Posts Tagged ‘John Dewey’


November 20, 2012

The meaning of life? There’s a Jamesian answer, of course:

The solid meaning of life is always the same eternal thing,— the marriage, namely, of some unhabitual ideal, however special, with some fidelity, courage, and endurance; with some man’s or woman ‘s pains.—And, whatever or wherever life may be, there will always be the chance for that marriage to take place. “What Makes a Life Significant

And a  Deweyan answer too:

“The things in civilization we most prize are not of ourselves. They exist by grace of the doings and sufferings of the continuous human community in which we are a link. Ours is the responsibility of conserving, transmitting, rectifying and expanding the heritage of values we have received, that those who come after us may receive it more solid and secure, more widely accessible and more generously shared than we have received it.”

James and Dewey were both profoundly impressed by the Darwinian-evolutionary account, then still fresh and exciting in its reconstructive possibilities, of life as an unfolding saga whose ultimate meanings hang in the balance of events to which we are privileged to contribute. They were confident that our “doings and sufferings” on behalf of voluntary ideals are meaningful. Their focus was not on our lowly progenitors, but on the prospective progeny who will come after us and be grateful or not for our contributions to the great story of life.

Some say the story’s too big, the scientific and cosmic vistas too vast to accommodate meaningful lives on the human scale. Carl Sagan, who said so many fine things, disagreed.

“In this perspective the idea that our planet is at the center of the universe much less that human purpose is central to the existence of the universe is pathetic. Does life thereby lose all meaning, I think not. I think we make our lives meaningful by the courage of our questions, by the depth of our answers, by how widespread our understanding is of the essential tools for managing our future, for how skeptical we are of those in authority and of our obligation to care for one another.”

Our epic story is a strong candidate for the great unifying meaning of life, drawing together all the separate narratives of our plurality. As Richard Dawkins says: we’re among the lucky few, of all the possible beings  who might have drawn breath in our place but never will, who get a chance to write a few lines of the story.

Our gratitude should know no bounds.

A good argument

November 8, 2012

We’re putting on John Rawls’ veil again today, or thinking about it anyway. He was committed to the idea of selfless mutual self-interest as the precondition of justice and fairness. Justice is fairness, he said.

What principles of social justice would be chosen by parties thoroughly knowledgeable about human affairs in general but wholly deprived—by the “veil of ignorance”—of information about the particular person or persons they represent? Rawls thought they’d pick these two: (1) fundamental  individual equality, allowing (2) only those inequalities that can be presumed to work out to everyone’s advantage.
So, the sporting example we were discussing yesterday: a Rawlsian social contract won’t entirely level our playing fields, won’t be purely egalitarian. Behind the veil we’d probably want to design a society in which those who excel at a game others  might enjoy watching, for instance, will have sufficient incentive to actually play. The basketball fan does not begrudge Michael Jordan’s fortune, if he thinks it contributes to his own delight at courtside. It’s to his “advantage,” too, for Michael to have more money and notoriety.
But whatever the deliberators decide, behind that veil, Rawls wanted to give them a procedural opportunity to agree on the basis of relevant considerations. We’ve instead been auctioning public office and social influence to the highest, loudest bidders, not the coolest reasoners.  There’s nothing fair or just about that. The “law of peoples” can do better.

Michael Sandel is a Rawlsian, with his talk of restoring respectful forms of democratic argument.

A good argument, after all, really isn’t just interrupting and saying no it isn’t/-yes it is/no it isn’t. With the rude and acrimonious election season we’ve just come through, we should give serious thought to how we can elevate our political discourse. The 2014 campaign season will be opening any minute now.

We had a pretty good discussion in EEA yesterday, provoked by Scott’s report on Daniel Quinn‘s call from beyond civilization. “There’s no one right way to live,” but pluralistic “tribalism” doesn’t require relativism: there are still wrong ways to live. But who gets to say precisely what those are?

For instance, Morgan challenges: can’t an environmentally-sensitive Mom raise a large brood without earning or deserving the scorn of environmentalists who still worry about a population bomb and counsel a nuclear family of limited offspring, even maybe just one? (And, as the president said in the wee hours yesterday: “one dog’s probably enough” too.)

Yes and no, I think. Yes, if that Mom does a superlative job of instilling humane eco-sensitivity in all her offspring. No, if we consider the risk of endorsing large families simpliciter, without qualification. Just do the math: if everyone multiplied herself in kind, generation after generation, we’d soon literally overrun the planet. Even if they were all good biotic citizens, this simply wouldn’t be a sustainable model of habitation. The human tribe would implode.

But only one? Two works pretty well, for us, most of the time. Kids and dogs. The one cat’s one too many, though, when he tries (as he is right now) to lay on my keyboard.

So what would Rawls say? Presumably he’d trust his veiled deliberators to strike the right chord between liberty and difference on this, and to allow that we might possibly be able to afford the occasional busload-sized family. One of those extra riders just might turn out to be an outsized contributor to our collective good fortune. Odds are against it, though, so the sensible advisory “rule” (probably shouldn’t be a law) for most of us will be to ditch the bus (mini-van, SUV) and squeeze the kid(s) into the Corolla.

Wasn’t that an amusingly artless rendition of Rawls?

I don’t claim to know what art is, or if Marcel Duchamp’s “fountain” should count. But like most of us, I know what I like: I like John Dewey’s approach in Art as Experience.

Dewey’s antipathy for spectator theories of knowledge did not block his acute perception of “the sources of art in human experience [that] will be learned by him who sees how the tense grace of the ball-player infects the onlooking crowd.”

The crowd at the fountain had best be careful not to be infected by something less delightful.

A joyful wisdom

May 24, 2012

The past is the past, but the future can be a Long Now. That’s what Faulkner really meant to say, whether he knew it or not.

But I wonder if he knew or approved of John Dewey‘s view?

We always live at the time we live and not at some other time, and only by extracting at each present time the full meaning of each present experience are we prepared for doing the same thing in the future. [More Dewey quotes]

That’s a Stoic attitude. (See Marcus Aurelius.) All these guys were Stoics of one sort or another, as John Lachs first taught me many years ago. Life is for the living, in an expanding and inclusive present that continually renews itself day after day, year after year.  Stoics have their dreams, but also their responsibilities.

And as William Irvine says, Stoics can have their fun too. Stoics for life possess a joyful wisdom.

Americana, Black Socrates, Einstein, Freud, Russell

November 21, 2011

It’s the 20th century already in CoPhi, we must be getting very near the end. But what has concluded, that we may conclude? Absolutely nothin’… Collaboration in the “philosophy of ‘co'” is (almost) never-ending. So it must just be the end of the beginning we’re running up on, this Thanksgiving week. (Remember, STUDENTS, our Thanksgiving break begins Wednesday.)

Today we read of “secular nations, Americana, Evolution & Einstein, Freud, and Bertrand Russell,” among others.

JMH says Ludwig Wittgenstein set the tone for this century when he wrote, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” I don’t know about that, as a 20th century mantra. The professional occupation of philosophy does not reward silence, and not many of my colleagues have been known to hold their tongues in public. We all talk too much, that’s the  game we’ve been hired to play. William James did it too, and periodically confessed his self-revulsion for feeding the PhD Octopus.

What an awful trade that of professor is,” James complained at term’s end in 1892, “paid to talk, talk, talk! …It would be an awful universe if everything could be converted into words, words, words.

And yet, on the mundane plane of existence and survival, unemployment just  might be worse. Whatcha gonna do, sit silently in a circle and intuit? Meditate? Be?

Speaking of secular Americana (something we readers of Doubt now know to be real and legit, not oxymoronic in Jefferson‘s and Adams‘s and Franklin’s and Paine’s America), it’s nearly Thanksgiving. Lots of people around these parts think of it as a religious holiday, when we’re all supposed to thank god for the turkey and stuffing, but it really did begin as a non-religious festive ritual. Same for July 4, Memorial Day, and all the other public occasions when religion and politics (and football in Fall) all run together. So, for all who find themselves in stifling company on Thursday and called on to grace the excess, here’s a little Thanksgiving prayer. But if that was too much, here’s a more conventional one. [gratitudeFordluckythanks a lotthank goodnessgratitude is good for you (Tierney)]

“Unifying communal experiences” are a good thing, but can be more of a challenge this time of year for those of us who’ve given up football. Penn State was the final nail in the coffin, for me (for it). NCAA collegiate athletics is corrupt (“The Shame of College Sports“) and football at every level is unconscionably violent (“Offensive Play“). But I’m not entirely inflexible on this: raise a generation or two of kids who understand all the risks they run of brain damage, mental illness, permanent disability, premature death etc., and if they still want to play then that’s their choice. I’ll still be boycotting. (Hockey & boxing too, of course.) But pass the turkey, please. And the pie. Let’s talk hot stove baseball.

Thomas Mann was wrong, religion must be separated from politics in a pluralistic democracy. But there’s still something to be said for putting social life “on the altar” (and not the sacrificial altar, either). That’s what John Dewey was doing when he said “the things in civilization we value most are not of ourselves” etc. We are a part of something larger than ourselves: nature, society, and history. The vital question of what life will ultimately make of itself is compelling, and inspiring. “A better life here upon earth” is a sacred goal, and shouldn’t be consigned to the scrap-heap of Marxist-Leninist history. Lenin did say everyone should be free to practice whatever religion they pleased, or none. Tragically he merely said it. So did Walter Rauschenbusch, with his social gospel (“Thy will be done on earth“) and commitment to a just future.

Turkey’s secular experiment (no pun intended) fizzled, but how much bloodshed might we have been spared at this end of that century if people had heeded Ataturk‘s observation that fighters (and terrorists) are more willing to die and kill  when they think their reward will be heaven and its oddly-earthy perqs. (How many virgins, again? But aren’t all angels virginal, by definition?) The social gospel should exclude the society of angels.

The Nazis and Fascists did get religious about politics. (The present GOP has precedent.) But the oft-repeated claim about Hitler’s irreligion is false. “I believe I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty…” You could look it up.

But closer to home, how about that Thomas Edison! “Have faith and go forward,” he said, but faith in what exactly? “I cannot see any use of a future life.” For ourselves as continuous individuals, that is, in an eternal heaven. (Picture lightbulbs popping.) His hero Paine is another iconic American whose true views are not True Blue. But both understood Dewey’s version of naturo-socio-historical continuity very well indeed.

Hubert Harrison, the “Black Socrates,” defies the stereotype of unblinking theism among African-Americans. He also admired Paine, noted errors in the Bible, and embraced Agnosticism (“such an agnostic as Huxley was”).  He said he had no intention of bowing down to a lily-white god or worshipping a Jim Crow Jesus. He was more than a little literal when he also embraced Nietzsche’s repudiation of “slave ethics.” Admitting that reason alone did not meet his every need, he still preferred “to go to the grave with my eyes open.” That’s a really good personal credo, “eyes open.” Mind too.

Emma Goldman, Mother Earth matriarch and “an exceedingly dangerous woman,” found doubt a source of happiness. The negation of gods is also an affirmation of humanity, an “eternal yea to life, purpose, and beauty.” [Quotes]

Margaret Sanger‘s slogan is (was?) penciled into the concrete of our stairwell in JUB: “No Gods, No Masters.” The fatherly anecdote of a casual rhetorical question about God’s baking skills serves as a sobering reminder to parents and teachers: the smallest throwaway remark can change a child’s life. Be careful.

Mark Twain was one of my earliest mythic heroes. Like the Cardinals, he came with the territory where I grew up, just a little southwest of Hannibal MO. It’s little appreciated, amongst the legions of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn readers across the land, that he was an acerbic and gnostical freethinker: “There is only one father cruel enough to afflict his child with… disease.” And: “If Christ had really been God, He could have proved it.”

“Twain believed in God, but not one that cared for us.” Not a god of charity, kindness, mercy, or compassion. We humans may have invented heaven, he says, but we really don’t want to go there. All the fun people would have to be at the other place, if only it were real as well.

There’s more in today’s reading about the Scopes Trial. Remind me to tell you again about my childhood hero and favorite magician Winterton Curtis, one of those scientific witnesses who went down to Dayton and was denied an opportunity to testify for science and truth and Clarence Darrow, “attorney for the damned“. (It was Darrow, btw, not Richard Dawkins, who first said everybody’s an agnostic/atheist with respect to something or other.) Yet Dr. Curtis retained admiration for the natives, as do I. (And as did Charles Darwin’s descendant Matthew Chapman, btw.)  (Damned Yankee in ColumbiaDon’t Tell Me the Lights are ShiningScopes 7…)

“God does not play dice with the universe,” but maybe Einstein just meant that dice (“chance”) doesn’t get played period. Again,

I believe in Spinoza’s God… I do not believe in a personal God… I do not believe in immortality of the individual, and I consider ethics to be an exclusively human concern with no superhuman authority behind it.

Yet he affirmed a sense of mystery and wonder, beauty and sublimity. “Strange is our situation here on Earth…”

Strange, too, is our situation as diagnosed by Herr Doktor Professor Freud (who’s been interestingly juxtaposed, by Armand Nicholi, with C.S. Lewis over the “question of god“). “Human morality and civility [are] a thin covering over a mass of blind hungers and needs,” and “religion gives most people their only inkling of the philosophical world.” We can do better, maybe people can “handle the shock of the truth.” Eventually, anyway. Grandma possibly can’t on Thursday, though. Pick your battles, keep the peace ’til the pie’s been served.

Bertrand Russell says J.S. Mill wakened him from his youthful dogmatic slumbers.

 I for a long time accepted the argument of the First Cause, until one day, at the age of eighteen, I read John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography, and I there found this sentence: “My father taught me that the question ‘Who made me?’ cannot be answered, since it immediately suggests the further question ‘Who made god?'”

I’m no Russell or Mill but I do recall rehearsing a similar line of thought myself, at about age fifteen.  It’s what Carl Sagan was saying on his Day, too. “If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world.” Why not?

Well, some will resist that move because they prefer not to face the prospect of ego-annihilation and personal “rot.” But Russell’s view is appealing. It provides a solid riposte to the Buddhist emphasis on existence-as-illusion, one I think most renunciators can agree with (or should): “Happiness is none the less true happiness because it must come to an end.” Should we do all we can to postpone the end, and fill the interim with happy purpose? I vote yes. (Did you see the cartoon I posted yesterday?) There’s no other cure for birth and death than to enjoy the interval. (GS)

The future of life need be no illusion, and the vitality of our interest in that future will be as real as we choose to make it. The “good real things of life–work, love, children and play”– may just be good enough.

You can’t walk away from education

May 16, 2011

It wasn’t my turn to walk with our graduating class this year, so I was surprised to find myself seeking out the live stream of Vanderbilt’s commencement ceremonies the other day. By “tradition” Vanderbilt saves a dime and has its Chancellor deliver the big send-off address. That’s usually a let-down. Maybe it was again, for most of the graduates. But I was excited when Chancellor Zeppos cited John Dewey and quoted him at length, on what’s best about education. The gist of it was that education is not something you can ever walk away from, if you mean to be an educated and intelligent organism. It’s a lifelong endeavor. “The heart of the sociality of man is education,” you can’t commence anything worthwhile if you already think you know it all. Good message.

And so is Tali Sharot’s, in yesterday’s Times, on the value of “cautious optimism”:

That may be the most useful message to communicate to graduates — believe you can fly, with a parachute attached, and you will soar like an eagle.

But most college graduates these days won’t be impressed by commencement cliches. They just need a little positive encouragement. They don’t need to soar, they just want to get off the ground.

Like the shuttle Endeavour, in about an hour…

POSTSCRIPT: “Expanding our knowledge, expanding our lives in space.”

Philosophy recovers itself when it ceases to be a device for dealing with the problems of philosophers…

May 9, 2011

Philosophy recovers itself when it ceases to be a device for dealing with the problems of philosophers and becomes a method, cultivated by philosophers, for dealing with the problems of men.

John Dewey

civil conversation

January 15, 2011

I was impressed by the colloquy between David Brooks and E.J Dionne yesterday on NPR. Usually their job is to squabble, albeit in a slightly tonier way than is typical of most other paired media pundits. Brooks in particular strove this time to hit a higher mark of reflection, in the moment of opportunity for a New Civility in our public discourse he thinks the Tucson aftermath affords:

…the most important thing [is] acknowledging your own weakness. I need E.J. because I don’t have 100 percent of the truth. I may have 60 percent, he may have 40, but, you know… we need each other to balance each other out and we need the conversation. Without that conversation, we really have nothing. And so that’s why we need civility because individually each of us are weak.

Dionne then cited the theologian/philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr, from (improbably enough) Wright City, Missouri, just down the road from my own boyhood home. “We must see the error in our own truth and the truth in our opponent’s error.”

Brooks had earlier quoted Niebuhr in his Times column:

Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope. … Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore, we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.

It’s a fine sentiment, if overstated. (Surely there are many worthwhile things each of us can hope to achieve in our brief time on Earth.) It reminds me of John Dewey’s statement about the continuous human community.

[Interesting, btw, to see Brooks invoking a theologian/philosopher. In the current New Yorker (“Social Animal,” Jan. 17) he writes: “Brain science helps fill the hole left by the atrophy of theology and philosophy.” But maybe his point is that the present generation is lacking in wise theologian/philosophers?]

The very next line from Niebuhr, not quoted by the pundits, deserves equal time. It’s from The Irony of American History, which one of my Intellectual History profs had us Mizzou undergrads read back in the ’70s.

The irony of America’s quest for happiness lies in the fact that she succeeded more obviously than any other nation in making life “comfortable,” only finally to run into larger incongruities of human destiny by the same achievements by which it escaped the smaller ones.

We have a higher destiny on Earth. Niebuhr and Dewey disagreed about whether we have one higher still, but never mind. The point to ponder here is that we’ve got to be kinder and more receptive to one another. We’ve got to have a civil conversation about how to do it.


April 20, 2010

We finish Andre Comte-Sponville today in A&S, with his big question: Can there be an atheist spirituality?

I’ve been thinking of AC-S as the French John Dewey, but there’s a Jamesian side to him too– though he’s probably not aware of it, as neither Dewey nor James turns up in the bibliography.

Recall James’s claim that even if every religious proposition is absurd, religion (he should probably have said spirituality) remains “our most important function.” AC-S writes:

Not believing in God does not prevent me from having a spirit.

The human spirit is far too important to be left to priests, mullahs or spiritualists. It is our noblest part, our highest function… Renouncing religion by no means implies renouncing spiritual life.

It does not matter whether spirit resides in the brain or in its functional effluvia the mind, or in the personal, intentional activities that signal mind’s presence. It is no substance or entity. Rather, it is a function, a capacity, an act or a disposition to act. Automata, so far at least, are not self-starters. Organic persons embodying spirit are. That marks spirit as natural, and is a big improvement on the old supernatural notion of hovering, homeless disembodied spirits.

James wrote: “The conception of spirit, as we mortals hitherto have framed it, is too gross to cover the exquisite tenuity of nature’s facts.” We ourselves are nature’s most tenuous facts. AC-S:

We are ephemeral beings who open onto eternity… This “openness” is the spirit itself. Metaphysics means thinking about these things; spirituality means experiencing them, exercising them, living them.

For this spiritual “opening,” nature suffices and our own transitory finiteness suffices. I’m reminded of Annie Dillard‘s wonderful statement: “While we breathe, we open time like a path in the grass. We open time as a boat’s stem slits the crest of the present.” It’s the stream we go a-fishin’ in, another great nature-poet said.

On my reading, AC-S is a global naturalist (holding that everything experienced and experienceable is real, and in precisely that sense is a part of nature). If everything is natural, then so is spirituality… Spirit is part of nature. It’s still an open question: what else is there in nature that has not yet been dreamt by our philosophers? Fortunately we’re well-equipped to chase open questions, if only we will.

AC-S’s discussion of mysticism is a challenge to the conventionally-Positivist imagination, but (like Wittgenstein) James was at home with the “inexpressible” and so should we be. “Open your eyes” (and shut your mouth) is good advice in many more instances than philosophers like to admit.

All our explanations are comprised of words but the real mystery is not in words. Explaining often gets us into trouble. Novelist Richard Ford gets away with saying this, without squandering his credibility and consistency, because he typically allows years to intervene between such fictional statements.

Real mystery—the very reason to read (and certainly write) any book—was to [his teaching colleagues] a thing to dismantle, distill and mine out into rubble they could tyrannize into sorry but more permanent explanations; monuments to themselves, in other words. In my view all teachers should be required to stop teaching at age thirty-two and not allowed to resume until they’re sixty-five, so that they can live their lives, not teach them away—live lives full of ambiguity and transience and regret and wonder, be asked to explain nothing in public until very near the end when they can’t do anything else. Explaining is where we all get into trouble…
He definitely has a point, but at least we’re off the streets. We may not, however, be tapping what James told his Gifford audience at the turn of the last century was the vital spiritual  core of our respective personal energies.
AC-S has a Sagan-esque side too:
The universe is our home; the celestial vault is our horizon; eternity is here and now. This moves me far more than the Bible or the Koran. It astonishes me far more than miracles (if I believed in them). Compared to the universe, walking on water is a cinch!
As Carl Sagan told his Gifford audience in 1985:
And this vast number of worlds, the enormous scale of the universe, has been taken into account, even superficially, in virtually no religion, and especially no Western religions… we have a theology that is Earth-centered and involves a tiny piece of space… the God portrayed is too small.
Why would you need a God? The universe suffices. Why would you need a church? The world suffices. Why would you need faith? Experience suffices.
Words, however, probably do not suffice. We’re going for a feeling here. James called it, paradoxically, the sentiment of rationality. AC-S offers an apt analogy (which will betray the reason for my attraction to his book):
You are taking a walk… You feel great. It started out as an activity for recreation or exercise… and then it gradually turned into something else– a subtler, deeper, nobler pleasure. Something like an adventure, but an interior one. Or like an experience, but a spiritual one. You wish for nothing other than the step you are taking at the very moment you take it, nothing other than the landscape as it is, at this very instant, with a bird emitting its cry, another bird taking wing, the strength you feel in your calves, the lightness in your heart and the peace in your soul… This is plenitude.
And although AC-S and I have already devoted many words to its explication, it is really not something they can corral. We need to stop talking… And I’d have been content for AC-S to do precisely that, at this point in his book. He didn’t. So I’ll let WJ have the last– no, the penultimate– words:

As long as one continues talking, intellectualism remains in undisturbed possession of the field. The return to life can’t come about by talking… I must deafen you to talk, or to the importance of talk. Or I must point, point to the mere that of life, and you by inner sympathy must fill out the what for yourselves… The deeper features of reality are found only in perceptual experience.

What, then, is spirituality? The immodest author of Springs of Delight writes:

Spirituality is the link of continuity between every human breath, every moment, and every epoch. It is what binds the personal, the social, and the philosophical. Life, as James says, is a chain: a flowing stream of succession to which we may contribute, not only through the spires of our genes but more overtly in our voluntary devotions and ideals. The living breath that measures our moments and days also marks the distance between an attentive present, coveted futures, and life’s remote denouement. Respiration, inspiration, and aspiration are entwined aspects of the vision of life as a chain.

practical humanism

April 15, 2010

We’re back to Andre Comte-Sponville’s Little Book of Atheist Spirituality today. We noted, when we first made his acquaintance, that there’s something unexpectedly Deweyan in his version of natural piety and the idea that our task is more to transmit than to invent values. Fidelity, not faith, thus becomes the distinctive mark of atheist spirituality.

But the circumstances of a pseudo-fideist French atheist are different than those for even the friendliest American atheist. Not entirely– we too must find something to oppose to fanaticism from without and nihilism from within. The Christian west as we know it, though, has not ceased to be Christian at all. Not around these parts, anyway.

There does feel to be something of a safely post-facto nostalgia at work in AC-S’s feeling of connectedness and fidelity to the specific history, tradition and community that was once a vibrant European Christian culture. You’d have to go back nearly to Henry Adams‘ Virgin of Chartres and his “study of thirteenth-century unity,” though, to find an intensity and spontaneity of un-self-circumspect emotional devotion to that tradition to match the fervor that still pervades our Bible Belt. We’ve not really yet embraced, as a tradition and community, the “dynamo” of postmodernity here.

So, friendly as I mean to be, I can’t earnestly mimic his Christian atheism. That would confuse and infuriate my real Christian neighbors. But I can cheerfully echo his quest to be a friendly atheist in a Judeo-Christian land, out to convert nobody but simply to co-exist on however slim a sliver of common ground we can manage to share. We do have a history together, after all. And I’m already on board with the “What does God have to do with it?” attitude, even if most Christians (unlike many Jews) continue to obsess about that.  God is not the day-to-day focal point of most religious life, life is.  (“More life, a larger, richer, more satisfying life, is the end of religion.” -WJ)

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.

This fidelity to humanity and to our own duty to be human is “practical humanism,” and it’s what AC-S finds lacking in Nietzsche’s nihilistic post-nihilism. What a rotten, miserable life he had, though he wrote some good books and dashed off some spirited lines. And poetry.

And this is “cheerful despair” (or Stoicism, or Spinozism):

Happiness is not something to be hoped for but something to be experienced here and now!

The hope for tomorrow’s happiness prevents you from experiencing today’s… cut off from the present (which is all) by the future (which is nothing)… The wise live in the present, wishing only for what is (acceptance, love) or what they can bring about (will).

All trips end eventually. Is that any reason to renounce undertaking one and enjoying it? -Of course not! On the contrary, it is a powerful reason to go on paying the utmost attention to life, peace, justice… and our children. Life is all the more precious for being rare and fragile.


A Catholic priest who cheerfully admits that God and immortality are “secondary matters”? Not to his parishioners. There’s really something rotten in Rome these days. But AC-S draws the right moral from this encounter:

The value of human beings has nothing to do with whether or not they believe in God or life after death… It would be madness to attach more significance to what we don’t know and what separates us than to what we know from our own experience and what brings us together… people’s real worth is measured by the amount of love, compassion and justice of which they are capable!

Of course. But priests and pastors and Rabbis ought not to misrepresent themselves, either. [“Preachers Who Are Not Believers“]

This post is getting too long, there are gems on every page, I’m not going to come close to today’s target (chapter 2). Just one more sparkler, please:

Why dream about paradise? The kingdom is here and now. It is up to us to inhabit a material and spiritual space (the world, our bodies: the present)… people’s spiritual elevation could be accurately measured by their greater or lesser indifference to the question of their own immortality. If we are already in the kingdom, we are already saved. What could death take away from us? What more could immortality give?

There is no need to wait until we are saved to be human.

Humanity = communion, fidelity, love… Amen!

defining “religion”

March 18, 2010

Well, there’s William James’s very broad and inviting definition: “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individuals in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.” Of this expansive definition it may be said that religion is vastly more pervasive than even we Bible Belt residents imagined.

Or you could go with Ambrose Bierce, again: RELIGION, n. A daughter of Hope and Fear, explaining to Ignorance the nature of the Unknowable. [Companion to FAITH, n. Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel]

And then there’s Dan Dennett’s counter-definition, “profoundly at odds with that of William James,” according to which religions are “social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought.” By this definition, “a religion without God(s) is like a vertebrate without a backbone.

So why does it matter, this question of nomenclature?

Our course is “Atheism and Spirituality,” not “Atheism and Religion.” My observation is that most atheists have deliberately opted out of religion, and typically resent being lumped with the faith-based. (John Dewey tried to reclaim religious experience as a generic and non-sectarian quality of life in A Common Faith, with limited success.)

Most atheists also think of themselves as something more and other than crass materialists who find nothing real but “matter and the void.” So it matters because we want to know what “spiritual” residue might remain for atheists, humanists, naturalists, Brights (etc.) to claim, after they’ve renounced “religion .” But first we need to know what religion means, so we’ll know if atheists (et al) can safely renounce it.

Also of interest in today’s A&S reading: Billy Graham’s pal Charles Templeton‘s “Farewell to God” and to Billy’s rigid faith. “You don’t dare stop thinking about the most important question in life. It’s intellectual suicide.” Templeton poses many questions. “Is it not likely that you are a Christian [Muslim, Jew, Hindu…] because your parents were before you?” is a good one.

And Dawkins. Giving children something with which to surprise their parents is one of the greatest gifts a teacher can bestow, especially a tenured teacher. Perhaps immodestly, but understandably, he quotes his great late fan Douglas Adams: evolution, as explicated by Dawkins, was to Adams “a concept of such stunning simplicity, but it gave rise to all the infinite and baffling complexity of life. The awe it inspired in me made religious experience seem silly beside it.” And he quotes Dennett: “the idea that it takes a big fancy smart thing [God] to make a lesser thing [humanity] is the trickle-down theory of creation. It’s no more impressive than its economic counterpart, when you really look at it.

Dawkins doesn’t simply disagree with theistic evolutionists like Francis Collins, he is “astonished” by their willingness to depict a lazy do-nothing under-achieving God (“deus otiosus”) whose work is all executed by natural selection.  Nice work if you can get it. (But Dawkins has still got kind words for Ken Miller, who so impressed the Judge in Dover, who claims to have found “Darwin’s God,” and who was one of the featured talking heads in the acclaimed PBS “Evolution” docu-drama.)

Dawkins doesn’t get the appeal of mystery for its own sake. As noted last time, he’s not got a “talent” for religion. “One of the truly bad effects of religion is that it teaches us that it is a virtue to be satisfied with not understanding.” He also cites Michael Shermer’s rejection of “gap” criticism. Every time you discover a new fossil you also create another gap? Sounds a lot like Zeno, not really so  paradoxical after all.

But more to the point, “we could easily have no fossils at all, and still the evidence for evolution… would be overwhelmingly strong.” Irreducible complexity in its inanity, as Judge Jones ruled, pales by comparison.

Victor Stenger says there’s “something rather than nothing” just because the laws of nature decreed it, so we may as well stop asking about the pre-Big Bang universe. Does that answer that? I’m not yet convinced.

So, back to the question we started with. Not for the first time I find myself leaning against William James on this topic. It would be a tremendous aid to clarity if we could agree to mean by religion a God-centered worldview (there could still be a range of views about what that meant exactly), and let the “merely” spiritual go Godless. What do you think? [NOTE TO A&S STUDENTS: That’s our question of the day, or one of them. Remind me to pass the sheet around.]