Behaving Decently

If what Jesus said was good, what can it matter whether he was God or not?

I find the atheism vs religion discussions frustrating at best. On the atheism/science side, science tends to be presented in an unscientific way. (“We know …”) The humility inherent in true science is absent. Actual science begins with the caveat that, “We cannot say with absolute certainty …”

It then continues, “However, to the degree that we are able to study this empirically, we believe this is probably true, based on the evidence we have. The likelihood of it not being true is infinitesimal but yes, we don’t know everything. Further study may reveal something we were not previously aware of and that may bring us to a better informed conclusion.”

A scientific approach says there is no way we can prove the existence of a god or gods because there is no way to empirically verify that existence. “Based on that and our experience with the reliability of empirical verification, we say there is no god. But …” (Re-read caveat above.)

In other words, belief in a god does not come about through scientific investigation. This is why such things as Intelligent Design are silly. If there is a god he or she or it will not be found and explained through dreaming up Intelligent Design – something that foolishly tries to suggest it is science.

On the religion side, the worst and loudest examples of it are presented as representative. Personal experience tells me they are not. However, they are the ones most eager to engage in a pissing contest. What ends up happening is a debate that is no debate at all and makes no sense when we know neither side will change its mind. It also strikes me that if, given thousands of years of religion and an array of variations of it and its persistence in the modern world, despite all that science has revealed to us, rather than ranting about it, a more scientific approach would be to ask, “Why?”

The simple (and least scientific) answer is to say people are ignorant. But if you actually make an effort to engage with people of various religions – Christianity, Islam, Judaism etc. – with the idea of discussion rather than argument, you’ll find it is very difficult to maintain the position, “It’s due to ignorance.”

Kurt Vonnegut - Self Portrait

Kurt Vonnegut – Self Portrait

The question remains, “Why?” I’m pretty sure there are a number of reasons ranging from the psychological to the emotional to the spiritual and things I haven’t even thought of.

But my favourite humanist (and atheist and/or agnostic) Kurt Vonnegut has written about and explored this question in his fiction and I think he is on to something. At least one of the things that draws people to religion is community.

People don’t like feeling alone. Religions tend to be welcoming. Community is religion’s positive aspect.

But as with what we see daily on the Internet, there is also a negative aspect to community and the word associated with that is tribal. Community is about inclusion. Tribal is about exclusion. Tribal is about who doesn’t belong and it is this aspect of human behavior that leads to things such as street gangs, fascism and communal outings like the Crusades. (The Crusades would have happened whether there was a Catholic Church or not. It just happened to be the raison d’etre of the day. Were it not there, another excuse would have been found – possibly science because such undertakings have nothing to do with either spiritual belief or science.)

Today, atheism, humanism and science need to be cautious about the same question. Community or tribe? Which will it be?

Either/or discussions of atheism and religion tend to miss the mark because the sides are about asserting what they hold to be true when they would be more productive if they were about learning and understanding through discussion and debate. Myself, I think I’m more agnostic than atheist though that may be because I like saying, “The head says no; the heart says yes.”

None of it matters. Seriously, none of it matters.

I love science but I question what is presented to us daily as science. Throw the word study or research in the headline and, “It must be true!”)

New Study Shows Tobacco Prevents Cancer!” (No, that’s not not an actual story. But these days, it’s just a matter of time before it is.)

And I love religion, when it is about spirituality and ethics. Not when it is about politics which is what it seems to be about these days, at least in the media. I feel a kinship with Mr. Vonnegut on this one who disliked the nastiness of what religion could sometimes be. But he was also able to see what it could be because he saw what was at the heart of most religions. I leave you with Kurt Vonnegut:

Some of you may know that I am neither Christian nor Jewish nor Buddhist, nor a conventionally religious person of any sort.

I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without any expectation of rewards or punishments after I’m dead. My German-American ancestors, the earliest of whom settled in our Middle West about the time of our Civil War, called themselves “Freethinkers,” which is the same sort of thing. My great grandfather Clemens Vonnegut wrote, for example, “If what Jesus said was good, what can it matter whether he was God or not?”

I myself have written, “If it weren’t for the message of mercy and pity in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, I wouldn’t want to be a human being. I would just as soon be a rattlesnake.”

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Haunt Me with Mosquitoes

It has been a particularly disagreeable winter with no abatement in sight, according to the Environment Canada crew. And so I find myself continually returning to my keyboard to dally in my constitutionally protected Canadian right to bitch and moan about it.Ergo …

Haunt Me with Mosquitoes

MosquitoHaunt me with those damned mosquitoes;
use flies to decorate my food.
Place humming wasps inside my bedroom
with squiggly earwigs and their brood.
Harass me with summer heat
and all of its humidity
and let the sun wake me too early;
my sleep be known for paucity.
Put the winter’s deadening
in the hibernating ground.
Raise a grandstand over it;
fill the air with human sound.

Scald the ice that we endure
until it is the merest pond
and let us watch it cease to be;
let’s drowsily watch it abscond.
On the north wind’s bitter face
stretch a rag of chloroform.
Steal the breath from every frigid,
writhing, rowdy, Atlantic storm.
Shovel all these drifts of snow
into a tray of liquored drinks.
Lock the doors on the arenas
and their fucking hockey rinks.

Make my splintered knuckles heal.
Oil the skin of hands and face.
Still my goddamn shivering;
summer all this wintered place.
And as I warm and tilt my head
upward to a friendly sun,
stretch me somewhere without shading;
renew me with a sense of fun.
Walk me into spider webs.
Laugh and watch me squint and flail.
Light me up a barbecue.
Tramp me down a wooded trail.

Turn the icicles above
into boughs that flourish green
and make the green be startling.
Smash each icy figurine.
Knit the wind through cedar branches.
Let me hear its cryptic shush.
Grow me birches, oaks and maples;
bloom the gardens floral lush.
Whisper every afternoon
breezes gentle, warm and fine
and briefly grey the sky at evening
so it may rain the sweetest wine.

And should you hear me make complaint,
“There’s too much heat; there’s too much sun,”
rain a thousand storms together;
drown me under every one.
Should you hear me crossly bitching
of the moist air’s density,
flaccid make my hopeful penis
then geld me for eternity.
Make of me a fetid canker
to justly howl an ingrate’s sound,
should I complain about the summer.
Let insects everywhere abound!

Strike the land with fists of green;
Beat bright yellow every day.
Bruise it all with periwinkle
and at the start and end of day
drape horizons indigo,
bronze, and that vermilion red.
And where the land is bleached of colour
place grass and hostas there instead.
Let teeming dandelions be welcome
as if each one were primrose.
Use flies to decorate my food;
haunt me with those damned mosquitoes.

(Revised March 2, 2014. Unbelievably, I’ve added yet another verse.)

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Time moves on – Stranger in a Strange Land

Cover for Stranger in a Strange Land (1968 edition)I probably first read Stranger in a Strange Land when I was in my teens. Reading it now, when I am a several decades removed from my teens, is an interesting exercise.

When I first read it, I loved it. Reading it now I am largely bored and the reason is pretty clear: Heinlein loves to pontificate.

He does so endlessly, as I believe he did in a large number of his books.

I think the younger me loved the pontificating. This is probably because Jubal Harshaw, Heinlein’s voice in the novel, was a rebel of sorts – the kind of guy who says and does things that from a social/cultural point of view a person is not supposed to do.

In a way he is a bit like the kid in school who is naughty and disruptive. Everyone loves him at first because he is impertinent and not falling-in-line as the perceived authorities would have him do. He’s a trickster character.

Unfortunately, that same kid doesn’t know when to stop – the joke’s no longer amusing – and he just becomes annoying. Well, that’s kind of how Heinlein comes across to me now. He wants to be the centre of attention and that gets tedious quickly.

However … It should be remembered that Stranger in a Strange Land is a social satire. It was published in 1961, well over 50 years ago, so it should be expected that some of that satire would fall flat today because as a society, we have changed.

A book exists in time culturally, by which I mean as a culture/society we collectively find it relevant or not. It often happens that a book appears before its time and is largely ignored. Years later it may be “discovered” because we have changed in such a way it suddenly has meaning for us. This also happens in reverse, as I think it has happened with Stranger in a Strange Land. The world has moved on and it just seems anachronistic now.

Lastly, many people object to Heinlein’s portrayal of women. Well, he certainly wins no awards for gender equality but the book was written half a century ago and, to be fair, with the exception of Dorcas his female characters are generally strong but, like the men in the book, just foils for Heinlein’s Harshaw (meaning Heinlein himself). Given the year 1961, the women in the book are remarkably progressive. It was a very different world 50 years ago. (Though not different enough if you look at all the old white guys still running things.)

The bottom line? This book does not hold up well after 50 years.

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3 things people with nothing in common have in common

DifferencesYou may think people with no connection to one another have nothing in common, but you would be wrong. There are at least three things that unconnected people share. Studies that span the globe attest to this.

In China, at least 8 studies have results mirroring one another, including a 12 year study by Peking University, a 10 year study at Tsinghua University and a 6 year study at Nanjing University.

Studies in the United States (Cornell University), Canada (University of Ottawa), England (Oxford), Australia (University of Melbourne), Denmark (University of Copenhagen) and South America (Universidade de São Paulo, Universidad de Los Andes) all produced the same results.

So, what do people with no connection to one another do that is alike? Let’s have a look.

They Wake Up

Remarkably, no matter how dissimilar people may be, all wake up. The hour of waking often varies but putting that aside they all do, at some time, wake up.

Scientists conclude from this that the person that would be distinct, singular, the one standing out from the crowd because he or she has nothing in common with those around them, regardless of who those people may be, had better wake up. This is a distinguishing characteristic of people with nothing in common.

They Eat

People with nothing in common eat. Researchers speculate that unconnectedness may be predicated on physical sustainability. In every study, subjects ate – some more and some less. There was a wide range of dietary decisions, often culturally rooted, and the ingestion frequency often varied, but inevitably every subject that was studied ate.

They sleep

Once again, every subject slept. As with eating and diet, this varied widely. Some slept often, some seldom. Some seemed eager to sleep, others reluctant. Some wet the bed, though not all and so this aspect was not considered a common characteristic of people with nothing in common.


Researchers tell us the conclusions are obvious. People with no connection to one another all share three key, significant characteristics: they wake, they eat and they sleep.

Want to stand out from the crowd? Begin by waking up, eating and sleeping. Do that and you will be well on your way to being the uncommon person!

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Joseph Conrad’s Victory

Victory An Island TaleI read Conrad a very long time ago – Under Western Eyes, Nostromo, Heart of Darkness – but I’m not sure if I ever read Victory: An Island Tale. I think not. It turns out I like it a lot, perhaps because it has the quality of a previous era’s adventure.

In many ways, the book is largely exposition with the third person, omniscient narrator essentially describing everything – background, characters and events. There is very little in the sense of action or dialogue as we might consider it today. For this reason, a modern reader might find Victory, and Conrad’s other books, a difficult read. They are more about telling rather than showing but they are also written as if the narrator is a storyteller. There is a sense the book is the text of an oral storytelling. And given a chance, it engages you.

Sentences are fluid and mellifluous and if you allow yourself to be open to them, you find it mesmerizing and before you know it you are into the story because Conrad is nothing if not detailed. It’s a commonplace simile but he paints pictures with his words and they bring the story to life.

This is partly due to his focus on character. Each is distinctive. Axel Heyst, Jones, Schomberg, Morrison, Ricardo …

What is interesting about Conrad is that he is a writer with one foot in the Victorian age (as in the manner of his storytelling) and one in the modern age (as in his characters and themes). The book’s sensibility is reflective of this disconcerting dualism.

In 1940, a movie based on Conrad’s ‘Victory’ was made – directed by Robert Cromwell and starring Frederic March.

For me, the main theme that emerges is that of detachment and isolationism and their consequences. For various reasons, Heyst removes himself from the world, wanting no part of it. But the world will not be ignored and eventually comes to find him. (In some ways, it’s a variation on the theme explored in his earlier book, Lord Jim.)

The result is tragedy – or perhaps it’s better described as comic tragedy due to the incompetence of the three envoys of the outside world. (You’ll have to read the book to understand what I mean.)

Axel Heyst is the main character but another key character is that of Lena, the young woman he rescues and falls in love with. This is the one part of the novel where I have some difficulty with Conrad (though not so much as to dislike the book). When it comes to describing her and scenes involving her (particularly those with Heyst) the prose is overwrought and melodramatic. In some cases, as when it relates to what Heyst thinks and feels about her, or in the way he speaks to her, it could be a reflection of the character’s idealization of her.

Overall, however, I think it is primarily a result of the era’s view of women and men and their places in the world. Appealing though it may have been to the audience of the time, it sounds an off-key note to a more contemporary audience. Curiously, however, the female characters generally prove to be stronger and smarter (and more long-suffering) than the male characters, particularly main characters (like Heyst) in Conrad’s stories. Yet he cannot seem to write about them in that way. Once again, it’s that strange dualism of being part Victorian and part modern.

In the end, this is a very good story — particularly if you like adventure stories with characters rather than caricatures. It’s a wonderful read but it is a novel that wants to breathe – it won’t be rushed. Conrad’s a wordy bugger.

But if you allow it room to breathe you’ll definitely be rewarded.

Joseph Conrad, 1857 - 1924 (Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski)

Joseph Conrad, 1857 – 1924
(Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski)

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