Archive for the ‘Humanitie’ Category

The flock is not the flocker


Humanitie is out again, so here’s my latest column.  Here is the Not-Quite-So-Friendly Humanist’s take on the issue we decided to tackle this time around.  We decided to blog on the Pope’s visit to the UK.

The pope will be is visiting as a head of state and as a moral authority.  Both of these roles are highly dubious in our modern democratic context.  Ignoring a mountain of other things, the fact alone that this man seems to have been involved in an institutional cover-up for dozens of child rapists should prevent any decent head of state from inviting him to visit.

It’s important to remember, however, that the Catholic Church is composed not only of pedophile priests and those who cover up for them, but also of non-pedophile priests and non-corrupt administrators.  Even more, it is composed of hundreds of millions of people trying to live as well as they can in a confusing world.

And before anyone retorts that passive acceptance of repressive and harmful dogmas is hardly respectable, let me introduce a couple of Catholic organisations that specifically combat the church’s problems – both doctrinal and institutional:  “Catholics for Choice” and “Catholics for a Changing Church“.

Here is what Catholics for Choice say about themselves:  “We are part of the great majority who believes that Catholic teachings on conscience mean that every individual must follow his or her own conscience – and respect others’ right to do the same.”  That sounds a lot like the humanist principle of free-thinking.  The group “helps people and organizations confidently challenge the power of the Catholic hierarchy which uses every means at its disposal to punish and publicly shame Catholics who don’t unquestioningly follow its edicts. The hierarchy also seeks to impose its narrow view of morality – and dangerous positions on public health issues – on Catholics and non-Catholics around the world.”  This is a firm condemnation of the same institutional abuse of power that humanists find so repugnant in the Catholic hierarchy.

In a similar vein, Catholics for a Changing Church declare that “Justice in the Church should be manifest and subject to public scrutiny and aim at least to equal the spirit of justice in the civil community. It should be based on the love, understanding and trust that ought to exist between Christians. Canon Law should be radically reformed in accord with these principles.”  Humanists may disagree about the beliefs that undergird these values, but we cannot disagree with the values themselves:  public accountability of those in power, and being motivated by love and understanding.  Note that they are holding up the “civil community” – what many religionists (for example, this guy!) decry as the secularised public arena – as a standard for the church to live *up* to.

We could ask why these obviously open-minded and ethical people don’t just leave the church.  Isn’t that a much easier way to win free of its oppressive dogmas and policies?  But when a community is being oppressed, it can be better to remain and work to improve it than to simply leave.  Remember that these people have family in the church, personal history, and of course, retain many of the beliefs of Catholicism.  Is it really rational to expect them to leave?  And is it really a bad thing to know that there is a movement within the church campaigning for change?

So where does that leave us as humanists?  I’m not about to suggest we shut up and hope that the church reforms from within.  But, when we point out the evils of the dogmas and the hierarchy, I think it is worth sparing a word or two of encouragement and praise for those brave Catholics who remain in the church and challenge its outdated and harmful aspects, just as we praise the thinkers of the Enlightenment who forged modern humanist principles amid a sea of fearful dogma.

Here are some other thoughts on the pope and his visit:

Friendly take on alt-med


The latest issue of Humanitie is now out, and with it the twin columns of the Friendly Humanist and the Not-Quite-So-Friendly Humanist.  Note to readers who have the magazine itself:  a slight editorial hiccup this issue has our columns switched – Mike’s article is attributed to me, and mine to him.  The following is my contribution.  You can read Mike’s here.

Having complementary and alternative medicine (“CAM”) as the topic of this column puts me in a dilemma.  How can I put a friendly spin on a collection of beliefs and practices that go against science and reason?  These are cornerstones of the humanist ethic.

Let’s take a very quick look at what we’re talking about.  First, the proposed mechanisms are ridiculous:  “like cures like”, chakras, chi, etc.  Second, the denigration of real medicine – of real science – that seems to inevitably accompany promotion of CAM is ignorant and dangerous.  It causes people to waste time on CAM treatments before seeking real medical advice, and makes room for even more dangerous nonsense, such as the deadly anti-vaccination paranoia.  Instead of being friendly, maybe I should be recommending that we ban all CAM practitioners from hawking their snake oil to a vulnerable public.

The only real advantage to most CAM treatments is that clients get very detailed and personal consultations.  If you’ve read about the placebo effect, you understand that our social mammal-brains are positively affected by that sort of one-on-one attention, whether or not it’s accompanied by real medicine.  It gives an air of gravitas to the water (or hand-waving or needles in the skin or whatever magical elixir is being peddled).  This encourages the brain to do its thing:  for example, reducing the sensation of pain, or soothing an inflammation.

And there lies something promising.  You see, these actual, real benefits of CAM have nothing to do with the magical beliefs of the practitioners (and clients).  In fact, even real doctors could harness this capacity for self-improvement.  If only they weren’t run ragged by overstretched health budgets, they might have time to give the same sort of deep, personal consultations.

So here’s what I’ve come up with:  the friendliest proposal I can honestly support.

Since alternatives to medicine act to erode public confidence in real science and medicine, and since this is already hurting the public health through (for example) the resurgence of vaccine-preventable diseases, let’s tax them.  The high tax on cigarettes helps pay for the damage they do to the public’s health.  Similarly, a hefty tax on CAM treatments could help pay for the damage they do to the public’s health.  We could use that money to train and hire more people to practice real medicine.

The more front-line medical staff we have, the more time each can dedicate to personalised consultations, maximising the placebo benefit of simply having the attention of an expert.  And because people would have more satisfying and effective interactions with real medicine, this would reinforce rather than erode people’s confidence in a scientific approach to knowledge and healing.

How about that!  I found something positive in that pool of intellectual chaff that is euphemistically called “complementary and alternative medicine”, and I’ve managed to lay out a plan for incorporating it into a real medicine.  All without asserting that CAM practitioners should all be tossed in the sea for polluting the arena of public discourse with misinformation and ignorance.  That was pretty friendly of me, don’t you think?

Positively unjust?


The latest issue of Humanitie magazine just arrived in the mail. In this issue, Mike and I discuss our (somewhat different) thoughts on positive discrimination. Make sure to read his thoughts here.

I was all ready to deliver a column arguing against “positive discrimination”.

I was going to argue that the solution to discrimination is not counter-discrimination. Two wrongs don’t make a right. I would point out that even the people supposedly helped by it are, really, just being patronised: “You can’t get this job on merit, so we’ll give you a hand up because of your sex/race/etc.”

I’d have pointed out that the statistics you run across in the media about pay gaps and hiring biases are probably rife with holes. For example, the workers at my daughter’s nursery are almost all women. Does this imply discrimination against male nursery workers? More likely, it’s simply a consequence of free choice: more women than men choose to be nursery workers (for whatever reason). Trying to “equalize” this with quotas would devalue the choices those women and men are freely making.

I was even ready to loftily concede that there are situations of extreme, institutional discrimination where positive discrimination as a temporary counterbalance – as part of a wider program promoting education and social change – might be justifiable as a lesser evil.

And of course, I would have generously acknowledged my potential conflict of interest on this issue: I am a white man. I hate the idea of being passed over for a job in favour of a less-qualified candidate because of my sex or race (what “positive discrimination” means to many people).

But then, at Deena’s suggestion, I started looking into what programs actually exist here, and my righteous indignation vanished.

Because, you see, so-called “positive discrimination” is illegal in Britain. Existing human rights legislation, and the proposed new Equality Bill, specifically prohibit the hiring or promoting of one job candidate over another on the basis of sex or race – or any other protected category, such as sexual orientation, religion, and age.

What is promoted is “positive action”. An employer can encourage under-represented categories of people to apply for a job or promotion; an agency can target disadvantaged groups in promoting training courses. This means things like advertising in media that target these segments of the population, or using language in job adverts that encourages them to apply. (“Women and minorities welcome!”, for example.)

While people might argue about the effectiveness of such measures, it seems clear that positive action hardly constitutes inappropriate discrimination against “dispreferred groups” (such as white male columnists). In fact, it seems to be just the level at which opponents of “positive discrimination” (like me) suggest we should be channelling our efforts.

I think we probably do still have low-level discrimination (both conscious and unconscious) in our society, and it needs combating. Even accounting for self-selection and shortcomings of popular statistics, some unfairness does exist. I have plenty of loved ones in “disadvantaged” groups – women, older people, people with mental health problems, etc. So, in addition to my above-mentioned interest, I have a strong personal interest in trying to make our employment landscape fair.

So I say, keep positive discrimination illegal, and keep positive action around.

A perilous experiment?


Here is my latest article in Humanitie. Mike (the Not Quite So Friendly Humanist) and I have both recently had experiences with religious evangelism. His is here.

Several months ago, some Mormon missionaries approached me on the street. I knew very little about their beliefs, most of it from comedians and atheist critics. So Deena and I invited them over.

I will blog later about what I learned of their particular beliefs. What I want to discuss right now is an experiment they asked us to try after our first meeting.

They asked us to pray.

I found myself facing a dilemma. On the one hand, praying feels like a betrayal of my values as a humanist. How could I sincerely ask for an answer from a god whose existence I believe to be improbable, undiscoverable, and irrelevant to living a good life? On the other hand, free thinking is at the heart of humanism. Prayer is an experience I had never tried before.

So I decided that, conducted carefully, praying would not betray my principles. I would try it – and perhaps learn something new about myself and my Mormon friends.

I had many questions heading into the experiment. Would I feel anything peculiar? How might I interpret it? Would I, in the limited but well-publicised tradition of sceptical converts, “see the light”? Would I have an unusual experience but shrug it off? Would I feel nothing at all?

I sat in a comfortable posture in a quiet room, closed my eyes, and asked aloud, “God, do you exist?”

I quieted my thoughts to make room for even the softest suggestion from an external deity. I sent my internal sceptic, who was clamouring to declare the whole exercise a farce, out to get tea.

Then I waited. I tried to be ready for any type of result – from a sudden Damascus-road conversion to quiet “promptings of the spirit”.

I was so still that all I heard for several minutes was the beating of my heart and the ticking of the electric clock. There was nothing else. Nothing that could be interpreted as a message from a god – not even a little thrill of what-if.

Later, I related this experience to the Mormons. They were undeterred. They encouraged me to keep trying: “God is not always heard the first time.”

Fair enough. No responsible scientist would draw a firm conclusion from just one data point.

So I continued the experiment, varying the format to get a sample of different styles of prayer: different postures, different forms of address, different questions. I prayed alone; I prayed with Deena; I even led the prayer at the end of our meetings with the Mormons once or twice. The result was the same each time: I was answered only by my own thoughts and feelings.

At a recent meeting, one of the Mormons promised, “If you keep trying, eventually you will get an answer.” Well, I have tried the experiment. I have set aside my reservations and sought the truth, true to my humanist values. And I have an answer. There probably is no personal god.

Now it’s time for me to move on to the next question, the next empirical adventure.

Photo credit:

Mormon temple image by user Ricardo630, accessed at Wikimedia Commons, released under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.5 license.

The choice is yours


Here is my latest article in Humanitie. This time, Mike and I squared off on the topic of free will – be sure to read his column as well.

What is free will, and how does it fit into a naturalistic worldview?

Philosophical materialism (common among humanists) is sometimes attacked on the grounds that it precludes the possibility of free will. Here’s how:

Classical Newtonian physics describes a material world operating according to fixed and immutable laws of cause and effect. Under this picture, our actions are fundamentally predetermined: we can only act one way in any particular situation. Scratch free will.

Quantum physics rescues us from this clockwork universe, but only by injecting randomness into the equation. Randomness is not really free will either, so this escape from determinism does nothing to restore free will.

While they are interesting, I don’t really think that either of these observations – the deterministic behaviours apparent on the large scale, or the quarky randomness that emerges at the quantum level – does any violence to the idea of free will.

The key thing about free will is not what it looks like from the atom’s perspective, nor from the galaxy’s perspective. The key thing is what it looks like from your perspective. It’s probably true that your mind is just the sum of the neural activity of your brain cells; and their actions are in turn the sum of the electrical and chemical events happening at a molecular level; and so on down to quarks and leptons and whatnot.

That’s interesting. Fascinating, in fact.

But for the question of free will, so what? Free will, as it bears on your actual life, is about being able to put your choices into action. Whatever you think lies behind this “me” – be it atoms and photons or soul and immaterial will – it is still meaningful to talk about “me”: what “I” wish, and what “I” do.

As a humanist, I value human life because of properties it has at the human level: consciousness, the capacity to feel pleasure and pain, self-improvement and a desire to understand things. Their value lies not in where they come from, or why they are here, but simply that they are here.

So it is with free will. Its value does not depend on some theory about why we have it; it is valuable because of what it is on the human level. Newtonian clockwork determinism or quantum multiverse randomness are fine for philosophers and physicists. But for me, here and now, there are far more important questions about free will. Do all people have the political freedom to exercise free will? What does a physical addiction mean for free will?

I know it might sound like I’m just defining away the problem of free will. That’s philosophy for you. Sometimes it’s not a matter of subtle, esoteric reasoning; sometimes it’s a matter of identifying the right definition. The right question.

So ask yourself: when it comes to free will, what is important to you – quarks and galaxies or human intentions?

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

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.


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