Sunday, July 27, 2008

Chicken heads for the soul

This is the story of how a chicken head showed me that the soul is a myth...

Okay, my tongue is ever-so-slightly in my cheek. But, still, let me explain. I've never had much to say about the whole 'can atheists be spiritual?' topic. When I first understood I was an atheist, I discarded the idea of a soul without giving it much thought. Later, in university and thus going through one of those 'experimental phases' university students practically feel obliged to force themselves through, I had what I took at the time to calling a 'crisis of faith in my atheism'.

My main reasons for using that phrase were (a) it was oh so clever, and (b) I wasn't so hot on the terminology. What I suppose I meant was that I had a crisis of faith in my materialism. As I developed all sorts of dopey new-age theories, ideologies and stoned soliloquys, I never actually found a place for any kind of 'creating' or 'conscious' force, but I did find space for plenty of what they might call 'spiritual' philosophies. I laugh now at the worst of my youthful excesses (though all of my quasi-spiritualistic rhetoric was bound round a humanistic ideology that I still have), but at the time I found them hard to shake.

In the dozen-plus years since then, I've found that my interest in matters spiritual has waned, but I was always conscious that I had never 100% given up on the concept of a soul. Even after becoming a semi-professional internet atheist rabble-rouser.

For me it came down to the self-evident fact that something possessing of life, say a jaguar, differed in some concrete way from something not possessing of life, like say a Jaguar. It seemed to me that there was a 'moment of death' at which point what was previously a 'living being' was now a pile of meat. It seemed that there was a valid distinction to be made there that, regardless of concepts of divinities or 'creators', could be called a 'soul'.

Or, you know, whatever. I didn't like to get bogged down in the terminology.

When I got to thinking about the fact that things like blades of grass and amoeba didn't really seem to be much more than self-replicating entities, I usually just mentally shrugged (a difficult thing to do; try it some time) and move onto the next topic. I think, strange as it may seem, that I maintained the belief in the spirit merely because I liked it - this, of course, being one of the major motivating factors behind all supernatural or theistic belief structures.

But I got thinking about headless chickens. You know how a chicken will flap its wings around for a minute or so even after it's been beheaded? Well, of course that's meant to be a complex nervous reaction. When I was in high school, we had to dissect worms and they'd sometimes twitch. As creepy as that was, it was easy to accept that the twitching was just some kind of nerve thing left over from when the worm was alive. Like how a disconnected electrical wire can still carry a bit of charge.

It's a lot easier to say that a little twitch is not a sign of life than it is to say that flapping wings, scurrying feet and the appearance of panic is not a sign of life. But I certainly would acknowledge that it is not the 'soul' in any case responsible for these things; that whatever a 'soul' might happen to be, voluntary actions result from that grey organ we all house in our heads. And it does seem to me that headlessness is a compelling sign of lifelessness. So, I suppose we all must accept that a headless (thus brainless) chicken is a dead chicken. And, thus, whatever complex tango of nervous reactions causes it, the flapping and scurrying a headless chicken does does not show sentience or, in any practical way, life.

The thing, though, that really got me thinking was partially headless chickens. Don't laugh; they do exist. There has been more than one documented case of chickens who, during slaughter, found themselves with their heads only partially cut off. Now, in humans, half a head's not worth much, but apparently the motor control mechanisms in a chicken are located so far to the back of the chicken's head that it's practically in the brain stem itself, and a chicken can have so much of its head lopped off that it appears to have nothing but neck.

In such a case, a chicken can 'live' not just minutes but months - however long chickens really live. In the documented cases, the farmer will feed and 'water' the chicken down its exposed throat. Then, the chicken will continue to walk around the farm and do whatever chickens do, completely unencumbered by its lack of a head.

Now, obviously chickens are stupid. Headed chickens don't exactly write haiku and read Proust. But the ability of a headless chicken to keep on keepin' on raises questions in me about the relationship between consciousness and 'life' in animals. It seems that any animal that has consciousness becomes in some important way 'dead' when that consciousness irretrievably goes away. I really don't have a detached view about heavy topics like euthanasia - in fact, I find it difficult to form any opinion at all. But I do know that doctors seem to know what they're talking about when in certain cases they say that brain death is irreversible. And that, whether or not the organs carry on, brain death is the only real death that matters.

So if the biological concept of 'life' is nebulous, obviously the spiritual concept of 'the soul' is going to be even trickier. But the two have to be connected, right? Everyone I know who believes in the soul in one form or another believes that it departs the body at the moment of death. The spiritual definition of death would, I suppose, even be 'the separation of the soul from the body', regardless of the question of what happens to the soul thereafter: whether it goes to heaven to meet Jesus, whether it goes into another newborn creature, whether it joins the Brahma or the Tao or just dissipates into the environment.

If you believe that humans have a soul but chickens don't, this creates no problem for you. I've never, at any time in my life, conceived of a worldview that could distinguish humans from other animals in this way. Believing as I do in evolution, I have to believe that what separates us from gorillas is 1.6% of our DNA and a few million years, nothing else.

To suggest that a 'soul' is something that exists but something that we evolved after our branching away from other higher primates seems silly. If we've got it, they've got it.

So if chickens have a soul, does a headless chicken have one? Is it kept in the head? It seems to me the answer ought to be yes. Which means that the walking, flapping headless chicken is also a soulless chicken. And whatever 'life' it possesses (since it seems silly to describe it as 'dead') it does without whatever essence distinguishes us from rocks or Jaguar cars.

Rationally, it's all getting a bit too much. Good old William of Ockham and his rule about simplest explanations, right? Either souls exist, but it's really difficult to suss out who has one and who doesn't, or souls don't exist, and it's just one other thing we have in common with all animals - and rocks too, come to think of it.

Sunday, July 20, 2008


So it turns out there is a Heaven after all. Yeah, I know... I was pretty surprised about it too.

But there I was one morning, in a gleaming light breathing that thin and unsatisfying oxygen you get at the top of mountains. I saw a long, white fence, so I started to walk towards it. I figured it was heaven, but something was a bit off - up close and personal, the Pearly Gates weren't really all that impressive. And what's more, it wasn't really made of pearl but that kind of knock-off cultivated mother-of-pearl that adorns two-dollar made-in-China souvenir trinkets. You know the stuff. Plus the guard was seated at the kind of plywood table you find at church raffles and craft shows. He had a pin on his lapel - "Hello! My name is St. Peter" - but he was fast asleep, his hands still clutching a "People" magazine. I decided to let myself in.

You know, Heaven is huge, absolutely huge. I do a lot of wandering but there are still entire districts, entire subdivisions I've never set foot in. It's not like it really matters, though; it all looks the same. It's just dirt road after dirt road with rows of interchangeable pre-fabricated shanties-cum-mud huts. Heaven looks an awful lot like Mexico City.

Surprised? Yeah, so was I. With St. Peter fast asleep, there was no one to give me the grand tour, but luckily I met a guy from late 19th-century Nigeria who showed me the ropes. He must have seen how lost I looked, so he came up and shook my hand. "Newly dead? Welcome to Heaven, my friend. St. Peter asleep at the wheel again?" I nodded. He smiled and said, "Oh yeah. Happens all the time. So how did you die, my friend?" I shrugged. "Hm...," he mused, "must have been in your sleep then. Well, they always say that's the best way to die."

A thought that had been building in me suddenly sprung to life and forced its way out of my mouth: "But I was never a very good person. If this is Heaven, why am I not in Hell?" At this, my acquaintance laughed that deep heartfelt laugh you hear so often from African mouths. "Hell? Ah no, my friend. This here is all that there is. Hell's just something they made up to frighten the little kiddies. You know, like the bogeyman. Or... you don't believe in the bogeyman as well, do you?" He laughed again before suddenly shouting, "Boo!" and completely collapsing in hysterics.

I stood there waiting for him to regain composure. As his laughter subsided, he wiped a tear from his eye and suddenly got very serious. "No, man. Heaven's not about good and evil, punishment and reward, Christian and Pagan... Heaven's just a big dumping ground for all these souls. A soul's got to go somewhere when it dies, right? So it comes here. Spiritual landfill, man, that's where we are. Have a nice afterlife!" He smiled. I didn't.

"So... is one of these, er, houses mine?"

He shrugged. "Sure. Just take any empty one. Those ones over there are pretty new, so just help yourself. We're all supposed to be assigned housing, but nobody ever really comes round to check."

I took his advice and opened the first unlocked door I could find. It was pretty grim inside, with just a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling, an old folding chair with a broken leg and a damp, musty smell in the air. The only thing that looked reasonably new was the harp resting against the wall in the corner.

Oh the harp. The damned harp. It turns out that Jesus, who is King around here after all, has a bit of a thing for the harp. He figures he's creating some kind of mass harp orchestra to raise the heavens for Second Coming or something. So every now and then the loudspeakers will crackle to life and announce a round of compulsory harp lessons: attendance mandatory. But he's the only one who seems much interested. I must have been to a hundred of the lessons and still I can barely pluck out "Mary Had a Little Lamb". There's a guy around here who can play a mean "House of the Rising Sun", but apparently that's not Jesus's kind of music.

I always figured if there was a heaven that it'd be a place for grand reunions with dearly-departed loved ones. But the thing is that it's just too overcrowded and disorganised here. There is a directory, but it hasn't been updated since 1986 and, anyway, people keep moving house and they wander about aimlessly here. The closest I've come to a tear-jerking reunion is meeting some old lady who figures she might have been in a quilting circle with my great-aunt Lucy back in the fifties. But she's not sure. Apart from that, it's all fleeting friendships and one-night-stands as we while away the hours of Eternity.

There's a canteen nearby. Of course, being dead and all, you don't have to eat, but sometimes you miss it and want to. Mostly though, it's just surly women ladling lukewarm manna from giant vats onto chipped and stained porcelain plates. Though there is fish on Fridays. Sometimes Jesus will whip up a little water-wine, but all we ever get is a small Dixie cup full of it, and it's not that great. Turns out Jesus can only transform water into the kind of cheap hooch that they sell in Tetra-Paks. Who knew.

Still, it's a little something to help you while away the days up here in this underfunded afterlife. There's a big list of urban development plans - things like asphalt roads and indoor plumbing - but the bureaucracy is terrible and it just keeps getting delayed.

Oh well. Eternity is a long time, after all.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

In memorium

I first started this strange journey into internet-based religion rabble-rousing about two and a half years ago. It started for me with the madhouse that is Yahoo! Answers' Religion & Spirituality section. Well, it wasn't so much of a madhouse back then, just a repository for people with very confused beliefs about religion. Having reached a certain clarity regarding religion after a lengthy, pre-internet, struggle with it myself, I was pleased to offer advice to people who, for example, were doubting the faith of their families but terrified to accept that reality about themselves.

Slowly I came to know people who contributed to that site. After some 13 years on the internet, I made my first on-line friends. A number of people scattered around the world who I truly came to know and love.

I've never been a Luddite about technology. I've never given in to the paranoia some people have about making friends online. In point of fact, my sister met her husband of 10 years on the internet, and a more loving couple I've yet to meet.

I had no problem with the concept of making friends on the internet; I had just never done it.

Then I did. As an outspoken non-believer with certain deep and profound concerns about the Christian faith in particular that do, I admit, carry over into animosity sometimes, I certainly didn't expect the Christians of the internet to line up to befriend me.

I can actually remember the first time I saw her contributing to this website. There was a reposting of typically answersingenesis-style rhetoric, a list of Creationist scientists, a few questions about how people support evolution like a religion. So far so cliché, but for some reason this woman's tone made me approach her question with respect as opposed to with a sneer (as is my usual response for people who use a religion-based 'forum' to express opinions about science).

Then a question asking whether you'd rather have an atheist for a neighbour or a Muslim. I read it and regretted my decision to answer her earlier questions genuinely. I wrote a rather bitter response lashing out at her for what I saw as her bigotry, and presumed I'd never waste any more time on her again.

I then got a private correspondence response from her surprised that I'd been offended. That surprise surprised me, and triggered a friendship that lasted more than two years. Superficially, two more different people there could not have been: a cantankerous Canadian atheist socialist living in Europe and a small-town Texan Catholic homeschooling mother and night nurse. Her faith really guided and directed her life. Nothing made me feel happier than aiding people in abandoning theirs.

After that rockiest of starts, we became very tight friends, disagreeing on practically everything but always having respect for each other. Through the example of myself, and some other mutual friends, I believe she was able to see that people without faith can still be good people. Through the example of her, and some other mutual friends, I was able to see that loving God does not mean not loving humanity. A truly beautiful person who not only defined respect and tolerance but positively exuded those characteristics in every word she wrote, she reminded me - when the flood of Christian bullies and bigots you sometimes find online tempted me to forget - that religious conviction perhaps does not alter personality but amplify it - bringing the small-minded and petty to a state of true contempt but also bringing the open-minded and open-hearted to a true state of beatitude.

If there are saints in this world, we lost one yesterday. A long struggle with a painful medical condition finally took from us one of the most genuinely loving people I've ever known and one of the best friends I've ever made through this medium we call the internet. And yes, I am speaking about a woman who was not only Christian but who defined herself by her Christianity. Perhaps the last person in the world you'd expect me to eulogise.

I will, of course, carry on fighting the excesses and abuses of organised religion here online. I will bang my head, stick out my tongue, stamp my feet, do whatever it takes. Sometimes I will be confronted by bigots and I will get angry. I will lash out.

And through it all I will carry on my computer a picture of Debra McCullar, to remind me that what really motivates me is not the struggle against belief in God or Jesus for its own sake but the struggle against those whose hearts are closed to humankind, those who wield their religious belief as weapons, those who hate in their religion's name.

In so doing, I hope to preserve the memory of my dear friend and to honour her and what she stood for.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

In praise of XTC

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I wanted to take a moment here to thank Andy Partridge, a man who inspired me and comforted me in my spiritual journey when I was a child.

"Who?", you might ask. Rightfully so. The English band XTC is marginal at best - known mostly to people 'of a certain age' (which, sadly, I now am) and of a certain musical inclination. They never exactly tore up the pop charts. Or the rock charts. Or the Latin, adult contemporary or urban charts...

Yet I've known them since I was four. "Making Plans for Nigel" is the oldest song I can remember actually hearing on the radio. It came out in 1979. I don't know whether or not it was brand new but I do remember hearing it.

So I tended to follow them when I was a kid. "Senses Working Overtime", "All You Pretty Girls", "Grass"... I dug 'em all. Even though I was perhaps too young to know better.

I was twelve when they released "Dear God". I've spoken to people from around the world about religion, and it seems that people of my age either grew up in places that were explicitly and vocally theistic or were entirely non-theistic. Where I grew up in Southern Ontario in the 1980s, it was a bit different. Religion was never discussed in public arenas. No-one I knew went to church. There was kind of a tacit unspoken assumption that most of the Bible was pretty silly, really.

Yet - and here's the weird thing - God's actual existence was still kind of taken as an unspoken given. You should never talk about God, you should never make any important decisions based on books whose authorship is attributed to God, yet on a basic, fundamental level, you should believe in God.

After all, if you're wrong, what do you have to lose, blah blah blah...

I don't imagine I was ever any different than any of a huge number of atheist children growing up in theist societies - wondering if there was somehow something wrong with me, unable to get how belief seemed so easy and automatic for other people, wondering if I was truly alone.

Then, an acoustic guitar playing a simple series of chords. A childish voice imploring to God, a kind of dialogue - you know, like Billy and Jeffy knelt by the side of the bed. All normal, all systems go.

Then the child, simple and matter-of-fact, says to God, "I can't believe in you..."

The drum beat kicks in and the quite adult Andy Partridge takes over, rather more eloquently. The visceral thrill of hearing Andy Partridge eloquently declaim God-belief in a manner that was not at all lurid or illicit but very thoughtful was, ultimately, secondary to the shock of hearing someone just like me (age-wise) declaim disbelief.

I was not alone! I have no way to illustrate how important that revelation was to me.

The zen koans that litter the song gave me hours of food for thought. After the shock was the feeling that somehow it was all okay. That someone could be an atheist and still have a successful career in the public eye. Twenty-some-odd years later, if that response seems silly, it's a wonderful sign of how far we've come. At the time, it was a revelation.

What happened next? Blowhard hypocrites burning records and shouting about hell. An immediate knee-jerk reactionary response. Watching these bigots juxtaposed with the sweet kid and the eloquent adult and the tree made it indisputably clear who were the good guys in the public arena.

That's what I wanted to be - not a record-burning bigot but an unafraid declaimer of the truth. I wanted to be just like Andy Partridge.

And for showing me that I could be, and that it is okay to be, I am eternally grateful.