Archive for the ‘anecdote’ Category

Fit in or fuck off


A couple of days ago, I saw a bumper sticker with  Canadian flag image over the words “Fit in or fuck off”. (Actually, I think it was in all caps, but I’ve toned it down to avoid offending anyone.)

My first reaction, as a red-blooded Canadian, was to question the ancestry, physiology, and various appetites of the driver in various creative monosyllables. My Canada welcomes a diverse range of people. My Canada is a delightfully multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-religious country. People who don’t fit in stand out, and those who stand out have been among the greatest contributors to our national and global heritage.

I got home and started unloading my rant on my patient and understanding life partner.

I got about as far as the content of the bumper sticker and she nodded. “Sure,” she said. “We’re a multi-cultural society . The only people who don’t fit in are the bigots.”

Oh how I love her.

So, in the end, I agree with the bumper sticker. Everyone who wants to is welcome to fit themselves in to the rich, multicoloured tapestry of Canadian society. And if they aren’t willing to live alongside the rest of us in peace and cooperation, they can f[ly] off.

Canada flag


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!

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.

Well, how would you describe it?


From Kaia, my six-year-old daughter:

The time is six, dot-high, dot-low, five, three.

I almost don’t want to teach her the names of punctuation marks, just to see what she comes up with.

Do you have any stories of clever names that kids (or others) have given to common orthographic scratchings?

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.

New snow


One evening not long ago, I took the garbage and recycling out to the curb. A gentle snow was falling, drifting down through the orange glow of the street lights.

I stood in the serene silence, contemplating the scene. The marks of vehicles and feet, grit and grime, were all disappearing beneath a pristine orange-white blanket. My subconscious gently whispered a single word to me:


It was a forgiving snowfall.

It was a peaceful sensation, standing at the curb, watching the forgiving snow fall, feeling the cool night air against my cheeks. It suffused me with an unlooked-for sense of relief, of release from the stresses and worries of the day. I began to reflect on the appeal of forgiveness (a concept that seems to be a central, motivating element in more than one religious system).

I saw how someone in my position, feeling what I felt right then, might infer a divine forgiver behind the emotion (rather than dismissing it as simply coming from their own mind*). After all, forgiveness is normally granted by someone else.

And of course, if one is forgiven, it is generally in response to a transgression of some sort. You are forgiven for something. A sin.

And the forgiver must have had some alternative (or else what’s the point?). If forgiveness were not granted, then what? Punishment. Retribution. Some sort of supernatural gulag. Hell.

I noticed that, in a short series of very natural steps, I had been led from a remarkable experience to imagining the invention of a religion – a religion with a very familiar structure. I felt, as I don’t think I have felt so strongly ever before, how appealing are those belief systems that hold up forgiveness as a central reward of participation. I could see why someone might want to believe. Why I might want to believe.

I don’t know. I don’t know whether my chain of imagination in any way reflects the birth sequence of any actual human religion. I don’t know if any individual person has ever come to religious belief through such an experience.

Though it was powerful and moving, the sensation and the thoughts it inspired did not make a believer out of me. It was wonderful, memorable. It begins to give me a little more insight into how my mind works, how I process things emotionally.

But it does not look to me like evidence of a supernatural realm, of a divine forgiver.

I think – I hope – that the experience has given me a new sympathy for believers, a new ability to see why they find their beliefs so attractive. We shall see.


* It is both curious and telling that, in response to atheists’ skepticism, believers often challenge them by asking if they think these experiences are simply in their heads. As if anyone with even a passing familiarity with neural physiology or human psychology could ever describe the physical mind as “simple”. Your brain is incredibly powerful, and is doing so much more work processing the input of your senses and curating your memories than you are ever conscious of.

Confession of a born essentialist


We have an innate tendency to psychological essentialism. Bruce Hood articulates this tendency well (see his book Supersense). His most vivid example is the serial-killer’s shirt. If you are given a nice shirt – one that fits well and suits your style and wardrobe – and told that it once belonged to a serial killer, how will you react? Most people will avoid the shirt – even avoid touching it. Of course, the shirt contains no “serial-killer essence”, but the association sparks something deep our psychology: we want to avoid objects that are associated with bad things.

This was probably hugely adaptive in our evolutionary history: if you avoid touching things that have been handled by, say, a seriously ill person, you are less likely to become infected yourself. It doesn’t matter if the reason you avoid them is rooted in an accurate knowledge of the germ theory of disease or an improbable metaphysical notion of guilt-by-association – if it saves your life and is affected by your genes, it will give you a selective advantage over people without the trait, or with a weaker version of the same trait.

Essentialist psychology provides a compelling explanation for why people would believe in certain immaterial properties of matter even if the universe is completely material. Which leads some philosophical naturalists (humanists, atheists, etc) to smugly think that we’ve risen above the illusion: we see through the illusory sense that our instincts push us into. We aren’t tricked into god-belief or imagining a life after death.

Well, it’s not that easy.

I was playing with Kaia (my 2-year-old daughter), and she told me that her doll needed a nappy change*. As an expert, I was invited to conduct the procedure. I used a nose tissue to wipe the doll’s bottom.

When I went to put the tissue back in my pocket (for future use), I was momentarily overcome by my inner essentialist. I had a strong sense that the tissue was unclean. All simply because of an act of imagination!

I quickly realized what was happening, and put the tissue in my pocket anyway. In fact, once I became conscious of the illusion, it quickly dissipated. Thank goodness for skepticism. I wonder if I would have recovered as quickly if I had not, a few years ago, attended a talk here in Edinburgh given by Bruce Hood.

Have you ever had a “silly essentialist” moment like this? How did you react? How did you feel once you realized what was going on?

* I feel I should point out that this wasn’t one of those modern imagination-free dolls that actually produce wet nappies.


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.

The high point


Yesterday was a real milestone for me – a culmination of five years of thinking and working and writing and rethinking and reworking and rewriting. To have it declared worthy of the honour of a PhD degree was probably the most satisfying moment of my academic career so far.

But I think the high point of the day was later. After the three hours of the viva, after an afternoon of congratulations from friends and colleagues, after an evening in the pub recounting the events of the day and sharing stories with fellow students and academics.

The high point came when I was home again, and I was putting Kaia to bed, and she fell asleep on my chest.

Ahh, perspective.