Archive for the ‘inter-stuff’ Category

Is it okay to mock religion?


This is another one from the vaults: I started it, shelved it, and then forgot about it. The article I link to below is rather old, but it is as relevant now as it was last year.

Greta Christina has an article on her blog about the right and the wrong place for humour and mockery in the discussion of ideas. It’s an insightful and well-considered examination of the question, “When is it appropriate to use humour and/or mockery when talking about other people’s beliefs?”

It’s a great examination of the proper (and improper) use of humour, from a writer who often focusses her sharp wit on religion.

On the one hand, some ideas naturally evoke laughter from us.  Some ideas are ridiculous, and the most natural response when confronted by people who seriously believe them seems to be laughter.

On the other hand, laughter and mockery are not rational arguments, and can tend rather to derail than to advance reasonable discussion.

Greta Christina does a great job of looking at exactly what makes for the appropriate use of humour when discussing religious ideas (or indeed any idea).  I’d be curious what my religious readers think of her article.  Before you follow the link, I should warn you – she is a sex writer, so there are some graphics (mostly book covers) on her site of a very sexually suggestive nature.  Here is the link.

Why should humanists be in chaplaincy?


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.


Christians against sectarianism


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


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.

Persuasion without communication?


Dale McGowan has an excellent series of posts underway at his Meming of Life blog. In particular, these two on “siloing” have caught my attention: “Silos” and “Unsilos“. In them, he discusses our tendency as humans to build communities of like-thinking people around ourselves so much that we cut ourselves off from people who disagree, becoming unable to communicate and empathise with them.

I do it as much as anyone else, and I’m quite conscious of it.

Which is why (among other things) I read several blogs written from well outside my own particular silo.

Which is why I came across this very interesting idea – almost a blog-meme – from Jim at Quodlibeta:

What three books would you recommend to people who disagree with your religious beliefs, whatever they are, and why? 

(Note that Jim got the idea from a political blog – clearly the concept applies to any kind of silo.)

Now, my recent experience of trying out a book recommended by a thoughtful religious friend was somewhat disappointing. (I discuss it in a series of posts starting here.) But the idea of trying to reach across communities of thought appeals to me, so I clicked through from my reader to check out the comments.

The first comment jumped out at me for two reasons.

One, it recommends “John Earman’s Hume’s Abject Failure: The Argument Against Miracles – To finally blast Hume’s argument to oblivion.” Hume’s thoughts on miracles have seemed like pretty basic common sense to me, ever since I first read them (here):

“… no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish … When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened.” 

I think this is a common element in many skeptics’ rejection of religious claims. So it’s probably worth my time to check out Earman’s book – just in case Hume’s argument does have a fatal hole that only an ‘outsider’ might notice.

And the other thing that jumped out at me from this comment was the following recommendation:

Anything from Nietzsche – To show the only viable alternative. 

In the context of the post, this probably means either the only viable alternative to Christianity or to belief in some god more generally. My immediate reaction was to turn off. Nietzsche as the only alternative to theism? Obviously, this person isn’t interested in understanding me, so why should I try to understand him.

But, remembering Dale’s thoughts about siloing, I realized that someone else’s insensitivity is not an excuse for me to shut down discussion. So I think I will have a look at Nietzsche. I also (gently, I hope) pointed out how that comment sounded from my perspective.

Also, with care (given my rebuke of the Nietzsche idea), I offered my choices of books. I reproduce my comments here for your consideration:


A fascinating challenge. I don’t tend to try to persuade people, but I am very interested in helping people to understand my position.

To that end, I would include a good book on humanism, such as Richard Norman’s On Humanism.

If my interlocutor didn’t accept evolution, I would be tempted to include Dawkins’ The Ancestor’s Tale. (I recommend it even to people who accept evolution, because it’s an awesome pilgrimage through the details of our biological history.) However, I suspect that just the author’s name would be a roadblock to persuasion. So I’d probably try something by Carl Sagan (Demon-Haunted World) instead.

And I’d recommend a practical book on skeptical thinking, which is more important to me in terms of persuading others than religious belief or non-belief, though the two are of course related. Probably Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science.


Okay, now you give it a try. What three books would you recommend to someone in a different silo, and why? Have you read the books I mention? Did they persuade you of anything? Why or why not?

Sectarian education in UK


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?

Marc on opinion


So I was hanging out with my friend Marc again, and he had this to say about opinion (Meditations, book 3, paragraph 9):

Treat with respect the power you have to form an opinion. By it alone can the helmsman within you avoid forming opinions that are at variance with nature and with the constitution of a reasonable being.

Now, this far, I was on board. I was nodding along with Marc. We can’t help forming opinions; they are very useful in navigating the myriad choices around us. And yet, to paraphrase another pal of mine, Lao, “opinion is the barren flower of the Way” (from Tao Te Ching #38). Once we form an opinion, it’s hard to unform or revise it, even in the face of good evidence. So we need to be careful in forming opinions in the first place.

So anyway, I’m nodding away, then Marc goes on like this:

From it you may look to attain circumspection, good relations with your fellow-men, and conformity with the will of heaven.

Good relations with fellow men – okay. (Marc has a very sexist bent to him, I’m afraid, but it’s easy enough to add “and women” or to substitute “fellow people” when listening to him.) But what about this “conformity with the will of heaven” bit?

Well, okay, I understand that Marc believes in the existence of gods. He says so very explicitly now and then. But it’s jarring to be listening to something that fits my own position so well, and then hear something about the “will of heaven” thrown in as part of the same thought.

I like Marc, so ultimately I’m not too bothered by the odd literal reference to “gods” or “heaven”; I can just focus on the valuable part of what he’s saying, and set aside the stuff I don’t accept.

But what about when I’m talking to someone else, or reading someone else’s writing, where I don’t have that easy relationship with the person? This aesthetic aversion to casual god-talk could make it more difficult for me to hear the positive value in what they’re saying.

Do you notice a similar tendency in yourself? Do you see it as a problem? How do you deal with it? Let me know.

Image credits:

Emblem of Stoicism created by DT Strain – see this blog post for an explanation of the elements in the symbol.

Yin and Yang symbol (associated with Taoism) from Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.


Lucy Stone


Among the blogs I follow is one by a Unitarian: Free and Responsible Search. Last week, Doug posted a story that he related at the Valentine’s Day service in his church, that really nails why I love the UUs. Here’s a teaser:

When Lucy Stone was a little girl, she decided that she was never, ever, ever going to get married.

She had a pretty good reason for making that decision, because she was living back in the 1800s. And in those days, when a man and a woman got married, the man became the boss. It said so right in the law. So if a woman owned some property, well, when she got married it wasn’t her property any more; it was her husband’s property. And if she had a job and made a little money – it wasn’t her money, it was her husband’s money. Because he was the boss.

Lucy didn’t want to have a boss, so one day she announced to her mother that she was never, ever, ever going to get married. And her mother said something that parents say a lot. I know I heard it from my parents and maybe you’ve heard it from yours. Her mother said: “When you get older, you’ll change your mind.”

Read the rest to learn why I wouldn’t mind at all if Kaia were to grow up among this particular religious community.

Thoughts for the World


It’s that time of the year again. Darwin Day is coming up on Thursday – the bicentennial of the great scientist’s birthday. This year is also the 150th year since the publication of his world-shaking (yet surprisingly readable) book, On the Origin of Species.

One emerging tradition (this is the third year it’s been going) is for the Humanist Society of Scotland to run a series of secular Thoughts for the World. It is a constructive alternative to the previous strategy of trying to get the BBC to include non-religious thinkers in their daily Thought for the Day slot. (I could do a whole rant on that policy, but why not just read what I wrote last year.)

The series has already started: visit for the thoughts so far, as well as those from past years. (Recognize anyone?)

An encouraging development this year is that the Guardian is including the humanist Thoughts on its Comment is free site. Juliet Wilson, former publicity officer for the HSS, has an article on the Guardian website. Here’s part of what she says:

I’m delighted that the Guardian is running the podcasts this year here on Comment is free, over the next two weeks. I’m also pleased to have the support of the British Humanist Association (BHA) and I’m thrilled we have so many female contributors. 

It’s not everybody’s cup of tea, I know. Listening to thoughtful people reflecting on issues of the day from a personal, even spiritual perspective. But I enjoy it, and I think it’s a great way of sharing the human side of humanism.

What do you think? Should humanist thoughts be included in the Radio 4 Thought for the Day program? Should the program just be dropped altogether? Is it enough that we have our own, separate venue for sharing our thoughts? Or is there a good reason why one community should be systematically excluded from the program on the basis of their beliefs?

Persecution mentality


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

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

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


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