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.
      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:
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


"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?