Friday, March 27, 2015

Now Even Atheists Want a Religion

It all began with Swiss-born philosopher Alain de Botton.

De Botton is an atheist.  As much as he’d like to, he simply cannot bring himself to believe in the existence of God.e’s  But, he also has a slight problem:  he doesn’t like today’s secularism, either.  As de Botton sees it, society in recent times has become disturbingly indifferent to the pursuit of the moral life.  Making the effort to do good or to attain virtue is not viewed as a particularly worthwhile enterprise.  Rather, in this day and age, says de Botton, “[t]he notion of trying to be a ‘good person’ conjures up all sorts of negative associations: of piety, solemnity, bloodlessness and sexual renunciation. 

According to de Botton, the current secular society is in short supply of “high spiritual aspiration and practical moral guidance.”  Teachers, artists and philosophers don’t offer moral instruction or counsel, or think that this is even appropriate.  Art no longer seeks to edify or enlighten, but now exists for itself, an expression of the ego:  “We have too easily swallowed the Modernist idea that art which aims to change or help or console its audience must by definition be ‘bad art’ … and that only art which wants nothing too clearly of us can be good.”

Traditional religion, however, was not shy about providing moral guidance.  In the words of one commentator, it was happy to provide instruction on “how to live with others, how to tolerate other people’s faults, how to assuage anger, endure pain and deal with the petty corruptions of a commercial world.”  Notwithstanding his atheism, de Botton believes that we sorely need that sort of wise “religious” guidance and instruction today.  As he sees it, people have either over simplified notions or no idea at all about what it means to be a good person.

De Botton also recognizes that there’s a depth and richness in religion that secularism lacks:  “Religions are in the end too complex, wise and fascinating to be abandoned simply to those who happen actually to believe in them.”  So, even though he can’t believe in it, he yearns for that old-time religion.

But de Botton does not pin the decline in moral sensibility on any loss of belief in the supernatural – as many culture warriors contend.  Instead, he believes that society has stumbled largely because we have forgotten how to school the multitude in the weightier matters.  The traditional religious authorities had a low but realistic view of human nature.  People were fragile, sinful and vulnerable, and unable to create moral universes on their own.  Today’s secular institutions, by contrast, have a high and unrealistic view of human nature, says de Botton.  We are each charged with the task of coming up with our own philosophy and moral laws with little or no knowledge of the past thinking on these things.  It’s like being asked to figure out physics without any knowledge of Newton’s laws.  And then, we are expected to have the ability, on our own, to remember the key things we learn and to put these ideas into practice with little community support.  De Botton believes that this just doesn’t work.  At the risk of overworking a cliché, it takes a village.

The answer to this problem, says de Botton, is to reclaim the methods of religion without importing its beliefs:  “The most boring and unproductive question one can ask of any religion is whether or not it is true….”  Rather, we should look at “the ways in which religions deliver sermons, promote morality, engender a spirit of community, make use of art and architecture, inspire travels, train minds and encourage gratitude at the beauty of spring.”  And so, de Botton proposes a godless religion: an association that respects moral traditions, doesn’t shy away from profound thinking, is comfortable telling people how they ought to behave – and, at the same time, does not require belief in the supernatural.

To this end, in 2008, de Botton established what he calls the School of Life, a church for atheists.  Headquartered in London, it also has locations in Melbourne, Paris, Amsterdam, Antwerp, Belgrade and Istanbul.  It offers classes, secular Sunday sermons, lectures, weekend programs, and counseling for individuals, couples and families.   It also runs a consulting and training service for businesses.And, of course, there is the bookstore, selling books and other items to help people in their quest for a more fulfilled life.”

Interestingly enough, the School of Life is not the only established atheist denomination.  More recently, in January 2013, another atheistic community emerged, calling itself Sunday Assembly.  Oddly enough, the founders of Sunday Assembly were not academics or philosophers but two British stand-up comedians, Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans.

While Sunday Assembly doesn’t quite have the philosophical underpinnings of the School of Life, Jones and Evans share de Botton’s respect for religion.  Both Jones and Evans “wanted to do something like church but without God.”  But their thinking is a bit more straightforward.  "There was so much about it [religion] that I loved, but it's a shame because at the heart of it, it's something I don't believe in," Jones explains.  “If you think about church, there's very little that’s bad. It's singing awesome songs, hearing interesting talks, thinking about improving yourself and helping other people. And doing that in a community with wonderful relationships. What part of this is not to like?”

According to the group’s website, “The Sunday Assembly is a godless congregation that celebrates life.  Our motto: live better, help often, wonder more.  Our mission: to help everyone find and fulfill their full potential.  Our vision: a godless congregation in every town, city and village that wants one.”

As the mission statement indicates, unlike the School of Life, these folks are bent on spreading the word.  There are now over 65 chapters in Europe, Australia and North America, including one in Pittsburgh.

Just to give you some idea what an atheist gathering looks like, here is one particular order of service for Sunday Assembly found on the web:
Introductory Remarks:  Theme of "wonder"
Reading:  Selections from Alice in Wonderland
Song (stand):  Don't Stop Me Now by Queen
Song (stand):  Superstition by Stevie Wonder
Song (stand):  Ain't Got No by Nina Simone
Power Point Presentation by Dr. Harry Cliff, a particle physicist, on the discovery of antimatter.
Now, however, fissures have begun to form between the various atheist denominations.  De Botton himself is a bit resentful of the more widespread Sunday Assemblies: “We want to wish the comedians all the very best on their venture, while modestly adding that we have been ploughing this furrow for many years and they shouldn’t therefore claim the idea as their own.”  He added an ominous note: “We wouldn’t want to start a schism so early on in the movement.”

And then, led by Michael Dorian, the New York Sunday Assembly chapter broke away from the rest of the association, calling itself the Godless Revival.

The New York branch wanted a purer more doctrinal form of atheism.  Unlike the Sunday Assembly people, the Godless Revival does not welcome believers, calling them “anti-atheists.”  Entertainment and humor still play a large role in their events, but gone is the respect for religion of de Botton, Jones and Evans.   Instead, the Godless Revival is openly contemptuous:  its events are frequently held in bars, and often include “de-baptisms” accompanied by complimentary tequila shots and followed by an “afterlife” party.  The group has adopted as its unofficial slogan a line from Oscar Wilde:  “If you're going to tell people the truth, make them laugh.  Otherwise they'll kill you.”

The New Yorkers accuse Jones and Evans of abandoning true-blue atheism in favor of a watered down, milquetoast, “big tent” atheism.   It’s as if they have been tagged as the Unitarians of unbelievers.  And there may be some truth to this charge. “How atheist should our Assembly be?” Jones stated in a recent blog post. “The short answer to that is: not very.”  “‘Atheist Church’ as a phrase has been good to us. It has got us publicity,” added Evans. “But the term ‘atheist’ does hold negative connotations.  Atheists are often thought to be aggressive, loud and damning of all religion, where actually most atheists, in the UK anyway, are not defined by their non-belief.” And then, at a more recent assembly, Jones opined: “I think atheism is boring. Why are we defining ourselves by something we don’t believe in?”

The Godless Revival has also taken a different course from the Sunday Assembly as to liturgy and organization.  Gone is the idea that the organization represents some kind of atheist community.    According to its website, “The Godless Revival is entertainment; it is a show, not a service; those who attend are an audience, not a congregation. We tickle folks’ funny bones. We aim to show people a good time, not lecture them on how to live.”  We’ve now come full circle from de Botton.

The recent appearance of several atheist religions is certainly a curious, even puzzling, development. Many may protest, how can you have a religion that doesn’t believe in God or the supernatural? And then, how can you disagree about what you don’t believe in? Nonetheless, at least some atheists are interested in forming religious communities, and then, just like other religious groups, they can’t agree on what that community should look like.

Let me suggest this:  It may be that the content of belief is not all that important to religion after all.  Andrew Greeley, the late Catholic priest who wrote all those steamy novels, was a sociologist before he wrote pulp fiction.  And, mostly, he studied the sociology of religion.  One of the more perplexing questions to him was “How can someone who is intelligent and well educated continue to be a Roman Catholic in these times?”

According to Greeley, the research shows that people do not remain Catholic because they find its tenets appealing.  Indeed, as we well know, American Catholics are notoriously nonchalant about the “official” teachings of the Church.  A recent Pew survey shows that some 45% of all American Catholics did not know that the Church teaches that Christ is actually present in the Eucharistic bread and wine.  Another poll shows that 54% of American Catholics support same sex marriage, contrary to official Catholic position.  And, 86% of American Catholics say that artificial contraception is morally acceptable, and 40% say the same about abortion.  Clearly, American Catholics do not stay with the Church because they are passionate about its beliefs.

Rather, says Greeley, people remain Catholic simply because they like it.  They like it in part because it’s part of their ethnic heritage – perhaps a Western form of ancestor worship.  They like it because of the stories, both the Biblical tales and the lives of the saints.  They like the ceremonial rituals that mark both the passing year and the events of peoples’ lives.   They like being part of the neighborhood parish, a small hamlet inhabited by people you know in the midst of largely anonymous towns and cities.  So, apparently, people like being Catholic for reasons not too far removed from the reasons that Sanderson Jones likes religion:  “it's singing awesome songs, hearing interesting talks, thinking about improving yourself and helping other people. And doing that in a community with wonderful relationships.”

In The Case for God, Karen Armstrong explains that, until the modern period, the major Western monotheisms all concerned themselves primarily with practice, the doing of religion, rather than doctrine.  St. Gregory the Great, an early church father, echoes this idea by emphasizing the importance of acts of compassion above any belief in doctrine:  “I assure you that it is not by faith that you will come to know [God], but by love; not by mere conviction, but by action.”  One does not achieve holiness by what he believes but by what he does.

And, why should the willingness to subscribe to certain pronouncements be the touchstone of religion, especially since religion itself acknowledges humanity’s astoundingly limited knowledge of ultimate things?  Lao Tzu says this of the Tao:  “He is beyond comprehension (being the rarest of things).  Try to reach His beginning, no beginning can be seen. Seek His end, no end can be perceived.”  Isaiah in his vision hears God say that, “as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”  St. Paul says that we can see only through a glass, darkly, and calls God’s judgments unsearchable and his ways inscrutable.  St. Augustine also makes clear the incomprehensibility of God:  “This then is not God, if thou has comprehended it; but if this be God, thou hast not comprehended it.”  The 14th century Flemish mystic and writer, Jan Van Ruysbroeck, said this:  “And this is the highest knowledge of God which any man may have in this life: …that God is incomprehensible and unknowable.”  Islam says the same:  “Whatever you think concerning God – know that he is different from that,” says Ibn Ata’ Allah, a 13th century Muslim jurist and writer.  Why should belief occupy such a place of importance in religion when we have so little knowledge of the sacred?

Tanya Luhrmann, a psychological anthropologist at Stanford and a columnist for the New York Times who writes about religion, summarizes the human condition this way:  “The gods are invisible, the future is inscrutable, and much of life is bushwhacking over uneven terrain.”  I suppose that, in trying to find our way over this rough and unfamiliar ground, we may find some small comfort in the company of those who share our ignorance and uncertainty.   This shared company is the beginning of religion.

Note how fundamentally Christian de Botton's message is here.

Jones on Sunday Assembly

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Reading for Holy Week

In 1996 an Italian newspaper invited Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini of Milan to join with his friend, secularist and novelist Umberto Eco in a series of dialogues on the place of religion in contemporary society.  The two exchanged four letters a piece.  Out of those eight letters, the book, Belief or Nonbelief: a Confrontation, emerged.

In honor of the upcoming holy week I submit a small portion of the book, part of a letter written by Eco to the Cardinal. The entire letter is worth reading and can be found here:  

When the Other Appears on the Scene. 

In a prior letter, the cardinal had asked Eco: “What is the basis of the certainty and necessity for moral action of those who, in order to establish the absolute nature of an ethic, do not intend to appeal to metaphysical principles or transcendental values, or even to universally valid categorical imperatives?”  In other words, Martini is invoking the question of, if there is no God, isn't everything now permitted.

But you say that, without the example and the word of Christ, all lay ethics would lack a basic justification imbued with an ineluctable power of conviction. Why deprive laypersons of the right to avail themselves of the example of a forgiving Christ? Try, Carlo Maria Martini, for the good of the discussion and of the dialogue in which you believe, to accept even if only for a moment the idea that there is no God; that man appeared in the world out of a blunder on the part of maladroit fate, delivered not only unto his mortal condition but also condemned to be aware of this, and for this reason the most imperfect of all creatures (if I may be permitted the echoes of Leopardi in this suggestion). This man, in order to find the courage to await death, would necessarily become a religious animal, and would aspire to the construction of narratives capable of providing him with an explanation and a model, an exemplary image. And among the many stories he imagines—some dazzling, some awe-inspiring, some pathetically comforting—in the fullness of time he has at a certain point the religious, moral, and poetic strength to conceive the model of Christ, of universal love, of forgiveness for enemies, of a life sacrificed that others may be saved. If I were a traveler from a distant galaxy and I found myself confronted with a species capable of proposing this model, I would be filled with admiration for such theogonic energy, and I would judge this wretched and vile species, which has committed so many horrors, redeemed were it only for the fact that it has managed to wish and to believe that all this is the truth.
You are now free to leave the hypothesis to others: but admit that even if Christ were only the subject of a great story, the fact that this story could have been imagined and desired by humans, creatures who know only that they do not know, would be just as miraculous (miraculously mysterious) as the son of a real God’s being made flesh. This natural and worldly mystery would not cease to move and ennoble the hearts of those who do not believe. 
This is why I believe that, on the fundamental points, a natural ethic— respected for the profound religiosity that inspires it—can find common ground with the principles of an ethic founded on faith in transcendence, which cannot fail to recognize that natural principles have been carved into our hearts on the basis of a plan for salvation. If this leaves, as it certainly does, margins that may not overlap, it is no different from what happens when different religions encounter one another. And in conflicts of faith, charity and prudence must prevail.
Eco and Martini

Monday, March 23, 2015

More π, Please

I’d like to elaborate on Myk’s interesting post on π-Day, continuing the path that π is fundamentally so much more important than its digits. (Warning: This post will follow a philosophical turn, so it will deal with foolhardy mental constructs with the intent to change how you view the world and, more importantly, change it.)

Stephen Hawking wrote an anthology called God Created the Integers. The title refers to mathematician Leopold Kronecker’s quote, “numbers were created by God, everything else is the work of men”. His meaning, if I may be so bold, is that numbers are more basic, or more true, than our impressions of the world around us. Numbers transcend. 

Indeed, an early Neanderthal picked up a stone or stared at the moon and recognized the unit, 1. The moon or the stone seemed perfectly demarcated as a “1”, which could stand on its own—epistemologically fundamental. 

However, (there’s always “however”) this little essay attempts to show that “epistemologically fundamental” is not metaphysically or ontologically fundamental. Numbers, despite Kronecker, Hawking, or God, are more likely constructs of man, not God, and may (merely may, madam) not be transcendent. Put better, you can most likely claim a good mate, secure food, and think highly of yourself by putting your faith in numbers, but there may be a better mate available to you, if you don’t.

Let’s take a closer look at the crucial stone in our Neanderthal’s hand. We glance, as he has, at a large, hungry saber-toothed cat he has just spotted. And then another! and another! The world certainly appears to contain numbers. The rock now contains sweat from his hand, but it is still one rock, or his tightening grip has broken a piece from the stone. Yet, it is still unity. One of the approaching cats brushes against a tree leaving a large clump of fur, but it is still unity.  How much can be altered and remain one object? Is half a rock still a rock? Is half a cat still a cat? Can we divide matter to an atom unit? Have we found our “one”? Is "1" really transcendent? 

I’m not sure, but it seems to me that what we have here is “the ineluctable modality of the visible”. We humans, in order to survive, necessarily need modality, from which numbers follow. If we want to use the rock or run from hungry cats, we had better perceive each as a unity. But, in a less stressful time, when we really look at the world, we see π — the relationship between the circumference and its diameter, an irrational number compared to the rational, distinct numbers of our modally viewed world.

The abstract “1” is too clear and clean. The real world is not. The atom is the basic unit of matter. Oh, well, perhaps the quark, or fermions and bosons or a hypothetical particle, like the graviton or the chameleon. Numbers provide us with an indispensable method for dealing with the world. Without numbers and mathematics, we would be lost in knowledge back to the Neanderthal who understood “1”, and “2”, and “3” rocks and tigers. Our world works well knowing precisely how many rocks are needed for how many tigers, and what is the precise position and direction of each. 

However, I submit that the real reality is vague, not distinct, not cleanly modal enough to really have a “1” or a “2” or a “3”. They are indispensable tools, but, perhaps, will never be able to describe the real world no matter how abstract and complex we forge them. The world is more the relationship between the circumference and the diameter, something that is irrational to the human concept of numbers. Numbers are almost perfect in modeling the world, but not exactly, as π shows.

Perhaps, as useful as they are, numbers will always fall short of letting us describe the world. Perhaps they aren't from God after all. Perhaps we need a new vocabulary to really understand it. 

Friday, March 20, 2015

Looking for a great place to visit to find some good food?

According to the Huffingtonpost, you've got to come to western MA!

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Happy Pi Day

One problem of being an immigrant country is that from time to time we have holiday overload.  And it's happened again.

Friday was Friday the 13th.  Tomorrow is Laetare Sunday, also known as Refreshment Sunday, Mid-Lent Sunday (in French mi-carême), or Rose Sunday.  In the UK, it's known as Mothering Sunday. Laetare Sunday -- about halfway through Lent -- is a day of relaxation from normal Lenten rigours.  In England, servants were released from service for the day to visit their mothers (hence 'Mothering Sunday').  Tomorrow is also the Ides of March, the day Ceasar was warned about.  Then, Tuesday is St. Patrick's Day.   And, on top of all that, today is Pi Day.

But this is not just any Pi Day.  March 14 was chosen as Pi Day because when written numerically -- 3/14 -- it reflects the first three digits of pi:  3.14.  But, today, it is March 14 of the year '15, or 3-14-15 — the first five digits of the number pi. It's a confluence that won't happen again for a hundred years. Mathmaticians are excited. More than that, today, at 9:26 and 53 seconds, both a.m. and p.m., pi will be taken out to 10 digits: 3.141592653.

Just in case you are curious, in 2013, mathematicians calculated the number to an incredible 12.1 trillion digits.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Comments of Candor

In mankind’s continuing quest to bring relief to the blog-trodden world, here is a new series on “In Progress”, called “Comments of Candor”. The concept is culling insightful, incomprehensible, or insanely hilarious comments from web articles, posting them here, and then, as a voluntary class participation project, commenting what you would post next. Anyone can play, post, or comment…well, if you have permission from Peter (I've lost his email address). 

For example, here is an excerpt from an excerpt from an article about hunting the golden gnu:
“We breed them because they’re different,” says Barry York, who owns a 2,500-acre ranch about 135 miles east of Johannesburg. There, he expertly mates big game for optimal — read: unusual — results. “There’ll always be a premium paid for highly-adapted, unique, rare animals.”
…No one disputes that there’s money to be made in rare big game. Africa Hunt Lodge, a U.S.-based tour operator, advertises “hunt packages” to international clients traveling to South Africa that include killing a golden gnu for $49,500, a black impala for $45,000, and a white lion for $30,000.
The article elicited these comments:

honkie please March 13, 2015 at 3:52 am
Lord show me the Kickstarter for the breeding of a gnu that shoots back.

Brandon Berg March 13, 2015 at 7:43 am
Ah, the fabled gnun.

If you wished to play you might post something like this, but better, in the comments:

"Gnone other!"
“How much to hunt the breeds who did the breeding?”

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Apple's Medical ResearchKit

After most Apple Events, when Apple is introducing new products, their stock price takes a dive. Reality rarely will exceed our imaginations. But at yesterday's "Spring Forward" event, Apple may have avoided the stock dip if they would have rearranged the presentations. They should have made "ResearchKit" the final "one more thing." As a matter of fact, during the "ResearchKit" presentation the stock price shot up, but it became lost in the mix, and was barely reported. It was the one surprising and surprisingly innovative announcement.

As is true with many innovative ideas, it evokes an "of course!" sort of reaction. Medical research has many obstacles. Collecting timely data from a wide range of people in large sizes is a nightmare in logistics, organization, collection, and expense. Apple showed off a platform where medical researchers can issue apps, containing diagnostic tools, for which anyone with a Apple iPhone (and/or watch) may submit real-time personal data to the researcher. (Note: Apple has sold over 700,000,000 iPhones) The data cannot be viewed by Apple. There have already been five apps produced: diagnostics for asthma, breast cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular, and Parkinson's disease. Apple released the ResearchKit framework as open source, so presumably it can be used by others.

I wonder if our medical researchers (Pete, Mike) have thoughts on the concept or the specifics?

Alan Yeung, medical director of Stanford Cardiovascular Health, reported that the number of participants in a Stanford University cardiovascular study conducted using the ResearchKit increased by 10,000 overnight. "To get 10,000 people enrolled in a medical study normally, it would take a year and 50 medical centers around the country," he said.

Jon Wilbanks running a Parkinson's disease research said, "After six hours we have 7406 people enrolled in our Parkinson's study. Largest one ever before was 1700 people."

However, Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice professor Lisa Schwartz was skeptical about the close demographic grouping of iPhone users. "Just collecting lots of information about people — who may or may not have a particular disease, and may or may not represent the typical patient — could just add noise and distraction" He added, "Bias times a million is still bias."

No one likes to read when there's a video, but be warned, this is an Apple video.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Keep You Eye on Mary Cain

Nice article about the remarkable Mary Cain, the rise of female runners, the dangers of overtraining and the importance of weight work and diet for distance runners:

Mary Cain Is Growing Up Fast

At age 16, Cain, taking a third in the 2013 indoor New Balance Games behind two professional runners, breaks the 41 year old high school national indoor mile record running 4:32.78.  The time was 6 seconds faster than the old record of 4:38.5 set in 1972.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

We're looking for your suggestions

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a married retired couple in possession of a smart TV and a Netflix subscription, must be in want of some quality television programming.

I have another question to toss out to the mutitude of readers out there.  We are now in either the second or third (depending on how you are counting) golden age of television.  This current age is mostly a premium cable phenomenon being led by HBO and AMC.  It all started with HBO's The Sopranos, followed by Six Feet Under and The Wire.  Then AMC got into the action with Breaking Bad and Mad Men.  We also now have Game of Thrones (HBO) and The Walking Dead (AMC).  Netflix has gotten on board with House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black.  I suppose that there are plenty of other shows in addition to these.

Because we never got premium cable or a smart TV and because I simply was not prepared to invest the entirety of my free time watching long-running TV shows, I have not seen any of these 21st century high-quality shows (with the sole exception of House of Cards).  Even though I still do not have paid cable, I assume that I can watch all the good cable shows on Netflix.


Sue and I will soon be settling in to watching the third season of House of Cards.  My question to all of you is, what should we watch next?  Which of the shows from the current Golden Age -- whether mentioned above or not -- are the best that this age has to offer?  All suggestions are welcome.  We promise to consider carefully each response.