Monday, December 19, 2011

On Theism

I write this on the day I learned of the death of Christopher Hitchens, one of the three best-known writer on non-theism of our time, the others being Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins.

It seems that we who do not believe in “God” are in the eyes of most people the moral equivalent of rapists.  Such is the conclusion of a recent scientific study conducted by professors at the University of British Columbia. 

Now, my position on “God” is pretty simple.  As the Marquis de Laplace, a great French mathematician once reportedly said to Napoleon, “I have no need of that particular hypothesis.”  As a scientific hypothesis, “God” is a spectacular failure. 

The fact that most of humanity believes in one or more deities is not the result of rational deduction but childhood indoctrination leading to adult belief.  It mystifies me why belief in “God” survives into so many adult lives when Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and other childhood icons do not.

As a non-believer, it mystifies me why belief in “God” is considered the normal or default state, and not a slightly shameful secret carried over from childhood, like wetting the bed or eating Oreo cookies by eating a layer at a time.  But “God” persists in our world, and in increasingly troubling ways as “God” continues on being the justification for hatred and intolerance, as of course has been the way of the world for as long as we can tell.

My own childhood had enough “God” in it.  I went to Sunday school, and occasionally to other church services.  In little Scottish country schools we read from the Bible every day and got the strap if we forgot to bring our Bible (something the headmaster of Liff Primary School visited on me one memorable day, a day that perhaps cured me both of religion and discrimination based on class).

The fact is that I love church music.  I love Bach’s Mass in B Minor.  I love Requiems, especially Mozart’s and Faure’s.  I love choirs and organs.  I love stained glass and old wood.  I love high-ceilinged chambers.  I love most of the great art that has been created to honour “God.”  But for some reason “God” never managed to get a toehold in my belief system.  As a child I was always a skeptic, asking about the meaning of our existence until I realized that the adults in my life were not interested in the answer (or perhaps were too afraid of it to confront it, I now realize.)

To me, non-belief has always been the natural state of being.  I don’t feel that there is any reason to believe in “God,” and so the question of theism has never troubled me.  To me the existence of “God” has nothing to do with what most people believe religion consists of.  Let me enumerate some of those things here.


Many people would argue that you can’t know right from wrong without “God” and rules supposedly promulgated by “God” to help.  This is utter nonsense.  Right and wrong are right and wrong regardless of the existence (or not) of a deity.  You can be moral without “God” and I would argue that having to figure out the rules of right and wrong without having them handed to you on stone tablets creates a more innate and meaningful appreciation of morality.


Closely related to ethics are the values we adhere to in ordinary life.  We don’t need “God” to be ethical or to have values or to have morals.

The Meaning of Life

Do we need a “God” to give meaning to life?  No we don’t.  Inventing a fictitious “God” for this purpose is puerile. 

An Afterlife

Does this life lose its meaning if there is no afterlife?  I don’t really know.  But I also don’t know why there has to be a “God” for there to be an afterlife.  There was a pre-life.  There will be an afterlife.  Whether we will retain our consciousness in that afterlife is something I don’t know.  Whatever life or afterlife has in store depends on the laws of nature not the existence of a “God.”


People pray for the silliest things.  Football players pray to win.  People pray for the suspension of the laws of nature, or miracles as religious people would call them.  The only prayers that make sense to me are the prayers we might make to our own selves, to our sometimes inaccessible inner strength, to our deep innate wisdom when we are losing sight of our bearings.  This is prayer to something real, something within ourselves.  We should pray to be better.  But for people to pray to some “God” for a miracle in a state of extremity is just sad.

Being Part of a Community

Church gives people a community.  This is a good thing, and I often think to myself that my life may lack something there.  When I attend a small community church or synagogue, I understand the importance that being a part of a group of like-minded people can bring to a life.  They are there when you are weak, and they will be there when you have strength to offer.  So, on the whole I like the idea of a church.  It is good to have a place where you can congregate to celebrate life and to draw on the higher things in life and on the support of your community.  I just want to get the whole idea of “God” out of it.


This is a word that really rubs me the wrong way most of the time I hear it.  Because most of the time it is used as a synonym for “something I believe without evidence, or worse, in spite of the evidence.”  Faith-based this and that are on the rise.  People talk about their faith as if their belief in things that have no objective reality is what gives their life meaning and purpose.  To me this is simply mass delusion and I don’t understand how people can confess that their lives are based on “faith” without feeling absolute humiliation.  Instead, the faithful profess their faith as a badge of pride.

You begin to get my picture.  One of the things we must do is to expunge the word “atheist” from our language.  To call me an “atheist” is to define me as someone who is outside the normal order.  Why on earth have the theists managed to set themselves up as the default state?  It isn’t really a question that concerns me, to be truthful.  But I just don’t get it.

Theists need to be put on the defensive.  Most theists never have to explain their faith.  It is a given.  Most theists live in mutually supportive communities of belief.  When everyone you know believes the same thing people do not question those beliefs.  Well, actually that is not always true.  During the last few centuries we have developed an intellectual tradition based on evidence, deduction, the testing of hypotheses and experiment.  Why have the religions of the world had such a free ride?  Why have they been exempted from critical thought?

Now, fundamentalist theists are attacking the fruits of modern science, inventing things like the absurdity that is “Creation Science” and so forth.  They are attempting, or say they are attempting, to reconcile science with received belief.  It is like trying to make relativity or quantum theory account for Santa Claus’s amazing ability to supply toys to all children in one night.

The antics of theists are for the most part an annoying part of life in the twenty-first century.  I avoid televangelists on television but on the occasions I happen to see them when I am channel-surfing I can’t help but wonder what level of ignorance people must possess to find these clowns anything other than laughable.

I get more worked up when I think about the political scene in the United States.  No person could hope to be elected to a high public office in the United States without espousing some brand of theism. 

But it is when I see headlines that compare atheists and rapists that I get really upset.  I will make a confession here.  For most of my life I have been afraid of religious people.  I have only recently tried to understand that fear, and to control it.  Obviously it is not rational.  Religious people are not likely to harm me.  But I think that fear comes from two sources.  First, religious belief equates to the irrational and usually non-doubting belief in a set of unproven hypotheses.  Second, in my childhood, persons in authority were espousers of religion and with that, were also providers of arbitrary authority.  For example, the headmaster who strapped me for forgetting my Bible had just excused a higher-class female student for the same offence.

But I don’t believe that my non-belief can be attributed to some infantile anger against a headmaster.  I really don’t understand how people can believe in a “God” and I can’t help feeling that those who do can’t really be trusted.  I know this is not fair.  Some of my best friends and some of the finest people I know are theists.  Most people are, in fact.

But the human race will be better off without “God” and only then can we face our future with our eyes open and our minds clear.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The "Occupy" Movement

From the beginning of the "Occupy Wall Street" movement, which as of now has expanded to cities all over the western world, I have had a distinct sense of ambivalence about it.  On one hand it is proper for youth -- maybe even the duty of youth -- to protest against the world that has been created by their seniors.  I can't think of my own youth without thinking about civil rights protests, the 1968 Democratic Convention, even Woodstock which in its own way was a rejection of the corporate world.  It is the job of the young to be critical of the world of the old.

However, I am no longer a youth.  I am now a man of 60 and in many ways I am part of the world that is being protested against. I am not sure whether I am part of the 99% for whom the Occupy protesters claim to speak or whether I am part of the 1% they are against, but I do not understand what they are trying to achieve, other than the act of protest itself.

Even at 60, I have not given up my youthful ambition of changing the world, or at least of trying. But if you want to change the world, it is not enough to know what makes the world something that should change; it seems to me that it is also necessary to have the idea of what it needs to change to. And this is where the Occupy protesters seem to me to have no vision whatsoever. It may be that they are against the current economic and political order. It is not hard to find flaws there.   But what would they like the world to become?

The Occupy movement has been inspired by the Arab Spring, but the Arab Spring was first of all a true popular movement and second of all directed at clear and obvious action: the removal from office of despotic dictators. There is no Mubarak or Gaddafi against whom the Occupy protesters can aim their anger. There is also no clear goal, such as the removal of Mubarak or Gadhafi was to the protesters in Egypt and Libya. There is instead, it seems to me, an unfocused anger, an alienation. The Occupy protesters may be rebels without a cause more than anything.

To me, the Occupy movement is simply an outgrowth of the anti--globalization movement that has plagued G8 and G20 meetings over the past few years. In other words, a great deal of theatrical venting against men in suits and not much more than that.

I understand youthful alienation, and I recall vividly being an alienated youth. but if the object of this movement is to change the world, it is not enough to draw attention to the fact that the world needs to be changed. I understand frustration with the current economic and political order. Too much of the wealth of the world is owned by too few people, and the wrong people to boot. It should be the people who create who attract wealth. It should not be the people who run investment banks.

The political order too is dismal.  Here in Canada there has only been one recent political figure capable of generating genuine enthusiasm. Unfortunately, Jack Layton died of cancer a few months ago at the height of his political reputation, leaving everyone else in the shadows of his promise. We are left with the governing Conservatives who have achieved the rather astonishing feat of being intensely ideological and of the same time being intensely bland. We have the vestiges of the Liberal party, which has managed its affairs such that the only person who could possibly lead it out of its dismal decline has been forced to take its interim leadership on the promise that he will not actually become the leader. And we have the NDP, which without Layton seems like a rudderless, leaderless coalition of kids from Qu├ębec and an uninspiring ragtag from the rest of the country.

At least we have it better than in the United States. It seems astonishing to me that it is less than three years since the glorious day that Barack Obama was sworn in as president. It really seemed, that day, that a genuine new era was dawning. It seemed that almost anything might be possible. Now, except for one fact, Barack Obama would seem to be on his way to becoming another Jimmy Carter, a one-term Democrat who went from a fresh face to a has-been in less than four years.   The fact to which I refer is that the current slate of candidates being put forward by the Republican Party is probably the most laughable set of clowns ever considered for public office.  We have the prospect of the richest country in the history of the world on the precipice of defaulting on its loans because the idiots they have elected can't get over their petty partisan differences.

In Europe we have finally seen the last, at least as a political leader, of Silvio (Bunga-Bunga) Berlusconi.  We have Sarkozy, Cameron, Merkel, Netanyahu and Putin.   No wonder the young despair of political solutions.

But still, if all the Occupy movement is about is to express disappointment, where is its idealism? Where is the inspirational leadership that might help us envision the new world that might replace the one that the protesters find so lacking? Where are the strategists who might help bring that new world into being? The Occupy movement is not in reality a movement, but a mob. As a mob, it will always gravitate towards the lowest common denominator.  It can never aspire to anything.

As a person who believes in the possibility of change, I believe that the written word is more powerful than the mob. I believe that the dissemination of ideas and debate are more powerful than street theatre, the erection of tents in public spaces and confrontations with police. I believe that it is our duty as citizens not only to despair of the world in which we find ourselves but to think of ways to improve it. I believe, and in this I may have much in common with the Occupy protesters, that we are witnessing the end of an economic and political era, but at the same time I believe that a new and better era will not begin unless the citizens of the world begin to come up with some ideas for improving the world and then acting upon them.

I see the Occupy movement as a copout and a waste of a great amount of youthful energy that, frankly, we need if the world was going to become a better place.  And that is why it saddens me.

More to come...

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Buying a Bentley III -- Lucas the Prince of Darkness Shows his Face

Lucas Fuse Replacements
Perhaps it was too good to last.

I now see that my relationship with my Bentley -- which doesn't have a name and I am not sure I should give it one -- is going to be more complex than I had thought, or at least hoped.

I drove it at lunchtime today.  It was purring away perfectly.  The person I was dropping in on was not there.  I had turned the car off, and a minute later I was turning it on again.

Nothing happened.  There was an electrical clicking sound, like a solenoid or something.  But nothing else.  I tried several times.  I even remembered that the car has a switch in the trunk to turn the battery on and off.   I flipped the switch off, then on.   Still nothing.

I had to call the office to ask the long-suffering Shirley to come and get me in my distress and shame.

A few seconds later I tried again and it fired into life.

Ah, the work of Lucas, Prince of Darkness.

From a website devoted to the Prince's achievements:
  • The Lucas motto: "Get home before dark."
  • Lucas is the patent holder for the short circuit.
  • Lucas - Inventor of the first intermittent wiper.
  • Lucas - Inventor of the self-dimming headlamp.
  • The three position Lucas switch - Dim, Flicker and Off.
  • The Original Anti-Theft Device - Lucas Electrics.
  • Lucas is an acronym for Loose Unsoldered Connections and Splices
  • Lucas systems actually uses AC current; it just has a random frequency.
  • "I have had a Lucas pacemaker for years and have never had any trou..."
  • If Lucas made guns, wars would not start.
  • A friend of mine told everybody he never had any electric problems with his Lucas equipment. Today he lives in the countryside, in a large manor with lots of friendly servants around him an an occasional ice cold shower...
  • Back in the 70's, Lucas decided to diversify its product line and began manufacturing vacuum cleaners. It was the only product they offered which did not suck.
  • Q: Why do the British drink warm beer? A: Because Lucas makes their refrigerators
  • Alexander Graham Bell invented the Telephone.Thomas Edison invented the Light Bulb. Joseph Lucas invented the Short Circuit.
  • Recommended procedure before taking on a repair of Lucas equipment: Check the position of the stars, kill a chicken and walk three times clockwise around your car chanting:" Oh mighty Prince of Darkness protect your unworthy servant.."
I still love the car.  But I have a feeling it isn't always going to be easy!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Buying a Bentley II

Me and my Bentley (not exactly as illustrated)
Well, I now have my Bentley, and a gorgeous beast of a car it is too. But I get ahead of myself.

The seller of the car (whose eBay username is Geeman22, but I will call him Geeman) turns out to be a really nice fellow. He was a little concerned at first that I had only one eBay transaction in my history but I explained to him that I was an eBay novice (or is it "noob"?) I let him know I was very serious and that he would get his money.

Geeman was very open and honest about the entire transaction. He insisted on telling me about every minor flaw with the car, while at the same time telling me what a great experience it is to drive. It was clear that he was really going to miss it. I almost felt guilty.

Yesterday, the day we agreed on delivery, I called him from the Island airport in Toronto and he said he would pick me up. He took me to the dealer he had taken the car to for a last-minute checkup and detailing. Turned out he ended up paying nearly $2,000 to get the front brakes done. He just didn't want me driving away with bad brakes. Then he introduced me to the service manager at the dealership and asked him to supply me with all the service records.

Geeman, you are a true gentleman and I hope our paths cross again.

The interior is a soothing and civilized place to spend time.

That's more like it!
Now, the car. From the outside from 6 feet away the car looks almost like new. Close up there are many tiny flaws that show that it has been driven, but the overall impression is one of stately but sporty elegance. The original British Racing Green paint, a very restrained use of chrome, except on the wheels. A classic shape. It's a big car, but not as big as I might have feared. The size of a Ford Crown Victoria police car, maybe. But with an elegance and presence that you just don't see every day, if ever.

Inside, my first impressions were of finding myself in a machine where the controls just don't work the way you expect. All the controls are there, but not where you expect them to be. the dash is a beautiful slab of burled walnut. All the interior surfaces are leather-covered. The seats are plush. All the gauges are round and serious -- old-style serious. All the controls are chromed metal. It feels like a high-end yacht. There is no plastic of any kind to be seen or touched.

On the road, the yacht analogy continued to be apt. The steering wheel is bigger than I am used to. In motion, the car is a constant reminder of certain laws of motion discovered by Sir Isaac Newton: the concepts of inertia and mass come to mind particularly. The car will change direction but not on a dime. It will accelerate and decelerate, but you never forget that you are moving more than 5,000 pounds of mass. The Rolls V8 is turbocharged, but it is a low-revving smooth engine, with a deep bass note from the outside. Inside it is almost as it if has a turbine in there rather than an internal combustion device.

On the highway, it is as smooth and comfortable as anything I have driven. Honestly, within half an hour it felt already smaller as my expectations for it came into harmony with its own personality. And personality it has in spades. The interior is like some upper class Brit's idea of a man-cave, all leather and wood. You almost feel you need a pipe or a cigar and a snifter of something special to really fit in. It is old-world, old-school. It doesn't feel like an artifact of the 1990's. It really feels much older in its conception, although there is nothing wrong with the way it is equipped.

It is also a very masculine machine. It just seems to appeal to some essence of maleness. There isn't anything frilly or solely decorative about it. That is not to say it isn't excessive, because it certainly is.

I have had it only one day, and I am looking forward to getting to know this car, and to allow it to get to know me. We are going to have quite a relationship!

I took our son to school in it this morning. My better half was with us and she noticed all the inconvenient points and all the little flaws at first, but I think that she was being won over by the end of the drive. Anyway, she says she won't drive it.

We'll see...

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Buying a Bentley

It seems I have bought a Bentley.

It all started in Montreal this summer. We went there for a week's vacation. As it turned out, I ended up getting myself on the news over an issue that arose from my work, and all of that ended up eating up quite a bit of the week off. It was a good week though. I spent quite a bit of time working on my novel. Yes, the one I announced was finished a year ago! More on that another time, perhaps.

Anyway, as my main character would say. Anyway...

For some reason I had chosen this particular week to start looking around in eBay. Something I had never done before. 'What would I like to shop for?' I asked myself. For some reason I found myself shopping for Bentleys.

Yes, Bentleys. The grandest of British cars. Well, after Rolls-Royce of course. But I could never see myself in a Rolls. Too corporate, too Maharishi, too formal, too stiff, too establishment.

But a Bentley. Now there's a thought, or so I thought. The Blower Bentleys of the '30s (and of John Steed in the '60s). Bentley was owned by Rolls for decades, and is now owned by Volkswagen. But there is something very British about Bentley without that extra excess of a Rolls. No Flying Lady. No grille that looks like a Greek temple. A Bentley is dashing where a Rolls is square and uncool.

A Bentley is - or was until the Germans bought the company - a last bastion of essentially something British. Not the current German Bentleys, which are selling in great numbers to professional athletes,  Middle-Eastern princes and apparently a great many others too, but the older Rolls-built ones.

I was shopping for something to fill a void in my automotive life. I already have a wonderful German car, an American SUV and a little Japanese sports car. But the era of cars like the traditional Bentleys is dying. They are too big, too low-tech, too leathery, too space-inefficient, just too ridiculous altogether.

But somehow the idea had taken hold of me. I just knew I had to have one, before it was too late. And then, as it inevitably does, my attention drifted off to other things.

Until the other day.

I was perusing eBay and there was My Car. A 1993 British Racing Green (of course) Continental R. With a reasonable asking price. In Toronto. I had been looking at Florida cars, Nevada cars, California cars. I had been figuring out all the little things I would have to do to get a U.S. registered Bentley into Canada. There would be the inconvenience of getting down to see the car, then getting the car home and across the border, the import duty, the conversion to Canadian specs (daytime running lights) and all the rest.

But here was My Car. In Toronto. For a reasonable price. My Car was $300,000 in Canada when it was new. The asking price was under 10% of that. The mileage was only 50% more than my two-year-old Audi's. Did I mention that it was British Racing Green?

With tan leather -- acres of tan leather?

Three minutes before the auction ended I put in a lowball bid. I was planning to tell the seller that this was as high as I could go without seeing the car. Just a couple of minutes later I got an email that I had won the bid. I was paying 8% of the original price of the car!

I am going to pick it up Tuesday. I have been poring over the pictures from eBay, imagining the smell of the wood and leather inside, the velvety smoothness of 450 lb-feet of torque from the big turbocharged Rolls V8, the graceful lines and enormous presence of the beautiful Bentley Continental R.

It is quite an absurd car in nearly every way, of course, if you were to insist on being rational about it. It is far too big, too much of a gas-guzzler, just too much of everything!

But, all the same, I can't wait!

Friday, November 11, 2011

Remembering: November 11, 1992

The evening before we had a memorable dinner at a restaurant called Loon's on Queen Street in the Beach. That morning we got up and went about our business. It didn't seem real that we were getting married. We picked up my Mum at her house around 10 and she had bought flowers for us to wear. We had put the whole thing together in such a hurry that we had not thought of flowers!

We drove to Osgoode Hall, where it was raining. We were at Osgoode Hall because my friend the Honourable Roy McMurtry was marrying us in his judge's chambers. He had suggested Remembrance Day for the simple reason that it would be quiet and he wouldn't have to be hearing any cases.

I had asked Roy only two weeks before if he would do the honours. He said: "My boy, you know how it is. I would be happy to do it if you can write the script for me!" And so Angelina and I collaborated on the vows and came up with something we both loved. Funny thing, after 19 years we remember some of it differently. I distinctly remember not agreeing to "obey." But She Who Must Be Obeyed Must Be Obeyed, so I guess I must have, right?

The entire wedding party consisted of Roy, his wife Ria, his assistant and my good friend Wendy and my mother. My very good friend Wallis Smith and his wife Virginia were our witnesses. Oh yes--Bill McMurtry, Roy's younger brother and my legal mentor--decided to come too although I don't exactly recall inviting him! It would not have been the same without Bill. Finally, we had a photographer.

I remember being extremely happy and sweating a great deal. Angelina was beautiful, with her deeply dimpled smiling face. We were really in a blissful state.

After the short service and some toasts, we went for lunch at Winston's, a posh downtown Toronto restaurant that sadly is now gone. One of my partners, Rick Krempulec, was in a business meeting and came over to see what all the merriment was about. He was very pleased to add his voice to all the good wishes.

We jumped into our car and headed off to Chateau Montebello for a four-day honeymoon. We didn't know what was to come. I was still living in Toronto; she was in Ottawa. It was some weeks after that wedding that I decided that I would move to Ottawa and take my chances that my clients would want to continue to keep me if I was on my own working from home in another city. Well, that part of it all worked out.

Actually, it all worked out. To many people we were strangers. Our relationship was only two months old when we got married. But she had promised me that our relationship would always be simple and perfect. And that is exactly how it has been. We have become lovers, best friends, life companions. And between the two of us, life is as simple as it gets. Because I never want to change her and she never wants to change me. It is not that we are paragons of perfection. It is because we are each distinct human beings. We do change. We have both changed a great deal over the past 19 years, but our changes come from within, not from spousal pressure to be different.

Now we have our son Andrew, and things remain at their core simple and perfect. And it will always be so with us.

Happy Anniversary, my love!