img.latex_eq { padding: 0; margin: 0; border: 0; }

Tuesday, 29 April 2008

This is just to say that I have been converted . . .

. . . into a Doctor Who fan.

In my defence, however, the Doctor is clearly a humanist. I mean, he's not human himself, of course, but he likes human beings in a very humanist sort of way, and it's not as if he has any religious beliefs that might disqualify him.

At any rate, having made it to the end of Series 2 (which is very much an ending), I'm sort of hoping that I'll be able to stop watching every Doctor Who DVD I can get my hands on and start doing, you know, stuff. Like the Nonbelieving Literati, for example. Which reminds me, have I misread the pattern or is it my turn to choose the next book after this one?

Friday, 18 April 2008

With thanks to my atheist mother

It always interests me when the subject of 'atheist parenting' comes up in the blogosphere. I find it slightly strange the way it is sometimes approached as a new phenomenon. For many deconverts, of course, it is a new idea, one that they have to work out for themselves as they anticipate having children. If I ever have children, however, raising them as atheists will hardly be new territory. I've seen it done. I've been on the receiving end of it!

This post is for some of the things I owe my mother; specifically, for some atheist things I owe her. I say my 'mother' because, well, Dad has always been the one with the full time job. He's around, and very loving when he is around, but it's my mother who had the greatest effect on the crucial things. So, with apologies to Dad, he's only going to appear in this post in the form of various side notes.

Not all of these things are confined to atheists. In fact, now I think of it, nearly all of them could have at least some applicability to a religious upbringing, depending on your level of liberalism. Nonetheless, they relate strongly to values associated with freethought. I have three subheadings.

1. Science

One of my earliest memories is -- well, it's fragmentary these days, tied to a single picture and a dimly remembered feeling of fascination. The story goes like this.

You know how kids go through a stage where they're trying to distinguish between male and female? It takes a while to learn the little clues (Genuine memory that just flashed into my head: "Most of the time, long haired people are women. Some men have long hair, too, though." That's my mother, trying to explain some of the clues that might help. "Only men have beards" would have been a useful one; pity it's of such limited use. And so on.). Anyway, the way my mother tells it, I was about three and had developed an annoying habit of pointing to people in the supermarket saying "Mummy, mummy, that one there! Is that a man or a woman?"

Questions like that, spoken loudly in a public place, can be embarrassing. "Why, Mummy? Why is that a man?" I suspect the main reason my mother came up with this plan was as a way of shutting me up. "Wait until we get home and I'll explain," she told me, and I can't tell you if the impatience I remember is a real memory or a superimposed one; it was twenty years ago, after all. If it is a real memory, though, then I can tell you that it all sounded very mysterious and that I didn't like having to wait.

So we got home, and she went upstairs and got the book she'd used to tell me about where babies come from when she was expecting my little sister. It's a good book, full of actual scientific photographs. I know I have some memory of this book, because when I saw it, more than a decade later, I recognised the page that she had turned to for this explanation.

"These are chromosomes," she told me (I thought of them as 'krome-zomes' for years afterwards). "Boys have an X chromosome and a Y chromosome. Girls have two X chromosomes. The egg always has an X chromosome from the mother, but the sperm can have an X chromosome or a Y chromosome . . . "

What's the moral of this story? Tell your kids stuff. Encourage them to ask questions by giving them answers -- "I'll tell you when we get home" is a much better response than "Just be quiet and don't be rude." If they're listening and not bored, don't be scared of overloading them with information -- it took me a while to realise my mother was only referring to one out of twenty-three pairs of chromosomes, even though I'm sure she explained that at the time, but that was okay. I just filled in the details when I got older.

Oh, and if you're lucky, they'll make cute precocious statements. My father loves to tell the story of the man who came to visit when I was four who said to me "You're a very clever little girl, aren't you?" and received the response "That's because I have two X krome-zomes." My mother used to scoff at that story. "Of course she knew what chromosomes were. I told her."

2. Sexuality

Another one of my earliest memories is being given a small hand mirror by my mother so I could look at my vulva. As memories go, it pairs nicely with the previous one, both because I was about the same age and because I was at least as fascinated if not more so. If you're a girl, you can't necessarily see your genitals easily without a mirror. It's nice to know what's there.

When I mentioned this memory to my mother, she said she spent the whole time feeling terribly uncomfortable. If that's true, all I can say is that I owe her doubly for not communicating that to me at the time. This memory is only one small part of what it takes to build comfort with your own body, of course, but I'm sure it's crucial -- why else would I remember it so clearly?

Think about it. Generations of children were told at that age not to touch that part, and don't look at that part or think too much about it, and those are your secret parts, and whatever. And my mother? She gave me a mirror. I love her so much.

When I get into my teens, my mother also told me how to masturbate. Is that odd? It was a serviceable explanation, spoken in the rather factual but otherwise ordinary tone my mother usually retreats to when one of us brings up sexuality. My own feelings about sex are mixed and murky. (So are my mother's. Her early experiences of sex were rather unpleasant. Do I blame her? Yes and no.) I can't be ashamed of masturbation, though. It has no disadvantages. There's nothing for the shame to stick to.

Then there are the various books she supplied me with -- Our Bodies, Ourselves, and the one by Sheila Kitzinger with 'sex' in the title that I shelved spine-backwards at age sixteen when she gave it to me and then pulled out at age eighteen and read with fascination and occasional arousal. I quite like the idea of non-fiction as erotica, actually. I looked for that book when I was twenty-one and couldn't find it. I think my eldest little sister took it. The enlightenment goes on!

3. Rules and Morality

I like this one best of all. My mother is determinedly, thoughtfully moral. Indeed, her approach to teaching us morality was rather like her approach to teaching us science. Just as we were always allowed to ask questions of fact, so also we were always allowed to ask questions about the rules. "Because I said so" was a banned phrase; "argument from authority," she'd have called it. Maybe if she was really tired and exasperated she'd resort to "Oh, please, just behave, I don't have time to argue this right now." Most of the time she'd have the discussion and give us the explanation, though, because she believed in the principle of open debate, and she believed in not claiming to be infallible. If she was wrong, we should argue with her, and she'd change if we could make her see it. Basic principles like fairness and not hurting people were taken for granted, I admit; we never thought to question those. Perhaps they were partially built into us; more likely, I think, we learned what sorts of arguments were acceptable by example.

Interesting, isn't it? She taught us morality and critical thinking at the same time. If you're logical to begin with, having morality presented to you in the form of reasoned argument is a great way to embed it as deeply as it will go. I respect reasons.

There's more I could say on this subject. I'm particularly lucky in that I had educated parents -- my mother left school at sixteen, actually, but she still knew enough biology to tell me about chromosomes. I guess the most important thing was that she knew how to share her knowledge with a small child! Later, she went to university, studied philosophy, and ended up introducing me to all manner of theories of ethics. There's nothing like having a list of counterexamples to make the notion that you can't have a theory of morality without God seem particularly silly. As for my Dad, he's a forest scientist with a crazy love for astronomy -- when they taught me in school to say "my very elegant mother just sat upon nine porcupines" I couldn't help thinking that "Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto" would be a more obvious way of listing those letters in that order. It took me a moment to realise that wasn't the point.

So, yeah, I'm lucky. I won't say there were no disadvantages to my parents' way of bringing me up. I have a long list of things I'd do differently. Atheism isn't one of them, though. In bringing me up as an atheist, my parents gave me an incredible head start.

Saturday, 12 April 2008

My letter to Monique Davis

Rep. Monique Davis of the state legislature in Illinois caught the attention of the atheist blogosphere recently with her startling outburst (reported here) to atheist Rob Sherman, who was testifying against the allocation of state funds to rebuild a historic (but still operating) church:

Davis: I don’t know what you have against God, but some of us don’t have much against him. We look forward to him and his blessings. And it’s really a tragedy -- it’s tragic -- when a person who is engaged in anything related to God, they want to fight. They want to fight prayer in school.

I don’t see you (Sherman) fighting guns in school. You know?

I’m trying to understand the philosophy that you want to spread in the state of Illinois. This is the Land of Lincoln. This is the Land of Lincoln where people believe in God, where people believe in protecting their children.… What you have to spew and spread is extremely dangerous, it’s dangerous--

Sherman: What’s dangerous, ma’am?

Davis: It’s dangerous to the progression of this state. And it’s dangerous for our children to even know that your philosophy exists! Now you will go to court to fight kids to have the opportunity to be quiet for a minute. But damn if you’ll go to [court] to fight for them to keep guns out of their hands. I am fed up! Get out of that seat!

Sherman: Thank you for sharing your perspective with me, and I’m sure that if this matter does go to court---

Davis: You have no right to be here! We believe in something. You believe in destroying! You believe in destroying what this state was built upon.

Unbelievable stuff. Since then, the Council for Secular Humanism has called for Monique Davis to resign, and there have been several calls for an apology. Davis has responded by apologising to Sherman, as reported here.

Maybe I'm just being influenced by Alonzo Fyfe's take, but really, Davis' apology disturbs me more than the reports on her initial comment did. We don't know exactly what she said, because it wasn't a public apology, it was a personal one to the person she blew up at. It's nice to know that she understands that it's polite to apologise to someone you yell at, but does she even understand that what she said about atheists -- all atheists -- was wrong? What's with that reference to school shootings? Does she blame atheists for those?

I can't know for sure what Monique Davis believes or was trying to say. I have, however, sent her a letter asking for clarification. I have no idea what she'll think to receive a letter from New Zealand that won't reach her for a week on a subject that most closely concerns the atheist citizens in her own state, but I find I can't keep silent. The text of my letter is given below.


Flat _
_ _______ Street
New Zealand

11 April, 2008

Dear Ms Davis,

I am writing with regard to the remarks you made to Rob Sherman, stating that atheists ‘believe in destroying’ and that it is ‘dangerous for children to even know that [atheism] exists’. I wish to commend you for apologizing to Mr Sherman for your remarks. However, you do not merely owe an apology to Mr Sherman. You owe an apology to all atheists.

I myself am an atheist and secular humanist. My atheist mother, who is currently doing a PhD in ethics, brought me up to think as carefully about what is morally good as I do about what is objectively true. I believe in showing compassion to others. I believe in justice. I believe in being open to new evidence. I believe in not pre-judging people by their religion or lack thereof.

In stating that atheists ‘believe in destroying’, you have shown incredible bigotry to all people who, for whatever reason, come to believe that God probably does not exist. I urge you to consider your atheist constituents and apologize to them, too, as a lawmaker who publicly stated that they did not have a right to be heard by the state government. I realize your comments were spoken in the heat of the moment. Please take the opportunity to put them right!

I am also concerned to hear that, in your apology to Sherman, you explained that you were upset that day because you heard that two Chicago students had been shot to death. I hope this does not mean that you succumb to the bigotry that blames atheists for school shootings. No good reason for such blame exists. When we hear that children have died, we grieve, too. We cannot even comfort ourselves with the thought that the children will live on in heaven. I have nothing but contempt for the people who use such tragedies to try to inspire hatred of unrelated groups. I would be grateful for clarification of what you meant when you referred to school shootings in your apology to Mr Sherman.

I am a New Zealander, not an American. I do not have to face the anti-atheist sentiment that some unlucky American atheists put up with on a regular basis. However, as a member of the international atheist community, I hope that more Americans will come to understand that atheists generally do not believe in destroying. Indeed, atheism is all the more reason to try to do good in the world. Since there is no God, if we do not build the world we wish to see, no-one will.

Yours sincerely,


I even Americanized my spelling for her. I'd like to say it was politeness; I'm sorry to say it may have been an indication of my opinion of her openmindedness. Not that American spelling izn't uzually more sensible when you think about it.

Thursday, 3 April 2008

Introducing Odo Hirsch

I read children's books. A lot of children's books. I never really stopped, because there was no way I was going to give up my favourite authors just because I was entering my teens. I do not think I have ever had enough favourite authors.

My pseudonym is taken from a children's book -- specifically this children's book entitled The Savage Damsel and the Dwarf, by Gerald Morris; Lynet is the eponymous Savage Damsel. The series of which it is a part is delightful despite being shabby in places: sweet and good and humble and humourous. It's also written by a Christian minister. Not, perhaps, the most apt pseudonym for an atheist blogger, but then, I never expected to blog about atheism!

Sometimes you can pick the books written by authors who take their Christianity seriously. I don't mean the ones who throw it in your face, I mean the ones for whom it shows up naturally, because Christianity is such a large part of their lives that they can't leave it out of what they write. I'm thinking, for example, of Madeleine L'Engle, who makes love the central empowering force for the side of good in A Wrinkle in Time and its sequels. There's also Sherryl Jordan, a New Zealander like me, who pulled off a (halfway convincing!) World Peace ending in Time of the Eagle, achieved through the work of a character who survives by having faith in the purpose she believes has been laid down for her. You can see the Christian belief structure. Does it bother me? A little. Am I skeptical of it? Yes. Do I learn from it? Definitely. Do I like these authors? Oh, so much!

At the very least, I needn't be ashamed of liking Katherine Paterson -- she's another author who belongs in this category, perhaps the best writer of them all. She writes with such incredible sympathy for her characters (the same is true of Orson Scott Card). Moreover, we atheists owe her a vote of thanks. In Leslie (from Bridge to Terabithia) we have a sympathetic atheist character that we can be proud to be represented by: imaginative, intelligent, non-conforming, courageous. Paterson even goes so far as to take the cruelty of eternal damnation and slam it in the reader's face! Yet she herself is Christian. Her other Newbery-Award-winning book is Jacob Have I Loved, which deals with the problem of feeling that God might hate you. And yes, when I read her, or Card, or Gerald Morris, or Sherryl Jordan, or Madeleine L'Engle, sometimes I can't help thinking 'How can we duplicate this?' How can we duplicate that sympathy? How can we duplicate the good aspects that come (I assume) from having a community which encourages you to think about others and love them just as they are? More complicatedly, this emphasis on love, faith, God's plan and whatever isn't precisely the angle I would want to take! It has good aspects, and regular focus on those things as part of being actively religious can have a nice effect, but I wouldn't want to buy the whole thing. What do I want?

I have some answers. Daylight Atheism. A little familiarity with philosophy. Book clubs. Meditation without the surrounding mysticism? Humanist groups? Humanism, certainly. Philip Pullman, Terry Pratchett, various other authors who present a rich and complex worldview that deals with the atheist perspective . . .

. . . and one Odo Hirsch, who somehow captures the simple half.

I don't know that Hirsch is an atheist. He's notoriously shy with all personal data. This is an amusing example. This article is in fact the most detailed information I've been able to find about him on the internet (notably, he's worked as a doctor and as a business consultant, studied political thought at Cambridge, and did some work for Amnesty International). Let me say, then, that I would intuit that Hirsch is a non-believer in the same way that I might intuit that an author is Christian. Hirsch obviously has a deep philosophy, it permeates his work -- and God never shows up. Reading him is like reading one of my favourite Christian authors, except that I'm not looking at some fuzzy other-person's-worldview that I have to sift through, I'm looking at something that often hits me clear as day.

If I had to name some authors who can make me see simple goodness and light in the world when I'm tired and stressed and don't feel like reading something complicated, I'd name Gerald Morris and Odo Hirsch. Morris writes light Arthurian retellings that can laugh at themselves. Hirsch is something else entirely. When Hirsch writes one of his happy books, it's as if he's done the usual thing by writing a book for children in which all distress is minor and happiness prevails in the end -- but done it with an incredibly sophisticated notion of happiness. No pasted-on smiles, here. There are reasons why Hirsch's characters are happy. You can learn something about happiness by reading one of his simple little children's books. You can see the happiness in the world from having had it sketched out for you.

Frankel Mouse has perhaps the most obvious moral. I once read a review that described Frankel, his brother Berrell and the small, frightened mouse Michael that Frankel has taken in as a 'dysfunctional mouse family' and bridled. They're not dysfunctional! Berrell is dysfunctional. Frankel is about as functional as you can get. You might worry, I suppose, about the way Berrell stays at home all day and makes Frankel look for the cheese. Of the two, though, Frankel is much happier, and you can see that Berrell's unhappiness is entirely his own fault. Frankel's work gives him a purpose and an identity. "We are the cheese-stealers!" he explains to Michael. If Berrell is grumpy, it's because he sits in a corner all day and never does anything. No wonder he almost seems to welcome the arrival of daredevil Cousin Ruthie. Frankel, by contrast, dreads Cousin Ruthie's arrival -- but I think he does admit at one point that her fun-loving, adventurous ways do make life more exciting . . .

Other lighthearted works from Odo Hirsch include the ones about Bartlett the Explorer ("Inventiveness, Desperation, Perseverance!"), and the ones about Hazel Green, an inquisitive extrovert who has multiple friendships with the adults who run the various stores on the ground floor of the skyscraper in which she lives, and who is forever asking them questions about what they do. Hazel Green is in fact my favourite Odo Hirsch book -- central to the book is her developing friendship with the local math geek.

Hirsch can write characters whose lives are full of meaning, but he is also capable of writing characters who look for meaning. Antonio S and the Mystery of Theodore Guzman has a bittersweet tone, as does Pincus Corbett's Strange Adventure. The latter describes a simple, reliable tailor who is tired of making boring things and starts a project of his own -- a colourful coat that can give him a new identity. Does it make him happier? Well, yes, it's better than nothing, but somehow I remember the story as being a little sad, all the same.

Writing for young adults, Hirsch seems to go in the opposite direction: Yoss is remarkably dark, as is Slaughterboy according to all the reviews (though I haven't read the latter). They're both coming-of-age novels, and they both deal with finding independence in a harsh world. Yoss is deep, to be sure, but it wasn't an easy read. Still, it showed me a side of Odo Hirsch that I hadn't seen before. He's capable of more than just sweetness and light. I was thrilled to see that Will Buster and the Gelmet Helmet includes some of the stronger themes of Yoss in a less dark, livelier fashion. Still, I think he's capable of taking that further. I'm waiting for the next step, the next book that blends happiness and darkness. Right now, I think he's still on his way up.