What kind of atheist?

November 19, 2023

An atheist is just an atheist, right?

Well sure. An atheist declares:

  • that there are no gods, or
  • that there is no evidence for gods.

I prefer the second of these. It’s more consistent with Science which is willing to declare that things can be unknown in fact because of a lack of evidence.

To say that there is no evidence for gods seems reasonable, just as there is no evidence for many other potentially imaginary entities.

The first formulation declaring that there are no gods leaves one open to the charge of overconfidence.

In recent years we have heard of the rise of the so-called new atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens (sadly gone since 2011; the world could use his sane voice right about now). Some of them have even been considered to be militant atheists.

So we can apply the adjective militant to the noun atheist.

The first time I heard the adjective agnostic applied to the noun atheist, I thought: “that doesn’t seem right”. Others I’ve spoken to have had a similar reaction. And yet, that’s more or less my preferred atheist variant at this point.

The agnostic adjective declares that the existence or non-existence of gods is:

  • currently unknown in fact or
  • unknowable, even in principle

The first seems uncontroversial and I personally think the second is too. It simply asks the question: what would count as evidence in support of a deity? The answer seems unclear at best.

While it has to be admitted that agnostic atheist is a bit confusing, the exact description of anything should be open to refinement, as with Science.

A parting thought is that Christopher Hitchens called himself an anti-theist, not only because he was an atheist, but because of the great harm he thought religion does, even if only to lead people to surrender their reason (but he also thought it was worse than that).

Perhaps I should refer to myself as an agnostic atheistic anti-theist. Too much? 🙂

Why the Voice is (probably) a Good Idea for anyone who wants a treaty

October 2, 2023

I’ve been listening to the ABC Radio National podcast The Voice Referendum Explained, hosted by Fran Kelly and Carly Williams (an indigenous person), for the last few weeks. It tries to represent the whole picture rather than coming down on one side.

I’ll be up front and say that I plan to vote yes, for at least the following reason. I don’t want to be the one person who gets in the way of better communication between Australia’s indigenous people and the Australian government.

Even though it’s often said that not much is known about the details of how the Voice will operate, there is actually plenty of detail about the broad principles by which it is likely to, in a July 2021, 256 page document: Indigenous Voice Co-design Process: Final Report to the Australian Government.

If implemented, the final proposals outlined in this report would lay a solid foundation for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to work in partnership with all levels of government and have a greater say in legislation, policies, programs and service delivery.

Most of us don’t have the time or motivation to read such a report (one reason why 10 minute episode podcasts like The Voice Referendum Explained are a good thing), and I will admit that I have not read much of it, but you get a good sense of the report from the Executive Summary and skimming sections.

While the Yes campaign has a fairly simple message about the Voice just being an advisory body that could lead to positive change, the No campaign‘s strategy seems to be to employ FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) about various issues.

Of course, individuals have many reasons for choosing to vote either way that go beyond what the campaigns say or are motivated by.

On the September 27 2023 episode of The Voice Referendum Explained, the subject of Treaty came up. This is another thing that I suspect is not well understood by many, myself included.

Fran Kelly: Treaty is a big one. Carly, Because Australia is one of the few colonial Commonwealth nations that doesn’t have a treaty with its first nations people, right?

Carly Williams: So Canada has one. We know New Zealand has one. 

Fran Kelly went on to say:

…when we think about what was outlined in the Uluru statement, what were those reforms that were called for? It was “Voice, Treaty, Truth” in that order. So Treaty is meant to come after the voice and that’s what the Uluru statement called for back in 2017. That’s what the Government’s promised.

Some say they will vote no because they want a treaty now.

Warren Mundine, who’s one of the Indigenous leaders of the Conservative No camp says Australians should reject the voice in order to speed up the treaty process…. Meanwhile, supporters of Yes, like Pat Dodson say to be talking treaty without a voice first will lead nowhere.

Pat Dodson, a federal senator, who many regard as the father of reconciliation in Australia thinks you need a Voice to make a treaty work. On the podcast he was heard to say:

Well, who are you going to deal with? That’s the first question I’d ask. And if you go down the track of dealing with 300 or 400 different Aboriginal nation groups, how are you going to do that and how do you determine it? And that will take you a couple of years to get that all sorted.

The Government needs to deal with an entity, a body that’s capable of putting forward the process by which these matters can go forward. It just can’t walk out there willy nilly and say, Well, okay, here’s three natives. We’ll have a discussion with them and we’ll have an agreement. There has to be structure and the voice is the beginning of that.

Treaties are a bit of a new concept in Australia. Most of us grew up seeing treaties of the cowboys and Indians and broken treaties and Indians marched off to reserves and we’ve known about the Maori treaty in New Zealand, but treaties are about … agreements … it’s about the recognition that they have legitimate concerns that have to be accommodated within the polity of the environment they find themselves within, and that will be a negotiation and an accommodation, not of all things, but of those things that are agreeable, that are not going to shatter or rip apart the foundation of the democracy.

This seems like a good argument for why those who want the focus to be on a treaty sooner rather than later, should vote yes for the Voice, and that a no vote may actually hinder the process.

Something else I wonder about is that I’ve also heard people talk about multiple treaties. If there was just one Treaty, then the Voice would make sense as an important, even necessary, precursor. Is the same true for multiple treaties?

Coronacast, food sources and pandemics

September 10, 2023

Tell them the truth and let them decide for themselves.

Naomi Negata, The Expanse

coronavirus statistics on screen
Photo by Markus Spiske on Pexels.com

I’m a regular listener of the weekly ABC Radio National show (via podcast) Coronacast. Dr Norman Swan and health reporter Tegan Taylor have been evidence based, trusted advisors on COVID-19 and other nasties (as Tegan puts it), vaccines, masks, and ventilation since soon after the start of the pandemic.

I love the show, its roughly 10 minute duration, no-nonsense approach, and attempts at comedic levity.

The title of the episode on August 16 2023 was Hello furry mammal are you the next pandemic?

The topic of zoonosis was discussed (my highlighting, here and elsewhere below):

Tegan Taylor: And so to today’s topic, Norman, zoonoses is a word that we all became rapidly familiar with at the beginning of the pandemic, it’s when diseases come from the animal kingdom into humans and vice versa, although we are part of the animal kingdom. And it’s one thing that we have to continue to watch, especially as we become so incredibly globalised. And in the context of farming, it’s often a breeding ground not just for the animals that are being farmed, but also for potential pandemics. And it’s something that scientists are watching particularly closely at the moment because of avian influenza.

Norman Swan: Yes, and actually a new paper on COVID-19 in mink, you might remember that 2020, 2021 there were these mass slaughters of mink in the Netherlands and Denmark, because what they showed was that there was COVID-19 to a very significant extent, maybe 60% or 70% prevalence in some mink populations, farmed mink, and that it was getting into humans and humans were reinfecting the mink, so there was what they call reverse zoonosis.

Tegan Taylor: Where we are giving it to the animal.

Norman Swan: Yes, that’s right and at least catching it from the animals. And this is where the worry is with these zoonoses, and we’ll come to flu in a moment, is that you get intermingling of viruses and the virus pops out as a very different virus. And that could be a source of another pandemic in the future.

They move on to H5N1, an influenza strain that has long been watched by disease outbreak authorities.

Norman Swan: Which is why they slaughter these populations because you want to reduce these populations. Fur is a discretionary item but food isn’t, which is why pig farms become very interesting.

Tegan Taylor: So that’s coronaviruses broadly in mink but hasn’t there been flu in mink as well?

Norman Swan: Yes, a recent report from Finland of fur farms…so these are farms that have foxes, mink and raccoon dogs. Remember raccoon dogs?

Tegan Taylor: They are very cute.

Norman Swan: They are very cute, but they carry coronavirus, as we know from the market story in Wuhan. So this is a survey from Finland very recently showing that the avian flu has spread into these populations of mink, foxes and raccoon dogs. So for those who like to be technical about this, this is influenza A and the type is H5N1 avian flu.

But this is where it starts to get very close to human beings because particularly mink are thought to be very similar.

And then there’s pig flu, swine flu, and swine flu is again…a survey in Cambodia of pig farms has shown an enormous variation of swine flu amongst pig populations, about 4,000 nose swabs from pigs, also looking at humans as well, and found that these mass variations of swine flu in the pig population, and also evidence that you’re getting reverse zoonoses, that humans are infecting the pig population. This is what happens. And food is not a discretionary item like fur.

Soon thereafter, we have this exchange:

Tegan Taylor: Yeah, it is a pretty confronting reminder of where food comes from, and not just the impact on animals, also the impact on humans.

Norman Swan: But we are slaughtering chickens, we have slaughtered millions and millions of chickens on chicken farms to prevent the spread of avian flu. And the potential is there to do that for pigs as well. But these are food sources, protein sources that are needed by the world’s population.

Tegan Taylor: Should we be rethinking our farming methods if we want to be controlling for future pandemics?

Norman Swan: The interesting contrast is between flu and COVID-19, we actually have quite good…it’s not brilliant, but we have quite good influenza monitoring systems. So we’re picking it up in pigs, we’re looking at pigs, we’re picking it up in mink farms in Finland, what we’re not doing is systematically surveying for COVID-19. If we’re picking it up, it’s almost accidental along the way on PCR testing. And so we’re not monitoring all emergent viruses.

Notice that Norman’s response to Tegan’s question is to change the subject to virus monitoring in pigs and mink. But the question was not about virus monitoring, but whether farming methods should be reconsidered.

Then there are statements like this in the exchange:

  • “Fur is a discretionary item but food isn’t.”
  • “And food is not a discretionary item like fur.”
  • Chickens and pigs “…are food sources, protein sources that are needed by the world’s population.”

Tegan’s question about rethinking our farming methods is important and one that few seem to want to seriously consider the implications of.

Of course it’s true, as Dr Swan says, that food isn’t a discretionary item, but the source of that food, of protein sources, does not have to be animals.

So, fur vs food as discretionary items is a false dichotomy.

I would really like to hear Tegan’s question considered further on Coronacast.

Another ABC RN podcast is Big Ideas. A recent episode of which was titled COVID, Zoonotic diseases, and the next pandemic. The intro starts with this:

Throughout human history, infectious viruses have moved between animals and humans without much fanfare. These are known as Zoonotic diseases. But every so often, they set off a chain reaction that can’t be contained, like the bubonic plague, or COVID-19. But the collective experience of COVID has given the world many lessons about what to — and what not to do — the next time there’s a Zoonotic leap. So what are those lessons, and is humanity able to not repeat the same mistakes?

The host, Olivia Willis, interviews Eddie Holmes, NHMRC Leadership Fellow and Professor of Virology in the School of Medical Sciences, University of Sydney, and Kris Helgen Chief Scientist and Director of the Australian Museum Research Institute (AMRI).

After an interesting interview, Olivia asked asked Eddie and Kris this question:

In thinking about stopping the next pandemic, I’d love to get both your perspectives on what you think is the single most important step right now to stop that happening.

Eddie responded by giving three things, two of which he thinks are doable:

  1. Make universal vaccines rather than the virus strain specific vaccines we have now.
  2. Stop the live animal trade or have better regulation and testing for viruses on a regular basis.

The third thing he says, is stopping the consumption of meat. He admits that he is being “controversial”, and thinks it won’t happen. In his words:

Consumption of meat is the number one thing for climate change and for these emergents. It’s a really big thing, right. I hate to say it. But it really is. And that, I think, would have a major effect on the number of viruses we are exposed to.

Kris immediately followed on from Eddie’s comment by saying that:

And that reliance on meat has to do with land clearing, it has to do with the wildlife trade, it has to do with all these types of things.

Eddie agreed enthusiastically, then continued with:

Factory farming too. In countries like Australia, the pig industry is continually a threat for influenza virus and other viruses too, and these animals are kept in huge numbers…and foot and mouth…would wipe out that industry very easily. So, our reliance on meat which is getting bigger…in terms of climate change, it’s just amazing. The beef industry, particularly. The effect that has on climate change is absolutely enormous.

This brings us back to Tegan’s question about rethinking farming methods.

Yet another ABC staple is Landline. In a recent episode, in addition to a story (one of a number recently) attempting to improve the image of the live export industry (cattle in this case), there was a story about the scale of the livestock sales business and the enormous number of cattle regularly trucked into stockyards, sometimes thousands of kilometres, from various parts of Australia and sold at auction to customers in Australia and other countries.

This reality along with the enormous number of animals in factory farms probably informs Eddie’s skepticism about the likelihood of ending meat consumption.

Although elimination is highly unlikely (an understatement) in the near future, significant reduction should not be, and we as consumers have control over this.

As a vegan, I obviously want to see meat consumption reduced primarily for the sake of the animals, but climate change and health (pandemic risk, anti-microbial resistance risk, preventable diseases of lifestyle) are also incredibly important factors, and if attention to these things helps get us to a net reduction of suffering, that’s fine with me.

Although there is an increased awareness now, even compared to a few years ago, I don’t know whether we’ll do enough towards climate change mitigation, better health outcomes, or reduced animal suffering in my lifetime. I’m not currently optimistic.

Something has to change, if for example, we want to reduce the pandemic risk and mitigate the worst effects of climate change.

It’s up to us though, and no-one is coming to save us from ourselves, as Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot always reminds us.

Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.

Dr Seuss, The Lorax

The Animal Lover Paradox

September 9, 2023

I love the mountains, that’s why I never go there.


Peter Singer relates the following story in his book, Animal Liberation:

Soon after I began work on this book my wife and I were invited to tea—we were living in England at the time—by a lady who had heard that I was planning to write about animals. She herself was very interested in animals, she said, and she had a friend who had already written a book about animals and would be so keen to meet us.

When we arrived our hostess’s friend was already there, and she certainly was keen to talk about animals. “I do love animals,” she began. “I have a dog and two cats, and do you know they get on together wonderfully well. Do you know Mrs. Scott? She runs a little hospital for sick pets…” and she was off.

She paused while refreshments were served, took a ham sandwich, and then asked us what pets we had. We told her we didn’t own any pets. She looked a little surprised, and took a bite of her sandwich. Our hostess, who had now finished serving the sandwiches, joined us and took up the conversation: “But you are interested in animals, aren’t you, Mr. Singer?”

We tried to explain that we were interested in the prevention of suffering and misery; that we were opposed to arbitrary discrimination; that we thought it wrong to inflict needless suffering on another being, even if that being were not a member of our own species; and that we believed animals were ruthlessly and cruelly exploited by humans, and we wanted this changed.

Otherwise, we said, we were not especially “interested in” animals. Neither of us had ever been inordinately fond of dogs, cats, or horses in the way that many people are. We didn’t “love” animals. We simply wanted them treated as the independent sentient beings that they are, and not as a means to human ends…

Singer goes on to say:

The portrayal of those who protest against cruelty to animals as sentimental, emotional “animal-lovers” has had the effect of excluding the entire issue of our treatment of nonhumans from serious political and moral discussion. It is easy to see why we do this.

If we did give the issue serious consideration, if, for instance, we looked closely at the conditions in which animals live in the modern “factory farms” that produce our meat, we might be made uncomfortable about ham sandwiches … and all those other items in our diet…

This book makes no sentimental appeals for sympathy toward “cute” animals. I am no more outraged by the slaughter of horses or dogs for meat than I am by the slaughter of pigs for this purpose.

Singer’s declaration that he and his wife are not particularly interested in animals, nor do they consider themselves to be animal lovers, might seem odd to someone who has in mind some vegan or vegetarian stereotype.

I have much greater empathy for animals than I did before becoming vegan. But mostly I just want to leave them alone to live their lives.

They need their space. So do we. Some of us more than others.

I like to see and listen to the birds in my backyard, smile at the sight of ducks down by the river, or watch grey headed flying foxes (bats) on their nightly migration in our suburban area.

The fundamental paradox is that many people who have pets, such as cats and dogs, would never want to see them harmed and may even declare that they detest animal cruelty in general, and yet they consume animals that someone else has killed on their behalf.

Which is more difficult to understand?

  • Not treating animals as a means to our ends.
  • Treating some animals as friends, but others as food or fur.

Hunting ducks, tradition & mental health!?

September 6, 2023

source: ABC

As reported by the ABC on August 31 2023, in good news for ducks, recreational duck hunting is likely to be banned in Victoria from 2024.

The inquiry had more than 10,500 submissions, a record for a Victorian parliamentary inquiry.

It can only be hoped that South Australia, Tasmania, and The Northern Territory follow suit if a precedent is set. Currently, this is only a recommendation to be considered by the Victorian Government within 6 months.

The ABC News article mentions Steven Threlfall, a life member at Shepparton Field and Game, saying:

…for him, hunting was a family tradition that went back generations. He said we was disappointed to hear the recommendations but not shocked.

He raised concerns that a ban on duck hunting could soon spread to include other forms of recreational activities.

Such arguments from tradition pop up surprisingly often. But what does saying that something is a tradition mean here? This is the way we’ve always done things? I like this thing and so has my family for many decades? Because I want to?

Should tradition, the way we’ve always done things, liking something, be considered more important than someone’s life, just because that someone isn’t a member of your own species?

Next we encounter something, well, bizarre:

A number of building unions have threatened to walk off the job if duck hunting is banned, warning it was an affront to their members.

“More than 85 per cent want our union to campaign for the right to enjoy the outdoors, including their right to hunt,” CFMEU assistant secretary Derek Christopher said.

The right to enjoy the outdoors?

How about going for a walk in the outdoors?

The right to hunt? An affront?

What about the right of ducks to, I dunno, stay alive?

Or is being shot and left for dead not enough of an affront for you?

And this…

“The government must work with shooting groups and unions to secure a native bird season based on science, history, culture and working-class values,” Electrical Trades Union secretary Troy Gray said.

Stringing a few words together like science, history, culture, and values doesn’t necessarily yield a meaningful sentence.

And, if you add “working class”, that doesn’t automatically make everything permissible.

Then we have this:

Other recommendations included transforming hunting reserves into state recreation reserves, whilst also allowing traditional owners to continue to hunt ducks.

“There is clearly a need to improve the protection of sites of Aboriginal cultural heritage in State Game Reserves,” the report said.

And now, here comes something truly gobsmacking (my highlighting below)…

Not all in Labor agreed with the report.

Upper House MP Sheena Watt wrote her own minority report urging the sport to be allowed to continue due in part to the improved mental health outcomes hunting provided.

“We can’t promote mental health on the one hand and deny working people the opportunity to take part in an activity that clearly has positive mental health outcomes on the other,” she said. 

The Yorta Yorta woman said hunting as a cultural practice and an expression of identity for Indigenous people should be given more weight.

I’ve been through Australian Mental Health First Aid training twice in the last 3 years, and I’m 99.9999999% sure that the “sport” of shooting ducks or maiming them and leaving them to die a slow death was never once recommended as a way to treat depression or a means by which to promote positive mental health outcomes.

But the bit that really upsets me, makes me furious actually, is the last part of this statement by the MP:

…hunting as a cultural practice and an expression of identity for Indigenous people should be given more weight.

Cultural practice? Expression of identity. What, like stoning wombats?

Given more weight?


IF hunter is "traditional owner" THEN hunting = True ELSE hunting = False ?

This sort of selfish, evil nonsense plays right into the hands of the Liberal No campaign for the Indigenous Voice to Parliament we have to vote on in a few weeks, almost as if it’s deliberate sabotage.

I received an email recently from SA Liberal MP Jamie Stevens in which he said (my highlighting below):

We have spent decades breaking down inequality and building a nation and society with fundamental principles of equal rights and treatment for all. To reintroduce into our constitution principles that treat Australians differently based on their race, gender, sexuality, religion or any other attribute is objectionable to me. The strength of our democracy is that every Australian has an equal status in the decision making processes of our nation and our government. It is a national shame that upon becoming a federated nation in 1901, Indigenous Australians were not given the right to vote. Treating them differently in our Constitution was wrong then, and my values hold that it would be wrong to do so again through this proposal.

On the one hand, while this has the appearance of being reasonable, it misses the point that there is currently a gap between life outcomes for many indigenous people and that equal consideration of the interests of indigenous and non indigenous Australians is something to be examined and corrected where inequality exists. But, it must also be acknowledged that there are others in Australian society who are also disadvantaged, and the idea that in general, one person in Australia is treated no differently to any other is demonstrably false; missing from the list ending in “any other attribute” above, is financial status.

But, I digress…

On the other hand, while it may be a minority view, if the kind of advice given to the government of the day by a current indigenous Labor MP is: shoot ducks to improve the mental health of indigenous people, I could be forgiven for seriously questioning whether to vote yes in the Voice referendum. Despite my own confusion, I’m basically on the Yes side, but don’t give me reason to think I should not be, don’t make me teeter on the edge!

Time for some Plain Speakin’ as Shaun Micalef used to say on Mad as Hell

Well done Yorta Yorta Labor MP Sheena Watt. A win for Team Misanthropy! Has it occurred to you that your speciesist worldview actually represents a repetition of the sins of the white settlers who invaded your ancestors’ home? But you’ll never see that because you’re so blinded by the belief in your own importance!

I wonder what The Greens would say about the Labour MP’s words? I’m sure that some Greens MPs would be horrified.

I know what the Animal Justice Party would say.

But enough! The claim that the working class underdogs of Australia, indigenous or otherwise, have some special cultural or traditional “right” (an extremely overused word) to murder (for any reason) sweet, innocent ducks who just want to live their lives unhindered by unhinged humans, is WRONG plain and simple.

No compromise. No argument. End of story.

I’m normally keen to understand other people’s point of view.

Not on this matter. Sorry.

Quite a few years ago, before I was vegan, I spontaneously did my best to scare the bejesus out of a youngish couple on a walk near our local river by yelling obscenities at them when they let their dog off his/her leash allowing the dog to run after a duck and chomp down on the duck’s neck. I’d hate to think what I would do, or at least, what I would want to do if I saw someone shooting a duck…

This whole issue gets to the heart of the problem, the reason I can’t stop thinking, talking, and writing about this stuff, when I’d much rather focus on other things.

At the heart of the problem is the misguided belief that we are at the centre of things. Even before I was vegan I didn’t believe that, but I couldn’t figure out what I was missing.

What I was missing was the simple notion that no-one should be treated as a means to an end, no matter what their species, that the interests of animals, human and non-human should be given equal consideration, and that we should not tolerate suffering being inflicted on any sentient creature.

That’s it. Is this really so unreasonable?

The greatest ethical test that we’re ever going to face is the treatment of those who are at our mercy.

Lyn White, Director of Strategy, Animals Australia

21 years since Mum left us

August 21, 2023

It’s 21 years today since my mother’s funeral…

…on August 21, 2002.

She died on August 17, four days before her birthday…

…on August 21.

Her sane voice is still sorely missed, in an increasingly insane world.

Vegan Humour #1

July 17, 2023

It’s important to be able to playfully poke fun at yourself and others, to laugh at your own expense, even while sometimes still challenging societal and cultural norms. Points of disagreement don’t have to involve vitriol. There’s plenty of that to go around these days. Here’s one attempt…


The late great Barry Humphries and offence-taking

July 16, 2023

source: Australian Book Review

When Karen and I were in Melbourne in June we found ourselves looking for memorabilia relating to Barry Humphries’s characters, Dame Edna Everage in particular. Humphries died on April 22 2023 following complications from hip surgery at St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney, aged 89.

We grew up with the characters Humphries created, especially Dame Edna and Sir Les Patterson. There were a heap of Australian comedians and comedy shows in the 70s and 80s especially (e.g. Australia You’re Standing in it, Norman Gunston, Rodney Rude, D-Generation), many politically incorrect as I recall. Probably why I also love (the more recent) Shaun Micaleff’s Mad as Hell.

We found “Everage Street” in Moonee Ponds, of course, given that Dame Edna was supposed to have been a housewife from that Melbourne suburb.

We also found a fairly drab and disappointing lane in Melbourne’s CBD called “Dame Edna Place” (sign at top-right of photo) with a chalked reference to toilets for purple haired people. Wonder who they could’ve meant?

The family of Barry Humphries declined a Victorian state funeral, opting for an event in Sydney instead (December 2023).

Why? It may have something to do with the Melbourne International Comedy Festival stripping Barry Humphries’s name from the festival’s biggest award, following a backlash over the performer’s comments about transgender people in 2018.

What used to be called The Barry Award became the unimaginative Melbourne International Comedy Festival Award. This is the same festival founded by Barry Humphries and Peter Cook!

Previous winners of the Barry Award, including Hannah Gadsby and Zoe Coombs Marr, called for the award to be renamed after he made negative comments about transgender people.

In a 2018 interview with The Spectator magazine, Humphries said:

How many different kinds of lavatory can you have? And it’s pretty evil when it’s preached to children by crazy teachers.”

Previously in 2016, he had called gender re-assignment surgery “self mutilation”. He is also reported to have referred to transgender as a fashion.

Yes, it’s not hard to see how such comments could be received as harsh, politically incorrect, hurtful.

But, in the age of cancel culture and hair-trigger offence-taking, we apparently can’t keep two or more ideas in our collectively atrophying minds at once without allowing one of those ideas to dominate, in this case:

  1. Barry Humphries made negative transgender-related comments.
  2. Barry Humphries is a comedic cultural icon in Australia.
  3. Barry Humphries battled alcoholism for a decade.
  4. Barry Humphries was made a commander of the order of Australia.

Humphries wondered about the varieties of toilets. Of course, “How many different kinds of lavatory can you have?” is not a wildly crazy question. Neither is, “Can anything really be infinitely small?” (not according to some proponents of quantum gravity; that’s a different post).

It’s also not the same as US-presidential-wannabe Ron DeSantis trying to ban transgender people from using particular toilets or passing laws allowing removal of a child from their home if they receive gender-affirming treatments or procedures. Now that guy could be a commander in Gilead (The Handmaid’s Tale).

Yes, Humphries also made a hyperbolic comment about preaching to children and made a harsh statement about gender re-assignment surgery.

It’s not hard to see how such comments would be offensive to someone struggling with gender identity.

Then again, it does point to a serious question: what is the decision making process for gender re-assignment surgery?

Is it anything like as strict as for voluntary assisted dying, about which there has been much political gnashing of teeth in Australia and elsewhere?

Is that also an offensive question, or just a question?

Gender reassignment treatment (surgery or otherwise) arguably represents both a kind of death and rebirth, so the analogy is not without some validity, surely.

How about that? Am I being offensive yet? Honestly not trying hard to be. Just asking questions. Or is that no longer permitted?

In any case, that’s definitely a whole other post (that I will probably never write).

Honestly though, what questions and statements are taboo and what aren’t?

A good rule of thumb is whether harm is being done. Not always easy to determine though.

Melbourne International Comedy Festival organisers were even called out as “gutless cowards”:

…after a backflip that saw the festival release a tepid acknowledgment of comedy legend Barry Humphries. Organisers on Monday night issued a statement saying they would plan a “fitting tribute” to Humphries, after declaring there would be no official tribute, and having earlier wiped his name from the Barry award.”

Really? It’s not like they re-instated the award or anything. Is planning a “fitting tribute” offensive too?

It really does seem that you are only as good as your last gig.

Watch your back I’d say to all comedians, in that case! You’re on borrowed time I’d say.

Have there been no other recent famous Australians who have been both amazing in one part of their life and caused harm in another? Was Shane Warne an uncontroversial character?

Have I just offended thousands of sports fans?

I can but try.

Yes, I’m still trying to make a point.

Even the title of this post will be offensive to some, i.e. use of the word “great”.

Is there no other famous comedian who is offensive? Have you listened to Ricky Gervais (who called Humphries a genius) or Jimmy Carr? Hannah Gadsby makes broad generalisations about men that some would be offended by as well. So, again, what’s taboo and what’s not? Nothing in comedy, usually.

Recall Bill Mahr’s (American comedian) satirical comments a year ago about the increased rate of self-identification as LGBTQ over time. Funny? Depends upon the viewer/listener I suppose.

Humphries’s comedy too, was satirical. He poked fun at societal norms, and those norms change over time. To be fair, the transgender comments were made outside of the context of a comedy show.

Humphries is reported to have made the following comment (in an interview with British comedian Rob Brydon):

Comedians aren’t always terribly nice. We don’t have to be nice, do we. We’re not obliged to be nice, we’re generally pretty unsavoury.

I’ve heard Ricky Gervais make similar comments.

As a counterpoint, Australian comedian Sammy J, said:

…the festival “had to make a choice” between hurting Humphries’ feelings or “ignoring and excluding members of a vulnerable community”. “It chose the former,” Sammy J said in an opinion piece published by The Age, before explaining why.” Arts festivals only exist if there are artists. And artists only take part in festivals they feel welcome at. Can you imagine being a trans comedian nominated for an award named after someone who’d wilfully torn down your sense of worth? “No, neither can I. That’s the problem with being in a minority – most people will never understand what your journey’s been like. But in the absence of shared experience, we can still rely on empathy.”

But he went on to say:

Humphries still made his way onto the front pages of newspapers globally and left a lasting legacy. “Barry Humphries hasn’t been cancelled … That contribution included paving the way for comedians to speak up and rally against things with fire and passion, just like he did when he was young. It’s a legacy to be proud of.”

Yes, Barry Humphries expressed opinions that could be taken as offensive and hurtful to some later in his life. But let’s not write him off! Let’s celebrate his comedic genius, his place in our culture!

Most people are complex and contradictory and no-one is perfect.

As British-Australian actor Miriam Margolyes (who played Professor Sprout in Harry Potter) said after Humphries died:

How dare they. He had more talent in his little finger than they did in their whole bodies – all of them. I’m outraged by it and I want to speak up now to support him.

Margolyes said she did not agree with Humphries’s politics, but revered him as a friend and comedian. “I didn’t like his politics. I really didn’t. But I revere the talent of the man,” she said.

And that’s the point right there, possums!

Don’t assume why I’m vegan. Try asking instead.

July 11, 2023

scrabble tiles in blue ceramic plate
Photo by Vegan Liftz on Pexels.com

As the saying goes, when you assume, it makes an ASS out of U and Me.

Why am I vegan? Please just ask, instead of assuming you know.

I’m vegan because:

  • I do not think that anyone should be treated as a means to an end, no matter what their species.
  • I think that the interests of other animals should be given equal consideration to our own interests. Note that this is not so much about “animal rights” or “animal welfare” as an application of empathy and equity beyond the borders of homo sapiens.
  • Nothing more than a central nervous system is required for pain to be possible, more obviously so for mammals like us (e.g. dogs, pigs, cows, kangaroos, sheep), but also for birds and fish, even if the subjective experience of pain and suffering across species is difficult to apprehend.
  • I do not think that the incarceration from birth, suffering and sacrifice of billions of gentle land creatures (and many more ocean creatures) every year worldwide should be condoned, simply because we prefer not to eat plants instead.
  • I do not need to consume animal products. If I have to take a regular B12 supplement or consume B12 fortified plant milk or food, that doesn’t seem like much of an inconvenience. It’s not natural, you might object. People take all manner of supplements for sometimes dubious reasons. That, and humans do few things that are “natural” anyway.
  • Greenhouse gas emissions from animal agriculture are on par with the transport sector worldwide, and environmental degradation caused by intensive factory farming (including land clearing and run-off) are not really matters of dispute.
  • Our health is under threat from the rise of anti-microbial resistance and zoonotic diseases, not to mention the links between the food we eat and risks to our well-being, such as heart disease.
  • In the end though, my primary motivation for being vegan is because of what we do to animals, especially those we use for food, clothing, or entertainment.

Each of these points barely scratches the surface, and could be discussed in more detail, but it’s really not that complicated. Mathematics, physics, and engineering are complicated. Coding and mathematics are for me, a welcome distraction from our dystopian world, especially when it gets to be too much, which these days is honestly most of the time.

If you want to know more about how I arrived at where I am, have a look at On Food Choices, part 1: the right road lost and Vegan Activists: you’re doing it completely wrong.

Questionable Church Signs #4 or, on the abuse of natural language

May 27, 2023

It’s hard to know where to begin with this two-sided sign that I’ve spied a few times when walking down Adelaide’s Rundle Mall.

On one side…

Jesus Saves From Hell

I have questions…

1. Which bank did Jesus make a Faustian bargain with and what interest rate is he getting?

2. What is Jesus doing in Hell? I thought he was sitting at the right hand of God. Unless God is actually Satan, then it all makes sense. All except the suffering in the eternal flames of Hell part.

On the flip side…

Naturally, as an atheist I’m included on this naughty list, along with witches, smokers, adulterers, gossipers, haters, LGBTIQ+ people, drunkards and various other awkwardly expressed nouns.

I didn’t immediately notice the incorrectly spelled “athiest“.

Other than that, they clearly know me well. All except the “lukewarm” bit. As an atheist I take my lack of faith very seriously thank you very much!

I had a short chat (trying to hear myself above the triumphal music blaring out of the boom box) with the street preacher who was standing near the sign. He wore a T-shirt saying “Jesus is Coming”.

Was Jesus just breathing heavy?, I wondered as an aside, although not aloud. Phew!

I asked the street preacher: What makes you think that anything you believe is true or that your holy book is right and no others (such as the Quran) are?

He proceeded, in the usual circular argument fashion, to refer to his holy book and what great things it says, commenting that Islam is much younger than Christianity, as if that somehow makes it less likely to be true.

I suggested that everyone, even he, is an atheist.

There are many gods both of us don’t believe in, such as Apollo, Poseidon, Vishnu, Zeuss. The street preacher doesn’t believe that Allah is the one true god, any more than I do.

We’re all polyatheists!

In this regard, the only difference between us, is that I believe in one less god, taking the count to zero instead of one.

In fact, “atheism” is a term that should not even exist. No one ever needs to identify himself as a “non-astrologer” or a “non-alchemist.”… Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs.

Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation

As before, he referred to the multitude of great things in the Bible. After a little more time exchanging pleasantries, I said “bye” and he said “God bless you”. I didn’t realise I had sneezed.

He seemed like a nice guy. Just misguided. I suppose we all are in our own way though.

We will all perish, including the street preacher. Repenting seems highly unlikely to help.

In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot