The Alder Grove

"In my sleep thought that I was standing in an alder grove of the straightest and fairest trees which the heart of man could think of or imagine."

Coming out of the closet...

So, I am making plans this year to attend not only The World Science Festival in NYC, but going down to Washington for the Reason Rally - the largest gathering of atheists, humanists, freethinkers and secularists in North America. They had the last one in 2012....and this time, I'm in. Such a strange thing for me to be contemplating a part in. Why on earth am I going to a *science festival* of all things...and The Reason Rally?? How the hell did I end up here?

Until recently, if you asked me about my faith I likely would have told you that I identified as pagan. To some extent I still do, in the way that I view the natural world as sacred and the closest that I ever feel to something you could call deity is when I'm out in my garden with my hands in the soil. After all, pagan merely means "of the country". However, if you ask me if I really believe in a personal deity, something in a physical form who watches over my well-being...the answer to that would have to be no. Do I still feel that sense of "oneness" (for lack of a better term) with the world? Of course, since everything comes from the same place and our DNA links us to everything that lives. Not to mention that when you look out into the vastness of space and think about how much bigger it than you can see, puts our little blue ball into perspective. Do I still honour things like Imbolc (Brighid's day)? Sure, there is nothing wrong with ritual and what's not to like about a night that involves reading poetry by candlelight and having a moment of reflection? I can still relate to the image of the Celtic goddess of fire, poetry and inspiration as just that. Inspiration, culture, heritage. It doesn't need to have any basis in religion to be a really nice experience each year in the winter. Keeping a little piece of some of those ancient rites makes you think about the long line of occurrences that led to you even existing in the first place, wondering about those distant unnamed ancestors that prayed to Gods whose names may even have been forgotten in the annals of time. I can sense the wonder and beauty of the world, nature, and the universe which in the past that I have viewed as deity just as I have before. But gradually, over the years I have come to realize the beauty and majesty of the world stands quite nicely...all on its own.

When exactly did this happen? I'm not exactly sure when I was young if I had ever heard of anything outside of traditional religion. But, truth be told, I've been on this path my entire life. I just didn't realize it and, until recently, I never felt comfortable admitting it I suppose. Calling it other things was easier and involved less explanation. I gave church a try. Several actually, for years. I grew up Baptist in a really Conservative area. This is a Tory town with a heavy Presbyterian bent to it. I've got mostly Anglicans and Church of England fore bearers as far as the eye can see. I read the Bible, went to teen Bible classes for a little bit, helped out in the Sunday school, but I never felt that "connection" that all the religious people talk about. I always felt there was something wrong with me that church did nothing for me. Everyone tells you that it's supposed to after all, but the only thing I got out of it was the thought that the music was nice. Eventually I faded away from churchgoing and more involved with other things. But everyone tells you that there's this missing part of your life that religion is supposed to fill. I read a lot, I listened to what the Jehovah's Witnesses had to say (crackpots), listened to what the Mormons had to say - even went to a Fireside once (also crackpots). (Side note: You know what I'm most surprised about the Mormons though? With all those Osmonds...I really expected the hymns to be better. They have an odd chord structure that I found a little hard to follow.) But nothing ever made an impact on me, although I never would have admitted that to anyone but my closest of friends. I also would never have put a name to it, much easier to avoid the topic and think or talk about something else. Anything else.

Thinking back, I think I can trace the moment I started thinking about this religion (or lack thereof) to hearing XTC's song "Dear God" for the first time. My jaw almost hit the ground the first time I heard it and I jabbed my headphones on and looked around to make sure I hadn't been some teenage boy with his first Playboy. I had no idea that such things existed like that or that people not only talked about it...but wrote songs about it. I'd heard lots of music about anti-war and anti-poverty folk music, lots of rock music with people angry about politics, cops, society...but I'd never heard anything anti-religion until that moment. It was the 80s and it changed the way I heard and viewed music going forward in my life, but before I could think too much about that anti-religion message, something happened that shook my foundations and lasted for quite some time.

The summer that I was 19, a friend and I went boating on the Green River. It's not an overly deep river and around their house, the water was always calm. We'd swum across it all the time and gone canoeing, every summer since we were 16. But this was the first time we took out the small motorboat. It was also the first time I had been with her that we went down the other branch of the river instead of out to the lake. Naturally, we had lifejackets in the boat but not on. I mean, we'd never needed them before so why start now? Turns out there's something about that I didn't know about that part of the river. There's a dam. Not a big one and it's generally only a small current. Except there'd been a lot of rain lately, and as we rounded the bend I noticed the current picking up a little bit, looked up and saw a small sign nailed to a tree.


Now, I don't know if you've ever been in a 1HP boat trapped in the current of an open dam. I'm not all that sure that I would recommend it. For the record, it doesn't do you one damned bit of good. Once the current has the boat, it's game over. I remember her, in the back of the boat, grabbing onto the bridge as the boat swung her around close to it and her getting pulled out of the boat. And then I remember having to make a fast decision. Now, I've taken sailing lessons before this and the talks about what can happen when the boat is in trouble came back to me. I could ride it out in the boat, going through the dam and risk getting either trapped under the boat or the boat flipping and knocking me unconscious - or jumping for it and taking my chances as far away from the boat as I can. Taking stock of how fast the current was moving and weighting the best of poor options, I jumped out from the stern to let the current carry the boat away from me. I can remember the current pulling me under, and having a moment like you hear about in an avalanche when you can't quite recall what way is "up". Keeping that in mind I stopped fighting the current, hoping that being still, I could rise to the surface and save my strength to then fight my way to shore. IF my breath held out that long.

Coming right to the edge of drowning is an odd experience. I kept waiting for that moment they talk about when your life is supposed to flash before your eyes. Nada. I was kind of disappointed about that. But what I did feel was a sort of detached calm, when there is nothing that you can do about the situation at hand except to ride it out. Whatever happens, happens. I knew there was a very good chance that this was when I could die. I had always thought that when I was confronted with that, I be terrified but strangely I wasn't. I had this odd feeling like I wasn't alone and everything was very peaceful almost. And I remember it being extremely quiet there under the water, more quiet that I think I've ever experienced. That's the only way I can describe it. Now look...I know that there was nothing to it except a frightening and traumatic moment. But there are instances in your life where you can really convince yourself of just about anything. I plead the fact that I was 19 and teenagers are stupid and don't know it yet. Plus we think the world pretty much revolves around us anyway, as we haven't really experienced the world outside of high school yet. So, when I tell you that the moment that I broke the surface of the water, emotionally and physically exhausted and used whatever energy I had left to swim to shore...and when I got there shaking and probably in mild shock, what I felt was another thing that you hear about from fluffy, new-agey religious types. That I had been spared by *something* and for a reason. Having been taught from an early age, the usual "we are all here for a purpose/we're all special to the creator" arrogance in years of church-going indoctrination when I was a child, I thought that I had better find that "missing" religious piece in my life that everyone tells you that you are supposed to have.

A few days after my boating incident, I was in a bookstore on the main street. Naturally I went by the "Religion and Spirituality" section, one that I had likely never even looked at before. Aside from the usual books from Christian crackpots and psychic nonsense, I found a small book of the type I'd never paid attention to before. It was called "Paganism: A Beginners Guide" by Teresa Moorey. It was a small and concise book and I have to say, it tapped into everything that I had been feeling for a while. It talked about the earth-centered faiths, describing everything from witchcraft to druidism to Celtic paganism. Having just recently started tracing my genealogy it also hit me a little bit culturally. Granted, I've never traced my family tree far enough back to find some renegade pagan worshiping the ancient Celtic gods under a full moon but I always rather held to a hope that I would find those recorded links that traced back to my various Clans in the Isles. I immersed myself for a while in comfortable mythology, read tarot and allowed myself to believe in those times when the universe would "speak" to me.

And then one day...Richard Dawkins entered my life and proceeded to turn my life and world viewpoint all topsy-turvy. I must admit to a little trepidation when I first bought "The God Delusion". That was the book that made my jaw hit the floor. So beautiful and powerfully written prose that really made me really re-examine everything that I thought. It's been a gradual process since I first read that book. Professor Dawkins started this whole chain reaction for me. He led me to read "God Is Not Great" by Christopher Hitchens, and then later to discover Neil deGrasse Tyson whose revamp of "Cosmos" blew me away. With NDT now in my life, I was led down the rabbit hole of physics and astrophysics and realized just how interesting science could be. I'm not that sure that when I was in high school I actually knew that physicists were a thing. Physics was that thing that nerds took with all the Greek letters in equations .... like they actually meant something. Guys with taped glasses and pocket protectors (hey, it was the 80s and we all though math geeks looked like "Revenge of the Nerds"). I can honestly say that I had NEVER seen, or thought there could be, a scientist that looked like Dr. Tyson. Got to say, he's a great spokesperson if you want to get women to pay attention to science.

I'm on YouTube one day, watching NDT lectures when this panel discussion comes up in a search from some place called ASU. Turns out to be Arizona State University from something called The Origins Project. It's titled "The Storytelling of Science" and it was the greatest thing that I think I have ever seen. It had all of these people that I had heard names mentioned but had never really paid attention to, until that moment. I was *hooked*. The panel consisted of Tracy Day, Brian Greene, Ira Flatow, Lawrence Krauss, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye, Richard Dawkins and Neil Stephenson. They each told science stories and had a Q&A that has to be seen to be believed. It was fascinating and fun...and left me wanting more! Who were these people?? Of course, I knew of NDT and Bill Nye (even though I was too old for his children's show when it was on the air, I could still sing that theme song.) YouTube became my best friend as I scoured it, watching NOVA specials with Brian Greene, listening to his crazy string theory talk. And then on to lectures by Lawrence Krauss, who I discovered was the director of the Origins Project at ASU. Both of them blew my mind in totally different ways. I have to talk about that just a little because this ASU panel was led me down the garden path to where I am right now. Completely obsessed with science like I have never been in my life. And on the cusp of making an admission that I never thought I would.

Brian Greene is the only person I have ever encountered that makes me want to be better at math. He talks about math in a way that I have never, ever heard. Math is usually something that makes people's eyes glaze over and roll towards the ceiling. Or makes them shudder in horror. If I had ever had a teacher in my life that had even a tiny bit of the passion and enthusiasm for the subject that Brian does, someone who explained all of these weird and complex things in math and science the way that he does - I might have actually paid attention in math class and applied myself to it instead of plotting ways to ditch class as much as possible. He is also simultaneously the only person that can make me wish I had taken physics in high school while at the same time making me realize WHY I didn't take physics in high school! He's brilliant (and totally adorable)...and he makes me want to know about things that I didn't even realize existed! He could very easily be a cult leader. He just turn on that charm and does that boyish smile thing while he's teaching about some weird fact in special relativity and the next thing you know, here I am, mote than 25 years out of high school and going back to relearn the math skill I brushed off back then. Why? Because Brian Greene is encouraging people taking his online class on Einstein to try the math portion. And I am apparently easily lead to the "dark side". Seeing Brian in this amazing panel discussion led me to a conversation that he'd had as part of the Origins Project with a person that was about t, not only lead me further down that garden path of science (specifically finding physics interesting, of all things) but also a more unexpected path. The road less traveled, shall we say.

Having spoken of the dark side, what can I say about Lawrence Krauss? Fitting that he and Richard Dawkins are friends as Professor Dawkins started this whole thing in the first place. But where he started this, Professor Krauss really drove the nail in the coffin. Full disclosure - there's a slight possibility that I have a little crush on the good professor. He's handsome, brilliant and incredibly funny (and really, that's all it takes for me. Just so you know.) I love his books and his lectures but the first time I saw him debate a religious nutcase, that did it. I've heard the phrase "delightful curmudgeon" used and upon occasion, it does apply to him. How someone can walk the line between being funny, charming and insulting all at the same time is remarkable. Actually, Christopher Hitchens had that quality as well (someone else that Dr. Krauss was friends with, he keeps excellent company). And LK is nothing if not prolific on the internet with his apparent quest to annihilate religious dogma in favour of a rational scientific view, and he does it extremely well. He and RD both coming from different areas of science, teaming up to bring this wonderful knowledge and worldview to the public - resulting in a brilliant movie called "The Unbelievers". Well, there was really no point in denying the obvious anymore. Though self-denial and actual vocal admittance are two very separate things.

But now this little secret that I had kept for a very long time was being made just that much easier to come out and admit. What a little song first sparked interest in and Richard Dawkins first fueled....Lawrence Krauss finally ignited seriously for me. And Richard's Foundation for Reason and Science made it clear just how many people have given up on the long-held religious traditions and dogma. It seems apropos that the 2nd Reason Rally is happening this year as I "come out of the closet" and put into words that it still feels a little odd to put down as truth. But they are truth. So I rise to the challenge put forth by the RDRFS to "Tell Your Story. Speak Your Truth." and admit that I am indeed...

An Atheist. (Such an odd thing to see typed out in my blog but there it is. And I can firmly put the fault onto Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss, of which I'm sure they are both quite happy to take responsibility for.)

There you have it. It's never too late in life to learn new things about yourself and the world around you, never too late in life to discover new passions and to put them out there for the world (or whoever the hell reads this, if anyone). If you actually managed to read the entire thing....feel free to go about your life now. Show's over. :-)


As I often "joke" among friends, Orillia isn't the sticks but you can see them from here. Standard conversation around here goes something like this. "You going to the bar tonight?" "Naw man, going to the liquor store and getting drunk at home. You?" "I'm gonna predrink a little at home and then go out and get hammered at the bar later."

So, having a conversation about...almost anything...generally only gets me blank stares. From cool indie music to books to science stuff, I have pretty much absolutely nothing in common with just about anyone in the entire city. We're talking about a place where music consists pretty much of Nickelback and Gordon Lightfoot (and that's only because Gord's from here). And talking science? Yeah, not so much. This is a town of retirees and fairly Presbyterian with more than it's share of young earthers. In fact, inspired by Lawrence Krauss, I have taken to wearing my tshirt with the Neil deGrasse Tyson quote on the bus to see if I can start arguments.

"The best thing about science is that it's true, whether or not you believe in it"

But after having taken a rather long Twitter hiatus, I came back and discovered this massive community of not only scientists...but fellow science nerds! And The Young Turks! The TYT Army! Not to mention MOOCs from organizations like Coursera and EdX...and science courses on World Science U. Suddenly I could indulge all my passions online with other people who agreed with me (and have hour long arguments with those who don't) and take classes with really smart people on topics that really interest me (even a few that I only grasped part of, lol) with professors from universities all over the world!! I also found that really handsome scientists would occasionally read my tweets and respond ... what can I say, once a groupie, always a groupie. ;-) Plus, occasionally, one of my Twitter fights ends up on YouTube being mentioned by a comic with his own rather well followed show. "Oh look, new clip! Aaaaannnd, why is my twitter feed on the screen behind him right now?"

Basically, this is just a little random bit tonight about how awesome the internet is. And how stoked I was tonight being called out both with a comment on The Young Turks AND having Lawrence Krauss use my question in the Q&A of his Einstein Origins panel. Now I'm going to read some Hitchens. There's another post coming up this weekend about super exciting plans!! Too tired to write it tonight though. Stay tuned!!