Archive for July, 2009

Coming soon: “Atheism and spirituality”

July 31, 2009

“Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow.” I’m looking ahead to a new course in the Spring (2010) semester.

First I was going to blaze trails, at least around these parts, with  Atheism Old & New. (Epicurus, David Hume, Nietzsche, Sartre, and Bertrand Russell are “old,” Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens, and Shermer are among the more notable new.)

Then I thought it would be more politically prudent, in these troubled times for public education funding (and, frankly, with tenure in the balance) , to do a Spirituality course instead.

Now, reaching for a grand synthesis and throwing caution to the winds (but ducking the blow-back), I’ve decided that atheism and spirituality deserve each other. As William James pointed out, the absurdity of religion is matched only by the spiritual audacity of its intentions. “Although all the special manifestations of religion may have been absurd (I mean its creeds and theories), yet the life of it as a whole is mankind’s most important function.”

The religious impulse is inseparable from  what some have called elan vital or life force. That’s what spirituality is largely about: living, breathing, attending, caring, learning. Paying rapt attention to each present moment, one after another as conveniently measured by our restless, respiring consciousness. What does that get us? More life, we hope. “Not God, but more life” is our most natural human aspiration. Eternal life even, in the most audacious old dream.

Yet, James  informed a correspondent in 1901, his own sense of life was most quickened by the progressive epic of evolution. And it requires death. A lot of it. “I [am] incapable of believing the Christian scheme of vicarious salvation, and wedded to a more continuously evolutionary mode of thought.” Scratch 9 out of 10 atheists, you’ll find an evolutionist craving “more life.”

But more for whom? Is there sufficient consolation in the hope of a future life for humankind (and its unimaginably evolved spawn) at large?

sleeperOr must the saving life to come be mine, all mine? Recall Woody Allen on this point: “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work or my children… I want to achieve it through not dying.” We’ll see how that works out for Ray Kurzweil and Aubrey de Grey. Well, perhaps somebody will see.

Evolution as salvation? That’s a proposition whose meaning and truth (or falsehood) a course on atheism and spirituality could have a lot of fun figuring out. Spiritual atheists and evolutionists do exist, after all, as do jaded believers and “Young Earth creationists” pantomiming the motions of a lifeless faith. (And don’t forget Francis Collins and the theistic evolutionists.)

although all the special manifestations of
religion may have been absurd (I mean its creeds and theories),
yet the life of it as a whole is mankind’s most important

Watch this space for course details. First, though, the new Fall course connects with spirituality too: would life be worth living, if we couldn’t pursue happiness?

Theistic evolution at the NIH

July 30, 2009

The nomination to head the National Institutes of Health of Francis Collins, former genome mapping project administrator and probably the most prominent working scientist who also calls himself a Christian, disturbs  Sam Harris and P.Z. Myers, among many.

Collins is a theistic evolutionist and  a devotee of C.S. Lewis. He thinks we can’t be good without God.

I’m pretty sure he’s wrong about that. Some of my best good friends are Godless. Some of them aren’t even “spiritual.” As Julia Sweeney discovered, putting on the No God glasses leaves our vulnerable planet still hanging out there in space as pretty as ever, and leaves most of us as free of any impulse to run out and commit wanton sin as we ever were.

But I would just remind my friends that a few short months ago, the presidential appointment of an evolutionist of any stripe, theistic or otherwise, would have been astonishing. This president really does see himself as a “uniter, not a divider.” We’re going to have to get more comfortable with letting Obama be Obama.

Philosophers’ Club

July 29, 2009

What should Mama and Papa have said to the cubs about their Big Questions? Well, they might have encouraged a more open-ended and informal discussion, leading perhaps to the formation of a Philosophers’ Club. Not an exclusive club “where we bears go” etc., but one  more receptive and welcoming to all kinds of members. Groucho and Woody aside (“I’d never join a club that would allow a person like me to become a member”), don’t most of us thrive in diverse (“pluralistic”) settings?

Helping kids (and their parents) develop and revel in the habit of philosophizing in public is the impassioned mission of Chris Phillips, author of Socrates Cafe and other lively books committed to the recovery of  philosophy for all. It’s never too early to begin nurturing the 4th “R,” reason, and exploring the fundamental questions: Who am I? What am I capable of? Who can I become?

He’s not alone in this, scholars (including his mentor Matthew Lipman) have been interested in philosophy for children for some time. But Phillips has taken his show on the road, around the country and the world. Like a good pragmatist he says let’s not just study and talk about it, let’s do it.

Alison Gopnik’s The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love and the Meaning of Life, says “understanding how children’s minds grow is to see into the meaning of life.” I don’t know about that, but I’m confident that such understanding can inform our sense of purpose and tell us much about how to be happy.

But sure, take your cubs to church too, if that’s your parental inclination. Better still, take them to many churches. And take them to hear an atheist, an agnostic, a secularist, a humanist, and a Buddhist. Maybe even a Unitarian. (No need to take them to hear a Baptist or Mormon or Church of Christer, at least not in my region. They’ll come to you.) And take a look at Dale McGowan’s work on raising free-thinking children.

Religion won’t do any lasting harm,  set in context alongside diverse, alternative approaches to meaningful and purposive living. Absent a critical context, though, early formal religious “schooling” can stultify the growth and imagination and potential of young people in appalling ways.  I’m sorry to have to say I see that all the time.

But I’m happy to say that I also see the spark of philosophic interest in kids who report having been made to suffer through the most oppressive and narrowing of  religious indoctrinations. It’s never too late to get in touch with your inner Socrates.

Philosophers' Club-filtered

big questions

July 28, 2009

berenstainBears are big in children’s literature, and they ask big questions like “What’s God?”

We grew up, the girls and I, with the Berenstains.

The Big Question does not explicitly endorse  religious indoctrination. Not quite. But neither does it encourage young readers and listeners to embrace their curiosity and follow it onto whatever terrain (religious, scientific, philosophic) it might lead them.

What else is new, in our unexamined faith-based culture? Like Mama in this story, we Americans reflexively instruct our children in the “wisdom” of taking their existential perplexities to church. And when someone (like Papa) begins to acknowledge the cosmic complexity of such Big Questions he is liable to be derided for his “BIG, BORING LECTURE.”

And then some Mama is apt to “explain” that “all you need to remember is that God made everything… it’s all part of God’s Great Plan.”

Sometimes the roles are reversed, of course: it’s not always Mama-the-religious apologist and Papa-the-inquirer. In this story, in fact, Papa eventually comes around, noting that church “is where we bears go when we want to think about Big Questions.”  And having been to church, Mama summarizes: “I’m glad we came this morning. It helps me think things through.” I’m afraid I detected no discernible thinking in the bears’ “service,” as represented here.

The result, as I encounter it: many of those children become the wary young adults who arrive in my philosophy classroom determined to fend off any perspective their restricted intellectual diets have not already offered them. Many are like Nurse Belle, good-hearted but simply dumb-founded that anyone could possibly not “believe in the Lord.”

But at least this little book does acknowledge the big problem with conventional attributions to a transcendent deity of omniscience, omnipotence, and perfect divine love and solicitude for human welfare. Sister wants to know if, besides the birds and flowers and sunshine and butterflies and clouds and trees, God also made bellyaches and cold germs and earthquakes and floods, fire, and tornadoes? And what kind of universe would have such a god in it? And now, what kind of universe is it really? Many of my students have never been encouraged to consider those Big Question, at age 8 or 18, and many are offended that philosophers do consider them.

The book ends on a right and honest note of Socratic humility. Did God make questions?

But the right answer is: wherever our Big Questions come from, God or the Devil or the deep blue sea (as ultimately they must: see Your Inner Fish), questions are vital to our identity and to our prospects. The more challenging and discomfiting, the better and more useful they are.

Why don’t we trust our kids to ask them, and to keep on asking?


July 27, 2009

Henry WorksMy favorite D.B. Johnson “Henry” book, Henry Works (the first was Henry Hikes to Fitchburg)… Henry, a bear modeled on Thoreau,  spends much of his day “walking to work.” In the process he raises eyebrows, and the suspicions of his neighbors that he’s unambitious. His work, of course, is writing, and like his namesake his ambitions are great. He yearns to do good and important work, to “front essential facts” and live.

I mention it as a service to fans of children’s books and of  New England Transcendentalism, and because the thought of  it is inspirational and motivating for me. It’s a reminder that fulfilling, meaningful work, though often difficult, and requiring an extended, occasionally arduous investment of time and toil, is  a journey worth taking. Good work may be hard but, in mind of yesterday’s post topic, it should not be an obstacle to fun. Work and fun (and play), in a deliberately-composed life, are  mutually sustaining. Henry meant to live deliberately (remember, it’s why he went to the woods in the first place).

And: I, too, do my best work after walking to it. Time to go.henry works2


July 26, 2009

We’ve been having fun entertaining our young guest from Ohio. Besides the water park and lots of good food (Kyoto last night: what fun, having hot fried meat flung at you from a spatula), we’ve done mini-golf and go-carts (not so much fun for me, frankly: too much like riding a runaway lawn tractor) and Centennial Park.

The Parthenon was fun and uplifting, as always, beginning with the box of Krispy Kremes on the steps to the Purple-shirted flocks of “Taylor family reunion” revelers to the temporary photographic “spirituality” exhibit to gilded Athena, goddess of wisdom and war, herself. I used to puzzle over the Greek confabulation of those two functions in a single figure, but after our latest national nightmare of war conducted without wisdom I don’t wonder about that any more. I do still wonder why they didn’t place our Parthenon high on the adjoining hill, much more acropolis-like than its lowland locale. There’s a dog-park there now. Best view in the city, now that Love Circle‘s been desecrated by Mr. Big Country.

centennialcrowdFun, but not quite this much fun: no pyramids or tight-rope walkers…  wish I could time-travel for real, back to the 1897 Tennessee Centennial Exposition.  Festive fun has its place, and so has the passionate love of wisdom .

When teaching just down the street a few years ago at Vanderbilt, I brought  my “Intro to Philosophy” classes here just to absorb the ambience of a place that symbolizes the beginning of our species’ most  pivotal developmental moment: the reflective transition from myth and superstition to critical rationality and circumspect skepticism, from belief rooted in fear to a worldview more grown-up. That was the moment when a vocal minority would begin to defend the rights of a Socrates to plant seeds of doubt about Zeus and Athena et al, “fun” though they were.

Older Daughter, a big fan of the Greek myths because (like the magical wizardry of Harry Potter) they are so much fun, informed Younger Daughter recently that her parents were not the ones to ask for validation of such beliefs. I was surprised Mom had earned that reputation in their eyes, who has little use for my brand of skepticism but lots for the secretive  “spirituality” of Deepak Chopra and Wayne Dyer and Rhonda Byrne et al. But that’s a domestic provocation for another day.

Dan Dennett has pointed out our need for a new critical philosophy of fun, one highlighting the intrinsic joys of the quest for real wisdom in the world. “We certainly won’t have a complete explanation of consciousness until we have accounted for its role in permitting us (and only us?) to have fun.”

certainly won’t have a complete explanation of consciousness
until we have accounted for its role in permitting us (and only
us?) to have fun.”

Myths and magic are fun, misbehaving mythical gods and goddesses are fun, but Arthur C. Clarke’s point about magic (“any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, to those who don’t understand it”) is constantly confirmed by the way we live now. For instance,  I tap these keys here, you read squiggles on a screen there, we communicate and annihilate the geographic (and possibly some of the cultural and personal) distance between us. Magic. But we begin to understand how it can happen, and we still have fun doing it. No?

“The world is so exquisite, with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there’s little good evidence.” It’s fun to know that, and to live it, as Carl Sagan did. It doesn’t sap the world of wonder to begin really understanding the improbability of our being here at all, and the wondrous opportunity we alone possess, on this planet, of knowing and improving our actual condition.

We’re still in transition, as we were 2,400 years ago. We don’t yet know all the fun we’re missing.

time travel redux

July 25, 2009

I wasn’t going to join the family and Younger Daughter’s “BFF” (in for a visit from Cleveland) at the water park yesterday, I was going to stay home and “get some work done.” But they made the irrefutable case for gathering those summer rosebuds while I may. Family days in summer are dwindling and few, they’re gold. I went.

It’s rare for me to get out to Nashville Shores more than once in a summer, this was the second time this year. We were there with cousin A. the day Michael Jackson died, I’ll now probably always (in spite of myself) know.

Clouds appeared not long after we established camp, and there were a couple of rainy moments. But the skies eventually cleared magnificently, and I held myself out of water long enough to get uncomfortably warm, so as to be refreshed and even exhilarated when I finally bent to the collective will and went for full immersion.

But what I like most about going out there is the time travel. Sitting up on shore, gazing out at lake and dam, I’m hauled 20+ years into the past when B. and I occupied a lush apartment in the sparkling new complex across the way (we qualified for the “struggling grad student” subsidy).

I see my younger self up there doing his daily walk across the dam, sometimes plugged in topercy_priest_lake_350 NPR’s coverage of the day’s hot history-in-the-making that now looks so overblown (think Michael Dukakis and Ollie North and Iran-contra). It would be easy to get there from our old place now, they’ve tied the complex in to the greenway that runs under the highway to the dam in one direction and along Stone’s River all the way to Shelby Bottoms in the other.

That’s a summer memory to warm me in January: reclining on my plastic chair courting melanoma, periodically lowering my New Yorker to smile at some unsolicited detail of yesteryear’s stored memories, wondering where time goes, and eventually plunging back into the almost-icy present. Then, the gorgeous sunset.

I’m glad they twisted my flexible arm. There are still some not-quite-forgotten memories in there, just awaiting the right trigger.

And this answers Billy’s question: why bother with the rest of the day? Because sometimes it’s like that.

percy priest sunset

good question

July 24, 2009


Why do we bother with the rest of the day,
the swale of the afternoon,
the sudden dip into evening,

then night with his notorious perfumes,
his many-pointed stars?

This is the best—
throwing off the light covers,
feet on the cold floor,
and buzzing around the house on espresso—

maybe a splash of water on the face,
a palmful of vitamins—
but mostly buzzing around the house on espresso,

dictionary and atlas open on the rug,
the typewriter waiting for the key of the head,
a cello on the radio,

and if necessary, the windows—
trees fifty, a hundred years old
out there,
heavy clouds on the way
and the lawn steaming like a horse
in the early morning.

Billy Collins


July 23, 2009

One good poem about home deserves another, albeit completely different in mood and tone. Home here, though, is not a distant inevitability but a present and mundane reality. It’s where a poet works and dreams.

Billy Collins is that rarest of poets, funny and widely read.

I have never been fishing on the Susquehanna
or on any river for that matter
to be perfectly honest.

Not in July or any month
have I had the pleasure--if it is a pleasure--
of fishing on the Susquehanna...

I am more likely to be found
in a quiet room like this one--
a painting of a woman on the wall,

a bowl of tangerines on the table--
trying to manufacture the sensation
of fishing on the Susquehanna.


July 22, 2009

EWarnerParkInisfreeAnother favorite spot in Edwin Warner Park.

Yeats‘s “Lake Isle of Inisfree” evokes feelings of home and rest and the release of care.

For this hiker/biker yesterday it evoked  the thought of moral holiday, and the release of guilt for enjoying a beautiful summer’s afternoon in the park. The unexpected rain that came later, and that is still falling this morning, had the same effect. Glad I came across it again. Rest peacefully, Dr. Hoffman.

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree…

I will arise and go now, for always night and day

I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;

While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,

I hear it in the deep heart's core.