Sunday, 30 September 2007

The descent of Mills

Two comments.

First, our beautiful daughter is now immortalized in a blog, hosted by her mom: The Descent of Mills.

Second, what Dale said.

Now back to gazing at Kaia.

Friday, 28 September 2007

What is humanism?

Humanism, at its root, is about humans.

Right now, for this humanist, it is about the two heart-wrenchingly beautiful girls sleeping in the bedroom - one exhausted after her first ten hours in the world, the other drained by an eighty-hour ordeal bringing her out.

I will have more to say later about bravery and stamina, about love irrevocably chosen and love irrevocably thrust upon me by my biology, about care and respect in the medical professions.

But for now, I leave to spend some more time staring at their peaceful, perfect selves.

Monday, 24 September 2007

A humanist calendar ...?

At our recent student fair, I saw an interfaith calendar that highlighted all the various religious festivals and holy days of several world religions. Of course, humanism wasn't on it – not only because humanism is not a religion, but also because, although we are a community of people with shared values, we have not really established a yearly calendar of dates special to our community.

Throughout history, one thing that has united human communities is a common calendar of observances. From the solar equinoxes and solstices indicated by Stonehenge, to the holy days (and weeks and months) of any contemporary religion you could name, to the secular holidays celebrating days of national importance (Canada Day, the Queen's Birthday, Family Day), every human community has shared important days of the year. These days commemorate events of historical importance to the community (national independence, birth or death of important religious figures), mark the seasons (harvest festival, solar equinoxes/solstices), or simply set aside time for things the community values (Family Day, National Day of Prayer, National Day of Reason).

Humanists have some such days, though they may be local rather than general to the community at large. For example, our Edinburgh branch of the Humanist Society of Scotland holds a Darwin Day event on February 12 (generally a discussion with an evolutionary theme). Many American non-believers hold the National Day of Reason, on May 3 (giving blood) – in part to celebrate reason and in part to protest the National Day of Prayer on the same day, an unconstitutional incursion of religion into their officially secular state.

For those of us with families who celebrate the standard holidays of the dominant culture, there are clever alternatives. The fun and creative Church of Reality website suggests celebrating Newton's birthday on December 25 (“because Newton actually was born on December 25th”).
“We call the holiday Crispness because it's about keeping your mind crisp. And it's not a coincidence that it's the same day as Christmas and the Yule holiday where Christmas came from. It is the day that we celebrate the Tree of Knowledge, which represents the sum total of all human understanding. We use the traditional pine tree, which is already a very fractal looking tree to represent the Tree of Knowledge. The tree is decorated with lights and ornaments symbolizing The Sacred Network or the Internet.”
It's fun, it's festive, and it means that Deena and I can celebrate December 25 with our (nominally Christian) families without a nagging sense of dishonesty to our values and beliefs. (Remember that using the dates of existing celebrations for a new community with very different beliefs is an ancient and honorable tradition.)

I just learned (a day too late for this year) through Dale McGowan's blog that the fall equinox (September 21) is the International Day of Peace. This is something most humanists can get behind. Earth Day covers the opposite equinox, on March 21.

A source of many potentially awesome holidays, at least in the final few months of the year, is the Cosmic Calendar, brainchild of the great Carl Sagan. In it, the entire 15-billion-year history of the cosmos as we know it is scaled into a single year, with the big bang at the start of January 1st and the present moment at the end of December 31st. Along the way you get events like the formation of the Milky Way galaxy (May 1), the Solar System (September 9), and the Earth (September 14), the origin of life (September 25), on up through our ancestors: eukaryotes (November 15), worms (December 16), fish (December 19), insects (December 21), dinosaurs (December 24), mammals (December 26), primates (December 29), hominids (December 30), and then down through the evening of December 31. Go see the whole year here or here.

There are clearly many potential humanist holidays to choose from – some already established in certain communities, others new and untested. Deena and I already celebrate some of them (such as Darwin Day and Crispness), and plan to celebrate others in coming years.

What do you think? Do you, as a humanist, celebrate humanist-themed days through the year? Do you simply take the holidays of the culture around you, and spend the time in your own humanist pursuits? Do you think we'll ever have a common calendar of humanist days, or are we simply too individualistic for such conformity?

Are shared holidays too much a part of religion, and not appropriate for humanists to buy into? How should we balance individual thought and independence with community and interdependence?

Saturday, 22 September 2007

Julia Sweeney blog!

Just wanted to rejoice that I have just discovered a blog by the incomparable humanist comedian, Julia Sweeney:

I haven't actually read much of it, but after we got the CDs for Letting Go of God, Julia could probably describe what she had for breakfast every morning and I'd be riveted. I don't want to miss anything she writes. If her Letting Go of God book is a verbatim transcript of the monologue (tracts of which Deena and I have practically memorized already), I'll still get the book and read it and probably laugh at all the right places too.

Sigh. And I thought I wasn't the type of person who was a fan. It's just exciting to know of someone famous who can articulately and entertainingly describe the way I see the world.

(This blog entry has not been sponsored by Julia Sweeney, nor encouraged by promises of merchandise to the author. All opinions and attitudes reflect the particular tastes of the author, and no warranty or guarantee is meant or implied that others will have a similar experience. Although if you don't there's probably something wrong with you.) ;]

Sunday, 16 September 2007

Is this thought my own?

I had this thought a few weeks ago - don't know if it came from someone else or is my own:

If someone showed me proof of the existence of a god, I would cease to be an atheist, but I would still be a humanist.

I think it's a brilliant thought, and a very snappy expression of one reason I like to think of myself as a humanist rather than as an atheist.

But I don't want to go around claiming credit for it if I actually heard it from someone else, and just forgot the source. I haven't been able to find it online (using relevant Google searches), but that doesn't mean I couldn't have heard it somewhere, or read it in a physical book.

So this is a plea to any well-read, knowledgeable reader to let me know: have you heard this somewhere else, and can you tell me who first came up with it?

Saturday, 15 September 2007

Interfaith ... er ... inter- ... um ... -something

This past week was the first week of term, and as students returned and prepared for classes there were many events for them to attend.

One of these was the Societies Fair, where all the student societies had stalls to promote their group and recruit new members. It was the Humanist Society's first time at this major promotional event. We doubled our numbers – almost twenty more people signed up on the spot! We also got over a hundred e-mails for our announcement list, so we'll probably have more people sign up when they see what cool things we do (and what cool people we are).

In addition to all that, I got to talk to people from the religious societies. (Our table was in the same area as theirs.) I learned a lot about the Baha'i faith from the folks over at the Baha'i stall. I met someone from the Jewish Society, who mentioned the diversity of their members – from conservative to secular. I chatted with folks from the Christian Union, who apparently coordinate several interfaith activities. And so on.

The full list is on the Student Association (EUSA) website. See us, tucked in there between the Alpha folks and the Islamic Society? When we first formed, this category was called “Faith groups”. I think it made sense for our society to be grouped with these others, but suddenly the category title was inaccurate. All it took was a quick request to EUSA, and it was changed to “Faith and belief systems”.

I really enjoyed talking with folks from the religious societies. Not only did I learn something about their beliefs and activities, but of course they learned something about humanism and our society's activities. Like our regular blood drive. (Okay, we've only been once so far, but we plan to go again after three months.) Several members of religious societies thought that would be a great idea – they might even join in next time.

Ramadan has just begun, the Muslim month of fasting which commemorates the revelation of the Qur'an to Muhammed. At the end of Ramadan, the Islamic Society invites non-Muslims to join them for a day of fasting. They collect sponsorship, and donate the money a charity. I think that it would be interesting to try this out myself.

From all this discussion about cooperation between our societies, a slight problem arose. What word do we use? If it's just between religious societies, the word interfaith is appropriate. But once humanists come along, we suddenly aren't all people of faith. So I need your suggestions.


Cooperative events?

Faith and ethical cooperation?

Sigh. Help!? We need something that doesn't sound like flavourless PC pap, but which does convey the idea of inclusive cooperation between people with different ethical and religious views.

Friday, 14 September 2007

Time and what is really mine

I planned to go to see a friend's band play a gig yesterday evening. I haven't seen them play yet, and I really thought this would be the first time.

Then I got a call from Deena late yesterday afternoon. She was feeling some mild contractions. Baby wasn't due for two more weeks; Deena still had another day of work before beginning her maternity leave.

Naturally, after a moment of dithering (surely baby isn't arriving quite so soon), the husbandly/fatherly hormones hit my brain and rushed to my bike, sped over to her work, and met her to take the bus home.

By then, it was becoming clear that it was just Braxton-Hicks contractions (ie, not labour contractions). Not a great surprise, but there was no way I'd go to see the band after that.

Deena is now officially on maternity leave. A few more B-H contractions today, she tells me, but no reason to think actual labour is imminent. I still have plenty of work to do – not only on my PhD, but also around the flat to prepare for baby's arrival.

One thing this episode brought to my mind is the undeniable fact that my time, our time, doesn't really belong to us in any sort of meaningful sense. No more than the current belongs to the canoe. We make our plans, we navigate the eddies and curves in the river, but ultimately it is not by our own efforts that we move on toward the sea. The only merit that earns us passage is our buoyancy, and the alternative to that is hardly a real choice. (Okay, the metaphor gets a little thin here. What is the sinking canoe? Death, perhaps.)

So although I may use phrases like, “wasting my time” and “use my time wisely”, I know that these are just polite fictions – euphemisms to help me ignore my powerlessness over one of the great impersonal forces that dominate my life.

What other fictions might I indulge in? Would I recognize them all, or do I need vivid wake-up calls like the birth of a new life to snap them into focus? I read a novel like Ursula Le Guin's
The Dispossessed and wonder how far any notion of “property”, of mine and yours, reflects the actual reality of the world.

But there are some things of mine that seem to be beyond the reach of even this aggressive philosophical barrage.

My love. Not in the sense of the smitten poet, speaking of a person who is “his” or “hers”. Rather, the love that I give – my love for Deena. It is mine because I am its source. In creating it I let it go, I pass it on. The same goes for my deeds. My thoughts. My blog entries.

My child. The process of letting go may take longer, but eventually, like my parents did for me, I will have to finally relinquish any claim over this person who will so soon be appearing in our lives.

Is it just me, or is this list of things that are “mine” in a deep, irrevocable sense also some of the things that we humans value the most in our lives?

Monday, 10 September 2007

Fundamentalism and terrorism - food for thought

I recently had to shift my attitude to fundamentalist Muslims a little.

I heard an interview of Canadian Muslim Mubin Shaikh on the radio. He is undeniably a conservative – I would even say extremist – Muslim. He has campaigned for Sharia law to be given a place in the resolution of family disputes such as divorce in Ontario. Apparently trying to defend his position, Shaikh says “I think the main issue is that the Western, secular version of equality is not what you will find with Islam.” His campaign, I'm happy to say, failed. A community can follow any customs its members wish (short of actually violating the laws of the land), but religious laws have no place in the legal framework of a secular society. Period.

(Shaikh and his fellows point out that similar arbitration boards exist in Ontario for the Catholic and Jewish communities to settle family law matters. I would say these are equally problematic, and should be got rid of for the same reasons. If people wish to sort out problems in a religiously-mandated way, they can do it without involving the secular law. If they wish to access the authority of the secular government in settling disputes, they can accept the lack of religious authority in that context. It's a clear, fair choice.)

But that's not the only way he has been active in the Muslim community in Ontario. You see, he became a member of a jihadi organization planning terrorist attacks in Toronto, acting as an informant for CSIS (the Canadian Security Intelligence Service), helping to foil the plot and put several would-be terrorists in jail.

He didn't just speak out against terrorism – though even that is an important part of keeping marginal nuts marginal in one's community. He acted against criminals whose deeds would have rendered his home less safe, and brought condemnation, fear, and hatred down on his family, friends, and neighbours. “People are doing this in the name of Islam, and it's hurting me more than anybody else. It's hurting the Muslim more than anybody else. I mean, you know, apart from those who actually lose their life, it's people like us who suffer more than anybody else, and that's what people have to understand, because now a guy like me who's an agent of the state, responsible for bringing these guys down, I'm still called a terrorist in the street.”

Well, I still disagree with his position on Sharia law, and I completely deny the truth-claims of his religion. In fact, he doesn't sound to me like a very pleasant person in general. But he's no terrorist. So in the future, I'll have to avoid making the automatic leap from conservative Muslim (or even self-described fundamentalist) to terrorist. Shaikh demonstrates that they're not the same thing.

Sunday, 9 September 2007

Sales techniques and human rights

Picture this. You receive a letter at your home from a company letting you know that you have not purchased their product this year. They gently remind you that everyone who uses their product is required to pay for it. They give you information on how to pay for it.

Over the following months, you get further letters – each one less friendly, more stern than the last – detailing the penalties if you are caught using their product without paying for it. They begin to talk of sending salespeople to your door to confirm that you aren't using the product (but they call them “enforcement officers”).

Eventually, a salesperson does come by. You haven't used their product; you have been threatened by mail for several months; and now someone is asking to be let into your home to confirm that you haven't stolen their product without paying. Not a police officer. A salesperson.

How do you feel about this sequence of events? What kind of country do you think this happens in?

Welcome to the world of the British TV Licence Fee, administered by TV Licencing.

Now, I acknowledge that with a service as difficult to box up as broadcast television, it is difficult to come up with a viable and fair business model. Ideally only those who use the service will be charged (rather than just paying for public broadcasting through general tax dollars that everyone pays), but how do you determine who needs a license? They need to ask people if they use a TV to receive broadcast signals. But, in order to filter out liars and cheats, they need customers to feel that the salespeople have more authority than they have. (No salesperson – even a TV License “Enforcement Officer” – ever has the right to enter your home without your permission, or even to demand any information of you, such as your name.)

In other words, in order for what seems like a fair system work, they need to make it seem like a system that isn't fair – a system where salespeople have the right to spy on you (with their detector vans), the right to come into your home, the right to treat you as a criminal until you prove you're not.

Many countries have a licence fee; many others don't. What do you think? Most people use a television; is it better to slightly mistreat the minority who don't in order to make an otherwise fair system practical? Or is it more fair to charge everyone indirectly, through general taxation, so that nobody's privacy or legal presumption of innocence (article 11 here) is violated?

Deena and I are lucky – we're assertive, and we know our rights. But many people are less well-equipped than us to rebuff the TV Licencing people. How many elderly people, slightly confused with early Alzheimer's disease, are badgered into signing away a portion of their meagre incomes by the bullying letters (see the “Correspondence” section of this website)?

Were it not for this fact, I might be at least ambivalent about the TV Licence. But as it stands, I can't see that it's defensible in its current form in a free and democratic society.

Am I taking this too personally? Making a big deal out of nothing? What do you think?

Saturday, 8 September 2007

Becoming a person

It's now less than three weeks until the expected arrival of our baby. The physical symptoms are real enough – Deena started feeling baby move months ago, and I first felt movements shortly after. But there is still an abstract quality to the knowledge that these symptoms come from a human – a little person almost ready to come into the world.

Technically, baby could probably survive being born today. Our baby is already capable (with a great deal of help) of making that first, momentous step into independence. And yet, in another sense, this fledgling human isn't even a whole person yet. It has no name. It hasn't been held by our arms. It hasn't yet taken the uncensored atmosphere into its tiny lungs, drawing its own sustenance directly from the world.

I have a mind that yearns for quantum distinctions. Yes or no; right or wrong; child or adults; eggshell or off-white. Yet some of the most important milestones along my path as I've grown into the wise and seasoned almost-thirty-year-old I am now have involved seeing through the clear boundaries I've erected, seeing into the subtle, gradual shadings that separate one thing from its neighbour.

So now, as I tumble toward the terrifying, compelling, humbling brink of fatherhood, I contemplate this question: What is the boundary of personhood? When does a collection of atoms, molecules, cells, become a person?

There are the biologist's answers. A person begins at conception, when a unique genetic fingerprint comes into being that will (if circumstances permit) develop into a unique, autonomous individual. Is she a person when she is capable of surviving outside her mother's womb? Or is he not a person until he can function without his parents' help and support?

There are the philosopher's answers. A person begins when self-awareness dawns in the developing brain. Or is it when the capacity to experience physical sensations begins? Or when the young child is capable of exercising free will (rather than being driven exclusively by instinctual drives)?

Or the social anthropologist's answers. A person begins when the community begins addressing an individual as a member of the group (whether this occurs before, at, or after birth). A person begins after a particular social ritual welcoming the new being into the world and the community.

And, for all of us, there is of course the most obvious moment: the birth itself. The person is born the moment the baby emerges from his mother, and becomes physically a separate object in space. Given that so much of our language, custom, and law are built around this moment, above all others, I suspect that this very literal emergence, this clear boundary between in and out, is the one programmed into us biologically as the start of a new life, a new person.

But I can't ignore the fact that, for at least the past four years, Deena and I have had this person in mind. We have been shifting and shaping our lives subtly towards this new person we are about to meet. My mom sent us a quilt for the baby a year or two ago. And since we've known Deena was pregnant, we have addressed the baby (embryo/zygote/fetus/...) by a variety of nicknames; we have picked out actual names (not to be revealed to anyone else until baby is here); we have talked to baby, referred to baby's will (“Baby wants ice cream!”), to baby's moods.

So what does it mean for someone to be a person? If it involves others' attitudes, can a person begin to exist before sperm meets egg? If it involves the social embrace of the community, is someone not fully a person between birth and that welcoming ceremony?

I feel that our baby is almost, but not quite, a whole person now. I love this being already, but it's still a love partway between the abstract if fervent love of a longed-for lover and the love of a dear relative I talk with on the phone. I suspect that birth will seal it, complete the personhood of this already-loved being who come so far toward becoming a full human.

How do you feel about these questions? Have you experienced parenthood? Witnessed births? Mourned people who were never born? Is there a clear boundary in your mind between not-yet-person and person? Why is that boundary where it is? Why is it important?

Wednesday, 5 September 2007

A humanist continuum

In a recent comment, Hugo brought up the fact that there are different factions within the community of humanism/freethought/atheism/brights/etc (the multitude of labels kind of says it all). And it can be difficult to bring us all together under one tent long enough to do something constructive.

In our little fledgling student society here in Edinburgh, we have few active members but they are scattered across the spectrum. One illustration of some of the more incendiary differences is how we view liberal believers.

If you (as a humanist) come across someone who self-identifies as Christian, but who acknowledges that God’s existence is not absolutely certain, and whose actions embody values you share – honesty, care for human beings, respect for science, concern for the environment – what is your attitude to that person?

Do you:

(a) feel they are being intellectually dishonest or inconsistent? If they are Christians, they should believe the Bible as it is written, not just take the “nice” bits and ignore the rest. If they can’t swallow the Bible whole, then they shouldn’t call themselves Christians at all. They should pick a belief system and be consistent, rather than trying to straddle incompatible worldviews.

Or do you:

(b) rejoice that, though religious, this person is not a threat to the secular society or to the things you most value as a humanist? You want a world where people uphold values like honesty, respect, and all the rest. It doesn’t matter if they do that while calling themselves humanists or Christians or Muslims or Pastafarians or whatever.

I hereby dub those who prefer option (a) the conversionists. The label matters as much as the beliefs, because sensible people using the label “Christian” simply provide cover for the nutcases who also use that label. If the content of their beliefs is humanist, they should convert to calling themselves “humanist” rather than “Christian”.

Those who take option (b) are the substantivists. It does not matter that someone calls herself a Christian, so long as the substance – her actual beliefs, values, and actions – include honesty, care for others, respect for science, and so on.

I tend to take the substantivist position. Our student humanist group had Christian students signing our form (we needed 20 student signatures) so we could become an official university society. “I’m not a humanist, but I support you in forming your society.” If they can do that without becoming humanists, then I think we can cooperate on other fronts too without feeling as though we need to convert them.

On the other hand, the conversionist idea that labels are important becomes very attractive to me when I’m told that my humanist values amount to belief in a god. (I’ve had this from a believer and from a non-believer). They don’t. A god is a very particular kind of being: omnipresent, powerful, intelligent, conscious. I don’t believe such a being exists. Trying to redefine god to prove that everyone believes in one is insulting both to most believers (who believe in something more than an amorphous “whatever” god) and to most nonbelievers (who tend to have well-considered reasons for their position).

My humanist friends here at both ends of the scale seem to agree with me that this distinction is useful. What do you think? Is it informative and helpful to identify conversionist and substantivist influences in the humanist community (or in yourself)? Or is this simply another way to divide us into smaller, weaker groups?

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

The Value of Celebrity

This post is inspired by the Celebrity Atheist List. Thanks Hemant for reminding me of that website.

What is the point of celebrities? Should humanists look for celebrities among their ranks?

There are different ways to see this.

Looking at the reality TV shows, the singing and dancing contests, designed to generate celebrities under our watchful eyes, it's easy to become cynical. Celebrities exist to be famous. No real point there, except for the celebrities.

Try this alternative out, though. Celebrities are billboards for ideas. When people learn that intelligent, entertaining, and famous people like Joss Whedon, Isaac Asimov, Keanu Reeves, and Carrie Fisher are non-religious, it might make them think. It probably won't make them become humanists, but it might make them think twice before painting us with too vile a brush. They've seen the billboard, and it's given them the opportunity to think about the product being offered. And the more billboards there are out there advertising humanism, the more likely someone is to try out the product - learn a little more about these ideas that so many people share.

There is a third way to see it. If you are a humanist living in a community where nobody is openly non-religious, where the atmosphere is hostile to skepticism, celebrities seen on television or read about in books may be the only exposure you have to people who think like you. If you know (for example) that two of the cutest actors in show-biz are non-theists, then every time you see a movie with Keanu Reeves or David Duchovny in it you'll feel a little less lonely. It may be somewhat escapist, but sometimes you do just need to escape for a bit.

I don't read the celebrity magazines, but I do have some favorite celebrities. I am a fan, not just of people whose celebrity is based on their humanism (Julia Sweeney, Richard Dawkins, Hemant Mehta, Dale McGowan), but of actors.

And not all of them are humanists. Before I say something withering about believers, I have to consider whether I want to paint Christians such as Bishop Spong, Tom Hanks, Mr T, or Alice Cooper with the same brush.

And, moving beyond celebrities, I am lucky enough to have people in my own life who exemplify a wide variety of beliefs and positions. I have my own Russes for Christianity, for Islam, for conservative politics, even for people who enjoy eating that orange stuff.

It's best to have such people among those we know personally. But failing that, celebrities are a good backup.

Sunday, 2 September 2007

My newest humanist hero

Deena and I are big readers, and so part of our preparation for parenthood has been to get hold of some key parenting books.

One which we have already read cover-to-cover, but whose practical relevance may not kick in for a couple of years, is Dale McGowan's collection of essays by various humanists, atheists, and others: Parenting Beyond Belief. Awesome book, by the way. Even before our kids are old enough to start trying some of the things mentioned in the book, it provides great reassurance for us as secular parents.

For some reason, I didn't really notice that he also has a blog sparked by the book. It was just before I started this blog that I found it, through his interview with my Friendly Role-Model, Hemant Mehta.

And it's great. The whole blog. I've read a good dozen or so of his blog posts now, and they're brilliant. Funny, moving, informative. He does what I aspire to do - describe what it's like to live as a humanist, compellingly and with mind-ticklingly lyrical wordcraft. It's brilliant.

Read it.

How did you come to humanism?

I've sometimes wondered how a person's history might affect their attitudes as a humanist.

For example, I sometimes suspect that people who were once evangelical believers become even more vocal non-believers - either because they are predisposed to that brand of belief, or because they want to distance themselves from beliefs they once held so firmly, and now reject. I know that the behaviours that I am most impatient with in others are those that I have overcome myself in the past.

For myself, I was raised non-religiously in a country where religion is neither widely-scorned nor overly prominent in the public sphere. Perhaps this is why I feel generally unthreatened by religion even though I have no religious beliefs. (I like to think this makes me a more balanced humanist, but all it makes me is more balance with respect to my particular experience of secularism. How well this translates to other situations is an open question.)

What do you think? Have you noticed a pattern in how different humanists' past experiences affect their attitudes to religion and believers?

Belief and understanding

Two podcasts that I listen to regularly are Skepticality and Point of Inquiry. And both of them have recently done pieces featuring religious believers. Skepticality included as a large part of a recent podcast a speech that deist Hal Bidlack gave at The Amazing Meeting. Point of Inquiry featured an interview with human genome scientist and evangelical Christian Francis Collins.

I was nodding (and, at times, almost crying) throughout Bidlack's speech – it moved and inspired me.

The interview with Francis Collins, on the other hand, had me shaking my head and grinding my teeth. I couldn't believe that someone with such apparently superb scientific talent could trot out such an uninformed critique of the non-theistic worldview.

Now, I don't want this blog to become a place for me to rant about people I disagree with being stupid, and why, and where they can put their blankety-blank opinions. One of my values as a humanist is to focus on actions and consequences. Why does Collins bother me, while Bidlack doesn't? What do I want my reaction to accomplish? How can I help that come about?

First, self-understanding. Why does Collins bother me? He bothers me for the same reason that Richard Dawkins bothers him: because the thing he takes to be my worldview is in fact a caricature of how I actually see the world. He presents a simplistic, ill-thought-out atheism as though that is the best that millennia of skeptical philosophy and reason have to offer. When DJ Groethe suggests that there are more sophisticated ways of seeing the world naturalistically, Collins dismisses those as not being what most atheists hold. I wonder how many humanist gatherings he's gone to? I wonder how many non-theistic weddings or funerals he has attended? (Of course, this is exactly the response that Dawkins and others provoke from believers - including Collins. “That's not what I believe in. You're ignoring the more sophisticated theologians through history. Most people don't believe that any more.”)

So Collins irritates me because, when he talks about my beliefs, he misrepresents them.

Why doesn't Bidlack bother me? Because he doesn't mention my beliefs. Simple as that. His speech is about his own beliefs – their merits and their weaknesses – not about the merits or weaknesses he perceives in mine.

For this same reason, religious people are much less upset at Julia Sweeney's Letting Go of God or the book Parenting Beyond Belief (edited by Dale McGowan) than they are at the “evangelical atheist” books of Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, and others. It works both ways.

Second, the goals. What do I want my reaction to accomplish? Well, I would love for Francis Collins to learn more about my beliefs. Not necessarily to convert him – it'd be nice, but it's unlikely. More so that, next time he talks to someone, he doesn't misrepresent me and my fellow humanists. Also, I think he is ideally placed to influence the many religious believers, both in the US and elsewhere. The Baptists I know here in Edinburgh are more likely to be persuaded by Collins, a fellow evangelical, that evolution is a safe idea to believe and that ID isn't supportable, than they are to listen to me or even a qualified scientist like Dawkins telling them the same thing.

Finally, the means. How do I accomplish these goals? Well, I could rant about how wrong Collins is about so many things. But this would not incline him to listen to me, so my first goal would fail. And it wouldn't have any positive effect on other believers' uptake of the constructive side of his message. All it would do is give me some emotional release, and I can get that just ranting with my fellow humanists in private. Alternatively, I could try something more constructive.

I could recommend that Francis Collins (and any other religious person who wants to speak from knowledge rather than ignorance) read one of the many excellent introductions to the humanist perspective. Richard Norman's On Humanism is an easy read, and is gentler toward believers than Dawkins or Harris. (It's the book that introduced me to humanism as an organized and coherent worldview, rather than just a disparate list of things I already happened to believe, so I recommend it to people new to humanism too.) Julian Baggini's What's It All About? is an excellent exploration of the meaning of life by a humanist philosopher. Julia Sweeney's Letting Go of God monologue is excellent, so order the CDs, Dr. Collins.

As for how to help Dr. Collins influence other evangelicals positively, if a religious person expresses doubts about (or interest in) evolution, I can point them to his book. It has a far better chance of being read with an open mind (and thus influencing them) than Hitchens or Harris, or even the relatively gentle and thoughtful Dawkins.

Okay, I think I've managed to avoid ranting and be constructive. Perhaps I'll wrap up this post here. I have to confess, it takes effort and attention to focus on what I want to accomplish with a reaction, rather than just to react. Good humanist lesson, though.

Saturday, 1 September 2007

Fame already!

I only created this blog yesterday, and already I'm famous!

Yesterday, I may have been only half-serious. But now I really have to make a go of it, to justify Hemant's faith in me. (He called me cool!) Any bloggers with wise words to share on how not to let a blog fizzle and die after an enthusiastic start, please let me know.

I'm writing this at 3 in the morning, because a pack of feral young apes is making an appalling racket in the central green outside my window, and I can't sleep. Which makes me think about the drink culture here. (I don't know if they're drunk or just idiots, but it reminds me of the many people who are frequently both in this city.)

Which in turn reminds me of one of the more unexpected realizations I made when we started the Edinburgh University Humanist Society. The first time we had our Thursday evening pub meeting, we realized that most of us were either teetotal or very infrequent drinkers. We still have a great time at the pub, drinking and chatting and all (join us if you're ever in the city). But easily 90% of the drinks we order are Pepsi or juice.

Now, I know there is nothing explicitly anti-alcohol in humanism, so I wonder whether we're an anomaly or if there's something about humanism that makes us less likely to imbibe? Perhaps our willingness to face the world as it is, without distortion? Perhaps our vivid awareness of how easily people can be fooled into false belief even with a clear head and all our faculties intact?

What do you think?