Archive for the ‘meaning’ Category

Something deeper


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.

Five Christmas gifts for doubters.


From Why Evolution is True, I’ve learned of a curious Christmas gift that William Lane Craig is offering to atheists: Five reasons why God exists.

There are several responses already – my favorite for its philosophical rigour is Richard Carrier’s.

My take tonight is somewhat different. Rather than a rebuttal of Craig’s points – something I couldn’t do as well as Carrier anyway – I’d like to offer a Friendly Humanist’s gift to William Lane Craig, and to any people out there who are honestly doubting the existence of God.

So here are my Five reasons it is safe to question your beliefs. (Mainly aimed at religious believers, but the premise should work for any belief.)

1. Morality

It seems that many people fear or distrust nonbelief because it lacks the anchor of religious morality. I’m not going to get into how rusty and unreliable that anchor is – this is an uplifting Christmas gift, not a rant.

So just consider this: if, in fact, there is no god, then every good deed people have done, every uplifting principle, every act of compassion and moral progress, has come from people. So, if there is no god, then we have within ourselves the resources to be good, to improve our lot, that of our fellow humans, and of other creatures. Follow your reason. If it leads you away from belief in God it will not lead you away from morality. (Nor, if it leads you back into belief, will it lead you away from morality.) Millions of people are good without belief in God. Millions are good with belief in God. It is safe to doubt. It is okay to doubt.

2. Meaning

Similarly, many rely on belief in God for a sense of meaning.

They may fear that, by letting go of the belief in God, they will lose any sense of meaning in their lives. Fear not. Because if there is no god, then all the meaning and inspiration you have ever felt came from you, yourself. Whatever you believe, you cannot destroy the source of meaning. If the source is God, he’ll still be there if you doubt him. If the source is you, you will still be there regardless of your belief or disbelief in God. You may doubt God, but you can still believe in yourself. Millions find meaning in their lives without leaning on belief in supernatural creators. It is okay. It is safe.

3. Love

If you are starting to sense a pattern here, that’s fine. Patterns are everywhere in the universe.

Anyway, what about love? Many people say “God is love” – I’m not always sure, but I think some mean it metaphorically and others literally. Whatever the case, if God-the-person does not exist, that doesn’t change the fact that most people through the ages of human existence have experienced love in some form or other. If you come to believe that God does not exist, that love will not magically vanish. It remains. It is a fact; God is only a theory. (On the other hand, if God does exist, the love remains too.)

Millions of atheists live full lives, with love and all the other emotions and complexities of human living. It is okay: life without god belief is not life without love.

4. Mystery

One of the most puzzling attitudes I sometimes hear from believers is this: that rejection of belief in God is somehow a rejection of the sense of mystery.

This is insane. (Especially under the common belief that God helps explain things.) Its insanity is only exceeded in the claim that science destroys mystery. (These are connected, since atheists and humanists tend to look to science to explain things that religions have historically covered.)

Science is about answering questions, it’s true. But it answers questions from our perspective. Early scientists explained things that we saw all around us: gravity, disease, light, life. The more we learn, the further out the bubble of mystery gets. We’re now learning about minute diseases (viruses and prions), about incredibly distant objects (quasars), and about objects so tiny that they can’t even be called objects any more (quarks, strings, and I don’t know what). No matter how far science pushes back our ignorance, there’s always another “why” or “how” question sitting on the other side. Imagine our knowledge as a bubble. The bubble gets bigger and bigger, but there’s always a vastness of ignorance outside it. And the larger the bubble gets, the more questions we have at our fingertips to poke to the other side.

Anyway, I don’t know if that analogy makes sense. It’s late Christmas Eve, and I’m feeling more than thinking my way through this. I can testify, as a working scientist, that every experiment I run brings up a handful of new questions. (Whether or not that experiment answers the original question I was working on.)

Ask any scientist, and you’re likely to get an answer on the same line.

So, if your belief in God goes away, you will never lack for mysteries to quench your soul with.

5. Community

Okay, the answer here is largely predictable, but it’s worth saying anyway. All the companionship and community you have ever experienced – that was provided by people. If God exists and happened to inspire it, that’s swell. (And I’d venture that any god worth calling “good” wouldn’t take that gift away if you ceased believing in him for good reasons.) If he doesn’t exist, then that support and companionship still happened. It came from the people themselves.

There’s more, though. There are places in the world where, although there is community and love, it is conditional. You need to be part of the tribe. A fellow believer. So yes, some human communities are so broken that they cannot give true, unconditional shelter to those in need. But there are many people, many communities, that do give real support, unconditional acceptance. These include religious people, non-religious people, and folks who don’t worry about the God question one way or the other.

Thanks in large part to the loud, annoying, irrepressible “New Atheists”, there is a growing community, worldwide and locally, online and (in more and more places) offline, of people you can safely share your doubts with, or your newfound disbelief.

I don’t know who is better at it. My experience is that religious and nonreligious people alike are largely accepting of folks, and don’t meter out their friendship based on how alike you are in beliefs.

The point is not who is better at it. The point is that, if you grow away from your belief in God, wherever you end up, there is a place for you to feel safe and wanted in this world. There are thousands of places.


Now, in case I didn’t make it clear enough in all of that, this is not a post about why you should become an atheist, or a humanist. It is not a prod to push you away from a belief that you hold dear, or a belief that you are comfortable in.

This is a good-news post. It is for anyone who is doubting but afraid of where doubt might lead them. It is for anyone who is afraid for a friend who is doubting. The message is this: doubt away. Test your beliefs. Try on new ones, keep the old ones – follow your heart and your reason. Do not shy away from what seems true because it seems wicked, or meaningless, or inhospitable. Because it’s not. What is true is true, whether we believe in it or not. Love, meaning, goodness, mystery – these are facts of life, there for anyone to grasp.

So, to all of you out there, believers in gods of all kinds, nonbelievers, doubters and questioners, closeted or jubilantly out, may you have a great solstice season, a merry Christmas, and many more exciting trips around the sun.

Ephemeral or Eternal?


Jim at Agent Intellect has just passed on a very interesting philosophical musing from the Maverick Philosopher, Bill Vallicella. Here is a taste:

The problem with time is not that it will end, but that its very mode of being is deficient. The problem is not that our time is short, but   that we are in time in the first place. For this reason, more time is no solution. Not even endlessly recurring time is any solution. Even if time were unending and I were omnitemporal, existing at every time, my life would still be strung out in moments outside of each other, with the diachronic identifications of memory and expectation no substitute for a true unity.

Like Koheleth’s lament that all is ephemeral, this is an age-old lament at the ephemeral nature of existence.

The Maverick Philosopher takes the common theistic route of invoking eternal life as an escape clause from this existential malaise. I can certainly sympathize.

I prefer, however, to grapple a little more deeply with this ephemeral existence. Not just “make the most of your time while you have it” – an option that is clearly open to anyone, regardless of belief or disbelief in an eternal afterlife. But actually constructing an attitude toward meaning that embraces and incorporates the temporary nature of life.

It’s difficult. We seem to be born to deny death and transience. Accepting them is unnatural. Against our nature.

But then, it is unnatural to reduce the fat, salt, and sugar in our diets. It is unnatural to set aside our prejudices and consciously grant all people respect and dignity. Like these exercises, I think the attempt to come to terms with transience is an ultimately rewarding – even liberating – one.

What do you think? Do you think that acceptance or transience is opposed to belief in an eternal afterlife? Is it, in fact, virtuous to try to accept our transient existence, or is it better to seek an alternative, a solution to the problem of our transience?

Natural consolations


Over at Daylight Atheism, Ebonmuse has shared yet another of his symphonically beautiful bits of writing. This one is in honour of his grandmother, who recently died. He calls it “Green Fields“. Check it out. Here’s a taster:

For those who are grieving, for those who mourn, and for all those who are burdened with the weary weight of sorrow, I have a prescription.

Find a quiet, peaceful place, a green field of grass where great trees grow and gift the world with their shade. Let it be just before sunset, at that golden hour when the heat of the afternoon is past, when the sky is blue as a pearl and the setting sun hues the world in its last, richest and most transitory light.

Sit against the trunk of an old and massive tree, one that’s lived through summers and winters untold. Lean on its rough, moss-clad bark and feel the slow, patient pulse of the life in the green heart of the wood. Try to clear your mind of thought, and listen.

(Read the rest at Daylight Atheism.)

Photo credit:

Crepuscular ray sunset from Telstra tower, by Fir0002/Flagstaffotos. Released under the GNU Free Documentation License (GFDL).

The high point


Yesterday was a real milestone for me – a culmination of five years of thinking and working and writing and rethinking and reworking and rewriting. To have it declared worthy of the honour of a PhD degree was probably the most satisfying moment of my academic career so far.

But I think the high point of the day was later. After the three hours of the viva, after an afternoon of congratulations from friends and colleagues, after an evening in the pub recounting the events of the day and sharing stories with fellow students and academics.

The high point came when I was home again, and I was putting Kaia to bed, and she fell asleep on my chest.

Ahh, perspective.

Myers on meaning


At the end of a post about convergent evolution (and its misinterpretations), P.Z. Myers, author of the Pharyngula blog, gives these thoughts about meaning and purpose:

We are each our own individual engines of purpose, operating in a hostile universe where randomness can shape our fates. There is no grand scheme behind our existence, other than the same function that all our ancestors had: to order our local environment to allow each to survive and to make the world a little better for our progeny. And that’s enough — that’s all that is needed to make a rich, diverse, living planet, and it’s all I need to live a satisfying life.

What a heartfelt summary of meaning in a naturalistic worldview. Thankyou, P.Z.!


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