Category Archives: Humanism

A series of small epiphanies

Nell

Nell

For a while I’ve been planning  a talk about what it’s like to be  what Skeptics call “a Woo” and about my journey from there to being one of the folks running Skeptics on the Fringe.

“Woo” is a term I dislike for a bunch of reasons, mainly because labelling people makes it too easy to stop thinking about them as people and stereotype them. No-one should do that to anyone, but we are Skeptics, dammit: we should think, especially when we are complaining that the defining group of this other group is that they don’t think.  Irony, much?

I had a couple of hours of driving to do tonight, appropriately enough  visiting Ash Pryce founder of Edinburgh Skeptics and then Keir Liddle founder of Skeptics on the Fringe.  I used the time to sketch out the structure of the talk and identify the key points I want to make.  It’s now sitting as bullet points on my laptop.

I hate bullet-points because PowerPoint doesn’t kill presentations, bulletpoints kill presentations. I prefer slides – if they are used at all – to be images rather than words.  The bullet-points will become my speakers notes. I could even use this as an opportunity to learn Prezi.

So I need to get some images together.  This glamour-girl from the 1920s in my grandmother.  Come to the talk when I eventually give it and you’ll see why she’s there. Somewhere I have a supercute pic of my dad with me slung under his arm when I was about two years old, and if I can find that I want it in the slides, failing that there’s one of him in what looks like a bishop’s mitre.  I think I still have my O’level certificate somewhere.  And I want to include some book covers, some podcast logos, stuff like that.  As it says here, the talk is about a series of small epiphanies.

It’s going to take a chunk of time to put together yet, but I hope it will explain why intelligent and rational people are still attracted to Alternative Medicine, reincarnation and similar things, that it will interest scientists and atheists lucky enough to have been raised that way, that it will reassure skeptical activists that skeptical outreach really is worth it, and explain why Phil Plait was right when he said Don’t be a Dick.


I’ll be keen to do this talk at Skeptics in the Pub and other appropriate events once I’ve finished the slides. Contact me via contact@edskeptics.co.uk if you’d like to discuss dates.

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Show and tell – why I’m entering a competition at the Beeb

The BBC are holding a competition for someone new to do six “Pause For Thought” items on the Radio Two.

Can you make us stop, think and reflect in just two minutes? Would you like to be the newest voice on matters of faith on Radio 2? Then here’s your chance…

I am entering this competition though I don’t expect to win it; I am a humanist and an atheist and these slots on Radio 4’s Thought for the Day or Radio 2’s Pause for Thought are reserved for faith groups.

However, I am encouraging humanists and skeptics to submit entries, and to do so thoughtfully and in good faith. (Pun unavoidable).  In other words, don’t be a troll, and don’t be a dick.

And here is why.

The most senior people at the BBC, the policy-makers, seem reluctant to accept that humanists, atheists and philosophers may have something to say on ethical and maybe even spiritual matters.  

In November 2009 the BBC Trust said:

it had found that Thought for the Day is “religious output….”

But I suspect that this faith in faith groups is eroding; people taking editorial decisions seem less convinced. The then Controller of Radio 4, Mark Damazer said:

it was a “finely balanced argument” whether non-religious speakers should become a part of the long-running Today programme feature.

The way to get these slots opened up so humanists, skeptics and atheists can discuss issues of ethics and morality in these mini-sermons is to undermine the argument that religion deserves special treatment in this way.  This competition gives us the opportunity to show the people who make editorial decisions that we can do it.

These are not the guys who make policy decisions, but one day they will be.

And — hey — I could be wrong, and one of us could win!

Reasons I’d like to be religious

This was written in January 2009 but not published for some reason. For what it’s worth, here it is now.

Reasons why I would like to be religious:

  • Instant social life with people who are obligated to be welcoming, whatever they actually think – (c of e, chapel)
  • Karmic justice – (buddhism)
  • The opportunity to see how it all pans out – (buddhism or hinduism)
  • The chance of being a musician or a dancer – (buddhism or hinduism)
  • Seeing dad again – (christianity)
  • Everything being for a reason – (all of them)
  • Choosing one’s parents rather than the whole thing being a lottery – (buddhism)
  • The ability to influence events just by praying – (abrahamic religions)
  • The comfortable idea of moral absolutism – (abrahamic religions)
  • The absolute duty of social and ethical responsibility – (wicca and buddhism)
  • Additional dimensions and emotional depth to the experience of Cathederals and the music of Tallis and Bach – (christianity in the western tradition)
  • A sense that we don’t stand on shifting sands of hapenstance and chance – (all of them)

Ultimately I guess it boils down to:

  • Greed: – ie more time alive

And:

  • Comfort: – It may happen guys – but hey, it’s not actually shit

Oh well.

Meditation XVII

This was written a while ago; I am publishing it now because time has passed.

I am about to go to Peter’s funeral. Peter was a friend from uni days. To be accurate, Peter was a friend from the year immediately after we left Univeristy. When I knew him he was doing a PGCE and living in Newton Hall (“the largest private housing estate in Western Europe”) and I was living in a cottage in Pity Me. (I kid you not).

I find death confusing.

How can something as varied, complex, multi-dimensional and spontaneous as a human being suddenly stop being? How can a person simply cease to exist? For years re-incarnation made sense for me; I could not comprehend that such vitality and life could be snuffed out – a brief candle. Unfortunately for me I read Reincarnation – a Critical Examination by Paul Edwards and had to acknowledge that there simply is no good quality evidence for re-incarnation. Schmevidence, yes. Evidence, no. So I am left reluctantly staring annihilation in the face every time someone I know dies, and blinking in incomprehension. I simply do not understand it.

Grief is about life, not death. If someone ceases to exist, there is nothing there to pity. You can only feel grief about life – about the things they suffered during their life, what they missed during it or what they miss by being dead. Or else you feel grief for yourself: for the absence you feel, for the jokes you won’t share with them, for the conversations you’ll never have.

As well as confusion, death leaves me feeling angry. Not at the unfairness of it. Life is far too full of unfairness and suffering for anyone to consider early death as particularly unfair. A good life and an early death is preferable, surely, to some of the truly dreadful lives doled by the unjust hand of random chance. So there’s no reason for me to feel angry, but still I do. Anger might be too strong a word. When my friends die, I feel cross.

There’s a distinct John Donne-ness to my reaction to Peter’s death. I know very well for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for me. Peter’s not here, any more, after all. Grief is selfish. It’s all about me, me, me. I’ll miss Peter. I’m feeling confused and cross. I’m too young for my friends to die.

So tomorrow, when I go to his funeral, I hope that I will get a glimpse of Peter, and aspects of that complicated, private, gentle man that I never knew about. I want tomorrow to be about him, him, him.

Easier to be good without god

It’s not only possible to be good without god, it’s much easier to be good without god. All sorts of dilemmas just go away.

Want a tattoo? Have one. Poly-cotton shirts? Sure. Ham and cream cheese in your bagel? Coming up.

Prefer that animals should be humanely killed? Object to male and female genital mutilation? Think there are better responses than stoning someone who cheats? Believe your choice of spouse should not be restricted by gender?

Think that child abusers should be brought to justice?

Think women should have the same rights to study and teach as men?

These are all easy peasy things for atheists to decide on; but many seem to be sources of moral anguish for christians, jews and muslims. Or for some christians, jews and muslims, anyway.

(In the interests of full disclosure, I should say there’s one ethical dilemma that atheism has made harder for me: My transition from vague-Buddhism to actual-Atheism has made it harder for me to accept abortion. I am 100% pro-choice, but belief in reincarnation let me off an ethical hook and atheism requires my position to be more nuanced.)

Back to women teaching in church.

The recent events at Bristol University Christian Union have highlighted how much harder it is to make their moral choices when you have to base them on the translated, reported, edited and often bat-shit crazy opinions of apostles and prophets. Put briefly, Bristol CU will only permit women to teach in certain specific circumstances, and then only with their husband present. This is based on two verses in Paul’s letter to Timothy: 1 Timothy 2:11-12 “Let a woman learn in silence with all submission. And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence.” This is also the “theological” basis for the opposition to women bishops. The Guardian summarises the Bristol CU stooshie nicely.

The irony is that Bristol CU’s position, which has generated a predictable shit-storm in twitter, is in fact a softening of their previous position. They are aiming at exclusivity by trying to include the evangelical men who side with Paul. (I am unclear whether and how the women can object.)

There are pleas on twitter for us to be kind and patient with the young people who are out of their depth, and I have a certain sympathy for the well-meaning lad, probably in his early 20s, who is facing this unnecessary moral dilemma. He is trying to accommodate evangelicals who quote Paul at him (good, sincere and maybe even lovely people) while I assume he is struggling with the blatant injustice of this prohibition. Not to mention all the other biblical inconsistencies and culturally sanctioned brutalities. Looks like a recipe for cognitive dissonance to me, and no wonder so many believers seem to be saying “la la la, I can’t hear you” so much of the time.

Life is so much easier when you say “sod this for a game of angels” and decide for yourself that child abusers should be brought to justice, that women should be the ones who decide whether or not they can cope with a child, that we should inflict as little pain and stress as possible on any animals we slaughter, and that the only qualification for speaking should be having a voice and the only qualification for teaching should be – you know – an actual qualification. You don’t even need to be an atheist to do this: I come from a tradition which acknowledges the fallibility of scripture (life is much saner when you disregard Paul and Leviticus). Then of course you have to take responsibility for your moral decisions, you cannot just out-source them. But as Bristol CU are finding, you can’t out-source them anyway.


Here are a couple of other relevant links:
http://www.bristolvantage.com/2012/12/05/thomas-raffael-how-cu-gate-shows-up-the-main-problem-with-the-press/
and
http://www.bristolcu.org.uk/ – which is currently showing Bristol CU’s statement


This post was first published on the Twenty-First Floor

Doing unto others

Charlotte’s most recent note about her writing asks the question “Why do I want my characters to be likeable?”  Her implication is bang on the button; it is the weaker writers who create people made entirely of candyfloss or people who are all irredeemably shits.   This is probably why there is such a demand for second-rate writing: it makes such comforting reading.

Treating others with decency and respect regardless of whether or not you actually like them should be one of the signs of adulthood, but very few adults can manage it.  It’s core to both Buddhism (think of the Metta Bhavna) and Christianity (Luke 10:26-28).

Being kind to people simply because they are people regardless of whether or not you like them is hard.  Sometimes just behaving with common decency is difficult, let alone kindness.  So it’s a self-discipline that I struggle with, but it is one that I try to practice.   I work on the rather patronising principle that life is hard enough for nasty people without me being unpleasant to them.  And very few of us can help being shits: I’m addicted to sarcasm myself, which can make me unexpectedly unpleasant.

So I try to take the socialist maxim of ‘to each according to his need’ rather than the Tory principle of whether or not someone is ‘one of us’.   It’s hard though, and it would be a lot easier if there were a recording angel somewhere.

And yet, it moves

Milky WaySomething that I’ve been struggling with for a while is the idea that consciousness is just a physical function. Like farting, but different. This is the logical conclusion of the ideas in “Reincarnation, a critical examination” a book I read on anticant’s recommendation.  It’s a book I found to be cogent, coherent and all too probable.

For the sake of amicable discourse let us accept that I couldn’t find a logical flaw in the book’s argument that consciousness is a function of the brain and that there is no evidence for any part of us surviving after death. You are of course as entitled to your own views about the immortality of the soul as I am; I am not going to try to persuade you of anything one way or the other and I’d appreciate it if you’d show me the same courtesy in return.

DNAI’ve been struggling with the idea that I’m just a by-product of my own existence ever since I read the book, and today I could finally articulate it :

Consciousness – our sense of self – isn’t an entity in its own right, it’s an effect, a result, it is ends rather than means. In fact, it’s less than that: it’s a side-effect, a by-product. As the DNA store puts it: DNA is life, the rest is just translation.

It is lurchingly disorientating to realise that consciousness is  incidental. Dawkins of course is explicit that evolution is about survival on the level of individual patterns of genes not on the level of entire genomes, still less on the level of consciousness or any other abstract idea. I’ve been able to accept that we are Bede’s bird, flying though the firelit hall out of darkness and back into darkness, but I find it hard to hold on to the idea that the bird itself is, as I said, a side-effect.  I’ve been like a dog trying to catch its own tail for weeks.  I find it almost as hard to understand this idea (and not just the words it’s expressed with), as I’d find it to see the back of my own head without a mirror.

This is an idea as subversive, maybe even more subversive, than the heliocentric solar system, and it’s an idea of the same kind.

Oh well.