Wednesday, 27 July 2011

'... So open-minded that our brains drop out'

– Richard Dawkins, The Richard Dimbleby Lecture: 'Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder' 1996

Wednesday 27 July 2011

The other night I was discussing religion and politics with someone whose opinion I really respect when, as conversations of that nature are wont to do, it got heated and devolved into a more personal argument.

‘I can’t believe how closed-minded you’re being,’ she said at one stage. I didn’t really respond to this accusation at the time, but it’s stayed with me more than anything else since the argument, I suppose because I don’t think of myself as closed-minded.

And yet I understand how, from her perspective, it would’ve seemed completely closed-minded. If closed-mindedness is being non-receptive to new ideas, and every time she asked, ‘But what about this?’, ‘What about that?’ I still wasn’t being swayed, then it would be reasonable for her to conclude that my mind was made up and there was no way anything was going to change it.

That’s the problem I’m interested in. But let me first explain a little about my spiritual history. As a child I was sent to a private Catholic school because, although not religious, my parents wanted me to be ‘a good person’ and to not be negatively influenced by the types of kids attending the local public schools in our low socioeconomic area. I wholeheartedly embraced Catholic doctrine, and I was distressed by my parents’ apathy towards the topic. I was taught it was true. Religion was a subject right alongside English and Maths; it was my favourite subject, infact, and I took it very seriously. Paradoxically, it was the fervour of my belief that lead to my rejection of it.

For me, since it all came from the same place, it either had to be entirely true or entirely false. As I grew up it became increasingly evident that elements of the faith were absolutely absurd, and as I began to question those elements, I reluctantly had to question it in entirety. Why would some things the Bible says be true and others not? This is an eleven-year-old’s logic. I can still never understand how people can pick and choose which parts of the Bible they want to believe.

From Catholicism I turned to a rigid atheism that lasted about until I was fifteen. Around then I began entertaining vaguely spiritual ideas. I was open to the possibility that there was ‘something else’, and I also formulated my own semi-karmic and Secret-like theory of the universe which included the principles that ‘everything happens for a reason’ and ‘everything works out for the best’, and was based on empirical, personal experience–based evidence long before I had any contact with ‘The Secret’ or any of those similar quasi-religions that have become so popular in the last couple of years because Oprah likes them.

(Image from

Despite my spiritualist dabblings, I was still opposed to institutional religion at this point, which meant I followed atheist discourse with interest. The more contact I had with these texts and ideas, the more I agreed with them, and the more I was torn between atheism and spiritualism. I swung wildly between the two at first, then vacillated mildly before finally stabilising my opinion. The problem was that I had come up with my theory myself, and it had been reinforced by the success of The Secret and Eckhart Tolle’s books. It seemed to work so well. It seemed to be so true. It made so much sense.

The deciding factor was when I realised something about the human mind. It is designed to make patterns, to find meaning, and no matter what happens, when you look back over your past or any event, you will always be able to find a causal sequence of events that led to it. In this sense, everything really does happen for a reason, but in the most mundane way. Not due to some greater universal plan, but because one thing can’t happen without another thing happening first (and don’t try to use that as an argument for Creationism, because as has been pointed out by many but listened to by few, saying ‘God did it’ only changes the question to, 'What made God?'). I'm now also more suspicious of things that 'just make sense', because so many things 'just make sense', but with interrogation, aren't necessarily true.

I still have a soft spot for that kind of philosophy, though. I think unlike the world’s major religions, it’s fairly harmless, and it does work. There’s a possibility that the law of attraction applies on a metaphysical level, and you can draw positive events to you by emitting positive thoughts, but even if that’s not the case, as I’m inclined to think, that’s still a good way to live, and it will still work, because thinking positively and optimistically will make you think the best of whatever happens to you anyway.

My opinion now is not certain. I believe that there is more that we don’t know about the way the universe works than what we do know, and that one of the things we don’t know about could be that elusive concept of ‘something else’ that everyone’s always talking about. But that concession is still a thousand light years away from the idea that that ‘something else’ is the Christian god (or any god). I’m uncertain about what that something else could be, but I’m almost certain it’s not a god from any of the world’s religions.

So why, you ask, do I call myself an atheist? Wouldn’t agnostic be more appropriate? Possibly. I’m probably paraphrasing Richard Dawkins here, but you can never reasonably be a hundred per cent sure of anything. That doesn’t mean I have to say I’m agnostic about the existence of a unicorn or a leprechaun or any of the other mythical figures atheists always use in these scenarios.

The fact is that, based on the information we have, I think the most reasonable position is that of atheism. Yes, there MIGHT be something else, and we can conjecture as to what that might be, but it’s unreasonable to actually believe any of those conjectures. On Dawkins’ 1–7 scale of surety of the non-existence of a god or gods, I’d put myself at 6.5, meaning I’m just close enough to seven to round up to it, although I’m still not actually a 7.* To say that you’re a 4 is to suggest that there’s an equal likelihood of the existence or non-existence of a god or Gods, which is probably not what you mean, or at least not if you thought about it properly. It’s useless to throw your hands up in the air and say, ‘I’m never going to know for sure, so I’m not going to speculate.’ Instead, you acknowledge that you’re never going to know for certain, then ask yourself what you think is probably true, and live your life as though it is. To do otherwise would be like a historian saying, upon encountering relativism for the first time, ‘Well, I guess that’s it. We’re never going to know what REALLY happened in the past, and it’s impossible for me to interpret the evidence without imparting my personal bias, so I may as well not bother.’

*It’s also worth noting that Dawkins himself doesn’t claim to be a 7, all you moderate Christians who cry, ‘Dawkins is just as bad as the fundamentalist Christians!’ or you lukewarm atheists who say ‘I’m an atheist, but I’m not like Richard Dawkins!’ without even having read his work and simply assuming that, because he is among the most vocal and famous of atheists, he must then also be among the most extreme.

But the point of that ‘short’ history was to explain that my mind is not ‘made up’. Conceivably, evidence or argument could change it, but to be honest, it probably won’t. Does this make me closed-minded? I’m not sure.

Below are the actual definitions of open- and closed-mindedness, lifted from

1. Having or showing a mind receptive to new ideas or arguments.
2. Unprejudiced; unbigoted; impartial.

1. Having a mind firmly unreceptive to new ideas or arguments.

I think we're dealing with the opposite of the first definition of openmindedness here, because my interlocutor wasn't accusing me of being prejudiced or bigoted, just being unreceptive to the ideas and arguments she was presenting.

I would argue that the key word in both relevant definitions is 'new'. Part of the problem, I think, is that I’ve already thought about religion so much. In a world where it's considered impolite to bring up religion, and where even many of the religious seem to practice without reflecting on or questioning it, here I am almost obsessed with it. For whatever reason, it fascinates and enrages me. It’s one of the five things I’ve noticed I’m most concerned with. I’m forever thinking, writing, reading and talking about it. I’ve consumed an enormous amount of information on the subject and I’ve already processed it and come to resolutions from it. It wouldn’t make sense if there was one thing you could say that would change the way I think on the issue. It would be like hovering over a full bath tub squeezing in individual drops of dye, waiting for it to change colour. Whatever question or argument you throw at me, I’ve probably already heard it and, if I couldn’t come up with an answer or rebuttal that I find convincing, then I would’ve already changed my mind and subsumed it into my ideology. In other words, nothing I was hearing was 'new'.

Again, I ask, is that closed-mindedness? Is open-mindedness bending your opinion of what is the truth to accept anybody else’s? Is it simply the state of indecision that comes from not having thought about something enough that you are willing to change your mind every time you hear a new argument? Is it subscribing to that pseudo-intellectual belief that all arguments are equally true? I don’t think so. Relativism rightly taught us that everyone’s opinions are true for themselves and that everyone is equally entitled to their own, that there is no one way of doing things that is ‘superior’ to another just because other ways are different, that what is considered ‘good’ for one person, society or culture can be bad in another, but it’s wrong to take those lessons and extrapolatethat ‘all arguments are equal’, and don’t try to tell me it isn't. Don't try to tell me that's what you believe, because it isn't. Yes, everyone is entitled to their opinion, but no, you wouldn’t say that one person’s belief that it’s good to set off a bomb and go around an island in Norway shooting people is as reasonable or good or true as my belief that it isn’t.

Which leads into another issue. Obviously there are people in the world who take their faith very seriously and who have devoted as much, if not more, time and energy thinking, reading, writing and talking about it as I have (as evidenced by Behring Breivik's 1500-page book), who have the complete opposite opinion to me, but are the types of people myself or the moderates of society might call closed-minded. In other words, it can’t just be that a person has devoted a lot of energy to an issue that excuses their being closed-minded about it.

Maybe these people are only ever called closed-minded in the other sense of the word, as in prejudiced and bigoted. But if we are talking about the first meaning, all I can suggest, in my consciously subjective and objectively unprovable opinion, is that these people have been indoctrinated and are working from the position of proving the point they already believe, rather than seeking the truth that evidence and reason suggest. And that’s something I’m glad no one can ever accuse me of. My spiritual journey has been self-driven. I’ve rejected indoctrination, then formulated my own belief system which, in turn, I scrutinised to the point of rejection (my two mottos to my children will be questions starting with ‘How would you feel if ...’ for empathy and ‘Think again’ for critical thinking; I want them to be able to question even beliefs that they arrived at themselves).

My beliefs are not fundamentalist, because they are not immutable, and they are not based on vague notions of instinct or feeling ‘what’s right’; they have been pushed beyond that, questioned, modified and qualified into a largely cohesive (I would be suspicious of anything entirely cohesive), rationally defensible, though not impervious, theory that I’m proud of, which is more than can be said of most beliefs.

Is that closed-mindedness? If it is, I don’t think I want to be openminded.

But that’s a lame way to end an essay, so I’ll go on: I think the meaning of closed-mindedness does extend to people who are only closed-minded to incorrect ideas. As a result of this, I can no longer regard openmindedness as an unconditionally good thing. I think it is possible to be justifiably closed-minded. After all, if someone proposes a ridiculous idea, your mind is closed to it. As you develop a more complete opinion on something, your mind can become justifiably more closed and, unfortunately, people deem that a bad thing.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Book review: tina fey's bossypants

Saturday 23 July 2011
(Updated Wednesday 4 January 2011)

After a semester studying abroad, I recently spent forty-six hours straight languishing in Heathrow Airport, a fact to which I'm sure any of my Facebook friends will attest, due to the incessant status-update plangencies that would have been plaguing their feeds. Awaiting the time of my appointed, triumphant (or, rather, bedraggled and slightly malodorous) return to Sydney for such an expanse of time demanded considerable intellectual sustenance, but with internet access costing ten pence per minute and my AustralianUK adapter for prolonged use of phone, laptop or iPod out of commission, I was obliged to purchase more books from the limited selection of an airport-sized WHSmith.

Evidently my subconscious thought I was in need of cheering up because the two books I selected were Terry Pratchett's 679th Discworld installment, I Shall Wear Midnight, and Tina Fey's autobiography Bossypants. I think it must've been how hot she looks on the cover that made me choose to read Fey's book first:

Yowza! (A quote from Don Fey, Tina Fey's father, on the back cover under the heading 'advance praise for Bossypants' reads 'I hope that's not really the cover. That's really going to hurt sales.'

There's a certain puerile pleasure that comes with finishing a book in a single day, a psychological relic, perhaps, of a time when the measure of your coolness was how quickly you'd read the latest Harry Potter. In the case of Bossypants, however, I can't help but feel that it wasn't my reading prowess that accomplished the feat (especially since I'm not actually that fast a reader at all), but a certain ... 'thinness' in the book itself. At 277 pages, it felt a bit slapped together and brief, especially towards the end when Fey begins recounting individual scenes from 30 Rock and reproduces the entire transcript from her notorious Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton Saturday Night Live skit, not that I didn't enjoy reading both of those. 'I could go on,' says Fey at one point, after having listed three or four lines-worth of luminaries to have emerged from an improv company she belonged to, 'but my editor told me that was a cheap way to flesh out the book' (81).

Reading it, though, you understand why Bossypants isn't a seven-tortuous-years-in-the-making magnum opus. You wonder, in fact, how she managed it at all, in spite of her insistence that the stress levels of her writing job are comically minimal (on a graph comparing them with those of miners, Chilean miners, and active military servicemen) and her hatred of being asked 'how she juggles it all'. I'm not sure about dismissing the difficulties of her working life by comparing them with the stress experienced by soldiers – it's not all about stress; it's about how much time you have in the day, which seems very little in Fey's case. The airiness of the book isn't necessarily a bad thing, anyway. It just makes it one of those 'light reads' you're always hearing about.

Besides, I don't think Fey has to try that hard to be funny. It felt effortless. Reading the book, I found myself lying on the floor of the Heathrow Airport Terminal 3 seating area pissing myself every couple of minutes, much to the annoyance of everyone trying to sleep around me, I'm sure. The funniest parts for me were those where she created an irregular mental image, such as in one of her tips for 'me time' activities when you have a baby: 'Say you're going to look for the diaper crème, then go into your child's room and just stand there ...' (243) or when she recounts receiving a Modess 'my first period' kit from her mother: 'I shoved the box in my closet, where it haunted me daily ... Everytime I reached into my closet to grab a Sunday school dress or my colonial-lady Halloween costume that I sometimes relaxed in after school—"Modesssss," it hissed at me. '"Modesssss is coming for you" (13–14). Or else it was the times she just slipped a joke in there with you barely realising until it hit you: 'Of course I know now that no one can "steal" boyfriends against their will, not even Angelina Jolie itself', or 'I'll bet Margaret Thatcher would say the same if she were alive today.* [And then, in a footnote] *Apparently Margaret Thatcher is alive and says of course she would have told the nanny about the problem and she thinks I am a complete chickenshit' (257).

It was lucky for all of this hilarity, because if you'd asked me if I wanted to read a book whose subject matter dealt predominantly with the female experience of puberty, beauty and appearance issues, feminism, motherhood, and photoshoots, you can guess what my answer would've been. YES PLEASE! But yeah, couldn't quite escape the fact that the book was marketed to women, which I didn't know when I bought it. 'It's not quite as quease-making as when you lose your tampon string,' she says of putting in contact lenses, 'but equally as queasish as a self–breast exam. If you are male, I would liken it to touching your own eyeball, and thank you for buying this book.'

But the book did irritate me every now and then. I got over the self-deprecating ugly jokes after a while. I mean, she's effing gorgeous, with a MILF rating off the charts, so what's she talking about!? I don't necessarily think it's fake humility, I just found it excessive. Maybe Australians have a more refined sensibility to self-deprecating humour, since it's like, our thing.

And all that talk of the facial scar! She kept on going on about it and I was like, huh? What is she talking about? I've literally never noticed it. In fact, I still can't find it anywhere on her face. Maybe it's makeup, or airbrushing, or distraction by her general hotness, or the fact that I've apotheosised her to the extent that I can no longer detect any form of imperfection in her person, I don't know. Actually, you know what it probably is? My habit of not paying attention to/retaining information about things I don't care about. Maybe if I watched Mean Girls again, I'd see it and be like, 'Ohhhh yeahhhh!' Any excuse to watch Mean Girls again ...

'Ugh, my facial scar is huge.'

Also, I think her editor was a bit overzealous on the quotation marks, there. It could've just been that they were all double quotation marks, but they really stood out to me, often as not really being necessary. It kind of made it feel like an awkward email from your best friend's mum, who's enthusiastic about the internet but hasn't quite mastered the conventions of e-communication yet and says things like, 'I heard from "our little girl" that you guys all had fun at the races last weekend! :D Did you make any "big wins"???!!! :oP'

And I'll admit, I was also a little disappointed with the number of mentions of God. You let me down, Tina. But my God-mention tolerance level is significantly lower than the average person's. It's not like she was preachy, or anything. I just expected such an obviously liberal, talented, intelligent woman to be ... irreligious.

Those small and few (is there an antonym for 'multifarious'? There should be ...) reservations aside, Bossypants was a hilarious "light read", as they say!!! :o) !!!?!