Science and the Religious Impulse

Creationism? Trumpism? Science denialism? Religious Fundamentalism?
The religious impulse gone wild within a world in intellectual decline.

Photo by Kyle Johnson on Unsplash

As a boy, I learnt children’s Bible stories: Adam and Eve being banished from Paradise as punishment for gaining knowledge, God committing genocide upon the whole Earth except for Noah and his ark, David brutally slaying Goliath, God killing the Egyptian babies, and Jesus being nailed to a cross. You know, all the Bible stories deemed to be fun and fit for children.

And yet the story of Doubting Thomas is the one that possibly captured my childhood imagination the most: the Apostle Thomas, upon being told that Jesus had returned from the dead, skeptically stated that he would not believe the claim until he was able to physically see and touch the evidence for himself (a demand that was jointly both a bit eeew and a bit awesome – kind of like Ben Hur Meets the Walking Dead).

Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay

To my childhood mind, Doubting Thomas was uber-cool. He was the only scientist in the Bible. I could imagine Thomas’ skepticism on also being told that Jesus had walked on water; should he check for water skis? When Jesus performed a cheap magic trick by making money appear in a fish’s mouth, did Thomas pull out a magnifying glass and check for fingerprints? Responding to the claim that Jesus had physically ascended into heaven, did Thomas pilot an Apollo lunar module up into the skies to investigate? Doubting Thomas was a Bronze Age Sherlock Holmes and a role model for all thinking, rational people. Richard Dawkins has even proclaimed Thomas to be, ‘The Patron Saint of Scientists‘.

Sadly, the story of Doubting Thomas is a morality tale – for all the wrong reasons – among many modern religious thinkers and conspiracy theorist types: Thomas was chastised by Jesus for his skepticism, and was encouraged to believe by faith alone rather than require empirical evidence. Thomas may have been a cool dude, but his intellectual rigour was apparently his moral weakness. Thus we see one of the most insidious aspects of religion: its potential for anti-scientific and anti-intellectual pretension.

The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil

I acknowledge the duality within religion: like all inventions of humanity, it has the potential for great good as well as great evil. A popular assertion is that religion has been shown in scientific studies to be good for us – even good for non-religious people. Transcendance, peace, charity and consolation are often proclaimed as being outcomes of religious benevolence. Of course, this ignores the fact that religion has also been responsible for a great deal of bigotry, suffering and other negativity in world history, and the reality is that even at its most benevolent, religion cannot claim a monopoly upon beneficial life experiences. Perhaps an apt summary of religion’s somewhat ambiguous role in society might best be expressed: “Religion has often been a vehicle for intolerance and fundamentalism; religion has been used as an excuse for persecution and war. But, religion in its purest form has provided many benefits for humanity.”

When speaking about the tree of knowledge of good and evil, religion was surely describing itself. To paraphrase Eckhart Tolle, humanity created god – and religions – in its own image.

The Evolution of Religion

Where did the religious impulse originate within the human species? What evolutionary purpose might it serve: perhaps to assist in survival of communities bonded together in devotional benevolence or cultural tribalism? How can such an impulse prosper within societies when it has potentially dubious benefits for individuals? Richard Dawkins suggests: “I think there was something built into the human brain by natural selection which was once useful and which now manifests itself under civilised conditions as religion, but which used not to be religion when it first arose, and when it was useful.”

He offers one possible example of the kind of survival mechanism involved:

“For excellent reasons related to Darwinian survival, child brains need to trust parents, and elders whom parents tell them to trust. An automatic consequence is that the truster has no way of distinguishing good advice from bad. The child cannot know that ‘Don’t paddle in the crocodile-infested Limpopo’ is good advice but ‘You must sacrifice a goat at the time of the full moon, otherwise the rains will fail’ is at best a waste of time and goats. Both admonitions sound equally trustworthy. Both come from a respected source and are delivered with a solemn earnestness that commands respect and demands obedience.”
The God Delusion, p. 176.

I like the idea that religion might be some vestigial evolutionary mechanism involving teaching children unquestioning deference as a means of ensuring survival of the next generation. We see that same juvenile mindset in the conflating of Santa Claus with God. However, in recent decades, we have also seen the rise of this somewhat immature religious impulse fueling a cultural explosion of anti-science, anti-intellectual nonsense, and personality cults ranging from gurus and celebrities to politicians. As a result, we are in the midst of a pandemic – not COVID-19 or another biological attack upon our species – but an anti-intellectual pandemic that threatens to take our species back to the Stone Age. Although we live in the greatest scientific age in history, we also have a shameful amount of pseudo-scientific, ignorant drivel being peddled everywhere from nursery to nursing home.

“That’s Your Opinion”

The insidious dualism of religion can be found in our cultural and intellectual landscape. Religion has inspired much art, literature, and scholarly inquiry – including pre-Enlightenment humanism. Yet it has also, in its modern fundamentalist form, opposed science, intellect and inquiry – not a surprising outcome for those who follow a text in which the token scientist is lambasted. It is this same anti-intellectual syndrome that has expanded across populist culture.

I had a revelation when I was aged fourteen, during the peak popularity of the UFO craze. Entranced by the spookiness and excitement of it all, I came to realise that I could just as easily (and I did!) make up my own, fictional, stories of alien visitation to spook my gullible school friends. Incredibly, I realised the crazier my story, the more they seemed to actually want to believe it. To this day, I suspect that such modern mythologies are a means for people to feel special or to claim undeserved expertise.

Faith that requires unquestioning acceptance in the absence of evidence – the religious midset – is absolutely not equal to the rigours of scientific inquiry. Yet the popular false equivalence between faith and science can be seen when debating adherents of pseudoscientific ideas, where scientific rebuttals have often been met with a dismissive retort: “That’s your opinion.” The common misunderstanding here is that because everyone has an equal right to hold an opinion, all opinions are therefore equal. However, they are not all equal, nor do they deserve equal respect or deference. An opinion that is backed by scientific evidence, informed research, and which defers to expertise, is one that presents a much stronger case than one based upon faith, ignorance, misinformation, or a few conspiracy theory videos and websites.

Sadly, our modern cultural template seems to be that an armchair expert’s self-declared PhD in alternate facts somehow qualifies them to claim kudos equivalent to that of genuinely qualified, peer reviewed experts who have spent a lifetime in scientific or academic study. In our common culture, astrology is equal to astronomy, mysticism is equal to medicine, and uninformed opinion is equal to scientific fact – because proof (or lack of it) is irrelevant. Those who subscribe to this religious methodology fail to grasp the importance of the aphorism attributed to Walter Kotschnig who warned us: “Don’t keep your minds so open that your brains fall out.”

Despite some effort by religious apologists to redefine his skepticism, the story of Doubting Thomas is a wonderful parable regarding the power of critical thinking and intellectual inquiry over superstition and gullibility. We must not confuse his skeptical thinking with the uncritical acceptance of unsupported claims and pseudo sciences, televangelical rhetoric, or conspiracy theories. The philosophy of anti-intellectualism has most recently gained pride of place in a culture that values superstition over science, or a sound byte over a sound mind. People who value critical thought must take a stand against such populist piffle. Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit is a good stepping stone in teaching people how to think, not what to think. More than that, we must address the underlying emotional needs for significance that make conspiracy theories and pseudosciences so popular:

“Pseudoscience speaks to powerful emotional needs
that science often leaves unfulfilled” – Carl Sagan.

In a story about religious reverence and rationalization, Doubting Thomas instead demanded relentless rationality and reason. While crowds compliantly queued up for loaves and fishes, he alone sought learning and facts. If I recall correctly, he made very little other contribution to the Bible story – and yet it was enough.

© 2020 Geoff Allshorn

Charity Begins At Home

For International Day of Charity, 5 September 2020

Photo by Kat Yukawa on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Charity is not a competition.

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

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

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

3. Altruism is not just about giving money.

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

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

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

4. We are a world community.

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

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

Photo by Matt Collamer on Unsplash

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

5. Helping others helps ourselves.

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2020 Geoff Allshorn

A Case for Rainbow Atheism

Rainbow Atheist banner by Miriam English

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

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

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

The Historic Record

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

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

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

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

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

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

Freedom of Belief

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

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

Coming Out

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

Bridge Building

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First published in Bent Street #2, 2018.

© 2018 Geoff Allshorn

Hiroshima – Nagasaki 2020

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

There Will Come Soft Rains

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Sara Teasdale, 1920, (Public domain),

What can we learn from adversity?

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

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

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

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

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

ABRACADABRA
ABRACADABR
ABRACADAB
ABRACADA
ABRACAD
ABRACA
ABRAC
ABRA
ABR
AB
A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2020 Geoff Allshorn

From Omelas to Optimists

Binary Takeoff,
art by Ditmar (Dick Jenssen).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2020 Geoff Allshorn

Soulful Science

I think we owe Jesus the honour of separating his genuinely original and radical ethics from the supernatural nonsense that he inevitably espoused as a man of his time.” – Richard Dawkins, Science in the Soul, p. 279.

Photo of Geoff at Refugee Rally, Melbourne, Australia, 7 December 2019, photo by Michael Barnett.

It may come as a surprise that Richard Dawkins has not only written about Jesus, but has done so respectfully, upholding Jesus as a potential role model for us all.

Dawkins’ book, Science in the Soul: Selected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist (New York: Random House, 2017) contains a collection of his eclectic writings from varied sources, including Atheists for Jesus, a column originally published in Free Inquiry in December 2004.

Dawkins does not explore in any great detail the question of whether or not Jesus was an actual historical figure, and he certainly dismisses the mythological aspects of virgin births and other miracles that violate known physical laws. But he also acknowledges what he calls the superniceness of a man whose teachings, whether real, fictional or mythological, stand in apparent contradiction to Darwinism (and in contradiction to religious organisations that amass great wealth or who foster ‘epidemics of evangelism’).

Of course, Dawkins’ analogy becomes strained when pondering the reality that Jesus’ teachings were not without their shortcomings. Nor were his ideas unique – many other philosophies and religions have echoed similar doctrines of benevolence and optimism, and similarly failed to deliver. This includes the failure that Carl Sagan assigns to science: ‘Many of us [scientists] didn’t even bother to think about the long-term consequences of our inventions… In too many cases, we have lacked a moral compass.’ (Billions and Billions, New York: Ballantine, 1997, p. 164).

Perhaps part of our role as Humanists is to raise a voice, and take an ethical stand in a secular world that seeks principles. In line with Dawkins’ idea, I have heard it said that Humanism is, “Christianity without Christ”. If this is true, I wonder if we align more closely with liberation theology (liberation for the poor and oppressed) than with prosperity theology (faith aligned with prosperity). Inverting the “Christians without Christ” concept, was Jesus actually a Humanist despite his veneer of pre-scientific religion?

As atheists and Humanists, perhaps we should ponder Richard Dawkins’ words to consider superniceness as something that we can learn from alleged religious principles. Not only would this help create a nicer world, but it may also build a bridge between us and religious progressives.

© 2020 Geoff Allshorn