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

Climate Change

NASA photo.

The Apollo 8 ‘Earthrise’ photo, taken from lunar orbit by astronaut Bill Anders on Christmas Eve 1968, captured a view that inspired the astronauts to read from the Biblical ‘Genesis’ myth. More significantly, the photograph has been credited with being a ‘driving force for the environmental movement’ because it offered humanity our first real-life view of Earth as a pale blue dot in the vast cosmos.

Yet the environmental movement probably got its first real boost in popular culture some six years earlier, via a ‘religious humanist’ lens. In 1962, Rachel Carson wrote a seminal book that helped change how society sees the world around us:

Her sensational book Silent Spring (1962) warned of the dangers to all natural systems from the misuse of chemical pesticides such as DDT, and questioned the scope and direction of modern science, initiated the contemporary environmental movement.

Rachel Carson was raised within Christianity but her view was that humans were a part of nature rather than some divinely mandated overlord:

… Carson, who was baptized in the Presbyterian Church, was not religious. One tenet of Christianity in particular struck her as false: the idea that nature existed to serve man.

‘Silent Spring’ was a humanist book because it explored the relationship between humans and the environment. It was a groundbreaking exposé that introduced and popularised dissent against traditional attitudes which condoned environmental exploitation. Carson’s views were informed by science and possibly at least partly inspired by other unorthodox viewpoints: at a time when homophobia was rampant, she developed a long-term intimate relationship with another woman.

On Earth Day we remember Rachel Carson, environmental trailblazer and best-selling lesbian author

Another populariser of environmental dissidence is humanist Margaret Atwood, whose books often interweave environmental and religious themes. Her 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, and its recent spin-off television series, warn us about the impact of religious extremism upon the environment and human rights, particularly women’s rights. Such rights are not incidental to the environmental movement – from ecofeminists to activists, women are among those most directly affected by climate change.

Image by Niek Verlaan from Pixabay

A new generation is stepping up, led by a teenage girl who stopped the world in September 2019. Greta Thunberg launched an environmental movement that closed down cities and had people of all ages – especially school children – out in the streets. In Australia, one student leader challenged our Prime Minister with the notion that thoughts and prayers were not enough. The younger generation is challenging the old by calling for actions not words; older people need to review their lifestyles and their attitudes, recalling lyrics from a famous song from their childhood: The Times They Are a-Changin’. Tinkering with recyclables or planting a few trees is insufficient; we need not only a a sea change but a whole tsunami of change to implement everything from societal and economic restructure to climate justice.

Planet Earth is a sealed biosystem that we share with other living creatures. We have a responsibility to protect their interests as much as our own.

Amidst debates on how humans should interact with our environment, the fact is that our varied terrains and ecosystems have high intrinsic values of their own. Human beings can and must recognise our place in nature and solve the problems that we have created. We need to acknowledge the problem and act upon it, and implement a culture change. To save the world, we must change ourselves. Let’s make it so.

© 2020 Geoff Allshorn

The Personal & The Political

Commemorating World Gratitude Day (21 September):
Personal Encounters With People Who Made A Difference.

Two Australian activists – one an outspoken celebrity and the other a quiet achiever – both used their opportunities to change the world for the better. Their impact lives on.

Don’s Party.

Photo by Jonathan Farber on Unsplash

In the twelfth century – according to tradition – King Canute unsuccessfully tried to stop the tides. In 1976, an Australian politician apparently succeeded.

The legendary story of King Canute was one of piety, asserting that worldly authorities, even kings, could not compete with the power of God. The more modern Australian version – a real life event at Glenelg beach – conveyed a converse form of piety: our ability to outgrow religious superstition by exercising secular thinking.

There are those who may recall when the destruction of Adelaide was predicted by a house-painter who, inspired by governmental reforms to decriminalise homosexuality, declared that around noon on 19 January 1976, South Australia would see divine wrath in the form of an earthquake and tsunami.

On the day, the Premier of South Australia, Don Dunstan, waved theatrically at an assembled crowd and, beyond them, at the crashing waves. The deadline passed without incident, and the world continued as before. There was no tidal wave, no tsunami. News reports suggest that the house-painter moved to an undisclosed location in the Eastern states, where his house may have been later destroyed in a local flood – a nice urban myth at least, indicating the good-natured, karmic mockery with which many Australians remember his presumption.

Over forty years later, it is hard to imagine any Australian politician today who would have the courage to confront a religious decree, no matter how irrational its content. But back in the 1970s, Don Dunstan was a rebel whose sexuality and open marriages were a rejection of traditional religious sex-negative dogma.

Such was typical of the life of Donald Allan Dunstan (21 September 1926 – 6 February 1999), born into the Christian faith but later embracing secular libertarian humanism because he could ‘no longer maintain a willing suspension of disbelief in some of the stranger things in Christian theology’ (Dino Hodge, Don Dunstan: Intimacy and Liberty, Wakefield Press, 2014, p. 221). Dunstan was a ‘renaissance man’ who led the push to abolish the White Australia Policy among his impressive list of other reforms. He was married twice to women, and his last long-term partner was a man.

My own personal connection to Don Dunstan was indirect and impersonal – yet profound. In December 1986, after leaving South Australian government and while working as Director of Tourism in Victoria, he attended the Sydney launch of an Australian gay history book. Another presence at the launch was a gay rights activist dressed as a nun and known as ‘Monsignor Porca Madonna’. The ensuing public outrage led to his resignation from his Victorian job, but not before my family intersected with the great man.

At that time, Dunstan was also involved with a charity in which a relative of mine was also involved. I recall how this relative proudly boasted how he had confronted Dunstan at a meeting and angrily berated him for promoting homosexuality. In hindsight, I can only presume that homophobia had been a vestigial remnant of this relative’s traditional religious upbringing. Still, I recall feeling some consolation in knowing that someone as prominent as Don Dunstan was willing to uphold gay rights during an era when the AIDS epidemic was creating great homophobic stigma, trauma and death.

Gilbert Baker’s Rainbow Flag design, rendered by Guanaco et al, CCO 1.0

My story is one among many thousands of lives that were touched in long-term and positive ways by the reforms that Don Dunstan helped to achieve. Even that once-homophobic relative of mine, who in more recent years spoke in favour of same-sex marriage, was ultimately helped towards this personal enlightenment by the homosexual law reforms that Dunstan had initiated.

Dunstan’s King Canute beach satire of 1976, mocking religious suspension of disbelief, was only a small side note in his larger, epochal political career in which his desire to transform the ‘city of churches’ into the ‘Athens of the south’ was symbolic of his remarkable transformation of Australia. He is sometimes remembered as ‘the man who decriminalised homosexuality’ in South Australia – a claim that acknowledges his lead within his progressive government to undertake many reforms, addressing capital punishment, Aboriginal land rights, anti-discrimination, censorship, child protection, consumer protection, environment protection, heritage protection, social welfare, and urban planning.

Overseeing such a list of progressive reform was not a bad effort for one LGBT humanist.

Olive’s Corner

On 7 March 1995, the Acting Prime Minister Brian Howe gave a eulogy for Senator Olive Zakharov (19 March 1929 – 6 March  1995). He expounded her favourite quote from Hamlet, but he added her amendment to Shakespeare:

“This above all: to thine own self be true.
And it must follow, as the night follows day.
Thou cannot then be false to any man…
… and to this, Olive added `woman’.”

Photo by Womanizer WOW Tech on Unsplash

In Senator Zakharov’s obituary in The Age (8 March 1995, p. 16), Karen Middleton notes that the addition of ‘woman’ to the quote was reflective of Olive Zakharov’s commitment to women’s rights. The idea of amending something as sacrosanct as Shakespeare, of rewriting the rules, or of reforming society for the sake of egalitarianism, was typical of the Senator. She is noted by the Australian Senate as being a grassroots campaigner for human rights, working on a variety of issues including nuclear disarmament, sexual discrimination, sexual harassment, domestic violence and HIV/AIDS.

Olive Zakharov and I shared the same northern suburban regional background, and we even worked (albeit at different times) at the same local school. We were both shared a passion for social justice. But in her case, she was able to use her political opportunities to help improve the nation and the lives of its people, as an expression of her pragmatism to work for common humanity instead of preaching a philosophical viewpoint. Australian Humanist of the Year for 1986, she is acknowledged in their tribute as having worked as an LGBT advocate – a somewhat uncommon activist role for a heterosexual woman in the 1980s. Her list of aligned organisations includes many that reflect her diverse interests in human rights, social justice, and the arts: everything from the Victorian AIDS Council to Amnesty International and the Australian Film Institute.

On 12 February 1995, I met her at the Midsumma Carnival, an LGBT festival held in the gardens opposite the Arts Centre in St Kilda Road, Melbourne. Among the many groups she visited that day, she came to the community tent for the AIDS Quilt. I recall her genuinely warm smile and her interest in discussing LGBT activism. She thanked us for our volunteer work and left the festival – to be struck down by a car in St Kilda Road, passing away in hospital on 6 March.

A memorial named Olive’s Corner has been dedicated to her memory in Port Melbourne. It acknowledges her passion to help disempowered people. I like to think that the greater memorial is the lives of the people who continue to benefit from her passionate efforts to improve the world.

© 2020 Geoff Allshorn

Charity Begins At Home

For International Day of Charity, 5 September 2020

Photo by Kat Yukawa on Unsplash

We have all heard the self-evident saying that ‘charity begins at home’. Obviously, it is important to protect ourselves because, otherwise, how could we expect to help anyone else? Yet this plea for self-care is often used with more sinister intent.

‘Charity begins at home’ – I often see this comment on social media regarding foreign aid or immigrants or refugees: send them back, we should look after ourselves first, charity begins at home. These people often argue that Australia has its own homeless and poor, and we should be looking after those people first (funny how none of those critics actually does anything to help the homeless, eh?)

I do not dispute the profound underlying wisdom behind the idea that ‘charity begins at home’ because I understand that a compassionate, altruistic perspective must first arise within each of us, wherever we may find our heart or hearth. What I do dispute is the hijacking of that maxim by some people who use it to justify their own dismissive lack of compassion for others. I believe that humans are better than that. In my experience:

1. “Charity begins at home” does not mean that it ends there as well.

When the chips are down, some Australians can be remarkably compassionate people. During times of flood, drought and bushfire, communities come together to work for the common good, and discussions about the ordinary and the everyday suddenly appear bland and trite by comparison. We see ourselves as part of a unified human community.

I will never forget the 2004 Asian Boxing Day tsunami, in which hundreds of thousands of people died and local communities were devastated across Asia. In response, Australians figuratively fell over themselves to offer material and financial support. I recall some people in my suburb who donated sacrificial amounts of money to charity; while Aussie ‘hands-on’ organisations offered practical help to Asian communities and built international support networks. I did volunteer work for one charity, within a borrowed telemarketing centre, and we were swamped with non-stop phone calls from donors.

This is the Australia – and the world – that we need to see, today and every day: people displaying compassion, kindness, and selflessness. Whether the 2020 Australian bushfires, the 2005 Make Poverty History campaign, the 1992 AIDS Awareness Concert, the 1985 Live Aid appeal, or the 1971 Concert for Bangladesh, altruism is a common human trait. Outside of fundraising, pragmatic altruism (voluntary work) is also common. Amidst such nobility, the idea that ‘charity begins at home’ – when used to deny help to others who need it – appears to be small-minded, selfish and unworthy of human dignity.

2. Charity is not a competition.

In my experience, genuinely kind people never make compassion a competition. People are free to devote their time, money and efforts to help anyone they choose – and due to limited resources, we all make such choices – but truly compassionate people would never dismiss or demean the genuine needs of others outside their purview.

Can you imagine someone visiting a charity and pointedly telling staff that another charity is more deserving of assistance? No. Why? Because at best, that would be somewhat insensitive. Why then, do some people think it is acceptable to denigrate refugee charities or overseas aid by publicly suggesting that other causes are more worthy of assistance? The words of clergyman John Newton should be adopted within a universal secular context: we should all demonstrate ‘amazing grace‘ in our thoughts, words and deeds.

There are many ideas that people need to change regarding attitudes towards philanthropy. This is not hard – even children can make a difference and change the world.

3. Altruism is not just about giving money.

Wikipedia informs us that author Lily Hardy Hammond wrote in 1916: ‘You don’t pay love back; you pay it forward.’ In modern times, the phrase ‘Pay It Forward‘ has enjoyed cultural mileage, with various activist movements around the world encouraging people to help others by performing an act of kindness. This year, a noble, aligned movement during the COVID-19 pandemic has been a ‘Kindness Epidemic‘, encouraging people to similarly perform small random acts of kindness.

Although such actions are admirable in themselves, they point to our collective need to relearn a greater human truth. As global citizens, we are morally obliged to uphold the Humanist Principle of sharing: ‘Share with those who are less fortunate and assist those who are in need of help’. This is not just in order to benefit the lives and welfare of others, but also for ourselves.

Benevolence is recognised as a universal human principle, both inside and outside religions. Even the Bible acknowledges that among its three religious virtues of faith, hope and charity, it is charity that is the greatest of them all (1 Corinthians 13:13, King James Bible). Meanwhile, humanists propose: ‘We… are less concerned with theological debate and more concerned with direct, compassionate action.’ Humanitarians across the religious/secular divide agree that we should ‘roll up our sleeves’ and actually do something – such as following the example of humanist poet Walt Whitman, who, after tending his injured brother during the US Civil War, was moved to offer his time, effort and compassion to countless other injured soldiers. For Whitman, the charity that began at home quickly became an expression of love towards an extended human family.

4. We are a world community.

“We are not alone in the universe. We have each other.”Freethought Group.

Ethicist Peter Singer observes that the average person would not hesitate to save a drowning child if they came across that real-life scenario happening in front of them – and yet nearly ten million children around the world die each year of poverty-related causes while we collectively look the other way (pp. 3 & 4). Maybe ‘charity begins at home’ sometimes because it is much easier to be mindful of problems we can personally observe.

Photo by Matt Collamer on Unsplash

However, we must remain mindful of a universal truth: we are all human. From Sydney to Shanghai, London to Lagos, Kalgoorlie to Kampala, everywhere we go, we will find human beings with whom we share bloodlines and DNA. While we live locally, we should think globally. When considering that, ‘charity begins at home’, we need to remember that the whole world is our home.

5. Helping others helps ourselves.

While some cynics decry the existence of ‘welfare culture’, I welcome the idea that charity is a way of life – although I like to invert the idea: charity should be a way of life, not for recipients but for donors; not for the disadvantaged, but for those with privilege and opportunity.

At its most pragmatic, helping others also helps ourselves. If COVID-19 has taught us anything, for example, it should be that while disadvantaged people are denied access to adequate health care, the rest of us also remain endangered from second, third, fourth, or tenth wave revisitations of the virus. Until it is eliminated everywhere, nobody is safe. It is in our own enlightened self-interest to help others.

Nor is this some self-righteous philosophical abstraction. It is literally a part of what makes us human. Physician Ira Byock writes of anthropologist Margaret Mead being asked, “What is the earliest sign of civilization?”, and reports that her response was not a tool or implement or language, but a healed femur:

A femur is the longest bone in the body, linking hip to knee. In societies without the benefits of modern medicine, it takes about six weeks of rest for a fractured femur to heal. A healed femur shows that someone cared for the injured person, did their hunting and gathering, stayed with them, and offered physical protection and human companionship until the injury could mend.

Mead explained that where the law of the jungle — the survival of the fittest — rules, no healed femurs are found. The first sign of civilization is compassion, seen in a healed femur.

Despite possibly some question being expressed about the need to confirm Mead’s quote, her words still summarise an important human attribute: altruism is part of an evolved survival instinct, found in both humans and other animals – a higher form of survival of the fittest that helps us to survive and succeed. Yes, charity begins at home – and if done properly, it goes full circle and comes back to help us as well.

© 2020 Geoff Allshorn

Angel Wings and Icarus Complex

“Instead of asking, ‘Why is there war?’, we might ask, ‘Why is there peace?’”
– Stephen Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature, p. xxv.

Photo by Jasmin Sessler on Unsplash

Those of us who subscribe to social media will be familiar with the archetypical anecdote: a child helps a little old lady across the street, a teenage shop assistant carries groceries to the car of a disabled customer, or a bystander defends a bullied child. In this pandemic year, I might add stories such as the person who pays for groceries for the elderly gent in the supermarket queue, or who sacrifices their extra pack of hoarded toilet paper in order to give it to the crying woman who has missed out. Feel free to recollect your own list of similar feel-good stories that are designed to make us go Awww…

What I find interesting with such narratives is that the public reaction generally seems more revealing than the stories themselves. Often, people will declare how proud they are to see someone help another person, or they will appeal to a deity for special blessings upon the benefactor. Someone might even declare: ‘FAITH IN HUMANITY RESTORED’. My response is: Really? For sharing toilet paper? For helping a little old lady across the street? For getting a cat out of a tree? Aren’t such acts simply called common courtesy or basic human decency? And yet people not only love such stories; they love to love them.

And this reveals something quite profound about human nature. Our feel-good stories about gurgling babies and little old ladies also touch a primal sentiment: we recognise the good within ourselves.


Would you like to hear a radical idea? Author Rutger Bregnan presents us with one: “What is this radical idea? That most people, deep down, are pretty decent.” (Humankind: A Hopeful History, p. 2.) The opening pages of his book introduce us to examples of benevolent behaviour instead of panic during crises including the Titanic, the London Blitz, and the World Trade Center Twin Towers. Analysing how we react under extreme pressure can be one of the optimal ways of exploring human behaviour. Bregnan asserts: “It’s when crisis hits – when the bombs fall or the floodwaters rise – that we humans become our best selves.”(p. 4) This can be helpful when also considering our behaviour during more benign circumstances. It even challenges us to ponder how we should react during the current world crisis of COVID-19: do we have an opportunity to reach out to others in crisis and thereby somehow enrich our own inner humanity?

Laurence Rifkin suggests that altruistic expression of our common humanity is a pragmatic act in a difficult world:

So let’s admit straight out: humanism is not about hope. It’s about facing the world as it actually exists and making the best of it. It’s about looking this real world in the eye and, using imagination and initiative, building castles in the sand, not castles in the sky. It’s about finding goodness within the spectrum of what’s real and what’s possible. And in facing such truths, humanists don’t look outside nature for salvation; they don’t seek change through wish fulfillment. This perspective is not a limitation. It’s a motivator. It’s the ground for positive action and results.

Existential analyst Victor Frankl believed that such positivity is inbuilt as part of our human quest for the meaning of life: ‘For Frankl, meaning came from three possible sources: purposeful work, love, and courage in the face of difficulty.’

How can we reconcile such optimistic human attributes with our daily news cycles or populist movies, which present us with more nihilistic, cynical views of human nature? It is a cliché that bad news sells newspapers – in apparent contradiction to my earlier observation that people also love touch-feely, sentimental stories. But the human fascination with bad news also appears to run deep, more than simply commercial pandering to what I once heard described as being a ‘culture of death’ within populist culture. Maybe we are collectively attracted to bad news – just as we are to feel-good stories – because we individually believe ourselves to be better than average and that things will somehow work out for us in the end. One source even suggests that psychologists talk about ‘negativity bias‘ as an inbuilt evolutionary trait to safeguard survival.


Bregnan cites Rebecca Solnit in ascribing bad news culture to those in power: ‘Elite panic comes from powerful people who see all humanity in their own image‘ (cited in Humankind, pp. 6 & 7). Just as humans create gods in their image, so they evidently create devils too. By contrast, Bregnan and Solnit explore the human response to disaster as one of building community and purpose amidst chaos. They implicitly suggest that we need to start electing or appointing better leaders – people who are in touch with ordinary people and ordinary human benevolence.

© 2020 Geoff Allshorn

A Case for Rainbow Atheism

Rainbow Atheist banner by Miriam English

We’re living in the midst of a revolution in human attitudes and belief. In much of Europe and North America and other parts of the developed world, such as Australia and Japan, large portions of the population are now non-religious … This is an unprecedented moment in the history of humanity (Lindsay, 2014, p. 13).

Ours is fast becoming a godless nation. The ABS reports that since 1911, the number of Australians subscribing to ‘no religion’ has increased from one person out of every 250 (ABS, 2013) to what is now a little short of one in three—a breathtaking social change in just over a century. In the 2016 Census, the combined factions of our nation’s dominant religion, Christianity, struggled to retain a collective majority foothold at just 52% of respondents, while other religions totalled 8%. But the largest single category of respondents was ‘no religion’ at 30% of the population (ABS, 2016a).[1]

How does this relate to queer people? Some 57% of same-sex couples reported having ‘no religion’ (ABS, 2016b),[2] suggesting that the godless population among LGBTQIA+ people may be almost double that of the Australian average—a difference which might be partly attributed to the fact that historically, religion has not been kind to queer people. We might therefore reasonably extrapolate from census data that between approximately one-third (30%) to one-half (57%) of LGBTQIA+ communities comprise atheists and others who reject traditional religions. The possible links between godlessness and LGBTQIA+ people run deeper than even census results might suggest. Our communal histories and lived experiences reveal powerful parallels.

The Historic Record

History is unambiguous: our very existence as queer people signals a rejection of traditional religious and social dogmas. In his definitive book, Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation, Dennis Altman foreshadowed this attitudinal change:

Liberation entails not just freedom from sexual restraint, but also freedom for the fulfillment of human potential, a large part of which has been unnecessarily restricted by tradition, prejudice, and the requirements of social organisation. (Altman, 2012, p.104).

The resultant social evolution—still underway—has created what Darryl Ray (2014) calls secular sexuality, a modern lifestyle which liberates people from Christianity’s historic abhorrence of sex and sexuality: ‘A secular sexual is not a Christian and does not need to act like one.’ Such a rejection of traditional oppression—with its implicit endorsement of individuality, independence and fabulosity—could describe both atheists and queers.

LGBT atheist Camille Beredjick (2017, p.29) conflates our communities:

Politically and personally, atheists and LGBTQ people overlap. LGBTQ people are more likely to be atheists than the general population; atheists are more likely to support LGBTQ rights. In some cases, discovering that you’re LGBTQ is the spark that causes you to leave the faith in which you were raised.

Although atheism encompasses everyone from nihilists to optimists, humanism is at the optimistic end of this spectrum, and it has many atheist adherents. In the 1960s, humanists in Australia spearheaded the movement for ‘homosexual law reform’, and then later stepped aside in order to allow the developing gay and lesbian rights movement to claim its own autonomy. Humanism is being challenged today by those who seek to trump human rights with ‘religious rights’.

Freedom of Belief

There are many LBGTQIA+ people who find fulfilment within queer-friendly religious communities—and we should respect their right to do so. We should also celebrate their efforts to change homophobic doctrines and practices inside their faith networks. While standing firm against religious excesses, we must be prepared to offer believers respect in ways that their churches have historically failed to extend to us. But we should also uphold the right of queer people to disbelieve.

A recent forum on ‘LGBTI Inclusion in Faith Communities’ acknowledged that religion has been a source of both great solace and great anguish for LGBTI Australians (Victorian Government, 2017). Such a conclusion falls far short of providing reconciliation to LGBTQIA+ people who have been burned by religion, or to disbelievers who comprise a significant percentage of the Australian population. We need secular representation that does not rely upon the privilege of religious people to debate our civil rights. Where are the queer atheist voices in LGBTQIA+ community discourse and public debates?

Coming Out

The concept of ‘coming out’ is well-known within LGBTQIA+ communities. US gay activist Harvey Milk—who renounced his faith at a young age (Faderman, 2018)—encouraged queer people to ‘come out’ as an act of both personal and political empowerment. ‘Coming out’ has, in recent years, also been adopted by many atheists, who, like queers, have been traditionally stigmatised by faith communities. Atheists are often pigeonholed as being different, deviant and distrusted—where have we heard that before?—and in many countries, they face danger, family rejection, and persecution. ‘Coming out’ is a doubly relevant act for queer atheists. How can we acknowledge and support them?

Bridge Building

Gay humanist Chris Stedman calls for cooperation between the faithful and the faithless:

There are many possible answers to the question of how atheists should engage with the religious … the problems of the world are too numerous to debate it for long. We must find solidarity wherever we can—and act upon it (Stedman, 2012, Ch 7).

Such solidarity is possible, as anyone can recall who lived through our traumatic epidemic years, when renegade nuns held the hands of our dying friends. More recently, religious folk marched alongside atheists at marriage equality rallies. In a similar spirit, we must recognise the need for reconciliation today between theists and rainbow atheists. Our diversity demands no less.

References

ABS (2013). 4102.0—Australian Social Trends, Nov 2013: Losing My Religion (Introduction). 20 November 2013.

ABS (2016a). 2071.0—Census of Population and Housing: Reflecting Australia—Stories from the Census, 2016: Religion in Australia. 28/06/2017.

ABS (2016b). 2071.0—Census of Population and Housing: Reflecting Australia—Stories from the Census, 2016: Same Sex Couples in Australia 2016: Religious Affiliation. 28/06/2017.

Altman, D. (2012). Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation. Saint Lucia: University of Queensland Press.

Beredjick, C. (2017). Queer Disbelief: Why LGBTQ Equality Is an Atheist Issue. Friendly Atheist Press, 2017 (1).

Faderman, Lillian (2018). Harvey Milk: His Lives and Death. London: Yale University Press.

Lindsay, R. (2013). The Necessity of Secularism: Why God Can’t Tell Us What to Do, Durham: Pitchstone Publishing.

Ray, D. (2014). ‘Secular Sexuality: A Direct Challenge to Christianity’, in John W Loftus (ed), Christianity Is Not Great: How Faith Fails. New York: Prometheus Books, p. 371.

Stedman, C. (2012). Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious. Boston: Beacon Press.

Victorian Government (2017). Forum on LGBTI Inclusion in Faith Communities: Statement of Support. Melbourne: Victorian Multicultural Commission.

[1]Note that the ‘religion’ question was optional in the 2016 Census; consequently, the percentage results do not total 100%.

[2]Note that the same-sex couples results are somewhat problematic, but they remain the optimal way to assess the religious views of likely LGBTQIA+ Australians.

First published in Bent Street #2, 2018.

© 2018 Geoff Allshorn

Hiroshima – Nagasaki 2020

Atomic bomb dome (Genbaku Dome), Hiroshima, Japan. Photo by Frank “Fg2” Gualtieri on Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

There Will Come Soft Rains

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows calling with their shimmering sound;

And frogs in the pools singing at night,
And wild plum-trees in tremulous white;

Robins will wear their feathery fire
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;

And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree
If mankind perished utterly;

And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone.

-Sara Teasdale, 1920, (Public domain),

What can we learn from adversity?

History records that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended World War Two. Hundreds of thousands of civilians died, and Wikipedia notes that, “… there is still much debate concerning the ethical and legal justification for the bombings.” The New York Times notes that this debate continues today.

Michael C Milam challenges us to consider that, “Whether you agree or disagree that humans have made no moral progress, we have certainly progressed in the technological ability to kill human beings quickly and efficiently.” In bemoaning this ever-increasing capacity to wage war, US Civil War poet Walt Whitman declared that: “The Real War Will Never Get In The Books” and I submit that this is because the real war is within ourselves.

Therein lies our fundamental problem. Whether waging war against fellow humans, or battling nature and natural disasters, we must wade thorough a metaphoric minefield of ethics and practicalities. When is a war just? How do we weigh up all conflicting interests? When do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one? When we battle against monsters, how do we avoid becoming monsters ourselves? Our battles without mirror our battles within.

In A Journal of the Plague Year, Daniel Defoe records that in 1665, many people in London sought comfort from the plague by resorting to superstition:

But in this part I am going to mention, it lay chiefly in the people deceived, or equally in both; and this was in wearing charms, philtres, exorcisms, amulets, and I know not what preparations, to fortify the body with them against the plague; as if the plague was not the hand of God, but a kind of possession of an evil spirit, and that it was to be kept off with crossings, signs of the zodiac, papers tied up with so many knots, and certain words or figures written on them, as particularly the word Abracadabra, formed in triangle or pyramid, thus:—

ABRACADABRA
ABRACADABR
ABRACADAB
ABRACADA
ABRACAD
ABRACA
ABRAC
ABRA
ABR
AB
A

We see equivalent superstition and denialism in present day responses to COVID-19, in Australia and the USA, across Asia and Africa. Our response should not be smug schadenfreude or patronising pity, but a keen desire to engage in mutually respectful educational dialogue. In life, as in war, it is surely better to make friends than enemies.

Even Humanists can make mistakes. One of my favourite authors, Humanist Isaac Asimov, once over-confidently decreed his optimism during the age of antibiotics: “It would seem, then, that as long as our civilization survives and our medical technology is not shattered there is no longer any danger that infectious disease will produce catastrophe or even anything like the disasters of the Black Death and the Spanish Influenza…” (A Choice of Catastrophes, Arrow Books, 1981 p.248.)

Tragically, Asimov himself would be dead within a few years from an unforeseen new pandemic virus (HIV), and his words echo today as we stare down the novel coronavirus. Such so-called acts of God, along with acts of our own agency, challenge human survival and substance. For it is not enough to merely survive, we also face a moral and intellectual imperative to ensure both our personal and planetary evolution out of savagery and towards spirituality.

Isaac Asimov’s widow, Janet Jeppson Asimov, locates the age of atomic weaponry within a context of planetary problems created by humans. She wrote on the Hiroshima anniversary in 2015: “There’s a lot that is not taken seriously today. I won’t sully your vision by repeating what the far-right politicians are saying about the likes of global warming, equal rights, and other issues. The frightening thing is that some of these politicians talk as if strength in war is what counts, no matter what happens to the planet.” 

Her words warn us that our species has a predilection towards both greatness and gutlessness. We are complex creatures, and this is both a strength and a weakness – and yet the weakness itself is not in our weakness, but in our perception of that weakness. We have a tendency to judge ourselves and others based upon external (often cultural and religious) ethical standards that are impossible to uphold. We are, after all, only human, and we must learn to accept that we have the capacity to be both noble and naughty. True morality must be based upon our ability to accept, and act in accordance with, our collective ability for both splendour and scandal. This does not mean giving in to a legion of sinfulness but simply predicating our self image, our actions, and our relationships, upon a positive and honest acknowledgement of our very human capabilities and limitations. The Peace Bell in the Hiroshima Peace Park summarises this quandary, with an inscription that challenges us to ‘know yourself‘.

Similarly, we must recognise our capacity to seek true justice outside of traditional military frames of reference. The reality is that for most of the world, life itself is already a daily battle, and affluent nations spend an obscene amount of money to protect their disproportionate hoards of wealth. Surely instead of inflicting military carnage and untold suffering upon adversaries, it would be better – a genuinely just war – to build up struggling societies by supplying social, health, political and economic infrastructure.

We can create a better world – and better people – and our task starts closer to home than we imagine. Humanist Jacob Bronowski‘s life testifies to the nuances within our humanity: his WW2 work to help the Allies was followed by a visit to Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the bombings – which led to his resignation from military work. Maybe we cannot all have such a life-changing epiphany, but it may be useful to ponder the words of atheist (and I suspect Humanist) J. Michael Straczynski: “Understanding is a three edged sword: your side, their side, and the truth.” Do we have the empathy, humility and wisdom to be peacemakers? We always have choices. When we wage war, will it be a torrent of merciless destruction and carnage, or will it be an affirming, activist fight for a better world?

Traditionally, it has been seen as a fundamental challenge to understand the metaphor behind the ancient myth of sampling from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Which fruit do we eat? Is it tasty or toxic? And yet, we are millennia evolved beyond such ancient mythologies, and we must seek to find universal human truths within and beyond their purview. In our secular world, we must move beyond a simplistic religious binary of absolute good versus absolute evil, and learn instead to embrace the absolute human.

© 2020 Geoff Allshorn

One Giant Leap

“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower 
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand 
And Eternity in an hour…”
‘Auguries of Innocence’ by William Blake.

In commemoration of the 51st anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing, 21 July 2020

NASA PhotoApollo 11 Crew, Wikimedia Commons (NASA Photo)

Fifty-one years ago today, I glimpsed transcendence. On 21 July 1969 (Australia time), Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped out of the Apollo 11 ‘Eagle’ lunar module and became the first men to walk on another world – and I was an eye witness (via television).

I was eight years old, sitting cross-legged on the floor of my school library, watching a small black-and-white television set that had been placed on a stand in the library corner. The room was full of giggling, chattering school kids, and ringed with a wall of teachers who exchanged nervous glances upon realising that the assembled throng of young schoolchildren did not have the collective attention span to fully understand or absorb the significance of what they were watching.

Momentarily annoyed at the attention deficit of my peers, I sat transfixed, and experienced the numinous. On that flickering screen, I saw our world in a pixel, saw the cosmos spread before us like the symbolic potential of the human ability to dream and flower into something greater. The small screen held infinite vistas of both the cosmos and the potential of our human ability to conquer our challenges.

Within maybe an hour or so, my teachers called off this television excursion due to the inability of many students to sit quietly – but in that hour, I glimpsed eternity.

I think that my life was never quite the same again. Even at that young age, I realised that we as a species may struggle with wars and famines and poverty and injustice, but we had proved that we could literally reach the Moon if we aimed high enough and hard enough. Our outer imperfections belie our inner nobility. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, we may have our feet in the debasement of mundane life, but we can glimpse the glories of the cosmos.

Let us never forget the difference between two profound human journeys: one near the Awash River in Ethiopia, and the other in the Sea of Tranquility on the Moon. On that first journey, our possible ancestor, Lucy, likely fell and met her death just over three million years ago as she somehow tried to cross a small gully at Hadar, Ethiopia; her fossilised bones record both her existence and our long ancestral legacy. On the second journey, in 1969 – within living human memory – encultured apes demonstrated their progress in surviving and evolving, via technology and resilience, enabling them to cross vast and dangerous celestial distances and visit an alien world, thereby foreshadowing a promising potential future for a spacefaring species. In walking on the dusts of the Sea of Tranquility, humankind forever replaced the stuff of Biblical myths and legends with the assurance of science: we were capable of walking on a different kind of water.

We have not returned to the Moon since 1972, and an entire generation of humans has grown up lacking the personal excitement of watching a lunar landing. However, those old lunar missions, and the space program generally, spearheaded a scientific, aerospace and engineering revolution that has changed our world – from computers and iPhones to satellite communication and global village technology; from heart pacemakers to CAT scanners and agricultural satellite imagery. Project Apollo was replaced with NASA’s Mission to Planet Earth – and that mission continues.

But Houston, we have a problem. The heights we have reached also reveal how far we have fallen.

Last year, I visited a certain public library, and sought the assistance of a young librarian to find microfilm copies of the newspapers from July 1969 as a preparation for the fiftieth anniversary of the first Moon landing. When she saw the headlines that I was seeking – ‘Man Walks On Moon’ – she glanced at me covertly and whispered conspiratorially, “Do you think we really went there?” Around that same time, in a more private forum, a personal associate conversationally suggested to me that people had never even been into space, and that any scientific evidence I could produce to rebut his claim was merely a matter of opinion. I was disappointed that both these people failed to understand the difference between an uninformed (or misinformed) opinion and one that is based upon informed evidence and/or actual expertise. But I also realised that more sinister overtones were present.

Moon hoax conspiracies are just one symptom of modern-day science denialism, ranging from vaccination to fluoridation, from Flat Earthers to ‘birthers’. This is a profoundly ironic response from a scientifically-illiterate generation that benefits from the most scientifically advanced prosperity in history. How sad that so many people enjoy keyboard access to literally the world’s vast store of knowledge, and yet remain so ignorant of one of humanity’s greatest scientific achievements. How sad that their individual world-view is so impoverished that they reject the grandeur of rational scientific and human advancement. And how sad that their human connection fails to appreciate that their scientific grandparents reached the Moon without the Internet, GPS, or even the computing power of modern-day mobile phones.

We live in a pandemic of misinformation, when uninformed personal opinion and science denialism are on the ascendancy. The COVID-19 epidemic demonstrates how such cultural narcissism may be potentially lethal. And yet, amidst this self-fulfilling cultural worship of mediocrity, we still have the potential to rise above our weaknesses. Oscar Wilde’s previously-alluded quote: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars”, reminds us that we make a conscious choice every day whether or not to rise above our personal circumstances. Internet correspondent Vatika Harlalka raises a commendable interpretation of Wilde’s words: “Those who look at the stars know that there is a world outside of their sadness and wish to make efforts to reach it.”

Human beings are capable of great things. Without alien intervention, ancient human societies built pyramids and cities. Without the alleged morality of divine intervention, slavery and racial segregation were officially abolished, and women and LGBT people have been increasingly assigned equal rights (although these tasks are not yet complete). Similarly, without human conspiratorial agency, people went to the Moon and returned safely. It is time for humankind to acknowledge its potential for greatness alongside its many weaknesses, and make conscious decisions as to which paths we will emulate and walk. Through the application of science and rationality, Tranquility may not only be a lunar location, but it may prove to be our spiritual human destination as well.

I long to see humanist, scientific and freethought publications promote the histories and legacies of the space program, and of science, and thereby inspire younger generations with the stories and glories of the human spirit and its accomplishments. We need to go tell it on the mountain and in the valleys; in text and tweet and social media, in jottings and in journals. And every time we see the Moon, we should acknowledge the majesty of belonging to a species that has actually visited its sun-baked plains, and scooped and sampled its sterile soils. What awaits us next?

When we return to the Moon, as one day we must, it will hopefully be as a more enlightened, optimistic, scientifically literate, educated, rational species. Lucy and her people could only look up at the Moon in the curiosity borne of their still-to-be-fully-realised self-potential. Maybe her distant lunar descendants will return the gaze by looking back at the Earthrise above their lunar travel pods, and ponder the thousands of generations of scientists who separate them from their wandering African ancestor. From Ethiopia to Earthrise – that’s quite a journey.

© 2020 Geoff Allshorn

Vegetarian Food For Thought

“The notion that human life is sacred just because it is human life is medieval.”
Peter Singer

Photo by Max Stromfeld on Unsplash

Recent controversy has raged over the destruction or removal of public statues which honoured people who had been slave owners. Similar discussion has also taken place over the recent removal of some television content that has been similarly judged as being racially insensitive or inappropriate. In response, one comment in my Facebook feed cynically suggested that in maybe a few years’ time, protesters might remove all statues or other cultural reminders of everyone who was not vegetarian.

Wow, what a brilliant idea. Societies change; cultures change. Even children’s books are rewritten and updated – sometimes controversially.

Of course, banning statues or cultural relics of every meat eater in history would certainly exclude a lot of people, but I think the question of relegating carnivores to the same status as other retrospectively-diagnosed villains would not be inconsistent with our changing recognition of ourselves as animals in a natural and limited biosphere. Recent discoveries, such as anthropological evidence which challenges our long-held understandings of meat-eating human forebears, also challenges our cultural meat worship. UK actor, comedian and writer David Mitchell points out: “It’s not uncommon, in the history of human societies, for things once deemed normal to start being deemed wrong.… Maybe all these vegans are harbingers of such a change.” New Zealand certainly seems to think so – having passed animal welfare legislation in 2015.

As someone who is not vegetarian myself (at least not yet) I think that evolution towards a vegetarian society would be a natural and logical progression. Why? Because I believe, as a humanist, that if we are to continue to progress as a species, we must forever expand our circle of empathy and altriusm, continuing our evolution away from violence.

Some propose that humanism is an inadequate philosophy for such radical change, because it focuses primarily on human values and intellect, and appears to promote speciesism by excluding the welfare of other life forms. Others suggest that humanism does not exclude other perspectives but simply focuses upon the human experience and intellect because that is our primary means of deduction. Humanism, in this instance, is more a rejection of supernatural theism and an implicit endorsement of sentientism, which includes the welfare of other living things.

While some humanists may propose that veganism is consistent – indeed, arguably mandatory – for people who follow humanist principles or who are concerned for agricultural or environmental sustainability; others may argue for a less stringent ethical stance such as vegetarianism.

“Peace is not just the absence of war. It is the presence of Justice.
Justice must be blind to race, colour, religion or species.”
Philip Wollen

I recently attended a Humanists Victoria virtual meeting at which the speaker was Philip Wollen, an Australian whose name should be known in every household. A former merchant banker, he has spent many years promoting philanthropy and supporting NGOs. It is most likely his work for animal rights for which he may deservedly be best known. He has delivered powerful presentations in favour of vegetarianism and an affirmation of life rights:  “In their capacity to suffer, a dog is a pig is a bear … is a boy.”

Wollen has previously argued that vegetarianism is a moral issue that also impacts upon humanity’s ability to feed itself due to the appalling waste of resources it takes to cultivate animals for slaughter: ‘Make no mistake about it. Every morsel of meat we eat is slapping the tear-stained face of a hungry child.’

‘Animals Should Be Off The Menu’, Philip Wollen addresses the St James Ethics and the Wheeler Centre debate, Kindness Trust channel, YouTube.

I find Wollen’s arguments, his eloquence and his convictions to be somewhat compelling. I offer no final conclusions here, just a discussion in progress. Continued food for thought is welcomed.

© 2020 Geoff Allshorn

Wish Upon A Starfish

“We humanize what is going on in the world and in ourselves only by speaking of it, and in the course of speaking of it we learn to be human.”
― Hannah Arendt, Men in Dark Times

As Melbourne, Australia, enters its second COVID lockdown in four months, we must be thankful for our (currently) relatively low numbers of cases, and for our collective socioeconomic resilience. Many people in many nations do not have such safety nets.

During this world crisis, many of our normal activities have paused or stopped altogether. Our lives and world have changed – but there are more issues at stake than whether or not we have hoarded sufficient toilet paper, or intend to use our home isolation time to catch up on episodes of our favourite TV program.

As individuals, much of our human identity comes from our activities, our professions, our families or other relationships, etc. What happens when those jobs and roles get upended by a virus that makes normal life impossible? How can we remain authentic to who we are and what we uphold? How can we each make a difference? That is surely up to each of us to decide: according to our personal circumstances, opportunities and difficulties – and mostly, according to our conscience. A large part of our personal humanity surely comes from being true to ourselves and to our greater human family around us.

We should be mindful of the modern axiom, courtesy of US writer Dan Greany, that,’a noble spirit embiggens the smallest man’. Simultaneously, we should recognise that humans work best when working together.

Photo by Perry Grone on Unsplash

While we must recognise that science has not fulfilled its promise as an onward march toward perfection, we must plan ahead with an optimism that is calculated, informed and measured. Nihilist existential defeatism suggests we cannot solve all the world’s problems and therefore we should not try, but we defiantly remain optimistic because we choose to be. In reality, we can make a difference in our particular little corner – wherever that may be, geographically or philosophically. Perhaps Loren Eisley‘s famous and often unattributed Starfish story can guide us, asserting that we can only ‘make a difference’ one problem at a time. We must each decide for ourselves how best to address that conundrum, and perhaps learn how to multitask.

In this era of COVID-19, some newspapers and politicians prioritize economic recovery, but Humanists understand that all human activity – including the economy – is surely a means to an end. We need to ensure that human and environmental welfare remain paramount.

Coping with the current crisis means meeting its challenges and, beyond that, asking what we can change in order to minimise such disasters in the future. This must include tackling injustice and inequity in the world – anything that exposes humanity to pandemics and other disasters, especially for those who are most vulnerable.

I do not want to see society return to ‘normal’ after this crisis is over. I want to see society improve. COVID-19 has exposed the many inequalities and injustices across our world, and has made them worse: poverty; inadequate housing, employment and income security, food security and access to safe drinking water; insufficient health care; poor world governance and environmental protections – and so much more. There are many types of poverty, including: financial, educational, intellectual, emotional, moral, social, aspirational, even poverty of equality and justice and employment and opportunity. Let’s see those politicians who currently prioritise economic recovery also address these many other broken economies that COVID-19 has highlighted.

Around the world, COVID is like a world war, inflicting and aggravating those inequalities that already exist. Will we individually and collectively ignore those problems, or do something about them? Eldridge Cleaver is attributed with telling us most famously that, ‘There is no more neutrality in the world. You either have to be part of the solution, or you’re going to be part of the problem.’

While pondering the calamity of COVID, we should be mindful of the words of Humanist Fred Edwords: ‘Calamities destroy the promise usually because we concentrate on what we have lost instead of letting the misfortune simply focus our pursuits in a new direction.’ Rather than bewail lost opportunities, we must find new solutions for new problems. Carl Sagan spoke of alien invasion as possibly the only common foe that could unite all of humanity (Billions and Billions, New York: Ballantine, 1997, p. 181). Our current coronavirus crisis is one opportunity to prove him wrong.

We can create hopeful, humanitarian times ahead. International Humanist Andrew Copson points out that despite occasional setbacks, the history of human society has always been towards progress and social evolution; while local Australian Humanist Murray Love points to such a future though compassionate humanist interactions: ‘Humanists understand how natural human compassion, and our own intelligent thinking, get us through the dark times, and can take our children on to a bright future.’

Let’s make it so.

© 2020 Geoff Allshorn

Honouring Refugees

“A refugee is someone who has survived and who has a tremendous will to create a future.” – Amela Koluder

For World Refugee Day, 20 June 2020

Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

In January 2020, the Australian media showed us images of navy ships rescuing Australian bushfire refugees who had been forced to flee by boat. In a nation that has spent years vilifying refugees as ‘boat people’, it seems surprising that Australian media commentators failed to grasp the universality of the refugee experience.

It has been said that Australians tend to lack empathy for others who are from outside their own personal experience, whether homeless people or Syrian refugees. Our relatively affluent, comfortable existence divorces us from collective experiences of war, catastrophic natural disaster, or some other unforeseen intolerable hardship that might create large numbers of refugees. The scope of such a forced mass migration seems unimaginable to us. Yet the UNHCR reports that of the 70 million displaced people in the world today, nearly 26 million people are recognised as being refugees. Amnesty International Australia reports that the world urgently needs to create a new, global plan for refugees based on a meaningful and fair sharing of responsibilities, and that affluent nations are not doing their fair share.

How do we, as human beings, respond to the real-life plight of refugees? Our culture promotes the ideas that refugees are strangers and non-citizens within a world that so often equates human rights with citizenship. In a cross-cultural global acknowledgment of the shared humanity of strangers in our midst, even the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences declares its support of humanist principles: “The essence of humanism is recognizing oneself as another. This recognition should be extended to everyone and in particular to those who are suffering, such as refugees, both young and old.”

Education.

Life-long learning does not end when we walk our of our classrooms for the last time; indeed, the vast majority of our experiential life learning is probably just commencing at that point. As part of this learning, we need to expose ourselves to stories, cultures and lived experiences from others who are from outside our own existential bubble.

For adults, there are many books that provide a range of stories and testimonies across space and time, teaching us that the refugee experience did not start or end with World War Two. One example on this list is a shocking indictment of Australia’s own crimes against humanity regarding current refugees and asylum seekers. Children’s and adolescent literature portrays a wide variety of age-appropriate stories that make the refugee experience accessible and understandable to children of all ages.

In this relatively lucky but uninformed country, we must educate ourselves about others who are forced to flee their home countries because of their religion or non-religion, sexuality, nationality, cultural/ethnic grouping, gender or gender identity, and race. Many experience ongoing discrimination. Women and children (who comprise up to 80% of the world’s refugees) and LGBTQI refugees are among those who face heightened difficulties in their home countries, and within those refugee camps or host nations to which they might flee. How can we think of ourselves as fully human if we live in denial of such common human experiences? How can we call ourselves compassionate if we ignore this suffering? Humanism insists that personal liberty must be combined with social responsibility. 

Participation.

Given the onslaught of discriminatory messages against refugees in our mass media, and the nationalist ‘White Australia‘ tradition which still taints our religions and culture, we need to commit ourselves to starting and encouraging new conversations about migrants and refugees in our local communities.

Thinking locally may mean delivering education campaigns, undertaking practical activism, literally rolling up our sleeves and getting involved in the lives of our neighbours; and local community outreach, including grassroots upgrading of community services. It is far better to build bridges than walls – particularly because such benevolence is often reciprocated.

Dina Nayeri suggests that we have a moral obligation to create a welcoming society: “It is the obligation of every person born in a safer room to open the door when someone in danger knocks.” We would benefit from exploring what this means. Welcoming involves more than simply saying hello, and safety encompasses more than simply supplying a physical environment.

Innovation.

LOVE IN THE TIME OF COVID-19 is the title of both a safe-sex campaign and an artistic response to lockdown – and more. In a broader context, these words also suggest a humanist response to pandemic. Love can turn strangers into family. What does it really mean – to borrow a religious phrase – to love our neighbour? As human beings and humanitarians who claim to uphold common humanity, we need to remember that during the time of COVID-19, refugees face particular hardship. Any reasoned conversations about economic or social recovery after the pandemic must include recognition of, and solutions for, the problems faced by our human family in refugee populations and among others outside our geographic location. Human rights and human compassion do not start or end at a national border.

And yet Australia seems torn by competing ideologies. While our Parliament hypocritically proclaims that racism and discriminatory immigration policies are anathema, it continues to practice policies that arbitrarily detain and neglect refugees and asylum seekers. Nor is Australia alone in such hypocrisy. Following World War Two, the modern world community established the United Nations and its humanist precepts, typified by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Decades later, such inspiration and optimism have failed to come to full fruition. Denial of equal access to justice and the world’s resources has not only impoverished the poor but has ultimately adversely affected all of us. umair haque explains the ultimate cost of our collective world choice to not adequately help others:

…the world still hasn’t built global systems. Not a single one. We still don’t have a Human Healthcare System — and so of course pandemics erupt. We still don’t have a Worldwide Basic Income — and so of course the poor have to cause a mass extinction just to subsist. We still don’t have a Global Education Agency — and so of course authoritarianism and fascism spread like wildfire. We still don’t even have a Worldwide Climate Agency, Fund, Bank, or Mission — and so of course the rivers, oceans, and skies go on being charred…”

Such profound failure need not discourage us from the task. Oxfam reports that inequality is not inevitable – it is a political choice. We must create political will for change. Just as modern movements such as #MeToo and Climate Change protests and #BlackLivesMatter show that change can begin with grassroots activism, we need to call for a Universal Basic Income for all people, universal health coverage, universal food security, and other aims to ensure universal health, welfare and social prosperity.

Our ability to dream for a better, noble world offers redemption for ourselves, our human society, and for our planet. We should adopt such ideals as those within the Millennium Development Goals and the Sustainable Development Goals, and make these our philosophy and aspiration. Gandhi’s words challenge us today: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.” Changing the world begins with changing ourselves. We can embrace the old adage ‘The Personal Is Political‘ and embrace our role as agents of change.

World Refugee Day contains a subversive message: to change the world, we must accept the refugee as a role model: their courage, resilience and determination to hope for a better future against seemingly overwhelming odds. We must cast off all philosophies, attitudes and actions which ignore and exacerbate the sufferings of others. For too long, humanity has squandered its resources, its good will, and its potential. A better world requires the active involvement of better citizens, and that is who we must become. That is surely the ultimate form of humanism.

© 2020 Geoff Allshorn

A Candle in the Night

Life is not fair. Get used to it.

This statement is often mis-attributed to Bill Gates, but others have clarified that it was actually the words of Charles J Sykes in 1996. The idea has inspired much discussion and speculation. I prefer a more optimistic outlook:

Life is not fair. What can you do to make it better?

We must all face the fact that life is imperfect and that we have the opportunity to make this planet a secular version of heaven or hell. Sadly, we may often feel unsure about which side is winning.

According to Douglas Adams and John Lloyd, The Meaning of Liff is an opportunity to redefine any number of words. For example, although ‘Gallipoli’ is revered in Australian culture as a place of heroism amidst a failed military campaign, in Liff parlance it refers to when something becomes ‘loose, floppy, useless’. Thus Adams and Lloyd provide us with an opportunity to redefine meanings in our lives for things which are meant to be significant but which may lack genuine import.

The same might be said of life itself. Every day, we must prioritise what is important and worth our limited time and effort.

As children, we are born into a world that seems full of things that are deeply meaningful and significant, and we stare in awe at the apparently mystical adult understanding of such things. As we mature, we come to realise that almost everything that we previously saw as being immutable and earth-shatteringly important is, in fact, largely open to reinterpretation and worth downgrading to the status of insignificant piffle. It is a common human revelation that reality rarely lives up to our optimistic expectations; our days rarely match our dreams.

When pondering the reduced importance of most of our everyday trifles, the more cynical among us might include such things as a child’s hero worship of their parents; their belief in Santa Claus, fairies, or divine predestination; and our naive adult conviction that politicians are noble and exemplary leaders. But as we mature, we do not need to lose our ability to seek the magical among the mundane – not literal magic and supernatural hocus pocus, but our sense of wonder and awe, our tendency to find transcendence and significance in our lives. Our parents remain our parents even if, as adults, we come to see them more as human than as superheroes; our gritty reality under the stairs of life can, like that of Harry Potter, still be full of potential for magical transformation and empowerment. Our human ability to retain a childlike sense of optimism and wonder is a strength, not a weakness, and we should cherish it as being indicative of our nobility, our idealism, and our desire to grow and create a better reality. The world around us may not live up to our expectations, but that should not stop us from being the best person that we can be under whatever circumstances we find ourselves.

The gaining of wisdom is surely the ability to outgrow outdated ideas, while holding onto those other older understandings that make our lives special, measured, and compassionate. In the 2005 comedy film, Adam & Steve, two men become reacquainted after many years apart. One of them speaks of being ‘damaged’ in that life has been hard on them and their ideals. The other insists, “We’re in our thirties. Of course we’re damaged.” This allusion to the common loss of youthful idealism becomes an example of mature life wisdom when one of their fathers suggests that it can lead to positive growth: “Happiness is accepting life on life’s terms, no matter what they happen to be. You just do your best with what you’ve been given.”

Oscar Wilde experienced difficulties in his own life, but his words: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars”, suggest that optimism is a willful choice. This leads us to consider the idea that the meaning of life, of our life, is that which we choose to give it. Life is its own purpose. Even religious people who assert some divine or preordained meaning in existence, will readily admit that we must still each find meaning for ourselves. It is especially during times of darkness that our determination to be kind is most challenged, and most important. That is a form of personal autonomy that we should appreciate, nurture and celebrate.

This month offers possibly a good example of the symbolic potential within such perspectives. World Refugee Day takes place on June 20, a day in which we acknowledge the lives, dignity and humanity of some of the world’s most forgotten people, and we ponder our moral responsibility to help those who have less than ourselves. The very next day, June 21 is World Humanist Day, when we acknowledge the potential for humanity and the ideals of secular humanism as found in the Amsterdam Declaration. June 21 is also the winter solstice in the southern hemisphere, the shortest day of the year, with coldness and darkness enveloping our world in much the same way as today’s pandemic and economic uncertainty. This timing challenges us to ponder a response that we can take forward every day of the year. In times of darkness, do we fight to uphold compassion, and commit ourselves to human advancement?

Alongside the abovenamed declaration, Amsterdam also holds another claim to such optimism. Anne Frank will also be forever linked with the city during a dark period of world history. She showed a defiant spirit against the nihilism of her times, and wrote of the power of the individual against seemingly insurmountable odds: ‘Look at how a single candle can both defy and define the darkness.’ Her words evoke what was, for me, an expression that inspired many years of human rights activism: it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. Despite the ugliness in her wartime life, young Anne maintained a sense of positive admiration for the world: “Think of all the beauty still left around you and be happy.”

While finding beauty in the world around us, and in our night-time skies, we can gain a larger perspective. Douglas Adams once declared the obvious: that space is big. Amidst such immensity, it may seem easy to feel insignificant. Scientist Carl Sagan once suggested that: “The universe is a pretty big place. If it’s just us, seems like an awful waste of space.” For aeons, people have looked to the skies for companionship, whether seeking a pantheon of supernatural gods or a population of spooky aliens. Are we alone? The answer is right here, on Earth, where we are surrounded by billions of life forms, some of which are familiar and some are effectively alien – but we are all related through DNA. Even our own bodies contain multitudes. Beyond our planetary biosphere, we do not know whether life is common throughout the cosmos, or whether we may be alone. Either way, the sheer vastness of space makes life special.

What is the point of it all? Ultimately, might nihilism be seen as the ultimate in scientific reductionism: reducing life to meaninglessness? Carl Sagan would disagree. He spoke eloquently and inspirationally of our place in the cosmos. Like Anne Frank, he saw beauty within the tender candle in the dark. Amidst our seeming cosmic insignificance on this pale blue dot, he asserted, we can discover awe, wonder and beauty if we consider a bigger perspective.

Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot OFFICIAL
Passage written by Carl Sagan for the book Pale Blue Dot published by Random House, ©1994 Democritus Properties, LLC carlsagandotcom channel, YouTube.

The Pale Blue Dot promises that even when we feel overwhelmed and overpowered by situations and vistas beyond our control, we can still find grandeur in our humanity: “To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

The Universe is a grand place, and we are a part of it. Let’s make our time count.

© 2020 Geoff Allshorn

In Search of Heroes

Heroes are ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances,
and extraordinary people in ordinary circumstances.

Some years ago, as a teacher, I held a class in which I asked some young people to explain who were their heroes. A surprising number of these kids argued passionately that their parents or older siblings were heroes because of their tireless work to help family and others in their immediate community. While it may seem easy to dismiss such an insular view, I actually think that a child’s perspective can be quite profound. They saw past the cliché and recognised that being a hero doesn’t require fighting, wearing a cape or being a crime fighter. They instinctively understood a more universal human truth:

Heroes are those who act sacrificially for the betterment and welfare of those within our extended human family.

Children, it might be argued, see heroism (as they see many things) in its most simplistic form. Ethicist Peter Singer explores how humans, as social animals, initially see their world as family and kinfolk, and then expand their awareness of, and empathy for, others, in an expanding circle of ethics and altriusm. Perhaps heroes are those who can see this circle at its broadest.

Heroes can be first responders, scientists, and medical workers. They can be life rights activists and environmental activists. Ordinary or marginalised people can become heroes, including those whose contribution is often overlooked. Heroes can be teachers in Grimsby, UK and Kasese Humanist School in Uganda, or students in Ontario, Chicago and Mingora (Pakistan). The list is almost endless.

It has even been suggested that a folklorist whose exploration of the literary Hero’s Journey across time and culture (expanding upon the Hero Pattern to which I have referred in a recent blog post) is himself a hero.

To have heroes is to be human. My personal heroes include scientists and astronauts who inspire us to aim for new discoveries and knowledge; and artists, musicians and authors who stimulate our imaginations and challenge us to catch their visions for intellectual, aesthetic or social betterment. My human rights heroes include refugees and refugee activists around the world, who battle incredible adversity in their lives and who often face indifference or bigotry from others.

Another hero of mine is a personal friend, a Holocaust survivor, and a tireless worker for human rights and humanist ideals. Her decades of activism are as much a testimony to her principles as are the recollections within her autobiography, in which she summarises the noblest of heroic motivations in a world beset with problems: “Love lights this place up. Without love, it would be dark and cold here.” (The Testimony, Melbourne: Hardie Grant Books, 2012, p. 200).

Why do we have heroes? Heroes provide an optimal human template. While dictionary definitions vary as much as cultural stereotypes, heroes are ubiquitous, so it seems that the heroic essence is an ineffable human quality within us all, most obviously involving altruism but also extending beyond that into what psychologist Philip Zimbardo explores as heroic imagination. Both individually and collectively, we align our inspiration, aspiration and perspiration towards our heroes and the values they represent.

I would suggest the following as a preliminary list of values to which humanist heroes align:

Heroes take lemons and make lemonade. They work to bring the best results out of bad circumstances and human weaknesses. Even our symbolic cultural superheroes are flawed: Achilles forgot to wear protective footwear; Pandora was overly curious; Superman had his kryptonite. Despite whatever difficulties they experience, real-life heroes aspire to be the best people that they can be, and they create opportunities for others to do the same. Heroes are role models and mentors because they lead by example.

Heroes are activists who intervene to change a course of events. This is perhaps why many people are attracted to the nobility of heroism while simultaneously being resistant to its personal cost: heroes make the sacrifices that are necessary in order to change the world. Do we dare to join them?

Heroes inspire our cultures and mythologies. Some of my own earliest childhood memories include the excitement of Thunderbirds, a popular 1960s children’s puppet television series in which the heroes of International Rescue saved people from all kinds of disasters. Thunderbirds may have introduced many youngsters to the humanist concept of offering practical, hands-on help to others because we have the capacity and responsibility to do so.

Heroes have the potential to help not only others but also themselves. Peter Singer suggests that altruism and benevolent actions enrich the giver as well as the recipient: ‘For millennia, wise people have said that doing good things brings fulfillment’ (The Life You Can Save, New York: Random House, 2009, p. 171). Heroes change people’s lives – including their own.

Being a hero is more than doing a good deed; it is a lifestyle choice. The most radical challenge of heroism is that it ultimately moves beyond the individual, and redefines being human as a collective and communal experience – a noble aspiration for animals such as ourselves who form communities. While some people seek the existential meaning of life, heroes live it, demonstrating that our noblest legacy is to leave behind a world that is better for our having been in it.

Everyone can be a hero – if we have the courage to change ourselves and our world.

© 2020 Geoff Allshorn

Take the Red Pill?

Artist: Miriam English

It is over twenty years since the science fiction film, The Matrix burst onto our screens and most famously introduced possibly millions of viewers to philosophical ideas such as Simulation Theory and the potential dangers of unregulated technological advancement. Are we living inside a computer simulation?

Perhaps the most famous scene in the movie involved the lead character having to choose between taking a blue pill, which would allow him to continue living in a blissfully unaware fantasy state, or a red pill, which would wake him up to whatever harsh reality actually existed in his real world.

This metaphor has apparently been adopted by elements of cyberculture, with one usage of the urban slang term, ‘red pill’ meaning ‘a waking up from a ‘normal’ life of sloth and ignorance’ and choosing the hard road – facing authentic life, warts and all.

By contrast, ethicist Jessica Baron suggests that the western world has been choosing the blue pill – blissful ignorance of the world’s problems:

“Our creature comforts are too nice, too necessary (at least we believe) to give up, and we’ve proved over and over again that we’re unwilling to do so, even if it makes the world safer or fairer for other people.” 

Perhaps the era of COVID is a good wake-up call. While some entitled people in certain western nations bewail home isolation and an inability to get a haircut, others in developing nations live in more severe conditions, where they lack even the most basic food, shelter or medical facilities. Like many other plagues down through history, COVID will undoubtedly prove to be predominantly an affliction of the poor. While world inequity provides opportunities for COVID to linger in poor communities, the virus will remain a threat to us all. If morality is insufficient to motivate us to the task, then surely enlightened self-interest should compel the world to confront such inequality.

It may be time for our culture to get redpilled out of our complacency. Let’s use the era of COVID as an opportunity to change the world for the better.

© 2020 Geoff Allshorn

From Omelas to Optimists

Binary Takeoff,
art by Ditmar (Dick Jenssen).

Science fiction is a popular form of film and literature, which often combines allegory and archetypes, myth and metaphor. A modern-day secular reworking of ancient mystical or religious archetypes – from Hercules to Harry Potter, from King Arthur to Katniss Everdeen – the lives of modern science fictional heroes echo across time and culture. Superman, Luke Skywalker and Harley Quinn reboot the ancient Rank-Raglan Hero Pattern, and their alien territories evoke unknown places on ye olde maps that were once marked, ‘Here There Be Dragons’.

Amidst this diversity of creativity and counterpoint, Ursula Le Guin was a famous twentieth century science fiction and fantasy author who was perhaps best known for ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’, a story that explores themes of both feminism and non-binary gender identities. In 1973, she wrote a short story entitled, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. In the ‘Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature’ lecture series, Professor Pamela Bedore examines Le Guin’s latter story as an example of both an aspirational tale and a warning of a future to avoid:

Imagine a perfect society, where everyone has their needs met, and life appears obliviously joyous and carefree. But this society has a hidden secret: in some strange, inexplicable way, their happiness is predicated upon the suffering of a small child who is locked in a basement. Even utopia has its price.

To me, this story evokes the paradox of modern Australian society, self-proclaimed bastion of egalitarianism and land of a ‘fair go’, in which we overlook the disadvantage of indigenous Australians, callously lock away refugees and asylum seekers, and largely ignore the plight of homeless, unemployed and disempowered people.

Extending the Omelas metaphor even further, we can see that affluent nations gain much of their wealth and privilege through the exploitation and suffering of other human beings in developing nations, and from exploiting our environment. Are we really enlightened as a species? What can we do to abolish such inequality?

We can act, but first we have to dare to dream. One popular science fiction genre is the Star Trek franchise, created by Humanist Gene Roddenberry, in which his original vision was a galaxy filled with noble creatures, and a future free from war, famine, plague and inequality. Roddenberry challenged us to ‘Make It So’. The possibility of a better world ennobles those who undertake such a quest.

Science fiction, like much of our popular culture, is often dystopian in nature. In reel life, as in real life, we must choose our adventures and our heroes.

© 2020 Geoff Allshorn

It Gets Better

Gilbert Baker’s Rainbow Flag design, rendered by Guanaco et al, CCO 1.0

US 2013 Humanist of the Year, Dan Savage, is perhaps best known for his adult advice column. But his major contribution to humanity may be his LGBT activism, particularly the It Gets Better Project, founded in 2010 as a response to anti-LGBT bullying. Savage had hoped that 100 people might contribute videos in support of young LGBT people; but within weeks he had received thousands of videos, including one from then-President Barack Obama.  Kevin Rudd and NASA also offered support.

Such is the power of humanism: finding common humanity and offering compassion and uncompromising support where it is most needed.

A humanist perspective can be life-changing. NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, whose year in space allowed scientists to investigate the long-term effects of spaceflight, as measured against his Earth-bound twin brother; has spoken about how a cosmic perspective can create awareness of environmental and humanist ideals.

As we experience the COVID-19 crisis, we have the opportunity to apply such principles and remould Australian Humanism into a twenty-first century powerhouse – and beyond that, to determine what sort of future world we wish to create.

© 2020 Geoff Allshorn

Pandemic ≠ Panic

“An atheist believes that a hospital should be built instead of a church. An atheist believes that deed must be done instead of prayer said. An atheist strives for involvement in life and not escape into death. He wants disease conquered, poverty vanquished, war eliminated.”
– Madalyn Murray O’Hair.

Photo of Madalyn Murray O’Hair. 1983 at Robert Ingersoll statue, Peoria, Illinois. photo by Alan Light, CC BY 2.0

We live at a time when our normal human activities have been upended.

Many people around the world seek consolation within their places of worship, in defiance of social isolation mandates, and thereby become vulnerable to potential infection. Affluent nations close their borders and their hearts to the sufferings of people in less affluent nations, who will undoubtedly endure a disproportionate impact of the virus as it sweeps the world.

Humanists can take this as an opportunity.

As people who defer to medical science and trust that a way forward can best be sought through evidentiary inquiry, our rationality must also be tempered with compassion. This is a time of coming together, assisting those within our communities. Phone calls and other electronic communications are ways through which we can keep in touch. There may even be avenues of practical action (within the confines of social isolation) where we can help ourselves and others.

Our local and global communities equally deserve our consideration.

Atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair is sometimes referred to as the ‘most hated woman in America‘ because she dared to agitate for the US separation of church and state. Rather than deferring to thoughts and prayers, her principles of pragmatic activism (as expressed in the quote above) demonstrate values to which Humanists can subscribe.

We remain part of the human family, and we have the responsibility to come up with solutions that can help to change our world.

© 2020 Geoff Allshorn