Thoughts

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Live, Love and Learn

I live by a few simple ideas in my life, avoiding the rigidity of too many rules but allowing some simple principles guide me. I call the three principles Live, Love and Learn.

For each principle, I apply it to myself, to others, to the earth and the universe, encourage it, and seek it. Live well, live fully, live and let live, encourage life, and seek life. Love yourself, love others, love what you do, do what you love, love the earth and the universe, and seek love. Learn about yourself, learn about others, learn about the universe, encourage learning and seek learning.

I write more fully about it and explore it here http://www.squidoo.com/my-life-philosophy



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Thoughts on Disestablishment

I was baptised into the Church of England, as was fairly common practice in the first half of the last century, but my active churchgoing ended at about age 6 when I threw a tantrum to avoid going to Sunday School. The parish church was anglo-catholic and as far as I can remember my main problem was with 'genuflecting'. Looking back, I suspect I found it embarrassingly theatrical, although I wouldn't have been able to find such words at the time. Also vaguely disturbing was the promise that when I was a little older I would be able to go into the confessional box and confess my sins. Up to then I think I hadn't done much sinning. I probably just thought I had better get out while I could.

Brief though my period of church-going was, I believe it instilled in me an appreciation of church architecture. The parish church was (still is) a red-brick Victorian building, now Grade 1 listed, with the richly decorative interior characteristic of its times. Sitting on a hard chair in the north aisle, bored with the drone of the curate my eyes would wander over the ornate furnishings and columns and, flinching from the gory crucifix, come to rest on the stained glass. Years later, some time after my artistic tastes had homed in on Burne-Jones as a Victorian favourite, I discovered that the windows of the church were designed by him.

So, I have no particular ill-feeling towards my early religious experiences, and over the years have become quite fond of the Church of England mainly in its role as a benign custodian of much of England's cultural heritage of architecture, music and the decorative arts. Of course, as an atheist, I have never done anything to support the church and in this I am evidently not in a minority. Churchgoing statistics show that an overwhelming proportion of the population are content to live out their lives without religious faith or, at least, organised religious worship. City churches lie abandoned and threatened with demolition and I strongly suspect that if the anglican church had not been so uniquely entwined with our unwritten constitution it would long ago also have been consigned to the inconsequential sidelines of national life. But it anoints the monarch that is also its titular head, sends its Bishops to the House of Lords and I have no doubt sends its representatives to serve on Govenment quangos where for reasons that escape me it is credited with special moral authority to offer advice.

This system obviously made some kind of sense when we were nearly all Christians or dissenters (who could be ignored) but we are now a much more diverse nation. How can the Church of England continue to justify its unique position in the years ahead as its congregations fall to near zero and the population divides between the atheist or religiously apathetic on one side and various militant religions on the other?

But if the Church of England disestablishes what will fill the vacuum it leaves? Will we discover too late that it was not the Church of England itself that was important but the influence it denied to anyone else? Is anyone producing a master-plan for how we manage without the Church of England: for how we can avoid undue influence of vociferous minorities on our ethical and democratic values: for the maintenance and preservation of redundant historic churches and cathedrals? I fear not.



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The Matrix

Many will know the Science Fiction story “The Matrix” in which humans live a virtual existence in cyberspace whilst at the same time being exploited as heat sources in a huge heat engine run by a machine intelligence. Most will think this just a story. Think again.

We may not be being used as heat engines but we are surely trapped and in a fantasy world. I am referring to our dependence on Television. Hollywood (and Bollywood) and all manner of media fantasists have, with the shrewd help of the Murdoch machine and its copycats, created a vicious (drug like) dependency which presages mind control on a huge scale.

This situation has been building for decades, and like the story of the frog sitting in cold water which is gradually being brought to the boil, few are aware of it. The average Joe or Josephine would spit in your face if you told them they were becoming Zombies, but that in fact is the end product. Zombies buy and consume what they are told, in a way and at a rate that suits the global political, commercial and military machines. Free thought is already being challenged on the pretext of global harmony. When was evolution ever harmonious. Wake up and turn off the TV machine and start to think for yourself, before it really is too late.



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Survival of the fittest

Just in case anyone hasn't noticed, this year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin. Few scientists have been as influential, or as controversial. Misapplication and misinterpretation of Darwin's theory abounds. It has been credited with the rise of Social Darwinism, even with the horrors of Nazi Germany. It has been condemned as a morally vacuous theory. Nothing can be further from the truth.

When people hear the phrase, "survival of the fittest", they inevitably think of nature, red in tooth and claw. It is the fiercest hunter that makes the kill, the most selfish that satiates its needs before others. The natural world is caricatured as a ruthless, heartless place, where kill or be killed is the only motto worth adhering to. Yet this is only half the story.

The lioness, for all her undoubted skill as a killing machine, will keep as tender a care of her cubs as any human mother. Worker bees, when the hive is under attack, will give their lives in defence of their queen. Wolves, hunting in packs, must obey the pack hierarchy if they are to survive. Yet somehow, when love, self-sacrifice and co-operation appear in our human world, we do not associate them with Darwin's theory. They are somehow seen as evidence of a nobler, higher calling. Branded as an inexplicable aberration from our fundamentally selfish nature, they have been co-opted by religion as proof of their own moral authority.

The exact mathematics that describes the survival of altruistic traits remains unknown. Yet the fact remains that altruism exists in numerous species other than mankind. Primatologists, in particular the work of Frans De Waal, have observed compassion, sympathy, empathy and a sense of injustice in our nearest animal cousins. These are sometimes dismissed as empty anthropomorphisms. Be that as it may, the outcome in behavioural terms is the same. The only difference is that we can conceptualise and abstract these behaviours, group them under the label of ethics and morality, and herald them as defining aspects of our humanity.

But even if it is only partly true that human morality is rooted deep in our animal past, what does that tell us about ourselves? Does it debase our worthiest emotions? Does it cast our noblest aspirations down in the dirt? Of course not, our emotions are no less real, no matter what their origins.

We humans know that we do best when we cooperate. We like to be part of the group, to fit in. It's what makes our tribes hold together to act for the common good. It's also what makes us suspicious of other tribes, to dehumanise them, make war and inflict suffering. Understanding the root causes of these emotions won't make them go away, but it may make us better equipped to deal with them. And maybe one day that will lead to a better world.



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In this together

In these times of economic despondency, it is all to easy to forget that there are others around the world who are not concerned with the global economic downturn. People from all countries concern themselves with survival on a day to day basis rather than how their shares are doing. Our economy has taken a tumble but we can still turn a tap on and get clean, drinkable water. We can lock our doors at night and sleep without fear of violence, rape and murder.

We argue about the leaders in charge of our country. About their inept abilities and the erosion of civil liberties. Yet, we can still complain about them in a free and fair manner - in a democratic manner – without the fear of being “silenced”.
We complain that our children want the latest MP3 player and mobile phones while there are children that are murdering one another with automatic weapons. Times like this make it hard to be a Humanist when the human race seems bent on self-destruction.

We all need to think of others. To be there for others. Less of the “me” and more of the “us”. We are one race and sometimes it's easy to forget that when our own troubles mount up, but we are not alone.

We are in this together.

All of us are in this together.



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Talking about God

There have been a number of recent cases of conflict in schools caused by religious sensibilities being infringed; from the case of a Head Teacher in Sheffield trying to end segregated assemblies in a Primary School with a large Muslim minority1 to the case of a child being disciplined because she was “talking about God”2.

The latter caught my attention for several reasons. Firstly, the way the story was reported: all the coverage in the mainstream media (Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail3) presented this in terms of a “Christian martyr” being persecuted by political correctness. It is, of course, risky to comment on a case from media reports, but a less well publicised description of the incident from the independent religious think-tank Ekklesia states that the child in question was scaring a class-mate by telling her she would burn in hell if she didn’t believe in Jesus4. To be fair to the child, this is a simple but accurate summary of what most Christians, including presumably the child’s parents, believe. In these cases the religious beliefs that are being infringed are almost always those of the parents: the mother in this case has said ‘her five-year-old's religious beliefs are “not being respected” ’ (Ekklesia, as before).

A few years ago I did a teaching practice in Year 1 (5-6 year olds) in a C of E Primary School. This included teaching the RE classes. Even by this age, most of the children had little interest in religion except for one boy who would pipe up lines like “Jesus died for our sins” at any opportunity. I suspected he had been taught to parrot these phrases at home – and to test this I asked him once, one-to-one, to explain one of his statements and, predictably, he couldn’t.

Given my experience, I think it is highly unlikely that the five year old in the current case has much in the way of a “faith” that needs protection. The class-mate being reduced to tears, on the other hand, may have a real need for the teacher to intervene on her behalf. Again, we don’t know the full situation from the reports, but what would you do?

I suggest we leave the teacher to make the most appropriate decision based on his/her knowledge of the situation and children concerned and resist the temptation to use a small incident as ammunition in religion vs. secularism conflicts.


1 The Times: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/education/article5697694.ece

2 Daily Telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/religion/4590870/Primary-scho...

3 Daily Mail: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1142967/School-receptionist-face...

4 Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/8652 The media reporting of this is well summarised on philosopher Stephen Law’s Blog http://stephenlaw.blogspot.com/2009/02/school-defends-stance-on-girl-who...



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Secular Morality and the Examined Life

It seems to me that if you consider yourself an atheist or humanist, it is doubly important that you are thoughtful and aware of what you consider right and wrong, and more importantly why. If you are declaring yourself independent of religious dogma, then all right and wrong must be up for grabs - you can not just say "that's wrong" without knowing why, because you are open to the question "who says so?"

Of course, there are plenty of religious people who examine and test their morality. What is interesting is that so many people who consider themselves atheists/humanists go through life accepting what they are told and taught about right and wrong, without every questioning it. They accept "it's just wrong" as though it actually was some kind of unbreakable religious law.

A couple of years back, I had a discussion with a very intelligent self-declared atheist friend about this very issue, but when the discussion got onto public nudity (don't ask), her response was "Oh, that's just wrong. We just know it is, it's natural". She accepted this definition of right and wrong she had been taught as a child, and never thought to question it.

So how free are we if we are still living by definitions of right and wrong inherited from previous generations, and often derived from religious dogma?

I believe that if we fail to live the examined life, holding up our beliefs and assumptions to question as often as we can (busy and complicated modern lives permitting), we are no more free than the dogmatic believers from whom we chose to separate ourselves.



About Mark: Mark Hewitt is a former IT technician, security guard, cleaner, railway ticket inspector, graduate in Psychology and Art History, and a geek, foodie, philosopher, web designer and writer. He writes about technology, food, travel, philosophy and spirituality. You can find more of his work at http://www.silverknife.co.uk.


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Freedom

What will be the implications of the financial meltdown in the future? The nearest equivalent happened in 1929 and ended up with WWII. Can we avoid anything similar recurring? Or are our freedoms to be sacrificed to protect us from such threats and others like dwindling resources, climate change and terrorism?

Everyone seeks to fulfill their desires. One of the blocks to this is actions by others that prevent or hinder us in realising our desired ends. When there are such clashes we can reason and criticise others to not hinder, deliberately or otherwise, the pursuit of our ends. One can also seek to convince them through praise and blame, honours and sanctions to have desired ends that are, at least, compatible with ours. And they will do the same to us.

The danger is that people can go beyond such social forces resorting to threats, power, tradition, influence, violence and worse to achieve their own ends over ours. That is what underlies our freedoms is the ability to socially and reciprocally chose and modify our own ends without such threats and worse. How do we best preserve our freedoms without recourse ourselves to such threats and worse?

We can chose to see what is in most everyone's interest and then coherently and consistently reason and criticise, praise and blame such ends that are against most everyone's interest and encourage everyone else to do the same - including back to you. Reasoning thus you might have to revise your own ends but that is the freedom you want to preserve - the alternative is that these are decided for you or, worse, imposed by force. If we mutually encourage each other we can minimise the chance of this occurring. It is up to us to exercise our freedom to preserve our freedom.



By Martin Freedman - faithlessgod of No Double Standards



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The unbroken chain of life

Having spent years studying the bones of animals long dead, I have been fortunate enough to see - on a daily basis - evidence of the relationship between humans and other animals. For me, our kinship with the rest of life on Earth is a vivid reality. Evolution is change and that change is the result of an ongoing struggle for life - where those that are best suited for the struggle are rewarded by the continuation of their lineage. This means that we are each an end link in an unbroken chain of life, stretching back over two billion years. For all that time, each one of our ancestors must have been amongst the best of their kind. In the words of Charles Darwin, "There is grandeur in this view of life".

At the opening of the 21st Century modern medicine has buffered us from the harshest aspects of life. Where once we needed many children because most would die, we now need few because most will live. Our planet can only hold so many and we have already done irreparable damage, so where do we go from here?

Most of us want to leave a legacy, but humans have a way to do that beyond children. Our societies are constantly changing - evolving in their own way. Each scientific breakthrough, book or artwork is a link in the development of our culture, enriching everyone's future. Every discussion we engage in, every blog we post, all hold the possibility of changing ideas or inspiring ourselves and others to greatness. It is only by adapting to change, and indeed contributing to it, that we can truly shape a sustainable legacy for the future. Our opportunity to be among the best of our kind no longer lies in our loins; it lies in our minds, hearts and hands.



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Be selfish: forgive someone

From time to time in our hectic lives, our thoughts can be monopolised by an interaction with someone who, for some reason or other, conscious or otherwise, really gets our goat. Sometimes it’s with justifiable cause; other times it can be an irrational response. Whichever: the more we dwell on it, the greater the perceived offence (and the worse the perceived offender) can seem.

Left stewing for weeks, months or years, our moods and choices become changed by these grudges, and rarely for the better. Not all words and actions can be excused; yet left to fester, our resentments will colour and shape our decisions, conversation and relationships. Worse: they can even eat away at health, mental and physical.

It’s an interesting exercise to stop for a moment when you are in the midst of that self-righteous indignance, and observe how your rage actually feels. Not so good, eh? Perhaps your fists are clenched or your teeth grate. Maybe your heart races or your breathing is shallow or erratic. This is not such a good way to be. Is a grudge really worth years of that?

Forgiveness is often – wrongly – conflated with appeasement. When you forgive someone, you do not excuse their words or deeds. It’s not really about them at all. It’s about refusing to take part in that game where you continually poison your own psyche because of something someone else did, perhaps a long time ago. A resentment binds us to those who wronged us. Isn’t that the last thing we want? Don’t we want to spend less time thinking about them, and more time enjoying friends and family?

So I suggest: liberate yourself; be selfish and forgive someone today.



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