Meet the overzealous Mr Selous

Andrew “the overzealous” Selous MP is Ian Duncan Smith’s Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS). He also seems to be a bit confused. Arguably confusion is to be expected since he cherry picks his ideas of right and wrong from an ancient book with a moral compass that points straight back to the bronze age.

Yet with such a public assertion of faith you’d think he’d have read at least parts of the Bible before taking public office.

His confusion over dyed in the wool biblical issues like gay rights seems very odd. He voted strongly against equal rights for gay people and yet vaccilated about gay marriage. Could it be that his 20th century conscience has been pricked a little despite the ‘ancient wisdom’ of a small group of desert nomads?
Andrew Selous MP social issues voting record
Unfortunately he has had no such fit of conscience in relation to homelessness. This is odd in itself considering that his entry for the SW Bedfordshire Conservative Home website reports a keen interest in homelessness and participation in sponsored sleepouts for homelessness charities.

He supports local homeless charities by taking part in annual sponsored sleep-outs.”

Perhaps though his interest is more about keeping homeless numbers up than about helping the homeless themselves. Perhaps his annual sleep out is no more than a form of penance intended to assuage the wrath of God in payment for his other homelessness related activities.
Andrew Selous MP voting record
As if his voting record wasn’t enough to demonstrate his abusive, pathological need to increase poverty and homelessness he recently attacked that other bastion of his Christian faith, the Trussell Trust. And yet even here he seems confused. Speaking about his local foodbank he said:

“I have been a supporter of Foodbank for many years. Working in addition to the welfare system, Foodbanks have been proven to help turn people’s lives around which is why I think so highly of them”

Andrew Selous, Local Constituency MP

And then he goes and does this:
Andrew Selous MP
It seems that the Right Hon. Andrew Selous MP is fine with his own receipt of taxpayer funded nourishment but not too keen on charitable organisations that provide sustenance to people who really are in need. Especially when those organisations, such as The Trussell Trust have the audacity (some might say ‘sense of fairness and social justice’) to question why so many UK citizens are so desperately hungry in the first place.

Apparently asking questions about hunger and trying to do something to change the situation is ‘too political’. I’d have thought that for someone with such a publically professed Christian faith he’d have heard about ‘the sermon on the mount’ and ‘the beatitudes’ with its list of ‘blessed’ individuals. But let me remind the good Mr. Selous of another familiar bible quote:

“Whatsoever you do unto the least of my brethren, do you also unto me.”
Matthew 25:45

It’s going to take more than the occasional night out of doors to make up for this catalogue of oppression Mr. Selous. Not least because, as the good book says….

You shall know them by their deeds.

Fallacies 6: The Transcendental Temptation

In the last post we saw how willing people are to believe that natural events are the results of supernatural agency, intention and consciousness. It’s easy to expose the beliefs of those who claim that weather patterns represent the whims of the Gods or that the universe can impart its wisdom via a swinging pendulum or a pile of bones. #

wpid-1342295979.jpgBut what about the more widespread and socially accepted forms of the Agency fallacy? What about those who claim (as did the previous Bishop of Carlisle) that the devastating floods of 2007 were actually God’s judgement on a sick society?

What about the legions of Christian evangelists who describe HIV & AIDS as God’s judgement on homosexuality or the Catholic bishops who oppose contraception in Africa in spite of the AIDS epidemic sweeping that continent. Then there are the millions of Jehovah’s Witnesses who would rather die than accept a blood transfusion?

If for no other reason than sheer weight of numbers these people are much more difficult to dismiss as misguided cranks than the ‘leyline dowsers’, ‘past life regression therapists’ and ‘energy healers’ of the world. But that doesn’t make them any less damaging. Consider for example the evangelical Christian who wants to bring violent ‘curative’ assault to UK in the name of his (presumably equally violent) God. Or imagine the terrifying plight of the 15 women who were burned at the stake in 2007 by religious believers in Gambia.

And yet these more mainstream ‘agency inventors’ have no more evidence or grounds for their beliefs than any of the rest. They may even have less. After all, at least the astrologist can show you that the stars exist. I’ve yet to find a priest, Rabbi, Pastor, Imam or Scientologist who can do the same for their revered God or alien overlord.

So what drives these otherwise intelligent, rational people to believe so completely in a deified agency without (or even in spite of) real world, empirical evidence? There are, of course many reasons for this. Some are cultural, some developmental and some neurological. But here we shall consider only one.

Welcome to the Transcendental Temptation.

Most people seem uncomfortable with mortality. There are exceptions, of course and throughout my care career I’ve known several people who seemed quite content for life to slip away as the end approached. These people experienced what we know ‘in the trade’ as a good death. But they’re not the only kinds of death that people experience.

Others seem terrified at the prospect of their own demise. Their deaths are distressing, not only for themselves but also for those around them. It’s never pleasant to sit with and try to comfort a dying person who hasn’t managed to come to terms with the inevitable. For many people the prospect of death and eternal non-existance is just too difficult to contemplate.

 If only there was a way to cheat death.
 If only there was a way to live forever.
 If only there was a way to ‘transcend’ the physical body after death and carry on living in another, less tangible form.

Now wouldn’t that be tempting?

That’s the essence of the transcendental temptation. It’s a form of wishful thinking that allows the believer to pretend that they can cheat the reaper. But it comes at a price. This sort of belief can only survive so long as believers refuse to think too deeply about the evidence.

wizardThe fact that not a jot of evidence exists (outside the world of cold-reading charlatans and heavily stage managed seances or TV shows) doesn’t matter at all. That’s why belief that comes from the transcendental temptation is called ‘faith’. That’s what we always call belief without evidence. Another equally descriptive term might be ‘wishful thinking’.

Of course none of this takes away people’s right to believe what they want to and nobody should feel the need to justify their beliefs to anyone else. That’s not the point of this post.

But whenever anyone tries to impose their religious morality upon others, from the ‘donation’ seeking psychic medium to the Archbishop in the House of Lords it’s worth being clear about where their motivation springs from. It’s also worth understanding the extent to which their views and moral standards are based upon wishful thinking and the transcendental temptation.

It seems that for many of our self-appointed ‘moral leaders’ the chief professional qualification is gullibility and the desire to hide from reality. Think carefully before you allow these people to impose their views of right and wrong upon your life. After all these are the same people who brought us & continue to bring to many countries (including in many cases the UK):

Subjugation of women;
Anti birth-control campaigns & legislation;
Variously encouraging and condemning suicide and attempted suicide;
Corrective rape of lesbians;
Witch trials & executions;
Discrimination against (& even execution of) LGBT citizens;
Book burning;
Barbaric ritual slaughter of animals (EG Kosher & Halal);
Genital mutilation of infant girls and boys;
Censorship of science teaching (EG Evolution and the Tennessee Stopes ‘monkey’ trial) in schools;
Holy wars;
State-sanctioned apartheid & slavery;
Loss of sexual freedom;
Religious genocide………….

The list goes on and on.

Don’t let your life, your morality, your sense of self and your way of life be torn asunder by those who are so heavily motivated by the irrational desire to deny their own, inevitable demise. Unless you want to, of course.

We all have the right to believe in whatever transcendental belief system we choose. At least here in UK we have that right. Exercising such freedom of belief in many Islamic states is likely to result in imprisonment or even execution.

But we have that right in UK.
We all have that right.

And because we all have that right, nobody has the right to insist that other people ‘join in’ with their particular, preferred transcendental temptation.

What motivates your morality?

About the ‘Fallacies’ series

The ‘Fallacies’ project was built up from a series of instalments that first appeared online during the summer of 2012. It is republished as part of a larger set of changes intended to rationalise the contents of several different blogs into just 2. The other remaining blog focuses mainly upon social care and mental health related issues. It can be found at

The Convention 18: The right to freedom from discrimination

The enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in this Convention shall be secured without discrimination on any ground such as sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or other status.

As most people are aware many forms of discrimination are unlawful in British society as they are throughout much of the rest of the world. However the nature of discrimination (what it actually means) isn’t always so clearly understood. The confusion about what is and is not discrimination isn’t helped by the way that certain individuals or groups claim ‘discrimination’ when really they are simply failing to get their own way. A recent example of this involves Father Raniero Cantalamessa, Pope Benedict’s personal preacher who likened the current criticism of the Roman Catholic church to anti-semitism. Cantalamessa claimed that the current outrage at the Catholic church’s failure to protect children from paedophile priests is anti-catholic discrimination.

In fact nothing could be further from the truth.

Raniero Cantalamessa

Raniero Cantalamessa

What we see is arguably pro-Catholic discrimination in that the leaders of the church appear to be receiving preferential treatment. If the management of any other organisation had protected paedophiles from the law and knowingly continued to place them in positions of trust with vulnerable children they would be prosecuted. The ‘blind eye’ that the current Pope himself turned in the past would, according to UK law at least, result in prosecution and very probably a lengthy prison sentence. If there is any discrimination at all it is not anti-Catholic. It is pro Catholic.

The desire to protect children from abuse is not discrimination and such claims are merely an attempt to distract attention from the real issue – the repeated abuse of children by paedophile priests in the full knowledge of a hierarchy that was more interested in secrecy than in upholding the law. This would be a problem in any organisation, not just a Catholic one.

Criticising criminals for their abuse is fair comment. The reason for criticism of the church hierarchy is not their Catholicism, it is their criminal behaviour in shielding abusers from justice and continuing, consistently to place paedophiles in positions where they can repeat their abuses of vulnerable children.

We can see then that what does or does not constitute discrimination depends upon relevance.

It would be discriminatory to treat all Catholics, or even all Catholic clergymen as though they were child abusers. This is because Catholicism is not relevant to paedophilia per se. Not all Catholics are paedophiles and not all paedophiles are Catholic.
It is when we make unreasonable distinctions between people that we are guilty of discrimination. For example when we make assumptions about someone based upon characteristics that have nothing to do with the issue at hand. This sort of discrimination, based upon irrelevancies, is what happens when people make judgements based upon skin colour, religious affiliation, nationality, ethnicity, disability, profession or sexual preference.

Skin colour for example has nothing to do with trustworthiness and disability does not invalidate a person’s right to be treated with respect. In both cases, colour and disability, the ‘condition’ is irrelevant to the point under consideration.

However the fact that an individual belongs to a group that is regularly discriminated against does not mean that they can do no wrong. A gay man who assaults his neighbour in a dispute about a garden fence will still be prosecuted. But he will be prosecuted because of the assault. His sexuality is irrelevant. He may claim discrimination on the grounds of his sexuality but his claim will not be taken seriously by the courts because his sexuality is not relevant to the case at hand.

On the other hand a gay couple refused accommodation in a hotel or guest house would be supported under anti-discrimination legislation for exactly the same reason. Their sexuality is not relevant to their right to use services.

Similairly if I, when I was manager of a residential drug rehabilitation unit had to evicted an Asian man because of his use of illicit substances on the premises he could not then have claimed racial discrimination. Actually, anyone who knows me would understand how ludicrous such a claim against me would be but that’s not the point. The eviction would be because of the rules of the service which are applied equally to all service-users regardless of skin colour or racial type. Colour is simply irrelevant and therefore the decision to evict is not discriminatory – it is simply an appropriate response.

The basic ‘rule of thumb’ then for front line workers is to ask if the alleged discrimination is relevant. Is your action the result of the individual’s need or behaviour or is it motivated by the fact that they belong to a particular group.

If it’s because of individual circumstances and would be the same whatever subgroup the person belonged to then it’s probably not discrimination. I say probably not because there is the additional aspect of institutional discrimination that we will consider in a later post. If it’s because of the subgroup they belong to (eg Catholic, gay, disabled, Asian etc) then there’s a good chance you really are discriminating.

As ever ‘relevance’ is the key when deciding whether or not you’re being discriminatory.

The Human Rights Council recently expressed grave concern at discrimination & violence based on sexual orientation
Their concerns are mirrored by the Crown Prosecution Service here in UK who reported on prosecution rates for ‘hate crimes’ here.

About ‘The Convention’

This series of posts first appeared on Stuart’s blog in June 2011. It is not intended to be a comprehensive or even particularly authoritative reference guide to the ECHR. Rather it is a brief introduction to a much larger and infinitely more fascinating subject. You can download the entire series in PDF format here:

The Convention 12: The right to freedom of conscience and religious expression

My first thought on planning this blog post was to focus upon the abuses of the English Defence League (EDL) and the way that its members and affiliates persecute Muslims in modern UK. However to focus only upon this particular form of bigotry would be to miss the much wider point of article 9. So instead I’m going to explore ‘freedom’ of conscience and religious belief from a larger perspective.

Many religions

According to article 9 of the ECHR:

  1. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion;
    this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.

  2. Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.


This means that it’s OK for people to follow their own conscience or religion so long as that does not prevent others from exercising their rights. In other words religion is OK so long as it doesn’t abuse other people. Here’s an example:

On October 25th 2007, 22 year old EG gave birth to twins at the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital. A few hours later she was dead because she refused to accept a blood transfusion. EG was a devout Jehovah’s Witness. She suffered a sudden haemorrhage and bled to death following a natural delivery. EG had already signed a form before the birth refusing blood in such an event.

This is an interesting case and (since it’s already in the public domain) one I often use in training around rights and mental capacity. Participants are asked to consider a number of principles relating to EG’s capacity to decide, the rights of others to overrule her decision and the limits of an individual’s right to follow their religious beliefs in the face of life threatening injury or illness. It always makes for an interesting discussion.                       

Most people begin by arguing that EG’s husband could and should have consented to treatment (blood transfusion) on his wife’s behalf. Others argue that the medical team should have made the decision to treat her whatever her husband said.

However the fact is that EG was a consenting adult who had made her wish to refuse treatment abundantly clear. She understood the consequences (Jehovah’s witnesses do tend to understand the implications of refusing blood). She had made her decision.

To put it another way, EG had decided that the chance of eternity with her God was better than another few decades here on earth followed by the intolerably cruel torture of eternal isolation from that God.

Given that those were her beliefs it’s difficult to say that another few decades in this life would be worth the cost in the next.

So we see then that people have a perfect right to follow their religious beliefs wherever they will take them – even to their death if that is what their faith demands. However they do not have the right to inflict those beliefs upon others.

One excellent example of this involves the way that the law treats Jehovah’s Witness children (or more accurately the children of Jehovah’s Witness parents) when they turn up in hospital. Whilst an adult can refuse ‘life sustaining treatment’ for themselves on purely religious grounds they cannot do so for a minor. The law assumes that young children are too young to have chosen to follow a religion because they are unable to understand it in any meaningful way. So they are not bound by it. There are other considerations around consent and ‘Gillick’ or ‘Frasier’ competence as children grow older but the issue is always around the child’s own ability to decide – not the religion of other people, even their parents.

Typically in cases where the parent refuses consent on religious grounds the child is made a ward of court and treated in their best interests, regardless of the beliefs of their biological parents. This gives us a dramatic illustration of the basic principle that a consenting adult can follow their religion even to their death if they choose but they cannot inflict their views upon others.

As an aside, although I do not intend to focus very much upon the anti-Islamic ‘English Defence League’ (EDL) during this series, it is this article that will prevent the Sharia law that they fear so much from ever becoming law in Europe. It is a religious system and cannot be imposed upon anyone who does not agree to be bound by it. Such is the beauty of the European Convention’s article 9.

There are a number of Sharia ‘courts’ in UK but they do not have legal authority in the same way that other courts do. Instead they are centres of arbitration and rely upon all parties agreeing to their ‘judgements’. This is a far cry from the imposition of Islamic law across the board that some people pretend.

There are some concerns that Shariah ‘law’ discriminates against women and that Shariah based arbitration may well lead to unfair decisions. However that is no different from the way that many Christian churches operate in UK.

I remember many years ago when I was a fundamentalist Christian myself being encouraged to follow the church’s own arbitration system as laid down by the Apostle Paul (Corinthians Chapter 6). But I also know that when it became clear how flawed that system of arbitration was there was nothing to prevent me from contacting a solicitor and solving my problem that way. In fact that is precisely what I did back in 1993.

Nasty Nick Griffin

The same rules apply to matters of conscience. Morality is not always based upon religion and so article 9 protects people who have firmly held beliefs wherever they come from. But again the same rules apply – only in so far as those beliefs don’t interfere with the rights of others.

It’s OK for Nick Griffin and others to believe in some mythical Arian ideal but it’s not OK for them to remove the right of others to join any political party they choose to because of it.

The British National Party (BNP) led by Nick Griffin was forced to change its policy in October 2009. The court ruled that the BNP policy that only white people could join this political party was judged to be discrimination.

We can see then that whatever we believe article 9 both protects our right to act according to our consciences but also protects us from the interference of others who want to impose their beliefs upon us. This is why, for example, Christian B&B owners are not able to discriminate against people using their services – it breaches the potential guests’ equality rights under article 14.

This is why the nursing professional governing body, the Nursing & Midwifery Council forbids nurses from inflicting their own religious opinions upon vulnerable patients. It’s why Gary MacFarlane was sacked by Relate and why the courts did not uphold his ‘right’ to discriminate against gay people.

There is no right to discriminate against others because of your own religious belief. You have the freedom to follow your conscience but so have others.

About ‘The Convention’

This series of posts first appeared on Stuart’s blog in June 2011.  It is not intended to be a comprehensive or even particularly authoritative reference guide to the ECHR. Rather it is a brief introduction to a much larger and infinitely more fascinating subject. You can download the entire series in PDF format here:

Professor Bart Ehrman on the bible

This lecture is rather long. But it’s worth it. Whatever your view on Christianity, whether you’re a believer, agnostic or atheist if you’re at all interested in the bible and its contents you’ll find this fascinating. Professor Bart Ehrman on biblical contradictions and the remarkable error-filled process that gave us the modern ‘book’.

Truly remarkable.

With thanks to @woodlandbookshp for drawing my attention to it on twitter. Find the Woodland Bookshop blog here.

Islam, far right nationalists and the vicious God of Abraham

It really shouldn’t be necessary to write this post. But unfortunately it is. That’s the problem with fanatical extremists. They think only in black and white terms and so anyone who, for example doesn’t hate Muslims must be a Muslim themselves. As an atheist I thought that a particularly stupid assertion from an EDL supporter recently (see the comments).

So I’ve decided to be clear, once and for all…


I am not a Muslim. I am not a believer in any deity. I consider all religions to be both silly and harmful. As the late, great Christopher Hitchins put it, religions belong to the ignorant “infancy of our species”. During those dark days of prehistory even the most learned people had no idea what the natural world was about. This led to an assumption that whatever people didn’t understand must have been the work of a magical supreme being. The notion of Gods was born.

So I think all religions are silly but…. and this is the important bit…. I am adamant that:

1 People have a right to disagree with me;
2 I may be wrong;
3 So long as people don’t try to impose their lifestyle upon me I am more than happy to return the compliment;
4 What consenting adults do amongst themselves is no business of mine.

And that last part really is an issue for me. But not just with Islam – with all religious groups from Islam to Judaeism, from Catholicism to Cargo cults. I believe that to inflict religious indoctrination of any kind on to children is abuse.


● If an adult Christian wants to live his life in shame and assumptions about his own pathetic ‘unworthiness’ so be it;
● If a grown Muslim woman wants her ‘evil’ clitoris and labia removed (often causing infection and death), fair enough;
● If a mature Jewish man wishes to contract herpes by having a Rabbi remove his foreskin with his teeth that’s fine by me;
● And if a young Jehovah’s Witness mother chooses to bleed to death after giving birth rather than to accept a blood transfusion that’s fair enough too.

I think that all these things would be tragic but in every case it’d be their choice. It would have nothing to do with me.

So my only real beef with Islam is the same one I have with ALL religions. I wish they’d stop inflicting it upon helpless children. Other than that – it’s OK to be different. So long as you leave the rest of us alone.

Sharia courts

Which, of course, brings us to the notion of Sharia law and the vicious God of Abraham….


I would oppose any attempt to impose Sharia law on myself or upon my society. Indeed, if I truly believed that there was any chance of that barbaric, Mosaic system being imposed I’d be the first to man the barricades. It’s a legal system based upon a moral compass that points straight back to the iron age.

But it’s no worse than the fundamentalist Christian ‘courts’ that also exist, equally informally in this country. In both cases people choose to submit to the ‘judgements’ of religious ‘courts’ but the law of the land still applies. Wife beating is still illegal in UK even though the ‘law of Moses’ says that it’s OK. Women subjected to such abuse can still prosecute their abusers regardless of religion.


So you see Sharia is no more a threat to Western civilisation than Christianity and Judeaism (barbaric though all 3 undoubtedly are). No religious convention can be used to excuse rape, ethnic cleansing, slavery, murder, child abuse or arbitrary discrimination (whatever Christian ‘law’ says about these ‘duties’). European law is not religious law.

So far as I’m aware the only exception allowing abuse on religious grounds is the genital mutilation of infant boys whose parents are either Jewish or Muslim. I stress ‘whose parents are either Jewish or Muslim’ because let’s face it these babies are far too young to choose any religion (or to understand the mutilation imposed upon them). Along with many other atheists and humanists I’d love to see that made illegal in the same way that the genital mutilation of infant girls has been.


I would oppose the imposition of Sharia, Levitical or Talmudic law in a heartbeat. They are all based upon the exact same, vicious God of the Israelites who seemed far more interested in ethnic cleansing, sexual slavery and blood sacrifice than anything modern civilisation might recognise as ‘justice’. Not that there’s anything unique about the God of Abraham in that respect – especially concerning women:
But I don’t oppose individual Muslims any more than I oppose individual Jews, Christians, Hindus or, indeed anybody else. Except, of course for ….

The English Defence League (EDL)

Recently I’ve been criticised on my blog for opposing far right nationalists such as the EDL and BNP much more than other extremist groups such as Muslims Against Crusades (MAC). In truth I object to extremist, terrorist groups of all kinds but the only ones that claim to speak for me are the EDL and BNP. I’m a white, working class British man and as such I consider it a duty to oppose those fascist, racist groups who claim to represent my own culture and heritage.

To quote Edmund Burke (allegedly)…..

“All that is necessary for evil to succeed is for good men to do nothing.”

I made this point more fully in a series of three posts which can be found here, here and here.

This doesn’t make me a Muslim (the very idea of me being religious in any way at all is both ridiculous and insulting to me). Nor does it make me a “traitor to my race” as another commenter recently described me. I’m a human being and that’s as sectarian as I’m ever going to be. All people are as valid and worthy of rights and respect as anyone else.

I’m not a fan of street violence from any quarter (be the perpetrators linked to EDL, BNP, Combat 18, MAC, UAF or IED). You’re all as bad as each other in my view.

In summary

My position is simple:

● I loathe sectarianism;
● I loathe ALL religion;
● I loathe child abuse and indoctrination;
● I loathe nationalism;
● I accept the right of all people to disagree with me;
● I would oppose ANY imposition of Mosaic law upon my society (be that Islamic, Christian or Jewish);

I believe that these views are echoed by many (although not all, alas) of my fellow working class Britons (of all colours and backgrounds).

The English Defence League does not speak for us!

Hard wired 16: Pattern recognition

Look at these numbers. What comes next?

2….. 4…….

I may be wrong but my guess is that you chose either the number six or the number eight. That’s because depending upon the pattern you first thought of you’ll either add two or you’ll double the last number. In either case you’d be wrong. Actually the next number in the sequence should be sixteen. Each number in the sequence is the last number squared (multiplied by itself).

That’s the problem with patterns – they lead us astray with stunning regularity. And yet still we try to find them. We have an inbuilt pattern-recognition mechanism that never stops. And it’s not just sequences although they’re common enough and leading to all manner of assumptions about ’cause and effect’.

Why patterns?

It’s not hard to see why this obsession with patterns prevailed in the ancestral environment. The early hunter-gatherer who learned to recognise the association between plants and water would have a distinct advantage over those who didn’t. The homo erectus who understood that birds falling silent is often part of a pattern involving dangerous predators would certainly have the edge. So our species evolved pattern recognition as a very effective survival strategy. It’s true that this sort of inference (the assumption of danger) can lead to over caution on occasion but that probably wasn’t such a bad thing in the circumstances.

But that’s not the whole story. The human obsession with patterns and sequences also leads us to imagine patterns in the things we see and hear from faces in clouds (or even wallpaper and embers) to words and phrases in the wind. And the patterns we identify are often far from real. So we get spooked by shadows and led astray by random events that seem to come in order.

Believing nonsense (the illusion of pattern)

So humans kid themselves into believing in nonsense like astrology and bizarre ‘medical’ treatments. We become convinced that bad things come in threes or that because two unpleasant things have happened already this morning we’re in for ‘one of those days’. We see patterns everywhere. What’s worse – once we hit upon a ‘pattern’ (real or imagined) other processes known as ‘selective abstraction’ and ‘confirmation bias’ tend to keep us convinced that we’re right. We’ll cover confirmation bias and selective abstraction later. For now it’s enough to know that both of these mental modules serve to persuade us that we’re right and to resist self doubt.


This process of imagining patterns, confirmation bias and stubbornness can have extremely unfortunate results. It leaves us open to persuasion. That’s why the most skilled and influential political speakers give three illustrations of their most important points? They know that three is the magic number to create the illusion of a pattern and that once established in the mind of the listener that illusion will be hard to break.

Human gullibility

The truth is that our species’ love of patterns, our obsession with trying to place everything around us into recognisable, pre-existing categories makes us extremely vulnerable.


This is the aspect of our evolved psychology, perhaps more than any other that makes us gullible and easy to manipulate. It leads to superstition and the prevalence of people who’d never dream of playing an important sporting match without their ‘lucky’ cricket box or without reciting their favourite pre-match prayer. It’s why the actor John Wayne always insisted on carrying the same ‘six-shooter’ in every Western. He’d created an assumption of cause and effect that had nothing to do with reality.


It’s also why the primitive cause and effect assumption of tribal weather Gods eventually merged into a single deity called Jahweh and ultimately morphed into the three modern versions of the God of Abraham (see The evolution of God by Robert Wright).

The illusion of control


This obsession with patterns and ‘lucky’ ritual has led to self-important, metaphysical or religious rituals from the repetitive behaviours of obsessive-compulsive disorders to the ‘hail Mary’ of Roman Catholicism, the ingestion of ‘transubstantiated’ flesh in Holy Communion and the masochism of the flagelant. In each case the assumption is the same:

If I get the ritual right I (or God/the universe) can influence the world, the weather, other people or whatever to behave as I would like them to.

It’s also why gamblers kid themselves that the next random throw of the dice is ‘due’ to fall on a 6 or why their lottery numbers are bound to come up soon. It’s because of an entirely baseless assumption that essentially random events follow patterns that exist only in the human mind.

In later posts we’ll explore some of these ideas as we consider selective abstraction, arbitrary inference, confirmation bias and the gambler’s fallacy in more detail.

Divide and rule

I’m so tired of all these silly little factions.

If the last few years since the financial system crashed have taught us anything it’s this….

The majority of people are used as cashcows for a tiny minority to grow wealthy.

Here in UK we see a widening gap between rich and poor with the most vulnerable being denied even the meanest living whilst the mega rich receive major tax cuts. We see disabled people denied all benefits via ATOS and unemployed people forced into slavery via workfare under threat of destitution and starvation. Rents are rising whilst housing benefits fall and there are calls to remove the minimum wage whilst its hardworking recipients are demonised as ‘scroungers’. And all the time the richest citizens grow wealthier as others literally are starving to death on the streets.

There’s a name for this sort of unfairness: Exploitation.


And yet it doesn’t have to be this way. If only the exploited majority could stand together the whole sordid system would change – it would have to. But that would take something that the human race seems unable to provide as yet. It would take solidarity.

Instead we have polarisation and factionalisation. We have downtrodden whites blaming oppressed blacks. We have exploited women blaming (allegedly) privileged men. We have underprivileged, undereducated natives blaming equally exploited immigrants and we have religious factions clamouring to outdo each other in conspicuous ‘victimhood’.

And all the time, while each exploited group bemoans its lot at the hands of every other exploited group, the mega rich continue to advance their own, selfish interests.

We see nationalist groups like the BNP, EDL & UKIP spreading their racist narrative of hatred. We see extremist groups like Radfem blaming all men and trans women for all the evils of the world whilst their male counterparts in the MRA make equally ludicrous claims against all women in opposition. It’s silly, it’s divisive and if society is ever going to deal with all this shit then it has to stop. For pity’s sake grow up people!

I had an interesting twitter conversation last night with a black women who complains that white people dislike being called ‘white’. I pointed out that I didn’t object which, judging from her response, seemed to confuse her a bit. She didn’t address it at all – presumably I don’t fit in with her prejudiced worldview.

I also pointed out a little later that I don’t think white working class people are all that privileged. After all where I come from the main privilege of working people, whatever their colour, heritage, religion, sex or sexual orientation seems primarily to involve the luxury of working themselves to death. Her response to that didn’t really surprise me, unfortunately. She wrote….

“Look this is redundant. All white people have privilege even poor white people. Let it go. If you can’t see it then you’re being willfully ignorant. Something you can do on your own tl. Not on mine.”

There’s a name for the way that such people play into the hands of those who would exploit them too.
The bigger the chips on our shoulders about our own victimhood and about each other’s abuses the easier it is for us to be exploited. The more we fight amongst ourselves the harder it will be for us to stand united and refuse to waste our lives in the service of wealthy bankers and multinational abusers.

What this blinkered, divisive approach achieves is far from positive. It is the exploiters’ greatest weapon and we turn it upon ourselves with all this infighting and special-pleading. The name of this weapon is well known and simple to understand…..

Divide and rule

PS: I’ll check my privilege when you check your bigoted assumptions about me!

Hard wired 8: The evolutionary environment

What do we mean by EEA?

The acronym ‘EEA’ stands for the ‘Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation/Adaptiveness’, otherwise known as the ‘Evolutionary Environment’ or the ‘Ancestral Environment’. Originally coined by John Bowlby it has come to mean the conditions in which a species adapts because of strong naturally selective pressures. (schore 2012)


Badcock (2000) estimates that for around 99% of its existence the human species lived in small groups of hunter gatherers. The bulk of human adaptation took place during the pleistocene (beginning around 1.8 million years ago) and continuing until around 12,000 years ago (10,000 BCE). The first human (homo) species arrived on the scene around 2.5 million years ago.

Our adaptation during that time, whilst well-suited to primitive societies, isn’t always helpful in the modern world of the last 10,000 years or so.

The figure of 10,000 years isn’t arbitrary by the way. That’s the time when humans first began to form larger societies – a change that our evolved psychology still seems to struggle with. We know that middle-eastern cities such as Jericho were founded around 7,000 years ago and that other cities such as Ur were founded sometime earlier. The fact is humans didn’t evolve to live in large towns and cities with national identities and we certainly didn’t adapt through the ages to spend our lives surrounded by strangers. But why not?

To answer this we need to consider a few fundamental points:

Evolution is slow;
Evolution occurs on ‘islands';
Evolution isn’t concerned with individual comfort unless it aids procreation.

Evolution is slow

Although 10,000 years seems like an almost unimaginably long time for humans it’s actually a very short period in evolutionary terms. The process of evolution by natural selection, even in ideal conditions takes millions of years. For example a recent article estimates that the most recent common ancestor linking all the great apes lived some 11.9 million years ago.

The process relies more on numbers of generations than years passed & we’re really only talking about around 2000 generations over that time. So one answer to the question ‘why not’ is simply that our species hasn’t had enough time to evolve past hunter-gatherer societies.

Evolution occurs on ‘islands’


Evolution by means of natural selection happens most rapidly when survival pressures are most prevalent and life is so hard that new adaptations create genuine procreative advantages. It’s also important that any new adaptation isn’t ‘swamped’ by too much competition as it (and the human being that carries it) competes for survival/procreative advantage. In short natural selection works best when life is short and the breeding population is small. Otherwise genetic changes get lost before they can establish a foothold.

This is what we mean by ‘islands’. An evolutionary island doesn’t need to be surrounded by water but it should be isolated. This isolation could be the result of a natural barrier (a desert or mountain range, for example) or just the result of a small population, rarely coming into contact with other human groups. In these circumstances small, adaptive genetic variations can take hold and thrive. In large, modern, industrial societies adaptive mutations (for example keener eyesight) have much less impact on the population as a whole. My own short-sightedness is easily corrected by my glasses in modern UK whereas in the EEA of a million years ago it would have been a major handicap that may well have resulted in death long before I had a chance to breed.

At this point it’s worth pre-empting one of the more superficial and tiresome objections regularly raised by creationists. We’ve already covered the ‘naturalistic fallacy’ but I want to restate the point:

The fact that natural selection callously lets the weakest die doesn’t mean that it is right.

The ancient evolutionary environment was hard and ruthless, in one sense that was because early humans lacked the technology we have today to make things better. Acknowledging that life was cheap ‘back then’ doesn’t mean we think that’s how it should be. But let’s be clear:

Natural selection doesn’t care what you or I might think. Natural selection doesn’t care about anything.

Evolution isn’t concerned with individual comfort unless it aids procreation


As we will see throughout this series evolution isn’t the result of any grand design to ensure human happiness. It’s simply a mechanism’ a process by which different organisms compete with each other to survive.

Personally I wish it was different. I wish there was a plan. Perhaps a divine creator would have designed a world without so much pain and suffering. But that’s not how it is – unless you believe that starvation, disease and ‘nature red in tooth and claw’ are somehow the hallmarks of a benign, intelligent designer.

Evolution has no plan, no compassion and no interest in ‘right and wrong’. Those concerns are solely human. To shirk our responsibility for creating our own moral code (whether we take our morality from nature or from Divinity) seems to me to be nothing more than intellectual and moral cowardice. If we can learn anything from either religion or the evolved natural world it’s that both are capable of creating almost unimaginable catastrophe. We accept uncritically either of these at our peril. So let’s stop pretending that Darwinism has anything to teach us about how things ‘ought to be’. Darwin’s great gift was to provide us with a way to understand how we evolved in the past. What we do with that knowledge is another question entirely.


Badcock, C. (2000). Evolutionary psychology: A critical introduction. Cambridge (UK): Polity Press.

Schore (2012)

I wonder if this is true

Faith healing GP Accusations have come forward that a Staffordshire Dr. told his patient God would heal her & to stop taking her psychiatric medication. The GP denies any wrongdoing and claims that the allegations represent an attack on his Christian faith.

Whether or not this particular GP is guilty of such serious misconduct is a question yet to be answered. However it wouldn’t be the first time such medieval recommendations have been made in UK. The last few years have seen UK psychiatrists like Rob Waller refer psychotic patients for exorcism, several deaths resulting from exorcism worldwide and an Archbishop calling for exorcism of ‘the mentally ill’ in the House of Lords.

It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out.


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