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.
(NASA Photo: M81 is a spiral galaxy about 12 million light years away that is both relatively large in the sky and bright, making it a frequent target for both amateur and professional astronomers. Image credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO; Optical: Detlef Hartmann; Infrared: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
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.
When living through a difficult moment in history,
we have an obligation to survive and succeed.
As each new day dawns, we sweep away the cobwebs of yesterday and begin anew. Every sunrise is the promise of a new beginning, a fresh start, a chance for renewal and the dawn of a new day. But before each dawn, there must be the darkness of night – such as our journey through 2020.
It may seem self-evident to suggest that we are living in a moment of history. After all, every point in time is technically a moment in history, and very few of our days ever ordinarily suggest themselves as being anything beyond the usual. There are some moments, however, when we intuitively understand that our world is changing before our eyes: turning points like the Apollo Moon landings, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Beijing Massacre, and the September 11 attacks. Those of us old enough to remember these particular events were eye witnesses – and participants – in history.
But what of the betwixt and between? What of days which we might consider to be everyday, ordinary, or mundane? We tend to think of history as a succession of singular, significant events that crash into our lives like the waves of a high tide assailing the seashore. But history is also the gentle, quiet retreat of those same waves as the tide recedes in between its regular bursts of fury.
While it is easy to see the progression of history as the unfolding of one significant event after another… after another… perhaps such events are merely signposts along the way in a larger, longer continuum of perpetual cause and effect. History, like evolution, unfolds at its own glacial pace and often passes unnoticed during what, in hindsight, may prove to be significant eras of transition.
In the year 2020, is the arrival of pandemic a defining moment of our history? Perhaps it is, or maybe it is instead simply one of those betwixt moments, an agent of transition from an old world into a new one. It was only a matter of time before COVID-19 or some other (possibly more lethal) pathogen cast its eclipse over our landscape. The sun has set on our prior life, the human society we knew back in January 2020 is gone forever, and the creeping darkness is stealing many of our good people. We must each be careful not to get swept away in the tsunami of history, but contribute instead to the formation of a breakwater.
Humans tend to associate night-time with crepuscular, nocturnal, and cathemeral animals; sinister, supernatural imaginings; predators and dangers, and omens of eternal night – a silent, stalking world. Yet in reality, the night is also full of wondrous and active creatures: cats, dogs, wallabies and wombats, possums, owls, bats, hares, moths and insects, and many others. The world comes alive between dusk and dawn, filled with noise and colour and activities. Only humans and our ilk, with our nocturnal sensitivities and locked into our diurnal biology, would presume that night is a foreboding time. For much of the world, it is a time of frantic feeding and reproducing, enthusiastic calling and chattering and listening, carefree running and jumping and flying and leaping, happily awakening and refreshing and renewing. Like the daytime and sunlight we enjoy, night and darkness are also times of birth and death, of building up and tearing down, of change and continuity. Rather than dread the mysterious and unfamiliar, we should rejoice in an incognito world that is filled with life and overflowing with its promise of whatever may come next.
“I have loved the stars too truly to be fearful of the night.”
– Sarah Williams, The Old Astronomer, 1868.
In this time of uncertainty, we fear the unknown, but we must remember that our journey into history features not only the loud, pretentious bluster of the proud and the powerful; it is also the warm, silent embrace of a mother tending her vulnerable child. Like Soylent Green, history is people. The history of COVID-19 will not only be written by statistics from rich, affluent western nations, it will be memorialised by the currently overlooked but self-empowered voices in the favelas of Brazil, the slums of India, and among ordinary people around the world.
We should listen to these voices and learn from history, even as it is being written. We need to be a part of the change that is coming, and ensure that our next sunrise is better and more glorious than the last. Our world community must prepare not only for the next pandemic, but correct the current deficiencies in world infrastructure so that developing nations have better support frameworks in place for the everyday and for the future. We must also inculcate a culture of respect for science over superstition, environment over extinction, and compassion over consumerism.
In between the dusk and dawn, there lurk all sorts of creepy crawlies in the night – real and imagined – loitering at the periphery of our twilight fears. What can we each do to shine a light in the darkness? We are enduring the night; let us walk confidently towards a new dawn.
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.
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.
“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.
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 HumanistAndrew 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.’
“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
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.”
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.
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…”
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
It may not have the elegance and beauty of the artwork in the Lascaux cave complex in France, but sometimes I wonder if such items as this might one day be seen as archaeologically significant artefacts which document primitive communications between ourselves and evolving new species of Artificial Intelligence.
On the other hand, early computer punch cards might ultimately be seen a vestigial remnant of our own evolution: in line with Transhumanist ideas, emerging AI technology may combine with us to create distinctive new transbiological phenotype-genotype variations.
Will Artificial Intelligence evolve as a separate species, or will we co-evolve to become a mix of something that is as conjoined as we are with Neanderthals and Denisovans? Will we face Colossus the Forbin Project or HAL9000 as our overlords, or will we simply evolve into variations of bionic people, cybermen, or the Borg? Either way, resistance will not only be futile, it may be as retrograde as those who, today, deny the reality of evolution or vaccines or other scientific discoveries in our modern world.
Despite our cultural fears of everything from Frankenstein’s Monster to the Terminator, I do not fear whatever lies ahead. Indeed, when I glimpse at my old souvenir computer punch cards, I am reminded of Miranda’s utterance from Shakespeare’s The Tempest:
O brave new world,
That has such people in ’t!
Our future beckons, full of strange and wondrous things. Let’s make it glorious and embrace it.
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.
“What a piece of work is a man,
how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties,
in form and moving, how express and admirable
in action, how like an angel
in apprehension, how like a god!”
(Hamlet Act 2 Scene 2)
Shakespeare’s monologue from Hamlet encapsulates the essence of what today we call Humanism. With layers of meaning, irony and transcendence beyond the religious understandings of his day, his words assign us a place in nature as ‘paragon of animals’ with the potential to aspire towards higher ambitions. Of course, what Shakespeare defines as ‘this quintessence of dust’ might today be more evocatively seen as ‘stardust’.
Shakespeare did not know or create our modern concepts of Humanism, yet his words symbolise the potential of Humanism to arise from pre-scientific or other archaic understandings of the world and evolve into a movement that hopefully inspires human beings to strive for betterment through science and human rights.
Yet as the world struggles to cope with the coronavirus crisis, we are reminded of the limitations of so much human activity and aspiration. Economics, politics, the rise and fall of empires – all contain the hubris evoked in the 1818 poem by atheist and lover of humanity, Percy Bysshe Shelley, writing of ancient ruins:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings,
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Such is a sobering thought regarding the transitory and brief scope of individual humans to make a positive, permanent mark upon the universe around them. Carl Sagan rescues us from the deceit of nihilism by locating us within the very fabric of the universe:
“The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.” (Cosmos, London: Macdonald, 1980, p. 233).
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.
“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.