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Happy New Year! Oh Yeah, and Someday I’m Going to Die

January 8, 2009

I had a great holiday break, better than most years, with the exception of some family health problems which seem to be on the mend, and the growing all-encompassing sense of my own mortality which has been plaguing me more than usual these past few weeks.

In part, I think I’ve been feeling this way because the decision to start trying to conceive along with the realization that my parents are getting old makes it impossible not to realize that as soon as I have kids, the most important people in my life will only ever see me as old.  How depressing is that?  I’ll tell you how depressing that is: very.  My wife and I are starting a new hobby – european board games (think Settlers of Catan, Carcassonne, Lost Cities, Caylus).  To us, this is fun and exciting – kind of cool and edgy too, since it’s a growing hobby that we know more about than most of our friends.  To our kids, it will be something old people do.  My music, games, and movies will be “golden oldies.”  By the time our kids are old enough to appreciate us and to recognize how young and cool we used to be, we actually will be old.

I have always had a fear of aging.  I was always the kid with potential, but the older I get the less possibility for fulfilling that potential I have left.  I could have been a doctor.  Oh!  Too late!  I could have been a lawyer.  I could have been a skinny, sexy co-ed spring breaking in Maui in my bikini.  I coulda been a champion.  Now I’m a grad student in a field which no longer interests me, looking forward to a government job so I can have weekends off, and every birthday means a little less time to make and fulfill plans.

My grandma was diagnosed with terminal cancer twenty-seven years and has been living each day as if it were her last that entire time.  Does that mean she goes bungee jumping on Monday, scuba-diving on Tuesday, and spends Wednesday through Sunday drunk on a beach?  No.  It means she spends morning until night watching tv, because what’s the point of making plans if you don’t think you’ll live to carry them out?  A trip in July?  Save your money, I might not be alive by then.

I know how terribly depressing this is, and I know that my religious friends and family – when faced with fear of mortality – justify life and death with thoughts of ultimate meaning and purpose.  I know that a religious person would say that this anguish is caused by my atheism and my certainty that life is finite and death is final.  I’ve had religious people and agnostics tell me that they could never be an atheist because atheism is too depressing.  Usually I disagree with them and explain how liberating atheism is, but in this case they might be right.  It would be nice to believe that after I die I get another chance, or that I get to hang out with Carl Sagan, and Madeleine L’Engle in heaven, paradise on earth, the summerlands, or somewhere else equally awesome .  Unfortunately, I can’t believe something just because it’s pleasant.  There is no nice-ness theory of truth. The idea of an afterlife must be comforting, but if we believe things only because they make us feel warm and fuzzy, we are denying reality.  The reality is that there is no evidence or reason to think anything other than that if I am lucky I will get old and die.

Happy thoughts for your new year.  Or something.


What’s the Harm?

October 22, 2008

Whenever I go off on a rant about some pseudoscience, quack medicine, or some general form of woo, I often get a response from people that amounts to “But if people like it, want it, and say it makes them feel better… what’s it to you?”  Chiropractics, for example.  Tons of people see chiropractors every day, many swear their lives have been changed for the better since starting treatment, and almost everyone has some anecdotal evidence “proving” that chiropractics works miracles.  So what if it has no scientific evidence backing it’s claims, if it makes people feel better, what’s the harm?  Plenty.

First off, let’s be clear: most of these alt-med treatments actually do cause harm.  Real, physical harm.  Sometimes death.  The website “What’s the Harm?” is dedicated to collecting verified, sourced, stories of harm caused by alternative medicine and pseudoscience.  Here’s a list of 310 people harmed by chiropractics, 1,184 people harmed by acupuncture, and 100,493 people harmed by herbal remedies, for example.  Many of these are deaths.  Chiropractic neck adjustments can cause stroke.  Natural medicines can have real, and really serious, side effects.  Many people have forgone traditional medicine for alternative medicine and died from extremely preventable or curable illnesses.

Beyond physical harm, though, these things also cause financial harm.  I have loved ones who have probably spent thousands of dollars over their lifetime on scams and pseudoscience.  Alternative medicines, miracle cures, psychic/energy treatments… these things all cost money.  In some cases, a lot of money; money that could have gone to scientifically-based medical treatment, retirement funds, mortgages, or any number of other worthy causes.

What’s more, I believe that pseudoscience, quackery, and woo cause intellectual and emotional harm.  When fancy fruit juices declare that “studies prove” their effectiveness at curing cancer they are coopting scientific-sounding language to push non-scientific claims.  When ear candlers assert that the ancient tradition of this practice validates it as legitimately beneficial, they are making an implicit claim that the age of a practice is correlative with its benefits.  When non-specialists and non-skeptics hear claims like these go largely unchallenged, they assume that the weight of scientific evidence must be on the side of these claims, and they learn that non-specific “studies” and ancientness are legitimate ways to ascertain truth.  When people lack the skills to critically evaluate scientific claims, they have no way of understanding just what is so wrong with intelligent design theory, and why it does not belong in the classroom.  Spillover effects are rife.

Furthermore, I have a particular bone to pick with psychics, especially those who claim to talk to the dead.  I believe that these practices cause a special kind of harm: emotional.  Psychics who claim to connect with deceased loved ones are preying on the vulnerable and desperate (which most pseudoscience does, to some extent).  They cold read cues from the client and make up fanciful stories which damage and dilute the client’s (more) real memories of the deceased.  Now, instead of thinking of dad as gone and remembering all the fun you had together, psychics like Sylvia Browne encourage you to think of him as creeping around your house leaving pennies on dressers.  At least most religious folk believe that when a person dies they have moved into another, inaccessible, realm.  Believing that they are still nearby, talking to strangers (although not to you), moving keys, ringing wind chimes, stacking card decks, and leaving coins, makes it impossible to ever deal with their death.  Kept in a perpetual state of grief and vulnerability, you then return for more readings.

Most of the time I just let things slide.  When a particular family member comments that a pet’s behavior is due to its astrological sign,  I just keep talking about the behavior rather than the astrology.  When my grief stricken friend tells me about how her dead husband turned the volume down on her stereo, I just commiserate about how much I miss him too.  People who believe in these things I disbelieve in are usually good people, just confused about how the universe works and working off of a definition of true as “what makes me feel good.”  Their entitled to that, of course.  I’m sure I believe all sorts of silly things, and I don’t want every conversation with family or friends to turn into a lecture.

If I am on a rant though, and people ask me “what’s the harm?” well, I have a few answers.

Are Women Persons in Heaven?

October 16, 2008

Persons Day is coming up; that day when Canadians remember the court case that won women (well, white women) the status of independent legal entities, or “persons.”  Yes, until October 18th, 1929, women in Canada were not considered persons.  The women involved in the case, all from Alberta, are still referred to as The Famous Five.  Traditionally, this day is celebrated with lectures on women in politics, women’s rights, the history of the suffrage movement, and discussions about the gaps between men and women still existing in Canada and elsewhere in the world.  This year, the Women’s Studies Department at my university chose to mark the day with a multi-faith dialogue called “Are Women Persons in Heaven?

I am presuming that the reason they have chosen to look at the legal definition of half the population in the world’s various representations of heaven (which, to an atheist, is somewhat akin to asking if the Gingerbread People in Candyland have proportional representation) is that every other sex-related problem on earth has been solved.  We have solved the problems of women being disproportionately poor, victims of domestic violence, paid less than men for equal work, sexually assaulted (and then blamed for it), sexually objectified, prone to eating disorders, victims of honour killings, and the fact that women with disabilities, women of visible minorities, immigrant women, and non-heterosexual women face compounded problems based on their double handicap.  All that’s left is to let representatives of religious groups talk to each other about how fabulously egalitarian they are.

I understand that the event was planned by a professor who specifically teaches courses about women and religion, so keeping to that theme was important, but I do not understand why heaven is the location where we ought to be concerned about women’s status, rather than earth.  There are so many women-and-religion related topics that would be appropriate discussion topics for Persons Day, I am left thinking that the reason they chose this one is simply the fact that it makes for a good title.

Well, the talk was yesterday and, while it wasn’t awful, it could have been better.  For one, the question was one which did not even make sense in reference to most of the religions represented.  The Christian speaker told us that while Christians believe in heaven, heaven isn’t really the point.  The resurrection is.  The Jewish speaker and the Baha’i speaker both explained that in order to apply the term “Heaven” in their religions, you had to really torture the definition.  The Mormon speaker had to spend half her time explaining what the Celestial Kingdom is, since it’s not quite the same as heaven.

Similar gymnastics had to occur to make sense of the word “person.”  In reference to Person’s Day, person is a legal term.  They obviously were not expected to talk about the legal status (within Canadian law, no less!) of women in the afterlife, so they all had to define person.  And they all defined it differently.

In some ways the talk went how I had expected it to: some of the speakers answered with a self-congratulatory “Of course,” and really, what more could they say?  None of them have ever been to heaven, many of the traditions they were representing were really collections of hundreds of sects who disagree on most everything, and usually the answers were something like “the spirit has no gender, so women are ‘persons’ as far as anyone is a ‘person,’ which is to say – not really at all.”  What else can be said about that?  Nothing particularly useful.

The discussion got interesting, though, when people started to talk about practices.  Why can’t women hold the priesthood?  What is the standing of unmarried women?  What are the religious obligations of women and men?  How have the religious roles of women changed over time?  This is the fascinating stuff.  This is what the talk should have been about in the first place.  A few people had some really fabulous questions and most the speakers represented their religious traditions very honestly.  I was impressed with the representatives, even though I was disappointed with the professor and the students who hosted them.

Overall, I think the panel was a worthwhile discussion, but I think that the important stuff happened despite the plan and organization of the event, not because of it.

Freedom of Expression

October 8, 2008

I do not have the right not to be offended.

Ouch.  That hurts a little, but it’s true.

This past Saturday, the Centre for Inquiry Calgary was officially inaugurated and Monday the Lethbridge Freethinkers Society had it’s first event.  At both of these functions, Justin Trottier, executive director for the Centre for Inquiry Ontario, spoke about CFI’s “Campaign for Free Expression.”  What he said was certainly not what I wanted to hear, but it was what I needed to hear.  I like to think that it’s my scientific mind that allows me to admit I’m wrong when faced with incontrovertible evidence, but the fact still stands that I’ve been wrong.

Let me explain: I think most of us understand that the price of our own freedom of expression is the right for people we disagree with to have this freedom as well.  I begrudgingly admit that if I expect my student’s union to ratify a gay and lesbian group (or a Freethinkers group, for that matter), I have to allow that a pro-life group will also be able to ratify, hold events, put posters up, and have membership drives.  I will, however, pay extra careful attention to anything they say or do and report them if I think they’ve crossed the line into discrimination or offensiveness.

But here is the thing: I do not have the right not to be offended.  None of us do.  I have the right not to be discriminated against, but discrimination is associated with actions, not speech.

Just a few days ago an independent candidate in Sudbury, Ontario made headlines when he told a kid at an all-candidates forum held at a high school that all homosexuals should be executed, according to the Bible.  I, of course, was awfully offended and I applauded to hear he was being investigated for hate speech.  Now, though, I’m not so sure.  I used to think that there was a difference between “I hate gays,” “I think gays should be killed” and “let’s go kill some gays,” but I’m now thinking that as long as no one does go and kill any gay people, no crime has been committed.  I should be allowed to say and think as I choose, and so should anyone else.

According to this line of thought, I should actually be defending the candidate’s right to tell high school kids that all homosexuals should be executed.  In some ways, his ignorant jackass statement did my side a favour: now all those voters know his bigoted fundamentalist views and can vote accordingly.  While many people are opposed to gay marriage, not many favour executing even the blackest of black sheep in their families.  With views like this exposed, we can keep track of them.  They aren’t going underground.  Also, I bet more than a few families had gay marriage/gay rights talks with their kids that night.  I know it was all over the news.  Talking about stuff like this is always good.

Ideas should be aired so they can be supported and attacked.  Freedom of expression means that we have the right to express our views, what it does not mean is that our views have the right to be uncriticized.  If people I disagree with are allowed to state their piece, that gives me the ability to rebut their arguments, to argue my side.  This way, discourse isn’t limited by political correctness and we have the ability to grow beyond our current comfort levels.

Let me be clear though: I also think that just because we have the right to do something does not mean we always should.  I have the right to drink myself silly every day and night, but I know that this would cause great harm, so I choose not to exercise that right too often.  Yes, according to freedom of expression we had the right to publish the Muhammad cartoons back in 2006, but I think that once we realized that the ball court was one we were unfamiliar with (we have no analogous concept to the Muslim prohibition of images of Muhammad.  None.  We were in over our heads and refused to admit it), we should have judiciously chosen not to exercise it.  Sometimes peace is more important than victory.

This also does not mean I welcome the teaching of creationism in the science classroom.  This is not a matter of freedom of expression, it is a matter of making up “facts” and “evidence,” and covertly trying to change definitions so as to teach religion in science classes.  We do not teach Shakespeare in math class, not because we are closed-minded intolerants who are stifling the Shakespearian scholars, but because literature is not math.  Teach it in English class.  Teach creationism in religion class, along with all the other religion’s creation myths.  If creationists want to get their views represented in the science curricula all they have to do is follow the scientific process.  That’s it.

So that’s the painful truth that I came to during my intense weekend with rationalists and humanists in Calgary and Lethbridge.  It was fantastic to attend both events, there were many great speakers and great speeches given later over a few beers as well.  Justin Trottier, Cliff Erasmus, Scott, Ben, Ian, Jim, and all the rest of the leaders/organizers and participants were just fabulous.  I came away from the experience with a sligh feeling of having been chastened, and a whole lot of enthusiasm to get going on the next project.

Handrail armband

October 3, 2008

Like a treesweater, but cuter.  I saw this on campus today, just outside the library on the way down the hill.  I love whoever did this.

Update: I just found another one!

Whose Conscience Counts?

September 29, 2008 have been several cases reported recently of pharmacists refusing to dispense birth control or emergency contraceptive pills on the basis of their religious beliefs.  Their argument is that their religious beliefs lead them to understand emergency contraceptive as murder and birth control as promoting pre-marital sex, and so their conscience cannot permit them to dispense this medication.

Similarly, not too long ago in England, there was a registrar who refused to perform gay marriages because of her Christian beliefs in homosexuality and gay marriage as sinful.  Her employer threatened to fire her, she sued for discrimination, and won.  A speaker for the Christian Institute, who funded the registrar’s case, said “This important ruling confirms that gay rights should not be treated as trumping religious rights.”

Cases like these are currently being discussed by some as “conscientious objection,” clearly hoping to gain the sympathy for the objectors that pacifists who refused to fight in drafted war efforts deserve.  I disagree with the comparison, the situations are not at all comparable.  No one has forced anyone to be a pharmacist or a registrar.  If you don’t like the job, don’t do it.  You do not have the right to choose which clients you will and will not serve. Objectors claim that they aren’t denying the service, just refusing to provide it themselves – the homos can get their paperwork filed by someone else, the women can get their birth control or emergency contraception dispensed by another pharmacist.  I don’t think that’s good enough. a restaurant server refused to serve people of a certain race or ethnicity, claiming that it’s against their beliefs to engage in any kind of relations with these people.  “What’s the big deal? There are other servers here,” they could say, “let someone else serve them.”  This a) throws off everyone else’s routine, forcing a server from one section to wait a lone table in another section, forcing the manager to schedule that worker for times when they won’t be alone and causing any number of other problems in the day-to-day operations of the business and b) shows the client that the business is ok with racial bigotry.  The simpler solution would be to not employ the bigot.  If you cannot do a task associated with a particular job, then you need to consider that job as not suited for you.

Objectors say that they are making these “conscientious” objections based on their own beliefs of what is moral and right for them to do – that is, based on their own understandings how it is appropriate for them to act.  They say that they are not forcing their religions on others, only asking for the right to observe it themselves.  If this were true, they would find jobs whose duties imposed no moral hardship on them.  Instead, what they are doing is demanding to do these jobs they are not willing to do to completion, and demanding that their moral decisions take precendence over those of the clients.  They are denying women the right to make decisions about their own reproductive lives, they are denying gay people the right to live as full citizens under the law.  They are imposing their consciences on others. are a lot of jobs I am not suited for.  I could never work in a slaughterhouse because I am a complete hypocrite about meat.  Should I be allowed to get a job at a slaughterhouse and then claim that my conscience forbids me from participating in the killing of animals, so someone else needs to do it?  Of course not!  If the company needed to find someone else to do my job, then I should be relieved not only of that duty, but of duty entirely.  If your job is to dispense medication prescribed by a doctor, or to administer a federal program, or to teach science, it is none of your business what the drug is, who wants to get married, or whether or not you believe in education.  If those things are important to you, then find a way you can feel good about your work without imposing your religious beliefs on others.  Your conscience has no right over mine.

I admit, a criticism of my argument is that many of these people started the job when it was not morally troubling to them (before gay marriage was legalized, before easy access to birth control) and things have since changed.  I think my argument still stands, though, as the pharmacist is not the one prescribing the drugs, just following the orders of the doctor.  The registrar is not the one legalizing gay marriage, just administering paperwork.  The client’s care was not, and has never been, determined by these workers but by someone above them, whose orders it is the objector’s job to follow.

Iggy Pop: Aug 2003 – Sept 2008

September 8, 2008

Our pet rabbit Iggy Pop died yesterday. He was five years old.

In June, a visit to the veterinarian for some unusual behaviour uncovered the sad existence of ten tablespoons of excess calcium, a.k.a. sludge, in poor Iggy Pop’s bladder. When we requested the surgery we had hoped that it would solve the problem; unfortunately it only delayed the inevitable. We took Iggy back to the vet’s office yesterday because we had noticed the mildest symptoms similar to last time and, through x-ray, our fears were confirmed. Sludge more dense than his bone had again built up in his bladder. Surgery was not an option this time, and with no intervention his bladder would explode in a day or two. We chose to prolong our suffering in order to shorten his. We held and pet him as the doctor sedated him and then administered a drug to stop his heart. I held Iggy’s ear in place so that the doctor could find a vein. It was over very quickly.

Iggs was a great rabbit. He was loving and cuddly, mischievous and moody, curious and damn frustrating. When let into a room he would immediately scout the perimeter, find the best corner, and pee. If you sat on the floor he would come up to you and squat down, head flat on the floor, so that you could pet him. While our other rabbit, Gabe, hated him, Iggy would try again and again to win her affections. He wasn’t the brightest bunny in the box (we lovingly referred to him as our “special needs rabbit,” but he was so affectionate and sweet. When we had to pick him up and hold him to clip his nails or wash his bum he would struggle for a moment and then resign himself to us, let us do whatever we had in mind (unlike Gabe, who will fight to the point of injuring herself). He trusted us, and because he trusted us and his life was in our hands, we had to make the best decisions for him that we could. That is why we had him operated on the first time, changed his whole diet around to make a second time more unlikely, and then chose to have him euthanized yesterday.

The last, borrowed, three months of his life were good ones for him. He got to run around in the yard, even escaped to a neighbours yard on several occasions. He got a lot of love and was as happy as a bunny can be.

We love and miss our dear Iggy Pop.