Sunday, 10 January 2010

I'm moving

I am moving this blog to "". This is partly to improve the blog (WordPress has better features), and partly to appease my own ego (I wanted my own domain name).

The new blog has already been populated with all the old posts and comments. I even think I can set things up so this old address will automatically redirect to the new one.

But, for those of you using feed readers, you'll need to subscribe to the new feed (and unsubscribe from the old one). This will be the last post I put up on Blogger.

Feel free to take this opportunity to let me know (on the new blog, preferably) what works, and what doesn't. On a technical level, what would you like me to change on the blog? On a content level, is there anything you'd like to hear more about? Less?

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

On moral obligation

One complaint levelled against entirely naturalistic worldviews is this:
What is the basis of morality? By what right can you expect anyone to follow moral rules, if there is no transcendent reality to ground them in?
I have had a very engaging discussion of this (and related issues) with Ken Brown and other commenters on his blog, and have posted some of my own thoughts here. Ken and colleagues are coming specifically from a Christian perspective. (I have yet to see them give a satisfactory justification for how a "transcendent reality" solves the problem - but that's a topic for another time. As is the whole burden of actually demonstrating that such a reality exists - which would seem to be a prerequisite if one is to pin one's entire moral philosophy on it.)

I thought I might pick out the key points of my answer here.

First, I come back to a very pragmatic position: most of the key elements of morality (love, fairness, honesty, nonviolence, etc) are built into most humans. (This fact has very interesting naturalistic explanations in the context of evolution as a social species, but that too, is a topic for another time.) So we have a useful basis for discussing moral issues without either an esoteric knowledge of the philosophical underpinnings of morality or a belief in a transcendent basis for moral claims. This is the basis of secular government: we build our society on the foundations we all share.

Second and more important, how I can derive another's obligation from my "relativist" moral stance? Very cautiously and humbly. For most cases where someone says "there ought to be a law", there probably oughtn't. Law - the formal, coercive expression of our shared moral principles - is a blunt instrument that should not be used to solve all problems.

But even aside from the law, I do expect people to act morally, and I reserve the right to hold them accountable when they don't. How do I do this? What gives me, a relativist with no ultimate explanation for right and wrong, the right to project my moral judgments on others? Why should someone else do the right thing rather than some other thing? The most honest answer I can give is very simple:
People should do the right thing, because it's the right thing to do.
I know that's not very philosophical or subtle. But, so long as we all share a basic sense of right and wrong, it's sufficient for the vast majority of life's decisions.

And for those issues where we don't instinctively agree on the right answer - abortion, euthanasia, drug control, etc - pretending that a hypothetical transcendent realm holds the answer does not seem to solve things. It may give some people a sense of self-righteousness to bolster their support of one position, but it is useless in seeking a practical solution or persuading people who believe in a different hypothetical set of transcendent moral truths (or folks like me who doubt such a set exists at all). In these cases, we have to fall back on the nasty, brutish, fallible strategy of using rhetoric and reason to pursue the best solution and persuade each other of it.

Photo credits:

Justice statue on Old Bailey, London: from Wikipedia, shared by user Erasoft24 under Creative Commons Attribution licence 2.5.

Friday, 1 January 2010

Foundation Beyond Belief

I am delighted to announce the launch of a new humanist-driven charity initiative, the Foundation Beyond Belief. Go to the site itself for full details, and to sign up.

I'm just going to point out some of the things about the Foundation that I find particularly awesome:
  • Though it is explicitly modelled on humanist values, religious individuals are explicitly invited to participate.
  • Social networking will be a key part of the Foundation's interaction with members - this is not just a conduit for money, but a place to build community around shared values and actions.
  • Members can choose where their donations are spent, among ten categories (education, peace, health care, environment, and others).
  • Charities will be selected not just on the values they profess, but on efficiency and effectiveness as well.
  • Religious charities are not explicitly ruled out, but charities that use their funds for proselytizing are (regardless of the worldview they promote).
  • Though based in the US, the Foundation explicitly looks to support charities with an international reach.
  • Two of the key people involved in the Foundation - Dale McGowan and Hemant Mehta - were instrumental in my decision to become a blogger (though I have yet to meet either of them in person).
I look forward to seeing the Foundation help people around the world, and I'm excited to participate in it. I'll close with words from the Foundation itself: a mission statement, a launch blurb, and a video:

Mission statement:

To demonstrate humanism at its best by supporting efforts to improve this world and this life; to challenge humanists to embody the highest principles of humanism, including mutual care and responsibility; and to help and encourage humanist parents to raise confident children with open minds and compassionate hearts.

Launch blurb:

Beginning on January 1, 2010, Foundation Beyond Belief will highlight ten charitable organizations per quarter -- one in each of ten categories. Among other considerations, beneficiaries will be chosen for efficiency, effectiveness, moderate size (annual budget <$10M), compatibility with humanist focus on mutual care of this world and this life, no direct promotion or proselytizing of a particular worldview, and geographical diversity.


Tuesday, 29 December 2009

In the company of woo

I find myself in the company of woo, and as a skeptic it is bringing me some grief.

It's all about homebirth - planning to deliver a baby at home, attended by a midwife, rather than in a hospital.

Deena and I came to homebirth through an examination of the evidence. (Here's a discussion I participated in on the Bad Science forums before Kaia's birth.) We were convinced, by scientific studies and analyses, that planning a home birth here in the UK was at least as safe as planning a hospital birth, given a competent attendant and a handy hospital in the event of complications. So we went for it.

However, many people choose homebirth for less evidence-based reasons. They cite personal intuition, or the "naturalness" of it. Not just as reasons to prefer homebirth, but as evidence of its safety.

At Edinburgh's Pregnancy and Parents Centre (a haven for various types of woo, as well as useful support groups and great toddler activities), when we went to the "home birth support group" to relate our experiences and our evidence-based approach, it was alongside others promoting woo of various flavours as part of their support of homebirth.

A recent post on homebirth at Science-Based Medicine has stirred up an epic-length discussion, with passionate defenders on both sides. I've participated, but fear that just being on the homebirth side has made me, in some people's eyes, an advocate of woo.

This is the problem: I agree with the woo-birthers that homebirth can be safe, but I disagree (passionately, vigorously) about why this is a legitimate position. And the disagreement isn't immaterial. At the homebirth meeting, someone recommended homeopathy to treat post-partem haemorrhage. One of the most serious and potentially life-threatening complications of pregnancy, and she advised drinking high-priced water. That is dangerous advice, and I wish I'd been quick-thinking enough to respond persuasively (rather than sitting like a lump and grinding my teeth).

What is a skeptic to do? On the one hand, having someone agree with me in one breath, and back me up with an appeal to intuition in the next, makes me want to revisit and question my beliefs that much more carefully. (That's something a skeptic should be doing anyway, for all their beliefs, but who has the time?) On the other hand, to adapt Niven's 16th law, "There is no belief so true that one cannot find a fool believing it." Just because someone agrees with you for bad reasons doesn't mean you're wrong. I came to my belief about homebirth on the basis of the science, and I'm determined that only science will dissuade me.

But there's also the whole social side. Just as many of my fellow atheists wrinkle their brows at me when I say I go to church, many skeptics seem to do the same when I talk about homebirth. Atheists often assume that the word "church" is synonymous with supernatural beliefs and submission to a holy text, things that would feel alien in our Unitarian church. Similarly, many skeptics assume that, because it's associated with modern medicine, hospital-based birth is inherently safer.

I'm tempted to close by declaring, evangelist-style, that skeptics must beware of this tendency to take association as evidence. Its association with woo-birthers says nothing about the safety of homebirth; nor does its association with high-tech hospitals demonstrate the superiority of hospital birth.

But perhaps a more humble conclusion is in order. Here goes:

I promise to keep vigilant for evidence that might contradict my current beliefs.
I promise to honestly communicate any changes of position that such evidence might lead me to.
I promise to avoid being swayed by other people's assumptions (whether or not they are skeptics).
I promise to make every effort to pin my beliefs to the evidence, and nothing else.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

More on Free Will

Since my March article about free will, I've learned that my position - that having free will is consistent with a mechanistic model of the universe (with or without quantum uncertainty thrown in) - is known as compatibilism.

I recently read Thomas Pink's book, Free Will: A Very Short Introduction (from the excellent Very Short Introduction series put out by OUP) - and so I now fancy myself knowledgeable enough to connect my own casual ponderings with the great web of philosophy.

The position Mike took in his article is known as scepticism (in the context of free will, a combination of incompatibilism and a belief in causal determinism - not to be confused with other, more general forms of scepticism).

Guess who Pink identifies as the first compatibilist? Here's a quote:
A FREE-MAN, is he, that ... is not hindred to doe what he has a will to ... from the use of the word Free-will, no Liberty can be inferred of the will, desire or inclination, but the Liberty of the man; which consisteth in this, that he finds no stop, in doing what he has the will, desire, or inclination to doe.
The quote is from p65 of Pink's book, and it's by 17th-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes.

I wouldn't go so far as to call myself a Hobbesian - he wrote about more than just this, and I don't know if the whole of his philosophy would appeal to me. But I tend to agree with this quote.

Note that this passage makes no claims about what it means for someone to "have a will to do" something. One thing I like about compatibilism is that it does not rely on a particular model (deterministic, non-deterministic, etc) of the universe.

See also:

Wikipedia article on Free Will.

Image credit:

Image of Hobbes via this collection. (On the topic of this post, check out this fan comic, inspired by the Calvin and Hobbes scene shown here.)

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Is Saint Andrew's Day controversial?

A few weeks late, I have come across this exchange on the merits of celebrating Saint Andrew's Day on the 30th of November as a national day for Scotland. Saint Andrew was said to have been crucified on an 'X'-shaped cross, which gives us the saltire in the modern Scottish flag (pictured above). His apparent connection with Scotland is that some of his relics were brought here after his death, and so he is considered the patron saint of Scotland.

In the article from the Herald, Gordon Ross (treasurer for the Humanist Society of Scotland) argues that (a) Andrew has no demonstrable connection to Scotland (he's patron saint of many other places as well), (b) it is primarily a religious tradition, which implicitly excludes the many non-Christian people in Scotland, and (c) we have plenty of other days with more genuine merit, to celebrate Scotland as a nation.

Opposing him is Azeem Ibrahim, who argues that religion isn't a serious part of Scottish Saint Andrews Day celebrations, and that the inclusive celebration of Scottish awesomeness is what the day is about.

This seems to me like a microcosm of the perennial Christmas debates in the atheist community. Is it a problem to celebrate on a day that has been connected to beliefs or values that you reject? As someone who grew up with essentially religion-free Christmases, I just can't get worried about it. (For us, it was about family, food, gifts, and games.) I've never seen evidence that celebrating a secular Christmas somehow lends credence to the non-secular version of it.*

I tend to agree with Ibrahim - the same goes for Saint Andrew's Day. While I am aware of the legend behind it, I've never felt that the religious side was particularly important. It's about celebrating this wonderful little nation of (currently) five million people, who have produced so much.** (Including, I should point out, many of the central historical figures and cultural traditions celebrated in my homeland, Canada.)

Humanists and atheists often chastise religious people for being too sensitive about their beliefs. I think this is a great opportunity to show that we mean it. Saint Andrew's Day does not exclude us; it does not demean us. So let's set aside the historical religious basis of the day and enjoy it for what it is now.***

Lang may your lum reek!


* I feel I should point out this post by Cath, in which I learned that even very conservative Christians don't necessarily observe Christmas. This doesn't change the fact that it's historically a religiously-motivated festival, but it does somewhat derail the assumption that Christianity and Christmas necessarily go together.

** I should also acknowledge that Saint Andrew's Day is not a huge thing, even in Scotland. In fact, my main experience of it is the free admission to the castle, and perhaps token acknowledgement in the media. So it's a very different issue in many ways from Christmas. But the parallels are intriguing.

*** Also, I should acknowledge a certain personal bias: Saint Andrew's Day is also my birthday. It's quite nice to be offered free admission to national monuments on your birthday.

Image credit:

Saltire from Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

Friday, 18 December 2009

Why should humanists be in chaplaincy?

Humanitie, the quarterly magazine of the Humanist Society of Scotland, has a new issue out. Once again, Mike and I present our rather different perspectives - this time, on the relationship between humanists and chaplaincy. Don't forget to read Mike's column over at his blog.

I was recently asked a question about the place of humanists in chaplaincy life. In a chaplaincy, even an inclusive multi-faith chaplaincy, most people are religious. To what extent is it worthwhile and appropriate for humanists and other non-religious people to seek a place in chaplaincy?

The answer is obvious to me. Clearly, though, some religious people and even many humanists don't see things as I do. So here is my take on it.

First, some background. Our university chaplaincy is very deliberately open to students and staff of "all faiths and none".

My earliest experience with the chaplaincy was when I was first learning and reading about humanism, and coming to realize that it reflected a deep part of my identity. I started looking for like-minded people, for a community to connect with. I had heard of the chaplaincy and its openness to people of no religion. I visited the chaplain and asked if she knew of any humanist groups at the university. She didn't, but she thought it would be wonderful if there were a group. She also pointed me to the Humanist Society of Scotland (HSS), which has an Edinburgh group.

There is a whole story following on from that - of attending an HSS philosophy book group, of meeting another humanist student, of forming a student group with him that has become far more active and successful than I expected - but for now let's look at that first move on my part. Why did I go to the chaplaincy in search of humanists?

First, there was my awareness that the chaplaincy branded itself as inclusive - they reach out not only to religious folks, but to folks like me. Second, for all that some humanists like to distance themselves from religious believers, there is a crucial feature that we share. Humanism is a framework for seeking meaning, for defining an ethical stance, and for sharing inspiration and expressing awe. For most religious people I've talked to, their religion does just the same: it provides meaning, defines ethics, and it is the lens through which inspiration and awe are experienced and shared. Also, perhaps even more importantly, both humanism and religions are identities around which human communities gather. So humanism is to me as religion is to religious folks. Even then, new as I was to humanism, I could see that.

So it seemed obvious that the chaplaincy - a place for religious folks to meet like-minded people, a place for people to go for spiritual counselling, and a place that explicitly included non-religious people in its remit - was the right place to look for humanist groups at the university.

And of course, that answers the question I opened with too. If chaplaincy is an obvious place for a lone humanist to go in search of kindred spirits, then chaplaincy is an obvious place for a humanist group to be connected with so that those lone humanists can find us.

Yes, there is the Internet. Yes, there are other avenues for us to find one another. But that's no reason to shut such an obvious means of connection. Besides, the sort of personal bond that people visiting the chaplaincy tend to seek is not something that can be transmitted through a computer screen.

Of course, there is more to the chaplaincy than just finding folks like yourself. There is also the inter-faith element*. The idea of people of different backgrounds coming together to discover common ground. And I think that's incredibly valuable. It's something that's lacking from a lot of the "culture war" discussions that get headlines. It's important that humanists are involved in that as well.

True, I may think that the other guy's god is imaginary. True, he may think that I'm destined for hell if I don't come to believe as he does. But equally true is the fact that we both value compassion. We both try to buy products whose production doesn't exploit the vulnerable. We both try to act in ways that will preserve the planet for the next generation. We both strongly believe in each other's right to believe as we will.

In my experience, there is no place like a multi-faith chaplaincy for bringing people of different backgrounds together and helping us to realize how much we share. Not just superficial stuff. Deep stuff. Important stuff.**

Stuff we can draw on to make the world a better place, together.

That's why humanists should be involved in chaplaincy, and in other inter-faith endeavours.

Footnotes (not included in the print version):

* Yes, I know, the term inter-faith is problematic for people like us, who consciously set ourselves apart from religious faith. It is also often used in a manner that really does exclude us. But until you can come up with a better term for a meeting of religious and non-religious worldviews, and show that other people will use and understand it, it's better than nothing.

** A Unitarian church may do the same, but I don't have enough experience at one yet to say for sure.