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.

Thursday, 14 February 2008

Humanism in the Bible

Over at the Meming of Life (one of my favorite blogs), Dale is running a series on the Bible (interspersed with his regular family anecdotes and other excellent writings).

It's a thoughtful and entertaining look at this book that lies at the centre of a worldwide social phenomenon. As with any book, ancient or modern, it has good and bad bits. Dale seems to be doing a good job of touching on both.

If you haven't been following it, it starts here.

There are many reasons why it is worth reading, but the main reason I'm mentioning it now is the most recent contribution. It's an examination of Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs by a guest blogger who goes by the title "Friendly Humanist".

Kitchen Empiricism

One of the purposes of this blog is to relate how my Humanism - a worldview based on compassion and an empirical understanding of the world - affects my daily life.

So I am delighted to point you to a report posted by Possummomma, where an experiment was run to compare the effects of washing the kitchen daily with the effects of washing it semi-weekly.

The experiment is well-designed. The results are responsibly interpreted. Further avenues of investigation are laid out.

All to help the investigator decide how often to clean their kitchen. It's not a long read - go check it out.

What a delightful illustration of the empirical spirit of Humanist beliefs. Have you ever conducted an empirical study of some aspect of your own life in the same spirit? I don't know if I have.

What would you like to study or investigate?

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

Humanist Thoughts

BBC Radio 4 has a brief slot in the middle of the morning news called Thought For The Day. It's a pleasant diversion from the relentless barrage of information - a two-minute pause to consider a broader perspective on some event or issue that is current.

I really enjoyed listening to them, until I learned that non-religious speakers are excluded from the slot. There are many contributors - Christian ministers, Jewish rabbis, Sikhs, Muslims ... a real cross-section of British worldviews. Except for the 15-40% of British people who identify as non-religious.

Which is odd, because most of the thoughts talk about worldly concerns, and many don't explicitly invoke the religious beliefs of the speaker's particular tradition.

Humanists, some as prominent as Richard Dawkins have protested this completely arbitrary oversight, and have got absolutely no sympathy from the BBC.

As of last year, Humanists here in Scotland have taken matters into their own hands, starting the Thought For The World site (formerly "Think Humanist"). Last year, it was a single week of six podcast Thoughts by prominent British Humanists, broadcast over the week of Darwin Day. (Happy Darwin's birthday by the way. He'd be 199 years old today.)

This year, they've gathered more and are promising three weeks, fifteen Thoughts in all. The first two are already up and are good listening. There are some big names ahead, including AC Grayling (my favorite philosopher at the moment). But it sounds like there will also be some regular folks contributing too. I look forward to seeing if I know any of them, and listening to what they have to say.

And if you're a Humanist in Britain, why not consider contributing? Just jot down a Thought you would like to express (up to 400 words), record it (2 minutes or so), and submit it.

Let your voice be heard.

Saturday, 9 February 2008

The importance of checking sources

There has been a bit of chatter this week since the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, said something about Sharia law in Britain.

The Telegraph and the Guardian - both high-quality, respectable papers here in the UK - each have headlines quoting Williams as saying that official status for Sharia law is "inevitable" in this country.

The news has made its way into the blogosphere - via the Scientific Activist and Pharyngula , and also via Cath at ninety-six and ten - to my attention (and probably to yours by now too).

One thing that Humanists pride ourselves on is our commitment to evidence-based belief, as opposed to beliefs based on wishful thinking. So it is telling that we have a tendency to accept negative press about religious figures uncritically.

There is someone who has not accepted the press's version at face value. Geoffrey Pullum at Language Log has actually looked at the text of Williams' speech. From what I've seen, it takes a linguist (or at least a good deal of patience) to wade through the theologian-speak and extract its actual meaning.

I encourage Humanists - especially those in a position to spread news of this sort further in the blogosphere and the wider world - to read Pullum's analysis (or simply the speech itself) rather than taking the papers' headlines as gospel.

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

A new era in his life

"How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book!" - Thoreau, quoted by A.C. Grayling in The Meaning of Things.
I recently read an essay called "Speciesism", in which philosopher and Humanist Anthony Grayling draws parallels between the general current attitude to other species and historical attitudes to "lesser" segments of humanity - lesser races, the lesser sex, those with lesser spiritual beliefs.
We locate a difference that we find threatening, or that we despise; we thereby make the other fully Other, so that we can close the door of the moral community against him, leaving him outside where our actions cannot be judged by the same standards as apply within.
I found myself connecting his arguments to my eating of meat. Every time I eat meat - a steak, a burger, a chicken wing, even a hot dog - I am participating in the death of another being.

After reading the essay, I was left with a hollow feeling of inevitability in my gut. My Humanist values draw no neat lines to box out that which is superficially different. My right to be free from torture derives from the fact that pain is an evil. Humans are not the only animals that experience pain. My right to liberty derives from the fact that I have consciousness, a will. I cannot pretend that my baby daughter has consciousness but an animal with whom I might communicate (for now) more readily - a trained pig for instance - has not.

Against this, what arguments could I muster in favour of consuming my evolutionary neighbours' flesh? tastes good.'m used to it.


Hoping that Deena would have some clever argument to bolster my defense, I read the essay to her. She got this hollow look of inevitability in her eyes. She mentioned a conversation we once had. We both agreed that if we had to do any killing or butchering in order to get our meat, we would choose to go without. It was hypocritical, but at the time it seemed a minor matter, not worth changing our lives over. Now, in light of Grayling's stark portrayal of the issue...

Double ack!!

So here we are, several days and some heavy, philosophical conversations later. We are adjusting our diet to accommodate the rational consequences of our consciously-held values. We know we have the support and encouragement of our vegetarian friends.

We've gone three days now without meat. Not exactly a major achievement - we've often gone longer between meaty meals. But this isn't just three days between meals with meat. This is three days with no meat waiting at the other end.

Will this new era in our lives last? I don't know.

We are soon returning for an extended visit to our home province of Alberta, where this may be the most common bumper sticker:
(I love Alberta beef)

Will we relapse in the company of our Albertan family and friends, very few of whom are vegetarians? I don't know.

Will our values manage, in the end, to trump our petty desires for tasty dishes we grew up with? I hope so, but honestly, I don't know.

Grayling closes with a characteristically powerful nugget of thought which should help our resolve:
A person's integrity is never more fully tested than when he has power over a voiceless creature.

123 meme

I've been tagged by This Humanist for a new blog meme. Here are the rules:
  1. Pick up the book nearest you with at least 123 pages. (No cheating!)
  2. Turn to page 123.
  3. Count the first five sentences.
  4. Post the next three sentences.
  5. Tag five other bloggers.
Before me I have a draft copy of a superb statistics textbook for linguists. It's been giving me solace and relief as I struggle to extract meaning from a particularly messy set of measurements. The sentences in question come near the start of a section on interpreting statistical significance:
The random noise is obtained by adding to each y value, a random number from a normal distribution with mean 0 and a standard deviation of 80.

[I've left out the example code to execute in statistics software - see the book if you're interested.]

A simulation run will typically produce non-significant results, such as

[More code and output illustrating that the linear relationship is statistically invisible behind all the random noise.]

Although there is a linear relation between y and x - we built it into the data set ourselves - the amount of noise that we superimposed is so large that we cannot detect it.
The author then goes on to demonstrate that, by increasing the number of samples, we can increase the sensitivity of the test. Very interesting illustration of a weakness of statistical significance as an indicator of the presence or absence of a correlation between two variables.

Now, I am as sceptical as the next Humanist about the underlying validity of bibliomancy, but it can be a useful seed for meditation. And you have to admit that this selection bears on how we interpret the world around us as empirical beings. So before I tag the next bloggers, I'm going to share a thought or two triggered by the passage quoted above.

Some say that you can prove anything with statistics. In fact, you can only do that if you are dishonest or incompetent, and your audience does not understand statistics. None of us can force every number-quoting ideologue out there to be both honest and competent, but the critical skills needed to discern good statistics from misleading ones are within the reach of anyone who wants them.

Now who's next?

Dale, at Meming of Life
Hemant, the Friendly Atheist
Hugo, who Thinks Too Much
Sean, of the interesting Shore
Kathryn, and her Mindful Life

Monday, 4 February 2008

Belated birth link

Our baby girl, Kaia, is now four months old. When she was born, I promised you, my faithful reader, that I would wax on at length about the strength and beauty of the event.

Time has rushed on, and events have intervened. I am still not able to sit down and write what deserves to be written. But I just checked an old thread at Ben Goldacre's Bad Science forums, and realized that I could give the illusion of writing more by pointing out what I had written some time ago.

So here it is, a link to the childbirth/homebirth discussion.