Archive for the ‘people’ Category

The duality of humanism and atheism


P.Z. Myers has a touching reflection on the two sides of being a nonbeliever these days.

On the one hand, there are so many things in the world – attitudes, laws, beliefs, and actions – that can drive you to the rejecting, negative stance embodied in the term “atheism”.

On the other hand, the world abounds with amazing facts to discover, delightful experiences to savour, and inspiring goals to strive for – all things that fuel the more affirming, positive stance that is captured in the term “humanism”.

Like Myers, I oscillate between the two. Sometimes it is important to rally around the flag of No, to assert the value (sometimes even the simple right) to withholding assent or belief. I am an atheist. At other times, it is more fulfilling, more productive, and more honest to focus on what we do value, what we do believe. I am also a humanist.

It sounds like Myers is beginning to despair at the state of organized atheism lately – the prevalence of sexism, tribalism, and of unthinking, reflexive responses to criticism. This is disappointing. Not that any other community is better, but we like to define ourselves specifically by our self-correction, our openness to criticism, and our freedom from dogmatic groupthink.

But, just as I refuse to let religious conservatives own the language of morality and family values, I am not about to let the negative elements own the atheism brand. Neither is Myers.

Atheism does not justify sexism. It does not have prophets or irreproachable spokespeople.

Nor (contra what Myers seems at one point to suggest) does humanism ignore the ugliness in the world.

Still … like Myers, I find myself sometimes drawn to one of these labels, sometimes to the other. Do you find that? Are you more inclined to cling to one label in certain moods, and another in other moods? Do your oscillations fit the angry=atheism, optimistic=humanism map that Myers expresses, or do you have different associations (or labels)?


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?

Sarah and Jason talk about open-mindedness


I’m going to break out of my rather insular habits today.

Rather than offering a post full of my own thoughts, and only my own thoughts, I’m going to point you to a blog exchange between two other folks: Sarah, a relatively new atheist blogging at My Post-God Life, and Jason, a Christian blogging at Jason Trivium. I’ve just discovered their blogs – they seem to be spending a fair amount of time commenting and responding to each other’s ideas.

What really got my attention was their discussion of open-mindedness. Here is Sarah’s offering: “How Far Should We Take Open-mindedness?” And here is Jason’s response: “Re: How Far Should We Take Open-mindedness?

I’ve been reading a fair bit of professional apologetics and philosophy lately, so I could say a lot about how each of them has missed some refined points, or how I might have made a particular argument differently. But what I think is wonderful is (a) they are both able to articulate their position clearly and briefly, and (b) I think each has presented a perspective that represents a large number of people with a similar identity. More than that, as they comment on each other’s blogs they remain respectful and thoughtful without compromising the ideas they hold.

So go check them out, and check out other offerings on their blogs.

Skeptics in the Pub: Joshie Berger


Deena and I went to the Boston Skeptics in the Pub on Monday to see Joshie Berger.

The first few minutes at our table – before Deena (my social grace) arrived – were characterized by halting attempts at conversation, punctuated by slightly less awkward silences. One of my table-mates sported a t-shirt depicting a harmonic series, with the basic wave equation “λ=c/f”. The other wore squid earrings. I thought with satisfaction: Yes. This is my tribe. These are my type of people. (I happened to be without any trappings of geekery. Well, except for the two pens stowed in one pocket, alongside a notebook. Just in case.)

(Image from SkeptiCamp 2009 site.)

The main reason we had decided to spend this rare and precious kid-free evening here was Joshie Berger. We had listened to his conversation with the rogues on The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe earlier this year, and were eager to hear him talk again.

We were not disappointed. To a surprisingly small crowd (maybe 20 people, if you count the bar staff), Joshie talked about what it was like to be a Hasidic Jew. To have been one, and not be any longer. To have a sister still in thrall to that misogynistic culture (even in the heart of liberal New York). To have so many friends living a lie – disbelieving as he does, yet unable or unwilling to leave like he did.

What I found most moving was when he set aside the jokes, the laughing, the amazing, amusing exposition of human folly and ridiculous beliefs. When he vented a little bit of anger. Not at the believers (they mainly earned his contempt), but at some of the would-be peacemakers in the skeptical movement.

“How dare you tell me to make nice?” was his gist. “After all the pain and suffering that religion put me through, still puts me through, how dare you tell me not to voice my anger?”

I couldn’t help but nod. Oh, sure, I am one of the peacemakers. I try to find common ground. I read books by apologists. I seek out dialogue in university chaplaincy, or at a Unitarian church. But Joshie’s anger wasn’t aimed at me. It was aimed at those who go further, who say that all skeptics (/atheists/humanists/whatever) should be peacemakers. That we should never, any of us, publicly mock or deride believers. Which, for a community that values freedom of expression so highly, is a very odd sentiment.

I did not have a religious upbringing. I don’t have Joshie’s scars; I don’t have the ongoing pain he has of separation from his loved ones. I need people like Joshie. I need people to remind me that such cruelty exists. That there are people who, because of their beliefs, put themselves and everyone in their reach through misery.

I’m terrifically grateful to people like Joshie, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Christopher Hitchens, and all the rest, for reminding me that there are dangerous beliefs out there. I’ll fight bad beliefs my way – and hopefully reach some people. They will fight bad beliefs their way – and reach different people. Skepticism/humanism/atheism needs all of our approaches.

New Atheists?


I often wonder just what is meant by the phrase “The New Atheists”. I think it depends on the speaker – it generally seems to mean something like “atheists who are prominent in the public sphere (unlike the good-ol’ days)” or “atheists who are more aggressive/irritating than they used to be”.

But prominent, assertive, active atheism is by no means new. Consider these quotes from Robert Green Ingersoll:

I will not attack your doctrines nor your creeds if they accord liberty to me. If they hold thought to be dangerous – if they aver that doubt is a crime, then I attack them one and all, because they enslave the minds of men.

Religion has not civilized man — man has civilized religion. God improves as man advances.

If a man would follow, today, the teachings of the Old Testament, he would be a criminal. If he would follow strictly the teachings of the New, he would be insane.

Ignorance is the soil in which belief in miracles grows.

In fact, listen to the podcast of his works.

Sound familiar? Now, Ingersoll was no minor figure. According to Tom Flynn (interviewed on Point of Inquiry), he was a very well-known public lecturer in America, as well as a campaigner for the Republican party. That’s over 100 years ago.

In fact, public atheism is millennia old, and the irritation it provides to entrenched religious beliefs is just as old. Consider Socrates, who was executed for spreading ideas considered harmful to the youth of the day. (It may be difficult to disentangle the religious from the political motivations for his prosecution – but I’ve no doubt that his enemies used religion in their arguments against him.)

In fact, I suspect that the main reason many people use the label “new” is that they people would like to consider this latest upswing of vocal religious dissent to be a flash-in-the-pan. They want it to be a fad which, like bell bottoms and mullets, will soon be a thing of the past.

Now, I don’t know if they had mullets in Socrates’ time, and “bell-bottom togas” seems redundant, but the “new” atheism is no passing fad. The only thing new about it, in fact, is probably that it’s the first time many of these individuals have been confronted with confident assertions of atheist belief. So the next time someone uses the phrase “new atheism”, I’ll think “new-to-you, maybe”.

For anyone interested in sampling the long tradition of atheist thought, I recommend the Humanist Anthology, edited by Margaret Knight and revised by Jim Herrick. I was given a copy for my birthday this last year, and have been discovering and rediscovering many beautiful nuggets of humanist compassion and reson, from the ancient Greek and Chinese philosophers to modern atheist writers.



I would like to introduce you to a hero of mine. His name is Robert Lang.

Robert Lang folds paper. He folds paper into birds. He folds paper into insects. He folds paper into insanely complex and improbably forms.

And that is enough to earn him my admiration (as an amateur folder myself).

But what really rockets him into the ranks of hero is his polymath tendencies. What he has done with his origami outside the traditional world of paper folding.

He has developed mathematical models of origami. His scientific approach has advanced the art to the point that most of the new forms created today would have been impossible half a century ago. But more than that, he has consulted on scientific and engineering projects, bringing the art of folding into space telescopes, car safety, and other areas.

He has given a TED talk; he has been featured in National Geographic.

Robert Lang inspires me. Not only is he an excellent origami artist – something I aspire to in a vague and occasional way. He has also managed to combine various interests of his into a unified and revolutionary whole – something I yearn for in an definite, persistent way.

As someone with a variety of disparate interests (experimental phonetics, computer programming, writing, parenting, humanist spirituality), I would love to bring some of them together, so that I am not always forced to choose to spend time on one at the expense of others.

So much for why I admire Robert Lang. But what does it mean for someone to be a hero?

Robert Lang has at least two attributes that make him a hero for me: he does something I would like to be able to do myself, and he inspires me to actually try to achieve it.

Unicorn familyIt’s not necessarily origami – as I said, origami is an interest of mine, but not necessarily a passion. (Though I do have Lang’s book, Origami Design Secrets, from which I hope to learn how to design my own origami figures.) I don’t mean to emulate him completely. But he inspires me to try my own brand of originality, my own synthesis of disparate interests. For the moment, it’s an attempt to bring my programming interest into my academic phonetic research. I also have a project on the go bringing programming and humanist spirituality together (stay tuned).

Related to this, being my hero does not mean Lang seems infallible, or even super-human, to me. Of course he is just another person. But that’s part of the inspiration: there is no great divide between the kind of person I am and the kind of person he is. I can do amazing things, just like he does.

I suppose that I might more accurately call Lang a role-model. But that has a slightly antiseptic ring to me. A role model sounds like someone your parents expose you to in an attempt to influence you.

A hero – that’s someone you choose for yourself.

Photo credits:

Portrait of Lang with life-sized origami people from Lang’s website.

Image of origami unicorns by Timothy Mills. Models folded by me, from a design in Origami Step by Step, by Robert Hardin, who credits it to Patricia Crawford.

Turing apology


A few days ago, I pointed out a petition calling for a posthumous apology to Alan Turing for his disgraceful treatment by the British government when it became known that he was gay.

Well, Gordon Brown has delivered. He has issued what seems to me to be a very frank apology, acknowledging not only Turing’s significant contributions to computing and to the outcome of the Second World War, but also the injustice of his treatment at the hands of the country he had served so well.

As of this moment, there are 31070 signatures on the online petition. (I assume the petition is closed, now that its aim is achieved, but cannot find a clear statement to that effect.)

Here is the full text of the Prime Minister’s statement:

2009 has been a year of deep reflection – a chance for Britain, as a nation, to commemorate the profound debts we owe to those who came before. A unique combination of anniversaries and events have stirred in us that sense of pride and gratitude which characterise the British experience. Earlier this year I stood with Presidents Sarkozy and Obama to honour the service and the sacrifice of the heroes who stormed the beaches of Normandy 65 years ago. And just last week, we marked the 70 years which have passed since the British government declared its willingness to take up arms against Fascism and declared the outbreak of World War Two. So I am both pleased and proud that, thanks to a coalition of computer scientists, historians and LGBT activists, we have this year a chance to mark and celebrate another contribution to Britain’s fight against the darkness of dictatorship; that of code-breaker Alan Turing.

Turing was a quite brilliant mathematician, most famous for his work on breaking the German Enigma codes. It is no exaggeration to say that, without his outstanding contribution, the history of World War Two could well have been very different. He truly was one of those individuals we can point to whose unique contribution helped to turn the tide of war. The debt of gratitude he is owed makes it all the more horrifying, therefore, that he was treated so inhumanely. In 1952, he was convicted of ‘gross indecency’ – in effect, tried for being gay. His sentence – and he was faced with the miserable choice of this or prison – was chemical castration by a series of injections of female hormones. He took his own life just two years later.

Thousands of people have come together to demand justice for Alan Turing and recognition of the appalling way he was treated. While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time and we can’t put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him. Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted as he was convicted under homophobic laws were treated terribly. Over the years millions more lived in fear of conviction.

I am proud that those days are gone and that in the last 12 years this government has done so much to make life fairer and more equal for our LGBT community. This recognition of Alan’s status as one of Britain’s most famous victims of homophobia is another step towards equality and long overdue.

But even more than that, Alan deserves recognition for his contribution to humankind. For those of us born after 1945, into a Europe which is united, democratic and at peace, it is hard to imagine that our continent was once the theatre of mankind’s darkest hour. It is difficult to believe that in living memory, people could become so consumed by hate – by anti-Semitism, by homophobia, by xenophobia and other murderous prejudices – that the gas chambers and crematoria became a piece of the European landscape as surely as the galleries and universities and concert halls which had marked out the European civilisation for hundreds of years. It is thanks to men and women who were totally committed to fighting fascism, people like Alan Turing, that the horrors of the Holocaust and of total war are part of Europe’s history and not Europe’s present.

So on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan’s work I am very proud to say: we’re sorry, you deserved so much better.

Gordon Brown

Well done, Mr Brown.

Call for apology to Turing


This is a story of a national hero who was censured by his country and died alone on account of love.

Alan Turing was a key figure in the early years of computer development, before the Second World War. During the war, he was a key figure in the British team that decrypted the German Enigma cipher. Their contributions gave the Allies a pivotal advantage over their adversaries.

He was prosecuted for “gross indecency” because he’d had consensual sex with another man in the privacy of his own home. His work with the British intelligence service was over, and he was given the choice between chemical castration or prison. He chose the hormone treatment. Two years later, he committed suicide. He was 41 years old.

The last word the British government had to say about him was that his private actions, harming nobody, merited ruining his life.

Turing was a very prominent individual; I am sure that many other lives, both prominent and not, were needlessly ruined by this shameful law (happily repealed across Britain by the late 1970s).

There is now a call for the British government to apologise for its treatment of Turing. Given that an apology would be very easy to issue, would cost little and harm nobody, I think it is worth doing.

If you are a British resident and think this is worth two minutes of your time, please go sign the petition.

Also, let me know what you think of this sort of apology. Is it worthwhile? Is it a waste of time? Is is otherwise inappropriate? What consequences do you think such an apology would have, in terms of people’s actions and their attitudes?

Photo credit:

Alan Turing photo, author unknown. Photo was found at Ally Action, among a list of prominent individuals and events in the history of gay rights.

Natural consolations


Over at Daylight Atheism, Ebonmuse has shared yet another of his symphonically beautiful bits of writing. This one is in honour of his grandmother, who recently died. He calls it “Green Fields“. Check it out. Here’s a taster:

For those who are grieving, for those who mourn, and for all those who are burdened with the weary weight of sorrow, I have a prescription.

Find a quiet, peaceful place, a green field of grass where great trees grow and gift the world with their shade. Let it be just before sunset, at that golden hour when the heat of the afternoon is past, when the sky is blue as a pearl and the setting sun hues the world in its last, richest and most transitory light.

Sit against the trunk of an old and massive tree, one that’s lived through summers and winters untold. Lean on its rough, moss-clad bark and feel the slow, patient pulse of the life in the green heart of the wood. Try to clear your mind of thought, and listen.

(Read the rest at Daylight Atheism.)

Photo credit:

Crepuscular ray sunset from Telstra tower, by Fir0002/Flagstaffotos. Released under the GNU Free Documentation License (GFDL).

Invisible writer turns 200.


This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of someone whose writing system has helped millions of people … but none of them have seen it.

Louis was born on the 4th of January, 1809. He was a gifted child, learning to play the cello and the organ at a young age.

Between the ages of 12 and 15, he invented a revolutionary new writing system. Loosely based on a clever “night-writing” code he learned from a soldier who visited his special school in Paris, the writing system won official recognition in 1854, two years after his death. Today it is widely recognized (though not widely studied) and bears Louis’s surname, Braille.

In honour of Louis, I’m leaving images out of this entry. Just on the off chance that a blind person reads this post with a Braille reader. Check out the Wikipedia entries on Louis and his alphabet for plenty of images.

And why not send a card to someone you know using his alphabet?

Happy 200, Louis!