Archive for the ‘community’ Category

Skepticism and personal demons

2014/06/14

Humanism isn’t just a lofty label to attach to what I aspire to, or to identify myself with a particular sect of humanity. It’s also a reminder to myself about how I want to live.

Today, I want to share something I read a while back on Greta Christina’s blog – a personal account of her struggle to reconcile her ideals as a skeptic with her daily life.

She opens her account with this question:

How do you be a fat-positive feminist who’s losing weight?

On the one hand, she believes that society has an insanely inflated idea of the dangers of excess body fat, and that this distortion is especially bad for women’s emotional well-being. In her own words,

My attitude towards my fatness has largely been shaped by the feminist fat-positive movement: I wasn’t going to make myself miserable trying to force my body into the mainstream image of ideal female beauty, and I was instead going to work on being as healthy as I could be — eating well, exercising, reducing stress, etc. — at the weight that I already was.

On the other hand, she has a knee problem that makes it very sensible for her to try to lose weight.

Now, I suspect that many of the rational types in the audience are already shrugging and thinking, “What’s the issue? Follow the evidence, lose the weight, problem solved.”

But of course, anyone who has ever been through the emotional turmoil of unsuccessful dieting in the general atmosphere of society’s condemnation of excess weight can tell you that it’s not that easy. There is a minefield of emotions to navigate through, even when one has a very supportive and accepting social circle.*

Here’s an example that Greta Christina relates:

It’s really hard not to feel like a traitor about this. When I reach a benchmark in my weight loss and get all excited and proud, or when someone compliments me on how good I look now and I get a little self-esteem-boosting thrill, it’s hard not to feel like a traitor to my feminist roots, and to the fat women who fought so hard to liberate me from the rigid and narrow social constructs of female beauty.

So, she doesn’t just want to assert the right answer; she is also after ways to make it work in the messy, emotional rough-and-tumble of real life.

What I’m looking for is psychological tips. Ways of walking through the emotional minefield. Ways of framing this that make it more sustainable.

That’s how she closes the article.

Fortunately for those of us who want more, she has a follow-up article or two. And an ongoing blog that occasionally dips back into this intimately personal (but immensely valuable) journey.

Footnotes:

* To be perfectly clear, I have not been through such emotional trauma firsthand, but I have at least one very close friend who has walked that minefield. I have the blind luck to have a naturally thin frame: on the ancient savannah, I would have starved in the first half-decent drought. As it is, I can indulge in the gastric excesses of our culture without visible consequences. But I must remember, a healthy diet and regular exercise are as good an idea for me as for anyone – most of their benefits are not dependent on body size.

 

Fullness circles

2014/05/31

I’ve just listened to this recent Ask An Atheist episode, “Here and Now“, where Sam and company talk with Jeff Stilwell (author of a book with the same title, Here and Now, which comes out tomorrow). One thing that came up in their conversation is what he called “Fullness Circles”. The idea is this:

You get together with some of the people you trust most. Each person takes a turn. You talk for ten minues about how you have spent the time since your last meeting trying to “explore that fullest expression of meaning in your life as you’re going forward”. After talking, everyone can ask you questions, bounce ideas around, to “make better sense of what you’re trying to do”.

I haven’t had time to fully process it, but it seems like a very interesting idea, connected with but different from some other practices that I’ve been contemplating lately. Curiously, despite the personal-introspection quality to it, it is a completely non-religious practice (as in, not adapted from an existing religious tradition).

Anyway, I wanted to put it out there before it gets buried under the pile of tasks marked “Urgent” in my to-do list, and see what you all think. Have any of you tried this Fullness Circle thing (with that or another name)? Would you try it? Why or why not?

Something deeper

2014/01/04

Today’s Calgary Herald has an interesting piece on declining church attendance.

I’m going to leave aside the opening bit, which identifies “six-month-old Angus Smith” as “a devout churchgoer”. I understand the desire to pursue the human interest side of the story. I think it is inappropriate to describe an infant as “devout”, but it’s not something I’m inclined to fuss about just now.

What I’m more interested in here is the article’s suggestion that church attendance may be the cure for today’s spiritual ennui. One Catholic bishop in Calgary, Frederick Henry, says “We’re finding out no matter how many toys and playthings you have … there’s a restlessness for something more and deeper, and I think there’s a bit of a turn to religion to try and develop a spirituality.”

Now, I don’t know about general historical trends. My experience, within my family and among my peers, is that the people around me have always been interested in keeping grounded in the deeper, important things in life. Things such as fostering community and being true to oneself. In my experience, there has always been interest in that “something deeper”.

What the article neglects is that “something deeper” doesn’t have to be “something religious”.

Humanism is a way of focussing on the important things in life without also subscribing to all the beliefs and traditions of religion – beliefs and traditions that many of us cannot honestly accept and certainly don’t identify with.

I agree with Bishop Henry that toys and playthings do not suffice for deep happiness. Oh, I enjoy my toys. The laptop that I’m writing this on, the smartphone that I use for podcast listening on my commute, the Lego toys that my kids and I enjoy playing with – these do enrich my life in various ways. But deeper and more important is connections with people. Sometimes these toys help me make these connections – as in (responsible) use of social media. Sometimes I let the toys get in the way – I tend to get stuck in computer games when there are people I could be visiting with. (I should also point out that it’s within a framework of humanist values that I fight such tendencies in myself.) I’m delighted that so many people can affirm their social values within their chosen religious tradition. I am also delighted that people who cannot accept those religious traditions also have a way to fulfil this very human need.

The Christmas break has been a good reminder for me – a break from routine that is filled with gift-giving and the chance to reconnect with family members that I don’t see most of the year. The gift-giving is an interesting one. When I was young, I was most focussed on getting. It was fun to get new toys. But over the years, I have learned the joy of giving. Now, the most exciting part is thinking of what gifts I can give that will most delight my loved ones. Usually, this has nothing to do with how much money I spend on them. My favorite gift to give this year was a customized version of the Phylo trading card game – a gift that, itself, will encourage socializing.

The growth of humanist and other secular social organizations is beginning to offer a viable alternative to churches. I know that many people – especially but not exclusively younger folks – are looking for a way to connect with people to explore the deeper things in life, and yet do not feel that religious beliefs resonate with them.

And while religious groups are, currently, better at organizing the social side of things, non-religious groups are catching up at a delightful pace. There are two families we have become particularly close to in recent years – one while we lived in Boston and one more recently in Edmonton. We met the family in Boston at a Unitarian church. While this is (obviously) a church, it is philosophically closer to humanism than to traditional religion. The other family we met through a humanist meetup group here in Alberta.

We don’t currently attend regular humanist meetings, but we have the resources at our fingertips to reach out when we want to find like-minded people interested in the same self-examination and reflection, interested in focussing on what really matters. Odds are, you do to: have a look around. Join a Meetup group (or start your own). Participate in online communities. Visit a Unitarian Universalist church if you have one nearby, and chat with people after the service.

I should note that we have also made friends with Christian families, Muslim families, and individuals whose religious affiliation we have simply never bothered to ask. Ultimately, most people are interested in being good people, and I would hate to limit my social circle to only people who are philosophically similar to me. What a terrible example that would set for my kids in an age where global cooperation and fraternity are the keys to a peaceful, productive future.

Anyway, I thought I’d put that out there. If you are non-religious and seeking a community that will help you explore what is important to you, you have options.

If you are religious and seeking a community … well, you’ve always had options, but you too are welcome at most humanist and non-religious social groups, if you would like to try something different.

And of course, religious or not, odds are you know people who are not religious. If you are able and willing to be open about your beliefs, you might be surprised at who around you is non-religious.

Foundation Beyond Belief

2010/01/01

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

I’m just going to point out some of the things about the Foundation that I find particularly awesome:

  • Though it is explicitly modelled on humanist values, religious individuals are explicitly invited to participate.
  • Social networking will be a key part of the Foundation’s interaction with members – this is not just a conduit for money, but a place to build community around shared values and actions.
  • Members can choose where their donations are spent, among ten categories (education, peace, health care, environment, and others).
  • Charities will be selected not just on the values they profess, but on efficiency and effectiveness as well.
  • Religious charities are not explicitly ruled out, but charities that use their funds for proselytizing are (regardless of the worldview they promote).
  • Though based in the US, the Foundation explicitly looks to support charities with an international reach.
  • Two of the key people involved in the Foundation – Dale McGowan and Hemant Mehta – were instrumental in my decision to become a blogger (though I have yet to meet either of them in person).

I look forward to seeing the Foundation help people around the world, and I’m excited to participate in it. I’ll close with words from the Foundation itself: a mission statement, a launch blurb, and a video:

Mission statement:

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

Launch blurb:

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

Video:

Why should humanists be in chaplaincy?

2009/12/18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Footnotes (not included in the print version):

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

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

 

Secular double entendre

2009/12/01

(Note to my religious readers: The following is not intended as an attack on religious belief, but I can foresee some sensitivities being nettled nevertheless. If you’d rather avoid being offended, feel free to stop reading now.)

I was just watching a video at the Friendly Atheist, promoting the Secular Student Alliance (SSA). It’s the American version of our National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies (AHS) – a nationwide organization aimed at building communities of secular students (atheists, agnostics, etc) at universities, colleges, and schools. Here’s the video:

Now, I know this will reveal my linguistic geekiness in its fullest degree, but the line that stuck out most to me was this:

[We believe] that science and reason lead to more reliable knowledge than faith.

Why, you ask? Syntacticians in the audience will already see where I’m going. There are, in fact, two high-probability, grammatical ways to parse this sentence in English.

The one that was intended could be paraphrased as so:

We believe that science and reason lead to more reliable knowledge than faith does.

Here’s the alternative reading:

We believe that science and reason lead to more reliable knowledge than to faith.

Okay, so the second reading doesn’t works quite so well. But, both readings are consistent with the general outlook of atheists and humanists. We trust science and reason above faith* as paths to reliable knowledge, and we think that science and reason lead us to knowledge rather than leading us to faith.

Oh, and hooray for SSA and AHS – go check them out if you’re a student!

—–


* It is worth noting that this all uses the meaning of “faith” used by most humanists, which could most succinctly be expressed as “belief that does not rely on evidence”. Many religious people use different definitions. I think I may need to add another post to my series on definitions.

Christians against sectarianism

2009/11/20

I wrote just the other day about the new humanist ad campaign – this time directed at combating sectarianism.

I’m delighted to report that the campaign is drawing support not only from other humanists, but also from religious people. The Evangelical Alliance has put out a press release in support of the ads’ message:

Justin Thacker, Head of Theology at the Evangelical Alliance said: “It is great to see that the Humanists are now agreeing that children have to make their own decisions about faith. 

“Evangelicals do not believe that God has any grandchildren, only children. You are not a Christian simply because your parents are. Every child or adult has to make up their own minds about the reality of God.

Thanks to Dale for pointing out this welcome source of agreement with the humanist campaign. Like him, I was unable to find any mainstream media noting this support – only religious publications like Christianity Today and Ekklesia. Not to demean those publications – I simply mean to point out that, in the interest of controversy, the mainstream media has once again missed an important part of the story: they seem to have latched onto the frothing and uninformed reaction of a fundamentalist Irish minister, who doesn’t seem to have read the ads, and certainly hasn’t read the background information.

Why don’t we all help spread the word? Let’s make it clear that this is an issue that can and does resonate with many segments of society, not just with the nonreligious.

Campaign against sectarianism

2009/11/18

I recently shared some brief thoughts about sectarian education (“faith schools”) in the UK. I’ve now learned of a follow-up to the hugely popular atheist bus campaign.

The British Humanist Association is launching the “Atheist Billboard Campaign“. An interesting twist is that (contrary to what many kneejerk commentators are likely to declare), the billboards do not promote atheism at all.

Accompanying a picture of two unbearably cute kids jumping joyfully (left) is the text:

“Please don’t label me. Let me grow up and choose for myself.”

Another version (right) says:

“No faith schools. Yes you can donate today.”

Yes, I suppose “No faith schools” may sound, to some ears, like a promotion of atheism, or at least an attack on religion. It’s not – and the campaign is clear in that it’s against sectarianism, not against religion in general. However you feel about it, the idea appears to enjoy popular support. A poll by Accord reports that 57% of people in the UK feel that faith schools undermine community cohesion. A four-year-old poll reported in the Guardian reports ‘64% agreeing that “the government should not be funding faith schools of any kind”.’

Now look at the text in the background of the ad (it’s clearest in the big version, which I’ve included at the bottom of this post). Clearly among the labels that we should avoid (according to the ad) are “agnostic child”, “atheist child”, and “humanist child”.

If you agree with this message – that children should not be labelled according to the beliefs of their parents, and that faith schools should not be publicly funded, go donate to the campaign here or here. If you disagree, or aren’t sure, go learn more.

And, as always, please let me know what you think.

Sectarian education in UK

2009/11/06

Here’s one from the vaults – a post I composed, then set aside and forgot about. [Edit: As originally posted, the following text implies that Accord was launched in September 2009. It was September 2008.]

Living in the UK, I am often lulled by the generally sensible nature of the people into thinking that the whole country is run sensibly.

One thing that occasionally snaps me out of that is the thoroughly non-secular nature of government here. One of the two legislative houses, the House of Lords, is not elected. It’s not even appointed by elected officials. And in that house, 26 of the 746 seats are reserved for officials from the state religion. Not a large proportion – about 3%. But still, how can even this be considered reasonable in a modern democracy? (I’ll leave aside the fact that the nominal head of state – the monarch – is also the nominal head of the church. If she were to try to exercise any real power in either capacity, I expect she’d be in real trouble.)

In addition to this, the government seems to be encouraging more and more sectarian division by allowing religions to set up separate schools for their own sets of believers. Remember, this is a nation that only a couple of decades ago was embroiled in the quaintly-named “Troubles” – a violent sectarian strife involving terrorists and police actions and lasting inter-religious frictions.

Fortunately, it is not just non-religious Canadian residents here who think this is foolish. My friend This Humanist has pointed me to a coalition of various religious and non-religious individuals and groups campaigning for British children to be educated in an inclusive rather than divisive way.

Check out the Accord Coalition, launched on September 1st [2008]. This should be an important issue for all parents, and for anyone who expects to be affected by the generation being educated now. Will they be taught alongside children from different faith backgrounds, learning to cooperate despite differences? Or will they learn that the appropriate way to deal with differences is to stay well away from anyone unlike themselves? What lessons do you want tomorrow’s decision-makers to learn?

Atheist blogroll

2009/10/01

This blog has now been added to the Atheist Blogroll!

I have added an Atheist Blogroll thingame in the sidebar – just scroll down a little. There are apparently over 1000 blogs on the list right now, but my sidebar thing just the 25 most-recently-updated ones.

The Atheist blogroll is a free community-building service for Atheist bloggers from around the world. If you would like to join, visit Mojoey at Deep Thoughts for more information.

Perhaps some of you would like to see what other flavours of atheism are out there. Perhaps you are an atheist blogger yourself and would like to sign up. For me, there are two main reasons for joining the blogroll.

First, I hope that it may increase my readership and bring in some more commenters.

Second, and more important, it’s yet another way to stand up and be counted.

(Also, when I make claims about what atheists believe or say or support, I will be able to peruse a selection of those thousand blogs to see if I’m right. It’s a slightly more focussed way of searching than Google.)


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