Archive for the ‘religion’ Category

A fun Day 1!

January 18, 2013

Day 1 was fun, with all those introductions and not so much “explanation” from me. Teachers need to remember: students are people too. They deserve to be met and heard, not just lectured at.

So, I’ll put away the Opening Day necktie (I wonder if my footballers and cheerleaders noticed the themetie?) ’til next Fall, roll up my sleeves, and get down to trying to explain a bit more on Tuesday.

As my first class concluded and disbanded yesterday in Room 204, students crowded in for Professor M’s to follow. I made a prediction to them: Professor M will write a long and somewhat difficult quote from the philosopher Peirce on the board. Let me know next time if I’m not correct. (After so many years we can all mime not only our own opening acts but also those of our colleagues,  to a point. I threw a curve this year, though.)

Then I headed back upstairs to my office, sat down at my desk, looked up and across the hall into 304, and what did I see? The confirming remnant of Professor M’s just-concluded previous class:


It’s the very statement I’d just forecast downstairs,  a quote from C.S. Peirce, contending that philosophy is a branch of science.

It’s decidedly not my view. I see science as a branch of philosophy, not the other way around. Some religion, too. It all begins in wonder, curiosity, and plurality. I’m sure we’ll be talking about that, this semester.

But I’m also sure that Professor M will teach a great Intro to Philosophy course. There’s no single royal road to wisdom, no exclusive source and sustainer of wonder.

That’s why we’re co-philosophizing in my classes. It’s gonna be a lot of fun, especially if the theists hang in there with me. I came out of the closet: I’m a humanist, a secularist, a naturalist, and when push comes to shove, an atheist. Some also call me an accomodationist. If more ‘ists are really needed, though, I prefer “pluralistic meliorist.”

That should be enough fog to hold off the positivist reductionists, no?

But it also presses the next inescapable question, the one D&D will be taking up with me in our late-Thursday afternoon independent readings course on Religion, Rationality, & Science: are science and religion compatible? Really compatible, not just in the way marriage and infidelity can be (as David astutely noted), but more like salt and pepper?

Or like humans and chimps, perhaps? Evolutionists are often asked, by deeply-confused fundamentalists: why are there still monkeys? Just as you could also ask, more than a century and a half after Darwin, why  there are still theists. Or: why tolerate religion?

My working hypothesis is that there are still theists for the same reason there are still other kinds of primate: common descent, shared ancestry, developmental divergence from the same tree of life. It’s all related, we’re all related, theists and atheists, philosophers and scientists, believers and skeptics.  Same tree, same source, different branches.

I suggested that we preface next week’s discussion of Stephen Jay Gould’s notorious “Non-overlapping magisteria” (NOMA) proposal with a peek at Evolution.

This really is going to be a fun semester.


December 15, 2012

Still grading. I’d probably be done if I hadn’t caught news of the Newtown massacre yesterday and then allowed myself to get sucked into the Twitter cycle of stupidity and recrimination. But I did find a bit of sanity there, in the words of people like Bill McKibben and Philip Bump and Adam Gopnik.

Gun massacres have happened many times in many countries, and in every other country, gun laws have been tightened to reflect the tragedy and the tragic knowledge of its citizens afterward. In every other country, gun massacres have subsequently become rare. In America alone, gun massacres, most often of children, happen with hideous regularity, and they happen with hideous regularity because guns are hideously and regularly available.

Apparently the moron Huckabee said those twenty “beautiful little kids” whose lives were extinguished yesterday were part of the price we must pay for separating church from state. It would probably be best to ignore such idiocy, not dignify it with even the barest acknowledgement.

Trouble is, when verbal public ignorance is left unchallenged it gets repeated and absorbed by the general unblinking fox-watching public. And it turns up in the papers I grade.

So I’m just going to say this to Mike and his pals, and then I’ll try going back to ignoring them:

It’s true (though not in the way you intend), if a deity of the sort you want us to worship in our schools were present there, and were really responsive to the prayers of the faithful, Newtown and all the other heartbreaking mass killings made in the U.S.A. would not have happened. Such a benevolent omni-propertied force would not have allowed it, in the name of human free will or anything else.

But they did happen, and absent the “meaningful action” we always just talk about, in the aftermath of these sickeningly frequent atrocities, they will again. And this depressing cycle will repeat, until we or our lucky descendants finally demand a plan  that reflects the sense and values of parents and others who love and teach and nurture our children and not those of a demented murderous unfathomable unthinkable “god.” Signing a petition is the very least we must do.


Ralph, Bart, & Jesus

December 14, 2012

I thought it was pretty much all over but the grading, except for one last exam yesterday. But we also had one last report presentation: Jesus!

Jacob, standing by his man and citing C.S. Lewis’s weird and cryptic statement about prophets who claim to be poached eggs etc., said we finally have just three basic belief options:

  • Jesus was not who he claimed to be, God (the, not just a… like Phil Connors) and he knew it. Or,
  • He was sincere but deluded. Or,
  • He was the real deal.

Well, I told the class, at least two more options leap instantly to mind: he was misrepresented, and he was misunderstood. Call them the Ehrman* and Emerson options, respectively.

Ehrman contends that the New Testament is riddled with contradictions about the life of Jesus and his significance. He has provided compelling evidence that early Christianity was a collection of competing schools of thought and that the central doctrines we know today were the inventions of theologians living several centuries after Christ.  Commonwealth Club

Ehrman has lived those contradictions. He was “born again” at 15 in Kansas (where he was a pal of my colleague Mike Hinz, btw, which is why Bart spoke on our campus February before last), a religion student at arch-conservative Moody Bible College (where all his teachers were required to sign an oath to represent only one perspective on the question of Biblical literalism and “inerrancy”), Wheaton College, and Princeton, and a devout Christian well into his career at Chapel Hill. The problem of suffering ultimately disabused him of his faith and made him a “heretic.” He came to understand that we shouldn’t follow anyone or anything with unwavering, unquestioning obeisance. We’re all individuals. We all have to think for ourselves.

rweJesus Christ estimated the greatness of man. One man was true to what is in you and me. He saw that God incarnates himself in man, and evermore goes forth anew to take possession of his world. He said, in this jubilee of sublime emotion, `I am divine. Through me, God acts; through me, speaks. Would you see God, see me; or, see thee, when thou also thinkest as I now think.’ But what a distortion did his doctrine and memory suffer in the same, in the next, and the following ages! …`This was Jehovah come down out of heaven. I will kill you, if you say he was a man’ …He spoke of miracles; for he felt that man’s life was a miracle, and all that man doth, and he knew that this daily miracle shines, as the character ascends. But the word Miracle, as pronounced by Christian churches, gives a false impression; it is Monster. It is not one with the blowing clover and the falling rain. Emerson, “Divinity School Address

We could do a course on this Emersonian sort of naturalized religious sensibility. Throw in the Jefferson Bible, along with some other ways of moving naturalism forward. Some Jamesian pluralism, some Deweyan natural piety, some humanistic science.

Maybe we will.

*Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed  the Bible and Why

Jesus Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible

Forged: Writing in the Name of God-Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are

God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question-Why We Suffer

“Thank you Plato”

November 16, 2012

Thank you Shakespeare, thank you Jane Austen!

That’s what Alain de Botton imagines “religious atheists” exclaiming in “church,” instead of Thank you Jesus!

Well, no thank you. But it’s a good TED Talk anyway, a nice complement to Don Cupitt’s Jungian nonrealist God-talk (that we talked about yesterday in CoPhi). And, conveniently in time for the holidays and the latest “war on XMAS“!

Alain de Botton is of course a humanist, like Don Cupitt. “Commitment to co-humanity has become my religion,” says former Father Cupitt. Humanists aren’t in it for merely-personal salvation, they seek more and better life here and now. If you don’t believe in heaven or hell or god, as Edrell said in class yesterday, you’re going to want to make life on earth as beautiful as can be. It’ll never be “perfect” by Plato’s standards or even by ours, but surely we can make it better.

So on that note: please sign our petition. Thanks. “God” bless.

“They do not sweat and whine about their condition”

June 9, 2012

One last word, maybe, on Ray Bradbury. He said in an old Fresh Air interview that the sources of his lyricism, a cut above the standard in scifi,  included Shakespeare and the Bible.

In Martian Chronicles he has a character blaming Darwin, Freud, and Huxley for robbing humanity of meaning. That’s egregiously wrong, on my view those three tapped into the most prolific founts of meaning available to conscious agents in a material world. All great men do indeed have their limitations, Bradbury’s no exception.

But, I wouldn’t dispute his character’s next statement:

The Martians discovered the secret of life among animals. The animal does not question life. It lives. Its very reason for living is life; it enjoys and relishes life… [They] realized that in order to survive they would have to forgo asking that one question any longer: Why live? Life was its own answer.

Hear that, Camus? Wondering again if Ray didn’t also read his Whitman.

“I think I could turn and live with the animals, they are so placid and self contained;
I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition;
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins;
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God;
Not one is dissatisfied-not one is demented with the mania of owning things;
Not one kneels to another, nor his kind that lived thousands of years ago;
Not one is responsible or industrious over the whole earth.”

The G-spot

March 1, 2012

Steven & Ben did an interesting report last time in A&P on neuroscience and religion. Is there a “God Spot,” and if so does it strengthen or deconstruct the credibility of religious experience? Is it a transmission receiver? Or is it all in our heads? “Does it mean that God created our brains, or that our brains created God?”

Results so far are inconclusive. One thing we can say is that human brains are capable of transcendence, and in some cases are positively addicted to it. That’s a good thing, though many forms of natural transcendence end badly (in alcoholism and other deleterious addictions, for instance: “sobriety diminishes… drunkenness expands“). But whatever else you want to say about it, you have to admit that our God talk is firmly planted in our species nature. For some, it casts a natural spell that some others would like to break.

Next question: what good is it, all the god talk? And there’s where the conversation gets even more interesting. David says

If you accept that religion has outlived it’s usefulness, and is on balance a negative, then yes it is better to believe religion “too silly, wrong, and dangerous to be counted as anything but humanity’s enemy.” The good done in the name of religion is more of an indication that humanism has progressed despite being held back by religious thought. People often do good despite the history (or even current status) of the tenets of their particular religion.

I’m all for an ever-more-humanistic world, but am still questioning the premise that all religion has outlived its usefulness for all practitioners. I confess I do resonate to John Lennon’s invitation to “imagine no religion,” but also have a hard time fathoming how the most estimable and inspired religionists will replace their moribund pieties with humanism. That sensibility works for many of us, but can it work for everyone?

And, my Jamesian scruples are finally just too uncomfortable with the presumption of prescribing my own conception of the good for others, not trusting them to fashion their own for themselves. “Hands off,” wrote the illuminator of “A Certain Blindness“: neither the whole of truth nor the whole of good is revealed to any single observer, although each observer gains a partial superiority of insight from the peculiar position in which he stands.”

Beyond all that, I’m also still wondering if the ultimate goal of neuroscientific explanation should be the explaining away of “folk wisdom” (including religion and other colloquial forms of discourse) or simply the addition of another descriptive vocabulary – another tool for the toolkit, but not an exclusive one. And I still wonder if the “god helmet” and other experiential catalysts (including drugs and exercise, and the morning coffee I’m tripping on right now) are “artificial” in any definite and useful sense?

So “what does research into our brain indicate about religious and spiritual experiences?” Maybe they know over at the BBC. Or the HBP. Or TED. “How can we best engage our brains to help us better understand big ideas?” Let me know.

MLK Day-Are we there yet?

January 16, 2012

No, we’ve not reached the mountaintop of justice for all. Ours remains a deeply flawed species, our politics has degenerated to the extent that at least one popular GOP candidate openly avows that he would not have supported federal action on behalf of the transformative Civil Rights initiatives of the ’60s, our civic dialogue is often an embarrassment.

But yes, we’ve made strides. Doors have opened, opportunities have created hope where there was despair. We should celebrate those victories today and continue the climb to freedom. And we who study philosophy should recall Dr. King’s advocacy of constructive Socratic tension, and continue to ratchet the pressure for progress in this imperfect time.

Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must see the need of having nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.  Letter from Birmingham Jail

We may not reach the promised land, but it shouldn’t be for not trying. As historian Taylor Branch wrote of King’s “last wish,”

How do we restore our political culture from spin to movement, from muddle to purpose? We must take leaps, ask questions, study nonviolence, reclaim our history.

So no, we’re not there yet. But asking questions and “creating tension in the mind” will move us on down the road. That’s the faith of a philosopher, and it’s why MLK makes the last cut on our timeline.  We can argue about whether his religion “improved” King, or whether his own virtuous character improved his religion. Just let Hitch have the last uncontroversial word, for once:

One wishes every day that Martin Luther King had lived on and continued to lend his presence and his wisdom to American politics.


our “most important function”

December 13, 2011

The “cryptic James quote” Weiner’s epigraph reminds me of, in which James commits to the “task” of defending experience against philosophy as his “religious act”:

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.

And what I once wrote of it: James’s “religious act” is, in essence, his formulation and dogged advocacy of a naturalistic creed that can permit itself to take seriously the experience of the private imagination and lonely heart in its struggle for release from isolation and despair and its striving for the vindication of hopefulness.

I still don’t understand precisely what James meant, but I know he meant to support the Lonely Hearts and passionate believers of the world.  Like Jennifer Hecht, he found belief one of our best muscles. He believed in believing, in the action and “experience” it sponsors and sustains. He aimed, he said, to “defend experience against philosophy.”

The problem I have set myself is a hard one: first, to defend (against all the prejudices of my “class”) “experience” against “philosophy” as being the real backbone of the world’s religious life-I mean prayer, guidance, and all that sort of thing immediately and privately felt, as against high and noble general views of our destiny and the world’s meaning.

He’s quite right, the class of professional academic philosophers looks askance at such a “well-nigh impossible” project. And maybe they should. Is immediate private feeling what we need more of, to grasp our “most important function”? Or do we need more experience in thinking?

Yes. Some days and nights we need more of the one, some more of the other. This morning I’m feeling the need for both. E pluribus unum.

Eric Weiner seeks God and open minds

December 12, 2011

Thanks to the magic of Kindle I found time this weekend for Eric Weiner’s newest travelogue, Man Seeks God. Downloaded a free sample of the first chapter, then (through the magic of Twitter) was able to tell him what I thought of it.

@Eric_Weiner Atheists aren’t “certain,” agnostics aren’t smug & indifferent. But like your 1st chapter anyway (& loved “Geography of Bliss”)

He then told me what he thought of what I thought.

@OSOPHER fair enough. Thanks for the open mind.

And, he told the rest of the Twitterverse he was

Heartened by the many positive responses to my NYT piece today, calling for a new way to talk about religion.

But also

Surprised by the many nasty responses to my NYT piece calling for less nastiness when it comes to how we talk about religion.

The book’s epigraph from Miguel de Unamuno mirrors one of my favorite cryptic James quotes, which contends that religion would still be among our “most important functions” even if all its doctrines and dogmas turned out to be patently absurd.

Faith is indeed quixotic. It is absurd. Let us admit it. Let us concede everything!

Concessions bring out the nastiness in some, but I look forward to reading the rest of the book in the same spirit of tolerant exploration in which it was written. It’ll be a good set-up for the Atheism class, set to begin in exactly one month.

Exam day & “the sigh of the oppressed creature”

September 28, 2011

“Home is any four walls that enclose the right person,” asserts my notepad calendar this morning. But gorgeous days like yesterday make walls sinister and superfluous to me, and gain extra luster through the contrast with the day before. Monday’s gray and rain were the perfect set-up.

I hadn’t planned to mention Older Daughter’s refusal to come out into the weekend sunshine in SOL class, as exemplifying a troubling kind of noxious pessimism about life. It just popped out, as we considered Matthieu Ricard’s statement about the “ultimate” pessimism being a hollow feeling that life is not worth living.

But then I quickly pointed out that it’s possible for those cursed by even the most dour temperaments, like old Schopenhauer, to delight in their negativity. Maybe some even live for it. Diff’rent strokes, as Ryan said.

So, speaking of sighs, we’re a third of the way thru our semester on this exam day. It’s time for me to begin thinking more concretely about the next.

We’re up to the 19th century now, to Karl Marx. He’s very relevant to SOL, and should be relevant too in my Spring course “Atheism and Ethics” (A&E*).

On Marx’s view, JMH reminds us,

people had religion because their lives were rotten; make their lives better and religion will melt away… ‘Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness.

Real happiness and real good are what we all really want, or should. It doesn’t come from beautiful lounge suites or from English football, eh Karl? (Did you hear, btw, that Germany announced its intention to bail out Greece economically? They’re more competitive on the pitch.)

Pluralists like me typically shun the claim that everyone would be better off if they’d all just “imagine no religion.” Diff’rent strokes, again.

But note: Marx’s appeal is to our broadly ethical impulse to improve the human condition. He presents his own atheism, right or wrong, as an ethical position concerned with right and wrong.

Something to talk about in A&E.