There’s no justice, there’s just us

There is a concept in psychology called the “just world hypothesis”, also known as the “just world fallacy”. In its essence, this concept refers to our tendency to infer that the world operates as it should – goodness is rewarded and iniquity is punished. Where the fallacious component of this phenomenon crops up is when we allow this thought process to operate in reverse – those who are punished or rewarded must have deserved it, because the world just works that way.

This is a particularly attractive heuristic for a number of reasons. First, it is reassuring to think that we live in a universe where things exist in a state of balance – chaos is unsettling and potentially dangerous. Second, and perhaps most compellingly, it gives us a sense of satisfaction to think that the hard work we put in will be rewarded. It gives us even more satisfaction to think that those who do wrong will get their come-uppance in the end, a phenomenon called schadenfreude.

There is no place in which the just world fallacy is more obvious than in theology. Regardless of which deity we are talking about, there is always a balance between the forces of good and the forces of evil, with the good guys eventually winning out in the end. Christianity falls down this path most egregiously, with an accounting of a final battle and judgment that is the stuff of great myth; however, all the great religious traditions put great faith in the idea of ultimate balance. The very concept of an afterlife is an implicit reward for a good life or punishment for a life used for ill.

This fallacy pops up outside the realm of religion, however. It is this fallacy that allows us to look at the horrendous disparity between the living conditions of First Nations people, of women, of people living in starvation in southeast Asia and Africa, and rationalize it. Take a look at the comments section of any news report from that region (particularly about what is currently happening in the Ivory Coast), and you’ll undoubtedly come across someone with a brilliant statement like “well all of those African leaders are corrupt – what do they expect?”

It’s nice to be able to explain away injustice with such a simple wave of the hand. Doing so removes any sense of responsibility you might feel for the way corporations from which we purchase goods exploit and devastate those countries, destabilizing them to a point where corruption becomes de rigeur. It removes any feelings of guilt for the fact that our cities are built on First Nations land, much of which was obtained through dishonest treaty processes. It prevents us from having to feel remorse for propping up a misogynistic system that rewards men for fictitious “superiorities” that we have been told to believe we have. We can then go about our lives without having to constantly examine our every thought and assumption, which is an exhausting process that can prevent anything from actually getting accomplished.

The problem with belief in the just world hypothesis is that it blinds us from seeing the world as it truly is. Consider this figure for a moment:

Anyone who has studied classical mechanics (called ‘physics’ in high school) will immediately recognize this as a free body diagram. The various forces at work on the rectangular object are presented. When we can identify the direction and magnitude of these forces, we can make meaningful predictions about the behaviour of the object. However, if we neglect one of the forces either in how strong it is or where it’s going, our predictions – indeed, our very understanding of the object – are fundamentally flawed (e.g., if we forget about friction, we would expect the block to slide down the ramp – friction may keep it exactly where it is).

Society and the people of which it is comprised can be thought of in much the same way. When we neglect to take into account the forces that are at work on us, our predictions and understanding of the world is meaningfully misconstrued. If we add in other forces that aren’t actually there, then we’re realy in trouble. The just world fallacy is just such an addition – it postulates the existence of an outside influence that inherently balances other forces that may result in unjust disparity. We are then relieved from any sense of responsibility to correct injustices.

The ultimate manifestation of this is the bromide “everything happens for a reason”. Starving kids in Ethiopia? Illegal wars? Abuse and deprivation? Exploitation of vulnerable peoples? Don’t worry, everything happens for a reason. Justice will win out in the end, without any need for action from you, safe behind your wall of fallacy.

It’s not exactly difficult to see why this view of the world is fundamentally dangerous. The world is not a fair place. In fact, “fairness” is an essentially human construction – sometimes animals are predated into extinction, sometimes entire ecosystems are destroyed by natural disasters, it’s entirely possible that entire planetary civilizations were wiped out by a supernova in some far-flung corner of the galaxy. These things are only “unfair” to human eyes – as far as the universe is concerned, them’s the breaks. I suppose there is some truth to the statement that “everything happens for a reason” – it’s just that this reason is that we live in a random, uncaring universe.

If we wish to live in a fair world – and I’d like to hope that we do – then it is incumbent upon us to make it that way. The only force for justice that exists is in the hands of human beings, and the only strength behind that force is the level of responsibility we feel to make it so. It is of no use to cluck our tongues and say “well that’s the way it goes” or “things will work out” – making statements like that is the same as saying “I don’t care about the suffering of those people”. If that’s the case (and oftentimes it is), we should at least be honest with ourselves and say it outright.

It is for this reason that I identify as a liberal – I am not content to let the universe sort things out. The universe doesn’t care, and there’s no reason to believe that the unfairness of random chance will result in justice for those that centuries of neglect have left behind. If we care about justice, then it’s up to us to make it happen.

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TL/DR: The world is not a fair place, although we like to try and convince ourselves that it is. If we want to live in a fair world, then we have to make it that way.

Movie Friday: Outnumbered

I had a discussion/debate with Scary Fundamentalist about the strength of kids’ “bullshit detectors”. My basic stance was that, given the opportunity and a set of unbiased facts, kids are pretty good at sorting out what is real and what isn’t. However, when you tell them that something is real, they tend to believe you because… well… they’re kids. Today’s video illustrates that:

*Mutter* another video with embedding disabled. Sorry.

While this is played for laughs, it is an incredibly tragic state of affairs that kids are indoctrinated in environments where they aren’t given the skills to evaluate the truth of the axioms they are taught. Sure, I was raised in a religious household (kinda) and was taught to believe in a deity, but I was also taught skills of appraisal of facts, and exposed to dissenting opinions. It’s all well and good to say “let the kids decide for themselves”, but when you insulate people from dissenting opinions, there’s really not much of a decision to make.

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Well India is apparently stupid too

In case you were wondering, it turns out that India is also stupid:

A controversial book on Mahatma Gandhi has been banned by the government in his native state of Gujarat. Chief Minister Narendra Modi said that its contents were “perverse and defamed the icon of non-violence”. The book by Pulitzer Prize winning author Joseph Lelyveld contains evidence that India’s independence hero had a homosexual relationship.

I’m not a fan of religion. I am irritated by conservatism. I detest racism, sexism and homophobia. I hate book bans. They have got to be the least useful, most reactionary response to an idea in existence. The entire span of human history is testament to the fact that book bans are a horrible idea. Especially for such petty and transparently ridiculous reasons.

Those of you who know me well know that I am a huge fan of a show called Clone High. It was a one-season Canadian show that caricatured teen shows, through the lens of a high school populated by clones of famous historical characters. The humour of the show came from its completely irreverent humour and fast-paced weirdness:

One of the main characters was a clone of Mohindas Gandhi, re-imagining him as an extremely hyperactive, self-aggrandizing misfit whose entire driving force was to be accepted despite his zany behaviour. Anyone with even faint knowledge of the life of Gandhi knows that this characterization is completely opposite from the actual living person, wherein lies the funny. However, when the show left Canadian television and was rebroadcast around the world, Indians were up in arms over the desecration of their national hero.

And now someone said he was GAY! OMG U GUYZ!

Here’s the thing: as much as India likes to behave as though it is a secular country, many parts of India cling strongly to “traditional values”, meaning hatred of gays and other strog out-group hostility. While we think of India as a single country, it is perhaps better understood as analogous to ancient Greece – a collection of nation-states that are affiliated but by no means homogeneous. Understanding this fact perhaps gives some insight as to why suggesting that Gandhi was anything less than a macho macho man is likely to raise some eyebrows. The fact that they’re talking about Gandhi, someone whose hero worship goes beyond the man himself and takes on a religious fervor just compounds this.

So fine, I can understand people being upset. I can understand people being so upset that they don’t buy the book, or they protest the book, or they produce scathing critiques that show the poor workmanship and revisionist history that went into writing the book. Instead, they chose to try and ban it.

Now I’ve said that banning is a stupid idea, but I haven’t bothered explaining why. Quick show of hands: who would have heard about this if the government hadn’t banned it? Okay, you can put your hands down now – I can’t actually see you. The point is that elevating this book to the level of controversy that it begins to make international headlines only serves to accomplish the exact opposite of what you’re hoping to do with the ban. If the goal of banning the book is to keep people from hearing about the idea, it is an epic level of fail – one of hundreds of biographies of Gandhi has now jumped to the top of several reading lists.

The worst part of this story, incidentally, is the fact that the author actually didn’t say any such thing:

The author of a book on Mahatma Gandhi has said it is “shameful” that it has been banned in India’s western state of Gujarat. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Joseph Lelyveld said the book was banned on the basis of newspaper reviews. He said the reviews had sensationalised his account of Gandhi’s friendship with a German man, who may have been homosexual.

And it seems like the family doesn’t care, even if he did:

Indian writers and relatives of Mahatma Gandhi have protested against the ban. Gandhi’s great grandson Tushar Gandhi said he was against banning of books, and that it did not matter “if the Mahatma was straight, gay or bisexual”. “Every time he would still be the man who led India to freedom”.

Writer Namita Gokhale said she was saddened by the ban. “Every time a book is banned, it saddens me because you simply cannot ban ideas, you cannot ban thoughts.” she said. “In India a democratic space for ideas is a gift and I think banning a book is the most pointless exercise.”

Book bans not only violate the principle of freedom of expression, they also don’t fucking work. It is basically just setting up a giant flag that says “warning: moron approaching”.

And it seems that Canadians are just as stupid:

A Saskatchewan First Nation has banned performances of an acting troupe’s adaptation of an ancient Greek tragedy because one of the characters in the play is a corrupt chief. She said she believes her adaptation of the 2,500-year-old Greek tragedy Antigone offended the leadership of the Poundmaker First Nation.

Psst… Chief Antoine… want to know how to make people suspect that you are corrupt? Take global criticisms of corrupt chiefs personally! I’ve performed an adaptation of Antigone (many many years ago), and done some literary analysis of it. It’s a great story that well encapsulates many of the issues of governance and how personal conflict enters into discussions of principle. It’s a literary classic that has lots of parallels to band governance, regardless of whether or not a given chief is corrupt. However, standing up and banning it is a glaring sign that the criticism hits too close to home, and elevates that criticism to the national level.

Book bans – they do the exact opposite of what you want. Learn it, remember it.

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Anyone but Harper

If you’re planning on voting strategically (i.e., vote for the non-Conservative candidate to make sure you don’t split the vote and usher in a Conservative candidate), then check out this resource.

Type in your postal code, and it gives you an idea of who has a chance to beat the Conservative candidate in your riding.

Remember, if you live in a riding where there’s no way a Conservative can lose, then vote your conscience. If it’s going to be competitive, then bite the bullet and realize that ANYONE is better than Stephen Harper.

h/t to Jen!

N.B. If this doesn’t work for you, try logging into Facebook first. If you don’t have Facebook, then I’m not sure if it will work for you.

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Fuckin’ privilege? How does that work?

My experiences dealing with other people, as well as my own recollections of how my opinions have changed over the years, have imprinted upon me the need to be as even-handed as possible to those whose positions oppose mine. As hard as it is to do sometimes, I have to constantly remind myself that it is entirely possible (and more than likely to be the case) that my opponents really do believe the nonsense they defend sincerely. Sometimes the opinions expressed are so batshit insane that I am sorely tempted to suspect that my interlocutor doesn’t really believe what she/he is saying, but is simply trying to get my goat.

I don't blame them - my goat is adorable

More often than not, disagreements between people are rooted in ignorance. There are a few people to whom I quite regularly lose arguments, and 95% of the time it is because I don’t actually know what I am talking about. Once I am educated about what piece of evidence or alternative argument I have overlooked, I eventually either concede the argument or revise my position. This kind of discussion is only possible when the opponents respect me enough to not simply dismiss my arguments out of hand.

And so it is in this spirit of extending the benefit of the doubt that I address those of my readers that don’t accept the existence of white privilege. I know they’re out there (at least 2 of them have said as much), and many people who haven’t heard of the concept before find it hard to spot. It’s one of those seeming Catch-22s that one of the ways privilege manifests itself is that it prevents you from seeing it, which directly leads to you denying it. Hopefully this will help change some minds:

Seattle University researchers who posed as “secret shoppers” to test customer services at the Department of Social and Health Services gave the agency a failing grade. Their report card, released this month, showed that DSHS treated whites and people of color differently, failed to provide basic information on programs when asked, failed to keep confidentiality and made things difficult for the disabled and those who don’t speak English.

The researchers, who are of different ethnicities, visited all 54 DSHS offices around the state between July and December of 2009. Of the four female researchers, the African-American received the worst treatment, according to the study. Many DSHS receptionists also assumed the Asian-American investigator was a foreigner and asked questions about her citizenship status, even though she was born in America and had no accent, said lead investigator Rose Ernst, Ph.D., an assistant political science professor at Seattle University and the study’s author.

It is rare that such a blatant example of this effect manifests itself, and I’m sure using this example will open me up for criticisms that this is not representative of average experience. To make it clear – I don’t believe that this magnitude of racism is widespread and normative; however, this kind of racism exists everywhere. The level of service experienced by these researchers varied based on their race – to an almost comically absurd extent. This isn’t in the South either – this is Washington state! Super-liberal latté and arugula Washington state. I’ve said this before, but I should probably re-iterate: being a liberal is not a magic pass to being non-racist. Liberals are racist too, just in a different way to conservatives.

There are two distinct phenomena happening here that I think must be explored and highlighted. First, there is the experience of the researchers of colour. They posed as women needing information and assistance – the purview of the DSHS. What they received instead was dismissive and rude treatment:

The African-American investigator encountered rude or dismissive behavior in roughly 40 percent of her visits to DSHS offices compared with 25 percent for Ernst, the white investigator. At times, staff members raised their voice to “shame” the African-American investigator by broadcasting her question to the entire office, the report says.

This is your classic racism, which strictly speaking is not privilege, except insofar as being non-white is a barrier that a white person doesn’t face. The consequences of being non-white are palpable in this case study, and were not experienced by the white researcher. There are a number of other embedded barriers here – poor women are likely to receive inferior treatment compared to middle-class or rich women, women with unaccented English will be treated better than women with accents, men will (probably) be extended more respect than women (although that might not be the case here, given that many DSHS users are abused women – men might be a bit unpopular). That’s only half of what is going on though.

There is a second phenomenon that clearly demonstrates the manifestation of white privilege:

“I never had a single question about my citizenship status,” said Ernst, who is white. “On the flip side, there was an assumption if I was in the office, I had a very legitimate reason to be there, that I really needed help,” Ernst said. Ernst said office receptionists asked if she had a domestic violence problem or drew her into hushed conversations about others in the waiting room.

Not only did the white researcher not face the same kind of overt discrimination that the others did, but she received preferential treatment because of her skin colour. This is not treatment that Ernst had demanded or otherwise solicited – the fact of her white skin gave her a leg up that, if she had not been looking for it, would have been completely invisible to her. In other words, had she been unaware of the phenomenon of privilege, there is no way she would have seen her experience as anything but typical. She would have been, from her own perspective, right to say that she didn’t receive any special treatment because of her skin colour – why would she suspect otherwise?

It is precisely that aspect of privilege that is most galling to people on both sides of the debate. It bothers anti-racists because it is so shockingly obvious once you see it, but its existence is denied to high heaven. It bothers deniers because it seems like a non-falsifiable hypothesis – denying it is proof that you have it. My hope is that this example might provide a clear illustration of not only what privilege is, but how it works as well.

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Additions to the blog roll

So in addition to the new site design (I made that header myself – be proud), I’m also updating the blog roll that is on the right sidebar of this page. As threatened, I have removed some that are no longer being updated and have added some new ones that I am following:

  • (Not So Secret) Secret Blog – thoughts on anti-racism and feminism from a reader of this blog (I’m glowing with pride at launching another blogger into the world)
  • Blag Hag – Jen McCreight’s excellent blog about feminism, atheism, and science.
  • Canadian Atheist – a blog collective from young atheists across the country, of which yours truly is one
  • Friendly Atheist – Hemant Mehta’s equally excellent blog about trying to make your way through this crazy mixed-up world… that makes it sound like an after-school special 🙁
  • STFUConservtives – a fun tumblr compilation of ridiculous things that conservatives are prone to say. Warning: may cause rage.

I suppose now is the time to shamelessly plug myself (that sounds disgusting). If you have any friends or family members that you think would enjoy or benefit from the stuff on this blog, won’t you consider recommending a couple articles to them? Maybe throw me some link love on your blog or Facebook page? You’re never going to see a ‘Donate here’ button (unless I get fired… but I’d probably just look for a new job) – I give you my very best FOR FREE! Help a brotha out and spread the word, nuh?

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There’s an election coming up!

In case you are completely disconnected from what is going on around you (as too many of my friends are, sadly), there is a federal election happening next month in Canada. I gather that the majority of my readers are Canadian, but I know a lot of you aren’t. Right now we have Canada’s equivalent of the Republicans in power, so I am obviously not too thrilled about that. Polls show that they will win this next election, possibly gaining seats in the process, which depresses me to no end.

Anyway, if you wanted to know where Crommunism sits on the political spectrum, CBC has helpfully provided an Electoral Compass:

Click on the image to try it out for yourself and see where you fall. Some of the positions are Canada-specific, so if you don’t know about a particular policy issue, just skip it.

If you live in Canada, vote!

N.B. Pat Dixon has made a good point, one that I meant to put in the article. You should be voting for whatever party has the best chance of beating the Conservatives in your riding. Sadly, we live in a country that has 3 left-wing parties (although I doubt the Green Party would consider themselves as such), and only one right-wing party. This results in vote splitting that allows the minority group to enjoy majority rule. Vote for whoever is likely to beat the Conservatives.

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Freedom of religion… inherently contradictory?

Okay, not usually, but maybe in this case?

A polygamous society “consumes” its young. It hurts people. It hurts society. Because of that, polygamists ought to be criminally prosecuted, not shielded by constitutionally guaranteed freedom of religion, expression or association. That’s the position laid out by the B.C. attorney general’s lead lawyer Monday as the reference case to determine whether Canada’s 120-year-old criminal law against polygamy ought to be struck down entered its final phase in B.C. Supreme Court.

I’ve tried to avoid commenting on the polygamy case thus far, because I wasn’t sure what there was to say about it other than the obvious, but I’ll try to wade in a bit here. For those of you that haven’t been following the case, a group of religious fundamentalists in Bountiful, British Columbia are before the Provincial Supreme Court challenging the constitutionality of Canada’s ban on polygamy. They are claiming that they should be exempt from the law on grounds of freedom of religious expression, a claim which obviously irritates me to no end. If your religion commands you to break the law, it’s not the law that must change, it’s your religious practice. Canada is a secular country that allows people to believe however they want – that courtesy is not extended to behaviour.

The contradiction doesn’t come from their central claim:

What [Canadian historian Sarah] Carter wrote was that protection of women was “a central rationale” for outlawing polygamy and that “Anti-polygamists claimed that polygamy meant unmitigated lives of slavery, bondage and horror for the wives.” “The child brides smuggled across borders to serve as compliant wives to middle-aged men they have never met, the boys expelled or sent to work camps without an education, the harsh mechanisms of control, the grotesque subjugation of women and girls, these are not discrete harms [of polygamy] that are simply coincidental,” [attorney general’s lawyer Craig] Jones said.

It comes from the idea that telling someone they aren’t allowed to enslave children is a violation of that person’s freedoms. Now they may not see it as slavery, but the disgusting way in which they treat these supposed ‘brides’ is medieval and undoubtedly falls under the umbrella definition of slavery.

If I can read the judicial minds of the Supreme Court, I’d imagine that this case will not be granted as argued – there is no Charter protection of compulsory servitude for life, nor does punishing the violation of both the law and common decency amount to religious persecution. However, the attorney general is attempting to demonstrate that the abuse and depravity that is systemic in the Bountiful group is a necessary product of polygamous relationships. In this attempt, I think he will fail. While there is a great deal of anecdotal evidence to suggest that the particular kind of polygamy practiced in Bountiful and other fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints churches (as well as some branches of Islam) is inherently exploitative, that fact is insufficient to justify a wholesale ban on polygamy.

The claim that polygamous marriage would disrupt society is certainly a true one. The definition and practice of marriage would become unbelievably complicated if groups of people were allowed to marry. Marriage has specific legal implications, and making changes to that would have broad societal ramifications. However, I remain unpersuaded by this argument, simply because a different formulation of it was used to prop up racial segregation and to bar women from getting the vote. Constitutional freedoms should not hinge on whether or not their are convenient – the whole point of having guaranteed human rights is that sometimes they are wildly inconvenient. We have to find a way to work around them.

However, there is one argument now being made that I find particularly interesting:

“We’ve seen the extent to which religion is used as the control mechanism, as the enforcement mechanism that magnifies the harms of polygamy,” Jones said during his third day of final submissions at the constitutional reference case being heard by the B.C. Supreme Court. “The evidence that has emerged from expert and lay witnesses alike is that the greater the religious fervour with which polygamy is intertwined, the more harmful it can be expected to be. There is something significantly harmful about the religious manifestation of polygamy.”

It is entirely possible, and seems to be supported by the testimony, that when religion is used as the justification for polygamy, that’s when the whole host of other abuses begin to manifest. As an anti-theist, this certainly gels with my view of what religion does – takes a perfectly decent thing like community or charity and distorts it into something sinister. That being said, banning things because they are religious sets a dangerous (and, frankly, ridiculous) precedent. If we say that polygamy is allowed for secular reasons but not religious ones, we are simply tipping the “freedom of religion” argument to the opposite extreme. We cannot begin outlawing things because they are religious, just as we cannot permit things on the same grounds. We should be making our legal decisions on grounds that entirely ignore their religious justification.

The abuses that occur in these polygamous groups are criminal. Child neglect, emotional abuse and imprisonment are all horrible acts that we should fight vociferously. However, they are not necessary outcomes of a man married to several women, even if such marriages are done for religious reasons. While the men of Bountiful should not be allowed to abuse their child brides because their imaginary friend said it was okay, it is illiberal and anti-democratic to punish them for such delusion. The harm of polygamy manifests itself as abuse – when that happens the abusers should be punished. In absence of abuse, there are no grounds to ban polygamy that are not just as arbitrary as the arguments against gay marriage, interracial marriage, or allowing women to vote.

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The value of the ‘spiritual’

I have a few close friends who describe themselves as ‘spiritual’. In fact, for the intervening period between leaving religious dogma and rejecting god-concepts altogether, I described myself along similar lines. When I said it, and I suppose when my friends say it, it meant that while I did not adhere to a particular religious tradition but still recognized that there was a non-intellectual part of the human experience that made up a non-trivial portion of my life. While my particular ‘spirituality’ did not encompass things like ghosts or angels or other non-corporeal forms of life, it did recognize that there is more in the world than limited human understanding can fully encompass.

In elementary school and throughout my life as a churchie, I was told that in addition to physical, social, emotional and mental health it was important to maintain one’s “spiritual health”. Googling the term gives you a whole flood of holistic sites that make the same claim. The interesting and telling part of both the religious and secular concepts of the spirit is that neither one bothers to actually define it, except in the most vague terms:

Spirituality is having meaning & direction in life. It involves development of positive morals, ethics & values. Being healthy spiritually helps us to demonstrate love, hope & a sense of caring for yourself and others.

The above is the most specific definition I could find, and even it doesn’t really bother to define what the spirit is, merely asserting the effect that having ‘healthy spirituality’ has. Apparently, according to this particular site, morals and values are the domain of the spirit – so much for philosophy and psychology I guess.

The galling part of the ‘spirituality’ issue is that, almost without question, it is describing subjective states of the brain. At least the religious definition posits the existence of a soul, although it is clear from explorations in neuroscience that the ‘soul’ is just another trick of the mind. However, the idea of ‘spirituality’ is inherently flawed in this way – it confuses an illusion with reality, and then back-fills its assumptions to fit the conclusion. First, the ‘spirit’ is created out of thin air; next, characteristics and qualities are ascribed to this figment; finally, a complicated system of diagnostic and treatment techniques are prescribed to maintain the health of the spirit:

  • Create art work and/or writing centered on hope of peace, then have an art show
  • Create cards to send to individuals who are alone, sick or just having a difficult time
  • Draw or write about what you would like to do for a job or career when you get older
  • Participate in mentoring i.e. reading a story to a younger child, either at home or within the school day
  • Participate in random acts of kindness
  • Have a ceremony celebrating Canadian Citizenship (lolwut?)
  • Recognize others special gifts or individuality – e.g. Identify a strength of each person in your class/family
  • Identify/draw a picture of or write about two community resources that help children/youth

It’s not a minor issue – major health care providers offer ‘spiritual health services’, seminars teach courses about how to heal your spirit, books are written that advertise the secrets of ‘boosting your spiritual health’. Millions of dollars are being made every year by people who claim to hold the secret to fixing a part of you that doesn’t exist. What’s more, belief in this non-existent vestigial and ephemeral organ is seen as a virtue – watch as people nod sagely and knowingly as someone repeats the canard “I’m not religious; I’m spiritual.” Contrast that to the reaction to someone who says “I don’t ride horses; I only like unicorns“.

Once we unpack the embedded implication of ‘spirituality’ – that there is something called a ‘spirit’ or a ‘soul’ that exists separately from the body – we are left to explain the pseudo-phenomenon of spirituality. We certainly experience life as though we are a spirit encased in a body, as though there is a living energy (as Orson Scott Card would call it, an aiùa) that comprises our ‘self’, our unique essence. It’s impossible to discuss this phenomenon without leaning heavily on the psycho-babble that makes up the language of spirituality. Anyone who has meditated, been inspired by a beautiful sight or song, felt connected to the planet, or allowed her/his mind to wander cannot deny that there is at least the illusion of a ‘self’ that exists beyond the wet and fleshy bits that make up our body.

What is this a picture of?

If you said ‘a pretty butterfly’, you’re wrong (if you said anything else, you might have a psychological problem). This is a picture of a bunch of coloured dots, arranged in a pattern that resembles a butterfly. The image of the butterfly is the product of your brain interpreting a number of individual stimuli and synthesizing them into one coherent expression. In the same way, your brain takes a variety of sensory information and builds a subjective experience that creates the illusion of a ‘spirit’ or soul:

All this is in no way meant to diminish the power of subjective experiences. I’ve been sublimely moved by works of music or literature (particularly the latter) that have changed the way I look at the world. I have, while looking at the night sky, felt a super-real connection to the universe. I have, on occasion, been knocked completely sideways by a stray thought that altered my perspective. I have, in years past, felt the Lord Jesus Christ in my heart, and had the Holy Spirit speak through me. These kinds of experiences are part of what defines our human experience. However, it is important to remember that while these things may have deep, powerful personal meaning, they do not correspond in any way to objective reality.

Tl/DR: There can be great value in those things we call ‘spiritual’, but the word itself props up a flawed view of the world.

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The new layout

Hey readers,

I thought I would spice things up a bit by changing the layout. Let me know what you think in the comments – do you like the change or should I go back to the old style?