Just a Little Common Sense

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Archive for the ‘Humanism’ Category

Two TV Ads for a Ban on All Religion

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There’s an Australian series called “The Gruen Transfer”. It’s kind of a comedy show with political context. I can’t really claim to have seen it, as it’s an Australian show and I only get to see snippets on YouTube. However, One of these snippets is what I’d like to share with you today: It’s a segment called “The Pitch”, in which they apparently ask different advertisement agencies to produce TV ads advertising completely unsellable ideas, such as “bring back child labour” or “Let’s Invade New Zealand”. In the end they vote for the best of the submitted ads.
In the following segment, the chosen theme is “Ban All Religion”. Two Agencies took up the challenge, and here is what they came up with. Enjoy!



Personally, I’d vote for the first ad because the second one is based on an argument that has been shown to fail repeatedly. That wars are waged and people are killed in the name of religion is nothing new, it has been pointed out millions of times. The only reaction it gets is “well, that’s just the extremists.” It’s the old and tired the-center-vs-the-fringe-debate, and it’s unlikely to be won by posing the same argument yet another time. The subversive argumentation of the first clip is way more likely to actually change minds, plus it’s not as negative as the second one.
“Religion is bad, let’s do away with it!” puts most people instantly on defense, even if they are not themselves religious. “Religion is outdated, we can do way better than that!” is a message much more likely to open people up to reconsider their views.

Written by Phil

September 8, 2011 at 00:05

Humanism PR Advice: Drop the “Secular”

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There are a lot of Humanist organizations and individuals out there who insist on calling themselves “Secular Humanist” rather than just “Humanist”.
While it’s easy to see why (since most Humanists are rather well-educated, many of them have a little fetish for academic accuracy), I do not think that being meticulously precise is a particularly smart idea in this case. The Happy Human, cheering for the one life we have.

So here’s a little PR advice: Drop all qualifiers. Do realize that most people on the street have never even heard of the term “Humanism” before. That fact alone is enough to make it the smarter move to present a united front to the public, as uncomplicated as possible.

Humanism is fine as it is.
From a PR point of view, “Humanism” is already a brilliantly chosen name. Most people who’ve never heard it before can already guess that it’s a somewhat humanitarian idea, and this is a positive association that we should strive to maintain at all cost. The same is true for the “Happy Human” symbol: It’s perfect. Don’t fix what ain’t broke. The name and the symbol give exactly the right impression, and that, as any PR-pro will tell you, is worth incredibly much.

Disassociating ourselves from “religious” Humanists isn’t worth it.
I am aware that there is a recognized form of religious Humanism out there. But if you google “Humanism”, if you look it up on Wikipedia, or any encyclopedia, they are not what comes up first. We are. Humanism is in itself a secular idea: The name itself makes it perfectly clear that humans are what it’s all about, not deities or other allegedly “higher” ideals. We, the secular ones, are the mainstream of Humanism, and calling ourselves “secular” or “agnostic” Humanists is to surrender that, to leave the term for others to claim.
Again: We are the mainstream. If the few religious Humanists do good, it will be free PR for us. If they don’t want that, fine. Then we ought to leave it up to them to disassociate themselves from us, not the other way round. What we most definitely should not do is to surrender our brand, our trademark, just because we don’t want a few modern, liberal and harmless theists on our side.

POST SCRIPTUM: Some people seem to have misunderstood what I was getting at. My aim was never to play down the role of secularism or criticism of religion. Both are deeply necessary, and if you are familiar with this blog you know that I spent some serious time debating faith-heads and arguing against religious tenets, religious organizations, and even wrote a post pointing out the damage that is caused by even the most moderate and liberal theistic belief.

But Humanism has an agenda. We strife to change our society, even all societies. This entails the pursuit of very concrete political goals, and to achieve those goals as a group of non-government organizations, we have to think practical. The various religious communities around the globe have demonstrated what a lobbyism can achieve in nominatively secular democracies. Non-believers are usually ignored, and the majority of them is completely unaware of all the religious privilege they unknowingly sponsor with their tax-dollars.
So there is a dire need for a Humanist lobby. Religious organizations are crumbling, their numbers dwindling, and Humanism needs to demonstrate its ability to fill the gap.
In a democracy, the political power comes with the number of people one can claim to represent. Humanist organizations are in need to gain some weight to toss around in the political arena. This is the reality of the situation that we need to face. To put it in radical terms: We have a product to sell on the market place of ideas, and the competition is hard. We need to awaken interest and cater to the masses. This is not a simple task, but there are known and proven ways to get there. From this point of view, the “secular” is not only superfluous, but even counterproductive and damaging to our cause.

Yes, it is important to criticize religion. But it is important as a result of the values we hold, because it is a cause of suffering, and at the same time poses one of the largest obstacles on the road to societal change and progression.
Criticism of religion is thus important purely for practical reasons, and has no inherent value of its own. It is not, by itself, a core principle of Humanist thought, but merely a result of it.
My donations to charity, too, are results of my Humanist values. Like criticism of religion, they are not by themselves a tenet of my creed, but merely a means to the end of alleviating suffering. Like my loud and uncompromising secularism, donating to charity is something my Humanism compels me to do, but not by themselves the center of my Humanistic thinking.

The reason I don’t call myself a “secular” Humanist is the same reason I don’t call myself a “donating” Humanist.

Written by Phil

August 30, 2011 at 19:14

Dr. Death is Dead – Long Live Dr. Death.

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My aim in helping the patient was not to cause death, my aim was to end suffering. It’s got to be decriminalized.

Jack Kevorkian, also known as “Dr. Death“, died today at the age of 83. This brave man helped 130 terminally ill patients to end their suffering and die with dignity.
Kevorkian fought for a person’s right to decide when to end their own lives, famously saying that “dying is not a crime”.

May he rest in peace.

Written by Phil

June 4, 2011 at 02:03

Letter To Faith-Head Jim

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Yesterday I received a comment on my latest post that is exemplary of the condescending attitude of believers who believe that, simply because they are a few years older than me, my views are not even worth listening to. They’ve got it all figured out, and they’re just trying to help a poor, young and obviously confused soul.
That comment is so exemplary in fact, that for a second I wondered if it was just some fellow atheist’s idea of humour. In the end I was convinced of the authentic nature of the comment by the author’s abuse of punctuation and generally faulty grammar. Here it is, in all its beauty:

I stumbled upon your website and will probably never be back. I have no agenda other than to leave you with some thoughts you might find helpful. I know a lot of young people in their mid-twentys…none of them blog. I wonder why you do? Are you happy…I mean deep down? Life is short, death is certain, eternity is forever…Faith comes BEFORE knowledge and understanding, it must…the Truth is a Person…that Person will be with you every step of your journey despite your rantings. You sound like a smart guy…you can figure this out. I wish you well…Regards from America.

As I said, this is a perfect example of an attitude I encounter all the time. My usual tactic is to smile and ignore. It’s an invite to a game that I have stopped playing some time ago, when its predictable patterns started to bore me. This comment being on my blog however, for anyone to see, I felt obliged to answer. Having just had a really great although exhausting day, and feeling relaxed and a tad bored, I was in just the right mood, too. So I blew the dust of my trolling-gloves and accepted the invite.

Dear Jim,
I appreciate your kind but entirely misplaced concern for my personal happiness. If you would actually wonder why I blog, you could of course simply have asked, but if you prefer to stick to your preconceived notion of the angry and frustrated young atheist who blogs because he has nobody in real life who will listen to him, that’s just as fine with me.
I can’t help wondering a little myself… those people you know, presumably my peers by age, do they watch a lot of quality TV like American Idol or Big Brother? Do they drink a lot of alcohol? Because I don’t. And I’d like you to consider which is the more fulfilling past-time: That, or blogging about the kind of political and ethical issues that I find interesting, in a foreign language?

I know you weren’t really interested in an actual answer to your rhetorical question in the first place, but here it is anyhow: I blog because I enjoy writing. I enjoy playing that weird but beautiful instrument that is the english language, enjoy to improve my grasp of it. I rant because it’s something I enjoy doing from time to time. It’s an intellectually engaging way to keep my english-skills alive, and it most certainly beats watching TV. Satisfied?
I am a smart guy, thank you, and I already figured this out. I know it makes you uncomfortable to even consider the possibility of a happy atheist, because that might mean you need to seriously reconsider your world-view, but YES, I actually am happy deep down.

You are right, faith does indeed come before knowledge. That is because it acts as a gap-filler in its absence. Those who choose to still stick with it once actual knowledge is available are cowards, too afraid of change to opt for improvement and a widening of their horizons. Terrified, they stick to the mundane and shrink away from exploring the realms of intellectual growth and sensual fulfillment in which true happiness can be found.

It’s kinda cute to see you try to patronize me, Jim, but your petty fairy-tales and empty promises of a better beyond fail to impress: With music, philosophy, art, literature and human relations I have a wealth of experience and beauty at my disposal right in the here and now that makes your promises of heaven look pale by comparison. My faith is in people, and it’s a faith stronger than yours will ever be.

UPDATE: Despite his announcment not to be back, here he is. The discussion continues in the original comment thread.

Written by Phil

March 9, 2011 at 00:46

The Ethics of Animal Testing

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The one thing people bring up in defense of animal testing are the huge medical and scientific advances it provides us with. There’s immensely important treatments out there that could not have been developed without experimentation on animals, and nobody seriously denies that.

From a utilitarian point of view, ethics are a cost-benefit calculation: The end does justify the means: While killing people is generally a bad thing to do, assassinating Hitler for example would have been ethically permissible because in that case, the benefit of preventing or at least stopping a genocide outweighs the cost of killing a single human being by several orders of magnitude. By the same token, sentencing a few hundred mice to a death of agony may be morally permissive when it leads to the discovery of, say, a cure for cancer – the future prevention of great suffering outweighs the suffering inflicted upon a few mice in the here and now.

While that is a perfectly valid point to make, it is ridiculous to try to justify all animal testing by pointing out that there are a few experiments among the millions of tortured creatures that significantly advance medical science. The huge majority of animals are being tested on just to show that shampoo X is safe to use on your kids without producing a burning sensation in their precious little eyes, as if there weren’t enough safe ones available already. There is so little scientific or medical progress in these areas that it wouldn’t even justify harming a single fly.
Once that is pointed out, most proponents of animal testing retreat to defending “medical animal testing”. Unfortunately, for that field the same thing holds true: Only a tiny fragment of cruel experiments yield significant results, while the vast majority inflict incredible amounts of suffering for little or insignificant data in return.

The second line of defense for most proponents of animal testing boils down to “but they’re just animals” – They question that animals have any rights at all, or sometimes attack the idea of “rights” itself as being useless and without basis in reality. In essence what they’re saying is that “animals are less able than us, therefore it is okay for us to treat them however we wish.”

Now here is where the discussion gets interesting. Let me start by pointing out that most people would agree that it is wrong to experiment on a less able person. It’s wrong to experiment on the elderly, children, or mentally disabled adults – only very few people would disagree with that.
The problem here is that any argument that can be used to justify the suffering of animals can equally be used to justify inflicting suffering onto less able humans. Perhaps disabled ones, or all below a certain IQ? Or why not experiment on convicts, alcoholics or the homeless?

If you invoke a hierarchy of ability to grant humans a higher ethical status than animals, you have to accept that the “lower” class that includes animals would also include less able humans. The only other real option you have is to invoke an ideal of equality based on the ability to suffer.
Suffering is the only thing that all humans share, and coincidentally is also shared by all other conscious creatures on this planet. So by its own virtue the argument extends to include, without discrimination, all beings capable of suffering.
The question is not whether there is actually such a thing as a “right” to life or to anything – the point is that to whatever extent rights do exist, there is no justification for awarding them to humans without extending them to other animals too.

With regards to animal testing this doesn’t mean we should put a stop to all experiments run on animals. Not all of them inflict a great amount of suffering on the test subjects, and some of them return results important enough to justify the harm inflicted. What it means is that we need a shift of paradigm in the public perception of the issue. Rather than the current idea that animal testing is generally okay and only in especially cruel instances may be morally questionable, we need to accept and recognize the idea that inflicting suffering on any conscious being is generally wrong, and only in certain instances may be permissible.

Setting humans apart from and above all other species is purely arbitrary, much in the same way that racism arbitrarily declares one race to be superior to others.


I’d like to end with a few lines that beautifully sum up the single most important argument that can be made in this debate; it was written well over two centuries ago by Jeremy Bentham, in his work Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation:

The French have already discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason a human being should be abandoned […] What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason or perhaps the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog, is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day or a week or even a month of age. But suppose the case were otherwise, what would it avail? The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?

Written by Phil

February 24, 2011 at 11:57

Responsible Charity

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Perhaps you remember Hemley Gonzalez. He is the one who did some amazing work raising awareness about some of the more controversial stuff behind the Missionaries of Charity – namely Mother Theresa’s Sisterhood’s opposition to hygiene, their refusal to administer pain-killers or use modern medical equipment, their rather mysterious attitude bookkeeping, and the horrible state of their sanitary facilities, all despite the millions of dollars this organisation receives in donations each year. He quickly became one of Mother Teresa’s most outspoken critics, even being interviewed by the indian Forbes magazine.

The short version of his story goes as follows: He went to india as a backpacker, felt inspired after reading a book about Mother Teresa’s work, and decided to visit Kolkatta to help. Upon arrival he was shocked by the crass difference between reality and the idealised image presented by the media and the Biography he’d read. Yet he stayed for two month, helping the best he could, faithfully documenting everything. Back home, he started a Facebook group called STOP the Missionaries of Charity, successfully kicking up some dust.

He could have left it at that. Like most of the Western world he could have sat at home whining and complaining, enjoying the attention, and never offering actually constructive criticism.

Of course I wouldn’t be writing about him now if he’d opted for that course of action. Being the inspiring person he is, Hemley went back to the US, spent two years networking, gathering support, and getting all the necessary applications and paperwork on the way. Currently, since December 2nd 2010, he’s back in India, enrolling kids in school, providing food, clothing and medical care, helping families make a living so the kids will be able to stay in school… only this time, it’s in the name of his own charity organisation, Responsible Charity. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Phil

December 17, 2010 at 19:15

A Call For A Black Christmas

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It’s christmas season, the season of love, family, blankets, hot water bottles and endless amounts of cookies. And above all, the season of blind consumerism and enormous waste.
Also, it’s the season in which people all over the westernized world quadruple their electricity bills so they can display a little plastic Santa Claus mechanically climbing up and down their fully lit house front, in order to win a petty little contest to confirm that they wasted more money on decor and electricity than anybody else in their neighborhood. Awesome.

Picture by Wikimedia Commons

Here’s my proposal: Don’t participate. Have an XMas-tree in your livingroom if you must, but stop lighting up your house like you want it to be seen from outer space. Instead, use the fest of love to do something good this year:

  • Don’t buy plastic-decor
  • Waste less energy
  • Think of those less privileged, and
  • Donate to charity (A list with recommendations will follow shortly)

Read the rest of this entry »

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