Archive for November, 2009



Several things have come through my blog reader that I want to comment on, but none require a post of their own. So here you are:

Celebrating Darwin. Still? Again? It doesn’t really matter. Here’s a well-produced video giving the history of life in brief, narrated by David Attenborough. Delightful to watch.

(Thanks to Mike, the Not Quite So Friendly Humanist, for sharing this video.)

Solar System on one page. Also along the lines of enjoying the natural world. Or, in this case, worlds: a webpage where you can see all the planets (plus Pluto). They are to scale for size, but also for mean distance from the Sun. Try it out.

If you’re having difficulty finding the planets in all the black, here’s a little trick: after the “/” at the end of the URL, add “#mars”, or “#neptune”, and it’ll zoom to that planet. But that does kind of defeat the purpose: you’re supposed to become aware of the vast, vast spaces between the planets.

(Thanks to Phil, the Bad Astronomer, for the link.)

Abolish the Canadian monarch? Here’s Canadian humanist and activist Justin Trottier with his take on the fact that the nominal Canadian head of state is not Canadian, and is also the head of one particular religious sect. I tend to agree with him – there is no good reason to retain the monarchy, though perhaps not yet sufficient reason against it to go to the trouble of writing them out of our laws.

Beautiful impermanence. I close this grab-bag with a delightful “sermon” from Daylight Atheism, in which we are encouraged to reflect upon impermanence as autumn surrounds us*. He contrasts the humanist acceptance of our impermanence with the inborn yearning we all have – reflected so frequently in religious beliefs – to deny our own deaths. While I’m not generally interested in contrasting humanism with religious beliefs, I think the contrast here is poignant. Particularly as the humanist position, in following the evidence of the world around us, draws us away from our primitive desires for immortality. It encourages us, in a real sense, to grow up.

Okay, this one could have used its own post. For now, I refer you to this pair of posts (in that order) by Dale McGowan, about discussing mortality with his kids. And this more recent one, about the problem of awesome people being mortal too.

[Edit to add link to the Daylight Atheism post, which I unaccountably forgot to do at first.]


* Excluding Canada and other northern regions, where winter has already firmly displaced fall, and the whole southern hemisphere, being on the other side of the seasonal see-saw.




I would like to introduce you to a hero of mine. His name is Robert Lang.

Robert Lang folds paper. He folds paper into birds. He folds paper into insects. He folds paper into insanely complex and improbably forms.

And that is enough to earn him my admiration (as an amateur folder myself).

But what really rockets him into the ranks of hero is his polymath tendencies. What he has done with his origami outside the traditional world of paper folding.

He has developed mathematical models of origami. His scientific approach has advanced the art to the point that most of the new forms created today would have been impossible half a century ago. But more than that, he has consulted on scientific and engineering projects, bringing the art of folding into space telescopes, car safety, and other areas.

He has given a TED talk; he has been featured in National Geographic.

Robert Lang inspires me. Not only is he an excellent origami artist – something I aspire to in a vague and occasional way. He has also managed to combine various interests of his into a unified and revolutionary whole – something I yearn for in an definite, persistent way.

As someone with a variety of disparate interests (experimental phonetics, computer programming, writing, parenting, humanist spirituality), I would love to bring some of them together, so that I am not always forced to choose to spend time on one at the expense of others.

So much for why I admire Robert Lang. But what does it mean for someone to be a hero?

Robert Lang has at least two attributes that make him a hero for me: he does something I would like to be able to do myself, and he inspires me to actually try to achieve it.

Unicorn familyIt’s not necessarily origami – as I said, origami is an interest of mine, but not necessarily a passion. (Though I do have Lang’s book, Origami Design Secrets, from which I hope to learn how to design my own origami figures.) I don’t mean to emulate him completely. But he inspires me to try my own brand of originality, my own synthesis of disparate interests. For the moment, it’s an attempt to bring my programming interest into my academic phonetic research. I also have a project on the go bringing programming and humanist spirituality together (stay tuned).

Related to this, being my hero does not mean Lang seems infallible, or even super-human, to me. Of course he is just another person. But that’s part of the inspiration: there is no great divide between the kind of person I am and the kind of person he is. I can do amazing things, just like he does.

I suppose that I might more accurately call Lang a role-model. But that has a slightly antiseptic ring to me. A role model sounds like someone your parents expose you to in an attempt to influence you.

A hero – that’s someone you choose for yourself.

Photo credits:

Portrait of Lang with life-sized origami people from Lang’s website.

Image of origami unicorns by Timothy Mills. Models folded by me, from a design in Origami Step by Step, by Robert Hardin, who credits it to Patricia Crawford.

On Friendliness and Humanism


I am very self-conscious. When I read an atheist talking about “accommodationists” (for example, here), I get the feeling they would include me in that group, because I’m the Friendly Humanist – that is, I make some effort to get along with folks whose worldview diverges from my own. And when I read a theist talking about atheist dogmatism (for example, here), I feel that they’re attacking my position, because I’m an atheist too.

Of course, most such passages are written by people who have never heard of me personally, so I know it’s not personal. And it’s possible that if the authors read my blog they would assert that I clearly don’t fall into the category of weak-willed accommodationist on the one hand and dogmatic atheist on the other. Nevertheless, I often feel a bit like a mule – neither horses nor donkeys feel that I’m quite one of them. Ah well, I can live with that.

I brand myself as the Friendly Humanist for several reasons. It’s an effort to counterbalance a tendency among some humanists to take cheap potshots at easy targets, often with no good purpose in mind and with very counterproductive effects. It’s a reminder to myself not to use this blog simply as a platform for rants.

And it’s an olive branch to those who are often placed in opposition to humanists: committed believers in a god or gods, or in some undefined “other” beyond the physical world, or in non-scientific, “alternative” medicine. I want to tell them, through the blog name and also through my writing, that I will listen to them and try to understand their position.

But the blog is called the Friendly Humanist, and so I also strive to uphold humanist values in my writing. I do not shy away from criticizing harmful actions – whether they are motivated by harmful intent or not, and whether they are based in religious belief or not. There is often a right answer and a wrong answer to questions about how the world is, and finding the right answer is a valuable endeavour.

I don’t think these two goals – being friendly and being a humanist – are incompatible. But there are times when, in order to act with integrity, I must risk being perceived as unfriendly.

I suspect that my recent series on John Blanchard’s book Does God Believe in Atheists? (beginning here) was such a case (on the basis of the only comment anyone posted to it). I stand by my review, but I invite anyone’s thoughts if they think there’s a way I could have put the case without being as dismissive of Blanchard.

There have been other times, and I’m sure there will be more in the future.

I am curious: do you, faithful readers, feel that I live up to my self-chosen title? Am I really all that friendly? Am I true to the principles of Humanism?

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.

Some science news


In a recent issue of Psychological Science (to which I am subscribed), three of the five research articles were on topics that I thought would be interesting to a general audience.

(I’m afraid the links are only to abstracts – you need to be an APS member or browse from a university which has a subscription in order to see the full article. If you think this is unfair, or contrary to the scientific spirit of open inquiry, I agree. See here or here for some discussion of the issue of open-access academic publishing.)

I should open with a warning: none of these articles is in my field of expertise, so my interpretation of the results and their applicability to life in general may be inaccurate. But I think some extrapolation is warranted.


First, there’s an article examining how we decide which side we’ll go on when we approach an oncoming pedestrian on the sidewalk. Apparently, we use the direction their looking in as a cue to which side they’ll go on, and we choose the other side. Not life-changing, I know, but interesting.

Now for the caveat: this is a single scientific study, and as such was very limited scope. Gaze direction was the only cue they looked at. Body language, social conventions (such as “always pass on the left”), and other factors may also influence how such encounters are resolved.

Nevertheless, next time I’m unsure which side to pass someone on, I’ll consciously fix my gaze on one side and go that way, to see if that helps avoid that awkward mambo of mutual indecision.

Affirmation and persuasion

Second, there’s one about how self-affirmation affects our attention to persuasive messages. Moderate drinkers who participated in a self-affirmation exercise (in this case, writing about one of their best traits) were more likely than the control group to attend to threatening aspects of an article about the dangers of moderate to heavy drinking.

They did not find the same effect in heavy drinkers. Also, they just measured attention. That is, they did not follow up to see if the affirmation group changed their behaviour as a result of their increased attention.

However, I can remember several times when I’ve tuned out a message because it seemed mainly to be trying to persuade me out of some belief or activity I was attached to. Perhaps if I were to engage in some sort of affirmation, I would be more able and willing to hear such messages through. If the message contains a good reason to change, then my increased attention might enable me to take that reason on board. If not, then I’ll still be free to reject the message – but I’ll do it because of the content and not because it’s threatening to me.

Self-restraint and Impulsive Behaviour

Third, there’s an article examining the connection between perceived self-restraint and actual impulsive behaviour. Briefly, if we think that we have great self-restraint, then we are more likely to put ourselves in situations which will test us, and ultimately we are more likely to engage in impulsive behaviour.

I’m not sure how broadly this can be extrapolated, but the “moral” that I draw from this study is that I should try to avoid overconfidence when it comes to my vices. The most pernicious of these, for me, is a desire to remain connected to the Internet. If I need to pay attention to something else (parenting, say, or dealing with bills), then an open laptop on the table is a bad idea.


I love science. I love cosmology, biology, physics, chemistry – the whole bunch. Every science I’ve come across has something to inspire awe, wonder, and delight. But nothing beats psychology for churning out knowledge with direct relevance to the way we live our lives.

Deena and I recently bought Richard Wiseman‘s new book, 59 Seconds, which promises to be a delicious exploration of just this sort of thing. A science-based self-help book. Awesome.

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.


Marc on temperance


I quite like this stoic advice from my good friend Marc (Meditations, book 4, paragraph 22):

Never allow yourself to be swept off your feet; when an impulse stirs, see first that it will meet the claims of justice; when an impression forms, assure yourself first of its certainty.

This sounds like fine and noble advice. But I also get the impression that, to many of the more fiery folks I know, Marc’s words might seem to limit the human experience. Am I simply getting old, or are these words truly as wise as they seem?


The Power of a Great Story


Thanks to Ken at C. Orthodoxy for this amazing video:

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?