Monday, October 01, 2012

Spiritual But Not Religious

Why on earth would anybody want to be 'spiritual but not religious'--whatever that comes to? Religion provides the machinery to produce religious experience. Why bother with meditation or whatever SBNR people do to get that experience when religion produces it more reliably, with greater intensity and with much less effort?

I poke around on blogs to get an idea of what motivates the spiritual-but-not-religious. One theme seems to be "I don't need religion." How true: we don't need anything beyond the food, clothing and shelter requisite for bare, boring survival. But we want more. We don't need religion--any more than we, as my mother said, need recreational drugs: according to her we can enjoy ourselves without them, and anyone who uses them is sick and weak.

But recreational drugs are great! If you can get high more easily, more reliably and more intensely on drugs, than drugs are a good thing and you should enjoy them--even though you don't need them. I am, therefore, in favor of recreational drugs and of religion--rightly characterized as the opium of the people. We don't need them--but we want them because we enjoy them.

Other SBNR people congratulate themselves on their critical acumen and intellectual independence. They do not, the are proud to say, uncritically buy into dogmatic packages promulgated by religious authorities. Ho-hum: neither do we religious people. We look to religion to provide the machinery to produce religious/aesthetic experience--the buildings and ceremonies--not for some doctrinal package. We can, and do, believe whatever we please. Unlike most religious believers, I enjoy doctrine because I do metaphysics. But I do not see it as a package of doxastic obligations. Christian doctrine is a conceptual playground, where I can monkey around on the metaphysical monkey bars, so to speak. Nothing hangs on getting it right--if indeed there is a right. It's just a lot of logic puzzles to play with.

I suppose in the end it comes to what one wants out of spirituality/religion. What I want is art and elaborate rituals which will, at their best, lead to aesthetic/religious experience--a sort of intellectual/aesthetic orgasm. Of course the SBNR will immediately jump on this, assuming that intellectual/aesthetic orgasms can only be a substitute for the more conventional variety. But not so. The issue isn't other but more: religion isn't a substitute for sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll but more good stuff, more pleasure.

Naturally, for most churches official doctrine impose restrictions or prohibitions on these other pleasures. But who pays attention to this bullshit? They couldn't enforce their silly rules and prohibitions even if they wanted to. And most are all to happy to get our butts on their pews, no questions asked.

So, what does one want out of spirituality/religion? A slam-bang aesthetic/mystical experience. That's what I'm in the game for because religion has nothing else to offer. And because nothing but religion can provide that aesthetic/mystical experience as reliably or intensely, with the least possible effort on our behalf. So if religion dies out, if those buildings aren't maintained, if those ceremonies aren't performed, we will be deprived of that experience--just as we will be deprived of valuable experiences if recreational drugs aren't available.

So I evangelize. Not because I have the slightest interest in "saving souls" or making other people's lives better in any way, but because I want to promote the interests of the institutional church so that it can maintain those buildings and keep the fancy rituals going for my entertainment and for the pleasure of others who, like me, enjoy religiousity.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Romney and the 47%

It's always a kick to discover what other people say about your kind of people behind your back. My best find was a student conversation overheard at my campus. "The professor was wearing a tee shirt," said the first student, "a striped one." The other said, "We're paying to be here: you don't have to stand for that."

So now we know what Romney and the Republican donors who had the bucks to kick in for a $50,000 a plate Republican fundraiser, think of the rest of us--or at least 47% of us. They believe that we're chronic whiners who imagine ourselves victims and are unwilling to "take personal responsibility and care for...[our] lives."

The remarkable thing about Romney's pitch, and the audience at which it was directed, is that in spite of being educated and presumably competent, they were so utter lacking in imagination. That is a characteristic of primitive people--people in "traditional" societies and the lower classes. They just don't get counterfacuals. Ask a bigoted redneck or working class white ethnic how he would feel about things if he were black and the response is invariably, "But I'm not black." Ask it again, "But what if..." and the answer will be the same. They're not capable of achieving the level of abstract thought that makes it possible to understand counterfactuals--including the Golden Rule. They just don't have the imagination. But maybe that's because they can't afford imagination: they're too busy scrounging and fighting for survival.

Uneducated people behave themselves--when they do--because they're afraid of punishment--in this world or the next. Apart from that, they can't imagine any reason not to lie, cheat and steal or, if they're young men, rape and pillage. And that is why the lower classes are so keen on get-tough policies and religion: they simply can't imagine why anyone would behave themselves if it weren't for fear of punishment, in this world or the next.

Remarkably Romney and his supporters--rich, educated people who have the time and leisure to reflect--are just as unimaginative. They can't seem to imagine what it would be like if their circumstances were, though no fault of their own, different--if they'd been born dirt poor, or black, or on the opposite side of the southern border, or in any of a number of circumstances that would have put them at a serious disadvantage. And they can't or won't understand the extent to which circumstances beyond their control including pure dumb luck were responsible for their privilege.

I'm happy--in fact, delighted, with the life I live. I'm not a victim--indeed I'm vastly privileged--and I'm not whining. I've got a much better life than I ever dreamed I'd have. All I've ever wanted in life was to avoid boredom, and in particular, to do a work that was challenging and interesting. I got that. But it was a matter of pure dumb luck--because my family had money, because I lucked out in getting an academic job, because, most fundamentally, I won the genetic lottery and turned out to be smart. But all this is dumb luck. I didn't make it. It is simply a matter of pure dumb luck that I'm a professor and not a Walmart cashier, or a freeway entrance beggar, or a citizen of the Global South living in extreme poverty, or the child of such a citizen, dying of malnutrition in early childhood.

Romney is now pushing the self-serving self-deceiving idea "we made it." We didn't. We got it--from the government, from biology, from fate, from a variety of circumstances beyond our control. And if we have the ability to understand counterfactuals we should recognize that if our circumstances had been different we'd be members of the 47% that Romney has dismissed as irresponsible whiners. If my fate had been different, if I hadn't been able to go to college, I would have gone on welfare. I'm not interested in promoting socialist policies for the sake of the lower classes, whom I detest, but for my sake--because I could have been in their position. I want to see these policies in place because I want to live in a world where no one has their back against the wall with no room to maneuver, because I escaped a life that I would have found intolerable by the skin of my teeth. I don't care about the poor--I care about myself and people like me, people who are a hair's breadth away from being trapped in an intolerable situation.

I don't have any problem supporting the idle poor--because if I were in their situation I wouldn't want to be forced to do work. I don't begrudge them their idleness because it is exactly what I'd choose if I were in their position--one of those counterfactuals. I'm still amazed though at Romney and his followers. Can't they imagine the hell in which the 47% live--choosing between poverty and agonizing work, and most often ending up with both? Can't they imagine what work is like for most of us? In the morning, it's like you dive into deep water and see how long you can hold your breath--how long you can do the job before you start going mad, crying, cracking up. That's the way it was for me when I did "real work"--by 10:30 every day I was crying. Yes, I'm a stinking spoiled brat. Yes, most people cope. But I don't want them to have to cope--I don't want them to do what I myself couldn't do. I want them to have the good life that I have because it's a matter of pure dumb luck that I do and they don't. Why is this so hard to understand?

Friday, September 14, 2012

Let's have a demonstration!

Let's get out with signs and tell the world, and the Muslim world in particular, that we Americans do not support the lunatic Islamophobia of "Pastor" Terry Jones and whoever concocted the offensive film that set off this outrage.

Sorry Muslim people. That film is not the behavior of Christians, or Jews, or Americans of any religion or no religion. It was the work of detestable trash whom we repudiate. This is not who we are. The people of Libya have repudiated the murder of our ambassador and other Americans and throughout the Islamic world people of good will have come out to tell us that they reject groups that perpetrate this violence. And for our part we should let them, and everyone else, know that we reject the bigotry of the minority of Americans who insult Islam and promote hate.

How about 2 pm Sunday in front of the San Diego Civic Center for you who are local--with signs, like the one in the picture to get the message across that Koran-burning Terry Jones does not speak for us? And if you are not local, how about getting something going in your area.

OK, it probably won't work. I'm not an activist or an organizer. But on the off chance that some one who reads this, one of my Facebook friends or their friends of friends, is an activist and organizer, please consider this project.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Core Curriculum

I've signed up for a Saturday workshop at school on "core curriculum" and, having just read the "materials" for this monstrosity I'm probably going to drop out--even though they give us $100 and a free lunch for going. The stuff is sickening--inflated, vacuous, pious bullshit.

So what do I think about "core"? I prefer "general ed" of course because it isn't core or central to the mission of a university, which is vocational training for professional occupations. General ed courses are a wonderful luxury. However one of the items I read did ask us to reflect and get clear about what we thought the role of core/GE was. So I did, and here it is:

(1) Brain-Candy. The primary role of GE is to stock students heads with amusements and give them the skills for a lifetime of intellectual entertainment. It takes work to be entertained by art, literature, science and all the good stuff of culture but it pays off magnificently. Uneducated people simply can't enjoy themselves as consistently or intensely as we can if we've learned to understand and appreciate high culture, to understand things that are difficult and intricate. Anna Karenina, the Bach B Minor Mass and San Vitale just pack a much, much bigger hedonic punch than any pop cultural crap, but to get the thrill you have to do some work.

(2) Intellectual Jewelery. We want to adorn ourselves, turn our lives into works of art by acquiring beautiful things--by decorating our houses, having fine furniture, and decorating ourselves with skills and knowledge. We decorate ourselves by learning to play musical instruments and to draw, by reading works in the evolving "canon," by learning about history and politics. The aim is to become what used to be called "cultivated" or "cultured." It's narcissism and snobbery--and I'm all for it.

Of course this won't fly because, incredibly, even though we are vastly wealthy most Americans seem convinced that we're on the edge of economic disaster and have to engage in endless belt-tightening. We're told we can't afford universal health care, can't afford to pay public school teachers decent wages, can't afford decent working conditions or shorter hours. And of course we can't afford hedonistic, narcissistic luxuries like a liberal education. So we have to sell it as something edifying, religious, and "core" to social well-being.

If that's so I suppose colleagues who run projects like core curriculum revision are doing their job, persuading the general public that there should be courses other than business and engineering, that people like me, who don't do anything useful or of practical import should be employed. So these noises, I suppose, have to be made--and in order to make them credibly, they have to be made by true believers. Cynical actors fail because acting is hard.

But I'm a person of little faith and a poor actor. So I think I can do without the $100 and free lunch: time for strategic withdrawal.

Saturday, September 01, 2012

Evolution and the Science Guy

Good Lord, what is this nonsense about evolution? When I was a little kid, in the wake of Sputnik, all Americans wanted to promote Science, and there was no nonsense about "Creationism." There were TV shows about life emerging from the primordial soup and that's what we learnt in biology. No one doubted it.

In high school we had an assembly at which a biologist who was a college professor spoke to us about evolution. I remember it well: he was young, very good looking, and the first man I'd ever seen in person who had a beard. I was impressed.

So what happened? As a child I heard that in the Olden Days there were people who objected to evolution, and that it all blew up during the Scopes Monkey Trial. But that was long ago and far away--and now the theory of evolution was established as solid fact, and everyone accepted it. What happened???

Were there people around when I was growing up who were Creationists? I think not. I think there were a great many people who simply never thought about the origin of species. They were mostly poor, uneducated people who had enough problems dealing with their own lives and didn't worry about such things. In was only during the late 70's with the emergence of the religious right that demagogues got these people riled up and recruited them.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Chris Christie cometh

“Christie-ism”—an aggressively anti-worker conservatism that uses working-class affect and the promise of solidarity to push right-wing policies and mask a broader assault on the social safety net. It’s an approach that could take Christie to the White House. Indeed, this speech was a virtual audition for 2016 and Christie’s inevitable run for the presidency if Romney loses in November.

 OK, Obama, you mealy-mouthed wimp: listen up. Romney will lose and you will have four more years to show your stuff. So let's see some guts for a change: show the white working class Republican "base," what a welfare state can deliver. Put together a WPA-style works project to get those dumb grunts out on the streets hacking and hewing. And it's not as if this is pointless make-work: the infrastructure is crumbling. Especially Harbor Drive, San Diego, which is pocked, potholed, and perfectly miserable for biking. And which has been under construction in a desultory fashion for about two years now. Get those guys out and digging!

And if a Republican-dominated congress says that we can't afford it, get up on your bully pulpit--on TV, radio and the Internet, and tell those guys that you're just asking the rich to pay their fair share to fix the roads so that they can drive around in their fat SUVs, and creating jobs for workers to fix and maintain them. You might even want to explain a little about public goods--those grunts aren't that dumb. They might actually understand.

Show these jerks what a welfare state can deliver, what it can do for them--not some mythical Welfare Queen.

You got four more years to deliver a European style socialist welfare state. Get going.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Liberal Christianity

If all publicity is good publicity Ross Douthat has done a service to the Episcopal Church by announcing its forthcoming collapse in his NYTimes column and blog. His thesis is the standard, discredited explanation from Dean Kelly's 1972 book Why the Conservative Churches are Growing

By the same token I suppose liberals are doing good simply by responding--even though their defenses of the faith range from unconvincing to offensive:

Unconvincing: "My wonderful inclusive parish is vibrant and growing." (Congrats to your vibrant, inclusive parish but, sorry, the stats overall for the Episcopal Church, and all other mainline churches are terrible)

Offensive: "People are leaving because they're a bunch of ignorant, homophobic bigots who prefer to check their brains at the door: our church is too good for them. And we have a low birth rate because our people are conscientiously choosing to be child-free in order to save the environment." (No comment)

For heaven's sake, isn't the problem obvious? People look to churches for religion--not endless politically correct harangues and volunteer work. The problem isn't that liberal churches have become too liberal socially and politically, or that they've rejected "traditional morality"--the problem is that they've jettisoned traditional metaphysics and liturgy. Currently slightly more than half of Americans support gay marriage: the Episcopal Church is hardly showing "prophetic witness" in this regard. If some 51% of Americans agree with the Episcopal Church's sexual ethics, how come the Episcopal Church now represents just under 1% of the population?

The problem isn't that the Episcopal Church is too ethically and socially liberal for most people's tastes. The Church is collapsing because of lack of faith--because the leadership has rejected supernaturalism, believes that theism is completely out of the ballpark for educated people (as Spong declared in his 12 Theses) and regards religion as uninteresting and basically a waste of time. Given these assumptions it's hardly worth making the effort to get more people into the pews (as long as the endowment holds out). Anyway, they should be out in the World, doing social service and political activism--not wasting their time in church.

Why, why couldn't the church have ditched "traditional morality" but kept the metaphysics and liturgy? Isn't this what the whole "spiritual-but-not-religious" movement is about? People want the the woo-woo, the ceremonies and paraphernalia, without the Biblical literalism, puritanism and social conservatism they associate with Christianity. Here is a market niche the Episcopal Church was ideally situated to capture: fancy churches, good music, elaborate rituals, and mysticism without "traditional morality" or Biblical literalism. But it didn't. It adopted a stinking new Prayer Book, contemporary English, the Peace and other detestable garbage that expunged every bit of the numinous from the liturgy.

And ironically, that was just more puritanism, more moralism. Liberals condemned conservatives for puritanitanical restrictions on sexual activity, but liberals were even more puritanical about fantasy, beauty and "escapism." Don't you dare enjoy church--you're here to be edified, to be pushed to go out into the World and work for Justice, Freedom and Peace. Of course if we had a moral motivation drug that we could put in the water supply to make everyone go out and work for social justice we wouldn't need religion at all! We'd sell off all those wasteful churches--every grain of incense is bread from the mouths of the poor--and spend all that money on Justice, Freedom and Peace.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Religion Dying Out

Hard to accept but religion is dying out--slowly, lingering in the Third World and among the poor, but inevitably dying.

I don't understand why people are pleased about that. The death of religion means a duller, deader, more prosaic world--without rituals and myths. I prowl the blogs and read the comments, and I'm baffled why there is virtually no one who has my take on religion.

I love religion. I wish I lived in a world where religiousity was all pervasive, where there were innumerable churches and little shrines where people stopped to mumble the quick prayer, where every other day was a holy day honoring a saint, a dogma, or the translation of some holy bones, with processions in the street, where people engaged in 1000 little rituals, swore by Saint Loy and went on pilgrimages.

It's a fantasy, a dream. I just don't understand why it doesn't appeal to other people in the way it appeals to me.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Food Desserts

We aren’t all fat here in the US—just some of us. Mainly, poor people.
According to the received view, the poor are more likely to be overweight because they live in food deserts where fresh vegetables and other “healthy” foods are unavailable. Without access to transportation, they’re forced to eat locally available junk food. To remedy this, social reformers have introduced green carts stocking fresh fruit and veg to slums.
A recent NYTimes article however challenged the received view. According to a recent study, most poor neighborhoods “have more… grocery stores, supermarkets and full-service restaurants” than more affluent venues and there is “no relationship between the type of food being sold in a neighborhood and obesity among its children and adolescents.”[1] The introduction of green carts made no difference to slum-dwellers’ eating habits: they simply preferred tasty junk food to healthy vegetables.
The article drew outraged responses. Most critics were skeptical—convinced that there really were food deserts whose residents could not get “healthy” green food. Others weren’t having it, and roundly condemned fat slum-dwellers for their irresponsibility, laziness and lack of self-control.
Food is the new sex—the focus of purity regulations and moralism, and a class marker. Victorians condemned the undeserving poor for promiscuity and non-marital liaisons, for irresponsibility and laziness. The new guardians of morality despise them for promiscuous eating, for being too lazy to cook from scratch, and for their irresponsible consumption of fatty, salty, sugary junk food.
Most of these moralists live here in California, the slimmest state in the nation, where everyone carries a water bottle for ongoing hydration and all women do yoga. Being fat in California—at least in the upper middle reaches of society—is hell. In upscale neighborhoods you are liable to get the hate stare just for walking down the street while fat. You do not dare to admit eating meat—unless it’s grass-fed and certified by a boutique butchery—and vegans condemn mere vegetarians as slackers.
There’s no mystery why poor people disproportionately run to fat. They don’t have to live with these moralists so they have less incentive to sweat and starve to be “healthy.” Amongst the working class fat is acceptable—and for women of a certain age the norm. They can enjoy chili, burgers and cheap beer at tailgate parties, far from the censorious gaze of fastidious foodies and exercise enforcers. They can shop for extra-size clothes at Walmart without embarrassment and shamelessly consume junk food at the in-store McDonalds. In their world fat is not a moral failure or a loathsome disease: it is not punished.
Living amongst censorious microbrewers, spandex cyclists, and yoga moms I finally succumbed to social pressure. I joined a gym. I work out every day and starve myself so I am now “healthy” and can appear in public, even in upscale neighborhoods, without shame. But I still don’t care for this regime.
Last month I went to a conference in Arkansas, a poor Southern state and so, along with Alabama and Mississippi, one of the fattest in the country. I wish I lived there! It would be so relaxing not to be always under the gun, not to live in a place where one has to work so hard to avoid social opprobrium. I wish I lived in a place where it was ok to be fat!


Thursday, April 05, 2012

Obama is an Atheist

Of course he is. The odds of members of his demographic being religious believers are minimal and there is no reason to think that Obama is any different from his cohort. He's not a Muslim, of course. He's just a common or garden variety atheist who joined Rev. Wright's church because membership in a Black Congregation was de rigeur for aspiring black politicians. But I don't have the least doubt that back at the U. of Chi law school he sniggered at us benighted Christians as good as the rest of them. He despises us, as they all do.

But I don't hold that against him. I voted for him and will vote for him again because I don't care about what the candidate believes, or for that matter about the candidate. I vote for the party, that is, the ideology.

But I do hope that at some point in his next term--for which I fervently pray--Obama will come out of the closet and admit that he's an atheist. I am sick of being patronized and manipulated, sick of the contempt of upper middle class liberals who despise me for my religious beliefs, who play games with me imagining that I'm too stupid to recognize what they're doing.