Required Reading

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 I reallyreally wish that I could MAKE some people do things I want them to do.  For their own good, of course.  For their good and for the good of us all.

There are some vital things out there to which we all NEED to be exposed.

I’ve spoken before about how much I love the reboot of Cosmos.  Dr. Tyson has done an incredible job of revivifying the message that Dr. Sagan left with us when he passed away almost 20 years ago.  Inspired by the show (there IS good stuff on t.v, now and again), I decided that it was past time for me to revisit Dr. Sagan a little more fully.

With a cottage weekend on the horizon (T-minus 2 days!), I picked up some books to accompany me as I sit on the dock, cocktail in hand, and fully and formally welcome back our Canadian cottage season.

And, because sometimes I’m not-so-good with the waiting, I have to admit that I cracked the books a little prematurely.

One of them is The Demon-Haunted World- Science as a Candle in the Dark, Dr. Sagan’s penultimate work of wonder and genius.  His next-to-last published offering to the world of his eloquent view of the Cosmos and our humanity- and a warning that we haven’t managed to heed.

I read the book for the first time as a student, many years ago, but not as part of my course-dictated required readings.  As a student of the Scientific Study of Religion, I was interested in the interplay between what we have learned, through generations of scientific observation and experimentation in the natural world (both the provable and theoretical outcomes), and the stories of the supernatural that we have created and to which we continue to cling, in spite of lack of evidence and with an extremity of the beggaring of common sense.

The disconnect disturbed me then, as it does now (to an ever-growing degree).  I can no more understand today, even after more than a decade of researching how and why we construct religious beliefs and the institutions that support and further those beliefs, why people choose to remain willfully ignorant and in the thrall of superstition and fairy tales.

I understand that there is collected wisdom to be found in the stories- wisdom that stands the test of time, since it is human in origin.

Re-reading the book, I was struck- seemingly on each and every page- by how prescient Dr. Sagan truly was.  And not in any pseudo-scientific ‘psychic’ way.

On pages 25-26 he wrote (in 1995):

“The dumbing down of America is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30-second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations of pseudo-science and superstition, but especially a celebration of a kind of ignorance… The plain lesson is that study- not just of science, but of anything- are avoidable, even desirable.”

Jebus.

That particular quote- and the one that accompanies his picture up there ^^^^- are shaking me to my very core.

The guy, through his observation of the world that he loved, knew.  He knew, back then, that we are on a slippery slope to our own destruction- one that is being expedited by our stubborn unwillingness to think for ourselves and set aside the beliefs and willful ignorance that keep us yoked to the agendas of those in power- whether the powers are religious or secular.

We believe the fairy tales because doing so is easier than thinking for ourselves.  We have an entire world of wisdom and knowledge and evidential experience to tap into- with new discoveries being made daily- and yet we persist in holding onto Bronze-Age ideas regarding the structure of the world/universe in which we live.

Re-reading his words left me intellectually and emotionally exhausted with the inspiration they still provide.  But it also left me mad as Hell (there’s that word again).

As his synopsis of his life-long love affair with science and the natural world unfolds, he speaks about the need to continually educate ourselves and question and test our conclusions- the way scientists do as they seek to explain and understand our universe.  The continuous testing of hypotheses to shape an approach to the truth is required methodology in the sciences.

In religion?  Not so much (pages 34-35).

“Which leaders of the major faiths acknowledge that their beliefs might be incomplete or erroneous and establish institutes to uncover possible doctrinal deficiencies?  Beyond the test of everyday living, who is systematically testing the circumstances in which traditional religious teachings may not longer apply?  (It is certainly conceivable that doctrines and ethics that might have worked fairly well in patriarchal or patristic or medieval times might be thoroughly invalid in the very different world we inhabit today)… Scripture is said to be divinely inspired- a phrase with many meanings.  But what is it’s simply made up by fallible humans?  Miracles are attested, but what they’re instead some mix of charlantanry, unfamiliar states of consciousness, misapprehensions of natural phenomena, and mental illness?  No contemporary religion and no New Age belief seem to me to take sufficient account of the grandeur, magnificence, subtlety and intricacy of the Universe revealed by science.  The fact that so little of the findings of modern science is prefigured in Scripture to my mind casts further doubt on its divine inspiration.

But of course I might be wrong.”

That last line is so Sagan.  Always the scientist.  Always the awareness that his hypothesis might not prove accurate and therefore have to be consigned to the dust-heap of failed attempts at understanding.

The last chapter of the book resonates these days in ways that would be spooky- if he wasn’t who he was, and if I was inclined to believe in things that are ‘spooky’.  In ‘Real Patriots Ask Questions’ he outlines why it is our responsibility, as participants in democracy, to keep ourselves informed about the world in general and the actions of our elected leaders in particular.

Since our federal government, just today, made public their intention to proceed with a staggeringly ill-conceived decision that flies in the face of majority (and scientific) opinion and is demonstrative of their typical arrogance and self-preserving agenda, that chapter hit home pretty freakin hard.

Again with the wisdom (page 434):

“If we can’t think for ourselves, if we’re unwilling to question authority, then we’re just putty in the hands of those in power.  But if the citizens are educated and form their own opinions, then those in power work for us.  In every country we should be teaching our children the scientific method and the reasons for a Bill of Rights.  With it comes a certain decency, humility and community spirit.  In the demon-haunted world we inhabit by virtue of being human, this may be all that stands between us and the enveloping darkness.”

I powered through the book.  The impact of his observations and the articulation of our current issues in a work written almost 20 years ago left me feeling like I needed to finish it quickly.  Impending danger and dark foreboding, folks.  He started warning us about it decades ago.  And not only did we not listen, we are rushing headlong- willingly blind- into the idiocy that will bring about our destruction.

This weekend, on the dock, I will savour it again- more slowly this time- to appreciate the fullness of his thoughts and the beauty and power of his words.  It will be my required (re-)reading- in amongst the literary creativity of a couple of my favourite authors of fiction.

The finale of Cosmos, a couple of weeks ago, started with Dr. Tyson ‘in’ the Library of Alexandria.  My dream palace.  Seriously.  Of all the great human constructs that have been needlessly destroyed, THAT one hurts me most of all.

It was, as Neil noted, the storehouse of the wisdom of the Classical period.  The math, the science, the philosophy, the theology.  Our stories and our discoveries about the world we live in and the universe around us.

At that time such wisdom was available only to the elite, and so, when the mob came to destroy the Library and its wonders, there weren’t many to stand against the hoard.

Intelligence and critical thinking and rationality and engagement with the realities of our world are characteristics and attributes that are actively being discouraged in our popular media and by our leaders- those in the business world, in the arena of religious belief, and those we elect to political power.  We celebrate the pedestrian, the ‘common’, the ‘creators’ of amusing 140-character soundbites.  Credulity is not only acceptable, it’s laudable.

In 1996, Carl Sagan offered another example of his great and awesome voice crying out against the wilderness of ignorance and complete lack of healthy and needful skepticism.  He shouted, but not enough of us seemed to hear.

If we don’t start hitting the books and completing our assigned readings, we students of the world are going to fail this class.  Bigtime.  And that failure will lead us, inexorably, “back into superstition and darkness.”

And when that happens, who among us will stand against the mob?

And if the dam breaks open many years too soon, and if there is no room upon the hill

And if your head explodes with dark forebodings, too, I’ll see you on the dark side of the moon.

Brain damage, indeed.

PS- For a few days, come Friday morning, I will be shutting down the connectivity to all things technological in favour of my lakeside dock and the company of good friends.  Have a fantastic weekend, WPPeeps.  And if you’re looking for something to read… Just a suggestion.  A strong and pleading suggestion, but just a suggestion nonetheless. 

Bullies

Last week on Cosmos… Oh, how that show continues to amaze me. And this last episode spoke about concepts of immortality- and how the development of writing has allowed us to see into the hearts and minds of those who lived millennia before our time.

The stories remain. Neil deGrasse Tyson spoke of the Hero’s Journey- as undertaken by Gilgamesh as he searched for immortality.

The episode cleverly pointed to the existence of a Flood myth- one that predates the inspiration for Russell Crowe’s latest film by 1000 years- while continuing to explore the reality that to understand our planet and the cosmos as a whole we have to open our minds to its seeming vastness and our relative insignificance in the scale of space and time.

I love that show.

Anyhoo.

It got me thinking about my guy Gil- and called to mind this post that I wrote way back when I first was finding my voice here at colemining.

I wrote about him in the context of his initial character- the bullying leader, out for his own agenda- rather than the wise ruler he became as a result of his travel and discoveries.

Since today was the day that those running to lead this province as the next government were allowed to begin broadcasting their campaign ads, I thought that the topic of bullying and bullies could do with a little revisiting.

I haven’t had the television on today so I am able to live in hope (until I do catch a news report or a commercial) that this crop of political leaders will transcend the growing- and repulsive- trend toward attack ads as the norm.

Let’s keep it clean and on point, folks. There’s too much at stake for lowest common denominator mud-slinging and schoolyard name-calling.

We go to the polls on June 12. Make your voice heard, Ontario.

colemining

http://www.qacps.k12.md.us/mms/george/gilgameshpicture.jpg

Gilgamesh.  If there was ever a classic example of a  cautionary tale about leaders misusing their power to the detriment of the lives of the people, and the displeasure that this abuse caused the gods, the Epic of Gilgamesh is it.  A Number 1.  While there is a great deal going on in the myth, its warning against bullying tactics as a political ‘strategy’ is as important today as it was more than 4500 years ago.

The earliest extant version of the story dates to about 2100-2000 BCE, from the time of the Sumerian revival in Mesopotamia.  The Ancient Near East was a collection of City States, constantly battling for supremacy.  We have no precise dates for the historical King Gilgamesh (sometime between 2800 and 2500 BCE is likely), but he is mentioned in the Sumerian King List and tradition holds that he conquered the previous ruler to become king…

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The Task(s) at Hand

Where to begin….

I’d like to think that little problem is the source of my current inability to articulate the myriad thoughts rushing ’round this brain o’ mine, but, really, the opposite is true.  I know where to begin.  It’s the continuing and, especially, the completing that have me pulling out my hair from the roots (figuratively speaking, of course) over the past while.

I am constantly drawing inspiration from so very many places around me.  People are blowing me away with how amazing they are, of late.  Truly.

While it remains, in some quarters, hard to look at people as a whole and find much that can be called positive to say about them (looking at you all you folks who persist in making ‘Mayor’ McCheese into a media phenomenon- to the extent that he remains convinced that this ‘celebrity’ means he will be re-elected, come October), I am glimpsing significant examples of people who have heard the voices we’ve been talking about ’round here for the past little bit and are translating that exposure into momentum towards better things.

All kinds of better things.

I reblogged Anne-Marie’s fantastic post this morning (and not only because she described me so glowingly in her own, lyrical fashion) as, once again, she clearly and cleverly articulated so many of the issues that are being played out all over the world.

I reblogged my post about the separatist PQ minority government and the craziness that they were proposing- a mandate that was all about exclusion and divisiveness- because that government was spectacularly defeated by rational voices/voters in la belle province who know that we need to be working together and creating discussion (NOT debate) in order to continue our slow crawl out of the mire of economic woes that are the legacy of government(s) that persist in looking out for their backers/pundits/lobbies- to the exclusion and detriment of the rest of us- in order to keep hold of their power.

Then there’s that thing where you’re thinking about a thing a lot and as a result that thing seems to be showing up everywhere.  I happened upon this article last week and linked it to a draft post that I tentatively titled The Humanity of the Humanities as a sort of follow-up to the post about The Humanity of Humanism that I wrote a couple of weeks back.

And then a friend of mine- while praising Cosmos, that wonder of a show hosted by that wonder of an educator, Neil deGrasse Tyson- asked in all seriousness ‘who will be the Tyson of the Humanities’?  Her point?  That all this discussion of the power and beauty of the sciences- and the brilliant fact that educational programming has been granted airtime in a prime time slot (following some very popular shows) on a major network (okay, it’s Fox, but still…)- is a thing of wonder to behold.

But…

The humanities are past due for a similar treatment- moderated by a comparable superstar who can appeal to both the academic and lay viewers out there in Televisionland.  Stephen Fry, as I mentioned in that post about humanism, is an excellent candidate- and he is contributing incredible examinations of facets of humanities educations.  James Burke, as I mentioned ages ago, set us an interesting template for programming that combined the scientific and humanistic wisdom of the ages- to some degree.

We need a SUPERSTAR.  One who can hold our diminished attention spans in the palm of his or her hand while recounting all the amazing things we have thought, created, and recreated over the millennia.  Must have lots of charisma, a sense of humour and the ability to see the bigger picture (i.e. not hold fast to any particular way of viewing the world).  Suggestions for candidates are welcome.

The fact that the question was asked- in a public forum- demonstrates that there is cause for optimism that the humanities just might be getting some props.  After far too much disrespect (mainly doled out by those who haven’t the faintest understanding of what a humanities/liberal arts education entails), some people seem to be acknowledging that too much targeted focus in one specific area/ability/interest isn’t necessarily a good thing.

For community.  For understanding.  For positive progressiveness.

Singular focus- particularly when it benefits an unsustainable economic bottom line- is counter-productive.  And counter-intuitive for most of us.

We need the humanities.

Somewhere, in passing (I couldn’t find the link, despite a fair bit of searching.  I’ve been catching up on my reading and looked at any number of essays/blogs/articles in the past few days and I honestly just can’t remember where I saw this bit of wisdom), I read a quote from a blog post by Elizabeth Bear, a writer of speculative fiction.  In discussing the fact that she often creates characters who have a disability of some kind, she stated that we need characters in whom we can see some element of ourselves.  Because ‘story is the way we parse the world’.

I love that.

Language and story.  Exploration of culture(s).  History and philosophy.  Religion and theology.  Ideas and their realized expression as art, as literature, as architecture, as poetry, as music.

I have a whole lot of of items to tick off my oh-so-very long To-Do List.  Thank you cards to finish and mail (can’t remember the last time I sent a letter in the actual mail), administrative stuff and the ongoing sorting through of ephemera and memories as we settle Dad’s affairs, keeping on top of the learning curve in this great new job of mine, checking in with friends and family in order to chill out and have some fun now and again…

It’s a busy time.  It’s an exciting time.

Spring is (FINALLY) in the air.  And with the clearing away of the last of Winter’s detritus the new season promises the continuation of positive movement that I’ve been seeing all over the place (WordPress universe, InterWorld in general and the virtual reality that is Toronto, Ontario, Canada).

ELO.  Electric Light Orchestra.  One of the other posts I started and then left in the drafts file for way too long was about The Traveling Wilburys- that SuperGroup of SuperGroups and the fantastic combination of seemingly disparate voices it contained.  That post may still see the light of day- they were too wonderful not to talk about.

For now though, one of them will suffice.  Jeff Lynne wrote Mr. Blue Sky while locked in self-imposed exile in order to produce a follow-up to the epic A New World Record.  After weeks of lousy, dark weather, the sun came out, bringing inspiration and the beginnings of Out of the Blue– one of the band’s most commercially successful albums.

Sun is shinin’ in the sky
There ain’t a cloud in sight
It’s stopped rainin’ ev’rybody’s in a play
And don’t you know
It’s a beautiful new day hey,hey

Runnin’ down the avenue
See how the sun shines brightly in the city
On the streets where once was pity
Mister blue sky is living here today hey, hey

Mister blue sky please tell us why
You had to hide away for so long
Where did we go wrong?

Hey you with the pretty face
Welcome to the human race
A celebration, mister blue sky’s up there waitin’
And today is the day we’ve waited for

Hey there mister blue
We’re so pleased to be with you
Look around see what you do
Ev’rybody smiles at you

Some light (Electric and otherwise), some optimism and some hope for more blue skies ahead.  Not a bad start to the week.

PS- I wasn’t toying with you- the ‘Devil’s Advocate’ series will continue.  It’s a situation of thought-overload with that there topic.  Too much to say, too little time right now.  But he’ll be back- looking for a little sympathy…

The Humanity of Humanism

Despite the arrival of the vernal equinox last week, my part of the world seems determined to keep wearing its winter clothes.  Hope that this changes so we get to see some summer skies and meteor showers before too long…

I love Stephen Fry.  So much so that I started a post ages ago about his approach to the world and how he meets his challenges with grace and dignity (I had just finished watching Fry’s Planet Word on TVO- LOVE that series).  It’s one of a few posts that languished for too long in the drafts folder and then ended up in the trash since I couldn’t quite figure out where to go with it.  As can be seen in the clip, he speaks so well all by his ownself, he certainly doesn’t need me to reiterate the wisdom that he shares with his world.

Then my friend Lenny, over at Lenny May Say, posted the link the other day, and I’ve seen it pop up in a few other places since.  I love its succinctness, especially given my propensity of late to, um, let’s say, ‘run on’ about things more than a little bit.  Another one of those cases when something teetering on the edge of your mind finds expression outside of yourself.

I am often asked the question:  how do I find meaning in the world if I don’t believe in a god/gods.  It has been hovering implicitly- never quite out loud, most people have more manners than that- even more, recently, with the loss of my Dad.

It’s hard- although not impossible, even in this day and age and in downtown Toronto, to put together an organized ‘funeral’ (or celebration of life by another name) without including the trappings of religion/religious belief/sentiment.  People are so very well-meaning.  I say that with a feeling of complete sincerity that has been reinforced this past while as wonderful friends and acquaintances expressed condolences and concern in the days leading up to and following Dad’s passing.

Offered prayers and blessings are always gratefully accepted in the spirit in which they are offered.  One person’s prayer is another person’s positive message to the universe is another person’s demonstration of solidarity and support in this here world of ours, after all.

By whatever name it’s an expression of the connectivity we humans share in times of loss and pain.  And in times of joy and new beginnings, for that matter.  We want to help one another.  To share or attempt to alleviate the burden of sorrow and celebrate the wondrous happenings with those we love.

People ROCK.

I’m not a ‘defensive atheist’.  I’m comfortable with my non-belief and the reasoned and rational steps that led me to my worldview.  I don’t feel the need to defend it- although I will, at times and if under attack, stand my ground.  It’s ground on which I feel secure.

I’ve done my homework.  Years and years and years of it.  And the learning never stops.

My beliefs about the world- and the larger cosmos (are you watching that show, by the way?  You should be.  Neil deGrasse Tyson is another guy we all need to be watching) are well-examined.  I do my best to investigate the wisdom of those who have come before me and to temper their findings with my own experiences and awareness of the world as I see it.

I am not bereft– in any way- as a result of this non-belief.   I have heard things along the lines of ‘poor you, not knowing the love of the god in your heart’- over the years.  It leaves me bemused.  I am not bereft because I truly believe that the human imagination that can create gods with the compassion and love they are gifted with (when they aren’t being vengeful or judgmental) certainly has access to those same things in ourselves.  In our human selves.

I’ve been fortunate in my life to have met a whole lot of people who do so.  Access and manifest the kindness and love and goodness that others might deem the sole province of a created deity.

I’m all about this world.  My world.  The world that holds the people and places and things that I love, and respect, and wish to preserve.  It’s not a perfect world.  It isn’t inhabited by perfect people.  But I don’t see any value in hedging my bets by envisioning a ‘better’ next world- one that includes judgment and punishment and divisiveness in the name of one imagined deity or another.

If your worldview does include such a perspective on what might come after, I say ‘excellent.’  Whatever gets you through the days/weeks/years.  Whatever allows you to contribute positively to this world.  I have no problem at all with other people holding whatever beliefs they care to hold.  This is part of the freedom that we value and that work to preserve- here at home, and around the world when need be.

(Although this is not to say that I think we should be interceding all the time.  There is always more at work than differences of opinion as to what, exactly, constitutes freedom.  And politics and greed tend to get all mixed up in there a whole lot of the time- so all such actions must be handled with care.

Oh, and please don’t use your personal freedom of religious belief to attempt to diminish my personal freedoms and those of others whose opinions might not aline with your particular theology/ideology.  Do that, and my tendency to stand my ground might become a little more emphatic.  But I digress…)

A dear family friend- the connections between our two families are myriad- honoured us by speaking about Dad on Monday.  She is a retired Anglican priest (among other things equally interesting and illuminating), and she and Dad locked horns on any number of occasions about points of theology and belief.

She is well aware of Dad’s non-traditional approach to the life and teachings of Jesus.  She knows that he didn’t place a whole lot of importance in the divinity or non-divinity of the guy.  For Dad, Jesus’ message about community and social action was the teaching to which he held fast and afforded primary importance.

As she started her tribute- she is a true and talented storyteller- I knew that she would impart a message that was in keeping with both ways of viewing the world- her own and Dad’s.  She told a story about a child asking about what happened to people when they died- and the adult telling the child to look to the stars when such questions come up.  She pointed out the awareness we now have- through our scientific discoveries- that all life on earth is made up of pieces of stardust.  We are all stars.  And, as stars, we can never really be gone.  We are part of the universe forever.

It was a lovely amalgam of belief and science- and hit the perfect note as a remembrance of my Father.  These things can, and should, work together.  Just as we- whether we self-define as believers, scientists or atheists (or any number of other things over the course of our lives)- must work together.

Defensive, reactionary rhetoric is never progressive or remotely useful.

Stephen Fry knows this.  A lot of us do.  We just need to give those voices the airtime, rather than those who see fit to declaim their unexamined beliefs as statements of fact about how the world should work and why.

‘Slow slow slow, come come
Someone come come come
Even love is goin’ ’round
You can’t ignore what is goin’ ’round

Slowly rebuilding
I feel it in me
Growing in numbers
Growing in peace

People they come together
People they fall apart
No one can stop us now
‘Cause we are all made of stars’

Disclaimer: I don’t, actually GET Moby.  I’m not into his type of electronica and I find his persona somehow off-putting.  But this song is the obvious choice to accompany this post, so I’m giving it a chance.  Evidently he wrote the song as an expression of hopefulness following the September 11th attacks.  I can honour that- and empathize with the spirit and sense of the song.  And it is appropriate.  Even if it isn’t among my top picks.   We are all made of stars.