World of Wonders

When we see things that aren’t, we miss the wonderful things that are.

The Angel of New York

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The Intersection of Main and Church Streets is the spiritual heart of the western New York village of Palmyra. Five houses of worship huddle around the crossroads like parishioners chatting after Sunday service. There’s the First United Methodist, First Baptist, Zion Episcopal, Western Presbyterian and St. Anne’s Catholic. So unique is the corner of five churches that in 1938 it appeared in Ripley’s Believe It or Not!.

Main and Church Streets, and the medley of bells calling to parishioners on a Sunday morning, is a reflection of the spiritual heritage of the village. With a population of only 3,500 people, Palmyra’s church directory lists 15 houses of worship.

One of the 15 is unique, even for this community: the Palmyra Latter-Day Saints Temple. It occupies the crest of a low hill a few miles south of the village, surrounded by immaculately manicured lawns bordered by beds of flowers. The temple is a single-story, bright-grey stone structure. From the centre of the roof of this slab of a building rises a thirty-foot column, on top of which stands the brilliant golden figure of Joseph Smith, the prophet of Mormonism.

It is not by chance that Palmyra is a hotbed of worship and that the Mormons are here. In the early 1800s, America was in the throes of the spiritual upheaval of the Second Great Awakening. Western New York was still a frontier in many ways, with a zeal for religious and social experimentation stoked by the commerce and immigration that the newly built Erie Canal carried to the region. The area became known as the Burned-Over District. It was so scorched by the flames of religious fervour that, in time, there were no converts left to fuel more fires; they had all become Millerites, Shakers, Seventh-Day Adventists, Latter-Day Saints, Spiritualists, and so on. American journalist Christopher Hitchens, author of God Is Not Great, wrote that its inhabitants “surrendered to one religious craze after another.”

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Filed under: atheism, humanism, Long-form non-fiction, religion

Alain de Botton’s TEDTalk: Atheism 2.0

In a recent TEDTalk, Alain de Botton argues convincingly that atheism has much to gain by adopting forms and traditions of religion that satisfy our need as humans for morality, guidance, consolation, community, institutions and ritual. He refers to this new “religion for atheists” as Atheism 2.0.

It’s an excellent talk and I’m in general agreement with de Botton. But he makes a common mistake of framing the conversation as one about religion and atheism (as Erin Anderssen did recently in an article in the Globe and Mail). Instead, we should be talking about Humanism 2.0, not Atheism 2.0. The latter is a world-view based on a non-belief, whereas the former is a world-view based on positive values. (This is why I identify as a humanist and not an atheist.) When framed this way, we see that humanism does indeed provide us with of what we look for in religion, including morality, guidance, consolation and, I would argue, our sense of “something bigger.”

At the same time, a great challenge remains for humanism: it doesn’t provide us with all that we look for in religion, for example community, institutions and rituals. I do not gather with other humanists on a weekly basis to meditate upon our common worldview. I do not perform humanist rituals, nor celebrate any humanist holidays, nor sing any humanist “hymns.” There are no humanist picnics, choirs, yard sales, holiday concerts, etc. to attend with my fellow free-thinkers. What would I hang on my wall or around my neck to identify me as a humanist and signify the bond I have with my kindred spirits?

I believe there are many individuals who self-identify as “religious”, attend church, read a holy book for moral guidance, etc. but who–deep down–do not believe in a supernatural, all-powerful deity responsible for creation. They aren’t believers, but religion satisfies them in these other ways. As such, I’m reminded of the old Woody Allen joke in which a woman complains that her husband thinks he’s a chicken. When her friend asks if they’ve been to a doctor for a cure, she answers, “We would, but we need the eggs.” Many more of us would abandon religion for humanism, but we need the “eggs.”

Filed under: atheism, humanism, religion, , ,

Birthers, Deathers and the End of the World

I’m posting this on May 22nd 2011—which means the planet was not torn asunder by an  apocalyptic earthquake yesterday and the faithful have not been called up into heaven in The Rapture.

It seems Harold Camping, the president of the American Christian radio network, Family Radio, erred in proclaiming “THE END OF THE WORLD IS ALMOST HERE! HOLY GOD WILL BRING JUDGMENT DAY ON MAY 21, 2011.” As we all now know, God didn’t bring it, despite Family Radio’s confident declaration that “The Bible Guarantees It.”

Of course, Camping isn’t the first to wrongly foretell the Apocalypse (and he won’t be the last as we’ll see in December 2012); there have been countless dooms-days before this one. In 1954, a Chicago housewife named Dorothy Martin claimed she was in communication with aliens from a planet called Clarion. According to the extraterrestrials, a great flood would bring an end to our civilization on the morning of December 21st. But the Clarions also reassured Dorothy they would swoop down in a flying saucer at midnight on the 20th to rescue her and other “true believers.” Needless to say, the deluge did not appear—and neither did the flying saucer.

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Filed under: politics, pseudoscience, religion, skepticism

Why I Am Not An Atheist

In the November 26th Munk Debate in Toronto, Tony Blair and Christopher Hitchens squared off on either side of the resolution that religion is a force for good in the world. Former British Prime Minister Blair was introduced as a recently converted Roman Catholic; Hitchens, not surprisingly, as an atheist.

The Munk Debates

Of course, Hitchens is one of the better known “new atheists”, along with Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. I respect Hitchens’ work—most recently, his reasoned and humane reflections on his experience with oesophageal cancer, but also his writing on religion and atheism, in particular God is Not Great. I haven’t read much by Harris, but I have just cracked open his latest, The Moral Landscape, and look forward to it.

Of the three, I’m most familiar with Dawkins’ work. I’ve especially enjoyed his brilliant writing on evolution, but also respect his views on religion. And I admire his Out Campaign encouraging individuals to openly declare their atheism; I’ve long believed that the presence of religion in society today is all out of proportion to the actual belief (or non-belief) systems of the population and, hence, inflates religion’s influence and significance. In our national anthem, we sing “God keep our land”; during times of public calamity we are enjoined to say a prayer; newscasts cover papal visits and pronouncements as if they meant something to the majority; we mostly get married and buried, regardless of our worldviews, in the “presence” of a god; and the holiday music that has just begun to fill our airwaves and stores is often about “baby Jesus”, angels and three wise men. If atheists “came out”, we might collectively ask: why are we doing all these things?

The OUT Campaign

Nevertheless, there is no “coming out” for me—because I am not an atheist.

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Filed under: atheism, humanism, religion, , ,

Propane and Prayer

On Sunday, August 10 ’08, a series of explosions at the Sunrise Propane depot rocked the quiet Murray Road neighbourhood in North Toronto. The depot was in the vicinity of residential homes and the explosions were enormous. Yet, the blast resulted in only two fatalities. Many described the low death toll as a “miracle.”

On Sunday, August 9 ’09, the first anniversary of the blast, CBC Radio broadcast a story about the accident on their early morning program, Fresh Air. The CBC’s website describes the story, by producer Mary Wiens, as one that examines “the role of faith in protecting a community from harm.” Wiens interviews an elderly resident of the neighbourhood who is certain that her prayers and faith were the reason the death toll was so low. Wiens then ponders the link between the communal spirituality of the neighbourhood and the “miracle.

She then interviews Deepak Chopra, whose views support the idea that there is a causal connection between the inner-world of prayer, and the macro-world we live in. There are references to Chopra’s “quantum consciousness” (although I don’t remember Wiens actually using the term), as well as clinical studies of the efficacy of prayer in healing. Overall, Wiens paints a picture in which the collective faith of the community protected them from greater harm.

(Note that I’ve only been able to listen to the show once, during its original broadcast; it hasn’t been posted online as of yet. So, I’m writing this based on that single listening. If I get some of the details of the story wrong, I think my overall view of the piece is accurate. I’m also aware that Fresh Air is not a journalistic program; regardless, I think my views are no less valid.)

In fact, the low death toll wasn’t a “miracle” in any sense, religious or otherwise

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Filed under: media, pseudoscience, religion, skepticism, , , , ,

March 18, 2009: Canada’s Minister of Science accepts Darwin’s evolution. Or does he?

So, Gary Goodyear, Canada’s minister of state for science and technology, thinks his views on evolution are “irrelevant”. When asked in an interview whether he believed in Darwin’s big idea, the minister refused to answer, saying that his religious beliefs had nothing to do with government policy.

As a tax-paying voter, I think they are very relevant—particularly if, as many suspect, Goodyear is a creationist. If the minister believes that all the species on Earth were created by a divine being, whole and complete, and that they didn’t evolve from common ancestors, then he has made a choice based on his religious faith. He’s chosen an explanation that goes against the vast body of evidence accumulated in the 150 years since the publication of On the Origin of Species. He is rejecting the foundation on which all of biology is constructed, an idea universally accepted by science because it has been proven at every step.

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Filed under: creationism, evolution, politics, religion, , , ,

About me

I am a Toronto-based writer, author and photographer who is inspired and fascinated by science. Science is our best way of understanding the natural world, but it is much more than that. Science is culture, and its pursuit ultimately leads to meaning, values and wonder.  My interests include evolution, Darwin, the Galapagos Islands, secular humanism, religion, skepticism, climate change, and science culture.  For many years, I wrote and produced astronomy programs for the McLaughlin Planetarium of the Royal Ontario Museum. I am author of many books for young readers (Sterling Publishing and Penguin Young Readers, N.Y.) and articles for children's magazines. I also write non-fiction related to the themes reflected in this blog. You can read some of my longer non-fiction and view my photographs at, and follow me at


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