“Isn’t this enough? Just this world? Just this beautiful, complex wonderfully unfathomable world? How does it so fail to hold our attention that we have to diminish it with the invention of cheap, man-made myths and monsters?” ― Tim Minchin.
Christmas is Coming! What can it teach us?.
I was five years old, and my family was staying for Christmas at my grandparents’ farm. Excitable young me was filled with the thrill of having been told that Santa would visit tonight if I was a good boy and went to sleep. All the other children in the family promptly did so, but as the oldest child I decided to be a rebel; instead, I would lie awake in bed until midnight, when I would surely catch Santa as he came down the chimney.
As I lay silently in bed over the next few hours (??), I could hear the adults in subdued conversations across the house slowly becoming quiescent as they each went to bed, until a silence descended that was punctuated only by the ticking of a living room clock and the occasional crackle of embers in a fireplace. I daresay I fell in and out of an erratic sleep…
Later that night, I was apparently awoken by sleigh bells, a collective THUMP THUMP THUMP of reindeer hooves hitting the roof, and then a more sedate and solitary CLUNK… CLUNK… CLUNK… of heavy Arctic-type boots crossing the roof towards the chimney. After a few moments, I heard those same boots imprint themselves on the carpet in front of the fireplace, in the hallway outside my bedroom door, which my parents had left slightly ajar.
I squeezed my eyelids tightly shut, and heard almost imperceptible footsteps as someone entered the room momentarily to ensure that I was asleep. I lay there in my bed, with the blankets tightly pulled up to my chin. Quivering with excitement, even at that young age I knew that I would not likely be fooling anybody by pretending to be asleep. But then I heard the bedroom door squeak almost shut, as the person left the room. A couple minutes later, I heard footsteps across the roof again, and then sleigh bells jingle until they faded into the stillness of the night.
As an adult, nearly sixty years later, do I seriously think that I was visited by Santa Claus on that Christmas Eve 1966 in Bannockburn, Victoria? Of course not. What I do think is that this story probably demonstrates the power of lucid dreaming or hypnagogic hallucinations. Most obviously, though, it also reveals the power of suggestion to impressionable or excitable minds and may help to explain many conspiracy theories and stories of alleged angels, alien visitation, false memories, divine revelation, miracles, or the Mandela Effect.
My close encounter of the Santa kind is a transcendental moment for me because it contains a bitter lesson: it shows that for all our aspirations towards nobility and betterment, our propensity for progress can be inhibited. Our brains are flawed organs and we are susceptible to suggestion or hallucination – or just plain mistakes. Our dreams and visions can be imperfect or mistaken or outright incorrect. Transcendence or transgression, nobility or nonsense – we are capable of them all. This does not mean that we should abandon our quest for betterment or advancement; in fact it makes that quest all the more valuable when we exercise critical thinking, and balance our dreams with rationality in order to get something right.
Our search for spirituality should be recognised as a pilgrimage in search of our secular selves, warts and all. Such a revelation is both reassuring and terrifying in its aspiration and its possible outcomes: humans are such a relatively small, insignificant part of the Universe, and yet we contain an immense capacity for nobility and growth within ourselves; we reflect a potentiality that is cosmic in its implications. We do not need a stone age deity or a new age mystic to tell us that we are filled with potential; we glimpse that capability within ourselves whenever we experience the everyday or glimpse transcendence. What some may call sacred or spiritual, I assert to be secular self-awareness: seeking something deep or meaningful, and finding profound awe and splendour in our human search.
“If you want something new, you have to stop doing something old.”
— Peter Drucker.
I was recently accused of being a militant gay atheist.
I felt momentarily dumbstruck, wondering which portion of that identity was meant to be militant – being gay or being atheist. But then I realised that the woman who had made this criticism appeared to be a religious lesbian who had read an article on my humanist blog. She evidently thought that accusing someone of being atheist was the harshest criticism she could hurl at me.
In response, I thanked her for the compliment, because – militancy aside (whatever that means) – I certainly would love to be considered in the same calibre as many LGBT atheists, nonbelievers or humanists who were part of the gay liberation era or subsequent LGBT rights activism, including Frank Kameny, Leonard Matlovich, Harvey Milk, Peter Tatchell, Greta Christina, Michael Callen, Barney Frank, Andrew Copson, Debbie Goddard, Christopher Hitchens, Bob Brown, Georgie Stone, Jason Ball, Alison Thorne and Phil Carswell – not to mention earlier role models including Magnus Hirschfeld, Oscar Wilde, Virginia Woolf, Walt Whitman, Greta Garbo, Alfred Kinsey, Henry Gerber, Alan Turing and Marlene Dietrich.
This woman who seeks to insult me by calling me ‘militant gay atheist’ is a member of my own LGBT community – people who have traditionally been criminalised and pathologised and marginalised by religion to this very day. Nevertheless, like many in the LGBT community, she appears to default to religion as being the ethical norm, even in a demographic where nearly three quarters of her cohort identify as having no religion.
Atheists and agnostics need to confront and change this popular but erroneous conflation of religion with ethics. We can change it through the application of humanist (and other humanitarian) ethics and activism. To do this, humanists need to explore ‘three rs’ of our own – not reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic, but another three challenges to test our resolve: relevance, reconciliation and reassurance.
Our nation is dominated by young people who no longer predominantly look to the church, theology, or older philosophies for consolation. They are an increasingly nonbelieving cohort of people who find ancient myths interesting only because such stories can be rebooted and retold in modern, space age ways. Forget Jesus or Athena or Hercules; today we have Superman, Jessica Jones, Wonder Woman, Pokémon, Marvel superheroes, Katniss Everdean, Harry Potter, Doctor Who, Captains Kirk and Picard and Janeway, Luke and Rey Skywalker, and Australia’s own Cleverman; all of them being reworkings of ancient heroic tropes. While young audiences flock to the Marvelverse, one recent popular visitation in Australia was to the Astraverse via the Bollywood Hindi superhero movie, Brahmastra Part 1: Shiva.
These superheroes are not like philosophers of yore, who navel gazed and debated how many angels sat upon the head of a pin. Today’s superheroes and cultural icons are people who reveal their inner philosophies and ethics through outward actions, not words. They reflect modern cultures of instant gratification and individualism: where smart phones make information exchange instantaneous and global; where communications have been revolutionised by Facebook which has replaced emails (which in turn replaced snail mail). People now seek their own answers and try to make their own sense of facts and data instead of deferring to experts and community leaders. They no longer need social clubs with monthly meetings and newsletters and annual membership fees if they can instead enjoy instant online social networking with those who share their specialised interests. Zoom meetings are replacing pub crawls. Welcome to the 21st century.
There is also the question of literary relevance. How do we promote humanism in a world where Scooby Doo and Sheldon Cooper have done more to advance popular understandings of evidentiary science and critical thinking than has the modern humanist movement; and where Big Bird has taught more young people about cooperation than a library full of secular ethics books? As an implicit recognition of cultural change, there have been various religious reboots, ranging from Jesus Christ Superstar to Black Lightning, and from ‘Christ of the Never‘ to an African Jesus, that have all sought to keep their messages relevant to new audiences. Meanwhile, the interdependence of cultural mixes becomes apparent with the adoption of UFO mythologies by the Warlpiri people of the Northern Territory (see Eirik Saethre, 2007). This is a lesson that secularists would do well to learn. Where are our modern role models and morality plays and genuinely militant activists for humanity?
This brings us to one of the greatest challenges for secularism across western societies: its predominance of white, European men across atheist, aligned, and humanist discourse: everything from our cultural histories and conference programs, to podcasts, books, and traditional lists of those receiving our accolades or awards.
Don’t get me wrong: many rationalist/humanist/atheist activists are doing what they can to fight institutional racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination. But we need to recognise that we are benefactors of generations of patriarchal and racially elitist attitudes and biases encompassing our sciences and arts, literary and intellectual norms; and that our cultural paradigms involve forms of white male privilege. Historically, Humanism can be seen as linked to colonialism:
“Colonialism relies upon a racist discourse of imperial humanism that orders humankind, implicitly or overtly, according to a naturalized hierarchy in which modern European White Man is taken as a normative template for human being, value, and achievement.” – Simone Bignall, p. 1.
Living in an era that strives to be post-colonial, do we dare to be post-humanist? What does that even mean, and what does it entail? Perhaps we should ask others outside of our comfort zone. Perhaps we should also consider the interdependence of our human and wider families: sentients, living creatures, the environment.
The debate between theism and atheism needs new definitions, and should ideally include the optimism inherent within humanist frameworks. As one example, US African-American humanist Anthony B. Pinn challenges his fellow humanists to ‘acknowledge blacks as being alive‘.
This rather startling statement has two clear interpretations: the first being to acknowledge that white privilege needs to be dismantled and replaced with genuine equality within which all people have equal rights and opportunities as a demonstration that all life is equally precious.
The second interpretation is that forms of atheism, in seeking to replace religious philosophies, must offer something that is at least as life affirming and compelling as the consolation offered by religion in response to death and mortality. Pinn explains that his walking away from the deeply religious elements of his African American community into broader secular humanism can be seen in this context:
“I left the church and entered a community I believe better values life, one that better understands the need to safeguard the life web of which humans are part.”
It is this consolation – the practical here and now, not some mythical afterlife – that Humanists should be promoting. Humans do not need the solace of a heaven in the afterlife if we are striving to make heaven here on Earth. Our questions, our answers, and our actions, can all help to create the future to which we aspire.
Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning.” – Albert Einstein.
Simone Bignall, ‘Colonial Humanism, Alter-humanism and Ex-colonialism’, in S. Herbrechter et al. (eds.), Palgrave Handbook of Critical Posthumanism, 2022.
“The cosmos is within us. We are made of star-stuff.
We are a way for the universe to know itself.”
― Carl Sagan.
Humans have probably always liked to look up at the stars in awe – even those of us in modern generations who, for the first time in human history, live in urban centres that are so overcrowded with light pollution that our views of night-time skies are damaged and restricted.
Yet there seems to be something universal – maybe even primal – about our instinct to look upwards and gaze in wonder and appreciation of what we perceive to be scenic beauty.
I have come to wonder if there is some deep meaning behind our instinct to scan the skies. In recent years, Carl Sagan and J. Michael Straczynski have remarked that we are not only made of atoms that were forged inside the nuclear furnaces of stars, but we are star stuff with a sentient awareness of our actual existence within the cosmos.
Delenn: …I will tell you a great secret, Captain. Perhaps the greatest of them all. The molecules of your body are the same molecules that make up this station, and the nebula outside, that burn inside the stars themselves. We are starstuff. We are the universe made manifest, trying to figure itself out. And as we have both learned, sometimes the universe requires a change of perspective.”
― J. Michael Straczynski.
Our propensity for looking upward and asking questions about our place and purpose in the Universe has led to the birth of thousands of philosophies and religions. Perhaps one of the most universal manifestations of this practice – differing across cultures but seemingly ubiquitous around the globe – has been the quaint but mistaken tendency to look up and theorise that the stars and planets directly influence our daily lives. Just as they add visual grandeur to our lives, perhaps they also control our love lives, they give us good or bad luck, or they somehow influence the outcomes within our daily routines?
Astrology is a pseudoscience that has been thoroughly debunked. Dr Anthony Aveni explores twice when it was has been found wanting: the first time when Saint Augustine and early Christian leaders pointed out its inconsistencies with their religious doctrine, combined with the concurrent decline of ancient Greek and Latin learning upon which early astrology had been linked (1994, p. 170). Aveni then states that the second great debunking of astrology occurred more recently during the Enlightenment:
“Renaissance expressions of what the natural world was about echo from a tense time, when intellectuals who wanted to think and act more freely began to feel constrained by the demands of a deterministic universe… The freethinking humanists who began to shake the faith were partly responsible for astrology’s second death, for under the same roof, mathematically based astronomical theory and human practice began to seem ever more irreconcilable.” – Anthony Aveni, 1994, p. 171.
He notes how people began to approach astrology more rationally, for example asking how two different people who were born under the same astrological sign could nevertheless turn out so differently. The answer is a self-evident debunking of the whole pseudoscience.
Phil Plait summarises the human desire to find answers in astrology:
Despite the claims of its practitioners, astrology is not a science. But then what is it? It’s tempting to classify it as wilful fantasy, but there may be a more specific answer: magic.” (2002, p. 215)
Ultimately, astrology might be seen to be a wasteful distraction from finding real answers that underlie our tendency to ask big questions. Instead of seeking human answers from the stars in the sky, we should look for those same answers closer to home – in the star stuff that stares back at us when we look in the mirror.
Anthony Aveni, Conversing with the Planets: How Science and Myth Invented the Cosmos, New York: Kodansha America, 1994, pp. 170 – 177.
Philip C. Plait Bad Astronomy: Misconceptions and Misuses Revealed, from Astrology to the Moon Landing ‘Hoax’, New York: John Wiley and Sons Inc., 2002.
I recently attended the funeral of an old friend. Forty years ago we met through our mutual interest in science fiction and cosmology, and we had stayed firm friends forever after, frequently talking about the awe of galactic vistas and the thrill of possible future spaceflight for humanity. But her death and funeral brought me back to earth with a thud.
As an atheist, I have attended a number of Catholic funerals. Despite my desire to show respect for the beliefs of the deceased, I have found it somewhat wearying to endure the innumerable times we are asked to stand for some (to me, meaningless) prayer or doctrinal babble and then sit down again; even more puzzling is the burning of incense, sprinkling of water, ringing of bells, ritual chanting, and even the holding of communion in the middle of a funeral. The hymns and music are often familiar but lack any personal connection to me, and moreso the Biblical readings, but still I always try to understand the underlying ideas of rebirth, redemption, or whatever it seems they are trying to convey.
Perhaps not surprisingly, what I find it most perplexing is that the majority of the service concentrates very little on the person being memorialised and more upon the rituals and doctrines of that church. Why such a predominance upon ritual? Is this some generic human thing?
I understand that the idea of life after death, and the somewhat appealing notion of eventually being reunited with lost ones, can give consolation to the bereaved and their family/community, but the religious claptrap often seems so distant and far removed from the rest of their lives. Case in point: to their credit, my friend’s extended family and community knew who I was and made me feel welcome. We chatted about the fact that my friend’s funeral was coincidentally being held on Star Trek Day, and we swapped stories about past times. I feel that such welcoming inclusion of strangers and newcomers within communal activities would be a good idea for atheist and humanist communities to learn – as might (or so some argue) the inclusion of rituals that provide meaning and communal bonding during life events.
I left the church feeling glad that I had attended, but also possibly feeling somewhat smugly superior because I clearly did not share their need for symbolic rituals. And then, as the hearse left, I flashed my friend the Vulcan salute.