04 February 2008

An Unbelieving Life, Part 1

I was born to secular parents. My father is a deconverted Baptist, and my mother a deconverted Jew. While they did expose me to Christianity and Judaism - the latter more than the former, since my father's religious upbringing was extremely dysfunctional - it was more in the interest of acculturation than imposing belief.

When I was thirteen, my parents left me in the care of my father's brother while they traveled on business. Seeing his chance to save my soul, my uncle forced me to watch creationism videos, lectured me on the Bible for five or six hours at a sitting, denied me food when I was hungry, and forced me to attend church services, including a Jews for Jesus sermon where he took me to see the pastor afterward. When I told that pastor that I was withholding judgement until I was older and knew more, he told me that delaying my decision was like knowing that I had cancer and withholding chemotherapy because I didn't want to be cured until I was 18.

When I told my parents what was going on, they cut their trip short, catching the earliest flight that they could buy tickets for. I have never forgotten watching my father lift his own brother up by the shirt collar and throw him out the door onto our front lawn. Needless to say, for many years afterward I was very biased against Christianity in all forms, and still am to a certain extent even now. (Living in a heavily Christian, anti-atheist country really doesn't help.)

When I was 17, I met my first real atheist while working in a summer internship in meteorology. I loved her American Atheist pendant, her belligerence in facing off against woolly-headed theist forum-goers, her zeal for science and reason and secularism. She provided a touchstone for my nebulous adolescent rage, teaching me to channel it into battling the forces of ignorance. That summer was the happiest of my high school life, because of the fellowship I found.

Formative experiences aside, I never had a particularly strong interest in or desire for theistic belief. I contend that, even if my experiences had not been so polarized, I would have ended up the same - tolerant and open-minded, but an unbeliever nonetheless.


Ahimsa is a Sanskrit word meaning "non-injury" or "harmlessness". As one of the yogic niyamas or prohibitions, it specifically denotes harmlessness to other sentient beings in thought and deed.

It seems evident to me, both from personal experience and from reading the research of others, that sentience is not a quality limited to human beings alone. My cats are thinking, feeling creatures; so are the cows, pigs, chickens, and sheep that the farming industry treats as machines and economic units. Furthermore, the provenance of the natural processes that they go through in living out their lives naturally belong to them, and not to me; I would not drink the milk of a human mother, because that milk is intended for her baby. So it is with a cow and her calf, or a goat and her kid, or a sheep and her lamb. I have no revulsion at the idea of eating the unfertilized eggs of chickens, but the idea of keeping a chicken for the purpose of having an egg machine repels me, and I refuse to support it.

The practice of biology and medicine is also affected by extending sentience beyond humans. It renders medical testing on animals absolutely unconscionable. Acknowledging sentience in other species does not prohibit testing using computerized simulations, or tissue cultures, or human beings who are capable of consenting because they understand the risks. Acknowledging sentience makes the mass killing of fish, turtles, frogs, rats, pigs, cats, and others for the purpose of dissection into mass murder, but does not prohibit the sourcing of animal cadavers from those that have died naturally.

None of this means that animals are above humans, or equal to humans. No one species is equal to another, since they all serve different purposes in their environments. An animal does not hold property rights the same way that a human does, but in our incredible talent for abstraction, we can assign an animal a right to a habitat that is diverse in the resources with which it evolved. We can also extend definitions of consent and custody to our fellow beings, inasmuch as it is reasonable to do so.

I am convinced that all humans have in them the capacity to understand sentience the way that I do. I am also convinced that many humans deny this capacity with great energy, because they fear the loss of those things to which they are accustomed to having as a result of the exploitation of other sentient beings. I understand that fear, having lived with it for the first 21 years of my life, and recognize that I am unusual in having renounced it. I do not expect others to change their behavior based on what I do or say, as nice as it would be if they did. This does not mean that I am silent, nor does it mean that I never become angry or impassioned when I see injustice being done. I am harmless, but I am not voiceless or toothless.

Why this? Why now?

What a person does in life influences the way they see the world. A person who works for the increase of reason becomes a better thinker; a person who works for compassion becomes more compassionate.

With that in mind, I present this blog. I hope it will help me become a better writer, and understand better what exactly I think and know about life.