What is Humanism?

I’m not trying to make a series of ‘What is…’ posts but these things are popping up in my daily treasure hunt in the jungle of RSS feeds I subscribe to. The gem I found recently was a post about humanism. You might wonder what that is. I know I did for a long time before looking for an explanation, so here is a summary:

1 a : devotion to the humanities : literary culture
b : the revival of classical letters, individualistic and critical spirit, and emphasis on secular concerns characteristic of the Renaissance
2 : humanitarianism
3 : a doctrine, attitude, or way of life centered on human interests or values; especially : a philosophy that usually rejects supernaturalism and stresses an individual’s dignity and worth and capacity for self-realization through reason

Right! That sounds simple enough. You could even be an atheist and get into this, right? Well, usually this is true but not always. That is just about as clear as mud, so what do Humanists say about humanism. The answer to that little question is what inspires this post. Their answer is as inspiring as the definition from Merriam-Websters is clear. Lets have a peak at another post at The Friendly Atheist by Michael Werner who is past president of the AHA and remains active in many humanist organizations, so we can be fairly certain that he understands what humanists think humanism is. Turns out it’s not a new idea, stretching back to the early 1930s.

From his article is a sort of summary:

We now see human nature as having potential for both good and evil behavior. We now see human progress as elusive and doubtful in many areas. Still, we forge ahead, for what other reasonable choice do we have? No loving God protects us or metes out everlasting justice. Any progress is that which we create, finite and imperfect as we are. Any justice is justice we make. Any love we give is only given now. Any suffering is ameliorated by us, here and now. Only we have the power to create a world in which we flourish.

No shit? Was Captain Obvious a humanist? Perhaps in times past or through the blurry vision that many human preoccupations give us these things are not as self evident as the need for daily doses of food, water, sleep, and respiration but they should be, especially to an atheist. Describing yourself as a humanist atheist is like saying you are a human ape in my view. Perhaps that is harsh, but if you’re going to change with the times admitting that the premise of your ideals is self evident should prompt you to be a bit more industrious with your ‘community’ goals. He continues:

We long for a vital center to our lives that both grounds us and inspires us, a vision of grander authenticity to our lives and not just smaller truths. We long for an evocative whole story and higher vision that lifts our hearts and ennobles our lives. Some may find this integrated story for the future in the balanced humanist life of the here and now. To embrace humanism is to accept the exhilarating challenge of moving toward a responsible search — as the ancient Greeks did — for the good, the true, and the beautiful.

Here we go. Something that makes humanists different from your garden variety flat-rate atheist: a longing for a vital center in life that grounds and inspires us. I don’t know about you, but I don’t long for anything even close to that. Those are some lofty goals. Personally I’d be happy to find more than a handful of honest politicians, never mind goodness, truth, and beauty. I’d settle for knowing I’ll be able to feed myself and get medical attention for the rest of my life.

Don’t get me wrong. I am inspired by the many great things that humankind has accomplished and will accomplish. I’m just a bit more into the graspable and technical side of this. Truth and beauty sound a bit too much like philosophy. Is truth going to feed my kids? Will beauty cure my diabetes? I think that makes me one of those people that fall near the ‘complete cynicism’ end of the scale. It’s not that I’m so cynical its just that trying to focus on truth, beauty, and hope for the future takes away time that I could spend working and planning for that future.

Right enough, I spend time thinking about philosophical matters and beauty and truth, but finding enough food and shelter to keep me and mine alive for a few more days is far more important. In these complex and fast paced times it is more difficult than you might first believe to find that food and shelter. At one time a slow rabbit and a cave would work. Today you have to worry about the economy, politicians, evolving job markets, the price of fuel oil for farmers and a billion other things that most definitely are not ‘truth, beauty, and hope’ in my view.

That brings this full circle, back to myatheistlife. So, you’re an atheist. Now what?

I don’t think that becoming a humanist as well is the next step. Not when they spend time stating the obvious like I’d somehow forget it, and as much effort to talk about truth and beauty as if these are needed; as if they are in and of themselves answers to life’s big questions. They are not. They don’t even acknowledge the big questions. To my mind this humanist stuff is just a bit too fuzzy and touchy feely, so lets add some definition:

TRUTH: Acknowledgment and acceptance of the fact that life is find food and water, sleep, wake up, repeat.

BEAUTY: Understanding that there is no greater meaning or purpose to life yet taking time to create meaning for yourself and those around you. A life that is entirely unappreciated except by a stray cat that once needed a meal and was given one is a life lived well enough. The act of helping another is beauty and gives meaning to all the rest of it from the participants point of view, even if accomplished only once in a lifetime.

VITAL CENTER: Oh, come on. Philosophers and nihilists and others will compellingly tell you that there is no such thing and cannot be. There is life and non-life. Everything else is subjective.

In myatheistlife view there is no searching. Truth is in your head already. Beauty is all around you and you are capable of creating it every day, everywhere you go. There is no need for a vital center, never mind longing for it.

… food … water … sleep … wake … repeat

Anything and everything else you do is icing on the cake of life. The only meaning that can be found now, or has ever been found is what you yourself ascribe to the small bubble that you live in. The meaning of life can be found everywhere. I found some today. With my first cup of coffee of the day while out on the patio having a smoke I watched a gecko trundling off to sleep the day away after a successful night hunting bugs on the screen of my back window. Eat, drink, sleep, wake, repeat…. The gecko even seemed to look contented. I vowed to not spray insecticide where he lives. Beauty waxes and wanes and the wheel keeps on turning. Who needs a vital center? I don’t, and you shouldn’t.

What is Atheism?

If you are reading this far you probably already have an idea of what atheism is, or at least what it means to you. If that is not the case, perhaps you are looking for such. In either case this post is what atheism means to me. I’m going to reference a couple of other blog posts for reference because it is not easy to describe how I think others get it wrong without showing how they did that. In doing this it is my hope that more people come to understand the definition of atheism in the way that I do. So what is it that inspired this post you might ask. A post at ‘The Friendly Atheist‘ regarding comments by PZ Meyers (famous for stealing a cracker LOL).

Lets start with Merriam-Webster

archaic : ungodlinesswickedness
a : a disbelief in the existence of deity
   b : the doctrine that there is no deity

The word doctrine can be a bit confusing, so lets see how Merriam-Webster defines it:

archaic : teachinginstruction
2 a : something that is taught
   b : a principle or position or the body of principles in a branch of knowledge or system of belief : dogma
   c : a principle of law established through past decisions
   d : a statement of fundamental government policy especially in international relations
   e : a military principle or set of strategies
I put the important parts in bold italics. One conclusion that we can draw from these definitions is that there is no requirement for clubs, memberships, organizations, rules, rites, rituals etc. In fact we can quickly look up religion to see how they compare:
1 a : the state of a religious <a nun in her 20th year ofreligion>
  b (1) : the service and worship of God or the supernatura
    (2) : commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance
: a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices
archaic : scrupulous conformity : conscientiousness
: a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith
And we find that in fact clubs, memberships, organizations, rules, rites, rituals etc. ARE required for religion. Now we can clearly conclude that by definition atheism is not a religion, it does not require the rigor that religion does. In fact it requires only one thing: a lack of belief in gods/deities etc. I’ll add ghosts, supernatural beings, and other such things as are attributed supernatural qualities.
Now that we have that out of the way, you might be wondering what it is that atheists do? If they don’t gather or go to a church what can they be doing. The truth of it is that they are doing all the same things that anyone who is not a stamp collector might be doing. Not as a group, but as individuals. You may well think that this is odd but in reference, we don’t often worry about what people who don’t believe in santa claus are doing with their time, do we? Likewise we don’t wonder how to find and join the congregation for people that don’t like blue cars nor the club for people that don’t believe in the tooth fairy.
It should seem clear enough now that atheists have nothing in common with one another except for the lack of belief in gods/deities. That’s it. They don’t all like one another or feel it necessary to use secret handshakes. In fact they don’t even recognize one another on the street. There is no way to spot an atheist walking down your block. They are just like you or me or anyone you know… except that they don’t believe in gods. They probably also don’t believe in santa claus or the tooth fairy, but that is not guaranteed. There are some atheists who start clubs, meetup groups, and social communities because they like those things and like to do them in religion free atmospheres. Though there are such groups they do not speak for all atheists. They don’t even speak for large numbers of atheists. In fact you may find it hard to find an atheist that will say they speak for other atheists.
PZ’s comment was simple enough.
But freethinkers ought not to be shackled by rote and rites. And they especially should not be led by “chaplains” or whatever the hell they’re going to call them. No gods, no masters, no dogma, and no goddamned priests…not even atheist priests.
I think what he is saying here is that church is for religion. Atheists don’t need religion or church and pretending to be a church replacement is nothing more than a hindrance to really being an atheist.
That said, lets look at what Hemant said in reply:

Except no one is demanding that all Humanists participate (or give a mandatory tithe). It’s just nice to have the option to participate in a like-minded community and I know a lot of atheists would be glad to join such a group if one formed in their area.

No matter what it may resemble, though, it’s not “religion.” (Even if a random headline writer calls it a “Church for the Churchless.”)

If Greg and company happen to take some pointers from churches along the way, so be it. There’s a reason those damned things are so successful. Except we can do it without the lies and guilt. We can keep the good stuff, keep it secular, and do it better. Don’t want to join in on the secular “meditation” because it’s too touchy-feely for you? No problem.

It’s just one way to do things. And it’s clearly working.

It sounds like PZ is complaining just for the sake of being a contrarian. He’s not going to stand in the way, but since it’s not his thing, he can’t let it go without trashing it along the way. It’s unnecessary.

Oh no. It sounds like Hemant is speaking for other atheists. That is just bad form for a start. He’s judging in a negative light, and that is more bad form. Yes, of course I’m doing the very same thing here to make an example. Hemant wants you to believe this group is not a religion, it just looks like one. PZ calls bullshit on the whole affair. Hemant seems to have hurt feelings over the exchange. awwww
For my part, I was an atheist long before I ever heard of ‘the four horsemen of atheism’ or Hemant or any group for atheists. I pretty much thought it was a private thing and people just kept it to themselves. The rhetoric after 9/11 made me rethink this and I discovered lots of atheists in the world even as they were discovering each other. Like PZ I don’t want a church replacement, I just want more honesty in government, society, and culture. The kind of honesty that starts with admitting there is absolutely no reason to believe in the existence of gods/deities. I don’t need a support group. I need honest government and society. They don’t come from psuedo-religious non-organizations. Every time that some half baked organization tries to tell you what atheists are and why good atheists are like them, there is only one thing you can be sure of: they don’t know what they are talking about.
You can become a trusted confidant of mine if you earn it. Disbelief in gods/deities doesn’t give you any advantage, nor should it. If your lack of belief relies on a support group, you’re not an atheist, you simply want to be one. Giving up your faith and seeking a church group without gods is just a form of methadone. You cannot be an atheist until you decide firmly that you do not believe no matter what anyone else has to say on the matter. If you still have to have a church fix, you’re doing it wrong. That is what PZ was saying and he is right.

Why does prayer feel good?

You have to understand that while the world’s financial systems are in a kind of meltdown mode, life can be difficult for your average Joe. I know how that difficulty feels. It’s not been easy for the last couple of years. When times are tough and money is tight, it is tempting to say a prayer. It would be so nice to simply ask for help and get it. No, I really mean it would be fucking awesome to simply bow my head and ask for help and then magically get it. Maybe you know how nice that would be, maybe you don’t. Either way I have to tell  you that magic to pay my electric bill would be JFA – Just Fucking Awesome.

Sadly, there is no such thing. I have to pay that bill or go without. I’m nobody and nowhere near too big to fail. I’m not going to get a bail out. Sometimes I sit on my back patio and have a smoke and I think about where I’m going to get the money from. What can I do to generate even a couple hundred more dollars per month? Some times I look up to the stars and wish that if the aliens are here, now would be a good time to scoop me up and take me to another galaxy. Still I’m left there on the patio trying to figure out how I’m going to pay that bill. I don’t have an answer, no closure, no assurance. I have only the idea that I have to do something else, something more, something different. I look at my very loyal dog laying there on the patio and I get the feeling that I want to cry because I have to figure out where the money will come from to buy more dog food. I try to remind myself that today 18000 people starved to death; my position is not even close to being that desperate. I’m one of the lucky people if you consider the entire globe in this situation. It still hurts. It is still debilitating at times. It is still emasculating. There is no band-aid for the feeling of helplessness and powerlessness. Don’t get me wrong. I want to go to the cupboard and pull out the bottle of feel better pills and take two to make sure that my psyche remains in tact as I charter my way through the rough spots. I looked. There is no bottle of feel better pills. Looks like I have to take this on one the chin like all the others. I have to take the hit and keep on going. It’s hard to know why I have to keep on going, but for some reason I do. Giving up doesn’t seem like a good idea. That doesn’t make me less desperate, nor does it make me more comfortable. It simply eliminates an option. Eliminating options seems to be a common thread lately.

All that I’ve done to get a new job, sometimes working at it 10-12 hours per day finally paid off. The stress has finally been set loose and my body reacted to the release of it, or at least to the partial release of it. A cold sore and some pimples. I kind of expected something like this would happen. I’ve seen tough times before. I’m sure I’ll see stressful times again. I never prayed nor wanted to pray this time around. It’s just a waste of time. People close to me had various reactions. One told me that they were praying for me and how god is good because he got me a job. I simply asked why he took the other job away unexpectedly and put me in this troubling position? My wife had a thought that as soon as I finished the built-in cabinets I built for the living room I would get a job. She’s now convinced she has some magic way to see the way the future will unfold. My next sizable raise won’t happen till I’ve constructed the door/wall for our formal dining area so that it is more like a real office. Funny how future events depend on my completing large projects on HER to-do list. Of all the reactions to the news, the one that didn’t make me roll my eyes a bit (or even at all) was the simple statement “Congratulations. You deserve a good job that you like doing! I’m very happy for you!” … can you imagine why?

The way that I see it is this, prayer makes you feel good while you are doing nothing at all. It relieves you of having to worry or figure out how to fix things. I think it is much more useful to thoughtfully ponder your situation and think of what you can do to make things better. Even small changes can make a big difference. It’s hard to think of small changes when you’re busy praying for someone else to come bail you out.

So why does prayer feel good?

Because it stops you from having to deal with the pain of getting through tough times… among other things.

My advice?

I kind of like that I got through a rough patch, and this was an extended one. What doesn’t kill me often does make me stronger. I advise forgetting how to pray or even wanting to pray. Know that it is going to hurt, take it on the chin, and never stop working on how to fix it, change it, or make it better… even when your chin is hurting. If you’re lucky you will have people around you who are supportive and can help you keep your chin up. They say that you can’t really feel alive till you know what death looks like. I’ve been weeks away from bankruptcy, jumped out of a perfectly good airplane, and a few other things. Perhaps not all of them count as near-death but they absolutely remind you how tenuous life really is; how close we all are to complete failure if the infrastructure we depend on fails; that we are about 6 missed meals away from anarchy; that despite all our weaknesses and foibles (here in the west) we are almost all of us much better off than any of the 16,000+ people who will have starved to death in the last 24 hours around the globe. It is not possible to feel as good as I feel right now if you have to credit a deity with the fruits of all your own hard work.

Forget how to pray. Forget you ever wanted to.

September 11 – Why it means anything at all

This year September 11 falls on a Sunday. Next year it will fall on a different day. In either case it is just another day. According to History.com there really isn’t very much interesting that happened on September 11th throughout history. Yeah, a few famous people did things around that day, but the 11th just isn’t very exciting. In fact, there is only one reason for anyone to treat that day any different from any other day. The terrorist attacks on the WTC, The Pentagon, and the crash of flight 93.

September 11 Is Another Global Day Of Dying

On September 11th, 2001 a total of 2,977 people died in the attacks. According to some reports, 18,000 people starve to death every day and that number is not  likely to have gone down since 2008. The ratio? 1:6.046 !  Yes, On September 10th, this year alone, 6 people will starve to death for every person who died in the 9/11 attacks. SIX people. On 9/11/2011 six more people will die for every death in those attacks. On 9/12/2011 another 6 people will die for each death in the attacks. According to the CDC (2007 stats) 6640 people die in the USA each day.  It is reported that on average, 2 people die each second across the globe.

So why exactly is anyone excited about September 11th? Are the deaths of those 2977 people more important than the 6 people who died while you read this sentence? Will prayers and religious celebrations on 9/11 do anything for the 18000+ people who will starve to death on September 11, 2011? Will religious services to remember those who died because of religious zealots save any of the starving people who still have a chance?

Make September 11 A Special Day If You Want

If September 11 seems like a special day to you, go ahead and make it a special day: Donate to help feed starving people who are still living. If it helps you, donate in the name of someone who died in the attacks. Hell, donate every month on the 11th, in anyone’s name. Check out this list of charities. Just don’t donate to religious charities. Remember it was religious zealotry that created 9/11. The world reacted wrongly to those attacks. Would you like proof of that? Check out this view of some of the deaths caused as a result of the reaction to those attacks.

Go Feed Someone

September 11 doesn’t mean anything at all. If it has meaning it is because you ascribe some meaning to it. If you want 9/11 to be special, go feed someone, help the living, remember the starving, fix the problems instead of fixating on what cannot be fixed in the past.

:: UPDATE ::

I hadn’t thought anyone would find this blog never mind read it and comment. One thoughtful person has done all three. I debated moderating their comment to allow it for some time before deciding that an update would be more useful.

The comment simply said: You’re a complete idiot! Enough said.

Clearly, to my mind this is not enough. I cannot determine if I’m thought an idiot because I care about starving people or perhaps it is that I’m thought an idiot because I don’t seem to care enough about those that died on 9/11. The Cult Of Dusty has a few words on this topic and I happen to agree with him completely. Our numbers are different, but both are estimates and both sets of numbers are unacceptable.

“Get over it” and move on with your life is the message. It’s the same message we expect thousands upon thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan families to ‘get’ and deal with. As gramps would say, what is good for the goose is good for the gander. They are dead and buried. Saddam and Bin Laden are dead and buried. Get over it. Move on. We have more pressing problems to deal with.

:: UPDATE ::

Here’s a fun little clip … enjoy!

Pick your battles wisely?

Another day, another bill. So it is. Each day we must forage for food or labor away to pay for it.

I spent three hours tonight listening to my wife argue to hit a hot button so that she could claim to be the injured party in the divorce.

Someone please tell me how a god would have helped me with that?


Tools of life

It was a few years ago that my father retired. He did a lot of work with hand tools and power tools. He asked me if I would like any of his tools as he was giving it all up. Very decisively I replied “yes! I’ll take any that you are willing to give to me” because … well, I worked with him when I was young and learned the cathartic joys of building things. He happily came to visit with a truck loaded full of tools. These were not heavy duty industrial grade tools, but they are very useful for projects even bigger than any I’ve plans for. The Bosch jig saw is an awesome bit of engineering. Hammer drills and table saws never go amiss. The list of tools was long, and every one appreciated.

Today I was thinking about how I had managed now to use, with vigor, each of the tools that he gave me. Ripping wood to meet your needs with 10 inches of table saw powered carbon tipped blade is just awesome… every time I do it. It really is satisfying to ‘manufacture’ stuff, to see it in it’s place in your project, and to every now and then look up and think ‘wow, that came out looking nice. It makes me happy to have done some work that good.’

I was marveling about things like that today and a few thoughts crossed my mind. First, it was first class awesome that my father gave me these tools. Second, I’m not fully a neo renaissance man in the inspired views of Heinlein, but I come pretty close at times or at least I think I do. That number two point sparked a few other things. One is that my father taught me how to use these tools that he gave me. His patience and skill is how I learned this. Of course I get some credit too, but I can’t take all of it. Not only that but he gave me the skills to both doubt myself and others and the skill to analyze what is going on. I’ve not always done the most I can with such skills, but he passed them to me or helped to make them sharper. When my wife said she wants built-in cabinets I did not say I could not do it. I said I could. It’s not the kind of thing that I do regularly, but I was certain I could do it. Sure enough it took a bit of time remembering and figuring things out, but I got the first one done and took about a week of spare time to finish the second one (both sans doors at this point).  Just the same they have paint on and are well on the way to completion.

At some point in all this I did some math. I inherited some capabilities. Some were taught to me. My father gave me tools. I bought some wood and created some decent looking cabinets. Absolutely nothing in this entire decades long chain of events was supernatural. Not at any juncture did any ‘blessing’ give me anything. With the help of my family and a natural curiosity I have retained, gained, and improved skill sets that are useful. I really am one of the smartest apes on this planet. Not the smartest or even close to the top, but I belong to that group which all those do belong to also. I am one of them. It’s good to be human. It is good to know in some small way I have built something on the face of this planet that proves we are here. It may not last long, but I’ve built something that shows we apes are changing the face of the planet. I am proud to be part of a group which has done so very much.

On gods and dogs

I do not know what a starting point should be. There are many famous bloggers and famous atheists. I’m not here to follow them or even to follow in their footsteps.

This blog is just about how I see and experience life. You don’t have to like it. As a matter of fact, I’m not writing this for you.

Today I worked, out in the heat. It’s hot here. Over 100 degrees. Say what you want about climate change, I just have to live in it, whatever it is. It has been hot here before but that is never any help. Sweat is sweat. I am building cabinets for my living room. They are not special, except that I’ve built them by hand. My father gave me a truck load of tools, so I have what I need to do the job. The heat makes it slow sometimes, but I soldier on. I find that when I’m building things I have time in my head to think. I know it’s hard to imagine that, but I do find time to think, so my mind wanders a bit while I’m physically toiling away. It is cathartic in a way to see the results of your efforts in front of you, yet disturbing to find that your mind has time to do other things while you are desperately worried about keeping all your fingers where they belong.

I stopped for a dinner break. A full stomach slowed my work a bit. In one of the moments that I was being slow I remembered a thought I had long ago. At one point I thought about how the number 5 might be considered some magical number. All mammals seem to have five digits on the end of each of their four limbs. Even dogs. I did say ‘seem to have’ rather than assert that they do. Just the same, it seems some kind of magic that so much life has 5 digits, whether in use or not. Religion does not explain this while evolution does. This was important to my personal journey.

Gerrrrrr, that’s not the point, but I suppose it helps explain my varying thoughts. At one point I noticed the dog’s water bowl was low. I have one of those water cooler style watering systems for the dogs. So I took the tank thing to the kitchen sink and began to fill it up with the sprayer hose. It takes a while so I was standing there and in a moment of clarity I heard the noises that it makes. A whine from the water being diverted to the sprayer hose, some drips as the faucet did not run fully dry, and the splashing sound as the sprayed water plummeted to the bottom of the tank. For some reason I thought about each sound. Each is comprised of pressure waves that end up being sounds to my ears. Then with no announcement and great precision the physics and the math of each sound event swarmed in my head. The sounds almost appeared to be visible math formulas floating toward me. I did not understand them, but I perceived  then as the physics that work together to make the sounds. Yes, that was confusing, but imagine seeing the math for the physics of the sound that you hear and you will understand. No, I was not high. Synesthasia of a sort I suppose, but I think maybe all people see these from time to time. It was not long before I could see the physical action of each drop of water being forced through tubes and pipes, and then the math symbols for each drop of water as it moved along the path. It was sort of like the movie “the Matrix” when they are looking at the matrix on a screen. A bunch of passing symbols.

That is when it hit me. My dogs are afraid of thunder and lightning. They do not understand what it is. I do. I see the symbols in the air when it happens and I ‘enjoy’ watching thunderstorms. In my mind’s eye I can see the the electric charges building, then erupting with an explosion of plasma as the light begins to streak across the sky. I can see the pressure waves build as it moves faster; the boom as it explodes around the streak to create the thunder ‘bang’. I find even the simple knowledge of what is happening exciting even when I cannot actually watch all these things. My dogs, on the other hand, they don’t have that knowledge. They feel threatened, and behave as though they are threatened. I see it as my duty to calm them, try to communicate to them that it is no harm to them. It is nothing… even though it might at some point be harm to them. This feeling of responsibility to them made me think. I thought how comforting it must have been when the first person told others that there is a person in the sky controlling those bolts of light and they only harm bad people. I wonder how easy it would be to ally with a person who could explain the world in a way that made sense? Science tells me why things happen while religion tell me that god is punishing people with storms.

My dogs are happy and healthy. I do not know how to make them understand lightening. I can make them feel and behave more calmly. They do not cower from it. I didn’t even have to tell them there is a man in the sky… just that it is okay and that we’ll be okay. Next up: hot air balloons.

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