Thursday, 11 December 2008

Confessions of a Recovering Meat Eater

Humanitie, the quarterly publication of the Humanist Society of Scotland, is out now. In it is my second column, included below. Visit the Not Quite So Friendly Humanist for the twin column. (Confession: I cadged my title from his. It was too good not to.)

I'm a vegetarian. I don't eat meat because I don't want to cause the deaths of sentient beings. I cannot justify killing them (or paying someone else to kill them) just for my pleasure or convenience. It is a decision based on deeply-held values, and one I try to stick to despite frequent temptations. It is also, I think, a natural consequence of humanist philosophy - indeed, an essay by humanist philosopher A.C. Grayling was the catalyst for my shift to vegetarianism this past February.*

Having grown up omnivorous, it has been difficult to become vegetarian. Despite the strong rational and compassionate argument for vegetarianism, the habits and tastes of thirty years cannot easily be set aside. I miss the taste of meat: steaks, fish suppers, roast beef sandwiches. It is against this non-rational urging that my ethical decision always fights. I am happy to say that my daughter will not have that struggle: deciding between a vegetarian or an omnivorous diet, she will not be distracted by the irrational influence of habit and custom.

I've had a wide range of reactions since becoming vegetarian: indifference, curiosity, even encouragement and support. Mostly indifference, though. It's no more an issue to most people than declaring a taste for Thai food. But for some people, my vegetarianism is not so easy to accept.

For example, my parents have told me that, by calling my choice an "ethical" one, I imply that their choice is an unethical one. Not only that, my dad raises beef cattle - so my choice also implicitly condemns his work.

I want to be clear: I do not condemn people who choose to include meat in their diet. Eating meat does not mean they are less ethical. Am I being hypocritical, holding myself to one standard and others to a different one?

No. Humanist ethics need not polarize the world of choice into right and wrong, good and bad. Human understanding is imperfect and provisional; this inherent humility of humanism means that I do not set up every personal choice as absolute and universal.

We are a somewhat smarter type of ape, using our ape senses and our ape reasoning to construct meaning and purpose in a confusing and ambiguous world. This ambiguity requires us to be flexible and accommodating of the various ways that people infuse the world with value.

I encourage everyone to think about our kinship with other animals. Consider carefully whether the value of their lives is so small as to be outweighed by the comfort of our habits, or by the slightly greater convenience of constructing an adequate diet with meat.

Think about it, and try to be true to your convictions. Whatever they are. That's all I ask.

* "Speciesism", from The Meaning of Things

Monday, 22 September 2008

I am ...

The fall equinox occurs today at 15:44. As the sun sits in balance, straight above the equator, I give you a post about balance, about thinking of the other side. About including others with you and including yourself with others.

Derek at Disonanz Cognitif has a post that just begs to become a blog meme. (Thanks to Mike Clawson at Friendly Atheist for pointing me to Derek's post.) Here are three of his "I am" statements (go read his blog for the rest):
I live in a world of people, animals, places, things, ideas, time, space, matter, energy, forces, galaxies, quasars, mesons, and bosons. I live in a universe that seems self-sustaining and acts a whole lot like there's no God in it. I am an Atheist.

I believe I have not yet sufficiently investigated the myriad of religious, spiritual experiences others claim to have had, and that there are too many well-educated, intelligent people who claim religious belief without a hint of shame, to discount the existence of an otherworld completely. I am an Agnostic.

I believe the teachings of Christ regarding positive social change and mercy to the oppressed are just a bit too clear a message of the gospel to be swept up as a minor sub-plot to securing an eternal country club membership for oneself. I am a Christian.
Derek explicitly avoids labelling himself in general (at the end of his post, he says "I am a person who has made a conscious choice to make no overt profession of faith or disbelief"), so it's quite a bold thing for him to make such a list as this. If you read through the comments on the Friendly Atheist post, you can see that some people don't even try to take the statements in the spirit they're intended. It seems obvious to me that Derek is trying to point out bridges. Some commenters just want to nitpick and try to impose their own definitions of terms on Derek.

Going through his list, I could echo "me too" to every one of his declarations. More importantly, I think this is a great way to crack through some of the divisive oppositions in our society, if people can bother to listen.

And I think I could add a couple of entries to the list myself. Here goes ...


I delight in solving puzzles and probing mysteries. I love to discover things which can be discovered and to know things which can be known. I am determined to learn about the reality that lies beyond my subjective, biased human perceptions. I am a scientist.

I savour the taste of a good, unsolved mystery. I enjoy the potential that lies in the unknown. I could lie for hours looking up at the sky, contemplating the fact that I will never know most of what there is to be known in the universe. I am a mystic.

I refuse to let people's reproductive anatomy dictate how I treat them, except when I expect to interact directly with their reproductive anatomy. I resist sexist behaviour in myself and in others. I am a feminist.

I value the lives of all sentient animals, and cause them as little suffering as possible. I enjoy a variety of foods, but do my best to eat things whose production does not involve the deaths of feeling beings. I am a vegetarian.

I think the best hope for human well-being and betterment lies in treating one another with compassion and reason in this life, the only one we can be sure we have. I value human life above non-human life. I am a humanist.


So there it is. I invite you to add your own items, either in the comments here or, of course, on your own blog.

I know that many people will disagree with the connections I'm making between characteristics and labels. But remember, this is an exercise in seeking connections. There may be an element of exaggeration in some or all of the items, but there is also an element of truth. It is that truth, that seed of inclusiveness, of universality, that is (in my mind) the point of the whole exercise.

I think I'll close this post as Derek closes his, with a line of hope and openness.

"And yet, the spiritual journey continues."

Saturday, 20 September 2008

Software Freedom Day

I just learned about Software Freedom Day: today, 20 September!

Software Freedom Day (SFD) is a worldwide celebration of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS). Our goal in this celebration is to educate the worldwide public about of the benefits of using high quality FOSS in education, in government, at home, and in business -- in short, everywhere!

I don't have much time to research and write the article I would like to write in support of this. I am a big supporter of free software ("free as in speech, not free as in beer"), and hope to include a line of articles on it in this blog when I have more time (whenever that might be).

For the moment, let me just give a little anecdote:

My dad is a farmer in Alberta. He uses a computer for accounting, word processing, e-mail. It is important, because one of his main operations is a mail-order seed-potato business, Eagle Creek Seed Potatoes with a website for people to browse and order from. (He grows several very interesting and exotic varieties of potatoes for gardeners across Canada.) My brother farms with him, growing u-pick flowers and a very popular sunmaze.*

They recently got attacked by an e-mail virus that just about did them out of internet access - a serious problem for an internet-dependent business.

We were visiting Canada at the time, and I suggested trying Linux (specifically Ubuntu, one of the most human-friendly varieties of Linux). They put Linux on the infected machine, got the e-mail client running within the day (it's at least as easy as it is on Windows), and are now 99% virus-proof.

While we were at it, we put Xubuntu, a low-spec variety of Ubuntu, on a laptop that could no longer handle the demands of Windows, and suddenly they had one more usable computer than they had before.

A very short learning curve (about the same as you'd get moving from one version of Windows to the next) and they were all up and running.

Moral: if you don't want to spend money on virus-prone operating systems or on the latest and greatest computer, but just need something that works easily, reliably, and safely, Linux is the way to go. (Free Software is marketed as "free as in speech, not free as in beer", but it's usually both.)

And even if you don't want to go so far as trying Linux (even though it's very easy), there is a lot of useful free software out there that you can use in Windows or on the Mac. Try, which has a word processer, a spreadsheet, and most of the applications and features that Microsoft Office has. Try the Gimp, an image processing program akin to Photoshop. And for the love of all things digital, make sure you're using Mozilla Firefox rather than Explorer!

That's all for now. Enjoy Sofware Freedom Day!

*Note: Yes, I am shamelessly promoting my family's businesses here. Go, visit them, try the maze, grow some potatoes.

(Thanks to TeXblog for alerting me to Software Freedom Day.)

Friday, 12 September 2008

Life after death

We received the latest edition today of Humanitie, the quarterly magazine of the Humanist Society of Scotland. In it is this, my first (paid!) column in a series - accompanied by a twin column authored by Mike, the Not Quite So Friendly Humanist. The theme of this quarter's issue is death.

In April, I went with the local student linguistics club to the anatomy lab of a teaching hospital. I have studied the physical and psychological processes of speech for ten years, but I had never before seen the speech organs in place; never seen everything connected as it is in life. That visit greatly enriched my education.

If the anatomy lab is so helpful to a linguist, imagine the benefit to medical students and to those whose lives they will go on to save.

It's not all learning and delight, though. Stepping into the room, seeing the tables with the unmistakably human forms under sheets, I felt a stab in my heart - the visceral tragedy of death. Students of anatomy must acknowledge and respect the humanity - the sacredness - of the bodies being studied, while remaining detached enough to learn what there is to learn. Afterwards, one of my fellow students asked, "Did anyone else feel sad after the visit?" Yes, we did. This knowledge we had gained, this understanding, was only possible because people had died.

But the choice before us is not between their life and our knowledge. The choice is what to do when death comes. Though we were uneasy at times, I do not think anyone in our group regretted the experience, nor failed to appreciate the gravity of the choices and events that made it possible.

Because of that trip, I have decided to donate my body.

I've heard (and can imagine) many reasons for not donating one's body. They range from the superstitious - "What if my spirit can't move on because my body was not put to rest properly?" - to the self-conscious - "Do I want so many young medical students peering into my body?" These worries are real; but can they compete against the undeniable and tangible benefits the gift of one's body provides?

Simply put, yes. People's fear in contemplating such donations is immediate and profound. The fear of death cannot be set aside with a quick dose of reason; the prospect of having their body (or the body of a loved one) treated other than how they wish after death can cause true emotional distress. I would be a poor humanist indeed if I were to ignore such pain just because it isn't rational.

Nevertheless, medical students still need human bodies to learn from. The days of the Resurrection Men, and the grisly Burke and Hare murders, are well behind us. Today, the utmost respect is shown to donated bodies. But, as in the days of the Edinburgh grave robbers, there is always a shortage. Universities are forced to exploit alternative means of anatomical instruction - sometimes ingenious, but never quite as good as the real thing.

The gift of one's body suits every bit of humanist philosophy: care for others, value for education, and a dedication to reality over superstition and wishful thinking. I can think of few better epitaphs than on the marker of the plot used to inter the remains from the anatomy lab I visited: "To those far-sighted people who have contributed to the advancement of medical science & research."

The decision is deeply personal, and I do not condemn those who choose differently from me. But I do ask that you think about it. (Perhaps many people don't donate their bodies because it just doesn't occur to them.) Ask yourself which option accords best with your values and your beliefs.

Contact your nearest medical school to find out more about arranging the donation of your body.

Monday, 1 September 2008

Earth birthday

Another Cosmic Calendar event already!

Only the day after the Solar System begins to form, our own humble planet comes into being.

(Remember, because we are compressing the entire history of the cosmos into one year, each day represents 37.4 million years.*)

I apologize for not having more to say just now - I am still in PhD write-up mode.

References used:
[1] Wikipedia, as usual.
[2] Talk Origins page on dating the age of the Earth

* For those who have followed this series from the beginning, you might remember that I claimed before the each day is 41 million years. I am now calling it 37.4 million. What gives? The earlier figure was based on a 15 billion-year-old universe. I have since learned that the consensus is for a slightly younger universe, at 13.7 billion years. Remember, this is a calendar based on what we know, and so when what we know changes, so does the calendar. If anyone else wants to fact-check my figures and calculations, please let me know.

Sunday, 31 August 2008

Solar System forms

[For those of you who enjoyed the Cosmic Calendar posts in December (here and here), I must apologize for the dearth of them so far this year. Not much happens before December, but I did miss announcing the formation of the Milky Way galaxy back on April 6th (10.1 billion years ago).]

Some time about 4.6 billion years ago, our solar system began forming from a large cloud of dust and gas. In the Cosmic Calendar, that corresponds to today. So ... happy Solar System Day, everybody!

Next up ... birth of the Earth.

References used:
[1] The Wikipedia article on the Formation and evolution of the Solar System reports the cloud from which it formed starting to collapse about 4.6 billion years ago. That's also where I got the pretty picture, which is a public-domain depiction courtesy of NASA.
[2] The Natural History Museum reports an age of 4.5 billion years - slightly different (two days later in the Cosmic calendar). As the formation of the solar system probably took some time, any specific moment chosen as its "formation date" (birthday?) will be somewhat arbitrary.

Monday, 25 August 2008

Test your ear for language

There's a fun game for anyone who is curious about world languages. It's the Language Quiz on Simon Ager's Omniglot blog: he posts a short recording of a language, and you get to guess which language it is.

After several months of playing , I've only once guessed the right language. Well, this recent quiz is especially intriguing, so I thought I'd share it with you. Warning: the answer has already been given in the comments, so try listening first before you read them. (It's tough, because the comments appear right below the text of the very short post.)

If, after listening, guessing, and checking your answer, you want to know why this is my favorite one so far, ask me in the comments and I'll tell you. (I'd do it here in the post itself, but I don't want to give away the answer before you try the quiz.)

Myers on meaning

At the end of a post about convergent evolution (and its misinterpretations), P.Z. Myers, author of the Pharyngula blog, gives these thoughts about meaning and purpose:
We are each our own individual engines of purpose, operating in a hostile universe where randomness can shape our fates. There is no grand scheme behind our existence, other than the same function that all our ancestors had: to order our local environment to allow each to survive and to make the world a little better for our progeny. And that's enough — that's all that is needed to make a rich, diverse, living planet, and it's all I need to live a satisfying life.
What a heartfelt summary of meaning in a naturalistic worldview. Thankyou, P.Z.!

Monday, 18 August 2008

The Downfall of Literalism

I've seen the Cake Wrecks blog a couple of times, but I have to say that being pointed to this entry by a religious blogger (Ken at C. Orthodoxy) made my day.

Thanks Ken. (Who ever said that rationalists don't have allies in the religious community?)

[Note: I am still finishing my PhD, so posts will continue to be sporadic and brief for at least a few weeks. I promise exciting things to come, so please bear with me!]

Thursday, 31 July 2008

Persecution mentality

Religious and non-religious people alike could benefit from reading Ken Brown's new post, "Persecuted on every side".

I know I've fallen into the victim mentality once or twice. It's always turned out that I over-reacted. There are real victims in this world, and if we're too quick to paint ourselves as persecuted, we make less of real suffering.

I find it fruitful to read one or two blogs by people like Ken, who disagree with me on important points, to keep myself somewhat balanced. Does anyone else do this? Can you recommend good blogs or posts that convey religious experiences, non-vegetarian arguments, anti-Linux sentiment?

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Careless belief

"I wish people would not be so careless about what they believe."

- from Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett

For the full context, read the book. For an insight into the somewhat amusing origin of the title, follow the Wikipedia link above - it currently contains no spoiler, but will give you context enough to understand the relevance.

Monday, 7 July 2008

Thiakian king on death, and my response.

Today I give no argument, no news.

An ancient tale inspired a train of thought.
I'll share the thought in pent-iambic verse,
the English form Fitzgerald used to scribe
the ancient epic Odyssey from Greek.

He renders Homer's tale in vivid lines,
a saga of a man who seeks his home.

Odysseus speaks the lines that woke my muse;
recounts to his Phaiakian hosts his woes.
He's sailed from Troy; he's sacked an isle, and left.
Before he left a few of his men were slain.

Odysseus tells what happened then, at sea:

No ship made sail next day until some shipmate
had raised a cry, three times, for each poor ghost
unfleshed by the KikonĂȘs on that field.

That word, unfleshed, is what has stirred my mind.
Belief and hope and fear in that term dwell.
Unfleshed: the self evicted from its corpse,
to travel down the dark Hadean paths.

A multitude expects such fate on death:
the unfleshed ghost, the soul, will carry on
to heaven, hell, or maybe back to Earth.

The word "unfleshed" befits these cherished thoughts,
expresses what so many hope from death.

But what of folk like me, who don't expect
to live on past our physical demise?
What word have we expressing what befalls?

The snowflake melts: its shape, unique, is lost.
Just so the mind, which body must sustain,
when body fails, is gone, has ceased, that's it.
How fleeting, fright'ning, this idea of self:
ephemeral and fragile. Here, then not.

The snowflake's stuff, of course, will still remain,
will rise, form clouds, and then will fall again.
Just so, my starstuff matter carries on.
In plants, in rocks, in future human flesh
it feeds the life of Gaia, though I'm gone.

I do not know a cure for fear of death:
I dread the tolling bells that speak my end.
But facts are not beholden to my wish.
Instead, to truth's stark beauty do I bend.

Does all this pose a word that I can use?
A word that speaks of loss and beauty cold?
Odysseus says the soul becomes unfleshed.
For me, the flesh, the life, becomes unsouled.

(Please let me know if verse-based blogging works.
These lines, did they enlighten or confuse?
Plain prose is still the medium I prefer.
Should ever I again invoke the Muse?)

Monday, 30 June 2008

My home and native land

Tomorrow, July first, is Canada Day. It commemorates Confederation in 1867, the key step toward our independence from Britain. I'm here in Alberta, still writing up my PhD (almost done!), and I thought I'd take a few minutes to share with you what I love about this land I call home.

I grew up on an Alberta farm. The landscape of my youth contains gently rolling prairies dotted with native woods, and the wall of the Rocky Mountains standing guard on the western horizon.

Photos will never give you the full sense of a place that is at once complete and unfinished, a sense that I got early this spring, looking out over the soft browns of the grassland, dotted with pale, naked deciduous trees, dark spruce, and dirty-white patches of snow. For that, you would need to come stand beside me at the edge of the farmyard here, looking out over those fields. Breathe deep of the crisp, dusty air; squint against the brilliant sun and the vast, pale blue sky. Taste the calm anticipation of spring, the heady vibrancy of summer, the hot explosion of fall, or the sharp, dry tang of winter. Listen to the quiet, vibrant present, humming with the birds of the season and the distant activity of humans. Feel the steady is and the eager will be of the world commingling in this place.

See the sharp peaks of the Rockies on the western horizon. Go visit them. Stand surrounded by these majestic Titans, waiting eternally by the standards of a human life. They have grown an inch, a millimetre, a micrometre at a time, age after age, until the sea floor became the land's ambassador to the sky. Let yourself be thoroughly daunted by the realization of their vast, patient ascent, their venerable serenity. Some are almost as old as life itself; others are young, rising in the late Cretaceous (after the first mammals evolved).

I wish I could share with you just what I love about this land that is in turns both humble and arrogant, noble and common (much like its human tenants). But I cannot. At the root of my connection to Alberta, behind every phrase I use to try to evoke its essence in your mind, is that impossible-to-communicate longing called "home". If the central Alberta prairie is your home, you already know what I mean and my words are a pale substitute for our shared understanding. If it is not, I can only hope to show you fragments and moments of what this place is to me.

Perhaps that is enough.

Come and visit. Not necessarily me, or my family's farm (though you're welcome, of course). Come visit the land. Let me know what it says to you.

Happy Canada Day.

Thursday, 5 June 2008

A beautiful picture from Mars

What do you think: is this the most beautiful picture you have ever seen?

Well, why don't you go see what Phil Plait, the coolest and most engaging science blogger I've come across, has to say about the deceptively simple image:

Here are a couple of links to another blog that talks about this awe-inducing image (including a picture that tells even more).

I simply can't compete with Phil's description, so I'll leave you with his words:

Think on this, and think on it carefully: you are seeing a manmade object falling gracefully and with intent to the surface of an alien world, as seen by another manmade object already circling that world, both of them acting robotically, and both of them hundreds of million of kilometers away.

Never, ever forget: we did this. This is what we can do.

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Followup on abortion

Regarding my last post on abortion, I would like to point out one response and two posts on a related current event in the UK.

As linked from the comments in my post, Christian blogger Ken Brown takes me to task for some incautious use of figures from the internet. (I stand by most of my post, but he is right that the 75% figure doesn't seem to have a firm empirical justification.) I have submitted a detailed response to his criticism on his blog , but it has not (yet) appeared in the comments section.

Second, the recent vote on the Human Embryo and Fertilization Bill in the House of Commons (UK) has attracted the attention of two friends of mine.

Clare points out the dangers lurking behind the proposal to reduce the legal limit for abortions from 24 weeks gestation to 20 weeks. This action would serve to undermine important abortion rights. I should have linked her post before the vote to help get the word out, but in the end the proposed reduction was voted down anyway.

On the other side, Cath has given her perspective on why this decision, and the approval for 'saviour siblings', are inhumane. Her perspective, like that of Ken Brown, is religious, but of course that does not invalidate it. Please note: in Cath's post, when she uses the term lawful, I think she is referring to an absolute moral law rather than human law. Otherwise saying that "their [legislators'] decision is not lawful" would be self-contradictory.

I think that Cath is assuming full human rights for any embryo - presumably from the moment of conception - an assumption that (as I pointed out in my last post) is neither necessary nor universal. Interestingly, Clare's non-religious arguments for abortion rights do not depend on a rejection of that assumption.

Like Clare and Cath, I do not have time to get into a full-blown debate on this issue right now. Also, I hope to focus a little more on the positive and inspiring. Some of my recent posts have perhaps tended toward the combative, and I would like to redress the balance. My blogging notebook has several dozen ideas gestating in it - I look forward to nurturing them into fully-grown posts. Just as soon as the PhD is out of the way. Stay tuned.

Monday, 12 May 2008

On dialogue, genocide, and plague

I would like to apologize for the long gap in posts. I am currently near the end of writing up my PhD dissertation, and almost all of my time and energy is going into that. Below is a post I composed almost a month ago, but didn't get around to tidying up until today. When the PhD is finished, I hope to get back to semi-regular, semi-frequent posting. See you then.

Early last month, the University of Calgary tried (not for the first time) to prevent a student group from holding a display about abortion. Fortunately, they failed - the group held their display, unmolested by campus security. The attempt to thwart them got the group more attention and more sympathy than they would otherwise have received.

Why all the fuss? Why not just let them do their thing? Well, it wasn't simply an anti-abortion display. The group, Campus Pro-Life, was presenting the Genocide Awareness Project, a sensationalist affair, based on the claim that abortion rates in the developed world (25% in Canada) amount to a genocide. Vivid photographs of both aborted fetuses and genocide victims feature prominently. Despite its unsavory tone, and despite the way this analogy ignores the many glaring and important differences between abortion and the intentional extermination of an entire culture (reductio ad hitlerum, anyone?), it is clear to me that trying to ban them from campus is contrary to the spirit of open discussion of ideas that universities are founded on.

I felt drawn to this incident as one where I could support a group's right to put out there message, while disagreeing with the content of that message on almost every level. (I've done so before.) So I contacted them and spent a pleasant hour over lunch chatting with member Matthew Wilson, a very thoughtful and friendly guy. I am grateful to him for helping me refine (and, in some spots, correct) the following contemplations.

At the root of the abortion debate seems to be a fundamental disagreement over the basis of human rights.

To me, human rights derive from those properties of human existence that we most value: consciousness, sentience, free will. It is because we share these properties to some extent with other animals that I recently became and remain a vegetarian. It is because the early stages of a human embryo do not share these properties that I do not see abortion as a kind of murder.

To anti-abortionists, the start of the new human organism at conception is the point where human rights are imbued, by definition. Although many people hold this position for religious reasons, it is neither the case that all religious people are anti-abortion nor that all anti-abortionists rely on religious arguments. (Whatever his feelings, Matthew did not give me one religious argument in the hour we dug through this issue.)

After an hour's careful and enthusiastic discussion with Matthew, I have to conclude that these two positions are simply irreconcilable - each is based on axioms that are fairly impervious to persuasion.

But just because I disagree doesn't mean I can't try to put myself in their shoes, see what it's like. If I accept their axioms rather than mine, then abortion would indeed amount to murder. Let's even accept, for argument's sake, that this justifies calling an abortion rate of 25% "genocide".

What else follows from the belief that every fertilized human egg is ethically equivalent to a human baby? Well, just as not all deaths outside the womb are due to murder - the vast majority are natural, accidental, or from disease - so not all prenatal deaths are due to abortion. In fact, the vast majority of these are also from "natural" causes - called either miscarriage and stillbirth, depending on whether the fetus dies before or after 20 weeks gestation.

The stillbirth rate is very low (around 0.6% in Canada), but miscarriage is another matter. About 10-20% of pregnancies that the mother knows about miscarry. In studies that use detailed detection techniques, about 30% of clinically-recognized pregnancies end in miscarriage. (In this case, "clinically-recognized" means "exhibiting the hormone produced on uterine implantation of the embryo".) Extrapolating to those fertilized eggs that never get implanted and so are currently impossible to medically detect, 75% of conceptions may fail to carry to term.

So three quarters of conceived (and thus fully-human, by the anti-abortionists' lights) embryos miscarry - die without anyone setting out to kill them. And of those that survive this natural winnowing, 25% are then aborted intentionally (about 6% of total conceptions).

The vast majority of pre-birth deaths are miscarriages - twelve times as many as are aborted. If abortion is genocide, miscarriage is a plague unparalleled in human history, claiming 75% of all human lives.

So if Matthew and his colleagues are indeed pro-life, and not simply anti-abortion, what obligation does this knowledge place on them? Isn't miscarriage a more immediate and profound problem than the relatively minuscule one of abortion?

Thanks to Matthew, I have firsthand examples of the responses that anti-abortionists might make to this challenge.

Acknowledgment. To his credit, Matthew acknowledged that the miscarriage statistics, which were new to him, did represent a grave human tragedy from his perspective. (To my discredit, I had originally expected any anti-abortionist to try to wiggle out of such an acknowledgment. Thankyou, Matthew, for proving me wrong.)

Ignorance. I can't deny that the statistics on miscarriage are colossally under-reported. Perhaps people fail to protest this epidemic of miscarriage simply because they're not aware of it. But ignorance is always a shaky excuse. It is particularly so in this case, where a significant minority of women in the anti-abortion movement are bound to have had miscarriages themselves, and so come face-to-face with this reality. I understand that one way in which doctors seek to console parents who suffer a miscarriage is to let them know how common it is - there is nothing wrong with them in particular. Do those who become aware of the problem have no obligation to share it with others whose worldview would motivate them to help fix it?

Intentionality. The strongest reason why anti-abortionists might not choose to act on the miscarriage crisis, despite its scope and import, is the fundamental ethical difference between abortion and miscarriage. One is a conscious act on the part of humans; the other is not. Abortion would be ended if doctors and women simply chose en masse not to do it; miscarriage will not be solved so easily (if a solution is even possible). And given the limited resources of the anti-abortion movement, it is clear where they should focus their efforts first.

(It is interesting to consider, however, that no conception occurs entirely without the participation of human choice. If you know that the consequences of unprotected sex are 3 times as likely to lead to a death as to a life, what responsibility do you bear for the deaths of any embryos your actions generate?)

On balance, I don't feel that these responses are quite adequate to justify the deafening silence from anti-abortionists (particularly those who use terms like "genocide") on the problem of miscarriage. It is simply too big a problem, when I try to look from their perspective, to simply ignore. Action may be expensive, but words are not. It would cost little to mention this problem, and it may serve to spur more people to act for the millions of unborn humans who (from the perspective of the anti-abortionists) die unnecessarily every year.

It is for this reason that I avoid calling their movement "pro-life". Such a positive label would require at least consistency of approach. Until that is exhibited, I can only recognise that they are anti-abortion.

But, like I mentioned above, our positions seem to boil down to a simply irreconcilable conflict of basic assumptions. So I hope Matthew and other anti-abortionists will correct any mistakes in my assumptions and reasoning. But this gulf makes me pose an even deeper and (for me) more troubling question - one that Matthew and I tried but failed to answer in a satisfactory manner. When people in a liberal democracy disagree so much that any state of affairs will be intolerably unethical to someone, how can we come to a decision about a direction to take as a society?

Friday, 11 April 2008

Alberta Votes (3 of 3): Religious interference

Okay, this isn't strictly an Alberta news item. But, at about the time I began this series on the Alberta election (see here and here for previous installments), I heard that a Catholic bishop in Ottawa is refusing communion to politicians who support abortion rights.

It's not the first time or place this has happened: it has come up recently in Scotland, Wales, the US, and probably many other places as well. Sanctions don't stop at refusing communion - excommunication is also on the table according to some bishops. (Note that not all Catholics think this is an appropriate action for the church to take.)

I am not here to discuss arguments for or against abortion rights (not today anyway). What I would like to explore is the implications of such pressure for democratic government.

On a personal level, first of all, let me say that if I have reason to believe that a candidate will let any particular interest group dictate their actions when in power (rather than, say, the will of us voters), then they have already lost my vote. I hate the idea of voting against someone because of their religion, but if a candidate declares a firm devotion to the Catholic church, and the church orders all its members to toe the doctrinal line or else, then I have no hesitation in deciding against voting for that candidate.

So much for the personal side of things. What about the public interest?

There are regular scandals over money changing hands for political motives. Why are such actions a bad thing? Because they represent an individual, company, or group trying to coerce a politician to act in a way that may not reflect the democratic will of their constituents. It undermines democracy.

As I recently wrote, I think the appropriate status of religious groups in secular government is essentially that of interest groups. And what we have here is prominent members of the Catholic interest group putting as much pressure as they possibly can on elected officials to follow the church over the constituents.

So, are these bishops any better than business men trying to bribe (or blackmail) politicians to vote a particular way? If so, how? What is so special about religious interest groups that they don't have to live up to the same ethical standards as we hold corporate businesspeople to?

At the least, I think these bishops' declarations should make people think very carefully before electing Catholics to public office. At best, I think the Catholic church should be severely chastised for trying to thwart the democratic process in this way.

Disclaimer (in case someone in the audience is inclined to misinterpret me):

I assert the right of elected officials to hold whatever religious beliefs they choose. I assert the right of religious officials to express their beliefs - including the real-world implications of their beliefs - as freely as anyone else. I assert the right of everyone to take a position on abortion rights and to act on that position, whether it is in the form of personal choice, protest, or an elected official voting as they choose on legislation.

The only problem I see here for democracy is that an interest group - the Catholic church - is putting
inappropriate, excessive pressure on elected officials to govern in a particular way.

Am I over-reacting? Do you think my statements amount to religious discrimination? Please let me know.

Thursday, 10 April 2008

Sceptical comfort

Greta Christina just posted a delightful entry on her blog.
I know that religion is repeatedly defended as a source of comfort in difficult times. But this has been one of the more difficult times in my life... and I've been finding that my atheistic, skeptical, rational view of my difficulties is more comforting than any religious belief I've ever held, or could ever imagine holding.
I know that her post is unlikely to persuade anyone to change their own worldview, but perhaps the reasons she gives will help thoughtful religious people to understand why Humanists and other atheists do not suffer from the nihilism that seems to often be expected of them.

It has certainly given me a couple of new ideas for thoughtful, positive responses next time I'm asked about the whole "how do you get through life" thing.

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Interest groups

Several months ago, I came across a claim A C Grayling makes regarding the role of religion in public life. The claim seems sound, and yet it also seems radical. I am appealing here to my religious reader(s): is there a good counterargument?

Here's how he puts it in The Meaning of Things:
No doubt the churches are as entitled as any other interest group to have their say on matters that fall within their range of concerns, but they are an interest group nonetheless, with highly tendentious views, and big axes to grind. (p.104)
He makes the same claim in other places, including here and here.

Is the role of organised religions in public life on the same level as that of other interest groups (such as, say, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds or the Calgary Chamber of Commerce)? Or is there a role that religions legitimately play in public life that interest groups cannot play?

I'm not asking about private life: I know that religious individuals get much more out of religion than out of their local gardening club, for example. I'm asking about the public role of religion in secular society. For example, is a religious holiday any different in kind from Earth Day, or Breast Cancer Awareness Month, or Darwin Day?

I think Grayling is right that there is (or ought to be) no difference in kind between religious and other interest groups (even Humanism), when it comes to their official status in the public sphere. Is this a valid assertion?

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams claims there is more to it, but fails to give a clear (or even coherent) argument for why this is so. Why should society at large (and the government in particular) treat religious lobbies as other than interest groups?

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Some curious news

Here's something new: a Friendly Humanist news roundup. There are just so many interesting things happening this week. Particularly today.

First, Skepchick mentions a study showing that reading science blogs makes you smarter. I wonder if Humanist blogs also give this effect?

Second, linguist and long-time critic of the traditional media's portrayal of language issues, Mark Liberman, is crossing to the other side, leaving his long-time position as a contributor to indy-media outlet Language Log for a more lucrative position at the BBC.

Third, Al Qaeda has responded to the 9/11 conspiracy theorists, firmly denying that the US government had anything to do with the destruction of the World Trade Center towers. Here is an exchange on television:

9/11 Conspiracy Theories 'Ridiculous,' Al Qaeda Says

Finally, and on a more personal note, I would like to say that I am increasingly persuaded, as a linguist and as a sceptic, that the Ontological Argument (for the existence of God) is much more sound than I had thought. As Bertrand Russell, famous 20th-century philosopher, said, "it is easier to feel convinced that it must be fallacious than to find out precisely where the fallacy lies". Quite so. Why he let this "conviction" outweigh his earlier realization ("Great God in boots! -- the ontological argument is sound!") I don't know, but I must follow my own reason.

I will keep you posted on this important intellectual development. In the meantime, let me know if news roundups of this sort appeal to either of you.

[Update: I couldn't resist adding this exciting news (thanks to Phil at Bad Astronomy for the heads-up): Virgin and Google are joining forces for project Virgle - a concrete plan for the colonization of Mars! Sign me up.]

Thursday, 27 March 2008

Expelled Exposed

I try to avoid dwelling on the negative points of religion here - I'm the Friendly Humanist, after all.

But sometimes, people use religion as an excuse to do mind-numbingly stupid things. I mean literally mind-numbing, as in "blunting the power of their own and others' minds".

There is a brand of religious creationism trying to brand itself as "science" in order to undermine what its proponents see as the harmful and oppressive truth of evolution. Maybe you've heard of it? It currently goes by the name "Intelligent Design", or ID. And a recent development in the non-scientific argument to accept ID as science is the American film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, which by all reports combines bad science, bad history, and bad cinematography into an appeal to force scientists to consider ID alongside actual fact-based theories.

I won't bore you with that - you can read all about it (and recent irony-laden incidents) on any number of blogs.

The main point of this post is to follow the suggestion Skepchick Rebecca posted yesterday about the new website, Expelled Exposed, published by the American National Center for Science Education. This website provides scientific responses to the distortions and untruths promoted in the film.

I encourage other bloggers and web-present scientists to link to the site. As Rebecca says, "if you have a blog or a web site please link to it! Let’s increase the traffic and bump it up in Google, so that the next time someone searches for more info on Expelled, they get the truth."

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

An uncanny valley in Springfield

There is a curious effect that animators, speech technologists, and psychologists encounter called the Uncanny Valley.

Consider cartoons. A stick figure doesn't look very human, but it's also fairly nonthreatening. Mickey Mouse has more person-like features, and so elicits a more sympathetic reaction. A nice, fuzzy CG Sully can be even more appealing.

But the trend isn't all in one direction. There comes a point along the continuum of increasing realism where the emotional response drops precipitously - where looking (or moving or sounding) a little more like a human is suddenly a very bad thing. This is the uncanny valley - depicted graphically below Mickey there.

Now, astronomer Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy recently had a very unsettling experience.

He saw a depiction of a beloved cartoon figure de-cartoonified. I followed his link, and had the same gut reaction. There is something deeply, viscerally disturbing about images like this.


I'm going to give you the direct link in a moment, but you really need to brace yourself. No really. Look, I'm not kidding - see, I have my most serious, academic look of caution and concern on.

Phil is a man who has stared into the depths of space and time and come back grinning, and he said "this totally and whole-heartedly freaks me the hell out." He says he'll never watch The Simpsons again.

I study the muscular coordination of speech in the voice box, sticking endoscopes up their noses to see what's going on inside, and this image freaked me the hell out.

So don't say I didn't warn you.


Okay, here's Phil's post, and here's the original article with the disturbing too-human-Homer image.

There. Now you believe me, don't you? That'll teach you to respond to extravagant claims with cautious scepticism, won't it?

Big Girls, You Are Beautiful!

When our daughter, Kaia, was born, she was a little big. And she got bigger so fast that before she was a month old she had grown out of the lovely purple tam I had knitted her. At six months old, she has bigger feet than her ten-month-old cousin.

And she is beautiful enough to stop time. (Empirical fact - I've experienced it many times.)

Everyone - medical professionals, family members, complete strangers - sees her size as a sign of good health, and praises her for it. She is a big girl, and it's a good thing.

Her mom is also bigger than average, and also time-stoppingly beautiful. But people, especially doctors, rarely take her size as a sign of good health. Doctors worried about it when we were trying to conceive; they worried about it when we succeeded and started planning for a minimum-intervention birth; they worry about it almost every time she has an appointment with them, whether her complaint is size-related or not.

When does being a big girl go from a sign of good health to a sign of bad health? Why?

This is not just a modern question about human development. It is also an interesting historical question. For much of human prehistory, the most worrying medical problems were malnutrition and starvation - being big was a sign that you were healthy, had a reliable diet, and (probably) that you were well-off. And of course, fertility and sexuality were positively associated with good padding, as figures like the Venus of Willendorf attest. When did being a big girl go from a sign of good health to a sign of bad health? What changed?

Perhaps the health risks of being big were just obscured by all the other difficulties ancient people faced. Today, we've all heard that being big puts you at greater risk for heart disease, diabetes, and various other causes of early death. We all know these are established facts. Don't we?

Fortunately, Deena has a great interest in her health, not just her size, and has done a good deal of research. She has discovered, through a combination of reading and personal experience, that weight-loss diets almost always fail, or provide only a temporary fix and anyway the health risks connected with size are (except at the high and low extremes) almost entirely imaginary. These conclusions are also drawn by Paul Campos, author of The Obesity Myth. He was interviewed (mp3) on the Truth-Driven Thinking podcast by Steven Gibson. In the interview (and in the book itself, which I haven't read), he explodes most of the common beliefs about obesity and health. The facts are well-summed up in this quote:

Even if it were true that thin people had better health than fat people which on the whole, except at its extremes, they don't; and even if it were true that you could show that there was a strong dose response between weight loss and improved health which, again, is not true; it still wouldn't make sense to be focusing on weight loss as a public health intervention unless you could actually produce it, but here's the thing: we can't!”

And he's not the only one to debunk popular myths about weight. So where does that leave me? I have a big, beautiful, cheerful daughter, who is growing up in a culture where big becomes a liability at some stage in the process of growing up, despite the absence of empirical support for the prejudice.

Will the ignorant assumptions of people around her give her feelings of inadequacy and shame? Will she be driven to try unhealthy diets in a desperate attempt to fit into the insanely limited idea of beauty promoted by media?

Fortunately, Kaia has several things going for her. She has her own natural love of being. She has family who love her as she is. She has parents determined to arm her with the critical thinking skills to combat the culturally-biased spin that the media (and many scientists) put on legitimate scientific research into human health. She is growing up in a world where many people are determinedly combating the irrational preconceptions of the wider society - the size acceptance movement, as well as a quietly successful fact-based, government-sponsored health sector focusing on a balanced diet and a sensible amount of exercise.

And there are plenty of people who celebrate the diversity of the human form. Kathryn of A Mindful Life posted not only this exuberant and sexy video of Mika's song "Big Girl, You Are Beautiful"

(it's now one of my favorite songs), but also a photo of her lovely, swimsuit-clad, pregnant self - a charming celebratory affirmation of big beauty. And when it comes to big affirmations, she's not the only one. Not by a long shot.

So finally, here's a picture of the two most important, stupendous, heart-flutteringly delightful women in my life.

Big girls, you are beautiful!

Friday, 21 March 2008

Alberta Votes (2 of 3): Apathy

This is the second of 3 reflections on the 2008 Alberta election. In the first of them, I railed against the fact that 53% of the votes were translated into 87% of the seats - an overwhelming legislative majority from a bare minimum popular majority.

What I didn't dwell on is the fact that those 72 seats were actually won with the support of just over 20% of eligible voters. Overall, only 41% of people who could vote did vote. Apathy in this wealthy province is rampant.

Part of me feels the same way about this as I do about people who found last year's Scottish ballots too confusing - that people who can't be bothered to put a little time into exercising their democratic rights deserve to be uncounted. Democracy depends on an informed, responsible electorate, which in my mind excludes people too lazy to vote, or too lazy to take the time to understand a ballot a six-year-old could follow.

But there's more to it than people getting what's coming to them. If a government can come to overwhelming power with the support of only 20% of the people, is it still a democracy? What if it's just 10%? 5%?
Those of us who take our democratic responsibilities seriously can't just sit back and sneer because so many of our neighbours are disenfranchising themselves. We all benefit from a thriving democratic process in which everyone participates and feels involved.

There have already been proposals regarding Albertans' apathy.

The main contender seems to be suggestions for compulsory voting. Several countries have some form of sanction to encourage voting, from the mild fines in Australia and Belgium to heavy financial consequences in Bolivia and even difficulty getting a driver's licence or passport in Greece. The evidence suggests that compulsion does, indeed, increase participation. But the question is whether this forced participation is good for democracy. As I said above, democracy is based on informed, responsible participation. As anti-compulsion campaigners in Australia point out, you can force someone to vote but you can't force them to vote responsibly. At worst, compulsion would mean that the 60% of people who currently don't vote in Alberta would just vote randomly, obscuring any rational, considered decisions from the 40% of responsible voters. It could make a mockery of the idea of democracy.

What we need is some means of persuading people that their vote counts, that it is worth their while to voluntarily educate themselves on the choices and vote out of a will to participate.

What we need, in fact, is electoral reforms. See my previous post for more details on electoral reform. Check out the table of countries in the Wikipedia article on voter turnout. Notice that Canada is toward the bottom, with 76% turnout in recent elections. Alberta's 41% would be well off the bottom of this graph. If you go through this list of 36 countries and look up what their electoral system is, you'll find that the first-past-the-post system we use here in Canada is far more prevalent toward the bottom, among the countries with lower voter turnout. I admit, this is by no means a clear and rigorous statistical observation, but it is suggestive.

Compulsion as exercised in other countries is often not severe - the fines in Australia are under $100, no worse than a speeding ticket - but it attacks the wrong problem. The problem is not simply that not enough people vote; it's that not enough people feel involved, not enough people are inspired by the idea of participating in a democracy. Part of that is due to an electoral system that doesn't represent voters' preferences well. Part of it is because most voters today haven't been face-to-face with the alternatives to democracy. Part of it is because we often have rather insipid, uninspiring politicians.

I'd rather not have to go to war or beat down an upstart dictator in our own country just to inspire participation in our democracy, so let's see about changing things on a less revolutionary level, eh? Simple, empowering electoral reforms have a real chance of turning around the rampant apathy we have in Canada, Britain, and other developed countries.

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Arthur C Clarke

I heard it from Phil at Bad Astronomy: Arthur C Clarke has died.

One of that great and noble class, the science fiction writers, Clarke was one of my dear companions growing up as a somewhat introverted youth in a small rural community. Not only did the writing of these people - Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C Clarke, Orson Scott Card, Ursula Le Guin, and others - give my quirky imagination exciting places to play; they showed me how truly exciting science is, and the reality it exposes.

I am sure I would not be a scientist today without their work. It's conceivable I wouldn't be a Humanist either. Science fiction, with its very personal, human blend of hope, science, imagination, and human narrative, seems to be a quintessentially Humanist endeavour. (Check out this list of SF writers' religious affiliations as evidence.)

I could go on at length, but instead I'll leave you with time to spend reading something of his. Check out the bibliography on his Wikipedia page; read something there that you haven't before (or, if you've read them all, re-read your favorite). Learn about his foundation.

May we all carry on his wake, continuing to realize the dreams he shared with us and always dreaming new ones to draw us into a better and brighter future.

Monday, 10 March 2008

Alberta Votes (1 of 3): Representation

This past Monday, there was a provincial election here in my home province of Alberta, Canada, in which the reigning Progressive Conservatives (the "Tories") advanced their majority, ending up with 72 of the 83 seats in the provincial legislature.

I am troubled by the fact that this 87% legislative majority was won with 53% of the popular vote*. (Another horror is the fact that only 41% of eligible voters bothered to cast ballots, but I'll leave that for an upcoming post.)

If we break down the popular vote by party, and translate it to proportions of seats (as, for example, happens in Proportional Representation), we would see a very different legislature. The PC party got 53% of the vote. If they got 53% of the seats (still a legitimate majority), they'd have 44. That's 28 fewer seats than they actually got. If we follow this through, the Liberals would be up thirteen seats, at 22; the NDP would be up five seats at 7; and two parties that didn't get any members elected would get in: the Wildrose Alliance won 6 seats worth of the popular vote, and the Greens won 4 seats worth. (Nobody else won a seat's worth of the vote.)

So, is the new legislature representative? Only in that the parties with more votes got more seats - the proportions are wildly out. Part of that is due to the fact that the PC stronghold - the rural ridings - have smaller populations. At the extreme, the largest riding is Calgary North West with 60,511 voters and the smallest is Dunvegan-Central Peace with 23,649, just over a third as many voters, according to this academic source.

But a big part of the problem is the plurality (or first-past-the-post) voting system. It is the most simplistic, least representative sort of ballot used in modern democracies. For example, many of the seats won by the PCs in the recent election were won with less than half of the popular vote. That means representatives sitting in legislature, representing a riding where more than half the voters voted against them. Disadvantages of our plurality voting system include split votes and the necessity of tactical voting.

There are so many alternative voting systems that I won't even mention them all - just a couple I have recent experience with.

The recent Scottish Parliament elections used a mixed plurality and proportional-representation system to combine individual representation with party-proportional balance. Most people found it fairly straightforward, and I for one felt much more empowered than I have in simple first-past-the-post elections.

The local council elections held at the same time used the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system, which is even easier to understand and implement. In it, a voter marks the candidates in order of preference. You can follow the above links to find out more, but the consequence is that, on one paper, you can express not only who you would most like to get in, but also who you would least like to get in. As an example, there are several seats (at least 9 by my count) in this election that had more people voting for "left-ish" parties (Liberal, NDP, Green) than for "right-ish" parties (PC, Wildrose Alliance), where the PC candidate got in because the left vote was split. STV would allow "left" (and "right") to effectively vote as a block, without abandoning the important distinctions between the different individual parties - 9 more seats in legislature toward the 47% of Albertans who didn't vote PC.

It is true that any reform towards greater representation would take seats from the current party in power, and so it is always an uphill battle to get the government in power to enact such reforms. But it has happened in countries and regions not unlike ours. In fact, it happened right here in Alberta in 1926. But the reforms were discarded without public consultation in 1959 by a government keen to consolidate its own power. (I'm happy to say that that party, Social Credit, is all but extinct in Alberta - they haven't had a seat since 1982.)

And I'm not alone in being disappointed with the non-representative flaws in our representative democracy. Fair Vote Canada is campaigning for federal and provincial voting reform.

My question to everyone out there (Albertan or not) is this:

Is there a legitimate, ethically-justified defense for maintaining the current voting system, when the alternatives are easy, well-tested, and more representative (ie, more democratic) than what we have now?

* Alberta election data used here is taken from Wikipedia's comprehensive 2008 election page. Please let me know if my numbers are wrong.

Thursday, 6 March 2008

Periodic Table's 139th birthday

Just wanted to point you to a milestone in science that you can mark today - the 139th anniversary of Mendeleev's Periodic Table of the Elements. Thanks to the Skepchicks for the heads-up (and cool links - look in the comments too). Try Wikipedia (as always) for even more info and links.

Sunday, 17 February 2008

Humanism and atheism - an analogy

Just came up with this, and thought I'd ask for some feedback. What do you think of this analogy?
Calling a humanist an atheist is like describing a Christian as someone who believes Leviticus is the word of God. It may almost always be true, but if that's all you know it'll be hopelessly inadequate and almost invariably misleading as a description of the person.

Spirituality and reverence

Can you tell me more about spirituality and reverence among atheists?
Cath asked this in the comments of my previous post, in response to my comment about religious people failing to see the deep spirituality of Dawkins. I'll get to Dawkins shortly. I want to start with a note on definitions.

I am an atheist, but all that says is that I suspect there is no supernatural creator or moral lawgiver in the universe. It says nothing about my spirituality.

My worldview, the basis of my ethical and spiritual approach to the world, is Humanism. My favorite sound-bite definition is that offered on the Humanist Network News podcast - that Humanism is a non-religious worldview based on reason and compassion. For more depth, Wikipedia gives a good overview of Humanism.

First, you may have noticed from past posts that I'm interested in Carl Sagan's analogy of the Cosmic Calendar to illustrate the depth of cosmic history. I find it enthralling that the universe is almost unimaginably old. The knowledge of how truly vast time and space are fills me with reverence for the universe. Though it has no mind, though it has no consciousness of me as an individual, nevertheless it is a thing of awesome beauty, and it is a recurring source of joy to remember that, through no merit of my own, I am lucky enough to be part of it.

That sense of staggering good fortune is touchingly expressed at the start of Richard Dawkins' book Unweaving the Rainbow:
We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Sahara. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively outnumbers the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.
Now I'd like to share with you a bit about my wedding with Deena seven years ago. It was before we had discovered Humanism as an organized community, but we already held broadly humanist beliefs, and the symbolism we chose then still resonates with us today.

The ceremony was held outdoors, in a cathedral of trees, with a small brook flowing by. Charles Darwin and his intellectual successors have shown us how truly connected we are to all of life - we are cousins to the ants and the poplar trees and the magpies.

We had friends and family with us. Marriage is a human act, and the moral community in which we made our commitment consists entirely of ourselves and other humans.

The poem "Habitation" by Canadian writer Margaret Atwood was read:
Marriage is not
a house, or even a tent

It is before that, and colder:

the edge of the forest, the edge
of the desert
the unpainted stairs
at the back, where we squat
outdoors, eating popcorn

the edge of the receding glacier

where painfully and with wonder
at having survived even
this far

we are learning to make fire.
Our spirituality is provisional and fragile. It is provisional in that the things that matter to us, the people and life choices, could have been otherwise. I was not destined to meet Deena; I simply did meet her. Chance got us that far; our own choices (and further chances) have taken us to where we are today. The fortune we cherish is fragile because there are so many things that could shatter it, that could have made it other than what it is.

One guest at our wedding said that the above poem was rather cold. But it mirrors the sentiment from the Dawkins passage (which we wouldn't read for another six years). Our wealth lies not in having a pleasant ultimate destiny, but in random undeserved strokes of fortune, and our own capacity to react well to them.

Not every event has an actor behind it. There are no guarantees that justice will prevail. As conscious, moral beings, we are the only force in the universe that can push the balance toward good. Therein lies the starkness that can horrify the existentialist, but also the responsibility that motivates us as humanists.

We ate a symbolic meal during the ceremony, exchanging pinches of granola and toasting each other with our favorite drinks - fizzy apple juice for Deena, chocolate milk for me. We build our connections to other humans through a myriad of everyday acts - like the act of eating a meal together.

A gust of wind spilled most of the drinks over the little table we were using, and our wedding certificate still bears the brown stain of the chocolate milk. There was still enough left for the toast. We love telling friends where the brown stain on the wedding certificate came from.

The table was from the house of my granny, who had recently died. Though we do not believe people's souls survive after death, we cannot deny that memories of a person live on in others. We honour the memory of dead loved ones, and hope to live well so that the memories we leave in others after we die will be good ones.

The wedding was at noon, followed by a picnic lunch for all one hundred guests. Through the afternoon we walked about and played games. There was an inflatable bouncy castle on the lawn, frisbee golf all around, a treasure hunt, and general merriment.

At the evening meal, we had dessert first. Sometimes, the point is to enjoy life, not to postpone enjoyment.

We (Deena and I) tend to look at life, spirituality, and ethics as the ancient Greeks did. Spirituality and ethics are not confined to when a person prays, or meditates, or is performing certain acts. They permeate our entire life - sometimes at a conscious level, sometimes not.

I hope that has at least started to answer your question, Cath.