Friday, August 21, 2009

Damn, I feel like a woman

Ever since Shania Twain's insipid propagation of menial feminine stereotypes in her 1995 album "The Woman in Me" (continued in rampant disregard for the sanctity of life in the subsequent "Come On Over" in '97), women around the world (and men likewise) have been forced to suffer, in true pop music fashion, the roles which are intended for them. So your rant for this Friday morning is my own version of the most catchy of the most insipid of the most menial of the songs - "Any Man of Mine." Enjoy.

This is what a woman wants...
Any man of mine should be proud of me when I do something deserving
Even when I'm ugly, he'd still better love me, since it's only fair and he probably isn't very good looking either (just go to Walmart and see what I mean)
And I can be late for a date, but it just makes me look like an idiot who can't read a clock
Any man of mine will admit that the dress doesn't fit, but he won't need to worry
Because I don't wear damn dresses anyway
And when I'm having a bad hair day, I should remember that he'll lose his hair
And if I change my mind a million times
I wanna hear him retort with logical and well-reasoned arguments as to why it will or won't work

Chorus:
Any man of mine should know better than to steal lyrics from Johnny Cash,
Better show me that he has a rudimentary knowledge of the English language,
I need a man who knows something more than just how to rhyme "know" and "go"
He should be able to pronounce "ing" without dropping the "g" like a lazy bastard
Any man of mine

Well, any man of mine should not be subjected to such horrendous treatment
As having beautiful women pointed out to him for the sole purpose of being fished for a damn compliment
And when I cook him dinner and I burn it black
He should probably have already been aware that my oven is on the fritz and suggested take-out
And if I change my mind a million times, then I'm probably not doing a good job of examining all the evidence

(Repeat Chorus x2)

Your interpretations are also welcome, of course.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Huxley, part 2

Particularly relevant to the recent discussions on RD.

And of course if anyone does not want to formulate this process [of spiritual growth/experience] in theological terms he does not have to; it is possible to think of it strictly in psychological terms. I myself happen to believe that this deeper Self within us is in some way continuous with the Mind of the universe, or whatever you like to call it; but you don't necessarily have to accept this. You can practice this entirely in psychological terms and on the basis of a complete agnosticism in regard to the conceptual ideas of orthodox religion. An agnostic can practice these things and yet come to gnosis, or knowledge; and the fruits of knowledge will be the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, and peace, and the capacity to help other people. So that we see then, there is really no conflict between the mystical approach to religion and the scientific approach, simply because one is not committed by it to any cut and dried statement about the structure of the universe. One can remain completely an agnostic in regard to the orthodox conceptualizations of religion and yet, as I say, come to the gnosis and, finally, exhibit the fruits of the Spirit. And, as Christ said in the gospel: The tree shall be known by its fruits.


Poignant, no? And rather timely. I love that guy.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

A few words of wisdom from Aldous Huxley

Wanted to share this.

A measure of detachment from egoism [worship of self] and alter-egoism [worship of some group/ideal in place of oneself - eg, nationalism - in essence, anything short of worship of the divine] is essential even if we would make contact with the secondary aspects of cosmic reality. Thus, in order to be fruitful, science must be pure. That is to say, the man of science must put aside all thoughts of personal advantage, of "practical" results, and concentrate exclusively on the task of discovering the facts and coordinating them in an intelligible theory. In the long run, alter-egoism is as fatal to science as egoism. Typical of alter-egoistic science is that secretive, nationalistic research which accompanies and precedes modern war. Such science is dedicated to its own stultification and destruction, as well as to the destruction of every other kind of human good.

These are not the only detachments which the man of science must practice. He must liberate himself not only from the cruder egoistic and alter-egoistic passions, but also from his purely intellectual prejudices - from the trammels of traditional thought-patterns, and even of common sense. Things are not what they seem; or, to be more accurate, things are not only what they seem, but very much else besides. To act upon this truth, as the man of science must constantly do, is to practice a kind of intellectual mortification.


From the essay "Man and Reality" by Aldous Huxley, printed in Huxley and God, (c) 1992 by Jacqueline Hazard Bridgeman (ed.)

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Allotment

smell of cows, sweetpea, whispers of rain

the dark juicy blood of blackberries on my hands

somewhere in the distance, on the wind, the Minster bells

divinely animal

the clouds rush, but I tarry

flittering blackbirds, lithe cat with onyx fur, swallows play fast and loose and ride the air just for fun

gravel, earth and stone, soft grass and low hedges

neighbor greets the sunset with a weary eye

creaking gate, beyond that -

life.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Christians, atheists and the Barna Group - or, Why Everyone is Wrong

If you ask one of the painfully vocal members of society about the nature of religion in the US, you would get one of two answers, that run something like this: "religion is an elaborate hoax, wherein a vast majority of otherwise reasonable citizens allow themselves to be convinced, on blind faith, that their relationship with a made-up, invisible entity who appeared on earth 2000 years ago only to be killed and then rise from the dead in an effort to undo what two naked folks in a garden did even longer before that because of a talking snake, will assure them a favorable position in the afterlife;" (example) or, "the fate of our nation as a godly, Christian nation is at stake, because evils - in the form of socialist government, atheist teachers in our schools, lack of patriotism, women working, terrorism, etc - are assaulting us from every side, and we must stand up to it and fight it with the help of Christ Jesus amen" (example).
All you have to do is spend five minutes on the internet to feel as though there is an ever-widening chasm between the two sides - religious and nonreligious - brought about by the ever-narrowing beliefs of the proponents of one side or the other. The fact that the "issue" of "religion and science" must be discussed at all, let alone so hotly debated, is proof itself of the schism. Or is it?

There are several dilemmas one encounters when trying to determine precisely what the real state of religiosity is. First is the use of broad, sweeping and ultimately incorrect generalizations. If we were to trust the few on either side who claim to "know" such things (the ones who write books or make movies about it), we would be forced to believe one of the two statements presented above; we would have to choose sides because, so far as we've been told, there are only two sides. Despite my conviction that I somehow lay outside of the given classifications, surely I must be the outlier, given that "all religious people" believe one thing and "all nonreligious people" another? We each find that, thanks to the generalizing which serves only to broaden the gap, we stand precariously in the canyon, wondering which side to attempt to climb. A second issue is in the personalities who make these generalizations. The most outspoken on any given issue tend to be the most opinionated, which also means they are probably farthest from the "straight and narrow path" at the center. And the farther one strays from that center, the more one becomes convinced that it cannot exist at all. I've personally known both atheists and fundamentalist, born-again Christians who assumed, in any debate, that no middle ground was attainable: either you held one extreme opinion or the other (There are many examples of this I could cite. Consider the Baptist who felt that anyone arguing the sanctity of life must fall into one of two camps: either active remorse over every accidentally squished insect, or belief that all murder is justified at all times. Consider, also, the atheist who believed that, since I made the statement "It is the narcissist who believes the [spiritual] experience pertains only to himself and not to something greater," I must also mean that a non-narcissist is someone who believes his spiritual experience to mean, as he put it, "that the entire universe has been revealed to me, and absolute morality as well, which in turn means that those who have different, spiritual experiences and conclusions are wrong and perhaps should be killed (or burned, then killed) because their experiences don't agree with my experiences." Right.). One never hears of a prophet with a message of moderation and mediation in these times; there are no Dawkins-Moreland crossbreeds. The infinitesimally small number of times a person with a reconciliatory message does appear, they are quickly branded as heretical by both sides. Such is the nature of the divide.
Is there any hope? Are we doomed to fly farther and farther apart, as two oppositely charged ions, or is it possible that we can be reunited in a neutral center? Is it at all possible that we already exist in that more or less balanced state?

It is in this light that I would like to point out a recent Barna Group study. According to the poll, 88% of Americans feel that "religious faith is very important in [their] life." However, 64% of those polled indicated that "they are completely open to carrying out and pursuing [their] faith in an environment or structure that differs from that of a typical church." A whopping 71% of Americans said they are "more likely to develop my religious beliefs on my own, rather than to accept an entire set of beliefs that a particular church teaches." Of those who professed themselves as Christians, only 55% "strongly agreed" that the Bible "is accurate in all of the principles it teaches" (note that this is not the same as believing that the Bible is the literal, infallible word of God). Another interesting note is as follows, to quote the study's authors:
Levels of distrust toward churches, church leaders and organized Christianity have been growing over the past two decades. That concern – along with the heightened independence of Americans and the profound access to information that has characterized the past decade – may have led to the emergence of a large majority of adults feeling responsible for their own theological and spiritual development. Other studies have shown an inclination for people to view a local church as a supplier of useful guidance and support, but not necessarily a reliable source of a comprehensive slate of beliefs that they must adopt.
Across the board, the research showed that women are driving these changes. This is particularly significant given prior research from Barna showing that women are more spiritually inclined, are the primary shapers of family faith experiences, and are the backbone of activity in the typical conventional church. Specifically, Barna discovered that women were more likely than men to pursue their faith in a different type of structure or environment (68% of women, 59% of men); to sense that God is motivating people to experience faith in different ways (79% vs. 60%, respectively); and to be willing try a new church (50% vs. 40%).
Another report, based on a poll by the City University of New York several years ago, indicated that those within the US population who define themselves as charismatic, pentecostal, Church of Christ, or born-again (the kinds of denominations more likely to be involved in the anti-science debate because of a stronger belief in the infallibility of the Bible) is significantly less than 10% of the population, and likely half that. About 14% of the respondents listed themselves as "not religious," and 4% ended up in the "other" category: Baha'i, spiritualist, Sikh, wiccan. Only 0.4% of those who responded, however, classified themselves as strictly "atheist" (less than 3% of those who claimed to be "not religious").

Statistically speaking, anyway, it looks like we are mostly in the middle.

The "angry atheists" and "fierce fundamentalists" who drive the wedge between sides amount to only about 5% of the entire US population. The other 95% of us have our doubts, our misgivings, are willing to examine our beliefs and alter them as necessary. The other 95% of us remain somewhere inside the gap, surrounded by a vocal but unrepresentative group of those who would tell us who we really are and what we should really think.

Don't listen to the hype. Don't believe those who would tell you that you must be this or you must be that, or those who would tell you that your neighbor must be this or must be that. Your neighbor is the same as you: unsure, searching for answers, now and then feeling confused by it all. And are we not meant to love our neighbors as ourselves?

Friday, August 7, 2009

Atheism and the internet

I have, for the past few days, been embroiled in a debate regarding Obama's pick for the head of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Francis Collins. The debate, of course, has wandered outside its intended bounds and touched on the nature of religion, the definition of "new atheism," the interplay of faith and doubt, and (ultimately, as these things always do) the meaning of life.
I enjoy debate. I was pretty good at it in school; at least, so my teachers and classmates would tell me. The idea of good-natured banter - trying "on the fly" to refute an argument and learning something in the process, while attempting to remember one piece of the loads of information you amassed mentally in preparation - appeals to me greatly. This, I suspect, is why I have taken so easily to the system of online discussion. Someone posts a blog or an editorial or a comment, and one can respond almost immediately. We have designed this system to assist in the dissemination of ideas and to facilitate thoughtful, world-wide discussion. But what have we really achieved?
Those who, like me, have grown up with the internet (we were schoolmates together, the internet and I, if you will) expect a certain level of capability in our debates. I don't mean we expect our fellow debaters to be capable of debate, but that we ourselves be capable of certain things: anonymity, immediate access, spellcheck. When we do not have these things, we complain (picture, if you will, the recent episode of Southpark wherein the internet is "used up"). We expect that we shall be able to peruse the internet, find someone with whom we disagree, and under cover of a pseudonym proceed to tear down the opponent's argument. Debate in an online age is no more like debate once was; gone are the times of such fancies being "civil arguments" between gentlemen at Oxford or drunken follies in the back room of a pub, merely to be forgotten the next morning. I think that the advent of the internet has allowed debate to become more inane, more vicious, more polemic and more divisive - and that this leads only to greater schisms.
It has long been discussed whether electronic means of communication negatively affect one's writing ability. The lack of formality of an e-mail and the safe anonymity of the web lead to the grammatical equivalent of the "car syndrome" (people are known to pick their noses more often in the car because of the misleading feeling that they are somehow invisible). We let our manners slip because we don't have time to be bothered by all of that scholastic nonsense, and anyway, it's not like the Queen will be reading our posts and personally sending us a letter correcting our usage of her language. It's only the internet, right? Who will care? (A note to the reader: people do care.) And because the person we're debating may never meet us, we don't bother with the "pretense" of civility. If JoeSchmo123 doesn't know who you are in reality, why not try and get away with calling him an idiot? Because of the insurmountable distance between you and the rest of the world (at least so far as the internet is concerned, the distance can be as great as you wish it to be), the ordinary fear of the social repercussions of your actions is shadowed. Your name is unknown here, and that grants a certain power.
This is where the problem lies. Because the old rules of engagement are gone, replaced with the new, slipshod precepts of an online life, tact has gone as well. Witness the caliber of online arguments on Pharyngula, Religion Dispatches or elsewhere. Anonymous commentators fight to outdo one another in their proud, dogmatic boasting. And the louder you shout (figuratively speaking), the further away true discussion becomes.
I know that useful debate still exists out there in cyberspace somewhere. I've seen it on occasion, tactful and open-minded comments on topics that may or may not have a right or wrong side. People are still capable of expressing opinions as they are, opinions, instead of as absolute facts. But with the freedom of the internet comes abuse of language and abuse of others; anyone can take part in the sophistry which used to be the playful realm of gentlemanly sport, and they do so with vengeance. We forget that with all great freedoms come great responsibilities. As I wrote elsewhere, "It seems we may never find that common ground, no matter how many times we are beseeched to seek it. I fear that, in an age when global communication is as easy as the click of a button and thus the opportunity to learn everything we can from our fellow man is right before us, our anonymity within that global community will only drive us further down the road we're already traveling, to divisiveness and fragmentation, ever widening the gap."
The reason I titled this post "atheism and the internet" is this. It used to be that great thinkers, people who were well-educated in many subjects, would debate theology - the nature of God and God's relationship with the world. The sheer amount of information and experience that was pertinent to such a discussion was always, if not taken into account, at least acknowledged. But no more. The internet has allowed anyone to play the "expert." And thus the schism grows - the most indoctrinated become the most vocal, and the gap between sides in what should have been a simple exchange of ideas widens. The worst of it, I hate to say, is the staunch atheists; the followers of Dawkins and Dennett and Harris and Myers. Sure, the ultra-religious are bad, too (the strict fundamentalists and the intelligent designers), but they have, at least, the potential for their perceived relationship with God to dampen their inherent pride. The atheists are not so beholden. They blow the trumpet of Science, riding on what they see as a triumph of reason over the old ways of superstition and myth, assured in their own certainty. Despite science's tendency to point out where we should be humble, there is no humility there.
Before I am attacked, however, by those whose sensibilities I have insulted and in the very manner which I have already described, I implore you - think! The internet does not give you the right to behave poorly, it merely gives you another circumstance in which to do it. It is your choice whether you take responsibility or not.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Heresy! Huzzah!

I'd like to point you to an editorial and the accompanying comments over on Religion Dispatches on a fascinating topic. You may recognize a familiar face or two, while you're at it.