New on AlterNet: Mistakes of the Atheist Movement

My latest column is up on AlterNet, 4 Things the Atheist Movement Has Done Badly (and How to Do Them Better). As you might guess, it’s about some of the chronic blind spots of the atheist movement, together with my thoughts on how we can improve. Read the excerpt below, then click through to see [Read More...]

Your couch or mine?

Laurie Taylor remembers a friend with a penchant for psychotherapy.

I-Ching Party: Year of the Monkey

Monkey2016Happy Year of the Monkey!

Tonight, by the Chinese lunar calendar, it is New Year’s Eve.  Everyone born this coming year is suppose to have the Monkey traits of being quick-witted, charming, lucky, adaptable, bright, versatile, lively, smart. 

According to Western Astrology, from January 20th to February 18th is sign of Aquarius and children born during this time are suppose to be witty, clever, humanitarian, inventive and original. 

Sounds like an Aquarian Monkey may be fun.  Of course there are more complicated readings of these signs, but those are the positive ones.  They are nonsense of course, but fun nonsense.

At my home, to extend the bright lights of Christmas, in late January and February we have decorated for the Chinese New Year and today had an I-Ching party.  Below are worksheets I made to help people in asking direction from the I-Ching.  The top is the empty sheet and below it is a sample completed sheet. If you are interested in how to use the I-Ching, ask me in the comments and I will expound on how to use these worksheets in another post.

Throwing the I-Ching with all our guests was all very good fun, for as I wrote here, the I Ching can act like tofu.

Happy New Year Folks!

I-Ching Worksheet Final

I-Ching Worksheet Final sample

BHA mourns MP and humanist Harry Harpham

The British Humanist Association (BHA) is saddened to note the death of Harry Harpham, the former miner, Labour MP for Sheffield Brightside and Hillsborough, and a member of the All Party Parliamentary Humanist Group (APPHG). Harry, who became an MP at the 2015 general election, was diagnosed with cancer last year and died on 4 February.

Having spent much of his early life as a coal miner, Harry was a committed trade unionist and went on to serve in local politics in Sheffield for a number of years, including as deputy leader of the Council. He was elected to Parliament with a majority of nearly 14,000 last year, taking the seat of former Home Secretary David Blunkett after he announced his decision to stand down.

In addition to being a member of the APPHG, Harry served on the Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs Select Committee and was a parliamentary aide to Shadow Energy Secretary Lisa Nandy.

Following the news of Harry’s death, there has been a flood of tributes from his Labour Party colleagues. David Blunkett stated that Harry had ‘given his life to the improvement of life for others’, adding that he shall be remembered ‘as someone who was a fighter for fairness and justice’. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said that he would be ‘sadly missed’ and that ‘to the very end he was fighting for working people’.

BHA Chief Executive Andrew Copson said, ‘Harry was a kind and dedicated man, and his career in public service and commitment to helping others well embodied the values and aims of the humanist movement. We will miss him, and our thoughts are with his family .’

See also

Harry’s obituary in the Guardian:

Harry’s obituary in the Independent:

BHA demands protection of children’s rights in response to consultation on the purpose and quality of education in England

In response to a call for evidence by the House of Commons Education Committee on the purpose and quality of education, the British Humanist Association (BHA) has called for the education system to better protect the rights of children in England, specifically identifying the narrow Religious Education (RE) curriculum and discriminatory admission policies in many ‘faith’ schools as an obstacle to the fulfilment of those rights. Focussing on what are considered to be three of the most fundamental and important purposes of education, the BHA stresses that, at the very least, schools should ‘encourage children to think critically and for themselves’, ‘ensure children’s health and wellbeing’, and ‘promote understanding of and respect for other cultures, religions, beliefs, and traditions’.

Variously referring to the rights afforded to children by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), and the Human Rights Act 1998, the response echoes a suggestion previously put forward by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner for England (OCC), that a ‘rights-based approach’ is the best way to ensure that a minimum standard of education is provided for.

The submission draws particular attention to the requirement laid out in the UNCRC, and reflected in the Government’s ‘British values’ guidance, which states that education should be directed to ‘the preparation of the child for a responsible life in a free society’, encouraging ‘friendship among all peoples, ethnic, national and religious groups and persons of indigenous origin’. However, the BHA warns that such a spirit ‘cannot be achieved without some level of mutual understanding too’, and claims that ‘both the curriculum and diversity of intake at a large number of “faith” schools, and particularly religiously selective schools… does not adequately support or promote that understanding.’

Speaking on the nature of the RE curriculum specifically, the response states that ‘faith’ schools should be no less obliged to uphold a child’s legal right to hold their own opinions or receive information and ideas from a broad range of sources than is a school with no religious character, and criticises the confessional, faith-based RE that ‘faith’ schools are permitted to provide. The continued denial of a child’s right to opt themselves out of such RE once they are old enough to make up their own minds about their beliefs is also called into question, with the BHA arguing that current rules leave children ‘powerless in the face of what may very well be narrow and doctrinaire teaching’.

Finally, the important role that schools play in ensuring the health and well-being of their pupils is also pointed to, a role which according to the BHA ‘goes well beyond the simple duty of schools to ensure that their pupils are safe, but rather entails a positive duty on schools and other educational settings to equip children with accurate information and knowledge on how to stay healthy’. In light of this, the BHA repeats its call for comprehensive, age-appropriate personal, social, health, and economic education (PSHE), including sex and relationships education (SRE), to be made compulsory in all schools, in line with the recommendation made by the Education Committee, among others, last year.

BHA Education Campaigner, Jay Harman, said: ‘If it does nothing else, an education system must surely enable children to enjoy all the rights and protections to which they are entitled. The fact that “faith” schools are legally able not only to discriminate against children on the basis of their religion, but also to limit their access to a broad and balanced curriculum, is therefore an ongoing scandal, and effectively amounts to the state sanctioned denial of children’s basic rights. We hope the Committee will take on board the comments we’ve made in this submission, and we will certainly continue to campaign on all of these issues until our education system is as fair, inclusive, and beneficial to children as it ought to be.’


For further information or comment please contact the BHA’s Education Campaigner, Jay Harman, on or 0207 324 3078.

Read the BHA’s full response to the call for evidence:

Read more about the BHA’s work on:

The British Humanist Association is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. It promotes a secular state and equal treatment in law and policy of everyone, regardless of religion or belief.

Atlas Shrugged: Loose Lips Sink Ships

Atlas Shrugged, part III, chapter VIII John Galt’s massive, multi-hour speech finally comes to an end. As I mentioned earlier, because Randian protagonists have the superpower of being able to deliver gigantic monologues without interruption, everyone in the TV station is still standing in the exact same places: “It wasn’t real, was it?” said Mr. [Read More...]

The decline of religion in Europe did not lead to a decline in moral standards

Morality is a complex notion, and means different things to different people. Still, there remains a pervasive idea that religion is linked in some general way to moral behaviour. Trying to work out from the data what truth there is in that is tough, but at least we can say with some confidence what people’s [Read More...]

Battling frog extinction, the protein puzzle, and the Nobel Prize for Physics

Chemistry, Biology, Physics: Three scientists talk through big recent developments in their fields.

The trouble with "one per cent feminism"

A Q&A with Dawn Foster, author of a new book that challenges corporate feminism.

The One-Percent Difference

I posted the other day on Facebook about Richard Dawkins being disinvited from NECSS for promoting a grossly sexist video, which provoked an onlooker to comment that he agreed with Dawkins and not with me. (It was a white man, if you wanted to know.) Since I curate my Facebook wall and don’t care to [Read More...]

@quietpinetrees comes to Tumblr

@quietpinetrees comes to Tumblr

Chili vs Pepper

I love hot spicy food. I am so glad to hear that at least this one vice of mine has been shown to be good for our health. (see this BMJ article).  I am not sure if that study was done well, but good for you or not, I will keep eating spicy food.

I made the above diagram to show you some of the biology of chilis.  Below, let me discuss some of the odd linguistics involved with the word “chili”.


Let’s start here: “spicey” is a vague term — heck, basil and oregano are spices but most folks don’t mean things like that when they say a food is “spicy” but instead, they are talking about chili peppers.  To clarify this, most people say “hot spicy food”.

Pepper vs. Chili

Chili and Pepper are both hot spicy foods. But the terms are often confused. Chili (used all over Asia) came to Asia from Central America while black pepper (used all over the Western world) came to the West from India.  Black Pepper and the Chilis (as my diagram points out) are from different Orders of plants — they are not related at all.  Peppers reached Egypt and Greece very early but were rarely used until the Romans around the 1st century CE. Black pepper was very expensive at that time because of its long journey on the spice roads from South India where it was extensively since BCE.

“Pepper” comes from the South Indian Tamil word for “long pepper” (“pippali”)  a plant in the same family as “black pepper” but the Romans assumed the spices the same. Then in the 1500s the word “pepper” was used also for the spicy “chili” coming from the New Word — “Chili Peppers”.  And so the confusion multiplied.

“Chili” comes from the Nahuati word “chilli” which is the name of the wonderful capsicum fruit the Aztec’s were eating when the Spaniard conquered them in the 1500s.

One last odd linguisting point. Sichuan Pepper — one of my favorite spices from Asia (particularly Sichuan China, where I used to live) — is neither a pepper, nor a chili but instead it is of the citrus family (see my previous post).  Sichuan Pepper is called “HuāJiāo” in China is translated as Flower Pepper or Flower Chili — the confusion persists.

Sichuan Pepper is umami (the fifth flavor) amplified.  It is great in omelets, stews, curries and much more.  Beware though, it can make your tongue and lips numb if you eat a lot.  And remember, it compliments cayenne pepper wonderfully. On first tasting it, my 14 year-old son called it “electric lemon”.

What Is Bernie’s Plan B?

The 2016 presidential primaries are approaching, and I find I’m still undecided. I think both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton are fine candidates, and either would make an excellent president. This is especially true in comparison to the howling pandemonium that’s the GOP field, where all the other candidates are competing to be as vulgar, [Read More...]

Citrus Fruits: Pomelo & Mikan

PomeloThis morning I ate my first pomelo (also known as a pummelo). It was absolutely delicious. I am now a pomelo convert. The pomelo’s latin taxonomy name is Citrus grandis – because it is huge. In fact, when we were shopping yesterday and first spotted the pomelo, I thought they were just gigantic grapefruits until I saw their unusual names.  So I just had to buy one to try it.

My diagram below shows that the pomello is not a hybrid citrus but is one of the original citrus fruits from which the rest of our common citrus fruits were created.

Now having read on the citrus fruits, I have discovered that the grapefruit is actually a cross between the sweet orange and the pomelo.   I have never been a fan of grapefruit, but the pomelo is pleasantly sweeter and less acidic than the grapefruit so I will add it to my favorite fruit list.

The pomelo has other descendants such as the sweet orange (pomelo + mandarin orange) and the tangelo (pomelo + tangerine). And speaking of citrus hybrids my other favorite is the mikan.  I am not a big fan of oranges, but when I lived in Japan, I ate lots of mikans every year.  In the USA mikans can be compared to clementine and tangerine — no, they are not all the same, but they are very close.  Here is some info to differentiate the three:

  • Tangerines (Citrus tangerina) : citrus originated in Southeastern Asia and Australia.  It is a variety of the mandarin orange (Citrus reticulata). Tangerines have been cultivated for over 3,000 years in China and Japan.
    description: small, thin-skinned, few seeds.
  • Clementine: A Father Clement Rodier of Misserghin, Algeria is credited with its discovery in the early 1902. It is a hybrid between a mandarin orange and a sweet orange. It has displaced Mikans in US markets. Minimal seeds.
  • Mikan (Citrus unshiu): AKA “satsuma” (the Japanese province from where these citrus were first exported to USA). Also related to the mandarin. Seedless

Wrestling with readings on Citrus classification this morning, I decided to make that diagram. Note however that classifications are slippery and controversial.  For example, it is unclear if some of these are “cultivars” (natural variants of a species where were then separated and inbred) or “hybrids” (intentional crossing of species).  But this chart is a good place to start.  I hope it has helped you to understand citrus better.  Any suggestions?

Faith in uncertainty: what early Christians believed about the afterlife

From the intellectual hotbed of late antiquity emerged some key Christian values – and some humanist ones too.

The Seeds Driving our Conversions

Boy_TVThe seeds of our religious conversions are often the cause of our religious demise. For me, it was doubting and questioning.

From a young age I habitually doubted and questioned everything. Common culture for me was just the opposite of these traits.  Common culture was people doing what everyone else did: people who loved shopping in malls, people who lived and breathed national mercenary sports, people who swallowed the Uncle Sam pill (remember, I grew up during the Vietnam war) and people who accepted the morality taught by hours of passive TV hypnosis — these people, for me, were what created our non-thinking common culture which I found repulsive.

Snobby?  Yeah, maybe.  Or just curious?  Hmmm, I’m not sure.  But either way, it is my temperament and always has been.

Ironically, having been brought up nominally Christian, the Christians I were meeting we challenging culture.  They were also self-reflective, albeit through Bible reading and complicated theologies. These Christians appeared as introspective thinkers and fascinated me.

Our conversions are rarely purely intellectual.  I rarely believe someone that says “I thought about it and …”  when they are converting or deconverting.  Because religion and beliefs in general serve social functions before they serve truth functions.  So likewise for me, there were two other things that played a big roll in my conversion, beside the self-introspection and society- challenging nature of Christianity:  I was dating a Christian girl for 7 months when I found my best friend dead.  That friend had introduced me to my girlfriend — they were next door neighbors and he was a strong Christian also. (see here)

After converting and my initial 6 months of Baptist doctrine, I attended a very alternative, Jesus Freak, communal charismatic church near Cornell University (“Love Inn“). Two years later I would attend a Evangelical Chistian College – Wheaton College.  It was at Wheaton that I started seeing Christianity as bland, status quo and exclusive.  The majority of my fellow students thought sitting on hard pews, dressing up pretty and singing century old hymns is something their god desired.  Fortunately, I also met a few fellow students at Wheaton who had also started questioning their Christianity. I was drawn to them.  They did not embrace secular culture but they also did not embrace Christianity. Many of these folks where raised in India, and so my interest in Hinduism grew. Eventually, as I wrote before, Hinduism was my undoing.  So I was again drawn to doubting the norm, which had now become Christianity and yet still thinking deeply about things that mattered, which had now become comparative religion.

So you see, bucking common culture and attraction to self-reflective where ironically both my ways in and out of Christianity.



  • “national mercenary sports”: by this, I mean, players are not from the town cheering them to victory.  They are only there for money and will change loyalties in a second.  Yet the fans pretend that it is “their team”, “their city” that is playing on the field.  They are mercenaries.  The self-deception is hilarious to me.
  • HT for pic

Reviving Daylight Atheism on Facebook

Quick note for today: I’ve decided to revive the Daylight Atheism site page on Facebook and give it another try. I tried it out a few years ago, but I found the moderation controls were badly designed and it was too hard to keep out spam and other nonsense. I’m going to see if they’ve [Read More...]

Atlas Shrugged: Manifest Destiny

Atlas Shrugged, part III, chapter VII, The Speech John Galt is still talking. In this section of the speech, which is the last part that I’ll cover, he addresses an important question: what happens to the people who listen to him and come away convinced? After all, you’ve got to admit, he waited till pretty [Read More...]

WeiQi is Conquered !

WeiQi_languagesThe game of Weiqi has been conquered! Artificial intelligence has finally beaten a top professional Weiqi player. Chess was much easier to conquer, falling in 1997, but WeiQi has been mysteriously elusive to the slicing-and-dicing of cold mechanical computers calculations. But the interesting news is how “slicing-and-dicing” still doesn’t work for WeiQi. Instead of using old possible-move tree searching algorithms (what I am calling slice-and-dice), AlphaGo (Google’s victorious program) adds two more elements: data from expert systems and the final coup de grâce of 12 deep neural networks.

Now I won’t pretend to understand any of these three elements used in AlphaGo, but apparently, Google made AlphaGo’s neural networks play against themselves to discover its own new strategies.

Sure while I am excited about the WeiQi story in itself, this may also point toward new ways of using AI to address other apparently highly complex systems like disease, climate, political policy and more.

Caveat: When I say WeiQi (or any other game) is “conquered”, I just mean by AI. The games will still be a great delight to all us humans. Just because anyone (computers included) can do something better than us, does not have to take away any of our joy.


  • See Googlelblog for my source: “AlphaGo: using machine learning to master the ancient game of Go.”
  • The last half of this short video shows the reigning European Go champion, Fan Hui’s humble reaction after losing 0-5 to AlphaGo test.

BHA challenges Secretary of State on false allegation of ‘vexatious’ actions in open letter

Take ActionTake action! We’ve written to Nicky Morgan to oppose the Government’s moves to prevent us and other civil society organisations from voicing concerns about the many problems that parents face as a result of discriminatory religious selection within the school admissions system. Now it’s your turn: we are encouraging everyone to write to their MPs to speak out, and we’ve provided a facility through which it’s possible to do so.

In a letter to the Secretary of State for Education Nicky Morgan, the British Humanist Association (BHA) has criticised the Government’s move to ban civil society organisations from raising concerns about English school admission arrangements, stating that parents and children ‘will be the only ones to lose out should this proposed change go ahead’. The ban, which was first suggested by a variety of religious organisations in a meeting with the Department for Education (DfE) last year, is specifically targeted at ‘secularist campaign groups’, who the Education Secretary has accused of submitting ‘vexatious complaints’ about the admission arrangements of ‘faith’ schools.

In its letter, the BHA describes the move as being ‘detrimental to the school admission system as a whole’, claiming it will ‘in no way contribute to making the system fairer, more transparent, and easier to navigate for parents and their children’. The proposed ban comes after an investigation carried out by the BHA and Fair Admissions Campaign revealed widespread failure to adhere to the School Admissions Code by religiously selective schools. The letter goes on to say:

‘Without our objections, several schools would still be breaking the law by selecting on the basis of race and/or gender; several would still be selecting on the basis of whether or not parents arrange flowers or help clean at church; and one would still be policing whether or not a child’s parents are having sex when their mothers are menstruating. Perhaps more pertinently in light of the ban, without our objections most schools would still be unlawfully failing to publish their admissions policies, either on time or at all, preventing parents from even being able to object in the first place.’

BHA Chief Executive Andrew Copson, commented: ‘As our letter explains, we receive thousands of requests for support, advice, and advocacy from parents right across England every year, and if this proposal goes ahead, a huge number of families will lose out. Every objection we submit is on behalf of those families and to describe these efforts as “vexatious” is a total mischaracterisation. The findings of our report reveal that there is a significant amount of unfairness and injustice in our admissions system, and it is long past time that the Government addresses this rather than pander to the requests of the religious lobby. We will await a response from Mrs Morgan and we hope she will respond positively.’


For further information or comment please contact the BHA’s Education Campaigner Jay Harman on or 07970393680.

Read the BHA’s letter to the Secretary of State:

Read the Department for Education’s press release announcing the proposed ban:

Read the BHA’s previous news item ‘Government moves to ban organisations from exposing law-breaking schools unfairly restricting access to children and parents’:

Read the BHA’s comment piece in the Independent ‘Is Nicky Morgan on the side of children or faith organisations’:

Read the BHA/FAC report ‘An Unholy mess: How virtually all religiously selective schools are breaking the law:

Read the FAC’s briefing on the report:

The Fair Admissions Campaign wants all state-funded schools in England and Wales to be open equally to all children, without regard to religion or belief. The Campaign is supported by a wide coalition of individuals and national and local organisations. We hold diverse views on whether or not the state should fund faith schools. But we all believe that faith-based discrimination in access to schools that are funded by the taxpayer is wrong in principle and a cause of religious, ethnic, and socio-economic segregation, all of which are harmful to community cohesion. It is time it stopped.

Supporters of the campaign include the Accord Coalition, the British Humanist Association, Professor Ted Cantle and the iCoCo Foundation, the Association of Teachers and LecturersBritish Muslims for Secular Democracy, the Campaign for State Education, the Centre for Studies on Inclusive Education, the Christian think tank Ekklesia, the Hindu Academy, the Green Party, the Liberal Democrat Education AssociationLiberal Youth, the Local Schools NetworkRichmond Inclusive Schools Campaign, the Runnymede Trust, the Socialist Educational Association, and the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches.

The British Humanist Association is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. It promotes a secular state and equal treatment in law and policy of everyone, regardless of religion or belief.