Evolving Leadership

Simple answers are seldom correct. Unfortunately many people will accept a simple answer rather than try to sort through the complexities that life in the universe provides in such abundance. I was given cause for hope by an interview that I saw on The Upworthiest. Zack Kopplin, a student only nineteen years old, is taking on the creationists in the south. It’s not an easy thing to do. As Bill Moyers points out in this interview, 46% of Americans believe in creationism. In a land where everything is a matter of choice, it seems, science is just one of many options. Also, Fundamentalist clergy are among the most gifted spin-doctors ever to have evolved. By pairing evolution and atheism and values that are dangerous to their beloved lifestyle, the message goes out from thousands of pulpits that evolution is a lie and that the Bible is a science book after all. And people, easily led, will follow. For many decades scientists and religionists alike refused to even address creationism, supposing illogical thought would eventually die out. What they were actually witnessing was a match thrown into a kindle-dry forest after decades of drought.

Even the case of Zack is a demonstration of this. When a law passed in his native Louisiana making it easier to teach creationism in the public schools, those who knew better did nothing. It took a nineteen-year-old to try to change the law. One could argue that full-grown scientists and other professionals have too much to do to waste their time on such foolishness. The problem is, as Zack is keenly aware, the creationists are well funded, strategic, and insidious. Fueled by self-righteousness, and supported by at least 16 years of presidential administrations that approved of creationism as a form of science, this movement is as much a threat as the NRA is to a peaceable kingdom. Maybe more of a threat because nobody takes them seriously. There is a plenty of history documenting the growth and development of the creationist movement, and, as Zack knows, it is not a fad. Most serious scholars just don’t bother to read it.

Creationism thrives by its own sense of victimization. Science offers us no cuddly deity who will make everything right at the end of a life of toil and turmoil. That is fine for science, but we must never forget that people are people. We need something to hold onto. It is this that creationists understand. Instead of calling it delusional, perhaps scientists need to step back and realize that it is a profoundly human need. That doesn’t make creationism right—not by a long stretch—but it might help to understand why it just doesn’t seem to go away. Instead of ignoring, science must address creationism. And so must those with serious training in religion. Creationism doesn’t survive close scrutiny by either scientists or religious specialists, but it sure does offer a feel-good ending. Until we admit that they’ve done their homework, those who oppose creationism are going to find themselves being led by nineteen-year-olds with a sense of what’s really at stake. And that’s complicated.

Yes, they will attack the prophet

Yes, they will attack the prophet

Trouble Feature

HorrorNoire I must be a glutton for punishment. My fascination with horror films grew more out of enjoying the unsettling mood these movies used to set. That creepy, shadowy world that resembles in such a degree my experience of the everyday world. Like most people I don’t enjoy being scared, and as a pacifist I find violence extremely distasteful. And yet, horror movies. I suppose they serve to remind me that no matter how bad things might seem, they could be worse. This fascination also accompanies reading about scary movies as well. Robin R. Means Coleman’s Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present is a fascinating study of how race perceptions have found expression in horror movies. As Coleman points out, it’s not a pretty picture. I suppose, however, that it could be argued that no one should want to find themselves the subject of a horror film. They tend to be a form of self-punishment, and, psychologically speaking, that makes a lot of sense.

African-American characters, I had noticed, in early horror films are portrayed as easily frightened and their reactions are used for comic effect. I still squirm when I see such representations in early movies: the cultural and racial arrogance rises like bile in the throat. What I hadn’t realized, however, is that the Black role in horror films is frequently tied to religion. Coleman makes this clear—from early films centering on African-American issues to Caucasian efforts to portray Blacks, religion is often the vehicle. Black films make a strong use of Christian themes, while White films not infrequently present Africans as purveyors of voodoo or some mysterious, and dangerous religion. This is a fascinating trend and it shows mixed perceptions of how religion is understood. Christians who dismiss the “superstition” of other faiths should have no fear of “false gods.” Yet it makes for great horror fare.

Despite their low-brow reputation, horror films are among the most successful genre of movies. Many people find them cathartic, I would guess. It is uncomfortable, however, to be faced with how race self-perception is embedded in such films. Like any artistic effort, movies reflect the values of those who write, produce, and direct them. At the same time they reinforce or even channel the expectations of the viewing public. Reading Coleman’s study, I was given a glimpse of the perception of one of my favorite genres from the perspective of “outsiders.” It is not always a comfortable place to be. Horror movies sometimes showcase terrors more frightful than the special effects and improbable beasts flashed upon the big screen. The realities of our own past can be the worst of monsters.

Pope Springs Eternal

All channels lead to Rome. In a world where Christians lament their public influence, we can’t seem to get enough of the pageantry, the mystery, and the stylish drama of electing a pope. The secrecy is key. If cardinal debates were held in an open forum, by cardinals in business suits, the media would have trouble covering its yawns. In a conclave deep within the classical architecture of Rome, privileged men in expensive gowns meet and whisper in hushed tones until a puff of smoke rises though a sacred chimney and the world either hitches its collective breath or sighs in deep contentment. No wonder the election of a pope is such a big deal for Protestant and Catholic alike.

We would be mistaken, however, to limit such docu-drama to Rome. Religions, from the earliest institutionalization of their practices, used drama and showmanship to add to the draw of the sacred. Ancient Mesopotamians and Egyptians kept statues of deities hidden away in the deepest recesses of temples, and brought them out periodically to great public fanfare. The laity would watch in astonishment as an actual god was paraded among them—the popemobile had yet to be invented—and lapse back into ordinary time as the sacred statue was swallowed once again in the darkness of its great house. Even the aniconic Israelites maintained ceremony and mystery, for they had an invisible god who raised all kinds of questions in the naturally curious human mind.

The papacy is, after all, a recognized authority structure. Some nations recognize the Vatican as a sovereign state, a little bit of the City of God among the Rome of Humanity. For the time being at least, the Roman Catholics outnumber any other branch of Christianity. It is the most successful trader in the marketplace of religious commodities among Christian consumers. Its draw has always been tied closely to a sense of mystery and awe. There is a magic to the mass that the televangelist sermon splashed on the big screen somehow lacks. It is old and arcane. Few believe in its literal transubstantiation, and yet it stands as the outward and visible sign of a deeply occluded reality that takes place behind closed doors. Men in red, debating on the virtues of a new CEO for the vicar of Christ. No wonder all channels are tuned to Rome.

From presidencia.gov.ar, via Wikimedia Commons

From presidencia.gov.ar, via Wikimedia Commons

HRH vs C of E

An article from the Sunday Daily Mail, the UK newspaper, opens with the headline “Queen fights for gay rights.” I was pleased, as most even-minded individuals would be, that discrimination is being addressed by Her Royal Highness. Then the implications began to kick in. Having domiciled many years among the Episcopalians, I couldn’t help but smile knowing that the monarch is the head of the Church of England. Figurehead maybe, but on the books, the buck stops in Buckingham, not Lambeth. For decades I’ve seen the Anglican communion fracturing over what is a non-starter, theologically speaking. The only reason to protest homosexuality is the loss of potential life. For anyone who believes that sex is for procreation only, I would advise trying to counsel all the spermatozoa who just didn’t make it to the egg in time. Procreation is filled with an extravagant exuberance of over-production. Walk under any oak tree or stand among the wondrous helicopters of a maple tree in early summer and ponder what’s falling at your feet.

It seems to me that what’s lacking in the religious world is love. Loving, committed couples are ostracized for being just what God made them, while self-righteous critics wag their parsimonious fingers. And this is done in the name of God. I have friends of all gender orientations, and never have they given me cause for moral concern. In fact, I have trouble categorizing them together as a group; they are individuals to me, not pigeonholes. Some churches have trouble because prejudice has become dogma. Even the Roman Catholic Church allows for sex between couples when conception is virtually impossible, as when a woman is pregnant yet doesn’t yet know it. Just try not to enjoy it too much. The life potential ends the same way. Millions must lose for every winner. Consider the ethical implications of a deity who didn’t design a one-shot, sure-fire sperm for each act. Surely it would’ve been possible to engineer for an omnipotent divinity.

Instead many mainstream churches are assiduously drawing lines in the sand, claiming that one gender, one orientation, one race, only is welcome on the side of the 144,000. The rest can, quite literally, go to Hell. Is this what religion has become? Imagine what good might be done if all that energy were poured into addressing poverty, starvation, or inadequate water supplies. Imagine those who represent the winners in the reproductive race receiving care and attention rather than those who will, by a massive margin, stand no chance of survival whatsoever. We could make this a better world instead of prolonging the suffering of those who’ve done no wrong. Those holding the balls are trying to make up the rules of the game. The Queen of the Realm seems to be saying it’s time to start playing fair. Long live the Queen!

The first queen of the Church (of England)

The first queen of the Church (of England)

A Tale of Two Bees

We’re nearing the competition season for FIRST Robotics. The animated, mechanical creatures created from scratch since early January are now set to compete for a kind of ultimate, ultimate frisbee. Only you can’t call it “frisbee,” for copyright reasons. Ironically drone bombers have been in the headlines this past week. Drones are robotic planes that fly their missions with human pilots sitting safely hundreds, or even thousands of miles away from the action. People are beginning to wonder—is this ethical? I pull out the Scientific American I purchased at Bush International in Houston last week. There’s an article about robo-bees. In a scare that seems like it could have come straight from the X-Files, I’ve been reading about the disappearance of bees. There are people seriously worried about this. It does seem that we failed to learn the lesson of Rachel Carson, and a land of milk and honey just doesn’t appeal without the honey.

The robo-bees are the size and roughly the shape of biological bees. They can be programmed to behave like bees and pollinate plants that our missing bees have been, well, missing. There may be hope for the flowers after all. But I wonder about the honey. No doubt, technology will come to the rescue. Those labs that gave us sucralose, aspartame, and stevia can surely invent a golden, viscous liquid sweetener that drips from a pipette. No cause for worry here. We can recreate the natural world in the laboratory. Honey has been reputed to have medicinal effects, but we can synthesize medicines in the lab as well. You might not want to dribble those on your biscuits, however.

Honey is made from nectar, the mythological food of the gods. Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism all recognize the religious significance of honey. Those of us who’ve been stung realize that a price has to be paid for such divine sweetness. The gods are like that. Roses have thorns for a reason. Not that I’m not impressed with the technology behind robo-bees. I am astounded that tiny robots can be built to fly and perform as we understand nature to dictate the Apis genus. They don’t, however, have the minds of bees. Mind is not the same as brain, as we’re beginning to learn. And minds are not limited to Homo sapiens. I recall when in our arrogance we thought we could improve the productivity of bees (capitalist bees) by breeding them with their Africanized cousins, biologically separated by an ocean. Many nightmares haunted me of the resulting killer bees. Yes, I had been stung as a child. Just by regular, garden-variety bees. From those painful events I learned a valuable lesson. We tinker with nature at our own cost. I, for one, am willing to deal with real-life stingers to taste the very food of the gods.

True bee or not true bee?

True bee or not true bee?

Flight of Fancy

I’m about fully recovered from my recent visit to Texas. Travel is perhaps the greatest form of education. After having my regular government pat-down, and hearing the airport loudspeakers warning me not even to joke with a TSA official, I was in a subdued mood as I awaited my flight. Airlines have learned to fine-tune human vanity. I know they are hurting for money, as many deregulated industries are, and there must be a marketing trick to get people to pay different prices for the arriving at the same destination at the same time. One of the most ridiculous is that of United Airlines’ Priority Access. Don’t get me wrong, I like United Airlines well enough. Their service has generally been on time, and they make being a human sardine as comfortable as possible. Some of the in-flight snacks, if you can afford them, are actually pretty tasty. But first you have to get onto the plane.

Of course, active duty military are free to board at any time. Tree-hugging pacifists, wait your turn. The part that really gets to me is that those held in special esteem by the Airline (i.e., those who can afford to pay more) are invited to board via the “Priority Access Lane.” This “lane” is created by laying a ratty carpet on the left side (or right side, for some gates) of an imaginary line composed of a couple of those retractable belt stanchions. To the left, sheep. To the right, goats. (Or vice-versa. We’re pretty hard to tell apart.) I’ve written about this before, but what caught my attention this time around was that a seeing-eye dog was boarded along with his human, via the “Priority Access Lane.” As I watched my canine brother sauntering towards the jetway, I was lost in thought. Not one sparrow falls to the ground. The privileged are boarding with a dog.

On my return trip home, at the ironically named George Bush International Airport, every few minutes a public announcement was broadcast about the interfaith chapel. Passengers were told that it was available 24 hours a day, and were given its precise location. Over the past couple of years I’ve had to fly a lot. I always notice the airport chapels, and I feel for those who are anxious about flying. I’ve never heard such a p-a announcement encouraging use of these chapels before. Perhaps I’m too fixated on how I never get to walk down the “Priority Access Lane.” I know my place; I was born among the working class, and when the plane goes down, I’ll be among my own kind. But I do feel sorry for the dog. He has no choice but to be classed with those who are, in the airline’s opinion, of higher priority than the common citizen. Next time I think I’ll just wait in the chapel, contemplating how god spelled backward is dog.


Real Life Zombies

In recent months Binghamton University has been on my mind. Binghamton has a number of videos available on YouTube which I find to be entertaining and even, sometimes, very funny. I like Bing’s style. Even though I catch myself laughing once in a while, I know that Binghamton takes higher education seriously. I watched a recent, 17 minute talk on a vital topic. It is located here, and I would recommend that you watch it too. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.

Back? Okay. The situation raised here is one that makes me shudder. Few things are as debilitating and vulnerable as an uneducated populace. Both religious and political forces have made great efforts to prevent certain orthodoxies from being challenged by what they term, as an obvious swear-word, “higher education.” The fact is, folks, higher education is nothing more than an attempt to get people—often young people—to learn how to think critically. That last word is a stumbling block sometimes. Any number of people will suppose that critical thinking is the same as criticism. It isn’t. Critical thought is the ability to approach a problem—any problem—rationally. To respond with the best that our minds have taught us to do, rather than with knee-jerk reactions. Yes, emotion and jerking knees have important places in the world, but they only work well if they are accompanied by the ability to think critically.

The video makes it pretty clear that the ability to think is rapidly eroding in our culture. Perhaps not quite zombie apocalypse, but not comfortably far from it. The death of Borders was blamed on its inability to get into the electronics markets by various pundits. I disagree. Borders fell victim to a culture that has lost the joy of challenging reading. We like spoon-feeding (otherwise much of the internet is difficult to explain). In order to exercise our brains, we have to use them to read hard things. Like my high school coach used to say, if you don’t use your muscles they’ll atrophy. Looking at my mid-section, I can see that his words were true. What Coach didn’t warn us about, though, is that the same holds true for the mind. The unchallenged intellect is a dull one. This is a threat far more insidious than any Communism, or liberalism ever was. It is the dummification of America. We are a nation that loves zombies. We are also a nation in danger of becoming them as well. Fight the zombie apocalypse—read a book. And like that baseball bat you use to swing at the undead, the harder it is, the better.

They don't write them like that anymore

They don’t write them like that anymore


Esalen Every great once in a while, you read an academic book that really makes you think. Not that many books aren’t erudite or thought-provoking, but the ones that cause a reader to question reality are relatively few. I suppose that’s why I’ve been reading Jeffrey Kripal’s books like candy. I’ve posted on his Authors of the Impossible and Mutants and Mystics. Now that I’ve read Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion, I somehow feel like I missed out on something important that had never entered my awareness. Growing up in the eastern part of the country and not reaching my teenage years until the program at Esalen was already under way and famous on the west coast, I’d never even heard of the institute until I’d started reading Kripal’s books. Esalen, for those who are like I was, is hard to define. Indeed, Kripal studiously avoids doing just that as he narrates its history and impact on the nation, and indeed, the world.

The human potential movement has seldom found institutional support. Since our worldviews determine what we are capable of seeing, and since our reality has largely been defined by a rationalistic monism, an entire universe remains for us to discover, if we were only to open our eyes. Reading about Esalen was like finding a long lost twin—much of what the institution has stood for has found its way into my own psyche in some form or other. I suppose I’ve never really read too much on eastern religions, but I do appreciate what meditation can do. Reading the names of those associated with Esalen over the decades, it would be difficult to disagree.

Our society has come to trust materialism assiduously. How easy it is to forget that even the material world consists of so much more than our limited senses reveal. We know that animals sense the world differently, so we call them non-conscious beings and get on with pretending that if we can’t see it, it doesn’t exist. As the Esalen devotees know, even scientists have come to consider the implications of quantum mechanics. If we are to take the results of physics seriously, the impossible does happen. Right here in our own corner (or arc) of the universe. We lose so much by refusing to believe the impossible. Lewis Carroll knew that and we’ve been talking about going down the rabbit hole ever since. There are rare places in the world where the spiritual, the scientific, the sensuous, and the artistic come together to explore what the human experience truly is. One such place is Esalen, where, I’m told, the religion is no religion.

International Women’s Day

So it’s International Women’s Day, and I’m thinking about what various religions might do to celebrate it. How about equality? True equality. With rare exceptions religions have been spawned and gestated in masculine wombs. Increasing the asperity, monotheism had to, by definition, introduce a single-gendered god to match at least half of the human race’s expectations. No surprise he is a deity with a Y chromosome. For whatever reason, religions nearly always promote male experience as normative and female experience as supportive. If you disagree, well, talk to the man upstairs.

In those few precious moments when I’m allowed the luxury of a daydream, I wonder how differently the world would’ve developed without the mythology of the alpha male god. If god had been conceived as feminine in the beginning, would it have made a difference? Would the rules be more or less stringent? More humane?


Polarities are a funny way to view the world. As evolved, gender-differentiated animals, we easily slip woman and man into that category of natural polarities. Over time, however, it has become clear that reality is more complex than X or O (or I and O, or X and Y—where the male is missing something the female secretly possesses). What if the overall category were simply “human?” As we’ve evolved, we’ve learned to keep many animalistic tendencies in check. Our vast and complex societies, unique only in degree, have demonstrated that it is possible. To judge half of the human race as less able to provide spiritual leadership is an exploitation well past due for extinction. With all eyes on the Vatican over the past couple of weeks, the largest Christian denomination in the world doesn’t seem ready to shift even a nanometer on this one. Mother Mary, pray for us.

In a world where conception was a mystery (which it still is, to a point), women were the sole life givers. Men had the role of sustainers, the help-meets who brought home the meats. Somewhere along the sociological lines the order somehow switched. Might it have been religion itself that led to the subordination of the god-like ability to give life that only women possessed? By attributing the origin of life to a being, generally male, outside the realm of normal reality, religion bestowed a foreign primacy upon the human race. We became the victims of our own longing for transcendence. So celebrate International Women’s Day. If it weren’t for a woman, a goddess in her own right, you wouldn’t be reading this right now.

Beg Your Martyr

Despite the extreme antipathy shown toward religion by the educational establishment, the Chronicle of Higher Education doesn’t shy away from the topic. In the March 1 edition of The Chronicle Review, a piece by Candida Moss presents one of the uncomfortable facts of religious history to the academic world. Many of us who are “specialists” have known for quite some time that the record for mass persecution among early Christians is sketchy at best. In “The Myths Behind the Age of Martyrs,” Moss reveals that historical documents don’t present the first few centuries of Christendom as quite the blood-bath that early hagiographies do. It is true that perceptions vary depending on one’s point of view. If your auntie were thrown to the lions, it might look like everyone you knew was being persecuted. If you were a Roman historian, the numbers might seem small in comparison with, say, those pesky Carthaginians, heathens the lot of them. Still, it was this persecuted self-image that left a lasting imprint on Christianity. Until Constantine, anyway. When Christianity became imperial, it didn’t hesitate to get medieval on a few posteriors.

As Moss points out, early Christians (as well as Jews and those of other bookish traditions) rewrote their stories over time. Even altering the Bible—not yet the Holy Bible—was fair game. The whole discipline of textual criticism grew up to answer the question of what the original Bible likely said. As soon as believers take their writings as factual, however, the story will change. Were early Christians persecuted? Almost certainly. By the tens of thousands that tradition asserts? Less likely. The Romans were practical. Like most domineering classes, lording it over someone isn’t nearly as satisfying when your subjects are dead. You want that superior feeling? Keep the masses in servitude. But alive. That’s not to say that it didn’t feel like everyone you knew was being murdered for trying to do the right thing.

When I was little, I was taught that it is more important to put others’ needs and wants in front of your own. It is a basic Christian teaching. Somewhat naively, I approached the academic empire with that simple basis deeply embedded in my mind. I didn’t realize just how often others would use this trait to their own advantage. Other Christians as well as the non-religious are happy to take from the willing giver. This didn’t prepare me well for life in the business world where, I am learning, the delight in taking from the giver has only grown stronger over the centuries. So I end each day spent and weary and feeling like I’ve been thrown to the lions. Not literally. Still, I believe in the plain idea that if we all treated others’ needs before our own the world would be a much better place. I’ve never outgrown my idealism. Until others join in, however, I’m sitting in the stands trying hard not to watch what the lions are doing down below.


Animal Mentalism

SciAmScience is how we know things. Most things, at least. One of the fundamental aspects of human life not yet grasped by the great empirical method is creativity. We generally have an idea how it works, but, like so much of human experience, it is difficult to describe precisely. When I saw this month’s Scientific American fronting with the headline “Evolution of Creativity”—two of my favorite topics—I knew I’d have to read it. The article by Heather Pringle zeroes in on the archaeology of very early human history. Before modern human, actually. I’d been telling students for years that the development of such traits as artistic representation, burial, music, and an awareness of some forces “out there” could be found tens of thousands of years ago. These, I suggested, marked the beginnings of religious sensibilities. I’d be willing to go even farther, however, and suggest that we share some of these traits with our fellow creatures. Religion may have a biological basis. That’s not where Pringle is going, however, and she addresses not religion, but creativity.

Pringle suggests that evidence for human technology—modest though it may be—stretches back further than the 40K epoch that seemed to house an explosion of human innovation. She shows how sophisticated knowledge of the environment and corresponding innovations were occurring 77,000 years ago, and even earlier. Some of it stretches back before Homo sapiens; stone weapons may be as early as Homo heidelbergensis and kindling fire as early as Homo erectus. Even our Australopithicene cousins seem to have been happily knapping stones two-and-a-half million years ago. The evidence, at the moment, seems to end there. I wonder, however, how far back cognitive development goes. We tend to underestimate the thinking abilities of animals, despite our constant surprise at how smart they seem to be. How very human! How very male, to assume that everything else is here for our use and pleasure.

Scientists often come upon with astonishment ideas that creative folks have been pondering for centuries. Science must be careful—that is one of its limitations. Creativity, the phenomenon Pringle explores, contains, in the words of Lyn Wadley’s team in Science, chemistry and alchemy. Creativity, like religion, isn’t afraid of magic. No doubt, some scientists will claim that true intelligence only begins with humanity. Looking at the way we treat each other, sometimes I doubt that it begins even there. If there is any hope for us, I would humbly suggest, it will come in the form of creativity. It is that very alchemy that keeps me coming back to science, and science will teach us, eventually, that animals are creative too. When we place ourselves among them, we will have created a world.

Flying None?

RoughGuidesWhile reading about a saint or two recently, I once again came across the concept of levitation. Long dismissed as overly gullible piety of superstitious pre-moderns, the practice has been relegated to the scratched and damaged basement of religious thought. Or so it would seem. While examining a World Religions textbook at work, I came across a picture of a young person in meditation who was, to all appearances, levitating. The caption simply noted that levitation is a component of some religious practitioners’ discipline and then quietly moved on. No scare quotes or allegedlys to be seen. The publisher of the text was one of the major textbook moguls. Curious, I found a reference to The Rough Guide to Unexplained Phenomena by Bob Rickard and John Michell. This intriguing book, in its second edition, bears the Penguin imprimatur, and therefore should be taken seriously. While I am certain that any number of skeptical readers will declare me hopelessly naive, I found the book full of interesting anomalies, and many of them, as I’ve noted several times on this blog, tied the paranormal to religion.

While I can’t accept everything I read in The Rough Guide, there remain, even after healthy doubt, a number of weird things that persist in our reductionistic world. Strange phenomena do not necessarily validate religion, of course, and many of those “revelations” people claim must be simple pareidolia. These are entertaining, no doubt, but hardly newsworthy. It is rather those phenomena that refuse to play by the rules that raise questions about our demon-haunted world. If even just a handful, or even one of the cases of levitation actually occurred, it would mean some serious rethinking concerning the nature of gravity. Do saints levitate? I’m no saint, so perhaps it’s best not to ask me. If one lies about it, then s/he is hardly a saint.

As uncomfortable as the unexplained may make us, these reports do serve as a reminder that our scientific worldview is, in many ways, still in its infancy. A few years back, sitting in on the lecture of a friend concerning the science of the Mesopotamians, it was clear that rational thought has very early origins in human civilization. At the same time, the Mesopotamians had plenty of room for gods and the supernatural in their worldview as well. Here in our electronic twenty-first century, it might seem that reason will see us through just about any crisis. Even a glance at the headlines reveals we’re not there yet. Some will blame the religious, the “superstitious,” the irrational for our problems. Meanwhile far from the eyes of scientists and authorities of secular power, maybe, just maybe, a religious practitioner may be hovering a few inches off the ground.

The Computer of Dr. Caligari

TheAtlanticTo be human is to be ethical. Not always in the best way, unfortunately. Nevertheless, our moral sensors are pretty much constantly running as we try our best to make the right moral decisions. This thought occurred to me while reading Jonathan Cohn’s article, “The Robot Will See You Now,” in this month’s The Atlantic. Having been a sideline watcher of FIRST Robotics for about four years now, I have heard countless stories of how robots perform some surgeries more efficiently than clumsy humans can. Cohn’s article starts off with the impressive potential of IBM’s Watson to sort through millions and millions of bits of data—far beyond any human capacity—and make more informed recommendations about medical treatments. After all, Watson won on Jeopardy!, so we know “he”’s smart. But he isn’t really a he at all. Still, in our reductionist world where humans are just “soft machines” computers and robots should be quite capable of helping us heal. To survive longer.

I am a veteran of Saturday afternoon science fiction movies and weekday episodes of Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica (original series, both). The present is starting to feel like that impossible future I watched as a starry-eyed child. But what of Dr. McCoy? I remember literally cheering (something I haven’t done much in recent decades) when DeForest Kelley’s name appeared on the opening credits of Star Trek when season three began. Bones was always one of my favorite characters—the doctor who didn’t trust the machines upon which he relied so heavily. He was a down-to-earth country doctor, who seemed to feel out of touch with the human (and occasional alien) element with machines interposed between them. Medicine is, after all, a very personal thing. Our bodies are our souls. I know; scientists tell us we have no souls. Embodiment studies, however, suggest otherwise. That robot coming at me with needles and scalpels may know how to heal me, but does it have my best interests at heart? Where is its heart? Its soul?

Better health care is certainly much to be desired. But in a country where our lawmakers continually debate whether the poorest should have access to Watson and his ilk, I wonder where ethics has gone. Robot doctors, I’m sure, will not accept patients with no insurance. Does not compute. Having gone without health insurance myself for several years, despite holding advanced degrees, I know that if I’d had a health crisis I’d have been rightly ranked down there with the blue collar folk that I consider kin. You see, to be human is to be ethical. That doesn’t mean we’ll always make the right decisions. It’s a safe bet that Watson can play the odds mighty finely. And the soulless machine may be making the decisions about who lives and who does not. Now that I have insurance again, when I’m on that cold slab I may have a shot at seeing a robot doctor. If that ever happens, I’m going to hope that Dr. McCoy is at least standing in the corner, and that those waiting outside the comfortable walls of affluence will somehow enter Watson’s scientific calculations with me.

Religion and Its Discontents


Travel broadens the mind. I’ve always felt that travel, for those who pay attention when they do it, is one of the best forms of education available. When I do campus visits for work, my time is spent talking to faculty, but on my walks between appointments I keep an eye out for my own education. This past week at the University of Texas in Austin, I couldn’t help but notice how much religion still plays into the lives of many people—even undergraduates. One of the first things I noticed as I approached campus was the sign outside a Methodist Church announcing a sermon series entitled “When Christians Disagree.” Anyone with experience within, let alone between, denominations knows that disagreement is endemic. It would be difficult to find a single point of Christian teaching that is universally held among Christians without at least one group of dissenters. In my own experience, disagreements run deeply within Christian denominations, and the hatred experienced is often more fierce than that between Christians and “heathens.”


Well, maybe not between some Christians and Islam. So on a campus kiosk I found posters for a seminar entitled “Muhammad: Messenger of Peace.” In a largely Christian context, Muslim students have a difficult time with their religion being castigated in the media and in popular thought. Almost all religions are capable of violence (I was going to write “All religions” but I couldn’t think of any instances where Jains have incited violence), but most highly value and promote peace as the ideal. Few religions are actually founded on violence. I’ve heard many Christians make the claim that Islam is about conquest, pointing to the rapid expansion of Islam following the time of Muhammad. They often overlook the Crusades, one of the most violent Christian reactions to another religion in history. Is Christianity all about violence? Who is “the prince of peace” anyway?


On a bulletin board I saw a notice for Asatru, the Pagan Student Alliance. If any religious group is misunderstood, surely it is Pagans. Christian missionaries liberally used “pagan” to denigrate the old religions they encountered throughout the world. Often attempts were made to eradicate such beliefs completely. With some success. Many forms of paganism today are revivals of the old religions, and a few are actual survivals. The Pagans I know are moral, peace-loving people as well. Claims of human sacrifice (often fabricated) aside, paganism was, and is, an attempt to make peace with the planet upon which we find ourselves. Peace, it seems, is a desideratum of many religions. If we studied college campuses, where such beliefs are encouraged to coexist, we might find a model that would work for people in the “real world.” And perhaps peace really would have a chance.


My relationship with Shiri is a love-hate relationship. Shiri is what I called my “Neverlost” GPS in my rental car in Texas. My iPhone has a female voice called Siri, so I figured my talking navigator must be her electronic kin of some sort. Finding my way around has been a lifetime vocation, but it is job most of us are never paid to do. I learned the trade using maps and the occasional compass. What a God-like feeling to look down at a map and visualize it from way up in the sky—it’s a kind of power-rush. Seeing the country, state, or city laid out below you, knowing that you want to travel particular roads based on traffic, tolls, or scenic beauty. Shiri and I had our first argument just after I disembarked in Houston. I’d never been to Houston before, and, being parked in a concrete bunker of a parking deck, Shiri was a little groggy and unclear about where she was when I spelled out that I wanted to go to Austin, avoiding major highways and tolls. Do I turn left or right out of the garage? She still hasn’t decided.

Shiri likes highways. Not a fan of urban driving, I’ll take a smaller road if possible. My first appointment wasn’t until the next day anyway. I can’t help attributing personality to Shiri. Was that a hint of disappointment in her cheerful voice as my driving made her recalculate the route yet again? Shiri has trouble determining if I’m on an interstate or a parallel access road. She sometimes sees roads that the naked human eye can’t discern. We fight, but she does eventually get me there. I have a feeling that she crawls into the back seat and weeps when I lock the doors and stagger to my hotel. It’s not that I don’t love Shiri, but she doesn’t respond quickly enough to real life conditions. A “slight left” across four lanes of rush hour traffic is purely academic to her. To me it is impressions of my fingers deeply embedded into the plastic of the steering wheel.

Shiri doesn’t understand that Houston’s many toll roads only accept EZ Tag and, being a visitor, I don’t have said tag. On the way to the airport—do I really have to see George Bush again?—she keeps trying to steer me onto roads that state “EZ Tag Only.” Texans are swearing at me as I suddenly change lanes and Shiri doesn’t help by repeating “At soonest opportunity, make a legal u-turn.” Shut up! Shut up! Where is the airport? I should be able to see it by now. Did I really leave the hotel two hours ago to travel this forty miles into… where? Is that a tumbleweed? When I see the Hertz rental return sign I break into spontaneous prayers of thanksgiving. I poke Shiri’s power button and leave without saying goodbye.

But now, a thousand miles away, secure in my own home, I miss her electronic voice.