Avoiding bad information

Mike Flood asks how much is the Information Age being tainted and diminished by disinformation.

The Internet is full of information, coming at you thick and fast. But how does one separate the wheat from the chaff? Photo: Nazly Ahmed

The Internet is full of information, coming at you thick and fast. But how does one separate the wheat from the chaff? Photo: Nazly Ahmed

The Internet Society once observed that the Internet is ‘proving to be one of the most powerful amplifiers of speech ever invented. It offers a global megaphone for voices that might otherwise be heard only feebly, if at all. It invites and facilitates multiple points of view and dialogue in ways unimaginable by traditional, one way mass media.’ The Internet is this and much more besides.

But as we become increasingly dependent on this miracle of human ingenuity, we are also having to cope with the internet’s darker side – bad information, propaganda, cybercrime and pornography. Here are two less flattering descriptions: ‘an electronic asylum filled with babbling loonies’ (Mike Royko) and ‘the biggest lavatory wall in history’ (AC Grayling).

We might live in an ‘Information Age’, but how much is it being tainted and diminished by disinformation? We are accustomed to tyrants, dictators and jihadists putting out their warped propaganda and fabrications. But there are a host of other more subtle sources of bad information that we are exposed to 24-7 and this raises questions about the impact this may be having on personal wellbeing, social cohesion and international relations.

1   Amplifier of speech… or lavatory wall?

Online social networking services like Facebook, video sharing websites like YouTube, and open source blogging sites like WordPress enable anybody with a computer and a modicum of nous to disseminate information instantaneously to a global audience. And if people pass the information on, and it is sufficiently interesting or scurrilous, it may go viral and reach millions. But most of the information posted online has not been edited or peer reviewed and therein lies a problem because it can be partial or inaccurate, or just plain wrong. Whether this is by design (i.e. disinformation) or not (misinformation) is beside the point; in any case the distinction is often blurred by spin.

In 2010, Dow Jones carried out a survey of ‘Bad Info’ on the free web. This identified ‘opinion disguised as fact’ and ‘biased sources’ as the most frequently cited types of bad information. People use weasel words (‘many experts agree…’), selective omission, imply without saying, bury inconvenient facts, include misleading statistics or images, and so on… More than a third of respondents indicated that they encountered bad information ‘often’ or ‘constantly’. The most affected sectors were businesspeople, students, and inexperienced researchers.

There are websites that specialise in racist, xenophobic or indecent material, but bad information is also found on websites like Wikipedia, which were set up for the best of reasons and in the public good. Friends and rivals are constantly trying to manipulate content – be it the biography of controversial leaders or celebrities, information about a commercial product (pro or anti), anything about Israel, etc. The intention may be to manage reputation, promote some interest or other, affect page rank/link traffic, or simply to cause harm. It is difficult for any of us to know the extent of ‘Wikihacking’.

Another concern is how far search engines give a balanced view of what’s available on line. Who sets the algorithms? Things may change for the better as the programming gets even more sophisticated – or they may get worse, if commercial interests have their way. Google has already announced that websites that are not mobile-friendly will be pushed down the rankings, and there is talk of it launching an initiative to reduce bad information with a program which ranks websites according to veracity using a ‘knowledge-based trust’ scoring system that checks website data against verified facts in a ‘knowledge vault’. This should penalise web pages containing suspect or contradictory information.

The internet is censored to protect intellectual property and discourage defamation, harassment and obscene material, but this is but a drop in the ocean when it comes to removing bad information. So whilst the internet provides unrivalled access to information, those who surf its often murky waters have to be extremely careful. Things may not be all they seem.

2   Other sources of bad information

But bedroom bloggers, pranksters, and mischief-makers are not the only source of bad information. We also have the outpourings of religious zealots, New Age thinkers, unprincipled corporations, government spin doctors, and conspiracy theorists. This has always been the case but the issue is made more problematic and challenging by the Internet and the relative ease with which such material can now be accessed and used.

  • Mainstream religions and cults are major sources of ‘myth-information’ and promulgate misinformation by definition – they can’t all be right, although they can all be wrong, as atheists like to point out. How many religions put out disinformation is an interesting question: some tele-evangelists clearly do; and lying to non-believers (taqiyya) is permissible in Islam.
  • Proponents of woo, including New Age thinking, alternative therapies, and all manner of snake oil also propagate bad information and make claims that are unscientific, unproven, or unprovable. Whether astrology, biorhythms, esoteric healing, extrasensory perception, homeopathy, reflexology etc. work is debatable, but some may on occasion through the power of suggestion (the placebo or nocebo effect).
  • Big businesses do too. Big corporations are regularly accused of spreading disinformation. The criticism is most intense with high profile industries that promote controversial technologies – GMOs, nuclear power, waste incineration, fracking and the like. But naysayers are also prone to use propaganda and selectively interpret facts, and this just adds to the confusion.
  • The media is also culpable. Tabloid newspapers and news corporations are regularly accused of distorting or sensationalising issues – the former by making up stories; the latter when, for fear of being scooped, they broadcast without adequate scrutiny. (Cf. The new phenomenon of fact- and rumour-checking websites, and the extension of the idea to the media are good developments.)
  • Governments and state agencies regularly disseminate questionable material, often with a good dose of ‘spin’, and they are not averse to using negative advertising to attack opponents’ record, policies or personalities. This muddies the water. Some governments go further and suppress historical facts, even making it illegal to challenge the official line. Turkey’s denial of the Armenian Genocide of 1915 is but one of many examples.
  • Conspiracy theories can be set in train by any of the above; they flourish on the internet and in some parts of the media. Sadly, they are widely believed in many parts of the world so have political currency. This is especially so where governments are economical with the truth and suppress bad or inconvenient news.

3   Costs and consequences

So what impact does exposure to bad information have on public attitudes, behaviour and wellbeing? And do we ourselves actively make the situation worse by ‘confirmation bias’, our tendency to search for, interpret or recall information in a way that confirms our beliefs or prejudices? We surround ourselves with people who share our views and reject ideas or concepts that don’t fit comfortably into our view of the world. Here are six consequences that should concern us all:

  • Misinformed citizens can influence elections and hence the political colour and policies of those in office. Being misinformed is in many ways worse than being uninformed, especially when misguided individuals state their beliefs and opinions with such confidence. They can become intolerant, even violent, and this – and the publicity it generates – can represent a serious threat to social cohesion.
  • Misapplied resources: Secularists consider support for ‘faith’ schools and other religious enterprises a gross misuse of taxpayers’ money, and they condemn the state funding of pseudoscientific ‘alternative’ ‘medicines’ through the NHS. But in my mind, perhaps the most extreme example of bad information having resource costs was the infamous ‘dodgy dossier’, which was used in 2003 to justify the invasion of Iraq. The Iraq War cost tens of thousands of lives and billions of pounds – and cost Britain influence across the Middle East and beyond.
  • Risk to health and life: Alternative therapies are potentially dangerous as they are magnets for charlatans and conmen, and this poses risks to public health – as do pious believers who reject medical advice and rely on prayer to treat life-threatening conditions like cancer, or who refuse blood transfusion or vaccination.

‘Like a disease, pseudoscience runs through broad gutters of sophisticated misinformation, contaminating the groundwater of common knowledge and leeching into the minds of the media-fed masses. Undetected and uncorrected, furtively avoiding verifiable fact, bad information propagates disastrous errors and mistakes.’ Kelton Rhoades

  • Damaged minds: Young children cannot tell fact from fiction and are easily indoctrinated into faith. In later life their minds will be closed to science – what Stephen Law calls ‘intellectual black holes’ – and any idea or thought that threatens to undermine their cherished faith and practices. It is tragic but hardly surprising that idealistic youngsters become vulnerable to firebrand preachers or to grooming over social media, and that some are enticed into jihad, even martyrdom.
  • Intolerance and division: Strict madrasas and ‘faith’ schools create an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality that does little to promote community understanding and social cohesion; some ban music and other cultural pursuits, and or teach corrupt forms of science in which evolution, if it is taught at all, is dismissed as ‘just a theory’, with ‘intelligent design’ promoted as true. Groups that rigidly follow the scriptures, like the Scientologists, Plymouth Brethren, Jehovah Witnesses, creationists, and Salafists, tend to be intolerant of the views of others and characteristically ostracise apostates, including close family members. Victims can be mentally scarred, and some fall victim to ‘honour’ killings – all as a result of social conditioning and bad information.
  • Weakened social cohesion: False rumours and conspiracy theories are spawned by ignorance, misunderstanding, or malice. They are invariably toxic and can lead to offensive, uncompromising attitudes, and aggressive behaviour towards people of other races, faiths, or customs, especially where repeated by multiple, seemingly independent agents. The speed of spread can be impressive (‘digital wildfire’) and the damage they can do to public attitudes, community cohesion and international relations is not easy to repair. And there may be more subtle effects: studies suggest that people who are exposed to anti-government conspiracy theories are less likely to vote than those who have read information refuting the conspiracy; similarly with climate change conspiracies (less intention to take action to reduce their carbon footprint), and anti-vaccine conspiracies (reduced intentions to get vaccinated). In each case, conspiracy theories decrease social engagement because they leave people feeling powerless.
  • Self-censorship: Bad information is difficult to counter: once released it can be referenced over and over, even after the original posting has been refuted or withdrawn. Mud sticks. Indeed, confirmation bias can maintain or even strengthen people’s beliefs in the face of criticism or contrary evidence. Moreover, it has become difficult to speak one’s mind or voice genuine criticism of anything related to religion, particularly concerning Islam. Many freethinkers feel restrained and increasingly self-censor for fear of being accused of being prejudiced, intolerant, racist, anti-Semitic, or Islamophobic.

‘The problem with free speech is that it’s hard, and self-censorship is the path of least resistance. But, once you learn to keep yourself from voicing unwelcome thoughts, you forget how to think them – how to think freely at all – and ideas perish at conception.’ George Packer

  • Apathy: The omnipresence of bad or suspect information on the internet and in the outpourings of hard-line believers, special-interest lobbies, news corporations and government spin doctors raises serious concerns about anyone’s ability to make informed decisions in today’s Information Age: it may well be a major contributory factor to so much present day apathy.

4   What can be done about bad information?

Bad information can and should be challenged – or ridiculed and derided. Period. But there is a lot of it around and one needs to choose one’s battles carefully. One also needs to employ considerable emotional intelligence, especially when people’s cherished cultural practices or beliefs are in the cross-hairs. We live today in a global village, and we should be looking to make friends rather than alienate and antagonise people: as Benjamin Corey argues: ‘we must learn to recognize that all social groups – regardless of religious belief or lack thereof – bring something to the table that is worthy. Coming together to pursue peace, justice, equality, and all the other values we hold in-kind, we find that if we failed to partner together we would be dismissing friends and allies on a wide array of issues.’

Many of the following points should be self-evident, but there’s no harm in reciting them here.

 Don’t add to the problem

  • Tackling Bad InformationBe vigilant – make sure that ‘a little red light’ comes on in our head whenever you get near to an ‘intellectual black hole’ so that you don’t get sucked in / fall victim.
  • Keep an open mind – be aware of your own bias and the tendency to interpret ambiguous evidence as supportive of your own position or prejudices.
  • Be careful – use reputable sources and cross-check information before passing it on; make sure you are not yourself contributing to the problem of bad information. Fact- and rumour-checking websites may be helpful.
  • Be constructive – there’s enough negative comment around.

Challenge harmful attitudes and practices

  • Challenge suspect facts and dangerous opinions, especially where those involved have political aspirations and seek to curtail or prevent freedom of thought and expression.
  • Be persistent – refuting errors, pointing out bias needs to be done with vigour, and repeated often if it is to stand any chance of having an effect. But above all:
  • Be respectful and aware of cultural and religious sensitivities – questioning people’s faith or beliefs causes distress and offence, and only serves to increase division. What is the point in arguing with people who have ‘passed the event horizon’? Moreover, challenging vulnerable individuals who draw comfort from their faith – or from complementary medicine or some other lifestyle choice – could have serious consequences if it leaves a gaping vacuum in their lives. Be very careful!

Look for allies

  • Get more involved – support local humanist groups; talk to schools; attend local SACREs; challenge local sources of bad information, including elected representatives who support ‘faith’ schools, public services run by evangelical groups, or alternative therapies on the state; and subscribe to national organisations that promote human rights and freedom of thought and expression.
  • Collaborate – we need to be looking for allies and areas of common ground not making enemies and promoting The Accord Coalition sets a good example: it includes religious groups, humanists, teachers, trade unionists, educationalists and civil rights activists, working together for inclusive education, upholding civil rights, and promoting mutual understanding.

Steve Neumann sums it up nicely: ‘forget about disabusing believers of their core convictions with the ‘universal acid’ of rationality – the best way to fight for social justice and pluralism is to ally ourselves with those who share the same values, regardless of their metaphysical beliefs.’ Yes.

Critical thinking

Last but not least, we have to be more assiduous in promoting critical thinking at all levels of the education system, from pre-school to the university of the Third Age: with so much information now available on the internet, teaching ‘facts’ is much less important than it once was. The essential need today is to develop a good ‘nose’ to smell out bad information, and to acquire the skills and confidence to distinguish facts from opinion, and reliable sources from those that are questionable. These should be priority areas in all educational establishments.

Education is the only real weapon that we have in the fight against bad information – and it goes without saying, giving people the ability to think for themselves changes lives and makes the world a more interesting and more wondrous place to be.

Mike Flood is Chair of Milton Keynes Humanists. He works for Powerful Information, a charity involved with grassroots international development. This is a shortened version of Mike’s article. The full article with quotes and references can be found on the Milton Keynes Humanists website.

Series warriors: In defence of our television addiction

Ben Greenhalgh justifies our fascination with stories on the small screen.

Do you suffer from TV addiction? Photo: Lars Ploughmann

Do you suffer from TV addiction? Photo: Lars Ploughmann

The door creaks open and you emerge, still grasping the duvet that you have failed to part from for days. It’s stained, ridden with crumbs and stinks like stale beer. With your square eyed comrades following cautiously behind you, your eyes strain to adjust to the new world.  Your legs are weak from lack of use, your bladder exhausted from putting off trips to the toilet at important plot points. Your mouth is dry, and you’ve forgotten how to speak for the first few seconds until you utter the catch phrase of a generation: “I can’t wait for the next one!”

These symptoms point to a clear diagnosis of series addiction. It’s contagious to say the least; yet, I happily get infected.

There can be no doubt that we are a nation that loves our TV. Conversations surrounding certain well known shows frequently make their way into the social symposium. So much so, a recent study by Sky Atlantic showed the pressure to be in the know with the latest must-see shows, or keep up with the workplace chat that surrounds them, has led to millions of people faking their way through conversations rather than be seen to be out of the loop. This to me is fantastic. People want to share the storytelling experience with others, and it couldn’t come at a better time.

There are of course those who lambast such reliance upon screens: ‘Watching too much TV and films is a waste of valuable time: a slovenly and hedonistic pursuit with little merit!’ They shout that our brains will turn to mush, we will fail to form real social relationships, forget how to read, how to write, and will eventually become puddles of inanimate pointlessness. Personally, I think such people watch too much science fiction.

Although the written word will always maintain its pride of place beside humanity as the most powerful form of artistry, time changes: books have become just a part of our vast entertainment culture. Being in front of the box is a fundamental piece of our pleasure palate, and, if supplied with enough crisps and sweets, we can devour episodes and films with equal zeal, because, at the heart of each show or episode, is our human thirst for story.

Our need for story is seemingly inherent within our very biology: even when we dream we tell stories to ourselves. The reason is summed up beautifully by critic Kenneth Burke: ‘stories are equipment for living’.

As a species, we should constantly be questioning things, especially that of established norm. We need to persistently reinvent, challenge and adapt in order to better ourselves and the society we choose to create for ourselves and others.  Arguably, the most important question we ask ourselves towards this end was posed in Aristotle’s ‘Ethics’: how should a person live their life?

The factual answer eludes us of course, somehow hidden behind the wildfires of life where we find ourselves in a constant struggle to match our means with our dreams. Traditionally, humankind has made it the task of wisdom in the forms of philosophy, science, religion, and art to answer this ultimate question. Instead of coming up with answers, we have taken parts of each to bolster and create a liveable meaning, often resulting in conflict through disagreements on how much of each wisdom plays a role in forming just societies. I can think of one in particular. However, as our reliance upon this traditional wisdom diminishes, we continue to look to a source we still believe in, the art of story; the art of learning from the collective experience of humanity.

The best shows do not simply deal with entertaining us. Entertainment and enjoyment comes from our understanding of the characters, our empathy with them and their choices within the events of the story. We condemn and support these choices: actively discuss them with others as a way of learning about, not only our own moral outlook, but others as well. We learn from the characters’ mistakes and successes, we follow them through their trials and see them emerge on the other side failed or triumphant, mirroring our own transformation once the drama has ended.

Stories, whatever their medium, aren’t simply a flight from reality as some believe them to be; they are vehicles carrying us along in our search for reality so we are better equipped to make sense of the chaos of life.

Stories are finding explosive growth in modern society, and within series alone, that many of us follow dutifully,  we are offered a communal way of understanding parts of the human experience aside from shrinking dogmatic ideology that once acted alone to create meaningful existence. The more we watch and question these tales as a society, the more we question the world around us.

So, when you eventually crawl out from some dark hole after a 10-hour binge of The Walking Dead, think of it more as a philosophical lesson: an entertaining debate into your own power as an individual, and a closer understanding of the trials and tribulations of that individual within society.  Have a shower and some proper food though; that’s good for you too.

Ben Greenhalgh is a philosopher and writer. He works full time as a tutor for vulnerable young people who cannot be educated within mainstream education.

Are younger people apathetic?

Top half YH

Are young people really becoming more apathetic? The rapid growth of Young Humanists shows they aren’t, says Alice Fuller.

At an excellent event run by Sheffield University students I was recently asked what we could do to conquer apathy amongst younger people. They don’t even care about the issues directly affecting their lives, the attendee said. So why would they care about Humanism?

A look at voter turnout might seem to validate this statement: three quarters of 18-34s voted in the 1964 general election (at roughly the same rate as other age groups), compared to just 55% in 2010. So fewer younger people are voting, which is a problem in its own right, but is this because they’re apathetic about issues or about politicians?

Polls show that while younger people are more bored with politics and politicians than older people, 18-24s have an average of 49 political discussions per year, rising to 75 per year amongst 25-34s. There’s a big difference between having a dim view of the political establishment and not caring about the big issues. From how should my local community be run to how do we address climate change, younger people have vibrant views on a range of questions.

That over 50 volunteers have come forward to build our fledgling section of the British Humanist Association, Young Humanists, should tell us the problem is not apathy, but creating spaces where younger people feel able to play a part in thrashing out the issues and finding the solutions. Young Humanists aims to to do just this.

I would like to extend an invitation to all young humanists to come along to our launch party in London on 27 March for a night of drinks and comedy. As our poster says, Young Humanists might not have all the answers…. but we’ll give it a bloody good go.

Lower half YH

Humanist Hero: Joss Whedon

Here Liam Whitton writes about his admiration for writer-director Joss Whedon

There are few bigger names in entertainment today than Joss Whedon, who steered Marvel’s The Avengers to box office record-breaking success in 2012.

For his fans, this day was inevitable. Many of us had watched — or in my case, grown up on — Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and knew as early as then what a remarkable talent Joss Whedon was.

Buffy's enduring popularity hasn't just changed televisions, but several other mediums as well. Art by Jo Chen.

Buffy‘s enduring popularity hasn’t just changed television, but several other mediums as well. Art by Jo Chen.

What was also apparent to many, although perhaps many wouldn’t know it by name, was the extraordinary humanist quality to Buffy, and which can be found throughout Whedon’s work.

An obvious theme in Whedon’s work is the empowerment of women. But Whedon’s feminism is only a constituent piece of his larger, more encompassing humanist philosophy. Buffy, crudely summarised, is about a young woman with supernatural strength and physical attributes who fights the forces of evil. What elevated the show above its television forebears and contemporaries, and which continues to make it a seminal work of TV-as-art, is the programme’s relentless focus on the inner lives of its characters. The writers on the show were told to write with one question in mind: how does Buffy feel? From this spawned a rich show of complex characters encountering philosophical problems as often as social ones, making some of the most fully realised drama in all of fiction, and spawning an entire academic sub-field known as ‘Buffy studies’.

Whedon’s other themes are capitalism and greed, as explored largely in Angel, Dollhouse, and the comic book Fray; the fundamental dignity that comes with personhood, explored through Dawn and Connor in Buffy and Angel and as the central premise of the show Dollhouse; and secular explorations of redemption, as seen in all of his shows, where characters who have done terrible things attempt to make amends for their actions, and all learn in various ways that redemption is never finished, and that simple human compassion motivates the most profound and honest sacrifices.

Andrew West has written for HumansitLife about his love of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry before, and BHA Chief Executive Andrew Copson has written admiringly of Roddenberry as well. Star Trek‘s popularity with humanists is partially rooted in its optimism for the human race, and its almost Utopian depiction of a universe where the Humanism Roddenberry so passionately felt has motivated humankind to explore, develop rational scepticism, and foster cooperation, all to great success. And I myself have written on Doctor Who‘s humanist themes, particularly in the form of its non-human main character the Doctor, a firebrand humanist with one advantage the rest of us don’t have — he knows much more than we do about the world (which is often used to justify the show’s forays into fairly fantastical heights of speculative fiction). But neither of these programmes achieve what Joss Whedon has consistently done throughout his work, which is to present Humanism and explore its implications in a world where essential human problems share the scale of epics.

Whedon’s worlds are alive with Humanism despite these worlds often not being humanistic or physical materialist in conception. In Buffy and Angel, the characters confront monsters, demons, witches, and deities, and accept that these things exist. They have a good reason to believe these things exist which we do not: in Buffy and Angel they really do. The ‘soul’ is a major plot device in both those shows as well, as it accounts in a nebulous and nonspecific way for the presence of morality. An early Angel episode, ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin,’ even suggests that the absence of a ‘soul’ explains true human psychopathy. Yet as both those shows go on, Whedon becomes increasingly interested in using the supernatural framework of the show for exploring the human problems we all really face, and to advocate the evidence-based and compassion-led approach to ethics we should be using to make decisions our daily lives.

From the beginning, Buffy used the supernatural to generously provide metaphors for all manner of social issues. Often the personal struggles of a character would be reflected in those of the monster of the week, or some atrocity in a character’s past would contain meaningful wisdom the audience could apply to another person’s present-day dilemma. Good fiction has long done this: the most successful novels take a chosen theme and stretch it into every line of dialogue, every visual motif, make their pages blossom with insight into the world. With cinema and theatre, the visual and textual have long been aligned in this effort, but until Buffy, television was a odd-man-out, a place for episodic dramas about buddy cops and the like. Buffy itself quickly moved from ‘high school’ themes to more mature ones. Season one’s ‘Invisible Girl’ provides a fairly mundane example of this: high school social alienation (and the fact that Sunnydale High sits above a Hellmouth) literally makes a shy girl turn invisible. By its later seasons, Buffy was commenting on the same theme with all the deftness of a poet.

Buffy‘s most fantastical and high-concept episodes are probably season four’s ‘Hush’ and season six’s ‘Once More, With Feeling,’ a silent episode and a musical respectively. The musical television episode had been pioneered for the modern age with Xena: Warrior Princess (several times in fact) before then, but it was ‘Once More, With Feeling’ which set the bar for TV concept episodes to come. In both ‘Hush’ and ‘Once More, With Feeling,’ Whedon’s characters, who are otherwise known for their verbal dexterity and linguistic playfulness, struggle to express themselves. In ‘Hush,’ they fail to articulate and say what they truly mean, and gradually find through the silence which has enveloped Sunnydale that in fact, language can be a barrier to honest communication; a hindrance rather than a tool. When the silence ends, Buffy and her boyfriend Riley sit in awkward silence, failing to at all express what they truly feel.  In ‘Once More, With Feeling,’ subtle characterisation and running plot threads in the character’s emotional lives come to the surface when the people of Sunnydale find themselves living in a musical. For all their exposed personal dilemmas, Buffy’s is the greatest, and it is the tortured character of Spike who must remind Buffy (through song) of her reason for living, despite her life-as-hell experience with severe depression:

Life’s not a song
Life isn’t bliss
Life is just this
It’s living
You’ll get along
The pain that you feel
You only can heal
By living
You have to go on living

…echoing Buffy’s own advice to her sister Dawn, in the previous season. You see, Buffy’s depressed in season six because she died, went to Heaven, and came back against her will. But her realisation in the season five finale ‘The Gift’ was that her love of her sister was a gift, and to sacrifice herself to save her sister’s life was her personal privilege. ‘Death is your gift,’ Buffy was told prophetically earlier in the season. She struggled to understand what that meant, if anything, before later arriving at a subtler understanding of life and death, and how one cannot have true meaning without the other. A humanist message in itself. ‘The hardest thing in this world is to live in it,’ Buffy counsels Dawn. Even in the supernatural world of Buffy, Whedon systematically undermines the supernatural to force the characters to explore the world as we ourselves face it.

The best example of this is in Buffy’s sister show Angel, when the beloved character Winifred ‘Fred’ Burkle dies in ‘A Hole in the World.’ The literal hole of that episode aside, which was a actual cavity running end to end through the Earth, the central ‘hole’ encountered was an emotional one for the characters as Fred died, possessed and eaten out from the inside by the ancient demon Illyria. In the ensuing episode ‘Shells,’ remembering Buffy’s aforementioned resurrection, Angel travels the world looking for a quick fix to the problem, before learning that Fred’s ‘soul’ was ‘consumed in the fires of Illyria’s resurrection.’ The hole in their world then becomes that much deeper, and I remember being 14 at the time it aired and really being hit powerfully for the first time by the reality and permanence of death. It made Buffy’s sacrifice (which for her, was to an unknown end) carry the same weight in subsequent rewatchings, and deepened my admiration for non-religious people who risk their lives for the good of others. It also reminds me of the Greek proverb: ‘A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.’

Another example of the undermining of religious supernaturalism in Buffy is that ‘Heaven’ is probably just another alternate dimension (called ‘hell dimensions’) of the infinite number which exist in the the show’s multiverse: merely an especially benign type of the world, among many more of infinite horror, and several others such as the World Without Shrimp and the World With Nothing But Shrimp. When the character Cordelia goes to one such heavenly dimension in Angel, she finds it is simply inconsolably boring, and later the characters learn that the heavenly beings behind Cordelia’s ascension are really just as nasty as the demons they typically encounter down on Earth — except relentlessly mean-spirited in their pursuit of a bigger-picture, consequentialist ‘good’, providing a healthy rejoinder to that Christian maxim that ‘God works in mysterious ways.’ In Angel, gods work in mysterious ways because they’re dicks. Or rather, because sometimes people are. Angel‘s deities are just another set or kind of fallible people, and in Whedon’s world, the bigger and tougher of us always face greater propensity to be bullies.

For all she’s seen, Buffy remains an agnostic atheist: unconvinced that the supernaturalism of her world means anything. Not that it’s mentioned much; it’s sort of inconsequential to her life of kicking butt and stopping evil. ‘The jury’s out,’ she says, when asked if there’s a (Judeo-Christian conception of) ‘God’ early on in season two.

Dollhouse was perhaps Whedon's darkest television show, set in a science fiction universe full of bad people abusing one another. But it also explores hope.

Dollhouse was perhaps Whedon’s darkest television show, set in a science fiction universe full of flawed and sometimes extremely devious people abusing one another. But it also explores hope.

Whedon’s later series Dollhouse is very much rooted within a materialist universe like the one we really live in, and is as much as anything else about human corruptibility, and mankind’s negative traits, including (through a science fiction lens) the world of prostitution, sex trafficking, organised crime, and how badly we treat the mentally ill, the disabled, and the less fortunate. Unlike Buffy and Angel, there is no ‘soul,’ no secret sauce to the human experience outside of our material bodies. We can be uploaded, downloaded, altered all through changes to the electrochemical states of our brains, as new hardware allows brains to be treated like hard drives for minds. And yet even so, as main character Echo goes on, she cobbles together a personhood formed from fragmentary fictional and borrowed identities which is just as valuable and ‘real’ as any of the ‘real’ people with real personalities she encounters. When humankind is given greater power and propensity to abuse, humankind abuses it (which is perhaps the show’s sole environmentalist message), but even so, it is only people — in all their diversities — who can champion and stand up for all that is good in the world, too.

They do so in spite of impossible odds. In Angel season four, the character of Gunn is told that by a shady character that higher powers manipulate their lives to such a degree that their active choices carry little weight; he presents a free will problem we’ve probably all thought of before. We’re all shaped by forces outside of ourselves. Some big, some small. Can free will exist in a deterministic universe? Gunn makes, as best he can, a passionate plea that our choices still matter. Like Sam Harris would say, even in a world without free will, we can still find meaning in our lives, and make our decisions count.

Similarly, in season two’s ‘Epiphany,’ Angel, who spends much of his long life on one crusade or another, always reaching for the grand gesture which will redeem him in his own eyes and in the eyes of others, reflects on finding meaning in a universe with no ‘cosmic plan’, and no certainty. He concludes, in his titular epiphany, which is presented as a milestone for the character’s development:

If there’s no great glorious end to all this, [and] if nothing we do matters… then all that matters is what we do.

It’s really no surprise that Angel’s ‘mission statement’, and the character’s last words (which closed out Angel‘s five-year run) are ‘Let’s go to work.’ Whedon symbolically had Buffy repeat the line in the concluding issue of Buffy‘s first canonical comic book season five years later, reflecting the fact that these two heroes are united by the same basic purpose. They separately arrive at the conclusion that your good work is never finished. Good work is their shared duty simply because it needs doing; no more, no less. Whedon’s characters are unlikely ever to arrive at the paradisiacal future of Star Trek, or the easy happy endings which characterise Doctor Who, but still they continue, hoping to plant oak trees for future generations.

Unlike Roddenberry’s vision, in which humankind has on the whole shown its best possible face, the characters in Dollhouse face the fullest extremes of human deplorability and summon up the strength to fight it with the only weapon they have: their humanity. (That and advanced fighting skills.) In Whedon’s shows, religion is not the enemy of Humanism, but nor is it really on the agenda (or of any interest) to any of its crypto-humanists. Instead, they are tackling the world in all its complexity and all its difficulties, across dimensions of class, creed, (species,) gender, and health. Whedon depicts the world at its worst and people at their best. And when they’re at the best, they’re grappling with the world as it really is, in all its difficulty and strangeness, and still finding the strength and motivation to go on in their Humanism.

Humanist Heroes: Roy and Hayley Cropper from Coronation Street

Screen and stage writer Rob Fraser writes about his humanist heroes: Corrie‘s Roy and Hayley. 

Roy and Hayley

Hayley Cropper (Julie Hesmondhalgh) and David Neilson (Roy Cropper) are Rob Fraser’s humanist heroes. Photo: ITV.

True To Character.

First, a confession: I am a deeply religious person. I began practising my faith at the age of six which I know many would consider too young, and it’s true that there was an element of parental indoctrination – this was a belief system I shared with my mother. We would attend a ceremony together two evenings a week, fifty two weeks a year. Later, there would be more opportunities to celebrate, almost on a daily basis, but it was the twice weekly observance which formed the bedrock of my faith and remains a comforting ritual some thirty seven years since the (half) hour I first believed. Yes, for the best part of four decades I have worshipped Coronation Street.

I would happily crawl along the cobbles on my knees to the Rovers Return, like a Mexico City pilgrim approaching the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. I would treat a splinter from Stan Ogden’s window cleaning ladder with the awe due a sliver of the one true cross. Alma, Curly, Hilda, Raquel, Bet –  I revered these characters in my childhood and youth as I would prophets, archangels and saints, but in adulthood two unlikely figures have ascended to truly iconic status, Roy and Hayley Cropper. The pair had inauspicious beginnings – he basically an ineffectual stalker of Deidre, she introduced as a pre-op transgender girlfriend in what was to have been a short term and potentially sensationalist storyline – in the sixteen years which followed they became the heart and soul of a hugely popular, mainstream, prime time television soap. Not only that but they served as the moral core of the show – compassionate, non-judgemental, and engaging with transformative effect in the lives of two troubled young women (Fitz and Becky) who became Weatherfield favourites. Their values were those often claimed as Christian by, well, Christians.

When Julie Hesmondhalgh decided to leave the series, a major exit strategy was required. But rather than some tabloid titillating ‘who killed character X?’ plot the writing and production team opted for a rather more mundane tragedy: Hayley would be diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer, and die. This wholly relatable storyline reflected the characters’ evolution on the show – they were an inarguably unusual couple to whom the audience felt empathy and affinity – but there was an unusual aspect in how they would handle their ordeal: Roy and Hayley would face death, grief and loss from a Humanist perspective. Capital H. Explicitly, defiantly Humanist.

Now, Roy’s atheism had been long established and tied in to his love of knowledge and his fascination with science (in fact he even lectures the Street’s most devout denizen, Emily Bishop, on the futility of ‘talking into thin air’), but Hayley had a slightly more conflicted history. She had for example, gone to great lengths to have her marriage blessed by a Church of England vicar. Even at the time this has felt more born of a desire for acceptance and acknowledgement rather than any deeply held religious belief but still her embracing of Humanism is significant. Here was a person whose entire life had been about choice and self-determination so it was perfectly logical that she should reach a/her Humanist conclusion. And so it was that in the weeks leading up to her death she met with a Humanist minister and planned her funeral: it’s become a cliché to say these services are a celebration of life but in Hayley’s case it’s the only phrase possible, there would be Queen songs and bright colours and a cardboard coffin emblazoned with flowers, carried by ‘the girls from the factory.’ All lovely stuff but the truly heroic – and I would argue truly Humanist – moments came not in preparing a send off but in dealing with death itself, when Hayley decided to end her own life.

The episode in which Hayley took an overdose and slipped calmly away in her own home, in her own bed was the highest rated of 2014 and nearly ten million viewers watched through tears as Roy lay down next to her for the last time. Coronation Street is not an avowedly political programme but it does consciously and conscientiously strive to promote acceptance and inclusion. It has gay, straight, lesbian, disabled, black, and Asian characters but none are defined by their race or sexuality – and the audience react to them based on their actions not their appearance. For no one was this more true than Roy and Hayley – initially described by onscreen neighbours as a ‘nutter’ and a ‘freak’ who became the most beloved and trusted people on TV. How fantastic then that when two caring, curious, and charitable individuals found themselves in extremis the only step they could naturally take was towards Humanism. It’s hard to say with any great certainty whether or not will prove to be one of those watershed moments when popular culture reflects changes in wider society, but to hell with certainty, I have ‘faith’.

Rob Fraser has been a television writer for fifteen years, with credits ranging from Monarch of the Glen to Taggart via Holby City, and has recently completed his second stage play, Faith School.

‘Militant atheism’

Blogger Christian Franz shares his strongly-worded, individual perspective on charges of ‘militant atheism’ in Britain and elsewhere, and more besides.

Is there really such a thing as militant atheism? Photo: Ashley Basil

Is there really such a thing as militant atheism? Photo: Ashley Basil

If you believe what some politicians would tell you, the UK is developing a new problem; a social evil so menacing that it threatens to eclipse ‘Islamophobia’ any day now: militant atheism.

There is a certain progression to be observed: first come accusations of ‘special rights’, then we hear dire warnings of a slippery slope, invariably ending in persecution of religious people and death camps for believers, run by – you guessed it – militant atheists.

This calls for some explanation – on more than one account: by and large, ‘militant atheists’ are about as threatening as ‘fundamental hippies’. Coining the phrase is demonstrably an attempt to tarnish a term of non-description (‘atheist’) by combining it with a word evocative of conflict, violence, automatic weapons, scimitars, and death: ‘militant’. And yet, this attempt is about as successful in suggesting lethality as the term ‘combat doe’.

The most ‘militant’ of atheists was Christopher Hitchens. He earned that distinction by publicly assailing men of the cloth with remarks as cutting as ‘you are an idiot!’

The world’s second most ‘militant’ atheist would be Professor Richard Dawkins. Soft-spoken and infuriatingly polite, he’s known for book signings where, on occasion, he brings along a sharp pen.

So it’s not by their actions that militant atheists have gained the ‘militant’ epithet; there is a decided lack of streets overflowing with blood, no posters yelling ‘massacre those who insult atheism’, and to my knowledge no atheist has yet blown up a church on the grounds of advancing atheism.

So, for better understanding, we need to turn to the source. Recently, a number of British exponents have complained about the exploits of militant atheism:

In a highly publicized BBC-produced episode of The Big Questions (and a same-day publication on their web page), Voice For Justice UK speaker Lynda Rose raised awareness about the alarming fact that militant atheism is the reason why Christians are now persecuted in the UK.

A few days later, UK Minister of Faith (an office I have difficulty mentioning while keeping a straight face  it’s way too Phythonesque) Baroness Warsi voiced similar sentiments.

Shortly thereafter, Prime Minister David Cameron went on record saying that living in a religious country was easier for people of competing faiths than in a country run by (presumably militant) secularists.

And just a few days after that, former MP Anne Widdecombe  in a strangely pre-emptive evocation of Godwin’s Law bemoaned the fact that today Christians have it more difficult to live in the UK than Nazis.

What is going on here? From a rational thinker’s point of view it surely seems as if they left a lot of lead in the pipes feeding the drinking fountains of Westminster Palace. Let’s take a closer look.

VFJUK’s Lynda Rose complained:[i]

But now, apparently, the newly claimed sexual rights of a minority are being prioritised over all other traditional rights, to the extent that ‘religious’ rights are now being assigned a separate, and seemingly subsidiary, category.

It’s a bit disconcerting that Lynda – who is a lawyer – makes this mistake: there are no ‘rights of a minority’. She was referring to a couple in the UK who had their existing right to their sexuality enforced. Lynda not only makes it sound as if a sexual minority (gay people) have special rights; she then asserts that there is something called ‘traditional rights’. First, of course, there are no special rights, and in fact, everyone has the same rights. And further to this, no civilized country in the world recognizes ‘traditional rights’. After all, once it is determined that something is unethical (such as slavery, or the right to discipline your disobedient wife), it is done away with, all ‘tradition’ be damned. ‘Traditional’ never trumps ‘just’. Most importantly, though, there scarcely any special rights attained only through adherence to a particular religion in the UK, restrictions on ascending to the throne notwithstanding. Today it is one law for all. Or at least it should be, anyway.

What we do see here – and we’ll see this again – is the feeling of entitlement: people are loath to give up privileges that they used to have. In this case, it is the privilege of imposing one’s own view of sexuality on others, something which Christianity has enjoyed for over two millennia, but has now been curtailed.

We next turn our attention to Minister of Faith, Baroness Warsi. In trying to make sharia law more acceptable in the UK, Warsi first remarked that[ii]

There is no doubt that the word ‘sharia’ carries huge challenges in relation to public relations. If you talk about anything [related to] ‘sharia’, the first vision people get is chopping off of people’s hands, having four wives and all sorts of unusual practices which, in today’s world, are not compatible with the values which we live by.

Above is an astute observation. The word ‘sharia’ does have a bad reputation: much like the words ‘apartheid’ and ‘Spanish Inquisition’. Personally, I believe that this is well deserved, on all accounts.

Now, Warsi, for reasons fully understood, complains that acceptance of ill-reputed Sharia law into UK’s courts is impeded by secular fundamentalists[iii]:

The most aggressive post I get is [sic] from people who are secular fundamentalists.

Of course atheists are vehemently opposed to these ideas, ideas that would introduce superstition and medieval morals into present-day jurisdiction – but I would submit that vehement opposition is to be expected not only from ‘militant atheists’, but from everyone who can count to eleven without having to remove a sock.

Warsi’s efforts to impose her preferred version of law are frustrated by people who do not share her ideology. She believes that she is entitled to bring Sharia law into UK’s courts, and spots the enemy among what she believes to be militant atheists – those people who publish so many ‘aggressive post[s]’.

Not being outdone by amateurs, David Cameron enters the fray asserting that[iv]

it is easier to be Jewish or Muslim in Britain than in a secular country.

The reason? Militant atheists, of course. He goes on to extol the virtues of a religious society  blithely ignoring that each and every social advance of the past two hundred years has come at the cost of lives among humanists, and in the face of strong opposition from the Church. To me it seems as if Cameron is building up a straw man and defending religion for one reason only: because the devout in his constituency are starting to grumble that their privileges are being taken away, that they can no longer tell the gays what to do.

More frighteningly, though, Cameron concludes his speech with this:

Greater confidence in our Christianity can also inspire a stronger belief that we can get out there and actually change people’s lives, and improve both the spiritual, physical, and moral state of our country, and even the world.

I guess it does take a pesky militant atheist to point out that if you replace ‘Christianity’ with ‘Islam’, Cameron would be saying exactly what the Taliban and Boko Haram are saying: they, too, believe that by stronger adherence to belief, that by following scripture more closely, this world will become a better place. The Taliban in particular are quite explicit about this; they state that their intent is to improve this world by changing the way people behave: by making them stronger believers.

Changing people’s lives based on faith is a terrible idea. Ask any woman in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia. When we talk about ‘improvements’ based on religion, we almost always talk about restrictions: no gay marriages, no abortions, no women’s education, no blaspheming, no work on the holy day, etc. The more confidence people have in their religion, the more likely they are to impose their religious ideology on others. Ironically, there is only one group who can’t do that: (militant) atheists – who, by definition, don’t have a religion.

Ann Widdecombe’s rant takes the cake, though[v]:

Christians now have quite a lot of problems, whether it’s that you can’t display even very discreet small symbols of your faith at work, that you can’t say ‘God bless you’, you can’t offer to pray for somebody, if it’s an even bigger stance on conscience that you’re taking, some of the equality laws can actually bring you to the attention of the police themselves.

So I think it is a very difficult country now, unlike when I was growing up, in which to be a Christian, an active Christian at any rate.

A former MP, Ann has unfortunately developed a distinct habit of being economical with the truth. She did so when during the ‘Intelligence Squared’ debate she claimed that everyone who joined the Waffen-SS had to sign away their religion. The exact opposite is a documented, fact. People who joined the SS had to sign a paper stating that they were gottgläubig  believers in God  and affirmed that they were not atheists.

Widdecombe does it again here when she claims people can no longer wear religiously-themed jewelry, say endearing well-wishes, or promise piety to other people.

In reality Ann is angry at another fact: she has lost the privilege of an automatic religious bonus. People now openly scoff when someone offers prayer as ‘help’, and do not look impressed when someone openly wears a crucifix, crescent, or Star of David. Her importance and status as an openly devout believer have diminished – which is what irks her. In short, she’s angry that she’s become unpopular, and wants to assign blame.

That, in short, is what ‘militant atheism’ is all about: a scapegoat for one’s own misgivings and shortcomings, a scapegoat for the perceived injustice of privileges revoked, a scapegoat for being called upon one’s own moral failings.

Well, at least the believers are staying true to form – if there ever was an Abrahamic ritual, it’s the scapegoat.

Is it really that simple? Are politicians really trying to shift the blame from them to a minority? After all, much of what was said is monumentally stupid. Wouldn’t the political elite be more careful to avoid putting their foot into their collective mouth? Obviously, no. The reason for that, though, can be explained:

As we know, any sufficiently advanced stupidity is virtually indistinguishable from religion. That is what is tripping up politicians: they are increasingly coming down on the wrong side when they try to decide: ‘Is this still stupid or already religion?’

And then they do something ‘militantly’ stupid.


[i] “Human vs. Religious Rights“, No Blogs, No Glory 

[ii] “Sharia-conform blood diamonds“, No Blogs, No Glory 

[iii] “Sharia’s bad rap“, No Blogs, No Glory 

[iv] “Come on, Cameron!“, No Blogs, No Glory 

[v] “MP’s race to IQ bottom“, No Blogs, No Glory 

Christian Franz is a secular blogger and the author of No Gods, No Glory – Unpreaching the Choir. You can also visit his blog , No Blog, No Glory – further unpreachings.

‘Only connect’? Forsterian ideology in an age of hyperconnectivity

Emily Buchanan explores the pitfalls of modern hyperconnectivity with a look back at two great stories by beloved humanist writer E. M. Forster, as well as film and commentary from the period.

E. M. Forster wrote Howards End and The Machine Stops, and was a key figure in the Humanism movement in Britain

E. M. Forster wrote Howards End and The Machine Stops, and was a key figure in the humanist movement in Britain

Writing at the turn of the twentieth century, E. M. Forster was uncannily aware of our future dependence on technology. In his short story The Machine Stops and in parts of Howards End, Forster explores the notion that technological advance is at the expense of authentic human connection. In a little over 100 years, technology has made our world unrecognisable. But has it, as Forster foresaw, made us isolated and individual, rather than interconnected?

Only connect! That was her whole sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.

– E. M. Forster, Howards End, 1910

The turn of the century was a time of frenzied advance and rapid rural development. Queen Victoria had just died, kick-starting our modern propensity for progress, and machines had begun to dominate industry and culture. As Forster’s writes in Howards End, ‘month by month the roads smelt more strongly of petrol, and were more difficult to cross, and human beings heard each other speak with greater difficulty, breathed less of the air, and saw less of the sky.’

A state of ‘continual flux’ gripped a society straddling the old and new, and this tension is captured with startling clarity in the social reportage films of Forster’s contemporaries, Mitchell and Kenyon. In particular, a film of Bradford in 1902 shows electric trams sharing streets with horses and carts. If you look closely, ads for familiar brands display the first rumblings of 21st century capitalism and yet the people are timid and formal, every bit the Victorian. This is most clearly exhibited in their overt, often comical reactions to the camera. At the time, a hand-cranked camera would have been an impossibly advanced sight and this is why hoards of delighted children chase the filmmakers up the street and adults gawp at them with a frightened, almost ludditian curiosity. Their mesmerised discomfort is, in itself, mesmerising.

Turn of the century Bradford. Credit: BFI

Turn of the century Bradford. Credit: BFI

After all, in the modern day most of us carry a smartphone as if it was an extension of our hand. Technology has been absorbed into every aspect of our lives, affecting our personal relationships, our identities, even our memories. In many ways, our dependence on it means that we have become man and machine, and our access to a world wide web of infinite connectivity has changed our understanding of human connection all together.

Until his death in 1970, E. M. Forster was President of the Cambridge Humanists and a member of the Advisory Council of the British Humanist Association. His humanist principles are at the heart of his writing, so while Mitchell and Kenyon’s footage exposes the condition of Industrial Britain, Forster’s work continues to strive to reconcile that condition with what it means to be human.

In Howards End, this is personified by two London-based families: the Wilcoxes and the Schlegels. The Wilcoxes represent colonialism, social mobility, reason. They are cold, calculated, perfunctory. The Schlegels are literary, sensitive, earthy. They feel that ‘one is certain of nothing but the truth of one’s own emotions,’ and the increasingly fragmented, anonymous nature of London threatens their emotional wellbeing daily.

At the time, Forster felt that Edwardian society was suffering an ‘imaginative poverty.’ Consumerism was thriving and a great monster of a railway had sunk its claws into the British countryside. But rather than connecting humanity, the rail was just another Wilcoxian commodity, taking people from one mechanical city to another – not allowing them to take root in the earth or in each other.

‘Man is an odd, sad creature as yet, intent on pilfering the earth, and heedless of the growths within himself. He cannot be bored about psychology. He leaves it to the specialist, which is as if he should leave his dinner to be eaten by a steam-engine. He cannot be bothered to digest his own soul.’

– E. M. Forster, Howards End, 1910

This ideology comes into its own in The Machine Stops, a dystopian science fiction story about technological dependence. In this world, the toxic smog he vilifies in Howards End has long since suffocated the earth and it is now an uninhabitable wasteland. Each human lives underground inside a single hexagonal cell held within a beehive-like colony. Each cell is controlled by an autonomous computer known as ‘the Machine.’ The people are withered shells of their ancestors and live in total isolation – although the omnipotent Machine connects them to the rest of the world through instant messaging and video calls. It also delivers music, information and all amenities at the touch of a button. Subservience to the Machine is considered an advanced human quality, as is physical weakness, and eventually it is worshipped as god.


A new century, and a brave new world. Credit: BFI

A new century, and a brave new world. Credit: BFI

Written in 1909, Forster’s cautionary tale is staggeringly apt in a modern context. He predicts a number of modern technologies, in particular the internet, and in doing so exposes our increasingly problematic relationships with the environment and technology.

‘But Humanity, in its desire for comfort, had over-reached itself. It had exploited the riches of nature too far. Quietly and complacently, it was sinking into decadence, and progress had come to mean the progress of the Machine.’

– E. M. Forster, The Machine Stops, 1909

Whilst Vashti, the main protagonist, is in complete isolation, she is never alone. The Machine connects her to the world and although she can select ‘the isolation knob, so that no one else could speak to her,’ the hum of the Machine is eternal. In fact, when the Machine inevitably stops, the silence kills ‘many thousands of people outright,’ for they have never known ‘the silence which is the voice of the earth and of the generations who have gone.’ Connection is infinite, and Vashti knows ‘several thousand people.’

However, just as Margaret Schlegel remarks in Howards End, ‘The more people one knows the easier it becomes to replace them.’ Too many connections devalues each one in a kind of emotional hyperinflation. For the Schlegels, this is the constant danger of London; for Vashti it is the inevitable by-product of remote communication technology, and something that she has been indoctrinated to approve of.

There are a number of prominent modern parallels here. Today, people tout the benefits of disconnection as if it were an antidote to a social problem. Many of us need to remind ourselves to ‘unplug,’ to select the isolation knob, so that we might be present in the moment, or simply alone, and this is no easy task. For some, disconnection induces anxiety, a fear of missing out, a sense of isolation. So whilst hyperconnectivity is isolating in the way that it denies direct, personal experience, we have to isolate ourselves even further just to get away from it. It’s an absurd paradox.

From the isolation of our smartphone bubble, our hexagonal cell, we can discuss, arrange, meet, read, watch, remember, create, destroy, repair, buy. We needn’t interact on a human level to achieve any of this. As technology becomes more autonomous and the boundaries between reality and technology become blurred, we will lose more direct experience – that fragment of connection that is fundamental to our humanity. In The Machine Stops, Vashti is crippled by ‘the terrors of direct experience.’ She has spent so long connected to the machine that personal interaction has become obsolete.

Autonomous technology only intensifies this risk. It takes away a fundamental aspect of our humanity – the need to think and act for ourselves. In the story, the Machine uses its ubiquity for surveillance and mind control, systematically devaluing every aspect of humanity by rendering it useless through advance. Our ubiquitous technology is already being used for surveillance. Before long, it too could be used to deny us basic human rights.

This degradation of humanity comes to a head in The Machine Stops when Vashti admits that ‘she would sometimes ask for Euthanasia herself. But the death-rate was not permitted to exceed the birth-rate, and the Machine had hitherto refused it to her.’ Although this might seem like an extreme depiction, we are reminded of Anne, the retired art teacher who chose euthanasia just last week because she had ‘grown weary of the pace of modern life’ and of how technology had changed society. Anne, who did not want to give her last name, believed that people were becoming robots attached to their gadgets. ‘They say adapt or die,’ she said, ‘At my age, I feel I can’t adapt, because the new age is not an age that I grew up to understand.’

It is difficult to digest, but the truth is that our society has become a dystopian science fiction of sorts. We are disregarding the plight of our environment in order to advance. We are disregarding our humanity in order to connect. Our devotion to technology is borderline theological and our desensitisation impacts our ability to relate to the natural. We are all well aware of the dangers of that by now. Indeed, the repercussions of the industrial-technological age can already be felt the world over and the more we surround ourselves with a virtual reality controlled by machines that are infinitely smarter than ourselves, the more out of touch we become with the reality of our situation.

Forster felt this stronger than most. His whole ideology rests on ‘the building of a rainbow bridge’ that would reconcile our societal need to progress with our propensity for unconditional love. That latter aspect, although such a primordial compulsion, anchors our humanity and our ability to connect in a way that progresses both man and machine.

‘I am dying – but we touch, we talk, not through the Machine.’

Emily Buchanan is a writer and digital editor living in Norwich. An interest in history and literature lends itself to an affection for long-form content, and specialisms include environmental policy, international affairs and sociology. Emily is a blogger for the Huffington Post, an employability speaker and an aspiring fiction writer. You can follow her on Twitter.


If you enjoyed the above, here is a video of The Machine Stops from Out of the Unknown in 1966. Enjoy!

Great essays in the humanist tradition: ‘Evangelical Teaching: Dr Cumming’ by George Eliot

George Eliot, as painted by Samuel Laurence, c. 1860

George Eliot, as painted by Samuel Laurence, c. 1860

In the first of a series, HumanistLife brings you a great essay from the public domain.

Born Mary Ann Evans, George Eliot was a remarkable person. Not only did she pen brilliant novels such as Middlemarch, she was a fierce and formidable essayist.

Even in her personal life, she defied the oppressive Victorian morality of her day to live with her married boyfriend, the philosopher and critic George Henry Lewes.

Today Eliot is buried in Highgate Cemetery in an area reserved for agnostics and dissenters. Since her death, many great men and women have been inspired by the excoriating wit of her essays; the influence of her non-fiction is especially evident in writers like Christopher Hitchens.

The below essay is called ‘Evangelical Teaching: Dr. Cumming’, a scathing attack on the intellectual dishonesty of the clergyman Rev. John Cumming, and in which Eliot expresses in clear and beautiful language her own humanist perspective.

Beware only one thing: she writes in long paragraphs.

[Read more…]

Alternatives to Religion: A collaborative project

by Nicky Hilton

Irreplaceable humanist archives, are being rediscovered as part the Alternatives to Religion Project. The material, described by the National Archives as having the potential to ‘transform research and understanding of alternatives to religion’ includes items created by the British Humanist Association (BHA), Conway Hall Ethical Society (CHES) and the National Secular Society (NSS). The current phase of the project is funded by the National Cataloguing Grant Programme and will see historic material from all three organisations catalogued, preserved and made publicly available.

As the professional Archivist implementing this phase of the project, I’ve come across a huge array of items since I started work on the collections in April. The archives consist of official records, such as minutes, deeds and annual reports, as well as campaign material, plans, correspondence and photographs.

My favourite items from the archives are those which convey the changes to thinking of those pioneering agnostics and Unitarians who established the Ethical Movement and laid the foundations of Humanism.

Tracing the origins of Conway Hall Ethical Society through the archives, the researcher will soon encounter minutes and ledgers of Parliament Court Chapel, Artillery Lane. The records evoke a time when this progressive East London congregation (led by William Johnson Fox from 1817), were still navigating the boundaries between dissenting religion, agnosticism and humanism. The congregation met from approximately 1807 until 1824 and although Christian, the congregation were non-conformists, and described in some reports as Universalist. A natural leader, Fox gradually led his congregation away from Christianity to rationalism and presided over the move in 1824 from Parliament Court Chapel to the purpose built South Place Chapel (near Moorgate Station). The official minutes from this time convey a simple shift away from describing the attendees as ‘the congregation’ to the word ‘members’. From this point, the members of South Place Chapel continued to move away from established religion, but it was the arrival of another charismatic leader, Dr Stanton Coit in 1888 which finally saw a complete break from Christianity. The archives record that Coit was appointed Lecturer (no longer Minister) and presided over the change of the organisation’s name from Chapel, to Religious Society, and finally to Ethical Society.

In the British Humanist Association Archive there is further evidence of this gradual, but confident break from religion. As well as leading South Place Ethical Society, Dr Coit was a member of the Ethical Union (forerunner of the BHA) and his vision for the Ethical Movement created some of the most interesting items in the archives. For example, Coit’s scrapbook reveals his unwavering commitment to relieving the plight of the Victorian working classes, not through salvation, but by education and self improvement. His Neighbourhood Guilds, a type of trade union based on locality rather than employment, attracted international attention because of the socialist undertones and atheism. This desire to support people within an ethical framework also led Coit to establish the unique Ethical Church at Bayswater. Occupying a former Methodist Chapel, Coit saw his non-religious church as a template for an inclusive, secular, Church of England. Photographs of the interior of the building show the lectern from where Coit gave his Sunday lectures. Behind him stood an engraving which could easily be taken from a modern work of Humanism: “Thanks to the human heart by which we live”.

The material mentioned here is just a tiny fragment of the total collection. These archives are a treasure trove of humanist, secular and ethical activities, with more untold stories waiting to be uncovered by researchers. Cataloguing of CHES and BHA archives is continuing, and the records of the NSS are due to be started in the new year. Highlights of the Alternatives to Religion project so far are displayed on the project blog at: http://alt2religion.tumblr.com/   which is updated weekly. You can also search the partial BHA catalogue at: http://www.bishopsgate.org.uk/Library/Library-Catalogue ; and the partial SPES catalogue at: http://www.conwayhall.org.uk/catalogue

Nicky Hilton is the Archivist for the Alternatives to Religion Project.

Doctor Who: fifty years of Humanism

Celebrating 50 years of Humanism: Matt Smith, David Tennant and guest star John Hurt, all playing the Doctor.

Celebrating 50 years of Humanism: Matt Smith, David Tennant and guest star John Hurt, all playing the Doctor.


Tonight is the airing of a Doctor Who special, The Day of the Doctor. Fans are celebrating the show’s fiftieth anniversary, and as well as lighting up TV screens around the world, the special is showing in cinemas around the UK in 3D.

It’s worth celebrating the show from another perspective, however. It’s one of the most humanist television shows of all time. In fact, at practically every turn up to now it has presented the philosophy of its title character, the Doctor, as an emphatically humanist one. If there’s one thing the Doctor values, it’s human life, and if there’s one thing he consistently stands in awe of, it’s human potential. He abhors superstition; he scorns pointless prejudices; he believes fervently in reason; he is sympathetic to the beliefs of others, but will not kowtow to them when a fundamental liberty is under threat.

The show began in 1963 as a children’s program with an educational mandate. A mysterious old miser known as the Doctor, played by William Hartnell, would take his granddaughter and her two schoolteachers back in time to visit the Earth’s history, as well as into the future and into outer space, using speculative fiction as a means to explore philosophical questions and scientific ideas.

Its second story, The Daleks, was a parable about the evils of Nazism. It gave birth to rich science fiction concepts which took the show into a bold new direction, and would go on to test better with audiences than the historical format of later serials such as The Aztecs. The Daleks produced a strong template for the show’s future, in which it would continue to delve into history, but never again lose the science fiction backdrop which led it to discuss bold themes and big ideas.

The Doctor is one of pop culture’s most popular atheists. Famous atheists on TV tend to play into negative stereotypes. They are either the curmudgeonly, misanthropic intellectual (Dr. Gregory House on House, Dr. Perry Cox on Scrubs) or the sanctimonious liberal douche (Brian Griffin on Family Guy, Kurt Hummel on Glee). But the Doctor, by contrast, has evolved into a life-affirming, swashbuckling hero who is adored by children everywhere.

To maintain the show’s longevity, it introduced the plot device where if the Doctor is fatally injured, his alien physiology can “regenerate,” creating a new body with new personality quirks and a different face. The mantle of the Doctor has been passed on officially to a dozen or so actors in the show’s history, with many other actors playing alternative versions or unofficial Doctors over the last half-century. Like no other character on TV, over fifty years we have seen his many sides. He has been a narcissist, a boor, a clown, a grump, a convincing portrayal of a bipolar person (David Tennant, I’m looking at you) and a wide-eyed dreamer. Whatever his face however, the Doctor always believes in the values of the Enlightenment.

The show has some great pedigree with British Humanism as a movement, as well. Douglas Adams, the legendary writer and ardent humanist, was one of the show’s most influential scriptwriters. It was he who introduced the show’s former leading lady, Lalla Ward, to scientist and BHA Vice-President Richard Dawkins at a party in 1992, with BHA Distinguished Supporter Stephen Fry looking on. The pair would later marry. Professor Dawkins would himself become one of the show’s many scientist cameos, which have included Distinguished Supporter Professor Brian Cox.

The programme’s showrunners have also tended to be socially conscious atheists. When the show was brought back from cancellation in 2005, Russell T Davies didn’t shy away from expressing his opinion of religion. The second episode after its revival features the joke that “weapons, teleportation and religion” are banned aboard a fictional satellite. For its season finale that same year, Davies clearly asked himself what could make a Dalek scarier, given that they were already pitiless aliens bent on racial purity. His answer made terrifyingly good sense:  religion.

Steven Moffat has taken this theme further. All delivered in absurdist good humour, he shows that in the distant future, ‘the Church’ has become a military institution which patrols the galaxy. It is an organisation of superstitious cowards with guns, fearful of its so-called ‘Papal Mainframe’. It is also susceptible to manipulation and influence from others in power. To the Doctor, like every religion, this is just one of the absurd things humans do – he loves them for their potential as much as for their naivety. The Doctor exploits the Church’s weaknesses to great effect in A Good Man Goes to War (2011), when the Doctor (played by Matt Smith), who is for the most part a staunch pacifist, must rescue his companion Amy who has been held captive for the duration of her pregnancy.

When religion is portrayed positively, the show stops short of crediting the tenets of belief themselves. In Davies’ 2007 episode Gridlock, the singing of hymns binds people together in despair. But these hymns are not to a God who will save them. These people are singing to themselves. They are coming together as a community. It is the Doctor who saves them, a man of science who burns with moral conviction. Though he is himself sometimes revered as a god, and even presented with Biblical imagery, he knows better than anyone how far this is from the truth. He is someone who lives with the burden of a dark past, and the knowledge of his own frailty – both moral and physical.

In tonight’s fiftieth anniversary, the two most popular Doctors in the show’s history (David Tennant and Matt Smith), who just so happen to be the most recent, will confront this same dark past. With the exception of the young Doctor played by the old William Hartnell who tried to brutally kill a caveman in An Unearthly Child, the show’s premiere story, the Doctor has always married his Enlightenment values to an adjacent set of progressive ethics. But in 2013, the show has introduced a “dark Doctor,” played by John Hurt, who hails from a time in the Doctor’s life when he was forced to fight a war between his own people, the Time Lords, and the Nazi-like Daleks. The Doctor eradicated both species.

This act is so violent, and so contradicts the Doctor’s strict moral code, that he has worked hard to forget this incarnation of himself and make peace with what he did. As stated in its most recent finale episode, The Name of the Doctor, this is a man who broke the vow his name signifies, and has lost the right to call himself the Doctor. Though John Hurt’s ‘Doctor’ is the same essential person and a man of science, he is also also a warrior, one whose valuation of life is subject to a consequentialist philosophy. Not a great deal is known about him, but he would seem to mark a break away from the Doctor’s strict humanist code. He will go head to head with his less morally flexible replacements.

In its fiftieth year, the show is putting its title character’s values at the heart of the action. Let us see if in the next fifty years, the Doctor’s Humanism will win out.

I haven’t read it, but there’s a critical book on the subject (Humanism and Doctor Who: A Critical Study in Science Fiction and Philosophy by David Layton), and a nifty video on this subject did the rounds on YouTube earlier this year, before getting taken down by a copyright claim. If you can find it, it’s got fifty years of the Doctor’s humanist speeches edited together to great effect.

EDIT: Ah, the creator of the video managed to resolve the copyright issue and upload it anew yesterday. Enjoy!