Doctor Who is a simply wonderful series. Much like religion, I grew up with it and now have an ongoing love/hate relationship with it, but it remains one of the best things on television. Even better, I recently realised just how much it had taught me about religious claims and ideas, at least after a fashion. I trust all the parallels are self-explanatory.
1. One person, many faces
Despite apparently being the same person, the Doctor can have entirely different appearances, approaches and even characters at different times – Marcionites take note. He can even occasionally meet himself, despite the apparent logical and chronological problems, in as many as five persons at once.
2. Impossible is nothing, or possibly everything
The difficulty with any series involving time travel is that anything happening in the past is a known quantity for the audience. We know certain things happened in the past, and we know the world wasn’t blown up, because it’s still here. So to maintain dramatic tension it was necessary to explain that time is complicated, and things can happen this time that didn’t happen before. That was fine, but then one day the plot required an event to be unchangeable, so this was described as a fixed point in time. With these two tools in place, any event can be explained away in whichever direction is more convenient, perfect for smoothing over those awkward plot holes.
3. Bafflegab is your friend
If you talk nonsense with enough confidence, it sounds like an explanation. Which is quite handy if you need to map the probability vectors, identify a spatio-temporal hyperlink, or reverse the polarity of the neutron flow, to remotely unscramble the different timelines and break a timelock for just long enough to do some technological jiggery-pokery. Or even explain how someone can be his own father without causing a time rift or running up against the Blinovitch Limitation Effect.
4. Everything revolves around humankind
The Doctor could go anywhere or anywhen in the infinity of time and space, but spends a huge amount of his life (or lives) hanging around Earth, having repeatedly expressed a deep fondness for humanity. Alien races are constantly attempting to invade/enslave/destroy the planet, even though they always fail because, you know, the Doctor, and even though other planets disappear completely with less fanfare than the death of a single Ewok. Assuming they’re not all being completely irrational, Earth and its inhabitants must be uniquely special in some way.
5. Consistency isn’t that important
There’s a huge amount of history, some of which already appears completely contradictory, and trying to make everything fit in with the existing content would be both thankless and futile. Whatever you do, there’s always some geek who remembers a line from 1971 which clearly demonstrates that you’ve got it wrong in some way. But if you’re going to sin, sin boldly – if you cheerfully acknowledge the inconsistency, and hint at very good reasons for it, you’ll have an army of Whovians coming up with ingenious post hoc reasons why it isn’t actually inconsistent at all.
6. Canon is only half the story
I know it’s a cliché, but there are great non-canonical stories out there, some of which contain fascinating ideas. The details contained in Lungbarrow alone would be enough to keep Steven Moffat in teasers and dramatic revelations for years. Rightly or wrongly, though, it’s pretty clearly been left out of that club. Which might be good from the point of view of consistency and ongoing development, but it’s still something of a shame.
7. Women, know your place
In the old days of Classic Who, women didn’t have a significant role. They were patronised by the Doctor and captured by aliens (often with excessive screaming), but rarely did anything else. These days, they try, and things have definitely improved, but despite some fine words and obvious changes, women still often seem to be second-class citizens, and the top job remains out of reach.
8. Reboots are cool
You can get away with a lot of subtle and not-so-subtle tweaks of emphasis, even in the limited timeframe of 50 years, but if you need a change that goes beyond a coat of varnish and a couple of new characters, there’s nothing wrong with a reboot. The best thing about this is that you can claim a continuity of history and use as much of that heritage as you like, while ignoring anything that’s inconvenient.
9. Play those emotions with music
You’ve set everything out exactly as you wanted it and told your story with skill and verve, but what if that isn’t enough? You need to stir the emotions, and the best way of doing that is with a stomach-churning, pulse-racing, tear-jerking soundtrack turned all the way up to 11. After all, if you don’t get enough of an emotional response, people might start thinking about whether the story actually makes sense.
10. Paradox is inevitable
Even in the most careful hands, time travel and paradox go together like a horse and anachronistic nuclear-powered antigravity carriage, and Doctor Who takes more liberties than most. This is a universe where your future self can come back in time to rescue you from an eternal prison, but was only able to do so because his future self had done the same thing, and his future self before him (or possibly after him), and so on and so on. It’s future selves all the way down. Once you’ve swallowed this, anything else will look positively rational.
11. Put yourself in charge and you can get away with anything
How many rules has the Doctor broken because it seemed like a good idea at the time? How many times has he forbidden other people from doing something he went on to do himself? If he was writing a list of a specified length, he’d add an extra one at the end just to show that he could, especially if it happened to bring the total up to a significant number, like (for example) the number of Doctors. Above all, he knows that if people are going to let you tell them what to do just because you act like you’re in charge, they’ll still accept it even if you show yourself to be the sort of scoundrel who doesn’t follow his own rules.
One of the strangest things about looking back at the past is noticing how certain I was about everything. It’s hard to explain, and people often have a hard time understanding it, but during the period when I really, truly believed, I was absolutely certain that I was never going to change my mind. I felt that I’d finally found the truth, and that could never be undone.
It wasn’t as if I was moving in line with a different worldview, more as if I’d discovered a new fact. People can change their opinions, but why would I ever think that France wasn’t a country, now that I knew it was? I didn’t usually talk of knowing, but that’s what it comes down to – I had special knowledge, and I couldn’t imagine that ever changing.
As an example of this certainty, I remember being told by someone with a “prophetic gift” (yes, I confidently accepted that as fact as well) that I was going to go through some rough times. I forget the precise phrasing, but my instant reaction was that this referred to a crisis of faith. However, the idea that I might ever have the slightest doubt was just inconceivable to me, so I ended up casting around for some other possible meaning.
Looking back, it seems ridiculous, but I genuinely thought there was no way I could ever doubt my faith, even though I just accepted the prophetic claim at face value. It all felt true – it really was as simple as that. In the end, I became convinced that something was going to happen to my wife (then fiancée), mainly because that scared me more than anything in the world, which seemed to fit the dire tone of the warning.
Over the next few days, I spent every free moment crying out to God. I stopped eating, and I didn’t even drink anything for over 24 hours. I thought of it as a fast, with the aim of asking God to stop whatever was going to happen, but it was really a clumsy, rather desperate effort without any clever theology behind it. I just knew that I had to do something.
Eventually, three days in, I got a sense that something had changed (more likely, I snapped out of it), and slowly started to eat again. But for that, which may just have been a basic self-preservation instinct, I think I would have gone on until I became quite seriously ill. And why did I do it? Because I got the idea, based on nothing at all, that something bad was going to happen.
Even after all that, despite that sense of change, I didn’t feel content or comfortable. I’d stopped because I felt that whatever would be would be, and there was nothing more to be done. The sense of fear and dread had lost its urgency and become less acute, but it was still there, gnawing at me. It faded in the end, but only after many months, and it scarred me badly.
When I have one of those moments when I start to miss the sense of certainty and purpose that I used to have, I remember this episode and remind myself that certainty isn’t all that great after all.
When we do bad things, we should do something to make it better. If we don’t, God is allowed to do bad things to us to make it even. We do a bad thing that he doesn’t like, so he does a bad thing that we don’t like. God likes blood to make it better, but there aren’t enough animals for all the bad things we do, so Mr Jesus died so that there would always be enough blood to make God happy. Now all we need to do is say sorry.
Now when we say sorry, God promises that he won’t hurt us, even if we did really, really bad things. You just have to mean it when you say sorry, like I tell my children. I don’t think they always really mean it, even then, but God knows everything, so he can probably tell if you’re only pretending to be sorry. Maybe if that happens, He makes you sit on the step until you really mean it.
There’s only one thing that God won’t let us off if we say sorry, which is being mean to the air-God-person. No one really knows what that means, or why the air-God-person gets more bothered than the other God-people about people saying bad things, but Mr Jesus was very sure about it, even if he didn’t explain it very simply. If there’s only one thing that God really doesn’t want us to do, you’d think he’d be clearer about what it is.
God still seems to think people should be locked up when they do bad things, even if they say sorry and promise not to do it again, which is quite strange. That means people who hurt and kill other people or take their things can never be trusted to be good while they’re living, even if they’re really sorry, but they’re allowed to run around like everyone else in the nice place in the sky for as long as they want.
Maybe it’s okay because there isn’t anything to take or kill in the nice place.
Image courtesy of bacon_pola, used with permission
I’m going to assume that anyone who’s interested in Richard Dawkins’ latest spat on Twitter already knows all about it, but in summary, he mocked Mehdi Hasan as a journalist (and the New Statesman for publishing him) over Hasan’s belief (common among Muslims) that Mohammed was carried up to heaven on a winged horse.
Mehdi Hasan admits to believing Muhamed flew to heaven on a winged horse. And New Statesman sees fit to print him as a serious journalist—
Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) April 21, 2013
This caused a lot of fuss, with reactions to it ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous, before Dawkins posted a more thorough explanation of what he meant by his tweet, without the constraint of a 140-character limit.
I don’t see any benefit in revisiting this in detail, but the question that’s been on my mind, given that there have been various accusations of atheist Islamophobia recently, is how atheists, particularly Western atheists in broadly Christian societies, should handle Islam and the beliefs of Muslims, and when rational criticism becomes prejudice and bigotry.
My position isn’t fully formed, but I take it as a given that all people are equal, and the existence of a different culture shouldn’t, in itself, be a reason for turning a blind eye to dangerous, wrong or unjust things that are going on in that culture. I won’t have any patronising relativistic crap about respecting the brown people’s religion/culture because they don’t know any better. But nor is it helpful or reasonable to criticise an entire religion/culture for the actions of a small minority of its members.
I say religion/culture like that because while they’re clearly different things, in practice they’re pretty much inseparable. Religion drives culture, and to a large extent, culture also drives religion. To accurately and reasonably separate them is a complicated business, so you can probably assume here that any mention of either religion or culture includes the other.
Dawkins is well within his rights to criticise nonsensical beliefs, and he rightly observes that:
If you were to suggest that Conan Doyle was a gullible fool among the Cottingley Fairies, I doubt that anyone would call you a “vile racist bigot” … The difference, of course, is that Doyle’s ridiculous belief was not protected by the shield of religious privilege.
But this is only half the story. Nor would he be called a vile racist bigot if he commented on the views of a Christian journalist who believes in Jesus’ virgin birth, resurrection or ascension, but he didn’t do that. The difference, rightly or wrongly, is that criticising a typical belief of a completely different culture makes the charge plausible, at least.
If Dawkins wanted to discuss the double standards that see irrational non-religious beliefs mocked while equally bizarre religious ideas are respected, as he says, there were better ways to do it – as a scientist, he should understand the importance of eliminating confounding factors. A similar example of a Christian could have served perfectly well to make the same point without bringing the distraction of cultural difference and charges of Islamophobia, justified or not, into the equation.
This is where I think Dawkins gets it wrong. A belief may well be utterly nonsensical and worthy of criticism, but if you reserve your most scathing criticism for beliefs which are foreign to you, in any sense, you may be allowing your unfamiliarity to colour your views, and run the risk of being perceived as prejudiced, whether you are or not.
The difficulty is that we all have cultural expectations. However much I reject my previous beliefs, there’s a sense in which I’m still Christian, Protestant and low church in descending order of importance. That’s my background, what I suppose I’m arguing against, and it influences me in all sorts of subtle ways. In particular, the further an idea is from my former beliefs and experience, the more ludicrous it seems.
It’s easy for me to dismiss transubstantiation, because I never believed it and always regarded it as an alien belief, something “they” believe. Even easier is to mock beliefs that no one I know has ever held, like (for example) winged horses carrying people up to heaven. But from an objective point of view, they’re no more ridiculous than some of the things I once believed, and some of my friends and family still do. The difference is my exposure to the beliefs, and my degree of empathy for people who believe them.
My rule of thumb, as far as I have one, is that specific live issues relating to “foreign” religions like Islam (such as the burqa or Sharia Law) should be addressed on their merits, but general statements about the nature of those religions, something which has become increasingly commonplace with regard to Islam, not least from Dawkins and Sam Harris, are dangerous because of the “foreignness” of the beliefs and the risk of the criticism being misinformed, prejudiced or perceived through the lens of an ongoing culture war.
Islamophobia isn’t a word I like to use, because of its chilling effect on any criticism of Islam. It’s clearly inappropriate in this case, and I’d say that it should only ever be used in the most extreme cases of bigotry, if at all. But mockery isn’t likely to change anyone’s mind, and flame wars are rarely good ways of raising issues for discussion. It’s a matter of pragmatism.
However satisfying it may be to lay into beliefs you consider ridiculous or dangerous, aggressive criticism from outside a group is very likely to strengthen those beliefs and make them more extreme. Ironically, strong criticism of Islam prompted by Islamic extremism may itself be responsible for breeding a new generation of extremists.
The one thing I’d like western atheists to do in relation to Islam is to maintain the scepticism they apply to the beliefs, but also turn that same scepticism on their criticisms, and ask whether they’re effective, balanced and helpful.
A recent discussion reminded me of how often I hear arguments for God’s existence that stem from a lack of any explanation for our existence. I can see the appeal of such a position, and it used to be just about the only thing I could cling to when religion made no sense. The universe must have come from somewhere, therefore God.
In more sophisticated forms, or possibly in the hands of skilful bluffers, this argument would also incorporate claims that there is no experimental or observational evidence for abiogenesis, for example, or some similar position. Fundamentally, though, the argument remains the same and has the same flaws.
Even if we have no answer to the question of the origins of life and/or the universe (and on these matters, I’m happy to defer to people with much greater expertise than me), God isn’t an answer, because saying God did it tells us nothing; it has no explanatory power. Under this approach, God is just the name we give to the things we don’t (yet) understand – God of the Gaps rides again.
Supposing I live in a primitive culture and don’t know why the sun comes up every morning, so I say it’s pushed by a beetle. Quite apart from being completely wrong, what practical difference would that make to my knowledge? Or if I don’t know why boiling water becomes steam, so I say pixies do it – it’s not an explanation, I’m just dressing my ignorance up in different words.
If we’re going to actually understand anything, the concept of God (or sun-beetles or pixies) needs to be rigorously defined and tested as science. Otherwise, it’s no more enlightening than an exaggerated shrug. Maybe some people find it helpful to give the gaps in their knowledge a special name, but it doesn’t actually change the level of our knowledge, and William of Ockham starts looking distinctly cross.
For God to be an answer to these questions, there would have to be scientific explanations for who or what God is, how He created everything, why He can be defined as having no prior cause when His existence was only postulated because the universe must have a cause, and so on.
And that’s without addressing all the claims about God which aren’t necessary for a First Cause but tend to sneak in under the radar – all the “Omnis”, for a start, and then moving swiftly on to all the various different religions and their particular individual beliefs.
There’s a reason why God of the Gaps is such a discredited approach. It chases its own tail in ever decreasing circles as the niches for God to hide in get ever smaller, with a desperation that resembles cherry-picking more than seeking after truth. It’s not just bad science, it’s positively anti-science, as further discoveries are feared and avoided lest they shrink God’s domain even further.
When I don’t know the answer to something, I try to find the answer. That’s how we make progress, both individually and as a species. Not by saying anything we don’t understand must be magic.
Pornography really seems to attract the quacks. I’ve heard people blaming it for all sorts of social ills, but Judith Reisman and Donald L Hilton Jr between them have taken the usual pearl-clutching terror in a direction I’d never have imagined anyone would consider – they say pornography causes homosexuality.
Honestly, it’s hard to know how to respond to anything so totally bizarre, and I find myself caught between serious and flippant responses. The snarky part of my brain wants to say that this explains why there’s so much demand for lesbian porn (or, you know, so I’ve heard *ahem*), but anyone who views the argument as having any basis in fact might be so cognitively challenged that they’d take my sarcastic putdown as a statement of genuine agreement.
I want to deliver a firm factual rebuttal, but I fear that any hint of taking the claim seriously would be giving it too much credit. Nevertheless, I’ve been giggling about this since I heard it, so I’m going to try to have a bit of an each way bet and cover both angles as best I can.
Reisman is well-known, even notorious, for her belief in “erototoxins”, a harmful mix of chemicals that she believes flood the brain in response to pornography. She offers no evidence for these erototoxins, nor does she offer any explanation of how they can be triggered by pornography, but not by any form of what she would consider legitimate sexual arousal. It’s classic ideological pseudoscience.
The homosexuality thing appears to be new from her, and it’s not clear how much she agrees with it, given that her own comment, stripped of Hilton’s quotes, could conceivably be read as saying nothing about homosexuality. Nevertheless, she quotes his claims with clear approval, even if her main angle seems to be addiction and desensitisation.
Working from the extended Right Wing Watch quotes from Reisman’s article (partly because they snip out some irrelevant preaching and partly to avoid giving the nutty WorldNetDaily any more hits than I have to), her argument (if you can call it that) appears to centre on Gypsy Moths and a study from 1967 which she interprets as support for her view. It very obviously isn’t.
Read this quote and see if you can see what’s wrong:
In 1869 gypsy moths, imported to create an American silk industry, instead decimated our deciduous trees – oaks, maples and elms – and devastated our forests for the next 150 years. In the ’60s scientists found male moths mate with the female “by following her scent,” her “pheromone.”
A 1967 paper, “Insect population control by the use of sex pheromones to inhibit orientation between the sexes,” reported that scientists permeated the moth’s environment with strong, artificial female moth pheromone “This … scent overpowered the normal females ability to attract the male, and the confused males were unable to find the females.”
So, our trees got saved by what could be called olfactory moth pornography, a heavy-duty phony scent that unmanned male orientation to create an impotent moth population.
I’d say the problem’s obvious, but that would assume that there’s only one. Most transparently, the study (the abstract of which is here) deals with a species that find their mates by following a pheromone scent. Already, applicability to humans is limited. And even from this selective description, it’s apparent that the moths saw no change in their sexuality, but the males were unable to find the females which they were seeking.
It could be called olfactory moth pornography, just as I could call Judith Reisman a porn actress. Both would have equal validity, i.e. none at all. Whatever anyone would like to be the case, Humpty Dumptyisms are no way to determine the truth. At this point, I think it’s fair to say the claim has nothing to recommend it.
So what if it was actually true? I have a nasty habit of trying to examine even the most ridiculous claims with a scientific approach, and this has been occupying my thoughts. If watching pornography has this effect, imagine how much more extreme it would be if you were participating in it. Anyone who’d had any sort of career in porn would be gay.
And given the easy availability of porn, doesn’t the existence of a non-trivial number of straight adult men conclusively disprove the claim? I’m imagining a world in which women can easily tell that a man’s gay – “He seemed nice, and I thought he was interested, but he must be gay – he’s got a PC.”
But maybe not – there are some very heteronormative assumptions in this, apart from the usual obsession with male homosexuality but not lesbianism. I’ve been assuming straight porn, but if straight porn turns you gay, shouldn’t gay porn turn you straight? Will fundies and conservatives suddenly be stocking up on gay porn (even more than usual), for use in “ex-gay” conversion therapies? There are so many things we don’t know.
Maybe more research is required. Any volunteers?