On Holidays.

No, this isn’t about going away for a break, although I could definitely use one.

Rather, it’s about public holidays, and the supposed unfairness of Christmas and Easter being public holidays while Jewish, Islamic or pagan holidays are not, and major events scheduled during Ramadan can disadvantage observant Muslims – an athlete who is fasting, for example, won’t be anywhere near the top of their game. It started out as a Tumblr reply (of course) but developed into a full post, which ought to stand on its own.


Recognising only Christian holidays in a pluralistic society is, on the face of it, unfair. But many of the proposed alternatives are no better. The idea of having to never schedule big categories of events for a whole month, which moves every calendar year and whose commencement technically is uncertain until it happens, is ridiculous. And, at the end of the day, while we might argue about whether we really have control over what we believe internally, religious observance is a choice. If you choose it as an alternative to some other recreational activity, or even your job, that’s your right, but demanding that others accomodate your choice is not.

As far as I can tell, there are a few fair options:

  • Choosing one or two holidays per major religion to officially observe. “Major religion” would be defined as one followed by a certain percentage of the population, which could easily be as low as one or two per cent, especially if the branches of a given religion agreed on their holiday as Catholics and Protestants do. For non-observers, the days in question could be either ordinary public holidays, ordinary working days, or something else. I could easily see this inviting sectarianism and unpleasantness, however.
  • Removing any and all holidays with religious or cultural baggage. The only pertinent difference between a religious holiday and a cultural one, after all, is metaphysical, which hardly seems a relevant ground for distinction. Of course, this would mean removing Labour Days, war memorial days, national holidays, and just about anything with any more significance than “this stretch of the calendar is too empty of breaks, so we’ll just put something in to even it out and call it September Bank Holiday.” This is, of course, ridiculous, and defeats the primary purpose of observing holidays in the first place.
  • Recognising that Christmas and Easter are not just religious holidays, and haven’t been for a long time. This is the option we’ve effectively chosen, and I think correctly. I’m not religious by any stretch of the imagination; I despise organised religion in all its forms, reject any notion of supernatural phenomena whatsoever, and consider personal spirituality harmless but silly. But I love Christmas, because it’s time spent with my family, and time for gift-giving and summer holidays. Although the way it’s practiced usually leaves a lot to be desired, the concept of ritual self-denial to be found in Ramadan and Lent, so long as it’s actually voluntarily entered into, can be worthwhile. Rituals can help keep us grounded, connected to our culture (whether that of our birth or adoption), and sane. For that matter, both Christmas and Easter evolved from multiple pre-Christian holidays, and many of their traditions are either pagan or entirely secular in the first place.
  • Related to this is the fact that a pluralistic society has to be more than the sum of its parts; there have to be things that everybody accepts, even if they’re such basic principles as equality, the rule of law, democracy, or driving on the left. But a successful pluralistic society has more than these bald tenets in common; it develops a culture of its own that is compatible with its subcultures, and indeed grows from their interactions.
  • There is another potential option, albeit a variation on the first, and that would be to allow every person a given number of paid personal days off for holiday observance (as many as four or five per year would not be unduly generous), on top of annual leave, to be nominated by the person. Unlike annual or sick leave, these days would be entirely unconditional, expected to be used for religious or cultural reasons rather than merely as extra leave, nominated in advance, and it would be the employer’s responsibility to accomodate them (by, say, rescheduling events). This would still mean that people may have to choose between one aspect of their lifestyle and another, but we all do that anyway, and we don’t have anything approaching an unlimited right to accommodations.

On Responsibility.

I recently got into a discussion about how a big problem with “modern leftists”, whatever that means, is that their ideology paints people as responsible for things they had no role in bringing about. I’m a straight white cis man, therefore I’m somehow culpable for the oppression of people less privileged. This is not a part of any mainstream modern leftist ideology I’m familiar with, but it is a common misconception (or deliberate misrepresentation), so I think it deserves an explanation.

On the one hand, we’re only directly responsible for making amends for wrongs we ourselves have done. On the other hand, leftist ideals like human rights, empathy, compassion, and so on impose on us some sense of responsibility (commensurate with our means) for fixing harms wherever and whomever they may befall. The misconception is that since, on such ideals, we are responsible for fixing these harms, those ideals claim we are somehow responsible for causing them, perhaps by virtue of unwittingly benefiting from unequal power structures or being raised in casually bigoted societies.

The key is in the word responsibility. It’s one of those annoying words that are very easy to equivocate; here, it’s being used in at least three different senses. The first is that of causal responsibility: if you hit someone while driving, you’re causally responsible for their injuries, which means that (and only that) you had a causal role in bringing them about.

The second is moral responsibility, which we can also refer to as culpability: if you hit someone while driving, you can be morally responsible for injuring them — although, if they were being reckless, your culpability may be lessened. Causal responsibility is a necessary condition for moral responsibility — you can’t be culpable for something you had no role in causing — but not a sufficient one.

The third sense is that of liability or duty, which we can refer to as normative responsibility, or more prosaically responsibility to as opposed to responsibility for. If you’re morally responsible for hitting somebody while driving, then you can be held liable for covering their medical bills, and perhaps some compensation over and above that. If, on the other hand, they deliberately hid and jumped in front of your vehicle (say if they were feeling suicidal), as your moral responsibility is lessened, so is your liability.

It will be seen that each of these senses supervenes upon the former. You can’t have normative without moral, and you can’t have moral without causal. But normative responsibility can arise from things we don’t usually consider when we think about the first two (although in strict ethical terms, they do count). We can incur liability from things other than moral transgressions. We can be liable for repayments due to entering into a loan contract, for example. We can be liable for sales taxes as a result of making purchases. We take on many diverse responsibilities when we choose to have children.

The responsibilities we have to the unfortunate, to alleviate poverty and inequality, to create a better and fairer society — these are responsibilities we incur through the basic social contract, and we would have them no matter how little we were (as individuals) causally responsible for the situation. All that said, though, it is the case that we can be held culpable for actively doing things that make the situation worse, and that those in positions of particular power to make it better — the wealthy, the privileged, the politically powerful, the media — have a bigger obligation to do so.

A Delicate Balance.

I’ve been sitting on this post for a while. I wasn’t sure what I ought to do with it: each paragraph could easily be a whole post in its own right. But I think now is the right time to put them out there. Many of these beliefs are more than a year old in my mind, but I have been thinking about them a lot in the past year; and as I look back, I realise that I haven’t really gotten them out in a coherent, accessible form. They’ve mostly appeared in the form of ephemeral comments on Facebook or Tumblr, and it’s high time I put them in one place. The ideas discussed below also follow a common theme to which I find myself returning again and again, and I could easily find more to which it is applicable.


My beliefs are not typical of any particular orthodoxy. On the whole, I think this is something to be proud of. One should not believe a thing just because other people do, but rather because the thing stands on its own merits. That said, you simply can’t investigate everything fully enough to be justified in believing it from first principles; but in cases where you can’t afford the effort, it’s not appropriate to just throw up your hands or to believe what you like. It’s imperative to accept the expert consensus, if there is one, or the null hypothesis, if there isn’t. This is precisely an example of the sort of nuanced balance I’m talking about. It’s not that both sides of an issue necessarily have a point, so much as that it’s very rarely the case that any given “side” has things entirely right; and that one side has a given thing wrong is no guarantee that the other doesn’t also.

Some other examples:

I’m a feminist, and I think both that Germaine Greer is a bigot for thinking trans women aren’t women and that Caitlyn Jenner doesn’t deserve most of the praise she gets just for transitioning — she’s still a privileged conservative and wholly unrepresentative of most trans people’s experiences.

I’m an environmentalist, and I think nuclear power is not nearly as objectionable as fossil power. I believe this for environmentalist reasons, such as that it releases less carbon dioxide (and, for that matter, radioactivity), and is orders of magnitude less dangerous per GWh. As such, it would be far preferable to use it as a stop-gap rather than keep burning coal and oil until renewables take over. The only reason I’m not advocating more fervently for its use is that we don’t need it as a stop-gap any more — we can already make the switch to renewables in the time it would take to replace fossil power with nuclear.

I’m a Bayesian rationalist, and accordingly don’t believe in things like gods or the utility of death. But I think a lot of the things that are popular in the “rationalist” community, such as strict utilitarianism, advocacy of cryonics or the idea that the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics is the only coherent one, are utter bunk. And the common disdain for “politics” among rationalists generally only serves as a mask for libertarianism or even neoreactionary beliefs, which are hardly rational.

I’m in favour of many fundamental structural reforms to the way society is run, such as a universal basic income funded by very high externality and rent taxes on harmful activities like mining, polluting, or being Rupert Murdoch. I’m equally certain that no matter how revolutionary some of these reforms may be, revolutions are almost always terrible means of achieving them. (This particular dichotomy is one of the main themes of my forthcoming novel, of which I wrote what I expect will be the final line a few weeks ago, although there do remain a few crucial chapters still incomplete.)

I am a keen believer in the usefulness of having a standardised language, especially for such a broad lingua franca as English for most of whose speakers it is a second or third language. And I don’t think this contradicts my similarly firm belief that those who speak nonstandard dialects shouldn’t have to unlearn them in order to be taken seriously. Similarly, I don’t like linguistic prescriptivism as a principle, but I abhor misuses like alternate for alternative that only serve to muddy the language’s ability to make often useful distinctions. (I’d like to think that these dichotomies and others like them make me a good editor; having solid reasons for supporting certain prescriptivist practices makes it much easier to let go of any prescriptivist instinct in the cases where the reasons don’t apply. Conversely, it also makes it much easier to objectively explain my work in the cases where they do, and providing quality feedback is one of the most important parts of an editor’s job.)

This does make it difficult to explain myself concisely, and it’s very easy to be misinterpreted. People assume that because I hold one belief I subscribe to an entire ideology of which it is a part, when that is seldom if ever meaningfully true. In acknowledging that Islam deserves much of the blame for acts of Islamist extremism, for example, I don’t want to be taken as condemning the rest of the Muslim population, because they are not to blame — much less as condoning violent and misguided retaliation.

Happy 2016!

I have, of course, been very busy for the last few weeks, which I hope may go some way toward excusing my recent absence on here. Between packing our things for shipment home; saying goodbye to everyone in Nanjing; settling ourselves in and catching up with friends in Melbourne; dealing with shipping company bureaucracy (although it doesn’t seem it will take nearly as long as last time — our shipment left China less than two weeks after we did, and is expected to get to us in January); Christmas; and of course the all-important and all-stressful job-hunting — I’ve had a lot on my mind!

We’re not doing anything special for New Year’s Eve this year. We were invited to three or four parties, and planned on going to a couple of them, but the missus and I have both been taken down by some sort of stomach bug, so we’re just having a quiet night in. We’ll be asleep well before midnight. Look at us, getting old. I didn’t sign up for this.

But it’s almost a relief in some ways. Of course we want to catch up with our friends here, most of whom we haven’t seen in nearly a year. But the fact that we don’t have to rush through and get all the catching-up done in the space of a rushed few weeks — and therefore, catching up with most people all in a few big parties rather than on a more intimate basis — is immensely refreshing. And so, to everyone we haven’t seen yet, including those who we hoped to see tonight: we’re not snubbing you, and we’ve missed you all. We’ll get to you just as soon as we have the spoons (and the healthy bodies) to do it properly.

I have a more reflective post written, looking back at some of the ideas that have occupied my thinking over the past year, but I think I’ll put that up tomorrow. It needs more brainsing to polish it up than I’m really up to right now. So I’ll just sign off with a Happy New Year!, and see you on the other side.

Gods don’t kill people…

…people with gods kill people.

Sure, it’s a somewhat facetious way of putting it. But the parallel to the clusterfuck that is the American gun control debate is, I think, warranted. After the horrific attacks on Paris on Friday, #prayforParis was, understandably, trending. But such an attitude is deeply and fundamentally insulting to victims of religious violence, especially but not only those without any religion at all (of which there are rather a lot in France). Explaining why does take a little bit of backgrounding and qualification, so I’ll come back to it presently.

As plenty of smartarse atheists have pointed out, which god are we supposed to be praying to? The one who inspired the massacre (and daily atrocities like it in less white, and therefore less likely-to-inspire-outpourings-of-first-world-grief-and-flags-on-profile-pictures, parts of the world)? The one who just sat by and let it happen? But quite apart from all the problem-of-evil stuff, prayer is immeasurably more useless than the oft-decried “slacktivism” of awareness-raising and petitioning. If all you’re doing is praying, the least you can do is keep it to yourself and stop pretending you’re doing anything actually useful or helpful.

Such attacks invariably provoke a backlash against innocents who happen to share the same (very broadly speaking) religion as the attackers, or who don’t but look like it. (Sikh men, because they wear beards and turbans, are frequently victims of misdirected anti-Muslim bigotry.) This is very much deliberate on the part of the attackers; as Waleed Aly informed us on The Project the other night, Da’esh expressly wants Muslims to feel rejected by Western society, so that they will turn to it. And we know they don’t give two shits about Muslim lives; most of the direct victims of their violence are Muslims themselves.

But in turn, in response to this despicable behaviour, a lot of usually sensible, intelligent people have been at pains to assure us that Da’esh’s ideology is “not Islam” or even “not religion” at all. And this is simply not true. The peaceful, moderate majority don’t have a monopoly on what “real Islam” is, any more than Da’esh does, or than the Anglican church has one on what “real Christianity” is. Religion doesn’t stop being religion when it’s used for evil purposes, any more than for good. All that’s required to be a Christian is to believe Jesus Christ is God; literally anything else is up for interpretation. A similarly broad definition applies to Islam, which can be in principle summed up in one sentence: “There is no god but God and Muhammad is his prophet.” There’s nothing in those propositions that either condones or condemns violence in their name (although there’s plenty in the Bible and the Quran that does).

The real distinction, the one that ought to be made, is between Islam and Muslims. Helpfully, unlike for most other religions, we have quite distinct (although etymologically related) words for them. One can condemn Islam as a violent and autocratic ideology without also condemning its adherents, most of whom are not violent and autocratic. It is not the case that most Muslims are terrorists, or even that most terrorists are Muslims. Vastly more Muslims are oppressed by Islam than are oppressors in its name. Even on the fundamental matter of god’s existence, on which they’re simply factually wrong, that doesn’t make them stupid. Most importantly, Islamist violence is not a valid excuse to deny protection to Muslim refugees, most of whom are fleeing Islamist violence in the first place. But when a Muslim is violent and autocratic, and himself cites his religion as backing up that behaviour, it’s insane and wrong, and I believe counterproductive, to suggest that the religion is not playing a causal part in the violence.

Coming back to my headline, it applies not just to the Paris attackers, but to the morons who decided it was a good excuse for some payback, which makes it doubly inappropriate and offensive. Such people tend to be just as religious as Da’esh’s soldiers. In both cases, religion is playing a causal part, and to deny that severely hampers our understanding of the issues. Indeed, fundamentalist Christianity and hardline Islam are much more similar than their followers would like to admit; they are both horribly autocratic, misogynistic, apocalyptic, reactionary and so on, and they mainly differ on the relatively less important (especially in the real world) matter of theology. Yes, non-religious ideologies can be violent and destructive too — communism being the obvious example. But fascism and tyranny have almost always found religion, especially organised religion, to be helpful to their cause, and that’s not an accident.

The parallel to the gun control debate comes when those advocating prayer for Paris accuse atheists who point out how insulting it is of “politicising the tragedy”. There’s a time and a place for debating theology, they say, and the aftermath of religious violence is not it. This cuts uncomfortably close to the arguments of the NRA, trotted out after every gun massacre in the USA, that those who respond by demanding gun control are taking advantage of a horrible event for their own political ends. But religious violence is a prime example of why religion is often a Bad Thing, as surely as gun violence is a prime example of why a laissez-faire attitude to gun control is a Bad Thing.

You can take the analogy further. Most religious people are sane and peaceful. Most American gun owners are likewise — otherwise we’d see several massacres a day, rather than roughly every week. It might even make sense, as an individual, to carry a gun, given the situation in the States. Likewise, professing a religious affiliation can be the sensible thing to do, even if you don’t privately believe in it, if the alternatives are discrimination, ostracism, violence, or outright murder, as they are in many parts of the world. At its heart, a big part of the issue is simply that humans are notoriously bad at solving collective action problems.

Where it falls down, of course, is that it’s possible (politics notwithstanding) to ban guns. Banning religion, by contrast, would be a terrible idea, even if it were possible. The solution to the problems of religious extremism, by and large, has to be in education and dialogue, and those in good faith, not in coercion. And pointing out how advocating prayer in response to atrocities is unhelpful and insulting is an important part of that.

Movember update!

Hello! I finally got the video upload thing to work. For some reason my phone didn’t want to share it to my laptop, which meant editing it on the phone and exporting it from there; then YouTube couldn’t read the exported file. But you don’t care about that. So without any further waffling, except for this bit, I can now belatedly present Jenny’s video (with free added snark) of the Mo-mentous event.

I can also share some progress shots. It’s coming along nicely, though still far too short to style. Give it another week or two, I think.

IMG_1789 IMG_1792

Big thank you this week to the STC and Mazenod veterans cricket teams, whose donations have put me just over the halfway mark to my fundraising target.

Video troubles.

Hello all! Just a quick post this week to apologise for not being able to upload the post I was meaning to. As part of the Movember campaign Jenny took some video of me shaving off my beloved beard, and I’ve edited it and got it all set to upload, but I can’t seem to get it off my phone and onto my laptop to actually put it up here. Will continue trying and hopefully have it up before too long.

Big thank you to Laura Denham, William Lee and Alice Burton for donating this week. Everyone else, if you’re considering donating, consider this your regularly scheduled poke.