09/1/13

What’s it all about, Alfie?


Facebook image“What’s it all about, Alfie?” sings Cilla Black in the title song for the eponymous 1966 movie. But it could be the anthem for the human race, or at least those with a philosophical bent. “What’s it all about?” is certainly a question that springs to my mind daily as I listen to the news, read a paper or surf the internet.*

What “it” is all about was raised this week when the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal granted that atheism is a “creed” that deserves the same protections in law and public policy as any faith, equal under the Human Rights Code.

David A. Wright, associate chairman of the tribunal, made the statement that,“Protection against discrimination because of religion, in my view, must include protection of the applicants’ belief that there is no deity.”

A delightful victory for secular humanists and freethinkers. Atheists of all stripes should have the same right to spread their beliefs or proselytize like any other person who does it in the name of faith. Rights of expression should not be constrained by having no faith. By the same token, they have to obey he same rules as to where and when it is appropriate to do so.

Fair enough. But don’t expect to see atheists showing up at your front door wanting to give you a copy of Skeptic magazine, hoping to be invited into your living room for a chat about your salvation.

The decision also sparked a lot of lively debate about just what atheism is. What is “it” that deserves protection and is there anything definite, some commonality that clearly defines just what an atheist is? Spoiler: the answer is no.

It has also brought to the surface many misunderstandings about atheism – as well as general misunderstanding about what the words “religion” and “creed” mean. As reporter in the St. Catherine Standard, “Commission lawyer Cathy Pike argued in part the tribunal didn’t need to determine if atheism or secular humanism is a creed.” Quite right. But they did anyway.

The decision was a topic on the recent CBC radio show, Day Six, which asked “Is atheism a religion?” – a question not unlike asking “is a fish a bicycle?” Or as one poster on the CBC site wryly commented, “It has been variously said that atheism is a religion as: bald is a hair colour; “Off” is a TV channel, and; abstinence is a sex position.”

Many writers commenting on this decision share similar confusions over the idea of atheism, and mistake atheism for religion (a bit like mistaking a bicycle for a bus because they both have wheels). Perhaps most comments I’ve read come from writers who have a religion they want to defend and have a difficult time understanding a life without faith, so they need to put non-belief into a context they can comprehend.

For example, Licia Corbella, columnist in the Calgary Herald, wrote:

This may be a leap of faith, but here’s hoping that maybe now, atheists — many of whom have proven themselves to be a highly motivated evangelistic group accustomed to ramming their minority religion down the throats of the majority — will face the same scrutiny of their beliefs as traditional faiths have been undergoing for decades in Canada at their behest.

Corbella’s desire to punish atheists for their presumption notwithstanding, that atheism isn’t a religion can be proven by the semantics. While there are many variant definitions of what a religion is, Wikipedia’s is fairly good (emphasis added):

Religion is an organized collection of beliefs, cultural systems, and world views that relate humanity to the supernatural, and to spirituality. Many religions have narratives, symbols, and sacred histories that are intended to explain the meaning of life and/or to explain the origin of life or the Universe. From their beliefs about the cosmos and human nature, they tend to derive morality, ethics, religious laws or a preferred lifestyle. According to some estimates, there are roughly 4,200 religions in the world.

Dictionary.com adds this (emphasis added):

  1. a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.
  2. a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects: the Christian religion; the Buddhist religion.
  3. the body of persons adhering to a particular set of beliefs and practices: a world council of religions.
  4. the life or state of a monk, nun, etc.: to enter religion.
  5. the practice of religious beliefs; ritual observance of faith.

Austin Cline quotes an “Encyclopedia of Philosophy” (undefined as to which publisher, since there are numerous such works) for this rather exhaustive definition:

  • Belief in supernatural beings (gods).
  • A distinction between sacred and profane objects.
  • Ritual acts focused on sacred objects.
  • A moral code believed to be sanctioned by the gods.
  • Characteristically religious feelings (awe, sense of mystery, sense of guilt, adoration), which tend to be aroused in the presence of sacred objects and during the practice of ritual, and which are connected in idea with the gods.
  • Prayer and other forms of communication with gods.
  • A world view, or a general picture of the world as a whole and the place of the individual therein. This picture contains some specification of an over-all purpose or point of the world and an indication of how the individual fits into it.
  • A more or less total organization of one’s life based on the world view.
  • A social group bound together by the above.

Almost all definitions state that a religion is a collection of formal beliefs that include a supernatural or superhuman agency. But what agency or organization determines or collates this collection for atheists? None.

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08/27/13

Archy and Mehitabel


Archy and MehitabelI can’t recall exactly how old I was when I first cracked open Don Marquis’s book, archy and mehitabel, sitting there among the other books in the basement, black spined, stiff, yellowing pages.  That old book smell.

Perhaps I was 11 or 12, but not much older, because we moved from that house in the summer after my 12th birthday. But I still remember it well.*

The book was one of those oddities on our basement family bookshelf. I ignored it, at first, then looked at the pictures – cartoons by George Herriman, the creator of Krazy Kat . Long after I’d checked out the cartoons, I started reading the text. It was wildly absurd, deeply philosophical, whimsical, silly, obscure, cynical, yet compelling. Way outside my depth. Who was this guy and what was all this nonsense about a cockroach and a typewriter?

Krazy Kat I knew from other books and publications, reprinted strips, and old, faded and brittle  cartoon strips cut out from newspapers and placed in between pages of other books, long since forgotten. Herriman’s wild style of drawing always intrigued me, even as a child.

Perhaps there’s some astrological connection: two months after Herriman’s death, the last of his completed Krazy Kat strips, a full-page Sunday comic, was printed. The date was Sunday, June 25, 1944. That day the British were assaulting Caen, in France, to begin the bloody Operation Epsom. The Allies bombed Toulon. The 8th AF bombers and fighter bombers flew missions to attack bridges and airfields in France as the Allies pushed the Nazis back towards Germany. Ships of the United States Navy and Royal Navy attacked German fortifications at Cherbourg to support American troops taking the city and the entuire Normandy peninsula.

MehitabelI was also born on a Sunday, in June, too. Okay, that’s wild and silly synchronicity and many years later. Just foolin’ with you. Astrology is claptrap. And I digress. Just wanted to put some context around Herriman and throw some misdirection your way. Ignosce mihi, dear reader.

Marquis died years before that, in 1937, after his third or fourth stroke. He was 59. No astrological connection there, I’m afraid. And also long before my time.

The book I opened, back in the early 1960s, seemed impossibly old. Published in 1927. The age of flappers, ukuleles, gin joints. When my father was a boy, not much old than I was when I discovered it. Had he read it then, and kept it ever since? Brought it with him from England after the war, a beloved volume too treasured to part from? Or had he picked up a copy here? I never knew.

Beside it on the shelf was archy’s life of mehitabel, 1933. Both sitting on the bookcase of forgotten volumes, tucked away in the basement, beside bound copies of the Boys’ Own Annual, a first edition of Tarzan, some tattered Mickey Spillane paperbacks, old hardback novels, books on time management, others on handyman skills, a few Popular Mechanics and Popular Science magazines, and odd volumes of an outdated encyclopedia.

All treasures to an inquisitive youngster. But this book hooked me in other ways, a sparked jumped across some subconscious wiring that connected literature, poetry, and writing. And maybe politics, too, although I was too young to realize it then.

Imagine reading these lines from the literary cockroach Archy to his feline friend, Mehitabel, when you were that age:

i suppose the human race
is doing the best it can but hell’s bells that’s only an explanation
it’s not an excuse.

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08/25/13

Why Quebec’s Proposed Headgear Law is Wrong


The Province of Quebec is proposing to ban the wearing of any and all religious headgear (including hijabs, turbans and yarmulkes, as well as other religious symbols) from public facilities and public service – affecting teachers, hospital workers, daycare workers, nurses, civil servants and (we assume) politicians.

The law would also cover “ostentatious” crucifixes, which has led to darkly humorous speculation about police stopping people to measure the size of their crucifix.

What about a tattoo of a giant “Om” on someone’s back? Would the owner have to remove it? Cover it up?

What about priests’ collars or nuns’ habits, worn in every Catholic school in the province. They’re public sector, aren’t they?

Atheist AAnd what about displays of the Flying Spaghetti Monster? Evolvefish? Or the red atheist “A”? Atheist symbols aren’t religious, so would they be exempt under this new law? *

It would be a bad law, as bad if not worse than the province’s repressive language laws. And it will spark innumerable challenges based on the Charter of Rights’ declaration of religious freedom.**

Not long ago, Quebec’s soccer federation tried to ban the wearing of Sikh turbans on the field. Why? Do turbans proffer a hithertofore unknown benefit to the wearers; performance-enhancing headgear like drugs? Or the opposite? The federation mumbled incoherently about safety, although there has been no turban-related injury ever recorded.

Could it be that turbans have no effect whatsoever on the player or his game and it was just racially-motivated? The general consensus was the latter, and the federation had to backtrack and rescind the ban after it became an international issue. The backlash was embarrassing and awkward, but the PQ government stood by the soccer federation.

While the PQ government – Canada’s answer to the Tea Party, it seems – remains tight-lipped about the upcoming ban on religious displays, the speculation is that Quebec wants to enforce a secular state by legislation. It has announced plans to release a Quebec secular “values” document this fall.

Clearly they haven’t learned from history: Lenin and his successors tried to do that and failed. The more the state interferes with religion, the more it thrives. I suspect that this attempt by the PQ will galvanize the province’s fading Catholicism.  Nothing like a good punch-up to bring out the believers. Britain has its soccer hooligans; Quebec may have its Catholic hooligans if this passes.***

Values cannot be legislated. Instilled, taught, expressed and promoted, but – like taste and talent – not legislated. Lead by example, Marois, not by the iron fist.

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07/9/13

Troilus and Cressida


Telegraph UKI’ve always found Troilus and Cressida a difficult play. The characters all seem jaded, cynical, opportunistic, stuffily sanctimonious, lecherous or simply underhanded. Some are merely unpleasant, others are despicable, reprehensible. All seem self-serving, more concerned with their own gains and goals than that of the greater war around them.

It’s difficult to understand why it was listed as a “comedy” (although oddly placed in the folio, between the histories and tragedies).

Even Harold Bloom calls it “difficult” and “elitist” (although he later qualifies it as Shakespeare’s “most sophisticated” and “intellectualized” play). And Joyce Carol Oates called it, “…that most vexing and ambiguous of Shakespeare’s plays.”

UK reviewer, Charles Spencer, wrote of a 2008 production,

This is surely the bleakest, nastiest and most nihilistic of all Shakespeare’s plays… The whole drama is obsessed with disease and bad faith. The cynicism, and sense of exhausted contempt, undoubtedly makes the play seem extremely modern. It also makes it hard to sit through, and a relief to escape from.

There is no real honour among warriors as we see in Shakespeare’s history plays (Hector’s single moment of gallantry, allowing the exhausted Achilles to live, is marred by his immediate desire to kill a different, unknown Greek solider, solely for his shining armour).

There’s no redemption, either, just self-serving action, personal agendas, vengeance, adolescent lust, scheming, cynicism and politics. There seems no remorse, no guilt, no shame like you might find in Hamlet or Macbeth.* Hector, when he tells Troilus,

There is a law in each well-order’d nation
To curb those raging appetites that are
Most disobedient and refractory. (2.2.180-183)

suggests that laws, not conscience, not guilt, are all that controls humanity. This is the opposite of the message in Shakespeare’s other plays, which almost always explore the effect of shame and conscience on the protagonists and their actions. Continue reading

07/7/13

Racism and the US Civil Rights movement retold


Civil Rights marchersAs I read through Rick Perlstein’s book, Nixonland, about American politics and life in the 1950s and 60s, the Civil Rights movement and the reaction to it by white Americans, the narrative astounds me. Such anger, such violence. Such sadness. It seems like such an alien place, dystopian, almost fictional, like an Orwellian novel.

I was, it seems from my reading, not really aware, not fully cognizant of just how bad it was. But then, it looks eerily familiar – some of the photos look just like those taken during the Occupy Wall Street protests. Am I merely juxtaposing my own feelings on it, conflating the two? After all, I was there. Wasn’t I?

Growing up in Canada, I never experienced the clashes that rocked America, especially in the Fifties and Sixties.* I saw the marches, the riots on the TV news, but never really felt their impact at home. Nor understood what they meant. Racism was such a bizarre, foreign concept that it didn’t make any sense.

I watched with youthful fascination at the stark black and white images of the protesters being set upon by police dogs, beaten by police batons, hosed with water cannon as they marched – mostly peacefully – for the right to sit in the front of a bus, use a washroom, to vote or have their children attend a school. Black and white, white vs black.

It simply didn’t make sense. Were people being beaten, even killed by those appointed or elected to protect them? People had to fight, often against violent reaction for the simple right to vote in a democracy? Why were others using brutality, violence and fear to prevent them? There was no logic, no sanity to any of it.

Not simply because I was young, but also because, as far as I was aware then, racism didn’t exist in our WASP neighbourhood, so there was nothing to compare it with. It certainly wasn’t in our household, in the little bungalow built in one of Toronto’s earliest east-end, post-war suburbs. Race – as a topic of animosity – didn’t exist: not because there were no people of colour, different ethnicities, religions or backgrounds, but rather because those differences simply didn’t matter.

To kids, anyway.** Continue reading

06/22/13

Not All Words Are Equal, or Used Equally


Dilbert
There’s an economic principle known as the rule of fungibility that states a commodity is equivalent to other units of the same commodity. For example, a litre of gasoline is the same commodity regardless of the brand or source. A bushel of wheat is the same regardless of the country. Ten dollars is ten dollars whether presented as a single bill or in smaller denominations. These are fungible items.

But fungibility doesn’t apply to language. Words do not have an absolute base value, but are rather weighed in their context, and their source. A street thug telling his pack followers to “Kill the bum” is very different from a sports fan shouting the same thing at an empire during a baseball game. Context is everything.

If a neighbour comments, “Taxes in this town are too high. They are killing jobs, hurting homeowners and bankrupting businesses,” it’s a complaint. A fairly common one from a taxpayer. One person bitching to another is lightweight, regardless of the truth of that complaint.

Put it in a letter to the editor, and it gains weight because others read it and may start discussing it. It gains traction.

Put it on social media and you can engage people in discussions immediately and share the comment with people outside your own borders, creating an image of the town for outsiders: don’t move there, don’t start a business there, because taxes are too high. There’s no work there.

It can quickly become damaging to to whole community.

If the media says it in an editorial, it’s bulks up. Even though the media does not necessarily represent any more voices than the editor’s sole view, media still has a patina of authority for most readers.*

And when that editorial gets put online, like the social media comment, it not only spreads the idea, but it helps build – or deteriorate – the community’s reputation for outsiders.**

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