Hiatus

Every once in a while it feels like my life is a word-a-day calendar writ large and realized. All the definitions of one particular word are eating at me today.

For my purposes, blogging has lost much of its gloss relevance. Despite the community of wonderful people that colemining has brought into my life, in this current-world-reality I feel like I’m simultaneously shouting in the wilderness and preaching to the choir, while the credulous, disingenuous and banally evil (and you know I use that word with caution) types run amok, spreading lies and hatred and ignorance as far as the reach of their followers permits.

I can’t rightly remember (without going back and checking) the last time I wrote something to share. There was, for a time, some continuity here. In the few lines I’ve written already, I hear echoes of past posts – reinforcing the idea that I’m ad nauseam-ing myself – and anyone who stops in for a visit – with the same old-same old.

An ever-deepening societal lack of attention span and the rise of vlogging and podcasting have made my long-winded comprehensive discussions even more obsolete than they were when I started using the blog-as-platform, way back in the dark ages of the internet. Since the ‘long read’ remains my go-to for hashing out thoughts and commentary, it’s been hard to justify the time and energy spent writing in an environment that seems geared to those who favour sound-bites and unsupported (unsupportable?) generalities as a means of communication.

So: 1. a break or interruption in the continuity of a work, series, action, etc.

Much of my academic career involved working with literary documents – and their historical development – from Late Antiquity. My Master’s research focused on a theoretical ‘document’ – Quelle or ‘Q-Source’ –  posited to be the origin of the ‘authentic’ sayings of Jesus in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. My Doctoral dissertation was about a gnostic apocalypse from Nag Hammadi – most of which is the opposite of ‘extant’. I spent a whole lot of time in my early adulthood filling in blanks and making things up, albeit in a reasoned, educated way.

From that perspective, it is fair to say that my years in higher education were spent dealing in hypotheticals – a fact that engages and irritates me all at the same time. I enjoy puzzles – and finding and assembling information in a manner that follows the rules of logic and rationality has always been one of the great joys of my life. Still, it was always at the back of my mind that we, as historians of ancient and biblical religions, were making up a lot of stuff and perpetuating foci on stories and histories that should, perhaps, be set aside in favour of study of those things that directly impact the world-as-it-is, rather than the world-as-it-was millennia ago.

That trend of thought has caused some existential angst. I love that stuff – and appreciate that I was privileged enough to study and teach it for as long as I did. I will continue to insist on its value for those who have the interest and wherewithal to investigate the ultimate origins of stuff that people still use as guideposts to living in the world – and the search for human meaning that lies at the heart of those guideposts.

But, if we’re really honest, and if living our lives in the glare of constant media – social and otherwise – has taught us anything, it’s that there aren’t many people who are interested in examining history and literature as means of understanding the world around them. Don’t get me wrong – lots of people love citing literature that dates back to Bronze Age nomadic desert peoples, but there is a complete lack of awareness that such pre/proscriptions for living are anachronistic in the 21st century.

The failure of education and critical examination that has brought us to this place in history is a symptom of the fact that we aren’t interested in learning about our recent history and taking warning from its messages. We, in the West, tend to insist in the rightness of ‘our way’ without having first-clue about the path that got us to this supposed-cohesion of social practices and policies.

I am an historian, but I have discovered lacunae in my own awareness of modern history as I witness the events and movements unfolding around us. I am attempting to rectify this, currently, by reading about the rise of Nazism and other totalitarian regimes, experiential Holocaust literature, Jim Crow laws and their application, and the history of the destruction of indigenous cultures around the world – including those that happened (and persist) in my own backyard.

2. a missing part; lacuna.

But even with my self-assigned syllabus of compulsory readings, figuring out where I fit in the discussions we need to be having about the social and cultural anomie that is the epidemic causality of the rise of the alt-right and a generalized shift to rampant ‘othering’ has been difficult for me. I don’t like the shouting. The abuse, and the trolls, and the cognitive dissonance that make up the majority of the ‘discourse’ that’s happening right now leave me feeling disconnected and voiceless.

Chris Stedman, an American atheist whose work I’ve come to know through his Twitter feed, has written an important reflection on his place in the noisome and fraught discussions, and issued a call to arms, of sorts, to those seeking more moderate and humanistic approaches to addressing the myriad issues that come at us all, from all angles, on any given day.

His article echoes the concerns I’ve been feeling as an ‘out’ atheist who uses, however occasionally, various internet forums to express thoughts and passing insights. I have been attacked by supporters of a particular UofT psychology professor, been told that my Twitter feed is ‘unbearably smug’ (or was it ‘insufferable’? either way…) by white males whose ad hominem  ‘arguments’ I choose to ignore, had followers of any number of religions and/or ideologies predict my ultimate fate – both in this world and the one they see as coming…

I don’t feed trolls. If people are willing to engage in informed dialectic, I’m all for discussing the truth or falsehood of opinions. Abuse will not be dignified with any sort of response. That’s why the ‘block’ function was created – and why irrational, raging comments should be deleted. Sorting the chaff from the potential wheat is usually time-consuming and soul-crushing, and is viewed, by some, as ignoring ‘both sides’ of a given subject.  I defend my refusal to strike back at – or acknowledge – the rantings of the confirmation-biased as being an exercise in futility. I’m done trying to fix stupid unexamined bigotry.

But Stedman’s summary point, ‘the difficult truth spotlighted by both Spencer’s atheism and the silence of other atheists is that, despite the late Christopher Hitchens’s infamous proclamation that “religion poisons everything,” religion was never the problem. It was always something more complicated. Something uglier, more primal, more deeply human. Something the internet, with all the good it can foster, often facilitates. Until atheists and humanists confront this Something head on, we will continue to struggle with people like Spencer who embody an atheism that got rid of the gods but put white men in their place’, speaks to our current social and political reality, and is strongly resonant with the direction of my own thoughts, lately.

I have spent my adult life studying religions – and the people who create those religions and use them to further social and political ideologies. That they are caught up – inextricably – in anachronistic, misogynistic, racist, separatist (I could continue listing ‘ists’ indefinitely) narratives is tautology. Which doesn’t mean that dismissive, offensive name-calling, by ‘young white men in particular—who feel disconnected, marginalized, and misunderstood (and are seeking) a sense of identity, belonging, and purpose’, should be getting all the ‘atheist airtime’.

It is trying, to say the least, to find a place – as a woman, an atheist, an academic – in an environment that is increasingly hostile to all of those things.

But middle grounds – that examine history and apply its lessons to the progressive and evolved ideals that people are standing for (in movements like #MeToo, #TimesUp, #NeverAgain… the list grows, daily) are finding voices and filling in the spaces between the extremes that divide and conquer us.

3. any gap or opening.

Stedman’s renewed commitment to activism – from a starting point that, in many ways, mirrors my own – has suggested an opening – and, perhaps, a new direction. As frustrating as demoralizing as it is to scream into the (seeming) abyss of ignorance and self-serving rhetoric, the answer to our systemic issues cannot lie in the hiatus of history. We have permitted constructed lacunae – repeated by our elected leaders (and those who weren’t, actually, elected), the media, and by anyone/everyone with access to the internet – to drive our collective narratives for too long.

It is not enough to push unthinkingly for change. As Stedman notes, we need to be asking difficult questions about the cultures of our movements, eradicating dogmatism and anger-driven reactionary messaging that adds fuel to the fires of intentionally-conceived divisions. In doing so, we all – atheist and otherwise – ‘have the chance to offer a robust, humanistic alternative… that affirms the worth and dignity of all people to an increasingly secular generation.’ 

Those are gaps worth bridging.

 

 

 

Continue reading

A Tempest in Russell’s Teapot

First winter storm of the season. It is NOT pleasant outside today.

So I have storms on the brain, and as 2015 draws to a close, I’ve been having a think back over some of the things that have recurred – in my thoughts and in my writing – and giving some head space to how I might make, based in those recurrent things, some changes in the New Year.

I have to believe that the biggest and best tool we have in our collective arsenal against inequity and injustice is another ‘in’ – ‘incredulity’. I’ve written about its opposite in the past – and how that ongoing, unjustified, suspension of disbelief when it comes to things that reallyreally matter is at the heart of most (if not all) of the problems that we, as a world community, as facing as we enter 2016.

N.b. that date. Two thousand and sixteen. That we continue to mark the passing years in accordance with a calendar that adheres to the purported existence of a mythological character is, in itself, telling. And what it’s telling us is that we need to just stop permitting such characters – and the politically-driven stories that developed around them – to dictate our societal governance and ways of viewing the world. Lack of examination of the origins and intended interpretations of the stories – along with constant, continuing, unthinking citation far removed from their historical, geographical and sociological contexts – is making us stupid.

This morning I watched an old TedTalk, by a guy named James Randi.

He has been challenging the credulous – and those who prey on the credulous – to reexamine their beliefs and check their credulity at the door in an effort to prevent the further stagnation of our collective intelligence. The talk is from 2007. I fear its message has been lost in the interim (although, to be fair, homeopathy isn’t nearly as ‘accepted’ as it once was. Other forms of ‘alternative medicine’ remain popular, of course, but that’s another day’s windmill…).

Over the holidays we, like 1/7th of the world’s population, went to check out the rebooted Star Wars universe. Full disclosure: I liked the original three (Empire was the best), but loathed the prequels. So I’m not sure I was expecting much – despite being told by true aficionados that I’d enjoy the ride.

I did. Largely because of the familiarity of the thing. Sure, there was enough mystery to keep me guessing and wanting to know what happens. But, truly, the motifs and the themes and the characters… all were as familiar as old friends. And I’m not just talking about Han and Chewy and Leia.

We recognize the characters – and their struggles – despite the fact that they’re living in a galaxy far far away. Good writers (and directors – JJ Abrams is both) understand the pull of mythological archetypes, and use them to their advantage. The archetypes employed by George Lucas in his original vision of the series stand the test of time and are greeted in their later years with fond welcome. But we love the new characters, too. Because, like those who came before them, we know them.

I’m not going to be pedantic and go back through all the ramblings (like this one) I’ve written about why the themes and types of characters keep showing up as we, as humans, try to answer the big questions and entertain (since these are things that need not be mutually exclusive). Suffice it to say that nothing is ‘new’. Not Rey, not Finn, not even BB-8.

Just like that dude, Jesus. He wasn’t ‘new’, either. Nor was Moses. Nor Muhammad. There is nothing new under the sun, to paraphrase my buddy Qoheleth.

Our brains, fierce though they may be when used to full capability, see the world in the frameworks to which we are accustomed. And we rarely like stepping outside of those comfort zones of familiarity. That would require work.

Those who easily transcend the boundaries of those limitations are our astrophysicists, our visionary philosophers, our poets and, historically, our theologians (who were, often, scientists and philosophers, as well. Limited by their cultural context and language, they spoke of the unknown as ‘god’. They’d know better now).

The rest of us tend to be a little more pedestrian in our understanding of things. So the myth-makers, now as then, use the familiar to tell the stories that want telling. And to set the examples that need setting. Star Wars: The Force Awakens revisits the New Hope we first encountered in Episode IV. Cycles. And the continuing battle between good/evil or dark/light or order/chaos.

I’m okay with all that. I like our stories. The ones that date back 2000+ years, and the ones that we’re hearing today. Both sets offer up wisdom that is finely-crafted and impactful, and, often, super-fun to watch/read. Having spent most of my adult life learning and studying these stories, I’d be the last one to assert that they are valueless.

But.

Stories, while they may contain elements of historical, documented, truths, are not, always (or even often), true. So using them, whole cloth or in bits and pieces that lose the overarching message, to determine things like social justice and equitable, human governance, is ridiculous, at best. At its worst, it’s downright dangerous. We can see the latter happening in the US – as credulity is permitted to run rampant, and people believe (without evidence) the various, all-too-familiar, narratives that self-serving individuals are selling, since it jibes with the stories they are already telling themselves.

And not all stories are good stories. Some should be examined, yes, but then consigned to the history that has demonstrated their inhumanity and ideological obsolescence.

Bertrand Russell introduced his concept of a celestial or cosmic teapot as a means of illustrating the nonsensical argument that the burden of proof for the non-existence of god(s) lies in the hands of the atheist. Russell likened such ridiculousness to the idea that there is a china teapot in an elliptical orbit around Mars, which, though no more provable or disprovable than the assertion that god(s) exist(s), remains highly questionable, and unlikely to be widely believed. Unless, of course, there was a centuries-old tradition of literature and teachings about said teapot. Then the idea of a cosmic teatime, with appropriate crockery, might have some value.

The point of the teapot analogy is its usefulness as a demonstration that assertions should not have to be disproved. Occam’s Razor suggests that the starting point in any discussion of this nature should be the one with fewest assertions: i.e. that no gods exist. It also points out the reductio ad absurdum of those who vacillate and/or claim to be ‘agnostic’, suggesting that if we can’t know for sure whether or not there is/are god(s), we also can’t know for sure that there isn’t a china teapot out there circling Mars. Since neither claim is any more or less scientifically provable, both are equally (im)plausible.

Idiomatically, a tempest in a teapot is ‘a lot of unnecessary worry and anger about a matter that is not important’.

We’re at the beginning of a New Year. We’ve spent 2015 beset by matters that are of great importance – to all of us, as a human family. How’s about we forget about that teapot and its equally-ridiculous co-assertions, and get on with the business of being human. Total and complete secularization is the only direction for us to be headed.

Otherwise it’ll be a hard rain that falls on us all.

Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son
And where have you been, my darling young one
I’ve stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains
I’ve walked and I’ve crawled on six crooked highways
I’ve stepped in the middle of seven sad forests
I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans
I’ve been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

Oh, what did you see, my blue-eyed son
And what did you see, my darling young one
I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’
I saw a white ladder all covered with water
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

And what did you hear, my blue-eyed son?
And what did you hear, my darling young one?
I heard the sound of a thunder that roared out a warnin’
Heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world
Heard one hundred drummers whose hands were a-blazin’
Heard ten thousand whisperin’ and nobody listenin’
Heard one person starve, I heard many people laughin’
Heard the song of a poet who died in the gutter
Heard the sound of a clown who cried in the alley
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

Oh, what did you meet, my blue-eyed son?
Who did you meet, my darling young one?
I met a young child beside a dead pony
I met a white man who walked a black dog
I met a young woman whose body was burning
I met a young girl, she gave me a rainbow
I met one man who was wounded in love
I met another man who was wounded with hatred
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

Bob Dylan wrote this song in a time of uncertainty, when injustice, suffering, warfare and environmental destruction threatened the fabric of the world and its continuing stories. Plus ça change, as they say. I’m an historian and an atheist – not a poet and a visionary. My voice may not have the breath, or breadth, that his does, but my plea remains the same as his was, in 1962.

Wishing us all peace and harmony. For 2016. Happy New Year, my friends.

 

Increasing the Nones

Since I’ve been short on time and ideas and motivation to engage in the insanity of the world lately, I decided to peruse the drafts folder to see if there might be anything in there that could be polished enough that I’d be okay with it seeing the light of day.

In the course of my usual early morning reading (internet-driven though it may be) I kept coming back to articles about a white, American-born terrorist shooting up a women’s health clinic in which the media/government refused to use the appropriate terminology to describe the act- and the actor. Terror is terror is terror. And terrorists know no colour, nor any one specific, ridiculous and inhuman(e) ideology.

The fact that most of the candidates for the Republican nomination for President of those United States have been unwilling to remotely acknowledge their complicity in this act of terror- what with the recent Anti-Planned Parenthood propaganda campaigns that they have waged- makes me want to bite something. (If you haven’t seen it already, check out Valerie Tarico’s great post about stochastic terrorism).

And then it happened again, today. Another mass shooting in that place that insists on clinging to its might-as-well-be-religious fervor regarding its ‘right’ to have guns. And already we’re being hit with the early talk about ‘mental illness’ rather than acts of terror.

So when I came across this post in the folder, I figured what the hell. Let’s have another chat about putting away all the childish things that accompany blind adherence to misunderstood and misquoted Bronze Age stories and social pre/proscriptions for living. It mightn’t be the most festive of topics, but the irrationality of belief that too-often comes along with the season is sticking in my craw in a particularly offensive manner at the moment. The post’s original iteration dates waaaaaay back to June. Tellingly, I didn’t have to change it much to reflect my horror about the events of today.

Well over six months ago, while running out and about this town of mine (and that little town called Niagara-on-the-Lake- we had a visitor from across the Atlantic and a birthday being celebrated, so there has been much activity around these parts), I happened upon a street performer in the Distillery District. He was here as part of something called ‘Circus North’- and was one among a variety of performers who entertained the crowds on a lovely May day.

This is him: The Fireguy. In addition to the fire tossing and eating and that sort of stuff, he kept up a running dialogue with the crowd- largely tourists- and talked about his Circus-training days. One of his teachers, early on in his juggling career, advised him to choose one thing and learn to do it reallyreally well. Fireguy choose the Devil Sticks, and, after many years of honing his skills, counted himself a master.

The second element of the teaching came into play at that point. If you can learn to do one thing reallyreally well, then you can apply that same ability to learn to do things to other things you might like to get good at. Awesome, if simple, advice.

But it made me think. I’ve been suffering from a complete and total lack of focus lately. It’s been all but impossible to pick a subject and see it through to the end. Which means that my creativity has been somewhat stunted and that I’m not really being all that productive or progressive.

Which isn’t good.

In an attempt to re-focus, I’m going to try to shift things away from the one-note venting I’ve been stuck on in the recent past, and get back to my own, particular way of looking at the world and attempting to affect change through the application of those things I’ve learned reallyreally well.

Upon examination, I’ve realized that the main thing I know reallyreally well, is the thing I’ve spoken about least around here, lately. I’m talking about education the and effective and affective communication of the stories we tell ourselves and others. Caught up in that knowledge is my awareness of the insane level of  access to information that should lead us toward the path that will allow for complete and total secularization as we figure out that those human-constructed stories (and their starring characters) of division- religion, race, ethnicity- mean less-than-nothing when stacked up against our shared humanity and the answers we have figured out for ourselves.

Some of my more recently reblogged posts were prompted by the existence of something called ‘Openly Secular Day’- and were my reiterated shout-outs to the fact that I completely and absolutely KNOW that religion HAS to be removed from the business of politics and governance. The frequently-hypocritical double-speak of those who claim religiosity (of whatever stripe) as the only viable marker and maintainer of ‘ethical behaviour’ has to be shouted down once and for all.

It happened in Ireland in May. In the most wonderfully human way I have seen in a long time. Irish Ex-Pats (Ex-Padraigs?) flocked home to vote ‘yes’ to equality and fairness and the legal acknowledgement that everyone must be afforded the same rights and privileges in a fair and democratic society.

What a thing to behold.

Superstition and prejudice and spurious arguments in favour of ‘tradition’ and unchangeable ‘definitions’ were left in the dust of what is right and what is good. By the PEOPLE. Not as an act of government, but as an emphatic nod towards that which is undeniably the correct direction for the country and its citizens, by its citizens. Not its institutions- and certainly not that one that has held sway over too much policy-making in Ireland for far too long. There are still things that could do with some changing tout de suite, but wow. That was capital-C Cool.

You know what I know a whole lot about? I know that we need to enact similar scenarios whole-scale and worldwide. ASAP.

We need to update our stories and how we see our narratives. You know, those things that we tell ourselves to try to make sense of the often-inexplicable and -troublesome. It is happening- we saw that in Ireland- but those steps forward are also producing resulting inclinations toward extreme steps backward.

A while ago on q (note the move from the capitalized letter to the lower case- marking its new beginning with Shad taking the helm), Greg Proops was talking about his latest project, The Smartest Book in the World. An extension of his popular podcast, the book references all kinds of important information- and talks about why we so often take the easy way out and resort to believing/doing the stupid, rather than making the intelligent choices, or even acknowledging that there is better, more accurate information out there.

“Stupidity,” he says, “continues to be a big seller. It’s easy and it’s fun for people… We have people in this country who want to invade Iran- which is an extraordinary poor idea- and we’re mad at the President for making peace.”

He’s also vocally supportive of equality- and while some of the examples of the anti-women culture we take for granted might seem, to some (small) minds, innocuous, when he, with his comedic voice, points them out the inequity is made laughable in its extremity and has to be disconcerting to even the most delusional proponents of ‘men’s rights’. He believes that the lack of respect and equality afforded women around the world is the cause of all the world’s problems.

Cool. And hard to argue. In fact, one of my big heroes- there ARE still people worthy of the name- Jimmy Carter, has had a whole lot to say on this subject, himself. And he’s dedicating his remaining time to making sure that these issues get addressed.

Greg’s discussion of the Oxford comma? Not so much. I have to disagree with that bit.

Still. So very refreshing to hear any sort of encouragement of things that are smart.

Especially in light of nonsense like this. I know that there are bigger examples of cray-cray out there in this big ol’ world right now, but most of them are just too overwhelming for me to be wrapping my brain around addressing and/or I’m still trying to figure out a way to restructure my discussion of them (that whole C51 debacle, for example) so that I can aid in affecting a better overall outcome.

This one, I can handle. And it’s in keeping with my crusade to stop blaming the devil for all those things to which we refuse to accept our due culpability.

Seriously, Priest-dude? “There is no such thing as ‘innocently playing with demons’.” ?!?!?

Talk about playing to the stupid. And subscribing to the stupid. And demanding that others- over whom you hold some inexplicable influence- adhere to those same values of stupidity.

Fear-mongering. Again. It’s everywhere. If it’s not masses of ‘terrorists-disguised-as-refugees’ that should have us terrified, it’s supernatural beings that are waiting to pounce on unsuspecting children playing with pencils. (I do have to say that I was astonished to learn that any child might be able to access a pencil. I don’t think I’ve bought a pencil in years- and I still tend to write things in longhand- much to the dismay of those who have to decipher my handwriting).

Do I really need to re-rant about the absurdity of externalizing evil as a monster who has set himself against a deity that opts not to defeat said evil, but who would rather let the monster to continue to use his influence and god-given wiles to tempt the creation that the deity claims to love?

Do we really need to be reminded how ludicrous and repugnant it is to frighten children with stories about and threats of eternal damnation if they decide to play a game with pencils and paper? I, for one, am kind of nostalgically pleased to hear that children might be using something other than a tablet or an X-Box or a smartphone as a way to entertain themselves while learning how to play well with others.

Enough with the imaginary boogeymen. There are real ones to spare in this actual plane of existence (apparently in famous Quiverfull families who are given television shows, and people who shoot up concert halls, and women’s health centres, and places offering services to developmentally disabled children…). We needn’t be inventing non-human monsters as warnings. We can do enough damage without ascribed supernatural characteristics.

Propaganda trumping fact- its skillful employment is reaching ever more lofty and ever more dangerous heights.

No more hedging about- trying to sugar-coat reality and mollycoddle those who refuse to let go of the fictional stories that maintain a fictional status quo. It was never ‘better’ than now- unless, as Greg Proops noted, ‘you are a white guy named Gordon’.

I’m not ‘angry’. I’m not ‘militant’. I’m done being ‘reactionary’.

I am fed up, though. And I’m done with letting people get away with using ancient stories and supernatural characters to justify inequity and abuse, while attempting to control the bodies and minds of other people. I’m done up with politicians who uncreate the stories we are being told by those scientists who examine and seek to understand our world as they move forward with their own agendas as means of maintaining control over the credulous population.

I study people- and the stories we tell. There are narratives that should be expressed. Stories needing to be told. I’m not a politician (thank goodness). I’m not interested in the compromise of policy-making and bureaucratic maneouvering required to make things happen on an implementation level. Especially since that level rarely represents the best interests of the people, en masse, who will deal with the implementations once they are enacted.

Lawrence Krauss accepted the Humanist of the Year award earlier this year, and delivered this speech in response. It is one of the most important things I’ve read in a long time.

“I want to argue here that it is possible to imagine a future without the tyranny of religious myth and superstition, and its chokehold on supposed morality. And it is possible to imagine such a future soon. We are never more than a generation away from change. The key is reaching the next generation when they are young… The most important goal in educating our children should be to encourage them to question everything, to not be satisfied with unsubstantiated claims, and to be skeptical of a priori beliefs, either their own, their parents’, or their teachers’.  Encouraging skeptical thinking in this way, as well as directing a process by which questions may be answered—the process of empirical investigation followed by logical reasoning—helps create lifelong learners and citizens who can responsibly address the demands of a democratic society.”

Contrary to what some believers- of whatever stripe might say- us atheist-types do not lack meaning and purpose- and we certainly don’t want for moral centres and empathetic understanding of our fellow humans.

Gleb Tsipursky, PhD,  has made this reality a focus of his research- as both an historian and as part of his interest in modernity and popular culture.

“My research, and that of others, illustrates how secularly-oriented societies provide social institutions that offer a source of meaning and purpose. The focus on religion as the primary source of life purpose in the United States is a historical contingency, one that may shift over time. Indeed, there is a growing number of “nones,” people without any religious affiliation in American society, especially among younger adults. Many nones, and especially college aged youth, are seeking for answers to the question of life purpose that do not necessarily include a G/god as part of the equation. Likewise, there are growing numbers of secularly-oriented venues through which they might  find the answers to their questions.”

It’s important to remember that the reality that is the “contingency” of history is also, by definition, the opposite of “inevitability”. In addition to the faulty assertion that the US is a ‘Christian Nation’ (that is pretty clearly against the writings/purposes of the Founding Fathers, the way I read the history) the many contingencies of US history, thus far, have led to the belief that gun ownership is a ‘right’- and something that is to be held to with all the fastness of stubborn, deity-given ideals about freedom.

But the contingencies (those things that are liable to happen as results of what is happening/what has happened) of NOW, in almost-20-freakin-16– are things like education and rational thinking and the ability to collect and widely communicate statistics and other pertinent information and use them all together to further our understanding about things like an individual’s ‘right’ to possess firearms. One of the takeaways we need to absorb from the events of the last couple of weeks? The knowledge that historically out-of-context assertions should not cannot do not take priority over human lives. One person’s perceived right to own a gun is not more important than another person’s life.

We need to change the narratives. Which means knowing the past and seeing how it got us here- to the present- while letting the exigencies of our current societal and political and morally humanistic realities help us to determine appropriate future courses.

We are seeing some positive strides. As I write this, people across my City on the Lake- and across this country that I love- are getting ready to open their homes and hearts to other humans- in defiance of those who would rule by fear and have us continue to view them as ‘other’ and, therefore, dangerous.

The fact that people are collecting resources to help them transition, and planning committees to welcome them with open arms, is far more in keeping with my understanding of what this season is supposed to symbolize. A little different than fighting (literally) for a ‘great deal’ on a piece of merchandise that we’ve been told we HAVE to have. ‘Stupid’ isn’t the only thing we’re continuing to buy. And it’s A LOT different than watching yet another community picking up the pieces after yet another example of ideology-based violence run amok.

If we are going to tell ourselves stories, why can’t they be ones like the first example, rather than the other two?

Being an honest student of humanity, I’m not confident that we can do all that much to further expedite increasing the nones across the world. (Although I sososo sincerely wish that wasn’t the case. But we should, at the least, be leaving the outdated characters of the stories of yore back in the bad old days from whence they came. They have no place in our politics or our human dialectic. We will find answers- better answers- among ourselves, the real live people of this world, to help us respond to our contemporary contingencies and responsibly address the demands of our societies.

Money, power, holy roads
Freedom puts my faith in none of the above

If there’s a time, that we ever see
The nature of life in reality
‘Cause I want to be there
To kick at the answer 

‘You know it’s dark…’

Photo: Toronto Star

That’s what the big, pointy thing in my backyard looked like last night.

I’ve turned off the television and I’m avoiding social media as best I can. Once again, hatred is coming to the fore and demonstrating the depravity and delusional depths to which we, as humans, can sink. I can’t handle the speculation and the voyeurism that is the norm when things like this happen. I’m not sure that I have anything at all that I can add to any sort of dialogue about why we, as humans, continue to do these things to each other. This blog is full of posts (here’s one), and my life is full of ghosts of discussions-past, that strive to address underlying causes and the nonsensical clinging to anachronistic and out-of-context ideologies that suborn these types of horrors. I’m exhausted from re-hashing my dialectic around why we must address- and enact- the complete separation of world statecraft and politics from any and all mindless adherence to mythologies and social controls that are out of place and time.

If you really want to, you can search back through the catalogue and find far too many reactionary posts that arose out of tragedies of this sort. Before the first indicators of the events of yesterday started in my feed, I was toying with an idea for a post- a break from the fiction I’ve been trying to write lately- in the form of a belated experiential slice-of-life sort of a thing that spoke about the goodness of the life I enjoy. Given that it was going to be a post about a music show, in a local music hall, the subject’s poignancy has taken on a new dimension. Going out of an evening to share the connection that music brings to those of us who value such things above the irrelevancies of constructed divisions and preconceptions is something that I hold to be a sacred (for lack of a more appropriate term. Yes, I get the irony) part of being a human that shares this planet with other humans.

So I’m writing it anyway. I’ll take comfort in memories of some of the real, tangible, good to which I have been a privileged party. I welcome anyone who might like to join me, but I understand that many of you are glued to the incoming messages and the pain associated with the images and realities of the situation. I will return to despairing over the crimes we commit against each other when we have more than speculation and in-the-moment reactions with which to deal. Especially since, once again, the soundbites and commentaries are fanning the flames of racism and xenophobia and demonstrating, yet again, wrong-headed thinking that stems from positions of privilege. If you want to read some excellent insights into that reality, have a look at this op-ed. Totally jibes with my thoughts on the subject of the day-presented more clearly than I can manage at this point.

Outrage and grief are understandable, and certainly warranted. I’d be the last to suggest otherwise. But what is, per usual, missing (for the most part- the essay linked above is a welcome exception) is perspective, and rational response. Enough. On to some regularly-scheduled programming…

——————————- 

For Canadians, Thanksgiving comes early (relative to our neighbours down south, that is). I had booked some vacation time around the October holiday- hoping to get some things done and have a bit of a break from the workaday normalcy. Those Blue Jays were still in the running and providing us all with some awesome post-season excitement. It was a warm weekend in this City by the Lake, and, after a lovely dinner with the fam, I’d arranged to meet an old friend up at Lee’s Palace (not the ‘Shoe, but probably my second-fave live venue in town) to see a guy who feels like an old friend.

The Wheat Sheaf Tavern had set up tvs outside- for smokers, people passing on the street and those, like me, waiting for streetcars. I witnessed another of those amazing Kevin Superman Pillar catches before the Red Rocket whisked me north. As I walked over from Bathurst, every bar on Bloor was playing the baseball game, and I was reassured that we were solidly in control of the game. Since all was good with the Boys in Blue, I was ready for some high octane rocking and rolling (admittedly, there were text updates throughout the evening- no disrespect to the star of the show at all, but it had been 22 years since the Jays were in the post-season. 22. Long. Years).

Jesse Malin has come up in my WordPressWorld discussions a time or two- he’s one of the most engaging live artists I’ve seen (and I’ve seen a few) and he never fails to entertain. The holiday and the Jays’ game pretty much validated my concerns about the timing of the show- there weren’t a whole lot of people on hand. But my friend had rearranged his family dinner plans to make the show, and we tend to celebrate big dinners early in the day, anyway, so we were there, wearing our proverbial bells and hoping to make enough noise to make up for the poor turn-out.

We got there in time to see most of the opening act- Matthew Ryan, a dude out of Philly who writes and plays solid story-songs that offered important messages that were lovely, lyrically and musically, both. Between songs, he spoke of the importance of engagement- political or otherwise- words that rang especially vividly leading up, as we were, to that federal election. We got to have a quick chat with him- and snap a few pictures- between sets. Always a bonus to meet the person behind newly-discovered music.

By the time Jesse hit the stage the crowd hadn’t grown significantly, but it didn’t take long for him to entice us all down to the dance floor for a sing-and-dance-a-long that turned into one of my favourite nights of live music, ever.

In the last year he has released two albums of new music (yes, I said TWO). The most recent, Outsiders, had dropped the previous week. I admit that I hadn’t had much of a chance to listen to the newest stuff (the lack of real computer means that I remain hesitant to download the albums- and I like, whenever possible, buying CDs from merch tables at shows- so I’d relied on streams from various sources and some YouTube viewing to catch myself up), but, having seen the guy three times previously, I knew that the live versions of the new stuff would be the stuff of which memories are made.

I was right.

Jesse’s been at his craft for a few years decades now (he started performing at CBGBs when he was 12. Yes, that says 12), and his live shows are things of beauty. He’s a consummate professional- the voice, the backing band, the energy… and the lack of crowd deterred him not-at-all. Within a couple of songs he had joined us on the dance floor- belting out his new material (with a few older standbys in the mix) and showing just how classy working musicians can be. A few people came close to being clothes-lined by his mic cord as he moved among us, but great music- and its appreciation- is about taking chances, and should be riddled with the potential for a little danger.

Man.

I’ve tried to isolate some of the highlights in my mind. It’s difficult, though. His shows (even the one that packed the ‘Shoe because the TIFF glitterati thought the Boss might show up- I wrote about that one here) always seem more like a kitchen ceilidh- hanging with friends, sharing some stories and dancing ’til your feet hurt and your cheeks ache from the smiling and singing along.

I visited the merch table- of course- and bought both New York Before the War and Outsiders. Since the show I’ve had them both on repeat pretty constantly.

Hard as it is to choose favourites, this one stands out from New York Before the War:

I love the references to Dee Dee Ramone (clarification: turns out I got my musical allusions wrong. I checked out a YouTube clip, ‘Live at Vintage Vinyl’, today, and Jesse provided some background on the tune. In Addicted he’s actually referencing the life and death of Arturo Vega- the close friend and artistic director of the Ramones, who, among other things, designed that iconic logo of theirs. LOVE the stories this guy tells about his experiences and travels. Check out the performance if you have an hour- his story about Shane MacGowan- as a lead-in to his version of If I Should Fall from Grace with God… so awesome)- who has to be a personal hero of Jesse’s (he pops up in earlier tunes, as well), and the NYC atmosphere that resonates throughout. The themes of tearing things down (bookstores for condos, for example) and moving on- or being forced to move on- are visited throughout the album, which is a working-out of all kinds of things that have been floating around his head since 2010’s Love it to Life. It’s about how quickly things are changing, without requisite time or sensitization to get used to all the dramatic shifts in paradigm that we experience nowadays. The album reflects on the disposable culture we’ve created, the prevalent apathy and mindless following of trends, and addresses the realities of having to deal with horrible, terrible things- but still manages to find a spark of positivity that keeps us keeping on. And dancing while we do so.

Outsiders is darker, but also playful and full of tongue-in-cheek humour than demonstrates his masterful use of language and lyric.

At Lee’s, he talked a little about filming the video for this one. About how it was sweltering that day in New Orleans as they made their way around town to gather the images to accompany the lyrics- capturing NOLAs ‘away-ness’ in his song about the eventual return to his home- where his heart remains.

I can’t stop listening to it. Seriously. Non-stop. It’s my new  get-up-and-deal-with-the-day tune. Naturally, the title resonated quite personally. Sort of foregone, conclusion-wise, that I’d be intrigued. The song is so full of allusions and references and well-connected turns-of-phrase… I’m gushing, I realize. And if it doesn’t make you feel like dancing… you might want to get that looked at.

After the show wound up, still feeling kind of breathless, I thanked Jesse, as he passed on the way to merch, for coming to see us again, and for giving us such a fantastic night. He signed my new CDs, and posed for some photos with us, while chatting away about past shows at the ‘Shoe and other visits to TO.

Loved it. All of it. (Many thanks again to Mr. G- for the company, and the ticket, and the long-ago intro to Jesse’s music).

Nights like that demonstrate the best of us human-types. People making art, sharing art, connecting with strangers and reinforcing the reality that those things we create to share with love are much more important than the things we create to feed divisiveness and hatred.

We need that message on days like yesterday- and today. Thank you, Jesse, for your long-term and ever-developing role as messenger.

——————————-

“Hey man, whatcha doing,

All along the road to ruin

You know it’s dark when atheists start to pray.”

The crimes committed in France yesterday are bringing out the hashtags and the superficial demonstrations of engagement and encouragement. One of them, #prayforparis, is generating backlash, as others post things about there being too much prayer- and asserting that prayer is the origin of the problem. While I understand the sentiment behind the hashtag, I have to concur with the naysayers who are pointing out that fighting against hateful ideology- supported by religions and political systems, both- is what we should be doing.

Charlie Hebdo’s message to the world (cartoon by Joann Sfar)

As a concept, I’ve always thought that prayer, the way it’s generally defined by western religions- as an intransitive verb that addresses god(s) with adoration, supplication, thanksgiving or confession- is the ultimate cop-out. Asking a deity- any deity- to intervene in problems of our own making, horrific acts performed by humans against other humans, removes us, in a way that is criminal, from taking responsibility and proactively working to make things better.

It is dark. In the City of Light, in Lebanon, in Kenya, in too many other places on this globe.

But there’s another definition of the term- one that is distanced from overtones of religion and belief- and the abrogation of human culpability. As a transitive verb, ‘to pray’ means ‘to entreat or implore’, often used as an introduction to a question, request or plea.

I can get behind that last bit. Pleading. With all of us, as human beings, to mourn, to punish the guilty who seek to end or disrupt the lives of others for reasons that can never suffice. But vilifying and scapegoating entire groups while blaming and further victimizing those who are fleeing the terror… I implore us all to think before we act/react/speak.

That’s how this atheist prays.

Separation

As frightening as it is to think that such a thing is necessary, today is, evidently, ‘Openly Secular Day’.

So, in the spirit of ‘reducing anti-atheist prejudice’ (again, I shudder at the thought that such a thing exists), here’s an older post examining some of the myriad reasons behind my continuing push for the complete secularization of all rational societies.

I’ve been kept busy lately, doing my part to forestall the implementation of the insanity that is Bill C51, so my apologies for yet another recycled post (although the recycling IS in keeping with the spirit of Earth Day just past). Hope to be back with something new in the near future.

colemining

This evening, over the course of fairly standard dinner conversation, I was asked why atheists needed to be considered under the same aegis as any other religious group- and why the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario was getting involved.

I had no idea what she was talking about, but my first thought was essentially along the lines of ‘holy cows, these New Atheists are becoming as dogmatic and doctrinaire as those ‘believers’ from whom they wish to distance themselves.’

My inquisitor sent me this link to a recent ‘Day 6’ discussion on CBC radio.  According to the National Post the case was brought by a a father- from small town Ontario- who, as a ‘secular humanist’ objected to the distribution of Gideons’ Bibles in the public school his children attended.

He countered this by suggesting that Just Pretend: A Freethought Book for Children be made equally available.  The Niagara…

View original post 932 more words

Apatheism

I learned a new word recently. That doesn’t happen all that often- although it is occurring more frequently since I moved into a job significantly outside my regular wheelhouse of history, literature, religion, myth, story, music and etc.

I was watching a TEDTalk (have I mentioned how I’m hooked on these things? No wait. That discussion is in a post that is still languishing in the drafts folder. I need to stop being so easily distracted…) by Dr. Ben Goldacre.

This TEDTalk here:

I was watching it for a couple of reasons- I am working in the healthcare industry at the moment, so the subject matter is relevant to my day-to-day involvement in scientific, evidence-based research and the public policies that are informed by this research.

Mainly, though, I decided to check it out because there has been a whole lot of irresponsible let’s call it ‘journalism’, for lack of a better word, out there lately, further inflaming the public’s inclination to buy into ‘facts’ that support a previously-held worldview. Like those worldviews informed by ‘celebrity’ doctors (and the shills who follow them) that encourage different types of supplements as a requirement for good health. Or those that claim that vaccines cause autism. Or death.

Recently, the Toronto Star, a news organization that, in general, I tend to support in its measured reporting, presented a front page ‘exposé’ of the ‘dangers’ of the HPV vaccine. The irresponsibility of the ‘journalism’ behind the piece was staggering. Enraging, actually.

But this isn’t about that.

I did a little background searching after watching Dr. Goldacre. His name was familiar- and he is undeniably engaging. The Wikipedia (my old friend Pythia- Source of Quick Wisdom) told me that I recognized his name because of discussions I’ve seen ’round his recent book Bad Pharma, and the earlier Bad Science.

He’s a guy after my own heart- stating, in his science-y way, a number of the things that I tend to talk/think about. He’s a cool dude- a self-described ‘nerd evangelist’ and critic of pseudoscience, ‘alternative’ medicine and, generally, irrationality. That last extends to those scientific institutions (like pharmaceutical companies) that have a tendency to forgo good science for the purpose of economic expedience.

The Pythia also informed me that Dr. Goldacre is a contributor to The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas (a volume I haven’t read, yet one that I can picture sitting on a friend’s bookshelf- I meant to borrow it quite some time ago. Note to self…) and also a self-described apatheist.

There’s the word that gave me pause.

I can break down its constituent parts and figure out what it’s all about, but, until I looked up Dr. Goldacre, I honestly didn’t know that this was a thing.

From first glance, I wasn’t a big fan. I don’t like apathy. It’s lazy. And symptomatic of a wasteful lack of engagement in the world. It’s all about lack – of interest, of enthusiasm, of concern. I can’t advocate for any of those things as an approach to life.

Interestingly, the word originally stems from the Greek word apatheia– ‘without (a) suffering/passion (pathos)’- that was used by the Stoics to describe an admirable state of acceptance of the lack of control one has over things that are exterior to oneself. This sense of the word was picked up by later early Xian monastics as a virtue.

As a distinction, the Greek word apathes (‘without feeling’) came to be associated with the Xian concept of denial of the good god and his works, associated with that laziest of the 7 Deadlies, Sloth.

I concur, very strongly, with the opposition to laziness bit. The denial of the good god stuff? With that I am okay.

Still, this concept of apatheism has some intriguing aspects. It sees itself as pragmatic, or practical, atheism with the following characteristics:

  • Absence of religious motivation—belief in gods does not motivate moral action, religious action, or any other form of action;
  • Active exclusion of the problem of gods and religion from intellectual pursuit and practical action;
  • Indifference—the absence of any interest in the problems of gods and religion; or
  • Unawareness of the concept of a deity

Essentially? Apatheists don’t care about religion. At all.

I get it. Particularly from the perspective of Science. Philosophical mindsets that suggest that the existence (or non-existence) of a god (or bunch of them) matters not at all in an evidence-based, scientific methodologically-sourced way of approaching the natural world/universe are pretty resonant, generally speaking, with the way that I approach this here existence of ours.

All gods, and all religions, are equal in ‘value’- and, as such, equally irrelevant. Especially since moralistic societies need not rely on religions for their foundations. They might be nice as sources of childlike comfort, but there’s no real call for them in an educated, incredulous and secularized society. This, however, remains a minority view here on Planet Earth.

Historically, practical atheists/apatheists were regarded as immoral embracers of hedonism and vice.

Like my Gnostics. And anyone else who disagrees with the institutions of the religious status quo.

Shockingly/disgustingly/terrifyingly this was news this morning. I’ve written before about some of my feelings about my own atheism – how I’ve tended to remain quiet about it unless challenged, and how the whole ‘live-and-let-live’ mantra has stood me fairly steadfast for some time now, but also how I’m being forced to rethink that way of approaching the world.

With the rise of the Reactionary Right- in all its forms (political, religious et al)- remaining quietly assured in my evidence-based beliefs about the world is no longer enough. Atheism shouldn’t require ideological defence. Not in this day and age. It certainly shouldn’t be something that ends with a death sentence at the hands of credulous individuals who assert the dominance of their fairy tale view of the world – although using ‘fairy tale’ as a descriptor in this case connotes a worldview that is far less indelibly stained by violence than is historically demonstrable.

The distance between those shouldn’ts and the way things are is becoming alarmingly disparate.

There has always- in my experience of the academic discipline- been discussion about the connection between religion and violence. I read René Girard’s Violence and the Sacred as part of a dialectic-based course I took with one of my mentors- a philosopher of religion who had a profound influence on my way of approaching religious studies, and the world in general.

The discussion is on-going- even outside of the halls of the academy- these days. There’s a whole lot of name-calling and finger-pointing and claims about the violent tendencies of ‘Other’ groups, Ironically, that finger-pointing and name-calling generally leads to suggestions for ‘initiatives’ to counter that violence with violence- sourced in and supported by ‘Our’ religious beliefs- directed back at the ‘Other’.

There’s also a whole lot of apologist literature out there defending religion- generally heralding one religion over another- that speaks to the need to shore up our morality by returning to one credulous fold or another.

While I respect some of Karen Armstrong’s work, and very much respect her as a person- her compassionate view of the world with all its variety is really quite wonderful- she’s missed the boat with her latest comparative survey of the world’s religions.

As is succinctly noted in this response to her response to the charge that religion is causally inseparable from violence, in attempting to defend religion against all comers (primarily us atheist-types), to ‘exonerate’ religion (something that isn’t, in my academic opinion, possible) Armstrong ‘muddies the water’ of an otherwise ‘academic intervention in an ongoing but oversimplified and disheartening “debate”.

This is a common fallacy found in the arguments of apologists. Who are, by definition, credulous.

In the face of such discussions- and their worldwide implications- it isn’t enough for the incredulous, evidence-based thinkers among us to claim indifference to the problem of gods and their existence. How wonderful it would be if we were able to ‘actively exclude the problem of gods and religion from intellectual pursuit and practical action.’

How wonderful indeed.

Somehow, I doubt we’ll get there any time soon.

Until we have worldwide consensus that ‘the belief in gods does not motivate moral action, religious action, or any other form of action’, we have to acknowledge that such beliefs are going to colour our discussions about how we can all get along and share this planet. Unfortunately, I don’t see that consensus on any visible horizon.

Which means that eliminating the reality of the opposing perspective smacks of the intellectual laziness suggested by the apathy part of apatheism.

Intellectual laziness- from all sides- is pissing me off. The fact that the main ‘news’ of the day seems to be an ongoing discussion about the colour of some randomly-posted dress is kinda messing with my expectations as to the proper order of things.

I’m thinking that my embracing of a wee dram this evening will be anything but apathetic. I will enjoy my Scotch with real enthusiasm and interest. Believe me.

So- a little song about apathy, with a very special, much beloved, guest star in the video.

I’m going down to Liverpool to do nothing
I’m going down to Liverpool to do nothing
All the days of my life
All the days of my life.

Farewell, Leonard. I can’t imagine a world without you. Strong characters enchant and endure- and only truly strong people can imbue such characters with real humanity. That Vulcan- and the human who brought him to life- were examples of the best that humanity has to offer. Go gently, Mr. Spock.

 

Required Reading

We started chatting about making cottage plans this week. Believe me- it’s a matter of maintaining sanity in the face of the insane cold we’ve been subjected to over the past little bit.

I started dreaming of lakes and docks and summer-y cocktails with a great book or 12, and remembered this post.

It’s in keeping, subject-wise, with some of the stuff I’ve been harping about lately, yet it is allowing me to recall last summer and permitting me to hope that the sun and warmth will return.

Have a great weekend! If you’re anywhere near this neck o’ the woods make sure to bundle up!

colemining

Every once in awhile I find myself missing university teaching.  I miss the students- wide-eyed and eager to learn, and the colleagues with whom I shared common interests and background.  I miss the discussions we had, and the ideas that they would bring to the table that would enhance and develop my own perceptions of our world.

But one of the things I miss most is the opportunity I had- every four months or so- to create a syllabus outlining the assignments and readings for the course.  In doing so, I got to share some of my favourite stories and concepts with my audience- and they actually HAD to read them (at least if they hoped to pass the course, they did).

I miss it partly because I genuinely LOVE sharing the wonderful contributions that have been made in understanding our humanity with my fellow humans, but also because sometimes…

View original post 1,650 more words

Crafting Love

“In the first days of his bondage he had turned to the gentle churchly faith endeared to him by the naïve trust of his fathers, for thence stretched mystic avenues which seemed to promise escape from life. Only on closer view did he mark the starved fancy and beauty, the stale and prosy triteness, and the owlish gravity and grotesque claims of solid truth which reigned boresomely and overwhelmingly among most of its professors; or feel to the full the awkwardness with which it sought to keep alive as literal fact the outgrown fears and guesses of a primal race confronting the unknown. It wearied Carter to see how solemnly people tried to make earthly reality out of old myths which every step of their boasted science confuted, and this misplaced seriousness killed the attachment he might have kept for the ancient creeds had they been content to offer sonorous rites and emotional outlets in their true guise of eternal fantasy.

But when he came to study those who had thrown off the old myths, he found them even more ugly than those who had not. They did not know that beauty lies in harmony, and that loveliness of life has no standard amidst an aimless cosmos save only its harmony with the dreams and the feelings which have gone before and blindly moulded our little spheres out of the rest of chaos. They did not see that good and evil and beauty and ugliness are only ornamental fruits of perspective, whose sole value lies their linkage to what chance made our fathers think and feel, and whose finer details are different for every race and culture. Instead, they are either denied these things altogether or transferred them to the crude, vague instincts which they shared with the beasts and peasants; so that their lives were dragged malodourously out in pain, ugliness and disproportion, yet filled with a ludicrous pride at having escaped from something more unsound than that which still held them. They had traded the false gods of fear and blind piety for those of license and anarchy.

Carter did not taste deeply of these modern freedoms; for their cheapness and squalor sickened a spirit loving beauty alone, while his reason rebelled at the flimsy logic with which their champions tried to gild brute impulse with a sacredness stripped from the idols they had discarded. He saw that most of them, in common with their cast-off preistcraft, could not escape from the delusion that life has a meaning apart from that which men dream into it; and could not lay aside the crude notion of ethics and obligations beyond those of beauty, even when all Nature shrieked of its unconsciousness and impersonal unmorality in the light of their scientific discoveries. Warped and bigoted with preconceived illusions of justice, freedom, and consistency, they cast off the old lore and the old ways with the old beliefs; nor ever stopped to think that that lore and those ways were the sole makers of their present thoughts and judgments, and the sole guides and standards in a meaningless universe without fixed aims or stable points of reference. Having lost these artificial settings, their lives grow void of direction and dramatic interest; till at length they strove to drown their ennui in bustle and pretended usefulness, noise and excitement, barbaric display and animal sensation. When these things palled, disappointed, or grew nauseous through revulsion, they cultivated irony and bitterness, and found fault with the social order. Never could they realize that their brute foundations were as shifting and contradictory as the gods of their elders, and the satisfaction of one moment is the bane of the next. Calm, lasting beauty comes only in dreams, and this solace the world had thrown away when in its worship of the real it threw away the secrets of childhood and innocence.”

From ‘The Silver Key’, by Howard Philips Lovecraft. 1926

Please note the date of composition.

1926.

I’ve been reading a lot of Lovecraft lately. I’m not totally sure why. I did read Stephen King’s latest, Revival, recently, and the novel certainly evoked some Lovecraftian reflections, so that might have something to do with it. I was also fighting a brutal virus of some kind- and when I’m feeling ill and generally down-in-the-dumps, my literary tastes tend toward the gothic for some reason.

I purchased Lovecraft’s collected works for my Kobo for something like $3.00. Canadian dollars. That’s a whole lot o’ lit for not a lot of money. As I’ve been working my way through the collection, a bunch of things have been jumping out at me- like rats from the walls of an antediluvian castle.

First off, the guy LOVED to use and reuse particular turns of phrase and descriptive terminology that is hard to find outside of his work. While I’ve read him before, I have never in-taken so much back-to-back-to-back, as it were, so the repetition is heightened more than it would be if I was taking the stuff in pieces- or according to a logical ordering- which this collection (at least how it appears on my e-Reader) is lacking. If all the Cthulhu stuff and all the Dream Cycle stuff were together as their cohesive-ish wholes, then the recurrence of themes and wordplay may be less jarring. Hard to know. He was a writer of his time- so the somewhat formal and pointedly archaic language is to be expected (as is the racism and classism- although I’d avoided a great deal of the worst of that in past readings).

Nonetheless, I’ve always been interested in the guy- as much for what he influenced as for his creations themselves. The Cthulhu Mythos is pretty damn brilliant when it comes down to it, with its incorporation of mythological themes and responses to the tensions between the realities of scientific and technological advances, and ‘tradition’ and religion.

From the Wikipedia:

Lovecraft himself adopted the stance of atheism early in his life. In 1932 he wrote in a letter to Robert E. Howard: “All I say is that I think it is damned unlikely that anything like a central cosmic will, a spirit world, or an eternal survival of personality exist. They are the most preposterous and unjustified of all the guesses which can be made about the universe, and I am not enough of a hairsplitter to pretend that I don’t regard them as arrant and negligible moonshine. In theory I am an agnostic, but pending the appearance of radical evidence I must be classed, practically and provisionally, as an atheist”.

He got it. I’ll say it again, atheism ain’t some new, dangerous social phenomenon. Old as the hills, it is. Or at least as old as the gods.

Lovecraft was a weird little dude, in many ways. But his influence is undisputed in certain literary circles. Neil Gaimon loves him (and I love Neil Gaimon). As does the aforementioned Mr. King. I have to admit that revisiting his stories has been eye-opening.

Ever since I can remember I’ve had recurring dreams that feature the odd angles and geometry that Lovecraft uses to describe the architecture of the mysterious and forbidden cities of the ancients. So many of these dreams take place in parts of Toronto (the town closest to my heart) but with subtle differences that lend a sinister aura to the dreamscapes.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve been out for a ramble and come across a building that seems somehow off in real life- since I’m used to seeing it in dreams with its structure somehow altered.

Arguably, the guy has crept into my psyche through the myriad stories his writings influenced and which I read/heard without knowing that they were Lovecraftian in origin. He’s created archetypes that we don’t even acknowledge as being as archetypal as they are.

I have something of a similar relationship with some of Ray Bradbury’s tales. His October Country and Dark Carnival resonate heavily with my childhood memories and, well, things I like. Oddly, perhaps, since I haven’t spent much (any) time in the Midwest of the US.  I first read Something Wicked This Way Comes when I was in Grade 6. It was fall (it might have been October), and the atmosphere of the novel suited the melancholy of the season and set the standard for my love of macabre carnivals (like the ones found in Carnivale and, recently, the Freak Show of the most recent iteration of American Horror Story).

Through Bradbury’s autumnal settings and investigations of the mélange of good and evil found in each of us- and the awareness that self-centered desires are the basis for human malice and unhappiness- his stories teach us that supernatural forces (evil coming from outside- from something that is other than human) are most easily defeated by the most human of tools. Things like sincerity of heart. Things like love. Because those non-human influences are easily dissipated when faced with human strength of character and conviction.

Reminds me of a song…

When I was a young boy,
My father took me into the city,
To see a marching band,
He said, Son, when you grow up,
Would you be the savior of the broken,
The beaten and the damned,

Sometimes I get the feeling,
She’s watching over me,
And other times I feel like I should go,
And through it all, the rise and fall,
The bodies in the streets,
And when you’re gone we want you all to know,

We’ll carry on, we’ll carry on,
And though you’re dead and gone, believe me,
Your memory will carry on, we’ll carry on,
And in my heart, I can’t contain it,
The anthem won’t explain it,

And while that sends you reeling,
From decimated dreams,
Your misery and hate will kill us all,
So paint it black and take it back,
Let’s shout out loud and clear,
Defiant to the end we hear the call

Many of Bradbury’s tales were published by Arkham House- founded to preserve, in hardcover, Lovecraft’s voluminous fiction.

Like Lovecraft, Bradbury’s imagination influenced those same later writers. Neil’s latest short story collection contains a poetic homage to Ray that highlights his importance to the weird  genre of literature. Something Wicked also greatly impacted the story behind my favourite of his novels -one I used more than once in courses I taught over the years- American Gods.

Ordinary people fighting the influence of supernatural beings- frequently, the gods themselves. Recurrence of theme…

I used Gaimon’s wonderful novel as an illustration of the ways in which we, as humans, make up gods as originators and jurists- and how these creations need us. Without our worship and acknowledgement they fade, or die, or are forced to take jobs as taxi drivers and prostitutes (or, as did my very faves, run a funeral parlour in Cairo, Illinois- not all that far from Bradbury’s native Waukegan, Illinois).

The first time I used American Gods in a classroom setting was for a course called Religion, Illusion and Reality- a survey course describing how we create and study religions. The novel offers a vivid illustration of the fundamental need the gods have for us, their creators, and how they fade as newer gods- those of media, technology and, even, celebrity take focus and worship away from them and cause them to disappear into obscure uselessness.

I love this theme. And it runs through all this weird fiction. Those things to which we stop paying attention draw back into the abyss of imagination where they were created- but remain dormant yet dangerous, waiting for the opportunity to influence the credulous among us and regain their power over those seeking to gratify the self above all. It is there that the weird gods find their acolytes.

This worldview hearkens back to that whole order vs. chaos dichotomy I’ve talked about before. Back to the beginnings- to our creative origins as we developed written language and began to institutionalize our attempts at explaining the unexplainable.

Rather than looking to the knowledge we’ve gained, we’re allowing the long-buried Cthulu-types to reassert their hold over our intelligence and call to us from the sunken depths or distant stars to which they had been banished by the light of humanity.

Prompted by a recent post by my friend Audrey, I’ve picked up some of Algernon Blackwood’s short fictions as well. Lord Dunsany is next. Perhaps by delving into these writers who recognize the dangers posed by those gods (and religions) we create, I’ll gain some perspective on why we are letting ourselves be drawn irretrievably back into the dark ages of credulity and superstition.

Creepy stories about weird gods are fantastic for fireside tale-telling, or while curled up in a blanket with a dram of something warming while the unseasonably cold winds from the Great Lake seep through the glass of a modern condominium building (that will be the remainder of my evening, I think).

They don’t belong in our schools or our places of work. Or in our governments and the policies they institute- on behalf of all of us.

If we’re going to insist upon such a return to darkness in our daily lives and overarching culture, why not go all the way?

Or 2015- for those of us here in Canada…

Banning ‘Blasphemy’

Well that whole thing about ruminating on my own reactions to things and thinking about the epidemic impulse to leap to the defensive didn’t last all that long… I’m angry. So angry. So yes, this is reactionary post. It isn’t a defense, though. Nothing here to defend.

You can’t control the world, cole. Have to keep telling myself that today. As the existential reflection goes on and on…

I love language. I love languages– I’ve learned a fair number of them- some out of necessity, given the path my studies have taken, but some simply for the appreciation of the inherent music of the words and for what those words and phrases and colloquialisms can tell us about the underlying culture in which the language evolved.

Certain words are more fun than others. This one, for example. Interestingly, the stuff I wrote about while talking about that word, in particular, kinda echoes some of the things I feel like I need to talk about now.

Some words, admittedly, become loaded with negative associations or misused to a degree that leaves the original meaning lost in the dust of history. Cult is one. That’s a whole other post, though (seriously, it’s in the Drafts folder as I write this).

Others have become so offensive to progressive and rational views of the world that we have removed them from polite conversation- if not the actual lexicon itself.

I’d like to suggest another.

Blasphemy.

I’m not talking, here, about its colloquial, secular usage- ‘irreverence’– especially since I, myself, do tend to use it hyperbolically when (jokingly) defending something that I like against a dissenting opinion. Example? Call the Monkees a ‘manufactured, talentless band.’ THAT’ll get an exclamation of blasphemy! thrown backatcha. (While they were, certainly, ‘manufactured’, they were/are hardly talentless. Read this if you want some more of that particular defense).

The original meaning of the word is tied up, inextricably, with religion and belief.  From the Greek, the word means ‘impious’, or ‘to speak evil of’- which, given my disdain of the ‘E-word’- unless it is being used hyperbolically and illustratively (as in, ‘that Justin Bieber? He’s just evil.’)- is the most uncomfortable of the uncomfortable meanings. The sense of the original Greek root implies ‘injury through speech or utterance’. Which calls to mind sticks and stones and the like… but I’ll come back to that in a minute…

From its earliest usage it was employed almost exclusively to describe lack of reverence for one deity or another. An expression of disdain for those things that were considered ‘sacred’ and ‘inviolate’. Back in the bad old days, when there was no such thing as the separation of religion and state anywhere, laws were put on the books to deal with those who violated the inviolate- through words or actions. Laws. That are still active in too many parts of the world.

Including the Alsace-Moselle region, in France.

Last year, in fact, a group of French Muslims remembered the existence of the law (a hold-over from the annexation of the region by Germany, and the retention of that little piece of nonsense once it was returned to French control) and sued Charlie Hebdo under the statute. Previous to the 2014 suit, the law was last invoked in 1918.  1918.

The 2014 case was thrown out of court, not, as one would hope, because of its implied reversion to archaic anti-secular ideals, but because the law only protects against blasphemy to Catholicism, Protestantism and Judaism (that the latter was included, surprised me a little, TBH). So any perceived insult to Islam wasn’t covered by this blip in common sense. And common law. Legal statutes against blasphemy have not existed elsewhere in France since the Revolution (that started in 1789, for those who mightn’t know their history).

No regression of ideology here. That isn’t the least bit anachronistic. Surely not a indicator of a devolution of human rationalism and progressiveness.

That ^^^ was sarcasm. Which, like satire, is an expression of derision for the ridiculous. According to the Wikipedia, satire is a genre of literature and art  “in which vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, corporations, government or society itself, into improvement. Although satire is usually meant to be humorous, its greater purpose is often constructive social criticism, using wit as a weapon and as a tool to draw attention to both particular and wider issues in society.”

The emphasis in that there definition is mine. ‘Constructive social criticism’. I’m all about the constructive social criticism.

I’ve stayed away from the news groups today- partly because I’ve had too much else to do, but mainly because I know that this horrible event is going to be used as another example of the ‘evil’ of ‘the Other’- and will provide further evidence (as if such was needed) that institutionalized religion is an archaic concept that has no role in progressive societies. That its only role is one of divisiveness, when what we have to be focusing on is our shared humanity.

And, of course, there will be all kinds of articles and comments and ignorance passed around in the www that will focus on Islamic extremist ideology and assertions that ‘we’ are ‘above’ this sort of thing. Which, certainly, speaks to this horrific example, but misses the larger point.

Because are we? Really?

Most of our Western ideas about blasphemy come from that Big Book O’ Myths that I so love to talk about (and that so many others love to cite- out of context and never having read the thing in its entirety). In fact, most Xian theology places blasphemy as the most sinniest of all sins. Worse than things like murder. The NT calls it the eternal sin (Mark 3.29).

The most common punishment for violating the inviolable? For busting this specific Big Ten Rule? For taking names in vain and all that sort of thing?

Stoning.

Before anyone starts tossing stones on this side of the Atlantic (or over there in the UK and the rest of Europe for that matter), I think we’d all better be taking a good look at our own glass houses. There are charges of ‘blasphemy’ from religious groups in North America All. The. Time. And before the stones start flying even faster, we need to check our own cultural/religious perspective and acknowledge that we are experiencing a crisis of reason and secularism ’round these parts, too.

Although laws against blasphemy are prohibited under the language contained in the Constitution of the USofA, some States retain statutes that uphold the possibility of prosecution for blaspheming. You think we’re not culpable of resorting to supporting the ridiculous? Throw on FoxNews of an evening and then tell me another one.

So. It should be obvious. Secularism is the only solution that makes anything like sense. We may not be able to affect that level of change on a worldwide scale- at least not yet- but we can certainly bring it into being hereabouts. It’s going to cause a whole lot of pushback- from a whole lot of people (many of whom were likely first to hop on the anti-extremism bus while screaming about freedoms this morning)- who misunderstand the term and equate it with atheism (which is becoming, increasingly, a BAD thing to be labelled. In my experience, lately, anyway).

As Jacques Berlinerblau emphasized in his 2012 HuffPost article, and despite assertions from the religious right to the contrary, Secularism is Not AtheismAtheism is about (anti-)metaphysical discussions of the non-existence of god(s). Secularism, on the other hand, doesn’t even address the existence or non-existence of god(s). It is about politics- specifically the tension between and suspicions about “any entanglement between government and religion.” ANY entanglement.

While Prof. Berlinerblau reminds us that there is flexibility to be found in the designation ‘secularism’, I maintain that complete separation is the route we need to be taking- for our own societal benefits and to better-position ourselves as an example to the rest of the world. We have to stop making belief/nonbelief in a supernatural entity (or a bunch of them) the focus. Of ANYthing- let alone things like governance and ethics and education. It isn’t something that matters. Not really. It shouldn’t drive the ways in which we make decisions that impact all of humanity.

The way I see it, we NEED to push for full-on secularization “the transformation of a society from close identification with religious values and institutions toward nonreligious (or irreligious) values and secular institutions. The secularization thesis refers to the belief that as societies progress, particularly through modernization and rationalization, religion loses its authority in all aspects of social life and governance… Secularization refers to the historical process in which religion loses social and cultural significance. As a result of secularization the role of religion in modern societies becomes restricted. In secularized societies faith lacks cultural authority, religious organizations have little social power.” (again, from the Wikipedia)

Believe in sky gods or earth goddesses or pasta monsters if you must – just keep all of it the hell out of journalism, our schools, public institutions and politics. If religious belief marks an extremity of unreason (and I’d argue that it does- Salman Rushdie agrees with me, evidently), then blasphemy, as a concept, has no place in rational conversation.

Especially when you realize, as Brandon Withrow outlined in another HuffPost article, that blasphemy laws are not about religion. They are about power, and rather than safeguarding religion (as the claim would have it), such laws quash the marginalized voice(s) (religious and non-religious). Which, as we saw today, is the grasping, desperate and cowardly recourse taken, all too often, by those who have their beliefs challenged.

Which seems to justify- rather than dispute- the reality that those beliefs should be continually challenged.

If they can’t withstand such scrutiny, they have no place in evolved, modern society.

Freedom of speech is something that is required for societies to function as anything other than totalitarian states. As such, people who choose (since the freedom to choose is another much-lauded hallmark of democratic societies) to take our collective mythologies at face value have every right to chat about them as they will. Of course, personally, I’d prefer that we talk about something sourced in THIS world, but that freedom has to allow for others to talk about things with which I may not always agree.

To talk about them. I don’t have to listen. I can choose to focus my energies elsewhere.

When violence and murder come to be seen as anything at all like an acceptable human response to the exposure of problems, contradictions or discrepancies in a worldview- religious or political- then that worldview isn’t worth supporting. And those actions cannot be condoned.

Full stop.

So… as much as I hate to blame words for the uses to which people might put them, and as counter-intuitive as it might be to talk about banning a word in light of the crime against free speech that occurred today, I feel like I have to advocate for the removal of this one from our secular lexicon. And, since we live- ostensibly and for now, at least- in a secular society, that means removing it from our day-to-day discourse- in the media, in entertainment, in literature and song.

It has become dangerous.

As a concept, it has no place in 2015. None.

For something to be blasphemous, all sides of the discussion have to agree, at the least, about the sacredness of that which is being discussed/questioned/maligned. Since it seems unlikely that we will arrive on common ground with that one, let’s do away with this whole blasphemy thing altogether, shall we?

Your god is someone else’s fairy tale. Get over it.

If your specific sacred cows can’t survive having the light of reason and evidence shined upon them, then shouldn’t they warrant further examination? Shouldn’t YOU be the one looking more deeply into the reasons why their support requires justification? If your ideas/beliefs can’t hold up under the pressure of some constructive social criticism, are they not something that deserves to be outed as irrelevant and/or replaceable?

As Withrow noted, protecting freedom of religion must also involve protecting freedom from religion. Somehow our dialogues about ‘tolerance’ have started to be more about fear of religious belief than respect for religious belief. And that fear isn’t focused on one particular worldview. As much as right wing talking heads might wish us to believe otherwise (Charlie Hebdo isn’t ‘anti-Islam’. It isn’t anti-anything- except perhaps anti-credulity and anti-unchecked-power-mongering. The magazine satirizes all kinds of things. Religious and otherwise. It is their mandate to do so). Withrow summed it up quite nicely: “If you want to change society for the better, and convince others of the power of your beliefs, or even rationality of the absence of them, do not hallow them through law. Demonstrate it by promoting civil conversation and show it by how you live and support your neighbors.”

Satire is among the oldest ways of committing sociology. It is a lens through which we can see problems, contradictions, and irrationality. It isn’t meant to offer up solutions, but to point out where the institution is failing. Satire is our collective wake up call. It can counterbalance the power- challenging leaders, dogma, doctrine and common practices- and calling these things to account. When used effectively, it can help to restore social equilibrium. It’s a vastly important form of communication. It’s also why so many people are going to miss The Colbert Report so much.

I’m not a satirist. It takes a special type of insight and analysis and talent to pull it off effectively. I’m an historian. And a writer. I can- and do, when possible- offer up solutions for the situations that the satirists bring to our attention. I can- and do- assert that we have to view religion as little more than an historical cautionary tale that may, in some ways, guide us as we reach for better answers- sourced in the availability of all the resources that this world of ours has to offer, and the capacity of our evolved human brains to search ever further for evidence-based solutions to those things we don’t yet understand. That its time of functional divisiveness is over.

The hashtag #jesuischarlie has been trending all day, as people express support for those freedoms associated with speech and expression. Whether or not you heard of the magazine before today, please take some time to think about the repercussions of the incomprehensible crime that took place in Paris this morning. And please be aware that attempts to silence criticism isn’t the province of any one religious faith or political ideology. Those with power- who would like to retain that power- do it as a matter of course.

Writers, musicians, artists, scientists and factivists (I told you I’d be using that word again) the world over face opposition- often at the institutional level- when their words or pictures or numbers or statistics or experimental results challenge the status quo. They are frequently silenced- although rarely as finally and heinously as happened in Paris.

Given the events of the day, there’s really only one dude who can sum up all this stuff. He was, appropriately, French. His work was considered blasphemous. He spent his life advocating things like freedom of expression and the separation of church and state. He was a satirical polemicist who critiqued the dogmas and institutions of his day (1694-1778).

François-Marie Arouet.

But you can call him Voltaire.

We need to keep on challenging those who seek to make us believe those absurdities. And commit the atrocities.

#jesuischarlie

I’m thinking really hard about what the truth of that means, for me. I hope, before you take ownership of the hashtag, and the responsibility that goes along with the claim, that you will do the same.

Know Thyself

I’ve posted about self-reflection before. It’s something I try to do often- with positive intent, rather than as an impulse to self-criticize. This time of year, especially, seems to bring it out. The longer nights somehow induce a whole pile of inward-turned thinking.

I tend to see the holiday season as a good opportunity to engage in some reflecting and a little bit of analysis as I check in- with friends and family, certainly- but also, and perhaps most importantly, with the person I see in the mirror every day.

This wasn’t my favourite year of all time. 2014 started with Dad in the hospital- and we lost him a few, very long, months later. I’m not sure I’ve really encompassed that loss, to be honest. It hits me at peculiar times- when I find myself picking up the phone to give him a call, for instance.

That keeps happening because there has been a fair amount of positive stuff going on, as well. And Dad was the first guy I’d call when something great was going on. I’m working at a job that, while it’s outside of my ‘regular’ wheelhouse in many ways, challenges me and makes me feel that I’m contributing something of value. Something bigger than me- and something that benefits a whole lot of people.

And my team is pretty freakin’ phenomenal- so the fact that I come to a place 5 days a week and get to hang out with people I like and respect… well, that’s a damn sight more than I was able to say this time last year.

I haven’t been nearly as prolific as I’d like to be, writing-wise, either here in the WordPressWorld or with the creative projects that I have on the go. This is partly due to serious computer issues- Abe (my heretofore trusty MacBook) has given up the ghost well-and-truly, and you couldn’t pay me enough to set foot anywhere near an Apple Store until the consumptive consumerism of the season has settled somewhat. The SO’s laptop is filling the void as best it can, but, really, I need my own tools in order to work most effectively. I’m a creature of habit- and I like the comfort of my settings and keyboard set-up.

More than the technical issues, though, the world-as-it-is continues to cause me enough existential stress that I am completely and constitutionally unable to figure out where to start. I ruminate and seek response/reply for some of the insanity I see out there, and I just cannot do it.

That a disproportionate deal of the insanity arises out of the implementation of unthinking, anti-intellectual applications of outdated and irrelevant religious ideology, is a truth that is as evident as it is hard to swallow.

The other day, this article, by John G. Messerly, showed up on one of the newsgroups I read fairly regularly. I perused it with interest, and with something like alacrity, a couple of days after Xmas. I admit that my thoughts tend in that direction all the time- but when there is in-your-face evidence of credulity at every single turn, questions of belief seem to surface even more frequently.

I don’t get it. Truly, I don’t. How seemingly-intelligent people can subscribe to blindness of belief in fairy tale figures- however wonderful the myths may be- and societal controls that are millennia-old.

I can suspend my disbelief for long enough- at this time of year, at least- to allow for some wonder and child-like innocence to show up. When I watch the original Miracle on 34th Street, or It’s a Wonderful Life or, even, Elf, I get the need to believe in the supernatural. The realities of life can be so stark and shocking in comparison that the potential presence in the world of Kris Kringle, or Clarence (or George Bailey and all the residents of Bedford Falls, for that matter), or Buddy the Elf (and his adopted Papa Elf- how do you not love Bob Newhart- and Lou Grant as Santa?) can take a bit of an edge off of the harshness of the realities of this world.

And the world can be a pretty harsh place.

Messerly notes:

” …a significant body of scientific evidence suggests that popular religion results from social dysfunction. Religion may be a coping mechanism for the stress caused by the lack of a good social safety net—hence the vast disparity between religious belief in Western Europe and the United States.

There is also a strong correlation between religious belief and various measures of social dysfunction including homicides, the proportion of people incarcerated, infant mortality, sexually transmitted diseases, teenage births, abortions, corruption, income inequality and more. While no causal relationship has been established, a United Nations list of the 20 best countries to live in shows the least religious nations generally at the top.”

The fideism about which he speaks- the idea that faith is independent of reason- isn’t an epistemological theory I can understand. In any way.

I’ve read a whole lot of William James- I’ve included him, and his theories about religious experience, in course syllabi, in fact- but I just can’t get the justification behind his ‘will to believe’. It involves such circular reasoning that even thinking about it for too long makes me nauseated with the motion sickness.

Pascal’s Wager is even more inexplicable. The inherent intellectual and rational cop-out– that it ‘costs’ nothing to believe that (a) god exists, so why not believe in that god, since it might be beneficial in the long-run (forgive the paraphrase and over-simplification for the purpose of succinctness)- makes me grind my teeth in frustration.

Kierkegaard’s ‘leap of (or, more correctly, to) faith’, an attempt at apologizing for the inherent paradoxes and contradictions in Xianity, flies in the face of everything I know about the need for rational examination and discourse among human beings.

(Okay, his concept of the personal, individual interaction with the god, and the need to translate the values espoused by religions into positive, exemplary actions– as opposed to theoretical imaginings, used in judgment but without acknowledgement of context, relativity or relevance- may have some dialectical merit, but isn’t, unfortunately, the go-to impulse of most institutionalized religions.)

The presuppositions required for such (and, really, all) apologetics don’t hold water. They can’t hold water, in my pragmatic (I do get the problem with using that word/philosophical ideology, associated as it is with the foundational theories of Mr. James, especially after taking him to task for the irrationality of his fideism. Just goes to show that he was a man of his time and context, in my opinion. I’m not convinced that he’d defend that ‘will to believe’ stuff so much, were he around today. He was, after all, a scientist.), humanistic understanding of the world.

I’ve always tried to approach my interactions with others with a ‘live-and-let-live’ sort of mindset. I’ve said before that I don’t understand militant atheist types who run down their ideological opponents with personal slurs and the very-public questioning of their mental capabilities. Even when I agree with them. Wholeheartedly.

My years spent teaching the historical, social and literary origins of many of the world’s religions led me, I thought, to a level of ‘tolerance’ for the views of others- a hope that because the basic impulse underlying the construction of all religious belief stems from a need to understand and order the world around us, that we might, as we continue to evolve, come to the awareness that we have other, less-polarizing and -polemical ways of answering these questions.

The realities of the world are causing me to challenge that particular propensity. As I witness what seems to be a rising tide of ideology-over-equity, of belief-over-justice, I’m starting to feel as if indulging any such unexamined and irrational beliefs (an indulgence that is, admittedly, a wee bit patronizing) makes me complicit in the epidemic of anti-intellectualism that is rampant the world over.

That’s one of the very personal not-so-fabulous realities I’m having difficulty comprehending, let alone, assimilating right now.

“Religion may help us in the way that whiskey helps a drunk, but we don’t want to go through life drunk.”

One of the manymany generous gifts I received this holiday season was a bottle of the Irish whiskey pictured up there ^^^^. Since my travels in Scotland this autumn turned me into a Scotch drinker, my littlest sister thought it prudent to enlighten me about the wonders of the Irish Water of Life, in order to acknowledge our familial heritage and give the distilleries of the Emerald Isle their fair due. There might be a bit of an implied dig there as well- at my lack of productivity in the writing department of late, but I’m assuming best intentions all around.

In any case, the whiskey is quite lovely (my first experience of a blend) and the message on the bottle is even more poignant. It describes the ages-old remedy that Irish scribblers of all ilks have applied to break the back of that most insidious and terrifying of beasts- Writer’s Block.

I’m not prepared to hit the bottle that hard for the inspiration/clarity I seem to be lacking these days, but a dram or two of an evening certainly won’t go amiss as I try to figure out the avenues down (up?) which my thoughts and insights and reactions to the world seem to be traveling.

The ancient Greek aphorism know thyself – apparently originating with the sun god, himself – has been associated with any number of philosophers. Like other such pithy sayings/admonitions (there are Ten, specifically, I can call to mind quite readily), this best known of the maxims (there are over 100 of them) recorded on Apollo’s Temple at Delphi, is interpreted in a number of ways.

Some suggest that it is a commandment to leave the things of the gods in the hands of the gods- to avoid overreaching and seeking that which the human mind is incapable of understanding. To know one’s place, in the universal scheme of things, and not look to ascribe meaning to those things outside of human purview.

In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates uses this particular edict to explain why he has no time to think about mythology/the gods or the nature of other ‘irrelevant things’. Since he has not yet achieved the self-knowledge the Oracle demands, he thinks it ridiculous to investigate the obscure, when the obvious remains misunderstood.

My interpretation of this Platonic wisdom says that in order to even begin an approach to understanding the elusive, one must focus on first comprehending oneself and one’s immediate physical– and temporal- environment. Postulating the origins or nature of something entirely supernatural and hypothetical without any sort of demonstrable proof while ignoring/failing to understand the evidence that speaks to the natural order of things is folly– in the truest, oldest and most complete senses of the word.

(Folly: from the Old French for “madness”. Also: evil, wickedness, mental weakness, unwise conduct).

In my quest for equity and respect and ‘tolerance’ I have always maintained that belief in the next/other world- and the god(s) who rule(s) it- is fine. No skin off my nose if people want to continue playing make believe long past the point of rationality and reason. To each their own, and all that.

Until it isn’t fine. Until those beliefs creep into our political and social and educational systems and permit the deterioration of the strides we have made in understanding and defining the real world. Strides toward knowing ourselves as humans- imperfect but adaptable and evolving people with the ability to shape our own individual and communal destinies- rather than as subordinate creatures of a created creator with an unknowable ‘plan’ for our future.

As I continue my self-reflection into the New Year, this new awareness is likely to be the biggest bit o’ something with which I’ll be wrestling.

Tolerance = complicity… that’s a tough one.

While belief may the easy answer for some, elenchus and dialectic are hard for everyone.

Freakin’ Socrates.

Perhaps I’ll need more of the whiskey than first thought.

Immanuel Kant was a real pissant
Who was very rarely stable.
Heidegger, Heidegger was a boozy beggar
Who could think you under the table.
David Hume could out-consume
Schopenhauer and Hegel,
And Wittgenstein was a beery swine
Who was just as sloshed as Schlegel.

There’s nothing Nietzsche couldn’t teach ya’
‘Bout the raising of the wrist.
SOCRATES, HIMSELF, WAS PERMANENTLY PISSED…

John Stuart Mill, of his own free will,
On half a pint of shandy was particularly ill.
Plato, they say, could stick it away;
Half a crate of whiskey every day.
Aristotle, Aristotle was a bugger for the bottle,
Hobbes was fond of his dram,
And Rene Descartes was a drunken fart: “I drink, therefore I am”
Yes, Socrates, himself, is particularly missed;
A lovely little thinker but a bugger when he’s pissed!