Sunday, December 30, 2007

Hat’s off to Chris Mumma!

Moristotle doffs his hat to 2007 Tar Heel of the Year Christine Mumma, shown here in a detail from Shawn Rocco’s photo on the front page of this morning’s News & Observer.

In the accompanying story, Samiha Khanna writes:

Mumma helped design guidelines for police lineups that, if followed, should prevent the kinds of missteps that led to wrongful arrests in the Duke lacrosse case. Also due to Mumma’s work, North Carolina is one of only nine states that require investigators to record interrogations of murder suspects [emphasis mine]. And soon, a state law Mumma drafted will ensure that biological evidence is safely retained long after a suspect is convicted. Had evidence in [Dwayne] Dail’s case been readily available for DNA testing, he wouldn’t have spent half his life in prison.
    The changes in laws and procedures have drawn national attention to North Carolina, now recognized as a pace-setter for criminal justice reform..... [emphasis mine]

Though I am a Californian by birth and have lived in North Carolina for only twenty-four years, I am proud to be a North Carolinian.

I admit that I didn’t know who Chris Mumma was when I approached her a year and a half ago to ask her whether she’d read the manuscript of Jim Rix’s book about his wrongfully convicted cousin Ray Krone. She was just someone at the University of North Carolina School of Law whom a student there had recommended as a potential supporter of Rix’s work. As busy as she was (although I had no idea how busy), she did read the manuscript and wrote a blurb proudly displayed on Jingle Jangle’s jacket:

Ray Krone’s story has so many of the elements we see over and over again in innocence cases – unreliable forensic conclusions, incomplete investigations and overvalued testimony resulting from “confirmatory bias” that occurs because everyone thinks they have the right perpetrator and they ignore evidence to the contrary. There are more Ray Krones out there – there just aren’t many who are lucky enough to have a cousin like Ray’s.
The news about Chris Mumma in the months after the book was published in July (including her essential role in the judicial exoneration of Dwayne Dail, who had spent almost nineteen years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit) has made the author and me even prouder of that quotation. Thank you, Chris Mumma, and congratulations!

In honor of Ms. Mumma’s well-deserved recognition, Moristotle is pleased to announce to his readers that Jim Rix is now offering Jingle Jangle: The Perfect Crime Turned Inside Out at a special price. Visit his publisher’s discount store.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

My "New Ten Commandments" (second edition)

After drafting the first version of this, on Wednesday (December 26), and publishing a slightly revised version the next day, I have continued to think about and revise it. I put a few changes into Thursday's post later the same day and yesterday (complete with footnotes, which became harder and harder to read). I decided to go with "editions" instead and not use footnotes. And I have restored Thursday's post to the way it was when I first published it.

Though chastened initially "to recognize [the list's] inadequacy," I'm feeling better and better about it now, especially since I've received some strong endorsements from friends privately.

In his chapter on "the moral Zeitgeist" (German for "spirit of the times"), Richard Dawkins discusses how moral values have become more enlightened over time, with huge changes over only a few decades in the "consensus" on such things as slavery and female suffrage. And he suggests that "One way to express our consensual ethics is as a 'New Ten Commandments.'" [p. 263 of The God Delusion]
Intrigued by this suggestion, I tried to identify what my own ten might be. Here's my first revised (second) edition:
  1. In all things, try to do no harm.
  2. This rule, adapted from the Hippocratic Oath traditionally taken by physicians, could usefully guide us to refrain from harming others and from making matters worse in all kinds of cases, including how we contribute to environmental degradation. We do harm, for example, when we make an unnecessary trip or use a vehicle that consumes excessive amounts of fuel. Or waste water, which is more and more evidently a limited resource. Or have too many children....
  3. Do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you.
  4. The negative version of "The Golden Rule," apparently formulated by Confucius, has always seemed to me less meddlesome and more practically useful than the version generally attributed to Jesus. Not that a mindful application of the positive version is bad.
  5. Don't rush to judgment but give everyone the benefit of an open mind; don't convict an accused person if you have reasonable doubt as to the person's guilt.
  6. This one applies everyday, but especially if you should find yourself on a jury, where you may be required to watch adversaries far more interested in winning your vote than in administering justice. In this regard I recommend Jim Rix's excellent book on the criminal justice system, Jingle Jangle: The Perfect Crime Turned Inside Out.
  7. Formulate laws as if you didn't know what your position in the pecking order would be.
  8. This one I paraphrased from the unique contribution to political philosophy of Harvard philosopher John Rawls (1921-1990). Ever since I heard of it a few years ago, I've considered something like this to be essential for a just society. Of course, in America at present, laws are written largely to benefit lobbyists (whose money helps secure them a high position in the pecking order).
  9. Treat all living creatures humanely.
  10. Not just "all others," for we too are living creatures. Alas, I follow this one far from perfectly, for I am not a vegan. The best I can say for myself is that I do not kill other animals for profit or sport, I brake for animals on the roadway, I take good care of our dog, I feed and water the birds that visit our yard, I refrain from killing snakes (even poisonous ones), and I pause for a moment before eating the flesh of another animal to acknowledge the injustice of the way it was raised and that it was killed to indulge the taste of humans. I have profound respect for those who follow this principle to the extent of eating no animal flesh.
  11. Always be willing to revise your beliefs according to evidence and reason.
  12. This one can help keep us honest with ourselves and remind us to resist superstition and magical thinking. Life in a complex world requires realistic thinking.
  13. Do not indoctrinate your children, but teach them how to think for themselves, how to evaluate evidence, how to generate new ideas, and how to disagree with you.
  14. I adapted this one from four items Dawkins says he would try to find room for in his list [p. 264; he didn't mention creative thinking]. Ancient superstitions and bad advice are perpetuated by indoctrination and the suppression of critical and creative thinking (and their effective use together).
  15. Support your country when it is right, oppose it when it is wrong.
  16. The absolutist credo of a certain kind of patriot has long been condemned for its arrogance and brutality. It is time to move on to try to establish a just world order.
  17. Question authority; challenge authority that appears illegitimate or contrary to reason.
  18. A principle such as this is essential to counteract false authority (such as that claimed by religious leaders for their ancient scriptures or by political cheats who wangle their way to become "leaders" or "deciders"). The principle also destroys the excuse, "But I was just following orders."
  19. Thou shalt not bow down and worship likely non-existent "God."Originally stated, "Thou shalt not bow down and worship an unlikely god." I realized that I needed to be clearer what I meant by "unlikely," as well as clearer that I was referring to the capitalized God (or Yahweh or Allah or whatever) of received religious doctrine. Let one new commandment suffice to dispatch the first three of ancient Mosaic Law:
    I. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
    II. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; and shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.
    III. Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain. [– Exodus 20:3–7, King James Version]
I acknowledged in the first version that "The Mosaic commandments were mostly prohibitive; I've tended toward the prohibitive myself," but I don't feel that that is a defect. Nevertheless, I still want to address the "natural tension" between the "do no harm" prohibition-type list and the "live a good life" prescriptive list. For example, what about the use of time? Dawkins would include in his list (p. 164) a commandment such as "Value the future on a timescale longer than your own." And what about reading? Do we read at all, and what do we read?...And what do we watch on television? Where do we get our "news"?....

Thursday, December 27, 2007

My "New Ten Commandments"

In his chapter on "the moral Zeitgeist" (German for "spirit of the times"), Richard Dawkins discusses how moral values have become more enlightened over time, with huge changes over only a few decades in the "consensus" on such things as slavery and female suffrage. And he suggests that "One way to express our consensual ethics is as a 'New Ten Commandments.'"1
Intrigued by this suggestion, I tried to identify what my own ten might be. Here's my initial attempt:
  1. In all things, try to do no harm.
  2. This rule, adapted from the Hippocratic Oath traditionally taken by physicians, could usefully guide us to refrain from harming others and from making matters worse in all kinds of cases, including how we contribute to environmental degradation. We do harm, for example, when we make an unnecessary trip or use a vehicle that consumes excessive amounts of fuel.
  3. Do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you.
  4. The negative version of "The Golden Rule," apparently formulated by Confucius, has always seemed to me less meddlesome and more practically useful than the version attributed by some Christians to Jesus.
  5. Don't rush to judgment but give everyone the benefit of an open mind; don't convict an accused person if you have reasonable doubt as to the person's guilt.
  6. This one applies everyday, but especially if you should find yourself on a jury, where you may be required to watch adversaries far more interested in winning your vote than in administering justice.
  7. Formulate laws as if you didn't know what your position in the pecking order would be.
  8. This one I paraphrased from the unique contribution to political philosophy of Harvard philosopher John Rawls (1921-1990). Ever since I heard of it a few years ago, I've considered something like this to be essential for a just society. Of course, in America at present, laws are written largely to benefit lobbyists (whose money helps secure them a high position in the pecking order).
  9. Treat all other living creatures humanely.
  10. Alas, I follow this one far from perfectly, for I am not a vegan. The best I can say for myself is that I do not kill other animals for sport, I brake for animals on the roadway, I take good care of our dog, I feed and water the birds that visit our yard, I refrain from killing snakes (even poisonous ones), and I pause for a moment before eating the flesh of another animal to acknowledge the injustice of the way it was raised and killed to indulge the taste of humans. I have profound respect for those who follow this principle to the extent of eating no animal flesh.
  11. Always be willing to revise your beliefs according to evidence and reason.
  12. This one can help keep us honest with ourselves and remind us to resist superstition and magical thinking. Life in a complex world requires realistic thinking.
  13. Do not indoctrinate your children, but teach them how to think for themselves, how to evaluate evidence, how to generate new ideas, and how to disagree with you.
  14. I adapted this one from four items Dawkins says he would try to find room for in his list2. Ancient superstitions and bad advice are perpetuated by indoctrination and the suppression of critical and creative thinking (and their effective use together).
  15. Support your country when it is right, oppose it when it is wrong.
  16. The absolutist credo of a certain kind of patriot has long been condemned for its arrogance and brutality. It is time to move on to try to establish a just world order.
  17. Question authority; challenge authority that appears illegitimate or contrary to reason.
  18. A principle such as this is essential to counteract false authority (such as that claimed by religious leaders for their ancient scriptures or by political cheats who managed to become "leaders") and invalidate the excuse that "I was just following orders."
  19. Thou shalt not bow down and worship an unlikely god.
  20. Let one new commandment suffice to dispatch the first three old commandments of Mosaic Law.
Having drafted this yesterday and slept on it overnight, I am chastened to recognize its inadequacy. There's a natural tension between the "do no harm" prohibition and the "live the best life" prescription. The Mosaic commandments were mostly prohibitive; I've tended toward the prohibitive myself. But what about the use of time? Dawkins would include in his list3 a commandment such as "Value the future on a timescale longer than your own." What about reading?
_______________
  1. P. 263 of The God Delusion.
  2. P. 264.
  3. Ibid.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The relevance of the mormu

The reporter from The Des Moines Sentinel stood up quickly and glared at the other reporters to warn them back. "Mr. Romney," he began, "do you wear a mormu?"
      Romney appeared stunned for a beat. "Mormu?"
      "Precisely. Do you wear one or not?...It's relevant."
      Romney didn't seem to know which way to go with this. He decided to go lawyerly. "Whether it's relevant remains to be seen...What is this mormu"?
      "Come, come, let's not play cute, as though you didn't actually inhale or something. Last week, you said—"
      "Wait a minute," said Romney. "You're talking about the Mormon
undergarment, aren't you? I'm on record that that isn't anybody's business."
      "You may be on record, but in 1980 it was people's business whether Ronnie relied on Nancy's astrological forecasts...."
      "That's preposterous!" Romney sputtered.
      "You have no argument there, sir...but the question, with all due respect of course, is: If you were elected president and happened not to be wearing your mormu when the red phone rang on the Armageddon box (or whatever of grave national import), would you be able to function?"
      Romney stared at the reporter from the Sentinel as more time went by than any presidential primary candidate would like in a tense situation like this.
      "What's wrong, Mr. Romney," someone in the back yelled, "aren't you wearing your Mormon magic underwear today?"

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Truce to the preposition war

That the First Amendment calls for a truce is obvious. When it comes to religion (and non-religion), there are many potentially warring factions, for even though there is essentially only one non-religion, there's a big raft of religions. And the first clause (the one that guarantees freedom from religion) doesn't protect just the non-religious (from religion generally); it also protects the followers of the various religions from each other's religion (from religions particularly).

Episcopaleans, for example, are fully as happy as I am not to have to indulge Evangelicals or Jehovah's Witnesses (or anyone else who "reads the Bible literally"). And the really true-believing religionists, of course, are generally happy not to have any truck with those agnostic or (horrors!) even atheistic Unitarians and Episcopaleans. And many Americans, including religious Christians and Jews as well as the non-religious, are a little jumpy right now about Muslims, not least because many of even the most religious-sounding Christians don't really take their religion quite as seriously as really believing Muslims do (probably not even Mitt Romney). (Islam after all means "submission [to God]," and Muslim "one who surrenders [to God].") And, of course, American Muslims are reciprocally a little uneasy living in a country whose current "president" (born-again, no less) talks about crusading in the Middle East. (Muslims who aren't Americans are a little uneasy about that too. Bush of course would remind us—since he no longer has Gonzales to do it—that those Muslims aren't protected by our Constitution....)

So, the first clause protects everybody (who is covered by the Constitution).

Whom does the second clause protect? It says, "Congress shall make no law...prohibiting the free exercise [of religion]." Since the non-religious don't "exercise religion," they have nothing for the second clause to protect. (Their interest in the First Amendment comes back into play in the third and following clauses.) So, the second clause is there to protect the religious, that they may go about "exercising" their religion "freely."

But what does "free exercise" mean? It must, of course, at least exclude actions that nullify the first clause....

Monday, December 24, 2007

The preposition war

The First Amendment might have been worded more clearly. While it emphatically guarantees freedom from religion (its first clause is "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion"), it unfortunately fails to use that preposition, and its second clause does use the preposition of (albeit in the lawyerly relative "thereof"): "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...." [emphasis mine].

This unfortunate fact has given fuel not only to religionists, but also to politicians, to claim that the First Amendment is all about freedom of religion (that is, not in the least about freedom from).

The religionists, of course, don't need much fuel to start a fire, given that hellfire, they love to point out, is already right there in scripture.

I don't know whether the man who (to paraphrase Al Gore) used to be the next Vice President of the United States1 got his fuel from scripture (the Torah in his case) or from preposition-parsing, but in an article in the February 19, 2001 issue of The Nation, on how politicians pander to the religious in campaigning, Ellen Willis wrote:
Lieberman was even bolder [than Gore, who had divulged that he was "born-again"]: He responded to what he called the "miracle" of his nomination with repeated public professions of faith in God, along with declarations that religion is the basis of morality and that the Constitution provides "freedom of religion, not freedom from religion." [my emphasis]
Irresponsible, inflammatory political rhetoric doesn't help our enlightenment when it misinterprets the Constitution and proclaims falsehoods about the basis of morality, which is evolutionary, not religious.
_______________________
  1. Gore's running mate, you may remember, was Joseph I. Lieberman, U.S. Senator from Connecticut. He was, by the way, a member of my baccalaureate class at Yale.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Celebrating my blog's new tag line

Until a few moments ago, the tag line on my blog masthead was "A Journal of Dissent." As I told my friend Keith this morning:
"A Journal of Dissent" doesn't satisfy me, but I haven't figured out a better tag yet. You seemed to take "dissent" as political, but that's not what I had in mind. Not exclusively, anyway. My posts on Mitt Romney, for example, were of course political in that he's running for political office. But I intended my comments to be more on religion than on politics, on how in America people seem to assume that you have to be religious. Romney's rhetoric, for example, simply doesn't recognize non-religion (or nontheism, as the Freedom From Religion Foundation puts it) as being acceptable here; he even implies that people without faith in god aren't legitimate U.S. citizens. I'm particularly disgusted at the way he and others distort the views of the freethinkers among our founding fathers and co-opt them for partisan purposes.

I'm also unhappy with "dissent" because it is negative rather than affirmative....
Well, as usual, merely setting myself a problem (in words) quickly led to a solution (while I was outside clearing some drains). Hence the new tag line:

Celebrating our constitutional freedom from religion (while we still have it1)

My text, of course, is the First Amendment of the United States Constitution:
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.
Let's celebrate!
__________________
  1. Several hours later: Rather than "while we still have it," my original parenthetical was for a few hours "and other popular delusions." While I savored its ambiguity (is religion the delusion, or the assumption that we are constitutionally free from it?), two things bothered me. First, I don't think the First Amendment can be interpreted to guarantee freedom from delusions generally, however extraordinary they are or how mad they make crowds2. Second, and more important, a lot of my friends and relatives are religious. I offend some of them enough already without implying in my masthead that religion is a delusion.
  2. In 1841, Charles Mackay published a book titled Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.
At the suggestion of a friend, I have also changed my profile photo.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Interesting times

The ancient Chinese may have cautioned us to "avoid interesting times," but, as John Mortimer pointed out in his 2003 "last will and testament" (Where There's a Will), "there is nothing...to suggest that the times are likely to become less interesting." [p. 94]

Yes, these are interesting times. On page 13 of last Sunday's New York Times Book Review, for example, I see an advertisement for three books published by Houghton Mifflin, the first of which is Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion, in recommendation of which Ian McEwan is quoted, "A magnificent book, lucid and wise." Interesting that I should not only currently be re-reading Dawkins's book (because it is lucid and wise) but also reading one after another of McEwan's novels.

And overleaf from the advertisement (on pages 14 and 15), I see reviews titled "Take It on Faith" (captioned "John Dilulio argues for government financing of social programs run by religious institutions") and "The Godless Delusion" ("A professor of philosophy thinks our era has been too quick to dismiss religious faith"). Hmm, interesting. I'm going to have to read these reviews....

It's interesting, too, to consider whether my recent dismissal of religious faith came as a result of my reading Dawkins and (before I took him up) Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens and (again) Bertrand Russell, or my reading of these atheist authors proceeded from atheist tendencies of my own....

I think it was more the latter, for I remember reading another advertisement in the Book Review, sometime over a year ago, that described Harris's The End of Faith in terms that thrilled and excited me for revealing that there at last seemed to be an author who had articulated what I too was now thinking and feeling about religion. Indeed he had...and far more than that. He had read many books that I had not, looked at a lot of data I didn't even know existed. I had not only met a brother, but also met a teacher. And in Hitchens and Dawkins I met two more teachers, Dawkins the most mind-opening of them all.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Mormonism's prophet would be proud of Mitt

The first time I read Richard Dawkins's 2006 book, The God Delusion, I think I must have missed his reference to Mitt Romney. But I got it the second time around:
Joseph Smith, [Mormonism's] enterprisingly mendacious inventor, went to the lengths of composing a complete new holy book, the Book of Mormon, inventing from scratch a whole new bogus American history, written in bogus seventeenth-centure English. Mormonism, however, has evolved since it was fabricated in the nineteenth century and has now become one of the respectable mainstream religions of America—indeed, it claims to be the fastest-growing one, and there is talk of fielding a presidential candidate. [emphasis mine; p. 201]

Smith too had announced for President of the United States, in 1844, a few months before a mob invaded the jail in Carthage, Illinois,

where Smith and some of his followers were being held, and shot him and his brother to death. Not even the First Amendment of the United States Constitution could protect the charismatic inventor without competent, dedicated support from the local authorities.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Mitt Romney would not enlighten us

When it comes to the question I concluded by asking on Friday, How could belief in believing [that is, in faith as opposed to knowing based on evidence] have come to have such sway over Americans, we citizens of a nation born of Enlightenment political philosophy?, Mitt Romney pretty decisively identified himself as such a believer by this sentence from his religion speech:
Raised up over generations, long ago, so many of the cathedrals [of Europe] now stand as the postcard backdrop to societies just too busy or too 'enlightened' to venture inside and kneel in prayer.
Don't miss the significance of those quotation marks.

As Roger Cohen put it Thursday in his op-ed piece in The New York Times:
Europe’s cathedrals are indeed “so inspired, so grand, so empty,” as Mitt Romney, a Mormon, put it last week in charting his vision of a faith-based presidency. Some do not survive at all. The Continent has paid a heavy price in blood for religious fervor....

Romney, a Republican presidential candidate, was dismissive of European societies “too busy or too ‘enlightened’ to venture inside and kneel in prayer.” He thereby pointed to what has become the principal transatlantic cultural divide.

Europeans still take the Enlightenment seriously enough not to put it inside quote marks [emphasis mine]. They have long found an inspiring reflection of it in the first 16 words of the American Bill of Rights of 1791: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

...Bush is no transient phenomenon; he is the expression of a new American religiosity. Romney’s speech and the rapid emergence of the anti-Darwin Baptist minister Mike Huckabee as a rival suggest how estranged the American zeitgeist is from the European.

At a time when growing numbers of Americans identify themselves as born-again evangelicals, and creationism is no joke, Romney essentially pitted the faithful against the faithless while attempting to merge Mormonism in mainstream Christianity. Where Kennedy said he believed in a “president whose religious views are his own private affair,” Romney pledged not to “separate us from our religious heritage.”

...Religion informed America’s birth. But its distancing from politics was decisive to the republic’s success. Indeed, the devastating European experience of religious war influenced the founders’ thinking. That is why I find Romney’s speech and the society it reflects far more troubling than Europe’s vacant cathedrals.

Romney allows no place in the United States for atheists. He opines that, “Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom.” Yet secular Sweden is free while religious Iran is not....
Oh yeah, we sure do want some more unreality-based political leadership, don't we?

Saturday, December 15, 2007

"If we are to have a religion..."

In his 80's, John Mortimer (English barrister and creator of Horace Rumpole of the Old Bailey1) published a sort of last will and testament, titled Where There's a Will. Montaignean2 in its wry comment on life and culture, it reads as fresh as any of Mortimer's prose published over sixty years. Given my own current dominant theme, I was delighted by the things he had to say about religion, and I particularly liked this snippet from his final essay, "The Attestation Clause":
The meaningful and rewarding moments aren't waiting for us beyond the grave, or to be found on distant battlefields where history's made. They can happen quite unexpectedly, in a garden perhaps, or walking through a beech wood in the middle of the afternoon. If we are to have a religion, it should be one that recognizes the true importance of a single moment in time, the instant when you are fully and completely alive. [p. 180]
________________
  1. Rumpole died with the passing of the actor Leo McKern (1920-2002), who brought him to life on British television and for me and many others will always be Rumpole.
  2. Michel de Montaigne, by some credited with the invention of the essay, published his first collection in 1580.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Mitt Romney gives still others pause, but some not

Mitt Romney also gives pause to a couple of op-ed columnists, David Brooks and Gail Collins of The New York Times. Brooks (a Jew, and politically conservative) expressed his pause on December 7:
When this country was founded, James Madison envisioned a noisy public square with different religious denominations arguing, competing and balancing each other’s passions. But now the landscape of religious life has changed. Now its most prominent feature is the supposed war between the faithful and the faithless. Mitt Romney didn’t start this war, but speeches like his both exploit and solidify this divide in people’s minds. The supposed war between the faithful and the faithless has exacted casualties.

The first casualty is the national community. Romney described a community yesterday. Observant Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, Jews and Muslims are inside that community. The nonobservant are not....
Collins expressed hers the next day (December 8):
The peak of my sympathy for Mitt Romney came when he was being battered on one side by Christian fundamentalists who think his faith is a cult and on the other by fellow Mormons, who were irate when he fudged the fact that they believe Jesus will return to earth and build a new Jerusalem in Jackson County, Mo.

This week, Mitt made his much-anticipated religion speech, and stood up for his rights not to be discriminated against for his beliefs, and not to have to explain the part about Jackson County. Good for him on both counts.

... Except that you have to wonder why he felt compelled to dip into dogma just long enough to assure voters that he believes “Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind.”

Romney’s message, which boiled down to "let’s all be religious together," was certainly different from the John Kennedy version, which argued that a candidate’s religion is irrelevant. But then Kennedy was speaking to the country, while Romney had his attention fixed on the approximately 35,000 Iowa religious conservatives who will tip the balance in the first-in-the-nation Republican caucus....
Of course, some were not given pause by Romney's speech. Here's one Mormon's assessment of it:
From what I heard, I see no reason that anyone would feel that Romney tried to separate believers from non-believers. Non-believers are just those that have not yet seen fit to believe. Hopefully all will believe prior to their judgment day.
Leaving aside the question whether I will ever again believe (whatever efficacy that could possibly have), I told her about some of the pauses that I and others had gotten from Romney's speech. She seemed incredulous, and I was surprised that she seemed much threatened by our reservations:
I cannot understand how any intelligent being can deny the creator of our universe. Refusal to do so seems to me to be following the devil, who got kicked out of Heaven because he wanted to force everyone to do his bidding instead of using his right that God gave him to make his own choices to do right or wrong. The people who choose not to believe should stop trying to force others to lose their right to believe....Why are the non-believers trying to destroy all evidence of God from our buildings and money? If the name is so bothersome, why don't they just stay out of those buildings and not spend any money that has "In God we trust" on it? I find the pressure to remove all trace of God from America shortsighted and repulsive. I am not going out of my way to change someone else's beliefs by destroying what is important to others. I would appreciate the same courtesy.
I'm still trying to make sense of this, still trying to understand how belief in believing (as opposed, for example, to moral behavior) could have come to have such sway over Americans, we citizens of a nation born of Enlightenment political philosophy.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Mitt Romney gives us further pause

An interesting (but politically predictable) thing about Mitt Romney's religion speech the other day (its text can be found on the New York Times web site) is that most religious people heard it differently from the way us non-religious people heard it. Romney offends non-religious Americans straight off by stipulating that our non-religion is actually the religion of secularism:
We separate church and state affairs in this country, and for good reason. No religion should dictate to the state nor should the state interfere with the free practice of religion. But in recent years, the notion of the separation of church and state has been taken by some well beyond its original meaning. They seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of God. Religion is seen as merely a private affair with no place in public life. It is as if they are intent on establishing a new religion in America—the religion of secularism.
Secularism of course is not a religion, any more than atheism is. Certain kinds of religious people seem unable to conceive of non-religion as an alternative. And that is precisely the problem. Romney seems to be trying to secure a favored niche for religion, to build for adherents of religion an all-powerful position from which to dominate the non-religious minority.

In her Dec. 7 letter to the editor of the Times, a reader from Bainbridge Island, WA also commented on that passage:
...the speech cited includes this incredible sentiment: "Religion is seen as merely a private affair with no place in public life. It is as if they are intent on establishing a new religion in America—the religion of secularism. They are wrong."

In fact, Mitt Romney has it backward; we are a secular nation, a notion relied upon by our founding fathers who, in all their wisdom, would be appalled at what is today passing for proper presidential declarations.

We are not a theocracy, nor is it any of my concern whom the candidate prefers as his "personal savior." These professions of belief are irrelevant and disturbing, assuming as they do that religion and religious beliefs have a place in our polity.
Romney's speech seems to me to have been artfully contrived to seduce all of the religious people together into a mutual admiration society, to form a supermajority to lord it over us non-religious folks. Of course, his main objective is to try to get the support of the suspicious Christian right—some of whom deny that Mormonism is a Christian religion—in order to win his party's nomination for president. As the Editor of the Times wrote on Dec. 7:
Still, there was no escaping the reality of the moment. Mr. Romney was not there to defend freedom of religion, or to champion the indisputable notion that belief in God and religious observance are longstanding parts of American life. He was trying to persuade Christian fundamentalists in the Republican Party, who do want to impose their faith on the Oval Office, that he is sufficiently Christian for them to support his bid for the Republican nomination. No matter how dignified he looked, and how many times he quoted the founding fathers, he could not disguise that sad fact. [The editorial, titled "The Crisis of Faith," can be found on the Times web site.]
A reader from Bailey, CO also wrote to the editor on Dec. 7:
It is hypocritical for Mitt Romney to say that this country was founded on freedom of religion and, on the other hand, to say that God must be part of public life. What about the citizens of this country who do not believe in the Christian God? What about people of no religious faith?

Are they not also citizens?

A person need not be Christian to be moral. It appears that this presidential campaign, at least on the Republican side, has become a contest over which candidate is more Christian than the others. Apparently, a candidate who does not profess to believe in the Christian God cannot be elected president of this country.

This is surely not what the founding fathers intended when they advocated the principle of separation of church and state.
Indeed, the crucial reason for the separation of church and state in the United States Constitution is to protect minorities from oppression. Not only are the followers of a particular religion in the minority relative to the rest of the population (and in need of constitutional protection from potential oppression for their religious beliefs), but so also are followers of no religion in need of protection.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Mitt Romney gives us pause

Mitt Romney today said that he thinks the "separation of church and state" has gone too far in this country, to the extent that the "acknowledgment of God" is frowned upon, unwelcome. Well, because of the 90-10 rule, the "acknowledgment of god" is not anywhere near as frowned upon and unwelcome as the "acknowledgment of no-god." The fact that the great unwashed 90% of Americans claim to believe in god tends to ensure in practice that atheists have a lot of pressure on them to keep their heads down and shut up! (as Bill O'Reilly and his ilk love to say).

An ontological argument for the non-existence of god

In the year 1078, St. Anselm of Canterbury (England) proposed an "ontological argument" for the existence of God:
It is possible to conceive, Anselm said, of a being than which nothing greater can be conceived. Even an atheist can conceive of such a superlative being, though he would deny its existence in the real world. But, goes the argument, a being that doesn't exist in the real world is, by that very fact, less than perfect. Therefore we have a contradiction and, hey presto, God exists! [courtesy Richard Dawkins, p. 80, The God Delusion]
A contemporary of Anselm, one Gaunilo had, reports Dawkins, "suggested a similar reductio." And a contemporary of Dawkins, "the [philosopher] Australian Douglas Gasking, made the point with his ironic 'proof' that God does not exist:
  1. The creation of the world is the most marvellous achievement imaginable.
  2. The merit of an achievement is the product of (a) its intrinsic quality, and (b) the ability of its creator.
  3. The greater the disability (or handicap) of the creator, the more impressive the achievement.
  4. The most formidable handicap for a creator would be non-existence.
  5. Therefore if we suppose that the universe is the product of an existent creator we can conceive a greater being—namely, one who created everything while not existing.
  6. An existing God therefore would not be a being greater than which a greater cannot be conceived because an even more formidable and incredible creator would be a God which did not exist.
    Ergo:
  7. God does not exist."
[p. 83, The God Delusion]

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

...but I did read the book

On Saturday, in my post about high school biology, I failed to mention that even though I dropped out of the course, I did read Charles Darwin's Origin of Species in high school. I'm now wondering whether I read it after dropping out of biology (perhaps as some sort of atonement), or before and the book prompted me to sign up for the course? If the latter, then it appears that I must have found the actual task of acquiring the vocabulary of biology less exciting than reading the story of Darwin's discovery.

I have, in fact, always seriously doubted that I had a working scientist's temperament. Scientist after scientist has reported that doing science is mostly very hard work. The discovery of the structure of DNA (or of evolution by natural selection) comes to few scientists.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Killing for peace is like...

Yesterday in Chapel Hill, on a car with a Connecticut license plate and a big "CAROLINA" sticker on the rear window, I sighted the bumper sticker:
Killing for peace is like
screwing for virginity
Hmm, of course most screwing isn't "for virginity" but (unconsciously, of course) to relieve one's testosteronal imperative (so to speak). Could something similar be going on with man's (not so much woman's) bellicosity (whether on the field of war or on the field of sport)?

Sunday, November 25, 2007

A (not really so) comic artist's view of Bush

From a far-flung correspondent (in Bulgaria):

The name of the jpeg suggests that the artist's name is Alex Ross, who may be the American artist described at http://www.alexrossart.com/bio.asp.

The trouble with being Brad Pitt

"Tough loss last weekend," the heavy, fifties-something guy said to me familiarly yesterday as I followed my wife obediently down an aisle at one of our local up-scale food stores.
      "Why is that?" I said.
      "Well...the game," he said, a little flustered.
      "What game would that be?"
      "Uh, Harvard-Yale."
      "What about it?" I'd finally understood what he was talking about, if not why.
      "Harvard won," he declared.
      "So...?" I countered, rejecting his invitation to get with the stereotype.
      "Well, it was a big loss, you know."
      "You don't say. For whom?"
      "For Yalies!" he emphasized, his eyes flicking down uncertainly to the insignia on my dark blue fleece pullover.
      I paused a moment for emphasis. "Not to me."
      "Well, it is for most Yalies...." He trailed off as he followed his own wife down another aisle.
      In the checkout lane, I felt distinctly uneasy, even if I had only the vaguest idea why. I had been accosted in a sort of a way, made to feel vulnerable. The onus was on the other guy for that. But he was probably just reaching out for a little man-to-man bonding, some recognition that he was in on things. Why had I withheld it? The interchange had never become a conversation in which we might have revealed something personal about one another. I would like to have told him what I really thought about intercollegiate athletics (and professional sports generally). And I was now wondering where he had gone to college, what he did now, what his values were. Was he someone I could like? What he had said to me didn't necessarily prove that he thought college football was a big deal...Was I someone he could like?
      In the car, I told my wife what the guy and I had said to one another.
      "You baffled him," she said. "He probably concluded you bought your pullover at a thrift shop somewhere."

Saturday, November 24, 2007

If only I hadn't dropped out of high school biology

I'm finding it a bittersweet experience to read Richard Dawkins's The Selfish Gene. It's sweet because I trust that I can look forward to reading Dawkins's other books, and books he cites, and be continually rewarded with the intellectual thrill of evolutionary biology. But such reading is also bitter, in that if only way in which people can indulge when looking back on their lives.

I've been thinking about how I dropped out of high school biology after a week or two, mainly, I think, because I didn't want to work hard enough to learn all of its technical terms. I switched to physics, which turned out to be taught by an evangelical Christian who, though he let me write a paper on the relationship between religion and science instead of doing a standard science project, took the opportunity to put in a plug for God's divine plan or something. Mr. Wilson. I didn't realize until now that I remembered his name, and I can still see him—tall, blond, and boyish, and probably fifteen years younger than my children are now.

In dropping out of the biology course (of whose teacher I have no recollection, but I'm confident he or she was excellent), I effectively closed the door on what might have been an exciting life as an evolution theorist. Unfortunately, during those teenage years I came across no book like Dawkins's brilliant, creative work. (At the time I was dropping out of biology, he had just entered college.)

But I did in those years come across books on metaphysics—books that attempted to answer the questions, What is man? and Why? And they, at that time, I found no less thrilling than I find Dawkins now.

But now there's the bittersweetness that comes from reading this on page 1 of The Selfish Gene:
Is there a meaning to life? What are we for? What is Man? After posing the last of these questions, the eminent zoologist G. G. Simpson put it thus: "The point I want to make now is that all attempts to answer that question before 1859 are worthless and that we will be better off if we ignore them completely."
That was the year Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species.

Friday, November 23, 2007

I rate the movies

Starting today, I'm indicating by the abbreviations
    E=excellent
    VG=very good
    G=good
    F=fair
    P=poor
how I rated the movies I watch1. And through the end of the year I'll be listing all of the movies I've rated rather than the most recent ten. Each rating is just an indication of how good I considered the movie be, which of course depends in the first place usually on how much I liked it, where F and P indicate that I hardly liked it at all. In fact, I rarely finish watching a movie I decide early is F or P. If I go on to watch it, it's because there's something about it that gives me hope it'll redeem itself.

But be aware that the reasons I "liked" a movie can be complex. They include how good I felt watching it, how much I laughed, how true to life I felt the movie was, how much I enjoyed the actors' performances, the artistry of the plotting, my subliminal calculation as to how well the movie realized itself. The rating can probably only be useful to those who have seen a few of the same movies and would have rated them the same way I did. That is, they can expect to like other movies that I rated VG or E.

The rating has nothing whatsoever to do with G, PG-13, R, etc. You can always find out more about a movie listed by looking it up in the Internet Movie Database (http://www.imdb.com).
  1. They're listed at the bottom of the sidebar, which most browsers display to the right. However, if you've opened this post itself, you won't see the sidebar and will need to go to the top of my blog. Even then, in some browsers—such as older versions of Internet Explorer—you'll have to scroll or jump to the very bottom of the page.

Thanksgiving evening colors

I took the photo below early last evening (after sundown), with my little Olympus digital camera's automatic slow shutter, using a porch pillar on the front porch for support as a non-shake device. It was that haunting twilight time of day when the sky is sort of half-lit/half-dark and Nature can seem magical to the naked eye, if only pretty to an amateur photographer's inexpensive camera, whose automatic shutter speed and aperture opening can let in too much light and render the sky more overcast than twilighted.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The revelation of the prophet Saint James

James Madison (1751-1836), commonly hailed as "the Father of our Constitution" (and fourth president of the United States, 1809-1817), in 1793 saw ahead two hundred years and warned against the rise of the Bush administration:
In no part of the Constitution is more wisdom to be found than in the clause which confides the question of war or peace to the legislature, and not to the executive department....War is in fact the true nurse of executive aggrandizement. In war, a physical force is to be created; and it is the executive will which is to direct it. In war, the public treasures are to be unlocked; and it is the executive hand which is to dispense them....It is in war, finally, that laurels are to be gathered, and it is the executive brow they are to encircle. The strongest passions and most dangerous weaknesses of the human breast—ambition, avarice, vanity, the honorable or venial love of fame—are all in conspiracy against the desire [for] and duty of peace.
I am indebted to Anthony Lewis for quoting Madison in his review of Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush, by Robert Draper (Illustrated. 463 pp. Free Press. $28) and The Terror Presidency: Law and Judgment Inside the Bush Administration, by Jack Goldsmith (256 pp. W. W. Norton & Company. $25.95) in the November 4 issue of The New York Times Book Review.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Strong sequence of good movies

We've sequentially seen an unusually high number of good movies lately. Most
recent first:
  • The Hoax (2006: Lasse Hallström). Based on Clifford Irving's book about conning a publisher to bring out his fake biography of Howard Hughes during Nixon's second term. Richard Gere as Irving, Marcia Gay Harden as his wife, and Alfred Molina as Irving's assistant.
  • Tara Road (2005: Gillies MacKinnon). Touching story about two women, one American, the other Irish, who help one another deal with recent personal tragedies. Andie MacDowell as the American woman, Sarah Bolger as the Irish, Stephen Rea as her friend who befriends the visiting American. Brenda Fricker in a role pivotal for the denouement.
  • The Treatment (2006: Oren Rudavsky). Touching story about how a psychiatrist, played by Ian Holm, helps a young man deal with some personal issues and learn to experience intimacy. Chris Eigeman (of the 1994 movie "Barcelona") as the young man, the fetching Famke Janssen as the young widow, Ian holm as the psychiatrist.
  • Lonely Hearts (2006: Todd Robinson). Gripping true story of the role the director's grandfather played in capturing a pair of ruthless murderers preying on lonely women. John Travolta as the grandfather, James Gandolfini as his partner, with Jared Leto and Salma Hayek (much too beautiful for the character she portrays).
  • Flannel Pajamas (2006: Jeff Lipsky). Gripping story of a marriage's difficulty dealing with the wife's family/religious issues. Justin Kirk and Julianne Nicholson (from numerous episodes of Law and Order) play the troubled young couple.
While we enjoyed the next film we watched (last night), Severance (2006: Christopher Smith) is unlikely to appeal to most people, its macabre mix of satiric humor and mayhem being of the sort that makes for a "cult classic." A group of employees working for a British version of a sort of Blackwater USA firm go on a team-building retreat....

Friday, November 16, 2007

The 90-10 rule

The 80-20 rule states that for many events 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. The rule applies to everything from 80% of income's going to 20% of a population, to 80% of sales' coming from 20% of clients, to our wearing 20% of our most favored clothes 80% of the time, to our spending 80% of our time with 20% of our acquaintances, to 80% of a company's resources' typically being used by 20% of its operations, to....[Source for examples: Wikipedia]

But 90-10 might be the rule for religion. For example, 90% of the general population of the United States (which of course includes those who believe that the fall of the Twin Towers was divine retribution for homosexuality and other "sins") claim to believe in god, whereas only 10% of leading scientists (the ones whose findings about global warming are finally being acknowledged) admit to it. [Source: Scientific American Magazine, September 1999]

Religion is so polarizing and rancorous that polite company usually honors the unspoken rule not to raise the topic—so as not to occasion some people's going for other people's throats.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

The consolation of religion and philosophy

A young Bertrand Russell (twenty-seven in 1899) wrote in the essay, "Seems, Madam? Nay, It Is":
It is true that Christianity, and all previous optimisms, have represented the world as eternally ruled by a beneficent Providence, and thus metaphysically good. But this has been, at bottom, only a device by which to prove the future excellence of the world—to prove, for example, that good men would be happy after death. It has always been this deduction—illegitimately made of course—which has given comfort. "He's a good fellow, and 't will all be well."
      It may be said, indeed that there is comfort in the mere abstract doctrine that Reality is good. I do not myself accept the proof of this doctrine, but even if true, I cannot see why it should be comforting. For the essence of my contention is that Reality, as constructed by metaphysics, bears no sort of relation to the world of experience. It is an empty abstraction, from which no single inference can be validly made as to the world of appearance, in which world, nevertheless, all our interests lie....
      There are, of course, several senses in which it would be absurd to deny that philosophy may give us comfort. We may find philosophizing a pleasant way of passing our mornings—in this sense, the comfort derived may even, in extreme cases, be comparable to that of drinking as a way of passing our evenings(!)....[emphasis and exclamation mark mine; pp. 78-80 in Why I Am Not a Christian, edited by Paul Edwards and published in 1957]
I of course do not know whether Bob Dylan or either of the two surviving members of the Beatles finds such consolation in philosophy, and I don't think that Jesus Christ drank in the sense Russell had in mind.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Religion consoles and empowers suicide murderers

In his essay, "Do We Survive Death?," Bertrand Russell wrote:
It is not rational arguments, but emotions, that cause belief in a future life.
      The most important of these emotions is fear of death, which is instinctive and biologically useful. If we genuinely and wholeheartedly believed in the future life, we should cease completely to fear death. The effects would be curious, and probably such as most of us would deplore. But our human and subhuman ancestors have fought and exterminated their enemies throughout many geological ages, and have profited by courage; it is therefore an advantage to the victors in the struggle for life to be able, on occasion, to overcome the natural fear of death. Among animals and savages, instinctive pugnacity suffices for this purpose; but at a certain stage of development, as the Mohammedans first proved, belief in Paradise has considerable military value as reinforcing natural pugnacity. We should therefore admit that militarists are wise in encouraging the belief in immortality, always supposing that this belief does not become so profound as to produce indifference to the affairs of the world. [emphasis mine; p. 72 of the book, Why I Am Not a Christian, edited by Paul Edwards; Russell originally published the essay in 1936. This is the 50th anniversary of the book.]
It appears that Russell might have had no difficulty predicting today's widespread phenomenon of suicide bombing in conflicts involving "Mohammedans."

By the way, Russell's answer to the question posed by the essay's title was: "It seems scarcely probable."

Oh, and I don't know whether or not Bob Dylan (or Paul McCartney or Ringo Starr) has read Why I Am Not a Christian. Or whether Jesus Christ has read it or what he thought of it.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

God the fictional character

To read a novel or a short story—one by Bob Dylan, say, possibly titled "The Saints Are Comin' Through"—we assume while we're reading that the world created by Dylan is real. It's the same when we read scriptures. But outside the mostly mythical scriptural world, the fictional trappings of its characters fall away, with only a few verifiable historical or scientific facts remaining.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Personal mission accomplished?

This is the first thing I've published here in almost three weeks. As I've explained to a few friends, I suddenly lost interest in "baring my soul" publicly in the blog way, even if quasi-anonymously (my going by a pseudonym and not knowing most of my readers).

Today one of those friends, the estimable Mr. Tom Sheepandgoats (who logs on the web as "Sheep and Goats"—what else?—at typepad.com) observed,
This has to be a first. A blogger who has achieved his mission statement [wasn't the goal at one time to find out who you were?] and, having done that, discontinues the blog since it has served its purpose.
As I gratefully told Tom,
I hadn't thought of it like that—having achieved my mission—but that could be it! In fact, maybe I'll start thinking of it that way, which is a lot cleaner and more cogent than my fuzzy thoughts about it have been up to now.
Who I am—in one aspect at least—was fairly plainly revealed in my post of September 9, "All in or All out." I blogged for only two more weeks before desisting. Personal mission accomplished, reason for blogging fulfilled? Appears so.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Early Fall


[The photograph was sent to me by my friend Ina, the first in a set captioned: "When God paints, He uses all His colors." The photo appears to have been retouched by Thomas Kincaid to add a patina of wispy spirituality.]

Tomorrow will only be the autumnal equinox, but already today copious leaf fall heralds that this will be, or is, an early Fall. Fall has long been my favorite season, despite its literal fall into death and decay. I asked my wife on our walk if she thought the season was named because of leaf fall. She thought so. "And Spring for vegetation springing up out of the ground."

I shall have my own leaf fall one day...I started to say that it seems more matter-of-fact to me now that I have made up my mind about afterlife, but that felt false. I made up my mind about afterlife years ago, perhaps at the very beginning. Hell has always seemed too macabre an invention to credit. Perhaps I have never feared either heaven or hell, believing in neither.

Heaven might be where, if there were such a place, I would be set up as reward for having written, talked, and voted for justice and the common good, for valuing goats equally with sheep.

Hell might be where, if there were such a place, I could be cast as punishment for sympathizing as much with creatures of the bush as with high-and-mighty man, for thinking Yahweh's pal Moses imagined that the burning bush spoke to him, for ridiculing the flaming Bush of contemporary political infamy, for disrespecting bush1-eschewing Bible-thumpers, for judging the golden tablets of the founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to have been a hoax motivated in part by his desire for polygamous bush2.
_________________
  1. As in a man's or a woman's triangle of pubic hair.
  2. As in several women's triangles of pubic hair.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Spirituality, a preface to


A couple of weeks ago, I concluded my post, "All in or All out," with the statement:
I do have at least one remaining question. It has to do with the distinction between religion and spirituality. As a noble doubter, I felt that I could "be spiritual" even though I found it ridiculous to try to "be religious." The question is: Now that I've opted for being all out when it comes to religion, is spirituality still an option for me, and what does that mean?
The initial, easy answer to the first part is yes. Any conscious being can "be spiritual"—for the simple reason that a conscious being is spiritual, and essentially so, I think.

The Greek word psyche ("breath," "life," "soul," "spirit") reveals the philosophic roots of consciousness as spirit. Introspection, as a branch of psychology dealing with one's own consciousness, can be understood as the study of spirituality, primarily of one's own personal spirituality.

In future posts I will attempt to elucidate this in order to understand better what I mean by it. I will also, of course, report on how satisfactory such a "study" of my own consciousness is in fulfilling my personal need to express my spirituality. I even want to discover how such a pursuit can answer my need to be connected to the world, to other creatures, to the Cosmos, for one need traditionally filled by religion is just that need to be connected. (The word religion, after all, has as its root meaning "to bind" or "be bound." Think of the words ligation, ligature...Perhaps my main gripe with religion has been its usual focus, as practiced in America, on being bound up with dogma and closed-minded, dogmatic people.)

Thursday, September 20, 2007

A way to shoo the "tabernouche" away

On my walk yesterday morning with my wife and our dog, I asked her what she'd been laughing so hard about before I even got out of bed. The question reminded her what it was and she laughed again before telling me. It was the following passage from Kathy Reichs's novel Monday Mourning, from her series of thrillers featuring forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan. This one is set in Montreal:
The man watching us was short and wiry, with yellowed white hair and an elaborate gray mustache. He wore grease-smeared glasses and gold chains around his neck.
      Nothing else. Just glasses and chains.
      The man's scowl turned to self-satisfaction at the sight of Anne and me backpedaling unsteadily across his porch. Then the expression went fierce again.
      "Je suis Catholique!"
      My boots slithered and angled on the uneven ice.
      Cyr grabbed his penis and waggled it at us.
      Beside me, Anne grabbed the railing and made a one-eighty toward the steps.
      "Catholique!" the man shouted.
      Catholic?
      I stopped. I'd seen Harry use the same ploy. Dressed.
      "We're not missionaries, Monsieur Cyr."
      The scowl wavered, then reaffixed itself.
      "And I'm not Pee-wee Herman." The name sounded strange in joual French.
      I reached into my purse.
      Cyr made a feint at the door. "Get lost!"
      I pulled out one of my cards.
      "And don't leave none of your damn pamphlets, tabernouche!!"
      "We're not with any church."
      ..."I thought you was Watchtower," said Cyr in English. "Those folks ain't got the common sense God gave a parsnip. But they leave you alone if you're naked.".... [pp. 144-146]
Added Sept. 21:
There is a way you might essay,
To shoo the tabernouche away:
      Greet them in the nude,
      And maybe, though it's rude,
You'll scare them off to stay.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Why he thought most people believe in God

In Bertrand Russell's 1927 lecture, "Why I am not a Christian," he first defined what "Christian" means (not a whole lot by fundamentalist standards, just a belief in God and immortality and "some kind of belief about Christ"). Then he proceeds to review and, he thinks, dispose of various arguments for the existence of God, including the "first-cause argument," the "natural law argument," the "argument from design," and "moral arguments for deity." I may comment in future on Lord Russell's remarks on those arguments, but the first passage in his lecture that really catches my attention is the one titled "The Argument for the Remedying of Injustice." Indeed, I have frequently referred to this argument myself over the past few months. People believe in God because that doctrine promises that the injustices we see about us will be made right at some future time.

But first, to start at the end of Russell's remarks, he makes the disarming statement that
Of course I know that the sort of intellectual arguments that I have been talking to you [a society of secularists] about are not what really moves people. What really moves people to believe in God is not any intellectual argument at all. Most people believe in God because they have been taught from early infancy to do it, and that is the main reason [emphasis mine].
      Then I think that the next most powerful reason is the wish for safety, a sort of feeling that there is a big brother who will look after you. That plays a very profound part in influencing people's desire for a belief in God. [p. 9]
Note that the emphasized remark about why most people believe in God dovetails nicely with the separation of the various major types of such belief into geographical regions. That is, Christian indoctrination predominates in the West, Muslim in the Arab lands of the Near East, etc.

Anyway, here are Lord Russell's remarks on the "arguments for remedying injustice":
Then there is another very curious form of moral argument, which is this: they say that the existence of God is required in order to bring justice into the world. In the part of this universe that we know there is great injustice, and often the good suffer, and often the wicked prosper; but if you are going to have justice in the universe as a whole you have to suppose a future life to redress the balance of life here on earth. So they say that there must be a God, and there must be heaven and hell in order that in the long run there may be justice. That is a very curious argument. If you looked at the matter from a scientific point of view, you would say: "After all, I know only this world. I do not know about the rest of the universe, but so far as one can argue at all on probabilities one would say that probably this world is a fair sample, and if there is injustice here the odds are that there is injustice elsewhere also." Supposing you got a crate of oranges that you opened, and you found all the top layer of oranges bad, you would not argue: "The underneath ones must be good, so as to redress the balance." You would say: "Probably the whole lot is a bad consignment"; and that is really what a scientific person would argue about the universe. He would say: "Here we find in this world a great deal of injustice and so far as that goes that is a reason for supposing that justice does not rule in the world; and therefore so far as it goes it affords a moral argument against deity and not in favour of one" [emphasis mine]. [pp. 9-10]
Lord Russell doesn't seem to address the question how humans came by their sense that "there ought to be justice in the world," which I suppose might be proposed as another sort of argument for the existence of God (if it isn't simply a version of the ontological argument: "God is that than which nothing greater can be conceived [and must, therefore, exist]"). That is, how did man come by the notion of justice? Didn't God implant it in us? And would He do that if there were no possibility that injustice would be remedied? I suspect that Richard Dawkins (whose book, The God Delusion, is on my reading list) argues that such notions—even the very notion of God—arise through natural selection. But it's easier to believe that evolution could evolve the notion that I and the members of my gene pool should be treated fairly than to believe that it could evolve the notion that other people not related should also be treated fairly. Perhaps Dawkins addresses that (in addressing the question how altruism in general evolved).

Anyway, Lord Russell's statement of the most powerful reason why people believe in God (they're taught to do so) reminded me of what one of my sisters said to me after I expressed certain doubts or outright disbeliefs about God: "Didn't Mama," my sister asked me rhetorically, "teach you any better than that?" Actually, Mama taught me pretty well, for it has taken me a number of decades to argue and feel my way out of the orbit of her doctrinaire influence.

I don't suppose that Lord Russell's own mama taught him quite so well.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Three weeks ago today

On Monday, August 27, my wife had been in the hospital for two days, with coronary bypass surgery then four days away (although we didn't know the precise day at that point). That Monday, our daughter flew from California to be with us. Besides the California succulents, she also brought an antique-style wreath stand (also from Filoli). We have hung no wreath on it yet, but we have hung the decorative bird house that my wife received the same day from a friend.

Speaking of birds, I have, since my wife's being admitted to the hospital, been daily supplying our feeders with hulled sunflower and safflower seeds and suet, and keeping water in the cavities of the carefully positioned rocks we use for birdbaths. Doing these tasks has been so pleasant that I don't look forward to giving them back totally to her when she's enough recovered from surgery to do them again. I can't say the same about cleaning toilets, doing laundry, and vacuuming <smile>.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Last Sunday

A week ago today we were graced with a surprise visit from our friend Jack (a Yale classmate of mine), who brought for my wife's recovery this shiny, happy houseplant:

According to my friend Kat this lovely guest is a spathiphyllum ("peace lily"). Thank you, Kat, and good on you!

With Jack we talked of many things (as we always do), including the various adventures of our respective children and, in his case, step-children. Thank you, Jack, and good on you!

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Last Saturday

A week ago today, our old friends Keith and Teresa came by with this beautiful bouquet for my wife's recovery:

Keith is my friend of the exceptionally insightful and craftily phrased political and social comment that I have a few times shared on this blog. And Teresa has given me now I don't know how many bow ties, found at various thrift shops (which, if you don't like to pay Macy's or Belk's prices for a new tie any more than I do...)

And a couple of hours later our neighbor of the tomatoes, the tomato soup, and the tomato pie brought us some more of her and her husband's marvelous tomatoes and this vase of homegrown zenias:

I regret not having taken any pictures of the tomatoes, which included not only the usual red ones, but also some brilliant yellow ones (which seemed to me to have an extra zingy taste to go with the color).

A silly sight on a sublime, sunlit Saturday...

...A flock of football fanatics forging forth in their forty-foot Fords, flaunting their fluttering fight flags....

Friday, September 14, 2007

Why he wasn't a Christian, preface to

"That's an old book," my wife's surgeon observed as he entered the examination room.

"Yes," I said, "published fifty years ago. This then is its semi-centennial..."

But he was already attending to my wife, the subject of our visit, whom he found to be making very good progress following her coronary bypass grafts ("cabbages") two weeks ago today. She could stop wearing the pressure stocking on her left leg. And she could cook. "But no vacuuming yet. Your husband can do that a while longer...." [The next day1, I would spend an hour and a half vacuuming all of our downstairs rooms.]

The book I was reading was Bertrand Russell's Why I Am Not a Christian: And Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects ("edited with an Appendix on the Bertrand Russell Case by Paul Edwards2"). I had occasion to mention the title essay in my recent post "All in or All out," so I thought I ought to re-read it.

The title essay was actually delivered as a lecture eighty years ago, "on March 6, 1927, at Battersea Town Hall, under the auspices of the South London Branch of the National Secular Society." But, at age 84, Russell (1872-1970) wrote a preface for Edwards, which I share with you in its entirety:
Professor Edwards's republication of various essays of mine concerned with theological subjects is a cause of gratitude to me, especially in view of his admirable prefatory observations. I am particularly glad that this opportunity has occurred for reaffirming my convictions on the subjects with which the various essays deal.
      There has been a rumour in recent years to the effect that I have become less opposed to religious orthodoxy than I formerly was. This rumour is totally without foundation. I think all the great religions of the world—Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, and Communism—both untrue and harmful. [Note that he doesn't include Judaism and curiously does include Communism!] It is evident as a matter of logic that, since they disagree, not more than one of them can be true. With very few exceptions, the religion which a man accepts is that of the community in which he lives, which makes it obvious that the influence of environment is what has led him to accept the religion in question [emphasis mine]. It is true that Scholastics invented what professed to be logical arguments proving the existence of God, and that these arguments, or others of a similar tenor, have been accepted by many eminent philosophers, but the logic to which these traditional arguments appealed is of an antiquated Aristotelian sort which is now rejected by practically all logicians except such as are Catholics. There is one of these arguments which is not purely logical. I mean the argument from design. This argument, however, was destroyed by Darwin; and, in any case, could only be made logically respectable at the cost of abandoning God's omnipotence. Apart from logical cogency, there is to me something a little odd about the ethical valuations of those who think that an omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent Deity, after preparing the ground by many millions of years of lifeless nebulae, would consider Himself adequately rewarded by the final emergence of Hitler and Stalin and the H-bomb.
      The question of the truth of a religion is one thing, but the question of its usefulness is another. I am as firmly convinced that religions do harm as I am that they are untrue [emphasis mine]. [Hitchens, then, is no trail-blazer in subtitling his recent book "How Religion Poisons Everything."]
      The harm that is done by a religion is of two sorts, the one depending on the kind of belief which it is thought ought to be given to it, and the other upon the particular tenets believed. As regards the kind of belief: it is thought virtuous to have faith—that is to say, to have a conviction which cannot be shaken by contrary evidence [George W. Bush is still admired by stupid people for having precisely this kind of conviction]. Or, if contrary evidence might induce doubt, it is held that contrary evidence must be suppressed. On such grounds the young are not allowed to hear arguments, in Russia, in favour of Capitalism, or, in America, in favour of Communism. This keeps the faith of both intact and ready for internecine war. The conviction that it is important to believe this or that, even if a free enquiry would not support the belief, is one which is common to almost all religions and which inspires all systems of State education. The consequence is that the minds of the young are stunted and are filled with fanatical hostility both to those who have other fanaticisms and, even more virulently, to those who object to all fanaticisms. A habit of basing convictions upon evidence, and of giving to them only that degree of certainty which the evidence warrants, would, if it became general, cure most of the ills from which the world is suffering. But at present [this was when I was a freshman in high school], in most countries, education aims at preventing the growth of such a habit, and men who refuse to profess belief in some system of unfounded dogmas are not considered suitable as teachers of the young.
      The above evils are independent of the particular creed in question and exist equally in all creeds which are held dogmatically. But there are also, in most religions, specific ethical tenets which do definite harm. The Catholic condemnation of birth-control, if it could prevail, would make the mitigation of poverty and the abolition of war impossible. The Hindu beliefs that the cow is a sacred animal and that it is wicked for widows to remarry cause quite needless suffering. The Communist belief in the dictatorship of a minority of True Believers has produced a whole crop of abominations.
      We are sometimes told that only fanaticism can make a social group effective. I think this is totally contrary to the lessons of history. But, in any case, only those who slavishly worship success can think that effectiveness is admirable without regard to what is effected. For my part, I think it better to do a little good than to do much harm. The world that I should wish to see would be one freed from the virulence of group hostilities and capable of realizing that happiness for all is to be derived rather from co-operation than from strife. I should wish to see a world in which education aimed at mental freedom rather than at imprisoning the minds of the young in a rigid armour of dogma calculated to protect them through life against the shafts of impartial evidence [emphasis mine]. The world needs open hearts and open minds, and it is not through rigid systems, whether old or new, that these can be derived.
What most appeals to me in all this is the character, the attitude it portrays. I like Lord Russell's matter-of-factness, his calm, his independence, his confidence, his imperviousness to the looks askance of the true believers, those who are filled with fanatical hostility to those who object to all fanaticisms. His was an attitude whose tone outrages people who wish to remain armored "against the shafts of impartial evidence." It is the tone that I want for mine.
_________________
  1. I'm writing this on Sunday, September 16.
  2. Professor Edwards is also listed (I noticed only today) as the editor in chief of The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, published by Macmillan, which I have on a shelf near my computer.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Thou shalt not...

Saith the God of George W. Bush:
DON'T STEAL
The government
doesn't want
any competition
(Actually, that was on a bumper sticker I saw on the way to work this morning.)

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Elegant hydrangea

Today arrived from our friends Meng and Shengkai in Boston this elegantly potted hydrangea, for my wife recovering:

The hydrangea (meaning "water vessel") was among my mother-in-law Sarah's favorites flowers. She had this enormous hydranea, adjacent to the front door for as long as my wife can remember, where I must have seen it the first time I visited her parents, in 1966. "Our dog Rover loved to lie under it during the summer...the coolest place Rover could find."

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

"Venus"

"It's the story of a dirty old man and a young slut," said Peter O'Toole of the 2006 movie "Venus" (directed by Roger Michell), in which he starred as Maurice opposite Jodie Whittaker as Jessie. While they're admiring Diego Velasques's painting "Venus and Cupido" at an art museum, Maurice says to Jessie, "The most beautiful thing that most men will ever see is a woman's body." "And what is the most beautiful thing that a woman will ever see?" asks Jessie. Maurice has to reflect a moment. "The sight of her first-born."

Maurice thereafter addresses Jessie as "Venus." From the name of that goddess we have the words venal and venality, venery, venerate, and of course venereal (as in STDs).

Though Maurice is a dirty old man and Jessie is a young slut, they're only the more human for it. It's a love story, a story of friendship and redemption.

The Internet Movie Database's entry for "Venus"....

Sunday, September 9, 2007

All in or All out

I have talked approvingly of what I understood to be Kierkegaard's view, on the question of belief in God, that it was nobler (as well as more accurate) to hang with one hand from one ledge of the narrow chasm of religious belief and with the other hand from the opposite ledge than to transfer either hand to join the other on the same ledge. Hanging precariously from both ledges symbolized doubt. Kierkegaard thought doubt nobler because it consigned the doubter to the perpetual angst of his uncertainty whether to believe or not to believe, since, as a matter of accuracy, the person could not be objectively sure which belief was right.

But I've now given up nobility. I've shifted the hand that was clinging to belief over to the other ledge and am now hanging with both hands from un- or non- or disbelief, and I feel ever so much better. And those who have done just the opposite—and cling to belief with both hands—feel better too, I assume.

I suppose that being either all in or all out of anything is more comfortable. A juror who just can't make up her mind whether the man accused of murder is guilty or not will be in agony over it. If deliberations go overnight, she might not be able to sleep. I used to agonize over whether or not to approve of the death penalty. I feel better now that I've come down unshakably against it. In general, humans find relief and feel better after they stop roiling and make up their minds!

On "the religious question" (which is essentially whether God exists and can be approached through some form of worship or prayer), believers who cling to their belief with both hands usually try to fortify their position by applying to a particular "holy scripture" which they accept as containing "the revealed Word of God." This could be The Torah, The New Testament, The Qur'an, The Book of Mormon, or whatever. A belief in a particular divine revelation, it seems to me, works this way in "fortifying" their fundamental belief: if the scripture in question is true, then of course God is...this or that, for The Book says so. But note the "if" regarding the scripture. No one can know objectively whether it's the "Word of God" or not. A noble doubter will cling to the two opposed ledges on that question.

I said that believers in God "try to fortify" their belief through application to a holy scripture. "Try" because of course such application is no real help at all. They still have to face Kierkegaard's question. The leap of faith has to be taken on the question whether there really was a revelation or not...

...just as the disbeliever takes his leap of faith that religion is false, that God (in the personal sense) does not exist, that Jesus was not the Son of God, that Muhammad was not a Messenger of God, that Joseph Smith's golden plates were an elaborate hoax motivated by greed and venality, that the various similarities of religious belief and practice around the world show, not that God has revealed Himself to peoples everywhere, but that evolved man tends to project the same gods everywhere, that most of those beliefs and practices flatter neither the assumed gods nor the actual men, and so on.

And, to be honest (which I hope I always am), I admit that I make an application myself to try to fortify my nonbelief. My application is to rationality, or common sense. Thomas Paine, Bertrand Russell, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens seem to me to make a very great deal more sense (in their books The Age of Reason, Why I Am Not a Christian, The End of Faith, and God Is Not Great, respectively) than the "holy books" I'm familiar with. It seems ever so much more reasonable to me that religion is a childish fantasy than that it is a serious adult vision. But some of the things said in scripture are nevertheless apt:
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. [The First Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, 13:11]
I do have at least one remaining question. It has to do with the distinction between religion and spirituality. As a noble doubter, I felt that I could "be spiritual" even though I found it ridiculous to try to "be religious." The question is: Now that I've opted for being all out when it comes to religion, is spirituality still an option for me, and what does that mean?

Thursday, August 30, 2007

"Catch and Release"

The title of Susannah Grant's 2006 film refers to the practice of catching a fish for sport then releasing it (rather than frying, broiling, or sauteeing it). The central character Gray (played most fetchingly by Jennifer Garner) is coming to terms with the death of her fiancé and in the process learning a good deal more about him than she thought there was to know. Loosening up about two-thirds through the film "in the company of his friends: lighthearted and comic Sam, hyper-responsible Dennis, and, oddly enough, his old childhood buddy Fritz, an irresponsible playboy whom she'd previously pegged as one of the least reliable people in the world" (as it's put at imdb.com), she admits that though she never told her fiancé or his friends, she abhors their practice of catching and releasing fish for sport. "If you're going to put a poor fish through the agony of being caught, you ought to have the decency to eat it" (that's a paraphrase).

"Catch and release" seems intended as a symbol of the coming to terms with the loss not only on the part of Gray, but also on the part of the fiancé's friends and mother (played effectively by Fiona Shaw). All of them have significant adjustments to make. But the association of this mental and emotional process with the abhorrent act of torturing a fish doesn't seem to me to work. The psychic process emphasizes the person dealing with loss (the fisherman, as it were), while the sport seems to emphasize the poor fish (which suffers in the catching, while the fisherman invests no psychic effort whatsoever in releasing it).

Though the film invites viewers to reflect on the patience that a significant loss demands of us that we may release and let go, it doesn't really drive the point home. Like the fishing metaphor, the film seems to be more about the catching of the next fish (a new love interest).