Archive for the ‘Atheism’ Category

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 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?

On Food Choices, part 2: but is it healthy?

January 20, 2019
Once you are open to questioning rituals and time-honoured practices, you find that one question leads to another. (Carl Sagan)
Let food be thy medicine. (Hippocrates)

The central concern about a plant-based diet is this: is it healthy?

It’s a very reasonable question. Committing to any kind of dietary strategy without some understanding of it is to run a potentially dangerous experiment.

We all need to make decisions based upon evidence not dogma or wishful thinking, sometimes easier said than done since we’re creatures of emotion not pure reason.

I’ve been learning a lot lately. What I found is mostly good news but there are things to be aware of and I don’t want to sweep anything under the carpet.

I’m not a climate scientist, but I understand the fundamental science and accept the idea of evidence-based consensus.

I’m not a nutrition scientist or dietician either, but I can inform myself by reading, critical thinking and conversation.

When I refer to publications, I am reporting what I have found. Everything else is my opinion, hopefully well-informed opinion based upon evidence and reason.

I read fairly widely for what follows but the main references are:

  • the 2013 Australian Dietary Guidelines of the National Health & Medical Research Council (NH&MRC)
  • a supplement to Issue 1999 volume 4 of the Medical Journal of Australia (MJA), and
  • a book by Peter Singer and Jim Mason titled “The Ethics of What we Eat”. Singer is a well known Australian philosopher.

The 2013 Australian Dietary Guidelines from the NH&MRC says this:

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 strict vegetarian or vegan diet can meet nutrient requirements as long as energy needs are met and an appropriate variety of plant foods are eaten throughout the day.

It continues (my italics):

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.

Volume 199, Issue 4 supplement of the Medical Journal of Australia (October 9 2013) contains numerous articles about plant-based diets including this one: A plant-based diet — good for us and for the planet.

This issue of MJA also has articles dealing specifically with protein, vitamin B12, iron, zinc and omega-3 from plant-based sources including cereals, legumes, nuts, seeds, oils, and from foods fortified with some of these nutrients.

The MJA article Protein and vegetarian diets (my italics) has this to say:

If a vegetarian diet is planned to meet the requirements for essential micronutrients, including iron, zinc, calcium and vitamin B12, it is likely that protein needs will be exceeded. Most plant foods contain some protein, with the best sources being legumes, soy foods (including soy milk, soy yoghurt, tofu and tempeh), Quorn (mycoprotein), nuts and seeds. Grains and vegetables also contain protein, but in smaller amounts.

In relation to protein, Singer & Mason, in their book The Ethics of What we Eat (p 205, 206) comment that:

The first question most people ask vegans and vegetarians is “Where do you get your protein?” The prevalence of that question is a hangover from an earlier period, starting in the 1930s, when nutritionists believed we needed a high level of protein in our diet, and that a protein-deficient diet was a major cause of malnutrition.

The idea that we need high levels of protein was disproven in the 1970s, and health authorities reduced recommended protein levels to about a third of what had been thought to be required.

I didn’t know about that history before reading this book. A comment that I found a bit surprising is that with the reduced recommended protein intake from the 1970s “…even a diet consisting exclusively of bread, pasta, rice or potatoes will provide adequate protein.” (Singer & Mason, p 206).

Then again, rice underpins the diet of many people around the world. And apparently, contrary to the old saying, man can live by bread (or potatoes) alone. Of course, this says nothing about the other essential nutrients which must be taken into account, only protein, and I think it’s fair to say that there are malnourished people around the world who live on a diet that lacks variety.

The MJA article also has this to say:

While the lower protein intake and quality of protein in a vegetarian diet is often believed to be a concern, there is increasing evidence that consuming protein from plant rather than animal sources may, in fact, be one of the reasons why vegetarians generally have a lower risk of…obesity and chronic disease. In comparison to protein foods of animal origin, most plant protein sources are lower in saturated fat, free of cholesterol and haem iron, higher in fibre, and are good sources of antioxidants and phytochemicals, all of which may contribute to a reduced disease risk.

The MJA article goes on to say that a number of studies show that higher protein intake — animal protein in particular — in childhood may increase the risk of obesity later. It also has a useful table (Box 2) of recommended daily protein intake for different ages and genders.

One morning while taking a break from writing a draft of this post, I ate a nut bar containing 8g of protein. Added to the 3 serves of soy milk I typically have per day, that gives half of the required dietary intake of protein without much effort. A mix of fruits, vegetables, lentils/beans/chickpeas, meat substitutes if desired such as veggie sausages or burgers — there’s around 19g in 2 veggie sausages vs around 25g in a 100g beef steak — will help with the rest.

The MJA article concludes (my italics) with:

Vegetarians who eat a range of plant foods can easily meet their protein requirements, even though the protein content of vegetarian diets is usually lower than that of omnivorous diets. Most Australians eat significantly more protein than is required. The consumption of plant protein rather than animal protein may play a role in weight management and reducing chronic disease risk.

Moving on, Singer & Mason continue with this:

After protein, the nutrient that concerns most people when going on a vegetarian or vegan diet is iron. Many plant foods are rich in iron, including soybeans, molasses, pumpkin seeds, dried apricots, pinto beans, spinach, and raisins. Iron from plant foods may not, however, be as easily absorbed as iron in meat.

Taking vitamin C with iron rich foods makes the iron more available.

Vitamin C is not hard to come by in various fruits (e.g. oranges, strawberries) and juices. Singer & Mason also point out that coffee, tea, and calcium supplements inhibit the absorption of iron. So drinking coffee or tea with a meal makes it harder to absorb iron.

Vitamin B12 requires serious consideration since it is not generally present in plant matter and is necessary for nerve myelin integrity and DNA synthesis. It is created by bacteria and present in animal products such as meat, eggs and dairy, foods fortified with B12 like soy milk, some cereal, and dietary yeast.

Alternatively, a B12 supplement can be taken. Some people, such as those with low intrinsic factor (e.g. in my age group of over 50) or those with pernicious anaemia may need a supplement anyway due to a reduced ability to absorb B12. Some even choose to have B12 injections where there is a known deficiency or a high risk of deficiency.

Indeed, if there is concern about a possible deficiency of any of the important nutrients, a supplement (e.g. multi-vitamin or specific) can be used. On one occasion several years ago when donating blood I was told to take iron supplements before I could donate again. At that time I ate plenty of animal products.

There’s a lot written on the topic of vitamin B12, but the important thing is to be aware of the potential for deficiency, to think about whether you are consuming enough, and to get levels tested if concerned. What every vegan should know about B12 is an honest appraisal and there is also a good MJA article about B12.

The MJA articles don’t have a separate article about calcium but the 2013 NH&MRC guidelines point to fortified foods as sources, again, such as soy milk.

The MJA article about zinc makes a number of points, including:

  • Vegetarians appear to adapt to lower zinc intakes by increased absorption and retention of zinc.
  • Good sources of zinc for vegetarians include whole grains, tofu, tempeh, legumes, nuts and seeds, fortified breakfast cereals and dairy products.

  • Studies show vegetarians have similar serum zinc concentrations to, and no greater risk of zinc deficiency than, non-vegetarians (despite differences in zinc intake).

Sometimes it’s hard to see the forest for the trees. We are used to seeing a food pyramid. The 2013 NH&MRC guidelines present the same thing in a slightly different form:

The main message is:

  • mostly grains and vegetables
  • meat/poultry/fish/eggs or tofu/nuts/seeds/legumes
  • fruit
  • dairy or alternatives

The “in small amounts” parts of the figure are not very surprising either.

In 2006, The American Dietetic Association said that:

Well-planned vegan and other types of vegetarian diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle including during pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood and adolescence. (Singer & Mason, The Ethics of What we Eat, p 202).

They add that vegetarians have lower rates of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and prostate and colon cancer.

Near the end of their chapter Is it unethical to raise children vegan?, Singer & Mason mention this:

Meanwhile, further evidence of the ability of a vegan diet to provide all the energy and stamina anyone needs was provided by Scott Jurek’s victory in the 2005 Badwater Ultramarathon, one of the toughest events in ultra-long-distance running, Jurek, a vegan, shattered by more than 30 minutes a course record that some thought unbreakable, finishing a full 2 hours ahead of his nearest rival… Along the way, he ate vegan energy bars, potatoes, rice balls and soy protein drinks. Jurek has plenty of predecessors, among them Carl Lewis, who won nine Olympic track and field gold medals between 1984 and 1996. Lewis became a vegan in 1990 and has written that ‘my best year of track competition was the first year I ate a vegan diet.’

This post has only scratched the surface of the question in the title. I obviously don’t have all the answers, but hopefully, this is a start towards allaying some concerns and I’ve tried to be honest about potential problems.

A plant-based diet — good for us and for the planet ends with this (my italics):

Not everyone needs to or wants to become vegetarian, but reducing our dependence on meat is a good recipe for our own health and also that of our planet. Diets dominated by plant foods are almost certainly the way of the future.

So, the decisions we make about what to eat depend, in part, upon the needs of people (personal preference, health, a fair price) and sustainability, the topics parts 1 and 2 were most focussed on.

The next post picks up where the first left off by considering the elephant in the room, so to speak.

Part 3: the elephant in the room

Two Archbishops and a Law

July 10, 2018

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Source: ABC News

Soon after the inadequate sentencing of Archbishop Wilson to 12 months of home detention (and even this he will appeal!), his successor, the Acting Archbishop of Adelaide Greg O’Kelly says that the new laws coming into effect in October requiring priests to report admissions of child sexual abuse heard during confession won’t affect the church.

Politicians can change the law, but we can’t change the nature of the confessional, which is a sacred encounter between a penitent and someone seeking forgiveness and a priest representing Christ.

That does not change by the law of politicians.

Wow.

The same old we’re in the world but not of the world mantra.

South Australian Catholics must be doing a collective facepalm at the moment. Or at least they should be.

As this ABC News article comments:

Under the Catholic Church, to gain absolution — and therefore to then be able to take holy communion again and avoid eternal damnation — a person needs to be contrite about their sins and do penance.

In the 21st century, that should give anyone pause and is a good example of why people need to be respected but beliefs don’t.

Strictly speaking, I think the foregoing only applies to so-called mortal sins. But then again, since homosexuality is counted as a mortal sin, there’s a whole segment of society that is apparently damned by nothing other than their natural state of being.

Then there’s abortion. Obviously women shouldn’t have control over their own bodies and severely deformed babies should always be brought into the world just because the Catholic church says so.

Duh.

Then there’s apostasy. That’s right. We hear about apostates having their lives threatened in some Muslim majority rule countries. But in Catholicism, it’s apparently also a grave matter to give up one’s the Christian faith. I suppose that’s not surprising since not being a Catholic means, well, not being a Catholic. Which is apparently bad…

In any case, that many of us still give such ideas the time of day is a solid indication of our lack of maturity as a species.

Religious groups demand tolerance and freedom while at the same time themselves being forces for intolerance and placing restrictions on freedom.

And yet, as Paul Collins, a former Catholic priest said in a recent ABC interview:

What’s happened within Catholicism really over the last 40 years has been a complete collapse of people going anywhere near a confessional.

Most Catholics including myself haven’t been near a confessional for 30 years or even longer.

A casual conversation with a friend who has Catholic relatives of various ages suggests this may not be an unreasonable statement.

Apparently, modern Catholic Mass allows a person to admit their sinful nature and gain absolution by the priest, asking God to have mercy on them and to forgive their sins.

So, if this is the case, wouldn’t it be nice if O’Kelly just said, yes, we’ll go along with it, especially in light of dwindling confessor numbers, instead of insulting the rest of us by ignoring the law of the land, especially since as O’Kelly himself says, priests have mandatory reporting training and responsibilities anyway?

Here’s how silly it gets, in O’Kelly’s own words:

Anything said inside the confessional box is subject to the seal of confession, but if a child mentioned he or she had been abused while there “it’s the sort of the thing where you’d invite them to speak to you outside of confession”.

In other words, what is said inside the magic box, stays inside the magic box, but if a mortal sin is spoken about outside the magic box, then the priest can report it?

We’re meant to take this seriously?

Maybe it’s best to just allow senior Catholic clerics to continue to talk themselves into the total irrelevance to which they and their Church should be relegated.

On the incoherence of the Good and Bad Place

April 9, 2018

The Good Place uses comedy to explore the absurdities of the afterlife. More than that, the show does a great job of making moral philosophy accessible.

The show’s plot assumes salvation by works, i.e. that to get to Heaven, you have to be a good person. Christian denominations differ over whether salvation by works or salvation by faith (atonement through the sacrifice of Jesus) or some combination is required to get you to Heaven or, if you’re a Jehovah’s Witness, resurrected at some future time.

An early church founder, Tertullian, looked forward to being in Heaven so he could witness the eternal torture of the wicked in Hell.

Takes all kinds I guess…

While listening to an episode of The Thinking Atheist podcast, I heard a short, simple argument, or perhaps a parable – to borrow a biblical word – that casts doubt upon the coherence of Heaven and Hell. I’ll paraphrase and extend it here.

Ruth’s daughter, Mary, believes in salvation by faith and the reality of Heaven and Hell. She’s not certain what Hell is, but she knows it means eternal separation from God.

Mary is sad that Ruth, who Mary believes isn’t saved, won’t be with her in Heaven, that she will be separated from her mother for all eternity.

And yet…

When Mary is in Heaven, blissfully worshipping God forever, won’t she feel sad about being eternally separated from Ruth?

If so, won’t that negatively affect the quality of Mary’s eternal stay in Heaven?

No problem, you say!

God can make Mary feel better. God can do anything! He is omnipotent after all. He can make her forget about how she feels. He can make her forget about Ruth, about what she meant to Mary.

Or perhaps that’s a step too far…

Maybe God won’t remove the memory, just change the way Mary thinks and feels about her history with Ruth.

But then…

Who will Mary become?

Like someone who takes a drug to forget…

Or like a person with memory loss or personality change…

Either way, surely, Ruth would become someone other than who she used to be in some important sense.

Is this a water-tight argument against the existence of the Good and Bad places? Of course not. The non-existence of a thing is generally difficult to demonstrate. But it does chip away at the coherence of such ideas and should serve to further diminish their insane hold over us.

Why do I care about this argument? Because I know people in a Mary-Ruth scenario, and because this is just another example of how religion poisons everything, as the sub-title of Christopher Hitchens’ book God is NOT Great, says.

Aren’t there enough interesting and complex phenomena to devote our attention to without inventing complexities? Without creating gods, principalities, eternal abodes or false dichotomies (heaven or hell, saved or damned, …)?

If the Universe itself was capable of having a perspective, our lives would resemble a one-shot pulse from a 555 timer, a non-repeating SETI Wow! signal, a single QRS complex on an ECG from a dying heart, each briefly punctuating a baseline of nothingness.

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And yet…

Up close and personal, it’s different, because we are meaning creators.

It’s what you do within that brief pulse that matters, to you, your fellow meaning creators, and the other beings impacted by your actions.

The plain truth is that we have a good understanding of what happens to living things when they die, homo sapiens or any other species, admittedly less so about the subjective experience of the hypoxic sapiens mind near death.

Every organism that has ever lived, or ever will, was not alive for 13.8 billion years, after the beginning of the Universe.

When the life of an organism comes to an end, it will once again not be alive for an even unimaginably longer time into the future.

What makes these two not alive events asymmetric is that mammals like us have memories of individuals who once were and an anticipation of the end, the falling edge of the pulse, the precipice.

It’s in the nature of mammals like us to remember, to worry, to grieve, to fail spectacularly to live our lives primarily in the present.

It’s from this that our musings about possible afterlives derive, for any version of which, no compelling evidence exists.

All of which underscores the importance, even the urgency, of living as if today actually mattered, not for some imagined future, and of the need to be kinder to earthlings of all persuasions and species.

 

What counts as good belief?

January 29, 2018

We watched Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus over the Christmas break. I’d never seen much of it and Karen’s interest in watching it again after a long hiatus encouraged me to sit down and watch it with her. Thanks Karen, it was well worth watching.

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source: goo.gl/Xi5CDj

The true story and the TV adaptation we saw are both positive, moving tales. Eight year old Virginia’s friends tell her there is no Santa Claus so she writes a letter to the editor of The New York Sun asking for advice, since as her father tells her: “if you see it in the The Sun, it’s so”.

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source: goo.gl/Xi5CDj

The author of the editorial: Francis Church, an atheist and cynic, having seen his share of suffering, writes an enduring letter that has inspired many since the editorial was first published in 1897. Here’s an excerpt (italics are mine):

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence.

There is something beautiful in encouraging kids to imagine.

I admit to some internal conflict when our kids were young regarding what to tell them about Santa, the Easter bunny, the Tooth Fairy and so on. In the end we encouraged such beliefs for as long as the kids were willing to imagine playfully with us.

Interestingly, Virginia’s 1930 PhD thesis was entitled The Importance of Play.

Although as an atheist I generally prefer not to pretend to know things I don’t know, the kind of belief in Santa that was the subject of Virginia O’Hanlon’s letter and the The Sun editorial, is, I think, perfectly okay.

Even in recent times I’ve heard the same sort of “there is no Santa” comment that prompted Virginia’s letter to The Sun, expressed between young children, encouraged by adults, who at the same time profess belief in God.

That brings me to the question in this post’s title: what counts as good belief?

What’s the difference between these two statements?

  • I believe in Santa Claus
  • I believe in God

Other than that the first refers to a particular individual while the second to any one of a number of possible gods, their form is identical. We can remedy this remaining difference by reframing the second statement as:

  • I believe in Jesus (or Yaweh or Jeohvah or …)

Too often, the second form is accompanied by exclusive statements, such as:

Hmm…and here I was thinking that the reason for the season was axial tilt. Not to mention Saturnalia.

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sourcegoo.gl/1nFcUZ

The worst that can happen, in the child’s mind, for not believing in Santa or for being on the naughty list, is that they will receive no presents. True, there have been other harsher myths associated with Christmas, but I’m thinking broadly about the contemporary situation in the western world.

The worst that can happen, in the believer’s mind, for non-belief in God or being wicked (i.e. not accepting either salvation by faith or works) is eternal separation from God and loved ones or eternal torment in Hell.

So, again, what counts as good belief?

In my view, it’s the kind that doesn’t hold you ransom, that encourages you to imagine things not yet imagined while not making threats or requiring you to be dogmatic or to abandon critical thinking. In short, one that allows you to be creative but still allows you to think for yourself.

Take the risk of thinking for yourself. Much more happiness, truth, beauty, and wisdom will come to you that way. Christopher Hitchens

A key difference between encouraging a child to believe in a powerful being who can deliver presents to every house in a single night and childhood indoctrination into belief in a personal god, and the associated demands, is the exclusivity of the second. That and the lack of fun.

Here’s another excerpt (again, my italics):

Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

I have some sympathy with Church’s view that:

They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see.

and especially:

In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him.

We have to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater of course. As George Santayana says:

Scepticism is the chastity of the intellect, and it is shameful to surrender it too soon or to the first comer: there is nobility in preserving it coolly and proudly through long youth, until at last, in the ripeness of instinct and discretion, it can be safely exchanged for fidelity and happiness.

There is so much we don’t yet understand and we should approach the gulf between what we do and don’t know with humility. The universe as revealed through evidence by Science so far is stranger than anything we could have imagined:

  • We live in a universe in which everything we can see and touch makes up only a few percent of everything that is, the rest apparently being dark matter or dark energy.
  • On the smallest scales there exists a seething ocean of particle-antiparticle pairs coming into and out of existence.
  • If we travel fast enough, time will slow down and our mass will increase.

Alice’s world seems almost normal by comparison.

Science doesn’t claim to have the answer to all questions, yet the Scientific Method is the most successful and powerful form of knowledge acquisition we know. If new evidence comes to light to change our model of the world, then it will change after the dust has settled. That’s an important departure from dogmatic thinking, and skepticism is an important part of the Scientific Method.

There’s room for a child-like view of the world that encourages imagination and optimism, as well as an honest view of the world that requires careful thought and evidence regarding important questions, especially those with life-changing potential.

Kids will ask questions about early beliefs when they’re ready and that’s okay. Adults should encourage the fun aspects of early belief with a twinkle in their eye while accepting that questions will come.

It’s often been said that children are natural born scientists until society discourages them from asking honest, simple questions. I’d like to think that Francis Church the cynic and Virginia the child seeker-of-answers and adult teacher might have agreed.

In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted. Bertrand Russell

Mr & Mrs JW: I have some questions…

October 3, 2017

In recent months, I’ve noticed more of you in pairs with portable pamphlet displays, congregating mostly around public transport interchanges, train stations, busy street corners, and near the occasional university in Adelaide.

Are we special or is the picture more or less the same elsewhere?

Is the Apocalypse impending? Wasn’t it supposed to happen in the mid-70s? Where’s the evidence that it will ever happen? Please don’t say “it’s in the Bible”. That doesn’t count as evidence. Telling me to “have faith” doesn’t help either. I prefer not to pretend to know things I don’t know, especially for no apparent reason and certainly not about things that could profoundly affect my life, in spite of Pascal’s Wager.

Why do you think it’s reasonable that Joseph Rutherford in the early 1930s declared that only 144,000 would make it to heaven once the total number of JWs exceeded that number?

Isn’t that just a little bit convenient?

Do you think you’re one of those 144,000?

If not, what makes you OK with the idea that millions of you will be resurrected bodily, zombie-like (from Jehovah’s Witness to Jehovah’s Zombie) to live in “paradise” (no, not Paradise, the Adelaide suburb, although there is a major bus interchange there) built upon the 7 billion human corpses of the Apocalypse, assuming the rest of us haven’t become followers by then?

But that’s your mission now, isn’t it? To get yourself and the rest of us through the Apocalypse and into this paradise on earth depicted by the Watch Tower publications you hand out.

Isn’t that at least a little bit creepy?

What will happen in Paradise? What will the newly resurrected bodies be sustained by?

Will we get to worship your genocidal god for eternity? If so, we’ll need to be sustained for eternity so we’ll need food for eternity.

Will dead animals be bodily resurrected too just so they can be consumed again in an infinite cycle? Or will animals be outside of the Apocalypse loop yet still be consumed?

I hope we find strong evidence for life on other worlds. Not because we will be able to communicate within reasonable timeframes, but so that the Copernican revolution continues on its logical trajectory toward deposing us from our delusion of central importance in the universe. We can be important to one another and create meaning in our lives without being favoured by gods. Watch Pale Blue Dot! It always comes back to that.

How is it that you don’t see that in the marketplace of religions, yours is just as manufactured as the rest?

We create gods in our own image not the other way around!

What evidence do you have that around 1915, your religion was “selected” by Jesus to be the one true religion? Has no-one else declared such a status for their religion?

And don’t get me started on shunning, your theological allergy to blood transfusions, or allegations of child sexual abuse in your chosen church? It’s not just the Catholics and Anglicans anymore who are under the spotlight.

I’ve engaged in civil conversation with JWs when they’ve knocked on our door, especially when a child has been in attendance, so they at least hear a different viewpoint. But door knocks are infrequent and I feel the need to engage in street epistemology with JWs (or Mormons or …) where I find them.

I don’t particularly enjoy debate or conflict, but I like dogmatic thinking less.

I wrote this post after hearing a compelling interview with Lloyd Evans, an ex Jehovah’s Witness, on The Thinking Atheist podcast.

Questionable church websites: prayer by email?

September 17, 2017

I passed by a school and associated church-next-door while out walking in an Adelaide suburb yesterday. They had a web address on their signage so I navigated there in my phone’s browser to get an idea of their theology. Not too fundamentalist. Probably not too different from the sort of liberal theology I grew up with. Probably a nice bunch of people and a caring community.

But I did a double-take when I saw this:

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Intrigued, I clicked “Request Prayer”.

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they asked. Hmm. So, I felt compelled to reply:

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Seriously, I know that (the Christian) God is supposed to forgive all sins, but a missing personal pronoun and an unnecessary capitalisation? Blasphemy!

Anyway, I’ve at least made the suggestion that direct email communication with the almighty might be a Good Thing. We’ll see what comes of it. Not much I suspect.

The church in question has my email address (what the heck, so does the rest of the Internet it seems).

However, after clicking Submit, I did get this response page:

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Naturally, I have a question… You know what’s coming, don’t you?

My question is this: who has my submission been received by, exactly? 🙂

As you might imagine, I have not received an email response yet (from a god or a parishioner concerned for my soul) and I suspect I won’t. After all, it was not actually a prayer request, more like web site feedback, if a little cheeky. It should be taken as gentle satire of course, something to reflect upon.

There is a serious point to be made here though. If gods really wanted to communicate with us, they could choose to do so clearly and distinctly. Sagan (as always) captures the essence of this for me:

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. 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 (source)