Not so long ago, in a galaxy not so very far away, modern mythology was born. Let me explain…
“You must unlearn what you have learned.” – Yoda.
In living memory in Australia, LGBT people were bashed and murdered in streets, homes, public transport or parks – as they are today in nations across Africa or Eastern Europe or the Middle East. Back in the 1990s, possibly fuelled by AIDSphobia, the threats of violence were so pronounced in Melbourne that LGBT people were encouraged to carry a whistle at night.
Around the time I was born, a lawyer in Britain wrote a book about human injustice, and he called for a worldwide amnesty for everyone who was imprisoned for political reasons. This led to the establishment of Amnesty International, a worldwide organisation that has traditionally fought for human rights. My involvement with that organisation probably peaked in 2011 when I was able to secure the publication of an Australian stamp to mark the 50th anniversary of AI.
At the height of the great epidemic of our lifetime – not, not COVID but that other one – millions of people died while millions more continue to live on with the virus. During what should have been my halcyon years, while my friends were dying and the rest of us were fighting for our lives and civil rights, we learnt to pause and rest and light a candle or sew a quilt panel in remembrance.
How does this relate to modern mythology? On this day – ‘Life Day‘ in the mythology of Star Wars – it seems fitting to reflect upon how our culture is predicated so much upon war and violence and death, but like the Jedi, we can turn our thoughts and efforts into positivity.
To quote other characters from another science fiction franchise:
“I think that one day they’re going to take all the money that they spend now on war and death…”
“And make them spend it on life.”
‘City of the Edge of Forever’, Star Trek TOS.
In traditional Christianity, the bell, book and candle were used to excommunicate someone and effectively ‘cancel’ them from their family, their faith network, and their hope in eternity. In less superstitious times as these, I use the same items to reflect on our modern life.
The modern-day counterpart of a bell – the whistle – is today used as a search and rescue instrument to help save lives, and as a symbol of heralding in new ideas and new life. Three decades ago, whistles were blown to protect my friends and me as we walked down streets at night; four years ago we metaphorically blew those same whistles to herald marriage equality. Whistles can even be heard across the African landscape where my LGBT family still face murder and attack. Change is coming.
The book? As we live and breathe the book is being rewritten for human rights in our world. Even those who do not understand human rights: the anti vaxxers and anti maskers who seek to redefine their narcissism as universal human rights; the despots who seek to rewrite human freedoms in their own image; and the religious bigots who seek to perpetuate discrimination under the guise of ‘religious freedoms’ – they all hijack the language and concepts of human rights to conform to their narrow reinterpretations. But they will not win. The arrow of history inexorably points towards progress.
And the candle? It remains the hopeful symbol of light in the darkness, a voice in a wilderness radiating hope and enlightenment.
The power of mythology can even be found in populist modern literary material that is known for its propensity towards space opera and war – and enables us to see and hear the cosmos through new perspectives, offering us a Manichean celebration of life and positivity as demonstrated in Wookieepedia:
Life Day was a Wookiee holiday celebrated by the inhabitants of Kashyyyk. It was a celebration of the planet’s diverse ecosystem and the many forms of life it encompassed. It was also a time to remember family members who had died, and the young ones who continued to bring new life to a family.
Life Day offers us a new perspective on this planet: groaning under the weight of difficulties but also shining as a bright orb of life and hope in a cold and dark cosmos. Enjoy the symbolism, live the potential. Happy Life Day.
I never met my grandfather (see the picture of him during WW1), because he died years before I was born, but one family story is that he used to have fun at parties telling people that he and my grandmother had met in an insane asylum – because they had. Both of them had been psychiatric nurses dealing with the trauma of shattered bodies and minds among returned soldiers after the so-called Great War.
Two decades later during World War Two, my other grandfather served as a volunteer fireman during the Blitz in England. He was often called to go out and extinguish fires at night after buildings had suffered from bomb damage. One night, according to family lore, he returned home greatly distressed – a bomb had hit an air raid shelter and killed many men, women, children and babies, and he had been forced to help sift through the rubble and carnage.
This is the reality – for all our admiration of Star Wars movies and Rambo flicks, for all our cultural hero worship of ANZACs and the Battle of Britain and the Trojan War, the reality is that war is hell. People and other living creatures suffer and die. Certain nations may boast of their military spending and campaigns, but they are actually making profit from the death of others.
But there is a greater reality – whether climate change (war against the environment) or politics (war against civic society) or world poverty (war on equality) or nature (war for survival).
Richard Dawkins summarises the reality of nature:
“The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease…”
The animal world is hell, and humans are part of that natural world – so why should the human world be any different?
The answer is obvious: because we can make it better. We have the capacity and therefore the moral responsibility. Our basic human intellect and ethics should make us not only humanist but also sentientist.
The war continues every day. What did you do during the war?
Lifelong learning should happen to us all, and I am no exception. I remember (with some embarrassment) my first year of teaching, when I was having a dispute with a noisy fourteen year-old student in a rowdy all-boys class. He loudly complained that the work was (expletive), and in a momentary fury, I told him to stop giving me (expletive) in return. The class went deathly silent. I told the boy I would see him after class. They all sat there, working silently, astonished that I had been angered to the point of swearing, and duly anticipating that I would harshly punish their classmate after their class had finished. As for me, I was sitting at my desk in turmoil, my (barely started) teaching career flashing before my eyes: I had sworn at a student! What if his parents complained to the Principal? What should I do?
I resolved that I should set an example, even if it left me open to admitting my own wrongdoing. At the end of class, the boy came up to my desk to receive punishment. Instead, I initiated the conversation: ‘I lost my temper and spoke wrongly. I’m sorry. I apologise.’ He quickly replied, “Sir, I did the same and I’m sorry too.” We shook hands and negotiated a fresh start tomorrow, while the rest of the class stared in stunned astonishment. That was the end of the matter forever: no student gossiped in the school yard; no parent complained – although I did immediately report myself to the Principal, who dismissed the incident with a forgiving wave of the hand.
Fast forward about twenty years, when I was teaching a book about the Holocaust. The students discussed how many disparate people had died in concentration camps – including Jews, gypsies, political prisoners, Jehovah’s Witnesses, families, kids and babies… and gay people. In what I assume was an attempt to lighten the mood of the room, one boy commented jokingly, “Gays? Well, at least Hitler got something right, eh?” The class fell silent, waiting for me to express outrage at such intolerance – but this time, with the benefit of life experience and maybe a splinter of wisdom, I did not lose my temper. Instead, I quietly leaned over and said confidentially to him, “Do you really want to say something that agrees with Adolf Hitler?” Then I smiled reassuringly and the study resumed without further comment – until the end of the lesson, at which point the boy spontaneously stood up, and apologised loudly to the entire class for his comment. I realised that he had learnt not only empathy for others, and humility to admit that he had been wrong, but he had also intuited that he had a personal responsibility to rectify his wrongdoing towards others.
Life had come full circle for me as a teacher.
Lifelong learning goes on forever, and allows us the privilege of learning to be kind to ourselves, and to fellow travellers on our journey through life.
When I was a young school teacher, I once had a classroom full of exuberant fifteen year-old boys and was given the task of teaching them about girls.
That got your attention – as it got theirs.
To be more precise, the actual class was a special one-off lesson on “Equal Opportunity”; the time for this class being taken out of time that was normally allocated to regular subjects such as English and Maths. Together, the boys and I discussed entrenched gender bias in society, and we confronted sexism, discrimination and sexual harassment.
The class went well, the boys shared their agreement with the concepts – and then they went out to play sport, where the PE teacher loudly complained that they were all kicking the ball “like a bunch of girls”.
I learnt an important lesson that day: that people cannot be taught about equality or prejudice or bullying – or a thousand other ethical issues – as a separate subject; these must be incorporated into their everyday lives.
Over subsequent years, I learnt how to incorporate social justice and critical thinking into my English classes, where I encouraged Christian, Muslim, agnostic and atheist students to explore, evaluate and debate issues as diverse as the ethics of modern music, same-sex parenting, and voluntary euthanasia. Other students pondered whether Shakespeare might rewrite Romeo and Juliet today, recasting the main characters as an interracial, interfaith or same-sex teen couple – and give the story a happier ending.
In History and Social Studies classes, my junior students learnt to discuss a diverse range of religions as they enjoyed turning teddy bears into mummies and evaluating the religious beliefs of the ancient Egyptians; middle-year students pondered ethics as they related to consumerism, vegetarianism or multiculturalism; senior students debated the ethics of conscription, cultural imperialism and conscientious objection while studying a variety of wars, invasions and genocides.
Nor did I simply want to introduce students to theoretical issues that enabled them to remain dispassionate; I wanted them to adopt lifelong learning.
I recall one class from the early 1990s, when my students were studying To Kill A Mockingbird at school and then going home to watch TV news of the Rodney King Riots in the USA. I realised that they felt smugly superior due to a mistaken belief that here in Australia, we had suffered no such history of racist prejudice and violence. In their next class, I presented them with material on colonial mistreatment of indigenous Australians, abridged summaries of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, and an account of the Myall Creek massacre. This material horrified and shocked them out of their complacency, and challenged them to consider their place in history and their personal responsibility as world citizens.
In another senior class about ten years later – when the times and culture were more homophobic than they are today – I taught students critical thinking and analysis through examining a then-contemporary and somewhat scandalous social issue (thoroughly vetted and approved in advance by the school principal) of whether or not lesbians should have access to in vitro fertilisation technology. Through the use of daily newspaper clippings and other materials, we examined various viewpoints, and engaged in a number of respectful discussions in which students shared their religious or cultural attitudes towards the issue. One night, a parent came into the school, and I recognised him as both the father of one of these students and as a parent representative on School Council. He sat down alongside me and said, “So you’re the teacher giving my boy the information about lesbian parenting?” Probably sensing my sudden hesitation, he smiled and said, “Every night, the family sits around the dinner table and talks about how our day has been. When it’s my son’s turn to talk about his day at school, he tells us excitedly about how you allow them all to discuss a grown up issue, and treat their different views with empathy and respect. I want to thank you for helping my son to grow up.” (Well, that was not the response I had expected from someone who possibly had the power to hire or fire me!)
Lifelong learning can happen when it is least expected.
On a similar note of those bewailing social change, I saw similar protests in science fiction communities when privileged heterosexual white males began to assert their ‘victimhood’ because Doctor Who had become a woman, and because Star Trek had finally begun to portray starship crews with a healthier proportion of gender, sexuality and cultural diversity. The lack of depth and critical thinking in these arguments left me feeling somewhat speechless (another form of cancel culture?) Part of the excitement of science fiction in particular, and within much related popular culture, is surely its ability to positively and empathically represent ‘the other’ and to thereby challenge us all. Why would anyone find that threatening? Bring on Jane Bond, I say, and make her a lesbian demonstrating the correct way for 007 to treat women with respect. Or replace Captain America with Captain China, make Superman an African American fighting racism, or bring the Australian detective Boney back to television using an actual Blak Aussie actor instead of someone in physical or metaphoric blackface.
Challenging our traditional perspectives and behaviours, and making us feel uncomfortable about entrenched privilege, is surely a good thing – progress relies upon change, and we must change our minds before we can change our world. Let Captain Jane T Kirk lead the next generation of TV astronauts boldly going where no woman has gone before.
Hypocrite, Cancel Thyself!
“Freedom of the press is limited to those who own one.” ― A.J. Liebling
Some years ago – in the days when the Internet was not yet available in most homes or via mobile phones, and access was most commonly available only via an Internet Café or public library – a new censorship law was implemented to prevent morally objectionable material being available on the ‘Net. Websites and search engines were mandated to sanitise their visible content.
At that time, a friend of mine visited a library, and for an experiment, she tried to access a number of websites:
BREAST CANCER WEBSITE? Blocked.
SAFE SEX MATERIAL? Blocked.
DOMESTIC VIOLENCE ADVICE? Blocked.
THE KU KLUX KLAN? Not blocked.
In this spirit, it is ironic that what detractors nowadays call ‘cancel culture’ comprises censorship and oppression which has long been used by conservatives to actually stifle progressive thought and action, from abolition to trans rights.
Meanwhile, conservative Christians in Victoria bewail new laws which prevent them from conducting conversion therapy, a fraudulent religious practice that claims to ‘cure’ LGBT people under the pretense of religious free speech. Perhaps not surprisingly, such arguments do not wash with me: I lost my faith some thirty years ago after being ‘cancelled’ by my Christian friends when their conversion therapy naturally failed to ‘cure’ me. Religion has been used to ban a variety of books ranging from Harry Potter to the Bible itself. Christians have even called for the banning of drag story time readings in public libraries, and Pride Marches. They also call for Religious Freedom Laws that grant special rights to religious elites while ‘cancelling’ Equal Opportunity protections for others.
Duncan Fine highlights the irony of conservatives complaining about cancel culture when they are actually responsible for so much of it:
“Just ask women who were not able to vote, be educated, get a safe abortion or work after marriage. Or members of the gay community whose love lives were subject to the criminal law. Indigenous Australians still feel the sting of cancellation…”
Even today, cancelling the voices of oppressed peoples such as women does not necessarily rely on overt misogyny or hatred – sometimes all it takes is overlooking their entrenched disadvantage.
And on the issue of free speech, I was blocked from Scott Morrison’s Facebook page some years ago after I asked a question about refugees. I was ‘cancelled’ by the same Christian who plays the martyr card about Christians having their beliefs mocked – whereas I say all that ideas and beliefs are open slather for challenge, but loving thy neighbour should be sacrosanct.
Human Rights and Freedom of Speech
“The human voice is the most beautiful instrument of all,
but it is the most difficult to play.” – Richard Strauss.
In the only western nation that lacks a Human Rights Bill or similar framework, Australians often display a lack of understanding about human rights as clarified under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and other modern international definitions. Article 30 of the UDHR specifies that human rights cannot be exercised in ways that destroy the rights of others. This aligns with our existing restrictions upon free speech by laws proscribing actions related to deception, blackmail, harassment, dishonesty, racism, scamming, plagiarism, perjury, sexism, libel, slander, defamation, homophobia, privacy, secrecy, national security, incitement, hate speech and bullying. We need to negotiate these things every time we open out mouths. So while some people insist upon free speech, they erroneously think that means they can say anything they like without regard to consequences.
The other common misconception is that because everyone is entitled to an opinion, that all opinions are equal – but they are not. Opinions based upon evidence and expertise are better than those based upon ignorance or misinformation. Modern public discourse is full of people promoting their presumed expertise on topics about which they are unqualified to speak: anti vaxxers, anti maskers, flat earthers, science denialists, free speechers who claim the right to say anything they like without fear of consequence, cis-gendered trans exclusionary feminists who deny equality for trans women, and men’s rights advocates who complain about TERFS and other feminists in much the same way that white supremacists used to complain about minority civil rights, etc.
Ultimately, free speech is like any other right – it has limits, and it must be balanced with responsibilities in a pluralist society. And like other human rights that are predicated upon freedom of choice – such as religion – they can change and evolve as our understandings and knowledge change. Just as we have the right to change our religious beliefs, we also have the right to change our speech when our understandings and knowledge grow beyond our previous perspectives: when we become aware, for example, of how language can be used to hurt and discriminate against others, and become a weapon to entrench privilege instead of enact equality.
Our wonderful human faculty of speech – more extensive and nuanced (as far as we are aware) than that of any other species – should surely be used to help contribute to human evolution: build up and nurture the positive, criticise and redress the corrupt and backward, but always in a way that is affirming and progressive. Human values such as compassion and community are best enhanced through reason and resolve – and a kind word cultivates better fruit than does antagonism.
“Sticks and stones may break my bones
But words shall never hurt me.”
The old ‘sticks and stones’ children’s song undoubtedly originated as an attempt to teach resilience in the face of bullying, but it is inadequate for today’s society, after all: words really can hurt. In balancing our human rights and responsibilities, we need the wisdom to judge what is helpful and what is harmful – and act accordingly, learning from our mistakes along the way.
But let us also defer to genuinely free speech that challenges, dissects and overturns our previously treasured misconceptions and sacred cows; refines theories and opinions in the crucible of public opinion; advances new ideas and progress; allows people the freedom to propose or believe anything they like – right or wrong – while providing opportunities for debating and researching and learning; and shows positive respect for others and celebrates diversity while also protecting the sensitivities and vulnerabilities of those who traditionally face disadvantage and discrimination.
Let our free speech not be hate speech; but let it be so much more: let it be love speech – love of life, love of truth, love of people, and love of knowledge. May our thoughts, words and deeds all make a positive difference to the world for our having been here.
Ultimately, what is often disparagingly called ‘censorship’ is what I would call ‘basic human decency’ because it involves moderating our words to make allowance for the sensitivities of others. It does not mean we cannot say what we think, but simply say it kindly and cleverly and tenderly. Empathy is needed when we speak in order to protect and nurture those who are powerless, bullied or oppressed, and only people who are privileged and/or insensitive would appear likely to protest against protecting our most vulnerable. For all the elitist and one-sided protests from conservatives about cancel culture and being woke, it seems to me that is is better to be woke than asleep.
Whether star gazing or navel gazing, humans experience awe and wonder in their world. We see dragons in clouds, and Jesus’ face on a piece of toast; we hear cosmological choirs in a symphony orchestra, and we interpret design in the natural environment even though we evolved to fit inside its parameters. Our tendency towards Pareidolia makes us creatures who are hard wired to find comfort, security and meaning in patterns and interpretation. Sometimes those interpretations can be profoundly life changing.
“There are moments in your life that make you and [set] the course of who you’re going to be. Sometimes they’re little, subtle moments. Sometimes, they’re big moments you never saw coming. No one asks for their life to change, but it does. It’s what you do afterwards that counts. That’s when you find out who you are.” – Unknown.
One of my earliest memories is from my very young childhood, when my family was out for a Sunday drive. Suddenly, we heard the sound of an ambulance siren, and my father (who was driving) pulled over to let the ambulance overtake and speed ahead – right through a red light intersection that lay ahead. I asked my parents why they were allowed to do that.
Mum and Dad explained that the ambulance had special permission under the law, because they were on their way to help save someone in an emergency. Over fifty years later, I recall that moment – I was dumbfounded and nearly burst into tears; deeply, profoundly touched that the law recognised the value of human life, and was prepared to allow ambulances to break ordinary laws if it meant helping to save someone. It was perhaps a definitive moment in my early life, when I understood that humans were capable of great nobility.
In subsequent years, I came to understand that many people value such transitional moments or flashes of insight, and they often seek vocabulary to clarify or express the import of those moments: spirituality, transcendence, the miraculous or the numinous. Whole religions have risen up in search of answers to explain such times of inner existential reflection.
But for me, this is one significant feature of the human creature – our ability to ponder and reflect, and find the extraordinary within the ordinary. We see it everywhere – from Harry Potter books that enrapt a generation with their implicit message of finding something magical in the everyday; to our ability to marvel at the night-time sky. For me, this is not divine revelation or fate; it is simply the ability of sentient humans to seek, find or create significance for themselves.
“Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?”
― Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
A more recent transcendent moment took place after I had faced heart surgery and the possibility of my own mortality. Some relatives visited me in the hospital, and gave me a photo of a baby that had just been born into the family. I instantly fell in love with the child not only because he shared my DNA, but also because he represented something more fundamental: the potential and hopes for life itself. Amidst my lonely cogitations of possible mortality, here was a baby showing me that life goes on regardless of anyone’s individual circumstance. I was greatly comforted with the profundity that I was part of a species and an organic flow of life that would continue whether or not I was there to participate further. Where some people sought consolation in religion as something bigger than themselves, I was comforted to know that the human species – and life itself – offered its own version of collective immortality through biological survival.
Beyond humans, our biosphere is filled with other species that also share our biological imperative to survive. I wonder if, like humans, other sentient species also have their own versions of numinous experiences?
“What a piece of work is [humanity], How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty…” – Shakespeare..
Our search for ‘spirituality’ should be recognised as a pilgrimage in search of our secular selves, warts and all. Carl Sagan acknowledged that “We are a way for the universe to know itself” and such a revelation is both reassuring and terrifying in its aspiration and its possible outcomes. We do not need a stone age deity or a new age mystic to tell us that we are filled with potential; our individual ideals and visions are a Rorschach test of our inner personalities. Our self awareness compels us to seek enlightenment or significance in nature, music, arts, hobbies, or philosophies, but our answers – and the transcendent responses we elicit – come from within. I believe that the numinous is luminous: it lights the way ahead for us as we seek to improve ourselves and our world.
In September 2021, a small earthquake struck my part of Australia, reminding millions of people that the forces of nature are mind-boggling. What can we learn from another natural disaster – the threat that asteroids and meteors pose to our world?
In April 2002, I wrote a letter to the Australian Minister for Science. I am still waiting for a satisfactory response:
As an Australian citizen who tries to keep abreast of scientific news, I am aware of the great danger posed to our planet by Earth-grazing asteroids. Scientists have revealed that a number of significant asteroids have skimmed past our plant in the last two months alone.
It seems likely that had any of these asteroids collided with our planet, the consequences may have been catastrophic. Had they fallen in Australia, they might have destroyed a major metropolitan area and devastated the majority of our continent. The loss of life and property could have been incalculable.
Even a cursory study of our nation’s geographic features proves that asteroids have crashed in Australia in the past, and will undoubtedly do so again.
I therefore seek your clarification as to what your government is doing to gather together our nation’s scientific opinion and expertise, to assess the actual risks associated with Earth-grazing asteroids, and to implement a “Skywatch” type program as part of an early warning system.
I understand that Australia stands virtually alone in the Southern Hemisphere as having the technological capacity to scan the southern skies for this danger. I feel it is therefore incumbent upon our government to accept its moral responsibility in this area and show leadership in protecting our nation and possibly the world.
Twenty years later, I assume that my letter was sparked by news of a similar letter being signed around that same time by many scientists imploring the Australian government to take similar steps for watch the skies. Such concerns are not simply the realm of science fiction. They have happened in the past, perhaps most famously a century ago at Tunguska, and in more ancient times when one may have impacted human society and Biblical mythology. Impacts and collisions with Earth happen all the time, including a scattering across Australia – but most are small and barely register on our attention spans, like the Chelyabinsk meteor over Russia in 2013:
When one ponders that the dinosaurs were likely killed by a massive asteroid strike, maybe we should hope that the dinosaurs in our Parliament do not create a similar fate for the rest of us.
There are many such existential threats that demand our world’s attention: meteors and microbes, pollution and poverty, climate change and corruption. The way our society ignores asteroids is symbolic of our attitudes towards other dangers.
Our distant Cretaceous–Paleogene cousins had limited intelligence and no way of predicting, understanding or preventing their fate, but humans have the comprehension and the capabilities. What fate do we choose? The sky is the limit.
When I was a young man, I visited the family of school friends and proudly showed off my latest purchase: a (very second hand) Toyota car. Although their father said nothing verbally, I somehow detected an immediate change in his body language: he tensed up, and became somehow guarded and subdued. Nothing was said, but I sensed his discomfort, and realised that his war background (as a POW in Changi) made him uncomfortable regarding Japanese culture and branding. He was careful to never verbalise bigoted or racist ideas, but he clearly had an underlying background trauma connected to his wartime experience.
Some short years later, when I was again visiting the family, he took me to his garage and proudly showed off his latest purchase: a Mitsubishi vehicle. Again, nothing was said, but he was clearly keen to show me not just his new car but the personal growth that it represented. He had learned to think beyond his trauma, and come to accept and respect people from another culture and heritage with whom he had previously felt a grounds for grievance.
He is long gone, but he represents for me a human being who demonstrates our finest potential and our greatest challenge: to think beyond our limitations, wounds and barriers, and find the common humanity in us all.
“I dream of an Africa, which is in peace with itself”
— Nelson Mandela
My dear young African gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual, non-binary or gender-variant (or other) friends,
I send love and greetings from far across the planet. We can be thankful that we live in an era when mobile telephones and Internet and social media make it possible for us to communicate and learn together – and I have have already learnt so much from you.
You were born in a special location. Africa is the birthplace of humanity and of Afro-optimism which points towards a hopeful future. Your food is grown in the same soil as that from which our distant ancestors first found their own growth; you build lives on the continent that contains some of the world’s oldest surviving human-made buildings; you leave your footprints on top of other humans who trod the same paths for possibly a million generations. You are a child of a wonderful past, and the parent of a wonderful future that is yet to be created – if only we had the eyes to see.
And yet so often, we do not see. I am sorry that much of the western world considers Africa to be geographically and emotionally distant from their lives, an attitude left over from the days before air travel and modern communications, and used today as an excuse to ignore our African family. Such prejudice recalls earlier, racist times belonging to colonial empires and slavery and the stealing of your continent’s resources. Please be patient with us, help us to outgrow our racism and ignorance.
In glimpsing Africa today, I look at you and see some of the most genuine people on Earth. You take a stand as LGBTQIA+ people in a society where it is dangerous, as it was in western society during the days of gay liberation a generation ago. When I was your age, it was illegal to be a gay male in Australia, and LGBTQIA+ people were the subject of lies and intolerance in churches and law courts, were expelled from families and employment, faced corrupt police and hate-filled politicians, and were even murdered with impunity. But time passed, and people became more educated about LGBTQIA+ issues. My country passed a law in 2017 to allow marriage equality. There are still religious bigots here, but new generations of young adults are growing up and largely rejecting those religions and cultures that preach and practice homophobia.
So shall it be in your country when Africa stops filling itself with corrupt ideas and religious hate. Africa is a continent spoiled by centuries of Maafa (Black Holocaust) but it also has many good, kind, decent people. Please be living examples of Ubuntu and display beauty amidst the ugliness around you; work together to make a difference. You have much to teach us.
“You know you are truly alive when you’re living among lions.”
― Isak Dinesen
You are heroes in a society that discriminates and rejects its own children, taught by religions that preach love or justice but which practice hate. Pastors, politicians and parents declare that being queer is unnatural even though nature is full of sexual and gender diversity. Parental rejection of LGBTQIA+ children is one of the most unnatural practices in Africa today. Please forgive your parents and communities for absorbing lies from polluted ideas in the same way that they might catch typhoid from polluted water. You know better. Stand tall, be proud. Be gracious; be kind; be a better example.
In our modern world, we could learn much wisdom from you. Many of you are refugees – from your families, communities and cultures – while western nations have forgotten what being a refugee truly means. In Australia, our openly Christian Prime Minister boasts proudly of turning back boats full of refugees – ignoring the fact that Jesus was a refugee. Please forgive us and allow your lives to teach us humility.
Some people in western nations today complain about wearing face masks to protect themselves from a virus; perhaps they have forgotten – or they are lucky enough to have never known – what it is like to wear a mask every day to hide your true LGBTQIA+ self from your loved ones. And while rich, white people complain about lockdowns, please help them to understand what it is like to live in societies where living in the closet is still the norm. Please teach us human strength and empathy.
History shows us that human society evolves and progresses. In 1978, openly gay US politician Harvey Milk gave a speech in which he spoke about the recent murder of a gay man in the USA and the crowds that gathered in the street in remembrance:
“And that night, I walked among the sad and the frustrated… and later that night as they lit candles… and stood in silence, reaching out for some symbolic thing that would give them hope. These were strong people, whose faces I knew from the shop, the streets, meetings and people who I never saw before but I knew. They were strong, but even they needed hope.”
You are part of that hope. Being young, the future belongs to you, and your membership of a worldwide rainbow family gives you the power to feel confident and proud and bold. I stand with you, and I know others in Australia and around the world – kind people who humble me with their compassion – who also stand with you. Our numbers are growing.
With a little seed of imagination you can grow a field of hope.
Occasionally, you ask me if you are really as evil as you have been told by your society. My response is that you are among the kindest, gentlest, noblest, most courageous souls on Earth, and your LGBTQIA+ nature adds colour and variety to the spice of African society. As US African-American singer Whitney Houston told us all, learning to love yourself is the Greatest Love of All. I hope you can see the special nature in yourself that I see in you.
The United Nations promotes its 2021 Day of Peace as an opportunity to recover from COVID. But please, my friends, remember also other, more silent viruses, which we call hatred and homophobia. Love and education are the vaccines for these other sicknesses. Please be part of the cure, as I will also try.
We are the world, and you are an important part of it. Be true to yourself. Please find ways to safely tell your stories. Please exercise courage and strength; and show us how your diversity makes us all stronger. Please teach us your wisdom. And please know that some day, somehow, things will get better, and your triumph will teach us all.
I don’t suppose there are too many 60 year-olds who can find documented evidence from 90% of their lifetime ago and discover that they were writing fan fiction. Helping my elderly mother clear out some drawers of old family memorabilia, I recently came across a booklet I had produced in 1966 (or thereabouts) which showed that my earliest surviving fan fiction was not Star Trek, Thunderbirds, UFO, McMillan and Wife or The Night Stalker. My earliest fic – holy jemoly! – was the Batman TV series.
Diversity starts early. In my case, having learnt to read before I even arrived at school, I recall reading Black Beauty from cover to cover, along with my mother’s assistance, at the age of four. When I began school, I was placed in a large class of children for whom reading was otherwise a largely alien concept. At recess and lunchtime, while the majority of my male classmates were learning to kick a football, my mixed-gender peer group busied itself playing elastics or role-playing ‘Lost in Space’, and generally not conforming to the stereotype of 1960s Aussie school kids. That peer group later grew up to mature into a collection of gay men, lesbians, cross dressers, and other diverse characters. They all loved science fiction from an early age.
As a teenager, while my male school friends were out playing footy (or other sport) every Saturday afternoon, I was curled up on my bed reading the latest Asimov or other science fiction paperback novel that I had purchased with that week’s pocket money. Such an intellectual investment has long-term implications: as an adult, I have more books in my house than any other item.
My passion for writing also began at an early age: the above photo features the front of a four-page booklet that I produced in the mid-1960s modeled on the Batman TV series – and in which a friend rather kindly suggested recently that I showed a better understanding of narrative structure at age six than some modern adult authors do today. Whatever the case, this humble venture spearheaded a lifetime of writing which began with fan fiction and evolved into more serious efforts – academic and otherwise – and which most recently includes this blog.
Aristotle spoke of how our basic personalities are formed at a young age. He foreshadowed the nature versus nurture debate regarding various aspects of our character: sexuality, addictions, mental health predispositions, etc. We accept that the answer to the nature versus nurture debate often appears to be that we are born this way and that our personality does not change. My own experiences of attending school or science fiction reunions – and finding my old classmates or Trek friends still pretty much the same people in middle age as they were when tender teenagers – is testimony to this fact.
And yet our early social conditioning – our nurture – is not immutable. My childhood upbringing included a strong religious component, from which I broke away in my twenties when intellectual and moral conflicts arose between religious dogma and real-life issues such as critical thinking, sexuality, world poverty, and the religious-based oppression of women, LGBT, and others. Secular utopian (and dystopian) science fiction provides much more relevant, grounded, thought-provoking and inspirational literature than does apocalyptic ancient Biblical mythology; real-life humanist activism helps to create a better world today than does deferring instead to an unproved religious afterlife.
At the time, my religious deconversion was like a cataclysmic nuclear explosion amongst toxic religious dictates that had accumulated in my life. The transition ended one life trajectory, and began another – one that was unexpected, unknown, and uncertain. Although painful at the time, in hindsight I now see 13 September 1987 as my day of liberation, encapsulated in a quote from science fiction TV series Space 1999:
“It’s better to live as your own man, than as a fool in someone else’s dream.”
(John Koenig, The Bringers of Wonder part 2, 1977).
Pain and trauma supply life experience that can lead to growth and personal development, and provide an opportunity to explore a vast cosmos of new ideas and fresh perspectives: To everything that might have been… To everything that was.
My life experience thereby suggests that there are aspects of free will which can be chosen and altered. I believe that we have a responsibility to choose betterment… every time.
Early exposure to science fiction and fan fiction instilled in me a sense of activist empowerment, and a strong optimism for the future despite what I see as humanity’s many flaws and weaknesses. That is my human journey, and I hope is it also your experience… and your daily choice within whatever aspects of free will you experience for yourself.
Who has gone farthest? for I would go farther,
And who has been just? for I would be the most just person of the earth…
And who benevolent? for I would show more benevolence than all the rest…
– Walt Whitman.
In 1867, humanist Walt Whitman wrote Excelsior, a poem about the choices we make. He challenged us to aim for our optimal, most benevolent – and his words appear to have been largely ignored.
The world approaches the twentieth anniversary of a heinous act of terrible, world-changing violence. Even twenty years later, I see this anniversary as an opportunity for humanity to learn and grow. How do we respond to acts of brutality, cruelty or violence? Popularly, it is asserted that any response must include a balance of using minimal force necessary to remove the threat, along with rebuilding a better world afterwards. But for me, any response must also balance a consideration of the best from our past – as per Whitman’s words – with our potential for nobility and benevolence in the future.
Hence my personal liking for science fiction as a glimpse of – or a warning about – our possible future. At the time of the September 11 attacks, I editorialised in the newsletter of my LGBT science fiction club:
The movie “2001” prominently featured a large black slab, and ironically, the real-life 2001 struck a world dumb as we watched the collapse of two large monolithic structures.
This comparison is not intended to be flippant or disrespectful, nor to make light of the suffering of the thousands of victims of the September attacks. It is designed to show how tragically far we still are from reaching our dreams.
The monolith in the movie, “2001”, symbolised the struggle for humanity to learn and grow, to evolve into better people. The destruction of the WTC twin towers showed the opposite in action – how a few people can be compelled into committing terrible criminal acts by their narrow-minded and ignorant views from a past that deserves to be relegated to the dustbin of history…
Where do we go from here? Do we descend into World War Three and racist chaos? Or do we try to build bridges in order to cross our planet’s divisions of nationality and poverty, of religion and racism?
Tragically, history shows us now that the choices made over the last twenty years, in response to this act of inhumanity, demonstrate that it is too easy to fall into similarly unenlightened behaviours. We have countenanced the invasion of nations, the winding back of human rights, extrajudicial human rights abuses, torture and indefinite detention, the turning away of millions of refugees, the siphoning of trillions of dollars into war machinery, the rise of intolerance and bigotry, and the building of walls instead of bridges.
Have we become ennobled or unnerved by these actions? Is our planet a global village or a battleground? Are we building a better world?
I have hope for the future. Today is International Literacy Day, which encourages people towards education, reading widely and thinking critically. Today is also Star Trek Day, the anniversary of a popular franchise that has traditionally promoted futurism, optimism and nobility, even though its current incarnations are failing to uphold this legacy. Our potential as a species – and our literature as a reflection of that potential – offer us opportunities for responsible, informed actions to change the world. Let us create and claim this future.
I recall, and slightly paraphrase, some words from my editorial in 2001, to reflect the ongoing challenge for planetary betterment in 2021:
Our situation challenges us to build a better world – to feed the overlooked millions who are starving, or to heal the forgotten millions who are living with HIV or COVID. We could make a determined stand to fight a war against injustice, poverty and intolerance. Are we equal to the challenge?
Geoff and Miriam (co editors), 2001. ‘From the Editors: In respectful memory…and in hope’, in Diverse Universe #9 – September 2001, Melbourne: Spaced Out, 10 October, p. 2.
Walt Whitman, 1867. ‘Exelsior‘, in Leaves of Grass.
My speech at an Interfaith Dialogue in September 2017, alongside a Christian And Muslim Speaker at La Trobe University.
I acknowledge and pay my respects to the Traditional Custodians and Elders of this nation, past, present and emerging; and to the continued cultural and community practices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Based up indigenous.gov.au and Reconciliation Australia
I begin with an Acknowledgement of Country because it is appropriate. Similarly, I am wearing a ‘Vote Yes’ T-shirt tonight not to confront people regarding the same-sex marriage postal vote, but because the T-Shirt and the AOC are pertinent to what I will be saying.
My name is Geoff and I am an atheist and humanist. Thank you for the opportunity to speak tonight at your Interfaith Dialogue, although I should start with some clarifications and definitions.
Unlike Islam, Christianity and other religions, atheism is not a faith position. It is the exact opposite – a lack of belief in a god or gods. Beyond that, there is no singular ‘atheist position’ on any issue or argument, which is probably why we generally do not have atheist churches or many social groups. Atheist views are as diverse as are the background cultures and societies of atheists around the world. Therefore, I am not here to give ‘the’ atheist perspective on happiness but simply one individual atheist perspective – my own.
Many atheists subscribe to humanism, an outlook that provides the foundation for much of our modern, secular world, and of our understandings of human rights, humanitarian charities, the humane treatment of animals, and a recognition of our common humanity.
In the words of Shakespeare: “What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god.”
This is not some subverted form of religious worship inverted back upon the human ego, but an evidentiary recognition that humans have singular capabilities to solve the problems of the world – and a related responsibility to do so.
Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We all know the words and understand that these are three things to which humans presumable aspire. But what exactly is happiness? How might atheists and humanists view happiness?
In the words of one old song, happiness means different things to different people. We all understand and emotionally connect when we see the happiness on the face of a smiling, giggling baby; we all laugh when a friend shares a funny joke; we are all susceptible to the charms of advertisers who tell us that our lives will be happier if we purchase their product.
But happiness as an emotion is transitory and fleeting. It is unreliable and can be deceptive. I have been told by believers that their faith makes them happy or that, conversely, if they lost their faith, their lives would feel empty and unfulfilled. Either way, they are equating their religion with their happiness as some sort of supposed evidence of their faith. I have two problems with such a position. Firstly, as an atheist, my lack of belief gives me an equal sense of happiness and fulfillment – and I recall a Christian friend who admitted to me, a year after I lost my faith, that she could see that I had never been happier. So you with your beliefs and I with my non-belief may feel equally happy, but we cannot both be right.
Secondly, alcoholics and drug addicts find happiness in substance abuse. They actually feel happy even as they potentially destroy their lives or the lives of others. Their example shows me that the emotion of happiness is not a measure of whether something is necessarily good or bad, right or wrong, true or false.
But there is more to happiness than the emotional state. Happiness is also a sense of well being and fulfilment that comes about when our physical and psychological welfare needs are met. In his book ‘The Expanding Circle’, ethicist Peter Singer explores the evolution of our sense of welfare as both individuals and as a collective human society. Singer writes that reason leads to the principle that “one’s own interests are one among many sets of interests”, and that none of these other sets of interests are ordinarily more or less important than our own.
As we individually grow from childhood to adulthood, we learn that our welfare is interdependent with that of others around us. As children, we learn that the welfare of our siblings and parents is inextricably bound to our own. Beyond that, we learn similarly of our school friends, our neighbourhoods, our churches and other social circles, then ultimately of our nation and the world.
Such growth in understanding can also be seen in collective human societies as they evolve from small hunter gatherer clans, to larger city states, and beyond into widespread national and trans-national identities. Indeed, recent human understandings have expanded our welfare concerns to include those of animals and of the environment.
I view the holy books of the three Abrahamic religions as literary products of their pre-industrial and pre-enlightenment societies, conflating tribalism with particular religions, and concerning themselves with the preservation of those cultural identities. I also see that the world is evolving beyond such tribalism, and increasing numbers of people see religion as providing insufficient foundation for our identities as digital and global citizens. In response, and despite their insistence upon tradition, religions adapt and evolve in order to survive, as does all of human society.
This brings me back, full circle, to my beginning, with my Acknowledgement of Country, which recognises that everything we do can impact upon other people’s lives in ways that are positive, negative and neutral. My country also currently incarcerates refugees and asylum seekers in concentration camps under conditions that are cruel and inhumane. How can humanists respond to such injustice?
As a part answer, I offer my T-shirt, which concerns itself with the same-sex postal vote. I wear this ‘yes’ T-shirt with pride, fully aware that there may be others in this auditorium who disagree. But I ask for your indulgence in a quick thought experiment. If, instead of same-sex couples, the postal vote was asking us about another minority group. What if it asked whether Jews should enjoy equal rights in Australia? Or Muslims? Asian Australians? Catholics? Indigenous Australians? How would you vote then? I would hope that you might vote for equality and compassion, in recognition of our common humanity – as though your brother’s or sister’s human rights were under question, because indeed they are.
In all these cases, I would still vote the same way and still wear this T-shirt with equal pride, because I believe – as I hope you do – that we are all equal in worth and dignity, and should be entitled to equal protection under the law. Our entitlement to happiness as living, thinking beings, surely compels us to work towards the mutually beneficial welfare of all.
We are all here at university because we recognise that we do not and cannot know everything, but we wish to learn skills that will enable us to research wisely, to think critically, and to reach informed and reasoned, evidence-based conclusions as part of our individual journey towards becoming empowered global citizens. You may believe in an afterlife – I do not – but I hope that we share a similar desire to do our bit to help create a bit of heaven here on Earth, because our minds give us the capacity to do so and our conscience compels us to act.
Caring for the welfare of others, and working towards that end, helps to create fulfilled individuals and produces a society wherein an optimal amount of happiness might be created for all. My own quest for happiness inspires me to work for the happiness of others, as I hope your journey may similarly inspire you.
In recent days, the world has been shocked by the downfall of Afghanistan and the abandonment of millions of Afghan lives by the USA and its military allies – a betrayal of human rights that is a bad omen in particular for women, LGBT people and atheists. The invisibility of women under the Taliban, and the callousness with which the secular or Christian west has turned its back on these women, should be a cause for despair by any person of good will. The world needs a better standard of leaders and a better future to which we can aspire. That future starts closer to home, in our own lives and attitudes.
In 2012, the Global Atheist Convention attracted two sets of protesters who chose to partition themselves in separate doorways to the convention centre. At one door, a group of Christians (led by a dominant woman) warned of the fires of hell for atheists, drunkards, gays, dominant women, and others who mocked their narrow interpretation of their biblical deity. Outside the other doorway, a group of Muslim men waved placards warning us of similar fates in the afterlife. It was this second group that attracted the most attention due to their complete absence of women. A chant went up from the assembled atheist audience: “Where are your women? Where are your women?” It seemed a reasonable – if somewhat diversionary – question: how are women treated by your religion?
Well may we criticize their lack of female representation, as a reflection of their ideological misogyny. But are collective atheists any better? In the public new atheist discourse, where are our women? At atheist and skeptic and freethought conventions, how many women feature alongside public speakers Richard Dawkins, Dan Dennett or Laurence Krauss? How are women treated in atheist groups and committees and social media platforms? In the traditional Australian Humanist of the Year Awards, what proportion over the last four decades have comprised women? In worldwide atheist and secular publications, do women get equal representation? Let’s be honest, how many popular lists of atheists, agnostics, secularists, skeptics, rationalists, humanists or freethinkers includes a fair and healthy proportion of women? Perhaps worst of all, various prominent men within the global atheist movement have, in recent years, been accused of personal behaviours that demean, belittle or objectify women. Unless we set a better example, we cannot criticise others for their failures.
“At first blush, it would seem that an atheist movement would be exactly the sort of thing that would attract many women. After all, much of the oppression of women—from forced veiling to restricting abortion rights—is a direct result of religion… But despite the natural and cozy fit of atheism and feminism, the much-ballyhooed “New Atheism” that was supposed to be a more aggressive, political form of atheism has instead been surprisingly male-dominated.”
More widely, secularism has traditionally had an unhealthy gender ratio amongst its membership and activities. Is there hope for a better future?
We have strong grounds for being optimistic. If we look at atheism past, present and emerging, we find an increasing number of women becoming prominent in the ranks, and we need to recognise and acknowledge their leadership. Past leaders include Henrietta Dugdale, Rachel Carson, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, and Olive Zakharov. They helped to shape the world in which we live.
“It really is time for us to have serious discussions about whether the belief systems we have been raised with … aids and abets a system of white supremacy, and are also a hindrance to our liberation.”
In Australia, secular, atheist and freethought organisations that feature females in strong leadership roles include the long-standing Rationalist Society of Australia and the fledgling Humanists Australia; the CEO of this latter organisation, Heidi Nicholl, presents to The Guardian a positive and inclusive Humanist perspective:
Nicholl says that humanists are not “anti-religion and we’re not against religion, we’re actually pro-values, meaning and fulfilment”.
Meanwhile, longtime Australian LGBTQI+ activist Alison Thorne calls for Radical Women and their supporters to unite in the ongoing fight, and, in doing so, suggests a way forward for us all:
“It is time to unite, to take stock of the challenges and to build serious organisation from the diffuse community and broad radical milieu. We’re living in tough times with immense potential and real risks.”
Hence we might see the connection between our own attitudes and those of others who more pointedly burn witches (as do some Christians in Africa and PNG today) or who enslave women (as per the Taliban or some other Islamic cultures). To evoke the sentiment of humanist Virginia Woolf’s quote (above), the betrayal of women in Afghanistan does not stop at the national border – it is a betrayal of women’s rights everywhere: in Syria, Lebanon, Kenya, Myanmar, Saudi Arabia, India, China, redneck towns in the USA and Australia, every UNHCR refugee camp in the world, and everywhere else that women are oppressed, ignored, demeaned, or subjected to violence or discrimination. We see it in every workplace where women are denied equal pay or opportunity, or are subjected to sexual harassment. The betrayal of women can also be found in the halls of Australian Parliament whenever allegations of rape are ignored or downplayed, and in western culture whenever the humanity of trans women is denied. I have written elsewhere that the downfall of Kabul is the moral downfall of us all.
Surely, if we want to improve the world, we must start with ourselves, and our own attitudes and behaviours. We need to build up those in our world who have been traditionally disempowered and ignored. The emergence of female leaders in secularism points towards one such possible, optimistic future. Kayley Whalen, a queer transgender Latinx Humanist, epitomises the rise of millennial women embracing atheism:
“We believe in social justice, that we can live a life with meaning, purpose, and dedication to social justice without the need for supernatural guidance.”
We cannot help but ponder how many millions of women in Afghanistan share that same perspective – today, tomorrow, next week and forever. And what will we do about it? To reclaim the humanity from the ancient Genesis myth, and to challenge the gender bias that it has engendered for millennia, we must consider: are we our sister’s keeper?
“I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.” — Audre Lorde.
Originally published in Solar Spectrum #2, Spaced Out, Melbourne, 2002.
Dear Mum and Dad,
You recently skimmed my bookshelves full of Babylon 5 DVDs, and novels by Clarke, Asimov and Le Guin. Then, you asked me your questions about “sci fi”. “Haven’t you outgrown these childish stories?” one of you asked. “Why does this fairy tale stuff appeal to you?” added the other, disparagingly. I felt like I was fifteen years old again, being chastised for staying up too late at night to watch a scratchy episode of Star Trek. But here is my answer.
I enjoy science fiction because it allows me to view the world through the eyes of a child – a youthful and enquiring mind. It gives me the chance to retain a childlike (not “childish”) sense of magic and awe at the world around me. Like a child, I can view everyone and everything as being full of potential and possibilities.
I enjoy science fiction because it is not fairy tale stuff. It is literature that dares to promise me possible utopias or warn me of possible dystopias. It challenges me to act, to take my individual place in the timeline of history, to actively create the future that I would want for myself and for those who will follow.
I enjoy science fiction because it renews my sense of wonder at the Universe. It reminds me of the insignificance of human ego when compared to the magnitude of galaxies, interstellar distances and planetary timescales. It tells me that our daily news – dominated by wars, politicians, economists and sports heroes – is fleeting and transitory. Science fiction reassures me that the beauty of the stars and galaxies will endure, long after our petty worries have been forgotten.
I enjoy science fiction because it promises me that humanity has a future, full of dreamers, explorers and heroes. It promotes the joy of diversity – including aliens, robots, cyber citizens, sentients, men and women, queer and trans and gender non-binary humans – all living together in peace and equality.
I enjoy science fiction because it prepares me for that future. It has introduced me to many concepts from tomorrow’s world – cloning, IVF, mobile phones, the Internet, space travel, ecological problems, robotics, computers and virtual reality – in many cases, years before the “mainstream” even considered the possibilities.
I enjoy science fiction because it has given me friends who represent the future. They are folk with open and enquiring minds, and they display a healthy scepticism about so many of society’s assumptions. They are true scientists in a world that too often equates science with militarism, religion or superstition.
I enjoy science fiction because I recall a television series, “The Invaders”, from the misty days of my childhood. The plot focussed on aliens invading the planet but symbolised American fears about communist infiltrators. In retrospect, I now see the show as an unintentional metaphor for gays and lesbians, bisexuals, transgender and intersex people living in every strata of society. We are here – get used to it.
I enjoy science fiction because it is a form of literature that will one day become “mainstream” literature – when the rest of the world is ready to accept its challenges.
I enjoy science fiction because it is all of these things – and more. It always promises me that the best is yet to come.
To coincide with International Youth Day (12 August), I recall a young friend who I never met – but whose story changed my life, and who might teach us of the potential within us all.
“Time doesn’t take away from friendship, nor does separation.”
― Tennessee Williams, Memoirs
The date 8 August 1988 might be one of vague mathematical curiosity (8-8-88) and yet it is etched into my mind as the day of a news report in which a young Sydney man lost his life; his story appearing in The Sun, a newspaper that is now also long gone.
He was reportedly infected with HIV in the days before modern multi-drug therapies made HIV a long-term medical condition instead of an almost-certain death sentence.
His last request was to return home from hospital, and his friends eagerly organised a party for his return.
This was an era when HIV was greatly feared and stigmatised, in no small part due to its popular conflation with newly-decriminalised male homosexuality and imagined contagion through normal social contact. Accordingly, his ambulance attendants wore ‘space suits’ as they delivered him home on a stretcher. His friends fled when they saw this and realised that he had AIDS.
Doctor Julian Gold told the newspaper that the young man, ‘died literally of a broken heart 48 hours later in my hospital’.
I was myself a young man when I read this story, and yet 33 years later, I remember being deeply touched by this tale of abandonment by mates and friends. We all recall the flush of youth and our eagerness to find special friends and share time and companionship with those who share our youthful enthusiasm for living and loving and learning together. This is part of the natural process of maturation, moving beyond close family, in search of our own more individualised, extended family. In his desire to find significance and belonging among his own friends – and in their failure to meet his expectations – this young man’s story touches something primal in us all.
(Wherever they are today, I hope that his friends have learnt from their past mistake – we are all only human, after all – and have gone on to redress their error of having been less than their best when the going got tough).
We might also learn from the yearning for companionship within his story – our common human condition means that we share a bond with others, regardless of their age, gender, culture, sexuality, or any other marker that has traditionally been used to separate and divide us. We share the ability to hope and dream; to yearn for significance and betterment; for living and laughing and crying. Like all sentient beings, we share the potential for suffering or flourishing, for intimacy or loneliness.
Whether they may be runaway or refugee, indigenous or ill, disempowered or discrimated against – our sentience surely compels us to empathise with others in need, and go out of our way to support them whenever we can. Indeed, I suspect that the fullest test of our humanity, ethics and compassion is whether or not we help those with whom we might ordinarily feel that we share the least in common, except for our common humanity.
I am reminded of a Biblical injunction to sacrifically offer help to others: “Greater love hath no man than he who gives his life for his friends…” and I see this saying immortalised on war memorials, building plaques, tomb stones, and used ubiquitously across common literature. However, I see deficiencies in this quote; after all, even serial killers and dictators care about their friends; and its wording suggests an elitism by implying that only friends are worth protecting rather than all humanity. I would respectfully amend and supercede this Biblical quote, emphasising its secular humanist ideal and removing it from any religious context, by expanding it to include everyone instead of just an insulated bubble of our nearest and dearest: Greater love hath no person than they who give their life to help another; turning strangers and enemies and their whole human family into friends.
Thirty-three years ago, that anonymous young man’s story convinced me that awareness of the suffering of others is our choice. His story inspired me towards activism. How many others are like him today, around the world, suffering in silence during modern-day plagues: HIV, COVID, disease, poverty, starvation, injustice, war, violence, discrimination, or the indifference of others? And what are we doing about it?
However we answer those questions reveals more about our own humanity than it does about those whose suffering we are challenged to confront.
Dan McDonnell, 1988. ‘A tragic test of friendship’, in The Sun, Melbourne, 8 August.
(*My study of HIV/AIDS has been connected to a PhD study. This work was supported by an Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship.)
The popularity of the original series of Star Trek is based, in no small part, upon its portrayal of racial equality, possibly explained most succinctly by Star Trek actor George Takei (2015, @4:35 minutes) when he postulated that the starship Enterprise was a metaphor for starship Earth, adding that: “… the strength of this starship lay in its diversity…”. The show’s racial mix was exemplified in its most famous interracial kiss during a third season episode, Plato’s Stepchildren, originally telecast in November 1968. This legendary kiss forms one of Star Trek‘s most endearing urban myths, and serves as a focus of intersectionality entwining societal racism, misogyny and homophobia. The episode in question was a favourite of one of my Star Trek friends and mentors, Diane Marchant, because it also featured a kiss between Spock and Christine Chapel, but for some reason, even as an adolescent, I greatly detested the episode, although I could never quite clarify to myself why I disliked it so much.
Eric Greene (2006, 59) points out one of its obvious problems, and in doing so, he provided me with a personal revelation as to why I had always found this episode repulsive: ‘Kirk and Uhura were forced into that kiss – it was desired by neither and resisted by both. And a Black woman forced to kiss a white man against her will ain’t romance. It’s rape.’
Oops. It is time for Star Trek‘s 23rd century to have its own #MeToo moment.
Another major problem is that, according to this urban myth, the smooch was television’s first interracial kiss – which is incorrect. It was not even Star Trek‘s first interracial kiss. Kirk kissed Marlena Moreau in Mirror Mirror, an episode that aired the year before Plato’s Stepchildren (O’Boogie, 2015). Another, earlier interracial Star Trek kiss featured Khan Noonian Singh and Marla McGivers in the episode Space Seed; their romance having been made possible by the removal of an even earlier interracial relationship that had been planned for first season episode, The Alternative Factor (Cushman with Osborn, 2013, 474 – 476).
In all myths – urban and otherwise – the mythical and fictional dimensions grow as time passes, and mundane details can later assume Olympian proportions. We see this metamorphosis take place within living memory, wherein the mythology of Roswell grows from shattered weather balloon to alien visitation, and then to full-blown government conspiracy within a few short years. Similarly, having been a Star Trek fan for about fifty years, I can testify that in the 1970s, Plato’s Stepchildren was considered to be just another episode, and was not seen as being anything significant in Star Trek lore. It was only some years later, perhaps after The Next Generation, that I seem to recall ever hearing the idea that Plato’s Stepchildren gave us television’s first interracial kiss. This was not the only Star Trek urban myth that appears to have developed some years after the original events, to accommodate the needs of the franchise expanding to meet audience demands. But like all myths, this tale tells us perhaps more in its unpacking than in its telling: we desire racial equality, and a utopian story featuring utopian heroes is more uplifting and emotionally appealing than more mundane realities.
The realities are that various interracial kisses had already appeared on US TV as far back as 1951, when Lucille Ball kissed Dezi Arnaz Jr (Mcleod, 2015). In a wider scope, a television kiss between black and white participants actually first took place (O’Boogie, 2015) in a 1959 TV program called Pension Hommeles on Netherlands TV; followed by a similar kiss (Mcleod, 2015) in a 1962 UK TV play, You In Your Small Corner. Even the first season of US western series The Wild, Wild West – which I would see as a template for much of what happened later in Star Trek – featured an interracial kiss between a Caucasian man and an Asian woman in 1966 (Jay, 2019).
The presumption within all these kisses was heteronormativity. By contrast, David Gerrold (2014) points to a very early Star Trek episode, What Are Little Girls Made Of?, which includes a scene where Uhura spontaneously gives a ‘sisterly’ kiss to Christine Chapel in a moment of shared excitement. It is there that we find Star Trek‘s first interracial kiss, possibly overlooked for fifty years because it involves a same-sex kiss between two women. Yet the ‘groundbreaking’ kiss which Star Trek promotes in its urban mythology is the patriarchal, heterosexual rape kiss (with racist overtones) between Kirk and Uhura.
Our human adventure is just beginning; and we do not need to invent fallacious myths in order to find inspiration. By all means, let us find value and significance and vision in our modern literature and art, but let’s base these stories upon truth and positive human values. Star Trek was transformative as television; we do not need false folklore to fully appreciate its positive humanism.
Marc Cushman with Susan Osborn, 2013. These Are The Voyages: TOS Season 1, (Revised Edition), San Diego: Jacobs/Brown Press.
Eric Greene, 2006. ‘The Prime Question’, in David Gerrold & Robert J Sawyer (eds.), Boarding the Enterprise: Transporters, Tribbles and the Vulcan Death Grip in Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek, Dallas: BenBella Books, 57 – 86.
Kayla Iacovino et al, 2015. Oh Captain, My Captain (Kirk), Women at Warp, Episode 6, 10 May. (See also Rebecca’s response of 22 July 2015 on that webpage).
Maurice Mcleod, 2015. ‘Why TV’s first interracial kiss is a proud British snog’, The Guardian, 24 November.
Dr Winston O’Boogie, 2015. ‘Did Star Trek really show TV’s first interracial kiss?’, The Agony Booth, updated 22 November.
George Takei, 2015. In Neil DeGrasse Tyson (host), Star Talk, 20th Century Fox.
This last week – the anniversary of both the Apollo 11 Moon landing and the subsequent Apollo 15 mission that took science to the Moon – saw an avalanche of criticism about the current space race between billionaires. Similar complaints also cut short the original Apollo Moon missions – possibly the only demonstrably proven example of ‘trickle down effect’ that has actually worked worldwide in our lifetime, removed from pure economic theory and applied instead to the sciences and technology. Armstrong’s one small step really was a giant leap.
Many years ago, I was a teacher in a small Australian country town. I recall one teenage student named Neil, who explained that he had a good reason for knowing the name of the first man on the Moon: “I was named after him.”
Young Neil and his peers are inhabitants of a new planet – they owe so much of their world to the Apollo pioneers. He would now be over fifty years old, and although neither he nor any of his generation can personally recall the events of July 1969, his parents would be among millions of people who can still bring to mind those exciting times – perhaps, like me, they were sitting cross-legged in a school library watching ghostly lunar images flickering on a black-and-white television set.
And yet the events and the culture of those times seem to be millions of miles away from us today, literally on another world. Australian archaeologist Alice Gorman observes that in 1967, Australia became the fourth spacefaring nation in history, but somehow we abandoned this legacy for some decades and became instead a dumping ground for the US Skylab space station when it fell to Earth – which I would argue is an apt outer space analogy for a nation that turned the lofty ambitions of its Woomera Rocket Range territory into an ethically regressive prison for refugees. Gorman expands upon this idea by exploring the cultural and political nuances of Woomera as a ‘space cultural landscape’ alongside others: Peenemünde in Germany and Tranquility Base on the Moon. Such landscapes clearly evoke physical distancing, isolation, desolation, hostile environments, and people who have been removed from the rest of humanity.
The Manichaean quality of human beings is universal – even in space. Well may we recall Neil Armstrong’s most famous words: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” – forever etched into our human culture. What we may forget is that Armstrong botched his famous line, creating the most well-known, self-contradictory tautology in history. His tongue-tied words remind us that fallible humans are still capable of great achievements. But his flubbed line has taken on a new relevance in subsequent years: the Apollo program really was both a small step and a giant leap for the human race.
The small step is what happened immediately afterwards. The tax-paying US public soon lost interest in reaching for the stars. The final Moon-walking astronauts returned to Earth aboard Apollo 17 in December 1972 and no-one has returned to the Moon since then. It was suggested that money from the cancelled Apollo program should be used to tackle such problems as poverty, war or disease, but our worldly problems have sadly continued in the decades since those dusty footprints were left on the lunar soil.
Modern-day space missions now fly in low Earth orbit, and robotic satellites visit nearby planets to transmit data – but none can recapture the excitement or prestige of Apollo. In fact, a few disaffected inhabitants of my former student’s generation actually theorise that the Apollo program may have been falsified because humans cannot fly to the Moon nowadays. Such cynicism is a sad commentary on the state of our modern aspirations and of our greatly atrophied space program. More than that, it suggests that our world leaders have become preoccupied with navel gazing rather than star gazing, and that the generation that witnessed Apollo has neglected to instill in its youngsters the awe and excitement of looking up. Perhaps the Apollo program would have been better named after Icarus.
The space race between the USA and USSR began as a political race for kudos and perceived supremacy, but it evolved into a quest for science and knowledge, most noticeably when Apollo 15 – which launched fifty years ago this week – was expanded into a mission for exploration and geology as the first of a sequence of scientific Apollo missions. Its grandeur is captured in a scene from the TV series From the Earth to the Moon, when scientists and NASA debate where to land the Apollo 15 mission:
‘The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be lighted.’
– Plutarch (as quoted by Apollo 15 commander David Scott).
This is where Neil Armstrong’s truly giant step begins. The philosophical legacy from Apollo can be experienced any night when you go outside, look up at the Moon, and realise that it is a real world within our grasp. Apollo has turned our myuthology into physical reality – the Moon is a frontier waiting to be explored. Just as our ancient Australian outback is widely known for its red ochres and hidden waterholes, the magnificant desolation of the primeval lunar landscape has similar splashes of orange soil and seems likely to contain hidden ice deposits deep in some craters. Both vistas attract the human imagination.
The full impact of our social change is demonstrated by the old cliché (now sadly vanished like the aspirations it reflected): “We can land a man on the Moon but we can’t…” as a universal yardstick that for a few years after Apollo was used by people to measure the lengths humanity has yet to go in achieving various worthwhile ambitions. In a culture where we tend to assume that the word ‘Moonwalker’ will more likely evoke Michael Jackson than the Apollo astronauts, or where the idea of space explosions will bring to mind Star Wars rather than Apollo 13, we can nevertheless glimpse a public transformation taking place: a 1996 announcement over possible Martian microbial fossils was greeted with widespread social acceptance – and not with mocking comments about little green men as might have been the case a few years earlier. Such prevalent cultural acceptance of space is self evident and endemic – after all, it’s not rocket science.
But the real technological miracle is even more ubiquitous and more overlooked. Apollo spearheaded a civilian science program employing a veritable army of scientists, engineers and other workers. Apollo challenged them to attain new heights of knowledge, perfection and technology. Detractors of this program – who protested that the money should have instead been spent on Earth – conveniently overlooked the fact that all the money actually was spent on Earth, funding what was probably the biggest peaceful civilian research-and-development science program in history.
“And they called Apollo “the best return on investment since Leonardo da Vinci bought himself a sketch pad”.” – President George Bush (1989).
The ideologies and technologies which launched the Apollo program have been dissolved – but they have spread around the world. The next time someone goes for a medical scan, receives a cochlear implant or insulin pump or artificial heart, undergoes microsurgery, or receives a vaccine that requires extreme cold storage in difficult circumstances, they can thank Apollo for helping to save their life. We enjoy digital technology due to the advances in electronics which were expedited by the program that enabled Armstrong and Aldrin to leave their footprints in the lunar dust. When we use our GPS or watch an educational documentary on a streaming service – or when we read some preposterous conspiracy theory from luddites who display cognitive dissonance by using modern communication technology to spread science denialism – we can thank the space program for giving us those opportunities.
Our modern footsteps have been guided by the technologies which arose from the space program, and in our skies overhead, satellites provide us with modern agricultural and forestry, weather forecasting, live worldwide television, and global communications, enabling us to live in a global village that previous generations could only imagine. The space program has fuelled environmental awareness, fixed the hole in the Ozone Layer, and empowered our fight against global warming.
“I think we’re going to the moon because it’s in the nature of the human being to face challenges. It’s by the nature of his deep inner soul… we’re required to do these things just as salmon swim upstream.”- Neil Armstrong (1969).
The Challenge to Look Up
Some years ago, a Melbourne radio station asked listeners to ring in with their opinion of whether or not the space program was worth the money – and one woman cynically complained that the space program does not affect her weekly supermarket shopping. Perhaps the radio host should have pointed out that she can thank the Apollo program for modern supermarket food safety standards and for aspects of modern agriculture that directly owe their existence to space technology – or that she can purchase scratch resistant glasses, baby formula, freeze dried foods, air purifiers and gym shoes thanks to spinoff NASA technology. There are over 2,000 documented spinoffs from the space program that are ubiquitous in our lives today.
Whereas the USA in the 1960s tried to align the space program with its own western traditions through the use of ancient western mythological names such as Mercury, Gemini and Apollo; and whereas China is doing so today by branding its space ventures with traditional Chinese mythological names such as Tiangong, Shenzhou, and Chang’e; Australia has seemed content to align itself with the bogan larrikinism of The Dish and naming boys who were born during the 1980s ‘Luke‘ after a fictional Star Wars character. Maybe the birth of the Australian Space Agency will help to change our culture and we will start to aspire towards more than having a Prime Minister who seeks consolation inside regressive Hillsong mythology and digs up polluting coal instead of finding better ways to treat our solitary biospherical planet in this large and hostile cosmos.
The first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova, was a Soviet cosmonaut who reached Earth orbit some twenty years before the US flew lesbian Sally Ride as their first female astronaut. Tereshkova speaks today of the space program as a superior financial human priority: “People shouldn’t waste money on wars, but come together to discuss how to defend the world from threats like asteroids coming from outer space.” Do we dare to glimpse beyond the dirt and mud of our current world, beyond entrenched global poverty and inequality, and aspire to combine our own small steps into giant leaps for humanity? Can we look upwards and onwards, creating a better planetary mote in our vast cosmos?
Mission to Planet Earth
While it is important to ponder big questions about the space program, it is also helpful to consider how its big answers may be relevant to our individual lives. This is no more evident than a message to me from Apollo 16 astronaut Charles Duke upon one of his visits to Melbourne. He graciously autographed a photo of himself standing at the Apollo 16 landing site in the lunar highlands near the Descartes crater, and this picture now has pride of place on a wall alongside my work desk. Its inscribed message is both personal and profound: ‘Aim High’. The Apollo program was the epitome of that philosophy.
In this sense, the space race is still underway – one that targets the hearts and minds of ordinary people. Science prospers best when it reaches the lives of grassroots society, not just the elites. Even billionaire Richard Branson, who made it into space on 11 July, acknowledges that science should be a democracy, not an instrument of privilege and inequality:
“Space is… putting satellites up there and monitoring different things around the world, like the degradation of rainforests or monitoring food distribution or… climate change… These things are essential back here on Earth, so we need more spaceships going up to space, we don’t need less.”
So instead of criticising those who are transferring the space program from government to grassroots humanity, we should instead be applauding them and welcoming how space is transforming life and philosophy on planet Earth. Such a long-term understanding is already paying off: archaeologists are debating the need for Heritage listings or other forms of protection for the lunar landing sites of the Apollo missions, and for those of other – unmanned – probes on the Moon and Mars, lest they become ravaged by space tourists and souvenir hunters within the foreseeable future. This is not merely to suggest some esoteric first-world debate that is unrelated to biosphere Earth and its real-life, everyday problems; it suggests the fundamental shift for our species within our perceived and actual place in the cosmos. As Grant Fewer suggests, even Armstrong’s and Aldrin’s footprints in the lunar regolith are important artifacts of our species: “… the prints are significant because they record in a physical medium (rather than a photographic, video-based, or textual one) an historic event that represents a huge shift in the intellectual and technological development of humankind.” (Fewer, 2007, 5). We live in exciting times of transition, if only we had the wisdom to realise this perspective.
I hope that Neil, my former student – wherever he is now – would appreciate just how much the space program has helped to create his world and given him a much greater legacy than a simple namesake. His peers – especially any who doubt the reality of the Apollo program – have been given the greatest possible inheritance by the previous generation: a better world, a dream etched into the night-time sky, and an ability to reach for the stars.
Commemorating the 50th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 15
54-08-11 ∇ 10:29:57 Lunar Standard Time (LST)
on 26 July 2021 13:34:00 UTC.
This article is dedicated to the memory of Kate Doolan (1962 – 2019), co-author of the book, Fallen Astronauts; also one of the co-authors, along with myself and others, of a “Man on the Moon” lift-out for the Herald Sun newspaper on the 25th anniversary of Apollo 11 in July 1994.
Greg Fewer, 2007. ‘Conserving space heritage: the case of Tranquillity Base’, ‘Journal of the British Interplanetary Society’, vol. 60(1), 25 June, 3-8.
From Anthropomorphism to Apollo
– outgrowing ancient myths, creating new ones.
“LIFT-OFF! We have a lift-off, 32 minutes past the hour. Lift-off on Apollo 11.” – NASA Public Affairs Officer Jack King utters the first words to confirm lift-off.
On the 52nd anniversary of the launch of Apollo 11 towards the Moon, it seems an appropriate time to pause and reflect upon the philosophical questions posed by that scientific achievement. The story of the Apollo missions is the stuff of modern legend – and is destined to become modern mythology. Perhaps it is no surprise that even as the Apollo missions were preparing to land men on the Moon, the archetypical astronaut was being conflated with pop mythology comprising gods and celestial beings, courtesy of Erich von Daniken.
Taking this idea of prosthesis and osmosis one step further, it is possible to understand that the space age has transformed us – and is still doing so, upgrading humanity one mobile phone at a time. Our ever-accelerating hardware and software updates mean that we have become humans with different capabilities and expectations than our parents during the Apollo Moon missions. It is hard to remember the world before the Internet, before ubiquitous mobile phones and streaming and tablets and wifi transformed us into a species that is closer to a lived experience of the ‘global village’ than any other in history. This merging of humanity with heroic high-tech might be the next step in our evolution from organic to something more. Such change is something to be celebrated and not feared:
“Asked if he felt the pervasive spread of technology was beginning to dehumanise us, [Arthur C] Clarke replied, “No, I think it’s superhumanising us.” “ (Benson, 2018, 432)
This evolution may even extend from the human to the posthuman. Francesca Ferrando suggests with some qualification that:
“Etymologically, the term “human” comes from the Latin term “humus” meaning “soil”, which, in our solar system, is only present on Earth. We can thus see migrating to space as the linguistic and semiotic step towards the literal creation of post-humans…”
Thus we may be evolving into the beings that we currently imagine in our dreams and myths: better, stronger, faster. Arthur C Clarke asserts in his Third Law that, ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’ and maybe we get a glimpse of this advancement when we ponder our futuristic posthuman societies scattered across the solar system. Perhaps we are in the process of becoming our mythological heroes.
Hit and Myth
My introduction to science and myth-making came via two avenues: the first being the flying saucer craze of the 1970s (which really excited a teenager who had been inspired by the space program) until I began to realise – as I came of age – that the science and critical thinking in these conspiracy theories was abysmal. I later came to understand a fundamental truth about the UFO craze as explained by Alexander Geppert (2012, 335):
“Seldom can historians observe the making of a ‘modern myth’ in real time, over the course of several decades; the emergence of the UFO phenomenon immediately after the Second World War constitutes such a case.‘.
My faith in UFOs began to decline along with my wishful thinking about Chariots of the Gods and the possible circumstances surrounding the tragic disappearance of Fred Valentich as a local case of alleged alien intervention. Even as a callow youth, I could see that UFOlogy was more wishful thinking than scientific investigation. I was maturing into a youth who esteemed critical thinking and scientific evidence over excitement and superstition. If only the rest of the world could do the same!
My second introduction to science and mythopoeia came via a humble pulp magazine that was on sale in my local newsagents in 1979. I was attracted to the front cover and content of a magazine that proclaimed; “SCI FI – Religion of the 80’s”. Inside, Christian evangelist Mal Garvin proclaimed:
“We believe that science fiction is replacing some of the functions of religion. Though it may be doing it for the wrong reason.” (Garvin, 1979, 24.)
In that same issue, the Superman story was conflated with Biblical figures (ibid, 37 – 40). Even then, as a tender young teen, I sensed that this conflation of science and myth was somehow intended to lend scientific credibility to mythical/religious archetypes instead of acknowledging the grandeur to be found in science. If anyone was using the wrong reason to conflate science and religion, it was not the scientists.
Utopia, Dystopia, Mythopoeia
It is perhaps in human nature to construct a whole pantheon of mythologies, spanning from past and present into the future. As children, we seek role models in order to learn by imitation. As adults, although we have outgrown the need for imitation, we retain the instinct and use it to construct mythologies, religions and archetypes in order to personify what ideals we would seek to emulate or take as a warning of our fears. JRR Tolkein spoke of this myth-making in his poem Mythopoeia:
“He sees no stars who does not see them first
of living silver made that sudden burst
to flame like flowers beneath an ancient song,
whose very echo after-music long
has since pursued.”
Star Wars creator George Lucas created a breathtakingly successful franchise by borrowing extensively from other science fiction stories or literary tropes – including Flash Gordon, Dune, Lord of the Rings, Yojimbo, Gone with the Wind, and ‘Doc’ Smith’s Lensmen – and creating modern mythology which will undoubtedly echo our culture in the annals of history as much as the legend of Troy documents the culture of ancient Greece.
“Science gives us far more accurate answers to our questions than ever before. But we’re still dependent on myths to actually comprehend the science. The multi-dimensional expansion of energy, space and time we call the Big Bang wasn’t literally a bang any more than God saying “Let there be light” was literally how the universe was created. They’re both mythic ideas that point at an actual truth our mammalian minds aren’t equipped to grasp.”
Such a conflation can be awe inspiring as we discover the glories of science. But David Ludden Ph.D. warns us that this conflation of science and mythology has its potential dangers, including the rise of conspiracy theories that undermine public confidence in science:
“Because conspiracy theories sow the seeds of distrust in our governmental and social institutions, they can have a destabilizing impact on politics and society.”
Whether 5G, COVID (or other) vaccines, HIV/AIDS denialism, climate catastrophe, Moon landing hoaxes, September 11, lizard aliens… and probably a thousand other conspiracies… Ludden suggests that such theories express the desire for understanding and certainty, control and security – particularly among those who do not understand modern science or who might feel threatened by the modern world. I would suggest that such theories also promote the false equivalence of expertise versus ignorance – a favourite among religious fundamentalists – where uneducated and unqualified people believe that their ignorance is equal to the knowledge of world experts. Conspiracy theorists want to bypass years of hard study and academic rigour, and declare themselves as being equal to Stephen Hawking, Anthony Fauci or Katherine Johnson. This is a rather astonishing act of laziness, arrogance and hubris. Do you want to know about the COVID vaccine? Go ask your doctor – YouTube is not a university; and Facebook is not a scholarly source. Do you want to determine if climate change is real? Don’t take my word for it – ask a climate scientist, not your fundamentalist pastor who relies solely on a Bronze Age prescientific book as his sole source of information.
Barry Vacker warns us that the conflation of science with mythopoeia is filled with the danger of these human frailties:
“The Apollo missions, 2001, and the original Star Trek TV series blasted us into a sublime future with the opportunity to build a unified planetary civilization, but we rejected it because we were unwilling to accept that we are a single species inhabiting a watery rock orbiting a flaming ball of hydrogen in an infinite universe. Apollo and Hubble forced us to confront cosmic nihilism, or the fact that there is no obvious meaning to human existence in a godless universe. Via Apollo, we’ve walked on the 4.5 billion-year-old moon, and via the Hubble Space Telescope, we’ve peered across 13.7 billion years of space-time — and there is not a Creator in sight. As Nietzsche famously said long before Apollo and Hubble: “God is dead.” But most everyone can’t accept it. Apollo’s photos of Earth from space and the Hubble Deep Field images have obliterated the rationales supporting the dominant narratives (theology, nationalism, and tribalism) we use to explain our origins, meaning, and destiny. Yet our species remains in utter denial.
We humans apparently can’t handle the paradoxical meaning of our greatest scientific achievement and most important philosophical discovery: The universe is vast and majestic, and our species is insignificant and might be utterly meaningless” – (Vacker, 2018, 3).
Dr. Pham Trong Van points out that knowledge comes after a long process of hard study: “You must identify clearly that studying is arduous and “the path of science” is not like others. Through difficulties, we find the glories of science and sympathize with those who sacrifice their whole lives for science.” And Armond Boudreaux reminds us that mythologies serve a more pointed purpose in our modern human endeavours:
“One of the reasons that I think superheroes are important at this particular moment is how good their stories are at helping us think about questions of power. And perhaps more now than in any other time, we need to think about what it means to seek and to wield power.”
Perhaps our myths and deities tell us more about ourselves than we realise: our gods are anthropomorphic versions of our aspirations, dreams, or nightmares.
A generation has now passed since men walked on the Moon, and this has allowed sufficient time for eye witnesses to become wizened historians; for formerly fresh and vibrant memories to be recast as ephemera within a larger repository of lifetime memories; and for exciting progressive events to be recontextualised within the mundane modern culture that they have helped to create.
Like the charming angels on the frontage of Bath Cathedral – many climbing Jacob’s ladder and some falling back down – we are a mix of aspiration and frailty, nobility and weakness. Our science and our dreams are limited by our failures and foibles. But still we strive and evolve beyond our mundane limitations, even though – on the scale of an individual human lifetime – such evolution seems to take forever. Our small steps become a giant leap when combined.
Meanwhile, adults and children continue to pause and gaze up at the night sky in awe and wonder – we are glimpsing our past, our current place in the cosmos, and our future destination. As we outgrow our pantheon of deities from Mount Olympus or the Garden of Eden, we might find another source of inspiration when we climb the dizzy heights of Olympus Mons on Mars, or create our own interstellar Garden of Eden on an exoplanet. Leaving behind our ancient mythologies, perhaps we will create new ones that are more authentic, engaging and exciting. Stardust to stardust.
Michael Benson, 2018. Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece, New York: Simon & Schuster.
Francesca Ferrando, 2016. ‘Why Space Migration Must Be Posthuman’, in Schwartz, J., Milligan, T. (eds.) Ethics of Space Exploration, Springer, Vol. 8, 137-152.
Although the idea of an ark itself is kinda cool and evocative, it is located within a larger and somewhat unappealing story. Most people would probably know the generic details within the tale: of how the Genesis deity decided that humanity was thoroughly too evil to live, and caused a great flood to descend upon the world, exterminating the entire human race except for Noah and his family, who constructed an ark and conducted what one Christian source enthusiastically claims was ‘the greatest animal rescue of all time’. The story ends with god inventing the rainbow as a reminder of his promise to never again send another flood.
Despite the generally light hearted tone in which the story is recounted for children in popular culture, I believe that any serious reflection regarding its details reveals a deity who is, in the words of Richard Dawkins:
“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” ― Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion
Well, that certainly escalated quickly. Seriously though, the god of the Noah story reminds me of the stereotypical wife beater who proclaims that ‘she made me do it’. Is this really a story and an ethical position that we want to teach to children – or to anybody else?
This is one human truth that we need to reclaim from the Noah myth: that violence is never acceptable, not even in the name of someone’s preferred deity. Historically, everything from violence within the family, the death penalty and public lynchings, through to slavery, the Crusades, wars, witch burnings and the Holocaust have been rationalised by ethics such as those found within this flood story.
Hit and Myth
Today, we can see the immorality of this cultural template emblazoned in our everyday lives. We live in our own insulated arks of relative luxury and affluence while ignoring the floods of poverty that overwhelm those around us. Even our Prime Minister, emboldened by lazy theocratic thinking, proudly boasts how he ‘stopped the boats’ and thereby turned back real-life Noah’s Arks that held the hopes and dreams and lives of others.
Let’s face it: God is a poor role model, and deferring to such archetype is not only intellectually lazy but makes us lose touch with our compassionate, empathic human nature. I do not mean to imply that all religious people promote such negative behaviours; some are touched by what I would call the humanist call for enlightenment.
We can see the damage promoted by the Noah story not only in our past and present, but also in our possible future – as exhibited in attitudes towards the environment. Only God can control the weather, claim some religious folk, including our Penetecostal Prime Minister’s peers. This head-in-the-sand denialism is inherently dangerous for our environment and our world. The climate is changing to disastrous effect, and we must respond rather than continue to carelessly destroy our environment. We do not live aboard Noah’s Ark, so we are not immune from climate change disaster – and even if we were somehow immune, that does not absolve us from the moral responsibility to show a better morality than a man who builds a big boat for himself but blithely allows the rest of humanity (including, it appears, his own grandfather, Methuselah) to drown.
Doing the exact opposite of Noah and taking whatever steps are necessary to save the whole world, saving the environment through ethical and responsible human choices… now that really would be the greatest animal rescue of all time.
Reclaiming the Rainbow
It is surely time to reclaim the colourful and ubiquitous rainbow from the clutches of this story.
We should acknowledge the many cultures that have interpreted the symbolism of rainbows within their own mythologies. From the Epic of Gilgamesh interpreting rainbows as a call to war (possibly the origin source of the nastiness in the Genesis account), through to a more charming Hindu idea of rainbows being the godly archer’s bow used to shoot bolts of lightning, through to indigenous American and Japanese cultures using rainbows as a form of bridge. Even Australian indigenous cultures speak of the Rainbow Serpent with a rather charming connection to rivers and waterways as a source of rainbows and creation.
I enjoy the old Irish legend about a sneaky leprechaun hiding a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow – symbolising the idea that every storm in life is followed by a new start that is as invigorating and fresh as the air and soil that crackle and sparkle after a spring shower. This leprechaunic folklore is a much more uplifting a story than a stone age fantasy about a violent, mass-murdering god drowning all the men, women, children and babies in the world.
I have engaged in discussions with an occasional Christian who has bewailed the ‘hijacking’ of the rainbow from the Genesis story. They usually complain about the rainbow flag used by LGBTQIA+ communities, for whom they appear to hold special dislike. They rarely express contempt for gay icon Judy Garland singing, ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’, nor for indigenous American rainbow stories that present more environmentally connected alternatives to Christian theology than the idea of a disembodied deity that is distinct from cosmology.
The Rainbow Connection
Richard Dawkins writes about Unweaving the Rainbow – unlocking its secrets and determining how a rainbow is created under natural laws and fundamental scientific principles. He points out that this does not detract from the colour, majesty and awe of the rainbow, but rather helps us to fully appreciate the glories of science in our the natural world:
“The feeling of awed wonder that science can give us is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable. It is a deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver. It is truly one of the things that make life worth living and it does so, if anything, more effectively if it convinces us that the time we have for living is quite finite.”
― Richard Dawkins.
In this sense, I would much rather deconstruct the malevolent ancient flood myth and its constituent rainbow, leaving behind its nasty and barbaric morality, and instead find glory and wonder within our universe and in laws of nature that reveal a rainbow in a mundane drop of water.
Ultimately, I would imagine that most people would much rather prefer the inclusive LGBT rainbow flag – a legacy to the world from gay activist Gilbert Baker who spoke of rainbows being an ancient symbol of hope. Here we see a symbol not of genocide, but of life and love and celebration. Baker’s aspirations for the rainbow flag are quoted on his Foundation website:
“What I liked about the rainbow is that it fits all of us.
It’s all the colors.
It represents all the genders.
It represents all the races.
It’s the rainbow of humanity.”