Photograph: Moon from Mansfield (c) 2020 by Kirsten Trecento
Here is a filk song celebrating the grandeur of science, knowledge, and critical thinking.
To be sung to the tune of Holy Holy Holy*
(*With acknowledgement to Reginald Heber and ‘Nicaea’ John Bacchus Dykes)
Wholly, wholly, wholly,
Wholly and completely,
Are we evolving
And our society.
Wholly, wholly, wholly,
Totally and freely,
Seeking new truths
And new reality.
Wholly, wholly, wholly,
Should be our reliance
On the word of reason
And not of bigotry.
Wholly, wholly, wholly,
Is our trust in science.
Not in religion
Wholly, wholly, wholly,
Life can educate me,
Though the eye of simple man
Its glory may not see;
Only thinking wholly
Fully can empower me,
Loving the world
and all humanity.
Wholly, wholly, wholly,
Looking to the future,
Leave the past behind us
With all its faults and crimes.
Only wisdom wholly
Promises and guides us.
Our future beckons,
Hope for better times.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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’.”
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.
For International Day of Charity, 5 September 2020
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
How does this relate to queer people? Some 57% of same-sex couples reported having ‘no religion’ (ABS, 2016b), 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?
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?
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.
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.
Note that the ‘religion’ question was optional in the 2016 Census; consequently, the percentage results do not total 100%.
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.
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:—
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.
“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
Apollo 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.
“The notion that human life is sacred just because it is human life is medieval.”
― Peter Singer
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.
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.
I think we owe Jesus the honour of separating his genuinely original and radical ethics from the supernatural nonsense that he inevitably espoused as a man of his time.” – Richard Dawkins, Science in the Soul, p. 279.
It may come as a surprise that Richard Dawkins has not only written about Jesus, but has done so respectfully, upholding Jesus as a potential role model for us all.
Dawkins does not explore in any great detail the question of whether or not Jesus was an actual historical figure, and he certainly dismisses the mythological aspects of virgin births and other miracles that violate known physical laws. But he also acknowledges what he calls the superniceness of a man whose teachings, whether real, fictional or mythological, stand in apparent contradiction to Darwinism (and in contradiction to religious organisations that amass great wealth or who foster ‘epidemics of evangelism’).
Of course, Dawkins’ analogy becomes strained when pondering the reality that Jesus’ teachings were not without their shortcomings. Nor were his ideas unique – many other philosophies and religions have echoed similar doctrines of benevolence and optimism, and similarly failed to deliver. This includes the failure that Carl Sagan assigns to science: ‘Many of us [scientists] didn’t even bother to think about the long-term consequences of our inventions… In too many cases, we have lacked a moral compass.’ (Billions and Billions, New York: Ballantine, 1997, p. 164).
Perhaps part of our role as Humanists is to raise a voice, and take an ethical stand in a secular world that seeks principles. In line with Dawkins’ idea, I have heard it said that Humanism is, “Christianity without Christ”. If this is true, I wonder if we align more closely with liberation theology (liberation for the poor and oppressed) than with prosperity theology (faith aligned with prosperity). Inverting the “Christians without Christ” concept, was Jesus actually a Humanist despite his veneer of pre-scientific religion?
As atheists and Humanists, perhaps we should ponder Richard Dawkins’ words to consider superniceness as something that we can learn from alleged religious principles. Not only would this help create a nicer world, but it may also build a bridge between us and religious progressives.
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.
“You cannot hope to build a better world without improving the individuals. To that end, each of us must work for our own improvement and, at the same time, share a general responsibility for all humanity.”
Via the above quote, Jennifer Bardi at The Humanist identifies Marie Curie’s atheism as aligning with humanist values. Curie is one of many women whom we should be proud to claim within our movement.
There are many sources discussing Marie Curie’s secular life and views. The Openly Secularwebsite states that she was either atheist or agnostic, while the Freedom from Religion Foundationreports that her whole family self-identified as Rationalist. Humanists UKeven reports that Marie and Pierre’s wedding was a secular occasion.
Marie Curie serves as a humanist hero and role model, both for her scientific achievements and for her freethought views. Her words can even empower and comfort us during this era of coronavirus:
“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood.
Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”
Another writer for The Humanist, Krista Cox, asks why women like Marie Curie appear to be largely written out of the predominantly male narrative that so often accompanies atheism and secularism. She notes the humanism of women including Gloria Steinem,Eleanor Smeal, and Mathilde Krim. The fact that such activists and humanist heroes may remain somewhat unknown to fellow humanists – and to the world at large – reveals how vast is the problem.
“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.
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.