You Must Needs Be Strangers…

Block 13, Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya. Photo used by permission of photographer.

Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,
Plodding to the ports and coasts for transportation,
And that you sit as kings in your desires…
Why, you must needs be strangers…”
The Book of Sir Thomas More.

Just over four hundred years ago, Shakespeare wrote an entreaty against racism and xenophobia, and in sympathy for the plight of refugees. His sentiment resonates in the early years of the new millennium: over the last four centuries, what have we learnt about benevolence towards those who share our humanity if not our birthplace? How do we – as a society and as individuals – treat compassionately the strangers in our midst, a sentient trait that may be older and broader than humanity itself?

Sadly our modern world seems to overlook this natural instinct, particularly when it comes to minority groups such as LGBT people. Some flee dangerous countries as refugees and find sanctuary, while many others find difficulties in their destination countries. The World Economic Forum acknowledges this problem:

In 72 countries, same-sex relationships are currently criminalized. In eight, they are punishable by death. But in many others, social norms, traditions and customs make life for LGBT people equally impossible, even if the law is not officially against them.

This collective human failing to care about strangers – and the world’s indifference to the problem – can be found today, pointedly rooted in a remnant from colonial times. The history of LGBT rights in Africa is tainted by homophobic colonial history. Africa is full of this shameful bigotry akin to the racism endured by their slave forebears, justifying human rights abuse, fueled by ignorant hatred that is spouted by politicians and preachers alike, poisoning families and communities where homosexuality remains illegal and where harassment and persecution are common. Sadly, this discrimination is fueled in part by conservative religious views and actively encouraged by conservative US religious extremists.

Many African LGBT refugees have horrifying stories about difficulties and struggles. One young gay man and a lesbian share some of their background before fleeing as refugees:

I was living …with my mother and uncle. I was studying in … high school. There I was having a friend called James… We used to be together… In the night, homophobic civilians broke into his home and killed him. Some people were thinking crazy about me, for they were not sure if I am also a gay or not. They reported it to my mum and she beat me.

After two days of James’ death, in the morning I was on my way to school. A group of six people held mob justice on me. They attacked me and beat me… that day, I stopped going to school…

(Anonymous gay man – used with author’s consent).

Image by Capri23auto from Pixabay

In 2012, when I was 15, I was [told] by my Father to get married. I refused, and when he asked me why I refused, I told him I don’t like men, I don’t feel like it, and am feeling something different. When I told him that, he chased me out of the house. Then I went to my mother’s place because they had divorced sometimes back. I reached my mom’s place and started living with her.

In August 2019 I was called that my mother was in bad condition… When I entered the room to see my mother at the hospital, my father didn’t even allow me to reach the sick bed. He chased me and said a lot of abusive words… my mother was hearing and she continued getting sick with pressures. Immediately she started fighting for her life, and in few minutes she was dead… At the burial, all my family members accused me of killing my mother, that I was the cause. After the burial, I looked around and I had nowhere to go, I decided to go to my father’s place. When I reached it, he … chased me with a machete, and told me that he can’t live with a lesbian.

(Anonymous lesbian – used with author’s consent).

The problems faced by LGBT refugees in Kenya are staggering. Instead of sanctuary, LGBT refugees face neglect, discrimination and persecution, as explained by this gay man:

I escaped from my family/Uganda because of my sexuality and the government passed a bill to hurt and kill all gays in Uganda. Same here in Kenya, life isn’t good. The country is too homophobic towards we gay people and refugees. It’s like going from a frying pan into the inferno. The Kenyan locals are more homophobic even than Ugandans. They know refugees from Uganda must be gay because there is no war or famine there, and they consider gays to be bure (useless and worthless). They say our country vomited us like poison, so they will also vomit us the same way our country vomited us.

Here in Kenya it’s more worse. People split saliva on us and beat us on the street, and we have no one to run to. If we go to the police, they blame us for promoting homosexuality in their country. They say they are protecting their youth, which isn’t true. We don’t want their youth. We just want peace.

(Anonymous – used with author’s consent).

Many refugees are sent to Kakuma Refugee Camp, where they endure further discrimination and violence. The primitive and cruel conditions under which they live make a mockery of 24 October as United Nations Day.

Block 13 at Kakuma Refugee Camp is a locus for LGBTQI refugees, presumably to allow them to gather safely and collectively. In reality, it provides a target for violent attacks and ongoing death threats, perpetrated by homophobic neighbours.

Living conditions (right) and collecting bathing water (below) at Block 13 at Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya. Photo used by permission of photographer.

Here are people with incredible courage and resilience; having fled their homes for sanctuary in another land, being denied all but the most cursory subsistence levels of support from UNHCR and other agencies, at the behest of a largely uncaring world. Within our human family, they add fabulosity to a locale filled with scorpions and snakes, homophobes and hunger, malaria and machetes. They are rainbow people who live in a world that still largely fears difference:

I am a transgender living in Block 13, Kakuma. I have been in Kakuma since October 2019. During [those} twelve months… I have realized that the transgenders are hit the hardest during attacks. We receive discrimination at the hand of our neighbors, the police, and some of the employees of UNHCR and its partners.

I remember the day when a police officer promised to shoot me dead because of the way I dress. It shows that as a transgender you do not expect PROTECTION even from the police officers. On 10th June 2020, I was attacked near Block 13, along with another transgender. We were rushed to a clinic because we were losing a lot of blood. The medical personnel on the duty refused to attend on us because we were not wearing face masks, imagine! When our colleagues complained out fear of our lives, the hospital had them arrested. There is no any place in Kakuma where we feel safe, not even in hospitals.”

(Anonymous – used with author’s consent).

In a world that is distracted by COVID-19, LGBT individuals and groups across Australia and the western world largely face the challenge of acknowledging and responding to great suffering among members of their rainbow family, in places such as Kakuma. Marriage Equality and cable TV specials during lockdown are not the only civil rights issues that should be on our LGBTQIA+ agenda.

For other, more generic human rights and LGBT supporters, the general lack of mainstream advocacy and support diminishes us all. Our humanity is found wanting. The year 2020 puts this in stark context: if COVID-19 reveals deep deficiencies within the economic systems of affluent western countries, how much worse is it for those in less affluent nations?

Elie Wiesel‘s words should both challenge and accuse us out of our complacency: “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference. Because of indifference, one dies before one actually dies. To be in the window and watch people being sent to concentration camps or being attacked in the street and do nothing, that’s being dead.”

Has humanity evolved since the days of Shakespeare, when he pleaded for humane treatment of the refugee, of people from other races and cultures, and of the ‘other’? When will we stop ignoring the suffering of those who share our humanity? I long for the day when we finally live up to his hope of four centuries past:


“Commend me to them,
And tell them that, to ease them of their griefs,
Their fears of hostile strokes, their aches, losses,
Their pangs of love, with other incident throes
That nature’s fragile vessel doth sustain
In life’s uncertain voyage, I will some kindness do them…”
– William Shakespeare
Timon Of Athens‘ act 5, sc. 1, 225-230.

© 2020 Geoff Allshorn

Public disclaimer: I am part of a group that has been started in response to this human crisis: Humanity In Need: Rainbow Refugees.

Wholly, Wholly, Wholly

Photograph: Moon from Mansfield (c) 2020 by Kirsten Trecento

Here is a filk song celebrating the grandeur of science, knowledge, and critical thinking.
To be sung to the tune of Holy Holy Holy*
(*With acknowledgement to Reginald Heber and ‘Nicaea’ John Bacchus Dykes)

This tune is filked from an old religious hymn, because I wanted to explore the idea that transcendence and awe can be found within science and critical thinking, at least as much as they might be claimed anywhere else.

#

Wholly, wholly, wholly,
Wholly and completely,
Are we evolving
And our society.

Wholly, wholly, wholly,
Totally and freely,
Seeking new truths
And new reality.

#

Wholly, wholly, wholly,
Should be our reliance
On the word of reason
And not of bigotry.

Wholly, wholly, wholly,
Is our trust in science.
Not in religion
Or astrology.

#

Wholly, wholly, wholly,
Life can educate me,
Though the eye of simple man
Its glory may not see;

Only thinking wholly
Fully can empower me,
Loving the world
and all humanity.

#

Wholly, wholly, wholly,
Looking to the future,
Leave the past behind us
With all its faults and crimes.

Only wisdom wholly
Promises and guides us.
Our future beckons,
Hope for better times.

Our future beckons,
Hope for better times.

#

© 2020 Geoff Allshorn

Science and the Religious Impulse

Creationism? Trumpism? Science denialism? Religious Fundamentalism?
The religious impulse gone wild within a world in intellectual decline.

Photo by Kyle Johnson on Unsplash

As a boy, I learnt children’s Bible stories: Adam and Eve being banished from Paradise as punishment for gaining knowledge, God committing genocide upon the whole Earth except for Noah and his ark, David brutally slaying Goliath, God killing the Egyptian babies, and Jesus being nailed to a cross. You know, all the Bible stories deemed to be fun and fit for children.

And yet the story of Doubting Thomas is the one that possibly captured my childhood imagination the most: the Apostle Thomas, upon being told that Jesus had returned from the dead, skeptically stated that he would not believe the claim until he was able to physically see and touch the evidence for himself (a demand that was jointly both a bit eeew and a bit awesome – kind of like Ben Hur Meets the Walking Dead).

Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay

To my childhood mind, Doubting Thomas was uber-cool. He was the only scientist in the Bible. I could imagine Thomas’ skepticism on also being told that Jesus had walked on water; should he check for water skis? When Jesus performed a cheap magic trick by making money appear in a fish’s mouth, did Thomas pull out a magnifying glass and check for fingerprints? Responding to the claim that Jesus had physically ascended into heaven, did Thomas pilot an Apollo lunar module up into the skies to investigate? Doubting Thomas was a Bronze Age Sherlock Holmes and a role model for all thinking, rational people. Richard Dawkins has even proclaimed Thomas to be, ‘The Patron Saint of Scientists‘.

Sadly, the story of Doubting Thomas is a morality tale – for all the wrong reasons – among many modern religious thinkers and conspiracy theorist types: Thomas was chastised by Jesus for his skepticism, and was encouraged to believe by faith alone rather than require empirical evidence. Thomas may have been a cool dude, but his intellectual rigour was apparently his moral weakness. Thus we see one of the most insidious aspects of religion: its potential for anti-scientific and anti-intellectual pretension.

The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil

I acknowledge the duality within religion: like all inventions of humanity, it has the potential for great good as well as great evil. A popular assertion is that religion has been shown in scientific studies to be good for us – even good for non-religious people. Transcendance, peace, charity and consolation are often proclaimed as being outcomes of religious benevolence. Of course, this ignores the fact that religion has also been responsible for a great deal of bigotry, suffering and other negativity in world history, and the reality is that even at its most benevolent, religion cannot claim a monopoly upon beneficial life experiences. Perhaps an apt summary of religion’s somewhat ambiguous role in society might best be expressed: “Religion has often been a vehicle for intolerance and fundamentalism; religion has been used as an excuse for persecution and war. But, religion in its purest form has provided many benefits for humanity.”

When speaking about the tree of knowledge of good and evil, religion was surely describing itself. To paraphrase Eckhart Tolle, humanity created god – and religions – in its own image.

The Evolution of Religion

Where did the religious impulse originate within the human species? What evolutionary purpose might it serve: perhaps to assist in survival of communities bonded together in devotional benevolence or cultural tribalism? How can such an impulse prosper within societies when it has potentially dubious benefits for individuals? Richard Dawkins suggests: “I think there was something built into the human brain by natural selection which was once useful and which now manifests itself under civilised conditions as religion, but which used not to be religion when it first arose, and when it was useful.”

He offers one possible example of the kind of survival mechanism involved:

“For excellent reasons related to Darwinian survival, child brains need to trust parents, and elders whom parents tell them to trust. An automatic consequence is that the truster has no way of distinguishing good advice from bad. The child cannot know that ‘Don’t paddle in the crocodile-infested Limpopo’ is good advice but ‘You must sacrifice a goat at the time of the full moon, otherwise the rains will fail’ is at best a waste of time and goats. Both admonitions sound equally trustworthy. Both come from a respected source and are delivered with a solemn earnestness that commands respect and demands obedience.”
The God Delusion, p. 176.

I like the idea that religion might be some vestigial evolutionary mechanism involving teaching children unquestioning deference as a means of ensuring survival of the next generation. We see that same juvenile mindset in the conflating of Santa Claus with God. However, in recent decades, we have also seen the rise of this somewhat immature religious impulse fueling a cultural explosion of anti-science, anti-intellectual nonsense, and personality cults ranging from gurus and celebrities to politicians. As a result, we are in the midst of a pandemic – not COVID-19 or another biological attack upon our species – but an anti-intellectual pandemic that threatens to take our species back to the Stone Age. Although we live in the greatest scientific age in history, we also have a shameful amount of pseudo-scientific, ignorant drivel being peddled everywhere from nursery to nursing home.

“That’s Your Opinion”

The insidious dualism of religion can be found in our cultural and intellectual landscape. Religion has inspired much art, literature, and scholarly inquiry – including pre-Enlightenment humanism. Yet it has also, in its modern fundamentalist form, opposed science, intellect and inquiry – not a surprising outcome for those who follow a text in which the token scientist is lambasted. It is this same anti-intellectual syndrome that has expanded across populist culture.

I had a revelation when I was aged fourteen, during the peak popularity of the UFO craze. Entranced by the spookiness and excitement of it all, I came to realise that I could just as easily (and I did!) make up my own, fictional, stories of alien visitation to spook my gullible school friends. Incredibly, I realised the crazier my story, the more they seemed to actually want to believe it. To this day, I suspect that such modern mythologies are a means for people to feel special or to claim undeserved expertise.

Faith that requires unquestioning acceptance in the absence of evidence – the religious midset – is absolutely not equal to the rigours of scientific inquiry. Yet the popular false equivalence between faith and science can be seen when debating adherents of pseudoscientific ideas, where scientific rebuttals have often been met with a dismissive retort: “That’s your opinion.” The common misunderstanding here is that because everyone has an equal right to hold an opinion, all opinions are therefore equal. However, they are not all equal, nor do they deserve equal respect or deference. An opinion that is backed by scientific evidence, informed research, and which defers to expertise, is one that presents a much stronger case than one based upon faith, ignorance, misinformation, or a few conspiracy theory videos and websites.

Sadly, our modern cultural template seems to be that an armchair expert’s self-declared PhD in alternate facts somehow qualifies them to claim kudos equivalent to that of genuinely qualified, peer reviewed experts who have spent a lifetime in scientific or academic study. In our common culture, astrology is equal to astronomy, mysticism is equal to medicine, and uninformed opinion is equal to scientific fact – because proof (or lack of it) is irrelevant. Those who subscribe to this religious methodology fail to grasp the importance of the aphorism attributed to Walter Kotschnig who warned us: “Don’t keep your minds so open that your brains fall out.”

Despite some effort by religious apologists to redefine his skepticism, the story of Doubting Thomas is a wonderful parable regarding the power of critical thinking and intellectual inquiry over superstition and gullibility. We must not confuse his skeptical thinking with the uncritical acceptance of unsupported claims and pseudo sciences, televangelical rhetoric, or conspiracy theories. The philosophy of anti-intellectualism has most recently gained pride of place in a culture that values superstition over science, or a sound byte over a sound mind. People who value critical thought must take a stand against such populist piffle. Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit is a good stepping stone in teaching people how to think, not what to think. More than that, we must address the underlying emotional needs for significance that make conspiracy theories and pseudosciences so popular:

“Pseudoscience speaks to powerful emotional needs
that science often leaves unfulfilled” – Carl Sagan.

In a story about religious reverence and rationalization, Doubting Thomas instead demanded relentless rationality and reason. While crowds compliantly queued up for loaves and fishes, he alone sought learning and facts. If I recall correctly, he made very little other contribution to the Bible story – and yet it was enough.

© 2020 Geoff Allshorn

Amazing Space

(NASA Photo: M81 is a spiral galaxy about 12 million light years away that is both relatively large in the sky and bright, making it a frequent target for both amateur and professional astronomers. Image credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO; Optical: Detlef Hartmann; Infrared: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

In honour of the δ-Aurigid meteor shower, here is a filk song celebrating the grandeur of space and science. To be sung to the tune of Amazing Grace*
(*With acknowledgement to Reverend John Newton and William Walker)

Amazing space! How deep the call
Of time and stellar worth
That formed my atoms after all,
And sprinkled them on Earth.

T’was gravity that drew me here
And swirled me in the dust,
Amidst my pain and dirt and fear
I evolved as I must.

Despite the storms of space and star
Of meteor and mould;
The Earth has been my home and hearth
My shelter in the cold.

Through many danger, toils and strife
I have evolved and grown;
Along with all Earth’s other life
I’ll never be alone.

The Earth has cared and nurtured me,
And supplied all my needs;
I must learn that my portion be
Shared as my conscience leads.

In all of space and all of time,
Bright shining as our sun,
The human race can grow sublime,
Space beckoning us on.

© 2020 Geoff Allshorn

From Holocaust to Humanist

Halina and Geoff (left), holding aloft the Humanist banner at a Marriage Equality Rally, Melbourne, 24 Nov 2012. Photo (c) 2012 by Michael Barnett.

Halina Wagowska is a Holocaust survivor and a Humanist. She is also the author of an autobiography, The Testimony, published in 2012. Halina has been a human rights activist for decades and I feel privileged to call her a friend. She agreed to be interviewed for this blog, utilising postal correspondence during the days of COVID-19 lock-down.

1. How did you survive the Holocaust?

In the labour camp, my parents insisted that I eat part of their meagre food ration because I was growing fast. That enhanced my chances of survival and diminished theirs.

Prolonged incarceration combined with danger and the unpredictability of each next moment, required adjustments and survival mechanisms. Mine was to regress to a primitive state where all my tiny wits were focused entirely on the precise moment, interpreting sounds, silences and movements, all in terms of approaching danger. Rather like a small creature in the undergrowth of a jungle full of predators. I was too young to see the ‘big picture’ or to reflect, which would have kept me off guard. I believe that gave me an advantage over those whose high intellect did not allow for such regression.

2. What are your most powerful memories of the Holocaust?

The death of my mother in my arms in Stutthof. Loading bodies brought from the gas chambers into crematoria ovens in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Being beaten, kicked, and spat upon.

3. How do you think the Holocaust shaped you, and our world?

Prolonged deprivation (5 years 9 months) of any aesthetic experiences makes me appreciate and cherish art, music, books, theatre, and the beauty of nature, as great enrichments of life.

It shaped my values and attitudes, and it narrowed my focus onto issues, problems and behaviours that inflict pain and harm, eg. child abuse, racism, homophobia, bullying, social injustice, inequality of opportunity.

The world said, ‘Never again’ and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was a major civilising step.

4. What, if anything, do you think we have learnt from the Holocaust?

Possibly that prejudices can have gruesome consequences.

5. In your book, you state that, “Speaking out on behalf of the disadvantaged is my way of justifying my existence” (p. 195). Is this why you wrote your book?

Perhaps not surprisingly, I identify with persecuted minorities: people of colour, indigenous people, LGBT people, the Untouchables (Dalits). Speaking out against oppression and injustice is the least I can do.

I wrote the book to meet an obligation. In the camps, we kept saying that if we survive, we shall have to testify until we die. Friends insisted that as all my previous testifying is in the archives of research bodies, there should be a public record. Hence this book.

6. Although your book is a testimony to the horrors of the Holocaust, it is also a testimony to the positivity and determination in your subsequent life. Is this a reflection of your slogan: “Don’t remain a victim”? (p. 197)

I recall my mother (p. 59) towards the end of the war, worrying about whether I will be normal if I survive. After the war, the notion of being normal transformed itself into not remaining a victim. In the book, I try to show that with determination, it is possible to lead a normal life after a catastrophe.

7. You once told me that Marie Curie was an early hero for you. How did she influence your life?

Poland was short of famous people and was very proud of Maria Skłodowska Curie. As a child, I fantasised that if I studied hard, I too might devise or discover something of great value to humankind.

8. Why/when did you become a Humanist?

I was born in Poland to parents who were agnostic and of Jewish origin. The all-powerful Polish Catholic church pervaded all aspects of personal life, institutions and social structures. It preached a very harsh, divisive and punitive religion. Hence my passion for secularism. Years later, my training in science reinforced my preference for evidence-based facts.

My values and attitudes had many aspects of Humanism without me qualifying them as such. I joined the Humanist Society of Victoria when I became aware of its existence.

9. What do you think Humanism has got to offer the world, particularly in light of humanity’s capacity for great good and evil?

Humanism offers a vision of a better, fairer world. I am not sure how we can abolish evil.

Humanism meets my needs and passions for secularism, rational, ethical approach to problems, for the protection of human rights and dignity, for democracy, for social justice and equity and for social action through group lobbying.

What I find attractive in Humanism is its fostering of altruism, of goodness for its own sake, and the taking of total responsibility for one’s actions.

10. You have been a human rights activist for many years. Why? What do you feel are your greatest achievements?

I need to be useful. Lobbying and working to improve the lives of others seems worthwhile. With other members of HSV, I looked after homeless students; provided books for bushfire victims; helped to ‘adopt’ a village of Untouchables in India to help them up from their imposed quagmire. I am in a group to raise funds for bursaries for Aboriginal students.

11. What are the greatest human rights challenges of our time? How do we solve these problems?

The climate emergency, if left unattended, will make life hazardous for the next generation, and cause the extinction of many species. We need to heed scientific advice on climate, and we need to foster democratic governance, social justice and equality. Beware also the growing economic divide between rich and poor.

12. What message would you like to give to future generations?

Learn of past evils and say NEVER AGAIN. Check your prejudices.

13. Is there anything else you would like to add?

In this one life we have, let us work to make this a better world.

= = =

(The answers for Questions 8 & 9 include excerpted material which Halina previously presented to the ‘Australian Humanist’ magazine, No. 90, 2008.)

© 2020 Geoff Allshorn