Archive for September, 2007

The descent of Mills


Two comments.

First, our beautiful daughter is now immortalized in a blog, hosted by her mom: The Descent of Mills.

Second, what Dale said.

Now back to gazing at Kaia.

What is humanism?


Humanism, at its root, is about humans.

Right now, for this humanist, it is about the two heart-wrenchingly beautiful girls sleeping in the bedroom – one exhausted after her first ten hours in the world, the other drained by an eighty-hour ordeal bringing her out.

I will have more to say later about bravery and stamina, about love irrevocably chosen and love irrevocably thrust upon me by my biology, about care and respect in the medical professions.

But for now, I leave to spend some more time staring at their peaceful, perfect selves.


A humanist calendar …?


At our recent student fair, I saw an interfaith calendar that highlighted all the various religious festivals and holy days of several world religions. Of course, humanism wasn’t on it – not only because humanism is not a religion, but also because, although we are a community of people with shared values, we have not really established a yearly calendar of dates special to our community.

Throughout history, one thing that has united human communities is a common calendar of observances. From the solar equinoxes and solstices indicated by Stonehenge, to the holy days (and weeks and months) of any contemporary religion you could name, to the secular holidays celebrating days of national importance (Canada Day, the Queen’s Birthday, Family Day), every human community has shared important days of the year. These days commemorate events of historical importance to the community (national independence, birth or death of important religious figures), mark the seasons (harvest festival, solar equinoxes/solstices), or simply set aside time for things the community values (Family Day, National Day of Prayer, National Day of Reason).

Humanists have some such days, though they may be local rather than general to the community at large. For example, our Edinburgh branch of the Humanist Society of Scotland holds a Darwin Day event on February 12 (generally a discussion with an evolutionary theme). Many American non-believers hold the National Day of Reason, on May 3 (giving blood) – in part to celebrate reason and in part to protest the National Day of Prayer on the same day, an unconstitutional incursion of religion into their officially secular state.

For those of us with families who celebrate the standard holidays of the dominant culture, there are clever alternatives. The fun and creative Church of Reality website suggests celebrating Newton’s birthday on December 25 (“because Newton actually was born on December 25th”).

“We call the holiday Crispness because it’s about keeping your mind crisp. And it’s not a coincidence that it’s the same day as Christmas and the Yule holiday where Christmas came from. It is the day that we celebrate the Tree of Knowledge, which represents the sum total of all human understanding. We use the traditional pine tree, which is already a very fractal looking tree to represent the Tree of Knowledge. The tree is decorated with lights and ornaments symbolizing The Sacred Network or the Internet.”

It’s fun, it’s festive, and it means that Deena and I can celebrate December 25 with our (nominally Christian) families without a nagging sense of dishonesty to our values and beliefs. (Remember that using the dates of existing celebrations for a new community with very different beliefs is an ancient and honorable tradition.)

I just learned (a day too late for this year) through Dale McGowan’s blog that the fall equinox (September 21) is the International Day of Peace. This is something most humanists can get behind. Earth Day covers the opposite equinox, on March 21.

A source of many potentially awesome holidays, at least in the final few months of the year, is the Cosmic Calendar, brainchild of the great Carl Sagan. In it, the entire 15-billion-year history of the cosmos as we know it is scaled into a single year, with the big bang at the start of January 1st and the present moment at the end of December 31st. Along the way you get events like the formation of the Milky Way galaxy (May 1), the Solar System (September 9), and the Earth (September 14), the origin of life (September 25), on up through our ancestors: eukaryotes (November 15), worms (December 16), fish (December 19), insects (December 21), dinosaurs (December 24), mammals (December 26), primates (December 29), hominids (December 30), and then down through the evening of December 31. Go see the whole year here or here.

There are clearly many potential humanist holidays to choose from – some already established in certain communities, others new and untested. Deena and I already celebrate some of them (such as Darwin Day and Crispness), and plan to celebrate others in coming years.

What do you think? Do you, as a humanist, celebrate humanist-themed days through the year? Do you simply take the holidays of the culture around you, and spend the time in your own humanist pursuits? Do you think we’ll ever have a common calendar of humanist days, or are we simply too individualistic for such conformity?

Are shared holidays too much a part of religion, and not appropriate for humanists to buy into? How should we balance individual thought and independence with community and interdependence?

Julia Sweeney blog!


Just wanted to rejoice that I have just discovered a blog by the incomparable humanist comedian, Julia Sweeney:

I haven’t actually read much of it, but after we got the CDs for Letting Go of God, Julia could probably describe what she had for breakfast every morning and I’d be riveted. I don’t want to miss anything she writes. If her Letting Go of God book is a verbatim transcript of the monologue (tracts of which Deena and I have practically memorized already), I’ll still get the book and read it and probably laugh at all the right places too.

Sigh. And I thought I wasn’t the type of person who was a fan. It’s just exciting to know of someone famous who can articulately and entertainingly describe the way I see the world.

(This blog entry has not been sponsored by Julia Sweeney, nor encouraged by promises of merchandise to the author. All opinions and attitudes reflect the particular tastes of the author, and no warranty or guarantee is meant or implied that others will have a similar experience. Although if you don’t there’s probably something wrong with you.) ;]

Is this thought my own?


I had this thought a few weeks ago – don’t know if it came from someone else or is my own:

If someone showed me proof of the existence of a god, I would cease to be an atheist, but I would still be a humanist.

I think it’s a brilliant thought, and a very snappy expression of one reason I like to think of myself as a humanist rather than as an atheist.

But I don’t want to go around claiming credit for it if I actually heard it from someone else, and just forgot the source. I haven’t been able to find it online (using relevant Google searches), but that doesn’t mean I couldn’t have heard it somewhere, or read it in a physical book.

So this is a plea to any well-read, knowledgeable reader to let me know: have you heard this somewhere else, and can you tell me who first came up with it?

Interfaith … er … inter- … um … -something


This past week was the first week of term, and as students returned and prepared for classes there were many events for them to attend.

One of these was the Societies Fair, where all the student societies had stalls to promote their group and recruit new members. It was the Humanist Society’s first time at this major promotional event. We doubled our numbers – almost twenty more people signed up on the spot! We also got over a hundred e-mails for our announcement list, so we’ll probably have more people sign up when they see what cool things we do (and what cool people we are).

In addition to all that, I got to talk to people from the religious societies. (Our table was in the same area as theirs.) I learned a lot about the Baha’i faith from the folks over at the Baha’i stall. I met someone from the Jewish Society, who mentioned the diversity of their members – from conservative to secular. I chatted with folks from the Christian Union, who apparently coordinate several interfaith activities. And so on.

The full list is on the Student Association (EUSA) website. See us, tucked in there between the Alpha folks and the Islamic Society? When we first formed, this category was called “Faith groups”. I think it made sense for our society to be grouped with these others, but suddenly the category title was inaccurate. All it took was a quick request to EUSA, and it was changed to “Faith and belief systems”.

I really enjoyed talking with folks from the religious societies. Not only did I learn something about their beliefs and activities, but of course they learned something about humanism and our society’s activities. Like our regular blood drive. (Okay, we’ve only been once so far, but we plan to go again after three months.) Several members of religious societies thought that would be a great idea – they might even join in next time.

Ramadan has just begun, the Muslim month of fasting which commemorates the revelation of the Qur’an to Muhammed. At the end of Ramadan, the Islamic Society invites non-Muslims to join them for a day of fasting. They collect sponsorship, and donate the money a charity. I think that it would be interesting to try this out myself.

From all this discussion about cooperation between our societies, a slight problem arose. What word do we use? If it’s just between religious societies, the word interfaith is appropriate. But once humanists come along, we suddenly aren’t all people of faith. So I need your suggestions.




Cooperative events?


Faith and ethical cooperation?


Sigh. Help!? We need something that doesn’t sound like flavourless PC pap, but which does convey the idea of inclusive cooperation between people with different ethical and religious views.


Time and what is really mine


I planned to go to see a friend’s band play a gig yesterday evening. I haven’t seen them play yet, and I really thought this would be the first time.

Then I got a call from Deena late yesterday afternoon. She was feeling some mild contractions. Baby wasn’t due for two more weeks; Deena still had another day of work before beginning her maternity leave.

Naturally, after a moment of dithering (surely baby isn’t arriving quite so soon), the husbandly/fatherly hormones hit my brain and rushed to my bike, sped over to her work, and met her to take the bus home.

By then, it was becoming clear that it was just Braxton-Hicks contractions (ie, not labour contractions). Not a great surprise, but there was no way I’d go to see the band after that.

Deena is now officially on maternity leave. A few more B-H contractions today, she tells me, but no reason to think actual labour is imminent. I still have plenty of work to do – not only on my PhD, but also around the flat to prepare for baby’s arrival.

One thing this episode brought to my mind is the undeniable fact that my time, our time, doesn’t really belong to us in any sort of meaningful sense. No more than the current belongs to the canoe. We make our plans, we navigate the eddies and curves in the river, but ultimately it is not by our own efforts that we move on toward the sea. The only merit that earns us passage is our buoyancy, and the alternative to that is hardly a real choice. (Okay, the metaphor gets a little thin here. What is the sinking canoe? Death, perhaps.)

So although I may use phrases like, “wasting my time” and “use my time wisely”, I know that these are just polite fictions – euphemisms to help me ignore my powerlessness over one of the great impersonal forces that dominate my life.

What other fictions might I indulge in? Would I recognize them all, or do I need vivid wake-up calls like the birth of a new life to snap them into focus? I read a novel like Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed and wonder how far any notion of “property”, of mine and yours, reflects the actual reality of the world.

But there are some things of mine that seem to be beyond the reach of even this aggressive philosophical barrage.

My love. Not in the sense of the smitten poet, speaking of a person who is “his” or “hers”. Rather, the love that I give – my love for Deena. It is mine because I am its source. In creating it I let it go, I pass it on. The same goes for my deeds. My thoughts. My blog entries.

My child. The process of letting go may take longer, but eventually, like my parents did for me, I will have to finally relinquish any claim over this person who will so soon be appearing in our lives.

Is it just me, or is this list of things that are “mine” in a deep, irrevocable sense also some of the things that we humans value the most in our lives?

Fundamentalism and terrorism – food for thought


I recently had to shift my attitude to fundamentalist Muslims a little.

I heard an interview of Canadian Muslim Mubin Shaikh on the radio. He is undeniably a conservative – I would even say extremist – Muslim. He has campaigned for Sharia law to be given a place in the resolution of family disputes such as divorce in Ontario. Apparently trying to defend his position, Shaikh says “I think the main issue is that the Western, secular version of equality is not what you will find with Islam.” His campaign, I’m happy to say, failed. A community can follow any customs its members wish (short of actually violating the laws of the land), but religious laws have no place in the legal framework of a secular society. Period.

(Shaikh and his fellows point out that similar arbitration boards exist in Ontario for the Catholic and Jewish communities to settle family law matters. I would say these are equally problematic, and should be got rid of for the same reasons. If people wish to sort out problems in a religiously-mandated way, they can do it without involving the secular law. If they wish to access the authority of the secular government in settling disputes, they can accept the lack of religious authority in that context. It’s a clear, fair choice.)

But that’s not the only way he has been active in the Muslim community in Ontario. You see, he became a member of a jihadi organization planning terrorist attacks in Toronto, acting as an informant for CSIS (the Canadian Security Intelligence Service), helping to foil the plot and put several would-be terrorists in jail.

He didn’t just speak out against terrorism – though even that is an important part of keeping marginal nuts marginal in one’s community. He acted against criminals whose deeds would have rendered his home less safe, and brought condemnation, fear, and hatred down on his family, friends, and neighbours. “People are doing this in the name of Islam, and it’s hurting me more than anybody else. It’s hurting the Muslim more than anybody else. I mean, you know, apart from those who actually lose their life, it’s people like us who suffer more than anybody else, and that’s what people have to understand, because now a guy like me who’s an agent of the state, responsible for bringing these guys down, I’m still called a terrorist in the street.”

Well, I still disagree with his position on Sharia law, and I completely deny the truth-claims of his religion. In fact, he doesn’t sound to me like a very pleasant person in general. But he’s no terrorist. So in the future, I’ll have to avoid making the automatic leap from conservative Muslim (or even self-described fundamentalist) to terrorist. Shaikh demonstrates that they’re not the same thing.

Sales techniques and human rights


Picture this. You receive a letter at your home from a company letting you know that you have not purchased their product this year. They gently remind you that everyone who uses their product is required to pay for it. They give you information on how to pay for it.

Over the following months, you get further letters – each one less friendly, more stern than the last – detailing the penalties if you are caught using their product without paying for it. They begin to talk of sending salespeople to your door to confirm that you aren’t using the product (but they call them “enforcement officers”).

Eventually, a salesperson does come by. You haven’t used their product; you have been threatened by mail for several months; and now someone is asking to be let into your home to confirm that you haven’t stolen their product without paying. Not a police officer. A salesperson.

How do you feel about this sequence of events? What kind of country do you think this happens in?

Welcome to the world of the British TV Licence Fee, administered by TV Licencing.

Now, I acknowledge that with a service as difficult to box up as broadcast television, it is difficult to come up with a viable and fair business model. Ideally only those who use the service will be charged (rather than just paying for public broadcasting through general tax dollars that everyone pays), but how do you determine who needs a license? They need to ask people if they use a TV to receive broadcast signals. But, in order to filter out liars and cheats, they need customers to feel that the salespeople have more authority than they have. (No salesperson – even a TV License “Enforcement Officer” – ever has the right to enter your home without your permission, or even to demand any information of you, such as your name.)

In other words, in order for what seems like a fair system work, they need to make it seem like a system that isn’t fair – a system where salespeople have the right to spy on you (with their detector vans), the right to come into your home, the right to treat you as a criminal until you prove you’re not.

Many countries have a licence fee; many others don’t. What do you think? Most people use a television; is it better to slightly mistreat the minority who don’t in order to make an otherwise fair system practical? Or is it more fair to charge everyone indirectly, through general taxation, so that nobody’s privacy or legal presumption of innocence (article 11 here) is violated?

Deena and I are lucky – we’re assertive, and we know our rights. But many people are less well-equipped than us to rebuff the TV Licencing people. How many elderly people, slightly confused with early Alzheimer’s disease, are badgered into signing away a portion of their meagre incomes by the bullying letters?

Were it not for this fact, I might be at least ambivalent about the TV Licence. But as it stands, I can’t see that it’s defensible in its current form in a free and democratic society.

Am I taking this too personally? Making a big deal out of nothing? What do you think?

Becoming a person


It’s now less than three weeks until the expected arrival of our baby. The physical symptoms are real enough – Deena started feeling baby move months ago, and I first felt movements shortly after. But there is still an abstract quality to the knowledge that these symptoms come from a human – a little person almost ready to come into the world.

Technically, baby could probably survive being born today. Our baby is already capable (with a great deal of help) of making that first, momentous step into independence. And yet, in another sense, this fledgling human isn’t even a whole person yet. It has no name. It hasn’t been held by our arms. It hasn’t yet taken the uncensored atmosphere into its tiny lungs, drawing its own sustenance directly from the world.

I have a mind that yearns for quantum distinctions. Yes or no; right or wrong; child or adults; eggshell or off-white. Yet some of the most important milestones along my path as I’ve grown into the wise and seasoned almost-thirty-year-old I am now have involved seeing through the clear boundaries I’ve erected, seeing into the subtle, gradual shadings that separate one thing from its neighbour.

So now, as I tumble toward the terrifying, compelling, humbling brink of fatherhood, I contemplate this question: What is the boundary of personhood? When does a collection of atoms, molecules, cells, become a person?

There are the biologist’s answers. A person begins at conception, when a unique genetic fingerprint comes into being that will (if circumstances permit) develop into a unique, autonomous individual. Is she a person when she is capable of surviving outside her mother’s womb? Or is he not a person until he can function without his parents’ help and support?

There are the philosopher’s answers. A person begins when self-awareness dawns in the developing brain. Or is it when the capacity to experience physical sensations begins? Or when the young child is capable of exercising free will (rather than being driven exclusively by instinctual drives)?

Or the social anthropologist’s answers. A person begins when the community begins addressing an individual as a member of the group (whether this occurs before, at, or after birth). A person begins after a particular social ritual welcoming the new being into the world and the community.

And, for all of us, there is of course the most obvious moment: the birth itself. The person is born the moment the baby emerges from his mother, and becomes physically a separate object in space. Given that so much of our language, custom, and law are built around this moment, above all others, I suspect that this very literal emergence, this clear boundary between in and out, is the one programmed into us biologically as the start of a new life, a new person.

But I can’t ignore the fact that, for at least the past four years, Deena and I have had this person in mind. We have been shifting and shaping our lives subtly towards this new person we are about to meet. My mom sent us a quilt for the baby a year or two ago. And since we’ve known Deena was pregnant, we have addressed the baby (embryo/zygote/fetus/…) by a variety of nicknames; we have picked out actual names (not to be revealed to anyone else until baby is here); we have talked to baby, referred to baby’s will (“Baby wants ice cream!”), to baby’s moods.

So what does it mean for someone to be a person? If it involves others’ attitudes, can a person begin to exist before sperm meets egg? If it involves the social embrace of the community, is someone not fully a person between birth and that welcoming ceremony?

I feel that our baby is almost, but not quite, a whole person now. I love this being already, but it’s still a love partway between the abstract if fervent love of a longed-for lover and the love of a dear relative I talk with on the phone. I suspect that birth will seal it, complete the personhood of this already-loved being who come so far toward becoming a full human.

How do you feel about these questions? Have you experienced parenthood? Witnessed births? Mourned people who were never born? Is there a clear boundary in your mind between not-yet-person and person? Why is that boundary where it is? Why is it important?