Archive for June, 2009

Ingersoll on doubt


I offer for contemplation a quote by the great 19th-century orator, Robert Green Ingersoll:

Fear believes, courage doubts.

(from his Lecture on Ghosts – see this collection in Project Gutenberg for the full text.)

I know that this can be taken in different ways by different people, so I offer more commentary than I usually do with quotations.

For those of you whose first impulse is to be insulted, I encourage you to try to step back and see the sense in which it is a valuable sentiment. Note that it does not mean that all belief is born of fear, nor all doubt of courage; it just means that fear is a great motivator of ill-founded belief, and courage an important foundation for honest doubt.

For those of you whose first impulse is to feel smug – that this is a condemnation of someone else – I encourage you to think again. Do you apply doubt to all of your beliefs, or are some “special” in one way or another?

Ingersoll’s quote – from a discussion of witch-hunts and superstitious hysteria – is a warning to us all. It is a statement about human nature, not just about one type of worldview.


What time is yours?


Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE) has some blunt words to share about procrastination, which I cannot disagree with*:

Think of your many years of procrastination; how the gods have repeatedly granted you further periods of grace, of which you have taken no advantage. It is time now to realize the nature of the universe to which you belong, and of that controlling Power whose offspring you are; and to understand that your time has a limit set to it. Use it, then, to advance your enlightenment; or it will be gone, and never in your power again. (Meditations, book 2, paragraph 4)

* Okay, so unlike the good emperor, I do not literally believe in any gods, nor a “controlling Power whose offspring [I am]”. But it’s no problem to set aside those bits, or read them metaphorically, while agreeing with the rest.

More from this ancient Stoic to come.

Photo credit:

Photo of a bust of the young Marcus Aurelius, from the Wikimedia commons. Taken by Marie-Lan Nguyen and released into the public domain.

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.

Me and U


Three interesting things happened to me today.

  1. The summer solstice happened early this morning. At this northern latitude, that’s a big deal. I’m actually looking forward to a bit more night. (I think the early dawn and late sunset may be why Kaia seems to sleep so little. I ask the more experienced parents out there not to disillusion me.)
  2. It was my second Father’s Day as a father. I got a delightful little card with a cute little red hand print on it from Kaia. I’ll spare you my cheesy gushing. For now.
  3. Deena and I officially became members of the Edinburgh Unitarian Church.

We have been attending for some months now. (Excessively-attentive readers may have noticed Unitarianism popping up occasionally – here, here, here, and here). What began (for me) as a little research into community-building – research I hope to apply to the humanist community – turned into an enriching experience of being part of a supportive community.

It is late, and I don’t want to wax on at too great a length. Let me just say a couple of things to make sure my readers don’t misunderstand.

I am not going to start blogging as the Friendly Unitarian now (and not just because of the unfortunate acronym). I still consider myself a humanist. (There’s a sign on the outside of the Unitarian church that says something along the lines of “What do a Christian, an Agnostic, a Humanist, and a Buddhist have in common? They might all be Unitarians.”)

I still consider myself a part of the humanist community in Scotland, and at my university. And online, of course.

I will blog another time about the natural connections between Unitarians and humanists. But for now, I recommend you read this address by Dale McGowan to a Unitarian congregation in the States.

I put it to all those humanists out there who identify with Harry (read Dale’s full address to get the reference): we need to understand Sally better for humanism to grow into its full potential. Unitarians understand Sally very well indeed.

Homeopathy awareness


Steve Novella at the Neurologica blog just pointed out that this is the British Homeopathic Association’s “Homeopathy Awareness Week”.

He is right – I think we all need to be more aware of just how homeopathy can affect our lives. I encourage you to read Steve’s post, which gives a quick history and an overview of what homeopathy entails. (See also the Science-Based Medicine blog.)

I also encourage you to look at what the carefully-assembled evidence from multiple scientific studies has to say about homeopathy. I recommend Ben Goldacre at Bad Science for this – here’s a list of his Bad Science blog posts about homeopathy, and here’s a particularly good overview. Also, anyone who can’t imagine that their experiences with homeopathy could be “just placebo effects” should really listen to his two-part programme on the BBC about the placebo effect. You don’t need to look to homeopathy for some mind-blowing, magical-seeming effects. There’s plenty in the real world of scientific medical research. And read his book, Bad Science.

Bottom line: Real medicine is about proving something is safe and effective, and abandoning it as soon as it is shown to be either unsafe or ineffective.

Alternative medicine is about believing something is safe and effective, and rejecting, ignoring, or suppressing any evidence to the contrary.

It hurts people. It hurts people because alternative practitioners encourage distrust of real medicine in general. It hurts people because they take homeopathic treatments instead of real medicine. See for example this tragic story about Gloria Thomas Sam, a nine-month-old girl who died horribly because she was given homeopathic treatment rather than real medicine for eczema. Eczema!

Real medicine isn’t infallible. But its researchers abide by strict rules of evidence: something must be proven both safe and effective before it is used in medical practice. Real medicine is self-correcting.

Homeopathy, and most alternative “medicine” modalities, are not self-correcting.

I encourage everyone – adherent, opponent, and uninterested layperson – to become a little more aware of homeopathy this week.

Photo credits:

Bad Science cover art from Bad Science blog (assumed fair use).

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).

Marriage equality


There’s a Downing Street petition to get the British government to allow religious groups to perform civil partnerships (the closest Britain has to same-sex marriages) in religious buildings.

Currently civil partnerships are not permissible in religious buildings or buildings used primarily for religious purposes. Some faith groups are open to civil partnerships but are unable to perform legal partnership ceremonies under the current restrictions. This provides the churches the freedom to decide for themselves.

I find it deeply encouraging that religious organizations are calling for an expansion of same-sex marriage rights as a matter of religious freedom. (Read more in this article.)

We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to Amend the Civil Partnership Act 2004 to allow faith groups to perform civil partnerships within their religious buildings.

If you are a British resident (religious or not), I encourage you to sign this petition.

As a side-note, I hadn’t realized until recently how many bizarre and arbitrary rules surround weddings in this country. For example, did you know that

If you are having a Civil Ceremony your choice of reading must be a non-religious one, whose use must be authorised by the Superintendent Registrar before your wedding day. (source)

I strongly suspect that rules like this (as well as the fact that we have “civil partnerships” rather than simply marriage for same-sex couples) are connected with the fact that Britain has an established church. It is a fact that continues to irk me, in this otherwise fairly enlightened nation – though some people think it’s fine and dandy. (Readers are invited to count the fallacies of reasoning in the article linked from the previous sentence.) But that’s a rant for another time.

[Correction: Cath has rightfully called me out on a point of fact in the preceding paragraph: although England has an established church, Scotland does not. I apologize for my lapse in fact-checking. I maintain that it is the strong history and tradition of Christian privilege in this country that makes daft rules like the one quoted above possible.]

I’d like to thank Maud, the minister at the local Unitarian church, for bringing this petition to my attention.

Thanks, Maud.

My European representatives


Last week, I voted for the first time in the European election. (For those not familiar with the EU electoral system, voting is granted on residency rather than nationality, so although I have only a Canadian passport, I am still able to vote.)

The results are out. I have yet to make heads or tails of the overall results. Since each of the 27 member countries fields its own parties, the resulting body is inevitably a jambalaya of different interests.

But at the national level, one can get a fair idea of what any given country has fielded. The UK results are troubling in two ways.

First – a topic I’ve complained about before – only about a third of the eligible electorate turned out. In a country with almost 50 million eligible voters, only 15 million of us bothered to participate. There are sometimes good reasons not to vote – medical emergencies, natural disasters, and the like – but a good many of those who don’t vote had bad reasons. Couldn’t be bothered to vote. Didn’t think it would make a difference. Hadn’t read up on the issues. Not interested in politics.

Though it may lose me the title of “friendly” humanist, I have to say that all of those are pathetic excuses. Democracy is not something that other people give us, as some kind of birthright. It’s something we must continually exercise. It is all too easy to lose. Look at the Belgians and the Luxembourghers – they had a 91% turnout!

Second, I am frankly embarrassed at the representation that my fellow British voters chose.

A quarter of a million Britons supported the joint ticket Christian Party and Christian People’s Alliance. I have nothing against people believing what they like, and living their own lives in accordance with their beliefs, but these parties’ platforms are fully oriented toward establishing a theocracy. I guess the lessons of Britain’s history of state-sponsored religion are lost on some people. (Catholic-Protestant violence both ways, the persecution of the Covenanters, and probably others I haven’t yet learned of.)

Fortunately, the Christian parties fell short of enough votes to send a single candidate to the European Parliament.

More appalling is the fact that the British National Party won 2 seats. This is an openly racist, xenophobic party. (Membership is open only to whites, for example.) And almost a million British voters thought they would make the best representatives in Europe. Scary.

I’m also disturbed that UK Independence Party got 13 seats. While they are not as scary as the BNP (they even make a point of saying they’re not racist), their policies tend toward the unrealistically insular “Britain for British”, “cut all immigration” sentiment, which sets off warning bells for me. And they got the 2nd most votes of all UK parties in this election, with 2.5 million.

I don’t fully understand the EU, and I have strong reservations about some of its influence, but xenophobia is not a helpful reaction. (I need to acknowledge, though, that my opinions are those of a Canadian working in Britain. In addition, academia seems to have more international representation than almost any other employment sector.)

Having said all that, I do want to point out that, if my neighbours really want to vote for these people, then these people should be their representatives.

That’s democracy for you.

Even when I hate how someone exercises their power, denying them that power is not an appropriate response. (You know the Belgians and Luxembourghians I praised earlier? Each country sent 3 representatives from its dominant Christian political party. I’m far more encouraged at the turnout than discouraged at the religious sentiment.)

Until they cross the line and start undermining the freedoms that democracy relies on – like freedom of expression and of conscience, and basic human rights. Which I suspect fringe groups like the BNP and the pro-theocracy crowd might do, given the chance.

Honestly: for the most part, this is a great country. But sometimes its people make my head spin.

Image credits:

EU flag image from Wikimedia Commons, multiple authors (see linked page). Public domain.

Jambalaya image
from Wikimedia Commons, copyright Cliff Hutson. Licenced under the GNU Free Documentation License and the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license.

Rational parenting on Facebook


There’s a new group on Facebook for skeptics who are also parents. It’s called Rational Moms and Skeptic Dads. Seems like a great place to share freethought parenting tips, resources, and gripes. Check it out.

(Thanks to the Rational Moms blog for pointing it out.)

21st century farming


I’ve mentioned before that I grew up on a farm.

It was a fairly standard western-Canadian farm, as far as I could tell. We grew stuff; we shipped it out to customers by rail or truck; we grew more stuff. (And by “we”, I mean my dad, his dad, and his dad before him – a real family farm. I helped out, but was never farmer material.)

And, from fairly early, it was clear that my little* brother was the most likely successor. Mom and Dad never put any expectations on us to become farmers – it’s not the kind of business that anybody should be pressured into. But John was such a natural.

Four or five years ago, after studying various farming techniques at college, he returned to the farm to practice his trade. I remember hearing from Mom and Dad that John had some interesting ideas. I remember hearing that things were a little different on the farm.

But it wasn’t until last year, when Deena, Kaia, and I were in Canada for several months over the summer, that I realized how much John had done.

He started growing flowers. And rather than bringing his product to the customers, like 99% of farmers do, he set up a U-pick business to bring customers to the product.

He created mazes to attract people out to the site. He started holding festivals – Lily Festivals and Pumpkin Festivals – to promote the farm.

Last summer, over the weekend of the Lily Festival, there were more people visited the farm than the entire population of Bowden, the nearest town. Several times over.

People hear John on the radio and see him in the paper – he’s always promoting the farm.

He’s joined local and regional farm tourism groups to further promote his operation and that of other local producers.

He’s cranked up the farm’s web presence with a major website, Google ads, and now a blog.

He’s even getting his family in on the operation. I helped out at the Lily Festival last year. And here I am, giving him a big plug on my blog. I do this in full appreciation of the fact that he gets more people visiting him in person than I get visiting this blog in a whole year. I’m not going to swamp him with extra visitors.

But that’s okay. I’m basically just doing this to brag about my brother. Farming these days isn’t what it used to be, and isn’t that grand!

Just in case it begins to sound like John is the only innovator on the farm, I’d like to point out that it was Dad who, not long ago, shifted the focus of the potato-growing operation from a more conventional bulk business to a mail-order, internet-driven operation catering to gardeners across Canada who want to grow specialty varieties of potatoes. John is an amazing entrepreneur, and he comes from a generations-long tradition of business-savvy and adaptable folks.


* Little as in younger. It has been several years since I, at 6’3″ (191cm), was taller than either of my younger brothers.