Archive for May, 2014

Fullness circles


I’ve just listened to this recent Ask An Atheist episode, “Here and Now“, where Sam and company talk with Jeff Stilwell (author of a book with the same title, Here and Now, which comes out tomorrow). One thing that came up in their conversation is what he called “Fullness Circles”. The idea is this:

You get together with some of the people you trust most. Each person takes a turn. You talk for ten minues about how you have spent the time since your last meeting trying to “explore that fullest expression of meaning in your life as you’re going forward”. After talking, everyone can ask you questions, bounce ideas around, to “make better sense of what you’re trying to do”.

I haven’t had time to fully process it, but it seems like a very interesting idea, connected with but different from some other practices that I’ve been contemplating lately. Curiously, despite the personal-introspection quality to it, it is a completely non-religious practice (as in, not adapted from an existing religious tradition).

Anyway, I wanted to put it out there before it gets buried under the pile of tasks marked “Urgent” in my to-do list, and see what you all think. Have any of you tried this Fullness Circle thing (with that or another name)? Would you try it? Why or why not?


Definition: secular


Much of the disagreement between people – in areas of religion and elsewhere – centres around unacknowledged differences of definition. It is important to know what someone means when they use a word, and it is often pretty easy, if you’re paying attention, to notice that a difference of definition is serving as a barrier to communication. Please read this in the light of my recent comments on What words mean. I hope that people who disagree with me will continue to lay out their reasons in the comments, and everyone with me will tell me how well I am conveying my ideas.

Today’s definition: “secular”.

It is variously used to refer to “everyday life” (as opposed to consideration of religious ideas of the transcendent), or as a pejorative for the increasingly non-religious way many people approach life these days. What is common is that it tends to be associated with a lack of religion.

What seems to be disputed is whether “secular” approaches to life – particularly public life and politics – are actively anti-religious, or simply non-religious.

This distinction has come up before on this blog. Long-time readers will, I hope, already anticipate my preferred definition here.

When I promote secularization, or a secular public sphere, I mean one that does not privilege one religious perspective over another. That is, a secular government is one that does not take a side in questions of faith. It doesn’t promote prayer; it doesn’t prohibit prayer. It doesn’t encourage religious observance; it doesn’t discourage religious observance.

For the most part, I would say that is what secular governments aim for in the real world. (I’m quite pleased with this trend, so far as I have observed it in the countries I’ve lived in.)

So why might some people associate the word with anti-religious sentiments and actions?

Well, there are several reasons. One is that some of the vocal cheerleaders for secular government these days are atheists. The National Secular Society in the UK is a prominent example – they actively lobby against religious privilege in that country, and advocate for the equal treatment of atheists. And of course, many of the most vocal atheists these days are vocal in their criticism of religious beliefs. So it is natural for people to connect in their minds the word “secular” with “anti-religious”. Similarly, people like me who identify as secular humanists are all (so far as I know) atheists. From my perspective, this is because approaching the world from a secular perspective – one that begins as neutral toward religious claims – will tend to lead one to atheism. From another perspective, it may seem that secular has some built-in anti-religious bias.

Another reason is that, historically, pretty much every culture has privileged one or another religious belief in its laws and customs. So, when we move towards a secular society, those privileges tend to be lost. The groups who once enjoyed those privileges naturally feel like they are under attack. They lose their special voice in government (removal of laws that are exclusively motivated by religious dogma). They lose their special voice in education (removal of teaching materials that are informed by religious dogma, and/or that are in contradiction of scientific evidence). They are no longer able to impose their rituals on public events, to the exclusion of others (removal of sectarian prayers in council meetings, or the inclusion of other religious and non-religious voices).

To someone like me, who identifies with a group (atheists) that never enjoyed those privileges, it is laughable to hear religious people moan about intolerance when they learn that they will finally have to follow the same laws as everyone else.

But I certainly can understand how humbling and, perhaps, frightening, it must be to see one’s tribe fall from a position of accustomed privilege to become an equal among many competing voices.

And, of course, there are people who would like religion to disappear from the world entirely. There are dogmatic anti-theists who blame much human evil on religion, and then advocate that we would be better without this blight on our culture. There are ideologues who see religion – or at least, undomesticated religion – as a threat to their ideology (such as Stalinist or Maoist communism).

I am not one of those people. And, though some would call them “secularists”, I would not. They are not neutral to religion. A secular state is neutral toward religion.

So being an atheist doesn’t automatically make one a secularist. Nor does being a secularist automatically make one an atheist. For example, one of the main reasons the US constitution was formed in explicitly secular terms was because many of the religious groups in the fledgling country had fled from persecution in Europe. They recognized that a secular state – one that did not give state power to religious institutions – was the best protection for their religious freedom. Quakers, Unitarians, Deists … even, at different times, Protestants and Catholics, have experienced the tyranny of an ascendant religious power over those weaker in numbers or force. A secular state provides protection for everyone against the majority.

Current demographic trends show non-belief outstripping belief to varying degrees in many developed countries. If this continues, it may be that within a few decades atheists will be the majority. It will then be even more clearly in the best interests of the religious minority to have strong secular protections in place so that their religious freedoms are protected from possible attacks from this new majority.

Other people’s definitions and discussions:

Oxford dictionary online main definition: “Not connected with religious or spiritual matters”

Google search definition: “denoting attitudes, activities, or other things that have no religious or spiritual basis” main definition: “of or pertaining to worldly things or to things that are not regarded as religious, spiritual, or sacred; temporal”

Merriam Webster definition 1b: “not overtly or specifically religious”

Free Dictionary definition 2: “Not specifically relating to religion or to a religious body”

Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance glossary entry for secularism: “A term created in 1846 by a British freethinker George Holyoake:

  • The belief that government decisions should be made independently of religious considerations.
  • The promotion of ideas and values not based on religious criteria.”

Wikipedia article on secularity

Other commentators: No Forbidden Questions, and here’s a debate at Camels with Hammers that revolves (in part) around competing definitions. It is clear to me that not everyone sees “secular” as I do. I’ll try to use the word carefully.

My relationship status with prescriptivism: It’s complicated!


Okay, so I did just post what observant readers might see as a thinly-veiled almost-rant against prescriptivism.

As a linguist, whenever someone says of a language usage, “That’s wrong,” my first response is almost always, “Rubbish.” There is no ultimate standard by which you can judge the appropriateness of a particular usage. There is just how people use language, and how people understand it. The real reason a person objects to “12 or less items” is not because the language is imprecise, not because it is likely to cause confusion. It is because it feels icky to that particular listener, and they want everyone else to agree that it’s icky to validate their feelings.

So much for prescriptivism.

But … there are venues where holding doggedly to an arbitrary standard is useful. Necessary even. For example, in my own field (phonetics), there is a distinction between “frequency” (the number of times a wave or component of a wave repeats every second) and “pitch” (the perceptual correlate of frequency). To most people, the two words should be interchangeable. For the most part, each frequency corresponds to a single pitch. If frequency increases, pitch increases. If frequency falls, pitch falls. But when you’re trying to map out the relationship between physical properties of sounds and how we perceive sounds, you really need different terms for the different sides of that coin. For example, I am currently studying a property of speech (phonation mode) that is not frequency, but that seems to connect with the perception of pitch.

In computer programming, in law, in philosophy – in any discipline that requires more precision of thought and communication than casual, everyday speech – it is useful to be nitpicky about that sort of detail.

I should point out that, even in a technical setting, it is probably a rare moment indeed where less-for-fewer would actually confuse a reader. Most of the grammarians’ peeves are of this nature. Prescriptivism, when consciously aimed at improving communication, can be justified. Elsewhere, it’s just another way of getting unhelpfully lathered up over “kids these days” and “what the world is coming to”.

Still, I’m human. Some things bug me far more than my rational self knows they ought to. So when I listened to this recent missive from Grammar Girl Mignon Fogerty, I sighed the sigh of a vindicated prude. She agrees with me about the Oxford Comma. The Grammar Girl, whose pronouncements on language-related points of style and etiquette often leave me grinding my teeth!

Can I sum up?

  • Prescriptivism is almost always silly.
  • Sometimes it is useful and necessary.
  • Even when it’s not, even when I know better, I still sometimes fall prey to it.

So I guess I’m glad for the diehard prescriptivists. Most of the time I get to feel superior and more enlightened than they are, but sometimes I just like to wallow in base agreement with their dogmas.

What words mean


I’ve offered a few definitions on this blog. For those who know I am a linguist by profession, but who don’t know many linguists themselves, I fear this may come across as an attempt to impose definitions by authority of my expertise.

So I thought I’d offer some thoughts on how linguists actually approach language.

I thought I’d spend a thousand or so words giving a brief introduction to terms like “prescriptive” and “descriptive“. Maybe talk about the inexorability of language change. Perhaps I could indulge in some side-notes on how most of the cherished rules of modern grammarians are violated not only by the common speakers and writers of English, but also by the authors the grammarians admire, and also (far too often) by the grammarians themselves, when they’re not paying attention.

I’d indulge in a rant or two here and there, and generally weary everyone into either agreeing with me or walking away.

Then I realized, if people want to be bored by all this stuff, they can bloody well come and take Linguistics 101, pay tuition and help keep me gainfully employed. And anyway, you don’t need all that to see the main point anyway.

It all boils down to this:

  • Linguists are scientists. We want to know how language actually works.
  • Behind everything else, language is about being understood – conveying an idea from one mind to another.
  • Words mean what people use them to mean.

Oh, there’s more. Syntax, morphology, phonetics (oh, sweet phonetics!), semantics … but each of them boils down to that one point.

Words mean what people use them to mean.

That’s what my definitions are about. I want to be clear how I’m using words, so we can communicate as clearly as possible.

Back again.


As part of a new resolution on work/life balance, I’m going to try posting here more regularly again.

I have a few posts queued up already – a combination of philosophical reflections, current events, and thoughts about being a humanist. I’ll also throw a little bit of linguistics in – the science I was trained in, and what I currently teach and research.

I won’t commit, just now, to any particular regularity of posting. But I will make an effort to stay present and not disappear for months on end again.

That’s it for today – see you all online!

Bodily rights


Just a little addendum to yesterday’s post about abortion in Canadian politics: I thought I’d give a very brief summary of why I think abortion should be allowed.

I realize that this is an important discussion to have, and that there are gray areas regarding appropriate term limits to abortion. But for me, the decisive argument for maintaining a basic right to abortion is the bodily rights argument, which I first heard presented by Tracey Harris on The Atheist Experience TV show. In a nutshell, the argument goes like this:

  1. You cannot be compelled to offer your body as life support for anyone who has already been born (such as another adult – even a dependent relative).
  2. Prohibiting abortion effectively compels a woman to offer her body as life support (for a conceptus that, depending on your personal beliefs, may or may not be “fully human”).
  3. Therefore, prohibiting abortion gives the conceptus more rights, and the woman fewer rights, than any other person.
  4. This is morally indefensible. Therefore, women should have the right to choose whether to continue a pregnancy or not.

I understand the depth of feeling that many people have about this issue. If you think that the conceptus is “fully human” in a morally-relevant way, then of course every pregnancy that does not carry to term is a tragedy. I feel fortunate that my wife and I were never in a position where we felt abortion was the best option – at the least, it is a medical procedure that carries some low level of risk.

Remember that allowing abortion is not the same as requiring abortion. A country with legal abortion could, in principle, have a 0% abortion rate. Wouldn’t that be a more meaningful triumph for the pro-lifers than persuading legislators to force people into the desired behaviour?

What we have, and what we need, is a legal system that permits abortion puts the decision in the hands of those people best suited to make that decision. The people best informed about the particulars of each case. The people with the greatest stake in the outcome, of any who can voice an opinion. The women who are pregnant.

To those who oppose abortion, please don’t use the law to force all women into your particular picture of the “good life”. Instead, use your inalienable right to free speech to make your case. Invite people to consider your arguments, and decide for themselves using the facts and values on offer.


Kudos to the Trudeaus


There are times when I despair about Canadian politics, but at the moment I’m holding my head high.

Here is the passage from the article in the Metro that first brought this item to my attention:

“I had an extraordinary example in a father who had deeply, deeply held personal views that were informed by the fact that he went to church every Sunday, read the Bible regularly to us, and raised us very religiously, as Catholics,” Trudeau wrote.

“But at the same time my father had no problem legalizing divorce, decriminalizing homosexuality and moving in ways that recognized the basic rights of the people.

“He too held fast to his beliefs. But he also understood that as leaders, as political figures, and as representatives of a larger community, our utmost responsibility is to stand up for people’s rights.”

Trudeau says he shares his father’s view of leadership in that regard.

“Canadians of all views are welcome within the Liberal Party of Canada. But under my leadership, incoming Liberal MPs will always vote in favour of a woman’s fundamental rights,” he wrote.

What a sensible approach to deciding how to partition one’s personal beliefs and choices from one’s exercise of political power!

Justin Trudeau is the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada and son of former Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau. He recently revealed that future Liberal candidates will be vetted to ensure they are willing to support the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Specifically, they must support marriage equality and women’s bodily rights (for example, the right to have an abortion).

One might expect that this puts him ahead of the pack. There are a certainly people making noise about how this will help the Conservatives in the next election (for example, here and here). But the National Democratic Party (NDP) has had a similar policy for a while now, and even the ruling Conservative Party, while nominally open to members “voting their conscience”, has declined to reopen the abortion debate during its recent term in office.

I don’t think Trudeau’s position, on its own, would win the Liberals my vote. On the other hand, the euphemistic platform “Members can vote their conscience” will certainly lose the Conservatives my vote. It is an abdication from taking a stand. It amounts to saying “Members can try to take away people’s rights if they feel strongly about it.” Not okay, Conservatives. Not okay at all.

(I was pleased to note, in researching this post, that Trudeau’s Twitter feed includes items about transphobia and about scientific freedom. Those are issues that may draw me toward voting Liberal in the next election.)

(Also, the acoustics geek in me was delighted to notice that the hashtag for the Liberal Party of Canada is #LPC. Haha!)