24 December 2007

What I Want For Christmas

What I Want For Christmas
Robert G. Ingersoll

If I had the power to produce exactly what I want for next
Christmas, I would have all the kings and emperors resign and allow
the people to govern themselves.

I would have all the nobility crop their titles and give their
lands back to the people. I would have the Pope throw away his
tiara, take off his sacred vestments, and admit that he is not
acting for God -- is not infallible -- but is just an ordinary
Italian. I would have all the cardinals, archbishops, bishops,
priests and clergymen admit that they know nothing about theology,
nothing about hell or heaven, nothing about the destiny of the
human race, nothing about devils or ghosts, gods or angels. I would
have them tell all their "flocks" to think for themselves, to be
manly men and womanly women, and to do all in their power to
increase the sum of human happiness.

I would have all the professors in colleges, all the teachers
in schools of every kind, including those in Sunday schools, agree
that they would teach only what they know, that they would not palm
off guesses as demonstrated truths.

I would like to see all the politicians changed to statesmen,
-- to men who long to make their country great and free, -- to men
who care more for public good than private gain -- men who long to
be of use.

I would like to see all the editors of papers and magazines
agree to print the truth and nothing but the truth, to avoid all
slander and misrepresentation, and to let the private affairs of
the people alone.

I would like to see drunkenness and prohibition both

I would like to see corporal punishment done away with in
every home, in every school, in every asylum, reformatory, and
prison. Cruelty hardens and degrades, kindness reforms and

I would like to see the millionaires unite and form a trust
for the public good.

I would like to see a fair division of profits between capital
and labor, so that the toiler could save enough to mingle a little
June with the December of his life.

I would like to see an international court established in
which to settle disputes between nations, so that armies could be
disbanded and the great navies allowed to rust and rot in perfect

I would like to see the whole world free -- free from
injustice -- free from superstition.

This will do for next Christmas. The following Christmas, I
may want more.

The Arena, Boston, December 1897.

26 November 2007

The Reflections of an Emperor

Over the thanksgiving holiday, I was able to read Marcus Aurelius' Meditations. Aurelius, Emperor of the Roman Empire, wrote the book to himself as form of self-encouragement. Aurelius is the last of the "five good Emperors" according to British historian Edward Gibbon. Aurelius' Stoicism is part of the Humanist tradition, and so I enjoyed reading the book immensely. Here are a few passages from the book: you can find the full text online if you wish to read more.
"Waste not the remainder of your life in thoughts about others, except when you are concerned with some unselfish purpose. For you are losing an opportunity to do something else, when you have thoughts such as: 'What is such a person doing, and why, and what is he saying, and what is he thinking, and what is he contriving' -- and whatever else of the kind makes us forget to observe our own ruling principle. We ought to check in the course of our thoughts everything that is without purpose and useless, but of all most meddling and malicious. A man should train himself to think only of those things about which if you were suddenly asked, "'What have you now in your thoughts?' - with perfect openness you might immediately answer, This or That, so that from your words it should be plain that everything in you is sincere and kindly, and befitting a social animal, and one that cares not for thoughts of pleasure or sensual enjoyment or any rivalry or envy or suspicion, or anything else for which you would blush if you were say it was on your mind." - Book III, s. 4

"If the faculty of understanding is common to us all, the reason also, through which we are rational beings, is common. If this is so, common also is that reason which tells us what to do, and what not to do. If this is so, there is a law common to all men also. If this is so, we are fellow citizens and members of some political community, and thus the world is in a way one commonwealth." - Book IV, s. 4

"Do not have the opinion of things that he has who does you wrong, or that he wishes you to have, but look at them as they are in truth." - Book IV, s.11

"A man should always have these two rules in readiness: first, to do only what the reason of your ruling and legislating faculty suggests for the service of men; second, to change your opinion, whenever anyone at hand sets you right and unsettles you in an opinion. But this change of opinion should come only when you are persuaded that something is just or to the public advantage, and the like, not because it appears pleasant or increases your reputation." - s. 12

"Have you reason? 'I have'. Why, then, do you not use it? For if it does its proper work, what else do you wish?" - s. 13

"Do not act as if you would live ten thousand years. Death hangs over you. While you live, while it is in your power, be good." - s. 17

"Whatever is any way beautiful is beautiful in itself, and has its end in itself, and praise is no part of it. Neither worse then nor better is a thing made by being praised. I say this too of things called beautiful by the vulgar, for example, material things and works of art. That which is really beautiful has no need of anything, no more than law, no more than truth, no more than generosity or modesty. Which of these things is made beautiful by being praised, or spoiled by being blamed? Is a jewel like an emerald damaged if it is not praised? Or gold, ivory, purple, a lyre, a dagger, a flower, a shrub?"- s. 20

"Examine men's ruling principles, especially of the wise, what kind of things they avoid, and what kind that they pursue." - s. 38

"Be like the cliff against which the waves continually break; but it stands firm and tames the fury of the water around it." - s. 49

When in the morning you rise unwillingly, let this thought be with you: 'I am rising to the work of a human being. Why then am I dissatisfied if I am about to do the things for which I was brought into the world? Or was I made to lie under the bedclothes and keep myself warm? ' 'But that is more pleasant', you say. Do you live then to take your pleasure, and not at all for action and exertion? Do you not see the little plants, the little birds, the ants, the spiders, the bees, working together to set in order their several parts of the universe? And are you unwilling to do the work of a human being, not eager to do what belongs to do your nature? 'But I must have rest also.' You must; nature, however, has fixed bounds to this. She has fixed bounds too to both eating and drinking, yet you go beyond these bounds, beyond what is enough; yet in your work it is not so, and you stop short of what you can do. So you love not yourself, for if you did, you would love your nature and her will. " - Book V, s. 1

"Be not unhappy, or discouraged, or dissatisfied, if you do not succeed in acting always by the right principles; but when you have failed, try again, and be content if most of your acts are consistent with man's nature. Love that to which you return; do not return to philosophy as if she were a schoolmaster, but behave like those who have sore eyes and apply a bit of sponge or an egg, or like another who applied a plaster of a water lotion. For thus you will not fail to obey reason, and will find rest in it. And remember that philosophy requires only the things which your nature requires." - s. 9

"Reason and the reasoning art -- philosophy -- are powers sufficient to themselves and for their own work. They start from a first principle, which is their own, and make their way to the end which they set before them, and this is why reasonable acts are called right acts, for they proceed by the right road." - s. 14

"Honor what is best in the universe; this is what controls all things and direct all things. In like manner, honor also what is best in yourself; and this is akin to the other. For in yourself, also, it is that which controls everything and your life is directed by it." - s. 21

"Let that part of your soul which leads and governs be undisturbed by motions of the flesh, whether of pleasure or pain; let it not mingle with them, but let it set a wall around itself and keep those emotions in their place. But when the emotions rise up to the mind by virtue of the sympathy that naturally exists in a body which is all one, then you must not strive to resist the feeling, for it is natural; but let not your ruling part add to the feeling the opinion that is is either good or bad." - s. 26

"If any man can convince and show me that I do not think or act right, I will gladly change; for I seek truth, by which no man was ever injured. But he is injured who abides in his error and ignorance." - Book VI, s. 21

"Take care that you turn not into a Caesar, that you are not dyed with that dye; for such things happen. Keep yourself simple, good, pure, serious, free of affectations, a friend of justice, [...] kind, affectionate, strenuous in all right acts. Strive to advance toward what philosophy tried to make you. [...] Help men. Life is short. There is only one fruit of this earthly life, a pious disposition and social acts. Do everything as a disciple of Antoninus. Remember his constancy in rational behavior, his even temper in all things, [...] the serenity of his countenance, his sweetness, his disregard of empty fame, and his effort to understand things; how he would never let anything pass without having first carefully examined it and understood it; how he bore with those who blamed him unjustly without blaming them in return; how he did nothing in a hurry; how he refused to listen to calumnies; how exact an examiner of manners and actions he was, not given to reproach people, nor timid, nor suspicion, nor pedantic; [...] his firmness and steadiness in friendship; how he tolerated freedom of speech in those who opposed his opinions; the pleasure he had when any man showed him anything better; and how religious he was without superstition. Imitate all this and you may have as good a conscience as he had when your last hour comes." - s. 30

"Accustom yourself to listen carefully to another man's words, and as much as possible be in the speaker's mind." - s. 53

"Let not the future disturb you. You will face it with the same reason which you now use for present things." - . Book VII, p. 8

"Whatever anyone else does or says, my duty is to be good; just as gold, or an emerald, or purple always says: 'Whatever anyone else does or says, I must be an emerald and keep my color.'" - s. 15

"It is peculiar to man to love even those who do him wrong. This happens, if when they do wrong you remember they are kinsmen, and wrong you through ignorance and unintentionally, and soon both of you will die; above all, that the wrongdoer has done you no harm, for he has not made your mind worse than it was before." - s. 22

"When a man has done you any wrong, immediately consider with what notions of good and evil he acted in doing wrong. When you have seen this, you will pity him and will neither wonder not be angry. For either you think the same thing to be good that he does or something of the same kind; it is your duty then to pardon him; but if you do not hold the same notions of good or evil, you will more readily be charitable to him who is in error." - s. 26

"Think less of what you have not than of what you have; of the things you have select the best; then reflect how eagerly you would have labored for them, if you had them not. At the same time, however, take care you do not through being pleased with them accustom yourself to do overvalue them aas to be distressed if ever you should lose them." - s. 27

"Retire into yourself. The nature of the rational principle that rules us is to be content with itself when it does what is just, and so secures tranquility." - s. 28

"Subdue the imagination. Check the drives of impulse. Confine your care to the present. Understand well what happens to you and to others. [...] Think of your last hour. Let the harm done by another man stay where the harm was done." - s. 29

"Pay attention to what is being said. Let your understanding keep pace with what is being done and the causes of it." - s. 30

"Dig within. Within is the fountain of good, and it will ever bubble up, if you will ever dig." - s. 59

"Life is more like wrestling than dancing, in that it should stand ready and firm to meet onsets, however unexpected." - s. 61

"Receive wealth or prosperity without arrogance; and be ready to let it go cheerfully." - s. 33

"Men exist for the sake of one another. Teach them then or bear with them." - s. 59

"Do not despise death, but be well content with it, since this too is one of those things which nature wills." - Book IX, s. 3

"Wipe out fancy; check desire; extinguish appetite; keep your ruling faculty in control." - s. 7

Epicurus says, 'In sickness my conversation was not about my bodily sufferings, nor did I talk on such subjects to those who visited m; but I continued to discourse on the nature of things as before, keeping to the main point, how the mind, while participating in such movementgs as go on in the poor flesh, shall be free from disturbance and maintain its proper good. Nor did I', he adds, 'give the physicians an opportunity of putting on solemn looks, as if they were doing something great, but my life went on well and happily.' Do, then, the same that he did[...]". - s. 41

"No longer talk about the kind of man a good man ought to be, but be one." - Book X, s. 16

"When you are offended at any man's fault, turn to yourself and study your own failings [...]. By attending to this you will quickly forget your anger." - s. 30

"How undsound and insincere is he who says 'I have determined to deal with you in a fair way.' What, do you have to give notice of fairness? It will show soon enough in action. Truth will be plainly written on your forehead. A man's character shows itself in his voice and eyes, just as lovers may read everything in each other's eyes. A man who is honest and good ought to be like a man who has a strong odor: anyone who comes near must smell whether he choose or not. " - Book XI, s. 15

Consider these things: First, what is my relationship to men; we are made for one another. [...] Fourth, consider that you also do many things wrong, that you are man like others; and even if you abstain from certain faults, you still have the disposition to commit them, though either through cowardice, or concern for reputation, or some such mean motive, you refrain from wrongdoing. Fifth, consider that you do not even know whether men are doing wrong or not, for many things are done with a certain reference to circumstances. In short, a man must learn a great deal to enable him to pass a correct judgment on another man's acts. Sixth, consider when you are vexed or grieved that man's life is only a moment, and after a short time we all lie stretched in death. Seventh, that it is not men's acts which disturb us, [...] but it is our own opinions regarding them. [...] Eighth, consider how much more pain is brought on us by the anger and vexation caused by such acts than by the acts themselves, at which we are angry and vexed. Ninth, consider that benevolence is invincible if it be genuine, and not merely an effected smile and playing a part. [...] Remember these nine rules, as if you had received them as a gift from the Muses, and begin at last to be a man so long as you live. But you must equally avoid flattering men and being vexed at them, for both are unsocial and lead to harm." s. 18

"If it is not right, do not do it; if it is not true, do not say it." - Book XII, s. 17

01 August 2007

A Man Without a Country

Tonight I read Kurt Vonnegut's A Man Without a Country, and did so within the span of an hour. It was I think one of the most enjoyable hours I've ever spent. The book was very readable, and I read it while listening to "Evening Jazz"; the two blended together to make a lovely evening. Vonnegut wasn't a name I hadn't heard much about until after he died. I was dimly aware of the name, but was clueless otherwise. A few weeks ago I checked out Cat's Cradle but didn't really get into it; it didn't help that my reading list had a lot of other books competing for my attention, and I find it easier to focus on nonfiction. The library had one of his nonfiction works, though, and I decided to read it. I knew I would enjoy it, as I have perused Mr. Vonnegut's WikiQuote page a number of times. Some of the best quotations I've read by him come from that book, and I thought I would share some here for those who haven't read it. I mostly enjoyed the latter half of the book because its essays dealt closely with the subject of idealism in human experience.

"How beautiful it is to get up and go out and do something. We are here on Earth to fart around. Don't let anybody tell you any different."
"Do you know what a humanist is? My parents and grandparents were humanists, what used to be called Free Thinkers. So as a humanist I am honoring my ancestors, which the Bible says is a good thing to do. We humanists try to behave as decently, as fairly, and as honorable as we can without any expectation of rewards or punishments in an afterlife. My brother and sister didn't think there was one, my parents and grandparents didn't think there was one. It was enough that they were alive. We humanists serve as best we can the only abstraction with which we have any familiarity, which is our community."

"I am, incidentally, Honorary President of the American Humanist Association, having succeeded the late, great science fiction writer Isaac Asimov in that totally functionless capacity. We had a memorial service for Isaac a few years back, and I spoke and said at one point 'Isaac is up in heaven now.' It was the funniest thing I could have said to an audience of humanists. I rolled them in the aisles. It was several minutes before order could be restored. And if I should ever die, God forbid, I hope you will say 'Kurt is up in heaven now'. That is my favorite joke."

"So be [a wise human] anyway. Save our lives and your lives, too. Be honorable."

"It so happens that idealism enough for anyone is not made of perfumed pink clouds. It is the law! It is the U.S. Constitution."

"While on the subject of burning books, I want to congratulate librarians, not famous for their physical strength, their powerful political connections or great wealth, who, have staunchly resisted anti-democratic bullies who have tried to remove certain books from their shelves, and destroyed records rather than to reveal to thought police the names of persons who have checked out those titles.

So the America I loved still exists, if not in the White House, the Supreme Court, the Senate, the House of Representatives, or the media. The America I love still exists at the front desk of our public libraries."

"[...]I replied that what made being alive almost worthwhile for me, besides music, was all the saints I met, who could be anywhere. By saints I meant people who behave decently in a strikingly indecent society."

Joe, a young man from Pittsburg, came to me with one request: 'Please tell me it will all be okay.'
'Welcome to Earth, young man," I said, 'It's hot in summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. At the outside, Joe, you've got about a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I know of: Goddam it Joe, you've got to be kind!'"

"But I had a good uncle, my late Uncle Alex. He was my father's kid brother, a childless graduate of Harvard who was an honest life-insurance salesman in Indianapolis. He was well-read and wise. And his principal complaint about other human beings was that they so seldom noticed it when they were happy. So when we were drinking lemonade under an apple tree in the summer, say, and talking lazily about this and that, almost buzzing like honeybees, Uncle Alex would suddenly interrupt the agreeable blather to exclaim, 'If this isn't nice, I don't know what is."

So I do the same now, and so do my kids and grandkids. And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, 'If this isn't nice I don't know what is.'"

24 July 2007

All and Enough: Humanist Spirituality

"Let us consider the way in which we live our lives." - Henry David Thoreau

"You gotta love livin', baby, 'cause dyin' is a pain in the ass!" - Frank Sinatra

I was once asked if I thought "humanist spirituality" was a contradiction in terms. As luck would have it, I had been thinking on that subject only a week before. A Google search directed me to Doug Muder's blog, where I found an excellent essay on the subject. It's one I recommend reading. The question posed by my friend seems fair, given the subject of spirituality is thought of as supernatural and that the majority of definitions for humanism include a rejection of the supernatural. Is spirituality truly limited to the supernatural, though? I have read the opinions of many on this subject as I sought to articulate my own thoughts, and the opinion is universally expressed by commentators that spirituality has a far more encompassing definition than the one religious personalities assign to it in their zeal to monopolize its use. I would say that spirituality deals with the essence of things, and that by this definition we can relate spirituality to the natural world as well, which is where it belongs to those of us who think of supernaturalism as farcical.

Spirituality in religious and some philosophical systems deals with realizing and nurturing the growth of the individual essence, or spirit. Jews do this by studying Torah and performing mitzvah; Christians by being born again; Muslims by living in submission to Allah. In some other religious systems, a person's essence is nurtured and grows through reincarnation. Whatever the religion, all of these practices concern themselves with overcoming and improving upon our base nature. We recognize that we are given to some desires and behaviors that can prove destructive. We realize that if these desires and this nature can be overcome or controlled that we can live better lives.

The third Humanist Manifesto declares that the natural universe is "all and enough". Our own minds, then, are all and enough to nurture our "essence". Humanists rely on reason and empathy to live informed and fulfilling lives. Both of these tools require only our brains to use. For the Humanist, fulfillment is an internal affair. We do not need magic rocks to pray over or idols to bow down before. We do not require the sacrifice of animals or any other rituals. We do not need holy books. Our minds are all and enough. I have said before that the subtle beauty of humanism is that it is a philosophy often self-arrived at. If someone makes reason and empathy the bedrock of their worldview, that worldview will be humanistic. The values arrived at will be by and large the same.

How, then, do we use these tools? How do I as a person who believes my mind is all and enough find essential -- spiritual -- fulfillment and growth? How do I use my reason and empathy to effect such a result? Spirituality is so broad a subject that I could scarcely expect to cover any of it in one article. What I attempted to do with this was to explain what the basis for humanist spirituality is. If you're interested in spirituality in nontheistic and naturalistic systems of thought there are of course numerous blogs and books devoted to that subject. To end, though, I'd like to explain what my "spirituality" is like.

I begin with this statement: I study the sciences and humanities, appreciate nature and art, and love humanity. This is the nature of my spirituality. Essentially, spirituality for me can be tied to one word, love. Being a humanist, I love truth and humanity unconditionally. I love them both because they so enrich my life. Being able to revel in the knowledge that I'm alive is all-important to me. When I stopped caring about God in 2005, I said to myself that I was going to enjoy life as best as I could and help other people. That was where I really began to grow spiritually, and that occurred well before I discovered the Ex-Pentecostals and began to deconvert. Being able to appreciate being alive -- to really appreciate it -- is the best gift you or I can ever give to anyone. Even when I'm sick, I'm still happy because my joy isn't based on what happens to me. My joy comes from a deeper source, and that is my appreciation for being alive.

I love learning about science because it allows me to appreciate the world around me more than I could if I were ignorant of it. My love for science has grown as I have grown as a person in the past couple of years, and so to has my appreciation for the universe. I can spend hours sitting outside and enjoying the day. When I look out of my bedroom window and see the lush green trees set against the unbroken blue sky, I understand worship. There are times when I am looking at pictures of nature when I think that my chief pleasure in this world is to appreciate this beauty. Nature can be cruel, but it can also be breathtakingly beautiful. I think it's important to focus on the beauty given that all of this is a beautiful accident.

I also love studying the humanities -- history, literature, art, music -- because these subjects remind me of my humanity. When I listen to instrumental music while contemplating the vastness and beauty of space, I am moved. I delight in reading literature and fiction because they represent a sharing of experiences. I can learn more about my humanity and feel more connected to the people with whom I associate. There are similar subjects -- philosophy and sociology -- that I enjoy for the same reason. I am human; not a god. I want to grow as a human, not as a "saint". Pindar, the last of the Greek aristocrats, said "Strive not thou to become a god; the things of mortals best befit mortality."

The last part of my spirituality is that I attempt to live in love -- in hope for humanity. I set goals for myself and I strive to work toward them. My fondest dream is that of a peaceful and healthy Earth, occupied by humans who are united in their love for one another. This idealism drives me. I want to see this; I want to make it happen. I live each day trying to be the best human I can be. Is a united Earth an unrealistic goal? Perhaps now it is. I think, though, that by setting goals for ourselves -- as individuals and as a race -- we also provide motivation to meet those goals. Even if we don't meet the ideal completely, we can still improve the human condition.

I've grown a lot the past few years -- in knowledge, in confidence, and in my ability to live life in love for it. I anticipate growing even more in the future, as I plan on attending services at a Unitarian Universalist fellowship. I can only imagine how enriching being part of that kind of community will be. I've tried to articulate my feelings on spirituality for a long time now, but I feel like one blind man trying to determine the shape of the Great Pyramid. Spirituality is a colossally broad subject, and books and blogs have been devoted to the idea to do justice to it. In this essay, I explained what I think is the basis for naturalistic spirituality and expressed what some of what spirituality means to me in practice.

In this article, I referenced one quotation from Pindar, a classical personality. I found that quotation in "The Greek Way", by Edith Hamilton. I failed to write down the page number when I initially read it, but Google informs me that Pindar is covered in chapter five of that book. To end, here are my results from a QuizFarm quiz that I found over at GifS; if you dig into that blog's archives you can see how long I've been trying to express my thoughts on this subject.

Here are some essays that I found helpful in forming an idea about what humanist spiritualty was and should be:

"Humanist Spirituality: Oxymoron or Authentic Path to Enlightenment?"
- This is my favorite, and I make a point to re-read it every so often.

"Spirituality: What on Earth is It?"

"Integral Spirituality, Humanist Spirituality"
- This blog has another post called "Can Atheists Be Spiritual?"

"Why Atheist Spirituality isn't an Oxymoron"

"Faith of an Atheist"

You scored as Spiritual Atheist, Ah! Some of the coolest people in the world are Spiritual Atheists. Most of them weren't brought up in an organized religion and have very little baggage. They concentrate on making the world a better place and know that death is just another part of life. What comes after, comes after.

Spiritual Atheist


Scientific Atheist


Apathetic Atheist


Angry Atheist


Militant Atheist






What kind of atheist are you?
created with QuizFarm.com

26 June 2007

The Wisdom of the Prophet

A few months ago, I encountered a page of quotations at AllSpirit.co.uk when I did a Google search for song lyrics. Some of the quotations were by a man named Khalil Gibran, and I found them to be very insightful. I found others at Wikiquote. I enjoyed reading his thoughts very much, and found a book that he had written called The Prophet. I thought I would share some of my favorite thoughts of his.

From AllSpirit & Wikiquote:

Keep me away from the wisdom which does not cry,
the philosophy which does not laugh and the greatness
which does not bow before children.

Yesterday we obeyed kings and bent our necks before emperors. But today we kneel only to truth, follow only beauty, and obey only love.

I have learned silence from the talkative, toleration from the intolerant, and kindness from the unkind; yet strange, I am ungrateful to these teachers.

From The Prophet:

Love possesses not nor would it be possessed; for love is sufficient unto love. When you love you should not say 'God is in my heart', but rather, 'I am in the heart of God." And think not you can direct the course of love, for love, if it finds you worthy, directs your course.

Love has no desire but to fulfill itself.

Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself. They come through you but not from you, and though they are with you yet they belong not to you. You may give them your love but not your thoughts, for they have their own thoughts. You may house their bodies but not their souls, for their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams. You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you. For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.

Your joy is your sorrow unmasked. And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears. And how else can it be? The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.

When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy. When you are sorrowful look again into your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.

Your soul is oftentimes a battlefield, upon which your reason and your judgement wage war against your passion and your appetite. Would that I could be the peacemaker in your soul, that I might turn the discord and the rivalry of your elements into oneness and melody. But how shall I, unless you yourselves be also the peacemakers, nay, the lovers all of your elements?

Your reason and your passion are the rudder and sails of your seafaring soul. If either your sails or your rudder be broken, you can but toss and drift, or else be held at a standstill in mid-seas. For reason, ruling alone, is a force confining; and passion, unattended, is a flame that burns to its own destruction. Therefore let your soul exalt your reason to the height of passion, that it may sing. And let it direct your passion with reason, that your passion may live through its own daily ressurection, and like the phoenix rise above its own ashes.

I hope you enjoyed those. They are only a small selection of the beauty found in The Prophet. On a similar note, I found original recordings from another "prophet", albeit a secular one. The Council for Secular Humanism has available for download several recordings of Robert G. Ingersoll. These are original Edison recordings. As you can imagine, the sound quality leaves a lot to be desired. "Creed" is the only one that I've been able to understand completely.

"For while I am opposed to all orthodox creeds, I have a creed myself. And my creed is this. Happiness is the only good. The time to be happy is now. The place to be happy is here. The way to be happy is to make others so. This creed is somewhat short, but it is long enough for this life; long enough for this world. If there is another world, when we get there we can make another creed. But this creed certainly will do for this life."

I believe Ingersoll is an older man at this point and is speaking slowly and deliberately into Edison's primitive recording machine, so this isn't a performance where "lightening glared around the words" as Mark Twain wrote about Ingersoll's speeches. Even still, I believe these recordings are worth listening to solely for the historical and sentimental value.

01 March 2007

Reason and Emotion

"I will follow my logic, no matter where it goes, after it has consulted with my heart. If you ever come to a conclusion without calling the heart in, you will come to a bad conclusion."- Robert Ingersoll

Tonight, I watched a Star Trek episode titled “The Conscience of the King” from the original series, with text commentary by a man very much involved in the shape the Star Trek franchise took, Michael Okuda. I have been wanting for some time to write on a subject that keeps popping up in other writing that I do, and tonight I witnessed a scene that I thought might serve as an apt if somewhat geeky introduction. In this scene, Captain Kirk is faced with a difficult decision. He is in his quarters with his two best friends -- the dispassionate Mr. Spock and the passionate Dr. McCoy. In the running commentary, Okuda remarks that the scene is a classic example of the connection that exists between the three men. For Kirk, Spock is the dispassionate voice of reason -- and McCoy is voice of humanistic emotion. What made Kirk great, Okuda said, is that he relied on both, taking a balanced approach to things He used both logic and emotion to find the best solution to the problem.

In another episode, "The Galileo Seven", where the logical Mr. Spock is commanding six Starfleet officers who have crash-landed on a hostile planet. Spock’s decisions throughout the episode-- based solely on logic -- result in partial disaster for the people under his command, and he almost has something of a crisis of confidence. While a creature resembling Bigfoot bangs on the roof of their shelter, he remarks that “no one can be more than the sum of their parts”, somewhat in disbelief. Spock was wrong on this count; we are more than the sum of our parts. However, we are more than this because of the sum of our parts. Think of a car; if you assemble it the way it ought to be assembled and give it fuel and oil and so on, you have more than an admirable arrangement of metal; you have potential. You can go places -- more places than you could have gone without the car. I believe that we humans are wholly natural creatures; we are biochemical machines. But because of the sum of our parts, we have achieved a larger degree of sentience than have the rest of the animals. We have the potential to explore who we are; to define purpose for ourselves.

Defining purpose was the theme of the first Star Trek movie. It was about a sentient machine that comes to Earth, wanting to commune with its creator. As the plot of the movie unfolds, we find that the machine used to be one of the Voyager probes that was improved upon and made sentient. Having accomplished its mission of science, it sought more. Spock observes that the machine's mind functions on pure logic. V'Ger, as the machine cam to be called, sought deeper meaning to its life, but had no one to give it that meaning -- its creator was a team of long-dead NASA engineers. V’Ger was enabled to determine its own purpose by Kirk’s crew. The message of the movie is now obvious; reason and logic are not enough in giving our lives purpose. Our brains use emotion -- and so dependant on emotion are we that we need emotional fulfillment to feel satisfied.

Emotion and reason have even more use than establishing purpose; the two work to protect us. Both are necessary. Animals do not operate solely on instincts; some use reasoned strategies. I don’t know that much about defensive personal combat, but I have been told that even in fighting you must have both passion and discipline -- because your passion is most useful when it is disciplined. Emotion and reason also serve as guides. Emotions are like the wind to the sailor. A light breeze across the deck feels good, but no captain would allow strong winds to determine where his ship is to go. Reason gave us science to fashion sails to harness the wind, to somewhat subject it to working for us. Reason turned the winds of emotion into our ally. Later on, science gave us engines to progress despite the wind; to push through the wind when it would have caused them to lose their way.

Emotion and reason work hand in hand; each tempers the other. Neither should be neglected or promoted over the other. When one is neglected, the result is disaster. Fundamentalist, emotion-driven religions foster violence and suffering, and the calculated commitment to profit by corporations causes massive layoffs and distress. Horror movies and books feature both scenarios -- religion and science both running amok. The solution is balance. It’s a simple solution in theory but requires commitment to work in practice. I myself sometimes have trouble keeping emotion reined in, but take hope in the fact that I am getting better at it. I don’t think anyone can go wrong when they make their decisions on this balanced approach.

"Why should we desire the destruction of human passions? Take passions from human beings and what is left? The great object should be not to destroy passions, but to make them obedient to the intellect. To indulge passion to the utmost is one form of intemperance - to destroy passion is another. The reasonable gratification of passion under the domination of the intellect is true wisdom and perfect virtue." - Robert Ingersoll

10 February 2007

Mr. Madison's Wall

I live in Alabama, the land of the “Ten Commandments” judge, so I’m familiar with the arguments posed by Christians who want the Ten Commandments in our courtrooms and schoolhouses. One of the arguments used is that the founders of this country were Christian men and that we should return to the Christian republic which they founded for us. Anyone who has looked into the issue cannot in good conscience hold to that argument, because it is obvious that the most significant of our founding fathers were not Christians -- and those that were certainly weren’t the type we see today. George Washington’s Christianity, for instance, was a far cry from George W. Bush’s. Some of the fathers were Deists, some Christians. Which ones can we say were significant in the formation of this nation? Well, I’d say the man called the Father of the Constitution would be counted as “significant”. That man is none other than James Madison, our fourth president. The reason I want to pay attention to him is because of a quotation I encountered years ago while listening to a song about bringing America “back” to God. Madison is alleged to have said “We have staked our future on our ability to follow the Ten Commandments with all of our hearts.” If this was true, then it would seem to support the argument of the Christian Dominionists. When I began looking for the source of this quotation, it became obvious that there was no source; no proof that he ever said it. In fact, the person first responsible for putting those words in Mr. Madison’s mouth has admitted that the quotation is fabricated, along with several other similar quotations. But could it be possible that Madison was the kind of man who would say such a thing? I decided to find out. First I wanted to see if Madison was at all a Christian, for obvious reasons -- a Christian would have said those things, but not a Deist. Then I would look into Madison’s stance on church/state separation. Did he think it was there to protect Christianity from the government, or was it there to protect the government from Christianity?

To begin, let’s tackle the notion that Madison was a Christian. Early in his life, he studied theology, thinking to become a minister, but left. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to American Presidents attributes this to his voice: apparently he wouldn’t have made much of a speaker. He attended an Episcopalian church -- St. John’s of Washington, starting a tradition that continues to the present day and gives that particular church the name of “The Church of the Presidents”. It should be noted that church attendance doesn’t indicate church adherence: many do so out of cultural obligation or to support family members who are believers. References to God in his public addresses are few in number. If Madison had thought of the United States as a Christian nation, you would think this would show in his State of the Union addresses -- but it doesn’t. The only mention of a god is in his closing remarks, where he thanks Providence for the continuing welfare of the young nation. Some of the State of the Union addresses are bereft of even this token acknowledgement. As pointed out by another blogger, these references are perfectly in line with Deism -- and that if Madison were a practicing Christian, references to the Christian god would be higher and more emphatic. What does this leave us with? The author of the Constitution may have been a Christian, but not one nearly as devoted to his faith as the Katherine Harrises and Ann Coulters would want him to be.

Now to addresses the issue of church/state separation. When I first began to read Madison’s’ writings (through Wikimedia), I was amazed: how could anyone mistake this man for someone in support of a government-endorsed version of Christianity? Some (like the one I will list below) are originally from Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments, so allow me to explain the context. This was a document written in response to Patrick Henry (he of “Give me liberty or give me death” fame) wanting financial support from the State for people who were teaching Christianity. In it, Madison argues that religion is a personal matter, and the government should stay out of it for the good of everyone. He continued by asking who was to say what sect of Christianity would be taught above the others -- since some of the Christian faiths are radically opposed to one another. For a modern-day example of what this could lead to, you need only look at the conflict between Saddam Hussein’s Sunni Iraq and its neighbor, Shiite Iran. Both countries had Islam as the state religion, but each with a different sect, and the differences between the two led to war and still contribute to the proliferation of terrorism in the region. With that said, one of my favorite quotations from the article:

“During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.”

You would be hard-pressed to find a sounder condemnation upon Christianity as a state religion. Madison’s attitude in writing this would not prove to be unusual for him. The Memorial was written in 1785. In 1811, Madison (now President), stayed in character by vetoing a bill that would have allowed Congress to give money to a church to help the poor. It seems he had the impression that if the churches got their foot in the door, they wouldn’t stop there. Madison as president vetoed three bills that he felt violated the Establishment clause. These instances show a consistent pattern of behavior, one that we can trust enough to draw conclusions from -- and the obvious conclusion is that Madison in no way supported Christianity as a state religion in the United States. He was firmly committed to his friend Jefferson’s “wall of separation”.

So to end: would Madison have said those words? There is little if any support for the idea that he would have. The quote itself is an admitted fraud. But even if the quote was not known to be a lie -- if we were still wondering about its validity -- I think that those questions would be laid to rest through the knowledge of his character. In the end, Madison’s religion was his own. Whatever his creed, he did not make it part of his political platform. Whatever his religious notions, he stayed true to the idea of fairness through secularism -- and set an example that contemporary politicians would do well by following.

“Whilst we assert for ourselves a freedom to embrace, to profess and observe the Religion which we believe to be of divine origin, we cannot deny equal freedom to those whose minds have not yet yielded to the evidence which has convinced us. If this freedom be abused, it is an offense against God, not against man: To God, therefore, not to man, must an account of it be rendered." (James Madison, Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments)

01 January 2007

The Not-Quite-So Emancipating Proclamation

Or in the words of its author..."Nego Equality? Fudge!"

In the fall of 1862, Robert E. Lee would do something he would regret; he moved his army into Maryland, hoping to find recruits and supplies. Unfortunately for Lee, a copy of his plans for troop deployments had been discovered by Union soldiers. General McClellan, then over the Union Army, moved to intercept, and the result was the Battle of Antietam. The date of that conflict, September 17th of that year, became the bloodiest day of the war. Despite all of the bloodshed, the battle did not result in a military defeat or victory for either side. Lee was able to cope with the Union Army’s attacks, and when he decided it was time to leave the border state of Maryland, the Union Army let the rebel army go. But because the “incursion” into Union territory had been “repulsed”, Antietam could be seen as something of a Union victory. And this was what Abraham Lincoln was waiting for.

He had written up a document called the “Emancipation Proclamation”, and he wanted to issue it once the Union had won a victory. He had been waiting a while, but now was the time. On January 1st, 1863, the main part of the Proclamation was issued. Some people today say Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves with this document, and that was some warrior in God’s army, righting the wrongs of his day. The purpose of this writing is to dispel that myth. First, let’s begin with the notion that the Christian God cared about slaves enough to move on Abraham Lincoln to start a war over them.

The founding fathers of this country, for the most part, were products of the Enlightenment. They lived before the time of Darwin, and so had to believe in something in the way of a creator to explain the origins of life. But despite all of the Christian hubbub and rhetoric, the most significant of our founding fathers were Deists. They believed in sort of a divine engineer, who made the world and then took a step back to watch what happened. Look at the Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” For the purpose of this writing, I only need to focus on the “liberty” section of Jefferson’s words. The biblical God has no issues with slavery. God authorized the taking of slaves (especially virgins) and the purchasing of slaves. (Leviticus 25:44-46, Judges 21:10-24) There were also laws regulating slavery. For example, he recommended that the Hebrews not beat slaves so hard that they die right off; just beat them enough so that they know who’s boss. (Exodus 21:20-21) Kind of like Hell -- no death, just an endless (fiery) beating. Now, these were supposed to be God’s chosen people, his holy people -- exemplars of righteousness on the earth. Shouldn’t they be above slavery? The Aztecs had slavery, but they went about it in a much more just way. People became slaves through war or debt, but it was never permanent -- and this is from a society who sacrificed over 20,000 humans a year. The Bible verse that says slaves should be set free after six years specifies Hebrew slaves. "Liberty" isn't treated much better in the New Testament. After Jesus says everything in the Old Testament is permanent (Luke 16:17), Paul tells slaves to obey their masters just like they were obeying Jesus (Ephesians 6:5). The only liberty mentioned is freedom from sin; hardly relevant to physical slavery.

Clearly, the Biblical God doesn’t mind slavery. Throw that concept out of the window. Thomas Jefferson did not have Jehovah in mind when he was penning the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson and his peers had been influenced by people like John Locke, who said that no one had the right to infringe on another’s life, health, liberty, or possessions. These are not Biblical values -- they are human values, fostered by the humanism of the Renaissance and Enlightenment. Were those values present in Abraham Lincoln? Was he the champion of human rights as we suppose, and did he write and issue this document to make America a more Christian nation? Since the man is dead, we can only look at his words and his recorded actions. Let’s ask him.

“You enquire where I now stand. That is a disputed point. I think [...] that I am an abolitionist. When I was at Washington I voted for the Wilmot Proviso as good as forty times [...]. I now do more than oppose the extension of slavery. Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that 'all men are created equal.' We now practically read it 'all men are created equal, except negroes.'"

Clearly, Lincoln was uneasy with slavery. He opposed the expansion of the slave trade, and he may have possibly wanted to do something about it. His views were not uncommon. Many people during that time, especially in the north, saw slavery as evil, albeit necessary. It was in the Bible, after all, and one could hardly picture the cotton industry in the south without slaves. Lincoln said those words in 1855. In 1858, he is a politician, debating with Stephen Douglas. What are Lincoln's thoughts about slavery now, three years later?

"I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so."

Lincoln repeated this sentiment in his fourth debate, and in his presidential inaugural address. Here is the sentiment present in his fourth debate with Douglas.
“I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races. I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will ever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. ... And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.“

It sounds as if his feelings on the subject aren't so clear. But let’s not condemn the man. He was, after all, the product of his times. The John Browns of that time were scarce. But if Lincoln stated he had no intention of helping the plight of the slaves, why did he? Again, we go to the man’s words.

“My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause."

He wrote those words in a letter a month before the first part of the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in late September. President Lincoln wanted to preserve the Union. It is fortunate for the slaves that the nations of Europe were a bit hesitant to step in and help the C.S.A. While they weren’t fond of the fledgling United States (we had been in wars with both Britain and France by this time), the whole slavery thing was…well, messy. England had banned it. It would seem rather preposterous of them to defend American men’s right to have slaves when English men couldn’t. But until January 1st, 1863, a case could be made that this war was about the states’ rights. For the English, that reason would work as an excuse to make sure the United States didn’t grow excessively powerful. But when Lincoln declared “All persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free…” he made the war a moral issue. It wasn’t “kind of about” slavery, it became Christian Lincoln’s crusade against injustice. The hope of Richmond, that Europe would come to the South’s aid, became futile at this point. This is why I feel the South began its slide toward defeat on the muddy banks of Antietam Creek.

So far I have made a case against two points -- the first being that God would move anyone to fight against slavery, the second being that Lincoln even fighting against slavery in the first place. My third point is that the Emancipation Proclamation did not magically free the slaves. Look at the quoted text above. Lincoln specified that slaves in the rebelling states were free. The ones in the north or in the border states -- were still slaves. And now look at the second part.

“…and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.”

What does this mean? It means that only the slaves in rebelling areas where the Union Army had established a prescence were free. The slaves in the Confederate states that the Union troops didn’t get to until the tail end of the war still had two and a half more years of involuntary servitude -- their former masters certainly weren't going to volunteer the information. What freed the slaves forever in America was the 13th Amendment. The Emancipation Proclamation was a proclamation of politics, not emancipation.

The purpose of this writing was to dispel the myth that the Civil War was a Christian crusade against the evil slaveholders of the south, not to defame the legacy of President Lincoln. Humans are fallible creatures; all of us fail, and this includes our leaders. Every one of America’s presidents has made his own separate mistakes, and every one of them in the future will make his or her own. The founding fathers, who we almost revere, were flawed in many ways. My own favorite presidents -- men like Franklin D. Roosevelt and Gerald R. Ford -- had their flaws. Our contemporary presidents certainly have their flaws. The Americans of 1861 to 1865 had a president with flaws, but one who left a legacy. Lincoln may not have started the war with the intention of freeing the men, women, and children in bondage, but when the war had ended and Reconstruction began, they were free. For this we must thank President Lincoln, the soldiers, and the men who composed the Congress at that time. We must thank them, but never put them on a pedestal.