Daryl Ilbury

Posts Tagged ‘Religion’

Science and prejudice

In Free-thinking, Science on August 28, 2017 at 10:45 am

QUIET_MAVERICK_Front cover thumb small

I’ve been asked by a number of people about the suspicion towards science taking root in Donald Trump’s America, especially around vaccination and climate change. As an explanation, here is an excerpt from my latest book Tim Noakes: The Quiet Maverick, from the chapter titled ‘Newton, we have a problem’:

“We are not born distrustful of science, we are taught it. Like racism, homophobia or any other prejudice, it is the outcome of the opinions – or ignorance – of parents, teachers and communities, and the complicity of religion in this regard cannot be overemphasised. The shaping of attitudes towards science is not limited to the community-level preaching in churches, temples and mosques, or the propaganda taught in the schools they control, it’s in their continued influence at state level.

This can be overt, as in the control of Iran’s Islamic theologians over the election of their Supreme Leader, the deceptively quaint symbiosis between the British monarchy and the Anglican Church, or the more dissembling claims of separation of church and state in the US while the command ‘In God we trust’ still holds court in their legislative chambers and courtrooms. Or it can be covert – on a subtler level, acquiescence to the dictates of religions lies in the national celebration of religious holidays and the invocation of deities in national anthems, South Africa’s Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika being a case in point.

Yet, science is the only way of accurately understanding our natural world, anything else is make-believe. The unequivocal proof thereof is in the replicable application of science: technology. So much of what we take for granted as part of our modern world has been realised only by using science to understand – and thoroughly test – the underlying hypotheses. Bolts of lightning, formerly considered portents of doom or the designs of sorcerers, can be recreated in a laboratory. Heavier-than-air craft take to the skies daily because of our clear understanding of pressure differentials produced by the shape of a bird’s wing, not because those aboard all pray to the powers of an omnipotent being.

Despite Christian Scientists believing that a child’s fever, headaches and stiffness of the neck emanate from that child’s impure thoughts, modern medicine’s understanding of germ theory, and the technology it has produced, means we can do a simple test for meningitis, and if that is proved the case, treat the child with antibiotics. Of course the parents would probably disagree, refuse medication in accordance with their beliefs, and let the child die in excruciating pain while they stand beside his or her bed, their heads bowed in deference to the imaginary.

In his book The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan explains this with typical eloquence: ‘Microbiology and meteorology now explain what only a few centuries ago was considered sufficient cause to burn women to death.’”

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Why the destruction of Palmyra is a good thing

In Eish!, Fools on September 2, 2015 at 1:36 pm

UNITAR-UNOSAT imagery shows the Temple of Bel seen on August 27 (top) and rubble seen at the temple's location on August 31 (below) [AFP]

UNITAR-UNOSAT imagery shows (top) the Temple of Bel seen on August 27 and (below) rubble seen at the temple’s location on August 31 [AFP]

OK…it’s not, unless you see the more uncomfortable big picture.

According to the Wall Street Journal, satellite images released Monday by the United Nations confirmed that the main building of the 2,000-year-old Temple of Bel in Syria, one of the Middle East’s most important archaeological sites, has been destroyed by ISIS.

[If you’re going get editorially anal about the current name this terrorist organisation calls itself, believe me when I say I don’t give a fuck – I’m certainly not going to agonise over it].

Like many leading titles, the WSJ has been rather breathless (in it’s own way) about the destruction of the temple’s iconic main building; suggesting in no uncertain way it’s a bad thing.

I think otherwise.

Firstly let me underline something in case it’s not already clear: As a freethinker I object to oppressive ideologies dressed up in the guise of ‘religion’, and so I certainly have no sympathy for the cause of religious extremists. Does this mean I’m expected to add to the clamour of objection to ISIS’s destroying of a culturally treasured building?

No, I see it more as an opportunity for us to step in to the arena they have cleared and debate the merits of ideological justification. Sometimes it takes something this unsparing to expose hypocrisy.

According to Hassan Hassan, a Middle East analyst and co-author of the book “ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror,” ISIS see what they’re doing as erasing signs and artifacts that represent ideas outside their strict interpretation of Islam. If that is the case then it’s justified – it’s justified through the lens of their ideology.

And there’s the rub – if we condemn them for something their ideology deems right, should we not do the same for other oppressive ideologies that consider their destructive behaviour justified? If someone claims what they do, or what they believe in, is legitimate – irrespective of how it impacts others – because it’s their religion, should we not challenge it?

For example, if a Kentucky state town clerk refuses to issue a marriage licence to a gay couple  because through the lens of her religion to do so would erase the ‘sanctity of marriage’, should we not challenge her?

If a father allows a knife to be taken to his newborn son or preteen daughter, despite their rights not to be violated, because through the lens of his ideology cutting around his child’s genitals is deemed necessary, should we not object?

And yet if we do, they’ll kick up a fuss and claim their beliefs are inviolable; more importantly others will rush to defend them.

And that’s when I smile, because you can’t condemn the destructive beliefs of one religion and claim persecution when someone challenges yours.

And if that makes you uncomfortable, then it’s a good thing.

TRUE freedom of expression – not a reality on SA radio

In Eish!, Free-thinking on August 26, 2015 at 9:06 am
daryl studio 2

Thinking carefully before opening mouth

The question I am most often asked is, “Why did you leave?” It seems it’s still something of a mystery why I just ‘walked away’ from a highly successful career in breakfast radio. The ‘successful’ part is true – by the time I left East Coast Radio at the end of August 2009, my show delivered the bulk of the station’s 2 million listeners (the highest ever), helping make it the biggest English-medium independent radio station in Southern Africa.

It’s the ‘career’ bit that was a little wonky. The reality is I didn’t see a future in an industry threatened by the suppression of the freedom of expression.

Now that may surprise those who believe South Africa’s constitution champions the freedom of expression. It does, it’s just its citizens that don’t; they believe rather in what Mick Hume, in his brilliant book Trigger Warning: Is the Fear of Being Offensive Killing Free Speech, calls “freedom of expression, but…”. In short: a freedom of expression, but with restrictions. So, in effect, not free.

Case in point: Last month the Acting SRC President (of the Vacation Committee) at the University of Cape Town (UCT) made some disparaging remarks about gays on her Facebook page. In reaction to the US Supreme Court ruling that same-sex marriages be legalised, Ms Zizipho Pae posted the following: “We are institutionalising and normalising sin! Sin. May God have mercy on us.” I found her comments puerile, her sentiments towards gays archaic, and her invoking of a deity pathetic, but I respected her right to say what she felt. I also knew exactly what was going to happen next.

Sure enough, a Twitter-storm erupted, which was good; again – freedom of expression. Ms Pae was pilloried for being homophobic (arguably true), out of touch with the university’s policies around discrimination (debatable – she wasn’t discriminating against anyone), or engaging in hate speech (inciting violence? I don’t think so). Ms Pae would’ve received a brutal reality check; and things should have stopped there. But she was then kicked out of the SRC. Why? Because they found her comments offensive?

Tough! Because that’s her right, just as it was the right of others to challenge her.

That’s what most people seem to forget about the freedom of expression. Because opinions are diverse, expressing them invariably means crossing paths with people who think differently, even running the risk of offending them. So saying something that others may find offensive is interwoven with the freedom to express oneself. This is democracy in action.

Ms Pae’s case reminded me of my own brush with public rancour in February 2003. Sri Lanka had just knocked South Africa out of the Cricket World Cup in a controversial, rain-shortened match in my home town of Durban. In a misplaced act of national pride I went on-air the next day and made disparaging remarks about the Sri Lankan teams’ names and the size of the manhoods. In retrospect it was infantile and not my style of broadcasting at all. One of the listeners who phoned in hit the nail on the head; he said I had ‘crossed the line’. Worryingly, I was widely misquoted by people who never even heard the broadcast; and that did a lot of damage.

The fallout did me the world of good though: it pegged me down a notch or two, and I was genuinely distressed that I had clearly upset a lot of people. In the station’s defence they took me off-air until things died down, then put me back again, acknowledging, as the BCCSA later found, that I was simply exercising my freedom of expression. I saw out the end of my contract, went on a sabbatical, started focusing on my writing, and spent a couple of years in talk radio.

I returned to East Coast Radio in 2006, leaner, meaner and a lot more mature; but by the latter part of 2009 I was acutely aware that the radio industry was about to undergo fundamental change, forced by the growing empowerment of the media consumer through social media. I knew that if it were to survive, radio would have to engage directly with its listener; meaning more talk.

I was prepared for that, in fact I was looking forward to it, but I knew that in an immature democracy where everyone seems to lay claim to the status of ‘victim’ based on their race, religion, sexual orientation, culture, or whatever, South African listeners were not prepared to embrace true freedom of expression.

And I didn’t want to be part of that.

Sometimes it’s easier to drink the Kool Aid

In Eish!, Free-thinking, Politics on June 1, 2015 at 3:31 pm

Jonestown17I’ll never forget the images of the bloated corpses rotting in the tropical sun. I was 16 years old when it happened; and that’s possibly why, nearly 37 years later, my wife often catches me shaking my head and sighing, seemingly for no reason.

In the oppressive days of apartheid when South Africa was excommunicated from the rest of the world, Scope magazine was a refreshing distraction. It was best known for the scantily clad women that adorned its cover – and many of the pages inside – always with stars stuck over their nipples (the Calvinistic government of the time though the sight of nipples would invoke all manner of ills, natural disasters not impossibly among them). But there was another reason Scope was so popular: it featured cutting-edge photo-journalism from around the world.

On this occasion the main feature story was the Jonestown Massacre. It was so shocking that it had kicked the pretty young lady off the front cover. The story inside was unbelievable: Over 900 devoted followers of a charismatic preacher called Jim Jones had unquestioningly followed his instruction to commit mass suicide. The images showed their corpses littered around a compound cut out of the jungle in Guyana, South America. What upset me most were the images of entire families lying face down, their arms around each other or lying protectively over babies.

But it wasn’t a clear cut case of suicide. The children and the dogs were force-fed grape-flavoured juice laced with cyanide. They had been killed. The parents and adults then followed, drinking the concoction before lying down to die. The Revered Jim Jones skipped the drink, choosing instead to blow his brains out. The drink was called Flavor Aid, but was often misreported as Kool Aid – the trademark name of a similar drink sold in the U.S. In a rather macabre salute to the massacre, the term ‘drinking the Kool Aid’ has emerged – mainly in the U.S. – as a figure of speech for anyone steadfastly holding on to a doomed belief without critically examining it.

I like to use the term not only because I remember the massacre, but because as a journalist I have been encouraged to examine everything with a critical eye, to be cynical in the absence of firm, corroborative evidence. This is liberating because I don’t get sucked into stupidity; I am not influenced by any of the myriad diverse religions that somehow each claim sole legitimacy and demand unquestioning submission. But it’s also tiring, because every day in the news I am bombarded by the actions of people who are more than willing to do unquestionable things in the name of religion – in the Middle East, in the Ukraine, in the U.S. or anywhere else where religion warps their world view.

So that’s why I continually shake my head and sigh. Perhaps it would be easier to just drink the Kool Aid.

The malignancy of the wasted brain

In Eish!, Fools, Free-thinking, Science on March 5, 2015 at 3:03 pm

color_nimoy_headshot

I shed a silent tear when I heard of the death of Leonard Nimoy. He was no relation and I never knew him, but his passing was tragic for me. As Spock, my favourite character in Star Trek, and as an actor and poet, he displayed a wondrous capacity for balancing logic and creativity, and a remarkable empathy for his fellow man. He also unveiled the vagaries and limitations of human thinking.

If you’re looking for evidence of such vagaries, you only have to follow the rapid rise in Islamic fundamentalism; and before Christians and Muslims say “yeah, exactly”, let’s not forget that they’re just as guilty. The fact that religion hasn’t been pushed to the fringes of human frivolity to hide alongside astrology and the belief in fairies, is not only puzzling, from an evolutionary perspective it is downright worrying.

Let’s for a minute use just a smidgen of logic: religions are different belief systems that influence – or control – a lot of human thinking and behaviour. They all differ in their fundamental constructs. Each different belief system is furthermore riddled with internal competitive dissension, with each offshoot claiming to be the correct interpretation of its parent construct. This is not only highly illogical, it is obviously impossible; ergo they are all flawed.

Being religious therefore requires the continued suspension of disbelief. It means that contrary to all obvious reason that central tenets of a belief system are irrevocably flawed, people still adhere to them. From an evolutionary perspective, the inability of individuals within the human species to understand this and therefore reject such nonsense shows their inability to adapt. It is a weakness.

However, such illogical religiousness is so widespread it’s fair to say that this is not a failure of individuals, but of the human species as a whole; especially when you consider the remarkable capacity of the human brain – as displayed in extraordinary individuals such as scientists – to boldly pursue the depth and level of thinking made famous by Nimoy’s Spock. If it weren’t for religion, just think how advanced the human species would be.

Religion is indeed a malignancy of the wasted human brain.

“What the f…, Daryl?”

In Eish!, Politics, Science, Scoundrels on April 23, 2014 at 4:51 pm
Fodder for the South African media consumer. Image: The Guardian

Fodder for the South African media consumer. Image: The Guardian

It took a tweet from @ScienceWTF quoting British biophysicist and X-ray crystallographer Rosalind Franklin to jolt me back to writing – that and a full six months in my current position as Media Coordinator at SAASTA. I have over that time come to realise that the only way to get more science into the public domain is not with a gentle nudge but with a silk-enrobed sledgehammer.

That may sound a little blunt, but in my travels across the country and in my interaction with South Africans – both creators and consumers of media content – I have noticed two things: the relative lack of imagination and maturity in the South African media landscape, and a lack of critical thinking in the typical South African media consumer.

I am not surprised given that I am intimately familiar with the editors’ mantra “our readers/listeners/viewers don’t have an appetite for science”. This is of course highly inaccurate because we are all voracious consumers of science (albeit largely unknowingly so). But more about that later.

So what does the average South African media consumer have an appetite for? If we are to judge by the content currently peddled by the conventional media, it’s the following: Oscar Pistorius, politics, crime and – trailing at the back somewhere – sport.

Let’s examine those one by one by asking a couple of basic questions about their relevance:

Oscar Pistorius

Who will be directly affected by the outcome of the Oscar Pistorius trial and therefore has a proper reason for following it? Outside of Pistorius and his family, the family of Reeva Steenkamp, and the prosecution and defence teams, few, if any. So why are so many people glued to it? For the same reason Romans used to pour into the Colosseum to watch Christians being eaten by lions. There’s a word for it: schadenfreude – and it represents a particularly nasty side of human nature. Therefore the deafening coverage of the trial in the media actually speaks unflattering and uncomfortable volumes about the (lack of) humanity of the South African media consumer. So therefore why cover the trial to such an extent?

Politics

Who is directly affected by the detailed coverage in the media of the actions (or more accurately inactions) of politicians? Outside of the politicians who rely on remaining in the public attention in order to remain relevant, few, if any. Unless, of course, by their actions (or inactions) being covered (uncovered?) in the media, they receive their justified comeuppance. However, in South Africa such accountability is virtually absent, otherwise half the players in politics would be in jail. So therefore why cover it to such an extent?

Crime

There’s no denying crime, especially violent crime, is rampant in South Africa; so much so that rape and murder hardly make the headlines any more. That’s a shocking state of affairs, but not so much as the fact that it’s not considered sufficiently so by the Government to warrant any decisive intervention (see point above on inaction). It’s fair to say the typical South African media consumer has become inured to reports of crime. So therefore why cover it to such an extent?

Sport

There’s also no denying that South Africans have a passion for sport, especially football (that’s real football by the way, where players actually put foot to ball, not American ‘football’, where they don’t). With so much passion, you’d think South Africans are good at playing the game; however, a quick glance at the FIFA rankings would show otherwise (hint: we’re buried on page 3). Granted, we are good at other sports, like rugby and cricket; but let’s face it, sport’s hardly a matter of life and death (and please don’t quote Bill Shankly is if to prove it is). So therefore why cover it to such an extent?

However, there isn’t a single element of our lives that isn’t examined by science – not one; and it’s usually with the purpose of improving our lives. Science isn’t 18th Century Greek architecture – the domain of specialists with niched scopes of interest! We consume it – it’s in the food we eat, in the technology we use, in the clothes we wear, in the natural and built environments in which we live, in the medicines we use, in the air we breathe, in the behaviour we display, in the way we think and in the way we move. We are also the very embodiment of science – in the chemistry of our blood and organs, in the physics of our limbs and in the electricity that courses through our brains; and we exist in a universe that is composed of the very same chemicals that are the building blocks of our bodies.

In short: science is the core of our very being.

The discipline of science also encourages critical thinking. Let’s not forget South Africa is a country where an ignorance of science is fuelling rampant levels of HIV infection, and where the belief in spirits and untested ‘traditional’ medicine is fuelling a plethora of miscreants offering everything from miracle cures to “bringing back lovers, lengthening penises and winning the lottery”. Don’t laugh – have you read your stars today? Do you really believe swirling balls of high density gas thousands of light years away move with the specific aim of determining when you should buy a lottery ticket? Of course not…and you don’t believe in fairies, either but you’d buy a lottery ticket and pray to some mythical god to help you win.

“Our readers/listeners/viewers don’t have an appetite for science”? What utter bollocks! They NEED science.