Archive for the ‘celebration/inspiration’ Category

Collins vs Darcy on consent

2016/02/14


It occurred to me earlier this evening, as I supped with my son and daughter, that a most suitable example of the difference between respecting feminine choice and dismissing it can be found in the pages of one of the English language’s most admired works: the excellent
Pride and Prejudice, by one of her justly celebrated wordsmiths, the inestimable Jane Austen.

PridePrejudice423x630In much the same way that any fresh river that flows into the sea becomes salty, and any iceberg that drifts into tropical waters must melt, so, in writing this, I find my style and language bending towards that used by Miss Austen. Though I cannot hope to reach her sharpness of wit nor her depth of insight, I perforce borrow something of her style here. For those accustomed to the brevity of the modern age – where written missives are often no longer measured in volumes or even in pages, but in lines, words, or even individual characters – this post may seem excessive in length. It approaches an order of magnitude longer than my customary contributions. I cannot be certain that you will enjoy it, but I can promise that, though my own count of words will exceed normal, it will be balanced by an even more generous count from Miss Austen herself – to whose insightful text my entire missive here is indebted in the highest degree.

Before I continue, I would like to acknowledge the faint but real possibility that some one or two among my readers might, against all reason and hope, not yet have read this tale in its entirety at least once – or, at the least, witnessed one of the several dramatic enactments which have been made of it (of which I recommend above all others that featuring Mister Colin Firth and Ms Jennifer Ehle). If you are in such a fortunate position (for who among us would not love to be able to read again for the first time a beloved tale?), I implore you to watch or (better) to read the story before continuing. My discussion below contains such revelations as may spoil your enjoyment most cruelly if you read my words before you read Miss Austen’s tale itself. I assure you, her volume is suitably thin compared to many of its genre (both old and new), and though the language may not be what you are accustomed to, nevertheless you will find the tale behind the words most worthwhile. Go, read it. This missive of mine can wait the few hours or days it may take you to initiate yourself in this fine pillar of English literature.

Very well, from here I will assume that my readers are familiar with the tale. If any are not, then it can be on their conscience and not mine should their future ventures into Miss Austen’s masterpiece be rendered less suspenseful by what they are about to read.

My observation is a simple one at its core. There are two men who offer proposals of marriage to the book’s protagonist, Miss Elizabeth Bennett, in the course of the book. The first is the odious Mister William Collins – a distant cousin who visits Miss Bennnett’s home of Longbourne with the aim of obtaining a wife. The second is Mister Fitzwilliam Darcy, a prideful man who is drawn to love Miss Elizabeth Bennett by the strength of her character, and much against the practical advice of his conscience as regards her family’s situation and (rather to her embarrassment) as regards the character and actions of her sisters, her mother, and even occasionally her father.

So much is clear to anyone who knows the story in even its barest details. But what particularly occurred to me today is the different attitude the suitors in question have toward Elizabeth’s failure to accede to their proposals (for, though the tale turns out otherwise in the end, her first response to both of them is an unequivocal negative).

I could go on at greater length in my own words – as you may already have perceived – but I feel the case will most securely be made by giving the text itself. Here is the scene at Longbourne from Chapter 19 in which Mister Collins proposes to Miss Elizabeth. I entreat you to note at what point she clearly expresses her refusal, and how that clear decision affects his own intentions and expectations.

“My reasons for marrying are, first, that I think it a right thing for every clergyman in easy circumstances (like myself) to set the example of matrimony in his parish; secondly, that I am convinced that it will add very greatly to my happiness; and thirdly—which perhaps I ought to have mentioned earlier, that it is the particular advice and recommendation of the very noble lady whom I have the honour of calling patroness. Twice has she condescended to give me her opinion (unasked too!) on this subject; and it was but the very Saturday night before I left Hunsford—between our pools at quadrille, while Mrs. Jenkinson was arranging Miss de Bourgh’s footstool, that she said, ‘Mr. Collins, you must marry. A clergyman like you must marry. Choose properly, choose a gentlewoman formy sake; and for your own, let her be an active, useful sort of person, not brought up high, but able to make a small income go a good way. This is my advice. Find such a woman as soon as you can, bring her to Hunsford, and I will visit her.’ Allow me, by the way, to observe, my fair cousin, that I do not reckon the notice and kindness of Lady Catherine de Bourgh as among the least of the advantages in my power to offer. You will find her manners beyond anything I can describe; and your wit and vivacity, I think, must be acceptable to her, especially when tempered with the silence and respect which her rank will inevitably excite. Thus much for my general intention in favour of matrimony; it remains to be told why my views were directed towards Longbourn instead of my own neighbourhood, where I can assure you there are many amiable young women. But the fact is, that being, as I am, to inherit this estate after the death of your honoured father (who, however, may live many years longer), I could not satisfy myself without resolving to choose a wife from among his daughters, that the loss to them might be as little as possible, when the melancholy event takes place—which, however, as I have already said, may not be for several years. This has been my motive, my fair cousin, and I flatter myself it will not sink me in your esteem. And now nothing remains for me but to assure you in the most animated language of the violence of my affection. To fortune I am perfectly indifferent, and shall make no demand of that nature on your father, since I am well aware that it could not be complied with; and that one thousand pounds in the four per cents, which will not be yours till after your mother’s decease, is all that you may ever be entitled to. On that head, therefore, I shall be uniformly silent; and you may assure yourself that no ungenerous reproach shall ever pass my lips when we are married.”

It was absolutely necessary to interrupt him now.

“You are too hasty, sir,” she cried. “You forget that I have made no answer. Let me do it without further loss of time. Accept my thanks for the compliment you are paying me. I am very sensible of the honour of your proposals, but it is impossible for me to do otherwise than to decline them.”

“I am not now to learn,” replied Mr. Collins, with a formal wave of the hand, “that it is usual with young ladies to reject the addresses of the man whom they secretly mean to accept, when he first applies for their favour; and that sometimes the refusal is repeated a second, or even a third time. I am therefore by no means discouraged by what you have just said, and shall hope to lead you to the altar ere long.”

“Upon my word, sir,” cried Elizabeth, “your hope is a rather extraordinary one after my declaration. I do assure you that I am not one of those young ladies (if such young ladies there are) who are so daring as to risk their happiness on the chance of being asked a second time. I am perfectly serious in my refusal. You could not make me happy, and I am convinced that I am the last woman in the world who could make you so. Nay, were your friend Lady Catherine to know me, I am persuaded she would find me in every respect ill qualified for the situation.”

“Were it certain that Lady Catherine would think so,” said Mr. Collins very gravely—”but I cannot imagine that her ladyship would at all disapprove of you. And you may be certain when I have the honour of seeing her again, I shall speak in the very highest terms of your modesty, economy, and other amiable qualification.”

“Indeed, Mr. Collins, all praise of me will be unnecessary. You must give me leave to judge for myself, and pay me the compliment of believing what I say. I wish you very happy and very rich, and by refusing your hand, do all in my power to prevent your being otherwise. In making me the offer, you must have satisfied the delicacy of your feelings with regard to my family, and may take possession of Longbourn estate whenever it falls, without any self-reproach. This matter may be considered, therefore, as finally settled.” And rising as she thus spoke, she would have quitted the room, had Mr. Collins not thus addressed her:

“When I do myself the honour of speaking to you next on the subject, I shall hope to receive a more favourable answer than you have now given me; though I am far from accusing you of cruelty at present, because I know it to be the established custom of your sex to reject a man on the first application, and perhaps you have even now said as much to encourage my suit as would be consistent with the true delicacy of the female character.”

“Really, Mr. Collins,” cried Elizabeth with some warmth, “you puzzle me exceedingly. If what I have hitherto said can appear to you in the form of encouragement, I know not how to express my refusal in such a way as to convince you of its being one.”

“You must give me leave to flatter myself, my dear cousin, that your refusal of my addresses is merely words of course. My reasons for believing it are briefly these: It does not appear to me that my hand is unworthy of your acceptance, or that the establishment I can offer would be any other than highly desirable. My situation in life, my connections with the family of de Bourgh, and my relationship to your own, are circumstances highly in my favour; and you should take it into further consideration, that in spite of your manifold attractions, it is by no means certain that another offer of marriage may ever be made you. Your portion is unhappily so small that it will in all likelihood undo the effects of your loveliness and amiable qualifications. As I must therefore conclude that you are not serious in your rejection of me, I shall choose to attribute it to your wish of increasing my love by suspense, according to the usual practice of elegant females.”

“I do assure you, sir, that I have no pretensions whatever to that kind of elegance which consists in tormenting a respectable man. I would rather be paid the compliment of being believed sincere. I thank you again and again for the honour you have done me in your proposals, but to accept them is absolutely impossible. My feelings in every respect forbid it. Can I speak plainer? Do not consider me now as an elegant female, intending to plague you, but as a rational creature, speaking the truth from her heart.”

“You are uniformly charming!” cried he, with an air of awkward gallantry; “and I am persuaded that when sanctioned by the express authority of both your excellent parents, my proposals will not fail of being acceptable.”

To such perseverance in wilful self-deception Elizabeth would make no reply, and immediately and in silence withdrew; determined, if he persisted in considering her repeated refusals as flattering encouragement, to apply to her father, whose negative might be uttered in such a manner as to be decisive, and whose behaviour at least could not be mistaken for the affectation and coquetry of an elegant female.

One can at least be thankful, I suppose, that Mister Collins’s indifference to her wishes did not induce him into a more forceful physical expression of his desires – though many a man in similar circumstances has not scrupled to stop there. Nevertheless, his contempt for her individuality and her capacity to know her own mind is quite evident.

And now compare this to Mister Darcy’s proposal in chapter 34, offered during a private conversation in Rosings Park, the estate in which Mister Collins resides with his new bride, Charlotte, and which belongs to Mister Collins’s patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh:

“In vain I have struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”

Elizabeth’s astonishment was beyond expression. She stared, coloured, doubted, and was silent. This he considered sufficient encouragement; and the avowal of all that he felt, and had long felt for her, immediately followed. He spoke well; but there were feelings besides those of the heart to be detailed; and he was not more eloquent on the subject of tenderness than of pride. His sense of her inferiority—of its being a degradation—of the family obstacles which had always opposed to inclination, were dwelt on with a warmth which seemed due to the consequence he was wounding, but was very unlikely to recommend his suit.

In spite of her deeply-rooted dislike, she could not be insensible to the compliment of such a man’s affection, and though her intentions did not vary for an instant, she was at first sorry for the pain he was to receive; till, roused to resentment by his subsequent language, she lost all compassion in anger. She tried, however, to compose herself to answer him with patience, when he should have done. He concluded with representing to her the strength of that attachment which, in spite of all his endeavours, he had found impossible to conquer; and with expressing his hope that it would now be rewarded by her acceptance of his hand. As he said this, she could easily see that he had no doubt of a favourable answer. He spoke of apprehension and anxiety, but his countenance expressed real security. Such a circumstance could only exasperate farther, and, when he ceased, the colour rose into her cheeks, and she said:

“In such cases as this, it is, I believe, the established mode to express a sense of obligation for the sentiments avowed, however unequally they may be returned. It is natural that obligation should be felt, and if I could feel gratitude, I would now thank you. But I cannot—I have never desired your good opinion, and you have certainly bestowed it most unwillingly. I am sorry to have occasioned pain to anyone. It has been most unconsciously done, however, and I hope will be of short duration. The feelings which, you tell me, have long prevented the acknowledgment of your regard, can have little difficulty in overcoming it after this explanation.”

Mr. Darcy, who was leaning against the mantelpiece with his eyes fixed on her face, seemed to catch her words with no less resentment than surprise. His complexion became pale with anger, and the disturbance of his mind was visible in every feature. He was struggling for the appearance of composure, and would not open his lips till he believed himself to have attained it. The pause was to Elizabeth’s feelings dreadful. At length, with a voice of forced calmness, he said:

“And this is all the reply which I am to have the honour of expecting! I might, perhaps, wish to be informed why, with so little endeavour at civility, I am thus rejected. But it is of small importance.”

“I might as well inquire,” replied she, “why with so evident a desire of offending and insulting me, you chose to tell me that you liked me against your will, against your reason, and even against your character? Was not this some excuse for incivility, if I wasuncivil? But I have other provocations. You know I have. Had not my feelings decided against you—had they been indifferent, or had they even been favourable, do you think that any consideration would tempt me to accept the man who has been the means of ruining, perhaps for ever, the happiness of a most beloved sister?”

As she pronounced these words, Mr. Darcy changed colour; but the emotion was short, and he listened without attempting to interrupt her while she continued:

“I have every reason in the world to think ill of you. No motive can excuse the unjust and ungenerous part you acted there. You dare not, you cannot deny, that you have been the principal, if not the only means of dividing them from each other—of exposing one to the censure of the world for caprice and instability, and the other to its derision for disappointed hopes, and involving them both in misery of the acutest kind.”

She paused, and saw with no slight indignation that he was listening with an air which proved him wholly unmoved by any feeling of remorse. He even looked at her with a smile of affected incredulity.

“Can you deny that you have done it?” she repeated.

With assumed tranquillity he then replied: “I have no wish of denying that I did everything in my power to separate my friend from your sister, or that I rejoice in my success. Towards him I have been kinder than towards myself.”

Elizabeth disdained the appearance of noticing this civil reflection, but its meaning did not escape, nor was it likely to conciliate her.

“But it is not merely this affair,” she continued, “on which my dislike is founded. Long before it had taken place my opinion of you was decided. Your character was unfolded in the recital which I received many months ago from Mr. Wickham. On this subject, what can you have to say? In what imaginary act of friendship can you here defend yourself? or under what misrepresentation can you here impose upon others?”

“You take an eager interest in that gentleman’s concerns,” said Darcy, in a less tranquil tone, and with a heightened colour.

“Who that knows what his misfortunes have been, can help feeling an interest in him?”

“His misfortunes!” repeated Darcy contemptuously; “yes, his misfortunes have been great indeed.”

“And of your infliction,” cried Elizabeth with energy. “You have reduced him to his present state of poverty—comparative poverty. You have withheld the advantages which you must know to have been designed for him. You have deprived the best years of his life of that independence which was no less his due than his desert. You have done all this! and yet you can treat the mention of his misfortune with contempt and ridicule.”

“And this,” cried Darcy, as he walked with quick steps across the room, “is your opinion of me! This is the estimation in which you hold me! I thank you for explaining it so fully. My faults, according to this calculation, are heavy indeed! But perhaps,” added he, stopping in his walk, and turning towards her, “these offenses might have been overlooked, had not your pride been hurt by my honest confession of the scruples that had long prevented my forming any serious design. These bitter accusations might have been suppressed, had I, with greater policy, concealed my struggles, and flattered you into the belief of my being impelled by unqualified, unalloyed inclination; by reason, by reflection, by everything. But disguise of every sort is my abhorrence. Nor am I ashamed of the feelings I related. They were natural and just. Could you expect me to rejoice in the inferiority of your connections?—to congratulate myself on the hope of relations, whose condition in life is so decidedly beneath my own?”

Elizabeth felt herself growing more angry every moment; yet she tried to the utmost to speak with composure when she said:

“You are mistaken, Mr. Darcy, if you suppose that the mode of your declaration affected me in any other way, than as it spared me the concern which I might have felt in refusing you, had you behaved in a more gentlemanlike manner.”

She saw him start at this, but he said nothing, and she continued:

“You could not have made the offer of your hand in any possible way that would have tempted me to accept it.”

Again his astonishment was obvious; and he looked at her with an expression of mingled incredulity and mortification. She went on:

“From the very beginning—from the first moment, I may almost say—of my acquaintance with you, your manners, impressing me with the fullest belief of your arrogance, your conceit, and your selfish disdain of the feelings of others, were such as to form the groundwork of disapprobation on which succeeding events have built so immovable a dislike; and I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry.”

“You have said quite enough, madam. I perfectly comprehend your feelings, and have now only to be ashamed of what my own have been. Forgive me for having taken up so much of your time, and accept my best wishes for your health and happiness.”

And with these words he hastily left the room, and Elizabeth heard him the next moment open the front door and quit the house.

I trust by now, dear reader, that you comprehend the contrast that sprang into my mind so recently. The above passages establish it quite clearly. Mister Collins, on the one hand, is clearly indifferent to Miss Elizabeth’s wishes on the matter. Though he flatters himself that he is paying her a great compliment in making the offer of marriage, he fails to pay her the compliment which, both in that time and in the present day, is of the greater value: that he is willing to respect her decisions. Mister Darcy, on the other hand, although he is (at this stage of the story) quite reprehensible in his attitude toward her situation and clearly upset at being refused so unequivocally, nevertheless accepts her refusal as a refusal, and does not once attempt to ignore it or reinterpret it as aught else.

Of course, anyone who holds the tale dear in their memory – a host that I feel must include all who have read the full tale – knows that it does not end there. After mishaps and misunderstandings, Miss Elizabeth once again faces Mister Darcy – this time with far different feelings towards him.

This current contribution to my public, ethereal log of thoughts and contemplations is already quite long enough. So I will close my own contribution here and leave you with that final proposal of Darcy’s. Attend in particular, if you will, to how he expresses himself regarding the possible outcomes. How does he commit himself to respond if she should renew her rejection of him? In what way does he comport himself relative to her wishes and intentions, even when he is completely in suspense as to their nature?

Here is that encounter from chapter 58, as they walk together near Longbourne:

“Mr. Darcy, I am a very selfish creature; and, for the sake of giving relief to my own feelings, care not how much I may be wounding yours. I can no longer help thanking you for your unexampled kindness to my poor sister. Ever since I have known it, I have been most anxious to acknowledge to you how gratefully I feel it. Were it known to the rest of my family, I should not have merely my own gratitude to express.”

“I am sorry, exceedingly sorry,” replied Darcy, in a tone of surprise and emotion, “that you have ever been informed of what may, in a mistaken light, have given you uneasiness. I did not think Mrs. Gardiner was so little to be trusted.”

“You must not blame my aunt. Lydia’s thoughtlessness first betrayed to me that you had been concerned in the matter; and, of course, I could not rest till I knew the particulars. Let me thank you again and again, in the name of all my family, for that generous compassion which induced you to take so much trouble, and bear so many mortifications, for the sake of discovering them.”

“If you will thank me,” he replied, “let it be for yourself alone. That the wish of giving happiness to you might add force to the other inducements which led me on, I shall not attempt to deny. But your family owe me nothing. Much as I respect them, I believe I thought only of you.”

Elizabeth was too much embarrassed to say a word. After a short pause, her companion added, “You are too generous to trifle with me. If your feelings are still what they were last April, tell me so at once. My affections and wishes are unchanged, but one word from you will silence me on this subject for ever.”

Elizabeth, feeling all the more than common awkwardness and anxiety of his situation, now forced herself to speak; and immediately, though not very fluently, gave him to understand that her sentiments had undergone so material a change, since the period to which he alluded, as to make her receive with gratitude and pleasure his present assurances. The happiness which this reply produced, was such as he had probably never felt before; and he expressed himself on the occasion as sensibly and as warmly as a man violently in love can be supposed to do. Had Elizabeth been able to encounter his eye, she might have seen how well the expression of heartfelt delight, diffused over his face, became him; but, though she could not look, she could listen, and he told her of feelings, which, in proving of what importance she was to him, made his affection every moment more valuable.

Keynote address: Matt Dillahunty

2015/11/10

Matt Dillahunty, our master debater of the night before returned to close out the conference with a keynote address.

Matt Dillahunty

He started by saying it sounds very fancy and formal to call it a keynote, and it would really just be some stuff he thinks, shared in his typical casual style.

Honestly, I think it was both. Matt is one of those people who is capable of communicating important, even profound ideas in an accessible, informal way that feels like (that is) just him shooting the breeze with you.

So here’s the general idea. When you’re in a debate situation – whether it’s a formal debate or a casual conversation between folks who simply disagree over things – try to keep some things in mind.

  • Pick your strengths. Don’t try to go head-to-head over the philosophy of religion if what you know is psychology, or history, or education. Work to your strengths.
  • Find the core of their argument. Not the fluff. Not the Gish gallop of zingers they’ve recited to swamp you. Find the centre of their case – whether it’s personal experience, an appeal to Biblical authority, or whatever – and deal with that. Don’t get distracted or side-tracked.
  • Be yourself. Whether you’re speaking in a public debate or one-on-one, do it as you. That’s the best way to come across knowledgeable and genuine. Share what you know. Be honest about what you don’t know. (Remember that “being comfortable with ignorance” thing from Greg Hart’s talk!)
  • They are trying to sell you something. Let them try. You don’t have to sell anything back. You just have to discuss whether their offering is worth buying, and why. Ask questions. Once again, be comfortable not knowing.
  • Review how things went after the debate. What did you do right? What did you do wrong? What did your opponent do right? What did your opponent do wrong? What will you do differently next time?
  • Care about truth, not about winning. If you are trying to win, you will be tempted to take shortcuts. To set good reasoning aside in an attempt to score easy points. But if you are trying to get at the truth – if you are willing to revise your own beliefs on learning new things – then you will always win, no matter whose position turns out to be right.

I can’t think of a better way to close out this series on the conference than with the following quote – something I’ve heard Matt say other times in podcasts and videos. It captures not only his own main point, but one of the recurring themes of the conference. It is a principle at or near the core of most secular people’s worldview.

I want to believe as many true things and as few false things as possible.

Shelley Segal: Atheist music

2015/11/08

(This is part of a series of posts about the 2015 Alberta Secular Conference: None of the Above.)

Shelley Segal

After the talk about critical thinking, we had an amazing musical interlude from Shelley Segal, a musician whose music includes a number of explicitly atheist titles.

I could say much about this, but I think her music speaks for itself. (Also, as a non-musical person, I don’t really have the vocabulary. Ask Dale for an intelligent analysis.) Let me just point out that music can provide an expression of ideas and feelings that just text or speech cannot. Shelley puts a beautiful voice to some of the feelings of awe, frustration, and indignation that atheists experience which cannot be captured by religious music or generically “agnostic” or religion-free music.

One more thing. We bought some of her music at the conference, and I’ve been listening especially to “An Atheist Album” in the car. Yesterday, on the way to and from dance class, my eight-year-old daughter and I sang along a bit, and talked a bit about the lyrics. She doesn’t understand all of the words, or all of the concepts, but it seems like having them in music offers a comfortable, casual way to introduce these ideas.

Anyway, here is her song “Saved” (one that Kaia especially likes singing along to):

Seriously, watch/listen to this and the other songs on YouTube. Treat yourself. Then support that beautiful art:

None of the Above conference

2015/10/27

Alberta Secular Conference: None of the Above

Earlier this month, on October 17 and 18, Deena and I attended our first ever secular conference: “None of the Above”. Around a hundred people, variously identifying as humanists, skeptics, atheists, agnostics, freethinkers – the usual spectrum of labels you get in this community – came together in Red Deer. (For non-Albertans, Red Deer is a delightful small city, about equidistant between Alberta’s two larger cities, Calgary and Edmonton.)

If you’re not an active member of the community, you may expect we spent the time congratulating ourselves on escaping the “delusion” of religion, and whingeing about how religious people make everything worse.

Yes, there was a bit of self-congratulation – though it was tempered with the knowledge that all human understanding is fallible, and we might be wrong.

And yes, there was some complaining – though it was focused and action-oriented rather than just self-pitying.

There were several social action issues raised that are important, not just for non-believers, but for anyone interested in having a tolerant, open, free society.

And then there was the whole social side of it: meeting people (some local to my own city) who I had never seen before, but who hold similar values and beliefs to me. It reminded me that I’m part of a larger community.

The fact that the conference was immediately before our federal election gave it an interesting tenor, especially when we were discussing politically potent topics.

So what did we get for our delightfully modest attendance fee? Here is a quick rundown of the schedule. I will be posting a series of short articles over the coming days on some of the talks and discussions.

Day 1:

Opening remarks. The MC for the conference was Karen Kerr, president of the Society of Edmonton Atheists, one of the conference’s two sponsors. (The other was Atheist Alliance International.) She set a nice tone – neither too formal nor too loose.
Bradley Peter: Dying With Dignity. Canada is on the verge of a shift here, as a Supreme Court ruling decriminalizing physician-assisted death will come into effect in February. What things will look like after that will depend on how legislators prepare for this shift. How legislators prepare will depend on what they hear from constituents. Now is the time!
Rob Breakenridge: Openly Secular in the Media. An Alberta radio and newspaper personality, Rob talked about the issues faced by public personalities around their beliefs and identities.
Lunch. Not really relevant to a summary of the conference’s events, you say? Of course it is! This is where the ideas are digested, batted around, and where the human connections are made. People differed on the gastronomic value of the food on offer, but the opportunity to break bread together and share our thoughts was a crucial part of the whole conference experience.
Ali Rivzi. A Muslim who no longer believes in Islam. This was a compelling presentation on the difference between culture and beliefs, and on the danger of conflating the two, especially in areas of the world where democratic freedoms are still tenuous at best.
Lynn Honey: Statistics. Oh, to live in a world where every community of belief spent some of their time together talking about how to critically examine the numbers that wash over us in the media. And oh, to live in a world where Lynn Honey can teach these things to everyone!
Nathan Phelps: Son of Westboro. This presentation moved through Nate’s childhood in one of the most poisonous and hateful churches on the continent, through to a call for action and encouragement to vigilance. Not all religion is bad, but too many people use religion as a cover not just to be assholes, but to actively harm others in many ways.
Debate: Matt Dillahunty vs Jon Morrison on whether science points to God. An atheist heavy-hitter with dozens of debates behind him, against a Christian with no debate experience. This debate turned out much more engaging and worthwhile than I had feared.

Day 2:

Greg Hart: Critical Thinking. The perfect complement to Lynn Honey’s statistics talk from Day 1, this talk wound through several pitfalls of critical thinking. Just to reiterate: this wasn’t a talk about how we do it so much better than them, but about how all of us need to be careful in all of our reasoning about the world.
Shelley Segal. A musical interlude with a thoughtful, expressive artist whose songs, often, express feelings and experiences in the world that no religious singer can capture, but which are central to the experience of an atheist life.
Panel discussion: Education in Alberta. Three panelists, with experience and knowledge about different aspects of education as it is influenced by religion: prayer in schools, creationism, and sex-ed. Enlightening, rather horrifying at times, and well-articulated.
Keynote: Matt Dillahunty. A wonderful, personal call to action – Matt responded to some of the things he had learned about “Canadia” during the conference, and gave a talk that left room for everyone – from a timid, closeted agnostic to a brash, letter-writing, sign-toting activist – to do their bit in making the world a better place for us all to live.

Deena and I left this conference energized, motivated to do a little bit more to engage with our atheist community and to push against infringements on our rights and values. In the posts to come, I will dive down a little deeper and give you a more complete recap of the message I took away from each presentation and event at the conference.

This was not just our first secular conference. It was Alberta’s first secular conference. There is already a plan afoot to hold another, to make it a recurring event in the province, rotating between the cities of Calgary, Edmonton, and Red Deer (at least). Things are looking up!

If you are in the area next year, I hope you will join us.

A new voice in the Tapestry

2015/06/08

CBC_Logo_1992-Present

In the car going grocery shopping on Sunday, I heard a voice on CBC that I recognized from secular podcasts I regularly follow: Mandisa Thomas. Then there was an interview with Karl Giberson, a physicist who learned how to break the literalist Creationist mold as he learned about how science really works, and what it reveals (without abandoning his Christianity).

The show is Tapestry, a weekly show airing on Sundays, also available as a podcast. The website says about the show:

Governments change, economies tumble and soar, and headlines trumpet the scandal of the day. All the while, Tapestry deals with the more subtle news of life — a thoughtful consideration of what it means to be human.

Tapestry is the place where you can wonder about the big questions you’ve been too busy to consider during the week.  We’ll hear rabbis and gardeners getting equal time on the topic of belief. Science-fiction writers and physicist-priests kick around the world’s great creation myths.  Athletes explore the hero’s journey as a spiritual metaphor, and musicians make the connection between song and the human spirit.

We’ll also meet regular people just trying to make sense of the world, whether they’re finding their way as believers or atheists – or everything in-between.

What stands out to me is that this show is clearly about the topics that religions try to address (and, often, to monopolize). It’s about “what it means to be human”. But, unlike many radio shows addressing these topics, this one doesn’t even pretend that religions have a key (or even particularly special) place in this conversation. Guests are “rabbis and gardeners … science-fiction writers and physicist-priests … athletes … musicians … regular people … believers or atheists – or everything in-between”.

I have gone back now and listened to the whole episode. (The opening interview, which I had initially missed, was with James Grupa, a teacher of evolution at a university in Kentucky.) It’s a fascinating way of approaching this conversation – dismissing neither non-religious voices (like some shows do) nor religious voices (like many atheist blogs and podcasts do that I listen to).

I’ve subscribed to their podcast feed – I look forward to seeing what else they have, upcoming and in their archives. I’ll let you know if I come across any particular gems.

If you know the show or another that fills a similar niche, please leave a link to any episode you think is especially worth checking out.

Big Girls (redux)

2015/05/25

Way back in the early days of this blog, I wrote a post about women and body size.

I was just listening to that Mika song again – “Big Girl, You Are Beautiful” – and it got me thinking. I thought maybe I could repost that article. Maybe even update it a little.

After all, the baby girl that I talk about is now a seven-year-old in grade 2, still big for her age (tall enough to pass for 9). She’s starting to be aware of some of society’s attitudes to women’s body size.

I thought perhaps I could introduce a bit more subtlety. For example, despite what I said in that article, it is often possible, with a lot of work and long-lasting lifestyle changes, to change one’s weight into a more healthy range. One prominent example in my mind is Greta Christina’s journey, precipitated by joint problems in her knee.

Or perhaps I could point out that, in celebrating big bodies, I am not trying to denigrate those who possess conventional beauty. Just like I can celebrate same-sex marriage without diminishing other types, or enjoy Alberta weather without sneering at Massachussetts weather. Enjoyment of something is often just about enjoying that thing, not about being repelled by alternatives. It’s not a zero-sum game.

There’s all sorts of stuff I could talk about, but everything I try to say seems to be captured far more wonderfully by the song I posted back then. Yes, it leans ever so slightly toward salaciousness – suggesting, perhaps, that being sexy is the point of femininity, and that “even fat girls can be sexy”. But watch the dancers. Watch the passersby. This video isn’t about sex. It’s about fun.

It’s about people celebrating who they are; about celebrating each other for who we are.

If you can hold onto that fact – the fact that every person, including yourself, is worth celebrating – then you’re on the right track for an awesome and fulfilling life.

Cosmic Calendar: The Big Bang

2014/12/31


fireworks_white_red

Thirteen billion seven hundred ninety-eight million years ago (give or take thirty-seven million years), an unimaginably small, massive, timeless point erupted. Time and space sprang into being.

What came before that is a question that may or may not make sense (as time itself is said to have been tied up in that initial singularity). At any rate, for now it is a question for philosophers as much as for scientists. Whether there was a “before”, either temporally or causally, we pick the first moment of the singularity’s expansion as our starting point for this calendar.

The earliest moments of January first on the Cosmic Calendar are taken up with a fury of growth and change. There was a period of exponential expansion. Speculation is that some (still mysterious) process generated a slight excess of matter over antimatter (one part in 30 million), leading to a present universe with matter dominant over antimatter.

About ten nanoseconds in, the universe cooled to the energies we can produce in particle physics experiments today. Around a microsecond, we started getting protons and neutrons out of the particle/energy soup. In the first few minutes, we started getting deuterium and helium nuclei forming.

That’s actual nanoseconds and microseconds and minutes. On the one-year scale of the Cosmic Calendar, all of this is happening unimaginably quicker. Why not watch a (safe and responsible) fireworks display. If a firework happens to go off right at the stroke of midnight, then the chemical reactions driving that explosion could be thought of as an extremely slow-motion recreation of an event that is materially, energetically, and temporally completely unlike the big bang. (But it makes a nice symbol, no?)

Following the initial explosion, it was all about energy. Most of what there was in the universe was just energy. After several thousand years, matter (protons, neutrons, electrons, etc) began to dominate the picture. Exactly when did this happen? I am unable to pin down a clear answer. This scantily-referenced paragraph on Wikipedia says 70 thousand years, which would point to a calendar time two minutes and forty seconds after midnight. This university teaching page says 50 thousand, which is one minute 54 seconds into the year. At any rate, if your energy levels to drop in the first three minutes of the year, I suggest consuming some form of matter – nachos perhaps, or vegetables. Aside from hydrogen, the most common element (bare nuclei, not stable atoms at this point) was helium. But I am very definitely not recommending that you use helium balloons to alter your voice. It might be appropriately reverent, but we are past peak helium, so it would also be irresponsible.

Between 377 000 and 487 000 years after the bang (that’s 00:14:22 to 00:18:33 on New Year’s Day), recombination and decoupling occurred. Recombination is when the first complex atomic nuclei, such as deuterium and helium, formed. Decoupling meant that photons started being able to fly free, rather than always slamming into bits of matter. This meant something new – something that we can observe today. You see, some of those photons are still zipping along. We can detect them now as the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation. If you like, you could celebrate this by spending those four minutes watching snow on an old analogue television set. Or you could listen to John Cramer’s audio reproduction (available in 20-second, 50-second, 100-second, 200-second, and 500-second versions).

Now we’re well into the New Year – on our way to the universe as we know it. I don’t have any more milestones for this first day, so perhaps we should all get some sleep.

What is your favorite part of this opening fiesta of generation and diversification? Can you spot any interesting events or transitions that I’ve left out of this description?

Scientific References:

National Research Council of Canada article on age of universe
NASA WMAP report
ESA Planck report

Further reading:

Wikipedia: Timeline of the Big Bang
Wikipedia: Recombination
Wikipedia: Decoupling
Wikipedia: Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation
Audio version of the CMBR

Fireworks image: “Fireworks white red“, by Tuan Hung Nguyen, Public Domain

 

Back into the Cosmic Calendar

2014/12/01

In the past, I have talked about the Cosmic Calendar. It is a grand idea, first introduced (to my knowledge) by Carl Sagan in his Cosmos series. Since then, though, I’ve sort of let it fall off the radar. I still think about the Cosmic Calendar, particularly in the last half of December with the Evolutionary Advent – interesting events virtually every day, and several on the last day of the year.

Anyway, I am currently working to build a more complete tour through the year. This renewed interest is inspired partly by my own children’s blossoming curiosity about everything, and partly by the new Cosmos series, hosted by Neil De Grasse Tyson (available, among other places, on Netflix in Canada). He recapitulates the Cosmic Calendar in the first episode.

Next year, I plan to post along with the cosmic calendar, going into a little more detail on each event: what happened, how it fits into the great epic of cosmic history, and some thoughts on how science-minded folks might celebrate it.

The basic idea is not my own: as far as I know, that credit goes to Carl Sagan and his collaborators on the original Cosmos series. What I will present is my own riff on it, expanding the basic idea to a full, year-long cycle of celebration and education. I will include figures that are as accurate as my layman’s research can get. I will offer suggestions about how humanists and other science fans might celebrate each cosmic event throughout the year

I will try to keep the technical language light, but not at the expense of glossing over important or fun details.

If you want to plan your own celebrations for any of the events, do check out my Cosmic Calendar page, where I list all of the events I have been able to identify and verify (already over fifty), with links to my own posts on them individually. I have also linked to other sites and individuals who, like me, want to evangelize this awesome idea to anyone interested.

I still maintain the Google Calendar with all of these events, which is open for anyone to link to or copy.

While I would love to just jump in now, as the events start to come more quickly, I have decided instead to start fresh on January 1st – the Big Bang. I am already composing and lining up the posts. I will carry on through the full year. I currently have 50+ events lined up, and I’m looking for more. Depending on the interest and feedback I receive, I may continue this in subsequent years. (In particular, things shift a little in a leap year, because the cosmos-to-days scale is adjusted by one day.)

If you have any Cosmic events that you would like me to cover, please feel free to leave a comment on this post and I will look into it. If, during the course of the year, you notice any scientific blunders on my part, let me know and I will verify and fix them.

Gillian Bennett: a heroic suicide

2014/08/29

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?

Education hero: Laci Green

2014/08/02

Most of you have probably already heard of Laci Green, prolific YouTuber on various topics relating to sexuality and feminism.

For anyone out there who is even more out of touch than me, let me introduce you to a brilliant, articulate, and prolific mind that, if we are lucky, will help lift our culture into a more sane and happy future.

Here are a couple of highlights from what I’ve seen so far, that might make good starting points for you who are about to become her fans:

A video about “the sex talk” (including why it shouldn’t be the sex talk). Judging by the subjective time it has taken my daughter to reach age six, I anticipate her graduating high school and moving out in about three days. I need to start considering how to tackle the topic of sexuality with her. Laci’s video hits all of the high points, without being all “Here is the script you must follow”.

Feminism. I know that I fall down on this. I’m a man, and I get so many passes and advantages that women don’t get. I’m lucky enough to have a wife who gently points it out to me when I’m being a privileged ass, and I think I’m improving. Slowly. But it still amazes me that there are people who don’t think gender inequality is a problem. Are you one of those people? Maybe you should watch this video, and be prepared to feel humbled. Are you not one of those people? Then you should watch this video too, and get ready to cheer.

She also has frank and general-audience-appropriate discussions of a wide variety of topics. I’m learning stuff from her that I had wondered about but couldn’t bring myself to ask. And through it all is a very clear message: it’s okay to be who you are, how you are. You deserve respect, and you owe other people respect.

She’s a great role model – not only for women, but for anyone who values openness and respect. She’s also a lot of fun.

She’s on Twitter (@gogreen18), Facebook, and Tumblr, as well as on YouTube.

If you have a particular favorite among her videos, link to it in the comments below. Or offer your own suggestion about a good public figure for communicating positive messages about sexuality and feminism.