Saturday, 28 January 2012

A temple to atheism, and a few notes

This week Alain de Botton may have suggested plans to build a temple to atheism in central London.

He says that you can build a temple to anything that's positive and beautiful: to love, friendship, calm, perspective; as well as to Jesus, Mary or Buddha.

I've got to say I'm at a loss as to what I'd expect to find inside a temple to atheism. With religion it's obvious what you will find. Most religions have their own iconography but atheism doesn't. Religions are far more than buildings and imagery, though. They have their own philosophical and historical backgrounds, but here to atheism is lacking something - the very word means "without gods". No-one is just an atheist.  Whether they know it or not they must have some other philosophy.

Whether this philosophy is hedonism, skepticism, rational humanism, utilitarianism, Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, nihilism, one of many I've forgotten, or a mix of the above everyone lives by something and this where I'm not sure what to put into a temple to atheism.

Alain de Botton suggests it could be filled with a history of life on earth but this is skewed quite heavily towards the skeptics' movement that is associated with atheism. Associated, but not equivalent to atheism. You don't have to be an atheist to be a skeptic, nor are all skeptics atheists. Furthermore, I do don't see that this really adds anything that the Natural History Museum doesn't already provide.

I would, however, really like to see a church for atheism.

Churches can actually provide a lot for their community. As well as being a way of getting people together every Sunday the sermons offer words that many people find comforting, thought-provoking and even good advice. The local church can be a focal point for charitably minded people to meet and organize, and the local vicar is often seen as a sage source of advice for those with troubles.

While I realise that organizing atheists is like herding cats, maybe this would be useful. Things like a place to go and meet people on a Sunday morning, a focal point for charitable organization, someone trustworthy enough to ask advice from are good things for a person to have around regardless of their religion.

Atheist "sermons" would talk about logical fallacies, applying rational humanism to every day life, offer secular words of wisdom, or sing the praises His Noodleness.

I, for one, would go every week. Ramen to that.

Other news:

Sasha Laxton is a boy. This story first appeared five years ago, when Sasha was born and the parents made a point of not revealing the sex of their baby. The article linked to reports Sasha seems "remarkably normal".  He, of course, grew up as free from gender stereotypes as his parents could manage. Ultimately, it seems that Sasha was far freer to choose his own gender identity than most other Children, and I'm curious to see how this will turn out, though I suspect that his peers at school will make a point of enforcing some gender identity onto him.

I redesigned this site so that it doesn't look like every blogger account at the start. I hope it suits you.

And lastly, I've vowed to myself I'll write something every week on here over the weekend. If you come here on a Monday, and there's been no update for a week, please feel free to get into the comments and kick me into action.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

A semantic argument. (Also - the answer for who came first - the chicken or the egg!)

A conversation I had recently made me think a little about how a surprising number of disagreements we have can be boiled down to a question of semantics. I want to talk about this for a bit, and then I'll give the definitive answer (literally!) to "What came first, the chicken or the egg?"

The conversation, between me and a guy trying to sell me a book that "was the first book to successfully unite Eastern and Western Philosophy" - a claim I seriously doubt. [Future topic: Advertising things as "Eastern", and why it annoys me.] - and told me it would be a spiritual awakening. [Future topic: Why am I am not a spiritual person, and this is fine.]

I explained I wasn't spiritual. This seemed to confuse him. I guess he couldn't comprehend someone openly saying they weren't spiritual in the same way I can't comprehend what it would be like to be a cat.

He pursued a line of questioning as to where we came from, and so on down. I answered as best I could with scientific answers, until we got to "And what came before the Big Bang?"

"Nobody knows, but we're working on it?"

"No," he said, triumphantly, "scientists don't know. But I call it God."

I didn't want to go down the God-of-the-Gaps route, so I asked if me meant God as The Prime Mover. He said not, but he described God as something that "is, but has no cause", and that this idea was something totally new the East could teach the West. Totally wrong, but the phrase "scientists don't know. But I call it God" stuck with me.

I realised that we could have argued about the nature of what came before the Big Bang until the end of time, and not come to an agreement because, bizarrely, we were already at some sort of an agreement: that what came before has no explanation. He left the role of explaining this to God, and I placed it on science's to-do list. That was the ONLY difference. The differences in our viewpoint on this matter purely semantic.

Once you're on the look out for it, semantic arguments are all over the place. Many politicians from all views will argue for the same things in different language, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance argues that "Romantic" and "Classical" philosophies are two ways of looking at the same thing, and don't get me started on people who debate music genres.

By doing this, it's far easier to find things in common with people. And that's always fun.

Oh, and I promised an answer to "What came first, the chicken or the egg?"

The smart-arse answer is, of course, that animals were laying eggs long before the first chicken was a glint in the Rooster's eye. But obviously the question refers to a chicken egg, right?

Or is it a chicken's egg?

If we take it as given there was a first chicken (or some degree of "chickenness", at which point we call something a chicken... it's all hypothetical) we find that the answer depends exactly on the question.

A chicken egg is one which hatches a chicken, and must (therefore) pre-date the first chicken by about three weeks.

A chicken's egg is one laid by a chicken, and the chicken must have pre-dated the egg by about four to six months.

So the answer is - it's a question of semantics.