Sunday, January 31, 2010

An experiment for the religiously inclined

In my puzzlement as to how religion can hold people so tenaciously, I've begun to design an experiment that religious people might be willing to perform for the purpose of self-discovery1.
    The experiment could be quite simple.
Say, for one month, "fast" by giving up all of your current religious practices:
Don't pray.
    Don't "think about God."
    Don't go to church (or synagogue, mosque, temple, kingdom hall, or whatever).
    Don't read the Bible (or whatever your holy text is).
    See how it feels.
At the end of the month's fast, evaluate how it went:
Was it difficult?
    In what ways?
    Did you lack anything essential?
    What, precisely?
    What do you make of those findings?
I welcome suggestions for improving the experiment, and four days ago I asked a few religious friends for input:
Do you think such an experiment would even be possible, let alone easy? [If religion is an addiction, violent withdrawal symptoms might manifest during the first few days of the experiment2.]
    How do you imagine that you yourself would feel during the month if you attempted it?
    How would you anticipate the post-experiment evaluation to go?
But they haven't replied3, even though I'd added:
I'd appreciate your insights, not to mention your profession of continuing to love me despite my being critical of religion. I love you even though you are religious.
I had told them that I realized I might be walking a perilous line, maybe even on a knife's edge, wanting to subject religion to some necessary criticism without alienating my religious friends.
    Is that possible?
_______________
  1. I have in a sense been performing this experiment myself for over two years (since September 9, 2007), with eye-opening results: I've lost nothing essential by giving up religion entirely for that period. But, more important, without the burden of religion weighing on me, I've gained a marvelous sense of freedom and lightness.
  2. As my post of September 9, 2007 makes clear, addiction played no part in my own religious experience. It isn't clear, though, whether my tendency to criticize religion might itself be a kind of addiction. I do incline to feel uneasy if more than a few days go by and I haven't said something unflattering about it. That would be a species of unfreedom.
  3. But see a later post.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

I prayed for a miracle

But it snowed at our place anyway.

Siegfried likes it, though; we can't let him out often enough to suit him.

Friday, January 29, 2010

The kugel remains

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein apparently isn't in Ian McEwan's league, as I hopefully suggested on January 13 that she might be. I'm not much enjoying her 2000 novel, Properties of Light, and the review I just read of her newest, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, doesn't inspire me to read it. In the review ("Prove It," in the January 31 New York Times Book Review), its author, Liesl Schillinger, writes:
...Goldstein's lofty psycho-religio-philosophical subtext, or rather metatext, doesn't gray her roman à clef about love, Jewish cultural identity, and academic infighting. She sews her philosophical inquiry to the material of everyday life...All the same, the stitches that join Goldstein's men, women, and themes show more in this novel than they do in her others....
    In 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, Goldstein shows that philosophers and scholars may construct as many proofs or disproofs of divinity as they like. But to people of faith such questions remain as inarguable as the persistence of kugel. [emphasis mine]
    [An] "Extreme Distinguished Professor of Faith, Literature, and Values," [a character who Schillinger says could have been based on Yale's emeritus professor Harold Bloom], or someone uncannily like him, [proposes to a graduate student that he write his dissertation on] the traditional Jewish Sabbath meal of cholent (bean and potato stew) and kugel (pudding)....[p. 10]
Sorry if my January 13 post got you all excited.

And me. Still, though, reviewers often mislead us. I'll browse the book when I find a library that has it. Anyway, the novel is said to come
with an appendix that lists and refutes 36 arguments for the existence of God...To taste their rigor, sample No. 20, the Argument from the Intolerability of Insignificance, which travels from Premise 1 ("In a million years, nothing that happens now will matter") to Premise 4 ("It is intolerable...that in a million years nothing that happens now will matter") to Premise 8 ("God exists"). [Goldstein] dismisses this argument as "the fallacy of wishful thinking."
That has to be fun.

Seriously, though, it's true. We humans, thrown here as we are, with our artistic consciousnesses, our imaginations, how we do rail against that and other intolerabilities. The intolerability that really bad people won't be punished (beyond what minor pains of conscience they may succeed in feeling before they die). The intolerability that our parents' bodies lie in cold graves back in our hometowns, that our bodies will lie somewhere too, someday, if we don't try to ensure that they will be cremated.
    Can our sadness at these intolerabilities be all we need to know of why religion has such a tight grip on some of us?

Night lights

Earlier this month I finally got around to trying my no longer quite so new Nikon DSLR for a little night photography. It had taken me similarly long to install our landscape lights....

Not a wide enough aperture, or a long enough exposure, do you think? Or maybe some more Photoshopping?

Thursday, January 28, 2010

A dog's life

In modern life (and perhaps throughout human history), terrible thoughts often come to us. The thought this morning, for example, upon reading that a live teenage girl was found yesterday in Haiti, that the child had spent days under rubble, in pain, thirsty, hungry....And now found, will she survive?
    Or the thought that the final seconds of animals raised for slaughter can be spent in a "state of terror." From "Paperback Row," in the January 17 New York Times Book Review:
Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals, by Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson. (Mariner/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $15.95.) This book picks up where Animals in Translation left off, but the focus here is on animals' emotional lives. "The rule is simple," Grandin writes [not Johnson?]. "Don't stimulate rage, fear, and panic if you can help it, and do stimulate seeking and also play." She has designed humane slaughter systems for cattle, arguing that "no animal should spend its last conscious moments in a state of terror" and that "the most important thing for an animal is the quality of its life".... [emphasis mine; p. 20]
We are more human that someone continued looking in that rubble, hope against hope. From the newspaper article (Associated Press) cited above:
French Ambassador Didier le Bret praised the persistence of the French rescue team, which has kept looking for survivors for days after the Haitian government officially called off the search.
And we are more human that we do the best we can to provide for our pets. I was thinking this morning that the original meaning of the phrase, "a dog's life," probably doesn't cover the kind of life my wife and I try to (and do) provide for Siegfried. Hendrickson's Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins doesn't cover the term. World Wide Words provides the pertinent insight:
Most of our expressions that include dog are old enough to be based in times when dogs were not cosseted, but were kept as watchdogs or hunting animals, not as pets. They often weren’t allowed in the house, but were kept in kennels, fed scraps, worked hard, and often died young. So going to the dogs, dog tired, to die like a dog, dog’s dinner, dogsbody, dog eat dog, and a dog’s life all refer to a state of affairs best avoided. Specifically, a dog’s life is first recorded in the sixteenth century and seems to have remained in the language with the sense of “a life of misery, or of miserable subserviency” ever since....[emphasis mine]
    But the same article points out that
Those of us over 50 seem to use [the phrase] to suggest the need to accept the existential fact that things are hard; but in the under-50 set, the idea is that dogs have it easy, and so it’s a dog’s life equates to "how cushy"!
    It certainly seems that the phrase has become more ambiguous than it once was, though I’ve not come across many examples myself of its use as a description of a pampered existence. [emphasis mine]
    Now, that latter sense of the phrase does refer to Siegfried!
    But what about those animals in the abatoir?

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The dangling cigarette

As part of a discussion about Unitarian Universalism, a friend of many years told me recently that
It seems to me that religion implies by definition an assumption of the existence of a supreme being (or beings). The principles listed on the Unitarian Universalist website seem to be moral principles. I do not disagree with them but they are not "religious principles," because they are not based on religion. You are quite right in questioning their basis and the Unitarian Universalists' apparently exclusive reliance on the Jewish/Christian tradition. The reality is that in some sense the various world religions hold to these general principles.
    I disagree, though, with the view of your Muslim friends that Islam is "more about love and mercy than about killing infidels." Contrast the practice of Christ and his disciples to that of Mohammed and his disciples.
    If one concludes that God exists, the essential argument for Christianity is that no other religion or person has established standards for human behavior which approach the idea of goodness embodied in its concept of God. Certainly not Islam, which promises a paradise with delectable virgins for those martyred in their efforts to fight the infidel (you and me).
I agree with my friend about Islam, despite what a few justifiably defensive Muslims have told me. They may think that Islam is "more about love and justice than about killing infidels," but it seems to me (from my partial reading of the Qur'an) that it's "about love and justice as well as about killing infidels," with the relative numbers of constructive and destructive passages to be determined by objective textual analysis (by anyone who thinks it's worth the trouble).
    Rudolf Otto, in his 1923 book, The Idea of the Holy (which was assigned for a religion course I took at Yale), argued as my friend does that Christianity is the best religion. I observe, though, that each adherent argues the same about his own religion, Muslims insistently about Islam, for example—however wrongheaded those indoctrinated into Christianity might judge that.

This parochialism is one of the many indicators I have for writing religion off altogether. If God were what religions claim, then it seems to me that they'd have all "come together by now and love one another" (to paraphrase a lyric inspired by the Beatles). But it's obvious that religions are wishful enterprises, culture-bound, maddeningly tenacious in their hold over adherents.
    I ran across an image this morning in Philip Roth's 2008 novel, Indignation, that seems an apt symbol for people's being in thrall to their religion:
...at age fifty, after enjoying a lifetime of robust good health, this sturdy little man [the narrator's father] began to develop the persistent racking cough that, troubling as it was to my mother, did not stop him from keeping a lit cigarette in the corner of his mouth all day long. [emphasis mine; p. 3]
    Religion to its adherents seems to me to be like that lit cigarette to the narrator's father. What is religion's grip on people? Not even the unanswerable sociological argument (put by Bertrand Russell in Why I Am Not a Christian) that if a Christian had been raised by Muslims he'd be a Muslim (and a Muslim raised by Christians would be a Christian) can shake a Christian (or a Muslim) from his religion. Does the addiction to religion involve a virus that incapacitates rationality?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

What actors have played!

One of my wife's favorite films is "Cyrano de Bergerac" (1950, directed by Michael Gordon and starring José Ferrer in the title role). After watching it again last week, she expressed an interest in seeing the production with Kevin Kline, staged in New York and specially directed for TV by Matthew Diamond (PBS's "Great Performances," 2008). I borrowed the DVD from our local library and we watched it.

Kline's performances is masterful, understated, cinematically effective, but quite incompatible with Jennifer Garner's highly theatrical performance as Roxane, the object of Cyrano's tragic love. We'd have preferred for hers to match his, rather than the reverse.
    But what I want to report is an item about Chris Sarandon, who very effectively plays the Comte de Guiche. Who was he, I wondered? Not the actor who played opposite Jane Fonda in "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" No, that was Michael Sarrazin, with a fairly long list of films I'd likely mostly find UBOO.
    No, listed among Chris Sarandon's many films is "Dog Day Afternoon" (1975), in which he played Sonny [the Al Pacino character]'s "wife" Leon Schermer (Pacino was robbing the bank to pay for Leon's sex-change operation)! We watched that film again a couple of years ago, and the character's pathos is graven on my memory. Sarandon was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance.
    Chris Sarandon is about six months older than I. And no, he isn't Susan Sarandon's brother; rather, she acquired his last name when she married him (in 1967).

Footnote on movie incompatibility. I am fortunate that my wife and I share a love of film (and TV series). A friend reports that
I used to just check off all the movies on the Netflix website I could think of that I wanted to see so I always had something in the mail. Netflix is really easy to manage. I used to make sure I watched four or five movies a week. Nowadays we barely manage one a week mainly due to the fact that [my spouse] just isn't into films as much as I am.
    I'm sure it's tough not being compatible in terms of movies. My old college roommate who visited us last week told me that he, too, doesn't watch many movies (even though he'd like to), simply because his wife doesn't like to watch them. But, rather than watch them anyway, alone, he reads a book.
    I can relate, actually. I don't "feel right" watching a movie when my wife doesn't want to watch it too. I'm fortunate that she almost always (but not quite always) is willing to at least start watching with me. If she decides to not continue watching, I don't feel so bad continuing myself, but starting to watch one she doesn't want to watch is another thing. I'm not sure why.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Siegfried is one year old today

Siegfried has now been a member of our household for forty-five weeks and a day. He was seven weeks old when we welcomed him.


We still occasionally call him Wally [shown here on New Year's Day 2005, age eight and a half]:


Monday, January 18, 2010

Want borderline metaphysical assistance?

We live in Mebane now, but my wife and I are members emeritus of the "block" we used to live on over in Chapel Hill, and I attended its annual party last night. It was nice to see that no one else had moved away yet, although a couple of our old neighbors couldn't make it to the party.
    And I'm glad to have met the one new neighbor, who rents a house up for sale on the block. Turns out, she told us, that she's an author, of books that are "borderline metaphysical." And she has a website. Her profile on another website reveals that she
is a natural born mystic, 3rd generation clairvoyant, and gifted medium. She is an award-winning author; her books include Cards of Destiny—Daily Divination Guide, and Love and Destiny—Discover the Secret Language of Relationships. [She] is available via phone or in person for readings.
Sounds like maybe the source for those seeking borderline metaphsical assistance.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Still trying to figure it out

For the week preceding his birthday on Friday, my friend Jim was a week younger than I. His daugher's birthday gift to him was the book Why Does E=mc2: And Why Should We Care?, by Brian Cox (the physicist, not the Scottish actor). Jim says that his daughter remembered that he's "still trying to figure out relativity."
    One of the things that I've been trying to figure out is sort of related to relativity: What did physicist David Bohm (1917-1992) contribute to our understanding of reality? I've seen references to Bohm for decades, prominently in books like Fritjof Capra's The Tao of Physics (1975) and Gary Zukav's The Dancing Wu Li Masters: An Overview of the New Physics (1979).
    Being told of Jim's birthday present, I rushed to tell him about the Rebecca Goldstein novel that I said the other day I'd asked my local library to hold for me: Properties of Light: A Novel of Love, Betrayal, and Quantum Physics.
    I had picked the book up from the library on Jim's birthday and started reading immediately. Trying to comprehend what I'd gotten myself into as I read the first chapter—whose opening sentence is, "The essential fact is that I hate her"—I'd skipped ahead to Goldstein's afterword [pp. 243-44]. I wrote to Jim:
Did you see my post about Rebecca Goldstein? I've started reading her novel, and it has a character based on David Bohm. In the afterword, Goldstein says that,
though Einstein himself had early on declared Bohm his successor, Bohm spent the great bulk of his life in embittered obscurity, in his last years residing in England and teaching at a night college in London.
Had you ever heard of David Bohm? I've seen many references to him over the years.
    She says that in 1952 he'd presented a "hidden variables" formulation of quantum mechanics, but his former mentor, J. Robert Oppenheimer (they'd both worked on the Manhattan Project),
perhaps more than any other physicist, was responsible for Bohm's being buried alive. He was quoted as suggesting that "if we cannot disprove Bohm, then we must agree to ignore him."
    Goldstein quotes from a personal letter of Bohm:
"I have only one strong emotion left, and that is hatred for the forces that have destroyed so many human beings, including myself. For relative to what I could have become, I regard myself as destroyed."
    But Bohm's ideas are still alive, Jim. Goldstein concludes the afterword:
Only relatively recently have a growing number of "respectable" physicists begun working with what they have taken to calling "Bohmian mechanics."
    The formidable problem of reconciling quantum mechanics with relativity theory still awaits a solution.
Maybe learning something about Bohm can help you figure out relativity?

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Download your worries

Driving down a country road this morning, on our way to a local park for a walk in the woods, my wife and I (and Siegfried) passed a church (Baptist, probably) with one of those large, ubiquitous glass-enclosed sign boxes identifying the church and the pastor and displaying a pithy saying intended to woo converts, if not make you feel guilty for forsaking religion (or both, I guess). The saying in this box was more "with it" than most:
Download your troubles
Go online with God
    My wife and I discussed the metaphor and couldn't decide whether the pastor (or his publicist) was only semi-computer literate or had a new brand of theology. I mean, why would you want to download worries onto yourself from "up there" (on the Internet)? Wouldn't you upload them, give them up to God (in prayer, supposedly)? Or does the saying mean to suggest that by "going online with God," you ascend to Him somehow, so that in downloading your worries you'd be sending them back down (or leaving them down) there where you no longer have to deal with them?
    Fortunately, it doesn't make any difference.

The pithy saying in the graphic I found on the Internet is more interesting. It addresses a serious, real problem in the world today, in America especially because of the way the First Amendment is usually characterized, as guaranteeing "freedom of religion." The actual text of the amendment is:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
While outlawing laws "prohibiting the free exercise thereof" does seem to guarantee freedom of religion, outlawing "establishment of religion" equally seems to guarantee freedom from religion. It would certainly be strange otherwise, given that some of our leading founding fathers were hardly religious.
    On Earth today, freedom from is in more need of protection than freedom of, what with false advertising like that being downloadable from the Internet. If atheists are currently more active than they have been, I'd say it's because they feel they need to push back. The harder, the more they buy Sam Harris's warning that religion is a menace:
In the best case, faith leaves otherwise well-intentioned people incapable of thinking rationally about many of their deepest concerns; at worst, it is a continuous source of human violence. Even now, many of us are motivated not by what we know but by what we are content to imagine. Many are still eager to sacrifice happiness, compassion, and justice in this world, for a fantasy of a world to come. These and other degradations await us along the well-worn path of piety. Whatever our religious differences may mean for the next life, they have only one terminus in this one—a future of ignorance and slaughter. [p. 223, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, 2004]

Friday, January 15, 2010

Feeling spriggy

My step upon arising from bed was spry for the first time in a couple of weeks. I've been home sick with a cold and sinus infection, and my nasal passages are still somewhat raw and tender.
    Out of curiosity about the word "spry," I checked thefreedictionary.com:
Perhaps of Scandinavian origin; akin to Swedish dialectal  s p r y g g , brisk.
dictionary.com was willing to say only "1740–50; orig. uncert."

But I like "sprygg," and I like feeling a bit spriggy again! There hasn't been much spriggyness in my life lately. I don't think I've even felt much like talking that way.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

I want to be Jesse Stone

My wife and I have watched three "Jesse Stone" movies in as many days, and I'm finding myself "channeling" the character today, sounding sometimes, to my inner ear, like him talking (even subvocalizing things I'm writing). I've had similar experiences leaving a movie theater, finding myself physically imitating a character I've just seen on the big screen, like Rico Ratso from "Midnight Cowboy," for instance (Dustin Hoffman).
    Jesse Stone is the chief of police of the small (fictional) town of Paradise, Massachusetts. He ends up there as his last stop (he says) after losing his job as a Los Angeles homicide detective, nostalgically divorced, a drinker (but never drunk on the job). The character was created by the popular "crime novelist" Robert B. Parker (b. 1932). I read two of his Jesse Stone novels last week (home sick with a cold), Sea Change (2005) and Stranger in Paradise (2008). They're fairly simple, with few complications, just the sort of thing to read when you don't feel up to snuff.
    The three movies, all directed by Robert Harmon, were made for television, their titles (in narrative sequence) "Jesse Stone: Night Passage" (2006), "Jesse Stone: Death in Paradise" (2006) and "Stone Cold" (2005).
    We watched the three movies on DVD from our local library, so there's no "big screen" effect, but I guess the three-day immersion is having its effect on me. Mostly, though, it's just the power of the character in my imagination. Jesse Stone is such a fair, calm, truth-telling man, always completely "there" in the moment, strong and ruthless when he needs to be, cordial and first-name even with assholes and murderers. And Tom Selleck, who contributes as a writer and producer, is absolutely perfect for the role.
    I think it's mainly Jesse Stone's character that resonates with me. I've noticed myself sounding like him mostly as I've written professional email this morning, wanting to be especially fair, truthful, respectful, just like Jesse Stone. As my friend Ken says (much better than I could):
When it comes to masculinity, Jesse Stone is the Gold Standard. His attitudes toward justice, women, and dogs define manhood.
Right, Jesse Stone even has a dog!

I highly recommend all of the movies, even confidently the ones we haven't seen yet: "Jesse Stone: Sea Change" (2007), "Jesse Stone: No Remorse" (2009), and "Jesse Stone: Thin Ice" (2009). The latter was on TV just a couple of weeks ago, but its broadcast seems to have been delayed, as our DVR caught only the first half. But that was all it took to hook us.
    We plan to watch "Jesse Stone: Sea Change" this evening. That's the last of our library's current holdings, alas.

Next day. Well, I was quite surprised last night, watching "Sea Change," it is so different from the book, most of whose plot has disappeared. For example, in the book, Stone's ex-wife is on the scene as a broadcast news correspondent, and a significant amount of stuff happens in Miami, where the movie never goes. And a larger subplot (about a 13-year-old cold case) has been added for the movie, whether from another Robert B. Parker novel or from Tom Selleck and the other screenwriters, I know not.
    But I'm not going to read more Robert B. Parker novels to find out, at least not now. The library has already got a Rebecca Newberger Goldstein for me to pick up.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

To my probably deserved embarrassment, I'd never heard of Rebecca Goldstein. But I've heard of her now, from my intellectual alter ego Sam Harris, in an email from samharris.org:
New Novel about the New Atheism: Rebecca Goldstein's, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God
"So extravagantly witty and smart that it's making everything else I've read recently seem drab."
    —Ron Charles, Senior Editor at The Washington Post Book Review

"Comic and supremely witty, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God is both a satire of the academic world and a feast of philosophical and religious ideas."
    —Alan Lightman, author of Einstein's Dreams [an excellent work, which I have read; by the way, Lightman is on the MIT faculty, along with Goldstein's husband, linguist Steven Pinker]

"You do not have to perpetrate an act of faith to confront the question of why there is something rather than nothing. It is faith itself that consists of nothing. Rebecca Goldstein, on the other hand, is quite something."
    —Christopher Hitchens, author of God Is Not Great [ditto]

"Rebecca Newberger Goldstein does it all. She has written a hilarious novel about people's existential agonies, a page-turner about the intellectual mysteries that obsess them. The characters in 36 Arguments for the Existence of God explore the great moral issues of our day in a novel that is deeply moving and a joy to read."
    —Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Everything Is Illuminated [not yet]
    I get from these recommendations the same thrill that I got from the ad I saw (in 2005?) in The New York Times Book Review for Harris's book, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. I knew it would speak to me on my own wavelength.

And the list of Goldstein's publications is intellectually provocative. From a research university's online library catalog:
Goldstein, Rebecca, 1950-
Betraying Spinoza : the renegade Jew who gave us modernity
    New York : Nextbook : Schocken, c2006. [Spinoza!]
The dark sister
    New York, NY : Viking, 1991. [according to Wikipedia, "a postmodern fictionalization of family and professional issues in the life of William James"]
Incompleteness : the proof and paradox of Kurt Gödel
    New York : W.W. Norton, c2005. [a filched book about Gödel's incompleteness theorem graced my summer of 1965]
The late-summer passion of a woman of mind
    New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, c1989.
Mazel
    New York : Viking, 1995.
The mind-body problem : a novel
    New York : Random House, c1983. [don't you worry about this too?]
Properties of light : a novel of love, betrayal and quantum physics
    Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 2000. [let me know if you can explain quantum physics to me]
Strange attractors
    New York : Viking, 1993.
An Ian McEwan-class novelist? I'm rubbing my hands in anticipation, having this morning requested Properties of Light from my local library.
    36 Arguments for the Existence of God sounds like some excellent "talk about faith," possibly of the sort Russ Douthat had in mind in his op-ed piece, "Let's Talk about Faith", in Sunday's New York Times:
When liberal democracy was forged, in the wake of Western Europe’s religious wars, this sort of peaceful theological debate is exactly what it promised to deliver. And the differences between religions are worth debating. Theology has consequences: It shapes lives, families, nations, cultures, wars; it can change people, save them from themselves, and sometimes warp or even destroy them.

Monday, January 11, 2010

A pair to draw to

I'd never heard anyone say of a couple that they were "a pair to draw to," until a friend said it today. I wonder whether she listens to much country music, or just plays poker.
    She said it of me and my wife. I like that.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Happy my birthday!

Behold the pie!

Many thanks to my wife for baking it for me on this, my 67th birthday. Or is it my 68th? Not that I'm unsure how old I've become, but just in consideration of the fact that on my day of birth I was zero years old, so we're actually counting in the "binary system" here.
And here's my birthday piece (before and after ice cream added):

And the pie again, awaiting further celebration:

    Looks like a bigger piece that way, doesn't it? Too big, in fact. This pie, made with sour cherry filling from the King Arthur Flour website, is so filling that I'm going to cut a smaller slice next time.

Religion is...

One might think, from the item below, that Google is in bed with Sam Hawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins (and me). Have you ever keyed into a Google search box, for example, "Islam is"? Google helps with possible completions:


In fact, my friend Ken, who sent me the item yesterday as "an early birthday present" (I'm sixty-seven today) says:

I got the "[Religion] is..." graphic from a friend; I didn't do the googling and build the graphic. I doubt that it's genuine. The "now serving cowardliness" conclusion is certainly a tagline that Google would never use. On the other hand, I googled myself after enjoying the graphic and did find some of the listings. My guess is that a creative person did the searches, found some funny hits, and built on them.
    The tagline that Ken refers to makes Google out to be suggesting that people might be too cowardly to type for themselves the possible completions provided. (You know, afraid that God might strike them dead or an Islamic fundamentalist hack off their head to save Allah from lifting his little finger.)
    Would Google never use a tagline like that? Google seems pretty gutsy....
    Photographs of my wife's birthday cherry pie to come later.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The sum of all fears

A friend recently expressed the wish that people could share their thoughts and feelings about religion without pushing their convictions onto one another "and getting into physical, emotional, intellectual, ethical, moral, or verbal shoving matches."
    Yes, that would be nice. But it appears that many, if not most humans are unable to do that. I think the main reason people push their convictions is that they need the reassurance of others' believing as they do, they are so frightened by the thought that God does not exist, that they will not live forever, that the good will not be rewarded and the bad not punished. They may be even more afraid that, without God, they and other people will not be good.
    Fear is a powerful emotion. It engages people's reptilian complex1 and disengages their cerebral cortex, which must be engaged if people are to share as my friend would like.

Unfortunately, more is at stake than getting lovey-dovey about religion. Today in The New York Times, both primary op-ed columnists cite the ominous turmoil in America today.
    David Brooks, in "The Tea Party Teens," writes:
The tea party movement is a large, fractious confederation of Americans who are defined by what they are against. They are against the concentrated power of the educated class. They believe big government, big business, big media and the affluent professionals are merging to form self-serving oligarchy—with bloated government, unsustainable deficits, high taxes and intrusive regulation.
    The tea party movement is mostly famous for its flamboyant fringe. But it is now more popular than either major party. According to the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 41 percent of Americans have a positive view of the tea party movement. Only 35 percent of Americans have a positive view of the Democrats and only 28 percent have a positive view of the Republican Party.
    And Bob Herbert, in "An Uneasy Feeling," writes:
One in eight Americans, and one in four children, are on food stamps. Some six million Americans, according to an article in The Times on Sunday, have said that food stamps were their only income.
    This is a society in deep, deep trouble and the fixes currently in the works are in no way adequate to the enormous challenges we’re facing....
    Just getting us back in fits and starts over the next few years to where we were when the recession began should not be acceptable to anyone....
    We’re not smart as a nation. We don’t learn from the past, and we don’t plan for the future....
    We keep talking about how essential it is to radically improve public education while, at the same time, we’re closing libraries and firing teachers by the tens of thousands for economic reasons.
    The fault lies everywhere...
    Now we’re escalating in Afghanistan, falling back into panic mode....
Fear, it seems to me, is the common denominator underlying the turmoil, the shoving and the pushing. It governs fearful people's thoughts and actions. This is understood well enough by Glenn Beck, that master of reptilian entertainment. (Google on "glenn beck fear" to see what I mean.)
    In a real sense, the one thing we have to fear is fear itself. Thanks to Mr. Beck for the apt phrase.
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  1. Jim Rix writes insightfully about the reptilian/cerebral dichotomy in his book about the criminal justice system: Jingle Jangle: The Perfect Crime Turned Inside Out. Particularly the chapter titled, "Catch-22: The Gila."

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Glum for the holidays

In a moment of usual candor, I confessed to a friend that I'd often been glum lately.
    She asked why.
    "The Christmas holidays," probably. I do abhor them and not only them but what they signally represent, mankind's nostalgic slavery to sham tradition. That's the main reason, I think, that I abhor spectator sports. They and the holidays emphatically demonstrate the banality of so much of human life, with its parades, bowl games, and other forlorn rituals.

I'm grateful for a warm home, a dear wife, my daughter and son-in-law's visit, and Siegfried's companionship.

    And grateful for the beauty of flowers, even as they fade.