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Welcome to Reality

May 4, 2009

I’d like to start this post with a welcome to those who have found me via The Global Atheist, and to pass my thanks to Doug for adding me to the aggregator. He seemed to find something interesting in my ramblings (and this is one of them), so I hope you do, too. Fingers crossed?

This weekend I attended the marriage of a friend and work colleague near the ancient and amazingly beautiful city of Bath, in south-western England. He is most definitely what many term a New Atheist and his lovely wife is most definitely an evangelical Christian. It makes for some interesting conversations and — as they are both mature, intelligent people — it will mean that they’re never stuck for conversation when a storm knocks out the power. It may also explain why the wedding took place at a beautiful old hotel in a picturesque rural setting, rather than in a church. I felt honoured to have been invited to the actual ceremony, rather than just the reception in the evening — though when invited, I did jokingly ask who had pulled out at the last minute…

Of course all the extended family were in attendance — many of whom were continental Europeans and antipodean, mostly from the bride’s side of the family — so many had at least crossed the Channel to get here, while others had crossed the equator. Parents, step-parents, siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles — the usual suspects. It made for a marvellously diverse experience with people from various walks of life all united for the common purpose of wishing the Bride and Groom the very best on their promises to each other and themselves. It was, of course, a beautiful day.

It was while sitting down to the post-wedding meal in the early afternoon that I struck up a conversation with a young couple to my left and an older man to my right and — as is probably natural at such occasions — the topic gradually turned to the greater meaning of the day’s ceremony and all three turned out to be remarkably naturalistic in their view of the event. The consensus between we four was that the underlying importance or motivation of the marriage ceremony is predominately to add some kind of “ultimate seal” to the event, to help the newly-obligated couple understand that they have made a promise to one another in the presence of their loved ones and that it’s not something to be taken lightly. I, like everyone else there, hope they have the maturity, flexibility and friendship to grow old together happily.

Later in the evening I was chatting with the same couple and we chatted more about secular world views, and they seemed interested in my views. We discussed the basics of secular humanism, secularism and the problem of religious privilege, soft/weak atheism and its contrast to strong/hard atheism (often characterised as intolerant of religion), the logical reasoning for admitting ignorance as opposed to declaring a position, and so on.

So it took me completely by surprise when he took out a notebook and asked me for a list of books that I’d recommend. After plenty of Guinness — and through the loud music and flashing lights filtering from the next room — this is what I came up with:

  • The Demon Haunted World [Amazon|UK] by Carl Sagan. The man is my hero, what can I say? The book presents his genuinely compassionate view of supernaturalism and what it’s meant to mankind.
  • Anything and everything else by Carl Sagan — including Contact [Amazon|UK] and especially the Cosmos [Amazon|UK] TV series. All his and Ann Druyan‘s works share the same compassionate, understanding view of the world.
  • God is Not Great [Amazon|UK] by Christopher Hitchens. He may be one of the founders of New Atheism as one of The Four Horseman, hold political views that swing as wildly as a large grandfather clock, and get himself beaten up for insulting thugs on their own turf (and here), but the man is undoubtedly one of the best thinkers of our time. That all of his opinions don’t agree with your own is a good thing — I don’t want to read someone whose words I agree from start to finish, as there’s no critical thinking in that.
  • The God Delusion [Amazon|UK] by Richard Dawkins. Many religious people consider this worse than Anton LaVey’s contentious work, The Satanic Bible, but I suspect that’s because the former uses provable facts to justify itself and makes absolutely no room for dogma.
  • The Selfish Gene [Amazon|UK] by Richard Dawkins. It may be a little hard going on the majority of us who are “bioscience-challenged,” but it is a classic piece of work that helps illustrate how un-you you actually are. Helps put things into perspective when your ego wants to insist that You Are Special — and perhaps you are… just like everyone else.
  • The Culture series of novels by Iain M. Banks — I started with Look to Windward [Amazon|UK]. I’m only a few books into the series, but I find it fascinating.
  • 1984 [Amazon|UK] by George Orwell. I read this in the year it was set, at the age of 12, and it changed me forever.
  • Watchmen [Amazon|UK] by Alan Moore. It shows that even bad people have redeeming qualities and good people have damning qualities, stripping the infantile false dichotomy of Good and Evil People. But of course without such flawed thinking we can’t possibly justify war and capital punishment, so it remains as valid today as ever before.
  • 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God [Amazon|UK] by Guy P. Harrison. I’m reading this at the moment, and it’s brilliant.
  • The websites of the following organisations:
  • There are also the podcasts and vodcasts listed via the link at the top of the page.

Last but not least, have a read of the Affirmations of Humanism: A Statement of Principles:

  • We are committed to the application of reason and science to the understanding of the universe and to the solving of human problems.
  • We deplore efforts to denigrate human intelligence, to seek to explain the world in supernatural terms, and to look outside nature for salvation.
  • We believe that scientific discovery and technology can contribute to the betterment of human life.
  • We believe in an open and pluralistic society and that democracy is the best guarantee of protecting human rights from authoritarian elites and repressive majorities.
  • We are committed to the principle of the separation of church and state.
  • We cultivate the arts of negotiation and compromise as a means of resolving differences and achieving mutual understanding.
  • We are concerned with securing justice and fairness in society and with eliminating discrimination and intolerance.
  • We believe in supporting the disadvantaged and the handicapped so that they will be able to help themselves.
  • We attempt to transcend divisive parochial loyalties based on race, religion, gender, nationality, creed, class, sexual orientation, or ethnicity, and strive to work together for the common good of humanity.
  • We want to protect and enhance the earth, to preserve it for future generations, and to avoid inflicting needless suffering on other species.
  • We believe in enjoying life here and now and in developing our creative talents to their fullest.
  • We believe in the cultivation of moral excellence.
  • We respect the right to privacy. Mature adults should be allowed to fulfill their aspirations, to express their sexual preferences, to exercise reproductive freedom, to have access to comprehensive and informed health-care, and to die with dignity.
  • We believe in the common moral decencies: altruism, integrity, honesty, truthfulness, responsibility. Humanist ethics is amenable to critical, rational guidance. There are normative standards that we discover together. Moral principles are tested by their consequences.
  • We are deeply concerned with the moral education of our children. We want to nourish reason and compassion.
  • We are engaged by the arts no less than by the sciences.
  • We are citizens of the universe and are excited by discoveries still to be made in the cosmos.
  • We are skeptical of untested claims to knowledge, and we are open to novel ideas and seek new departures in our thinking.
  • We affirm humanism as a realistic alternative to theologies of despair and ideologies of violence and as a source of rich personal significance and genuine satisfaction in the service to others.
  • We believe in optimism rather than pessimism, hope rather than despair, learning in the place of dogma, truth instead of ignorance, joy rather than guilt or sin, tolerance in the place of fear, love instead of hatred, compassion over selfishness, beauty instead of ugliness, and reason rather than blind faith or irrationality.
  • We believe in the fullest realization of the best and noblest that we are capable of as human beings.

I expect some atheists — and of course theists and deists who find their way here — will disagree with what I’ve said, both in this post and previous ones (please feel free to read through the archive), but I cannot reconcile the concept of belief, or even emphatic or ardent disbelief, with logical reality. While at university some of my peers jokingly nicknamed me Data — the android from Star Trek: The Next Generation — and I then (as now) considered it a sideways compliment, as the character was all about logic and intellectual honesty, and that series of Star Trek was the poster-child of and introduction to the concepts of humanism for millions of people. Sure, I have countless flaws in every aspect of my life, but I try to improve this blink of existence called my life and to help others (and nature) where I can. And I think that’s all any of us can really do.

But I do what I do for humanity, not to try to earn a place in an afterlife. That is, I think, what humanism is all about.

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