23 December 2011

Freethought Friday:

(Robert G. Ingersoll, 1833-1899)
From "How to Reform Mankind".

Let each human being, within the limits of the possible be self-supporting; let every one take intelligent thought for the morrow; and if a human being supports himself and acquires a surplus, let him use a part of that surplus for the unfortunate; and let each one to the extent of his ability help his fellow-men. Let him do what he can in the circle of his own acquaintance to rescue the fallen, to help those who are trying to help themselves, to give work to the idle. Let him distribute kind words, words of wisdom, of cheerfulness and hope. In other words, let every human being do all the good he can, and let him bind up the wounds of his fellow-creatures, and at the same time put forth every effort, to hasten the coming of a better day.

This, in my judgment, is real religion. To do all the good you can is to be a saint in the highest and in the noblest sense. To do all the good you can; this is to be really and truly spiritual. To relieve suffering, to put the star of hope in the midnight of despair, this is true holiness. This is the religion of science. The old creeds are too narrow, they are not for the world in which we live. The old dogmas lack breadth and tenderness; they are too cruel, too merciless, too savage. We are growing grander and nobler.

The firmament inlaid with suns is the dome of the real cathedral. The interpreters of nature are the true and only priests. In the great creed are all the truths that lips have uttered, and in the real litany will be found all the ecstasies and aspirations of the soul, all dreams of joy, all hopes for nobler, fuller life. The real church, the real edifice, is adorned and glorified with all that Art has done. In the real choir is all the thrilling music of the world, and in the star-lit aisles have been, and are, the grandest souls of every land and clime.

"There is no darkness but ignorance."
Let us flood the world with intellectual light.

19 December 2011

A Reading on Cities

Last week, while reading David Byrne's The Bicycle Diaries, I encountered two passages that seemed to be straight out of The Geography of Nowhere. Byrne is a musician who has traveled the world and enjoys exploring the cities he lands in on his folding bicycle.

"Cities, it occurred to me, are physical manifestations of our deepest beliefs and our often unconscious thoughts, not so much as individuals, but as the social animals we are. A cognitive scientist need only look at what we have made -- the hives we have created -- to know what we think and what we believe to be important, as well as how we structure those thoughts and beliefs. It's all there, in plain view, right out in the open; you don't need CAT scans and cultural anthropologists to show you what's going on inside the human mind; its inner workings are manifested in three dimensions, all around us. They're right there -- in the storefronts, museums, temples, shops, and office buildings and in how these structures interrelate, or sometimes don't. They say, in their unique visual language, 'This is what we think matters, this is how we live and how we play.'"  (p.2)

"I try to explore some of these towns -- Dallas, Detroit, Phoenix, Atlanta -- by bike, and it's frustrating. The various parts of town are often 'connected' -- if one can call it that -- mainly by freeways, massive awe-inspiring concrete ribbons that usually kill the neighborhoods they pass through, and often the ones they are supposed to connect as well. The areas bordering expressways inevitably become dead zones. There may be, near the edges of town, an exit ramp leading to a KFC or a Red Lobster, but that's not a neighborhood. What remains of these severed communities is eventually replaced by shopping malls and big-box stores isolated in vast deserts of parking. These are strung along the highways that have killed the towns that the highways were meant to connect. The roads, housing developments with no focus, and shopping centers eventually sprawl as far as the eye can see as the highways inch farther and farther out. Monotonous, tedious, exhausting...and soon to be gone, I suspect."  (p.8)

12 December 2011

Re: Sinews

A few months ago I mentioned here that I've committed myself to a more active lifestyle. Motivated by a health scare, I started walking every morning and eventually added an evening jaunt to my routine as well. I'm happy to report, many weeks later, that the committment endures.

Physically, the results are striking. My legs are stronger than they've ever been, as is my lung performance judging by how steadily the pace of my walk has quickened as the months have passed. Most of my clothes no longer fit, and I have more energy so I'm constantly looking for ways to get in more activity. I'd like to get my bicycle fixed so that I can start touring the countryside on the weekends, for instance, and begin commuting into town on two wheels instead of driving.

In "Sinews" I wrote that I viewed my walks as not just physical exercise, but spiritual exercise: in introducing myself to physical disicpline, I hoped to improve my mind's mastery over the body. The fact that I'm still going on a daily basis, having overcome a great many mornings of discomfort and outright pain, testifies to my success, I suppose. In the beginning I had to stress endurance and persistance to myself, as my feet were still adjusting to the routine. Now they typically no longer pain me, and the aches and soreness come from my legs, protesting at the ever-quickening pace that I speed down the road with.  Some mornings are effortless, and I come home feeling exhilerated from the action and not tired in the least -- but there are mornings when I struggle for every step, when my mind constantly chatters distraction. I must work to keep my focus and maintain my stride, knowing that most of the time this discomfort is temporary and the barrier it represents a phantom: if I push, if I persist, I can make it all the way and marvel that I contemplating giving it a rest earlier.  I suspect the physical results of my exercise are much more noticable than the mental effects: as I read the thoughts of those who have made exercise a daily part of their lives, I can't help but note that everyone admits to days where they have to force themselves to get out there, no matter how long they've been at it.

The walking has been good for me in other ways. The quiet time to myself gives me space and energy to think, and sometimes to muse. It gives me opportunities to appreciate nature. I'm able to practice Stoic nonjudgment every day, especially as we head deeper into winter and I find myself feeling frustrated that the weather is denying me tolerable walking conditions. I can walk when it is freezing out, but when it is freezing, windy, and raining?  I'm not that good at feeling indifferent to physical discomfort!  The most noticable physical result is weight loss, something that I'm quite happy about. That, too, is an opportunity to practice nonjudgment;  while I was able to maintain a losing streak for a couple of months,during the last week of November that ended when I gained an ounce. The next week I lost it and much more, but I had to remember that my focus is not losing weight but staying active.

Aside from the physical gains (or losses), the greatest boon of my walking is that it gets me active in my neighborhood. My neighbors have become accustomed to seeing me: I recognize their cars as they drive by me, and I wave cheerfully at everyone. I'm able to talk with someone almost every day -- kids riding bikes after school, a man raking leaves from his yard, an elderly fellow watching the ducks in the pond behind his yard in the morning. I know most every dog in the neighborhood. There are friendly dogs and hostile dogs, dogs that bark from behind fences but which are cowards outside of them, dogs that are friendly when I walk but who chase me when I jog. I feel like part of the neighborhood; my life is daily connected to the lives of others. I have even had people join me on walks.

And so, I look forward to many more future walks and my increasing good health.

09 December 2011

Recommended Reading

I cannot overestimate the importance of books in my journey from credulity and Pentecostalism to skepticism and humanism, nor their role in my continued growth as a humanist, in understanding the world and human society more fully. Books are not idle entertainment: they can change our lives. I've thought for some time that I'd like to develop a list of the books that I have most profoundly helped me these last five years. This list is subject to change (addition, pruning, etc) in the future, and is organized roughly by genre.

Science and Skepticism
Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind, V.S. Ramachandran
Universe on a T-Shirt, Dan Falk
Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, Carl Sagan
The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan
Unweaving the Rainbow, Richard Dawkins
The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins
Our Inner Ape, Frans de Waal
A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson
Darwin's Ghost, Steve Jones
Evolution for Everyone, David Sloan Wilson

Technopoly: the Surrender of Culture to Technology, Neil Postman
Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman
The Geography of Nowhere, James Howard Kunstler
The Age of Absurdity, Michael Foley
In Praise of Slowness, Carl Honoré.  I'm reluctant to include this on the list because it is uncritical of homeopathy, but the section on medicine is only one in an otherwise strong book.
American Mania: When More Isn't Enough, Peter Whybrow
The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Frederich Engels

A People's History of America, Howard Zinn
Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond
African Exodus, Christopher Stringer
1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, Charles C. Mann
Theories for Everything: An Illustrated History of Science, various authors.
Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel: Technology and Invention in the Middle Ages, Joseph and Frances Gies
The History of Science (On the Shoulders of Giants)  series by Ray Spangenburg and Diane Kit Moser.

The Consolations of Philosophy, Alain de Botton
Red Emma Speaks, Emma Goldman (edited by Alix Kates Shulman)
To Have or to Be?, Erich Fromm
The Art of Living, Sharon Lebell (interpretation of Epictetus' Handbook)
The Emperor's Handbook, translation of Marcus Aurelius' Meditations.
A Guide to the Good Life: the Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, William B. Irvine
The Art of Happiness and Ethics for a New Millenium, the Dalai Lama
Dhammapada, Max Müller, annotated by Jack Macguire
The Humanist Anthology, Margaret Knight

Asimov's Guide to the Bible, Volume I: The Old Testament; Isaac Asimov
The Zinn Reader, Howard Zinn
The Assault on Reason, Al Gore.
The Prophet and Sand and Foam, Kahlil Gibran
A Life of Her Own, Emile Carles.
God's Problem, Bart Ehrman