International Women’s Day 2021

Changing one’s way of thinking is difficult.  So difficult that we generally don’t try it unless we’re compelled to do so.  One such compulsion is education.  Cultures that have embraced education are those that have led to great advances.  In this context it’s more than a little surprising that women’s rights are still held to be less important than those of men.  More education is required, it seems.  Today is International Women’s Day.  Of course it’s not a day off work because capitalism is all about men’s need for endless acquisition.  At least we can pause and consider for a few moments that life itself wouldn’t be possible without women, and justice, nearly worldwide, is represented in feminine form.  What can we do to make the world open its eyes to the obvious?

I read a lot about religion.  While I post here about the books I read, they are really only the tip of an iceberg.  My job largely consists of reading.  One of the themes that constantly runs through my own personal continuing education is that religion has indelibly changed our ways of thinking.  Even strident atheists today announce their stridency from a context formed by religion.  I’ve pointed out on this blog numerous times where even scientific thinking is mired in a wider context that has been constructed by religious thought.  One of those larger contexts is the subordinate role of women.  It is likely no coincidence that matriarchal cultures developed where there wasn’t a religion devised by men to impose a patriarchal governance on the world.  It’s so obvious once you learn to see it.  We need to be educated.

Women, it is obvious from an unbiased point of view, are equal to men.  As we educate ourselves further about gender and how religion has informed its perception, we come to realize that even binary assumptions—either male or female—are premature.  Underlying it all is humanity.  Human lives.  Those of men are no more important than those of women, or of those between.  Religions often like to make sharp distinctions.  Those distinctions are more abstract than reality.  The world is made up of real people and roughly half of them are female.  Today is set aside to recognize and celebrate that fact.  To recognize the contributions women have always made to society and civilization.  Let’s take the opportunity to educate ourselves, and  let’s be conscious of the fact that women are just as valuable as men and their foibles.  More than that, let’s put this truth into practice.


Knowing Everything

Of all the jobs I’ve held, being an editor is the only one where strangers send random emails trying to convince me of God’s reality.  Granted, part of that may be because email is now so common as to be passé among the younger crowd.  When I myself was younger it was still just catching on.  Still, part of these strange emails is likely based on the evangelical compulsion to make others see things their way.  Someone who edits biblical studies books might seem like a good target.  I got another such email just last week, and as always, I wondered over it.  What kinds of assumptions must random strangers make about biblical studies specialists?  One of these assumptions, it’s clear, is that they suppose we are atheists.  They know this without even asking.

Technology has made such blindsiding communication easier.  It didn’t invent it, though.  It took a lot more effort to write up a letter, address it, buy a stamp, and mail it than it does to sit down at a keyboard, click, and they start proselytizing away.  In my earlier days, in other incarnations of a career, I received unexpected missives from time-to-time.  And certainly as a seminary professor you had students who had already figured everything out by the time they’d gotten to matriculation.  Many of them were coming to seminary to teach rather than to learn.  Such can be the arrogance of faith.  I fear that many of them graduated with their biases intact.  Education, perhaps, doesn’t work for everyone.

Photo credit: NASA

Having it all figured out is something many of us strive for.  We want things to make sense.  We want our spirituality to fit into this increasingly materialistic world.  Some of us go to seminary and/or graduate school to help us make sense of things.  We encounter minds further along the journey than our own, and, if we’re open, we learn from them.  For me, it’s difficult to understand how education isn’t always a humbling experience.  Oh, I get emails from academics who think they’ve figured it all out as well.  Such communications always make me sad.  The human enterprise, such as it is, has spanned millennia and true progress has only been made when people were humble enough to admit that they didn’t know everything.  They would eventually invent the internet and email.  Then those who already knew all the answers could send them to strangers to convince them of their own great learning.


Stay Curious

Needle felting.  I’d never heard of it.  I’d got along some five-plus decades without knowing a thing about it.  My daughter received a needle felting kit as a Christmas gift and, being the kind of person I am, I had to research the history of felt.  I always knew felt was different from other fabrics, but I couldn’t say precisely how.  I came to learn it is perhaps the oldest textile in the world, known by the Sumerians.  Felting is a process for making non-woven cloth.  The natural fibers of some wools are scaled, like human hair is, and when compressed and worked with moisture (wet felting), becomes cloth.  Finding out how things work is one of the great joys of life.  It also made me think again of how anyone could possibly be arrogant.

The longer I’m alive the more I’m learning what I don’t know.  Granted, felt has appeared in my life at numerous junctures—how many crafts do kids make of felt?  And I have a felt hat—but I had never thought much about it.  My wife likes to read about pioneer women who had to make pretty much everything by hand.  We call such people “rusticated” these days, but they know far more than most urbanites, simply by dint of having to do things for themselves.  Modern conveniences are great, but I often wonder how many of us might survive if we had to make it on our own.  Just the last couple of weeks we worried about losing power with the storms that blew through.  What do you do when the thermostat no longer works in winter?  Something as simple as that vexed me for days (I had to work rather than worry, so it couldn’t properly use my brain power).

I’ve known many people impressed with their own knowledge.  I can’t imagine how actually learning new things doesn’t make someone humble.  The universe is a vast and mostly uncharted space.  Down here on our somewhat small planet we have so much yet to learn.  I’ve studied the beginnings of agriculture, metallurgy, writing, and religion.  There’s still so much I don’t know.  I wouldn’t do well on Jeopardy—I second-guess myself too much.  Staying curious about the world is a good way, it seems, to keep humble.  I entered into this holiday season thinking I knew a fair bit about various crafting options.  As a family we cover the creative spectrum fairly well.  Then a small, soft thing such as felt made me realize just how little I really understand.  Any invitation to learn is one that should be accepted.


Peaceful Resolutions

It came as a shock.  Raised as I was in a nation enamored of weaponry, I did not realize that many countries in the world do not have armies.  In some places, such as Israel, service in the military is compulsory.  In approximately twenty nations, however, people are secure enough not to require armies.  It’s probably symptomatic that such nations are fairly small in land area.  The more you’ve got, the more you want to protect.  Without materialism would we even need militaries?  Yes, we fight over different religious beliefs, but those conflicts are tied to a sense of ownership as well.  This is “our land” and don’t “you” tell us what to do in it!  I can imagine a world where armies need not exist.  The key, it seems to me, is love.

In a Simpsonesque way, of course, hostile aliens might invade.  Could we not try to come to a peaceful resolution?  Or could we not learn to protect ourselves without having to be in a position to destroy those who might prefer a more socialistic lifestyle?  Those who might look different?  Those whose moral standards push us to think more broadly?  Like many people I’m dismayed at the unconscionable size of our military budget.  Killing the world once over is no longer enough.  Now we have to try to pollute space as well.  Where are those aliens when we need them?

The fact is nations exist on this earth without standing armies.  They don’t cause trouble and some of them are extremely bookish (no surprise there).  Can we imagine what our world would look like with an education budget swapping places with the military one?  Do we dare even think such dangerous thoughts as peace and mutual goodwill?  Is no-one big enough to stand up to Adam Smith (with kudos to Thomas Piketty for trying!)?  The wealth of nations could be applied to make well-fed security mostly a reality.  We lack the will.  Well, most of us do.  I draw comfort knowing that several small nations around the world feel no need to waste their budgets on weaponry.  Their rich may not own dozens of houses fit for dozens of kings, but they have perhaps a peace of mind that no amount of military might can give.  We don’t seem to understand that weapons cater to fear, and that, as one religious text says, “perfect love casts out fear.”   


Candles vs Demons

Among scientists who write Carl Sagan has always struck me as one of the more open minded. Dedicated to the scientific method, he nonetheless admits that there are some things scientists don’t know. The last time I was in Ithaca, therefore, I picked up a copy of his tour de force, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. I wasn’t really sure what to expect—I’ve been researching demons and I supposed they would be addressed in his book, since they feature in the title. Although that is indeed the case, the book is a collection of essays vindicating in various ways the practice and teaching of science. It is quite a scary book. It was also Sagan’s final book published in his lifetime.

Reading this just after Gabriele Amorth’s An Exorcist Explains Demons, noteworthy for its credulousness, The Demon-Haunted World was like whiplash into reality. Back into the realm of observable facts and testable hypotheses, it was indeed like a candle in the dark. Sagan admits that science can’t speak definitively on the supernatural—something that sets him apart from other science writers—but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t apply scientific thinking anywhere it’s appropriate. And that includes the universe of politics. Published some two decades before the rise of Trump, the book is surprisingly prophetic when it points to the possibility of the rise of fascism in a nation that distrusts science. Indeed, the book shows Sagan clearly worried that an authoritarian, totalitarian government was on the rise. It’s almost preternatural in its accuracy.

The tome is large enough to dissuade a full summary within the word-limits I set for myself on these daily posts, but I can say that this book is necessary now more than ever. Sagan was a celebrity in his lifetime, a “rock star” scientist. Even so he worried about the deplorable state of science understanding among political leaders he met. For many years America has been mired in conservative causes that distrust science implicitly. Another strain that runs throughout this book is the need for education. Not only has America catered to anti-science groups, it has fallen behind much of the rest of the world in science education. Those who claim to make America great again can’t see that their very tactics have made our nation fall behind the rest of the world when it comes to education, across the board. Surely Sagan was right that a good grounding in scientific thinking is the equivalent of lighting a candle. As for the rest of the country it has been getting darker and darker, and our “leaders” have no idea even how to strike a match.


Teaching Peace

Teachers, preferably unarmed, are some of my favorite people. While the travesty of a government muddles along in the District of Columbia I think back on my own education and wonder what went wrong. I’m sure you knew kids who hated school; I certainly knew plenty. For whatever reason they didn’t want to be enclosed in a classroom with everyone else, learning stuff for which they could see no practical application. Reading doesn’t appeal to everyone. Memories of advanced math still send shudders down my spine. And what was the point of gym class if it wasn’t to make those of us who liked reading feel bad at that awkward stage of life when you discover your body isn’t as well-made as that of others your age? Education isn’t perfect, but it’s what we now need more than ever.

There’s no way that everyone will learn to enjoy reading. We aren’t cookie-cutter people. Thinking, as my own mathematical experiences demonstrated, can be very hard work. No one person knows everything. That’s why, at least in my day, after you reached sixth grade you started to have teachers who specialized in subjects. What I didn’t realize as a kid is how hard these modern-day saints have it. Pay scales are low. Hours are long for those dedicated to being good teachers—the brevity of the school day beliefs the amount of work done after hours. Increasingly our educators have to hold down a second job to be able to survive. The least we can do is learn in gratitude.

School shootings are so tragic because many of the victims are those who haven’t had a chance at life yet. We elect uneducated presidents and wonder what could possibly go wrong. Education, if done right, becomes a lifelong journey. The day that passes without learning something new is the day I come home and go to bed depressed. More than simple evolving, life is learning. Teachers are those who set us off on that track. The young, it is true, have more flexibility in learning. There are more options open to you before your thinking gets set in its way. I ran into seminarians who, no matter how much you’d offer, had already made up their minds. No education required. Perhaps what we need to teach at the youngest possible age is that school never ends. The formal classroom experience may cease at grade twelve, the baccalaureate, masters, or doctoral degree, but the learning goes on. And it’s a good thing, not some bizarre punishment. For that teachers, unarmed, are those to whom we should be grateful. If only we’d be willing to invest in them.


Classical Education

Andrew Dickson White famously wanted Cornell University, unlike what would become known as the other Ivy League schools, to be non-sectarian. Most Ivy League universities were founded as seminaries or with the strong influence of churches. On farmland gifted by Ezra Cornell, in Ithaca, New York, the school became one of the first truly secular world-class universities. As I approached Ithaca over the weekend, my wife told me that the town had once been briefly known by the name of Sodom because the remote location’s reputed notoriety for sabbath breaking, horse racing, and profanity. It is now considered one of the most enlightened towns in the country. Famous for its waterfalls and gorges, one of the cascades is still rejects the biblical slur with the sobriquet “Lucifer Falls.”

Many place names—indeed, much of American culture in general—reflect(s) the Bible. Ours is a culture in denial of just how formative religion has been for who we are. Because of our willful blindness on this point we sometimes run the risk of being entrapped by our heritage. Despite how much we’ve educated ourselves we still see what we want to see. Our religious heritage is often considered an embarrassing family secret rather than the path by which we came to be a civil society. Religion is so frequently portrayed as an evil force that it’s easy to forget just how much we owe it for our evolution. Even education itself had a religious motivation since teaching students to read was often done with the intent that they should read the Bible.

Like nearby Binghamton, Ithaca has a statue dedicated to Martin Luther King, Jr. It bears a biblical quotation from Amos without embarrassment. Ithaca today is a livable, socially conscious community. Recycling is strongly encouraged while cars are not. Hardly a hotbed of immorality, it is one of the great examples of an American college town. Ideas are welcome here. Befitting its classical heritage of education, the city is named after the island ruled by Odysseus, according to Homer. Indeed, Ulysses lies just down the road. Homer (and yet another town in the area bears that name) presented Odysseus as among the smartest of the Greek kings. Like most classical Greeks, Odysseus was only too conscious of how the gods could interfere with one’s life. Instead of denying the obvious, however, religion was recognized as a necessary source of culture. Not that it always has to be taken too seriously. Maybe it shouldn’t be completely ignored either.


Animal Fights

What does it mean to be human? The answer’s not as straightforward as it might seem. Reading Robert Repino’s Culdesac, that question came back to me time and again. This novella takes off from the story of Mort(e), about which I blogged shortly after its publication. Humans and animals that have acquired some human characteristics are at war. Most see those on the other side as inferior and that can make a human being reading the tale just a touch uncomfortable. We don’t have a great track record when it comes to dealing with non-human animals. We are all, after all, members of the same “kingdom.” Even down to the level of phylum and genus many of us show more general similarity than stark differences. Culdesac is a morphed bobcat who remembers all too well how humans treated animals before the war. And memory is a powerful thing.

Repino has a way of sweeping the human reader (here the enemy) into the story and making those foundational questions ring as if struck with a hammer. What does it mean to be human? Granted, reading such provocative work under the current administration adds a layer of poignancy that wasn’t there when Mort(e) stood alone. In fact, it is a question that we have to ask just about every day when we see the headlines. There’s no leadership on this point coming from above. The idea of other humans as chattels has a long and disgraceful history. You can differentiate anyone on some basis or another: female or male or intersex, black or white or brown, rich or middle class or poor, large or average or small. Differences working together might be the very definition of culture. Culdesac shows what can happen when one sees only the distinguishing characteristics rather than the commonalities. It’s a parable.

Education, the one weapon in our arsenal that actually dismantles prejudice and intolerance, was one of the first targets our government sought to dismantle after 11/9. Indeed, the antipathy—if not downright hostility—toward education has been a characteristic of which Americans have long been unduly proud. We are not self-made, none of us. We all had our teachers. We all had our books. As we stand on the rim of this smoking crater and wonder how hatred toward one’s own species could be allowed to be nominated, let alone win, I believe the answer lies in our personal belief in education. We must all use the opportunities we have to educate. Get caught reading a book. Or helping a stranger. Or just being kind. As Culdesac emphasizes, wars are long-term events. Results won’t change after only one skirmish. If we all valued education—reading, learning—enough such aberrations as this could never happen. If you’re casting about for something to read that will make you ponder things at a most human level, I would suggest Culdesac.


What Democrats Don’t Understand

Human evolution (while it still legally exists) tells us a considerable amount about belief. Brain science (while we still have it) has long indicated that our noggins evolved to help us survive, not “to figure out” the world. Along its long and torturous path to modernity, the human brain has developed the ability to believe what it knows not to be true. This doesn’t just apply to the study of religions, but, in reality, primarily to psychology. Patients with split brains have shown a mastery of rationalization that should make any Republican jealous. So far the Dems are with me. What Democrats don’t understand is that you can’t change beliefs with reason. I grew up a Fundamentalist. That past still continually haunts me. What brought me out of it wasn’t thinking. It was experiencing. Specifically, experiencing in the course of education.

Recent polls show that well over 50 percent of Republicans believe Trump won the popular vote as well as the electoral vote. You could show this 50 percent as many statistics as you like and you won’t be able to convince them. Belief doesn’t work that way. In my experience, higher education (typically characterized as liberal) doesn’t really care about understanding belief. They hire professors recommended by establishment friends, very much like cabinet posts are now being filled. They still believe if you talk at someone long enough with reason, they will change their minds. I can’t change that belief of theirs—I have an idea how belief functions. We’ve all seen how the system works. Not every 1930s German was a Nazi.

In other words, it is very easy to believe a lie is the truth. In the words of Jim Steinman, “everything’s a lie and that’s a fact.” Education may help you spot the contradiction there, but it won’t help you unbelieve it. The truth is power can’t be taken, it must be given. If people do not believe what the media tells them, it isn’t true. As someone who’s spend a half-century trying to figure this out, I’m always amazed that my own party can’t see what’s so obvious to a reformed Fundamentalist. Until the day comes when avowed rationalists admit that emotions matter just as much as orthodox reason we will all be at a loss to explain how otherwise intelligent people will insist that what they know to be lies are indeed the truth.

Source: Lbeaumont based on image by Mila / Brocken Inaglory, Wikimedia Commons

Source: Lbeaumont based on image by Mila / Brocken Inaglory, Wikimedia Commons


Nightmares

I spend a lot of time thinking about monsters. Could there be any more statement of the obvious? The deeper issue, however, is why. Why am I, among countless others, drawn to the monster? This may not be politically correct—I apologize in advance—but that which is unusual naturally draws our gaze. Humans, along with other conscious creatures, are curious. (There’s another trait that reductionism hasn’t adequately explained; we’d be far more secure sticking with what we already know works.) The out-of-the-ordinary will keep our attention although we’re told not to stare. The monster is defined as something that isn’t “normal.” We’re captivated. We stare. Indeed, we can’t look away.

477px-Frankenstein's_monster_(Boris_Karloff)

The media play into this with their coverage of Trump. I realize I risk participating in that rude behavior by even addressing the topic, but as I hear intelligent people everywhere asking why Trump has captured the imagination I have to ask, have you seen the headlines? Newspapers that don’t endorse him run huge headlines when his name is in the news. It’s horrible, but I can’t look away. Historians scratch hoary heads and wonder how Hitler came to power. Populism combined with an undereducated population in a democracy may be an equation that political analysts should try to solve before it’s too late. Meanwhile, my thoughts turn to monsters. Ugly, large, and threatening, they rampage through my dreams and now my waking reality. I watched in horror as the electorate lined up behind Reagan. Bush, I told myself, was an aberration. Until the second time. Then I realized it was the summer of Frankenstein indeed.

From my youngest days I recall the antipathy that my classmates showed toward school. I didn’t mind school that much, or at least the learning part. Gym I could’ve done without. I never did get the socializing thing down. Feeling a bit like Frankenstein’s monster myself, I realized I was a pariah (that was a vocabulary word). When did monsters shift to being worthy of emulation? The monsters of my childhood were to be feared, and curious creatures will always keep an eye on that which causes fear and trembling. The media say we don’t want Trump but they give him all the air time he could wish and more. In headlines in massive, almost misshapen letters. They’ve expended their superlatives on what they tell us we shouldn’t see. They have, perhaps unwittingly, played into the very hand bitten by that which it feeds. I can’t help it. I’m staring.


Uisce Beatha

The idea of a state church, I have to admit, sometimes seems not so bad. Before you click off this page in disgust, please let me explain. Once in a great while, I think about what state churches really are. From the most ancient of times, religious institutions supported governments and governments gave money to state religions. It isn’t a perfect system, but the reason it sometimes appeals is that it might prevent the kind of religious quarreling that we see in the run-up to every election: whose religious vision will govern us? I get theological whiplash. Wouldn’t it be easier to have a state church and be done with it? After all, those who live under state churches really aren’t obligated to believe in the teachings, but just to pay for them.

I’m only being facetious here, of course. We all know that in reality where religions and governments get too intertwined human misery results. The Reformation should have taught us that, if nothing else. The crimes of ISIS continue to show that religious belief makes a poor basis for government. Another case that my wife recently pointed out to me is in the quiet and civil nation of Ireland. Ireland has the stereotype of being Catholic, but according to an article in The Guardian, more than 90 percent of state-run schools there are under the control of the church. For some residents, like the family featured in the article, this becomes a conflict when schools won’t admit the unbaptized. Admissions committees with holy water may be a concept that many people find strange, but the fact is churches can set rules just as strict as secular bodies. No baptism, no confirmation, no matriculation.

I would, I think, be concerned as such a parent. Once my child was admitted and enrolled, would not the teaching go against what was being taught at home? Do governments have the right to decide a child’s religious outlook? Here is the dark underbelly of the apparently benevolent state church. Belief, of all things, is an intensely private matter. Many church goers do not understand the deep beliefs of their religious body, and since we seldom stop to think about religion we just do as we’re told. Education, it seems to me, should be very much aware of religion. Instead we see the opposite happening, at least in this country. If we pretend religion doesn’t exist, it will just go away, right? There is a reason that the church teaches that baptism is symbolic drowning. Only for those, however, who pay attention.

Angel's view of Ireland?

Angel’s view of Ireland?


Shepherds and Sheep

Photo credit: Spencer Means, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Spencer Means, Wikimedia Commons

The murders in Charleston this week are part of an epidemic. The members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church join, unfortunately, a growing list of victims of hate. Not only hate, but that subspecies of hatred that calls the unstable to attack in a church, or synagogue, or mosque, as if to defy the very gods with their misanthropy. Growing up we used to be taught that any place of worship is sacred. Then we believed it was because God had made it so, but now it is clear that sacred space is made so by the intent of those who worship. We find places where we believe we’re safe from the trials of the everyday world. A place where God will look over us. A place, dare we call it, of sanctuary. Sanctuary is a concept that has gone extinct. As children we all knew of the concept of “home” in chasing games—the place where you were free and need not worry about someone coming after you. Amnesty was granted at the cry of “olly olly oxen free.”

In the biblical world, we’re told, those in danger could flee to the temple and grasp the horns of the altar and be safe. It wasn’t that someone couldn’t be pulled off, but it was that an inherent respect attended sacred places. No place is sacred any more. Hatred has a way of overriding what we all recognize as civilization. Well-armed youth and a culture of hatred have never led to peace. Xenophobia may be natural, but it can be disarmed through education. Unfortunately, in this country at least, education is not valued. In fact, in the culture wars, those who have the most sympathy for those who commit hate crimes will be among the first to cut education spending. It’s a luxury we can’t live without. We need to teach the meaning of sanctuary again. We need to teach the meaning of love.

Human beings shouldn’t have to rely on sanctuary to be safe. No matter what our racial heritage or gender or orientation, we are all simply people trying to make our way in the world. As a child I knew “olly olly oxen free” meant that nobody would try to tag me if I came out from hiding. I was also taught that the word “hate” was as bad as any swear and that it should not be said. While my mother was teaching me the virtue of love, we were sending young men to kill foreigners in Vietnam. I grew up with no doubts as to which was the superior way. One way leads to life and peace, the other to constant fear and death. The people of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church have told Dylann Roof that they have forgiven him. They are offering sanctuary to one who has done nothing to earn or claim it. They, like children, lead us.


Whack-A-Prof

My Ph.D. was conferred in 1992. Not by design, I’ve held several jobs since then. One thing I’ve noticed over and over is that supervisors enjoy knocking down the egghead. If you don’t know me you’ll have to take my word for the fact that I’m quiet, not self-promoting, and actually uncertain about many things most people seem to take for granted. Even in the classroom I never used my education to appear superior to students—education is about all of us learning together. At least ideally. I do know some people flaunt their doctorates. A friend told me of customers pulling into the gas station and insisting on being addressed as doctor. (It might help to know that in New Jersey you are not allowed to pump your own gas.) My friend wryly noted, then they don’t even fill the tank. I had my own similar experience working in a camera shop in a Boston suburb. A patron had “Ph.D.” printed on her checks after her name. Company policy was that the signature had to match the printed name exactly, including title. This particular customer, proud to have Ph.D. flashed before your eyes refused to sign it after her name. When the police had to be called, as per company policy, many of us stared sheepishly at our feet as she signed the cursed three initials and declared she would from then on take her custom elsewhere.

Some of us pursue advanced degrees because we have no talent for anything else. I’m a born teacher, and I have always found the classroom the most congenial environment in which to be. I have had several bosses, however, who seem to think that knocking the Ph.D. down shows just how clever they are. I don’t claim to be smart. I never have. I am a hard worker, I read a lot, and I try to make sense of what I read. Some of the smartest people I know have the least formal education. It’s rare that I don’t assume the janitor knows more than I do about any given topic. (Well, maybe Asherah is a place where I can claim some specialist knowledge.) Otherwise, I take your word for it.

Our culture, however, enjoys putting those in higher education in their place. I hear the conversations behind closed doors. While I don’t claim to know very much—in fact, the longer I’m alive the less I claim to know—I do know that America doesn’t value its educators. It’s not just the professorate. Teachers, those to whom we entrust the very future, have been perennial scapegoats for society’s ills. We don’t pay them well, and many of them have to take second jobs in the summer to make ends meet. I guess we showed them! Who’s the smart one now? I can’t claim to know much, but it seems to me that education is one of the pure goods in society. We can’t make progress without learning. Gifted teachers should be esteemed—not pampered, but appreciated. Of course, I can feel better about myself if I show that I know more than you do. The only cure for that, I suggest, is more education.

Photo credit: Anna Frodesiak

Photo credit: Anna Frodesiak


Charlie Hebdo

With the tragic news coming out of Paris, a predictable set of recriminations are about to begin. Because of the actions of some extremists, “religion” will be labeled a danger to civilization and the sad loss of life at Charlie Hebdo will be chalked up to secular martyrs in the cause of reason. The reality, however, is not so simple. Fundamentalism, as one of my influential teachers used to say, is not a theological position—it is a psychological problem. Indeed, religion does not cause Fundamentalists to become violent, it is rather that religion is used as an excuse by Fundamentalists to act out their aberrations. The religious impulse, no matter how rational we become, will never go away. Those who fear that civilization will collapse might do well to reflect on the fact that religion is one of the earliest defining characteristics of civilization. It is a formalized expression of a deeply felt need, widely shared.

At times it feels as if we’re caught on a possessed merry-go-round. We weaponize our world without stabilizing economies or opportunities. (I know I’m oversimplifying here.) People turn to religion for consolation. Religions give some people the strength to deal with their difficulties. Others will use their religion to justify their hatred and fear. Weapons are nearly as easily found as sacred scriptures. One, however, is much easier to use than the other. Twelve people lie dead for trying to make the world laugh. Three others are surely feeling justified by the extremity of their faith. There is truth in the concept of weeping clowns.

Carlos Schwabe, Death of the Undertaker

Carlos Schwabe, Death of the Undertaker

Ironically, in a world where pundits and experts refuse to give any credence to religious beliefs, and do not support the study of religion and its offshoots, multiple times each year we find the press asking why this happens. I’m not suggesting that those of us who study religion have an answer, but I am suggesting that we might have some insight. Instead of the knee-jerk reaction of claiming that “religion” has claimed more victims, we need to realize that criminals have claimed victims, both human and abstract. The shooting at Charlie Hebdo is a sad reminder that simple answers are seldom correct ones. My plea has, however, never been complex: supply education, not assault rifles. That’s something in which we can believe.


Daydream Believer

ReligionForAtheistsI have finally found a book that will sit next to my copy of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. In this disjointed age of angry Fundamentalists and even angrier atheists, where people bowl alone and don’t sleep well, Alain de Botton has shined a ray of hope. Well, pessimistic hope, but still, I felt more invigorated by Religion for Atheists than I have by a book for a long time (search my category “books” and you’ll see what I mean). Raised as an atheist, de Botton doesn’t share the rabid fury that converted atheists often exhibit. More importantly, he recognizes that, despite its supernatural teachings, religion got a lot of things right. Basic issues such as kindness and compassion have little place in a society that is built around acquiring as much for yourself as you can. Even his chapter on pessimism rang true.

Subtitled A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion, some might consider the book opportunistic, but de Botton approaches religion from a purely practical and openminded angle: it often works. Religion supports (or supported) education. Numerically most of our colleges and universities in the United States have (or had) religious beginnings or affiliations. Religions also supported beauty in art, architecture, and liturgy. The religious culture provided places to meet others who thought like you, and where you felt safe. It was not afraid to be blunt about values. Many would dispute these positives, tending instead to focus on suicide bombers and child abusers. No doubt these evils also exist, and probably draw their inspiration from skewed religious views. Still, as a sincere outsider can see, religion offers much that society has no backups in mind to replace in this secular age.

In a pointed discussion of influence, de Botton mentions the power of institutions. Secular society has demonstrated repeatedly that it lacks the will to finance higher education. Secularists are terrible at organizing themselves. Reading de Botton’s suggestions for secular institutions, I almost rose from my bus seat and applauded. If Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos would put up the money for an institution on de Botton’s model, I’d be first in line to apply for a place in the Non-Religion Department. (A disclaimer here—although I met Jeff Bazos once, I can’t pretend to know his or Bill Gates’s religious outlooks; I only recognize success when I see it.) In any case, until we learn that one voice alone—no matter how many books s/he sells—cannot change anything substantial, we will be mired in impotence. To influence social change you need the combined resources of an institution. And, choose to like it or not, history tells us that in the long run the most successful institutions have been formed by religions. Alain de Botton has, I believe, given us something to believe.