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One of my favourite treats from Queen Victoria Markets is ham made from free-range pigs raised in the Otways. Well, I say ‘treat’ but the truth is that I buy some nearly every time I visit the markets, simply because it’s the most delicious ham I have ever experienced. I’m not sure how much of a psychological aspect is involved – perhaps a significant one – but I strongly suspect that the deliciousness of the ham is due in no small measure to the fact that the pigs from which it’s made are afforded a healthy, natural, outdoor life rather than one spent cooped up in a concrete prison.

As you might well suppose, I spend quite a lot of time thinking about food and the food choices I make – which, of course, affect much more than just my own health and conscience. Matters of animal welfare, environmental impact and fair trade all influence the decisions I make with regard to the food I consume. These days it’s become quite the trendy thing to be a foodie, though not everyone takes it to the extent of building an entire food philosophy.

My first attempt at taking my food choices seriously culminated in what turned out to be a brief flirtation with vegetarianism. At the time, it seemed like an easy and logical choice to make for someone who genuinely cared about the welfare of other animals, including the ones we use for food. For some time already, we had been opting for free-range eggs and I had long since stopped eating veal, having found out how veal is commercially produced; so going the whole hog, so to speak, and giving up animal flesh altogether made sense. Besides, I reasoned, I could probably never bring myself to actually kill another animal for food – and if I couldn’t obtain it for myself, what possible entitlement could I have to eat meat?

Transitory though it was, my stint as a vegetarian was quite instructive. For one thing, it allowed me to appreciate how many people actually misunderstand vegetarianism to mean that, oh, maybe you’ll still eat chicken or maybe fish; not long ago, in fact, we were happily told by a waitress that the restaurant’s mussel special could be made vegetarian by removing the bacon. I also found that actually being vegetarian pretty much forces one to be more creative with cooking – provided one does not simply resort to meat substitutes. Much as I rather enjoy tofu and Quorn, for example, I am much less a fan of “fake meat” than I am of finding new and interesting ways to make use of vegetables, eggs and dairy products.

However, the biggest thing I learned from pursuing vegetarianism was this – I really, really like meat. I missed it, in all its varieties; I missed its taste, its texture and the qualities it lends to the dishes of which it’s a component. In the end, I had to admit that vegetarianism can actually be as culinarily limiting, in its way, as the old meat-and-three-veg approach. This is not to say that I don’t, even now, enjoy vegetarian food, both cooking and eating it; it’s just that these days it’s one of several possibilities, rather than something I feel constrained by my food philosophy to do.

So, having decided that my diet would contain meat, I felt it necessary to consider the ethics of meat production and consumption. I became much more conscious of the welfare issues involved in the meat industry – in the ways animals are bred and raised and eventually slaughtered. Happily it is becoming easier to obtain meat from animals raised in humane conditions, where they have access to outdoor foraging and the chance to pursue their natural inclinations. Some people would say – indeed, have said to me – “Well, what’s the point of them having decent lives if they’re only going to be killed anyway?” The question comes down to the degree to which the animal suffers. It’s one thing to be concerned about the brief suffering involved in the actual slaughter; the more prolonged suffering the animal endures during its life is a separate but related concern. I feel much better about eating meat from an animal that has led a contented existence while it lasted, than one that has been raised in miserable, cramped, unhealthy conditions. I may be going out on a limb here, but I don’t think death is necessarily the worst experience a sentient being can have.

It was some time after I had become more attuned to the ethics of meat-eating - and of food altogether - that I first encountered Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage philosophy – and it resonated powerfully with my own thinking. At the core of the River Cottage approach is respect – respect for the animal during its life and respect for its meat as the precious food source it really is. This respect extends to food in general and the central importance it has in our lives, whether we recognise it or not. I like to think my own involvement with food is reflective of my deep appreciation for it; not just cooking and eating it, but also especially the exercise of growing my own food enhances my sense of connection with the natural world that produces it. Food is so integral to the business of being alive that it makes perfect sense to me to immerse myself in the enjoyment of it, from paddock and garden, via kitchen, to table; and on that note, I am now going to head out into our garden to fetch some garlic and onions for tonight’s dinner.
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In my previous post, I reflected on my recent infliction of death and destruction upon the inhabitants of my garden, observing that in our world, there is no life without death. It seems kind of appropriate, I suppose, to follow up with some of my thoughts about death - which is something I have also written about before but not for quite some time.

One thing that appears to trouble religious believers particularly upon finding out that someone is an atheist is the question of what's supposed to happen after you die. Being an atheist doesn't automatically require one to abandon belief in the concept of some kind of afterlife; but any serious consideration of such evidence as we have does tend to point towards the actual, terminal finality of death, the cessation of consciousness, the obliteration of the self. Rejecting belief not just in gods but in all supernatural entities, including souls, eventually and inevitably leads to confronting the fact that when we die, we cease to exist.

I didn't always think this way, of course. As a child, I was very thoroughly indoctrinated with the concept of an immortal soul, of heaven and hell, and the idea that one's behaviour in this life was the primary determiner of one's ultimate fate in the next. It was a long and meandering road by which I eventually walked away from this belief but in many ways, it has been a road to freedom.

According to those who feel that life has no meaning or purpose if we're not working towards some kind of ultimate reward, what should have been my response to rejecting the idea of an afterlife was to sink into a deep, dark melancholy, to become paralysed by the pointlessness of living if I'm only going to die at the end of it. Well, I'm certainly no stranger to the deep, dark melancholy; but it's not the fact of death that brings it on, not even when I am directly confronted with it; and if anything, reflecting upon the sheer absurdity of life is something I actually find deeply comforting. Much has been written about the liberating joy of embracing this life as the only one we have, rather than relegating it to the subordinate position of a mere proving-ground for an eternal afterlife; what I will say from my own experience is that accepting death as final has led me to a more careful contemplation of my behaviour - there's no judgemental god to tally my sins and virtues, only myself and those affected by my actions.

There was a time when I was afraid of death, when I thought that dying was the worst thing that could happen to someone. That time is long past. It's true that I do sometimes worry that the manner of my death will be unpleasant; but with the prospect of ceasing to exist, I am largely unconcerned. If consciousness does indeed stop when we die, I will not be around to experience not being alive - so what's to be afraid of? As Epicurus put it, "Where I am, death is not; where death is, I am not." What fear remains is indistinguishable from the fear of change - losing a loved one is, after all, a permanent change that I am forced by my beliefs to accept as such; not for me the superficially comforting thought that I will meet them again in the next life. Knowing that I will never see someone again once they cease to be can be a hard truth to swallow; but it does remind me to treasure every moment of the time I do have with them and take nothing for granted.
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It's been a little while since I last wrote anything about religion - or specifically my own lack of anything resembling supernatural belief - although I've hinted around it in several recent posts. It might look a bit bizarre to combine this with a post about gardening; but I promise it will all make sense in the end.

A couple of days ago I spent a satisfying hour or so ripping up ornamental vegetation from our back garden bed. This was not an act of wanton destruction but in fact part of the process of preparing the area to become a vegie patch. It already contains a tomato plant - which I'm very happy to say is now fruiting - and if the seeds I am currently attempting to germinate actually end up sprouting, it will soon be home to peas, carrots, celery, dill and stevia.

But in order for this to happen, a substantial amount of vegetation had to die and large numbers of worms, grubs, snails, spiders and sundry other small wildlife were disturbed. This is not a small amount of harm to be inflicting, when you think about it. So I have to say I have mixed feelings about my gardening project - the satisfaction of actually making progress is tinged with a certain sadness and self-questioning.

On the whole, though, I am inclined to consider it a positive experience and oddly enough, the reasons for that actually have something to do with my present approach to religion.

The opening chapter of The God Delusion is headed 'A deeply religious non-believer' and it aims to make clear that there is a vast difference between the God of Classical Theism and the god to which scientists such as Einstein, Stephen Hawking and Carl Sagan have been known to refer; the argument being that it is disingenuous to claim that such distinguished minds believe in God, when what they are actually demonstrating, when they use the word 'god', is their awe and wonder at the glory of the universe. This is the god in which I believe, if I might be said to believe in any god at all.

Clearly this isn't a god that requires worship or answers prayers - it's not the God in whom I was taught to believe as a child; it's not a god with a personality or feelings of any kind. Nature, my god, doesn't care about me or any other individual - it just is and we are all part of it. I've had arguments with theistic believers who either think it's ridiculous to glorify nature (mostly because, well, you can't pray to it) or who find the idea of a universe indifferent to our joys and pains, our achievements and failures, indifferent even to our very existence, deeply depressing. For myself, I must own that I find this idea exhilarating; the feeling of reverence for the universe in the face of our own insignificance, expressed in the likes of Carl Sagan's Pale Blue Dot speech, makes my heart sing.

It's in this context that I consider my actions with respect to gardening. In the grand scheme of things, what I do here and now makes not a jot of difference to the universe. It only makes a difference to me and to those with whom I interact, directly and indirectly; including the plants and animals that inhabit our garden. Yes, I am inflicting death and destruction - on a relatively small scale, to be sure, but let's not quibble over the fact of what I am doing, just because the victims happen to be small and insignificant from our perspective; from far enough away, we're all small and insignificant. The facts of our world are such that there can be no life without death, and we all play out this balance every day of our lives. The trade-off here is that by destroying some life, I am allowing other life to flourish. On the one hand, it's an easy decision to make; on the other hand, I don't take it lightly - it is what it is.

It may seem odd to consider gardening in such a philosophical, even religious way; but I can't deny that on top of the physical satisfaction (and it must be said, the resulting aches and pains from muscles that haven't seen enough use before now) of furthering my aim to grow my own food, there is the deeper, more comforting - though sometimes unsettling - consciousness of actually participating in the destructive and creative processes of nature. I suppose it could be said that the garden has become my place of worship.
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So, it looks like Australia will have to wait at least another few years before catching up to more progressive parts of the world which have recognised the right of homosexual couples to officially marry. I see little chance of it happening under a conservative government headed by a Catholic prime minister, who at his election victory speech rather disturbingly displayed his daughters clad in virginal white.

I've written about the subject of marriage and marriage equality elsewhere before but this seems like a good time to air some more thoughts about it. I have to say right up front that I am in two minds about the issue as a whole.

Those who wish to 'protect' marriage by denying homosexual couples the right to legally and socially sanctioned recognition of their commitment are holding up one of the last bastions of segregation in the more enlightened parts of Western society. Superficially rational statements like, "Children need a mother and a father" are just the oil-slick on top of the much deeper waters of prejudice and exclusion.

What, exactly, do the conservatives think they are protecting?

Some of them, of course, adhere to blatantly religious views such as the notion that marriage was "defined by God" as the union of a man and a woman. The Catholic view is particularly sinister in that the sacrament of marriage is what legitimises the sexual union between the man and the woman; and furthermore, every act of intercourse must be "open to procreation" in order not to be a sinful expression of selfish desire. As long as it's balanced by the effort and pains inherent in bearing and raising children, then it's okay to enjoy sex; but it's not okay otherwise. Hatred and fear of pleasure permeates the morality bequeathed to the West by Christianity and given his declared religious allegiance, we must suppose this to be the view held by our new prime minister.

Whilst it is a biological fact that a homosexual couple, left to their own devices, are unable to procreate, this cannot be the real reason for excluding them from marriage. Heterosexual couples who are unable or unwilling to have children are permitted to marry; and on the other side, there is no longer a social stigma attached to the fact of children being born "out of wedlock" - even the phrase now sounds archaic - so it's simply not true anymore that marriage is considered to be primarily about bearing and raising children.

Yet it seems there is still something special and meaningful about the concept of marriage that conservatives think would be undermined by the act of attaching the name and all it implies to a union between two people of the same sex - though not, apparently, by the prevalence of divorce, the legal standing of de facto relationships, not even by the gaudiness of the wedding industry.

So what's the something? This is where my views drift into murky waters.

For one thing, opponents of marriage equality will frequently say things like, "But gay couples can have civil unions - what are they complaining about?" as if a civil union carries the same legal and social weight as a marriage. It doesn't, as a matter of fact, have the same legal definition, nor the breadth of rights and recognition attached to marriage. It also seems to lack gravitas and certainly it lacks a sense of romance - "I'm entering a civil union!" really doesn't evince the same kind of excitement as, "I'm getting married!"

What I wonder is why this is the case.

I am married, as most people reading this know; and the day [personal profile] japester proposed to me was indeed one of the happiest of my life. But why this particular expression of commitment and the desire to be part of my life should seem more significant than something like moving in together, buying a house together (both of which we'd done before the wedding) or even, for that matter, entering a civil union together is something I really can't explain. Yes, marriage has the weight of history behind it; but that history is far from edifying. I do at times feel a bit strange referring to myself as a wife, precisely because of its uncomfortably antiquated connotations, the hint of staid conformity and repression of individuality that hovers about it like a bad smell. At the same time I can't help feeling that the phrase, "My husband" somehow has more clout in society than "My partner", as if I, as a woman, am more accomplished, more well-defined as a person for having married a man than for merely having a relationship. Why this should be so is in itself an issue that might well become the subject for another post.

So on the one hand, I certainly appreciate in an emotional sense why same-sex couples want to be able to get married; rationally I can see no good reason to exclude them from the legal rights and social privileges that accompany marriage. On the other hand, there is that part of me that questions the status and value of marriage as an institution; and wonders whether we shouldn't all be holding out for something better.

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