31 December 2009


A week or so ago I found a regularly-updated philosophy channel on YouTube: the host has focused on Stoicism several times, which may be of interest to some readers here. This particular video sees him ask the question what Stoicism most offers the modern world given that we use technology to alleviate so much. His sees  Stoicism's approach to death as its most important potential contribution today.

15 December 2009

Struggling with Cynicism

It seems that the more I learn about society, the less I wish to participate in it.

The above statement may seem like a witticism of a sort, and sometimes it amuses me in a tragic sense, but it’s a true statement for me that expresses my increasing cynicism about society and my discomfort at that.

I think the American socio-, economic- and political structure is flawed in many ways. The majority of the nation is not in control its destiny: the people are routinely exploited, lied to, and manipulated. People have become addicted to being entertained: the emotional depth of their lives has dissipated. Their talk has become small talk, devoid of substance or relevance. We spend more time reacting to what television tells us than actually living life -- more time using people for our own entertainment than connecting with them: we attempt to console ourselves by endlessly buying things. The list goes on.

Perhaps many people think that society is sick for reasons different than my own, but they go on participating in it. I increasingly understand Henry David Thoreau, and sometimes wish that I, too, could run off into the woods and get away from the irrational and unhealthy society that has arisen in the United States. I even find monks to be understandable, and I want to live in a quiet little community somewhere with other people who find society objectionable and don’t want to participate it in anymore.

At the same time as I am thinking these things, I examine my motives and I wonder if I am not just becoming a perpetual whiner,  pacifying and even entertaining myself by finding flaws in society instead of living up to my own ideals and doing what I can to change what I can. I wonder if my cynicism is just a way of protecting myself from the emotional toll living fully would actually take.

At the same time, I think a good thing that I am so wary of this increasing cynicism, that I don’t want to give up.  It seems that many people do, and think themselves the better for it, but I am not convinced. I believe we must strive and fight in life, but my ability to do so is more and more impaired by my suspicion that I am merely kicking against a mountain.

How do other people prevent themselves from sliding into the abyss of jadedness?


11 November 2009

Armistice Day

On this date in 1918, at precisely eleven a.m., the guns in Europe and across the world fell silent, ending the armed hostilities of the Great War, humanity's first major industial war and one of unimaginable horror. It was called the Great War out of deference to the death and destruction in caused: hundreds of miles of French countryside were turned into deep and muddy trenches where millions of young men lived with decaying bodies and engorged rats that thrived on such decay. Beyond the trenches, more countryside was laid waste to by artillery: whole towns vanished -- and this is only in Europe. No war more terrible could be imagined, and yet humanity managed to one-up itself twenty years in terms of financial cost, inhumanity, and lives lost.

After that point, the Great War became known as "World War I', and the history books of my youth painted it as merely the introduction to World War 2, the "big one". There's a notable dichomy between the two wars, at least for me: the former is war at its basest and least noble, while the latter is war at its most romanticized. I do not know of any other war in history where the two sides have so clearly been sorted into "Good" and "Evil" categories. The second war is what Americans seem to think of when they think of war -- glory, goodness, self-sacrifice, and honor.

I wish Americans would think of the Great War when they thought of war. Regardless of the degree to which you may romanticize the second war or not, it is damned impossible for anyone to romantcize the first, except out of utter ignorance to its reality. Perhaps if your knowledge was limited to movies like Flyboys, you might think it a lark -- but otherwise, the cold reality is unavoidable.  The Great War is war in its essence: utterly miserable and utterly futile. Those millions of deaths and all that misery endured accomplished virtually nothing, failing to teach even the lesson that nationalism and dreams of glory were furtile. That had to wait twenty years, and even then the lesson was not wholly learned. I think humanity would cease to war if we kept the Great War in our minds -- for once wars are stripped of their pretty ribbons and creative retellings, they all consist of people killing one another in horiffic ways, unable to see the humanity they're butchering behind ideal-tinted glasses.

Three years ago, I stumbled upon the song "Green Fields of France" in a Humanist magazine. I later heard it performed, and it haunts me from time to time -- and especially today.

Well, how do you do, Private William McBride,
Do you mind if I sit down here by your graveside?
And rest for awhile in the warm summer sun,
I've been walking all day, and I'm nearly done.
And I see by your gravestone you were only 19
When you joined the glorious fallen in 1916,
Well, I hope you died quick and I hope you died clean
Or, Willie McBride, was it slow and obscene?

Did they Beat the drum slowly, did the play the pipes lowly?
Did the rifles fir o'er you as they lowered you down?
Did the bugles sound The Last Post in chorus?
Did the pipes play the Flowers of the Forest?

And did you leave a wife or a sweetheart behind
In some loyal heart is your memory enshrined?
And, though you died back in 1916,
To that loyal heart are you forever 19?
Or are you a stranger without even a name,
Forever enshrined behind some glass pane,
In an old photograph, torn and tattered and stained,
And fading to yellow in a brown leather frame?

The sun's shining down on these green fields of France;
The warm wind blows gently, and the red poppies dance.
The trenches have vanished long under the plow;
No gas and no barbed wire, no guns firing now.
But here in this graveyard that's still No Man's Land
The countless white crosses in mute witness stand
To man's blind indifference to his fellow man.
And a whole generation who were butchered and damned.

And I can't help but wonder, no Willie McBride,
Do all those who lie here know why they died?
Did you really believe them when they told you "The Cause?"
Did you really believe that this war would end wars?
Well the suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame
The killing, the dying, it was all done in vain,
For Willie McBride, it all happened again,
And again, and again, and again, and again.

10 November 2009

Philosophy Bites

I was recently introduced to the podcast "Philosophy Bites", a series of short interviews with modern philosophers on a variety of subjects, and am beginning to explore their archived contents. There's at least one podcast with humanism as its subject, and  British humanist A.C. Grayling is one name I've recognized. I haven't sampled enough of the content to comment on it, but I have enjoyed those interviews I've listened to so far. One obvious reccommendation is Alain de Botton: I've read a couple of his works and have found them intellectually stimulating.

24 October 2009

Good Will Hunting

I just recently (as in the VHS tape just stopped rewinding) watched Good Will Hunting for the first time. Will Hunting, played by Matt Damon, is a working-class genius who works as a janitor at MIT. When he solves an advanced math theorem, his talents come to the attention of several professors, both of whom want to help him for different reasons. Near the movie's climax, Will is participating in job interviews, one with the N.S.A. When he's asked by the dour-faced government agent about the possibility, he replies:

Will: Why shouldn't I work for the N.S.A.? That's a tough one, but I'll take a shot. Say I'm working at N.S.A. Somebody puts a code on my desk, something nobody else can break. Maybe I take a shot at it and maybe I break it. And I'm real happy with myself, 'cause I did my job well. But maybe that code was the location of some rebel army in North Africa or the Middle East. Once they have that location, they bomb the village where the rebels were hiding and fifteen hundred people I never met, never had no problem with, get killed. Now the politicians are sayin', "Oh, send in the Marines to secure the area" 'cause they don't give a shit. It won't be their kid over there, gettin' shot. Just like it wasn't them when their number got called, 'cause they were pullin' a tour in the National Guard. It'll be some kid from Southie takin' shrapnel in the ass. And he comes back to find that the plant he used to work at got exported to the country he just got back from. And the guy who put the shrapnel in his ass got his old job, 'cause he'll work for fifteen cents a day and no bathroom breaks. Meanwhile, he realizes the only reason he was over there in the first place was so we could install a government that would sell us oil at a good price. And, of course, the oil companies used the skirmish over there to scare up domestic oil prices. A cute little ancillary benefit for them, but it ain't helping my buddy at two-fifty a gallon. And they're takin' their sweet time bringin' the oil back, of course, and maybe even took the liberty of hiring an alcoholic skipper who likes to drink martinis and fuckin' play slalom with the icebergs, and it ain't too long 'til he hits one, spills the oil and kills all the sea life in the North Atlantic. So now my buddy's out of work and he can't afford to drive, so he's got to walk to the fuckin' job interviews, which sucks 'cause the shrapnel in his ass is givin' him chronic hemorrhoids. And meanwhile he's starvin', 'cause every time he tries to get a bite to eat, the only blue plate special they're servin' is North Atlantic scrod with Quaker State. So what did I think? I'm holdin' out for somethin' better. I figure fuck it, while I'm at it why not just shoot my buddy, take his job, give it to his sworn enemy, hike up gas prices, bomb a village, club a baby seal, hit the hash pipe and join the National Guard? I could be elected president.

This movie featured in 1997. The political commentary was jaw-dropping, doubly so for its prescience. You may view it here:

01 October 2009

Carl Sagan and "The Glorious Dawn".

A fellow fan of Sagan linked to this on a forum I visit, and I thought I would pass it on. Carl Sagan "sings".

27 September 2009

Transcendence and Tongues

A little earlier tonight I sat at my desk listening to a CD from First Aid Kit, who I’ve mentioned a couple of times prior. One of their more interesting works is their cover of “Jagadamba (You Might”). I have no idea what the lyrics mean, but at several points in the song the singers do a sort of chant. You can see what I mean by clicking here and waiting until the 1:31 mark. On their CD, the semi-chant periods are a bit longer, and the more I listen to the CD the more I enjoy participating in that part. Tonight, while I was singing along, I started thinking about the way the semi-chanting made me feel: it was almost as if I was losing myself in something more primal than myself -- bigger. I wanted to lose myself more.

A little later, I thought of the sect in which I was raised and its emphasis on “tongues”. If you want a demonstration, click here. I don’t especially advise it, but…. There were two kinds of tongue-talking. The first happened to people who were screaming at YHWH, and that is what is happening in the aforementioned video. This tongue-talking is also proof of one’s being saved. If you have not done so, you may be in for a grisly fate -- and if you have, you are still in for a grisly fate, because the Pentecostal god is a brute (so much so that I renounced him privately as a Pentecostal). When I was a believing Pentecostal, tongues was a stress point for me because I couldn’t do it. I could fool myself into thinking I could do it, and I could fool other people unknowingly -- but I never experienced the ecstasy other people seemed to feel. When I "talked in tongues", my mind detached from my body, so to speak, and let it gabber on while it sat nearby and thought. It would observe what “I” was doing and what other people were doing, particularly if they were about to approach me. That part of me knew that I wasn’t speaking in tongues. Tonight, when I thought of this, I reflected on my semi-chanting. That felt ecstatic. The same thing happens with other songs by other artists, particularly Johnny Clegg: when I start singing along, I feel that tug to transcendence.

Could that be what the tongue-talkers are experiencing? Are they losing themselves in the chanting, creating a religious experience out of music and their minds? I don’t know what happens in my body when I feel that tug to transcendence, but I suspect it may have something to do with my brain and glands producing some sort of hormone or other mood-changing chemical internally, as they do when I am having “fun”. This feeling doesn’t just occur with chanting: I feel it when I hear certain symphonies, am caught up in a star field, or become aware that I am experiencing a uniquely fantastic moment in my life, the way I did earlier in the year when snow covered my university town. This is quite rare, and I was able to spend the entire day with a good friend. I can vividly remember standing on a snow-covered hill with my friend, watching a snowball fight and feeling the snow blow in my face, knowing the moment would pass and yearning for it to be otherwise. I wanted to possess the day wholly, and yet I wanted it to possess me wholly. I wanted to be lost in that wintry glory.

Given this, I’m going to start poking around at the subject of transcendence -- the biological and psychological events that may cause the feeling, as well as its interpretation in cultural traditions.

25 August 2009

Feelings? Nothing More than Feelings?

I have heard a number of times from apologists like C.S. Lewis, Ravi Zacharias, Donald Keller, and those who subscribe to those authors’ works that the existence of real, god-given principles is proven by our reaction to their being violated. At the same time, they decry people making choices based on their feelings -- this they call relativism.

The aforementioned apologists are correct in that there are some principles at work. I doubt very much that deity hammered them out in its cosmic workshop and then built a world out of them, but I think they’re there. For instance, I’m very much opposed to the idea of being murdered or physically assaulted. I object strongly to the idea of my food being stolen. Am I to believe that these feelings -- and that is what they are -- are the result of my witnessing Thou Shalt Not Kill and Thou Shalt Not Steal being violated, rather than that they are my very natural, wholly biological, response to my well-being being violated? When my dog growls at someone who attempts to take his food away, is he observing religious principle or simply responding to this attack on his well-being? The same goes for an angry bear who has been shot by a hunter’s rifle.

I believe in natural morality, in not doing to others that which I would not have done to myself. That I can plan my behavior accordingly is an example of emotions being tempered by reason: I am making myself stronger, better prepared to live among my fellow creatures. Everyone, to an extent, follows this principle. Rage or power might change the extent to which they follow the “golden rule”, but they follow it all the same. The exceptions are sociopaths. Thus, just because morality may be based on emotional responses is no reason to discredit it.

At the same time, however, feelings themselves must be examined. In the case above, the feelings exist naturally: I don’t want to be hurt, you don’t want to be hurt. In many other cases, however, the feelings exist only because they have been made to be there: the people involved have been conditioned to feel a certain way. In the sect I grew in, women were expected to keep their hair uncut and their rears in dresses -- trousers were “men’s clothing”, and were not to be worn by females. The observance of these "Holiness" and "Separation" standards were very important to the Pentecostal identity, and observance of the rules resulted in smug or honest satisfaction that "God's will" was being observed. Thus, when my pastor’s eldest daughter showed to church with nicely-trimmed hair and a pair of fashionable slacks, her friends were reduced to tears. "Her glory is gone", they said. A Muslim may be driven into a dreadful rage at the idea of Islam being mocked, because for him Islam is world-definingly important and utterly personal. These are both examples of conditioned responses: the feelings are artificial, subjective to cultural background.

These two categories are not wholly mutually exclusive: take the case of a high-school teenager who is reduced to weeping when his team loses a homecoming game. This may have both biological and cultural elements: emotional investment in tribes and groups being biological and that instinct being applied toward an athletics team being cultural. The same is true, too, for xeno- and homophobia. The root may be fear of those who are different, but these feelings are interpreted and magnified by culture.

I do not consider fabricated or culturally-driven feelings to be of much use in my own life, and I doubt laws based on them will be either rational nor humane. To be of use to human beings, moral laws must be based on our natural feelings as they are tempered by reason.

10 August 2009

Playing for Change

For the past few months, I've been listening to and enjoying tremendously the international music effort Playing for Change. They bring artists from all over the world together in video to sing and play together. The effect for me is riveting and inspirational: the sound of voices and instruments from so many human cultures playing together is simply marvelous. It's sublime, really.

I would especially reccommend "Chanda Mama" and "Don't Worry". "Chanda Mama" is an Indian folk song with Hindi lyrics, but the sound is so exquisite that it's become one of my favorites. "Chanda Mama" is inserted below.

06 August 2009

God, Religion, and Me: Musings

The below are scattered thoughts I've been having on God and religion. I just wanted to try to collect them and see if they made any more sense once they were ought of my head: I also wouldn't mind constructive feedback. For those interested, I have a few essays in the works -- mostly about humanism.
I can’t say I ever identified with God or Jesus growing up as a kid. I was close to identifying with God -- the Hebrew god. He was violent and brutish, but he was reliable and he only got violent when the rules were crossed. Sure, the rules were a tad silly at times -- “Don’t boil a goat in its mother’s milk”, that sort of thing -- but they were there, and if you followed them you wouldn’t get boils and God would protect you from mean people. That sort of thing appeals to a bullied kid like myself.

Jesus I never understood. He was a bully in his own way: he stoked the fires of Hell, even as he said nice things. I didn’t appreciate that much. There’s no way to reconcile love of any kind with eternal pain. Once I got old enough to walk away from Christianity , I did. But as a humanist, I wanted to identify with people: I wanted to understand my fellows more. What about Jesus or God did they need?

When I left Christianity and realized that Humanism was what I’d wanted for my entire life, it seemed clear to me that religion was ridiculously unnecessary. It seemed to me an imposition: the priest thinks up a religion and makes people under his power swear to it, and since not everyone has the same priest, people start killing one another over their religion. I didn’t appreciate this: I hated it. It made my blood boil.

I remained mostly confused about why people tolerated religion bossing them around until I became aware of ethical philosophy -- living philosophy. I then started seeing philosophy in religion and began thinking that maybe religion was just a power structure for implementing ethical philosophy. I forget when I discovered ethical philosophy, but it was probably in 2007 when I began reading about humanist spirituality and discovered Doug Muder’s excellent “Humanist Spirituality: Oxymoron, or Authentic Path to Enlightenment?”

I began thinking about ideals. I seemed to rely on ideals, and I wondered if perhaps religious people were the safe way -- if they hadn’t just taken their ideals out of their head and put them in the cosmic ether, where they assumed a human form which they called a God. Maybe God is a projection of what people want to be or value most? When I put the ideas of God-as-ideal and religion-as-power-structure together, I thought I had some sense of what made religion tick. I knew there was more to it -- the need for community and connection -- but I was concentrating on why people thought they needed God, not just a community.

Around the same time, I was studying Stoicism and its view of God. The ancient Stoic view of God is more subtle and complicated than any I’d encountered previously: they saw God as being sort of the fabric of the universe. It wasn’t a being separate from the universe: it was the universe. It was the order in the universe: it was reason and conscience both. The Stoics believed that when we do as we ought, -- as reason dictates -- we will be happy. Although I’m still trying to find the right balance between my emotional humanism (“Dammit, Jim!”) and my more Stoic leanings “(“Control yourself, Doctor.”) -- between the need for detachment and the need for attachment -- generally speaking I think Stoicism works well even for a nontheist like myself. Someone at the Stoic Registry, now called the “New Stoa”, wrote that the difference between a theistic Stoic and an atheistic Stoic is that one sees the Order of the universe as conscious while the other doesn’t.

What this did for me was make me aware of the power of the God-as-source idea. Previously I’d thought of this as silly. People pray to God and he doles out courage or wisdom? But now I get it: Marcus Aurelius referred to a well within us that will bubble forth if only we will dig -- if only we will apply our reason to find the best course of action. I don’t know how to explain this idea properly beyond that I get why people think of God as a universal source now. I understand it. If I thought it were real, I could revere it. As it happens, though, I cannot think of the universe as being conscious based on the information I have.

At the same time, I’ve realized there are bounds to knowledge. We can’t understand the universe as it may truly be -- only as it appears to us. I think we can know a great deal about the universe for our purposes: we can destroy a disease, land a machine on Saturn’s moons, invent a farm machine that analyzes the viability of rice even as it picks it from the ground. We can do an awful lot, but I don’t think we can contemplate the walls of the petri dish we call the universe. That’s sort of how I think of us at times: one-celled creatures in an overwhelmingly vast universe who don’t have a shot at really understanding it.

This is the mystery: this is where rationality cannot go, because it has no evidence to operate from. The natural laws I understand that explain the formation of our galaxy and of Earth and the development of life and society can’t penetrate the walls of the universe, wherever or whatever they may be. I suppose this is where ideas like “faith” come in, and so help me if I haven’t gotten to the point where I can say I understand a little of what that means.

My worldview is ever-evolving, and not in ways I would have ever expected. I keep wanting to connect to religious humanity -- to come to terms with the people who I once couldn’t understand, but who now I do but cannot connect with anyway. My own sense of spirituality, and even my sense of religion if you want to go that far, are distinctly Humanist: I believe we’re all alone and should do the best we can. I don’t think life is anything to complain about.

What’s happening to me is a growing sense of not having answers, but not really needing them too much. Sometimes, though, I wonder if all my claims to understanding God and faith are just attempts by some part of me to connect to the rest of humanity. I think about this, and then I think that maybe we’re not that different to begin with, that we’re all just doing the best we can to get along and that we all try to make the universe make sense to us. Most of us do this within the bounds of our culture: some of us reject that. Maybe that’s the difference? I don’t know where all this is going, really. Only time will tell.

31 July 2009

Write It on Your Heart

Write it on your heart
that every day is the best day in the year.
He is rich who owns the day, and no one owns the day
who allows it to be invaded with fret and anxiety.

Finish every day and be done with it.
You have done what you could.
Some blunders and absurdities, no doubt crept in.
Forget them as soon as you can, tomorrow is a new day;
begin it well and serenely, with too high a spirit
to be cumbered with your old nonsense.

This new day is too dear,
with its hopes and invitations,
to waste a moment on the yesterdays.

- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Source: WorldPrayers.org

29 July 2009

Reclaiming Virtue

Recently I read John Bradshaw's Reclaiming Virtue. Each chapter began with several quotations, and I thought I would pass them on to you just as Bradshaw did to me.
"All virtues are the qualities that make up our humanity, and in the virtuous man, humanity and virtue inevitably converge. It is man's virtue that makes him human." - Aristotle

"To know what is good for man we have to know his nature." - Erich Fromm

"Among people, cooperation is just as pronounced among primitive tribes as it is among civilized citizens....The more people helped each other, the more the community thrived....It is literally in our nature." - Matt Ridley

"Men who love wisdom must be inquirers into very many things indeed." - Heraclitus

"Hatred never ceases by hatred;
But by love alone is healed.
This is an ancient and eternal law." - Buddhist scripture

"Lying to ourselves is more deeply ingrained than lying to others." - Fyodor Dostoyevsky

"Do not believe in what you have heard; do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations....do not believe merely in the authority of your teachers and elders. After observation and analysis, when it agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it." - Siddhartha Gautama

"History, despite its wrenching pain
Cannot be unlived, but if faced
With courage, need not be lived again." - Maya Angelou

"If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people...and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?" - Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

"Often people say, 'I would like to do some good in the world. But with so many responsibilities at home and in business....there is no chance for my life to mean anything.' This is a common and dangerous error....No matter how busy one is, any human being can assert his personality by seizing every opportunity for spiritual activity." - Albert Schweitzer

"New opinions are always suspected, and usually opposed, without any other reason but because they are not common." - John Locke

"All beings are owner of their karma. Whatever volitional actions they do, good or evil, of those they shall become the heir." - Siddhartha Gautama

"There is no witness so dreadful, no accuser so terrible, as the conscience that dwells in the heart of every human being." - Polybius

"We must give a certain character to our activities...the habits we form in childhood make no small difference, but rather they make all the difference." - Aristotle

"Character is a completely fashioned will." - John Stuart Mill

25 July 2009

Universal Soldier

A few months back I posted a song by Bob Rafkin titled "I Am Humanity". The lyrics contained the phrase "a universal soldier, sword raised in my hand". Recently a favorite band of mine did a cover of a song called "Universal Soldier", which I believe to be the source for Rafkin's quoted phrase.

Lyrics (updated from original source, Buffy Sainte-Marie):
He's five foot two,
And he's six feet four,
He fights with missiles and with spears.
He's all of thirty-one
And he's only seventeen,
He's been a soldier for a thousand years...

He's a Christian, a Hindu
An atheist, a Jain..
A Buddhist and a Muslim and a Jew.
And he knows he shouldn't kill,
And he knows he always will --
Kill you for me, my friend, and me for you...

And he's fighting for Palestine,
He's fighting for Israel..
And he's fighting for the USA.
And he's fighting for the Russians,
And he's fighting for Iraq --
And he thinks we'll put an end to war this way.

He's fighting for democracy,
He's fighting for his soil
He says it's for the peace of all.
He's the one who must decide
Who's to live and who's to die --
And he never sees the writing on the wall.

But without him, how would Hitler
Have condemned him at Dachau,
Without him Caesar would have stood alone.
He's the one who gives his body as a weapon of the war,
And without him all this killing can't go on.
No, no...

He's the universal soldier,
And he really is to blame.
His order comes from far away no more --
They come from here and there and you and me,
And brother -- can't you see?
This is not the way we put an end to war.
No, no...

05 July 2009

Left and Right Together: Reccommendation

I’d like to share what was for me a thought-provoking read, UU minister Doug Muder’s “Left and Right Together”. This is the text of a sermon, available online, and it addresses what the religious right and the religious or spiritual left have in common. Although he uses the word “religious”, the UU take on religion is broad enough that he's also addressing life stances like Humanism. Muder is a humanist himself.

He begins the sermon with readings from someone I would never expect to hear from in a UU fellowship: James Dobson. What we have in common, Muder says, is that we are mutually concerned with the way humanity is shaping up. “Both have loyalties that go beyond self and the convenience of the moment. Both reject the materialism of popular culture. Both seek something more substantial than the momentary satisfaction of desire or the endless striving after status. The committed (liberal) life is a different way to pursue these goals, not a denial of them.”

Muder states that both ways of life are concerned about the unhealthy growth of the same thing, the religion of “Consumer Hedonism”. This is a religion that dominates the culture to the point that it needs no building, names, priests, or anything of the sort: it’s become the very atmosphere we live in. To show this, he lays out what Consumer Hedonism is and elaborates on what values it instills in everyone -- values that are rejected by those who are concerned about bigger things. “Liberals and conservatives alike reject the emptiness of Consumer Hedonism, and nurture values that transcend desire and image: Values like family and friends and community. Compassion for the stranger. A just society. Appreciating the wonder of creation. Building a personal relationship with Beauty and with Knowledge and with Understanding. When those values are part of your experience of every moment, when you have trained yourself to experience them as immediately as you experience your physical desires, you're there. [...] The main difference between religious liberals and religious conservatives is in where they look for those values and how they hope to bring them into the world. Conservatives look to traditional values, a way of life that they believe worked for our ancestors. Typically, a conservative faith has a Golden Age it wants to preserve or restore: Eden, ancient Israel, the Jerusalem of the Apostles, the Medina of Muhammad, or even the small-town America of Norman Rockwell. Conservatives see the deeper values of those communities being replaced by practices that satisfy more superficial desires.

Liberals, on the other hand, attach their vision of deeper values to a future Utopia or to a Platonic ideal. They see themselves not as restoring a Golden Age, but as marching onward and upward towards a world more perfect than has ever existed before. Two centuries ago, a world without slavery was a complete dream. No Golden Age had ever achieved it. But here we are.”

He ends with thoughts on generating a dialogue between the human-concerned left and the religious right. I found the sermon to be very…thought-provoking and more than a little heartening. I’ll own to going weak at the knees for ideas that bring people together, but outside of my own biases I think Muder makes a valid observation. What say you?

27 June 2009

Epicurus at the Painted Porch

I am a student of Greek philosophy in two ways -- I both study the schools of thought academically and practice them in my life, especially with regard to Epicureanism and Stoicism. The two philosophies have been in my experience pitted against once another, painted as competing philosophies. My academic study of the two philosophies is very shallow: I have read from both philosophies’ texts, but I have never emerged myself in an in-depth study of how they were received in the Greek world at the time, so I don’t know how accurate such a portrayal is. On the surface, it would seem to make sense. The Stoics believed that virtue was the only “Good”, and the Epicureans believed that happiness was the only “Good”.

Do they contradict one another? Both begin from absolute statements that on the surface differ from the other, and one philosophy is grounded in divinity while the other is not. Epicurus had little regard for the metaphysical: he believed that happiness in the here and now was what people should focus their attention on. The ancient Stoics believed in cosmic order and saw this Order as the source for all that is good -- like beauty, truth, and virtue. To live in compliance with this Order is to live with virtue and thus be happy. The chief Stoic doctrine is to “live according to Nature”: living within our limits. Epictetus, whose work I enjoy immensely, began his Handbook by stating that happiness can be achieved through the knowledge that there are some things we can control and some things we cannot .[1] To act on this knowledge is to live with virtue. But notice what Epictetus is focusing on: happiness. This is the same then Epicurus was focused on.

This is why I do not think that Stoicism and Epicureanism are actually contradictory. Each seem to begin with the object of human happiness as their goal, they just attempt to reach it through different (but not necessarily opposing) practices. Epicurus advocated the simple life and abstaining from insatiable pleasures: Stoics believed in mental discipline, the cultivation of mindfulness. But what would stop Epicures from using Stoic mindfulness, and what would stop Epictetus from living the simple life? The two philosophies differ only in theoretical beginnings, I think, and for the modern Stoic or Epicurean, that simply doesn’t matter.

I count myself a Stoic, but I do not believe in a living Cosmic Order the way Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus did. Erik Wiegardt commented in his The Stoic Handbook that the difference between an atheistic Stoic and a pantheistic Stoic is that one believes cosmic order is unconscious and the other believes it is conscious. I believe laws govern the universe, but I do not think they are divine. I believe in gravitation and friction and inertia and thermodynamics and all manner of universal laws, but I think they are natural. What lies beyond them -- what caused them -- is not my concern. I can no more be aware of supposed metaphysical realms and gods than can a microbe be aware of a soda can.

If I take Epicurus’ approach that supposed metaphysical worlds are meaningless when it comes to human happiness, on what basis do I call myself a Stoic? I do so because there are certain patterns of behavior that lend themselves toward happiness and unhappiness. If I become addicted to a drug, for instance, I will be on the whole unhappy. This is not divine punishment being meted out by Athena: this is chemistry. If I fret about what someone is thinking of me, I will be unhappy. Again, there are no punitive deities involved: this is psychology. If, however, I becoming addicted to substances and adopt the Stoic practice of giving no attention to things I cannot control, I will find contentment -- and the joy I have for living will not be tainted. “Virtue” is the practice of living sensibly, by following patterns of behavior that create long-term happiness. For me, Epicureanism and Stoicism go well together, because the virtuous life is -- in Epicurus’ own words -- the happy life. [2]


[1] My immediate source for this is Sharon Lebell’s The Art of Living, but the same sentiment is expressed in the same basic way in more conservative translations of Epictetus' works.
[2] “The Principle Doctrines”, Epicurus

12 June 2009

God's Problem: Book Response

While perusing library shelves, my eyes happened to see God's Problem. The title struck me as strange, interesting, and perhaps promising. The full title is God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question -- Why We Suffer. Author Bart Ehrman was is a New Testament scholar and was previously a minister before the problem of suffering/evil forced him to evaluate his claims and arrive at agnosticism. In his introduction, he says that the book was the result of a class he taught on Biblical attitudes toward suffering -- why it is, why God allows it -- and indeed the book is on that theme.

To the end of examining Biblical attitudes toward suffering, he goes through the Christian bible and identifies a few basic trends: suffering as punishment for sin, suffering as redemptive ("God works in mysterious ways"), and apocalypticism. His research appears to be fairly thorough: while he identifies suffering-as-punishment as originating with the Hebrew "prophets" -- men like Elijah and Amos, who spoke on God's behalf and typically threatened Israel with all sorts of unpleasantness if they didn't start following God's law -- Ehrman also notes that this classical view dominates the Hebrew scriptures, including its historical narrative -- and he shows why. The first two trends probably do not bear further explanation on my part: I imagine most people have heard them before.

It is in the third explanation that Ehrman really comes through for me: for many years, aspects of the New Testament have confused me -- until this moment. Ehrman believes that they are examples of apocalyptic thinking and his explanation does answer my questions: for instance, why Jews suddenly went from not being aware of a Resurrection in the earlier scriptures to claiming belief in a grand Resurrection of souls at the end of time in the New Testament. To explain what is meant by "apocalyptic thinking", Ehrman goes over four traits of it: dualism, with a Good Being and an Evil Being and that at present, Evil is winning; Pessimism, that humans cannot do anything to change fate; Vindication, that one day God will prove triumphant over evil; and fourth, that this will happen (from the view of Jesus and contemporaries) very soon. Using this view, suffering is seen as a result of evil currently winning the battle between it and good -- between what the Zoroastrians would call the battle between the Lie and the Truth. This view probably became popular after the Babylonian "imprisonment", and Ehrman tries to make the case that the whole of the New Testament is apocalyptic thinking.

Adding to his explanations of what these attempts to explain away evil are are his critiques of them -- his examination of what makes them seem to work, but what ultimately makes them fail. Ehrman ultimately returns to what he sees as a theme in both Job and Ecclesiastes: that suffering can't be explained. He ends on this note:

"I have to admit that at the end of the day, I do have a biblical view of suffering. As it turns out, it is the view put forth in the book of Ecclesiastes. There is a lot that we can't know about this world. A lot of this world doesn't make sense. Sometimes there is no justice. Things don't go as planned or as they should. A lot of bad things happen. But life also brings good things. The solution to life is to enjoy it while we can, because it is fleeting. This world, and everything in it, is temporary, transient, and soon to be over. We won't live forever -- in fact, we won't live long. And so we should enjoy life to the fullest, as much as we can, as long as we can. That's what the author of Ecclesiastes says, and I agree. "

I will share more from that particular section a little later on. Ehrman is not dull, and his material is insightful.I'd give it a go if the subject is one you are interest in.

06 June 2009

Tending the Natural: Humanist Spirituality II

"Remember that philosophy requires of you only that which your nature recquires." - Marcus Aurelius

"We're different, and yet all the same -- we all want to be happy." - Anne Frank

"I believe that the very purpose of our life is to seek happiness. That is clear. Whether one believes in religion or not, whether one believes in this religion or that religion, we are all seeking something better in life." - the Dalai Lama

Almost two years ago, I posted an essay that I called "All and Enough: Humanist Spirituality". I took the title from the third Humanist Manifesto, which declares that the natural world is "all and enough". There, I tried to explore what spirituality meant to me. Beginning with my center of reason and empathy and a joy for living, I wrote that I thought spirituality consisted of enjoying life and living it well by cultivating our inner essence. This inner essence has been called a soul or a spirit, but if I did so it would only be as a metaphor. My perception of my own essence is wholly naturalistic: For me, "I" am made up of biological drives and the psychological drives that a lifetime of living have given me. I do not pretend to understand the "stuff" of consciousness, but on precedent I accept that it is probably completely natural or based on the natural.

It is on this foundation of naturalism that I build, and this is part of the reason I call myself a Humanist. My joy for living comes from accepting life on its own terms -- not on the terms of the supernatural. I enjoy life -- I revel in it. I cozy under trees, reading good books and letting the grass caress my fingers while I listen to the wind blow through the trees and the birds sing, and the sheer enjoyment of it all can stop my heart and bring tears to my eyes. I believe in just being happy, in "letting the soft animal of [my] body love what it loves."* This means for me living in accordance with nature: nature is both a beginning and a direction. My natural "center" is reason and empathy -- or more broadly, reason and emotion. I think these two attributes are the essence of human nature. We are intelligent creatures who can use reason to ponder philosophical questions and do things with purpose, and we are emotional creatures, evolved to live in social groups. We experience emotions while living life in our communities, and ideally we would use those emotions reasonable to create ways of living that make us happy (or at least help us survive). This is the beginning of law -- indeed, of most every aspect of civilization.

I labor to live according to my nature: I practice freethought or skepticism, and I try to connect to other people in whatever ways I can -- in spending time with friends, or reading literature and connecting to people who have been dead for centuries. "Cultivation" is a word I like to use in reference to spirituality: I see my life as a flower, a bird of paradise perhaps, that must have good soil and a reliable source of sunlight and water if it is to flourish. I need to stimulate my mind and emotions to grow -- and I need to live within their bounds. A flower only needs so much heat or water: too much will scorch it or drown it respectively. This is what I was trying to get at in my first essay: a life lived with empathy and reason, with sunlight and water, leads inevitably to human flourishing, to eudaimonia, to "invincible happiness".

However I might appreciate the need for living as naturally as possible, this approach has a problem: just because something is natural does not mean it is good for me. Anger is natural, for instance, but if I try to revel in anger, I will find myself visiting the pharmacist with a doctor's prescription for blood-pressure pills. My body's chemistry can be modified through my behavior so that it develops a dependency on alcohol: is it then "good" for me to drink all the more? How do I advocate living a natural life when doing what comes natural is not necessarily the best thing for me to do? For a year or so I've pondered this question every so often, but then just a couple of weeks ago the issue resolved itself with a single word: tending. If you have experience working in a garden, you will know that you have to fight weeds and pests to protect your plants. Weeds and destructive insects are a natural part of a garden, but they are not good for my purposes. I must tend the plants -- pull the weeds and get rid of the insects. Feeding and watering the plants is not enough -- I must continually destroy natural but destructive forces that would render my watering pointless.

So it is, I think, with human nature. I first became interested in the idea of humanist spirituality -- natural spirituality -- when I read Doug Muder's "Humanist Spirituality: Oxymoron or Authentic Path to Enlightenment". One of the topics he discusses is mindfulness among the Stoics: being aware of our thoughts and feelings and asking ourselves if these thoughts and feelings are doing us any good. I found this practice to be intriguing, and I took it up. I have found this practice of mindfulness to be quite helpful -- I no longer fixate on the things I used to, and a year of practice has molded me to possess a near-constant sense of peace. I'm not just interested in peace, though -- I want something active, something forceful: I want to keep the fountain of joy inside me that Marcus Aurelius wrote of bubbling up. What I mean by "tending the natural" is mental practices that bring this bubbling about. I'm not the only person who has noted a need for tending, or disciplined attention: I note that many philosophical and religious teachers have advocated mental discipline of some form or another, the Stoics and Buddhists being the most devoted examples. A few modern teachers advocating mental discipline are the Dalai Lama, Rabbi Zelig Pliskin (an Orthox rabbi, interestingly enough), and the late M. Scott Peck. The point of mental discipline is twofold: being mindful helps us "weed" ourselves, allowing us to grow, while active forms of discipline attempt to manipulate growth in the direction of our choice. Both forms have the end of human happiness in mind.

I have noted through the course of my reading a potential common theme in the philosophical, religious, spiritual, and psychological teachings of the past and present -- that of human happiness. Sometimes this is approached from the angle of the divine, using the idea of a deity as source. I used to use ideals for the same purpose, although I seem to be growing less concerned with reaching some outside ideal and more interested in what will develop from my life if I just enjoy it.

Recommended Reading:
  • The Art of Living, Sharon Lebell. A modern translation of Epictetus' Handbook and Discourses.
  • The Art of Happness and Ethnics for a New Millenium, Tenjin Gyatso (the 14th Dalai Lama).
  • Doug Muder's "Humanist Spirituality"

* "Wild Geese", Mary Oliver

22 May 2009

The Six Security Beliefs

I recently had the pleasure of reading a book of short stories and essays by Isaac Asimov, former honorary president of the American Humanist Association and an author who I enjoy immensely. Although Asimov was a skeptic, he tended to shy away from controversy for his publisher's sake and so until this very night I've never read anything about him that directly promoted skepticism. In one of his essays that I read tonight, however, he came quite close. In "Knock Plastic!", he identifies six general "security beliefs" that most people have or do presently share.

"But knocking wood is only one example of a class of notions, so comforting and so productive of feelings of security, that men will seize upon them on the slightest provocation or none at all. Any piece of evidence tending to support such a 'Security Belief', however frail and nonsensical it might be, is grabbed and hugged close to the bosom. Every piece of evidence tending to break down a Security Belief, however strong and logical that evidence might be, is pushed away. (Indeed, if the evidence against a Security Belief is strong enough, those presenting the evidence might well be in danger of violence.) [...] I have come up with six very broad Security Beliefs that, I think, blanket the field -- although the Gentle Reader is welcome to add a seventh, if he can think of one.

Security Belief No. 1: There exist supernatural forces that can be cajoled or forced into protecting mankind. "

(Here Asimov addresses the possible root of such a belief, the capriciousness of natural events, their importance to hunting and agricultural societies, and thus the importance of being able to control those forces. )

"Security Belief No. 2: There is no such thing, really, as death."

Asimov details the fear and denial of death and explores some of its offspring -- spiritualism, for instance.

"Security Belief No. 3: There is some purpose to the Universe.

After all, if you're going to have a whole battery of spirits and demons running the Universe, you can't really have them doing it all for nothing. [...]"

"Security Belief No. 4: Individuals have special powers that will enable them to get something for nothing."

'Wishing will make is so' is a line from a popular song and oh, how many people believe it. It is so much easier to wish, hope, and pray, than to take the trouble to do something. [...]

Security Belief No. 5: You are better than the next fellow. [...]

Security Belief No. 6:
If anything goes wrong, it's not one's own fault." [...]

When the Security Believers are strung by the explosion of the hoaxes and follies that deceive them, what is there last, best defense? Why, that there is a conspiracy of scientists against them."


I have been unable to find a copy of this essay online: I would like to be able to link people to it. It is contained in the posthumous collection Magic: The Final Fantasy Collection, which is a bit ironic. Magic consists of stories by Asimov that have been labeled as fantasy as well as essays on fantasy fiction, fantasy, science fiction, and other unrelated topics.

06 May 2009

What I Learned from Hippies

If you hear the song I sing, you will understand -- listen.
You hold the key to love and fear, all in your tremblin' hands...
Just one key unlocks them both, it's there at your command...
C'mon, people now, smile on your brother --
Everybody get together, try to love one another right now. - "Get Together", the Youngbloods

One of my monthly pleasures while growing up was riding to the state capital, where my parents and I would enjoy the advantages of the 'big city" -- for my parents, stores, and for myself, the zoo. The state capital, the closest "big city", was an hour away and along the way, we would listen to what my father termed "oldies": rock and folk music from the fifties and sixties. Since we were fundamentalist Pentecostals, I was barred from listening to 'worldly', or non-church, music. My father relaxed the rules when it came to the music of his youth, however, and so his childhood bands became my childhood bands. My mother, much more conservative in that area than my dad, would be very uncomfortable at this prospect, but grudgingly admitted a certain affection for the Monkees. Although I relished in all of the music -- it was, aside from sneaking around and listening to country music when my parents weren't around, my only source of "real" music -- I especially liked the folk songs done by the beats and "hippies".

Their message -- peace, love, tolerance, and understanding -- was very attractive to a social misfit like myself, much the target of bullying and jeers. In retrospect I can't say I regret that those things happened to me: for whatever reason, they gave me a humanist heart and I have benefited enormously from the lessons learned. My appreciation for the message of the hippies grew when I hit high school and learned what the counterculture was actually about. Although since childhood I had regarded the 1960s with very romantic eyes, understanding the racism, intolerance, and indifference of the conservative fifties made me realize how necessary the hippies were. Although I was subscribing more and more to my parents' religion and becoming even more fundamentalist than they in certain aspects of my life, I found myself preferring the world of the hippies. Even though I wanted the typical suburbans dream, I could understand why the hippies wanted to get away from it.

As I've grown older still, my relationship with hippies has become more complicated. I've since learned about the drug abuse, for instance, and how they popularized horoscopes and so on. At the same time, as I have grown -- have started to question consumerism and have started practicing a philosophically spiritual life rather than a religiously dogmatic one, my appreciation for them has grown in those aspects. I understand the motivation behind the "back to the land" movements, and as something of a free spirit myself, I 'get' living outside cultural norms. Although the way I have looked at hippies has changed, I still love their music.

Some of songs I regarded as"hippie" songs from my childhood:
  • "Get Together", the Youngbloods
  • "For What It's Worth", Buffalo Springfield
  • "Turn, Turn, Turn", the Byrds
  • "California Dreamin'", the Mamas and the Papas
  • "Blowin' in the Wind", Bob Dylan
  • "All You Need is Love", John Lennon/the Beatles
  • "If You're Going to San Francisco", Scott McKenzie

03 May 2009

Wild Geese

Wild Geese
Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things

27 April 2009

Abounding Grace

Recently I read through a book of quotations compiled by M. Scott Peck, a social critic of sorts who combined his practice of psychology with spirituality. Here are a few favorites from the collection.
"Look solely for happiness ,and I doubt you'll find it. Forget about happiness, seek wisdom and goodness, and probably happiness will find you. Happiness is usually indirect, a side effect or by-product of something else." - M. Scott Peck

"Life is not always what one wants it to be, but to make the best of it, as it is, is the only way of being happy." - Jennie Jerome Churchill

"Happy the man, of mortals happiest he,
Whose quiet mind from vain desires is free;
Whom neither hopes deceive, nor fears torment,
But lives at peace, within himself content." - George Granville

"The bird of paradise alights only upon the hand that does not grasp." - John Berry

"Happiness is a habit -- cultivate it." - Elbert Hubbard

"My life has no purpose, no direction, no aim, no meaning, and yet I'm happy. I can't figure it out. What am I doing right?" - Charles Schultz

"So many gods, so many creeds,
So many paths that wind and wind,
While just the art of being kind
Is all the sad world needs." - Ella Wheeler Wilcox

"A part of kindness consists in loving people more than they deserve." - Joseph Joubert

"Why stand we here trembling around
Calling on God for help, and not ourselves, in whom God dwells,
Stretching a hand to save the falling man.?" - William Blake

"Spiritual energy brings compassion into the real world. With compassion, we see benevolence in our own human condition and condition of our fellow beings. We drop prejudice. We withhold judgment." - Christina Baldwin

"Make a rule, and pray to God to help you keep it, never, if possible, to lie down at night without being able to say 'I have made one human being at least a little wiser, or a little happier, or at least a little better this day." - Charles Kingsley

"It is easier to fight for one's principles than to live up to them." - Alfred Adler

"You will fetter my leg, but not Zeus himself can get the better of my free will." - Epictetus

"To be happy, drop the words if only and substitute instead the words next time." - Smiley Blanton

"I define love thus: the will to extend one's self for the purpose of nurturing one's own or anther's spiritual growth." - M. Scott Peck

"Love is the only god.", Alfred, Lord Tennyson

"Life is an attitude. Have a good one." - Eric Lungaard

"People need loving the most when they deserve it the least." - Mary Crowley

"The opportunity to practice brotherhood presents itself every time you mean a human being being." - Jane Whynman

"The universal brotherhood of man is our most precious possession, what there is of it." - Mark Twain

"We must not only affirm the brotherhood of man: we must live by it." - Henry Codman Potter

"Man must now assume the responsibility for his world. He can no longer shove it off on some religious power." - Harvey Cox

13 April 2009

Walking through Suffering

This morning I woke in misery. About once a month, I am visited by a motley crew of symptoms: a sinus headache and pressure, severe fatigue, and intermittent nausea and gagging impulses. There is no medicinal clue for this, as far as I know. Although sleep is the only escape from the pain, it often aggravates the headache -- which is strange for a sinus headache, but which only occurs during this "visit". The first time this hit me was in August 2006, and I was in bed for a week, lacking the strength to do anything else. It lost strength each time it hit me again, eventually coming lasting about a day and half, on average. Although it can be very weak some days, the period is never pleasant. Its precense today was especially inconvienent, given that I have classes to attend, work in my university's history office, a paper to finish, and six chapters of German to finish reviewing. (I had intended to finish my paper yesterday, but the library was closed for Easter.)

I realized early this morning that doing these things would be difficult. How could I endure aerobics class, for instance, if I couldn't even hold a cup of hot tea without my trembling spilling it on the table? After having breakfast and realizing that I wasn't going to be feeling better anytime soon, I decided to send my teacher an email telling her I wouldn't be there and trembled my way across campus to the university library, where I finished my paper and studied for German. The morning passed, and I felt oh so miserable. By the time 12:30 had arrived and I was leaving the office for lunch, I thought to myself "You know, I think if I found a handgun I wouldn't even wait to write a note!"

At lunch, I sat myself and pondered my situation. I still had so much to do -- how was I going to make it through the day? What I really disliked, beyond the physical pain and "Oh, just shoot me" feelings, was how the suffering had eroded my ability to interact with people. I found myself trying to get irritated or angry at trivial things (like the sound of someone walking behind me). I was also having to deal with feelings of paranoia. People kept staring at me, or so I thought, and I kept going to the rest room to check my zipper to make sure it wasn't open. When I began feeling irritated at two professors quietly talking, I knew I had to do something.

According to The Stoic Life, the Stoics believe that everything that happened to us left an impression upon our consciousness, but that we could "give assent to" or "Deny" those impressions. "Denying" the idea that people were staring at me because my zipper might be open was one thing, but denying my mental suffering was quite another. I knew it could be done, though. As far as I know, there are two types of pain: physical pain, as received through our nervous system, and mental pain. Mental pain, or suffering, can arise from both physical stimuli (a hammer hitting our thumb) or emotional stimuli (the loss of a friend). If suffering is in the mind, then I can deal with it -- disarm it. But how?

After lunch I had planned on walking through town to my local library for my weekly visit. My fatiuge had made me wonder if I shouldn't just go later this week, but I value my books to the point that I decided to stick it out. Leaving the dining hall and trailing behind the two whispering academics who had annoyed me so much, I decided to do something. I decided to sing to myself. "It's a good day...for shinin' your shoes, and it's a good day...for losin' the blues..."

While the song is one of my favorites, the lyrics refused to come to me. I continued walking -- and then tried again. "What did Dela-ware, boys, what did Dela-ware? What did Dela-ware, boys, what did Dela-ware? She wore her brand-new Jersey, she wore her brand-new Jersey, she wore her brand-new Jersey, and that's what Dela wore..."

It didn't seem to be working, and singing tired me. I continued, though, because there was nothing else to do. "Why did Cali-phone ya, why did Cali-phone ya? Why did Cali-phone ya, was she all alone? She called to say how-ah-yah, she called to say how-ah-yah, she called to say (Hawaii) and that's why she did phone!"

I continued singing softly to myself, stopping when I met a friend coming back from the library. We spoke a little and I went on my way, singing "How did Wiscon-sin, boys? She stole a new-brass-key. Too bad that Arkan saw boys, and so did Tenne-see! It made poor Flori die boys, it made poor Flori-die you see, she died in miss-our-i boys, she died in misery!"

And there I was, walking across the park to the library and I was feeling not "good", but...a lot less bad than I had before. The suffering had diminished. Thrilled, I continued humming to myself until I arrived in the library, at which I stopped as they generally frown on such things. I got my books, and noticed that one of them was not what I had expected. A week ago, while searching for "world religions", I found a book called "Embroidered Textiles". Then I was somewhat entranced by the title, thinking to myself that the author was going to look at the rich tapestry of human religious and spiritual experiences and then show to us the patterns hidden within. What a marvelous metaphor! I was quite looking forward to it. Imagine my amusement, then, when I opened the book to find that it was about actual textiles -- blankets, cloaks, and so on. I laughed for a while, and as I did realized that the suffering had diminished even more.

On my walk back through the park, I noticed a tennis ball. I made a sound of glee -- two weeks ago I'd found a similar tennis ball and had for a week kept it on my person for impromptu games of handball. I lost it last Sunday while throwing it against a building and catching it, because it hit a gutter pipe and bounced off at an odd angle into a trench that I couldn't access. And so there I was, walking back home, singing to myself, bouncing the tennis ball against the wet pavement. I had a headache and was still very much tired,but my suffering was gone. I had denied it through my behavior, and now felt strangely energetic and playful. Such is the power of the mind and mental denial.

And here is another thought: were I still in my parents' religion, I probably could have accomplished the same by singing a song of praise. Then, however, I would have interpeted what happened as being the work of God, who rewarded praise for relief from mental anguish. Either there's power in singing gaily, or Perry Como rewards those who keep his memory alive by singing his old songs.

If you want to hear the song I was singing, here it is below.

06 April 2009

The Words of Martin Luther King Jr.

I recently read through a book of quotations drawn from the work of Martin Luther King Jr, compiled by his now-late wife Coretta Scott King. While reading I wrote down a few quotations I found interesting, inspiring, or otherwise worthy of returning to in the future.
"An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity."

"Life's most persistent question is, 'What are you doing for others?'"

"Love is the only force capable of turning an enemy into a friend."

"We are prone to judge success by the index of our salaries or the size of our automobiles, rather than by the quality of our service and relationship to humanity."

"We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies."

"Forgiveness is not an occasional act; it is a permanent attitude."

"I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirits. I believe that what self-centered men have torn down, other-centered men can build up."

"There is little hope for us until we become tough-minded enough to break loose from the shackles of prejudice, half-truths, and downright ignorance."

"It is pretty difficult to like some people. Like is sentimental and it is pretty difficult to like someone bombing your home; it is pretty difficult to like somebody threatened your children; it is difficult to like congressmen who spend all their time trying to defeat civil rights. But Jesus says love them, and love is greater than like."

"When evil men plot, good men must plan. When evil men burn and bomb, good men was build and bind. When evil men shout ugly words of hatred, good men must commit themselves to the glories of love. Where evil men would seek to perpetuate an unjust status quo, good men must seek to bring into being a real order of Justice."

"Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable. Even a superficial look at history reveals that no social advance rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concerns of dedicated individuals. Without persistent effort, time itself becomes an ally of the insurgent and primitive forces of irrational emotionalism and social destruction. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action."

"Compassion and nonviolence help us to see the enemy's point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the oppressors."

"True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of Justice."

"Hatred and bitterness can never cure the disease of fear; only love can do that. Hatred paralyzes life; love releases it. Hatred confuses life; love harmonizes it. Hatred darkens live, love illumines it."

02 April 2009

Robert Green Ingersoll: a Tribute

"Let us thank every good and noble man who stood so grandly, so proudly, in spite of opposition, of hatred and death, for what he believed to be the truth."
- "The Liberty of Man, Woman, and Child"

Few people have heard of the man whose image has become my avatar on blogspot. His name is Robert Green Ingersoll (1833 - 1899), and he was an extraordinary man. Although raised in the early 19th century, his opinions and values were "24th" century -- Star Trek fans will take my meaning. He was raised by an abolitionist preacher, and although he did not share his father's religious beliefs, he certainly shared his father's gift for oratory. While he made his living as a lawyer and state attorney general, he was known in his day for his oratorical abilities. Mark Twain raved about him; the New York Times took notice of him. His talent may have been partially genetic and partially learned: some biographies attribute his spell-binding oratory to his early experience in the law. * He drew crowds, attracting the attention of far better known men like Samuel Clemens and Thomas Edison. Clemens may have borrowed examples and arguments from Ingersoll's own work. Although not exactly a champion of the working class -- he believed labor and the owners of factories were not fundamentally at odds with one another, and stated that he did not believe in Socialism or Communism -- he urged for fair and safe conditions. (On a minor note, he said this before the 20th century dawned in a time when those words had different meanings. While he advocated fair conditions for workers, he also promoted equal rights for blacks and "east Asian" immigrants to the United States in a time where their civil liberties and rights were severely curtailed. His sterling example shames his peers. Their prejudices cannot simply be excused by murmurs of "Well, it was the times..". His life sees him standing tall, towering over others.

Given the scope of Ingersoll's life, it is difficult to approach a tributary essay to him. The best approach I have found is to present him as a champion of liberty. It penetrated the man: it shaped his politics, his ethics, his parenting style, his efforts to find truth and meaning in the world. It was, I think, his watchword. He devoted at least one speech -- "The Liberty of Man, Woman, and Child" -- wholly to the subject, applying the principle to seemingly every aspect of life he could think of. He was passionately devoted to the idea that people -- men, women, and children -- should be able to think for themselves, to discern the truth as best they could find it. "I have never claimed to know the truth," he said, "Only that there are things I believe to be true." Even those who disagreed with him could not help but admire the eloquence of his arguments: "The plea for liberty was sublime. [...]Freedom of speech, and of thought were never battled for in more manly fashion," reported the Troy NY Daily Press upon his delivery of it. It was in "The Liberty...." that he delivered the words that first enraptured me:

"If there is a God who will damn his children forever, I would rather go to hell than to go to heaven and keep the society of such an infamous tyrant. I make my choice now. I despise that doctrine. It has covered the cheeks of this world with tears. It has polluted the hearts of children, and poisoned the imaginations of men. It has been a constant pain, a perpetual terror to every good man and woman and child. It has filled the good with horror and with fear; but it has had no effect upon the infamous and base. It has wrung the hearts of the tender; it has furrowed the checks of the good. This doctrine never should be preached again. What right have you, sir, Mr. clergyman, you, minister of the gospel, to stand at the portals of the tomb, at the vestibule of eternity, and fill the future with horror and with fear? I do not believe this doctrine; neither do you. If you did, you could not sleep one moment. Any man who believes it, and has within his breast a decent, throbbing heart, will go insane. A man who believes that doctrine and does not go insane has the heart of a snake, and the conscience of a hyena."

When I read those words, I think of the poem "Invictus": "It matters not how strait the gate, how charged with punishments the scroll: I am the master of my fate; I am the Captain of my soul." Such was Ingersoll's conviction that he could stand tall, proud, and defiant in the face of not utter destruction, but utter misery -- the purported "flames of Hell". He made a choice -- such was his love for compassion and liberty that rather than submit to the rule of a being who would punish someone for "thinking an honest thought", he would embrace the chance of that misery. There's something noble in standing firm for one's ideals in the face of power that urges one to write them off. A critic might say that it was easy for Ingersoll to utter these words given that he was an agnostic who had no belief in the afterlife -- only a faint hope that there might be one. But Ingersoll stood for his convictions in this life. When offered the chance to run for the governorship of Illinois if only he would stay silent about his religious views, he waved opportunity off: "Goodbye, gentlemen! [...] My position I would not, under any circumstances, not even for my life, seem to renounce. I would rather refuse to be President of the United States than to do so. My religious belief is my own. It belongs to me, not to the State of Illinois. I would not smother one sentiment of my heart to be the Emperor of the round world. "** Ingersoll stands as a standing rebuke to those politicians who assume religions they do not have -- who deceive in the quest for power.

I was almost hesitant to include Ingersoll's defiant words, knowing that for some readers this essay is their first exposure to the man. It was not feelings of intellectual superiority that set fire to his blood and moved him to utter those words. It was, I think, his compassion. The severity of his defiance above is matched by the depth of his love for life and joy. The same man who scoffs at delusions of god-given supremacy and moral superiority is the same who pleads with his readers to have a heart, to not "deny the same liberties one claims for one's own self". His hostility toward the "frightful dogma of eternal pain" began -- as he elaborates in "Why I Am Agnostic" -- when his father took him to a tent revival meeting and he heard a sermon on the agonies of Hell. So moving was this sermon that Ingersoll said he became the "implacable enemy" of the doctrine. He elaborates further: "The truth is that this belief in eternal pain has been the real persecutor. It founded the Inquisition, forged the chains, and furnished the fagots. It has darkened the lives of many millions. It made the cradle as terrible as the coffin. It enslaved nations and shed the blood of countless thousands. It sacrificed the wisest, the bravest and the best. It subverted the idea of justice, drove mercy from the heart, changed men to fiends and banished reason from the brain.

"Like a venomous serpent it crawls and coils and hisses in every orthodox creed. It makes man an eternal victim and God an eternal fiend. It is the one infinite horror. Every church in which it is taught is a public curse. Every preacher who teaches it is an enemy of mankind. Below this Christian dogma, savagery cannot go. It is the infinite of malice, hatred, and revenge."

It may be difficult for readers who have never lived under the idea of Hell to appreciate Ingersoll's motivation, to understand why he loathed this infinite hatred so much. I grew up in a world very much like Ingersoll's. The Pentecostal tradition in which I was raised hearkened back to those tent revival meetings. As a matter of fact, if you were to grace the doors of the church I grew up in, the first thing you would see hanging on the walls of the foyer is a painting depicting one of those meetings, with the fathers of the current Pentecostal movement depicted in profile. The sermon on hate that Ingersoll heard once bludgeoned me with its cruelty every week. It was only when I had grown callous to the threat of it that I could utter sentiments similar to Ingersoll's.

In another essay, "Orthodoxy", Ingersoll builds on his disdain for dogma. Here he dissembles the Nicene Creed while expressing his belief -- his hope -- that the religions centered around "things we not know of" would abandon their dogma and become religions of justice and compassion. He reveals a source for his contempt for doctrines and dogmas -- "My objection to orthodox religion is that it destroys human love, and tells us that the love of this world is not necessary to make a heaven in the next." Here we arrive at love, which I believe to be the root of a man, providing the basis for even his conviction to liberty. This is the love that guides him in his parenting style: the love for wisdom that sees him poring over the many books he talked about in "Why I Am Agnostic". Here, in this essay, he utters some of the most beautiful words I've ever heard -- words that belong in a wedding service.

Love is the only bow on Life's dark cloud. It is the morning
and the evening star. It shines upon the babe, and sheds its
radiance on the quiet tomb. It is the mother of art, inspirer of
poet, patriot and philosopher. It is the air and light of every
heart -- builder of every home, kindler of every fire on every
hearth. It was the first to dream of immortality. It fills the
world with melody -- for music is the voice of love. Love is the
magician, the enchanter, that changes worthless things to Joy, and
makes royal kings and queens of common clay. It is the perfume of
that wondrous flower, the heart, and without that sacred passion,
that divine swoon, we are less than beasts; but with it, earth is
heaven, and we are gods.

Ingersoll's flair for oratory has often made me think of him as a "secular preacher". One of his speeches I have is titled "A Lay Sermon", and here he shines. He promotes the same "spirituality" that the Dalai Lama writes about in The Art of Happiness: a commitment to human happiness. Happiness, Ingersoll states, cannot be found in anything but. To pursue wealth is to, in his words, pursue a "gilded hell". Money becomes one's captive. " That money will get him up at daylight; that money will separate him from his friends; that money will fill his heart with fear; that money will rob his days of sunshine and his nights of pleasant dreams. He cannot own it. He becomes the property of that money. And he goes right on making more. What for? He does not know. It becomes a kind of insanity." Ingersoll bucks attempts to pigeonhole him. He can't just be written off as god-hating bible-bashing atheist. I dare say that if I quoted those words in a Pentecostal church -- to an audience who had never heard of Ingersoll -- they would nod and chuckle. (I make an exception for the "prosperity gospel" believers.) Ingersoll once summed up his approach to life: "For while I am opposed to all orthodox creeds, I have a creed myself. 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." He expounds upon that simple creed -- which, by the way, you can hear him speak via sound recordings here -- in his "Lay Sermon", but the theme in general is interwoven throughout many of his works. In "The Foundations of Faith", he puts forth what he calls "The Creed of Science".

To love justice, to long for the right, to love mercy, to pity the suffering, to assist the weak, to forget wrongs and remember benefits -- to love the truth, to be sincere, to utter honest words, to love liberty, to wage relentless war against slavery in all its forms, to love wife and child and friend, to make a happy home, to love the beautiful; in art, in nature, to cultivate the mind, to be familiar with the mighty thoughts that genius has expressed, the noble deeds of all the world, to cultivate courage and cheerfulness, to make others happy, to fill life with the splendor of generous acts, the warmth of loving words, to discard error, to destroy prejudice, to receive new truths with gladness, to cultivate hope, to see the calm beyond the storm, the dawn beyond the night, to do the best that can be done and then to be resigned -- this is the religion of reason, the creed of science. This satisfies the brain and heart.

Note the source, an essay about faith. This is the beauty of Ingersoll. He isn't interested in just shouting down the preachers. However wrong he believes dogma to be, shouting it down isn't the point. "The more false we destroy," he once commented, "The more room there will be for the truth." This was a man who was not interested in sitting in a bar and grousing about the evils of orthodox religion. This was a man who runs to the churchhouse door, falls on his knees, pounds the door, and shouts "Stop, you're doing in wrong! In the name of love, you're creating misery! Can't you see? There's a better way." He railed against hate and dogma to create room for love and free inquiry. He was a humanist if there ever was one. He had no desire to make people unhappy, for he believed his own happiness lay in making other people happy. He had no desire to strip people of beliefs in heaven. He himself had "hope for the dead". But he could not accept a doctrine that would make -- in his words -- "the cradle as horrible as the tomb". Is it necessary, he asked, that heaven should borrow its light from the glare of Hell? Note also his term "religion of reason", and his commitment to both "Brain and heart". In his constant urging of people to think for themselves, he promoted the use of reason in our everyday affair. He was a man who celebrated intellectual progress and human achievements -- not just in science, but in literature as well. He was particularly fond of Shakespeare -- fond to the point of developing a lecture in which he praised the Bard's words.

There is so much more that could be said about Ingersoll. Part of what I like about him is his grandness -- he was interested in and talked about almost everything. Philosophy, politics, law, history, sociological critique, biology, literature, skepticism -- the man knew no bounds. He celebrated humanity, calling it the grand religion. His is a life that should be celebrated -- a name that should be known. Instead, in spite of his life, he has been consigned to obscurity. The reasons are not entirely known to me: he was one of the last orators in the so-called "Golden Age of Freethought", a man who fought the growing approach of dogmatic darkness in vain. The great Christian social movements of the late 1890s -- while perhaps giving him satisfaction that the churches were starting to practice the love they ought to have -- may have also dulled the bite of his criticism. Economic revival and the gilded age would have also made his criticism of seeking happiness through wealth unpopular. But he lived, and more importantly he lived well. He died as he wanted, with a family that loved him. They collected his speeches, ensuring that the lightening that once "glared around his words" was safely caught in a bottle for future generations to witness.

Such was the power of Ingersoll that even in print form, his speeches stir me. I have tried to express why he means so much to me that I would adopt his face as my own in this medium -- why I constantly often quote him, why I often hear his words. I can only hope that I have interested others in his life. The speeches collected are a goodly amount. Those I have quoted here -- "The Liberty of Man, Woman, and Child" and "Why I Am Agnostic", principally -- are good starting points. If you are reading Ingersoll for the first time, I cannot guarantee that you will be entirely comfortable. He was severe, but passionate -- gentle and loving but fearfully agressive at the same time. This is a man of whom Hamlet might have said, "He was a man -- take him for all in all. I shall not look upon his like again."

Ingersoll is quite quotable. He was an orator, and his available work reflects the medium, providing short quotations brimming with content. When I have quoted Ingersoll in the above essay, I have generally made reference to the work I'm quoting directly in the text. Those works are online for free at the Bank of Wisdom and the Secular Web Library. The two speeches I quoted most were "The Liberty of Man, Woman, and Child" and "Why I Am Agnostic", although I also drew heavily from "Orthodoxy" and "A Lay Sermon". Some of his work reflects developing opinions: during the economic depression of the 1870s, for instance, he is harsh in his address to the "working class". As the decades wear on and the abuses by the factories become more apparant, he is much more sympathetic and it is then that he defends them in "Orthodoxy" and "Eight Hours Must Come". Ingersoll could be quite eloquent, and I think his "Declaration of the Free" is an example of that. It also expresses his faint hope in an afterlife.Some of the more poetic bits of his speeches are presented on their own by the website "Positive Atheism". Do pay a visit!

* Robert Ingersoll, David Anderson
**Specific quote from Ingersoll the Magnificent, by Joseph Lewis.

Further Resources: