Wednesday, 26 December 2007

Happy Winter Solstice Everyone!


To celebrate the passing of the shortest day here in the northern hemisphere I thought I'd post this snowy pic. We haven't had any snow worth mentioning yet this year - I took this photo a couple of years ago - in March, actually - but it fits the mood of these darkest days of the year.

So Happy Squidmas, Christmas, Mithras, Solstice to you all. It gets better from now on!

Sunday, 9 December 2007

Scottish words for rain

Inspired by sandwriter's recent post on soggy Ayrshire winters, and being reminded of the chat a few years ago about the number of words the Inuit have for snow ( it started on the publication of Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow , where the main character was an expert on snow and apparently described nine Inuit words for snow), I thought I'd have a go at a little rain experiment.

When the debate on the Inuit snow thing was ongoing, I remember feeling very inadequate. It was one of those cases where indigenous people seemed to be more in tune with the natural world than we urbanized gas-guzzlers - it affected them more, so they had a more plentiful vocabulary to describe it. But recently, I realised that we Scots have a not inconsiderable number of words for rain and the act of raining. After reading sandwriter talk about her experience of her first winter in the soggy Ayrshire countryside I thought I'd have a go at listing all the words I know of in current use to describe the plentiful rain that we endure here in Scotland.

Quite often we describe the action, rather than the quality of the rain itself, so we have lots and lots of verbs. Right, here we go:

the rain itself can be: damp, wet, smirr, spots, drizzle, shower, rain, downpour, torrential, cataract,

the action can be: pelting, spitting, coming down in stair-rods, raining cats and dogs, pouring, teeming, driving, bucketing, chucking it down, throwing it down, tipping it down, horizontal, lashing,

and one can be drenched, drookit, saturated, soaked, wringing wet, by rain

I make that 28 different unique words and phrases for rain and its effects. And that's without going into the delights of sleet and hail, mist and haar.

I'll add to the list as thoughts occur to me (or as I get soaked, drenched or saturated by the damn stuff!) And if anyone can think of any words - British or not, let me know. Maybe we could start a celebratory dictionary of rain!

Sunday, 2 December 2007

Life and other interruptions

Eek! I can't believe it's been weeks since I last posted. Apologies to the legions of readers who have been sitting in darkened rooms awaiting my return...I am back!

Life got in the way, which is a novelty for me as I haven't had a life for a long time. I haven't been an employee for twenty years or so. I was a stay-at-home mum and then I ran my own business from home but now that I don't have anybody else at home, having a home-based business seemed a little silly, not to mention bad for my mental well-being. I got so fed up being alone that one grey morning, after a night where I actually phoned the Samaritans, I was so lonely, I decided that anything was better than this - even work - and applied for a job. Amazing to relate - I got it! It's part-time and just over Christmas but it's a start.

So the last two weeks I have been dipping my toe in the warm but scary waters of work. Hence the non-posting. End of excuses.

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

The Endless A-Z Meme

Thanks to Greg for tagging me with this damned meme - it's like being given the flu but then discovering that now that you've got it you can spend a couple of days with your feet up watching old movies. Having kept myself in isolation however, I have not passed the meme on and so it dies with me, unless anyone fancies infecting themselves after reading it? This analogy is wearing me out so without further ado...

agoraphobia - is it agoraphobia if you've been housebound for twenty years through choice?

being alone - sometimes it's good, sometimes it's not

cars - I love driving but only when no-one else is

death - it's random - get used to it

existence is pointless but it's all we have

families - overrated

grumpiness - harder to resist the older one gets

hell is...fill in your own answer

isolation - I am alone, you are lonely, he is isolated

jumpin' jack flash - I shouldn't love this movie but I do

kindness - underrated

loneliness - see isolation above...

mice - I adore them in the garden, I hate them in my house - one of the illogic loops in my life

noises are louder and more sinister in the dark

optimistic nihilist is the only thing to be

possibilities - you gotta believe in them, otherwise what's the point getting out of bed?

quizzes - anyone else addicted to these daft wastes of time?

rain - I'm Scottish, I have rain in my soul.

snow - snow is the more exotic cousin of rain - better-dressed and trendier

ticks - I used to hate ticks more than anything on the planet but I forgive them for existing now - everyone's got to be something...

up - because the only alternative is down

visions of the future - I'd love to see how far we can take our understanding of the cosmos in the distant future

wasting time - isn't wasting time great? It annoys the normal people so.

x is when these lists always start to go wrong or you have to cheat so in that spirit - xanthometer - a tool for measuring the colour of sea or lake water

youth - where did it go?

zigzagging my way through life - confused but happy...

I have a life!

I haven't blogged for a week or so because I've been busy in my real life. Somewhat to my surprise, I've got a job! It's only part-time and temporary over Christmas but IT'S A JOB! I can hardly believe it. I had come to believe that I was unemployable, after twenty years of various states of not-being-paid-by-someone-else-to-work. So it was a delightful surprise to land a proper job.



After a few days off in order to concentrate on gasping in amazement, I'm back! Here's a cartoon for you all in celebration...


Friday, 2 November 2007

Overheard Lines - a great idea

This is a great blog. The premise is simple: a San Francisco playwright and his friends record miscellaneous overheard exchanges in restaurants, on buses, in the street. There's always something there to make you smile and sometimes gasp. Here's a recent one:
Customer: "I'm looking for an inspirational book similar to 'Chicken Soup for the Soul'."
Salesperson: "Well, those 'Chicken Soup' books are really popular. You sure you don't want to look at those?"
Customer: "No thank you, I'm buying for my friend and she's a vegetarian"
Fantastic!

What about this one:
Woman 1: "I'm not a dilletante; I'm serendipitous. ...I should embroider that on a pillow."
Woman 2: "Yeah, but you'd only get about halfway done."
So elegant,so funny. Makes me wish I lived in a city. Living in the country is all very well but the deer are not that witty.

Oh, here's the Overheard Lines address by the way - that would help wouldn't it?! Anyway, enjoy!

Sunday, 28 October 2007

Ghoulish fun

I got tagged by Dorid (thanks!) with the Happy Hallowmeme and I'm supposed to come up with watery or science-y horror movies. Well, I've never watched a horror movie - far too scary, but I thought I could contribute some scary funny movies instead. So here we go:


1. Has to be Carry on Screaming. Kenneth Williams and Fenella Fielding in top form. Frying tonight!



2. Even funnier if it's possible is Young Frankenstein (or is it Fronkensteen?) Marty Feldman is hysterical - here's a sample:



Igor: Dr. Frankenstein...

Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: "Fronkensteen."

Igor: You're putting me on.

Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: No, it's pronounced "Fronkensteen."

Igor: Do you also say "Froaderick"?

Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: No...”Frederick."

Igor: Well, why isn't it "Froaderick Fronkensteen"?

Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: It isn't; it's "Frederick Fronkensteen."

Igor: I see.

Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: You must be Igor. [He pronounces it ee-gor]

Igor: No, it's pronounced "eye-gor."

Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: But they told me it was "ee-gor."

Igor: Well, they were wrong then, weren't they?



Ah happy days...



and 3...it's not really scary but I'll use any excuse to get a Will Hay movie into the conversation




This is one of his less well-known films. Set on a Scottish island in the Second World War with a young John Laurie and an even younger Kenneth Hawtrey joining a great cast in an apparently haunted school. Wonderful on a wet and dark afternoon - in fact, I think I've just decided what I'll be watching tomorrow as I do the ironing!

So happy funny Halloween. And I hereby tag (if they're reading) T.M. Bear

and Michelle

Saturday, 27 October 2007

Being human...

From me to you to brighten the long dark evenings...Yes, the clocks go back tonight here in the UK and that means dismally long nights from now until February, especially up here in Scotland. I found this vid on Youtube and it just sums up the human condition for me - it's a guy playing Amelie on a keyboard in his bedroom, that's all, but in its simplicity and beauty in a (very) ordinary room it just says something to me about the human spirit. Maybe it's the gin and tonic I've just had but I don't care. I still think it's beautiful. And Yann Tiersen's music is sublime under any circumstances. Anyway...enjoy and happy winter

Thursday, 25 October 2007

Filigree, Apogee, Pedigree, Perigee...

Apogee, perigee...aren't they fabulous words. I associate them with the spell that Angela Lansbury casts in Bedknobs and Broomsticks - filigree, apogee, pedigree, perigee... or words to that effect, or at least I did until I was a grown-up, well until my mid-forties...ok - until today.

Tonight is the biggest full moon of the year. And yes, apparently it doesn't just look big, it is big. The inspiring and educational website Astronomy Picture of the Day has this great picture today.
And you can find a good explanation for this phenomenon at The National Maritime Museum .

Friday, 19 October 2007

Not Winning Things

I've just had a disappointment - I haven't won a competition...again. I write the odd poem. I even joined a writers' group this year. And filled with the confidence that all that mutual admiration gives one, I wrote a poem for a local writing competition. I was pretty pleased with this poem and told myself that even if it got nowhere in the competition (and why should it?) I was glad to have created it.

And now the results are out and I am nowhere. That's okay, just about. But two other members of the group entered the competition and they both did get prizes. So I am feeling pretty gutted. Am I completely crap as a writer? Am I deluding myself? Maybe I should give up any pretensions to writing and grow roses instead.

I have consoled myself with the comments of the recent Man Booker non-prizewinner, Lloyd Jones, who said that he was quite glad not to have won because the prize would have been "a distraction." Nice try, Lloyd!

If that doesn't work, I'll fall back on the old consolation that the best people rarely win the prizes - for example, Gandhi and Irena Sendler never won the Nobel Peace Prize; Al Gore and Yasser Arafat did.

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

More Pratchett one-liners

I wrote in a previous post about my love for Terry Pratchett one-liners. Imagine my delight then, when browsing through Waterstones today, to come across an anthology of them - The Wit and Wisdom of Discworld. I've been sniggering ever since I got it home. To spread a little sunshine I offer a couple of his finest -
A compost heap comes to life and threatens a group of wizards:

The heap swivelled and lunged towards the Bursar. The wizards backed away.
'It can't be intelligent can it?' said the Bursar.
'All it's doing is moving around slowly and eating things,' said the Dean.
'Put a pointy hat on it and it'd be a faculty member,' said the Archchancellor.

and -
Few religions are definite about the size of Heaven but on the planet Earth the book of Revelation gives it as a cube 12,000 furlongs on a side. This is somewhat less than 500,000,000,000,000,000,000 cubic feet. Even allowing that the Heavenly Host and other essential services take up at least two thirds of this space, this leaves about one million cubic feet for each human occupant...This is such a generous amount of space that it suggests that room has also been provided for some alien races or - a happy thought - that pets are allowed.

Oh, all right, one more then...

'Some people say that you achieve immortality through your children,' said the minstrel.
'Yeah?' said Cohen. 'Name one of your great-grandads then.'


Check out Terry's website here

Thursday, 11 October 2007

The Burmese monks - not forgotten

I posted about this myself last week - Where are all the monks? but I see that The Osterley Times is wondering the same as me, with a link to today's Independent.

Once again I say - "Where is the world's press now?" They made plenty of fuss when there were thousands of brightly-clad monks on the streets protesting. It might even be said that the attention of the world's media gave the people the encouragement to protest longer than they would otherwise have had the courage to do. Then, when the monks disappeared from the streets so did the reports, generally speaking, apart from a few creditable exceptions, like the UK's Independent newspaper and Channel 4.

I can't help but think, and I am aghast that it might even be possible, that those brightly coloured robes made great pictures. Remove those photogenic images and TV loses interest and moves onto some other colourful story.

When are we going to get consistency from our media? Do they really care about the stories they bombard us with? They fire us up with passion on a story, then drop it like last year's Prada handbag when something new comes along. Try to keep up to date on a story once the media's lost interest - it ain't easy. Thank goodness for the internet and bloggers who won't give up on a story.

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Who am I?

Who am I? I've been known by my married name of Golfer for twenty-odd years. I am the daughter of a Drinker (my father drank for Scotland, I'm afraid) so surely I am by rights a Drinker not a Golfer, now that my husband has died. The name Golfer means nothing to me - most of the time it conjures up an image of the ghastly in-laws - well, mother-in-law to be precise, who herself was widowed young, though not as young as me, and made us suffer for it ever after. Against that has to be measured my long and mostly happy marriage. But I'm not married any more.

When I became widowed it did occur to me that my maiden name might become more natural to me to use, in time. But what attachment did I have to the Drinker? I even thought about calling myself by my mother's maiden name but that meant even less to me. Then the very last member of the Golfer's family died and there was no-one left. If I continued to think of myself as a Golfer, who was I doing it for?

Then yesterday I was browsing the fiction shelves of my local bookshop, and as an aspiring novelist was imagining my blockbuster in its place on the shelf - as you do - and I thought whether I could see it more clearly amongst the Gs as a Golfer or with the Ds for Drinker. And I realised that I wanted it to be there with all the Gs. I've been a Golfer for longer than I was a Drinker, which is quite a thought, actually. More than that, I realised that at last I had found something I could do in memory of my husband. People, even much-loved and successful people, disappear off the radar of the community incredibly quickly after they die and I have been struggling with a way to keep something of him in the world. So when I publish that blockbuster - and you will all be the first to know when I do - I'll publish it as a Golfer.

Who the hell are we as women? We are the daughters of men and take their name. Then we marry other men and take their name. If I remarry, then I might take his name but if I choose not to, whose name do I retain - the man who was my first husband or the man who was my father? It is a puzzle. Names are so much a part of how we define ourselves. We take great care (most of us) when we name our children. It is most disconcerting to reach the nursery slopes of middle age and not be certain which tribe I belong to.

Monday, 8 October 2007

Galactic beauty

The Astronomy Picture of the Day website is always worth looking at (I have it as my homepage to get my day off to a good start) but today's image is particularly beautiful.

It shows Galaxy NGC 474, with its wonderful and complex emission layers, which are intriguing astronomers. The image also shows its neighbouring galaxy, with which NGC 474 is slowly (very slowly) colliding.

Sunday, 7 October 2007

Great recent blogposts

This is a timely piece on what direction atheism as a movement, if it is a movement, should be taking over on the Ayrshire Blog

And this is a typically measured piece from Reasonable Robinson in his Gullibility blog.

This post - A lesson in Pessimism - is a cracker from Everything is Pointless but you'll need to have your brain switched on when you read it!

Friday, 5 October 2007

The Niceties of Legal Language

What the hell has happened to the United States?

News has percolated across the Atlantic of the New York Times article on the 'non-torture' techniques employed by the Bush administration on suspected terrorists.

By any civilized person's standards, the treatments described in the article count as torture. When questioned, President Bush said that they are detaining, questioning and, presumably, using extraction techniques on people who MAY have information. Frances Townsend, the homeland security advisor said that they start with "the least harsh measures first" and stop the progression "if someone becomes cooperative." Here's the piece on Youtube:

There's also a good post on The Osterley Times blog.

I can see that the administration feels under pressure to prevent terrorist attacks. But what is the point saving a few hundred, a few thousand, a few million lives if in doing so you lose your own moral bearings? How can we claim the high ground in well, anything, frankly when those we allow to govern us commit acts like these in our name?

Dr Atheist fails to put up much of a fight

I don't know whether to feel threatened by this vid that I found on Youtube or just laugh heartily that this is the best the creationists can do. It's religion trying to be very clever and beat 'science' at its own game but is there anyone out there who could seriously find this at all convincing?


I think I'll just laugh...

Thursday, 4 October 2007

Free Burma


Free Burma
Originally uploaded by Buffy Holt: Flickr
This is the only blogpost I will write today. I am proud to join thousands of fellow bloggers around the world who dedicate their blogs today to the people of Burma.

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Where are all the monks?

Is it just me or has the world's media lost interest in Burma? After days of saturation coverage of the protests, the situation has barely had a mention since the monks disappeared from the streets. It no longer even merits a headline on the front page of the BBC news website.

I know there's a difficulty getting pictures, but just because there's nothing photogenic to show us doesn't mean we aren't interested. I know it might not be easy to get unimpeachable facts but the news media shouldn't just be dropping the story from their schedules. Here's the latest, according to Der Spiegel They come at night and murder the monks.

I for one am fed up with the news media drenching itself in a story then dropping it when something sexier comes along. Either it's important or it's not.

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

He's behind you!

I Stumbled Upon this and couldn't resist posting it:







Here's the original web page: http://o.pticalillusions.com/devil-at-church/

Monday, 1 October 2007

A very old philosophical joke

I was trawling through my old emails today and came across this joke that I sent the Golfer to cheer him up on one of his many overseas business trips. I have no idea where I found it so I can't credit it but thanks to whoever it was that told it to me:

A Philosophy professor stood before his class and had some items in front of him. When the class began, wordlessly he picked up a large empty jar and proceeded to fill it with rocks about 2" in diameter.

He then asked the class if the jar was full. They agreed that it was. So the professor then picked up a box of pebbles and poured them into the jar. He shook the jar lightly. The pebbles, of course, rolled into the open areas between the rocks. He then asked the students again if the jar was full. They agreed it was. The students laughed.

The professor picked up a box of sand and poured it into the jar. Of course the sand filled up everything else. "Now" said the professor, "I want you to recognise that this is your life. The rocks are the important things - your family, your partner, your health, and your children - things that if everything else was lost and only they remained, your life would still be full." "The pebbles are the other things that matter like your job, your house, your car". "The sand is everything else - the small stuff". "If you put the sand into the jar first, there is no room for the pebbles or the rocks. The same goes for your life - if you spend all your time and energy on the small stuff, you will never have room for the things that are important to you".

"Pay attention to the things that are critical to your happiness. Play with your children. Take time to get medical check-ups. Take your partner out dancing. There will always be time to go to work, clean the house, give a dinner party and fix the disposal". "Take care of the rocks first - the things that really matter. Set your priorities. The rest is just sand".

A student then took up the jar, which the other students and the professor agreed was full, and proceeded to pour in a glass of beer. Of course the beer filled the remaining spaces within the jar making the jar truly full.

The moral of this tale is that no matter how full your life is, there is always room for a beer.

In my case it would probably be a nice cold gin-and-tonic but apart from that I couldn't agree with it more!

Start the Week

Start the Week on Radio 4 is back after its summer break and today was great stuff, with interesting contributions on the battle for Japan in 1944-45, the use of chemical weapons by the Iraqis and - the thing I want to mention here - a brief discussion with Karen Armstrong about her new book The Bible - the biography.

Karen Armstrong is a former nun who has written many books on religion, including A history of God. She now calls heself a freelance monotheist, not attached to a particular religion but still very much attached to God.

Since I became convinced of the process of evolution as an explanation of how we got here I have lost any interest in analysing the Bible or any other religious texts in order to pick holes in it, so I won't be reading the book. But it was interesting to hear her summary and also instructive that here is an intelligent woman who doesn't have a lot of time for any particular religion, thinks the afterlife is a red herring, and yet is still dedicating her life to the search for some kind of spiritual meaning.

She blames militant secularism, to a large extent, for the rise of religious fundamentalism, which irritates me more than a little. Of more interest to me is that here we have another example of a clever person, well-educated and by no means blind to the faults of religion - far from it - and yet she thinks that a religious faith is so important to humans that it is dangerous to remove it from them.

I am rather depressed, I admit. I don't want to proselytise for atheism. As I have written here before, I came to my decision on god in my forties and after a series of life and learning experiences that were unique to me. It would be unfair of me to expect other people to spring to my side simply because of the power of my rhetoric. You have to be a very strong person to cast off the crutch of religion. If you are not strong or if you have never had to be strong because life has never dealt you a bad hand then you are going to cling to that crutch like a comfort blanket (if I'm not mixing my metaphors.)

But I do get angry with intelligent people who, it seems to me, wilfully cling to their own personal brand of spirituality in the face of all the evidence to the contrary, managing to hold mutually exclusive ideas in their brains at the same time. If every academic was forced to take a course in logic the world might be a saner place.

You can listen to the programme online here

Sunday, 30 September 2007

New Amnesty International Campaign



Amnesty International have launched a new campaign against human rights abuses in the so-called war on terror.

They say:

Amnesty International deplores acts of terrorism and acknowledges the right of governments to protect their citizens when they face such hostile challenges and threats. We all value our safety and that of our loved ones after all.
but:
For too long the 'war on terror' has been used to justify acts of torture, 'rendition', discrimination and unlawful detention. Amnesty acknowledges that the perpetrators of terrorism must be brought to justice but believes this should be achieved without eroding the very values we are fighting to defend.
Amnesty are asking anyone who cares about human rights to 'unsubscribe' from the tacit permission that we give our governments to behave in ways of which we disapprove. Get more information at the Amnesty website

Saturday, 29 September 2007

Darwin was right!

At last - evidence that men at least are descended from monkeys...I picked up this late breaking news at Greg's Brain.

Friday, 28 September 2007

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Blogger

I've been feeling rather sorry for myself, mainly because it was the anniversary of the death of the Golfer this week. Most of the time I am fine - being a fully paid up atheist I believe in making the most of every day I have so there isn't much room for self-pity...but there is a little corner reserved for it and I have spent a lot of time there in the last few days.

It's got me thinking about loneliness, aloneness, solitude and isolation and the difference in meaning between these words. I spend most of my time alone - family dead, tadpole hopped out of the pond. I've got used to it, for the most part. Being alone does bring freedom. I've been looking after people since I was 14; now that I have no-one to look after I am enjoying being responsible only to myself for the first time as an adult.

Yet I also get lonely. It's weird. I found this apposite quote from Paul Tillich(a theologian but I won't hold it against him):
Language...has created the word loneliness to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word solitude to express the glory of being alone.

That very neatly sums up one of the mysteries of the human condition. I have some of my best ideas, my most profound moments when I am alone. Yet, if I couldn't tell anyone about them what would be the point of them?

Montaigne, that most humane of philosophers, retreated to his library at the age of 38 but remained the most affable of men. He felt the same dilemma of being torn between solitude and company:
There is no pleasure to me without communication: there is not so much as a sprightly thought that comes into my mind that it does not grieve me to have produced alone and that I have no one to tell it to.

I wonder if that feeling could apply to we bloggers in particular. I know it describes my feelings very well. I love my own company. But when I have a great idea or a thought, I want to tell someone who will 'get' what I'm on about. Friends and neighbours are all very well but are not necessarily in tune with, or even interested in, what I'm saying. But here on the Internet, there is a direct link to people all over the world who are on the same wavelength.

I may be sitting alone in my library but I can share my sprightly thoughts with anyone who is willing to listen. Better still, I can get into a dialogue, reshape my own ideas, make new friends into the bargain. Montaigne would have approved!

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Coals to Newcastle

Here's another helpful contribution by the Church to the fight against Aids: the head of the Catholic Church in Mozambique has, according to the BBC, accused European countries of supplying condoms laced with the Aids virus in order to "finish quickly the African people".
I don't really have anything to add - I'm speechless...

Expelled in February

Duck and cover, fellow atheists! Ben Stein - apparently he is an actor who was in Ferris Bueller's Day Off but I regret that I haven't heard of him - is coming. I see on Youtube that there's a movie out in February with the racy-sounding title "Ben Stein - Expelled "

I hardly know where to begin with this one. The movie is, apparently, an attack on the science establishment in the US, where all you horrible atheistic Darwinians - and you know who you are - are ganging up on anyone who dares to suggest that a god might have done it all. The man himself on the official movie blog tells us that
Freedom is not conferred by the state: as our founders said, and as Martin Luther King repeated, freedom is God-given.
and
In today’s world, at least in America, an Einstein or a Newton or a Galileo would probably not be allowed to receive grants to study or to publish his research.

Strewth! Give me strength!It looks as if he is trying to be a kind of right-wing Michael Moore for the ID-iots. It's going to be an interesting Spring over there. You guys have all the fun!

Monday, 24 September 2007

Pat Condell unplugged

Love this guy's intelligence and humour -


Being special


Yes, it's true - the Special One has left the building. Jose Mourinho, the manager of one of the best and certainly the most expensive football teams in Britain, has departed Chelsea Football Club. Female football watchers everywhere will weep. (But you can always console yourselves with
these pictures. For those of you who aren't in the know, the Portuguese Mourinho is famous for, in his first interview on arriving at Chelsea, referring to himself as "the Special One". And we loved him for it. The Premier League will be duller without him.

But this got me wondering about being special and thinking yourself special. As so often happens, I was struck by something else I'd seen on the internet this week that seemed to fit together with this story to make a new idea - in this case, Sherri Shepherd - not talking about flat earths this time thank goodness but instead thanking viewers and God for getting her the job on
The View. This struck me as a classic piece of preposterous god-thanking, especially as thousands, apparently, of her fans wrote to the network to try to get her the job.

More to the point, though, is the ridiculous notion that one woman could think that she was special enough to get God's intervention just to get her a job an daytime TV. I don't want to pick on Sherri in particular - I'm sure she's very nice - but it was a timely example of what must be one of the chief attractions of Christianity. You get to be special. You have a direct line to God and can ask him for anything that you fancy - from better hair to the life of a child. This gives individual Christians a highly inflated sense of their own worth yet, at the same time, it robs them of their self-determination. Everything, good or bad, happens by God's will. If something nice happens, you are one of the chosen; if something bad happens, you just didn't pray hard enough. Many Christians appear to truly believe that they deserve the good things in life because they are special - becasue "they're worth it."

Atheists, on the other hand, are modest. You have to be. You've seen the future and you know there is none! You know that the human race is not special, except insofar as what evolution has given us - big brains and opposable thumbs - and you know that there is nothing special about you as an individual, any more than any other human alive or dead. Ian McEwan expresses it well here

and in the same piece, Richard Dawkins sums it up beautifully when he says that we who are going to die are the lucky ones because most 'people' are never born - all those gene combinations, all those unused sperm and eggs. He ends by saying
We are privileged to be alive and we should make the most of our time on this world.
- couldn't have put it better myself

Friday, 21 September 2007

I wanna live forever - but it ain't gonna happen

Those two premium bloggers, toomanytribbles and pharyngula, put up interesting posts this week - Who's morally pernicious? and Flat earth-creationist stupidity . Unfortunately the video from the second link has been removed from Youtube but it was a group of women on a programme called The View talking about evolution. There's been a lot of chatter on the internet about the stupidity of one of the women - I'm told her name is Sherri Shepherd. She not only would have nothing to do with evolution but also, when challenged by Whoopi Goldberg, would not even agree that the world was round. She said that she it was of no interest to her whether the world was round or flat, she had been focussed on feeding her children, or words to that effect. There's a whole load of chat about it too on Sherri's own site. A debate then ensued amongst the women.

In the other link, from pharyngula, Mary Midgley, the well-known philosopher said
People are not going to accept scientific fact if they think it is morally pernicious. When people are asked why they are persuaded by intelligent design, they often say that it's the only alternative to scientific atheism and Darwinism which are pernicious moral doctrines; they see it as the only refuge from this anti-human bloody-mindedness. It's at the level of attitudes to life that these choices are made. (my emphasis).


I think Dr Midgley has hit the nail on the head. Whether we atheists like it or not, most people want to have it both ways: they might want to embrace new scientific discoveries but they also want the comfort and certainty of their own particular brand of religion. The fact that we know atheism is not "morally pernicious" is no help. Timothy Reeves in this comment on the Sherri event compared the behaviour of people like Sherri to the Luddites who smashed up the latest textile machinery because they couldn't cope with the onslaught of progress. Dr Midgley says much the same

I have seen this at first hand. My late husband - the Golfer - was an intelligent man and a physicist. When we got married he was the one who didn't want us to marry in church (I hadn't made up my mind at this time); having been brought up on the fringes of one of the more extreme churches here, he hated religion of any kind. But like lots of people, he thought there was something - he thought that after we died, we continued in some way.

When I became convinced that there was nothing - no god, no life after death, no soul - I talked to him about it. I was excited at all the new things I had learned and thought he would be interested too, being a scientist. But I had to stop. Very quickly it became apparent that he was almost physically uncomfortable with the discussion. It was most disconcerting and, I have to admit, I was disappointed in him. Later, once he'd calmed down, he said that he didn't dare believe that this life was all there was because then all the work was worth nothing, he might as well chuck his job in and just live for the day - he couldn't afford to give the notion house room.

Now, before you all start screaming at your monitors, I agree with you. I know that he was talking nonsense; that atheism does not equal hedonism; that a finite life is still worth living; that people who do not believe in an afterlife still make sacrifices for other people. But the point is that the Golfer was the cleverest man I knew and he couldn't face the thought of a life without an afterlife. If he, with his mighty brain couldn't, what hope is there that other people without his science background will?

I have no answer. But I think that we atheists have to understand that it isn't easy for everyone to give up their faiths - those comforts that get them through their lives - any more than it's easy to give up cigarettes or eating too much - IT'S A COMFORT IN A DIFFICULT WORLD. When I watched the Golfer die I knew he wasn't going to a better place and I knew I wasn't going to see him again. That isn't easy to accept. It's much more comforting to pretend to yourself that he is and you will.

Wednesday, 19 September 2007

The Ballad of The Existentialist (Original Song)

Had to post this when I saw the title...nice song too!

Tuesday, 18 September 2007

Red is Dead, What about the Fish?

I've been thinking about the reality of being an atheist recently. I wrote a bit about it in this post and got some interesting and varied responses, with even one Christian crossing the floor to say hi. But I'm not sure that I am much further forward in my thinking about how aggressive I should be as an atheist to put my point across. One should not have to describe oneself in terms of belief or disbelief in religion at all as Greg says in an interesting post, any more than I should have to take a position on whether the Loch Ness monster exists. Whether Nessie is real or not is irrelevant to me and I would object strongly if I was expected to define myself as a Nessian or an Anessian.

I used to feel this was a rather petulant attitude. Christianity and other religions had been around for a very long time. Even supposing my views were correct, was it fair of me to expect society to change instantly from a nominally religious one to a non-religious? Didn't they deserve some respect? But there has been a recent example of a doctrine that was around for a long time that is now all but dead and gone and which lost its position and power almost overnight - Soviet communism. (It's not a perfect analogy but go with me on it.)

Here is an example of a long-standing belief system that was imposed on people for many years. Now it's gone and society feels no need to be respectful of its memory, just because it was around for a long time. That has given me confidence that the big religions are not so unique after all, just because they've been around a long time and have subjugated generations of people.

I think of Shostakovich, who had to compose music that was acceptable to the Soviet apparatus, and had to shape his creativity to the last of Soviet ideals, and he doesn't seem so far from the painters and composers of the Middle Ages who were only permitted to create religious works - they too could only express themselves within the limits imposed on them. And now the Soviet Union is gone...

I think watching the Soviet Union disappear without trace made me realise that any apparently all-powerful organisation can crumble overnight - that just because it's been around a long time and has bullied people into obeisance doesn't mean it has a right to be in charge. And I guess that's where I have a problem now. I'm a nice polite, peaceable kind of girl and don't want to deprive anyone of their own belief, if it gives them comfort. And yet, if the beliefs come from an organisation that has been frightening and bullying people for centuries, that is not tolerant of people outwith its circle, and has no right to that power, why should I accord it a status that it doesn't deserve, any more than communism did?

Monday, 17 September 2007

Me and Bob Dylan

Thanks to toomanytribbles for this great find. Here's my version:

'

Click to play

A haiku for SETI

Feeling more depressed than usual at the lunacy that passes for humanity these days, I wrote a haiku, that most constipated of poems but nice and short, dedicated to Seti

Giving up on Earth,

the search for intelligence

moves out to the stars.



Just thought I'd share that with you!

Thursday, 13 September 2007

Dance, monkey, dance!

I Stumbled upon -

Dance, monkeys, dance



- best thing I've seen in ages, quite made my day.

You can see the original posting here:
http://dotsub.com/films/dancemonkeys/

Science Hero of the Week

As long as there has been religion there have been dissenters but for hundreds of years all that atheists had to support their views were questions - gaps in the theology. But as we began to understand better the world around us, through science, we could see that there were alternative creation stories that could be written - ones that did not require divine intervention.

It's easy to build a case for atheism these days, largely due to the development of our understanding of evolution and cosmology. Together, they provide an elegant and satisfying description of how we and the universe got this way. Early man's explanation - that a god did it - was the best fit he could find with the evidence he had. We have rather more material to work with now, and it is learning about these new facts that led me to declare myself an atheist. Many great scientists provided us with these pieces of evidence and I would like to highlight their achievements here, beginning with Edwin Hubble.

Yes, he is the guy after whom the Hubble Telescope is named. He was an astronomer in the early 20th century and he advanced our knowledge of the universe in two astounding ways. He made the discovery that there was more to the universe than our own Milky Way galaxy. He demonstrated that the fuzzy blob in the sky that had been called, until that point, the Andromeda nebula was in fact a galaxy . This discovery overnight made the known universe a whole lot bigger.

Further research by Hubble and others found more and more galaxies and he developed a classification scheme for them - known as the Hubble Tuning Fork . After ten years of observing galaxies and determining their speeds, using their redshift , he demonstrated that the universe was expanding .

After these discoveries, we would never think of ourselves and the world around us in the same way. What a contribution! What a brain!

He should have won a Nobel Prize for his work but in those days astronomy was not counted as physics and so he was not eligible. But his name has now been immortalised in the Hubble Space Telescope, which for seventeen years has been taking spectacular photographs of deep space and adding immeasurably to our knowledge of the cosmos. Hubble has taken many fabulous and beautiful images but the most amazing must be the recently taken Ultra Deep Field which covers a tiny patch of sky but contains 10,000 galaxies - mind-boggling. See the image for yourselves below.


Tuesday, 11 September 2007

September 11th

Reasonable Robinson posted this - another of his perceptive comments today. His post linked up with something I saw last night and I thought it would make an interesting contrast.

Fahrenheit 9/11 was on the telly last night and, having never seen it, I thought it was time I saw it. It was a better programme than I expected. It is clearly a polemic but even taking that into account I found it interesting and, at least in part, persuasive and with the ring of truth.

I don't want to get all political here so I'll just focus on that contrast I was talking about. One of the most intelligent things Moore did was, gently and politely, to offer Congressmen the opportunity to sign up their children for the Forces so that they too could serve their country on the front line in Iraq and Afghanistan. At first I thought - "don't be so crass. That's a really cheap hit". But when I thought about it, it seemed to me the most memorable and well-made point in the whole film and, indeed, an excellent rule-of-thumb that every President, Prime Minister, politician and voter could follow:

"Is this cause so important to me, my family, my country or the world that I would encourage my son or daughter to fight on the front line?"



How many wars would still be fought if people followed that thought? RR's observation of the scene in Al Qaida's HQ, with the bloke in the big chair, is the other side of the same coin - people in power gulling the young and/or the poor into dying when he has no intention of putting himself or his own in harm's way

Saturday, 8 September 2007

Not Being Militant

Okay, after all the fun and games - quizzes and games of tag, it's time to get back down to some serious work.

One of the biggest dilemmas I find I face on a regular basis is how much to ally myself with the atheism movement. It's not so much a dilemma, I suppose, as a sliding scale. I know what my position is but where does it place me in the greater community? I've noticed this problem particularly since I began blogging, although it's always been there - should I join the National Secular Society , am I brave enough to wear an atheist tshirt , should I try to persuade people of my point of view?

Now, don't get me wrong. I am absolutely an atheist: the theory of evolution and the advances in our understanding of the universe , coupled with my own life experience have convinced me that the simplest and most logical explanation of life on earth does not require the intervention of a deity. But that's the point. If I hadn't done that philosophy course and learned about the theory of evolution; if I hadn't developed a passion for all things spacey and seen the Hubble pictures of all those galaxies and, crucially, if my life hadn't taken the path it did then I might not now be an atheist. Even then, it wasn't until I was in my forties that all those bits of my life came together and built the case for me.

So I find it difficult to give other people a hard time just because they haven't reached my level of enlightenment. I admire Richard Dawkins, Jonathan Miller et al but I am not comfortable always with the aggressive stance taken by some famous atheists. I understand the frustration with the increasingly strident creationists, especially in America, but I also feel that people have to find their own way in their own time.

Random 8

My first tagging! Greg kindly tagged me with the Random 8 meme. Apparently this is what I have to do:

The rules of this tag

1. Link to your tagger and post these rules.
2. List eight (8) random facts about yourself.
3. Tag eight people at the end of your post and list their names (linking to them). 4. Let them know they’ve been tagged by leaving a comment on their blogs.

Okay, I've done item 1. Now, the witty and amusing eight facts...this could be a tad harder.

1. I am not really a puddock.

2. A puddock is Scots for a frog

3. I am not an amphibian of any kind

4. I like frogs though...and toads...and newts

5. Not so keen on midges ticks and leeches though ( When Midges Attack )

6. Sometimes the pond dries out

7. Occasionally a dragonfly darts across

8. What the hell's a meme anyway?

Well, that wasn't very witty was it? I'm hoping I'll be tagged again some day and then I'll be much wittier...

Okay, so who to tag? Here we go - don't think it'll be eight but...

Dorid at http://theradula.blogspot.com/

Wild Flora at http://www.wildgardeners.blogspot.com/

Reasonable Robinson at http://gullibility.blogspot.com/

paintgranny at http://allaroundus.blogspot.com/

Michelle at http://mymenopausalmusings.blogspot.com/

and Best Bear at http://bestbear.blogspot.com/

That's as many as I can cope with for now

Thursday, 6 September 2007

Addictions

Oh dear

I knew I was spending a lot of time blogging but, hey, I can give it up any time I choose. Addicted? Me? Nah...

65%How Addicted to Blogging Are You?

Oh well...it's cheaper than drugs and it's more uplifting than Eastenders.

How addicted are you?

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

An Existential Poem

With it being September now, I don't know about you but I begin to get all reflective - I mean I think more, not that I become all shiny - and I find that, after spending the summer in the garden, my mind turns back to my books.

I thought I'd share with you a verse from a poem that not only means a lot to me, because I had it read at the Golfer's funeral, but is also as good a summing up of how I feel about my existence as I've read in verse.

I'm a bit worried about copyright but I've only reproduced one verse and I've given a link to both the publisher's page and to the book on Amazon, so I think it'll be okay. Here's the verse:
If I were other than I find I am,
not atoms with this body and this face,
but scattered particles, part of the land,
the sea, the air, having left no trace
of what I was before, or who, or why,
as I shall be when I am turned to dust,
then I'd not be afraid to sleep or die,
trusting that of all gods Nature knows best.
If she gives me to winds, flames, streams and mud,
my dreams will bear fruit, my ideas come to bud.


This is the first verse from If Nature by Sarah Wardle. Incredibly, this was her first collection of verse - find out more here: Bloodaxe Books

Monday, 3 September 2007

Other People's Blogs

I've seen some great posts on other people's blogs this last week.

First is from Henry on Evolution Space on the Peppered Moths evidence for evolution in progress: Peppered Moths

Next we have a great piece on objectivity, Plato and chairs from
Greg's Brain: I Object That I Can Be Objective

Now one of many posts I could have included from the fabulous Too Many Tribbles blog. This one links to a video of Carl Sagan talking about starstuff

And finally for today, this is fresh in from Pharyngula Becoming atheist

Oo, oo, and one more - I found it on the Neurophilosophy blog. Made me smile. Hope it does the same for you...Pinky and the Brain do neuroanatomy

Saturday, 1 September 2007

Pale Blue Dot video

Hear Carl Sagan speak the words to accompany that famous image taken by Voyager 1 as it headed out of the Solar System back in 1990

Not just isms - pale blue dots too...


I've found myself talking mainly about isms since I started this blog and I guess that isn't surprising because atheism, existentialism etc are convenient wrappers for a set of conclusions one has come to. But, as the comments on a recent post suggest https://www.blogger.com/comment.g?blogID=1245106558350409637&postID=6654175240672260964 (with thanks to Me and Reasonable Robinson) labels can also be unhelpful, distracting from what you are actually trying to say. Thus it has been with me.

So I thought I'd get away from the philosophical arguments for a while and talk about some of the other stuff that got me to where my brain's at today. Mainly sciencey things - evolution and cosmology. Both of these areas of knowledge put humanity in its real place in the universe. The theory of evolution is amazing. The more you find out, the more interesting it gets - I'll save that for another post. Cosmology is jaw-droppingly exciting at the moment; the images coming back from Hubble and other space telescopes are expanding our knowledge of the universe all the time. Once you have grasped the immensity of the universe; once you have seen for yourself the latest possible explanations for how the universe came into being, you will never thinkof yourself, or of humanity, in the same way again. This quote from the late Carl Sagan sums it up perfectly:


Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there--on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

Awesome.


Wednesday, 29 August 2007

So what's in a name?

So, I'm back from my petite holidayette and I am trying to get my brain back in gear. All those deep philosophical thoughts I was having before I went have been overwhelmed by the sights and sounds of new places and, I'll admit it, by relaxing and being happy. There's a thought - does one only have deep philosophical thoughts when one is unhappy? Nah - don't think so for a minute; I've had some of my best ideas sitting in sunshiney bliss surrounded by flowers and buzzy bees.

So anyway, any truth I laid claim to knowing on the topic of existentialism, optimistic nihilism et al I appear to have forgotten. Or perhaps it's having difficult questions posed by you fellow-bloggers out there... whatever, I don't know now whether I belong to a philosophical ism and if I don't, whether it matters. "Me" suggested in a comment that if Sartre and Camus had never lived that I couldn't have called myself an existentialist - I think I'm stating his comment correctly. I've been thinking about this and I don't think I agree, at least not completely. I call myself an existentialist because Camus describes in his writings exactly how I feel about life (haven't read any Sartre so can't say if I agree with him.) But Camus didn't invent these feelings or this state of mind or this attitude to life, he just described it better, more elegantly and more humanely than anyone else I've read. So when I call myself an existentialist it is, I suppose, shorthand for saying "Camus speaks for me." Perhaps I should call myself a Camusian.

By way of a present from my holiday, here's a jolly (and sustaining) quote from the bear of very little brain:

"When you wake up in the morning, Pooh," said Piglet at last, "what's the first thing you say to yourself?"
"What's for breakfast? said Pooh. "What do you say, Piglet?"
"I say, I wonder what's going to happen exciting today?" said Piglet.
Pooh nodded thoughtfully."It's the same thing," he said.

Hope you all had a good summer - here comes winter...

Monday, 27 August 2007

Catching up...

I haven't posted here for a week as I was away on a short holiday - my first as a solo traveller. Quite an interesting experience and not totally hideous - I even enjoyed it at times. I came back with a tower of books to get through - so many books, so little time...

As I wrote about in a previous post http://theviewfromthepond.blogspot.com/2007/08/death-and-maiden.html I discovered a kindred spirit in Henry Thoreau while browsing the internet. Inspired by the quote that I found from him I had been searching for a copy of Walden without luck here at the pond. I was delighted, therefore, to find a copy on my hols.


Being busy visiting gardens and shopping and trying not to look conspicuous eating dinner by myself, I haven't read much of it yet but here are a couple of extracts that appealed to me:

"Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life? We are determined to be starved before we are hungry. Men say that a stitch in time saves nine so they take a thousand stitches today to save nine tomorrow. As for work, we haven't any of consequence. We have the St Vitus' dance and cannot possibly keep our heads still...Hardly a man takes a half hour's nap after dinner, but when he wakes he holds up his head and asks 'What's the news?' as if the rest of mankind had stood his sentinels. Some give directions to be waked every half hour, doubtless for no other purpose; and then, to pay for it, they tell what they have dreamed. After a night's sleep, the news is as indispensable as the breakfast. 'Pray tell me what has happened to a man anywhere on this globe' - and he reads it over his coffee and rolls, that a man has had his eyes gouged out this morning on the Wachito River; never dreaming the while that he lives in the dark unfathomed mammoth cave of this world and has but the rudiment of an eye himself."


I can scarcely believe that Thoreau was writing 150 years ago. Plus ca change... What would he have made of 24 hour news and reality television?


Here's another...I really love this man!
"Men think that it is essential that the Nation have commerce, and export ice, and talk through a telegraph, and ride thirty miles an hour, without a doubt, whether they do or not; but whether we should live like baboons or like men, is a little uncertain. If we do not get out sleepers and forge rails, and devote days and nights to the work, but go to tinkering upon our lives to improve them, who will build the railroads? And if railroads are not built, how shall we get to heaven in season? But if we stay at home and mind our business, who will want railroads? We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us." Wonderful stuff!



Sunday, 19 August 2007

Philosophical Quote of the Day

"Most species do their own evolving, making it up as they go along, which is the way Nature intended. And this is all very natural and organic and in tune with mysterious cycles of the cosmos, which believes that there’s nothing like millions of years of really frustrating trial and error to give a species moral fibre and, in some cases, backbone.”

Terry Pratchett

(with a nod to http://en.thinkexist.com/ where I found this gem from Terry)

Saturday, 18 August 2007

Becoming an atheist

I became an atheist almost overnight. I had tried for years to make religion work. I was not a church-goer but I was a nice, conventional, well-behaved girl and nice, conventional, well-behaved girls believed in God and heaven and all that stuff. As a reasonably intelligent person, I tried to make sense of the Bible and the many anomalies in it; the gulf between the Old and New Testaments, the Virgin birth etc and how there could be parallel religions, each believing in their own unique god and their own unique salvation. I also found real difficulties in the so-called morality attached to Christianity - it didn't feel very moral to me.

Like many other people, the older I got, the harder I found it to swallow what religion was requiring me to believe but neither had I found a good enough reason to reject it.

Then I studied a philosophy course with the Open University. Brilliant course - find it here http://www.open.ac.uk/Arts/a211/index.html . I felt my brain expand as I began to get to grips with the course and began to learn the technique of requiring more from an argument; I began to see the difference between an assertion and an argument, whether it came from a politician, a newspaper or a religion. Then, in the penultimate section on human nature after Darwin, I suddenly discovered evolution. I was blown away by it. I had thought I was a reasonably well-read, intelligent person; I thought I knew what evolution was but I knew nothing. I had reached the age of forty without knowing more than the vague notion that we were descended from monkeys. The theory of evolution, I discovered, had a hundred years of increasing validation; it was a robust and detailed explanation of how humanity and every other lifeform, could have come to be on the planet.

I was simultaneously exhilirated and furious. Why was this not being taught in schools? Why had I learned about magnetism and gravity and geology but not evolution. I was, and am, absolutely convinced that if evolution was taught in schools the world would be a very different place.

Within a few days of reading and absorbing this material, I became an atheist. Up until that point, a supernatural being had been the only explanation I had been given for the astounding variety of nature on the planet. Now I had another, better explanation and there was no need for a god any more.

Humanity has always been curious. We have always tried to find out how things work. We have always asked why and how things are the way they are. Primitive man came up with a special person, a Creator, to explain the variety, the wonder and the cruelty of life on earth - that was his best scientific answer to the question, how did I get here? As our scientific knowledge improved, the religions and superstitions that built up round these Creators should have died away. But they had become too powerful and, as we see even now, in the 21st century, vested interests are trying to keep humanity in ignorance about another, better, more consistent explanation of how the earth and the universe got to be the way they are.

I would not deny anyone the right to believe in the god of their choice but I am angry that young people are not given the facts and allowed to make up their own minds. When I started this post I didn't expect to get angry. I'm a pretty laid-back sort of puddock. I truly believe that everyone is on their own individual journey and that you should not force people to your own view just because you've discovered it. But if I hadn't studied that course in my own time at the age of forty, I would still be in the dark about a discovery that has as much valid evidence as gravity or geology. And that means that there are millions of people out there who do not know what a robust theory evolution is. And that does make me angry!

Tuesday, 14 August 2007

No atheist blog would be complete without...

I can't go on any longer without mentioning Richard Dawkins. He is tireless in his championing of the intellect, of reason over superstition, and thus of the redundancy of religion. His latest TV series - The Enemies of Reason - began its run here in the UK last night. http://www.channel4.com/culture/microsites/E/enemies_of_reason/index.html

It is well worth a look, if you can cope with the feelings of depression it will promote in any person who thinks for themselves. It is scary to see the gusto with which people throw off centuries of hard-won knowledge and run back to the cave of superstition. He did an interview with Richard & Judy, which you can see here: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-1964171996506271039&hl=en

It's an interesting interview, because Judy clearly so desperately wants to believe in astrology et al that she seems to be in almost physical discomfort at the thought that there might be no truth in them. It was a clear demonstration of how deep the desire for this kind of comfort goes in an individual and how reluctant they are to give up the fantasy, even when they can see the strings, as when Derren Brown did the "psychic" reading. We seem to be as far away as ever from becoming a race of rational beings, free from medieval superstitions.

You can find his main site here: http://richarddawkins.net/

Existence is futile?

I've been pondering on the fact that I call myself an atheist and an existentialist, all the while admitting that I am not altogether certain exactly what constitutes existentialism, and wondering if there is any difference between them. Am I, for example, an atheist existentialist or an existentialist atheist? There is a difference.

Well, after a bit of thought and comparison with other people out there, I think I know which I am - I am an atheist existentialist. Why, I hear you ask...

It's kinda complicated and I am by no means an expert in philosophy. But this is how it looks from where I'm standing. Feel free to disagree!

I am an atheist because I see no need for God as an explanation of how we got here; evolution does the trick perfectly well on its own. But atheism is not a philosophy in itself, it is a reaction to theism. So atheism describes that part of me; the part that has rejected religion - a fundamental, very important and hard-won part but still only one aspect of how I see the world.

Existentialism, on the other hand, is a way of looking at the world, a way of living one's life, a way indeed of dealing with the fallout from becoming an atheist. Life can be pretty scary once you have given up the fantasy of an afterlife and all that stuff. Existentialism says - okay, so now you know that life's a bitch and then you die. What are you going to do about it?

I don't want in any way to diminish atheism. I think the rejection of religion is absolutely vital to humanity's future and I admire those who are brave enough to take the battle out into the public arena. But simply rejecting religion is not sufficient; as long as we define our philosophy in terms that even mention religion, if only to say that we are against it, we are still in the trap. By calling myself an atheist existentialist - an existentialist who has no belief in God - I am refusing to give religion that dominance.

Friday, 10 August 2007

Death and the Puddock

It's been a quiet week here in the pond, with little to disturb the water. That's how I like it. One of the good things about living alone, as I do now, is that I can do pretty much what I want, when I want.

If I want to blog all night, there is no-one to disturb. If I want to work on the great novel instead of eating dinner, I can. If I want to sit at the bottom of the pond and talk to the newts, I do. I find for the first time in many years, I can focus all my attention on a project until I tire of it, instead of having that concentration broken by my loved ones. This is one of the hard lessons of widowhood but you have to embrace it: that some aspects of your life actually can improve in the absence of your spouse - there, I've said it.

I have found that bereavement splits into two segments, both of which are necessary. There is the loss of your partner, with all the pain that that entails - the life plans destroyed, the trauma of the death, the overwhelming sadness for the years of life that your loved one has lost. I always (well, almost always) felt that however sorry I felt for myself, it was as nothing compared to the sorrow I felt for my husband, who had lost his future. I still had my life, diminished but still with possibilities; his was over. So that's the first half of the grief.

The second, equally important part is the carving of a new persona for yourself and this part is probably not much different from that which a divorced person has to do. It is a case of accepting that you are no longer half of a couple; that you are, in my case for the first time in my life, single. I'd never been single before, having been with my husband since teenage years. Part of this process is extremely scary but part of it is exhilirating as you realise that you are totally free, that you no longer have to compromise. Marriage is one long compromise - it has to be. I no longer need to compromise - hence the midnight blogging and the conversations with the amphibians.

I am getting used to being single. I still hate the shops on a Saturday with all those bloody couples looking smug and couple-y. I still sometimes have to look the other way if I am stuck behind a pair of tourists walking hand in hand and the absence of the Golfer hits me afresh. But I'm an atheist and an existentialist and I am determined to pack as much living as I can into my life so I focus on the moment. I found this quote by Henry Thoreau this week on a very interesting philosophy site http://www.spaceandmotion.com/ and it describes very well how I feel about my life - always have, but particularly now:

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion."

Here, in my woods I find I am doing what Thoreau did (apart from the Spartan living; no need to go that far!). I find that my experiences leave me less and less inclined to be out there in the crazy modern world. I still love shopping and talking to friends and the technology that allows me to be here, blogging but I find the greatest peace in the woods and by my pond, alone. And I am finding that I understand more about what it means to be human in the quiet of these woods than in the bustle of the town.

Tuesday, 7 August 2007

Happiness is...being an existentialist?

I was browsing the internet, as you do on a cold August afternoon, and came across this definition and quote on a t-shirt:
"Existentialist: optimistic nihilist - just because we're all doomed, doesn't mean we can't have a good time." See it here at the Cafepress site -
http://www.cafepress.com/cp/moredetails.aspx?showBleed=false&ProductNo=76345833&colorNo=6&pr=F

I reckon that's as good a definition of the kind of atheist/existentialist/nihilist I feel myself to be. Once you've realised that life stinks:
http://theviewfromthepond.blogspot.com/2007/08/death-disbelief-and-spiders.html
you only have two choices (well, three if you count killing yourself) - spend the rest of your miserable life complaining about how miserable it is or laugh in the face of this absurd existence and determine to enjoy yourself to the max. I chose the latter and now I call myself, if anyone asks, a happy atheist. But optimistic nihilist is perhaps even better.

Monday, 6 August 2007

Philosophy Quote of the Day

The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing

Marcus Aurelius

Friday, 3 August 2007

Be Jackson Pollock

By the way, can I recommend the little widget to the left - Create Your Own Jackson Pollock Painting. I found it at http://www.widgetbox.com/ and it is brilliant. It's therapeutic, it's creative (you really do produce Pollock-esque images) and it even feels rather existential as you do it.

If you want to know more about Pollock and his work, find it here -

http://www.nga.gov/feature/pollock/

Life as a football match

I've been reading another brilliant little book, packed with intelligence: Atheism - A Very Short Introduction by Julian Baggini. See his blog at - http://julianbaggini.blogspot.com/

One of the big issues for me as an atheist is the (sometimes bitter) thought that when you're dead you're dead (WYDYD). I've tried to be brave about it. I've tried to laugh it off. But it is still a hell of a thought that one day you will no longer exist. Everything that you were will be gone. Very depressing. Wouldn't it be lovely to live for ever? But you have to resist that one because that's the kind of wishful thinking that led humanity down the slippery path to religion. So I have been desperately trying to find meaning in a time-limited life. Cue Julian Baggini...

He has a wonderful analogy in his book which cheered me up tremendously... Think of a football match. It "gains its purpose only because it finishes after 90 minutes and there is a result. An endless football match would be as meaningless as a kick around the park." He goes on to say that "this line of thought can make us wonder whether life would actually be less meaningful if it were eternal. What would be the point of doing anything if we had an eternity to live?"

I found this a very useful idea and I am still examining it from all angles to see if I can find any holes in it - haven't found any yet.

Thursday, 2 August 2007

Am I an Existentialist? YES!

Still getting the hang of this blog. Not sure yet exactly what I want to achieve with it. Mind you, I don't think anyone is reading it (apart from docMike - thanks Mike!) so I am probably agonising unnecessarily!

So many things to say. So many things I don't know yet. Like, I know I'm an atheist and I am pretty sure I qualify as an existentialist but I haven't read any Kierkegaard and precious little Sartre so can I still call myself one?

Clearly, I think the answer is yes and in fact I had that certainty confirmed in a book I'm reading at the moment - What Do Existentialists Believe? by Richard Appignanesi (published by Granta - http://www.granta.com/shop/product?product_id=3000 ) and he stresses the fact that existentialism is not one coherent, uniform movement.

He calls it "the dissident oddity without a figurehead or idea to authorize it but only the common situation of 'existence'." He goes on to say "What matters is not the name but the quest which motivates all existentialists. Existentialists ask us to linger meditatively on the sense of that word being. What does it mean to be?"

Existentialists are not looking for answers to the meaning of life because they know that there isn't one. We are what we do. Existence is all. The trick is in finding some way of coming to terms with that. And that is what existentialists, in my opinion, do.

Wednesday, 1 August 2007

Death, disbelief and spiders

I became an atheist almost overnight, about two thirds of the way through an Open University philosophy course, but I'll save that story for another time. What I wanted to write about today is the effect that all the deaths around me had on my thinking.

I live in the countryside - well, the wilderness really; well, it's wilderness compared to what I was used to. We moved to Puddock Acres as townies nearly a decade ago and seemed to spend the first eighteen months watching things die - well, being ignored by the neighbours and watching things die, actually, but that's another rant. In town, unless you are very unlucky, you simply do not see death at all. In the countryside, the cats kill the voles, the dogs worry the sheep, the farmers kill the dogs; every time you walk round the garden you risk tripping over the lifeless corpse of some innocent animal. It is hard to take all that death when you are not used to it. And so you either move back to town or you find some way to come to terms with it.

As I type here at dusk, the huge, muscular spider appears at her usual place at the centre of a web just outside my window. She sleeps during the day, unless something particularly juicy flies into her web, but at about this time every night for weeks, she has taken up her position and waited for anything to disturb the strands of her web. I have watched in admiration as she mends and sometimes completely rebuilds her web; I have watched in horror as she wraps up some prey in silky threads to keep for later (just like Frodo in the Lord of the Rings - yuk!) Every night I see creatures die and be eaten two feet away. Yes, when you live in the country death is everywhere.

Most of my family are dead. I've watched almost everyone close to me decline and die, or just die, and that gives you plenty to think about, too. You wonder what is the point of a successful life if you live a few years past your prime and nobody mourns you. You wonder if it is better to die young and loved. You wonder if it is better to go quickly but not have the chance to make your peace or to have some warning and be able to prepare but then have the discomfort of the decline. I've seen all the variations.

Of course, we don't get to choose. That's what makes life so tantalising - and precious. But, if you can accept that life is totally random; that you have no right to seventy or eighty years, no guarantee; that better people than you died years younger than you are now, you learn to take the knowledge lightly. I think that's part of being an existentialist. Sisyphus, in Albert Camus' mind, could be happy even though he was condemned to an eternity of torment - http://theviewfromthepond.blogspot.com/2007/07/albert-and-me.html . Camus called him the ultimate absurd hero, because he took an intolerable situation, laughed at the absurdity of it and thus conquered it. I think that human life itself for the existentialist and the atheist requires a similar attitude: acknowledge that this whole fabulous world can be taken away from you at any moment, laugh at the absurdity of the situation and thus conquer it.

Tuesday, 31 July 2007

Why am I here?

I'm still not certain why I started this blog. I thought it was to talk about my late husband, henceforth known as The Golfer; to describe how I have dealt with becoming a widow and perhaps give hope to anyone faced with a similar situation. But once I got started, I got all existential instead.

Certainly, all our lives we seem to be searching for meaning and, as you undergo each new experience, your understanding (with any luck) deepens. I had decided that there probably wasn't a God five or six years ago; the death of The Golfer has not changed that belief. Mind you, there were times when it would have been lovely to have joined the ranks of the "he's only stepped out of the room" brigade. But if I had, I would have known I was deluding myself. Watching your better half die also makes your own mortality all too plain. Now that really is scary.

But many people have been there before me and some of them have written wise and reassuring things on the topic. There is something remarkably consoling about reading the words of a bloke who lived 2500 years ago and for them to be as fresh and relevant to you as they were when they were written. It's one of the best feelings when you read something and it's just exactly how you've been thinking. Damn! I love books! They let you make, albeit one-sided, friendships with wonderful, long-dead people. I feel that I know Socrates, Seneca, Samuel Butler, Albert Camus; that they could walk into the room and we would get on.

So I started the View from the Pond blog to talk about surviving bereavement but it is turning into a blog about surviving life...with some newts thrown in.

Sunday, 29 July 2007

Albert and me

What I love about Albert Camus is his love of humanity and his love for life. When one first comes to the conclusion that there is probably (definitely?) no God it can be a somewhat bleak time. There are very good reasons why religions have repeatedly been created over the millenia. When things are going badly we want reassurance that things might be better some day, even if it's not until after we are dead; we like to think that the baddies will be punished and the good rewarded; most of all, we cannot bear the fact that we as individuals might cease to exist.

To become an atheist means accepting that none of that is going to happen - no rewards, no punishments, no afterlife, no more ME! It is hard but that doesn't mean it isn't true. Once I got used to the idea of my own mortality I became a calmer and even a happier person. More of that another day...

I love Camus because his love and empathy for humanity illuminates everything he writes. His writing is characterized by a stubbornness of spirit, a determination to overcome difficulties, not because life will be better for overcoming them but because there are no guarantees that it will. In The Myth of Sisyphus, Sisyphus' life will never get any better - that is guaranteed. The Gods have condemned him to push the huge boulder up a mountain for eternity. But Camus sees in Sisyphus the triumph of the human spirit over the petty and cruel punishments of the Gods. Knowing that there is no escape and no happy ending for him gives him the power of scorn over his fate.

I see so much in Camus' essay - far too much to even scratch the surface here - I'll write more another day. But Sisyphus is a symbol of what it is to be human in a meaningless universe; to be an existentialist. Once you know that life is short and cruel and random, once you know that there is no hope for a better life in the hereafter, you too become an absurd hero and you can laugh at whatever life throws at you

PS I have found some very interesting thoughts here - http://www.everythingispointless.com/search/label/albert%20camus

at the Everything is Pointless blog. Good stuff Louie!

Saturday, 28 July 2007

The puddock speaks

Well, I've been doing this for a week or so and I find I am enjoying it - might even stick at it. So I thought it was time I told you a bit about myself.

I am an atheist. I am widowed. Those two features shape everything I do. I was an atheist before my husband died but now that I am alone, the stark reality of atheism has made it a real challenge to find a way forward - I know he hasn't gone to a better place; I know I'm never going to see him again; my life as I planned it is over. And yet, atheism is the very thing that drives me on. When you believe that when you die, there is no more - that's it, end of the puddock's story - you make damn sure that every day is worth living.

So this blog is not about being widowed, at least not all the time. What it is about is the search for meaning in one's life in a meaningless universe - I am, I suppose, an existentialist, even though I am not absolutely clear what it means to be one. If there is one writer who is inspiring me at the moment it is Albert Camus, and I'll be exploring what he wrote about our search for a meaningful life in the next few months...and then telling you all about it here!

Friday, 27 July 2007

Are Newts the Wisest Beings?

I found newts in my pond. They don't talk much so I read up on them in order to understand them better. They are cold-blooded - a feature which always seems to put other animals at a distance from humans. But I read that being cold-blooded gives you the advantage that you do not need to eat so often; in other words, you do not need to spend so much of your time searching for food.

This gave me a wonderful image of these ancient creatures, sitting motionless at the bottom of ponds, not needing to eat much and having all that time to think instead. If you watch a newt for a while it is not the most exciting spectacle in the world. They don't move a lot - very little entertainment value. And yet, when you realise that evolution has given them all this free time with no shopping to do, no jostling at the newt supermarket, just the occasional tadpole swimming lucklessly past, you see them in an entirely new light.

Now when you see a soft green newt sitting motionless at the bottom of the pond you wonder what he is thinking about. Maybe newts have all the answers. They have been around on earth for so long, with nothing to do, that they must have cracked the mysteries of existence. Mustn't they?

Wednesday, 25 July 2007

Philosophical Quote of the Day

"In the depths of winter I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer"

- Albert Camus

Tuesday, 24 July 2007

My latest read

A Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas

Australian Aborigines slept with their dogs for warmth on cold nights, the coldest being "a three dog night". This wonderful book tells, with delicacy and intelligence, what Abigail's life is like since her husband sustained a serious head injury after being knocked down. Her husband has to be cared for in hospital and Abigail lives alone now, with her beloved dogs, accepting the reality of her "three dog life", while still being wedded absolutely to Richard.

It is a long time since I have devoured a book in such a short space of time. There is no self-pity here, but plenty of humour and oodles of intelligence and a poetic rhythm to the text that is as nourishing as good food.

Richard's injuries are severe, he has lost his long-term memory, he is not always easy to be with. But with the loss of memory an innocence and straight-to-the-mark directness have emerged. Abigail obviously takes great delight in the luminous phrases that he comes out with and records them carefully:

"If I wasn't with you and we weren't getting food, the dark would envelop my soul" he says cheerfully as they are walking to his room one afternoon.

"I feel like a tent that wants to be a kite, tugging at my stakes" he says one day out of the blue.

Wonderful, miraculous, dazzling flashes from a man in darkness.

I picked up the book, attracted by the title. I read it because, as a widow, I am always looking for any insight I can get into how to live a decent life after your life plan is shot to hell and you are kicked out of the playground where the "normals" live. I am glad I found it.