Monday, March 30, 2009

Definition of theology

Webster defines theology as "the study of God and his relation to the world." Since "God" almost certainly does not exist (and theology so defined has no subject matter), we need a more realistic definition, and I've thought of one:
The invention of loopholes1 for trying to step around the moral, psychological, scientific, and philosophical problems that arise from the almost certainly false belief that "God" exists.
For example,
Problem to Avoid: Bad guys often make it big while good guys suffer and die young.
Loophole: There will be a day of judgment, after which the bad guys will burn in hell and the good guys will have seventy virgins—or is it raisins?
  1. [7-18-2009] Or, as Christopher Buckley suggests: half-gainers. But he agrees on loophole.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Sunday morning's invisible friend

When we occasionally have eggs for breakfast, it's usually on the weekend, and this Sunday morning was our rare day to have them. I scrambled three eggs, heated three sausage patties in the microwave, and toasted three blueberry waffles. As I served the eggs onto our plates, I was of course thinking that I should be raking some of them into Wally's bowl....Siegfried hasn't begun to eat people food yet, as I suppose he will at some point.
    Wally, though no longer with us in a tangible way, remains our invisible friend. And, this being Sunday, it occurred to me that many people today in America and throughout the world are hastening to church to commune with their own invisible friend, the dog spelled backward whom they fall down and worship, pray to, expect big things of, and know as "God." Though that particular invisible friend never was with anybody in a tangible way, not having existed outside these and earlier people's minds, "he" has, as a fable on the order of a child's secret friend, been in residence for a long time in imaginations. So it is perhaps as natural for them to remember their invisible friend this morning as it was for me to remember Wally.

Photo taken February 17, 2008

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Have a blessed day

I said on Saturday that while in Atlanta last week I had a couple of times slipped and "created god" by uttering formulas like "Thank god" and "What a godsend." I of course made no believing reference to "god"; the utterances were habitual in the same way a person might automatically say "Fine" in response to a "How are you?" The interesting thing about my slips was that they didn't bother me. That's a good thing. It seems to indicate that I'm becoming at least somewhat desensitized to the possibility that someone might infer I'm a believer, even though it's important to me both that I am not and that the people I care about know it.

But anyway, this morning, as I stepped out of my commute van in Chapel Hill, I intentionally said to my fellow passengers, "Have a blessed day." That blessing (for it's literally a blessing, a good wish for another person) doesn't involve the word "god" but I think it's fair to say that it's more often than not taken as invoking "god's blessing."

I of course didn't mean it that way, given that I believe there is no god to bless anybody. People who depend on god to take care of them are routinely disappointed. When things turn out their way there are always more reliable explanations, if only the laws of chance. I meant something more like, "Be lucky today" or "May good things happen to you today." In that regard, perhaps my favorite saying (blessing) is "Good on you," or even "Good on you to overrunning cup" (a reference to the Twenty-third Psalm1, for which I don't apologize, nonbeliever or no, the image is so poetically inspired).

In choosing to say "Have a blessed day," I consciously (and deliberately) used a formula that resonates with my audience. If you read me here consistently, you may remember that most of the members of my commute van pool are believers, even regular church-goers.

It strikes me that in using their language, I made a step toward reconciliation. Without compromising my nonbelief, but also without flaunting it.
  1. "my cup runneth over." –Psalm 23:5

Monday, March 23, 2009

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Sweet or not

Sitting in a window seat on my flight to Atlanta Thursday morning for an overnight professional meeting, I was itching so uncomfortably to get back to my blog and say more about Leonard Pitts, Jr.'s statement that "God and religion are not synonymous" that I was pleasantly distracted by a remark from the traveler sitting next to me, a man I judged to be perhaps a couple of years older than my son.

He was a big guy and I had been glad I was already seated when he and another big guy arrived. They were bantering pleasantly about how they'd once had to sit next to some really big people, and they chuckled amiably when I remarked that they were pretty slim guys themselves.

The plane took off and they discovered that they worked in similar industries and proceeded to talk matter of factly about finance and insurance, as though everything in those industries was normal and nothing had changed.

What led up to the middle guy's diverting remark was that the server came along and asked what beverage we wanted. When I ordered coffee (not to mention orange juice and water as well), she said, "Cream or sugar?" and I said black. After she had poured and delivered all our beverages and peanuts and proceeded up the aisle, the middle guy said, "When my dad is asked how he wants his coffee, he usually says, 'I like my coffee the way I like my women, black or white, sweet or not, so long as it's hot.'"

That sort of put things back in perspective for me, although I don't think I could have explained why. It no longer seemed so urgent to elaborate on Pitts's statement, which I initially said I agreed with (because, as I said, god doesn't exist and religion does). It no longer even seemed particularly important to point out that the statement, "God and religion are not synonymous," is a paradox: god and religion are actually precisely synonymous, because god only "exists" because religion created "him" (or "it" or "her") and continues to do so with every act of prayer, worship, oath, etc.

In Atlanta, at least twice in conversation with my colleagues, I had similarly "created god" by uttering formulas like "Thank god!" and "What a godsend!" with only the slightest sense of discomfort at having slipped.

So, it's good to be home with Siegfried and his hot mama this morning.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Remembering Wally

Aside from his human family, no one knew Wally better than the people at the vets. When I picked up his ashes last week, I was also given a card from the staff with these handwritten messages:
Dear Family,
    I was so saddened to hear of your loss. I see so many dogs each day, but Wally was special! He made my day every time he came into the clinic. I will miss seeing him & you also. You gave Wally a great life!
                Take care —

Dear Family,
    I am so sorry for your loss. Wally was such a sweet boy & will be missed by everyone who knew him. He was certainly lucky to be a part of your family for all those years! Please call us if you need anything. Jennifer

Dear Family,
    I am so sorry for your loss. We all loved seeing Wally and spending a little bit of time with him when he was here. He had a great life with you, and I know you will cherish your memories of him.

The Family,
    Wally was such a lucky boy to have you as his owners. He lived a wonderful life because of the great care you provided for him.

Dear Family,
    I'm so sorry for your loss. Wally was a wonderful dog and lived a wonderful life because he had you all! Deepest sympathy,

If Wally was lucky and had a good life because of us, we were lucky and had some good life because of him.

At Pawleys Island, South Carolina, June 2005

Monday, March 16, 2009

The growing denomination "None"

Heartening news from Frank Rich's op-ed piece ("The Culture Warriors Get Laid Off") in yesterday's New York Times1:
The latest American Religious Identification Survey, published last week, found that most faiths have lost ground since 1990 and that the fastest-growing religious choice is “None,” up from 8 percent to 15 percent (which makes it larger than all denominations except Roman Catholics and Baptists). Another highly regarded poll, the General Social Survey, had an even more startling finding in its preliminary 2008 data released this month: Twice as many Americans have a “great deal” of confidence in the scientific community as do in organized religion. How the almighty has fallen: organized religion is in a dead heat with banks and financial institutions on the confidence scale.
    This, too, is a replay of the Great Depression. “One might have expected that in such a crisis great numbers of these people would have turned to the consolations of and inspirations of religion,” wrote Frederick Lewis Allen in “Since Yesterday,” his history of the 1930s published in 1940. But that did not happen: “The long slow retreat of the churches into less and less significance in the life of the country, and even in the lives of the majority of their members, continued almost unabated.”
    The new American faith, Allen wrote, was the “secular religion of social consciousness.” It took the form of campaigns for economic and social justice — as exemplified by the New Deal and those movements that challenged it from both the left and the right. It’s too early in our crisis and too early in the new administration to know whether this decade will so closely replicate the 1930s, but so far Obama has far more moral authority than any religious leader in America with the possible exception of his sometime ally, the Rev. Rick Warren.
I'm of course cavalier in calling the decline in church affiliation "heartening." But my regular readers will know why I say this. For example, just this morning on NPR, I was listening to a commentary about the need for Christians and Muslims to cooperate to further human rights. True enough that cooperation would be nice, but the commentary might more usefully have included some information about how both religions stand in the way of various human rights. Christians in the way of rights for gays, for example. Muslims in the way of rights for women. And on and on.
    As Sam Harris rightly recommended in his 2004 book, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, progress demands that religion not be given a free pass when it comes to criticism.
  1. It has come to my attention that columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr. has also written about these findings, in his syndicated article, "Wake-Up Call for Organized Religion," in the Miami (FL) Herald, March 14, 2009.
        Pitts allows that "God and religion are not synonymous." I agree; god doesn't exist, religion does.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Siegfried: b. January 24, 2009

The standard poodle pup pictured Friday (and referred to as "Dark Cream Boy") came home with us yesterday.

For a seven-week-old (the next day), he made the 300-mile automobile trip well. After only about eighteen hours in this new place, he seems to be feeling at home. (As are his new mama and papa. It's still new here to us too; the back yard hasn't been fenced yet.)

And here are Siegfried's sire (Gem, who looks very much like Wally, but at seventy pounds is even larger):

...and dam (Blair, about half as heavy as Gem):

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Round-the-clock negotiation

From Philip Roth's third Nathan Zuckerman novel, The Anatomy Lesson (1983):
[Dr. Kotler was saying to Nathan: I'm also] studying Holy Scriptures. Delving into all the translations. Amazing what's in there. Yet the writing I don't like. The Jews in the Bible were always involved in highly dramatic moments, but they never learned to write good drama. Not like the Greeks, in my estimation. The Greeks heard a sneeze and they took off. The sneezer becomes the hero, the one who reported the sneeze becomes the messenger, the ones who overheard the sneeze, they became the chorus. Lots of pity, lots of terror, lots of cliff-hanging and suspense. You don't get that with the Jews in the Bible. There it's all round-the-clock negotiation with God. [p. 337 in the 2007 Library of America edition of Zuckerman Bound: 1979-1985]

Monday, March 9, 2009

Wally: May 19, 1996 – March 9, 2009

Last photo, February 22

For more photos and information about Wally....

Sunday, March 8, 2009

At Moss Landing, California

January 26, 2009

The bird's a curlew; we've seen some in Mebane, North Carolina as well.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Under the radar

From "Quiet Layoffs Sting Workers Without Notice," by Steve Lohr, in today's New York Times:
I.B.M. is one such company [that "routinely carries out scattered layoffs that are small enough to stay under the radar"]. It reported surprisingly strong quarterly profits in January, and in an e-mail message to employees, Samuel J. Palmisano, the chief executive, said that while other companies were cutting back, his would not. “Most importantly, we will invest in our people,” he wrote.
    But the next day, more than 1,400 employees in I.B.M.’s sales and distribution division in the United States and Canada were told their jobs would be eliminated in a month. More cuts followed, and over all, I.B.M. has told about 4,600 North American employees in recent weeks that their jobs are vanishing.
    Depending on how the businesses want to portray themselves to investors and the public, layoffs might not fit the message.
I feel a bit critical of IBM myself. Even before I left after thirty years (at the end of 1996), "IBM" had come to stand for more than International Business Machines.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

It is time

Sam Harris's Letter to a Christian Nation (2006) opens with A Note to the Reader:
Since the publication of my first book, The End of Faith, thousands of people have written to tell me that I am wrong not to believe in God. The most hostile of these communications have come from Christians. This is ironic, as Christians generally imagine that no faith imparts the virtues of love and forgiveness more effectively than their own....
The first time I read Harris's Letter, I don't think I read it in a single day, but I did today, its argument was so much more impelling than I remembered. I found so much I might have highlighted or underlined if I hadn't borrowed the book from a library. For example:
The conflict between science and religion is reducible to a simple fact of human cognition and discourse: either a person has good reasons for what he believes, or he does not. If there were good reasons to believe that Jesus was born of a virgin, or that Muhammad flew to heaven on a winged horse, these beliefs would necessarily form part of our rational description of the universe. Everyone recognizes that to rely upon "faith" to decide specific questions of historical fact is ridiculous—that is, until the conversation turns to the origin of books like the Bible and the Koran, to the resurrection of Jesus, to Muhammad's conversation with the archangel Gabriel, or to any other religious dogma. It is time that we admitted that faith is nothing more than the license religious people give one another to keep believing when reasons fail. [pp. 66-67]