Thursday, 30 August 2012

Some Thoughts On Disability

Disclaimer - This post is NOT a comment on the Paralympics. I want to make this clear at the get go. These thoughts, whilst inspired by events now underway, should be viewed as part of a wider social dialogue.

Long before the Paralympics athletes took up their sport of choice they were winners. They had overcome adversity, and often stigma, and who knows what else. I say this as someone who isn't the slightest bit interested in the Paralympic games, but I confess that it has got me thinking about how I, and perhaps we, think of disability. 
Here's an unfortunate truth. Not all disabled people are nice human beings. Some, like able bodied folk, can be abject examples of humanity. I do not say this to court controversy, but to state simply that people in all positions have the capacity to underwhelm us. Good for them, I say. I'm glad we're on the same  wavelength. Yet what am I getting at here? Well I sometimes wonder if we over state the differences between able bodied and disabled persons, and when we do this we risk falling victim to a tacit kind of segregation mentality.
I'd much rather we all just came in under the same flag; namely human beings with skills and foibles and quirks and all the rest. I wonder whether in our effort to acknowledge the difference we do disabled people a great disservice? There is us, and there is them. There is, if you like, a very clear difference. Well yes, but also no. It is clearly a brute fact that disabled persons do have additional obstacles to overcome, and the majority do so quite spectacularly. But, and this is what I'm driving at here, they are still just another aspect of humanity, part of the greater milieu of the great human condition. As such, I think we need to take care not to adopt attitudes, however well meaning, that somehow overplay the differences. Inside some broken bodies are great minds, and powering some broken minds are some great bodies.
What I'm trying to say is that the differences, however visually obvious, aren't quite as distinct as we may think.

Monday, 27 August 2012

Before My Final Bow

I think an awful lot about living, but not as much about dying. Yet we're all proceeding towards our own horizon, that vanishing point where perhaps our greatest questions will be answered.
That's not by any means a concession, by the way. I'm not convinced that we journey beyond death, yet I'll grant that many think otherwise. For me, when my thoughts do turn toward the last horizon it isn't long before a whole things-to-do list piles up before me ahead of this absolute rendezvous.
There's so much I want to see. The giant redwoods, the Angel falls, the snow capped Rockies amidst the glare of a cloud free sky. Will I ever get to do these things? Will life conspire in some nefarious way to deny me?
Actually, it will probably be something as banal as financial limitations that prevent these dreams from transitioning to reality. Life's mundane requirements have this unpleasant habit of standing just where you'd prefer them not to. Still, I won't readily forget that my life is already a rich tapestry of chaos, and I don't want for material comfort or family love. Yet all the same, let's be honest here; we'd all rather have a little more?
I expect I shall continue to grapple with life's big questions, just as I'll fight my own internal struggles to balance my selfish expectations with the reality of life around me. One things for sure; I won't settle into some mundane semi existence whilst I have the strength to contest such a dire outcome. Nor will I submit myself to fakery when it comes to my personal interactions with others. I'll let relationships form naturally, declining to work either too hard or too little at them. Both extremes present a nasty little trap which actually erodes the respect that people will have for you anyhow, and I'd rather be disliked for authentic reasons than appreciated for false one's. It's also impossible to have any relationships of meaning without incurring some sacrificial cost, regardless of how rich they are. My children, whom I love, take a lot of time to raise, and I'm not at liberty to cheat on my wife for reasons of moral consistency, however tempting this cherry often seems to many men in long term relationships. I do hope the last comment hasn't caused too many jaws to drop; I'm just honest enough to confess that my mind sometimes goes where my body cannot decently follow. Call that immoral if you want; I'll stick with transparent.
So life continues, the days pass, a mix of freedom and responsibility, a balance of weighing the needs of others with my inner desire to have my cake and everyone else's, too. And always, in the distance there's the knowledge that one day the party ends, that life won't go on and that I will be but a memory lost amidst eternity. Perhaps as I age I will extend such a terminus a bit more thinking time, but today I'll afford it no more than I passing nod. I know you're out there; I know you're approaching like a weather front gathering strength somewhere out in the Atlantic. Don't expect me to welcome you, or offer you a warm welcome. I've a lot of things I'd like to do first.

Friday, 24 August 2012

A World Through Better Eyes

I've just read a fantastic article by one of my favourite feminist bloggers, Greta Christina. In it she argues how confrontation can open doors. I generally agree with this sentiment, and as long as you're the kind of person who doesn't crave popularity I see how it can work. Because make no mistake, the moment you start to rattle cages you find out a whole lot about the occupants. Some people have dug themselves in, and no matter what you say or how you say it nothing's going to change their mind. Then there's the group that take offence at even being confronted in the first place, the kind of person who just doesn't want the apple cart upset. Sadly, there's also a group that literally cannot cope with thinking outside their proverbial box; I'm talking tears and histrionics and the kind of drama best practiced at the Globe theatre. Happily, there does exist a merry old crowd that thrive on hearing alternative viewpoints, and these are the kind of company I really relish. It doesn't matter that I disagree with them or them with me; it's the romp of having a good old discussion that expands the mind and fends off those dangerous biases that keeps people mentally locked up. 
I've always puzzled over why alternative ways of thinking are so bothersome for many people? I guess we just spend so much time aggregating ideas and patterns of thought that they become too entrenched, too heavily invested, too impervious to revision. 
Anyway, what about you? Yes, I mean you. You reading this, right now. How open are you to changing your mind, re-imagining old ideas, changing the way you think and perceive? You might think you're all just dandy, in which case try the following thought experiment. Go straight to your most entrenched perspective, that idea that you've carried with you since you first began forming a position about the world. How open are you to change? How tightly are you holding on to those cherished ideals? Can you ever envision yourself thinking another way? If not, I hope a little alarm bell has just gone off in your head. You've quietly confessed that you're not quite as open minded as you might want others to believe. Not quite as open as perhaps YOU might have wanted to believe. If this is the case then you've taken a small but very important step. You've acknowledged, whether you cared to or not just where the double standard sits. If it's any consolation we're all accomplished at self deceit, and you're not the first and won't be the last to come unstuck. In fact in a way take heart. You've taken a good step, an honest step towards seeing the world through better eyes.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

The Great Awakening

So why is organised faith in decline in the developed world? Why, in particular, are young people ignoring mainstream religion in such vast numbers?
I can think of a couple of reasons. The Internet is certainly not doing religion any favours. Where once it was hard to check facts and claims it now couldn't be simpler. We know, by way of example, that the Gospel authors are anonymous, and that we don't know when the Gospels were penned, or where. We also know we have no eyewitness accounts of the life of Jesus, and no original manuscripts to refer to. Just as we know that the manuscripts we do have changed over time to align with various socio political agendas. And those claims I've just made you can check; and if you've an ounce of personal investment in the matter then check you should.
Point is, it's never been easier to identify when people are pulling the wool, or being disingenuous, or creative with the truth. Combine this with a tech savvy younger generation and it's clear the wheels of organised religion will come off.
Which is precisely what's happening. Yet even I'm surprised at the speed. When I became an apostate several years ago it was at the beginning of what has become known as the enlightenment 2.0. I'm proud to be able to say that I was there at its birth and actively involved in its proliferation. I spent a lot of time on religious websites in dialogue with persons of faith, and it never ceased to startle me what they DIDN'T know about the faith they lived by. It was like boarding a raft and setting sail into a vast ocean of denial and cognitive dissonance, and to this day I get the distinct impression that many believers simply cannot cope with the possibility that what they have built their lives upon amounts to dust and ashes. In many ways this is very sad. There is so much wonder in this universe, and so many unanswered questions there remains room for awe and hope and transcendence. Our universe is vast and old and strange things happen all the time; it's just got nothing to do with mainstream religion.
A second reason for religions steep decline amongst our brave youth has much to do with the rejection of homophobic and patriarchal ideals. We know in the depths of our being that love transcends gender stereotypes, and that women are more than breeding machines and are of equal status. Its an exodus that I hope to see continue; and religion will respond in one of two ways. If its smart it will do what it often does when overwhelmed with new information; it will quietly capitulate and re-imagine itself in order to appeal to a wider audience. There's also the possibility that a deranged core will regress to ultra orthodox values and cast themselves wider from 21st century norms. In truth we'll see a mix of the two, with the former likely out punching the latter. Yet despite any efforts to reinvent itself, Christianity still has to step up and own up to the fact that many of its claims are simply either outright false, or too weakly supported by evidence to claim as absolutely true. I'd love to see a commitment to honest truth seeking amongst my Christian friends rather than further battening down of hatches that have long since given up the ghost. Christianity, to survive as a viable proposition, needs to start being honest about many of its fundamental claims. Which means that it has to start being honest with itself. Given its track record I'm not convinced that truth seeking is a key driver amongst many believers. I hope that this changes. I hope they can make the transition to not just nice people, but people of moral courage, able to face new information with fortitude and courage, rather than simply failing to engage.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Foreskin Folly

In some quarters, it is argued that male circumcision can reduce urinary tract infections and HIV transmission between adults. Whilst unproven, it could be argued that once a male reaches sexual maturity they should be given a choice as to whether they want to submit to the procedure. I have no problem with this whatsoever. Currently however, this invasive medical act is carried out on babies, some as young as eight days old, and almost always for reasons of religious observance. Surprise surprise; I have an enormous issue with this.
Parents; listen carefully to the following. You do not own your children. You are, at best lawful custodians until they reach adulthood. During this time you are of course required to make decisions on their part, but might I suggest that hacking a way at a child's foreskin isn't exactly a priority.
If you consider you have a God given right to subject your offspring to this in order to placate, please, or ingratiate the particular Deity you invoke, might i suggest you've overstepped your remit.  Parents, you are of course free to believe whatever nonsense you please, but I really must insist that your lack of sound judgement does not directly influence your children. As parents we have a massive responsibility to teach our kids an array of life skills, amongst which is the ability to disseminate good claims from bad claims. Any child of religious parents is already at a severe disadvantage here; they are bound to be raised in a religious culture and tradition simply for reasons of proximity to believing mothers and fathers. They are, in simple terms, going to hear a lot of unverified and unverifiable nonsense which is claimed as truth. This is bad enough. If, added to the tripe you want to flood your child's mind with, you also have designs on altering the structure of their body, then as far as I'm concerned you've strayed into the murky waters of physical abuse. I recognise that you may hold your beliefs intensely, and I expect the religion virus was transmitted to you from your equally credulous, albeit well meaning parents. This makes you a victim, too, for which I have some sympathy. But there's enough information out there now for you to know that you are talking tosh and living a fantasy. In short, your children do not need to be mentally infected in the way that you were. But I digress; the root of this blog is about physical abuse, and the abuse of children too young to have any say in what they are subjected to. If you love your kids, which I genuinely believe you do, and if you respect their rights as individuals, of which I'm not so sure, then please do not subject them to physical procedures which have no medical support simply because of your religious beliefs.
It is wrong. It could only ever be wrong. And there is no compelling argument otherwise.

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Shifting The Burden

I've just listened to a five minute interview with Peter Hitchens, Christopher Hitchens younger brother. He is by all accounts a formidable intellect and he has his legendary brothers voice. He defines himself as a Christian, and when pressed as to why he declared that nothing made sense without God.
Now this strikes me as odd. First off, and the most obvious objection I have is simply to wonder why the Universe needs to make sense? Does it owe us sense? It occurs to me that the Universe doesn't owe us this any more than it owes us happiness or wealth or good health. Peters comments seem something akin to grasping at straws. And frankly, what specifically makes greater sense when you posit a divine intellect lurking behind the curtain like some cosmic Wizard of Oz? Does suffering make any more sense? Do the great tribulations of this and other epochs take on a lesser meaning unless we see it as part of a divine plan?
Some plan. I mean, this planet is really something of a mess, a real children's bedroom. And the mess is mostly of our own making. I see neither the necessity nor value in projecting our hopes onto a being so vastly improbable that it is rendered near impossible. In fact I see very real dangers in doing so. Like any problem, to project it is not really to take ownership. How many people do you know cannot face up to their own mistakes, their own poor decision making? How many times have you heard them bemoan the rough hand they've been dealt. Well maybe so, but you're no further down the road when you fail to deal with your problems. When you blame the rest of the world you've failed to engage in your part of the malaise. It's a bit cowardly, a bit weak, an unimpressive response to everyday reality.
In many ways, God is the ultimate burden shift. You just refer the problem on, or pass them up, as I used to hear in church circles. Like the proverbial damsel in distress we expect the Almighty to come to the rescue upon his trusty steed, issuing bail out after bail out. And the trouble with bailouts, as the euro zone crisis demonstrates, is that when you're constantly being bailed out you're often only pushing the problem further down the line.
You might call that a solution. I call it an abdication. How could it be anything else?

Friday, 10 August 2012

Behind The Veil

I'm near certain that most of us spend our lives not being completely honest with each other. I know I'm guilty of this. I expect part of our self control is for good reason, wanting to save others from hurt or anguish. So we hold back, we reign it in, we make excuses and say to ourselves that deep down we are happy, and that we've got it all, or least more than most. I suspect we're all liars in this respect, and if we could flick a switch to change some aspects of our lives then we'd do it. I wonder, for example, how many people really love their partners as much as their partners think they do? I wonder how many men are being dishonest about their sex lives? I wonder how many of us, deep down, are truthful about what we'd like from our relationships, on every level.
I bet the percentage is low. Perhaps this is just the the best way for the world to be, bumping along with a moderate, surface level sobriety, whilst all the time beneath the surface  a darker mass curdles.
How many times today did you NOT tell someone to fuck off when you really wanted to? Was anybody reading this tempted to slap some moron across the face? How many of you wanted to open those verbal floodgates and really give someone what for?
What's he going on about, I hear you say? What's prompted this tirade?
Actually, it's just me shagging around with ideas, because I don't think that what we see is always what we get when it comes to our day to day lives. I'd be surprised if any of you don't fall prey to the above. But doesn't it sometimes all just seem like so much dishonesty to you? I mean the self control? The false deference? These endless calculations we make about what to say, how to say it? So much latent fear, so much falsehood. If I'm missing the mark here then do say so, because I'm just doing what I always do. Just throwing out wild ideas like hand grenades, encouraging you to draw back the veil and consider what lies beneath. I hate that I act out this dance just like everybody else, and I hate that I will probably repeat the pattern tomorrow. I mean it's probably a good job isn't it? If we all said exactly what we were thinking all of the time the world would be a very different place.
Better? Worse? Perhaps both.

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Sleeping With The Enemy?

Today I've enjoyed the company of hundreds of Christians as we celebrated the wedding of my brother-in-law. As a body of people there is rarely warmer or more charming company. Now you might think it strange that I, as a passionate critic of religious ideas should venture this? Sounds a bit of a mixed message, doesn't it? Well no, and for the following reasons. The very best of British Christianity emerges from those who at least try to live lives that reflect the nobler teachings of Christ. Compassion, concern for the vulnerable and the disenfranchised; hospitality to all comers, and of course forgiveness. I admire these qualities despite having grave doubts about the historicity of the Biblical record itself. I recognise that I've often shown disdain for some of Christianity's more damaging teachings, but I've always attempted to at least acknowledge the genuineness and sincerity of honest to goodness believers.
I am, after all married to a Christian. Many if not all of my closest friends are Christians. This has taken resilience on their part because I've never flinched when aiming both rhetorical barrels in their direction. 
Before you ask; no, I have not had a spiritual epiphany. I still don't believe the truth claims and do not subscribe to the belief that Christ was the son of God. Furthermore, I continue to think the legacy of some of Christian teachings have proven a stumbling block to the advancement of a tolerant and just society. But these aren't quarrels for today. Today is to acknowledge the many genuine people of faith who are living out their beliefs with sincerity and integrity; those who are actively involved in projects and initiatives intended to alleviate suffering rather than increase it. More than that, a lot of them do so without fuss or ceremony, which is a quality I greatly admire.
I'm not going to stop critiquing religion. It's fare game and has a lot to answer for. And I think many forms of American evangelical Christianity are sorely in need of a good hand-bagging. There are some religious goons out there who really mustn't be given an inch, who really do cause unnecessary harm and guilt and need people like me to be all over them like a rash. 
But I don't want you to think me blind to the good one's. I know they exist. They are a significant part of my life. A bit like the late Christopher Hitchens, I believe that disagreement; even passionate disagreement, does not have to equal discord.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Inappropriately Yours

Behind the veil, beyond the face I present to the world is a seething mass of contradictions. You might think me open compared to some, but trust me I'm holding back. I've never tried to be a typical man because I'm not sure I know what one of those is. And if I did I expect I wouldn't fit the mould. As I write this I am reflecting on the sheer volume of inappropriate fantasies I can entertain on any given day, and I'm confused as to whether this is something I should feel guilty about? I'm a married man and plan to stay that way, yet my ability to think sexually about other women is quite something. For the men reading this, am I alone or do we share the same predilection? It's ok guys, I'm not seeking a public answer. This isn't a confession. In fact, is confessing to this even required? I'm just thinking out loud, and now wondering whether I'm cheapening women by confessing that I sometimes sexualise them. I'm not winning any feminist friends here, am I? Oh well, I'm just trying to explore an issue that might be seen as something of a taboo. Fact is, if you're on my Facebook friends list and you're female I've probably had inappropriate thoughts about you at some point. 
What I'm exploring here is the difference between how we conduct ourselves in reality compared to how we operate in the safe space of our fantasy life. I'm not just talking sex here; on any given day you've probably had times when you reigned in an urge of some kind or another. This is, I expect a generally good thing.
I have a sneaky suspicion that you, and yes I do mean you, have probably indulged in similar fantasy based indiscretions at some point. I guess our fantasy life, our abstract other life, is a safe enough environment so long as we have control over it. I'm not here to make moral pronouncements on this issue, and I'm not the thought police. I'm trying to be honest about some of my quirks, whilst suspecting that it probably isn't even a quirk at all and that a lot of us play the same imaginary games.