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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08/25/13

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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08/2/13

Hell 2.3


IncubusBefore I carry on with my exploration of Miriam Van Scott’s Encyclopedia of Hell, I wanted to note that I just got my copy of her other book – the Encyclopedia of Heaven, from Abebooks. It’s dated 1999, so it’s a year later than her book on Hell. Yet it has many related topics – like Goethe’s second Faust. And it has lots of pop culture – like movie references – but nothing post 1999.

Miriam, why not consider a revised, updated “Encyclopedia of the Afterlife” to combine everything in one book? Lots has happened since the last editions. I’d be happy to help… okay, moving along.

Oh, and try not to make this out to be some sort of allegory for local politics. Sure, last term was Hell at times, but that’s not what this is all about. We left off in the letter I…

Incubus (plural incubi), we’re told, is the male version of the succubus. Both are seductive demons meant to lure humans to give in to temptation and have sex with them. Apparently if you succumb to temptation you open the door to damnation. It’s too late for me: flee, save yourselves… should have said that back in the 60s.

Scott doesn’t tell us that incubi are actually holdovers from ancient Mesopotamian religion (Mesopotamia is Greek, by the way, and it means between the rivers, because the civilizations rose between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers). Thank the river gods for Wikipedia and some “Small Latine and Lesse Greeke” in my education.*

Nor does she mention that incubi can father children (called cambion) and that Merlin, the legendary British wizard, was supposed to have been the child of an incubus and a human woman (in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account, a nun) named Aldan. But not all legends tell the same tale, and some are rather more prosaic about his birth. But Geoffrey’s book, the History of the Kings of England, is a delight to read anyway, despite the rather fanciful and fantastic bits.

Some succubi can be impregnated, others merely collect the sperm which the incubi use to impregnate females. Seems artificial insemination was thought of a long time ago. But as Wikipedia tells us, it might not be a fun act for the guys:

It is said that the act of sexually penetrating a succubus is akin to entering a cavern of ice.

That should lead me to a joke about my ex-wife, but I’ll avoid that temptation.
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07/22/13

Hell 2.0


Diablo or someone like himI left you last time after finishing the letter D, in Miriam Van Scott’s Encyclopedia of Hell. I’m back in book form to take you through a few more entries in her exploration of the afterlife. But first a couple of additions to your reading material.

First on the list is Alice Turner’s 275-page The History of Hell. It’s an illustrated guide to how Westerners have come to think of Hell, It starts with the ancient influences – Egypt, Greece, Rome and Judaism – but its main focus is on the evolving Christian imagination. She has a lot to say about the popular imagination and culture, too.

A more comprehensive, and significantly longer work is Alan Segal’s 866-page tome, Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion. Very theologically-oriented and dry, Segal’s work isn’t as much fun to read as Turner’s, but delves considerably deeper into scriptures (Jewish, Christian, and less comprehensively, Islamic).

Neither Turner nor Segal given any attention to non-Western thought. There is nothing on Buddhist, Shinto, Confucian, Hindu or other non-Western faiths. Nor do they go far from mainstream religious thought: nothing on any cult or fringe group like Scientology, Wicca, Jehovah’s Witness, Mormon or Seventh Day Adventist afterlife.

And today’s last choice is the fun little book by Augusta Moore and Elizabeth Ripley, The Pocket Guide to the Afterlife. A great intro to the world’s thinking about what happens after death. Just about every faith you can name, from Astaru to Zoroastrianism is covered in short, fun, illustrated descriptions. It’s somewhat tongue-in-cheek in parts, it is actually quite good in describing what are often complex and arcane beliefs.

Anyway, when I left you, I had plowed through Drithelm, Drugaskan and Duat. If you have been following along in your copy, you will remember these are a 7th-century Briton whose visions of Hell made him become a monk; the lowest level of Hell in Zoroastrianism, and the landing zone in Egyptian mythology where the dead arrive to find eternal retribution or rest, respectively.

Ever wonder why we call everyone else’s idea of the afterlife and their gods “mythology” while we claim ours is the only truth, capitalizing everything, like our God but their god? Just our parochial, narrow-minded perspective I suppose. But let’s go on (and save parochialism for another post)

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06/23/13

Review: The Life of Pi


Life of PiWe watched Life of Pi last night, a film that has garnered much critical acclaim and won four coveted Oscar awards (although it has not been without controversies). I had struggled somewhat with the book (for reasons given below), but the lavish praise for the film made me decide to try again.

I had read about the movie’s stunning camera work and CGI graphics, and these do not disappoint. It’s a beautiful film, and the CGI is amazingly lifelike. I puzzled over what was real and not in many scenes. But the story itself…

While sometimes described as a “fantasy adventure”, the novel is really an allegory about the search for meaning in religion. It’s also about the relativity of truth.

One of the delights of fiction is than an author can conjure up a situation, a landscape, an event and give his or her characters the chance to explore that imagined world and determine what it means to be human under those circumstances. That’s one reason I like science fiction: it has no boundaries to the imagination. But sometimes an author is trying not just to use this world to explore the human condition, but rather make a point, to teach, to pontificate what he or she believes is the message we readers need to absorb.

I felt Martel’s message, lumbering through the pages, was heavier-handed than his actual words. And that too often he meandered down his path rather than walked us towards it (compare the 300-plus pages of Life of Pi to  Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s brief little allegory, The Little Prince). Even Paul Coelho, that author of so many allegories, is briefer in his tales of self-discovery.

Martel’s writing is fairly smooth and light throughout most of the book, but I personally found it dragged, especially in the beginning. The core of the tale – Pi’s survival at sea with a tiger – doesn’t being until Chapter 37, a third of the way into the story. By then I was muttering “get on with it” to myself as I read through the pages.

The tale – when it finally began – struck me like a modernized Book of Job: a human suffering the vicissitudes of life and his hostile environment while struggling to keep faith, illogically at times, with an arbitrary, unresponsive or sometimes downright cruel deity. Again, I found it stretched on longer than necessary. Like Job, our Pi has to go through numerous challenges to test his faith. Continue reading

06/9/13

What if you’re wrong?


Great visualization of the now-famous response from evolutionary biologist, author, and well-known atheist, Richard Dawkins, when asked in 2006 about his argument that there is no god, “What if you’re wrong?”

Flying Spaghetti Monster pin“Anybody could be wrong, ” he replies. “We could all be wrong about the Flying Spaghetti Monster and the Pink Unicorn and the Flying Teapot.”

All of these refer to various arguments used to illustrate the weakness in faith-based statements and arguments.

The Flying Spaghetti Monster (aka Pastafarianism) was, according to Wikipedia, created as a satire against creationists (a group notoriously shy of a sense of humour…):

The “Flying Spaghetti Monster” was first described in a satirical open letter written by Bobby Henderson in 2005 to protest the Kansas State Board of Education decision to permit teaching intelligent design as an alternative to evolution in public school science classes. In that letter, Henderson satirized creationist ideas by professing his belief that whenever a scientist carbon dates an object, a supernatural creator that closely resembles spaghetti and meatballs is there “changing the results with His Noodly Appendage”. Henderson argued that his beliefs and intelligent design were equally valid, and called for Flying Spaghetti Monsterism to be allotted equal time in science classrooms alongside intelligent design and evolution. After Henderson published the letter on his website, the Flying Spaghetti Monster rapidly became an Internet phenomenon and a symbol used against teaching intelligent design in public schools.

The FSM has its own website and a huge following. You can buy FSM pins, T-shirts and other accessories from Evolvefish.com. You could even become an ordained FSM minister for a few dollars. Continue reading