Archive for June, 2014

Atheism and Unitarians 1: the negative


I am apparently not the only atheist who finds dabbling in Unitarian Universalism* to be a fraught, crazy-making endeavour. They are a good bunch, and generally sympathetic to humanist and atheist ideas and individuals. But sometimes … well, this post explores some of the less palatable elements of Unitarian community, from a humanist/atheist standpoint. A follow-up post will balance the coverage with the positive view of the humanist-Unitarian connection.

The difficulties I’ve had with Unitarians cover a broad range.

On the milder end, I have sometimes felt that the “welcome all comers” attitude of Unitarianism inhibits my capacity to critically discuss disagreements. This is a galling constraint to me. If you and I disagree about something, often it means one of us is wrong, and so I cherish the ability to discuss such differences robustly. That’s the best way for us to discover and correct any errors – whether they are in my stance, or yours, or both. I won’t be able to fully engage in a community – any community – if it isn’t open to self-critique and discussion of this sort.

I should acknowledge that the Unitarians have historically shown great courage in self-reflection and self-correction. Without ever breaking entirely from their religious origins, they have consciously set aside several orthodox Christian beliefs, including the odd doctrine of the trinity (that’s why they’re “Unitarians” – as opposed to “Trinitarians”) and the toxic idea of hell (giving the “Universalist” half of their name). My sense that disagreement isn’t always encouraged is likely as much part of my own perceptions as of the reality before me. Nevertheless, it has dampened my enthusiasm for self-identifying as a Unitarian.

Occasionally, an uglier sentiment arises. Some time ago now, Adam Lee of Daylight Atheism described a diatribe being aimed at atheists.

While I understand that Unitarians call themselves “religious”, it is clear both from their principles and their promotional literature that non-belief is well within the circle of beliefs compatible with Unitarianism. Not only that, but on important social issues (such as the same-sex union kerfuffle in Scotland), atheists and Unitarians stand side-by-side against the reactionary forces of traditional religion. Lee, an outspoken atheist and a member of a Unitarian congregation, was incensed by passages in the book A Chosen Faith, promoted by Unitarian organizations as an excellent introduction to their community.

Among the passages Lee cites is this:

Looking at the religious aspects of many intergroup conflicts, at the violence carried out by zealots in the name of religion, some people conclude that the world would be safer “religion-free.” They may even try living this way themselves. But too often they only practice a form of self-delusion.

It goes downhill from there, comparing modern, outspoken atheists to tyrants of the past century. These comparisons are factually tenuous at best, and far beneath the general tone you find when Unitarians discuss different beliefs. Lee contacts the author of the book to see if he is misreading the intent, but gets a reply that doubles down on the dissing, tarring himself as much of a kneejerk bigot as some of the worst fundamentalists.

Fortunately, I can report that I’ve never come across such repulsive attitudes myself among Unitarian groups.

Not all Unitarians are alike, and in my follow-up post I will point out some of the high points I have encountered in Unitarian/humanist contact.


* I generally abbreviate “Unitarian Universalist” to “Unitarian”. I know some Unitarian Universalists strongly prefer the full name as more descriptive, or abbreviate it “UU” instead. There are good historical reasons for the UUs having this double-barrelled name. But in Edinburgh, the name “Unitarian” was common, so that’s the variant I will stick with for convenience.


Sometimes it’s worth getting upset


I work, on this blog, to speak both to those who already agree with me (whether they call themselves humanists, atheists, freethinkers, agnostics, brights, something else, or take on no particular label at all), and to those who do not (religious, post-religious, spiritual-but-not-religious, etc).

I strive to live up to the name I took for the blog – a standard that I think is worth reaching for: to be friendly. To avoid unnecessary conflict. To speak in a way that people remain willing to listen.

And yet …

And yet, I really enjoy a good zinger. I love listening to someone take down a stupid argument with all the acidic vitriol or dismissive contempt that it deserves. It appeals to something base and undeniable in me.

And it’s not a completely bad thing – not some dirty pleasure. Motivating me in my friendly approach is the same zeal for connection, for truth, and for making the world a better place as motivates PZ Myers, Richard Dawkins, and a hundred other, louder voices. The same values motivate me as motivated Christopher Hitchens.

And so I commend to you, my fellow humanists (etc), these two compilations of Hitchens’ sharp and uncompromising style and wit in action. If you are religious and find that Hitchens’ tone puts you off, feel free to avoid these. Or, if you’re feeling bold and open, watch them anyway and try to see what motivates him to say the things he says, and to say them in that way.

Part 1:

Part 2:

[Edit: There’s a new one! Enjoy …]

Part 3:

[Edit: And more …]

Part 4:


Labels that define me


This post was originally inspired by a very animated discussion with Jamie Ian Swiss in the this 2012 episode of the Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast.

Long-time readers of this blog have learned something of my political views, my personal life, and various other things. But one thing I may never have explicitly done is lay out how I think these things interconnect.

For example, I am an atheist and a humanist. Some people think that “humanist” is just a euphemism for “atheist”, since most people who label themselves humanists are also atheists. But there is an important difference. In this article, I will briefly trace out some of the connections.

First, at the root, I consider myself a humanist. Though I consciously took on the label only a short time before beginning this blog, I think it has basically formed the basis of my approach to life since I was very young. As Bertrand Russell said, “The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge.” That captures my two core values: compassion and the pursuit of understanding. To me, that is what humanism boils down to. (Notice that this definition doesn’t imply atheism.)

Now, I think the best way to pursue understanding is through scientific skepticism – I am a skeptic. I once quoted Steve Novella (of the above-mentioned podcast, Skeptics Guide to the Universe) defining skepticism: “Skepticism, as an intellectual endeavor, is the study of these mental pitfalls, for a thorough understanding of them is the best way to avoid them.” It’s not hard to form a belief; the trick is to filter good beliefs from bad ones. Skepticism is the toolkit for successful filtering.

One of the least important of my labels is atheism. This label simply means that nobody has yet convinced me that any god exists. It is one of many results of applying skepticism to claims that come at me. (Others of more consequence include accepting evolution, rejecting homeopathy, avoiding health fads, and a current push to learn more about Bayesian reasoning.) Though it has little importance in my epistemology, I would say that it is socially important. Atheists in some countries live under threat of violence and death. Even here in Canada, we are sometimes the targets of bigotry and hostility. So it is important for those who can safely do so to visibly identify as atheists (at least), so that others become aware of our existence and our normal humanness.

Another label that I like to hold is that of scientist. I am still very junior in this pursuit, and claim no particular prowess in it, but it is (in my mind) one of the most noble applications of skepticism, and I hope someday to contribute something significant to human knowledge through my scientific work.

I also have far more personal, less philosophical labels. I am a Mills by descent, and I have close ties with my family through shared traditions, history, and simple familial love. I am a daddy – a label whose meaning evolves as my children (now 4 and 6) develop into ever more amazing and surprising people. In no particular order, I am also a husband, a writer, a homeowner, a teacher, a son, and many other things. I try to exercise these parts of my identity in a way that aligns with my core values – values that come from my personal background and are defined, to some extent, by the main labels “humanist”, “skeptic”, and “scientist”.

There is much more to say about identity and labels, but I think this will suffice for now.

Crunch! Bang! Linux again!


It’s been a while since I’ve done any cheerleading here for Linux. I think I’m due. There’s a bit of nerdly enthusing in this post. Well, rather a lot really. But do read on and let me know what you think.

People who know me well know that, whenever possible, I stick to Linux and stay away from Windows and Mac. Partly this is an economic choice: Linux is cheaper (free, in most of its incarnations), and the programs I use on Linux are also free: the LibreOffice productivity suite, Firefox or Chrome browsers, VLC media player, some research tools (RStudio, Praat), and others.

Partly, it is a philosophical/value choice. Linux and the free-as-in-speech free software movement are all about competent people producing quality tools and sharing them, collaboratively improving them, for the benefit of the community. This is very parallel with the values of academic science and research – a career I have chosen as well-suited to my values and personality. In fact, the scientific imperative to make your experiments reproducible is, I think, most naturally met in a software ecology based on freely-available open-source systems and programs.

Partly, it is an aesthetic choice. I grew up on a farm, and my father was forever tinkering with machinery to keep it working, to improve it, or to adapt it for a new task. I’m not much of a mechanic, but the hands-on attitude of many Linux systems suits my moderate computer skills. There are thousands of permutations of Linux out there, in case you didn’t know. I would guess, off the top of my head, that well over 90% of the different operating systems you could put on an electronic device – desktop, laptop, tablet, phone, etc – are variations on Linux. Just choosing which one empowers you to express yourself in many ways. There are visually elaborate and plain systems. There are build-it-from-scratch systems, and run-everything-out-of-the-box systems. For a moderate fee, you can even get dedicated user support from experts. There are systems geared toward multimedia, systems aimed at programmers, systems aimed at old hardware, small memory resources. There are even systems specifically designed to wean users off Windows and Mac operating systems. So if you want to express yourself in your operating system (beyond setting a colour scheme and a desktop image), Linux is the way to go.

I find that it suits my self-identity as a slightly eccentric, moderately computer-savvy, pragmatic get-it-done kind of person.

Anyway, Linux has been my main operating system for several years. Recently it was Linux Mint Debian Edition. Mint is a small set of Linux distributions aimed at ease of use, and the Debian Edition is specifically designed to avoid “bloat” – the excessive accumulation of bells and whistles that can bog a computer down. This very decent system was becoming a bit much for my small and aging netbook, so I went shopping. In this case, that meant downloading disk images, which I could then put on USB sticks. I would reboot the machine using the USB stick, get to give the system a try while running it off the USB stick – it’s slower, but it leaves my existing system intact in case I change my mind – and then reboot and pop in another one.

It turned out that one of the distributions I had seen but dismissed in the past was particularly good – either because it has gotten better or my perceptions have changed (probably both). And so now I am running Crunchbang Linux (also written #! (because the “#!” sequence is a frequent opening to script files that do useful stuff in Linux, and that character sequence is called the “crunch-bang”).

I could go on into the finer details of what makes Crunchbang my current Linux-of-choice, but I think I’ll spare you that deep dive into nerdopolis.

Instead I’ll leave you with a final, and ultimately decisive, reason that I like Linux (and Crunchbang in particular). That’s the community.

I know, I mentioned it above already, but consider this. I have had a couple of minor support issues since I started with Crunchbang a few weeks ago (both due to esoteric teaching- and research-related software I installed). For each one, I posted a short query to the user forum (a group, remember, of unpaid volunteers – people who only hang around because they love the system and the community), and had my problem solved within an hour or two. Just by installing Crunchbang, I have become a member of a supportive, competent community of people who share at least one key interest with me.

Linux really is a human-friendly operating system. Try it out. Or ask around and get a friend to give you a tour.

Conservative health?


[In an ongoing renewal of this blog, I have come across a draft article that was neglected well past the expiry date of the current events it describes. However, I feel that the ideas are still worth airing, so with a little editing I’m releasing it into the wild.]

I have moved back to the province of my birth – beautiful, bountiful Alberta. It happens that an election was held shortly after our return, in which the decades-long domination of the Progressive Conservative (PC) party may be overturned was extended for another four years.

I have a tendency to lean more liberal than my Albertan family and friends – and it may not surprise them that I am writing a post critical of the PC party. What might surprise them is that my current criticism is for a failure to be sufficiently conservative.

I was perusing the PC leaflet that arrived in our mailbox before the election. (similar to the platform statement here [PDF]), and discovered a policy whose motivation is most transparently vote-buying rather than holding to a consistent political ideology. At the top of page 8 in the linked file, we read the following:

Alternative medicine plays an increasingly important role in preventative health, and needs to be considered in a holistic approach to wellness – especially in cases where naturopathic, homeopathic, chiropractic and other therapies help patients attain personal health goals. Qualified patients will be able to claim up to $500 per year for these treatments starting in 2013.

How is paying for new treatments with unproven efficacy (often, proven inefficacy) either socially or fiscally conservative?

Alberta, the wealthiest province in Canada thanks to the various economic benefits that derive from rich oil deposits, currently has a struggling health system. Many people are without a family doctor. Oh, we do have a public health system, and it’s a fair sight better than what they have south of the border, but it’s far from perfect.

And here is a nominally conservative party, electing to subsidize witch doctors. (I’m not going to go over the arguments. If you don’t know why I’m so negative about “alternative medicine”, browse the Science-Based Medicine site.) All of the approaches mentioned in the PC literature – naturopathy, homeopathy, and chiropractic – have failed to pass the tests of efficacy that we rightly demand of real medicine.

My guess, gleaned from the greasy language of the document, is that they have perceived a popular trend toward alternative medicine, and want to be seen as open-minded.


Let me plant a flag here. I may be a social liberal. I may think that the government has no place dictating private life choices – from who you marry to how you manage your reproductive health. But when you’re putting public money toward public health – as I think we should – then the treatments paid for by that money damned well better have evidence supporting their usefulness.

And if you’re one of those open-minded individuals who likes to ask, “What’s the harm in trying new techniques that haven’t been proven yet?”, let me point you to a site where someone has done more than just ask the question – he’s tried to find the answer. It’s called What’s the Harm? It’s not pretty – there is a body count.

Sadly, as I hadn’t been resident here for the required 6 months, I didn’t get to vote in this election. But I will be voting soon enough. And sharing my opinions. What would I like to see in a party or candidate? I’d like to see the following:

  • uphold basic civil liberties (not generally a problem here – the anti-abortionists and anti-gay-marriage types seem to be on the back foot, even in conservative Alberta) (see my recent post about abortion in federal politics)
  • support democratic voting reform (my choice would be to switch to single transferable vote from our current first-past-the-post) to create a more representative form of representative democracy
  • commit to evidence-based regulation wherever possible (for example, in licensing and funding of medical practitioners and practices)
  • maintain a social welfare net that includes universal healthcare, a welfare system that encourages people back into the workforce when they are unemployed, and minimum wage laws that ensure a viable living salary for anyone who is employed

So, you know, not much.