so we had lots of interesting people coming over to visit from these groups.   I think it is from this period that my love of nature arose, living in the countryside and being taken to forests etc every weekend.  Wierdly, she was also a Catholic, so I was christened Catholic, but it was very much a once a week thing, and now, I am not so sure that Catholicism with all the saints, intercessions, pilgrimages etc is so far from some types of paganism.

Around 1987, so when I was 6 or 7, we got sent on a holiday for under-priviledged children, which was nice, getting to stay in a caravan by the sea for a week, and here it started to go strange.  My mother decided we should move to the place we had been on holiday, so we packed up from our small village and moved to a tourist sea-side town.  This town had 10,000 residents, 1 Anglican church, 1 Catholic church, 2 Evangelical churches, 1 Methodist church, and just for good measure, a Spiritualist church.

We initially started at the Catholic church, the once a week, stand up, sit down, go away again thing, then for reasons I do not remember, we swapped to the Anglican church.  This was, to my memory, your standard “social religion”, where the services were secondary to other things like coffee mornings, Guides & Brownies etc.  My dad did his confirmation, and my parents got their wedding vows renewed here, I got a piano tutor, sang in the choir, all very parochial gentle stuff, if a bit boring.

Then, for reasons which I do not know, my mother announced one day that “God is not in that church”, and so we tried the Methodist one for a bit, but she still wasn’t feeling God, so we tried one of the Evangelical churches. This, for me, is where religion stopped being just a once a week saying some prayers and singing hymns.  With hindsight, I am pleased I was that much older than my siblings, and had been exposed to nature, and other experiences, because as the saying goes “Give me a child til 7, and I will give you the man”.

By now I was 8 or 9, and was going to the youth group at the church, as well as being involved in the services.  They were like nothing I had ever seen, so much more exciting than the Anglican or Catholic, and people seemed to actually believe what they were singing about, people cried in the meetings, raised their hands in the air, did prophecies, spoke in tongues etc.

I was baptised by full immersion on my 10th birthday (the day before halloween…a source of annoyance for my mother), and became a member of the church.  There were fascinating youth meetings, where we had escape artists come to perform, and talks were given about books like “The Cross and the Switchblade”.  I actually thought “This Present Darkness” was a factual story, and for a 10 year old, it is a terrifying book.  From the outset, the youth meetings were very graphic, one of the images burnt into my mind is the graphic description of a crucifixion we had given to us annually around Easter, as well as the vivid descriptions of hell.

I found out I was quite good at evangelizing, and became very zealous.  When I was 10, at school, we had to write down what the best, and worst things we could imagine happening to us.  Most of my friends wrote things like “Worst thing that could happen would be Bros breaking up” or “The best thing would be to be an England footballer”.  I wrote “The best thing that could happen in my life would be Jesus coming again”, and the worst “The worst thing would be my friends going to hell”.  I got around 10 kids from my class to come to the youth meetings, and in the way that precocious children do, started reading more “grown-up” religious books, and wanting to go to the grown ups bible study instead of the kids one.  I also argued with teachers about Noahs Ark, Genesis, and tried to convert them. (Yes, I was as involved in debating then as now).  I knew all the arguments, all the ways people would try to take you off the righteous path etc etc.

My parents got more and more into prayer as a form of healing, and I completely bought into it, but started thinking that maybe if you could pray for good things, you could also pray for bad things to happen to bad people.

The stay at this church ended abruptly, when the youth leader ran off with the pianist, my mother said she had prophesised this, and no one had listened to her, so we moved to the other Evangelical church in the town.

This church was even more evangelical than the other one, my parents became members, which meant agreeing with the tenets of belief of the church, which included that only the group of churches they were part of were the “right” christianity, and this was the first time I had run into this concept.  I was baptised again by full immersion (apparently the last time did not count, nor did my Catholic christening, so I am now fairly well covered in terms of baptism), this time at a service on the beach.  My younger brother and my sisters were also baptised.

It was decided that my “gift” was translating tongues (Mostly because I kept saying “Hey, that sounds like german/french, I know what that says), and my mother was sent on a prophecy school course to learn how to be a prophet, she has been doing this course on and off since then.

I became actively involved in evangelism on the streets of the town, and doing the March for Jesus every year through the streets, and going to London to take part in that one too.  This church had a much higher activity requirement, the church services were followed by a dinner once a month, and there were meetings of one kind or another most days which required you to go to them.

By now I was at secondary school, and my parents sent me to a Church of England school initally, so I would not get influenced by non-Christians.  This did not entirely work, as the majority of people at the school were not religious, however, the latin classes were handy, and I got my first real introduction to secular life.  The downside of this was it led to me being bullied in my town because a) my parents were quite poor, so I was wearing second hand 1970s type clothes in 1990 or so, b) I had not gone to the local secondary school, unlike all my friends, so they were now with new groups of friends, and all my school friends lived away from the town, c) I was the bible basher.   My parents told me that persecution was part of being a Christian and that it meant I was doing the right thing….it didnt feel like that though.

After 2 years at the CofE school, my parents decided that I should go to the local school instead, so back there I went.  The school was where the church met, so I think they felt it was a “safe” place.  I continued evangelizing, and disagreeing with the science teachers, whilst being fascinated by Chemistry and Biology, especially when they told us about genes.  I was still converting my friends, and was especially pleased when I got my friend who liked reading Stephen King books to come to church every week, as I was helping to keep her away from the “Doorways to Darkness”.

By now I was 13 or so, and had started to get into “normal” teenage pursuits, hanging out with people, skating, biking and generally causing a bit of trouble now and then. (mostly just climbing trees in the old peoples home and getting yelled at by angry old people).  Because my parents did not let me go into sex ed classes, I was extremely naive, and, because they did not drink, and had Ribena instead of wine in church (although I thought their 1% wine and ribena were the real thing), when I had my first drink, I thought all alchohol was the same strength, and may have slightly overdone it with some Bacardi and Carlsberg.

Word got round to the church that I was hanging around with non-christians, and so my parents were warned that I was a bad influence on the other children in the church (I was just more open than the other members children ^^ ).

Our stay at this church came to an abrupt end when one of the elders and his wife had the pastors wife move in with them, and not in the “stay in our guest room” sense.  Again, my mother said she had prophesied this, or at least that there were “Dark shadows” over the church, and if they didn’t change then there would be bad things happening. We left this church, and went briefly to another evangelical church in another town, where someone loaned my parents a holiday cottage on the other side of the country in the mountains.

After we had been there for a week, my mother announced that God had told her to move there ( I seem to recall some waffle about being on a mountain = being closer to God), and that we had been in the town as long as Joseph and Mary were in exile, so it was time to shake the dust off our feet and move on. So we sold up and prepared to move.  By now I was 14, about to start my GCSE years at school, and they advised my parents not to pull me out at such a crucial point, I had made some friends, and did not want to leave…two days before we were due to move, my mother pulled the house off the market, cancelled the move, only to redo it all the next day.

So, here I was, on the other side of the country, not knowing anyone, and my parents were flitting from church to church trying to find the “one”. We stayed in the first house for 6 weeks, then moved to a remote village of around 100 houses, halfway up a mountain.  My parents found a “proper” evangelical church, and initially, I attended with them.  That did not last long for me, the service were 3-4 hours long, with services twice on Sundays as well as 2-3 other days a week, and house meetings, bible studies, prayer groups etc.  I had discovered Metallica by now, and Nirvana, Pearl Jam etc, and the church did not appreciate me going to church services with “Woe to you o earth and sea, for the Devil sends the beast with wrath, because he knows his time is short, let him who has understanding reckon the number of the beast, for it is a human number, its number is 666” written on my rucksack.  I pointed out that it was a bible verse, they pointed out I was wearing an Anarchy t-shirt and a leather jacket with Guns’n’Roses logo on the back, and popping out of the service for a smoke.  I finally left when I went to take a break during a 4 hour service and was told “If you go out, do not bother coming back in”.

That was the last time I really went to church, it always felt a bit wierd to me, when people wave their arms about, close their eyes or get “slain in the spirit”, I always felt extremely self conscious.  I was also uncomfortable with the attitude towards women, women very much take the role of servers, my mother was told that she could not do any of her prophecies in church because she was a woman, she could not do readings or speak to the church.  There are mens breakfasts at 6am where the women provide breakfast after the men have prayed, but no equivalent for women.  At church lunches after the service, women serve food to the men, then when the men have taken as much as they want, the women get their food. Just after I left the church, it was announced that women should not have VPL (visible pant line) as it was distracting the men. (don’t ask….)

My sister is married to a man who the pastor told her was “Gods choice”….this may be because the guy had told the pastor “I really like her”

Anyway, I left the church, and religion in general, apart from a few forays to the local anglican church once every few years, but the church effects did not seem to leave me.  The ingrained information and visualisation from when I was younger stayed with me, and for a long time, I was unable to say anything overly critical of the bible, or Christianity, in case something happened to me.  At one point, I could not even pick up or read anything that was not Christian (like the Hindu or Buddhist texts, or the Quran, or any one of the number of pagan books I wanted to look at), let alone discuss anything that might not be in line with what I was taught.

I didn’t even think to really question the basic young earth stuff, even after I left church, it was what I had grown up believing, and I had no reason to think otherwise.  It was only when I went to university 3 years ago that I suddenly realised how many stupid things I had been saying, without even thinking about it.  I really did think the eye was irreducibly complex, but then, so do lots of non-christians I know of, they have just heard it somewhere and it stuck.  I really did think “If evolution is true, how come there are no half/half species at the moment?”  Again, this is said by many non-religious people too, which shows the extent that this view has seeped into our culture, and why science education is so important, not just at school, but also in the form of documentaries.

I still get that little fear voice in the back of my head when I start saying things which go against what I was taught as a child, for example, when I was watching the “A History of Gods” the other night, I was discussing that, for the time it was written in, the old testament is a fair way for those people to try explain natural phenomena….and then I suddenly got worried about the proverbial lightning bolt.  As a rational, mature, scientifically minded (I hope) adult, it annoys me that I cannot shake these last little voices of fear from my childhood…even sitting here writing this I am having a few nerves.

What has helped me immensely has been educating myself about how nature actually works, hence the purpose of this blog, and also learning about critical thinking, and logical fallacies.  I also look around and see others thinking like I do, and observe the lack of lightning hitting them.  Finally, I also tell people of a religious nature that if, as they think, we are put here by God, surely our purpose is to investigate the natural world, find out how it works, and poke its inner workings with a sharp stick til we figure them out, not spend out tenure on earth looking back to where they say we came from.  To me, that is akin to going on holiday, and talking the whole time about your house, and wondering about your house….if you are of the inclination that that is our purpose of course.

I am still fascinated by the history of religion, but now it is more from an anthropological perspective, I think it is interesting understanding why and how people came to think what they did.  A lot of those documentaries have also helped me understand the mechanisms of religion, and I do understand how it is an effective control mechanism.  Fear is the most powerful tool in the control arsenal.

Finally….What are my views?

Well, I still am not comfortable with the term that many people apply to me, I just say I am a rationalist.  Some people say I am far too skeptical at the moment, but I maintain that is the pendulum effect, when you start questioning deeply held beliefs, the natural first effect is to swing to extreme skepticism, before settling at a balance.

What do I think we need to do? I think we need to make science less scary, lots of people are put off by the technical jargon used in science.  Carl Sagan, David Attenborough, Brian Cox, Neil DeGrass Tyson, Jim AlKhalili etc all do a marvelous job of bringing complex ideas into laymans terms, and this is what we need more of.  We need to show people that science is _the_ most exciting way of looking at the world, the wonder you get when you look at something and finally get how it works is the most amazing feeling.  The curiousity about “Why is that like that?” is something we need to foster, in adults and children.  We need to find allegories for complex concepts.  One of the ones I use is extremely simplified, but gets the point across.  I use the “Gravity is like a person sitting on a sofa with maltesers…the smaller the person is, the closer the maltesers need to be before they fall down towards them, a larger person will pull maltesers in from further away”.

Sorry for the long rant, I did not intend it to be this long, but I hope it explains a bit about me.