Category Archives: believing

Gathering round the fire

This year I’ve had the real pleasure of uniting some of my deepest interests – music, poetry and my humanist outlook on life – to write some songs for the British Humanist Association.

Here’s a song we’ve recorded recently – it’s now released on itunes and all proceeds go to the British Humanist Association, with some of the money going to support the BHA choir to record more music for humanist celebrations.

Flame and friendship, gifts and giving
Defying the winter’s ire
An instinct known to all the living
Gathering round the fire

May your fireside be warm and the people you hold dear be close at hand either in the real world or in this mad and wonderful online network!


I knew instantly…

I’ve been having a lot of first dates lately, and I’ve been reflecting on something I read a while ago. I can’t remember the source or details, but the idea is that on a first date with someone we pick up on the thing – a character trait, a belief – that is likely to end the relationship.

But in the haze of excitement and hormones we willingly or blindly choose to ignore this. And if people get past the first date, this thing becomes less and less obvious as they fall in love , until it resurfaces and finally becomes too significant to be ignored any longer.

I don’t know how true this is in general, but remembering my first date with my ex I can pick up on two things at least that, with hindsight, could have alerted me to the subsequent problems. He mentioned his firm belief in birth horoscopes as predictors of personality – which I absolutely don’t believe in. And he exhibited a rather hyper-intense manner which he attributed to an “energy healing” he’d just had. At the time these things (particularly the hyperness) did make me wonder if I wanted to go on to a second date with him. But in the end I decided that these weren’t significant enough problems, and that they were outweighed by our quite striking compatibility in other areas.

And yet in the end, if I had to pick out the things that brought our relationship to its messy and painful end, I can see how there were signs of them in that first meeting. The instability. The overly confident belief in things for which he had no evidence. And the disruption to his personality brought about by his work with the energy healer and the organisation she belonged to.

Would it have been better if I had picked up on the warning signs and ended the relationship after the first date?

In the end, I think it was right to go ahead with the relationship. Because in doing so I learnt so much more about myself and where my boundaries lay. I went into that relationship with a lot of unresolved issues about what I believed – with both an attraction to and a repulsion from beliefs in things beyond the natural and evidence-based. And came out with a much clearer idea of what I am willing to accept as evidence, and the dangers of believing things without solid evidence.

It can seems strange that we tend to find relationships that teach us what we need to learn. But I don’t think it’s anything supernatural. Simply that, once we’ve thoroughly absorbed the lesson, we avoid getting into similar situations again. I think the uncertainty I felt about these things was the reason I didn’t see the danger signs. Now that I know more about myself, I think they would stand out as red flags.

I think one of the reasons why I’ve spent so much time single is that I’m quite good at picking up what will not work. And because I’m quite happy single I’d generally rather be in no relationship than in one I suspect won’t work. Perhaps I close things off too quickly, ending things that might work if given a chance. But I think I’d rather have a seemingly endless series of first dates with my eyes open than rush blindly into relationships.

Because once that dazzling cloud of hormones that we call romantic love descends on a relationship, it’s virtually impossible to see the partner with clear eyes. So much as I yearn to ride that rose-spectacled rollercoaster again and allow it to bind me closely to another person, I want to take a really good look at them first. To spot problems before I am blinded to them.

I know in the short term that will bring me lots of frustration. There’s always a sadness in realising that your search for a compatible partner has found another blind alley. But I hope it will, in the long run, save me heartbreak.

If what you’ve found is genuinely a blind alley, keeping trying to walk down it is only going to hurt you. And waste time and energy that could be spent looking for a better path.

(this post was set in motion by a prompt on “Sunday Scribblings” entitled “I knew instantly….”)


You stare with visionary wonder at a sudden flash of insight
>>And a new light of knowledge starts to glitter in your eyes
>>Doorway to the quest that beckons you towards a mystic prize.
Your eyes are newly gifted with a special, higher sight,
>>Which can never be deceived by humans’ incessant lies.
From you their masks cannot conceal their weaknesses or fright
For in their auras their stories are written in patterns of rainbow light,
>YAnd you are gifted to cure the world with the truth you realise!

But humility and healthy doubt were banished by your insight
>>And obsessive is the light that glitters in your eyes.
>>To be a healer, not to heal, is what you truly prize. 
The brightness of the vision has overwhelmed your sight,
>>With radiant temptation to believe these flattering lies.
Leaving you so cruelly trapped between pride, hope and fright,
That you lash out at any attempt to question the vision’s light.
> Oh, how much more hurt will you do, before you realise?


This poem responds to a prompt at sundayscribblings – to write a poem about vision. For me one of the interesting things about a really powerful vision is what you don’t see – the brighter the light you stare at, the less you can see anything else. (There’s an interesting discussion about the links between egotism and mysticism at Cafe Philos.) 

Those who know my blog well will already be familiar with the experiences that are behind my response to this prompt – I used to go out with someone who believed his energy reading gave him special insight into me. But what he saw was utterly dominated by his fear and projection… and so his “vision” was deeply destructive. 

I am not denying outright that people can have powerful and meaningful personal insights… that would be to commit the reverse error myself. But I think there is a very real danger that insights that are taken too seriously can blind us to other people’s insights, causing us to close off from the questioning that opens the mind. And so, even if the original vision had an element of truth, its effect, in the end, is to block our minds to the truth.

(Photo by jhhwild at flickr.)


I don’t believe in miracles

Or at least, I’ve never seen one that struck me
As truly miraculous, beyond chance and doubt.

And where others see miracles
I see the chances of life
The vitality of thousands of interactions
Seen through the prism
Of the human wish to see patterns.

A wish to see the world
As a movie which we star in
Where divine gifts and mysterious forces
Bless or curse our path – with intent.

(like a puddle, thinking how perfectly
the hole around it
seems to have been made
to fit its unique contours)

I’m just an extra, enjoying my journey through the backstage of the world
It’s not about me, but I am me. And I enjoy what I see.

Who am I to say,
that the pattern you see
Is chance, is pure illusion?
It’s clear to me that’s all it can be
But I don’t want to hurt your dreams.
– though I will, if I think they will hurt you too

For there are people who exploit
This wish to believe –
Cold reading. Horoscopes. Psychological tricks.
Exploiting the wish to believe in miracles
To create a financial miracle of their own.

I have been hurt, too, by the illusions that others believe,
the special sensitivity they claimed to possess,
the fear-driven intuition they called extrasensory guidance.

I have nearly been killed by a driver who thought himself
Divinely protected and therefore able to take risks
With the lives of himself and his passengers

(It matters, oh how it matters, what we believe.
For what we believe shapes what we do and what we are.)

Is it a gift, to believe in miracles?
Is it deprivation, to believe they are not miraculous?

I don’t feel deprived… I just enjoy
The passing slideshow of the diverse earth
And take joy when my searching eye
Finds a special beauty in random chance.
Without making it more
Than a natural thing.

(The joy of rolling a double six
just when you needed it. Of drawing just that card
from the shuffled deck.

Almost more pleasing, for being random!)

Everyone is always at the centre of their own rainbow.
Not because of rainbows.
But because of humans being human.
Our creativity. Our hopes. The stories we tell.
These, if you like, are miracles I can believe in.

This poem-ish reflection was a response to a post over on red ravine, about miracles. I wrote in response:

I think it’s all about what you want to see. We are very good at finding patterns when we want to see them. Some people see the dot of earth on the iris… Others just random splashes. Others see a pointy-nosed mouse face looking out from her left collarbone…

Is it a gift to believe in miracles? Should sceptics like me butt in when people talk about them? I don’t know. I know people take a lot of comfort in miracles and strange coincidences.

But I’ve also been hurt by people who believed in things like this, who believed in signs and patterns relating to me when there was really no such pattern. At the end of the day, I think it does matter what we believe in. And for me, believing that such appearances are random chance rather than miraculous doesn’t actually take the comfort away.


Reliable signposts for personal growth

This way

How do you find reliable signposts to guide a journey of personal development? How do you decide which ways of thinking, or which activities, are conducive to the goals you’re trying to reach?

If you believe in a particular religion, then there’s normally some sort of path set out, and priests/teachers to guide you along it. If you accept the basis of that guidance (the holy book or equivalent), it gives you some structure. And most religions do seem to teach (even if their followers don’t practice) good principles – like compassion and community. But so many organised religions stress obedience and conformity, not to mention faith rather than enquiry, which I don’t see as conducive to personal growth. Some people may find it beneficial, but it fundamentally wouldn’t work for me.

Frustration by the options offered by the formal religions leads lots of people to turn to new-age approaches. These tend to offer a much less conformist view, but they’re haphazard and tend to promote belief in all sorts of weird things. As I’ve said earlier, attractive as it would be to be able to believe some of these claims, I find the arguments made for them fundamentally lacking in real critical scrutiny and regard for truth. Some of the claims new-agers make may be valid, but the crazier claims make it really difficult to trust that there’s any reliable guidance to be found here.

Alternatively you have self-help books, which seem to have expanded to cover even more bookshelf space each time I visit my local bookshop! I’ve found some useful suggestions there, but a lot more that is anecdotal and often not based on any serious evidence. (I came across a great article on Self help – shattering the myths). On what authority do the authors give their advice? Who has followed this advice, and did it work out well for everyone? Why did they write this advice? Again, I’m very wary of trusting myself to these sources unless I have good answers to these questions.

Beyond self-help books, some people turn to personal development courses in search of greater peace of mind and personal growth. But these are subject to many of the failings of self help books, and can often be far worse because they are much more intense. I was very interested to come across Louise Samways’ fascinating and frightening text dangerous persuaders which suggests that some personal development courses share a worrying number of features with religious cults. And sadly my own experience and that of friends confirms the negative effect that personal development courses can have on people, and on their relationships with friends and partners. I plan to steer well clear of these.

What else is there? Psychological research is throwing up some fascinating findings which provide some very interesting food for thought. The research often very challenging to our conceptions of who we are and how we think. It’s dizzying to realise the extent to which the mind and senses that appear so infallible are playing all sorts of tricks on us. But while this makes the mind boggle, I often find myself looking for something that goes a bit further. A lot of psychology seems to focus on poor mental health and functioning normally within society. Of course this is important and valuable. But at the same time I’m sure there are ways of growing as a person – becoming more confident, more honest, more open.

As I said in an earlier post, I believe life itself can teach us a lot – particularly if we seek interesting people and situations, and try to be open to what we can learn from them. It’s a great way to live, and a great way to grow. It’s tempting to look for shortcuts – but many of the shortcuts on offer take us away from the world – onto courses or into convents, rather than just confronting the challenges of now.

Not just our own lives of course – I think there’s a huge amount to learn from the stories that allow us to tap into what other people have learnt and done with their lives. Some autobiographical, some fictional. Some realistic, some dealing with archetypes that seem to have a powerful resonance (like Women who run with the Wolves, which I’ve mentioned in a few posts).

I suppose that gives at least three useful sources of guidance – psychological research, personal experience, and stories of others. A lot of food for thought!

Perhaps too much? Of course having multiple sources means that you always have to do your own sifting. And there’s always a risk that you choose the advice that challenges you least. But at the end of the day I’m the one who has to choose how I live my life and what paths I follow in pursuit of personal growth. Not having a clear path laid out can be confusing, and sometimes (especially in difficult times) demoralising, but mostly I wouldn’t have it any other way!

Evidence and expectations

I saw a fascinating film recently about a young boy with quadroplegic cerebral palsy. Because of his severe physical disabilities it was incredibly difficult to establish any method of communication with him. His mother devised all sorts of ingenious techniques for overcoming the physical blocks to communication, but was often met with scepticism from professionals who were not convinced of her son’s intelligence. Part of the challenge was that he was only able to communicate with physical assistance.

The film was powerfully put together, and I was very moved by the way his mother had to struggle against a system that seemed very rigid and unresponsive.

But I also watched with some doubt in my mind. (It’s not pleasant to doubt things that other people with so much more knowledge of a situation clearly believe so strongly, but sometimes holding back on asking difficult questions is a fake respect, implying that you don’t think they’ve considered the issue. So while I try to be polite and open minded, I am trying to have the confidence of my own doubts, and not worry overmuch about what people will think about me for asking.)

Anyway, I have recently (for example, here) been looking into new-age claims for dowsing and similar, and in particular the ideomotor effect. (There’s a good article on this at: Essentially, the movement of the pendulum or other device is influenced imperceptibly by the dowser’s state of mind, even though they are not aware of this and do not intend it. The effect is very misleading, so people dowsing are often sincerely convinced that the pendulum is reflecting something in the outside world, because they have no conscious intention of influencing its movement. Nevertheless, under double blind testing dowsing performs no better than chance as a measure of what is going on outside the mind of the dowser.

So in watching the video, I was worried to what extent this effect might be intervening in assisted communication. I sympathised deeply with the mother, but also with the professionals whose scientific training trained them to doubt, to demand consistency and exclude all possibility of experimenter bias. The ideomotor effect is so insidious – with someone who has to be physically supported for communication, how it is possible to be absolutely sure that the assistance isn’t affecting the message? How is it possible to design a test that would prove beyond reasonable doubt that this was not taking place? To what extent did the professionals have cause to be doubtful?

The film addressed this difficult question of how to be sure directly. Some of the people most closely involved with the boy spoke of their moments of doubt. But they felt that the real problem was that those who were assessing his intelligence were unwilling to challenge their preconceptions about what people with such severe communication barriers were capable of mentally.

Someone asked an interesting question at the meeting – is there training that could be given to professionals to suppor them to design their own ways of testing in these unusual circumstances? I like that idea – looking for tests that are as innovative as a loving mother, whilst still rigorous enough to give real certainty by excluding any potential for bias or randomness.

Our expectations will inevitably colour the way we interpret what we see in the world around us. And people with differing expectations will see the world differently. So the challenge is to set aside our attachment to our expectations and design tests that will bring us closer to the truth, whatever that is. It’s hard to do, but I can’t help feeling it’s crucial.

Of course it’s not always possible to reach that level of certainty, so sometimes we do have to deal with situations that really are ambiguous. In which case the only way to proceed seems to be to choose the viewpoint which is least likely to do harm if untrue.

When it comes to assessing intelligence, there seems to be a lot more harm in a false negative than a false positive. It’s hard to imagine what it must be like to be an intelligent human being for whom communication with others is such a struggle. Making that struggle unnecessarily worse through preconceptions and overzealous scepticism is abhorrent. So it seems far safer to work on the basis that the person is intelligent, and draw on the experience of those who know the person best to understand what they wish to communicate.

One final thought – the woman who made the film was herself severely disabled and could only communicate with assistance. And her distinctive voice could be heard in the clear structure and strong message of the film. Which for me is a very powerful testament to the fact that difficulty in communication may obscure intelligence, but should never be assumed to mean that it’s not there.

With the best will in the world, our preconceptions about what is unfamiliar to us can easily get the better of us. So I am deeply grateful to her, and to those who participated in her film, for the way in which they have opened my mind.

Is there an artificial god?

Having put up my last post, I wanted to put up a link to this amazing speech from the sadly late Douglas Adams – on all sorts of fascinating things about our relationship with the world and the concepts we use to interpret it. As a taster:

“So, my argument is that as we become more and more scientifically literate, it’s worth remembering that the fictions with which we previously populated our world may have some function that it’s worth trying to understand and preserve the essential components of, rather than throwing out the baby with the bath water; because even though we may not accept the reasons given for them being here in the first place, it may well be that there are good practical reasons for them, or something like them, to be there.”