Archive for the ‘Atheism’ Category

A “Helpful Guide” to the Afterlife from a Church Pamphlet

March 20, 2021
Photo by Emre Can on Pexels.com

It may be that Jesus never lived and so, never died. But that’s a rabbit hole for another day. We do know at least from the Jewish historian Josephus, that would-be messiahs and crucifixions were common around the time Jesus is said to have lived.

But let’s just suppose there was a historical Jesus, as described in the gospels. Was his death temporary? Did he rise 3 days later? What implications does this have for mammals like us?

35 years ago, when I was a Christian, although I hoped for an afterlife, I focused more on the death of Jesus, the atonement for the sins of the world through his blood sacrifice. But of course the other key piece is the resurrection and the promise of eternal life. Together, these seem to be the core of the Christian message, at least if you are a salvation by faith rather than a salvation by works kind of Christian.

We recently received a little pamphlet in our letterbox from a local Adelaide Baptist church entitled The Empty Tomb.

We’re approaching Easter 2021 so that’s not too surprising.

In my “Questionable Church Signs” posts I obscure any reference to the church to which a sign belongs. The Empty Tomb pamphlet includes the URL for the website, but I won’t include it here.

The Empty Tomb tells the story of the early life of Jesus, his baptism, miracles, downfall, crucifixion and resurrection.

After describing the horror of the crucifixion, it declares:

Just before He died, Jesus shouted… “IT IS FINISHED”.

The penalty for the sins of all mankind had been paid in full.

Now anyone could be saved by putting their faith in Jesus Christ.

All fairly standard salvation by faith stuff.

On the next page after the resurrection, we have:

HE IS RISEN!

Jesus DEFEATED Satan, and conquered death and hell.

At this point I could be excused for expecting a land of unicorns, rainbows and butterflies

But, then the pamphlet confronts me with…

All who accept Christ will live with God forever in heaven.

and, inevitably, and with “lovely” pictures…

Those who reject Jesus will burn forever in a lake of fire.

…which I take to mean Hell. Finally, we have…

Someday you will bow before God.

Who will YOU serve?

Jesus ChristSatan

So, no other options then?

Just the two?

Hmm. Wait a sec…

Is atonement really for everyone? Have our sins been paid for in full? Or, is this conditional upon uttering some magic words like “I accept Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Saviour”?

Not completely clear from this particular user manual.

Were Satan and Hell actually defeated? Not really, if it’s possible to burn in Hell or to serve Satan (or bizarrely somehow, both at the same time). Was that always possible, and now only optional because of what Jesus did?

The logical contradictions and gaps in reasoning in The Empty Tomb abound.

But worse than that is the ease with which The Other is condemned. Those who do not believe as “we” do.

That is very dangerous thinking.

Hitch would have declared this an example of how religion poisons everything. It’s easy to see why.

What role do liberal-minded Christians have in countering this kind of thinking? Similarly, what role do liberal-minded Muslims have in countering Jihad and other Islamist (“must convert the infidel”) thinking?

I can’t speak for the faithful although I am always happy to converse with them or anyone, to try to find common ground, and to agree to disagree otherwise.

That’s really the only way forward, isn’t it?

However, I also see it as a kind of duty to expose and counter harmful nonsense, such as is promoted in The Empty Tomb pamphlet.

Life is short and we are not at the centre of things. And, our species is in desperate need of growing up.

My concern with religion is that it allows us by the millions to believe what only lunatics or idiots could believe on their own.

Sam Harris

Voluntary Assisted Dying in South Australia

March 10, 2021
Photo by Julia Volk on Pexels.com

Voluntary Assisted Dying (VAD) legislation is being discussed starting from March 17 in the South Australian parliament.

A little more than a year ago, my dad expressed a wish to die every day I was with him for the last week of his life. He was living in Tasmania. While there are amendments to be accepted, VAD legislation is now on the way to being passed there.

I recently took part in a discussion of VAD in South Australia at the Blackwood Uniting Church, a special meeting of the monthly philosophy group, supported by a well thought out presentation by a palliative care doctor. The consensus seemed to be support for VAD.

A cursory glance through my blog will show that I don’t believe in gods of any sort. One problem with religion in general is that it encourages people to pretend to know things they can’t possibly know, and potentially (and this is the crucial bit) base important life decisions on such belief. I’ve written elsewhere about what counts as good belief.

With respect to Christianity at least, the more liberal the denomination, the less salvation by faith thinking there is, and the more emphasis on living a good and caring life due to some notion of (a God of) love there usually is. Of course, you don’t need religion for that.

Especially given that there was a “Non-Christian but I wish to support the Group” option, I was encouraged to sign up on the Christians In Support of VAD website after the philosophy group discussion.

The more names on petitions and lists in favour of choosing a “good death”, the better.

Speaking of which, here’s one such (secular) petition. I signed that too.

Try to enjoy life now. There’s a very good chance that this is the only one you’ll get. And if your end of life scenario sucks, remember: it’s your life, not some imaginary sky fairy’s. You should get to choose, in consultation with those you care about.

Whatever you believe, the fact is that each of us was born into a life that none of us asked for.

You can choose to consider life as a gift, or to simply accept the fact of existence and embrace it. Or both, if you like.

We were not alive for 14 billion years (give or take), and we won’t be alive for even longer while the heat death of the universe plays out over trillions of years.

But we should, where possible, have some say in the manner, time, and place of our exit from life.

Anyway, let’s hope that VAD legislation is passed in SA.

The Church and The Vaccine

September 19, 2020

We no longer have any need of a god to explain what is no longer mysterious. What believers will do now that their faith is optional and private … is a matter for them. We should not care. As long as they make no further attempt to inculcate religion by any form of coercion.

Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Spoiler alert: I am not sympathetic to religion as a source of ethics here.

In mid-2020, concern was expressed by archbishops of Sydney Catholic, Anglican and Greek Orthodox churches regarding the use of cell lines in vaccine development that originated with a human female embryo that was aborted in 1973.

Free speech is important, but given that vaccine development is hard and that many (perhaps 95%) vaccines fail in the late stages of human trials, it really matters whether this is a reasonable ethical concern.

Granted, the conversation has been more nuanced than media headlines have often suggested, as can be noted by listening to the ABC’s Religion and Ethics Report podcast.

But to what extent does this nuance translate to “the flock”?

We would do well to recall that the flock has in the past been told that the use of condoms was a sin. The Catholic Church’s stance may have moderated a little on this matter, but just think of the calamity that this one, misguided teaching has unleashed, especially upon African adherents to the faith, when AIDS was still a death sentence, compounded by poverty and unchecked population growth.

For this alone, the Catholic Church should be universally reviled, once again having proven its irrelevance to modern life and at the same time, how dangerous it still can be.

We should also remember that a mere few hundred years ago, it was much much more dangerous, when we were collectively more dim-witted and willing to cede more power to it.

That must never again be allowed to happen.

Rejecting a perfectly good vaccine candidate is a kick in the guts for the work being done by the Oxford University team and others worldwide.

Suppose it is the most effective vaccine, or less likely but not impossible, the only one that works?

If it appears that I have unduly focussed on the Catholic Church, that’s only because it makes such an easy target. Other denominations do not have a squeaky clean history either.

It’s important to understand that all ways of knowing are not equal, especially in this context.

Science and reason, not faith, are required when thinking about the fitness of a vaccine and its development process.

None of this is to say that ethical concerns don’t matter here. Of course they do. But ethics must be based upon well-thought out principles and a focus upon consequences, not ill-conceived, brittle rules, and certainly never by thinking that tradition dictates truth.

A comment by Nobel laureate and immunologist Peter Doherty in this ABC News article sums it up for me:

If [Archbishop Fisher] finds that objectionable it’s his perfect right to say so and it’s our perfect right to take absolutely no notice of him.

source: ABC News

And, it’s not as if there are no other concerns…

For example, what about animal testing in vaccine development, including for COVID-19?

As someone who thinks that no-one, human or non-human, should be used as a means to an end, it would be an understatement to say that I am ambivalent about testing vaccine candidates on animals.

But, I’ve written about such dilemmas elsewhere; there is a spectrum of concern here…

I still wear boots with suede strips that I owned before going vegan. Suede is soft skin torn from the underside of some poor dead animal. I can’t help that animal now, but every time I wear those boots, I am reminded of my error…

…and, not wishing to add insult to injury, I choose not to discard them while they are still useful, perhaps somewhat akin to the way some of our ancestors are thought to have paid their respects to the animals they killed and consumed. Needless to say, my clothing purchasing decisions now incorporate vegan principles.

In a similar way, perhaps the religious objectors to the use of a decades-old cell line could chill out, just a little, and take a similar approach.

The cell line from the embryo that was aborted 47 years ago has led to great good (an unintentional means to an end), for which we should be thankful. It is unlikely to have suffered in any meaningful way.

If only the same could be said for the animals we routinely kill en masse, because we are collectively failing to tip the balance towards a plant-based diet.

“Divine” Hitch

September 30, 2019

There are often moments when I desire inspiration from Christopher Hitchens, one of the most eloquent public intellectuals of our time.

I watched this interview tonight, recorded after his diagnosis with oesophageal cancer. It came from a slightly surprising (at least to me) source, but I found it to be rewarding and classically Hitch:

Catholic tradition and other insanity

August 17, 2019

This week, Melbourne’s Catholic Archbishop Peter Comensoli said he would rather go to jail than report admissions of child sexual abuse given in the confessional.

After everything that’s happened… The Royal Commission, the outpouring of emotion, the reliving of events by victims, the conviction of George Pell…

…isn’t it a tad irresponsible and insensitive for a leader of the Catholic church say this?

During a recent Q&A discussion of the Israel Folau incident Penny Wong said:

There is a distinction between a right to belief and the assertion that that belief should lead to you being treated differently before the law.

A related point is that just because a “sacred” tradition has existed for hundreds or thousands of years, that doesn’t make it magical or special.

To one who stands outside the Christian faith it is utterly astonishing how ordinary a book can be and still be thought the product of omniscience.

(Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation)

What I just can’t comprehend is why anyone could take the catholic church seriously anymore. Quite apart from the abuse of children, it has done so much harm in other ways, including declaring it to be a sin for its adherents to exercise birth control.

This is especially problematic in the poorest countries, for those who can least afford it.

In this way, the church has made a significant contribution to the unchecked human population that threatens all life on earth.

And yet, so many otherwise rational people continue to trust the catholic church with their children, their childrens’ education, their collective future, and act as if the church still has anything of worth to say in the twenty-first century.

My concern with religion is that it allows us by the millions to believe what only lunatics or idiots could believe on their own.

(Sam Harris)

I guess I should be happy that a high-profile public catholic figure is making his church seem irrelevant, but for many devout catholics, such comments by a prominent leader of their church will gently wash over them and they will wonder what all the fuss was about.

Such is the irrationality of our species. Aren’t there other more important issues for us to worry about, such as climate change and our relationship with the other species of earth? Religion is so yesterday.

One of the greatest challenges facing civilisation in the 21st century is for human beings to learn to speak about their deepest personal concerns, about ethics, spiritual experience, and the inevitability of human suffering, in ways that are not flagrantly irrational.

We desperately need a public discourse that encourages critical thinking and intellectual honesty. Nothing stands in the way of this project more than the respect we accord religious faith.

(Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation)

Questionable church signs #3

July 19, 2019

I’ve heard it said that God (which god, you may reasonably ask…) is love.

When I first saw this local church sign, the slogan reminded me of 1984 and The Ministry of Truth…

War is peace

Slavery is freedom

GodIsLove

But if one, as the sign proclaims, wishes to uphold the Bible as the Word of God along with the notion that god is the epitome of love, it might be prudent to ask: How many times does “love” appear in the Bible?

Around one hundred and fifty, in each of the old and new testaments.

“Lord” and “God” on the other hand both appear a few thousand times (admittedly more in the old testament) suggestive more of narcissism than concern for others.

So, if we’re honest, the sentiment is simplistic at best, even if we confine ourselves to the god(s) of the Bible.

On Food Choices: a summary (tl;dr)

March 31, 2019

…but what is not possible is not to choose…if I do not choose, that is still a choice. (Sartre, Existentialism is a Humanism)

Given the length of the previous seven posts, here’s a summary.

The right road lost

  • The criteria we apply to food choices are: our desires, our health, what’s good for the food producer (e.g. Fair Trade), environmental impact (climate change, resource usage/degradation), and what’s good for non-human animals (animal welfare).
  • Other than our health, without which nothing much matters to us, I consider this list to be essentially in order of increasing importance.
  • Large scale animal farming is environmentally unsustainable in terms of land and water use and the resulting waste and emissions (carbon dioxide and methane). This will only get worse as the human population continues its exponential growth. A plant-based diet could significantly reduce emissions and waste.

But is it healthy?

The 2013 Australian Dietary Guidelines say that:

  • “Appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthy and nutritionally adequate.”
  • “Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the lifecycle. Those following a vegan diet should choose foods to ensure adequate intake of iron and zinc and to optimise the absorption and bioavailability of iron, zinc and calcium.”
  • “Supplementation of vitamin B12 may be required for people with strict vegan dietary patterns.”

The elephant in the room

  • It took a long time for me to accept the idea that we’re not at the centre of the universe, that there is no compelling evidence for gods of any sort, of a higher plan, of an afterlife.
  • The idea that we have a higher moral status, a greater right to be happy — to be free — than other animals is widespread, even though most of us would not be inclined to say so.
  • This idea is called speciesism. It is as if racism had been applied beyond the borders of homo sapiens.
  • Raising livestock for food involves billions of sentient animals worldwide per year being born into servitude and living lives that are nasty, brutish, and short, to borrow from Leviathan (Hobbes).
  • We need to widen our ethical circle to include other species. We do so when thinking about species loss through habitat degradation and climate change, but not necessarily when thinking about the animals we exploit.

Cultural relevance?

  • Do the desires (e.g. cultural, religious) of one or more humans outweigh the welfare — the life — of even a single non-human animal?
  • For example, it’s hard to see how the live export of cattle or sheep can be defended on cultural, religious or other grounds when we know the harm caused to individual animals.
  • And what of the shorter yet no less harrowing trip from farm to abattoir, to say nothing of what happens upon arrival?

Surplus to requirements #1

  • Caged hens as a source of eggs can’t be ethically justified unless you think that having an area no larger than a sheet of printer paper to live in, standing on wire, beak cutting to stop pecking of other hens, not being able to engage in natural behaviours are okay.
  • According to the RSPCA:
    • “In the egg industry, the sex of day-old chicks is determined at the hatchery. Sexing chicks…is done at this very early stage to determine their fate.”
    • “If strong and healthy, the female chicks remain in the hatchery, they are grown to a suitable size and then transferred to a laying facility — which could be a caged, free-range or barn set up.”
    • “Male chicks are considered an unwanted byproduct of egg production and are killed and disposed of shortly after birth.”
    • “A hen is declared ‘spent’ when her egg production drops at around 72 weeks of age. At this point she is considered less profitable and removed from the production system… Spent hens are either killed on farm and composted, or transported to an abattoir for slaughter.”
  • The treatment and fate of so-called broiler chickens and other birds such as turkeys is not something I have written about so far.

Surplus to requirements #2

  • As the RSPCA says:
    • “For cows to produce milk, they have to give birth to a calf. Most calves are separated from their mother within 24 hours of birth to reduce the risk of disease transmission to the calf, and most do not stay on the farm for long.”
    • “Separation within 24 hours of birth interferes with the development of the cow-calf bond and thus reduces separation distress. Cows will show a strong response (calling) if their calf is separated at an older age.”
    • “The term ‘bobby calves’ refers to newborn calves that are less than 30 days old and not with their mothers. Essentially, they are surplus to dairy industry requirements as they are not required for the milking herd.”
    • “Products from processed bobby calves include young veal for human consumption, valuable hides for leather, calf rennet for cheese making, and byproducts for the pharmaceutical industry.”

Asymptotic vegan

  • I would say now that I’m asymptotically approaching veganism: moving towards a plant-based diet on ethical and sustainability grounds.
  • There’s “low-hanging fruit” like meat. Then dairy and eggs. Once I got over a few psychological hurdles, leaving these behind turned out to be easier than I expected.
  • Yet there are shades of grey…
  • I have shoes with leather uppers that I purchased before my thinking changed. Should I discard them? Will that help the animal now? No. Will I buy shoes with leather uppers in future. No.
  • Last Christmas we had a turkey in the freezer with a long expiry date that had not yet been eaten. Would the “right action” have been to not consume it? If so, wouldn’t that have been a waste and wouldn’t that mean the turkey’s demise was pointless?
  • Do you care about herd immunity? You should. Will you get the yearly flu vaccine to protect the vulnerable in our society as well as yourself? Eggs are used in the process of making the flu vaccine. Having the flu vaccine involves a compromise, perhaps one we will not have to make forever if research bears fruit.
  • Do you use sweetener in your coffee? Does it contain lactose? Some do, some don’t.
  • Do you drink almond milk or otherwise consume almonds? I have not dealt with the question of bees and honey in the first seven posts, but irrespective of your thoughts on that, how are the flowers of almond (and other) trees pollinated? By bees. Do the bees just fly in and out of the orchard, or under some circumstances are they brought there, in man-made hives?
  • Do you drink wine? The fining process often uses animal products (such as milk or eggs), but there are alternatives.
  • We need to cease deliberately enslaving and killing animals, treating them as means to our ends, instead of acknowledging them as sentient creatures who like us, do not wish to suffer and moreover, who wish to be free.
  • The point is to think. To ask questions. To cast doubt on long held beliefs. To intend change, to do better. To find alternatives, to say no more often.
  • It should never be about dogma. I sometimes hear vegan activists using the phrase “convert to veganism”. That way lies religion and unjustified ideology.

On Food Choices, part 7: asymptotic vegan

January 30, 2019

Peter Singer and Jim Mason, in The Ethics of What We Eat (pages 255, 256), say that objecting to the idea of killing young healthy farm animals for food:

…leads many people to become vegetarian, while continuing to eat eggs and dairy products. But it is not possible to produce laying hens without also producing male chickens, and since these male chicks have no commercial value, they are invariably killed as soon as they have been sexed. The laying hens themselves will be killed once their rate of laying declines. In the dairy industry much of the same thing happens—the male calves are killed immediately or raised for veal, and the cows are turned into hamburger long before normal old age. So rejecting the killing of animals points to a vegan, rather than a vegetarian diet.

I’m not fond of labels but I would say now that I’m asymptotically approaching veganism, that I am moving towards a plant-based diet. I’m largely there but 100%, all the time?

There’s the “low-hanging fruit” like meat. Then dairy and eggs.

Yet there are shades of grey.

I have shoes with leather uppers that I purchased before my thinking changed. Should I discard them? Will that help the animal now? No. Will I buy shoes with leather uppers in future. No.

Do you care about herd immunity? You should. Will you get the yearly flu vaccine to protect the vulnerable in our society as well as yourself? Eggs are used in the process of making the flu vaccine. Having the flu vaccine involves a compromise. In part 5, I referred to Australian research that aims to reduce the ethical dilemma by determining sex before hatching.

On the subject of vaccines, fetal bovine serum may be used instead of non-animal derived alternatives in vaccine production. The RSPCA says that where a synthetic serum or a non-animal derived alternative exists, they must be used instead of the animal-derived product.

The extent to which alternatives are used is something I want to discover more about, but: vaccination matters people! Imagine smallpox making a comeback.

Of course, as the recent outbreak of African Swine Fever in Chinese factory farmed pig populations shows, when a large outbreak of disease in animals occurs, they are “destroyed”. I don’t think that would fly with human disease outbreaks.

Do you use a sweetener in your coffee? Does it contain lactose? Some do and some don’t.

Do you drink almond milk or otherwise consume almonds? How are the flowers of almond (and other) trees pollinated? By bees. Is this a natural process? Do the bees just fly in and out of the orchard, or are they brought there, in man-made hives? If the latter, although less harmful than taking their honey, it’s arguably still a form of exploitation. Is that enough to make you stop drinking almond milk? If not, you made a compromise.

We recently had a turkey in the freezer with a long expiry date that had not yet been eaten. Would the “right action” have been to not consume it? If so, wouldn’t that have been a waste and wouldn’t that mean the turkey’s demise was pointless? I think so, therefore we had it last Christmas and were grateful.

Do you drink wine? The fining process often uses animal products (such as milk or eggs), but there are alternatives. Sites like Barnivore will help and obviously you can Google. Wine labels may sometimes say whether they are vegan friendly. More reds than whites seem to be vegan friendly from what I’ve seen so far, but by no means all. Beer is often okay. The main thing is: check if you don’t know.

Jelly contains, well, gelatine which is created from animal skin, bones and connective tissue. There are alternatives.

There are even lighter shades of grey.

If food has been cooked and will be discarded if I don’t eat it, should I eat it?

Perhaps.

More subtle, if food is cooked and leftovers would be kept refrigerated, should I eat it since it will be eaten later by someone else anyway. That’s less compelling since any animal based food I choose not to eat will reduce the need/demand for that food.

There are bacteria everywhere, including in what we eat. Fragments of insects may inadvertently end up in our food. I may step on a bunch of ants…

But we have to make a distinction between the foregoing and deliberately enslaving and killing animals, treating them as means to our ends, instead of sentient creatures who, as Moby said in a TED talk, just want to be free of pain and suffering, essentially just want to be happy.

The point is to think. To ask questions. To intend change, to do better. To find alternatives, to say no more often.

It should never be about dogma. That way lies religion and unjustified ideology.

On Food Choices, part 4: cultural relevance?

January 30, 2019

The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated. (Mahatma Ghandi)

Source: The Australian, April 7, 2018

Even though the Australian Government is currently reducing the number of months per year that sheep will be exported, it’s hard to see how the live export of cattle or sheep can be defended on cultural, religious or other grounds.

In this ABC News article, the RSPCA is quoted as saying:

The RSPCA has long maintained that livestock should be slaughtered as close as possible to the point of production to avoid or minimise the inherent risks associated with their transport.

The trade in live farm animals from Australia, which requires transporting millions of animals over thousands of kilometres on arduous journeys which can last several weeks, could not be further from this principle.

As that article also points out there are other reasons for live export such as refrigeration issues, affordability, a desire to build breeding stock in the destination country.

Of course, those reasons would be less compelling, even irrelevant, if a plant-based diet was predominant.

The ethical aspects from part 1 are:

  1. The desires and health of a human individual.
  2. The food producer’s livelihood.
  3. The impact upon the environment.
  4. The welfare of animals.

Obviously export is driven by demand and the supply relates to the second aspect, but I want to focus on the first and fourth which have particular relevance here.

Do the desires (culture, religion) of one or more humans outweigh the welfare of one non-human animal?

After writing that last sentence I recalled Spock’s words at the end of The Wrath of Khan:

The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one.

As an aside, in that context, he was taking a consequentialist ethical stance to sacrifice his own life to save the lives of his shipmates, while oddly, at the same time making it sound like a Kantian maxim that could be applied independent of context.

The sentence structures are similar:

The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one.

The desires of humans outweigh the welfare of an animal.

But that’s where mere syntax is insufficient and semantics matters.

In Spock’s utterance, the word needs is applied both to the many and to the few or the one, while in the second sentence desires is applied to humans but welfare is applied to an animal.

Welfare implies needs.

So, the second sentence becomes:

The desires of humans outweigh the needs of an animal.

Hmm. Desires vs needs…

The needs of an animal — human or non-human — include being able to:

  • eat and drink
  • sleep
  • avoid pain
  • live

The desires of humans in the context of live export are to:

  • do something because an ancient text says they should, e.g. eat one animal but not another or slaughter an animal in a particular way after transport (e.g. kosher, halal)

It seems reasonable to suggest that needs trump desires here.

In part 1 I said this:

But the thing is, I like the taste of beef, bacon, ham, fish, turkey, chicken, cheese, milk, and other foods I’ve spent half a century eating.

Beef was my favourite meat. Lamb chops were frequently seen on the dinner plate when we were growing up but less frequently in my adult life. I preferred beef but lamb was fine too.

I have liked these things, but I don’t need them. It seems I never really did.

Part 5: surplus to requirements #1

On Food Choices, part 3: the elephant in the room

January 26, 2019

I am not apt to follow blindly the lead of other men. (Charles Darwin)

What you know you can’t explain, but you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad. (Morpheus, The Matrix)

The lesson of Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot is that the Copernican Revolution is still underway.

It took a long time for me to accept the idea that we’re not at the centre of the universe, that there is no compelling evidence for gods of any sort, of a higher plan, of an afterlife.

Many believe that one or more gods have an unhealthy interest in what we do and with whom.

Some believe that we are special among all the species of the Earth, that we are inexorably destined for greatness, that we alone are worthy of salvation, that we have dominion over all creatures.

But as a species we exhibit both the heights of greatness and the depths of depravity.

The idea that we have a higher moral status, a greater right to be happy, to be free, than other animals is widespread, even though most of us would never articulate it in that way.

This belief is called speciesism.

We might be more intelligent than some of our mammalian cousins, but any claim to be emotionally “superior” to them is on very shaky ground, as is the notion that they have less capacity for pain.

Do we consider the life of an intellectually disabled human less important than a person of “normal” intelligence? If not, then why would it be reasonable for non-human animals?

Even on the most optimistic view of those animals not deliberately exploited (pets), a different standard is applied to them vs us when it comes to choice, e.g. euthanasia (“putting it to sleep”) or reproduction (“neutering”).

The Matrix quote is not accidental. We have constructed our human world. We didn’t discover it fully formed. Societies, industries, economies, religions, ideologies: they are all man-made.

A casual conversation with work colleagues in 2015 planted a seed. In the course of conversation, a documentary called Earthlings was mentioned.

I remembered this now and then but it wasn’t near the top of my priority list. Among other things, hearing about the Yulin meat festival in China raised its priority.

I thought I was aware of factory farming practices, but watching Earthlings suggested otherwise. Dominion, the “Australian Earthlings“, was released in 2018. That brought it even closer to home.

Other documentaries — of varying emphasis and quality — include Speciesism, Cowspiracy, The Ghosts in our Machine, Sustainability, Lucent, What the Health?, Live and Let LiveRotten, and Forks over Knives. Each add to the story in their own way, as do more matter-of-fact sources, such as RSPCA.

Sometimes, you need to see something in a new or different way to discover what you already knew or glimpsed for a moment before forgetting, reminiscent of The Silence of Doctor Who.

The real adventure lies not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes. (Proust)

We have convinced ourselves that it’s okay to call some animals friends and others food or fur.

Once I began to accept that our relationship with animals was broken, it took only a short time to take seriously the idea that this needed to change, that they are not a means to our ends.

In contrast to my transition to atheism, this shift has happened over months instead of years.

That has the tendency to be disruptive to those around you.

In retrospect, I should have been openly talking with people close to me about this sooner, but there was a lot to process and I needed to sort things out first.

That’s largely what these posts are about.

In the end I’ve just been confusing and annoying to be around lately.

More than usual anyway.

I remember thinking that I didn’t know whether I would be able to adapt to life without animal products. I had already switched to soy milk. One day I decided to try a few weeks of lunches at work with no meat. I didn’t miss it. Eventually I started omitting other animal products and replacing them with plant-based ingredients (see part 2).

It’s still a work in progress.

My basic position now is simple:

Perpetuating a demand for food from large scale animal farming is ethically questionable.

This is for two main reasons, one of which was considered in part 1.

First, large scale animal farming is environmentally unsustainable in terms of land and water use and the resulting waste and emissions (carbon dioxide and methane). This will only get worse as the human population continues its exponential growth.

Second, raising livestock for food involves billions of sentient animals worldwide per year being born into servitude and living lives that are nasty, brutish, and short, to borrow from Leviathan (Hobbes).

Part 2 pointed to a third reason: it may actually be healthier for us (so, more ethical) not to depend so much on animal-based food.

I was on a school camp on a farm in the mid-1970s and a sheep was slaughtered in front of us. Imagine that happening now! There was a request for a volunteer to help pull out the small intestine to show the class how long it was, presumably because “kids like gross stuff” I guess and it was educational in some sense. Naturally, I put up my hand for this and was the “lucky winner”. I don’t remember whether anyone fainted.

As a 15 year old (my daughter’s age) I was a volunteer St John Ambulance cadet and had the opportunity to train for and become a so-called “third man” on ambulances in the late 1970s. I saw my share of motor vehicle accidents and death then and that continued into young adulthood when I trained as a nurse.

So I have a fairly strong stomach.

Yet, as an adult, I couldn’t watch Earthlings or Dominion without a break.

One reasonable objection to all of this is that in nature, animals kill other animals, so why shouldn’t we? Just think of a David Attenborough documentary. In nature lions kill antelope, buffaloes, zebras, young elephants, rhinos, hippos, wild pigs, giraffes, even sometimes apparently mice, birds, hares, lizards, crocodiles and tortoises.

The argument from nature is understandable, but it ignores the fact that as a species, homo sapiens is defined by how it defies nature.

Very little that we do is natural, except for the mandate of bodily functions.

As noted earlier, we have constructed our world. We are tool builders, we wear clothes, live in houses, build machines that “defy” gravity, farm crops and animals on a large scale, pollute the environment, fight wars etc.

Do lions factory farm animals by the thousands at a time?

Do they, or the scavengers that come after, waste much of their prey?

It’s less about the killing of animals per se than the treatment and killing of animals en masse and at a distance.

There is a difference between hunting when trying to survive and purchasing animal products from a supermarket. In the latter case, the unpleasant part is someone else’s job, and the scale is massive.

In The Ethics of What we Eat, Peter Singer and Jim Mason quote Andrew Tyler of Animal Aid:

Ultimately, my objection is to the commercial forces that are seeking to persuade people of the poor world that their best nutritional interests are served by buying into modern, high-throughput farmed animal production processes. With that comes an addiction to high capital input systems, loss of control over the means of production, bad health, and a nightmare animal welfare scenario.

We may not be poor, but this is exactly the situation we find ourselves in.

This was a hard post to write — with a lot of revisions — and probably a bit ponderous to read. It could also be considered overly philosophical and abstract in parts, but it seemed to me to be necessary before returning to more specific topics in future.

Part 4: cultural relevance?