Atheism

I do not want to “do a Scott Morrison” here. I am a privileged, educated person and I can take care of myself so far as what people say about me and my beliefs are concerned. However some assumptions do not please me.

I have been an atheist for about sixty four years. I have many, quite religious, good friends and close family members. We rarely discuss the subject out of consideration for others’ views. In fact, I only realised it was legitimate to go public at all with these then non-mainstream views when I was at university.

However, as a one time researcher, I find it difficult to cope with the reality that, as non theists, we are constantly being asked, by those who wish to believe something different, to prove the null hypothesis which we accept. It shows a real lack of understanding.

My Twitter account, for some time, has been punctuated with religious argument, views and support from people I do not know. Many make the assumptions we know nothing of the nature or details of religions. I usually quickly scroll past them. What would be the point of responding, I ask myself. However, a few months ago I tweeted an answer to one of the constant religious fillers of my stream who had pushed the view that lack of proper knowledge of Christianity made people such as me non believers. I replied, “@ XXXX I don’t need a class on fairies when I say I do not believe they aren’t at the bottom of my garden, either.”

She replied with resentment that I was “parodying” religion. Some cannot even accept that a non believer will axiomatically think of religion as tantamount to a fairy tale, albeit a well meaning one with a large number of positive messages and admirable suggestions as to how to live a good life. (Most fairy tales have some positive message too! But perhaps that is unnecessarily parodying again.) I ignored her tweet and moved on, resolving never to reply again.

But this morning I find she has again retweeted this tweet of mine with yet another answer from herself.

I repeat here, in a direct and non “parodying” way the basic concept. It  is not up to me or to others with no religious beliefs to have to defend a null hypothesis.

Recently the following question was also posed to me by a very nice, close acquaintance of mine who lives a devout Christian life, “Atheists like you are really setting yourselves up as small Gods in your own right aren’t you?”

I had to think twice before answering as I value my interactions with her. I finally said, “If you mean by that, that I have to take complete responsibility for all of my actions and decisions then you are probably right.” But it is a shame that I had to grudgingly assume the persona of a “god” to make my own decisions.

And spell correct just gave me a capital letter for “god”. That really shows what people like me are up against!

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World Tragedies

On Bastille Day 2016, I took two of my grandsons some croissants for breakfast as a celebration (and because they love croissants with melted cheese). This was in Australia many hours before day break on 14th July in Nice.

I was explaining to the almost ten year old about the history of France and the storming of the Bastille. He was quite perplexed that the forced release of prisoners from a gaol would represent the freedom of a country. As usual with this young man the discussion turned philosophical. Foucault himself would have been proud! We discussed punishment in general and the aims of incarceration; protection of society, deterrence, punishment and rehabilitation and perhaps even retribution? I explained the history of gaols and the sometimes accidental role it has played in punishment. We discussed alternatives, historic and current.

He was interesting in his ideas on the death penalty for murder. He took on board the concept that perhaps society should not be asked to bear the responsibility of killing a person as tooth for tooth retribution for their action of killing. His suggestion was that this may be an inappropriate reaction in the case of one death but not in cases of multiple deaths.

Then there was news of the tragedy in Nice.

I could not help being relieved that the perpetrator of this tragedy had been killed, mainly, I thought, because that prevented more deaths. Then when the father of the perpetrator spoke out about his son’s mental illness I was even more relieved in the sense that the perpetrator will never have to face the enormity of what he did in that period of insanity if such insanity was the cause.

It is very possible that law enforcement agencies would rather have him alive in their quest to know what actually happened, why and how to prevent it happening again.

But the tragedy inevitably leads back to the original storming of the Bastille.

How do we keep each society safe whilst still accepting that each single one of us in any time in any society will not always have the same views as to how that society should be constructed? We cannot just take the word of a king or a ruler and that 1789 storming was symbolic of this. Democracy is a lauded idea and the best we have so far, but perhaps we should look hard at views of a democratic majority which does not accept its duty to both respect and look after the minorities in their population.

And how can we improve the lot of the mentally ill? We have become so absorbed with viewing mental illness through the 21st Century lens of “depression” that we have, in many ways, failed the fortunately much less common group of mentally ill people subject to psychotic episodes. This failure is much more evident since the closure of the old “asylums”, leaving the hard working mental health professionals with fewer options and the idea of hospitalisation as a last resort. How well does the justice system deal with mental illness?

We have a long way left to go in society, even in democratic societies. And a lot more important issues to deal with than economic “add ons” like superannuation and negative gearing and other distractions to real life.

We need to get to the greater causes of these many tragic events all around us, such as the one in Nice yesterday.

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An Open Letter To Pauline Hanson

 

It is many, many years since I spent some of my formative years in what you have described as the once delightful suburb of Hurstville, which you allege has now been spoilt by an influx of Asian people.

I agree with you in that I do not remember any Asian or any other overseas or indigenous children in our neighbourhood. But we still had plenty to fight about in those old days of the Hurstville forties that I remember! There was the constant war of the Catholic children against the Protestant children. This was only matched by the ceaseless war of the Protestant children against the Catholic children. As an embryonic non believer I kept my head down and perhaps saved face occasionally with both groups by pinging a couple of the weapons of choice, crab apples, at a passing cicada, hoping I might miss the poor thing.

Even children can be influenced to fear differences and to be aggressive towards that which they do not understand.

My epiphany fortunately came when we moved to Cooma on the Snowy Mountains Scheme. There the next door neighbours on one side came from Norway, the neighbours on the other side were Australian Jehovah’s Witnesses who had been interned during the war for their beliefs. The woman that became a very dear friend of my mother was a Mormon from the USA and one of my my best friends came from Germany. There were a huge number of languages spoken that we marvelled at hearing. Seventy eight percent of children at our school spoke English as a second language. Some of the people from other countries were brought in as experts in their field and were here on loan to help. Others were refugees from many countries having been displaced by World War II. And those of us local Australians were diverse. Some were country children living out of town, some were children of the towns people who ran the commerce for the town and others of us were children of those employed by the Snowy Mountains Authority. Working together, we became a wonderful community, united in our diversity, working towards an end of which even we children were proud. I often wished my family were multilingual like that of many of my friends.

Later my obstetrician and gynaecologist was a wonderful Jewish woman from Hungary. She had worked in several countries before she settled here to raise her children. I learnt more from her about life and death than just how to have babies and rear them.

Now I am privileged to have two little granddaughters whose other grandmother is a wonderful, gentle, Muslim woman, born in East Africa, of ethnically Indian descent. (She has never been to India.) She and I, among other things, play Words with Friends on line. I have never beaten her but am learning a little from her every game as I watch her clever mind at work. The fact that she can speak seven languages might help her!

I would hate to go back to the crab apple throwing of  Hurstville in the forties because of religious or other differences.

And I don’t even want to throw crab apples at dinky-di Australian cicadas just because they are on a slightly different trajectory of flight to the one I am on.

Let’s live together and learn from one another.

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Rite or Wong

I am neither gay nor religious so I feel that I can be a fair referee on the issue of who would be most damaged by a full scale battle by means of a plebiscite on gay marriage.

Clearly the gay community is overtly more vulnerable because such plebiscite is directly about their lifestyle. Penny Wong is right that, based on the past, much of the criticism will be very hurtful and some will be uninformed.

The very religious will not be criticised because of lifestyle. They can continue with their own lives. They must have a forum in which to express their views but as their views are to defend a belief structure, which many of us politely believe is false, they must not get precious about their views being any more special than those of anyone else. They must be prepared to hear robust criticism. It is to be hoped this is polite.

But even if it is not, those, like Scott Morrison, who belong to mainstream religions have tax payer assisted edifices and systems built into their lifestyle to assist them to cope if there is criticism of their belief system. The respect and freedoms these institutions may have been given over the years have perhaps given him a false idea about criticism.

For an atheist such as myself, I have to acknowledge that I am responsible for my own behaviour and the way in which I treat others. If I transgress I have to blame myself. I do not demand special privileges. Because I am an atheist, non gay without a public role, it will be very hard for me to have my opinions heard. In fact I rather expect that the usual would happen – “what would an old, widowed, atheist woman know about the matter anyway. Just typical!” That’s OK.

In 1964 when I was married it was only possible to get married in a secular manner, with witnesses only, in a registry office. It was not possible to have a ceremony outside a church. Ten years later Registry Offices had become more accepting of ceremonies and then there were Celebrants. Now non church weddings are frequent.

As family members were religious my then fiancé and I went to meet a mainstream church minister to request a wedding, with some trepidation. As an atheist I do not, and did not then, believe in telling lies so was ready for anything to occur, including a refusal to perform the ceremony. The minister who saw us and who married us, only talked to us about practical details such as the amount we would have to pay to various performers including himself and the choir boys. It was a financial transaction only. How much more completely secular could one get, and this was fifty two years ago! I still appreciate this churchman. Churches were then accepting their co-existence with secular tradition.

Much of what the major religions here, Christianity, Islam and Judaism have as their doctrine and injunctions to the believers, I agree with and appreciate. Kindness, tolerance, goodwill are all qualities I appreciate in humanity. So is love for ones’ neighbours, whether man and woman, man and man or woman and woman.

So as referee I say practise this love. Don’t send a plebiscite upstairs to a third referee. Go on with the game of life and be nice to each other.

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Siri’s Dog

Does Siri own a big black dog?

Yesterday I met a lovely black dog. His coat was shiny. He had a pristine white chest and his big limpid, brown eyes looked pleadingly at me.

He was delighted to see me drive into the parking lot in my car. Siri had directed me to the Wallarah Gallery near Toukley on the Central Coast. It was in a beautiful position looking out over the wide blue Budgewoi Lake on one side and the equally wide blue Tuggerah Lake on the other side. It looked very inviting but why had Siri directed me there when I was expected at another place? She is normally so reliable. But surely I had not made a mistake, how could I ever make an error? I certainly had not asked her for directions to this Gallery as I did not know it existed!

Oh well, I thought, I will leave this parking area and try to find my destination without her help.

But the lovely dog had other ideas. He did not want me to go. As I turned to leave he stood obstinately in front of the car with his eyes fixed upon me. I backed up to try to go around him but he moved his ground and looked directly at me again, his soft brown eyes fixed upon my yet unlighted head lights. I am sure he had a pleading look on his face.

Siri, by this stage was frantically telling me I had reached my destination. Was this a plot?

I finally lowered my window to talk to the dog and he co-operated in my endeavour by standing on his hind legs against the driver’s door with his front paws on the door and his head in the window. He was keen to have a conversation. I told him to go home, but he clearly wanted to continue this pleasant conversation. Eventually I gave him a little push aside and tried to drive out of the car park but he quickly resumed a position right in front of the moving car. Of course I stopped.

His tail wagged enthusiastically in a “mission accomplished” manner and we resumed the stand off.

Was he in league with Siri in some devilish plan to force me to enter the Gallery?

By this time I knew I would be late for my appointment elsewhere. I started to panic. The dog wagged his tail again in a very friendly fashion and made a little whining noise.

What could I do?

I edged forward again but could not run the risk of injuring him. He did not move.

In annoyance I turned Siri off. She was being no help at all.

Eventually I thought that I had no option but to get out of the car and try to reason with the dog. As I started to get out he became very enthusiastic. He wagged his tail harder. He rushed to the door.

As I stepped out he stopped in his tracks. Disappointment clouded his beautiful brown eyes. His tail went down between his legs. He was the very picture of a shattered dog. He walked away.

I drove off. I found my own way to my destination.

Who did he think I was? Did he think I was Siri because her voice was emanating from my car? What was her plan in sending me to that destination in the first place? Does she drive a black Ford like mine? Was it indeed a cunning plot or just a confusing mistake?

I hope the dog enjoyed the gallery. I hope the busy Siri slipped home to feed him in between her duties directing people. In fact I really hope she did not send me there to feed the dog because she knew she would not get there in time for his dinner. But he looked well fed and well looked after.

I like to think she lives by the Wallarah Gallery, with the lovely dog and they look out over the lakes together. She can relax by the lakes as they have no roads for her to monitor. Sometimes, in summer, they might even have a little swim in one of the lakes. And if he is bored she can send an unwary passer by to talk to him.

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Memories of Democracy

Reading articles on what appears to be wrong with the democratic system today, such as an interesting one by Waleed Aly, prompts me to pen my thoughts on this question.

I have been boring people with my views orally but, not being any sort of an expert on politics, I have not considered writing anything. But I have suddenly realised that I have been an intensive consumer of politics, probably for about as long as anyone else in this world, so it is about time I put my views on paper. After all democracy is supposed to be of the people for the people and I am certainly a person (albeit an old one).

When I was just a pre teenager I first became interested in politics. I used to love the few occasions when my parents could be persuaded to take my sister and me to the Domain in Sydney to hear speakers on their “soap boxes”. (For the young I will explain that was the olden days equivalent of Twitter or Facebook on an unbelievably slow internet connection and few “friends”.) Instead of reading fantasy fiction, in 1952 I asked for as a birthday present and read with great enthusiasm, the history of and Manifeso of the Labor Party.

The family moved to Cooma in 1953, shortly after I began High School, when my father began work on the Snowy Scheme. There was an election in 1954 and Bob Menzies himself arrived in Cooma and made an immensely impressive public speech to which I was taken. I can remember much of it today. He not only dealt well with hecklers but I think enjoyed them – an orator indeed.

At University, studies in Philosophy and History, including the ancient Greeks, made me agree that Democracy, whilst not perfect, is the best system that has, at this stage, been developed.

I waited desperately until I was old enough to vote (then 21) and have followed all the subsequent elections as closely as I could. These included both the Australian and British elections in the few years I lived in London. I have never belonged to any party, and never will as I think to actually commit oneself permanently to a particular ideology rather blurs one’s vision. But I have worked on many a polling booth in my lifetime.

I am a swinging voter with commitment.

My view is now that a strong party system has been the beginning of the end for true democracy, particularly in countries like Australia and U.S.A. where there are virtually only two parties. The idea that one’s electoral representative has first loyalty to the needs of that electorate, the basis of a democratic system, has long gone. The fact that both the Liberal or Labor parties in Australia have made it impossible for elected members to cross the floor on issues has made this much worse.

Even early this century there was still understanding of the need to disagree with a party line in a true democracy. Fred Chaney said that he “very seldom saw anyone cross the floor against the wishes of their endorsing body”. David Hamer claimed “None of the cross voters was penalised by loss of selection for they were representing the view of their electors.”

Now it is viewed as an indication of party discipline and a guide as to how strong the party is. This virtually means local views can no longer be represented by a local member and, to me, raises a question of how democratic is each party? A truly strong party would welcome differences of opinion.

For some years I have thought that the answer to this problem might be smaller parties growing stronger. But this does not seem to be possible here. Is this because of  our education of the young? The idea that there must, in a “normal system” only be two parties, seems rife?
Is that because this is all that we in Australia have really known for some time now? We should have more discussion of the system in other democracies.

In Australia we have a rather unique brand of democracy yet we view it as the essence of democracy. It is unique because we are in a very small minority of western countries that have compulsory voting. It means that one has to vote even if not the least bit interested in knowing for whom or what you will vote. We also have a preferential system which can be questionable in the way it operates with deals being made about preferences. Many countries think a proportional system better represents different parties or even can be incorporated in some way along with first past the post voting for individual representatives.

And importantly we are one of few countries which do not have quite strong alternate parties to a mere duopoly of a “left” and a “right” leaning parties.

I have worked for the now defunct “Australia Party”, for the now defunct “Democrats” and now from time to time depending on the local candidate, for the Greens. All with a rather sad lack of success because they are regarded by the bulk of the electorate as a distraction from the “main game” and not as an essential part of a real democracy.

I am carefully collecting election propaganda from this current election because, if you look at it closely, it may, if you are lucky, include a picture of your candidate. This might well be smaller than the picture of their party leader and the blurb accompanying this will just be party generic. Where are the days when the actual local representatives, unaccompanied by a leader, had to hold well advertised public meetings? I would like the opportunity to ask my prospective representatives questions and to hear others ask their questions. For example what sort of issue would be sufficient to have them cross the floor. Could this be a local issue or perhaps a conscience issue? This cannot be successfully done on line as who knows which arm of their party administration is putting out the messages or answering the questions?

My son heard a radio caller the other day complaining that she could no longer vote Liberal, as she had done for a lifetime, as she would never vote for Malcolm Turnbull. She quoted his alleged disloyalty to his party. Yet she did not seem to realise that she had voted for him for some years as a local representative for that party before he became Prime Minister as his was her electorate. This is laughable ignorance and is an extreme case but is, unfortunately, symptomatic of how a significant proportion of the electorate votes.

And our ignorance, based on false assumptions of democracy, goes further and has infiltrated the halls of higher education. A few years ago I had a begging letter from my old alma mater, The University of Sydney, asking for donation for a new Degree for overseas students on “Democratisation and Universal Human Rights”. I gave a small donation to enable me to send it with a letter saying that , although I agreed with their idea of spreading the notion of universal human rights, I did not agree that “democratisation”, particularly our version, necessarily protects these as distinct from other arrangements that ensure social order. The return letter just thanked me for my support of “democratisation and universal human rights”.

What’s the use? I’d give up but it’s not my style.

The Green’s candidate for my electorate of Dobel sounds good, but only on line so far. I also know the Labor candidate is very good. I already have had enough interaction to know I will not vote for the particular Liberal candidate they have on offer in our electorate.

Oh for some sorts of verbal interactions so I can judge for myself, not who will be most loyal to her party, but who, following a truly democratic principle, will be most loyal to those for whom she will speak if elected.

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Anzac Day 2016

I promised myself that I would be restrained in my comments on Anzac Day this year. Why oh why did I then listen to the radio?

Let me start by saying I have much respect and sympathy for those killed in wars. It makes me very sad. I support services where the dead in wars are remembered. I support the wearing of poppies to represent the dead. I mourn over wartime tragedies.

But I mourn inclusively and, as a person interested in history, I like our stories to be accurate, not fuelled by too much grief, too much pride or anger. And I do not like unrealistic images, that can rarely or never be matched, thrust before returned or serving soldiers or our young children. These things only lead to more tragedy.

My attitude to Anzac Day has been forged by several events over many years. As a child in the fifties I met one of my father’s workmates, a good and sincere German man who had fought for Germany during the then recent war. He had been in an English POW camp where he met some Australian soldiers working there. His wife and daughter had been killed during the allied bombing of Berlin. He thought he had been nobly fighting for his country. He mourned the dead on both sides, particularly the civilian dead, and I realised then, at quite a young age, that wars had at least two sides and that the soldiers on all sides were just real people with losses of their own.

During my University years I was involved with some protests against the Anzac Day march. We asked how could such a jingoistic event ever help lead to a cessation of warfare? Protests such as our very peaceful ones were tolerated and not even interrupted or moved on. Our freedom of expression has been limited so much that I would not think they would be tolerated now, almost sixty years later.

A number of men from my family and my late husband’s family fought in World War II. But men who did not or could sign up were given quite a difficult time. My father, for example, had not been able to fight in the war because his work as a professional engineer for the Commonwealth Government was regarded as essential and despite several attempts both by himself and with some representations from the navy who wanted him to work on something to do with radar, he was not released. He suffered a bit of backlash. Just very recently I read a book in which the well known author suggested she thought that her now deceased father had deliberately obtained a job regarded as essential, specifically to avoid military service. This was very difficult to do, but such was the attitude of the day it was often assumed. My father in law was not accepted for service either as, at his medical when he tried to join up, he was told he had a bad heart. It was widely said about him that he had feigned this bad heart. He sometimes seemed to accept this view himself. Which was the better option for a sense of self? He had his first heart attack at the age of 41 while working as an ambulance driver, and died very young a few years later.

When I was a young married woman the son of one of our next door neighbours was sent to Vietnam as a soldier.

The neighbour on the other side was an older man who was a TPI pensioner, unable to work since his return from World War II via a long period of incarceration in Changi. He was a lovely man. He would not belong to an RSL Club or celebrate Anzac Day. In fact he would not usually speak of the war at all. However one day, when he and I were with my almost two year old son, something my son was trying to do triggered his memories and he spoke to me about it a little. He expressed himself as concerned about the glorification of war and stated that there was nothing he could see that was worth making men kill other men. There must be better solutions that could be found rather than continuing to fight wars.

Eventually the young neighbour on our other side returned, physically unharmed. But he could not march on Anzac Day! It had only been the Vietnam War in which he fought!

No old Turkish veteran could march on Anzac Day. They were the enemy!

Those anomalies have been fixed, but too late for me and most of them, I would imagine.

On Friday I was speaking to a friend among a group sharing their mild annoyance of having to work during the long weekend. My friend was working all three days and complained that Anzac Day was one of the worst days to work. She works in a role delivering a public service. She rued that there would be fights between the drinkers and among Two Up players after the remembrance services and marches were over, there would be domestic violence when some of those people returned home and, during the day, there would be the regular spike of Anzac Day suicides and attempted suicides from returned veterans with which she would have to deal. These veterans were probably feeling much like our former, now deceased, neighbour.

Many men were extremely brave. We must acknowledge bravery when we see it but we must not, even inadvertently, belittle any soldiers who did not rise to great heights. At the same time there is nothing magnificent in just killing. There must be a better way to work these things out and glorifying something not glorious is not one of them.

I remember with sorrow and love all those soldiers who served in all wars and those who died in wars. I also remember, with sorrow and love, those people who died with, and perhaps because of, them.

And yet, the radio broadcaster today talking of a plot being foiled by our excellent, ever vigilant policing authorities that had stopped a 16 year old in a planned attack on a venue today, rightly wondered about the ideas that must have infiltrated this young boy’s mind. However he added seemingly bemused, and like so many people obviously not thinking it through, “But why would he plan to do such a thing on Anzac Day? That makes it so much worse.”

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