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The Candle is Out

Posted by Ethan Clow on August 2, 2013

Carl Sagan, my personal hero, wrote a book called the Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. It’s a book that had profound implications on my life. Upon reading it, the foundations of skeptical activism were set, and while it would take some time, I knew that’s what I wanted to do.

In the book, Sagan uses the analogy of a candle to describe the predicament of our civilization. Science is that faint glow of light holding back the darkness of superstition, pseudoscience, backwards thinking – and if we want to extend that analogy – homophobia, sexism, intolerance, dogmatism etc.

Last month I announced my resignation from CFI Canada and since I know people are curious, I’d like to explain some of my thoughts on this and why I decided to go in this direction.

The truth is, I’m not just resigning from CFI Canada, but skepticism in general. I’m not going to be blogging or podcasting. I’m not going to attend events like skeptics in the pub or lectures or engage in online discussions about the nature of skepticism or humanism.


For me, the candle is out.

A Hobby

I’m not going to dive into worthless gossip and give credence to half truths and other clock and dagger silliness. This is strictly my point of view and strictly about me. Take it for what its worth.

Skeptical activism has long been a kind of wonderful hobby for me. I could sit down, read some articles, do some research, write a blog post or a segment for Radio Freethinker and feel content. Likewise with CFI, I always felt energized after a good meeting or event. I loved to chat with other group leaders and discuss strategy. I felt like I was doing something that made the world a better place. I saw it less as a job and more like some awesome thing I got paid to do.

When my personal life started to get very stressful and unpleasant, I saw CFI and skepticism as my escape. I could forget about my worries and dive into a new project. I knew in the back of my mind that sooner or later I was going to have to deal with life and so I would occasionally take breaks and let the talented volunteers handle things here and there.

Things were going along nicely. I was still riding a high from the Imagine No Religion 3 conference and my head was buzzing with ideas and projects and we were eagerly getting started on some of them. Then news from the board of directors hit and I found that Michael Payton, the National Executive Director of CFI had been relieved of his duties.

I was floored. Michael had been doing a fantastic job and his removal was like having the rug pulled out from under me while I was moving a piano.

After a long week of emails, phone calls, and discussion – I was no closer to understanding the reasoning behind removing Michael than I was when I first heard the news. I disagreed with the board’s decision, I disagreed with their method of arriving at that decision and I disagreed with their vision of moving forward.

Through this process I arrived at the conclusion that while I don’t think the board of directors were/are a bunch of cartoonish villains twirling their mustaches, their vision of CFI Canada is not one that I share or particularly see myself a part of.

That’s fine. People have different ideas of how to do things. Reasonable people come to different conclusions all the time. But (sparing you the details) this method of doing things didn’t sit well with me.

You might be surprised, but I think I could probably have worked through all that. Several people I respect, are going to do just that. Building something like this takes time and there will be setbacks along the way, and this is a major setback, but people intend to fix it and move on to the next challenge. Good for them.

For me, the problems run deeper than that. I’ve always said this type of work; skeptical activism, is a thankless job. Whenever I interviewed new volunteers, I would reiterate this to them. “When you make a mistake, expect someone to call you out on it. No matter how small or mundane it might be, someone will try to spin it like its the worst thing you’ve ever done.” They would usually smile and assure me they’re ready for it.

A Reactionary Movement

“Skeptics are mean.” A volunteer from a different organization once remarked to me. And not in those exact words, but I’ve heard similar issues from volunteers. They want to help out, but quickly feel embattled and leave.

I’m not trying to disparage anyone or any group, but I think its worth pointing out that this sort of issue is real and I’ve seen it personally.

Here are some examples:

It’s common for me to receive forwarded emails between people planning things, when it comes time for my contribution the whole conversation is sent to me. On one such occasion, the conversation began with “I knew Ethan would screw this up…”

While going through some old documents, looking for accounting information, I found a note written by an individual makings some pretty libellous assumptions about me. Later, I found another note by someone else complaining about mean-spirited gossip being spread around.

Other situations that I’ve been told about include:

– Volunteers being called up early in the morning and yelled at.

– Explosive arguments over mundane topics that result in vows of “I will not work with this person until they are kicked out!”

– Skeptical activists trying to organize boycotts of other skeptical organizations because the said group has a policy etc. someone doesn’t agree with.

I could go on but let’s stop there.

In the past I’ve talked about the skeptic/freethought community being overly reactionary. I would use the term in the sense that skeptics typically have knee-jerk responses to problems, but you could also imply that the movement is built on reaction itself. Consider, what are the principles of the freethought movement? Do we have positional statements or end goals or is our entire policy tree growing on the concept of reacting to other ideas?

“You can’t treat X with homeopathy”

“You can’t put the ten commandments there”

“You can’t find Bigfoot”

“Those aren’t UFO’s”

“That’s not a picture of a ghost”

It would seem that all of our core positions are actually reactions to other beliefs and policy positions. In theory there’s nothing wrong with that, but I wonder if this hasn’t created some kind of feedback loop for the movement.

I lamented in a previous blog post (All You Need is Love (and Skepticism)) that many (if not all) of our internal “deep rift” disagreements could be solved by having a different internal communication strategy. Instead of making our disputes public – we should first try private communication, a phone call or email.

Dan Dennett has a system where if he takes issue with something someone has said, he first contacts them and summarizes their point to them “is this what you meant to say?”

Quoting Dennett:

Attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly and fairly that your target says: ‘Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.’

A Professional Movement

The running gag has been that organizing skeptics is like herding cats. An expression I’ve heard is “the best thing about freethinkers is that they’re free thinkers and the worst thing about freethinkers is that they’re free thinkers.”

I’ve debated whether there actually is a discordant element in the community or if that’s just confirmation bias. There does appear to be plenty of reasons why freethinkers might be so hard to organize. There is a certain element of intellectual arrogance inherent in skepticism – a slight tendency towards know-it-all-ism. This could create a situation where the average skeptic just doesn’t accept that someone else could know better than they could.

Other explanations could be an anti-organizational or libertarian philosophy, an embattled personality, or an unwillingness to work together.

Another possible explanation which recently I’ve come to consider quite carefully is that a large group of skeptics don’t consider themselves a “professional movement.” What I mean by this is that for many people, the free thought movement exists in the social sphere of extended hobby. It’s an opportunity to get together, have a few drinks and discuss like-minded interests. And that’s about it. Taking the next step from discussing such interests to actually organizing around them, is not something everyone is keen to do.

And of course, that’s fine. I enjoy playing and watching hockey, that doesn’t mean I’m going to try out for the NHL.

The problem is, you have professional organizations, many of which are incorporated as non-profits or charities, they ask for donations, they put on events and preform activism. There are some that operate with volunteer staff and others that employ people and pay rent for buildings.

As I see it, there is a severe disconnect between how these organizations operate and who they serve. Since I’ve personally run the gauntlet of working within such groups, as a volunteer, as a staff member, as a person in leadership roles, or in administrative roles or in policy making roles, I feel like I have a strong understanding of this disconnect.

Roughly speaking, its a circular problem.

While there are a lot of hard working volunteers and staff people out there, these groups generally have limited experience in non-profit management or business. And while most are great at punching above their weight class, there’s a lot of unrealistic expectations that are being sold to donors and the skeptical community.

Unfortunately the community is littered with the bones of reformers who have tried to come into the movement and reshape some of the larger organizations to put them more in line with other non-profits. Advice about communication and public relations have largely fallen on deaf ears and this can be seen in the relatively small size of the movement. Estimations of the number of non-believers, atheists, agnostics around the world is considerably higher than what you would expect looking at the membership lists of the groups in the free thought movement.

Lots of people have read books by Dawkins, Sagan and Hitchens, yet the movement has failed to pull many of these people into the fold. Many of the skeptical “celebrities” that exist in the movement are relative unknowns in the large social milieu.

Essentially, you have organizations (which lack the expertise they need) who have expectations that aren’t realistic and worse, given their size and situation, usually aren’t what they really need. Meanwhile, you have the supporters of such organizations who have equally unrealistic expectations for the groups they support, of which most are ambivalent to what the supporters actually want and don’t want to spend the time necessary to inform them of what is realistic. (Assuming they know what is.)

The sheer number of groups and organizations that exist to the serve the free-thought movement is evidence of these facts. That many of these organizations got their start as fractured arguments between leaders of one organization who then took their ball and went home, is an unwelcome sign of these unrealistic expectations having disastrous effects on our community.

I want it all and I want it now

In talking with other activists and people involved in other non-profit causes, the mantra for success seems to be pragmatism. Charities, as a matter of necessity, ask for the moon. This is because they need to galvanize their supporters and present an appealing and hopeful outlook. Behind the scenes, this is often at odds with a careful strategy of baby steps and achievable objectives.

I liken this to the anti-proliferation of nuclear weapons. Sure, we say we want all the nukes gone…but if they offered to remove 25%, we’d take it.

I’ve already mentioned the issue of realistic expectations, but there’s another way that pragmatism needs to be reflected. The ability to put aside disagreements and work to common cause, which has been the Achilles heel of many organizations.

I want to tell a story (so unbelievable that people will think I made this up but it actually happened) I was involved in a meeting of various skeptical activists and we were tossing around ideas for projects and potential group efforts. A particular idea was being discussed when one participant spoke up, to paraphrase: “I don’t like this idea, and if we go forward with it, then fuck it. I won’t help or be involved.”

In discussing this problem with others, I’ve come to wonder if it’s a feedback loop caused by the fact that those most likely to volunteer and take on leadership roles, also have strong personality types that make working with others difficult. Another possibility is that leadership positions in skeptic/free thought groups often fall on the person with the most time and energy and not necessarily the best training or experience (in things like time management, human resources etc)

Unfortunately I’ve seen this issue repeat itself time and again. Individuals who won’t work with other individuals for unrelated reasons. And I’m not talking about things like “I don’t want to work with X because he gropes people.” I’m talking about people saying “I won’t work with him because he supports a different political party” or “I just don’t like her.”

The People’s Front of Judea

I don’t want to give the wrong impression here. I’m very proud of the accomplishments I made as a skeptical activist. I feel perfectly at ease hanging my hat on them and I consider the hard work that was put into them – time well spent.

I don’t want people to walk away thinking that I feel like I wasted my time or resent the community of freethinkers. In fact, my time working with CFI, doing Radio Freethinker, getting involved in the community and attending conferences was great fun.

But even when you have fun, you notice the ways things could get better. Unfortunately, I don’t really know how to fix any of these problems. I’m not entirely sure they’ll ever get fixed because I know that there a plenty of people who will deny they exists till their blue in the face.

I know that some people will read this, roll their eyes and say “whatever.” I know that there are people who have written me off paragraphs earlier. And since I’m not offering any real solutions, I don’t exactly blame people for dismissing this. But at the same time, I feel like my involvement with the skeptical movement is worth some consideration. These are problems I have noticed repeatedly and I’m starting to hear other people mention them as well.

This leads me to believe that I’m on to something here.

I realize that for someone reading this, it all seems a bit vague and obtuse. I don’t cite specific examples or name names or anything like that. In reality, I could. I have emails, I have documents, I could share it all and let it hit the fan.

But, given the serious nature of such claims, I won’t. I’d don’t need lawyers knocking on my door or accusations that could damage my career or the careers of others. So whether you decide to take my ramblings with a grain of salt or consider them deeply, the choice is up to you.

These are my thoughts, and if they can have some impact on the movement, that’s enough for me.


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Paul is Dead! A Pre-Internet Conspiracy

Posted by Ethan Clow on June 28, 2013

Paul is Dead! A Case study of pre-internet urban legend.

I admit this is out of left field, but I’ve always been fascinated with this urban legend, which centers around the idea that Paul McCartney of the Beatles died in 1966 and was replaced by a look-a-like and there are hidden clues in the Beatles’ work which reveal the truth.


So lets start with the background, the rumour’s exact origin is hard to nail down. A possible beginning might be the separate rumor that Paul McCartney had been killed in a car crash in London after a January 1967 traffic accident that involved his car. The rumour was acknowledged and rebutted in the February issue of The Beatles Book fanzine, but did this car crash story have an impact on the “Paul is Dead” rumour of 1969? Maybe.

The “Paul is Dead” conspiracy, as we know it, is American (at least as far as we know) and so let’s get into the official American version.  On 17 September 1969, student Tim Harper of Drake University in Iowa published an article in the school newspaper titled, “Is Beatle Paul McCartney Dead?” The article described a rumour that had been circulating on campus that Paul was dead (or insane or “freaked out”)

At that point the rumour included numerous clues from recent Beatles albums, including the “turn me on, dead man” message heard when “Revolution 9” from the White Album (1968) is played backwards. (You can hear the section from “Revolution 9” here, first forward and then backwards. And once you’ve been primed by reading “turn me on, dead man” you can definitely hear it.)

Now, as Beatles fans know, in 1969, the band had just released their Abbey Road album, and were in the process of disbanding; “Let It Be” had already been recorded but was yet to be released. If indeed the Beatles had replaced Paul in 1966, we may have to face the fact that it was a good decision considering the quality of music they went on to produce over those four years.

Back to Tim Harper’s article,  according to an article on Snopes… Tim Harper claimed to not be the source of hoax but rather was only reporting on it. In fact, while Harper presented several clues, many of the famous ones were not present in the original article.

Some of Harper’s clues included:

-the rapid change of music style of “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”

-there’s a mysterious hand over Paul’s head on the album art for Sgt Pepper, there’s also a left handed flower guitar on a grave at the Beatles feet.

-on the back of the cover, Paul is the only one not facing the camera.

Harper claims he got much of the information from fellow student Dartanyan Brown, who claims to have heard it first on the West Coast, repeated by various musicians at parties.

The hoax really took off on 12 October 1969, when a caller to Detroit radio station WKNR-FM told disc jockey Russ Gibb about the rumour and its clues. Gibb and other callers then discussed the rumour on the air for the next hour. Apparently they even improvised new clues on the spot.

Two days after the WKNR broadcast, The Michigan Daily published a satirical review of Abbey Road by University of Michigan student Fred LaBour under the headline “McCartney Dead; New Evidence Brought to Light”. It’s likely that many of the “clues” that LaBour was reporting about (albeit sarcastically) were likely created or inspired by the improvised anomaly hunting undertaken at the radio station two days earlier.

Regardless, the article identified various “clues” to McCartney’s death on Beatles album covers, including new clues from the just-released Abbey Road LP. As LaBour had invented many of the clues, he was astonished when the story was picked up by newspapers across the United States.

It should be noted, that the radio DJs, writer Labour and others, all assumed this was a joke and didn’t realize how seriously some people were taking it.

WKNR-FM further fueled the rumour with a special two-hour program on the subject, “The Beatle Plot”, which aired 19 October 1969 (and in the years since on Detroit radio).

The next step for the rumour came in the early morning hours of October, 21, 1969, Roby Yonge, a disc jockey at New York radio station WABC, discussed the rumour on the air for over an hour before being pulled off the air for breaking format. At that time of night, WABC’s signal covered a wide listening area and could be heard in 38 states and at times, other countries.

When Labour started getting international press calls about the story, he unwisely decided to play along and assert that the story was true. Paul was dead, the clues were real.

There was a followup article, printed in the underground journal “Big Fat Magazine”, which gives the date of Russ Gibb’s broadcast of the 12th of October 1969, the date of Fred LaBour’s tongue-in-cheek response as the 14th of October 1969 and we also know that “The Beatle Plot” aired on the 19th of October, and the Roby Yonge segment aired on the 21st of October.

Some of the details of the clues invented by LaBour included hints from the Beatles on the Abbey Road album art, the invention of William Campbell, Paul’s “look-alike” as well as the statement that a walrus was a Greek symbol for a corpse (this seemingly derived from the Harper clue that the walrus was a Scandinavian or American Indian sign of death) Pertaining to this,  I could find no reference that supports the Walrus as a sign of death or a corpse.

A lot of myths are broken down into two categories: album art and lyrics.

Album Art Clues:

Sgt Pepper clues:


I’ve circled the clues in red, so they’re easier to spot. First, you have the hand over Paul’s head… which means… he’s dead. I guess. Next, there’s the left handed flower guitar on the grave (Paul was left-handed) The doll on the right, there’s a small car on her lap, supposedly that’s the same kind of car Paul was killed in. Paul is also wearing an armband, which you can’t really see on the front cover, but on the back of the album it says “OPD” meaning British police jargon for “Officially Pronounced Dead.” The patch actually reads “OPP,” which stands for Ontario Provincial Police. Paul was given the patch while on tour in Canada. If you closely at clear images of the armband, you can make out Ontario’s provincial flag.

Also, if you look at “Lonely Hearts” backwards is says “I ONE IX HE ◊ DIE” which properly translated, means “11 9 HE DIE” (i.e. November 9, He Die)

Magical Mystery Tour:


Paul is the only one in a black walrus outfit, which means he’s dead. Frankly, I’m not sure how you can tell that’s Paul. Maybe the Beatles made that clear elsewhere.

Abbey Road


The front shows a funeral procession and depicts John as the preacher (in white), Ringo as a mourner (in black), with Paul as the deceased, followed by George as the gravedigger (in work clothes) Additionally, Paul is in bare feet, is out of step with the others, has his eyes closed, and is the only one shown smoking, holding a cigarette in his right hand when he is a left handed. This is also the said to be the location of the car crash that killed Paul and that the Beatles are walking out of a graveyard on the left. But as fans who have been there know, there is no graveyard at that location. There is a Volkswagen on the left, its license plate reads LMW – 28IF. The clue here is that if Paul was really Paul, he would have been 28 years old. (“28 if…”) However, Paul was actually 27 years old when Abbey Road was done.

Sgt Pepper Clues:

Lyrics from “Fixing A Hole”

“… and it really doesn’t matter if I’m wrong I’m right where I belong.  See the Beatles standing there, they disagree..”  and  “…silly Beatle run around…” (William is adjusting to his new role as PM)

The ACTUAL lyrics are

“…and it really doesn’t matter if I’m wrong I’m right Where I belong I’m right Where I belong. See *the people* standing there who disagree…”   and “Silly *people* run around…”

Lyrics from She’s Leaving Home:

  “..Wednesday morning at five o’clock as the day begins..” (the time of the supposedly fatal accident)

Lyrics from Lovely Rita:

“..standing by a parking meter when I caught a glimpse of Rita..” (he took his eyes off the road!)

Lyrics from Good Morning, good Morning:

  “..nothing to do to save his life..” and “..and you’re on your own you’re in the street..” and     “..people running around it’s 5 o’clock..” and  “..watching the skirts you start to flirt, now you’re in gear..” (all references to Paul’s death)

Lyrics from A Day In The Life:

“..I saw the photograph. He blew his mind out in a car, he didn’t notice that the lights had changed.  A crowd of people stood and stared they’d seen his face before, nobody was really sure if he was from the house of Paul..”

The ACTUAL lyrics are

“I saw the photograph. He blew his mind out in a car, he didn’t notice that the lights had changed.  A crowd of people stood and stared they’d seen his face before, nobody was really sure if he was from the *House of Lords*”

Magical Mystery Tour clues:

Lyrics from Strawberry Fields Forever:

“I buried Paul” (from the end of the song)

The ACTUAL lyrics are

“cranberry sauce.”

Lyrics from I Am The Walrus:

“..I am the eggman, they are the eggmen, I am the walrus..” (eggmen represent “life”, walrus represents death. Since Paul is (supposedly) the walrus, the meaning is that I have life, they have life, I am dead).

In actuality, Lennon stated that “I am the Walrus” was intentionally written to be nonsensical to confuse people looking for meaning in their songs.  Also, as I mentioned, I couldn’t find references that say that the walrus is a sign of death.

Lyrics from Hello Goodbye:

“ say goodbye, I say hello..” (exit Paul, enter William Campbell)

In actuality, the song is thematically consistent with Paul’s many lyrics which talk about romantic conflicts and difference of opinion. Or, as my friend once pointed out to me, its a song about two people who can’t speak the same language talking to each other.

Lyrics from All You Need Is Love:

“..No one you can save that can’t be saved..” and  “..nothing you can see that isn’t shown..” and  “..yes he’s dead..” (misheard lyrics) and  “..we loved you yeah, yeah, yeah..”

The ACTUAL lyrics are

“…No one you can save that can’t be saved…” and “…Nothing you can see that isn’t shown…” and “…*She love you*, yeah, yeah, yeah…”

The White Album clues:

-Play Revolution 9 backwards and you’ll hear “turn me on, dead man.. ..turn me on, dead man” (audio pareidolia)

For a detailed breakdown of how pareidolia works in relation to backwards music see… The Skeptic’s Dictionary

– Glass Onion contains several alleged clues:

“..I told you about Strawberry Fields..” and  “..well here’s another place you can go..” and “ see how the other half live, looking through a glass onion..” and “..I told you about the walrus and me..” and “..well here’s another clue for you all, the walrus WAS Paul..” and  “..I told you about the fool on the hill..” and “..listen to me, fixing a hole in the ocean..” and “..looking through a glass onion..”

It’s well documented that Lennon was getting annoyed with people searching for hidden meanings in Beatles songs so included several lines to frustrate people. There is another theory that “glass onion” is a British term for a coffin handle. This was apparently invented by DJ Gibb and there’s no evidence for such a term being used in Britain.

Let’s return to the British version of the car crash. Apparently this rumor was a source of distress to the Beatles themselves, who countered the rumor at least once (May 1967) in a press conference and again in the Beatles Book fanzine. However this could be the origin of the rumors that Tim Harper and Dartanyan Brown heard and inspired them to write about in their university newspapers.

One question we might have is why didn’t McCartney just come out and say “Hey, I’m alive!” Keep in mind that during this time, the Beatles were breaking up,  he wasn’t doing much public engagements and he was spending time at his Scottish retreat with his new wife to contemplate his forthcoming solo career.

All four Beatles denied any involvement in the “Paul Is Dead” hoax, either as creators of it, or as participants in a conspiracy. McCartney said this about the hoax to Life Magazine in 1969:

“Perhaps the rumour started because I haven’t been much in the press lately. I have done enough press for a lifetime, and I don’t have anything to say these days. I am happy to be with my family and I will work when I work. I was switched on for ten years and I never switched off. Now I am switching off whenever I can. I would rather be a little less famous these days.”

It’s interesting to consider who believes this, we talked about a conspiracy theory poll a few months ago, it asked American voters what they thought about a number of conspiracies. 5% of the voters believed Paul was dead and replaced by a look a like. To put this in perspective, about 126,000,000 Americans voted. If 5% of them believed this conspiracy, that means that 6,300,000 people buy into this.

Considering this theory spread over a period of weeks, going world wide essentially, its kind of amazing to consider how the internet has changed conspiracy theories. Surely with Facebook, Twitter and other social media, conspiracies can spread faster. Weeks become hours as it were. Yet, one must respect the power of this particular example. It went from a university newspaper to world wide news. It’s hard to imagine that happening today. Are we better off now? We do have resources to examine such claims. Resources that are at our fingertips thanks to the internet.

Yet, news sources seem as credulous as ever. And the tendency to take rumour as fact seems as persistent today as it did in 1969.

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The Non-Mysterious Spinning Egyptian Statue

Posted by Ethan Clow on June 27, 2013

The Spinning Egyptian Statue, housed in the Museum of Manchester has been making rounds these days.

Don’t you hate it when stories get spun like this?

Must have been a slow news cycle.

Okay I’ll stop now.

But seriously, the spinning Egyptian statue. I’ve seen this story pop up on various news sites and it appears to have been inspired by the blog post by museum curator Campbell Price:

“Most Egyptologists are not superstitious people. When I first noticed that one of our Middle Kingdom statuettes (Acc. no. 9325) had been turned around 180 degrees to face the back of its case in our new Ancient Worlds galleries, I wondered who had changed the object’s position this without telling me. The Egyptians themselves would have appreciated the concern to make visible for passers-by the text on its back pillar – a prayer for offerings for the deceased. Yet the next time I looked into the case, the statue was facing in another direction – and a day later had yet another orientation. None of the other objects in the display had moved. The case was locked. And I have the only key.”

The statue slowly turns around (spins) in its locked case during the day at the Manchester Museum.  The statue in question is about 4,000 years old and a relic from Egypt, it is Neb-Senu, originally an offering to Osiris, the god of the dead and ruler of the underworld.

You can see video of this happening here:

Science popularizer Brian Cox, who teaches physics at the University of Manchester suggests that the movement is due to Differential Friction. The two different surfaces — the bottom of the stone statuette and the glass shelf — are rubbing against each other as museum-goers create step vibrations. And it’s these vibrations that are making the statuette slowly spin.

So we have our question, why is this statue moving? We have two explanations, a supernatural one and a naturalistic one. This is a good opportunity to try out Occam’s Razor, which literally means which of these two explanations do not require us to make more assumptions about the universe?

Let’s assume the statue is moving by supernatural forces. According to Occam, we now need to account for those supernatural forces. Basically, which ones? (ghosts? Egyptian gods? curses?) what exactly is making this happen? How does it work? Why this statue and not any others? Of all the Egyptian artifacts in Britain, is this the only cursed one?

Do you see how much else we need to explain in order for the supernatural answer to be correct?

Let’s consider the naturalistic explanation. The statue is moving because of differential friction. What this means is that the base of the statue isn’t perfectly flat. So if there are vibrations of people walking past or a big truck driving across the street, it could cause the statue to move slightly. And since this is a well established scientific fact, we don’t need to assume any additional hypothesis about the universe.

Additionally, going with this hypothesis allows to come up with other answers to related questions.

For example,

a) why aren’t the other statues moving?

– Supernatural explanation: the curse is finicky?

– Natural explanation: Maybe the bases of those statues are flat.

b) why is the statue only moving during the day?

– Supernatural explanation: the curse gets off work at 6pm?

– Natural explanation: the vibrations are caused by people walking past the display, which only happens during the day.

c) why is the statue moving in a perfect circle?

– Supernatural explanation: the curse or magic likes circles?

– Natural explanation: if you look at the statue, most of its mass is on the back of the statue, this would explain why it “moves” in a circle. As it vibrates, the weight pulls it backwards, the statue appears to “spin” in spot.

d) why is the statue moving now, and not in the 80 years previously?

– Supernatural explanation: it’s taken the curse 4000 years to track down the statue?

– Natural explanation: It probably has been moving all these years, only the previous museum curators aren’t freaking morons and figured out why it was happening and didn’t use this as a dumb publicity stunt, jeopardizing their reputation and the reputation of their museum.

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All You Need is Love (and Skepticism)

Posted by Ethan Clow on April 11, 2013

A few weeks ago, CFI Transnational, along with several other large skeptic/atheist organizations, released a statement calling for civility in online discussion and vigorous use of the principle of charity.

“The instantaneous and impersonal nature of online communication also makes it much easier for these misunderstandings to escalate, or for civil arguments to turn into bitter fights.”


“Insults, slurs, expressions of hatred, and threats undermine our shared values of open and candid discussion because they move us away from an exchange of views supported with reasons.”

Translated, this means “stop being so damn belligerent online and for the sake of the flying spaghetti monster, assume that the person you’re mad at wasn’t trying to be dunder-head and instead of being mad, take a moment and give them the benefit of the doubt!”

It’s an entirely reasonable position to take. You may have noticed that the skeptic community has a tendency to be a bit prickly at times. Arguments of scope or tone or even interpretation of claims – has and continues – to cause divides and occasionally deep rifts. This could be because the “movement” seems to communicate with itself primarily online, which leaves much to be desired in terms of optimal communication. It’s a lot easier to rage at someone on a blog or Facebook or twitter then it is to their face.

Not to long ago, there was a recent debate on the nature of skepticism between Steve Novella and PZ Myers, two fellows who have a lot to say on the subject. Their back and forth conversation spawned several blog posts, hundreds of comments, and most likely long ripples throughout the community. One point that came up was this concept of charity. Basically, the goal here is to try really hard to give someone the benefit of the doubt, don’t assume the worse about them or their argument. You can take this further by giving whatever they’re saying the best chance to be heard and considered. When someone makes an argument, examine it under its best circumstances.

To quote Steven Novella:

“Before you set out to criticize someone’s claim or position, you should endeavor to grant that position its best possible case. Don’t assume the worst about your opponent, assume the best. Give them any benefit of the doubt. At the very least this will avoid creating a straw man to attack, or opening yourself up to charges that you are being unfair.

To give you an example of this, suppose you are arguing about capital punishment, and your opponent gives you scenario that’s unlikely or rare – don’t slap it away (at least at first) your position will ultimately be strengthened if you can argue against their “best case” scenario. Decide to talk about the so-called slam dunk case, like Hitler. You have a criminal who has admitted their guilt. Lots of evidence, lots of witnesses, literally zero chance this person was innocent. Under these circumstances, discuss why capital punishment would be wrong.

While the principle of charity and a willingness to be civil are both great concepts, we must also be skeptical about the overall tone of the message delivered by the skeptical orgs, in addition to the content and meaning. There should be a clear difference from tolerating a disagreeable argument to accepting that there are “two sides” to the issue of sexism in the skeptic movement. Skepchick’s Rebecca Watson wrote a response to the open letter that’s worth reading.

There are two problems I see with such call for civility:

  1. Phrasing the request in terms of a debate i.e “The Debate over Sexism and Feminism” There is no “debate” over sexism. Sexism is bad. It exists. It has to stop. I realize there aren’t people debating that sexism is good, but disturbingly, there are people saying that sexism doesn’t happen and responding with frothing rage at the mere suggestion that it does. Phrasing this like a “debate” is an insult to debates. Historians don’t call Holocaust Denial a debate, scientists don’t call conspiracy theories debates – those examples are just small vocal groups screaming at reasonable people.
  2. As a matter of principle, the skeptic/freethought/atheist community should get along… except for those times when we shouldn’t. I’ve long been a advocate for co-operation in the movement. Atheist, skeptic, humanist, feminist, whatever you call yourself – your welcome at my event. That being said, if an atheist shows up who thinks that climate change is a big conspiracy by Al Gore, or your a skeptic who thinks that history is bullshit, or a humanist who doesn’t like Doctor Who… you’re going to hear about it from me. And that’s not to say I’m going to yell at you and call you names, but if you’re wrong about something, I’m going to say so. Likewise, if an organization does something that is wrong, they should be called out on it.

There are obvious examples where we are not going to give someone the benefit of the doubt. Harassment, death threats, etc; we are not going to sit down and have a conversation over. And lets be intellectually honest with ourselves… most of the bullshit like name calling, harassment, threats, are coming from only side in the whole “sexism debate” and its not the feminists. (And those are ironic quotation marks, by the way)

However I think that there is something to be said for trying private diplomacy were applicable. To use a real example, the situation between Harriet Hall (the Skep-Doc) and Surly Amy, looked irreconcilable, however after some of the emotion died down, they were able to mend fences. Direct communication, without an audience, can lead to promising results. Honestly, I’ve been saying it for so long I’m starting to sound like a broken record: But there are many methods for achieving our goals. Some methods will work well with situation A, but sometimes you’ll have situation B which will require a different method. This applies as much to skeptical activism as it does to group dynamics.

Doing a podcast like Radio Freethinker works for me. It might not work for others. That doesn’t mean I’m right and they’re wrong. CFI’s organization and structure works well for me. That doesn’t mean it will work well for you. If it doesn’t, that doesn’t imply that there is anything wrong with CFI or for that matter, you or me.

Different methods for different situations for different people.

Sometimes a phone call or email to an individual is warranted.

“Hey, what did you mean by that statement you made about X? It sounded rather dismissive, and given that I know you know how much work I put into this, it caught me a little off guard.” As oppose to posting a rant on Facebook or writing a blistering blog post.

Sometimes a phone call is not the right thing to do.

“Hey, I got that rape and death threat you sent me. U mad?”

So look, lets all get along. And when we don’t, lets take a few minutes to figure out the best way of responding. Let’s call out bull shit when we see it and be aggressive and confrontational – when we see that it’s the right call.

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Battling the Anti-Vaccination Movement

Posted by Ethan Clow on March 20, 2013

It’s been a busy month for skeptical activists in Vancouver. I wanted to write about some of the recent news regarding an anti-vaccination conference that was held at the Simon Fraser University, here in Vancouver.

The anti-vaccination conference was organized by this group: the Vaccine Resistance Movement. When we learned of it, myself and the volunteers at the Centre for Inquiry Vancouver decided to put together an open letter to the president of SFU, Andrew Petter.

We then canvased for signatures from those within CFI but also medical and scientific experts at UBC and SFU who could add their credentials to the letter. We were impressed by how many were willing to sign it. Once the letter was complete, we sent it to the president, and published a press release regarding the conference and letter.

Additionally, the department of health sciences at SFU also issued a strongly worded letter regarding the anti-vaccination group speaking at SFU.

Once news of this started to spread, the story went viral (no pun intended) and I did a number of interviews with the press regarding this issue.

The story appeared in print in The Province newspaper “SFU urged to block anti-vaccine gathering

I was also on CBC Radio On The Coast to discuss the issue, as well as CBC News, which did a great job covering the story.

cbc interview

Additionally Global BC covered the story, as well I appeared on Sun Media, on the CKNW radio station, BCIT’s radio station, French CBC, and another CBC news story. In short, there was a lot of media interest for this story.

Given all this, I wanted to take some time to discuss some of the finer points of concern we had with SFU renting space to the anti-vaccine group, as well as some of the remarks concerning free speech and academic freedom.

We’ve discussed some of this at length. You can check out recent episodes of Radio Freethinker for more details, including a blog post Don wrote about free speech.

Our Concerns

The motivation behind everything we did was our concern that the anti-vaccination movement is dangerous. This is the reason we felt it inappropriate that SFU was renting space to them, this was why we felt it inappropriate to let this event happen without raising our concerns to local media, and this is why we felt it necessary to reach out to the scientific community.

I don’t think I need to convince many readers here of the dangers of the anti-vaccination movement. We are, after all, talking about a medical invention that has saved millions (if not billions) of lives and helped to eradicate dangerous infectious diseases and forms one of the foundational pillars of public health the world over.

Since SFU is a prestigious university with a reputation for science, education and higher learning, their approval of the anti-vaccine conference can lend tacit approval of their message. Essentially, giving space can be seen as SFU saying “these ideas have merit”.

It should come as no surprise that we at CFI took issue with that. There is the added danger that while a scientifically literate person would rightly chalk up the claims made by the anti-vax movement as ludicrous or conspiracy theories of the extreme level. But for a person with no prior scientific background to hear about a conference being held at SFU, they could naturally assume that SFU at least considers these ideas valid and when they see these ideas presented in a university setting, with supposed experts giving talks, it could very easily appear to have the markings of truth.

Vancouver recently had outbreaks of pertussis (whooping cough) and outbreaks of measles has occurred in the Fraser valley. Measles, whooping cough and other infectious diseases have seen outbreaks across North American and several have been located in Canada.

In order for herd immunity to be effective (the process by which a large number of people who are immunized protect those who can’t be) needs to be around 90% for whooping cough. However, in BC, those levels are between 60 – 70% making an outbreak potentially a catastrophic public health risk.

What about free speech?

The defence of free speech was almost immediately brought up by SFU once this story began to make the rounds. Disappointingly, it was also taken up by a number of skeptics as well. Before getting into this, we need to define what free speech is and why this particular case isn’t a free speech issue.

First, the point of free speech is to protect new ideas. The whole point is allow a “free market place” of ideas. By freeing ourselves from censorship, we allow new, potentially revolutionary ideas to be explored. Is the anti-vax movement a new, revolutionary idea?

Unpopular, unpleasant, or controversial claims are protected under free speech because these ideas could spur on new innovations, social change, or improvement. Is there potential for new innovations, social change or improvement brought about by the anti-vax movement?

Free speech is important because the airing of unpopular or controversial ideas is often difficult and can cause trouble for authorities. Therefore, criticism of the government, police, universities, scientists, sports teams etc are protected.

A science controversy vs free speech?

The anti-vax movement is a series of lies or what I call a “manufactured controversy.” Initially, under the guise of science, concerns about the safety of vaccines were brought to light. It turns out that the claims about vaccine safety were unfounded. Worse, the evidence for these claims was revealed to be fraudulent. There were conflict of interests that cast serious doubts into the motives of the people involved. In short, there were no grounds for a scientific controversy.

In the same sense there are no grounds for a scientific controversy over evolution, a flat earth or climate change.

However, through lies, fraudulent research and ethically dubious methods, a controversy was presented to the public built on foundations of misinformation.

Science, unlike other arenas of public discourse, is not a free democracy of ideas. Something is true or it isn’t. Gravity exists or it doesn’t. You evolved or you didn’t. Vaccines work or they don’t work.

Unlike other social issues where there is often two sides of a problem, science isn’t structured this way. There are not two sides to the theory of gravity for example.

The term “academic freedom” has been used in the past by creationists trying to teach creationism and/or remove the teaching of evolution in public classrooms. This tactic relies on the misunderstanding that science is like other issues where there are two sides and to not air all opinions amounts to censorship. Of course this view ignores the fact that its unethical to present incorrect information as though it were true.


Censorship occurs when free speech is stifled or suppressed. For example, if the Harper government were to have me arrested for speaking about climate change, or revoke resources from scientists for speaking out about climate change.

However there are certain circumstances were we except censorship. The often used example is shouting “fire!” in a crowded theatre. And yes, that’s actually happened. In Canada, we also have hate speech laws that restrict what you can say (these laws are controversial obviously, but important to point out as they set legal precedent)

Most of us are willing to accept some limitations on free speech that directly contributes to public harm. If you think about it logically, some restrictions make sense, phoning up 911 for chit-chat, yelling fire in a crowded area, bullying, harassment etc.

However, the anti-vaccination moment, in my opinion, does not fall into the category of censorship of speech at all. And in fact, we weren’t calling on them to be “censored” anyway.

Keeping in mind what I wrote about scientific controversies vs manufactured controversies, we can see how the anti-vaccination movement is making claims. Specific, testable, claims about vaccines and public health. In much the same way that Health Canada of the FDA would prevent drug companies from lying about what their medications can cure, so to should the anti-vaccation movement be limited in the medical claims they can make.

No one would deny that its important cigarette companies are prevented from lying and saying smoking will make you healthy or that fast food companies are prevented from lying about the health benefits of burgers and fries.

If I started telling people that drinking paint would cure cancer, should I not be held responsible for my opinions? Should there not be consequences for lying to the public and endangering public health?

Of course, the “limitations” I’m suggesting are mitigated by the circumstances of such claims. If someone wishes to use snake oil medications, that’s their call. We don’t want to ban homoeopathy, only have honest descriptions of what the product is.

With the case of the anti-vaccination movement, using SFU as a venue is a similar situation. SFU is like the bottle the snake oil comes in. It provides the legitimacy and the veneer of scientific credibility. And this is why we were so disappointed and concerned. Had SFU reviewed the request for a room booking and decided (on the grounds I listed above, that this is presenting a manufactured medical controversy and is unethical) to turn down the group, we would have no issue.

Why Not Protest

Some people asked us why we weren’t protesting this event as we’ve done for other pseudoscience events like when Deepak Chopra came to Vancouver.

In our experience of doing this sort of “protest” we’ve learned a few things as to what factors can make them successful. And in this case, it doesn’t look like such a “protest” would work.

Choice of venue is really important for such an event. Since the venue is inside the university, we would immediately be shown out once we start annoying the attendees. We’d only be allowed on the sidewalk, which is far away from the entrance and people would just walk around us.

Given that they had extra security there, we expected they would be looking for trouble. Also, the anti-vaccination people can be a very hostile bunch and its likely loud aggressive arguments would break out. This actually happened to me the last time I was at an anti-vaccination event.

The other problem is confronting attendees with counter information will likely only entrench them deeper in their conspiracies. Generally speaking, the goal of such a protest would be to encourage critical thinking in fence sitters, people who haven’t made up their minds. Yet, the people likely to be attending this conference don’t fall into this demographic.

Any such protest needs to be carefully planned with a strict understanding of what the goals and objectives are. In this particular case, we really couldn’t guarantee any of our objectives would be met, and if anything, we might just hurt our cause in the process.


Overall I’m very happy with the way things turned out. There was some concern that we would be giving the anti-vaccination movement free publicity but after watching and listening to media that covered the event, I realize that they did an excellent job of showcasing the harm of the anti-vax community.

I think that shining a light on the dangers of pseudo science is a major objective for the skeptic community. If more people are made aware of the potential harm that anti-vaccination propaganda can do, they might be a little safer.

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Radio Freethinker Live and Fundraising!

Posted by Ethan Clow on March 1, 2013


We at Radio Freethinker are pleased to announce the start of the annual Fundrive at CiTR 101.9FM!! Yes, its that time of the year where we ask you to donate on behalf of the radio station that makes our show possible. CiTR is the campus-community radio station located at UBC from which we are able to produce a live skeptical radio show and create a podcast that oh so many of you know and love. CiTR is also the home base from which Radio Freethinker is syndicated throughout Canada in places like Lethbridge, Kamloops, and Winnipeg!

Oh and did I mention that next week (Tuesday March 5th) we will be doing our show live from location at the Vancouver Convention Centre! We’ll be there discussing all the reasons you should donated to CiTR and also the interviewing interesting people at the Study and Go Abroad convention happening at the same time. So if you’re in the area, come on by and say hello!

We’ve mentioned before why an institution like CiTR is important so in a nut shell:

“CiTR is an independent radio station, meaning it’s not commercial. You won’t hear advertisements for beer or viagra on this station. What you will hear is psa’s and ads for community events, cultural celebrations, musical and artistic endeavors and causes and non-profits.

When you consider the value of having independent media that isn’t owned by a conglomerate, a small donation to CiTR seems like an easy decision!

For us skeptics we should keep in mind that often times independent media is frequently in bed with alternative medicine, conspiracy theories and pseudo science.  It’s all the more important than that Radio Freethinker do its part to help out so that stations like CiTR realize just how many skeptics out there appreciate them giving their valuable air space to us to freethink about.”

Radio Freethinker has its own specific donation page on the CiTR Fundrive network located HERE. This makes donating online surprisingly easy, go ahead and try it! We should remind you though, that if you donate online you will get a tax receipt, so if you have your eye on cool swag, you need to phone in. (Government’s rules or something)

How you Can Donate:

Donations can be made in-person at CiTR Radio offices. We accept Visa, MasterCard, Personal Cheque, Money Order & Cash, and Direct Deposit. You can also send a cheque payable to UBC with “CiTR Fundrive” in the memo, to the following address:

CiTR Radio
#233-6138 SUB Blvd.
Vancouver, BC
V6T 1Z1

Call 604-822-8648 (UBC-UNIT) to donate over the phone and on the air to your favourite show!

As I mentioned you can donate online HERE.

Here is some of the cool swag you can get from CiTR!

What you get for donating to Radio Freethinker!

As always, we have some great swag unique to our show that we will happily say “Thank you!” with.

Any donation over $20 will receive some cool skeptic themed stickers!


Any donation over $30 a cheque book full of blank $1,000,000.00 !!! (Okay not real million dollar cheques. They’re promotional items to commemorate the Million Dollar Challenge by the JREF)

One Million Dollars! (Not really)

One Million Dollars! (Not really)

Any donation over $70 will receive a collection of Skeptical Inquirer and Free Inquiry Magazines!

Any donation over $80 will receive a JREF or CFI Extraordinary Claims t-shirt (size XL)

IMG_0265 IMG_0266



Any donation over $101.09 will receive a TAM DVD Set! the Choices are TAM 5.5 or TAM 7

Any donation of or over $250 will earn the donor a chance to come on Radio Freethinker and host a show!

radio microphone

IMPORTANT NOTE – Prize packs are limited 1 per donation (you can’t donate $ and get all the prizes) However if you want to donate $ but only want the sticker for example, we can accommodate that. Also please note that we have limited quantities of prizes! So it’s first donate/first serve.

One final note, we know that asking for donations of $100 is no trivial thing. Even $30 is a lot. But the reason we ask is because we are confident and proud of the programming that we (not just Radio Freethinker) produces. CiTR gives a voice to a community that simply isn’t served by commercial radio. Further, we’re aware of the generosity within the Skeptical Community and we’re asking for some right now. If you’ve listened to our show or downloaded the podcast, please consider donating because without that source of funding, we wouldn’t be able to produce any on-air content and certainly no podcast. Help us if you can. This money goes a long way.

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Seth MacFarlane is One of Ours

Posted by Ethan Clow on February 26, 2013

If you’ve been anywhere near social media these last few days, you know the Oscars happened on Sunday. And you also probably know they were terrible.

Sadly, or I guess goodly, I missed the Oscars. I was out all evening Sunday, however I did pvr the Academy Awards to watch when I got home. But when I attempted to sit and watch the award show gala, I was so put off by the terribleness, I just couldn’t sit through it. The overwhelming badness of the show was caused by two problems. One was that my pvr did a horrible job recording, it was skipping and choppy and made it awful. The second reason was the terrible hosting of Seth MacFarlane.

Seth MacFarlane, is the creator of Family Guy and American Dad cartoons for Fox. Their pretty juvenile shows, sort of like South Park but without the satire. I admit to being a fan when it first came out but its sort of lost its vibe.

So the question of course is where did MacFarlane go wrong? The big strike against him seems to be offensive nature of his jokes. Unlike, say Ricky Gervais, who essentially roasted the attendees when he hosted the Golden Globes, MacFarlane decided to rely on some crass stereotypes for his humour.

Of course, even if no one cared about mean stereotypes, MacFarlane’s attempts at humour were lacking. At one point he asked Daniel Day Lewis if he had tried to free Don Cheadle because he was “so in character as Lincoln.”

There was polite laughter from the audience but few others are laughing. There have been a series of negative reviews of the award show, most calling out MacFarlane for his misogynistic jokes and racial stereotypes that he trodded out.

So he’s another bad comedian. Big deal right? Well I’m sorry to do this to you, skeptic community… but Seth MacFarlane is one of ours.

One of the characters on his show, which he voices, is a fan of Hitchens and Bill Maher and is also an outspoken atheist. And he’s mentioned how that character has sort of become his “voice” both metaphorically and literally on Family Guy.

In fact in 2011 MacFarlane received the Harvard Humanist of the Year award, obviously put on by the Harvard Humanist association.

MacFarlane also announced that he was was teaming up with Neil deGrasse Tyson and Ann Druyan (Carl Sagan’s widow) to produce a new version of Cosmos for Fox.


So… the same guy who sung a song at the Oscars about movies that female actresses in the audience showed their boobs in, is producing the next version of Cosmos….

So all this is to say, Seth MacFarlane is or will soon be a house hold name when it comes to the free-thought community. And since he’s a good deal more famous than pretty much any “celebrity” in the skeptic community, there’s a good chance this guy could become the face of our movement in the near future.


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The Proud Tradition of Popes Resigning

Posted by Ethan Clow on February 11, 2013

News broke that Pope Benedict “I look like Emperor Palpatine” the XVI aka Joseph Ratzinger has resigned as Pope. Ratzinger sighted advanced age as one of the reasons for his resignation,

“However, in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfil the ministry entrusted to me.”

So no worries. The Pope didn’t suddenly get an attack of the conscience for the decades of child abuse he covered up or the horrible polices the Vatican has been promoting in Africa like condoms spreading HIV.

In fact, Ratzinger is joining a proud tradition of Popes throughout history who have quit. Five Pope’s have resigned over history and an additional four more are “said” to have resigned but the history books are less clear on them. Let’s take a look at the quitters now.



First we have Pope Pontian who wore the hat from July 230 to September 235 CE. Little is known of this fellow, and we have only a few sources of his life to go by, however in a nut shell, this Pope found himself in the ire of Roman Emperor Maximinus Thrax who decided to have Pontian and his rival Hippolytus of Rome sent to the “unhealthy island of Sardinia.” Pontain resigned to prevent a power struggle in the papacy during his captivity. He died in the mines of Sardinia.


Next comes Pope Marcellinus who also was Pope during the reign of an Roman Emperor who wasn’t a fan of Christianity. It is believed that his papacy was from June 296 to April 304. There is some debate as to what happened to Marcellinus, did he resign? Was he martyred? Did he renounce his faith to save himself? What we can say for sure is that at some point during Emperor Diocletian’s reign, Marcellinus said “bugger this…I’m out.”Marcellinus

Next in our list is Pope Liberius, (May of 352 to September of 366 CE) who is only postulated to have resigned. Since digging through pages of obscure Catholic pseudo history is boring. I’m going to just agree.

The last of the historically mysterious Popes is John XVIII. The story for this guy is that he was basically installed as Pope by powerful Crescentii family, who ruled Rome from about 950 to 1012 CE. John actually poped from Pisa and apparently got tired to being bossed around and died as a monk in 1009. Way to keep your dignity dude.


BenedictusIXPope Benedict IX. Boy was this guy fun. He was Pope multiple times from October 1032 to July 1048. Installed by his dad who was super rich and well connected, Benedict IX was known for being the youngest Pope at 18 years old (maybe younger) and for his wild and crazy times. He was called “a demon from hell in the disguise of a priest…” and “a disgrace to the Chair of Peter” and that he “feast[ed] on immorality” Oh and he might have been gay. So when he finally got bored of having orgies in the Vatican and potentially being a murdering rapist, his grandfather bribed/bought the Papacy from him. His grandfather became Pope Gregory VI but after resigning and the money never arrived, Benedict had a not so surprising change of heart and returned to Rome with an army. He retook the throne but was no longer recognized by organized Catholicism as being Pope.

Benedict IX leads us directly to next quitter-pope. That is, his grandpa Gregory the VI. Catholicism breathed a sigh of relief when Benedict was bought out. But as I said, that quickly didn’t last. There were actually three Popes at this time. Benedict, Gregory and this jerk Pope Sylvester III. By this time, Holy Roman Emperor Henry III had had enough of this Pope-musical chairs and came down and drove Benedict from Rome. Henry favored Gregory and Sylvester was declared “you were never Pope in the first place” and sent home. However, Gregory also was slapped on the wrist for buying the Papacy. He resigned while spluttering “what? what? but…but…but…I’m a hero!”




(Gregory’s successor was Pope Clement II who poped until his death in 1047 when Benedict became Pope again. Ha.)

Next comes probably the most sensible Pope ever. Pope Celestine V. (July 1294 to December 13 1294) Known as a hermit and solitary guy, he sent the cardinals (who were trying and failing to elect a new pope) a letter warning them of dire consequences if they don’t elect someone soon. Mistaking this letter as a poorly worded resume they elected Celestine. To his credit, Celestine refused and according to Petrarch, tried to flee. One of his most important degrees as Pope was that any Pope could resign from the papacy, which he did five months into his reign as Pope. For some reason, his successor, Pope Boniface VIII (aka the pope that Dante put in hell in his Divine Comedy) had him imprisoned and may have murdered him.

And now the (previously) last Pope to resign. Pope Gregory XII. Gregory XII was elected pope during the Western Schism. In a nut shell, this schism was mostly about location. Prior to Gregory XII, Gregory the XI was a Pope at Avignon in France, however he moved the papacy back to Rome. This created a kerfuffle. Remember that guy Boniface the VIII? Well because of his wars with European monarchs, the cardinals elected a French Pope, who refused to move to Rome, choosing to stay at Avignon. This allowed France to essentially control the papacy for about 68 years. Anyway, along comes Gregory XI who wants to head back to Rome. So another Pope was declared in Avignon. So when Gregory the XI dies, his successor Gregory the XII has the following conditions, he must resign if the Avignon Pope also resigns; thus ending the schism.

Gregory XII

Gregory XII

Eventually, that’s what happened. Once both rival popes had resigned and any other upstart popes had been declared anti-popes, the church unified, elected Pope Martin V.

Bonus “almost” resignations include Pope Pius VII who before traveling to Paris to crown Napoleon emperor, left instruction that if he was held prisoner he was to be considered ‘resigned.’  It’s also claimed that Pope Pius XII had a similar condition that if he was captured by the Nazis, he was also defacto resigned. And apparently Pope John Paul II also had left instructions that if he had an incurable disease “that would prevent him from exercising the apostolic ministry” or in case of a “severe and prolonged impairment” that would have kept him from being the pope.

So. Fear not, Ratzinger. Your legacy as a quitter, while not as spectacular as some of your predecessors, is secured in a time honed tradition of disgraceful people quitting a disgraceful position.

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The Secular Battleground of British Columbia

Posted by Ethan Clow on February 6, 2013

The once comforting assertion that secularism was in no real danger because most people in BC held the “meh” opinion is quickly fading. What we’re seeing is that because so many people in BC held apathetic thoughts about secularism and religion, the sneaky power brokers with theocratic leanings have managed to quietly worm their way into policy making positions.

This puts us, the apathetic citizens of this province in an interesting position. Sure, we aren’t bombarded with pro-life billboards and pro-religious demonstrations and in-your-face proselytizing… but with our laissez faire attitude to religion, we have ceded the debate to those dedicated enough to work behind the scenes to advance their agenda.

This “meh” attitude does little to help us understand the issue of secularism because we’re basically extending the Vancouver feeling of apathy to the rest of the province, which is a mistake.

Recently we’ve seen the outcome of such thinking. News has been made over the question of distributing Gideon Bibles in Chilliwack. Additionally, the BC Humanists have started a petition to get the Chilliwack school board to stop distributing the bibles. (If you haven’t signed the petition yet, do so! Currently there are 252 signatures)

I was in Chilliwack not too long ago, a local MP was holding a town hall meeting on faith and secularism which was aptly titled “Beyond Secularism” We discussed this on the show in Episode 193. The panel was moderated by Gwen O’Mahony, and the panel itself featured three Christian apologists. I was there with some representatives of CFI Vancouver and we pointed out, you have a panel called “beyond secularism” with a poster that features five or six religious symbols, yet you have no one representing a secular point of view on the panel and the only religion you have represented is Christianity.

Going into that discussion, I was a little nervous, thinking that we would be in hostile territory and we would probably be run out of town. But I was surprised by the number of people who got up to provide strident defences of secularism. (Including an Arch Bishop for the Russian Orthodox Church, who gave a passionate statement about the importance of secular politics.)

Perhaps this is demonstrating that we are starting to wake the population up to the importance of secular activism. This is in no small part to the hard work of organizations like the BC Humanists, CFI Vancouver and the other skeptical activists across the province like CFI Okanagan and CFI Kamloops.

Our work is far from over.

Last night several of us from CFI Vancouver went to see the Premier of BC, Christy Clark discuss the role of faith and politics. (The event was live tweeted by CFI Vancouver here)

Christy Clark

Christy Clark

The event unfolded the way I thought it would, however; Clark managed to surprise me a few times. I’ve seen cartoonishly bad characterizations of secularism before, but Clark really upped the ante this time.

Starting off on a bad foot, the organizers announced they would only take written questions. A cowardly decision in my opinion. Clark had a audience of supporters, there’s no reason she should be afraid to talk unchallenged to them. This only made her constant repetition of how she’s a heroic maverick for talking about faith and politics all the more ludicrous. Clark responds to people criticizing her for speaking about faith and politics by presenting an event where she talks on these, so call forbidden topics, and shuts down an open Q and A.

And of course the event, which was supposed to start at 5pm didn’t get going until 5:30pm.

The event was put on by City in Focus, a faith based organization concerned with the “soul of the city” as they put it.

Clark started the evening off by remarking on the strangeness of faith and politics. Talking about the negative feedback she’s gotten for publically discussing her faith and religion. And how this is indicative of the change in society. She mentioned this specifically in reference to the number of atheists in British Columbia.

They key highlights (lowlights?) that are worth pointing out include the following:

Clark believes government should spend public money on faith based organizations because those groups are the ones doing the good work in society. Helping the poor etc. (Perhaps she’s not aware of the all the good work being done by secular groups like Insite, the Vancouver Food Bank, or Unicef)

Clark also stated that the most important part of her faith is practicing it. This means going to church to be reminded on why she needs to be a good person. Yes, the whole ‘religion makes people be good and not evil.’ Perhaps someone could inform Clark that atheists and non-believers learn to be good people without religion. It’s actually totally possible.

She also remarked that it’s tragic that more people don’t go to church.

One of the irritating assumptions she frequently made throughout the evening was assuming we were all God fearing people who attended church regularly. Oh and reality TV is bad. Damn meanies.

All of this is ironic because she admits that political discourse isn’t polite either. So it’s nice to know that we as a population are being held to higher standards than our politicians. (Who then draft policy to correct our so-called bad behavior)

When she got to question time, she remarked how she was surprised there was no open Q and A. (FAIL!)

Most of the questions were softballs lobed at her and she took her time knocking them around. A few interesting points that came out include:

Secularism is bad because some religious groups do nice things. (I’m paraphrasing there)

I was floored when she started talking about her plans for hospital proselytizing. She wants to make is so private information about patients in hospitals can be given to religious leaders so they can come into the hospital to preach to the patients. On the surface this sounds like a nice gesture but let’s deconstruct this for a moment. What she is saying is that if a patient is terminally ill, and stuck in a hospital bed, this persons condition should be given (how?) to local religious leaders (which ones? All of them?) Hospitals don’t do this because this is a huge invasion of privacy. Patients have rights, you see. So how does this work? Do hospitals have to ask permission first? Do they just tell churches? If someone is terminally ill do they just send out a newsletter to all the religious groups in the area “there’s another terminally ill patient in room 25”

What if the patient is a lifelong atheist who hates proselytizing? And now, in their final time on earth, they need to put with some priest coming to tell them about heaven and hell?

If a patient wants a religious person to come see them, they can tell hospital staff to call one up. Hospital staff should not be over stepping their authority and assuming a patient wants a theological lecture.

Think about the implications. What if you get some pushy religious person telling the patient to leave their estate to the church to get into heaven? No, this cannot be allowed. The current system of having the patient make the call (or requesting a call on their behalf) is the way this should work.

Just a terrible terrible idea by Clark.

Another question brought up the topic of bullying. Clark made the following statement “there are some things about bullying…you know…some things are hard to eliminate.”

Homelessness? It’s a complex problem she said. She also told a story about how she made a friend who was homeless.

When she was asked about making decisions based on the Bible she responded by acknowledging that the Bible contradicted itself. “It’s not static” She replied. “It’s a teaching document.” It’s a debateable thing.

I have to agree. I remember when I was trying to learn math in school. The formulas constantly changed, answers were never the same, sometimes 2 +2 was 5… it was fucking great.

No but seriously. The bible is a horrible teaching tool. It’s not ‘not static. It’s dogma. It hasn’t changed in a long time. What has changed is the mental gymnastics you go through to justify how in one part of the bible where it tells you to stone your son for disobeying you (Deuteronomy 13:5-10) what it really means is that families are nice.

To wrap things up, she did say a few good things. On the subject of genetically modified foods, she noted that humans have been doing this for 10000 years already. She’s right about that. She also said she supports same sex marriage (but doesn’t want to make religious people uncomfortable)

Our Premier Ladies and Gentlemen!

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Imagine No Religion 3 – May 17 to 19 2013

Posted by Ethan Clow on January 9, 2013

Hey all, just a heads up that the Imagine No Religion 3 Conference is coming up on May 17th in Kamloops!

INR3 is put on by the good folks at the Kamloops Centre for Inquiry. I went to the first INR conference and I had a great time. You might have heard some of our awesome interviews we recorded while at the conference. This year they have an impressive line up of speakers including: Dan Dennett, Victor Stenger, Louise Antony and Cristina Rad among others.

Check out this promotional video they put out for the conference:

You can register here, and I’d recommend doing it soon so you take advantage of the early bird rates! Hope to see you there!

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