Intersection – by Octavia

I am in Bavaria, with Constance.
She is Catholic, a native, and
Her name ends in stanza –
A way of speaking, not standing.
We visit the churches, to see inside her head.
Round, squat, a heavy dome with sloping roof
And everywhere a riot of colour.
It’s strange having so much of it in a church
Outside the muted rose of old windows,
Or so I think, and so I think here.
For it’s not muted – pink and gold is everywhere.
Little cherubs, the Baroque style,
Curls and squiggles on every surface –
The bad taste fairy gone mad.
I know what would fit, but don’t like to say
Although I can see it in my atheist’s eye:
A velvet Elvis behind the altar would fit right in.
He winks at me, multiplies my stifled giggles.
I am sent outside, because I cannot behave.

I am in London, with Constance.
We are at Westminster, and I, the ex-pat Kiwi,
Am showing what I think a cathedral should be
From my stance outside the Church.
Certain in my disbelief, but certain also
In the loveliness of the spires
Grey pillars soaring, decoration only
In the plain fluted columns well out of reach,
The solemn darkness of the old stone.
Space and science, a miracle of architecture.
If there was a God he would be here, I think.
But Constance is unimpressed –
She misses colour, the dreadful cherubs,
Doesn’t like Gothic, thinks it’s boring.
Here there are no distractions, I tell her.
Here you must listen to the priest, take in his words.
She looks at me and grins.
Exactly, says Constance, the good Catholic.
Who wants to do that?

They said: “Come to church with us?” – by Stephen TB

They said: “Come to church with us?”
Politely I declined
They said “Come and pray with us?”
Politely I declined
They said “Come sing hymns with us?”
Politely I declined
They said “Believe in God with us?”
Politely I declined
They said “You’re an atheist?”
and that made me start.

Am I, then an “atheist”
because of what I see?
And this is what I see:
a crack, a chasm,
a wide and deep cravass
between worlds we imagine
and the world in which we live
with more factualities
than its possible to count,
and varying in size from
the universe to a sub-
atomic particle.
We know very few of them,
but those we do, like trees and finger nails
and cancer and tea,
we have no doubt about.
Unlike demons and fairies,
angels, boggarts and gods,
they don’t call for faith,
Or hymns or prayers or temples,
or ceremonial sacrifices, dead or alive.

They’re as untouchable as smoke,
as ephermeral as dreams,
and while I know they exist,
I know they exist
only in the mind.

It was never my ambition
to be an atheist.
All I’ve ever wanted
is to be a realist.

The Luttrell Psalter – by Huginn

Huginn is currently making a film about mediaeval England as it is depicted in the 14th century manuscript called the Wikipedia reference-linkLuttrell_Psalter, which was made for the Luttrell family who lived in the Lincolnshire village of Irnham. Huginn is making this film for The Collection, which is a new museum in Lincoln, where it will be shown to visiting school parties to teach them about life in Irnham in the 14th century.

Below are some stills from his film. Don’t they look beautiful?








If you are interested in seeing more about Huginn’s film, please visit the websites below for trailers and general project information. I’m sure you’ll all agree that it’s very cool having a film-maker in the community! If there are more of you out there, or if anyone has any other artwork they would like to submit, please feel free to send it to Octavia.


Dance trailer

The project website

Burning Bruno: the Fire that Failed the Church – by Octavia

In 1591, Giordano Bruno, an Italian philosopher and priest, published a book on cosmology titled De Monade. This was not the book that originally outlined the astronomical ideas that saw Bruno burned at the stake nine years later, but it was the sentiments expressed therein which made that burning inevitable:

“I fought, and that’s a lot. I thought I could win… but nature and luck curbed my endeavour. But it’s already something that I took up the struggle, because I see that victory is in the hands of Fate. In me was what was possible and what no future century will be able to deny to me: what a winner could give from his own; that I did not fear death, that I did not submit, my face firm, to anyone of my breed; that I preferred courageous death to pavid life.”

Bruno had a lot of time to reconsider this piece of prescience. When he was imprisoned and brought to trial by the Inquisition, it was for eight years – a period that ended with his gruesome execution in 1600. The General Inquisitors who pronounced his guilt were damning in their denunciation of him: “…Giordano Bruno, the accused, examined, brought to trial and found guilty, impenitent, obstinate and pertinacious…”

On Saturday the 19th of February, in the Square of Flowers in Rome, Bruno was stripped naked, and bound to the stake. An iron spike had been hammered through his tongue, and another through his soft palate, and his jaw was further bound in iron. It is impossible not to assume that this was to prevent him from speaking further – Bruno had received his sentence from the judges with threatening words. “Perchance you who pronounce my sentence are in greater fear than I who receive it.” After eight years in prison, eight years of questioning from the Roman Inquisitors, Bruno could not have been without fear. Perhaps it was his own words in De Monade that gave him the courage to face his eventual death when recantation might have saved him. He did not recant, and was burnt alive. There is a disgustingly gloating letter surviving from a lackey named Gaspar Schopp, who was witness to the whole affair:

“[Bruno] was given eight days to recant, but in vain. So today he was led to the funeral pyre. When the image of our Saviour was shown to him before his death he angrily rejected it with averted face… Thus my dear Rittershausen is it our custom to proceed against such men or rather such monsters.”

For his bravery, Bruno has often been hailed as the first martyr to science and freethought. Despite his pantheism, he has been traditionally seen as an atheist (both by his contemporaries as a means of vilification, and by the modern atheist movement, which often co-opts him for his stance against organised religion). His execution has long been an embarrassment to the Church.

If De Monade emphasised the strength of Bruno’s convictions, it was De l’Infinito Universo et Mundi (published in 1584) that was the root of the problem. Arrested for many doctrinal errors, Bruno was particularly tasked with recanting his belief in the infinity of the universe, the plurality of worlds, and the possibility of extraterrestrial life. An extract from a dialogue in l’Infinito shows the explosive nature of his arguments:

“Proceed to make known to us what is in truth the heaven, what in truth are the planets and all the stars; how the infinity of worlds are distinguished one from the other, how an infinite Space is not impossible but necessary… Dissolve the notion that our earth is unique and central to the whole… Give to us the knowledge that the composition of our own star and world is even as that of many other stars and worlds as we can see…”

Not all of Bruno’s astronomical ideas were correct – for instance he also believed that matter was distributed evenly throughout the universe, when modern astrophysics tells us that it is not. Correctness aside, these beliefs were inimical to the Church. They defied scripture, and in the explosion of intellectualism that was the Renaissance, that defiance was another weapon in the increasing conflict between science and religion, rationalism and faith. This conflict was to result in the detention and trial of other scientists, including Galileo. Many scientific books were placed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum.

Where did Bruno’s idea come from? It did not originate with him, but its history stretched back to ancient Greece. Interestingly, the concepts of the plurality of worlds, the infinite universe, and extraterrestrial life have consistently been at the forefront of the debate between freethought and religion.

Random moves versus the Prime Mover.

The conflict between Bruno and the Church is not dissimilar to that which took place in classical Athens, where the Atomists were pitted against the Geocentrists. Atomists were not necessarily atheists, but they were often accused of being so.

The argument for the plurality of worlds began with Leucippus, a Greek philosopher who lived in the fifth century BC. Leucippus was the first to postulate the existence of atoms, hence his position as founder of the Atomists. What little is known of his life and beliefs can be found in the work of his student, Democritus. The Atomists thought that the universe was made up of innumerable tiny and indivisible objects – the atoms – which were indestructible and therefore eternal. These atoms moved at random throughout the universe, and spent a great deal of time bumping into each other. Sometimes they would deflect after a collision and bounce away in another direction, but sometimes the collision would be so strong that the atoms would stick together. As these clusters of stuck atoms increased, they formed the substances found in the universe. These substances were not confined to physical matter only – Democritus posited that the soul was made out of atoms, as were the senses.

Given an infinite number of atoms, however, the Atomists postulated that their random motions and accretions could form an unlimited number of worlds throughout the universe, some of which could even be populated. As Democritus comments in one of his surviving fragments:

“The ordered worlds are boundless and differ in size; in some is neither sun nor moon; in others both are greater than with us, and in yet others more in number. The intervals between the ordered worlds are unequal, here more and there less; some worlds increase, others flourish, and others decay. They are destroyed by colliding one with another. Some ordered worlds are bare of animals and plants, and of all water.”

(The basis of the idea was correct, although the Atomists got the details wrong. Today we know that atoms are not indestructible, and they are not indivisible. Nor is there any evidence that atoms make up a human soul. The fact that the Atomists believed it did, however, is enough to show that they were not really atheists after all – merely labelled as such because their argument was inconvenient to the religious ideals of the time.)

The leader of the argument against the plurality of worlds was undoubtedly Aristotle. He ascribed the creation of the universe to a “perfect Prime Mover” who set in motion certain inalienable physical laws. One of these was the idea of the perfect circle. Another was the belief that Nature would not abide a void, or vacuum, and that because of this all matter within the universe collects in the centre of it. Aristotle believed that the Earth was the centre of the universe – a small universe with finite matter, shaped in a perfect circle, which revolved around the stationary Earth as water swirls around a plughole. The possibility of other worlds was horrifying to him, as that would have meant that there were two (or, Heaven forefend, even more!) centres, and two or more circumferences. With multiple central areas, the perfect circle and pattern of the universe would be disrupted, just as the circle of water swirling around a plughole is disrupted if several more plugholes appear near the first. No perfect Creator or Prime Mover would create something so aesthetically displeasing, and so contrary to order! (The problem with positing a Creator is that you are forced to posit his mental state as well.)

Aristotle found the perfect geocentricity of the solar system (as observed by the naked eye) to be proof of that Prime Mover. Denying that perfection meant denying the Prime Mover. Aristotle did not hold this position alone. As Democritus was supported by philosophers such as Thales, Epicurus, and Anaximander; Aristotle had the big guns of Plato and the Egyptian Ptolemy on his side. The influence of the Geocentrists was so pervasive that Ptolemy’s model of geocentrism as outlined in his Almagest was the prevailing idea for over 1500 years, until given the death blow by Copernicus in his 1543 book De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium.

This didn’t mean that the plurality position was left to dry on the vine, however. It was explored by several Roman philosophers, most especially Lucretius (99-55 BC), who supplemented the Atomist methodology of collision and accretion with his ideas on the “principle of plenitude”. In short form, this principle can be best described as the reflection of the imagination. If a person is capable of imagining something, then that thing exists in concrete form, and our imaginations reflect it like a great, unconscious mirror. We can imagine other worlds, therefore they exist. It has to be admitted that this argument can also be applied to God – the ontological proof of his existence. It’s probably equally reliable in both cases.

An example in point is the profusion of classical literature on the possibility of life (including intelligent life) on the Moon. Many classical philosophers wrote about the possibility, including Philolaus, Xenophanes, Plutarch, and Epicurus. By Lucretius’ reasoning, the Apollo spacecraft should have come across an entire menagerie of strange and amazing new life forms, and Neil Armstrong would have been the first to converse with intelligent life that was not of Earth. Wouldn’t it have been wonderful it he had? Alas, it was not to be. We are still alone – but it may not be forever. In his great poem De Rerum Naturae, Lucretius imagined life on other planets. Although his theory is defunct, perhaps one day his imagination will be proved correct.

The “noble and exalted” question.

Surprisingly, arguments about the possibility of other planets – including inhabited planets – carried on throughout the Middle Ages. On the cusp between the Classical and Middle Ages, St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) disagreed with Epicurus on the plurality of worlds – his City of God pointed out the disconnection between the supposed random movement of the atoms and the Biblical concepts of creation and divine providence, and that was the end of that. However, in the latter half of the Middle Ages, discussion really began to start up again on the infinity of worlds and the possibility of extraterrestrial life. Not only did this occur despite the Church, which had an effective monopoly on the intellectual life of the time, but many of the debaters were churchmen. Although the plurality of worlds was a theologically iffy subject, it had gained a sort of intellectual cachet due to the rediscovery of Aristotle.

During the Middle Ages, Arabic science and technology were far more advanced than their Western counterparts, which had deteriorated from the high and heady times of the Classical era into not very much at all. In contrast, the Islamic Golden Age saw the invention of the decimal number system, algebra, optics, and Ptolemy’s Almagest. From the 11th century, Islamic scientists began to question Ptolemy’s model, but they mostly still worked within the traditional geocentric framework. A minority did posit possible heliocentric models – including Ibn al-Haytham (965-1039), who was particularly sceptical about the emphasis on the supposed “proof” of the perfect circle:

“Ptolemy assumed an arrangement that cannot exist, and the fact that this arrangement produces in his imagination the motions that belong to the planets does not free him from the error he committed in his assumed arrangement, for the existing motions of the planets cannot be the result of an arrangement that is impossible to exist…. for a man to imagine a circle in the heavens, and to imagine the planet moving in it does not bring about the planet’s motion.”

One of the first truly experimental scientists, al-Haytham’s scepticism extended to the idea of taking information on faith, especially when it came to scientific knowledge.

“Therefore, the seeker after the truth is not one who studies the writings of the ancients and, following his natural disposition, puts his trust in them, but rather the one who suspects his faith in them and questions what he gathers from them, the one who submits to argument and demonstration, and not to the sayings of a human being whose nature is fraught with all kinds of imperfection and deficiency. Thus the duty of the man who investigates the writings of scientists, if learning the truth is his goal, is to make himself an enemy of all that he reads, and, applying his mind to the core and margins of its content, attack it from every side. He should also suspect himself as he performs his critical examination of it, so that he may avoid falling into either prejudice or leniency.”

Unfortunately, al-Haytham was not to become the pattern of Islamic science. From the tenth century internecine conflicts between the rational and the orthodox branches of Islam occurred, and the latter gained ascendancy. Islamic science and technology stagnated – but not before the innovations they had created and the copies of Classical literature that had been saved were passed back to Europe.

This occurred mainly in Andalusia. The Moorish conquest of part of the Iberian peninsula saw the spread of Islamic science and al-Haytham’s experimental and research methods into the European continent. Latin translations were made of the great Islamic and Classical texts, and this kick-started the European effort, just as Islamic science was beginning its decline. The influence of the Classical texts – especially those of Aristotle – was potent. Aristotle’s conception of the Prime Mover gave him greater standing than other pre-Christian philosophers in the eyes of the Catholic Church. It was one thing to dismiss one of the greatest acknowledged thinkers of all time as a pagan doomed to hellfire for the crime of being born before the Church could redeem him. It was quite another to spin him as having a glimpse of the one true God – it made Aristotle not so doomed after all, and it was more acceptable for people to believe in his ideas than it was for them to believe in the “atheism” of Democritus and Epicurus.

One of Aristotle’s biggest champions was the priest Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). Aquinas’ teacher, the Dominican monk Albertus Magnus, stated in his De Caelo et Mundo: “Do there exist many worlds, or is there but a single world? This is one of the most noble and exalted questions in the study of Nature.” The apple didn’t fall far from the tree, and Aquinas explored this question in his Summa Theologica. Basically, he agreed with Aristotle’s idea of order. The perfect circle, and the orderly nature of the observable cosmos, indicated to Aquinas that the Atomists were mistaken. Both Aquinas and Albertus rejected the idea of the plurality of worlds, but there is a wonderful irony in Aquinas’ reasoning.

Being a firm believer in the omnipotence of God, Aquinas reasoned that as God could do anything, it is possible that he could have created other worlds (but that he simply didn’t). This is in lovely contrast to the earlier views of Augustine, who had similarly set views as to the limit of God’s power. Augustine argued that there were certain things that God could not do – for instance, he could not commit suicide. Whether (or if) Augustine considered the possibility of God creating other worlds as within his power is unexplored.

It is a shame that we don’t have a working time machine. I would pay good money to see a squabble between Augustine and Aquinas over the mess of couldn’t, wouldn’t, and didn’t in their respective assumptions. Luckily, Aquinas’ argument spread to other philosophers, such as the French Bishop of Lisieux Nicholas of Oresme (1323-1382) who spent many happy hours postulating about the other worlds God could have created (but didn’t).

The clause was a necessary one. In 1277 the Bishop of Paris, Etienne Temper – under the authority of Pope John XXI – issued a Condemnation of a grab-bag of heretical “errors” (219 of them, plus assorted offensive books). Amongst these was the idea of the plurality of worlds. It was permissible to speculate on other worlds – but only with a prominent caveat that they did not, of course, exist. Given that the possibility of plural worlds and extraterrestrial life was so inimical to the Church, this can be seen as one of the early footprints on the road to the burning of Giordano Bruno. In deference to the compassion of the Church, however, I must grant that they could have been more successful in repressing this doctrine by beginning the burning earlier (but didn’t).

“No right to question…”

This repression intensified in the Renaissance, just as the debate on the theological state of any theoretical worlds was gathering momentum. William Vorilong (d.1463) was the one to get the ball rolling, with two inflammatory arguments: that if other worlds existed, they might be un-Fallen (thus making their rational inhabitants better than us!), and that even if they had Fallen like humans did, Christ only had to make the sacrifice on the Cross here and it applied to all other worlds automatically (thus raising images of this not being the case, and putting an infinity of bloody deaths into the starved and slavering imaginations of the great unwashed).

Naturally something had to be done, to stop mad scientists stirring up the masses – and not only regarding other worlds, but also concerning the state of this one. It had become a hot topic, with strong opinions on either side. The German cardinal Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464) had come out against the perfect circle theory, and he was supported by such intellectual heavyweights such as the astronomers Nicolaus Copernicus(1473-1543), Johann Kepler (1571-1630), and Christiaan Huygens (1629-1695). It is important to note that, in many cases, the supporters of heliocentrism were also the supporters of the infinite universe.

The lot of scientists and freethinkers (the tiny minority) throughout the Renaissance was a mixed one. On the one hand, the great flowering of science and technology (including the progression of optics and the invention of the telescope just about the time Bruno was having the stars taken out of his own eyes) meant that whole new worlds were (literally) opening up to them. On the other, the existence of a rationalist philosophy was rightly seen by the Catholic Church as an increasing source of danger to them, and steps were taken to negate the possibility of the scientific method being turned against the viability of the scriptures as the inspired and literal word of God.

Thus the conservative backlash against this disruptive position was based upon the inerrancy of the Bible, and the absolute authority of the Catholic Church to interpret it. Luiz Nuñez Coronel (an early physicist, and author of Physicae Perscrutationes) asserted in 1511 that because the Church had pronounced the position for the plurality of worlds as heretical, then members of the Church had no right to regard any of it as open to question. In effect, Nuñez was advocating a gag order – denying freedom of thought and speech in order to shore up the position of the Church.

This is a truly conservative viewpoint, but it was not one that was likely to last in the intellectual environment of the Renaissance. The essence of both science and freethought is the ability to question received wisdom – whether religious or scientific – and to replace it with new information if that information better explains the world around us. There are some who see this as a weakness of science: “Why should I believe what the scientists say, when tomorrow they’ll be telling me something different?” The answer to this question is that science does not provide certain results. It provides certain methodology. This methodology gives answers, but they are self-correcting ones. Hypotheses are made and tested – just as Ibn al-Haytham tested his optical theories – and the old ones are thrown out if the new are found to be even a little bit better. The new answers do not have to give the whole truth, but science corrects itself to give a more complete one. As new discoveries flooded the Renaissance, and technology slowly became more and more advanced, the means of testing and the entrenchment of both the scientific method and William of Ockham’s principle of parsimony gave a new impetus to rational inquiry. This has been reflected in the centuries since Bruno’s murder, with science and freethought continuing to gain momentum at the expense of those who would crush it; that which would advocate that we should wallow in ignorance like the proverbial pig in its sty, piously telling ourselves all the while that doing so is indicative of a humble nature, and illustrates a noble and trusting test of faith.

Giordano Bruno would have known how to answer that.

Bruno was unlucky. Arrested before the invention of the telescope or the many other fascinating and marvellous devices humanity has invented since, he had no means of producing verifiable and replicable proof against an institution determined not to face the fact that their viewpoint had become obsolete.

The universe today.

Blackened around the edges or not, Bruno’s idea of the infinite universe was correct. This has been a difficult idea to grasp – and not only by the religious – because of the apparent paradox inherent in the formation of an infinite universe from the Big Bang, where primordial material of extreme density and temperature exploded to form the expanding universe as we know it today. This paradox can be more easily understood by analogy. Imagine that the primordial, pre-Bang state is that of an egg. (This follows in the footsteps of the Hindu creation mythology of the cosmic egg, which was later picked up by the scientists of the 1930s to explain the Bang itself.) Within this egg, all matter is compressed, just as a hen’s egg has yolk and egg white compressed within it. That matter is finite. To use the hen’s egg example: we can hold it in our hand. Now if, shuffling around the kitchen in an early morning stupor, I was to drop my breakfast egg before I was able to put it in the frying pan, the egg would fall to the ground and shatter. There would be a very sticky mess – but it would be a finite mess. I could easily clean it up, which I would not be able to do if the finite yolk and egg white suddenly began to expand into infinity, spilling out of the house and eventually taking up all space in the universe.

Hence the paradox. The universe is expanding – that has been determined experimentally through the phenomenon of red shift. This universe is filled with matter. How can it be, if the universe is infinite and the matter is not? The answer is quite simple. The momentum from the initial explosion – from the moment when the egg shattered – is still driving the matter outwards. Galaxies are flying apart from each other, and the universe is expanding, but the matter itself is not, although it may be transformed. The only thing that is increasing is the space between the clumps. Imagine ten soap bubbles in an enclosed room, and compare it to ten soap bubbles outside during a windy day. Although the same number of bubbles are present each time, the space between the outside bubbles increases because of the wind. There are not any more of them, but they are becoming more spread out than the bubbles in the room. This is what is happening with the galaxies. Space itself continues to expand, and the matter is propelled into it. We are propelled through the infinite universe on the surface of our own planetary bubble – although please note that the analogy of the bubbles does not extend to the necessity of a bubble-blower!

But if the universe is infinite, how can it expand? How can it become more infinite, or “infinity squared!” as children tiresomely shriek when getting into a “Bags one!” “Bags two!” “Bags infinity!” contest as to who gets to sit in the front seat. Wonderfully, the noisy brat who squares infinity is in the wrong. Infinity squared is still infinity, and is no more or less infinite than the square root – this can be proved by a relatively simple one-to-one correspondence in series mathematics, a subject available in any undergraduate university mathematics department.

There is also no longer any doubt as to the existence of other planets. To date, 254 extrasolar planets have been found, with the aid of radio arrays and orbiting telescopes such as Hubble. Many of these planets are very different from Earth – some are gas giants such as Jupiter, others are rocky ice giants. An example of one of the exoplanets found this year is the Neptune-sized ice giant GJ436b, which orbits the M-class star Gliese 436, located 30 light years from Earth. From density measurements, GJ436b is thought to be half rock, half compressed and frozen water.

Bruno’s assertions on the infinity of the universe and the plurality of worlds have been proven. Not so his speculations about the existence of extraterrestrial life. The search goes on, however. National space organisations such as NASA and the ESA, and non-governmental projects like SETI (the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) continue to capture the funding and imagination necessary for their work to continue.

Rehabilitating Bruno.

In his 1881 book, Colonel Robert Ingersoll – an American state attorney, political orator, and strong supporter of humanism and freethought – had this to say about the death of Giordano Bruno.

“The murder of this man will never be completely and perfectly avenged until from Rome shall be swept every vestige of priest and pope, until over the shapeless ruin of St. Peter’s, the crumbled Vatican and the fallen cross, shall rise a monument to Bruno, — the thinker, philosopher, philanthropist, atheist, martyr.”

This harks back to Diderot’s even more bloody religious condemnation of the previous century: “Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest”. Sympathetic as I am to these sentiments, one really has to ask if they are at bottom any different from the mindset that murdered Bruno.

Giordano Bruno was not killed by the priests of today – or even the priests of the nineteenth century, despite Ingersoll’s attempt to smear them all with the same bloody brush. Nor does demolishing every trace of that institution – including some of the great world treasures of art – provide any sort of useful revenge. The man is dead, after all. Satisfying as bellowing hyperbole may be, there is always someone stupid enough to take it seriously, and wanton destruction won’t bring Bruno back.

The most that can be done for Bruno is to vindicate his astronomical ideas. Not all of them had any lasting merit, but his beliefs on the expansion of the universe and the possibility of extraterrestrial life have attracted such a weight of proof that even the Catholic Church, the same institution that silenced him for holding these views in the first place, is slowly coming around. In 2000, Pope John Paul II formally apologised for his murder, although Bruno is never likely to be rehabilitated. According to Cardinal Paul Poupard, who is Chair of the Vatican Cultural Council, Bruno’s teachings are “incompatible” with those of the Church.

What good is an apology now? One might ask. It’s several hundred years too late, and Bruno’s not around to benefit from it.

We are.

Many religious institutions around the world hold various beliefs which are irreconcilable with scientific evidence. Worse, they put forward these beliefs under the umbrella of science in a misguided attempt at legitimacy. An example of this is the attempt to shoehorn Creationism into public school science classes by tarting it up as “Intelligent Design”. Worse still, those who dissent are still subject to religious sanction. For Catholics, this no longer means recanting or being burnt at the stake. Other religions are not so lenient. That does not mean that the atheists, the agnostics, the scientists, and other freethinkers should descend to that level, and Ingersoll and Diderot do their cause a disservice by suggesting otherwise.

Those of us who want the freedom to question entrenched dogma of any kind live in a fortunate time. In the centuries long collision between science and religion, the former is finally winning out. It may be slow, and there may be setbacks. We may even be wrong, and some of our theories proved impossible. No matter. Let us be slow, and thwarted, and wrong, but let us also remember the value of curiosity, and of questioning. Let us maintain that value to the end. Let us be Bruno – and let us hope that his statue, which now presides in Rome’s Campo di Fiori, outlasts the institution that burnt him alive at that same spot so many centuries ago.

Unrepentant Cenobite – by Sinister

Unrepentant Cenobite

Unrepentant Cenobite

Atheist Cop – by Steve Schlicht

“Fear not the long arm of the law…”

That was the contrite title of my introduction post at IIDB way back in 2002 to try to quell any misgivings lurkers may have had for those in my chosen career path (a rather well-intentioned but flawed forewarning now that I have the benefit of hindsight).

Looking back over the intervening years I have to say that I’ve changed a bit. One remaining constant has been not being able to fully reconcile being a police officer who is also an atheist in a predominantly religious society; or being an atheist who is also a police officer, at a non-religious website. It is a constant refrain and one I know seems very much like a man tilting at windmills, but “me” nonetheless.

Clearly, it is a position very difficult to explain fully when trying to find camaraderie and support in either world. One I’ve learned to cope with and one I really hope to clarify within this venue that Octavia was so gracious to offer me. To be forthright, I know cops can be narcissistic jerks just as I know that I can’t fix that. I also know that I won’t be able to convince many people (atheists or otherwise) that there are those in my profession who are really in it for the best of intentions. But what I can do is not be that jerk on the street when it counts and regardless of the fact that no one even notices. There, that’s a distracting tangent out of the way for some who know me and so, I’ll move on to the topic at hand.

My own personal perspectives regarding human liberty and religious refutations have become stronger and more confident over the past six years. To be sure, I’ve learned that to really get a point across to those of an opposing view one must remain civil and rational and charitable. Of course, actually refuting religious claims can be perceived as automatically heretical so there is really only so much one can do to be considered “polite and civil”.

Now, this doesn’t mean I accept the same level of appeasement as reflected in my original introduction at IIDB from “way back when” which you will read shortly, as my current view is a bit more steadfast when it comes to countering claims and being motivated to do so. Naturally, it can also be said that I’ve learned that a dash of satire and sarcasm does help to dispel some of the topic redundancy as well, but I digress.

For now, let’s turn back the years and check out my old introduction post found at the welcomed extraction from the matrix:

“I’ll begin with a personal confession as a law enforcement officer. At times I get this feeling that I am a misfit among misfits when I correspond with other freethinkers/atheists/humanists/naturalists. My experience has been that we are by nature individualists and wary of anything authoritarian. It is my hope that this brief intro will reduce any possible rancor and engender a more open level of contact.

I have lurked for awhile and have never met a more comfortable board brimming with personality and honest character. The SecWeb has been like a warp engine of rational thought, humor and debate.

As an eleven-year veteran violent crimes detective for a relatively small (100,000) community, I do not have to argue the atheist ‘morality’ issue often. If it is brought up, my record as a happily married, father of three well-behaved and loving children is ample ammunition against such attack.

My personal experience with the ‘only god can judge me’ christian criminal offenders may also make its way into any morality or behavior argument. But, as I have been told by my, obviously omniscient fundie sister-in-law, they were not truly christian and may still find salvation for their horrendous acts and be accepted into heaven if they sincerely accept Jesus into their hearts (Just like Dahmer, I often suggest. Have a nice time.).

Of course, I like my paycheck, so I do have to allow for some of the more superstitious rituals in order to keep the boat from rocking. Oath-taking comes to mind initially wherein my honesty is equated with the magic incantation “so help me god”. Search warrants also require me to end the underlying facts portion with “affiant, therefore, hopes and prays that a warrant will be issued”. Since these words are non-issues to the case anyway and the judges seem to go for it, my feeling is that the end justifies the means (gathering of evidence and removing the offenders from the community).

I further make the distinction that since the term ‘god’ is not specific, it can then be aptly applied to the power of the active natural universe in plain view. You may then infer that this grants me the label “pantheist”. I have no problem with that at all. I also find silence, stillness and inner contemplation is useful to maintain a healthy mental state and relationship with others. I do not think that anything supernatural is occurring during this meditative non-action and do not ascribe to any particular method or zen school of thought regarding the matter.

Oh, yeah, my great-uncle was the late Roman Catholic Bishop Robert E. Tracy of Baton Rouge, LA of the Vatican Council II. My mother was a nun who left the convent, had an affair with a married man and became pregnant, fled to California where I was born, then returned me to her mother where I was raised in the staunch Roman Catholic milieu…not much else to report from that angle, though…

Thanks to all for being out there.”

Yeah, reading that post again, I do relive the excitement of finding “others out there” who were intelligent and clear in their views and vocal in expressing them. It’s nice to think that people have found similar enlightenment thanks to internet communities like IIDB.

Now, becoming vocal was initially problematic both personally and professionally and it took quite some time to attain the skills necessary to actively refute the religious assertions so prominent within my community and family. These claims are vast and vague and dependent upon “interpretation” and, as I have come to say, very much like trying to juggle water with those who have quite obviously no problem with promoting unsupported mystical-magical thinking. In any event, there were certainly many failings in my temperament early on which led to further misunderstanding and communication “black outs”.

Risks, some even unintentionally reckless, were definitely taken with close relationships at first because that was where my own experiences with “outing” were made. Truth be told though, it was worth the risk and life has changed for the positive since taking the stand and being pro-active.

Beyond my personal experiences with family (many of which are recounted at the IIDB in assorted threads if one is bored enough to look them up) I took it upon myself to begin the long and difficult journey of refuting religious claims when they arose in public and at work (only when necessary) as a representative of city government.

To be sure there is a vast minefield of general orders and policies in place that prevent full expression as a law enforcement officer who has no belief in God(s)ess(es). Many of which I wholeheartedly agree with, by the way, for everyone with strongly held socio-political views in this line of work. The issue is sort of like a “Prime Directive” for me which is purposeful, though exceptions can be made under certain highly refined circumstances.

That said, for me it became apparent that very few of these policies and orders were going to be applied to those officers and employees who used their position and city equipment to represent religious dogma and claims while on duty.

Well, to make a long story even longer, it was against my principle to remain silent in light of these transgressions and not return considerate point by point refutations via email or even in settings while decked out in the finest of police regalia.

It was oftentimes that my practice of doing so became one of consternation from upper management who would consistently allow leeway to the practitioners of their own particular worldview aka “religion” (being Christianity in South Mississippi, for those unaware) while being critical and even coercive toward my own which only really became known in response to some prayer request, touted faith-based jail program or some deeply flawed and bigoted claim regarding atheism/atheists.

These meetings were kept polite and civil and each time my case was made I found new support among other employees (mostly Catholics or “nominal” Christians) who had been, up until then, satisfied to just roll their eyes and scoff at religious email spam or requests for officer prayer meetings, etc. Over the years it even became an ever exciting experience for others to receive these emails as they awaited my timely and well-articulated response.

To this day I receive a vast majority of positive comments regarding how the refutations are framed and, for want of a better term, how courteous I am for the person while making my points very clear.

Of course, there is still a dark foreboding that I have to be more “careful” as an atheist in how I deal with public displays of expression because, as was true then as it is now “I like my paycheck, so I do have to allow for some of the more superstitious rituals in order to keep the boat from rocking.”

The story of the Emperor and his clothes has never been as personal as now.

I also have to say that the compartmentalizing of life has been the most difficult, but most necessary, practice in my view. Certain relationship areas are off-limits and city policies don’t apply to my proactive practices everywhere. I must use care when I do make published comments and it must be crystal clear that all views expressed are not representative of the city I work for nor the community in which I live. Still, it is necessarily topical to actually identify as a police officer as behavior and “morality and ethics” are so often the case du jour against atheists.

My own views are as a person and not an employee. The trouble can be that as an employee I am still a person and where that line is drawn is very critical. I am not often so linear, however, the job really requires it and it doesn’t come easy.

Interesting situations also often arise in real terms for me that put principle to the test.

Am I required to follow my principle to be vocal in refuting the concept of a supernatural being beyond space/time, an afterlife or a mysterious “Plan” in the context of notifying a family member of the brutal murder of a loved one?

The short answer is “no”, but not because it can be considered “rude” or “uncaring” because I do care for both people who are suffering the immediate loss of a loved one as well as those atheists who are so often misrepresented, mischaracterized and mistreated by the core of religious adherents who don’t mind using death as a tool for advertising their bill of goods.

There is a time and a place for everything obviously and we each must gauge our own situational limitations.

Most importantly, my responsibility as a police officer in the line of duty is to protect and serve and collect evidence, facts and circumstances. Whatever religious or political claim someone wants to make is irrelevant to my job, when I’m “on the job”.

Now, when it comes to court testimony and oath-taking, my views are different than the 2002 representation I once had. To be sure, I will request a secular oath or affirmation and, if required, express my perspective on the issue and address the issue of applicable state and federal statute.

In closing, I just want to openly, clearly and sincerely state that the most important lesson I’ve learned over the past years as an “out” atheist and as a police officer is that it is so very important to build and maintain a community of support for atheists. That’s right “atheists” and on that element alone because, yes I am fully aware, we all have an assortment of other views, positions and perspectives regarding socio-political issues that may differ…but we honestly do need the foundation and commonality that bridges those gaps and provides a comfortable haven.

We must meet, share and help each other in this world so that others can experience the knowledge that they are not alone, not despised and are equally valuable members of the human family.

Expression is key to that goal and I will leave you with some links to personal examples of how this has been and can be accomplished:…es-comment.htm


Now, I just have to find a way to feel accepted as a vocal atheist in an overtly religious community that applies the broad brush of their own raw generalizations to what that means and also be accepted as a vocal police officer in an overtly non-religious community that does so as well.

Thanks for your interest in my perspective and please take care of each other.

Steve Schlicht

I am the Very Model of an Atheist Fanatical – by James T

I am the very model of an Atheist fanatical
I’ve information factual, empirical, and testable
I know the argumentum, and I quote the fallacies logical
Ad baculum to ad nauseum, in manner quite emphatical.

I’m very well acquainted, too, with matters apologetical
I understand the proofs of god, both the simple and impractical
All these wishfilled proofs I do attack with prejudice
And too the hopeful miracles from believers with a god to lose.

And too the hopeful miracles from believers with a god to lose.

I quote from the philosophers on matters epistemological
With faith that Russell, Hume and Popper are unstoppable
In short, in matters factual, empirical, and testable
He is the very model of an Atheist fanatical

In short, in matters factual, empirical, and testable
He is the very model of an Atheist fanatical