What’s Stopping You? Nothing, and That’s the Point.

For years upon years upon years, religious apologists have been asking the same question of the non-religious and non-believers – what’s stopping you from committing crimes? What holds you back from raping, murdering, stealing and generally causing chaos? What stops you?


After all, we don’t – and to a degree can’t – live by any moral guidance determined for us and dictated from up on high.

Now, this opens up a huge can of worms when you take it to its conclusion; namely, that such questions imply that if the existence of an all-powerful creator-deity was suddenly disproved, or that said-theist stopped believing in it overnight, that they’d immediately embark upon a murderous rampage leaving nothing but dust in their wake. It assumes that under humanity’s playful exterior beats the heart of a ruthless, sadistic maniac. A fair assessment of humanity given our track record, sure, but not one that exclusively correlates with atheism. It also raises issues of trust – would you trust someone who explicitly said that the only thing stopping them from knifing you in the face right this second was their fear of a god?

Tu quoque aside, a far more interesting response to the accusation of being an atheistic amoral psychopath is brutal honesty – nothing is stopping me. Literally nothing stops us, as non-believers, from stealing, murdering, raping and pillaging, vandalising, burgling, buggering, and blasting our way across the planet for the whole duration of our short, sad and miserable time on it. But the simple fact is… we just don’t do that. By-and-large, we’re peaceful people. By-and-large, people are good. A person will stop to help another if they’re able, they’ll obey the law – something that only really exists to prevent the minority from exploiting the kindly majority.

So the accusation levelled by apologists really doesn’t make any sense so long as the atheist they’re talking to isn’t, in fact, committing any crime or sin. Nothing is stopping me from doing all that stuff. Nothing at all. I have simply murdered and raped everyone I have wanted to, and I have vandalised and stolen and destroyed everything I have wanted to. I won’t claim cherubic innocence on every count, but those cases really do round-off to zero. I have done everything I have wanted to, and it just so happens I haven’t wanted to do any of those criminal or immoral acts.

Anyway, that’s all introduction material. It’s all been said before, by multiple people, and probably in longer and shorter forms. You know this, surely.

My question is this – has anyone ever heard of a response to it? The likes of Ken Ham seem to base their entire anti-atheist worldview on it (see the accompanying image above). Their claimed monopoly on the laws of morality and goodness – or, at least, acts that we consider positive, constructive, non-harmful, and wellness- and happiness-maximising – relies on this absurd notion that we are a bunch of wild and rabid lunatics underneath. They need us to be sinful in the absence of God. But we’re not. They need us to be wild savages without the guidance of the Bible. But we’re not. The position is fundamentally flawed and falls at this very first, very mild hurdle.

So what next?

What therefore proves you must need God to be good even in the face of this?

What shows that we cannot possibly make moral decisions for ourselves even in the face of evidence that we make moral decisions for ourselves?

The ball has been on the theistic side of the net for a while now. I can’t even recall the first time I heard someone say “I’ve murdered exactly the number of people I wanted to: none”. Has anyone out there in Internet Land heard of a response to that?

This is a genuine question for those out there – have the Hams, Comforts or even the C. S. Lewises of the world ever taken the next step? And if not, why not? And how would you even begin, hypothetically speaking, to throw the ball back?

All of Black Mirror Happens in the Same Universe – Over-baked Fan Theory of the Month

It should go without saying but, dudes, spoilers below – also, for anyone stumbling upon this, this doesn’t include the new Netflix season, and is nothing more than a totally-not-remotely-serious bit of conjecture to fit Fifteen Million Merits  into the chronology in a more interesting way than most other attempts.

Putting all Black Mirror episodes into the same universe is fairly easy.

Of course, it’s not explicit like in the more recent films from the Marvel Cinematic Universe where they’re building a continuity and a whole story, it’s still just flashes and odd references. But keen-eyed viewers can see news reports and the occasional background flourish that nods towards the other episodes. The trial/appeal of Victoria Skillane appearing briefly in the background of a news report, or the I_AM_WALDO username, for example. The Waldo Moment comes before The National Anthem because you can see brief news tickers referring to Carlton Bloom’s art exhibit closing early – and presumably Waldo (now controlled by Jack Napier) has something to say about Michael Callow’s encounter with a farm animal a few weeks later. The technology to resurrect someone seen in Be Right Back looks like a precursor to the technology shown in White Christmas – the early AI-copies fed on your outward expressions put onto the internet. After the development of a neurological interface that was first used to wipe minds clear of a few days of memories, they learned to take it from your brain directly, synthesising a sentient agent from the preferences stored in your brain rather than on Facebook.

Yes, yes, yes, it’s not really all set in the same world.[1] And this is fan-cruft over-interpretation. Nothing serious. It’s just a bit of fun to join the dots. The world of Grains and Cookies are years away from the 15-seconds-into-the-future of The National Anthem and The Waldo Moment, the references are there just for anyone with a sharp eye. Nothing more.

That said….

The trouble is fitting Fifteen Million Merits into the continuity. It’s something of an outlier being the most blatantly futuristic sci-fi of the lot.[2] Where does it fit in? It clearly can’t be contemporary to any of the other stories given its outlier status but it must somehow if this over-baked fan theory is to work.

If you watch the first two series, you might think that it’s what society looks like when it rebuilds after the post-script sequence of The Waldo Moment – hundreds, if not thousands of years in the future after the cartoon bear with the blue cock sinks half the world into an Orwellian nightmare. BUT… consider:

  1. The society in Fifteen Million Merits has no qualms with keeping their drones in perpetual boredom.
  2. They literally do nothing productive. There are no builders or doctors or decorators – and, curiously for the setting, precious little in the way of highly trained maintenance engineers (or ways for the biker drones to become one).
  3. There seems to be no mechanism whereby they reproduce – there are no babies, kids or pregnant women to be seen. Anywhere.
  4. Nor any mechanism for them to grow old and die, for that matter. They get fat and abused, and that’s it.
  5. The bikes couldn’t possibly generate a net-gain in energy so the power thing has to be bollocks – a legend invented to disguise what is really just social control (cf. The Matrix).
  6. And White Christmas does have a flash of the show Hot Shot on it, suggesting it must be contemporary with it somehow…

So isn’t it obvious?

They’re actually Cookies.

The drones are AI copies of real people held in long-term storage. They’ve either had their long-term memories wiped by a digital version of the technology shown in White Bear, since we can assume the neural interface shown for wiping minds must be somehow related to the interface that draws information for the Cookie. Or they’ve been there so long they’ve simply forgotten their past lives. Years? Centuries? We know they can at least crank a thousand years per minute in our time. Once suitably “blanked” they’re transferred in.

Of course, they have to be doing *something* to pass the time, as Trent points out in White Christmas they get driven insane if you just leave them, so they get on a bike and buy stuff for a digital version (of the digital version) of themselves. So in reality, they’re all sat on a hard-drive somewhere, churning through their lives on bikes until they make it onto various TV shows, where producers back in the real world have experimented with using them for light entertainment. Hence the brief reference to Hot Shot and the cross-pollination of the song.

From Trent and Potter’s discussions, it seems precious few people are actually aware that the Cookies are effectively sentient slaves – and those that are simply don’t give a crap (see the “people are shitheads” point in footnote[2]) that they’re mistreating self-aware pieces of code. So where do people think this new TV show is coming from? Do they realise they can’t actually apply to be on ‘Hot Shot’? They probably don’t ask awkward questions like that when Waldo introduces it to them.[3]

And this has been a boon to TV producers. You don’t need to pay these digital copies. The drones clothe and feed themselves – they even practically produce the TV themselves by signing up and running everything. The drones are exposed to advertising constantly, with no escape unless they pay a penalty against it, and so form a captive (literally) audience to act as a huge focus group when testing the effectiveness of television adverts and product placement. Why test advertising in the real world, where you have to go through the rigmarole of filming a boom against a background and comping it into a shot getting a focus group, paying for the advertising space, correlate the result with profits, and see if it works on real people when you can test it on a literal captive audience and have months or years of data back in an instant?

And since they’re just code, they’re fairly easy to control and manipulate – just exactly how did you think “Cuppliance: Compliance in a Cup!” actually worked? It’s code, manipulative code. It is the mental projection of code infecting an AI/drone/Cookie to make it comply with a new instruction that goes against its original personality. Although clearly it only works on suitably prepared consciousness – as Trent can’t simply give it to Greta in White Christmas, he has to torture her into submission first so she’ll accept the Cuppliance-type programming. Digital-Greta wasn’t just a human psyche broken by boredom, there was clearly something else there – Cuppliance programming applied once the AI was ready. As was explained to AI-Greta, the buttons on her control panel were merely symbolic, they didn’t really do anything per se, so the bikes the Cuppliance probably work in the same way.

As you can do time-compression on Cookies, you can get a brand-new crop of desperate wannabes for reality TV and fresh people for your digitised advertising focus group every single day to exploit – and you only need to spend a few minutes at most producing and “filming” your episodes when they willingly take care of it themselves. The viewing public just watch the pre-rendered result. It’s all taken care of by the likes of Wraith, Hope and Charity, who clearly get a good benefits package to keep the system running whether they’re aware of their status as digital simulations or not.

So the punchline, almost to the entire series as a whole, is that the the Cookie, once thought to be the ultimate form of AI that could do important things such as resurrect people from the dead has become the perfect device for creating shit reality television and perpetuate consumption and consumerism. Abused, like so much great technology, to appeal to the lowest common denominator.

[1] It would certainly be interesting to very explicitly set all the stories in the same world and build a mythos and continuity with the same unifying concept. The inevitable US remake, for example, would suit this because it would fit the bill of adapting it for the television ethos of the US very well. And given the fan theory above, I think it’d make an excellent concept for a connected series. But right now in the present series they’re just sly nods. This is how it should stay. Please, no fucking sequels to episodes. Not ever. This is just pointless fun, okay?

[2] Fifteen Million Merits has been called “dystopian” but I disagree on that assessment since the society actually functions. There’s a little bit of social oppression going on, but it doesn’t have the same hallmarks of classic dystopian science fiction with the gritty industry, the towering statues and faces of the Glorious Leader, or the social breakdown at the lowest level. It’s no Nineteen Eighty-Four by a long shot. It’s not even Escape From New York. The real interesting thing about it is that while a general theme of Black Mirror is that each story requires a piece of – currently non-existent – technology to work (The National Anthem excepted) in Fifteen Million Merits the technology is just window dressing. It’s irrelevant. The social aspects could be happening right now. In fact, it is happening right now. This story could be happening right now, today, and what you see on screen is all in Bing’s head, projected onto the world as he’s driven mad by an existence that consists of nothing but his one-bedroom-flat, his cubicle in an office, and the commute between the two. This episode says a lot more about our society right now than our techno-paranoia of the future. Particularly interesting, I think, is the sexism and misogynistic elements. There’s the blatant stuff – the widely advertised pornography in this world is specifically the degrading kind that doesn’t give a damn about consent, because, as Judge Wraith points out, they can medicate against shame or discomfort. And there’s also the subtle stuff – if you want to read into Judge Charity’s reaction to Wraith and Hope undressing Abi with their eyes and their comments, you’ll see it’s almost a textbook patriarchal bargain (look it up). She neither approves wholeheartedly, nor can she voice any disapproval, so settles for looking and feeling awkward, and covering it up with a joke about “us girls wanting to join in”. That’s her choice, but the choice has been made in a restricted environment, where she has “chosen” to comply with the chauvinism and suffer through and endorse it in exchange for the recognition and the promotion up the society. Men and women wear the same clothes, bike the same bikes, get the same accommodation, food, and identical expectations of their nominal performance – yet equality of respect is still lacking. That’s not the future, that’s today. Overall, Fifteen Million Merits is the outlier in how it explores a wider social side of modern life (the “people are total shitheads” social angle is explored in all of them, of course) rather than focusing on the techno-paranoia of our creations running amok. Anyway…

[3] And don’t ask awkward questions like “where are all the Z-Eyes in White Bear if Victoria Skillane is on appeal during White Christmas?”[4] and “Why would Michael Callow need to bone a pig in The National Anthem if they have the ability to build a sex-enabled meat-puppet as shown in Be Right Back?” or “What if you just installed a Cookie into Jaime Salter’s brain and made Waldo sentient?” Just don’t ask. Okay?

[4] Or… perhaps she was on appeal after several years trapped in the White Bear Justice Park. Brooker, you bleak motherfucker…

How to stop sucking at non-belief (Part 4)

Religion causes more wars than any other factor. Right?

It’s pretty hardy received wisdom amongst non-believers that religion is a violent, oppressive, terrifying force that causes nothing but harm to society.

Is this actually true? And I don’t mean in a “I can dig up at least one example” type of true (that’s trivial, just look up the number of infants who have died while their parents prayed over them rather than taking them to a hospital) I mean actually statistically true. Is it such a cause that can be reliably and repeatedly demonstrated? Is it a cause that tangibly alters the course of human events?

And I mean really caused by religion. As in, one leader got a message from God to declare war and everyone within that religion rose up to join them. Or the war was started by one religious group specifically to eradicate another religious group. Most importantly, though, if you want to say religion is The Cause (capital letters and all), then that war would have to  be impossible without religion. After all, religion could be a confounding variable. There’s the story that George Bush was “inspired” to invade Iraq by God, but that alone would never have passed under the US political system. The political machinations for a war in Iraq were brewing for decades, it wasn’t declared on a whim because of religion – in fact, even taking the “God told me so” message at face value it’s not religion, as in the abstract social phenomenon, that caused the war, but lone single beliefs of an individual. In that respect it’s no different to any other perfectly secular totalitarian declaration of war!

Back in the dark days of only a few years ago, some bright sparks had this great idea to make information available on this thing that they called “The Inter Net”. So looking up this sort of thing has become remarkably easy – if you can broadcast your opinion on the internet, there is no legitimate excuse for you being unable to use it to gain some facts. And so, with that back-hander out of my system, let’s take a look at the list of ongoing military conflicts.

Now, this is just the ongoing ones, but it’s good enough for our purposes (see below). The first thing you would notice looking at the Wikipedia list would be the two categories of >1,000 and <1,000 deaths per year (2013) – conflicts escalate and trail off, ebbing and flowing as they progress whether they’re resolved or not. So the best thing to do with the list is to order them by cumulative casualties. This gives you a better overall view of what’s happened in the last 50 years or so.

You then see, quite readily, the top ongoing conflicts in terms of total deaths caused by them. This is pretty much the established metric for how bloody a war is, or how “bad” it was. These are:

Once you get below that, you’re into the long tail, but these are the ones that dominate the entire list dramatically and take up the lions share of death and destruction. Anyone see religion in there? Anyone? Nope, me neither. They’re almost all exclusively politically-motivated civil wars. State-to-state invasions are practically unheard of in the grand scheme of things! And notably, one of the top ones for deaths this year alone is the drug war in Mexico.

You have to dig through that list of ongoing wars quite thoroughly to find a religious basis for the listed conflict. There’s the Nigerian Sharia conflict, which fits the bill pretty well. There’s the Lord’s Resistance Army, which despite being political I’ll just about accept as religiously motivated because Kony thinks he’s some spiritual medium in contact with God and wishes to install a theocracy (he has many things in common with Ann Coulter and Sarah Palin, it seems). There’s the Islamic insurgency in the Philippines, which is being fought by Jihadists… and that’s about it, really. The Israel-Palestine thing is really more about territory and occupation, rather than religion. Northern Ireland is about separatism and independence, and it’s only a combination of religion tradition dating back to the reformation that means that it’s vaguely Protestant on one side and Catholics on the other. To say that those are about religion would be like saying the second world war motivated by tensions between blonde haired and brown haired people because Hitler liked the Aryan image.

That’s ongoing current wars and civil conflicts. What about the other biggies from the 20th century? The first world war, the second world war, Vietnam… well, if you think those have anything to do with religion you need to and read a fucking history book. Right. Fucking. Now.

“Ah!” says favourite Straw Man sparing partner, “but what about the Crusades, and the Inquisition?”

Well, my darling dearest voice-in-my-head, what of them? What about them? No, really. What of it? Are you seriously considering judging modern religion by the standards of how it operated centuries ago? Are you seriously saying we should take someone going along to a church to sing a hymn or two on a Sunday, and judge them based only on the whims of Pope Urban II 1,000 years ago? Seriously, it’s a 1,000 years ago. If we were living in a fantasy novel this would have been called “The Second Age” or the “Epoch of Elves” or something like that. That’s why I opened this with the list of ongoing conflicts (well, here’s the list of bloodiest wars ever, again, note the dearth of religious motivation).

But let’s take that a bit further. Though I hasten to add that I’m not qualified to talk about this time period, I’ll take some informed stabs at it. What about the political situation of 1,000 years ago? When most of Europe was effectively a theocracy, the distinction between a religious and political cause was practically non-existent. There was no real separation of Church and State. Just like with George W. Bush, a leader didn’t have to be told by God, they just needed the political reason to and then use God as a post-facto justification of it.

So, in conclusion of this rant-in-miniature, stop it. Just stop it. Please just fucking stop it already. Right? Please? Stop simplifying global socio-political turmoil into a case of who has the best God, because that’s not even wrong.