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Fictions: Convenient and, perhaps, necessary.       June 2, 2012

Yesterday, in exploring the position of the Catholic Church with respect to homosexuals – and, indeed sexual matters generally, we observed a distinctly not-of-this-world quality. (See Diary, May 31 2012) The Church exists, or so it would appear, beyond the rainbow on a Big Rock Candy Mountain of its own peculiar construction. There appears to be a failure to recognize the real nature of the human condition, and a perverse desire to pretend that the irregular pegs of human experience can be comfortably fitted into the considerably smaller perfectly round holes of the imaginative ideal.

We were reminded of a recent comment by George Jonas that the notion of equality is a "convenient fiction," and have been led to wonder to what extent such fictions are observable in the human attempt to deal with reality.

To quite an extent, we suspect.

We have already written at length on the notion of equality, in order to point out that, although it is not found in nature, considerable efforts are expended, not merely to provide that which is admirable – equality before the law, and equality of treatment of citizens – but the unattainable and problematic equality of result. (See Diary, February 27, 2011; Drivel February 8 & 12, 2011) We have often heard people state -- as if it were axiomatic -- that "everybody is equal;" it appears that the notion is a comforting, but unexamined fiction – a mantra of foolishness in support of feeling good.

Another example is the convenient fiction that life is "sacred." This is a useful and convenient notion in that it encourages people not to murder their neighbours, and it is often used by those who are against abortion. In fact of course, there is nothing in nature that suggests any life is "sacred." The whole world functions on the basis that most animals eat others in order to survive. Whole species are wiped out by random events in the development of the earth. Human beings regularly have their lives terminated by earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, lightning, viruses, bacteria, and random events. Even within human society, capital punishment for crime is not unheard of, self-defence trumps sacredness, and war justifies multiple homicides.

One might argue that the efficacy of government is a convenient fiction. It is pleasant to rely on Big Brother to sort everything out. Politicians are fond of national energy strategies, five year plans, power generation schemes, and assistance to unlikely industries. They are increasingly seen to provide security through increased regulation and micro-management. They provide healthcare for all, and suggest in a myriad of ways that a comfortable life can be attained without effort. Yet the nanny state saps freedom and initiative while power costs soar, subsidized industries fail, and the wheels of centrally planned health care slow ominously in the sticky muck of reality. It is instructive to see the deference paid to the United Nations, which is a startling testament to the ambition, inefficiency, and corruption of government writ large.

In our daily lives, we rely often on the catch-phrase convenience of fictions. "It will all work out in the end," we say, as we anticipate "getting on with our lives" or "living happily ever after." There’s always a bluebird singing happily over the rainbow; someday our ship will come in.

Into this pattern of convenient fictions, religion seems to fit very well. It suggests that the world is part of a careful plan, that there is someone looking after us, and that all the miseries of the real world will be redeemed in the next. In this way can be explained the startling disparity between the Catholic position on sex, and what everybody knows. It is a convenient fiction; it is part of a world that one might prefer to exist, but doesn’t.

But the really interesting question about convenient fictions is simply this: are they necessary?

We come back, again and again to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness – a book which, we think, gives the profound and troubling answer to the question. The novel suggests that truth, while desirable and admirable, must often give way to illusion. It is only through certain fictions that we can navigate our way through the world. Fictions are not merely convenient, but necessary. This fact is the "heart of darkness" referred to in the title. Its essence is not in the oppressions of colonial Africa, the savage heart in the civilized breast, or the depravities of Kurtz, the emissary of "pity, science and progress" who concludes that the native "brutes" must be exterminated. Rather it is in the fact that, in the end, the real truth cannot be told; a lie is provided in its stead.

As Alex Aan, the Indonesian who is currently being prosecuted for proclaiming "God does not exist" says:

The truth is way too dangerous.

It is safer, up here, nestled in the cloud, in the comforting world of convenient fictions.



How Green is my McGuinty? Let me count the Ways             (March 13, 2012)

Click here for audio. 

How green is my McGuinty? Let me count the ways:
My McGuinty is as green as candles in the night
Which save our power in dim and sweet delight,
And make him worthy of our fulsome praise.
My McGuinty is as green as windmills in the field,
Which breeze and sleep alike do turn and toss
To make unchecked power, sold often at a loss,
But flag fine foresight beneath that blank brow concealed.
My McGuinty is as green as meters smart,
That make us use our sore, beleaguered wits
And from our wonted ways in joy depart;
My McGuinty is as green as the solar panels blitz:
They sit, remote, unconnected on the roof –
In silent, fitting tribute -- to an economic goof.


The New Age       (March 11, 2011)

We have just been asked by Google – our friendly e-mail provider – to supply them with our cell phone number. Their pretext is that, should there be any "suspicious" attempts to gain access to our e-mail account, the cell phone number would serve as an extra security safeguard.

Well, we are not having any of this. Apart from the fact that our cell phone is used only on the occasions of Geezermobile Breakdowns, and relatively rare Bear Attacks and, as a result, we have no idea what the number is – we see this only as part of a gigantic Plot – the unstated but surely logically compelling aim of all governments – in conjunction with Google, of course -- to turn us all into bees for the hive.

The more we have considered our suggestion (see below) that improvements in technology, together with the irrefutable argument for the primacy for the common good, will inevitably result in a single chip – implanted at birth in the left shoulder -- containing our Social Security, Health Card, Cell Phone, and IP address numbers -- the more compelling it appears. These numbers may be scanned at will; indeed, they will be available at a distance, thanks to the constant monitoring of the central tracking device.

With the smooth operation of the system, crime would become virtually non-existent. Much employment in the system of criminal justice will be rendered obsolete, paving the way for a commensurately increased focus on human rights commissions.

A whole genre of literature – including the detective crime novel and the murder mystery – will be rendered obsolete. The questions of the courtroom lawyer will sink into absurdity:


"And where were you, Mr. Peabody, on the night of February 13, when Jonas Smithers was strangled with the belt from his own bathrobe?"

"And do you deny having an affair with Pamela Milkwood, Mr. Smither’s secretary?"

Such questions will be nonsensical. The chip record will clearly indicate that Mr. Peabody was indeed at the home of Mr. Smithers on the night in question. And it can clearly be shown that Mr. Peabody and Ms. Milkwood were at the Lonely Hearts Motel on many occasions in the preceding months. Indeed the chip "black box" records suggest elevated heart rates and deep breathing.

We think that there is an inevitability about this process; at each step of the way, we will be assured of the great advantages to our safety and security, and the huge savings in maintaining the hive.

As the full cost of our security becomes evident, there will undoubtedly be a backlash. Some will be impelled to go chipless, and live in remote caves. Others may attempt to exchange their chips with those worn by Rover or Mittens. But we suspect that technology will win in the end.


A Reflection on the Hive, and the Propensities of Bees.

February 24, 2012

There are so many wonderful advances that are for our benefit; yet our response is not always that of untempered approval.

We think that this is because so often the forces for improvement seem to involve a concomitant decline in our freedom.

For instance, we have often identified with the unconscious patient in those television promotions of electronic medical records. In the first scenario of this presentation, the emergency room medical staff have a need to know whether the patient follows any regimen of medication. Alas! Nobody knows! The staff are in a dither and a despair! The unconscious patient runs the risk of being put aside for further study, while a less challenging case–possibly an articulate patient who can provide the needed information–takes his place.

But, in the Brave New World of electronic health records, the unconsciously unco-operative status of the patient presents no difficulty: at the touch of a button, it is determined that his blood is being thinned with rat poison, and his treatment as an unconscious poisoned rat can proceed with alacrity.

Our first response is one of approval: yes, our medical records should be on central database for just such an emergency. But there is that little niggle of doubt. Do we really want our medical records available to practically anyone at the touch of a button? Do we really want to be part of that vast system, a tiny bee in the hive which has been created for our common good?

For it seems that this is the direction of technology. How soon will it be before we are issued with an identification number at birth, with a little chip implanted in our left shoulder that will allow us to be tracked by the Hive’s central computer, at the touch of a button? This could be of incalculable benefit should we wander off, in a mood of rebellious despair, or be captured by pirates.


Mr Toews wants to discover our e-mail addresses without a warrant. But couldn’t the address–along with our lifetime cell phone number–be included in the chip, and be made available at the touch of a button?

There is, you see, a great desire to have society run smoothly, at the touch of a button. Those "in charge" are constantly seeking ways in which the hive can hum along, its inhabitants pleasantly satisfied, creating honey. This is the source of the political system, which seeks to govern everything that moves, or breathes. This is the source of our legal system, in which disputes can be settled, and interactions among citizens be regulated. This is the source of our educational system which attempts to create citizens who can function in society. This is the source of religious systems, which provide clear and unequivocal answers to replace insoluble mysteries. This is the source of our universal health care system, which is run for the common good, for the smooth operation of the machinery overall, but with secondary concern for the desires of the patient. This is the source of Human Rights Commissions. which confuse equality of opportunity with equality of result, and have as their mandate the eradication of hurt feelings. This is the source of the climate change movement, which, beyond preferring us to return to the caves, wishes to give control of many matters to the United Nations, so that economic decisions may be subordinated to computer-generated estimates of the climate future.

In every case, control is for the common good, and the common good is the justifying defence. And we might well be on our way to nirvana, but for two difficulties.

The first is that the perception of the common good cannot be considered as infallible and unchanging. The implanted chip may easily become the slippery silicone wafer-wedge to slavery. Second, as much as there is a desire on the part of the elites to create the obedient and smoothly functioning hive, there is a desire on the part of bees to eschew the hive, to accept the danger of autonomy for the freedom it promises.

When the time comes-- if indeed we are actually asked--we may consent to having our medical records made available at the touch of a button. We would like the freedom to refuse. But the argument would be made that we might, potentially, be disrupting the common good, contaminating the honey, dribbling a gritty and unwelcome sand into the delicate, humming machinery of the hive.


Love from Afar       (February 16, 2012)


We recently attended a performance of a modern opera, Love from Afar (2000) by Kaija Saariaho, with a libretto by Amin Maalouf. The opera  has become, according to the program "one of the most performed operas of the 21st century." Indeed, the production at the Four Seasons Centre is being recorded for broadcast by the CBC on Saturday Afternoon at the Opera.

We have concluded alas, that the Opera is merely proof of the insights into the human condition provided by the Tale of the Emperor’s Clothes.

We admit that the settings and visual elements of the performance are arresting and intriguing. It is as if the Emperor has been vouchsafed an elegant hat by the deceptive tailors, like a suggestive cover of reality to distract from the body bereft beneath.

But even that elegant chapeau is less substantial than it appears. Some of the elements suggest a symbolic undercurrent: there is much waving of silken cloth, an odd viewing device, a multiplicity of ornate "ironwork" panels, a large red barrier on supported columns, and various real people flitting – on suspended wires -- hither and yon across the stage. But, after a time, as the symbolism is not made clear, we are forced to conclude that, although intriguing, there is a kind of artless randomness at work -- the scenery is like a Rorschach ink blot: one may read into it the meanings dictated by one’s own particular mental pathology.

The plot has been conceived on the same principle as that used in the creating of a homeopathic potion: efficacy is achieved through an almost infinite dilution of substance. The twelfth century French Prince, Jaufré Rudel, for no reason in particular, tires of his drinking and carousing, and imagines an ideal distant love. A lady Pilgrim –of the sort, we imagine, typical of the 12th Century – arrives to tell him that the woman of his dreams does, in fact, exist, in Tripoli. The Prince falls effortlessly and magically in love with the described woman, Clémence, countess of Tripoli. We must lament the decline of that heightened silk of suggestibility, that fine vulnerability to mere description from afar which, we assume, was common in the twelfth Century, but is now regrettably absent in the tawdry, potato sack sensibility of our own.

Clémence, for her part, having been informed by the lady Pilgrim (she has an inexhaustible supply of round-trip tickets) of Jaufré’s interest, is similarly smitten.


Jaufré undertakes the journey to Tripoli, but, for no particular reason, wonders whether he is doing the right thing, falls ill, and arrives, mostly unconscious, in Tripoli. We say he is mostly unconscious because he is on a stretcher, and yet has a convenient alter ego who pops up to sing his sentiments upon meeting Clémence.

Soon after, he dies, and Clémence is left to reflect and pontificate on ideal love; she eventually decides to become a nun. Jaufré appears, along with two other men, descending from above–apparently representing his two alter egos, and hovers over her.

Essentially, the plot lacks both any sort of interesting conflict–surely an necessary component for any drama–and even a remote believability.

Both central characters are shown unrooted in any kind of reality or social context; Jaufré, at the beginning has some "companions" but they are a chorus, not individuals; Clémence is similarly isolated.

Thus the Opera concerns not two characters, but two ciphers, whose love is unmotivated, and not, by human standards, credible. Here then, is an work meant to engage an audience, with neither characters nor conflict; it exists in some impossible realm of an unengaging ideal.

The music, we would characterize as Modern High Ethereal. Or perhaps High Ethereal Modern would be the better term. Ethereally High Modern? At any rate, it is bereft of melody. It does not appear to alter from one character to the next; any of the words –we can hardly use the term "songs" --might be sung by any of the characters, and nothing would seem amiss.

Neither alas, are the words in any way redemptive. Possibly the original French soars to poetic heights; the translation for the surtitles has remained pedestrian, plodding, and uninspired.

One of the terrible ironies of this Opera is that Jaufré is described as a troubadour–and it is suggested that Clémence is influenced by the songs which the Pilgrim conveys to her. But troubadours sing melodies; Modern High Ethereal is not part of their repertoire. How we longed, during this impossible opera, for Jaufré to bring out the old ukelele and strum a tune for his distant love. Maybe – after an exciting battle with pirates, and a victory over the plotters to the throne of Tripoli, we could have a couple of soaring duets.

But then, we suppose, it wouldn’t be Modern High Ethereal, would it?

And the Emperor might be decently dressed.



FULSOME      (It’s disgusting.)              (February 11, 2012)

In arguing too, the parson own’d his skill,
For e’en though vanquished, he could argue still.

(Oliver Goldsmith, 1730-1774, referring to the Village Schoolmaster in The Deserted Village)


The other night, Steve Paikin on The Agenda referred to a "fun and fulsome" discussion of the imminent topic.

Now fulsome is a word which may originally have meant full or complete; Bill Brohaugh at Everything you know about English is Wrong says that such use was recorded in the middle 1200's. We are not quite old enough to give personal testimony – but we will raise no objections to that claim. By the 16th Century, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, the word had come to mean excessive, and insincere – from our experience, used commonly in the phrase fulsome praise – or -- sickening or disgusting; our 1989 Webster’s uses the example: a table heaped with fulsome mounds of greasy foods.

We can certainly attest to the fact that the negative meaning was the accepted one in the in the 1950's; nor does our 1989 Dictionary suggest any alternative meanings. Thus, the negative connotations of the word have persisted for about five hundred years.

It is not unknown for us to send e-mails over such breaches of linguistic protocol -- which we did in this case-- but we were surprised to see a defence mounted by a customer relations representative and the producer of the program, who cited a number of online dictionary references, which suggest both the original and traditional meanings, and – in a couple of cases -- showing the meaning full or complete ahead of the traditional excessive and offensive to good taste.

This, of course, is a perfect example – as if we needed more – of why humanity will come to a very bad end indeed.

What has happened, evidently, is that, because of a dearth of language curmudgeons, standing by, e-mails poised, ready to nip foolish deviations in the bud, the natural gormlessness of the uneducated has combined with the inherent distaste for bothering about anything very much, to result in two rather different meanings for the same word –which suggest completely opposite attitudes towards the subject described.

We might note an ancillary cause for this grievous and unmitigated disaster: the move from prescriptive to descriptive stance in many dictionaries. Descriptive dictionaries, in a rush of spineless (especially the online, non-book variety) egalitarianism, simply attempt to record the language as it is used, without bothering to suggest any preferences in usage. The effect of this is to say "anything goes," and bring language usage to the "lowest common denominator." We are pleased to learn that many dictionaries are now adding prescriptive notes.


Thus, what we have ended with is an impertinent challenge to the traditional meaning of fulsome.

If the two meanings are to be accepted as equally valid, then the word is significantly diminished in usefulness. If one says: His praise of the boss was fulsome – we are uncertain as to the meaning intended. Does the speaker mean that the praise was full and complete, or excessively -- and suspiciously --flattering?

The implications are, of course, Orwellian. The slipperiness of words leads to the black ice of treacherous uncertainty, a world of normalized insanity in which "War is Peace," "Freedom is Slavery," and history is a "palimpsest, scraped clean and re-inscribed exactly as often as...necessary."*

Does this not make the new fulsome more loathsome than the old?

We are pleased to note, after googling the matter–despite the claims of Mr. Paikin’s defenders -- the preponderance of opinion seems – thus far – to be in our favour.

We are especially pleased with the following comments:

(a) The use of fulsome to mean extremely complimentary or full, rich or abundant is common in journalism, but should be avoided in other kinds of writing. (From the free dictionary by Farlex).

(b) Fulsome is often used to mean 'offensively flattering or insincere'; But the word is also used, particularly in the expression fulsome praise, to mean simply 'abundant,' without any implication of excess or insincerity. This usage is etymologically justified but may invite misunderstandings in contexts in which a deprecatory interpretation could be made. The sentence I offer you my most fulsome apologies may raise an eyebrow, where the use of an adjective like full or abundant would leave no room for doubt as to the sincerity of the speaker's intentions. (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th ed., 2000)

(c) Fulsome does not mean "full." Nor does it mean "complete, well developed" or other pleasing synonyms of abundance. On the contrary, the adjective is used not in a compliment, but in an insult, meaning "excessive." Its frequent use in "fulsome praise" gives that phrase the meaning of "cloying, unctuous, obsequious flattery."

Though loosey-goosey usagists may accept the turning of the word’s meaning on its head, most of us draw the line at such surrender to error. (From a column by William Safire, quoted by Everything you know about English is Wrong.)

Our final reflection on this matter must concern Humpty-Dumpty. "When I use a word," Humpty-Dumpty said, "it means just what I choose it to mean --neither more nor less." (Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass.)

In the end, we are not overly optimistic. Despite the current primacy of the traditional view, it would be foolish to underestimate the force of Humpty-Dumptyism; it is possible that this destructive element -- aided and abetted by descriptive dictionaries -- and the imperatives of careless journalism -- is in the ascendant. Like Goldsmith’s schoolmaster, however, though vanquished, we intend to argue still.

*1984, Part One, Chapter iv.


New New Atheism             

(National Post Article by Joseph Brean, February 4, 2012)


We recently invented our own Religion, Abracadabra, devoted to the worship of the Great God Murphy* – the most reliable predictor of human outcomes. We have not really had much time to publicise it, or work out the necessary rituals, prayers, and requirements–or to launch a recruiting drive for followers.

We confess, therefore, to being a little dismayed to learn that Alain de Botton has written a book entitled Religion for Atheists – which unveils a plan for the construction of atheistic shrines and temples in Britain, together with the institution of certain rituals such as a quarterly day of atonement, and an annual Feast of Fools.

As Joseph Brean’s article in the National Post (February 4) so cleverly puts it, Mr. de Botton’s aim is to save "the baby of ritual from the bathwater of supernatural belief." He gives credit to religions, which "know that to sustain goodness, it helps to have an audience." He also acknowledges that adults, like children, need authority, and are susceptible to formal public repetition of principles, which serves as a validation of belief.

Many years ago we read a book by A.W.T. Simeons entitled, Man’s Presumptuous Brain. The thesis was that man’s brain is an uneasy amalgam of the ancient diencephalon and the modern cortex. The diencephalon which, among other things, is responsible for "fight and flight" mechanisms, is often preparing the body for actions which the cortex perceives as inappropriate and firmly suppresses. From this battle of the brains, according to the book, many "psychosomatic" maladies result.



We suspect that something similar goes on with respect to religious belief. The ancient "credulitron" is the bedrock, child-like element which needs comfort and assurance – found in the ritual expression of belief in an ultimate goodness and final resolution of the irresolvable.

The modern skeptorex, armed with a knowledge of how the world really works, and of man’s less-than-central position in a puzzling and often chaotic universe, seeks to suppress the credulitron in an effort to achieve less-than-perfect but real advances in the human circumstance.

Our own suggestion has been for a convenient switch, so that the credulitron could be activated at will for limited times or occasions, with control returning to the skeptorex for the managing of most of the business of existence.

Mr. de Botton seems to advocate a directing of the credulitron to matters which are unlikely be taken seriously enough to inspire suicide bombers or ritual sacrifice.

We suspect, alas, that neither solution is possible. The credulitron has been manufactured without a switch; nor can it be directed to matters, which, ultimately, fail to inspire it sufficiently for either good or evil.

*For the initial inspirational prayer see Drivel, March 20, 2011

Lumpenbangen Press Conference  February 1, 2012.


Hamilton, Ontario. Special to Forward News. At a press conference called today at the Offices of the Lumpenbangen Piano Institute, important statistics for the lumpenbangenpiano website were released.

The president, Dr. Idel Dreimer, wearing the traditional burka as a privacy measure, lamented a recent increase in visits to the site during January. The following has been excerpted from his lengthy address:

"Ladies and Gentlemen, it is with some concern that we note a nearly 20% increase in visits in January from the previous month. As you are probably aware, the site was conceived initially in order to entertain our Aunt Myalgia, who is currently languishing at the Shady Hollow Psychiatric Facility in Downtown Toronto.

With the exception of a few unfortunate lapses, every effort has been made to keep the site an entirely private matter. It is true that in occasional unguarded moment, a few personal acquaintances were apprised of its existence, and then hurriedly sworn to secrecy.

And on one or two occasions, in a state of regrettable inebriation, we paraded with an advertising placard at the corner of King and James Streets in downtown Hamilton. However it was late at night, and it is doubtful that anyone would notice a burka-clad picketer on the darkened streets of Hamilton, which are virtually deserted after six o’clock.

In addition, we have made the site as user-unfriendly as possible, using ersatz 18th Century language in our Diary, and insisting on using complete sentences and conventional spelling in the tediously lengthy ramblings in the Drivel Section.


Our weekly quotations are determinedly representative–with a very few exceptions–of dead white males–and hence an offense to every Canadian devoted to the principles of equality and inclusivity.

Our Observations are invariably gloomy, cynical, and, wherever possible, politically incorrect.

In short, we have done everything in our power to keep traffic on the site to a minimum. The increase in traffic in January is an inexplicable mystery of mind-numbing proportions.

We can only conclude that Aunt Myalgia has somehow publicized the site, and a number of the residents in her facility–all of whom are cognitively challenged--are being directed to its pages. We can hardly conceive of the perfectly sane, the unassailably normal individual choosing to visit the site.

Our course then, is clear: we must interrogate Aunt Myalgia–preferably when she is in one of her infrequent bouts of lucidity. Based on the information we obtain, we will consider how best to reprogram the inmates at her asylum, and direct them to more normal behaviours.

Indeed, some of them may be enabled to return to productive lives in a Canadian Society--which is arguably already bonkers on a wide variety of issues--thereby reducing the pressure on our Health Care System.

We hope next month to show a beneficial and welcome decrease in our traffic, which will enable us to concentrate on the main task of the Institute–the composing of music."


The Devil is in the Principle    (Part IV)             January 27, 2011

A postscript on Equality and the Law


We have noted that people are inherently unequal, but that it seems admirable to aim for equality of opportunity, and equality of treatment in many circumstances. When we go to the passport office, we expect to be dealt with equally on the principle: first come, first served. We expect each individual to have the equal circumstance of one vote. But equality is often elusive. While the healthcare system may claim to treat people "equally" by restricting them to a single monolithic system, it treats them both badly and–in practice--unequally–and so we think a greater degree of equality may actually be achieved by allowing the purchase of private insurance.

The greatest conflict between the idea that people are inherently unequal, but should be treated equally in many circumstances may be seen in the legal system. The idea that true equality of treatment is attainable–that every circumstance can be codified and a consistent penalty applied-- is belied by the variations encountered in real life. Judges Brown and Jones might differ in their treatment of Defendant Execrable based on any number of personal biases, philosophies, or circumstances.



Apart from such obvious variations, it may be seen as "fair" to take into account particular circumstances–extenuating or otherwise-- in the administration of "justice." In this, there is a potential conflict between what is "fair" for the individual, and what is "fair" for society.

The recent case of Richard Smoke, an aboriginal sentenced to less than two years in prison for a near-fatal attack on Sam Gualtieri reflects the desire to give special consideration to Mr. Smoke’s status as a member of a group considered disadvantaged–in other words to treat him unequally in the hope of achieving fairness.

In this particular case, we doubt that fairness was achieved–but assuming that unequal treatment may be fair for a particular individual–there must be weight given to what is perceived to be fair, and what is actually to the benefit of society. If members of some groups are treated with unequal lenience, does that not tend to inhibit the deterrent element of the law? And is the perception that the law is enforced unequally not likely to bring the system of "justice" into disrepute–a disrepute injurious, ultimately, to the body politic?

We have no answers to these questions. Our purpose is to show some of the difficulties in considering the notion of "equality."



The Devil is in the Principle       (Part III)            January 26, 2012

We have concluded that the principle: "life is sacred," is convenient and sometimes helpful, but is limited in its application–that application being variable and socially determined.

The ideas that freedom, tolerance, and "equality" are absolute goods are also flawed.

Freedom is good, but there are obvious limits needed; one person’s freedom is limited by the freedom of others, or by the requirements of some perceived social benefit. Those limitations will obviously be perceived differently by different people under different circumstances; this ensures that we will always live in "interesting" times.

This is well understood, and scarcely needs elaboration–but here are two examples. In the first instance we see a limitation on individual expression in certain circumstances to be of social benefit; in the second we see the removal of restrictions to individual freedom to be of similar advantage.

We would like to see freedom of religious expression limited to the private sphere; we think it inappropriate for schools and government offices and representatives be seen to endorse a particular religion. Thus we oppose the distribution of Bibles by schools in Prince Edward Island, turbans for RCMP officers, and hijabs for Toronto Police Force.

Our own particular quarrel with limitations on freedom in Canada involves the coercion of our health care system, which requires us to patronize only one provider of care–the inadequate one run by the government. Similarly, we question whether Human Rights Commissions’ pursuit of human rights can justify the destruction of freedom it seems to entail.

The idea of tolerance as a universal good seems to have taken particular hold in Canada, which prides itself on "multiculturalism"–a policy which requires a degree of tolerance of differing cultural customs. What many are reluctant to accept, perhaps, is that excessive tolerance can become spineless stupidity.

Were a group of ancient Mayans to move to Canada and engage in the practice of ritual human sacrifice, tolerance would seem to be an inappropriate reaction. Such is the fear of being denounced as "intolerant" in Canadian society, that it would not surprise us to see a defence being made by some exquisitely sensitive left-wing group, citing the importance of traditional culture in maintaining a healthy sense of self-esteem.

We have long bemoaned the fact that Canadians, having a culture which seems so attractive to others that much immigration is inspired, seem so anxious to alter it in favour of cultures from countries where conditions of life are manifestly less desirable.

We are particularly annoyed by the tolerance for face-coverings, and are pleased that a face-cover is no longer acceptable for an applicant in a Citizenship ceremony. We feel that revealing the face should be required in all interaction with government, and it should be legitimate for shopkeepers–jewellers especially come to mind–to deny entry to masked individuals. We can understand that other cultures may be perfectly accepting of masks. Ours, for reasons of safety and social cohesion does not.



Our Observation 101 is: Tolerance is like alcohol: in moderate amounts, it softens hard edges, and lubricates the machinery of social interaction; in excess, it leads to foolishness, incoherence, the annihilation of principle, and the destruction of the essential self.

George Jonas once referred to "equality" as a "convenient fiction.". The inspirational rhetoric–"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal" is, in reality,  no more than pious piffle–a fact underscored by American custom of slavery at the time. Like the idea of the "sanctity of life"–"equality" sounds attractive–but when examined it turns out to be an concept fraught with difficulties.

The term "equality" is used carelessly. Recently, on his television program, Brian Lilley, in discussing the matter of special "aboriginal" parole hearings, said: We’re all equal aren’t we?"

What he meant was–we think– "We should all be treated equally, shouldn’t we?"

It is obvious that people are not equal. Some run faster than others; some can do math, while others can’t. People never have been, are not now, and never will be equal. Equality is not found in nature. Indeed, we have observed that, if, in the development of life, single-celled organisms had adopted the principle of equality, then the world would now be populated entirely by single-celled organisms. (Observation 8)

Those who seek equality should be careful about what they wish for.

It would be far better for people to seek improvement–for this is something actually attainable. In fact, of course, people who say they seek equality don’t really mean it. If Mr. Jones were to attain–for example–equality of income with his neighbour, Mr. Brown–would he then be satisfied with that "equality?" Of course not. He would continue to seek what he was really after– improvement.

At any time you achieve a valid definition of human equality–you discover that it is so broad as to be virtually meaningless: All human beings are equally mammalian, sentient-- or are equal in "the sight of God."

Now there is a kind of equality which we can strive for in society–not the equality of beings–but equality of opportunity, equality in voting, equal treatment of citizens. Even here, perfect equality may not be attainable–but it seems legitimate to use the term to represent the goal of creating a "level playing field"–from which each may pursue–not equality–but improvement.

In conclusion, the devil is sometimes in the principle. We often use terms which represent "convenient fictions" or "helpful illusions," without being aware of their limitations.. The danger is that they become absolutes–viewed as irrefutable principles and used as bludgeons in order to stop all dissent.

Life is only as sacred as we determine it to be; freedom and discipline are complementary concepts; there are limitations to tolerance; equality of opportunity is worth striving for; equality of result is a unicorn at the bottom of the garden.


The Devil in the Principle      (Part II)     January 25, 2012

Yesterday, we argued in favour of abortion as a private matter, while advocating an attempt to discourage abortions done merely for the sake of sex selection, which, by creating an imbalance of sexes in society, has ultimately injurious consequences.

The contrary view would see abortion as a societal matter, and hence subject to some type of legal restriction. We see this as the less attractive option, since this is likely to result in "backstreet" abortions, individual hardship, and carries an implied obligation on society to look after an unwanted child. It has sometimes been noted that were men to be the subject of legislation requiring them to have unwanted births, the intrusive long-term consequences would ensure that the question would not even arise.

We did not explore the argument–the religious argument–which–as we understand it-- goes thus: human life begins at the moment of conception; human life is sacred– i.e.--God has a plan that must not be interfered with.

There is no doubt, that if these premises are accepted, then abortion must be seen as murder. The principle that murder must be prevented leads to Linda Gibbons' spending 700 days in jail for refusing to stop picketing at a Toronto abortion clinic, or to James Kopp's shooting of obstetrician Dr. Barnett Slepian in 1998.

The chief element in the premise, it would seem, is that human life is "sacred"–something set apart and related to the divine.

This is, of course, a very admirable and useful notion. It is a good idea to suggest–in as many ways possible–that killing is abhorrent. A society with much casual murder would seem to be significantly less agreeable than one in which killings are relatively rare.

But while murder is to be abhorred, it is difficult to defend the notion that life is "sacred."

The natural world is, as Tennyson noted, "red in tooth and claw." While some animals are vegetarians, most are both prey and predator; the world functions on the basis of "creative destruction"–the lives of animals do not seem so much "sacred" as part of a continuing cycle of predation. Indeed, the universe seems to care little about individual creatures or even species. It would appear that  major extinctions of life have occurred several times in the history of the earth. In addition, 98% of documented species are now extinct. Were we able to conduct an interview with a dinosaur–one speaking from beyond the grave-- it is unlikely he would see the universe as showing a particularly protective benevolence. If there is a "plan," the sanctity of animal life does not seem to be part of it.

In the old days, of course, before Darwin, it was possible to see mankind as "apart"–a special category between creature and angel. Alas–after Darwin–and with evidence that all creatures are built from the same blocks–that there are great similarities in genetic makeup between human beings and chimpanzees–it is hard to see human beings occupying a different place in which human–but not other life-- is "sacred."

Anyone who has had a dog or cat as a pet has, we suspect, been impressed by their "human" traits.

And, indeed, for the most part, we engage in exactly the same predatory behaviour that is seen in the rest of the world--we eat other animals to live. We are rather more efficient at it–and arguably more cruel.

The notion of "sanctity," is also selective. Exceptions abound. While killing is abhorrent within a society, war is perceived as an often necessary evil. Capital punishment is still practised in many jurisdictions–not excepting the "Bible Belt" in the United States. Killing in self defence is seen as legitimate. The Church, in earlier times, seemed to think the burning of heretics and witches to be perfectly acceptable. If God’s plan is that human life is "sacred," the plan seems to be–well–let’s say--fairly malleable.

It is interesting, also, how public opinion is gradually changing. Suicide used to be considered illegal as well as "immoral," but attempted suicide was removed from the criminal code in 1972.

We are now discussing the advisability of assisted suicide for those otherwise unable to end their own lives.

In summation, it appears that the principle of the "sanctity of life" –which might inform a religious objection to abortion is seriously flawed. It is an example of an admirable notion which can be useful in some contexts–but which is difficult to argue with any reasonable consistency.

We believe that it is merely one of a number of attractive illusions–which, when rigorously examined–seem to collide with the facts. The "devil" is not in the details–but in the principle itself.

Abortion is doubtless unfortunate. One would wish to preserve life rather than destroy it. In an ideal world, it would never happen. But the world is a less comfortable and comforting place than we wish it to be: sometimes we are faced with a choice among evils. The fetus is, in the early stages, a potential rather than a being. The notion of "sanctity" of life-- in the matter of abortions–as it is in some other spheres--seems to be generally disregarded in current practice in our society. We see there being good reason for this.


The Devil in the Principle   (Part I )           January 24, 2012

Abortion in Context.

In today’s National Post, Margaret Somerville calls for a discussion of abortion in Parliament, since it is a matter which "affects some of the most important values in Canadian society."

She is, of course quite right--abortion practice implies values.

She notes that, at present, there is "abortion on demand"–based on the primacy of the wishes of the potential mother, and the expendability of the fetus. The underlying concept is that abortion is a private, not a societal matter.

Recently it has come to light that many–from communities in which males are traditionally considered more desirable than females–are having abortions for the specific purpose of ensuring male, rather than female births. This practice, while perhaps desirable from the private perspective of the family involved, is clearly not of ultimate advantage to the community–since it will result in a disruptive imbalance of sexes in the long run.

The suggestion has been made that this specific type of abortion–for the purpose of selecting sex–be discouraged–possibly by withholding information about the sex of the fetus until the thirtieth week of gestation.

Now, there are two opposing sides to this issue.

Those anxious to uphold the principle of abortion as a private matter, are inclined to allow the admittedly injurious practice of sex-selection abortion.

Margaret Somerville argues that the attempt to withhold information about the sex of the fetus is neither feasible nor ethical. She feels that it is the patient’s ethical and legal right to know "the information a physician generates about their condition." Although she does make a direct statement, the language she uses about the "freedom of choice" argument make her distaste abundantly clear. She characterizes that position as claiming the fetus is "just a bunch of cells," and a "parasite" that the woman is entitled to get rid of. It is clear that she would prefer abortion to be seen as a societal, not a private matter.

The difficulty with her position, of course, is that when abortion is seen as a societal matter, society wraps itself in the blanket of moral superiority, compels unwanted births, but has no inclination to bring up the child.

What we see here is an example of the difficulties inherent in extending principles to their unrealistic conclusions. Taking the principle of abortion on demand to its logical conclusion can result–in some circumstances–to an excess of males and dearth of females in a population. Adhering to the principle that abortion is a societal matter–which is usually based on the notion of the "sanctity" of human life–leads to unwanted births and individual hardship.

There are two solutions: if you take the "right to life" rule–then society must be prepared to bring up the child–with all the costs and insufficiencies that that may involve. If you take the "freedom of choice" rule–then society must work hard to educate people so that they do not act to their long-term disadvantage by having abortions to select sex.

On the whole, we see the second solution as more practical.

We see the "right to life" notion to be superficially attractive–but based on a principle–the "sanctity of life"-- which is an important one–but one which ultimately founders on the rocks of reality.

We see the matter of desirable or useful principles which eventually find significant limitations a general one, and, indeed, the cause of much puzzlement and dismay.

(To be continued.)


Atheists as a Marginalised and Disadvantaged Group  (January 21, 2012)


The following is excerpted from an address by Dr. M. T. Wasteland, of the Nullity Research Institute, delivered last Tuesday to the Burlington Branch of the Canadian Atheists Association. The address was titled "Atheists for Equality...and Beyond."


Ladies and Gentlemen, Fellow Atheists:

We are here tonight to discuss our difficult path towards equality. While equality is not found in nature, it remains one of the great dreams of humankind, and to that end much effort has been expended--yet much still needs to be done.

We have indeed seen much progress in Canada: hiring policies–particularly those of governments and universities-- routinely favour such historically oppressed groups as women, "visible" (as opposed to invisible) minorities, aboriginal persons, gays, and the disabled. The Human Rights Commissions are engaged in a tireless fight against even the most casual failure on the part of ordinary citizens to recognize the special status of such groups.

Many shocking inequities remain. The population of space capsules has been revealed as woefully lacking in blue-eyed, left-handed females. The profession of hairdressing is deficient in women over seventy with green eyes, and right-handed white males under six feet tall are significantly under-represented on professional basketball teams.

These glaring examples of inequality pale, however, in the light of the pitiable situation of atheists in our society.

We need not dwell on the oppressions of the past–the treatment of heretics by the Inquisition, the burning of witches at Salem. They are deeply ingrained in our collective unconscious. But it should not be overlooked that those prejudices of the past, albeit somewhat dimmed, are still with us today. Jonathan Kay, of the National Post, recently remarked that he found dinner table atheists "irritating." Similarly, Ezra Levant, on his television program The Source has suggested that atheists are deficient in vision–they just don’t get the "God thing." Indeed, a recent (2011) University of British Columbia study suggests that atheists are distrusted to about the same degree as rapists. A 2007 Gallup poll found that only 45% of Americans would vote for an atheist Presidential candidate.

Ladies and gentlemen–let us look at the facts. Atheists–considered by some to represent 19-30% of the Canadian population--are so oppressed, so marginalised, so fearfully stuck in the closets of godlessness–that they simply have not registered on the equality radar screen.

When have you seen an atheist asked to say a few words at a solemn ceremonial occasion? When has an atheist been asked to consecrate an Office Tower to the service of Mammon? What special Olympic competitions are held for atheists? What discussions are there in learned journals about the Belief Ceiling in corporate culture? What atheist football player has performed a ceremony of  disbelief before a game? When has the Mayor of Toronto refused to attend a parade of naked and half-naked atheists through the streets of his fair city? And how often has the enforcement of laws been suspended when atheists have blocked roads and demanded the presentation of atheist passports to disputed property?

But, my friends, this disregard extends into the warp and woof of the humdrum–the common interactions of ordinary life.



Where are the positive role models for atheists in popular culture? When did Bing Crosby play an avuncular atheist? What Canadian author has ever thanked her faithless readers? If cleanliness be next to godliness, is it not clearly suggested that godlessness is next to grime? If literature presents the god-fearing rural farmer as a model of probity and sturdy reliability, surely the implication is that the godless skeptic has all the shifty evasiveness of a--probably liberal--politician.

No, it is clear that the atheist in popular culture is absent, or is unfairly denigrated with implied comparisons.

Ladies and gentlemen, indulge me for a moment; allow me to read two news items you have never seen:

Hamilton, Ontario. It was a happy occasion yesterday at Sylvan Acres, when Obadiah Diddly celebrated his 100th birthday. Asked to account for his exceptionally long life, Mr. Diddly cited his life-long habits of smoking, drinking, and his deep abiding conviction and belief that life is a complete crapshoot. "Yep," he said, "if I ever thought there was someone up there responsible for this mess, I’da been so mad I would’a bin upset and frustrated ma whole life. Once I realized the whole thing was a kinda bad joke, I calmed right down and jest took things as they came."

And this is the second news item you have never seen:

Dangerous Rapids, Ontario. Needy Woodsman, 38, a native of Mariposa, was rescued from the frigid waters of Lake Awesome last night, after his canoe capsized and sank. A poor swimmer, Needy had neglected to wear a life jacket, and found himself more than a mile from shore. After going under for the second time, he had given up hope--when a seagull flew by and dropped a flashlight on his head. With the fully functioning flashlight, Needy was able to attract the attention of Grace Handy, who was just starting up her motorboat to head out for her customary Midnight Meditation in the middle of the lake.

After his amazing rescue, Needy said: "If that isn’t the dangdest coincidence ever! Sometimes, you just gotta realize that pure, blind, random chance can get you out of a tight spot."

Ladies and gentlemen– what more can I say? As I look around this great hall and at the audience tonight, I see two ladies and four gentlemen. Two of you are wearing bags on your heads, and one is wearing a burka. This pretty much sums up the situation of the atheist in Canadian society.

We must soldier on, regardless. We ask merely for equality–and beyond--for that same special status which has already been achieved by so many other historically oppressed groups in our compassionate society. We should receive special consideration when seeking government employment, and the wonderful deference which Human Rights Commission complaints can so easily confer.

One day, my friends–and let us hope it is in the near future–we will achieve full recognition, and equal special status. How we long to see that time, when atheism is not merely accepted, but given special respect, when popular culture and patterns of speech reflect the truth, when atheists no longer feel the need to hide their lack of belief, but can walk openly and proudly–or even--with a permit-- parade naked on the streets. We seek equality...and beyond.



A Tale from the Root Cause Fairy              (January 11, 2012)


Once upon a time, in the faraway land of Adanac, in the satrapy of Ario, there lived a small boy called Malton.

As was the custom of the time, Malton attended a place of elementary learning a short distance from his home. That home was in a favoured part of the town, where the streets were broad, and where, in the summer, great trees cast their benign shade over brick houses that were comfortably substantial.

But it must also be noted that the nearby place of learning was not far from some rail lines, on the other side of which, the aspect of the town changed dramatically: the streets were narrow, the few trees stunted, and the houses often little more than ramshackle abodes held together with chicken wire and force of habit.

Thus it was that Malton’s school–as such places were then called-- was attended by the children of those in quite different social circumstances, and a certain element of rivalry and resentment was a continuing factor in the corridors and playgrounds of the learning establishment.

One day, Malton, a rather small boy, was accosted by a much larger one, Ab Riginal, who threw poor Malton to the ground, and demanded his lunch–that little brown bag of nutritious sandwiches, fruit, and chocolate chip cookies which Mrs. Deguinty had so carefully and lovingly prepared for Malton’s noontime repast.




Under the circumstances, Malton felt he had no option but to give Ab his meal, and go hungry. Later that day, when he told his mother what had happened, she was most upset. She had heard of a terrible story of Ab’s brother, Dudley Riginal, a feared bully at the school who had been pushed to the ground by one of his victims, hit his head upon a rock, and promptly died.

"Malton," she said, "On no account must you fight back. That can be terribly dangerous. I will make you another lunch, which you can give to Ab. The poor boy is probably very hungry.

And so it was, for the next few days, Malton would present Ab with the extra lunch that his mother had packed, and Ab would take it and push Malton to the ground in gratitude.

Of course, it was not long before Ab was taking Malton’s own lunch, as well, and demanding all the money that Malton had in his pocket. In a relatively short period of time, Mrs. Deguinty was at her wit’s end, and eventually she persuaded Mr. DeGuinty to move to another school district. This was a somewhat costly solution, to be sure, considering the real estate commission, the hiring of movers, and the premium price of a home not quite so close to the rail lines. But it did avoid confrontation, which, as all will agree, is the greatest of evils.

In an odd, almost inexplicable turn of events, Malton grew up to be the chief Pooh Bah of the Satrapy of Ario. It should not be a surprise–of course: whenever he encountered a bully who wanted something, he would remember his mother, go to the taxpayers, and tell them to pack him an extra lunch.


Religion, again!                 January 10, 2010

We sent our diatribe of yesterday, which supported the position of the Globe and Mail–that the Saskatchewan move to fund religious schools was divisive-- to Jerry Agar, who is in favour of such funding.

He has responded that our position is totalitarian, arrogant and disrespectful of others.

While, of course, we do not see ourselves as particularly totalitarian–we do understand his point. Public education itself is totalitarian–a Ministry of Education–or a School Board-- decides what will and what will not be taught. The idea of shutting students up in rooms full of books and computers for four years, and letting their natural curiosity direct their study, has not gained currency–or at least–not yet.

What we see as a public system blessedly free of superstition and cant, Mr. Agar may see as a desert of arid godlessness, and blame a monolithic, totalitarian bureaucracy for creating schools which do not represent his values.

We have much sympathy with this sentiment, for we ourselves left the teaching profession precisely because the school system no longer reflected our values.

Mr. Agar would wish, no doubt, to lessen the totalitarianism by having both secular and faith-based schools which would allow for freedom of choice. While we would favour a competitive school system, in which individual schools would have more leeway in their approaches, and could compete for students based on results, we must admit that our inner totalitarian is triggered at the thought of those schools being primarily informed by religious sentiment–for all the reasons we adduced yesterday.

But–leaving the matter of schools aside for the moment–we feel we should reflect on the limits to atheism.

While we deplore the excesses to which a religion–since it is not amenable to restraint of reason–may lead–we think it unlikely that skepticism with respect to religion will ever become dominant.

First, it may well be that a belief in some comforting organization of the universe exists is selected during evolution. It would not surprise us to learn that comforted optimists survive better than uneasy pessimists, and are hence favoured in passing on whatever genes might affect such attitudes.


Second, we would note that Lionel Tiger and Michael McGuire in God’s Brain argue that religion is widespread for a reason: it is a "brain soother" and Churches are "serotonin factories."

By replacing the anxiety about death with the notion of an afterlife, and by regulating anxiety about sex with rules and ritual-- much comfort is given. They also note that religions are connected to social structure–they have tribal effects–and encompass reinforcing ritual, glory, and music. They also provide an antidote to the hierarchial aspect of reality–in religion, all may be seen as "equal" in the sight of God.

Gosh, what’s not to like? In contrast, skepticism can offer only an uneasy withholding of assent, an arid uncertainty, a fearing of the worst, a puritanical demand for the truth, even when it is not readily discernible. Mr. Tiger admits that he thinks an afterlife "wholly improbable" –but the plain truth is not much of a match for comforting illusion.

We enjoy being tiresome and repetitive–it must be the religious impulse–but we can never pass up an opportunity to refer to our favourite novel--Heart of Darkness. (See Drivel August 15, 2010, for brief analysis.)

In that novel Joseph Conrad suggests that the need for illusion is greater than the need for truth. While there is a "flavour of mortality" in lies, and the result is a civilization which can be characterized as a "whited sepulchre"–we find ourselves compelled–when the pressure is upon us–to maintain a comforting illusion, lest the whole machinery of things collapse around us. It is this perceived necessity–to choose illusion over truth-- that is the darkness at the heart of human existence.

In jest, we have created our own religion, Abracadabra, devoted to the Great God Murphy, who has a realistic appreciation of the likely outcomes of human endeavour, but is otherwise comfortingly supportive of our opinion.

But who knows what subterranean neurological forces he may represent?

Our solution--a soma for the brave new world–is, we suspect, unreasonably optimistic: religions which retain all their soothing characteristics, but which can be set aside at will when it comes to dealing with the realities and truths of the world which we–mysteriously–inhabit.



On Religion in the Schools                (January, 9, 2012)


On The Source (January 6–we did not see the program until January 8) Jerry Agar takes exception to a Globe and Mail editorial which criticizes Saskatchewan for moving to provide for more faith- based schools. Mr. Agar objects to the notion that religious people should be "quiet" about their religion. He evidently believes that "freedom of religion" means that people should be able to send their children to religious schools at taxpayer expense.

Our position is that there should be freedom of speech. We think that TimTebow should not be restricted in his ostentatious display of religion. We may think it foolish and in bad taste, but foolishness and bad taste are best dealt with–mostly–with ridicule.

Similarly, we think that Bill Whatcott should be allowed to distribute anti-gay literature, that holocaust deniers should be allowed their soapboxes (otherwise we would have justification for prohibiting climate change deniers), that members of the flat earth society be permitted to walk off the edge, and that Scientologists should be bound only by the laws against fraud, not the laws against stupidity.

We confess, however, that we do have a bit of trouble when it comes to School Boards devoted to the propositions that gays are sinful, that the holocaust never happened, that the earth is flat, or that Xenu, the dictator of the Galactic Confederacy killed billions of his people, transforming them into Thetans. Alas, we must put religion of any kind in the same category. Yes, to freedom of religion–but not freedom to indoctrinate the young in school systems premised on beliefs which have no evidential justification. (We are not, of course, rejecting elements of moral codes that may have developed from religions; those codes may also be seen as practical in the operation of society.)

We would add that we also object to religious symbolism which suggests the Government espouses a particular faith. Thus we object to members of the RCMP  wearing turbans, or Toronto police officers wearing the hijab. In this manner private folly is given state sanction.

We hate to reiterate the obvious–but when faced with those who seem to think religion is a really great idea–we must do so.

1. Over the centuries, there have been many different religions with many different beliefs. They can’t all be right. Indeed, since they are all based on supposition, there is no way of proving one more correct than the other. As Robert Burton (1577-1640) wisely said: "One religion is as true as another." Hence, it would seem prudent not to be too certain about any of them. It has often been noted that someone who believes in one version of God has rejected all the others. The atheist is exercising the same right to disbelief–he just goes one God further.

2. The Christian religion–the only one with which we have the least acquaintance–does not have an awfully comforting track record. If it is now relatively benign, it is because it is now relatively toothless. At one point the believers thought that the sun moved around the earth, and were distinctly unkind to those with a different view. They thought that the earth was 6,000 years old, that all animals were created as they currently appear, with a godly decree. They believed man was a creature magically placed between Animal and Angel–not simply an animal with a highly developed brain. They thought that torturing people into submission to a belief was a good thing, and that witches should be burned at the stake. The problem is, as Voltaire (1694-1778) pointed out: "Those who believe absurdities will commit atrocities." And we won't even mention modern sexual abuse scandals.

3. From what little we know of the Muslim religion, it is pretty scary. Apostates should be put to death; 72 virgins in heaven are the reward for bombing the enemy; bombing the enemy seems like a good idea if someone ridicules your religion; fatwas are pronounced for novelists considered heretical. (See Drivel, October 22, 2010)

4. All religions are understandably--but unconvincingly -- anthropocentric. Here we are, a species–our version of which is perhaps 100,000 years old–on an obscure planet in a Milky Way 100,000 light years in diameter, containing 200-400 billion stars, 50 billion planets, of which 500 million might be habitable. Neighbouring Andromeda Galaxy has 1 trillion stars. Oh yes, and there are perhaps 170 billion galaxies in the universe. You can certainly see why the First Cause would be devoting all his efforts to looking after us, and getting really upset about whether we are Druids, Zoroastrians, or agnostics. Yep, it all makes perfect sense.

By all means, let us have our comforting but unsubstantiated beliefs. But let’s not let them interfere too much with the way we try to make life as bearable as possible. Certainly we should not let school systems and governments be held in thrall to religion. Let us try to remember the words of Mark Twain (1835-1910): Faith is believing what you know ain't so. Then let’s try to put what we know ain’t so into a mostly standby mode.

Mr. Agar would classify our views as "bigoted"–a term which he uses the same way the politically correct use the word "racist"–a kind of unanswerable, catch-all accusation. But at some point, everyone must decide what is reasonable and what is nonsense. If rejecting nonsense is bigotry–then so be it.



Reflections on a Concert by Paul Simon.     (January 8, 2012)

Last evening, we happened to encounter a broadcast of a June 6, 2011 performance by Paul Simon at Webster Hall in New York. Both recent and early songs were included.

We have sometimes lamented the fact that Mr. Simon’s lyrics are less clear and explicable than they used to be. In an interview shown on the program he admitted that he initially chooses some words for their sound, rather than sense, and then edits things later. This would account, perhaps for the extraordinary originality in much of his work: he does not approach it with "left brain" logic, but "right brain" musicality.

This is also consistent with his occasional use voice sounds or rhythmic repeated syllables which eschew meaning in favour of the expression of a sort of child-like delight.

We were unable to follow the lyrics in the newer songs, but we gathered some general impressions. First, we would note how frequently the songs rest on underlying "upbeat" and optimistic rhythms. And yet the sweep of the melody and words often suggest a cry to the universe, an awareness of being caught in the web of existence, an unjudgemental pondering of questions to which there are no answers.


We have recently reflected that each of us has not been sentient for millions of years until now; and soon each of us will be not be sentient for millions of years–forever, in fact–afterwards. The brevity of individual sentience, considering the vast sweep of time, is breathtaking.

Mirroring this perception, in an interview, Paul Simon referred to the "split second we are alive."

The title of Mr. Simon’s most recent (April, 2011) album is So Beautiful or So What–which he describes as two different ways of looking at life. It is clear from his music, that Mr. Simon, despite troubled waters and the "slip-slidin’ away" aspect of human endeavour, sees life as primarily beautiful. The joy of song overcomes meaning; the lament, while articulated, is incorporated into the positive rhythm of life. The general effect is uplifting; the music itself is a bridge over waters both troubled and turbid.