Archive for March, 2012

more than good enough

March 31, 2012

Yesterday’s baseball conference was a hit. My own humble presentation on “the meaning of life,” featuring lines from the eponymous baseball poetry and prose of Donald Hall and William Carlos Williams, was serendipitously followed by a last-minute program change.

Former ad-man and Mizzou grad school dropout Mark Sickman spoke of the “emergence of baseball poetry in hip hop and the blogosphere,” pointed us to his slick new baseball poetry website, and gave us all this pretty picture & poem.

The early session on Art of Fielding was terrific, but I had to ask Shawn O’Hare of Carson-Newman College (“Baseball as Narrative Metaphor”) how he could possibly have been “born a Mets’ fan” as he insisted. I have no doubt he was indoctrinated as one, like David Brooks, just as I was indoctrinated to love and not question my team in St. Louis (See slide #12).

I don’t think Shawn quite grasped the distinction.

But he did offer real insight into Chad Harbach’s rookie novel, as did Steve Andrews of Grinnell. Art of Fielding is all about striving for perfection and inevitably falling short, learning to accept mortality and failure as inescapable in every human life including the most artful.

It’s about discovering the Aristotelian “auto-telic” dimension of life, about doing things for the intrinsic satisfaction of doing them and not for their instrumental rewards. It’s about persevering, practicing, not over-thinking:  something all academics need to remember, especially at an academic conference about overpaid twenty-somethings who have little life-wisdom to share.

As Roger Angell said to James Earl Jones’s pontifical recluse writer in Field of Dreams who implied that baseball might very well be the meaning of life: “Get a grip.”

No, if you want meaning from baseball you’re well-advised not to try squeezing it from the empty gourds of athletes like Pete Rose, who (as Steve told us) admitted that he didn’t read and so hadn’t considered the life-lessons he might have taken from others’ ethical lapses before committing his own and landing in “my prison without bars.”

I love what legendary (though fictional) Card shortstop Aparicio Rodriguez said: “It always saddens me to leave the field.” It felt to him like death.

It always saddens me to leave the last session of the Baseball Conference. But it doesn’t feel like death to me, it feels like the beginning of another season in the sun. Play ball! It ain’t over ’til it’s over, etc.  It’s not a perfect game, but as John Lachs and Roger Kahn have said, it just might be good enough. And as always, I already can’t wait for next year.

Baseball and the meaning of life

March 30, 2012

Why speak out

March 29, 2012

Time to lower the curtain in A&P on Blackford’s 50 Voices. Sam Harris is in the wings, ready to pick up Peter Singer’s and Marc Hauser’s topic: “Why Morality Doesn’t Need Religion.” It’s because “we are endowed with a moral faculty that guides our intuitive judgments of right and wrong.” And, studies show, our intuitions converge from both the religious and irreligious directions. “No statistically significant differences” distinguish the religious from the rest.

Ironically, Hauser’s own endowment seems to have been shortchanged with respect to his scruples as a research scholar at Harvard, which found him guilty of scientific misconduct. The author of Moral Minds presently stands disgraced. But of course nobody’s claiming  our evolved moral sensibility is infallible. It is, though, perfectly “natural.”

Sean Williams puts in a word for Doctor Who, and for Sir Arthur Clarke’s law about miracles and advanced technology. “Magic” usually isn’t. “We must throw away old beliefs like witchcraft, sorcery and demons and trust in our own intelligence.” Sorry, Potter fans, but wise wizards can “never be too certain of anything.” I’m pretty sure Dumbledore said that at some point.

Doctor Who is a continuing story about the adventures of a mysterious alien known as “the Doctor,” a traveller of both time and space whose spacecraft is the TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimensions in Space), which from the outside looks like a British police telephone box of the 1950s. The TARDIS is “bigger on the inside than on the outside”—

Aren’t we all?

Peter Tatchell reminds us of Epicurus’s old questions, and  the Enlightenment philosopher D’Holbach‘s (who asserted that “ignorance and fear created the gods”), including:

If God is love, why does he condemn sinners to hell? Why are there birth defects and genetic disorders? Why are there devastating tsunamis, earthquakes, tornadoes etc.? Why did He make thieves,  murderers, torturers, rapists? Why are righteous believers in heaven so worried about death? Why does He need to be worshipped, idolized, and protected from blasphemy?

Tatchell is gay and (he imagines) born that way. Why do so many of the faithful consider that a sin against the creator who would have made him so?

And why do so few of the faithful reciprocate Tatchell’s attitude of acceptance? “My atheism does not lead me to hate religion or people of faith.”

Why can’t everyone simply follow the golden rule, not religiously but as a matter of common sense and human decency? Why can’t we all just get along? Faulty wiring? Tribalism?

Michael Tooley wonders how to get people to stop reflexively accepting and perpetuating the unexamined religious beliefs of their parents. He thinks the New Atheists have done us all a service by pointing out the dangers of any faith we’ve been taught not to question. But he distinguishes the hazard of Christianity from that of theism in general.

Specifically, original sin, human sacrifice, final judgment, and eternal torment are flatly morally unacceptable. Jesus, as the expositor of them all, was not so “very admirable and special” as many of us tend to suppose. He encouraged the familiar obsession with personal salvation, and underplayed the value of virtue for its own sake. He “didn’t seem to feel there was anything wrong with people acting out of selfish motives.” Mr. Jefferson put down his scissors and his Bible too soon.

Bertrand Russell was ahead of the curve on this one, too, taking up the question of J.C.’s wisdom and morality  in “Why I Am Not a Christian.”

When He said, “Take no thought for the morrow,” and things of that sort, it was very largely because He thought that the second coming was going to be very soon, and that all ordinary mundane affairs did not count.

Wrong again. But worse than being wrong is being mean-spirited and vindictive. Jesus had a “moral problem.”

 There is one very serious defect to my mind in Christ’s moral character, and that is that He believed in hell. I do not myself feel that any person who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment. Christ certainly as depicted in the Gospels did believe in everlasting punishment, and one does find repeatedly a vindictive fury against those people who would not listen to His preaching — an attitude which is not uncommon with preachers, but which does somewhat detract from superlative excellence. You do not, for instance find that attitude in Socrates.

Finally, bioethicist Udo Schuklenk’s last word: women’s reproductive health rights, so much in the news very recently thanks to the excruciatingly interminable GOP presidential “race” and a certain gasbag misogynist on the radio, illustrate the problem of turning a blind eye and a silent voice to religious zealotry. “There are harmful consequences to real people in the real world if such views are enshrined in law.”

And that’s why Maryam Namazie, one of our authors from last time, said this in a recent speech:

I am an anti-religious person and want society to impose more limitations, beyond mere secularism, on organised religion and the ‘religion industry.’… I am referring to organised religion and ‘religion industries’ and not religious beliefs. Anyone can have any beliefs, express them, publicise them and organise around them. ‘The question is what regulations society puts in place to protect itself.

Speaking of anti-religious (though not anti-“spiritual”) persons: next up, Sam Harris’s Moral Landscape.

Festival of reason

March 28, 2012

Speaking of the Reason Rally

March 24, 2012 marked the largest gathering of skeptics, atheists, humanists, nonbelievers, and “nones” (those who tick the “no religion” box on surveys) of all stripes on the Mall in Washington, D.C. at the Reason Rally. Crowd estimates vary from 15,000 to 25,000. However many it was, it was one rockin’ huge crowd that voiced its support for reason, science, and skepticism louder than any I have ever heard. Anywhere. Any time. Any place. -Michael Shermer

“Reason Rally” might be another name for “Festival of reason,” or for Enlightenment, our scheduled CoPhi topic today featuring Voltaire, Hume, Franklin, Paine, Jefferson, and Adams among others. The trans-Atlantic revolutionary fervor that gave rise to this amazing historical moment was indeed a festival of reason. It was epitomized by a particular Festival of Reason in Paris, though, 218 years ago this. Let’s party like it’s 1793! Or maybe we’d better not: those partiers were murdered by Robespierre, who in turn was guillotined when “the Revolution turned.” He thought they were a dangerous cult. From his point of view, on the block, you can sort of see why. But they just saw themselves as the handmaids of liberty.

No more priests, no more kings
Good morals, wise laws
No more priests, no more kings! FofR

What is a “cult,” anyway? Not sure, exactly, but L. Ron Hubbard said the best way to get rich in America is to found a religion. There are a lot of rich (and tax-exempt) churches here.

I love how JMH credits coffee (and tea) with tuning up both the intellectual intensity and a new politeness in Europe’s cafe society. It really did transform the world, and regularly transforms people’s outlook on life. “A cup of strong coffee at the proper moment will entirely overturn for the time a man’s view of life,” as James knew. It’s more than a productivity drug, brewed correctly it can be catalyst of happiness too. Gets me up@dawn.

Voltaire was one of those salon wits, a Deist and foe of social injustice who railed against religious intolerance (“Ecrasez l’infame!”) and mercilessly parodied rationalist philosophers (especially Leibniz, aka Dr. Pangloss).

Pangloss was professor of metaphysico-theologico-cosmolo-nigology. He proved admirably that there is no effect without a cause, and that, in this best of all possible worlds, the Baron’s castle was the most magnificent of castles, and his lady the best of all possible Baronesses… Candide

“There is a lot of pain in the world, and it does not seem well distributed.”

Voltaire’s countryman Diderot offered a sharp rejoinder to those who said nonbelievers couldn’t be trusted. “An honest person is honest without threats…”

David Hume (remember his little finger?) agreed, attributing goodness and upstanding personal character to the positive reinforcement of social custom and collective experience. Divine justice, he thought, is an oxymoron. “Epicurus’ old questions are still unanswered… (continues)”

Everyday morality is based on the simple fact that doing good brings you peace of mind and praise from others and doing evil brings rejection and sorrow. We don’t need religion for morality… religion itself got its morality from everyday morality in the first place…

Hume was an interestingly-birfurcated empiricist/skeptic, doubting metaphysics and causal demonstrations but still sure that “we can know the world of daily life.” That’s because the life-world is full of people collaboratively correcting one another’s errors. Hume and friends “believed morality was available to anyone through reason,” though not moral “knowledge” in the absolute and indubitable Cartesian sense. Custom is fallible but (fortunately) fixable. Hume at 300… in 3 minutes

And here’s another riposte to the claim that suffering poses no insuperable obstacle to faith, from Baron d’Holbach:

Would it not be a thousand times better to depend upon blind matter… than upon a God who is laying snares for men, inviting them to sin, and permitting them to commit those crimes which he could prevent, to the end that he may have the barbarous pleasure of punishing them without measure…?

Like the Falsafah said, it does seem foolish to punish your slave for following orders (or his own god-given nature).

And here’s as good a place as any to insert another pass at understandingImmanuel Kant, who said paradoxically that our highest freedom consists precisely in following orders. Specifically, by orders he meant moral laws supposedly articulated by the application of a categorical imperative we voluntarily impose on ourselves.

Sapere aude, have the courage to know: this is the motto of the Enlightenment.

But what can we know?

The world we know, the one we live in and snack on, is the phenomenal world… We can’t know “things-in-themselves” at all. But we are free to know this phenomenal world through science, the science of how things seem to us.

Kant also indulged his unscientific believing nature: we can’t know “t-i-t”s but our moral feelings do hint at the reality of the noumenal world so “one might as well choose to believe…” So it seemed to the Sage of Konigsberg.

Ben Franklin, Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams: doubters all. Yet they all loved virtue, and Jefferson and Paine in particular singled Jesus out as a positive role-model. In fact, Jesus is about all that survived our 3d president’s shears.

Jefferson Bible…F.Church…TJ & the Good BookCarl Sagan on Jefferson’s Bible & Christianity…Maira Kalman, Pursuit of Happiness…”I too am an Epicurean“…Deism… WJ on Leibniz (“superficiality incarnate”)… What Good Shall I Do This Day? (Franklin)… morning question… Rescuing Jesus from the Bible

World voices

March 27, 2012

Five more “world” voices in A&P today.

Was the whole world watching the Reason Rally? Doubtful. At least On Point covered it Monday morning: Hemant Mehta‘s a friendly but forceful spokesman, James Randi’s an embarrassment. But it’s a good question: what do atheists want?

Sumitra Padmanabhan “tried preaching atheism” in India, with predictable results: getting bogged down in misperceptions and terminological confusion. Indian atheists have been stuck with the name Nastik, “believers of nothingness.” Humanism really is a better label, though it isn’t immediately obvious what it is about that term that better conveys “a strong and uniform ethical foundation.”

Prabir  Ghosh relates a televised encounter with a yogi that results in unexpected audience applause for the proposition that “non-believers need not disprove anything; it is the duty of the theists to prove the existence of God.” Faith is a state we rarely embrace in non-religious contexts, when faced with preposterous claims.  Why should religion be any different?

Maryam Namazie (lately involved in a startling calendar protest) draws a simple, crucial distinction easily lost sight of when the line between church and state gets fuzzed: ideological vs. political Islam.  Both should be “open to all forms of criticism,” but their conflation typically results in both getting a free pass and atrocities (like stoning)  go relatively unremarked in the west.

Athena Andreadis grew up in the 60s when Greece recognized “no separation of church and state,” and was thus goaded to explore alternatives to Orthodoxy. She discovered a liking for “the holism of Wicca and the playfulness of Zen,” but became a real devotee of Princeton psychologist Julian Jaynes and his bicameral mind. Jaynes contended that our pre-conscious ancestors experienced verbal hallucinations and assigned them a divine source. The upshot: “the perception of anthropomorphic gods arose as a neurochemical manifestation of the human brain.”

“O, what a world of unseen visions and heard silences, this insubstantial country of the mind! What ineffable essences, these touchless rememberings and unshowable reveries! And the privacy of it all! A secret theater of speechless monologue and prevenient counsel, an invisible mansion of all moods, musings, and mysteries, an infinite resort of disappointments and discoveries. A whole kingdom where each of us reigns reclusively alone, questioning what we will, commanding what we can. A hidden hermitage where we may study out the troubled book of what we have done and yet may do. An introcosm that is more myself than anything I can find in a mirror. This consciousness that is myself of selves, that is everything, and yet is nothing at all – what is it? And where did it come from? And why?” The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind

And that may well have been a group-selective adaptation, as Jonathan Haidt said at TED.” But now it threatens humanity’s chances to survive and thrive.”

Michael Rose & John Phelan also consider religious experience an evolutionary adaptation, but regrettably imply that we freethinkers are therefore deficient and “dysfunctional” on account of “failures of frontal lobe function.” Thanks, but with friends like this nontheists might rather be left to their own resources. If there’s a staircase to heaven or transcendence it should be open to all. If it isn’t, we should wonder whether the lower floors may not be more “functional” for human ends.

I’d prefer to think of us as marking the cutting edge of our species’ next great evolutionary surge, not as failed or incompetent believers.

Descartes to Deism

March 26, 2012

Today in CoPhi we go “modern” again, from the angle of doubt: the scientific revolution, DescartesSpinozaHobbes, and the English Deists (my personal favorite is John Toland, author of Pantheisticon, who came up with the term “pantheist,” and for whom John Locke invented the term “freethinker”).

According to the World Union of Deists, whose website proclaims “God Gave Us Reason, Not Religion” and “In Nature’s God We Trust,” the American Declaration of Independence “is a Deistic document.” And they find deep Deist roots in Paine, Franklin, Jefferson, and others. The late great Hitch said they should have known better, and would have if they’d lived to read Darwin.

The Deists persist:

In Deism there is no need for a preacher, priest or rabbi. All one needs in Deism is their own common sense and the creation to contemplate.

They seem to think Einstein was a Deist, whether he knew it or not. (I think his popular writings are more humanist myself. Guess it’s relative to your agenda.)

“My religion consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble minds. That deeply emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, forms my idea of God.”

Dubito ergo sum makes at least as much sense as Descartes’ actual slogan. (But then, just about any 1st-person Latin verb will do.)  Thinking’s easy, doubting’s hard (because it moves the ground beneath your feet). While you’re only thinking, you’re stuck in your head. Well, not even your head, for a metaphysical dualist like Descartes. Stuck in your mind, a doubly problematic predicament. Should consciousness really be “esteemed higher than the universe”? And does “inner certainty” ever prove a thing?

Spinoza, we recall, was a pantheist: God didn’t make the world, God is the world and we’re its “nodes.” What then becomes of free will? Not so much, on his view. He might have been right, but I still literally can’t allow myself to believe it. I’m a lot more comfortable with his stance on miracles and supernaturalism (“it could simply be dismissed”), and am charmed by his short list of Epicurean delights – “study, wine, good food, the beauty of green things, theater, and sports.” He was a complex thinker of simple virtue, striving to “live honestly… for the excellence of virtue itself.”

Hobbes, Mr. SolitaryPoorNasty (etc.), is a more intriguing figure viewed through the lens of doubt. Hell is just a “fantasy to control people” (like his “Leviathan”?), people are riven by the fears (and ghosts and gods and devils) they themselves have dreamed up, the world is a “machinelike thing that runs itself.” He said things that got lots of his contemporaries scorched, and his making it to age 92 may just be a miracle.

Also noted in today’s reading: Galileo (“E pur, si muove”), BayleBoyle,Newton, Locke, Berkeley, Toland, and Pascal, whose gambling sense was more than just “odd.” He said you should place your money (meaning your life) on God, for fear that betting against Him might make you an eternal loser. JMH notes the howling statistical error at the heart of this specious reasoning:

We may be struck by lightning or not, but that doesn’t make it a fifty-fifty proposition.

Pascal‘s bad wager underscores something more to appreciate about Spinoza.

What Pascal decried as the misery of man without the Biblical God, was for Spinoza the liberation of the human spirit from the bonds of fear and superstition.

But then again, the strange case of Newton reminds us: you can be a really brilliant scientist– Neil Tyson says there’s never been anyone better– and also believe in woo (like alchemy and the philosophers’ stone). Weird, but also cautionary. Michael Shermer says smart people believe weird things for perfectly comprehensible bad reasons, and that’s probably right. But we should still leave a crack in the door for extraordinary experiences to squeeze through, when and if they come calling.

Speaking of weird, Pierre Bayle’s Dictionary was a smash bestselling New Skeptical bombshell, with “a good deal of sex” as a bonus. I’m actually more intrigued by his earlier comet book, “the first-ever all-out defense of the morals of an atheist.” He was “good without God” before it was cool. (Watch the next section for Diderot’s echo of this theme.) And, Bayle shared Hobbes’ view of Hell back when that could still get you ground-roasted.

Spinoza & Leibniz (& Einstein)… modern times… Descartes & Montaigne

Why do we search for self-transcendence?

March 23, 2012

Why do we attempt to lose ourselves? Jonathan Haidt on how & why morality evolved.

Haidt seems to delight in mischief. Drawing on ethnography, evolutionary theory and experimental psychology, he sets out to trash the modern faith in reason. In Haidt’s retelling, all the fools, foils and villains of intellectual history are recast as heroes. David Hume, the Scottish philosopher who notoriously said reason was fit only to be “the slave of the passions,” was largely correct. E. O. Wilson, the ecologist who was branded a fascist for stressing the biological origins of human behavior, has been vindicated by the study of moral emotions. Even Glaucon, the cynic in Plato’s “Republic” who told Socrates that people would behave ethically only if they thought they were being watched, was “the guy who got it right.” -William Saletan, NYT Bk Review 3.23.12

Does religion make people better?

March 22, 2012

Depends on which people, and on what “better” means. It clearly seems to make some people feel better. But does it improve their behavior, their actions, their communities, their lives? Still depends. Guess we all have to speak for ourselves.

So, to five more voices of disbelief in A&P. (I’d prefer “voices of humanist belief,” but I guess I just need to edit my own damned anthology.)

Kelly O’Connor’s been there and back, to the Land of Belief (chat version), and testifies that “the amygdala can convince the neocortex of just about anything.” Fortunately Kelly was there too, to help her neocortex understand that “my faith was solely based on argumentum ad ignorantiam.”  It was her work with the Rational Responders group, and not her work in the adult film industry, presumably, that got her on Nightline.  (Thanks for your research, David.)

Peter Adegoke is a free-thinking African who overcame the dual disadvantages of missionary-inflicted mis-education and the indigenous superstitions of his native land. (Did you know that Nigeria has more Catholics than any other nation?) At 19 he “enrolled in a Pentecostal Baptist Bible college” and then Theological Seminary, and finally encountered more than enough hypocrisy.  “I discovered that religion does not make people better.”

Chilean bioethicist Miguel Kottow “realized that religion is less about belief than about social concerns.” I heard a similar claim recently on a podcast featuring Jonathan Haidt (Happiness Hypothesis, The Righteous Mind). I understand, and I disagree. Belief matters, to religion and to us all. The issue is less what than how, but it matters.

But Kottow echoes the quote I mentioned last time about A.J. (“Freddie”) Ayer somehow elevating the status of theism by calling himself an atheist. “Agnosticism seems more disrespectful to religion than atheism, for the atheist takes other people’s beliefs seriously, whereas the agnostic takes a tepid view of what others hold dearly.” Again, I understand – and disagree. I take seriously others’ experience and their humanity. Their beliefs can be another matter.

Ayer, by the way, (recalling Susan Blackmore’s Out of Body experience from last time) apparently had a Near Death Experience of his own. He claimed it in no way impinged on his atheism. But an acquaintance reported that “He became so much nicer after he died… not nearly so boastful. He took an interest in other people.” But again, Freddie denied that the experience made him “religious.”

Of the experience, Ayer first said that it “slightly weakened my conviction that my genuine death … will be the end of me, though I continue to hope that it will be.” However, a few days later he revised this, saying “what I should have said is that my experiences have weakened, not my belief that there is no life after death, but my inflexible attitude towards that belief”.  What I Saw When I Was Dead

It is important to distinguish between brain death and states that mimic brain death… I am certainly not going to disagree with the idea that nearly dying is transformative. It is probably why real NDEs have greater effects on people than lab induced NDEs. The knowledge that you are truly mortal is life altering. Cancer survivors can have the same epiphany without the cardiac arrest. The devil is in the details…  Dr. Mark Crislip, Near Death Experiences & the Medical Literature

I also disagree, vehemently in fact, with Kottow’s statement that “the whole point of professed atheism is sheer indifference to the problem of transcendence.” It’s not a problem, and I’m not indifferent to it. It is one of the more beneficent and happy aspects of our human nature that it includes intellect and imagination, the ideal vehicles of naturalized transcendence. That has nothing to do with believing in gods or not.

But I agree with Kottow about “Mr. Leibniz.” It is “really pathetic to say that this is the best possible world…” Some days it’s a pretty darned wonderful world, but we can usually imagine better… and we’re only finite mortals. But, mortals gifted with a capacity to go beyond our skins, our times and places, and (in circumscribed ways) our finitude. Not, though, of course, from the atheist/humanist POV, beyond our mortality.

Frieder Otto Wolf says questions about God, world origins, the soul, and the ultimate (divine or secular) status of ethics have become irrelevant to the pressing urgencies of our time. “Nor can we expect to find scientific responses to these questions.” It’s about time to bring Sam Harris on stage.

Edgar Dahl says East Germans find it easy to imagine no religion. Ich bin ein Berliner.

Nobody expects the inquisition

March 21, 2012

We do in CoPhi, though. It’s on the syllabus, along with Giordano Bruno, Montaigne, the Libertines, and Matteo Ricci. Shakespeare deserves a word too.

We don’t do full-scale inquisitions anymore, though there was report of a professor being canned in Utah for using Socratic method. Another martyr for philosophy? No, he’s a business & marketing guy. Still, the principle’s the same: you have to stand for virtue, not expediency. Care more for the state of your soul than your reputation, do the right thing, etc. Unrighteousness runs faster than death.

Nobody expects the Inquisition, which explains why people like CapuanoMenocchio, Vanini and Bruno were so forthright in saying what is simply sane, from a naturalistic point of view: “angels and demons do not exist… there are no true witches… it’s impossible that Mary gave birth to Jesus and remained a virgin…” etc.

Bruno’s story, as noted, is tragic and inspiring. But its real significance is that “many future doubters would find Democritus and Epicurus” through him.

He was torched for pronouncing prescient truths and inspiring speculations about a vastly larger cosmos than his persecutors wanted to fathom. He imagined lifeforms elsewhere, anticipating Carl Sagan (Cosmos) and Baruch Spinoza: “God, for him, was the same thing as the universe.” He refused the comfort of a crucifix and departed this earth with these brave words:

Perhaps you, my judges, pronounce this sentence against me with greater fear than I receive it.

Cullen Murphy’s new book suggests we should all expect the possibility of inquisition, especially if the forces currently agitating for an end to the separation of church and state continue to succeed. That would be the end of liberty of conscience. Beware holy missions rooted in fear, that (Murphy explains) is the root of all inquisitions. The tragedy of Trayvon Martin we were discussing in class yesterday is an example.

And where does fear come from? In part, as Dale McGowan, notes, it’s a natural inheritance we need to renounce. We need to teach our children well.

I think we’re more naturally inclined to hate and fear difference than not. Religion isn’t the only parting gift we got from the Paleolithic. A lot of the things we are, including some of our worst pathologies, were once strongly adaptive traits. Evolution just hasn’t had time to catch up to our circumstances. As a result, we’re a whole panel of buttons waiting to be pushed. And one of the best things a parent can do is to help those buttons rust.

Montaigne, again. The anti-Descartes. Renaissance skeptic, earthy explorer of all things human, original essayist, frank and happy skeptic. “If we lived someplace else, we would believe other things.” Most of us just instinctively follow the custom of the country, and our raisin’, until challenged. Or, until we discover philosophy.

But he also advised going along to get along. Why burn for  something nobody knows for sure, anyway? As Epicurus and others had advised, just “follow the religion of tradition” and keep your own counsel about your doubts. I’ll heed that advice when the next Inquisition comes. “In God we trust?” Hope we don’t get fooled again. “Isn’t it better, Montaigne asks, to free oneself from certainty and thereby glide above the fray?”

Montaigne was a collector of solid ancient advice, like that of Ecclesiastes: accept and enjoy, and remember that you don’t really knowQue scais-je?

But that’s no argument for fideism. Blind belief, like scholastic dogmatism, is stuck in the dark. But it might be an argument for laying low, when Inquisitors are lurking about. On the other hand, how do you nip an Inquisitor in the bud if you don’t confront him?

Montaigne’s honorary adopted daughter Marie de Gournay, one of the first successful women writers, summarized his philosophy with her own: “act respectfully & doubt everything.”

Clear light… 1st blogger… humanists believe… modern times… What do I know? …Descartes & Montaigne… cool medium… wisdom & cheerfulness… Bakewell’s How to Live

“There is something dryly secular and loosely skeptical about Shakespeare’s whole project.” Ahhh. Now I get why my old Mizzou mentor introducedHeidegger‘s concept of authenticity with “This above all, to thine own self be true.” We are such stuff as dreams are made on, our little life is rounded with a sleep, and there is always another side to things. Shakespeare was a doubter.

Pierre Charron repeats, in On Wisdom, and we can’t remind ourselves too often: “things are done differently everywhere, and if  you were born there, you’d do it that way too.” Can you picture the late Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Rick Warren, or George W. Bush in a robe and turban? I can.

Charron’s claim that “doubt can make you happy, can ease your pain, and can be a home” articulates the very core of humanist spiritualilty. It’s something you can actually believe.

Fidelity matters more than faith… There is no need to believe in God– one need believe only in one’s parents and mentors, one’s friends (provided they are well chosen) and one’s conscience… Believing or not believing in God changes nothing of great significance, except in the eyes of fundamentalists. Whether you have a religion or not, nothing can exempt you from having to respect the lives, freedom and dignity of other people. Andre Comte-Sponville

The libertines valued most their opportunity to speak “freely about everything, without scandalizing a soul.” Well, they probably didn’t resist being scandalous too vigorously. That’s the philosopher’s dream too. It wasMersenne‘s : “we are free simply to investigate the phenomena that our senses present to us, whether or not we trust our senses in some ultimate fashion.” The all-devouring Pyrrhonnian pirannha here ceases to cannibalize itself, as it escapes through a Skeptical wormhole.

Gassendi anticipated theistic evolutionists of the 19th and 20th centuries: “atomism explained how the world could have made itself” but “God made the atoms.” And, as Epicurus said, God (or the Gods) is no longer keeping a close watch on the atoms. We and they are free to swerve on our own, or condemned to it.

Matteo Ricci went to China long before Nixon, with far greater irony attaching to the journey. He and his Jesuit confreres brought the old European brand of rationalism to China and came home with news of a world of atheists. Plenty to keep all sides occupied.

The separation of church & sanity

March 20, 2012

Another handful of Blackord A&P essays:

Dale McGowan, whom we’ve encountered before and whose Foundation Beyond Belief provides a place for humanists to express their charitable secular impulse, was one of those youthful freethinkers who felt isolated and alone. “I thought myself the only nonbeliever on the face of the Earth.” Hard to recall how different things were in the preInternet age. There are still too many benighted backwaters in our own back yards, but a kid anywhere in the world with web access can now plug in to the interdependent web of freethinking humanism, discover (for instance) a slick and reassuring video like “We Are Humanists,” and know he/she is not alone. Might even join a meet-up like the Reason Rally.

Like McGowan, I was helped out of my own feelings of irreligious isolation by the earlier work of A.N. Wilson (God’s Funeral, for example). How sad to learn of his recent re-conversion. He fell back up on his horse. He now complains, for instance, that atheists cannot explain how “man became a living soul.” He’s right: we have nothing to rival “The Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.” Thank goodness.

Wilson does offer an amusing quote from a friend we should bear in mind when we get to Miguel Kottow’s essay, next time: “I do wish Freddie [Ayer] wouldn’t go round calling himself an atheist. It implies he takes religion seriously.”

Jack Dann has spent a lifetime looking for God, and is now so disillusioned that even the mild hope that humans might one day “evolve into more rational beings” strikes him as an irrational faith-quest. I disagree. But I like his non-supplicating “atheist’s prayer” which disavows any temptation to “rail at the gods.” Too many theists think we’re railing. At windmills.

Susan Blackmore, who’s developed the “meme” idea as well as anyone, reports her strange personal odyssey from an odd long-ago Out of Body experience to a long-overdue concession that “dualism does not work.” But isn’t her conclusion strange, that “psychic, mystical, and religious experiences will never go away.” They’ll go away under that description, if enough people like her take a hard look at their actual experience.

Tamas Pataki, like the aforementioned McGowan, not only felt alone in his skepticism but was encouraged to feel that way by his own father. Thanks a lot, Dad.

Laura Purdy’s timing couldn’t be better, in this season of Santorum. She helpfully includes an extended quote from that JFK 1960 speech that made Rick sick. Looks eminently sane to me. She’s right as well as prescient, isn’t she? People have underestimated the threat of theocracy from the Religious Right in this country. Santorum could actually win his party’s nomination.

Or maybe we’ll get the guy who says the 2d Coming will result in Missouri’s return to prominence as the New Jerusalem.

As a born-&-bred Missourian, let me just say: wow! We’re further down the rabbit-hole than I’d ever imagined possible.