Tag Archive | shields gazette

True faith


I’m not sure if the Shields Gazette’s Mike Hallowell is trying to prove his theological chops with his most recent piece, a rather feeble attack on people who dare to criticise religion and the actions of the religious.  Being a fresh convert to Islam, you would hope a new approach to religious apologetics.  Sadly not.

Atheists are religious

Let’s get one thing straight from the outset – despite what atheists tell you to the contrary, they are every bit as religious as we believers.

Hallowell doesn’t define what he means by religious, but by any sensible definition, atheism is the antithesis of religion, hence the noun: atheism.  Atheism has no holy leaders, no sacred texts, no bizarre rituals, and most importantly, no belief in a god or gods.  And that’s about as simple as atheism gets – an absence of belief in supernatural beings.  There are some atheists who have tried to take atheism further, to redefine it as a set of ethical behaviours borne out of a lack of religious belief, like in the case of the Atheism + concept.  But such attempts to change atheism into something more than an absence of belief have failed to gain traction.

I’m curious though – is Hallowell really suggesting that being religious is somehow a negative attribute?  Or is he saying that atheists can be just as good/bad as religious people in following their beliefs?




Atheists can’t prove there is no god

They cannot prove there is no God, and so a refusal to acknowledge the existence of one requires faith

This is one of the apologist’s favourite gambits.  The first response would be that the lack of evidence against a god does not count as evidence for a god.  The next one would be – which god?   As Hallowell should know the burden of proof for any claim falls firmly on the one making the claim – in this case burden falls upon the religious.  And the claims they do make don’t stand up to scrutiny.  If you took each religious text as the hypothesis for its respective religion – creation, talking donkeys, zombies, flying horses, ninja monkeys – and compared them to what we know through evidence or our understanding of the universe, you would quickly find that these hypotheses fail the test.  In other words, it’s nonsense.  There is no shame in refusing to acknowledge nonsense.

There are atheists who don’t even consider the existence of gods.  There is nothing to prove or disprove.  The Pirahã people of South America, whilst they believe that spirits inhabit their physical world, they have no gods. They can’t comprehend the concept – and they see no need for one, simply because it has no utility.  The thing that many religious people like Hallowell don’t get is that many atheists think in the same way – they see no need for a supernatural entity, or any evidence of one.  There is no faith at work here, only practical good sense.

Agnostics are more honest

Now agnosticism is something I can at least understand, for it doesn’t rule out the existence of God.

Every agnostic I know is functionally an atheist.  They don’t pray or go to church.  They don’t care about religion or live their lives according to religious dogma.  When agnostics say ‘I don’t know’, they are still saying they don’t believe, they’re just not ruling out the possibility there is an amorphous ‘something’ out there.  They have already ruled out the existence of every god they’ve been presented with so far, otherwise they would already be a believer.

Atheists are arrogant and nasty

Mr Wilson hit the nail bang on the head when he said that some atheists “display a form of arrogant, secular bigotry which sees itself as superior”.

Neither Hallowell or G Wilson have defined what ‘secular bigotry’ means.  The claim that the religious are somehow being ‘cowed’ by ‘secular bigotry’ in the UK doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.  Christianity is the state religion; churches, temples and mosques sit in our communities.  The religious run schools and sit in the house of Lords.  Prayers are spoken before every sitting of Parliament.  The BBC transmits religious radio and TV programs.  The reality is that people are free to believe what they want and say what they want about their religion.  Despite all these religious threads in our society, the UK is a secular state, and it’s the UK’s particular brand of secularism which gives people freedom of religion.

If you want to see religious people being cowed, they’re more often being cowed by other religious people or by cultish state doctrine.  In these often theocratic countries, being ‘cowed’ means imprisonment, torture or death.  In no secular state is apostasy a crime.  In the 20 countries where apostasy is a crime, sentences range from fines to imprisonment to flogging to death.  Every one of them is a majority Islamic nation.  It seems that in many countries, where religious disagreement occurs, harm isn’t far behind.  Here in the dystopian UK Hallowell and Wilson seem to think they live in, the worst that can happen to the religious speaking out is that they get mocked for saying silly things.

Atheists want to limit the free speech of the religious

You may also find that their concept of “free speech” really translates as “You can say anything you like, as long as it doesn’t contradict currently accepted scientific dogma”.

You’ll find that most atheists are happy with free speech.  However, it doesn’t mean they can’t call bullshit when some religious apologist says something silly, or for throwing around silly terms like ‘scientific dogma’.  Science isn’t a static dogma, it changes according to the evidence.  This is the strength of the scientific method.  Religion, however, remains dogmatic, and tries to hold its believers in an intellectual stasis, where everything must be measured in line with the interpretations of a holy book.

When the religious claim that their free speech is being limited, they really mean they can no longer make claims without someone disagreeing with them.  That’s because ideas don’t have rights.  In a civilised society every ideology – religious or political – must be open to free discussion without fear of reprisal.

On Friday, our television channels covered the commemoration of the sacrifice of young men against an ideology that sought to dominate the world.  Those commemoration ceremonies featured repeated religious rituals – on TV.  Remember seeing the TV reports of an army of secular bigots and aggressive atheists demanding that those religious people stop praying?  No?  Neither did I, because it didn’t happen.  Today, as I write this, a celebration of Pentecost is being transmitted on BBC 1.  There’s no atheists standing outside churches trying to “cop an attitude whenever someone mentions the G-word”.

Atheists hate religion

But why do some atheists truly hate religion and the religious?

This is an interesting take on the ‘atheists just hate god’ fallacy.  So let’s take a look.  Mass murder.  Women stoned to death.  Children mutilated.  The covering up of child rape.  Women dying when an abortion could have saved their life.  Young girls kidnapped for the needs of their fundamentalist captors.  Why would anyone not hate what religion and the religious can do to people?

The religious don’t really care what atheists say

The truth is that many believers just can’t be bothered to engage in duels with atheists who criticise them.

Those atheists who do criticise the religious tend to do so in response to what the religious have done or want to do.  However, the religious are not really known for keeping their religions to themselves: knocking on doors, putting leaflets through letterboxes, shouting through megaphones on high streets, online spamming, asking for money for missionary work and trying to change laws to suit their own murky moral framework.  Should the religious be surprised at being criticised for doing something worthy of criticism?


Hallowell’s article is a feeble attack on atheists, without an example to back up his claims.  If you look for an ‘aggressive atheist’ or ‘secular bigot’ you’re going to struggle to find one.  To find an aggressive religious adherent or a religious bigot, you need only to read the news.


Letting people down

Three weeks after voting in support of the Coalition government’s ‘annual welfare cap’, South Shields MP Emma Lewell-Buck rails at the government’s poor performance in administering the Personal Independence Payment, or PIP for short.  Our MP raised in Parliament the plight of constituent Sue Martin, who has myalgic encephalomyelitis and has been waiting since July last year to find out if she qualifies for support through PIP to help with her illness.  In most scenarios, I would say job well done to our MP.

Sadly, Ms Martin is not alone in struggling with PIP and Disability Living Allowance claims, and will likely be joined in future by many other people struck by debilitating illness, frustrated with an inhumane bureaucratic system and a capped welfare budget pot.  This capped welfare budget will mean that different departments within the welfare system will compete with each other for a share of the budget.  If one welfare function is over budget, then funds can be taken from one department to top up the other department’s failing budget.  It doesn’t sound so bad, until you realise that people’s lives will depend on the political whims of ministers courting media attention and the competing interests of internal party political warfare.

Despite Emma Lewell-Buck’s plea over over PIP and her criticism of the government for ‘letting people down’, she voted for the very bill that could make life worse for people like Sue Martin, and other people who are unfortunate enough to need the safety net of the welfare system.

Running up the white flag to the Tories

I’m going to be a different sort of MP“, she said.  When she was campaigning to replace David Miliband as South Shields’ MP, she played on the fact that she was local born and bred, with a deep Tyneside family history, and a social worker who knew the needs of and the difficulties facing the people of South Shields.

After safely winning the South Shields seat, Emma Lewell-Buck pluckily threw down the gauntlet to David Cameron, saying that he might need a lifeboat “after sailing HMS Coalition straight into the rocks, aided by his captain, George Osborne, and his cabin boy, Nick Clegg”.  Well, our South Shields MP has joined the crew of the not-so-good ship HMS Coalition.  Today, she voted with the Labour whip in support of the Coalition’s Charter for Budget Responsibility, otherwise known as the ‘annual welfare cap’, a cap on the overall level of spending in the welfare budget, excepting pensions and some jobseekers benefits.

It’s a nasty piece of legislation, another broadside in the Coalition’s dirty media war against those in receipt of benefits, and it seems, a war in which Labour wants to see some frontline action.  Unfortunately, Labour chose not to fight against the Coalition, but instead chose the easy target in a hunt for the middle England vote – against those in our society who are most in need, the poor and the unwell.  If Labour MPs wanted to distance themselves from the values of the creators of the NHS and the welfare state, they couldn’t have picked a more treacherous flag to run up their mast.

So is ensign Lewell-Buck a ‘different sort of MP’ for South Shields?  What better benchmark could we find than the late Tony Benn, whom she claimed for her was “an inspiring figure… because of his absolute dedication to his principles and his belief in the rights of working people.”  I find it difficult to believe that Tony Benn would ever vote for such a divisive policy, which in this time of savage austerity further victimises the poorest and most unfortunate in society, whilst the rich get richer.  If Lewell-Buck is a ‘different sort of MP’, it’s one that’s hugely different from Tony Benn, but remarkably similar to South Shields’ previous parliamentary disappointments, David Clark and David Miliband.

South Shields could as well have voted a Tory in, for all the difference it would have made.

A tale of two crimes

In the local paper, two crimes.  In one crime, a man was caught drink-driving for the fourth time in ten years.  The other, a sixty-four year-old man with no previous convictions caught growing cannabis.  The convictions are very different.  The drink driver, who has a history of putting his own and other people’s lives at risk whilst in control of a deadly weapon, gets a four-month prison sentence, suspended for two years, and a four year driving ban.  The cannabis farmer is jailed for twenty months.

This is what passes for justice in the UK, applied through a blurry lens of morality which our society should have already outgrown.  I can’t see a rational argument for putting sixty-four year-old William Smith, who has hurt no-one, behind bars.  Yes he broke the law.  He supplied cannabis for profit.  But what risk did this man pose to society?  Judge Jeremy Freedman said to Smith:

“You know very well cannabis, albeit a Class B drug, causes much harm and misery within the community and that is why it is prohibited.”

Ill informed nonsense.  The scientific evidence that cannabis is less harmful than cigarettes and alcohol is clear cut.  That’s not to mean that there are no dangers, there is certainly evidence of health problems related to cannabis use, but much of any ‘harm and misery within the community’ will be down to the criminal supply chain because cannabis is illegal.  This ‘harm and misery’ though, pales into insignificance against the huge cost to society through alcohol related illnesses and crime.  The biggest harm from cannabis use?  I’m guessing that it’s otherwise harmless and law-abiding people becoming criminalised and brutalised by an out-dated legal system and black-hatted judges.

Judge Jeremy Freedman didn’t provide a judgement, it was a moralising sermon.

A recasting of UK drugs law to reduce the harm of drug use is long overdue, despite prompting from successive government science advisors, but whilst there are politicians desperate to look tough on drugs and judges like Jeremy Freedman passing moralising punitive judgements, it’s difficult to have a sensible grown up discussion about a rational drugs policy.

On a side note, Smith’s capture was another in a long line of cannabis arrests featured in the Gazette due to nasally skilled police officers sniffing out cannabis with their super sensitive schnozzles:

“Officers attended the address because of the strong smell of cannabis actually coming from the address.”

Yeah, right.  They would make mint hunting truffles.

Where is everybody?

Not on Fermi ground…

Just over two years ago Mike Hallowell vomited a confused mess of an article over a page in the Shields Gazette, generally having a go at an imagined army of ‘rabid’ sceptics who dared to cast doubt on the belief that extra-terrestrials are visiting our planet in UFOs.  I found nothing convincing in his argument, nor in his lengthy responses to my blog post dissecting his nonsense.

Tonight he’s tilting at sceptics again, regurgitating the same arguments, albeit with a twist at the end where he offers a different opinion on the source of UFOs.  I could offer a similar robust critique to tonight’s article, but my original response pretty much stands up to the same teetering Jenga tower of logical fallacies.  Essentially he’s trying a play on the Fermi paradox but without any serious analysis of elephant in the room: where is the convincing incontrovertible evidence?  As Fermi said “Where is everybody?”  All of the ‘sceptics’ I know agree that there is a good probability that there is life elsewhere in our galaxy of 300 billion stars, and further into the universe.  Indeed, the ‘irrational’ Carl Sagan was hugely optimistic that life was out there.  It would be sad if there wasn’t.

But that doesn’t mean ETs have been here (yet at least), and there’s nothing that definitively proves that they have.  The best challenge Hallowell could muster for the lack of evidence was this painfully desperate gambit

One sceptic argued with me that “not a single piece of evidence exists that UFOS ever visited 
earth” .

This is a staggering claim, and one which could only be verified by searching every square inch of our planet – overground, underground, land-based and oceanic.

That’s right.  His argument is ‘you can’t say there’s no evidence if you haven’t found that there’s no evidence’.  Not a single piece of evidence has been found that flying horses exist or have existed either, but there are many people who suffer the delusion that flying horses existed.  Perhaps evidence for them is underground or underwater somewhere.

The headline to the article was “UFO sceptics’ claims are wearing thin”, but the burden of proof doesn’t lie at the feet of sceptics, it’s with those who are making claims of visitations by ETs.  Perhaps we will be visited one day, or perhaps it will be us who visit life on other worlds.

Amusingly, Hallowell spent nearly the whole article telling us how sceptics are wrong to doubt that extra-terrestrials have visited Earth, but then finishes with an astonishing

Do UFOs hail from other planets, and are their occupants truly extraterrestrial? Or, could they instead be interdimensional and hail from an alternate dimension or parallel world?

Personally I plump for the latter idea…

That’s right, he lambasts sceptics for not believing in something he doesn’t believe in.

Pottsy’s plod

one tough hombre

Sheriff Potts

South Tyneside councillor David Potts has thrown his hat in the ring for the job of Northumbria Police and Crime Commissioner.  His candidate statement is here on the TopOfTheCops.com blog, and it makes for interesting reading.

“I will clean up the streets of our region, make people feel safe in their homes, and tackle drug dealers and other scumbags with a firm hand”

Very commendable ambitions, but the ‘firm hand’ seems out of tune with the David Potts who exhibited a less than firm anti-crime stance when he offered himself as a character witness for a man who assaulted his ex-partner and her new partner.  One of the victims of the assault was less than satisfied after the conviction:

“I think the sentence is a bit lenient”

It seems odd that David Potts thinks he has the kind of character to handle the job.  On Twitter, he’s a bit of a maverick, to put it kindly.  He put South Shields in the national press after calling MP David Miliband a wanker.  A couple of weeks ago he hit the local press again after offering to meet up with a constituent at a ‘bunga bunga‘ party.  And he hasn’t been shy in offering his very low opinion of public sector workers, despite being classified as a council employee himself to justify the wodges of council tax-payers cash being thrown at the hunt for the elusive Mr Monkey.

And he’s no stranger to the Police himself either.  In March he was on the receiving end of a police caution for the unauthorised disclosure of personal data, an incident which may see him in front of South Tyneside Council’s Standards Committee.

But to be fair to him, he has some thrilling ideas for beating crime.  He proposes setting up a special task force called the ‘Rangers’, which will do all kinds of busting and suchlike.  Whether this branding idea was inspired by the Texas Rangers or the US Rangers is unknown.  It all sounds very exciting and dynamic.

It is quaint to note that despite the tools of 21st Century policing – high tech equipment, helicopters, fast cars and weaponry, Potts still sees a role for traditional policing; one of his key proposals is more mounted officers.  No doubt they’ll prove invaluable when the Mongols descend from the Mongolian steppe to pillage the streets of the North East.

Letter: UKIP tax voodoo

Ironically David Potts seeks to correct South Tyneside Labour politicians on the upper income tax rate (2nd April, Taxation: The Big Picture), whilst himself making an unproven assertion.
His support for the 50p tax cut relies on the theory that the 50p rate is ‘uncompetitive’ and damages the UK economy.  This is merely a contemporary twist on the Reagonomics of the 1980s, long discredited as ‘voodoo economics’.
If there was any definitive evidence that the 50p rate was damaging, then UKIP, the Tories and the right wing press would never shut up about it. Instead, David Potts points to a letter in The Times from economic gurus he happens to agree with, which is a bit like relying on the authority of clerics on the number of angels on the head of a pin.
Given that UKIP’s denialist stance on climate change makes them a joke on science, is there any reason to take them seriously on economics either?