Sunday, January 10, 2010

Humanist Symposium #48: A Winter Wonderland

A hearty welcome to one and all for this forty-eighth edition of The Humanist Symposium! This weekend, it's gotten down to twenty below zero (Fahrenheit) in Central Illinois: the solstice is past, but winter proper is just getting started as we've only gotten our first "real" snowfalls in the last three weeks or so. Similarly, I had thought that my paucity of posts would end with my return from the frigid northlands, but the togetherness and celebrations were just getting started as I caught up with old friends who had come back to town for new year celebrations and what-not.

The season seems to permeate even our Humanist blogosphere: the theme of this symposium, from reading the entries, is clearly a wintry one. We start off with the starkest reason for the season, death and rebirth. No matter what the superstitious zealots among us may say, the real reason for the season - and I've forgone the scare quotes because I actually mean this - is the death and rebirth of the Sun. In the northern hemisphere, our star wanes from the autumnal equinox until the winter solstice, that particular rotation of our Earth with the fewest hours of daylight in the entire circumstellar cycle.

Graham Phoenix will deliver our opening sermon, some thoughts of his on Death and Departure. A reflection on a Humanist memorial service, which I sincerely hope shall be given to me on my demise, he says of his departed friend:
She believed so much in people, she had no spiritual beliefs. Spirituality, religion, to her was a con that exploited people. There was no God, no after life, nothing beyond the memory someone holds in their heart for a person. So her touchstones were nature and people. Her funeral was a humanist one, first I have been to.
From Graham's description, the service seemed less a "goodbye" and more a "remembrance." It seems to have rubbed him the wrong way, which is a shame; or perhaps it was simply inevitable that he should feel some loss at his friend's passing, and no memorial service could ameliorate that. This dovetails well into our next entry, Greta Christina's thoughts on Atheism, Death, and the Difference Between Pessimism and Realism:
It bugs me when atheists with a more bleak view of death than mine present that bleakness as a logical consequence of atheism, the inherent and natural result of not believing in God or an afterlife. It bugs me partly because I disagree. Obviously. But it also bugs me because it treats a question of personal opinion and philosophy and perspective as if it were a question of fact.
Greta reminds us of the role that emphasis and perspective have on our outlooks in life. The particulars of what we emphasize about our lives on earth, and what perspective we take on the things that come our way, go a far longer way than many wish to acknowledge towards shaping our lives. As a case in point, Michael Fridman reflects upon the role of luck in his life and concludes that he is Living on Borrowed Time:
If we don’t get ourselves extinct, if things go well there may be a time in the not too distant future where (due to a growing population and improving living standards) most humans who ever existed will have had the same cushy conditions. This tirade will become obsolete — since based on a historical view I should have lived well past 25. But until then, it at least seems clear to me that we should stop romanticising the past — and in the words of a TED speaker I don’t remember, start romanticising the future instead.
Well said! We should all strive to help build such a future, where "there but for the grace of chance go I" sort of luck can apply to as many as possible. Although, I suppose that it couldn't really be called "luck," per se, at that point.

But sometimes it is appropriate to romanticize the past, if by "romanticize" we mean "think fondly about." Andrew West reminds us of this in A Humanist Miracle, comparing and contrasting the 1947 original A Miracle on 34th Street with the 1994 remake. Like all good reviews, West extrapolates the comparison between the two movies into a lesson we would all do well to take to heart:
Even if Christmas was 100% described in the Bible, we’d still get to strip the weird stuff and enjoy the rest. This isn’t rude or disrespectful – we’re not preventing others celebrating, but we’re not bound by their rules, because we’re not in their club. There’s no copyright on celebration, and nobody gets to forever assign meaning to ritual. I don’t care why we put up coloured lights – I just like pretty lights, dammit! This is the pleasingly secular message of Miracle 1947: celebrate however you like, and don’t worry about what other people think, but stand firm in your convictions.
This is the sort of lesson we should be looking for in all our daily lives, taking the opportunity to live out our values as TechSkeptic does while Shoveling Snow:
Some days, if the storm is real bad, I'll go around and help two or three people dig out their cars. I get offered money, I get asked what I want. I tell them I don't want anything, I just want them to help someone else out some time. Yeah, I saw the movie "Pay It Forward". I think its a pretty good idea, even if the reality is that almost no one pays it forward.
The great thing about such thoughts is that, if enough people behave like that, it becomes reality. These nice little things are, after all, the whole point in a very important way. We don't just advocate for Humanism because it makes more sense or is more rational or has its underpinning supported better by the evidence. I mean, of course it does those things, too; but instilling Humanist values into a population seems to make that population better, to the best of our ability to tell. Godlessness, on a large scale, is good for people. And a good thing, too, as Adam Lee presents some encouraging statistics and solstice well-wishing in Happy Holidays! Atheism is Growing!:
What this shows, as I've said before and will doubtless continue to say, is that we should ignore the brow-furrowing and finger-wagging of the Very Serious theologians who sternly inform us that we're doing a disservice to our own cause by advocating and defending it in public. We have every reason to believe that atheist campaigns of persuasion are working, achieving their intended purpose of convincing more people to become atheists and weakening the social prejudice that treats religious belief as immune to questioning.
This should provide some comfort to the Mandi Kayes of the world, who have seen "meaning" connected to "religion" for too long by far, and fallen under the illusion that there is any necessary connection between them at all. As Mandi writes in a post on Fulfillment,
There are far too many people, including myself, who have never taken the time or effort to find their own sense of fulfillment in their lives. I’ve always relied on my pre-fabricated bubble to give me everything I thought I needed in my life. And when times get tough, I fall back into the familiar.

So here’s to finding real fulfillment within yourself in 2010.

Cheers, indeed! Keep fighting the good fight, even when it goes into your own head. In the greater scheme of things, we should be so lucky as to be able to worry about things like leading fulfilling lives, rather than worrying about having a life at all. Life is complicated, and Andrew Bernardin reminds us of this in The Mundane Secrets to Happiness:
When I first moved to Florida I noticed this about my new area: store clerks and other service providers seemed so much nicer. Sunnier in disposition. Now I know why that may be so. While it is not “something in the water,” it could be a bunch of things in the wider environment that lend themselves to more satisfying life experiences. And so the greater number of genuine smiles and warm words.
The "little things' really do add up, they're what we make our lives out of. Think about it - is your life made up of a few "big things," or a whole bunch of "little things?" Bernardin drives the point home with a bit of applied rhetoric in What to Do About Woo in the Family:
I rarely respond well to being publicly bitch-slapped by the truth. Instead, I appreciate having a breadcrumb-trail of clues placed before me so I may make the progress and then own the conclusion myself.
Nothing like applying a little bit of constructive psychology to the family, eh?

We'll close this symposium on life, death, meaning, and family togetherness by coming full-circle. Cubik's Rube brings us to a vexatious close with his thoughts on a Daily Fail and Akmal Shaikh:
But amidst all this vagueness, there’s one thing I’m pretty damn sure of.

And that’s that, when China executes a British citizen, whatever your thoughts on capital punishment in general might be, the correct response is not “I’m glad he’s dead, and the rest of his lot should all go the same way.”

I’m paraphrasing, but that’s pretty much the gist of this Daily Mail article by Leo McKinstry.
I read it, and so should you, and I have to say that I am pissed. McKinstry's impermissive deontological Othering is exactly the sort of thing we need to be fighting against. Law is not good in and of itself, drugs are not bad in and of themselves, and if you have such a huge problem with something that your society needs to kill people to stop them doing it, then you're probably barking up the wrong tree. Last I checked, the measure of civilization was how permissive it is in letting people do whatever they want so long as they don't harm others. Letting people fulfill themselves in a manner of their own choosing is the logical consequence of expanding our moral circles, and McKinstry's shrieking demagoguery is precisely the opposite of that.

So, in closing, let us Humanists go forth and shovel some snow, so to speak. Let us find fulfillment in making the world a more fulfilling place, let us spread the good news of our message to all corners, let us improve the lives of our neighbors and thereby also help ourselves. And let us do all of this with a happy heart, in full knowledge of the sobering fact that death comes to us all. After all, spring is coming. See you in three weeks at The Purloined Letter! Peace and love to one and all.

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