Archive for the ‘community’ Category

Orange Province

2015/05/23

Yes, I know, it’s rather old news now: Alberta’s election brought in a majority NDP government. That’s the left-most of the main four parties in Canada’s most traditionally right-wing province. (Our official opposition, of course, is the Wildrose party – the right-most party.)

The People's Republic of Albertastan

Reactions are delightful. My favorite was federal (Conservative) justice minister Peter MacKay commenting that “It’s Albertastan now.” And then the inspired and playful response by Alberta designer Laura Lynn Johnston. (Get your own here.)

At 58.4% turnout, this is the highest-participation election (by a small margin) since 1993. That’s encouraging. I am still amazed that two out of five eligible voters felt it wasn’t worth their time, but it’s hard to feel too sorry for people who don’t make this least effort to participate.

I did see one or two comments on Facebook before the election to the effect of “If the NDP get in, I’m moving!” Again, I’m not shedding any tears. Not only am I completely delighted that we have this new, forward-looking government. I also think that, if you see a problem in your home, the most cowardly response is to move out. If you really believe it’s a bad thing to have an NDP government, then stick around and participate. Keep an eye on them. Call them out. Vote again in four years. But if you run away? Then you lose any claim on the future of our wonderful province.

Ah – I didn’t mean for this to be a ranting post. I wanted to do a post-election wrap-up, following the pre-election posts I put up here and here (mainly urging people to vote, although you could probably guess even then who I wanted in).

I hope this upheaval sends a message to politicians and voters on the federal level: we’re due for a parliamentary election in Canada some time later this year.

I’ll get around to commenting on that – what I think of the different parties, their leaders, and what I hope for Canada after the election. For now, I think I’ll just sit back and enjoy some Orange Crush.

Voting

2015/05/01

I know, I just posted about the election.

What can I say? I live in a province that has been governed by the same party for more than my entire life, and all of the polls are suggesting that this streak will end on Tuesday. For over four decades, the centre-right Progressive Conservative (PC) party has formed the government. Now, it is looking entirely possible that the left-of-centre New Democratic Party (NDP) will not only have more seats than their opponents, but will form a majority.

The projection website ThreeHundredEight, run by writer Éric Grenier, presents the results of the latest (final) polls here. While Grenier is prudently cautious in his interpretation, he points out that the NDP’s “minimum seat haul is projected to be 25 seats – which would count as a historic best.”

There are four main parties in contention here. Roughly from right to left, they are the Wildrose, the PCs, the Liberals, and the NDP. (There are other parties in some ridings, but for my constituency we only have candidates from these four, so I’m basically ignoring the others.)

Now, it’s easy to feel discouraged. I looked through the platforms of all of these parties. Easily 95% of the claims in each were gassing on about trigger issues, without any specifics. They give the impression of meaningful promises, without being particularly specific. And of course, I am only one of about 4 million people in the province.* In my riding, there are somewhere north of 30 000 voters, though fewer than half of them bothered to actually participate in the last election.

So what do I want to say here? Well, I really feel like it’s time to stir things up, so I would love to promote the NDP as the party to do that. But even worse than the fact that the PCs seem to be taking their position as Alberta’s governing party for granted is the fact that more than half of the people who have the power to say something about this don’t bother.

Seriously, people? Everyone complains about politics, but it looks like three out of every five complainers have literally not done the first, most straightforward thing they could do about it.

So I have a few bits of advice for my fellow Albertans. (Those of you outside of Alberta, most of this advice could easily translate to you when the next election comes around.)

To those who lean left: Get out there and vote on Tuesday. Show the wary pollsters that sometimes an extreme prediction actually means we’re going to have extreme weather. There is a real chance that Canada’s famously most-conservative, most corporate, most environmentally irresponsible province could start a new page in history on Tuesday. This will only happen if you actually vote. Those poll results will only translate into reality if you actually go and vote. Vote early if Tuesday doesn’t work for you. Check out the Elections Alberta website for where you can vote – early or on the day.

To those who lean right: The PCs and Wildrose are in a dead heat for opposition. It looks to me like Wildrose is more fiscally conservative, and the PCs are more socially conservative. You may hate the thought of splitting the conservative vote, but even worse is making sure it doesn’t show up. Are you really prepared to let some socialist upstart walk into our legislature and overturn forty years of conservative leadership? All parties are talking about environmental stewardship. Do you think conservatives can achieve that more responsibly, and at less cost to the economy than the Liberals or NDP? Then tell us all. Get out on Tuesday and vote. Or vote in advance polls. Check out the Elections Alberta website for where you can vote – early or on the day.

To those in the centre: Politics is not all about right and left. Those are convenient fictions to let us think less while making important choices about our political lives. Being centre doesn’t mean being undecided; nor does it mean that your vote doesn’t matter. The parties all make particular claims about where we should get money from, how we should spend it, and how we should treat each other – from wealthy corporations and employers, to working families, to vulnerable people of all sorts. Your vote is your voice. Tuesday is a day when you will be heard more loudly by your government than any time in the next three or four years. Vote for a person you trust. Vote for a party you believe in. Vote strategically to block a hated alternative. (I’d prefer you didn’t, and so do these folks. I think that’s a whole separate post.) Whoever you support, however strongly or weakly, for whatever reasons, your hope that they get in will only make a difference if you back it up with a mark on a ballot. Vote. Check out the Elections Alberta website for where you can vote – early or on the day.

So whether the polls have you terrified or excited or indifferent, you have plenty of reasons to vote, and no excuses not to.

Footnote:

* I’m guessing this based on the 2011 number here (3.6 million) and the 2015 summer projection reported here (4.2 milion).

Fit in or fuck off

2015/04/28

A couple of days ago, I saw a bumper sticker with  Canadian flag image over the words “Fit in or fuck off”. (Actually, I think it was in all caps, but I’ve toned it down to avoid offending anyone.)

My first reaction, as a red-blooded Canadian, was to question the ancestry, physiology, and various appetites of the driver in various creative monosyllables. My Canada welcomes a diverse range of people. My Canada is a delightfully multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-religious country. People who don’t fit in stand out, and those who stand out have been among the greatest contributors to our national and global heritage.

I got home and started unloading my rant on my patient and understanding life partner.

I got about as far as the content of the bumper sticker and she nodded. “Sure,” she said. “We’re a multi-cultural society . The only people who don’t fit in are the bigots.”

Oh how I love her.

So, in the end, I agree with the bumper sticker. Everyone who wants to is welcome to fit themselves in to the rich, multicoloured tapestry of Canadian society. And if they aren’t willing to live alongside the rest of us in peace and cooperation, they can f[ly] off.

Canada flag

Openly Secular

2015/04/23

openly-secular-logoToday is Openly Secular Day. It’s a reminder to non-believers of the benefits of being open about your non-belief. It’s also a gentle nudge to those of us who are able to be open, to tell friends, family, and others who we are and what we believe. At the Openly Secular website, there are videos of many people, of varying levels of fame, discussing their atheism.

I don’t think anyone reading this blog will be surprised to learn that I am not religious. But maybe some of you also identify as atheists, humanists, or some other non-believing label, and have not yet told anyone. If you want some practice, I invite you to try it out here.

Or, if you need a venue that’s a little less public, message me privately.

Now, I also know that there are many people in my circle of family, friends, and readers who are not secular – who hold some form of religious belief. That’s awesome. But this post is not the place to hash out the arguments (any more than a church service is a good place for an atheist to start putting forth arguments against God’s existence or Jesus’ divinity).

Oh, and if you’re reading this one some other day, it’s still a good time to come out, however you are able and comfortable. And if you are not able to come out, that’s okay. There are certainly times and places where it is not only uncomfortable but frankly unwise to talk about this stuff. I may be open about my atheism, but I never, ever discuss it in my university classes. It just isn’t the place for it – my role there is as an authority on linguistics, and I don’t want any student to get the impression that they would experience negative consequences for being open (vocally or visibly) about holding some other belief.

The duality of humanism and atheism

2014/10/07

P.Z. Myers has a touching reflection on the two sides of being a nonbeliever these days.

On the one hand, there are so many things in the world – attitudes, laws, beliefs, and actions – that can drive you to the rejecting, negative stance embodied in the term “atheism”.

On the other hand, the world abounds with amazing facts to discover, delightful experiences to savour, and inspiring goals to strive for – all things that fuel the more affirming, positive stance that is captured in the term “humanism”.

Like Myers, I oscillate between the two. Sometimes it is important to rally around the flag of No, to assert the value (sometimes even the simple right) to withholding assent or belief. I am an atheist. At other times, it is more fulfilling, more productive, and more honest to focus on what we do value, what we do believe. I am also a humanist.

It sounds like Myers is beginning to despair at the state of organized atheism lately – the prevalence of sexism, tribalism, and of unthinking, reflexive responses to criticism. This is disappointing. Not that any other community is better, but we like to define ourselves specifically by our self-correction, our openness to criticism, and our freedom from dogmatic groupthink.

But, just as I refuse to let religious conservatives own the language of morality and family values, I am not about to let the negative elements own the atheism brand. Neither is Myers.

Atheism does not justify sexism. It does not have prophets or irreproachable spokespeople.

Nor (contra what Myers seems at one point to suggest) does humanism ignore the ugliness in the world.

Still … like Myers, I find myself sometimes drawn to one of these labels, sometimes to the other. Do you find that? Are you more inclined to cling to one label in certain moods, and another in other moods? Do your oscillations fit the angry=atheism, optimistic=humanism map that Myers expresses, or do you have different associations (or labels)?

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.

 

Atheism and Unitarians 2: the positive

2014/06/09

In my previous post, I highlighted a couple of rather unsavory aspects of Unitarian attitudes from the perspective of an atheist. In this post, I present the other side.

Here is a leaflet that is stuck to our fridge at home:

An atheist leaflet?

An atheist leaflet?

It’s a sentiment that humanists and atheists could easily get behind. This leaflet is from the Edinburgh Unitarian congregation that we were part for the last while we lived in Scotland.

Unitarians are justifiably proud of having shed much of the denominational dogma they once held as a branch of Christianity. The Unitarian principles do not imply belief (or disbelief) in any god. They do not require adherence – literal or otherwise – to any ancient (or modern) text. They do not declare salvation for right believers, or even take a position on the possibility of an afterlife. Individual Unitarians naturally do have beliefs one way or the other, but as a community all they share is a set of very secular values and a desire to build community and do good.

They are a delightfully mixed group – I know Unitarians who are Buddhists, others who are Wiccans, Christians of various stripes, and a good share of atheists and agnostics. For the most part, they manage to forge their common identity through shared values (I would say, shared secular values), and not let differences of belief get in the way. Here are some of the Unitarians we came to know while we lived in Edinburgh.

That's me holding our (then little) daughter, Kaia, up top in the middle.

That’s me holding our (then little) daughter, Kaia, up top in the middle.

Down in front, in the purple stole, is the minister, Maud Robinson. Her sermons sometimes have language suggesting god-belief, but never in a way that made us feel like outsiders for being different, or in any way unwelcome. Once, Deena and I even led a children’s service where we adapted a passage from Dawkins to concretely illustrate our familial connection to chimpanzees (such as the ones that live at the Edinburgh Zoo).

In that group, I felt I was able to engage people in meaningful discussion, challenging some ideas (gently), while mutually affirming others even across deep differences of metaphysical belief. It was a member of that community that introduced me to my good friend, Marc. It was among those Unitarians that we had a celebration of our children joining the human community.

They aren’t all sugar and roses. Sometimes, a Unitarian will let loose an invective. They denounce war and act for peace. They denounce poverty and support public and private welfare efforts. They denounce the ongoing marginalization of same-sex couples in otherwise enlightened countries, and ally with others to change things. There is a strong social justice theme among Unitarians which is quite impressive.

Indeed, despite my complaint in the last post that I feel unable to voice clear objections to some of the silly (and occasionally dangerous) ideas that are expressed, some of my most cherished friendships have grown out of visiting Unitarian churches. I don’t, currently, identify myself as a Unitarian – mainly because it has been over two years since I attended a Unitarian church, but also because of things like the anti-atheist invective that Adam Lee discovered in a book introducing Unitarianism. But for humanists and atheists who want a church-like setting without all the dogma, I suspect a Unitarian church is your best bet for matching values and for not having to hide or set aside your own beliefs.

The Unitarians (like any freethinking community of people) are a diverse lot, and every congregation has a different feel. If you’re in a place where there is lots of choice (we had four Unitarian churches within reasonable access when we lived in Boston, with more in the city if we’d had a car to get to them), then shop around. Otherwise, it still shouldn’t hurt to see what’s nearby.

You might get lucky, as we did in Edinburgh, and have someone like Maud as your minister. Here she is, addressing the Scottish Parliament in their “Time for Reflection”:

(I found this video serendipitously while finding the link to the Edinburgh congregation – and somehow she seems to speak to much of what I wanted to say in this post. Also, note that the Scottish politicians don’t call it “prayer time” or “invocation” – they call it “Time for Reflection”. Such an inclusive and worthwhile title. Good for them!)

 

Atheism and Unitarians 1: the negative

2014/06/07

I am apparently not the only atheist who finds dabbling in Unitarian Universalism* to be a fraught, crazy-making endeavour. They are a good bunch, and generally sympathetic to humanist and atheist ideas and individuals. But sometimes … well, this post explores some of the less palatable elements of Unitarian community, from a humanist/atheist standpoint. A follow-up post will balance the coverage with the positive view of the humanist-Unitarian connection.

The difficulties I’ve had with Unitarians cover a broad range.

On the milder end, I have sometimes felt that the “welcome all comers” attitude of Unitarianism inhibits my capacity to critically discuss disagreements. This is a galling constraint to me. If you and I disagree about something, often it means one of us is wrong, and so I cherish the ability to discuss such differences robustly. That’s the best way for us to discover and correct any errors – whether they are in my stance, or yours, or both. I won’t be able to fully engage in a community – any community – if it isn’t open to self-critique and discussion of this sort.

I should acknowledge that the Unitarians have historically shown great courage in self-reflection and self-correction. Without ever breaking entirely from their religious origins, they have consciously set aside several orthodox Christian beliefs, including the odd doctrine of the trinity (that’s why they’re “Unitarians” – as opposed to “Trinitarians”) and the toxic idea of hell (giving the “Universalist” half of their name). My sense that disagreement isn’t always encouraged is likely as much part of my own perceptions as of the reality before me. Nevertheless, it has dampened my enthusiasm for self-identifying as a Unitarian.

Occasionally, an uglier sentiment arises. Some time ago now, Adam Lee of Daylight Atheism described a diatribe being aimed at atheists.

While I understand that Unitarians call themselves “religious”, it is clear both from their principles and their promotional literature that non-belief is well within the circle of beliefs compatible with Unitarianism. Not only that, but on important social issues (such as the same-sex union kerfuffle in Scotland), atheists and Unitarians stand side-by-side against the reactionary forces of traditional religion. Lee, an outspoken atheist and a member of a Unitarian congregation, was incensed by passages in the book A Chosen Faith, promoted by Unitarian organizations as an excellent introduction to their community.

Among the passages Lee cites is this:

Looking at the religious aspects of many intergroup conflicts, at the violence carried out by zealots in the name of religion, some people conclude that the world would be safer “religion-free.” They may even try living this way themselves. But too often they only practice a form of self-delusion.

It goes downhill from there, comparing modern, outspoken atheists to tyrants of the past century. These comparisons are factually tenuous at best, and far beneath the general tone you find when Unitarians discuss different beliefs. Lee contacts the author of the book to see if he is misreading the intent, but gets a reply that doubles down on the dissing, tarring himself as much of a kneejerk bigot as some of the worst fundamentalists.

Fortunately, I can report that I’ve never come across such repulsive attitudes myself among Unitarian groups.

Not all Unitarians are alike, and in my follow-up post I will point out some of the high points I have encountered in Unitarian/humanist contact.

Footnote:

* I generally abbreviate “Unitarian Universalist” to “Unitarian”. I know some Unitarian Universalists strongly prefer the full name as more descriptive, or abbreviate it “UU” instead. There are good historical reasons for the UUs having this double-barrelled name. But in Edinburgh, the name “Unitarian” was common, so that’s the variant I will stick with for convenience.

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.


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