Archive for August, 2014

Gillian Bennett: a heroic suicide


Have you heard of Gillian Bennett?

I think you should.

She was a philosopher and psychotherapist from New Zealand, most recently living in Canada.

She had Alzheimer’s Disease, an affliction which can strip your very self. More than one of my loved ones have been afflicted, and I am probably genetically predisposed to it myself, so I certainly understand the horrors and indignities of the disease.

Well, Gillian Bennett weighed her options, and chose to end her life while she was still herself. I won’t walk through the arguments for and against here: I think she does a far better job than I could on this website, Dead at Noon. Her words hold particular weight because I know that she has acted on her convictions.


Here are some articles about Gillian’s choice and its connection to the larger social debate:

When the time comes – hopefully many decades from now – I certainly hope I can die with the same dignity and integrity that Gillian exhibited. And I hope that, by then, the law is such that all of my loved ones who wish to can be with me, and that they can provide what help I need.

How about you? Are there circumstances where you would want to have the freedom to choose death? Why or why not? Do you think others should have that freedom? How far should that freedom extend?


Unequally yolked: egg on whose face?


two-wayEarlier this month I reviewed Dale McGowan’s book, In Faith and In Doubt, which talks at a very practical, human level about the benefits and drawbacks of marriage between religious and non-religious partners.

Just this week, I listened to a twenty-minute conversation between conservative Christian radio host Greg Koukl and a guest wondering about whether he was morally permitted to officiate at a wedding between a Christian and a non-believer. Koukl asserts unapologetically that it’s prohibited by the Bible.

Side note: The exchange was on the Stand to Reason apologetics podcast – this episode, from 1:18:10 to 1:38:20. I’m listening to it as part of an effort to expose myself not only to stuff I enjoy or agree with, but also stuff that irks me or that I disagree with. I really want to fight the tendency to isolate myself in a silo of like-minded thinkers. But let’s get back to the topic at hand.

Now, I think Dale is definitely right when he says that religious/non-religious mixed marriages can succeed. He has the statistics and testimonies to show that it’s true, and the rationale to explain how it happens.

I also agree with Greg that his scripture (specifically, the “unequally yoked” passage in 2nd Corinthians chapter 6, verses 14-18) speaks against such marriages. And what abuot those mixed marriages that Dale or I would call successful? I think Greg would probably count them as failed, since they often require bracketing beliefs (not abandoning them, but setting them to the side in marital discussions) and focussing on shared values. That is, these marriages involve compromise on certain principles that are central to Greg’s worldview.

But it’s interesting to me that, in the middle of that passage in the New Testament that is so crucial to Greg’s argument, the writer (almost certainly Paul himself) says “What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever?” In the context, that is clearly a rhetorical question whose answer is understood to be nothing.

But the actual answer, as a matter of empirical fact demonstrated by the stats that Dale presents, is clearly a whole lot. We share many beliefs (such as most of our beliefs about the physical world), and many values (most of those dealing with interpersonal relationships). Among believers and nonbelievers with a similar European, Canadian, or American background, we also share the bulk of our cultural practices and traditions.

Why do I mention all this?

Well, partly it’s just a musing on two lines of thought that I’ve been exposed to lately. Same topic, completely different conclusions – one from a perspective of dogmatic intransigence, the other from a perspective of openness and bridge-building.

And partly, of course, it is me as a humanist crowing about how much better my side is than the other (my side being liberals interested in tolerance and coexistence; the other side being fundamentalists interested in drawing lines and declaring wars). Nyah nyah! Except, of course, my side is only better from its own perspective. Aside from the easily-shrugged-off empirical niggle, nothing in Dale’s book really undermines the conservative Christian position. The Pauline position is the better answer when viewed from within that silo.

Does that sound like waffling? I suppose it does. I am still comfortable in the friendly humanist camp: the most important thing in this life is human thriving, and by all available measures the couples in these mixed marriages thrive just as well as those in more religiously-homogenous marriages. But I recognize (as does Dale in his book) that if you are starting from different values, you may get different mileage. Meaning that – at least this far – I am a relativist. And why the dickens shouldn’t I be?



Yah so, in case you’re worried, I am already over the funk those poems came from. But I thought it would be nice to share them – a glimpse of the less cerebral side of this humanist. Also, I suppose, the less friendly side.

That’s all. Talk to you again soon!

My rain


When I feel this way, your cheery cajoling is like

a bright strobe light

in a midnight rainstorm.



Destroying the unique, dark beauty of the moment.

Kindly piss off,

parade on someone else’s rain.

(Grumpy Haiku 2)


Dwell in thund’ry storms.

Face gusting wind, lashing rain.

They’ll blow past in time.

(Grumpy Haiku 1)


I am the anchor

holding myself to the ground

unwilling to fly.



No thanks. Not me. I’m feeling grumpy.

My mood, just now, is rather lumpy.

Some time soon my mood will shift.

This darkling pall will start to lift.

But here and now, I choose to wait,

to sulk and scowl, to brood and hate.

Please don’t “help”; don’t rib; don’t joke.

For mercy’s sake, don’t tease and poke.

I won’t respond well; I’ll push back.

I’ll pull you down – I’ve got the knack.

So I’ll leave thou and thee’ll leave me –

To me my scowl; to thee thy glee –

And some time soon we’ll meet again,

alike in mood, rejoined as friends.

Respect! Already, progress made.

My funky funk begins to fade.

Don’t pounce, not yet; I’m not yet there.

But when I am, I’ll share. I swear.


Kids and death: reincarnation


I talked recently about how the topic of death was co-opted by a religious meme that the kids were exposed to, which filled a gap left by their parents’ loud silence on the topic.

Well, we’ve been playing vigorous catch-up since then.

Recently, they asked me about what happens after death and I gave them the three main hypotheses that I could think of: nothing (the naturalist explanation), heaven (leaving hell aside for now), and reincarnation.

It seems that the current leader in their minds is reincarnation. Their imaginations have latched on, and they’re running with it. The day after I introduced the hypotheses, they followed up. I was asked if boys could come back as girls and vice versa. I answered affirmative – “Yes, I think that most people who believe in reincarnation believe that boys can be reincarnated as girls, and girls can be reincarnated as boys. In fact, humans can be reincarnated as other animals, and other animals can be reincarnated as humans.”

So far, when facing these different ideas, they haven’t asked “What do you believe, Dad?”

So I haven’t volunteered. I’ll keep reminding them of the other ideas out there (religious and non-religious), and trust their own self-determination.

I doubt I’d have thought of that approach, or trusted it, if I didn’t have all Dale’s blogging and books encouraging me. Thanks Dale!

Relative and subjective, pot and kettle


There are a few things that seem to be jumbled together in people’s minds – including my own – on the subject of morality. I’ll try to tease apart the relationships here, both to develop a more coherent picture myself and to communicate that perspective for others to inspect and critique.

Now, some people object to non-religious morality because it is subjective and relative, and therefore not as compelling or defensible as the alternatives. What they seem to mean by subjective is that it is chosen by the individual, rather than imposed from outside. What they seem to mean by relative is that it changes from person to person, depending on their preferences, tastes, and whims.

The alternative that many people offer is a morality based on a god. This sort of morality is thought to be objective, not subjective, because it is imposed from outside rather than being chosen by the individual. It is also thought to be absolute rather than relative because its source is a single unchanging, universal god rather than a myriad of individual, mercurial humans.

This account is simplistic and hides a startling fact about all these moral systems. Let’s dig deeper …

For one thing, there are many types of non-religious morality: utilitarian, virtue-based, social-contract, hedonistic, and others. Not all of these systems are equally subjective – they do not all posit moral rules deriving from the individual. Similarly, not all of them are equally relative – they do not all change from person to person.

My own moral system is based on trio of values which are, I think, fairly common to all humans: value for people’s well-being, value for people’s individual autonomy, and value for true understanding. Most common moral rules fall out of applying these three basic values. It is absolute rather than relative, because it is derived from a shared human nature which changes little over any one lifespan, or even over the course of recorded human history. It is also objective rather than subjective, to the extent that it draws on values that all people share, rather than values particular to certain individuals or groups.

However, I recognize that others might not see it that way. What’s to keep the next person from choosing a different set of basic beliefs from mine? I only have my own sense that these three are basic to defend them as the core of my moral system. So the source of this system may be my particular choice of core values, not some pan-human value set, making this system more relative and less aboslute than I would like. As for being objective, it falls short there too, doesn’t it. After all, it’s just me, a human, declaring it as a moral system, rather than it being imposed from outside.

Now, let’s compare this against religious alternatives. I will take Christians as an example, but I think the following would work for any other god-based morality out there.

Let’s take objectivity: is it imposed from within (ie, by humans) or from without? Well, in principle at least, Christian morality derives from their God – either as part of his nature, or as commands from him, or something else. So in principle it’s quite objective. Only … well, there’s no good reason to think the god has actually communicated any rules. Looking across Christian history, the rules people have ascribed to that god have run the spectrum on virtually every important moral issue, from slavery to homosexuality to abortion to monarchy to women’s rights. The rules that are actually articulated to human communities on behalf of that god show every evidence of coming from people. So, while there may in theory be objective moral rules that God would have us follow, the ones we have before us almost certainly came from humans. That is, they are subjective.

What about relativism: does it change from person to person based on their preferences, or does it apply to everyone regardless of what they want? Again, in principle, God’s wishes would be the same for everyone. They would be absolute, not relative. But again, in practice, we see Christians resolving disputes more often by switching denominations or splitting into separate groups than by rationally compelling assent to one clearly superior position. So, to the extent that we can say anything about Christian morality by looking at the behaviour of practicing Christians, we must conclude that it is highly relative.

I want to stop here to point out a parallel that the more attentive reader will already have spotted. The particular non-religious moral system that I espouse above is both objective and absolute from my perspective: it is imposed from outside any one person by human nature, and it applies to each individual’s actions regardless of whether they wishes it to apply. But in practice, I have no way to rationally compel assent to it, making it relative to my own interpretation of human nature; and to anyone else it would clearly appear to be imposed by me, a human, rather than from outside, making it subjective. On the other hand, religious moral systems are both objective and absolute from their own perspectives: they are imposed from outside by a poweful god, and they apply to everyone regardless of whether they want it to apply. But in practice, religious apologists have no way to rationally compel assent to their systems, making them relative to their particular interpretation of human nature; and to outsiders they appear to be imposed by the human believers, not their chosen gods, making them subjective.

I see two key differences. One is that religious moral systems are more popular and familiar. This makes their claims seem more plausible on the face of it (independent of their actual merits). The other is that I acknowledge the limitations and potential flaws of my system. This makes my claim seem less compelling (independent of its actual merits).

Dirty relativist that I am, I leave you to decide for yourself. Please do drop me a note to tell me what you think – constructive praise or constructive criticism are both welcome.

Not talking about death …


I’ve learned one thing more acutely than any other as a parent: now is the only time you have. Now is your only chance to have an impact on them.

That might sound like trite, wishy-washy silliness, but a couple of months ago it became rather abruptly real for me.

I have been reading Dale McGowan’s thoughts on humanist parenting since before either of my children were born. His blog, his books, the occasional video or personal email. I’ve learned that it’s important not to insulate kids from different ideas. That you need to be honest and open, and try not to pressure them into adopting your own favorite viewpoint.

And I’ve read that you can start as early as you like. But you know … no hurry, right? I mean, at first they don’t even understand speech. And then, well, they get the words but not all of the abstract ideas. And after that …

When Great Grandma died, it clearly lit something in them. A worry, a curiosity … I don’t know. Some existential human-ness that had so far been dormant. Anyway, at four and six years old, they started talking about it, asking about it.

I was unprepared, and I didn’t respond helpfully.

“Daddy, are you going to die?”

When are you going to die?”

“When am I going to die?”

“I don’t want to die.”

I don’t want you to die either. Or me. Please stop making me think about this.

Yes, of course. My own fears kept me from facing their worries directly, from recognizing them, from engaging them honestly and frankly. What can I say? Deep down I’m still a 4-year-old boy when it comes to facing death, or any of life’s other big questions. A 4-year-old boy with a somewhat larger vocabulary to hide behind.

No problem. I still had time to work out how to approach this better. Let me think about it for a while.

A few months later, we visited the church of some pleasant lads we’d been talking to – Mormon missionaries. This is good, right? Expose the kids to different ideas. Let them know about the great variety around them, and show them how much we trust them to make their own choices.

Deena and I sat through the service with the kids, and then visited a Bible study thing afterwards while the kids went to Sunday school. Afterwards, Kaia had this little craft she had done – a paper drawing of a person, with a transparent overlay, illustrating a person with a soul. She started talking about what happens when a person dies. Their strength goes out of them and goes … well, somewhere.

She was rather vague on the details, but clearly the idea of a life after death had been conveyed. It had been told her as simple truth, by someone who clearly believed it. And so she took it on as simple truth, as she would any other claim from a trusted adult. I really can’t fault the Sunday school teacher, or the Mormon church, for this. That’s their belief, after all.

It didn’t alarm me that she had heard this idea, or repeated it. What alarmed me was the realization that Deena and I hadn’t forearmed her with the knowledge that there are other ideas out there too – that this isn’t necessarily the way it is.

Her grandparents (who are all quite aware of our own beliefs about such things) were rather surprised to be told about souls and heaven by their (so far as they thought) thoroughly heathen granddaughter.

Lesson learned. Since then, we’ve been watching for questions and offering open answers – “That is what some people believe; others believe X or Y.” “Here are some ideas – have some fun with them.”

I’m also keeping an eye out for other hot-button topics. She’s only six, but at the current rate of time passage, by the end of the year she’ll be heading off to college without any fatherly wisdom on relationships, sex, finances, or how to strike the perfect work/Star Trek balance in life.

Anyway, stay tuned for further afterlife conversations. Our new openness in answering questions about death is already paying off.