Monthly Archives: December 2012

Where are you from?



Inspiration is for Everyone

My previous post about having a humble attitude towards inspiration has sparked some criticism, some of which is from Dianoilogos, who writes that “inspiration is for everyone (not just for the gifted few)“:

This is concerning to me.  Yes, not everyone has the opportunity to trulyappreciate a sunrise, listen to beautiful music, or revel in the sights and sounds of nature.  That’s true.  But saying inspiration is a “privilege.”  It just doesn’t set well.

Inspiration is for everyone.  But if we want to ensure everyone has equal access to it, we need to make sure the society is structured in a way everyone can adequately avail themselves of that blessing and the opportunity to appreciate the world in all its wonders regardless of whether they’re rich or poor,geniuses or not, etc.

Looking back, I think I chose the wrong ordering of words. No, having hope and being inspired doesn’t and shouldn’t make you an elite. It doesn’t make you inherently better than anyone else. Yes, like the many good things in life, inspiration is truly for everyone.

I still stand by my claim that certain privileges make access to inspiration easier, and that we should recognize that. More importantly, we all agree that the world has many wonders, and we should work towards a society that gives all people a chance to appreciate these wonders.

Lastly, this is a good reminder that constructive and honest criticism of vocabulary, tone, and content help us make our arguments better, and provide us with opportunities to be more rational people.

Tolerating Imperfection

It wasn’t too long ago that I came upon an evangelism worksheet that posed the following question: if God is perfection, where in this 2-d space would you place yourself? With each subsequent question and scenario, the reader was supposed to draw stick figures. Pretty soon, the scenario became pretty predictable: there was an unbridgeable gap between you and God. The message? You deserved to burn in Hell forever, of course.


Humanists approach the question of perfection differently. Contrary to popular accusation, we do not celebrate the fact that we are not perfect people. In fact, many of us will admit that the world is a dark place. Our minds are irrational, our societies are broken, and sometimes we do horrible things to each other. Indeed, we should fight for change.

Instead, humanists approach imperfection with a degree of proportion. You said a bad word when you were seven? You stole some money when you were eight? You shouldn’t have done it, but humanists don’t think you deserve to go to Hell.

We also see things in terms of the sentient creatures that are involved and what beings can be harmed, not in absolute theological terms. You think that contraception and/or gay sex is a sin? We beg to differ.

We recognize that rational pursuit of the goal to become better people means we should think critically about justice and punishment. We have to understand there are diminishing returns to enforcing moral values, and that telling people they will face much more “justice” than they deserve is downright cruel.

Vocabulary is tricky. I guess the idea I’m promoting isn’t that we should accept our imperfection and do nothing about it. It’s that we should tolerate them. It’s that we should approach them rationally in accordance with the principle of a compassionate understanding of human limitations.

Of course, you can read and think about this all you like, but there’s nothing like a Tim Minchin song to sum up the ethos of this post:

We are the Universe

What’s better than a bunch of individual videos narrated by Lawrence Krauss, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Carl Sagan? One epic video with all three of them. Check it out:

Inspiration Is a Privilege

It was not so long ago at the University of Chicago that the evangelical Christians from the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship and the atheists from the Secular Alliance sat down to host a joint Q&A event. The audience members got to ask questions of the panelists. Apart from some super-insensitive rhetoric from the other side (something along the lines of defending the idea that “secularism is responsible for gas chambers” because “secularism has no account of human dignity”) and the friendly sparring over trite theological/philosophical points like Pascal’s Wager and the Euthyphro Dilemma, nothing stood out for me from the discussion besides a very intriguing question.


A previous audience member had asked what gave atheists hope. It’s a very common question, and our eloquent panelists, Lauren Daurizio and Brian Green, did an excellent job of explaining how much awesomeness there is out there to be discovered, how enjoyment in everyday things and optimism in scientific progress are wonderful attitudes to hold. And they’re absolutely right. As I hope this blog and the actions/words of many others around the world show, we are incredibly lucky to be alive and to enjoy this wonderful, but finite journey called life–all in the not-quite-middle of this magnificent Universe. Let’s keep doing that!

Then, an audience member (I don’t remember if it was the same person) asked if this answer would be valid for people in dire situations, like people living in desperate poverty in some developing country. This question is what I’m going to answer here.

The answer, of course, is no. Many of the positive thoughts and feelings we take for granted in our lived contexts aren’t available or aren’t possible for others. And for many reasons:

1) Many people we tell to “enjoy science” and to “reflect upon the midnight sky” aren’t in the position to do so. Watching Cosmos is not going put food in front of hungry kids; it’s not going to rebuild the livelihoods of the victims of sex trafficking, or stop the next devastating natural disaster.

2) Many people don’t have the luxury of understanding the world as we do. Science and humanism are not wrong, but many people don’t grow up having the tools to understand the power of inspirational freethought. By the pure lottery of birth, we are put into distinct cultures, times, and societies that have varying degrees of educational opportunity and popular appreciation for modern science.

3) Many people simply have brains that can’t. According to NAMI, one in seventeen people live with a serious mental disorder. The brain, while amazing in its complexity and function, is just a collection of cells that can wreck havoc on people’s lives. This is why I absolutely cannot stand it when people say that suicide and depression is always the victim’s fault/responsibility. What they’re really doing is blaming people for a bunch of neurons firing in some unbelievably complicated way that nobody wants. Mental illnesses aren’t self-made, fabricated wounds for the mentally weak (whatever that means); they’re real wounds, and should be treated as such.

What does this all mean? It doesn’t mean that you should stop reading this blog or unsubscribe from the Carl Sagan series on Youtube. It doesn’t mean that being inspired by everyday activism, kindness, and generosity isn’t amazing in itself. It doesn’t mean that reposting “I fucking love science” memes or reveling about the next Mars Rover mission is a waste of time. I firmly believe that popular science and spiritual contemplation (in the most secular sense) are incredibly valuable, and can be appreciated by people even with few means.

What I really want to say is that we should have a sense of humility and an acknowledgement that inspirational freethought is a luxury. It’s an unfortunate fact of the world that optimism and hope isn’t possible for everyone. Rather than trying to impose happiness and hope on others based on some limited perspective, the fact that hope is scarce in the world should drive us to do something about it.

20,000 People Marched on the Streets of Dublin for Savita

If you don’t want to read about a sad, rage-invoking story involving a cruel and unnecessary death, go somewhere else.


About a month ago, Savita Halappanavar died in Ireland after pleading for days in desperate pain for an abortion. She was already miscarrying. Because of Ireland’s draconian anti-abortion laws, the doctors in the hospital said they couldn’t do anything to help her. She died of blood poisoning from her untreated miscarriage.

Less than a month later, tens of thousands of people marched in Ireland, a traditionally Catholic country. They vowed, “Never Again”. This was the scene in Dublin:

Word has it that there is a pro-choice majority in Ireland. But when will things finally change?