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.