Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

The Thinker

The roots of terrorism

Ever get this strange feeling of déjà vu? Last Friday’s horrific terrorist events in Paris are being called France’s 9/11. Last I checked there were 129 mostly French citizens murdered in six separate but obviously well coordinated terrorist incidents in Paris, and more than three hundred wounded. I don’t think it’s coincidental that these incidents occurred on a Friday the Thirteenth. The date may not have the same unlucky connotation in France that it has here in the United States, but ISIS (which admitted to sponsoring the acts) and al Qaeda know the power of marketing and symbolism. Anything that they can do to make such events more memorable will be done, and tying events like this to memorable dates is one.

Shortly after 9/11 here in the United States, our military did the expected things. We sent our air force into Afghanistan. In our case it worked reasonably well, at least at first, because we destroyed the Taliban government there that hosted al Qaeda. We installed our own more secular and western government in its place; a form of government that was not natural to the region and which unsurprisingly caused a strong insurgency.

Fourteen years later al Qaeda is a diminished presence in Afghanistan, but Afghanistan is hardly stable, secular or particularly democratic. The Taliban are resurgent and it looks like more civil war is ahead there; in fact it has already begun. Our leadership took being caught with its pants down as a sign that America had to be proactive to address these threats, so we unwisely toppled Saddam Hussein. The state of ISIS, such as it is, is a direct result of that unwise action. Indirectly, the U.S. has contributed to last Friday’s events.

The French government of course quickly decided that their own 9/11 could not go unanswered, so it sent its considerable air force to bomb targets in Syria controlled by ISIS in coordination with our own. This was done to presumably degrade and destroy ISIS that just last week President Obama unwisely asserted was contained. ISIS proudly admitted that it had planned and coordinated these attacks. It was done for the same reason that Osama bin Laden planned and coordinated 9/11. His goal was not so much to destroy the United States, as it was to use the U.S. as a proxy to further his cause. And it worked amazingly well for him, actually better than he imagined as our invasion of Iraq introduced anarchy that eventually allowed ISIS to rise.

Presumably France won’t go the extra mile the way the United States did in Iraq, but it does not have our vast military resources anyhow. Presumably its leadership is a bit clearer-headed than ours was after 9/11 and realizes these military strikes are more to satisfy their citizens’ cry for a counterpunch rather than to meaningful affect a particular outcome.

Fires remain fires only as long as they have a combination of fuel and oxygen. Understood in this context, ISIS’s actions were predictable. The neophyte state is rather amorphous but it certainly needs energy to continue. The oxygen comes from more people committed to their ideology, and the fuel comes from its funders. ISIS exists in a resource poor part of the Middle East, so most of its money actually comes from outside the state, i.e. those with money that support its radical version of Sunni Islam. To get the money it needs to continue to demonstrate it has power and can draw recruits. So going for soft targets like innocent civilians in Paris is logical. It’s relatively easy to demonstrate that it can execute power over a free society like France. Such acts will inspire many and it will impress its creditors. It allows the state to continue because its military has been significantly degraded by allied airstrikes and by the many forces engaged on the ground in the region.

Fourteen years after 9/11 it’s obvious from these incidents that if there were easy ways to contain terrorism they would have worked by now. In fact, if there were hard ways of containing terrorism, they would have shown affect by now as well. Invading Iraq and trying to stand up a secular government there is a hard thing to do. Actually there has been a lot of progress, but it’s mostly unseen. While intelligence within ISIS is poor, our intelligence capability has improved remarkably during this time. It’s just not enough in a free society to stop periodic incidents like these, although many do get deterred and prevented. A state cannot know everything and call itself free.

It’s possible that with time ISIS will be degraded and destroyed as President Obama hopes. However, even if this victory happens, it doesn’t solve the problem. Ideology in general is the real problem. If ISIS goes and the dynamics of radical Islam are not addressed as well, it will simply spring up elsewhere in other forms in the Middle East. Wiping out ISIS in other words is merely winning a battle. The real war is to change hearts and minds.

In 1995 the United States endured the Oklahoma City Bombing, an act of domestic terrorism. This act was similar in size and scale to last Friday’s incidents in Paris. Its perpetrator Timothy McVeigh was not particularly religious, but he was dogmatic. He was deeply conservative in the sense that he was upset about changes happening in America. He believed that changes disenfranchised white people, and that these changes were being achieved through the federal government through what he perceived as its pro-liberal policies. At its root, McVeigh’s complaint was that he was against democracy when it did not favor his interests. He believed enlightened ones like him had the duty to change things through acts like terrorism when this happened.

Basically McVeigh was an authoritarian, something that resonates strongly with many Americans, most of who align with the Republican Party. Stripped of its religious façade, that’s what the War on Terrorism is really about: it’s a struggle between those powerfully pulled to an authoritarian framework versus those who believe government should be run democratically come what may. The roots of this conflict might very well be genetic, as there is convincing research that shows that liberals and conservatives are wired differently right down to their DNA. Conservatives believe in authoritarianism and feel in their bones that they must follow the leader like a sheep providing they can trust their leader and conversely to wholly distrust the leader when they don’t (hence their utter contempt for President Obama.) You can see this in Donald Trump’s appeal. Conversely, liberals are comfortable with ambiguity and want to empower all the people.

This conflict is probably not going to go away with ISIS or even al Qaeda. However, it’s clear that within the last hundred years or so liberals have been winning promoting a more secular, humane and tolerant world. Regardless of the rationalization that impels terrorists (God, Islam, racism, communism) the common threat is liberalism (i.e. progressive social change), which is manifested through secularism, representative democracy, freedom and tolerance for those unlike us. If more intolerance in France can be created then France begins to model ISIS in spirit. Islam is more likely to take hold in a country where the culture favors authoritarianism.

ISIS isn’t explicitly aware of this, but in this mindset requires intolerant and authoritarian governments. It fights for a world where government enforces its own radical brand of Islam worldwide, but this is a fight that can never be won. However, it can inadvertently be a proxy in a larger and more nebulous cause to put in power those whose DNA makes them comfortable with the leader-and-follower model, and that reviles tolerance and ambiguity.

France must do what is pragmatic to lessen the likelihood of future incidents. However if in response it discards its values of freedom, secularism and tolerance then whether ISIS thrives or dies does not really matter: the uber-cause of authoritarianism wins, and France loses.

The Thinker

Free speech has limits

If freedom is not free then last week’s terrorist incidents in Paris by Islamic terrorists proves that free speech is not free either.

In the unlikely event you were away from the news the last week, sixteen people including four French Jews and one Muslim policeman were murdered by Islamic terrorists in two incidents in and around Paris. The resulting shock and outcry has predictably led to more security in France. It also caused an impressive rally yesterday that brought about one and a half million protesters into the streets of Paris. The protesters shouted that they would not be intimidated by these incidents.

The primary attack occurred at the offices of the satire magazine Charlie Hebdo. Three terrorists with automatic weapons quickly killed twelve people and wounded many others. Many of those killed were cartoonists that drew what most reasonable people would call patently offensive cartoons, far beyond what is depicted even in edgy publications here in the United States. In fact their offices had been attacked years ago for publishing cartoons that depicted the prophet Mohammad. Four Jews were also killed in a subsequent attack at a kosher market near Paris on Friday.

Free speech is only possible in a culture where its underlying population is civilized enough to not take violent action when the hear or read what they perceive as grossly offensive and/or blasphemous speech. No such society actually exists, which means that incidents like these are bound to happen from time to time. They are more likely when terrorist organizations and states proliferate and their ideology gains traction within free societies. French citizens were of course outraged but no one was particularly surprised. The only real question was why something of this magnitude had not happened earlier in France.

Perhaps you have heard of this saying: if you are playing with fire, expect to get burned now and then. Charlie Hebdo had already played with fire and had gotten burned and it continued to pay with fire. It indiscriminately and most would say offensively satirizes people and groups from all sides of the political spectrum. Creating outrage was how it makes money. It is a profitable niche. It was also what they felt called to do.

Unsurprisingly I don’t get the violent reaction by Islamic extremists to what they perceive as the blasphemy of making cartoon depictions of Mohammed. In reality, even free speech is not entirely free of consequence, certainly not here the United States and in particular not France, which has very un-free and discriminatory laws that target Muslims in particular, such as requiring Muslim women not to wear their head scarves. The cartoon of a Muslim (it was not clear to me that it was supposed to be Mohammad) that seems to have triggered this attack was offensive to me (and I am not a Muslim) because it belittled and stereotyped a religion by depicting it as wildly different than what it actually is, in general. It would be like a cartoon that portrayed the pope as a child molester or the president as a cannibal. At best it was in very bad taste. It really spoke much more about the Charlie Hebdo than it did about Islam. While Charlie Hebdo tends to be nondiscriminatory in its satire, most of its work tends to be stuff that the vast majority of people at least here in the United States would consider beyond the pale. If it had an equivalent in the United States, most people would not want it on their coffee table. They would not want to be known as someone who read Charlie Hebdo. For the same reason most people would not leave out books of hardcore pornography on their coffee table either.

So freedom of the press is not in practice entirely free of consequence. Those who dare to go too far outside the mainstream are likely to find they will pay a price from time to time. And no government can guarantee that this freedom can be expressed without injury. Risk and freedom go hand in hand. You cannot have one without the other. Unsurprisingly most publishers are somewhere in the middle, and seem to understand that it’s okay to express their opinions but that there are practical limits that if you transgress them then you could pay a price. So we mostly stick to moderation. The New York Times, for example, decided not to publish the offending Charlie Hebdo cartoon. While it had the right to do so, it made a sensible decision that the cost of this right was not worth the possible results of doing so. In some sense then the terrorists won, but the New York Times really made a judgment that was as sound from a business perspective as it was sound as an exercise in common sense. People with common sense will exercise reasonable self-censorship for the sake of overall societal harmony.

Of course there are places, like the Islamic State or areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan ruled by the Taliban where freedom does not exist. Those who live there live in tyrannies. And this is evil because it is also not our nature to spend our life wholly muzzled from honest expression. It’s clear to me that those who perpetrated these crimes would have all of us live in such a state, where only behavior they believe to be sanctioned by God and the Quran would be allowed.

They are hardly alone. Here in the United States there are Dominionists that would turn us into a Christian state. If they had their way the United States would look a lot like the Islamic State, just with a cross as its symbol. There would be a state religion, divorce would not be allowed and homosexuality would be criminalized again. Many of us are pulled toward ideologies that will brook no dissent, perhaps for the feeling of comfort that such certainty brings. For these people, pluralism itself is an enemy and feels threatening. They find comfort and safety only when all people, either willingly or by force, do as they believe is required. Occasionally, as in Paris last week, an irresistible force will meet an immovable object. When this happens it proves to me that absolute free speech is an illusion. In reality, self-censorship is a practical way we maintain a broad general freedom of speech. We should not chase the illusion that all speech should be tolerated or permitted without consequence. It never has been and never will be.

Instead, we should work to create and maintain societies that promote general tolerance and moderation. Those that step too far out of this natural comfort zone don’t necessarily deserve what they get, but reality is likely to provide it anyhow, as happened in Paris last week. There is a natural Darwinism at work among these people. Transgressions outside this natural zone of reasonable taste should be rare, if they occur at all.

What goes around comes around, and unfortunately it came to Charlie Hebdo and Paris last week. My comments certainly are not meant to justify the terrorism that occurred but simply to point out that it can be anticipated in cases like these because the speech is so extreme.

We had best learn to live with it because we cannot really change it.

The Thinker

The rationality of altruism

It’s Christmas time so this being America of course there are going to be people who will object to it. One such person is Peter Schwartz. On December 19 he wrote an op-ed published in The Washington Post. Schwartz was bemoaning the whole charity thing as something evil. If only we could celebrate rational self-interest instead, he opines. Being a distinguished fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute, of course that’s what Peter would prefer to do:

A “season of trading” would make better sense than a “season of giving.” The central principles could be summarized as: Give when it’s in your interest to do so. Give because someone deserves it, not simply because he or she needs it. Don’t sacrifice yourself for others, and don’t ask others to sacrifice for you.

I don’t like to repeat myself too much about Ms. Rand, since I have written about Objectivism a couple of times, here and here among likely other posts. The good news is that Mr. Schwartz does appreciate the holiday season in his own way. Schwartz writes:

I love to see the twinkling lights adorning our houses and streets, the delightfully inventive displays in store windows, the Santas greeting enthusiastic children. I wholeheartedly join in when yuletide songs are being sung. I’m happy to attend parties that evoke the holiday spirit.

Ain’t that sweet of him. But rather than celebrate the virtue of selflessness during the holidays, which Schwartz considers a flaw, he would rather celebrate a “season of trading”. So, of course, did Wall Street this week, which is celebrating rational self-interest by having the DJIA pass 18,000. From Schwartz’s perspective, that’s the true meaning of the holidays.

I guess Schwartz and I have different criteria for rational self-interest. I would think using his criteria that there would be no rational reason to donate blood. It will almost certainly go to someone you don’t know. Worse, you won’t get paid anything more than some cookies for donating a pint of your precious bodily fluids. Should I need some surgery I could perhaps pay some people to donate their blood. That would be in our mutual self-interest. Given enough lead-time I could even donate my own blood and have it thawed out for the date of surgery.

This hypothetically perfect system would break down though if I had some sort of major accident where I was wheeled into an emergency room unconscious. My life would literally hang on the charity of others. It’s for these sorts of reasons that I happily donated blood. I’d still be donating today had the standards not been tightened. In 2002 I was told they detected Human T-cell lymphotropic virus (both I and II) antibodies in my blood. I most likely got it from my mother during breastfeeding since I don’t use illegal intravenous drugs and am not known for sleeping around, but it now disqualifies me from giving blood. But if everyone practiced rational self-interest the way Schwartz does, there would be a lot of unnecessarily dead people.

Today being Christmas somewhere nearby, probably in Reston Virginia, an eight year old boy has opened his presents. Among them will be a soccer ball and a little toy helicopter, which came with alkaline batteries that I inserted into the box (they were not supplied). I will never meet the boy but I do know that he would not be getting these presents that he had asked for had I not signed up for the Secret Santa program at my church. I was out about $50 for these presents, and since I am on a fixed income this was certainly not in my rational self-interest. But crazily, I did it anyhow, did so gladly and plan to do so again in future years, as I have done in many previous years too.

I do it in part because having some poor child be more miserable on Christmas of all days strikes me as cruel. While I am no distinguished fellow of the lofty Ayn Rand Institute, it strikes me that cruelty is a concept Objectivists simply don’t get. To get cruelty, you first have to understand empathy, and if you are incapable of empathy unless it affects your rational self-interest, then it must be something of a hypothetical concept. It must not be something that millions of people experience on a daily basis and which causes them great pain and suffering. It’s either that or you do get it but just don’t care, which to my mind is much worse.

It was perhaps in the rational self-interest of my many teachers to teach me skills that made me successful. After all, they earned a salary. But it was not in any of my teachers’ self interest to go the extra mile with me, to impart their love of learning or to help me persevere in my studies when I wanted to give up. Yet it was particularly these teachers that imparted true learning because they connected the outside world with the person I am on the inside. They personalized and tailored learning so that I could succeed. I am inexpressibly grateful to these teachers for helping me succeed. I simply could not have done it by myself.

In real life of course that’s how people succeed. It is based not on just how hard they work or how creative they happen to be but on how well others have communicated the learning and the relational human skills that allowed them to succeed. There is a reason it is harder for those from poor families to work their way into the middle class or genuine prosperity. It is because they exist in environments that overall are not nurturing. Parenthood is the ultimate experience in altruism. An altruistic parent spends a good part of twenty years or more and substantial amount of their treasure to help someone succeed. No one has a child to live off his or her earnings.

We give to those who have less because it complements our better nature. We all succeed on the backs of others and their willingness to carry us, at least for a time. This happens not from rational self-interest, but from exercising the unseen muscle called caring and empathy and their many dimensions. These include caring not just for family but for all, even those we cannot help directly. I believe that doing so is entirely rational: we end up with a world less hurtful, more vibrant, more whole, more human, more just and more enriching than if we only looked out for Number One. Jesus taught us this (and he was one of many) more than two thousand years ago.

It’s a lesson though that won’t seem to take in the minds of those like Peter Schwartz, and that puts a sad note for me on this Christmas morning.

The Thinker

Our Wild, Wild Universe – Part Two

I don’t often write about the universe. It’s been ten years since I wrote about the physicist Brian Greene’s book The Fabric of the Universe. It seems that I cannot get enough of the story, at least when it can be brought down to the terms a layman like me can understand. Some months back Cosmos returned to television, a sort of sequel to the series of the same name hosted by the late astronomer Carl Sagan broadcast on public TV in 1980. This series is hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson and showed up, curiously enough, on the Fox Network, a network known more for its lowbrow entertainment than this nerdy stuff.

I’m catching up on the series now on Netflix. I find it compelling in a strange way, so compelling that I am putting aside other really compelling shows like House of Cards and Ken Burns’ documentary The Roosevelts to give it precedence. It tickles my curiosity and sense of wonder. The more you explore what we know about the universe, the more wondrous it becomes. deGrasse Tyson does a great job of conveying the immensity and the wonder of our universe. The series is aided by wondrous CGI as well, the sort that was simply unavailable when Carl Sagan hosted the series (although for the time his CGI was quite sophisticated). The combination of CGI, storytelling and Neil deGrasse Tyson’s infectious way of story telling makes it a very compelling series.

It brings out the natural pantheist in me. Natural pantheism is sort of a religion that simply expresses reverence for our universe the way it is. As you finish episodes of this version of Cosmos, you should feel the pull of natural pantheism too. Most of us who are religious tend to appreciate the faiths that we have been brought up in, in part perhaps because its message is much simpler to grasp than the amazing immensity and complexity of the cosmos, to the extent that we can understand it. Traditional religions also tend to concentrate on people and our needs, aspirations and questions. They are human centric. Studying the cosmos as it is, is not human centric at all except of course that we are self-aware creatures. We also have developed a scientific method that allows us to continually gain in understanding of the cosmos and our part in it.

deGrasse Tyson does a great job of explaining how we came to understand how the universe actually works. This too is a compelling story. In it certain scientists like Newton, Faraday and Einstein become something like secular saints, because they each solve great mysteries. In the process they reveal not just what is, but how the master clock works and sometimes how we can work it to our advantage. It’s a story of great detective work spanning thousands of years.

The series is spawning new thoughts within me, particularly in the area of evolution. It is clear to me that evolution does not exist merely here on Earth, but across the universe as well. The universe evolves too, creating more and more complex elements that make life possible. Is there life in the universe, aside from our planet, of course? Now the answer seems simple: yes. Life doubtless exists elsewhere, in many forms. In fact it probably permeates our galaxy and much of the evolved universe. This is because all the building blocks are there, particularly carbon and heat, which is hardly unique to the Earth. In addition, as deGrasse Tyson points out in Episode 11, it is probable that microbial life travels between planets and between solar systems, seeding life itself across the galaxy and the universe. It just happens so slowly and over so many millions of years it is hard for us to see.

To me it gets much simpler. The universe itself is a living creature. The universe does not necessarily think or breathe, attributes that we associate with life but at least to our understanding is something done very quickly. But it is clearly evolving and becoming more complex with time. It is unfolding and through nuclear processes and gravity it is creating the complex, like carbon molecules, from the simple: the collapse of hydrogen gases by gravity into stars and their subsequent explosion. And like all living things, the universe seems destined to die. Like our body though it does not all die at once. It will take billions of years to die as the forces of the big bang move objects further and further from each other. The universe will catch a bad case of pneumonia and then pass on. With the big bang so powerful that no contraction of the universe seems possible, its energy will dwindle out, much like a firework. Whatever happens after that takes us to realms beyond the known laws of physics.

So yes, the universe is alive and it is also a vast system. Systems by nature are complex entities, and the universe is complex almost beyond our fathoming. Systems imply rules and order and some understanding, which if you believe in God suggests your belief is not unfounded. Systems also are comprised of many pieces that interrelate with one another. Our universe interrelates with itself. Forces like the nuclear forces and gravity are the means that enforce an interrelationship. It also means that everything is connected to everything else. We sometimes suffer the illusion that we are alone. We may feel lonely, but we are never alone. We are always intimately connected with everything else simply because we are all a part of everything else.

It is individuality that is an illusion, although as deGrasse Tyson points out not only are we part of a universe so immense that few of us can understand it, there is also a universe within ourselves. Within a breath of air that we inhale, there are more atoms inhaled than there are stars in the universe. If there is a miracle, it is that we have evolved to self-awareness. We have a pretty good idea how it all fits together now, and our part in it.

With life must come death. On the universal level, our life is like the lifespan of a bacterium on a bar of soap: very short indeed. By nature we cannot maintain such complexity for that long and even if we could the universe will shift in ways that would kill us. It’s no wonder then that universe seems cold, heartless and unfathomable. We are destined to die, and die very quickly on a universal time scale. However, we remain part of the fabric of something far more immense and alive: the universe itself.

We are a part of something immensely grand and complex indeed, with our part to play. We have the privilege, thanks to shows like Cosmos, to understand our what it is and our part in it. And that is awe-inspiring and for this agnostic a fitting and satisfying part to play.

The Thinker

The path to genuine enlightenment

Religious violence is hardly news. Religious violence, such as what is currently going on between Shi’ites and Sunnis in Iraq, should drive millions of people to atheism. No God worth worshipping could possibly approve of any violence in its name, let alone require us humans to use force and murder as a means of spreading the faith.

Religions though really aren’t so much about God as they are about people. Supposedly the purpose of religion is to draw us closer to God. What’s its real purpose? As best I can tell, its real purpose is the largely futile attempt to calm our restless and flawed human souls, something it does imperfectly at best. Sometimes it does succeed in bring some of us to a higher spiritual or moral plain, but overall its track record is pretty poor and its lessons don’t tend to stick permanently. If I had to pick a number, I’d say it works perhaps ten percent of the time, at least in inculcating permanent behavioral changes for the better. What typically happens is we may get better for a while, but then we revert to doing what we do best: being flawed human beings.

It’s worse than that because we all have certain imperfections and angsts, which means that we will be drawn toward religions that accentuate these issues within us. What a lot of us really crave is absolute certainty in an uncertain world, and most religions offer that. You just have to find the religion that most closely aligns with your imperfections and predispositions. But mostly, as I first pointed out a long time ago, we tend to be drawn to the religions we were born into, if any. If we are going to stay with a religion, it will be with one that has the comfort of familiarity and the sanction of our parents.

If you live in Iraq, it’s almost certain that you are a Muslim, but alas what kind of Muslim is what is far more important. Both Shi’ite and Sunni believe there is only one God: Allah. Great, you would think that would make religious life pretty simple. But instead they are arguing, and have been arguing and killing each other for more than a millennium and about something that really doesn’t matter. This is: when Mohammad died, did he intend for the religion to be dynastic (what the Shi’ites believe) or not (what the Sunnis believe). ISIS (The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) is busy killing Shi’ites in areas it has conquered, but really anyone, including Sunnis, that don’t or won’t tow the line on their extreme and puritanical version of Islam.

I’d accuse them of channeling George W. “You are either with us, or against us” Bush except of course both sects have been doing this far longer than our last president has been alive. It’s a cycle of violence that shows no sign of ever being extinguished. Neither side will ultimately prevail. As best I can tell, the only way to really kill this cycle of violence is for everyone Muslim to simply abandon the faith. That doesn’t seem likely.

Of course it’s not just the Muslims that can’t get along with each other. Protestants and Catholics have been murdering each other for centuries. Even before Protestantism emerged, Christianity was rife with religious persecution. My particular religion is Unitarian Universalism. Early in Christian history, the Trinitarians ruthlessly persecuted the Unitarians. The Unitarians (very sensibly I believe) concluded that the notion of God in three parts (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) made no sense whatsoever, so they were killed or persecuted for their heresy. They eventually sought refuge in what is now Romania and Hungary. Within Protestantism, various denominations persecuted minority denominations. The Pilgrims that helped form the United States was but one of them.

The general problem is that humans don’t deal well with people that don’t conform to their beliefs. Of course it’s not just religious beliefs, but all sorts of arguably weird stuff like whether gays should get married or the limits of government that foment our intolerance. It seems we are born to factionalize, and leaders of our factions assume leadership because they have learned the art of persuading followers that their beliefs are the only correct ones.

Given all of this, why wouldn’t you want to be an atheist? Why wouldn’t an atheist go out and evangelize? Curiously, die-hard atheists imitate the tactics of die-hard theists. Mostly what you hear is, “God is total bunk, a fairy tale, just Santa Claus for adults” and they will argue endlessly why this is so with their scorn clear in their voices. They tend to lampoon the religious as intellectually flawed sheep.

Atheism has always struck me as just proselytizing of a different sort. What is the track record of atheism? Does it make for a better world? While the jury is out, we do have the example of the Soviet Union, which was basically an atheist state, not to mention communist China. Its leaders did a wretched job of managing the country or even making socialism work. So I am skeptical that if we were all atheists and that they were in charge that we would end religious violence. For atheism has all the hallmarks of a religion, including its dogmatic certainty, just without God at its center. I am convinced that if we were all atheists, we would find reasons to beat the heads of other atheists. We haven’t seen much of this yet probably because they have not evolved into a large enough force. I can see splits between dogma-driven atheists, who might forbid the teaching of religion, from humanistic atheists.

So the larger problem is not religion per se, but the dogmatic nature of our species in general. We find comfort in being with people like us, be it culturally, racially or spiritually, but it seems best to us when it is all of the above. And all this is because to make sense of our world we have to discern clear patterns, even where they don’t exist clearly and even where the differences really don’t mean anything. We actually worship the necessity of patterns that we can slavishly follow, not God. I contend that the crux of the differences between Sunni and Shi’ite are trivial. And yet century after century they keep killing each other because of their need for certainty and comfort. They seem ill equipped to expand their thoughts to the larger notion that we are all brothers.

So, to channel Bill Maher, I propose a New Rule: put kindness toward all ahead of your religious faith or lack thereof. Realize that our various faiths and beliefs, while often helpful and insightful to those who practice those faiths and beliefs, are not the most important aspect of their lives or of our lives. Our most critical virtues need to be kindness, openness and an understanding that we really all are one.

It’s hard to practice and obviously I am not a saint in this matter. It’s hard for even me to see that the divide between Democrats and Republicans is not as wide as I think. However, if I can practice open listening and tolerance, I am likely to be heard and acknowledged by the other side. And open hearts should open doors of communications and facilitate enlightenment in general. So I too must practice looking and emphasizing for those things that I have in common with people unlike me. I need to practice dialog with people like this, dialog that is respectful and healing.

This, I think, is the path to real enlightenment.

The Thinker

Instead of ideal, try real

We humans are imperfect creatures. We all know this and can list our imperfections by simply examining our own mistakes and foibles. If we were perfect, we’d be God. It seems that many of us want to emulate God’s perfection. Maybe we spend a lot of our time in prayer, reading holy books and doing good works, seeking to be more like God.

With the exception of a handful of human beings like Jesus Christ, whose devotees believe was God in human form, none of us have achieved perfection. There are lots of reasons for this. First, we are born imperfect so it would be totally amazing if somehow through circumstance we never did anything imperfect in our lives, particularly when we are children and simply don’t know better. Second, what is perfect anyhow? Does this mean never missing an opportunity to help a little old lady cross the street? Or is doing it fifty percent of the time acceptable to emulate perfection? Perversely, perfection seems to be a lot like pornography: we can’t define it but somehow we think we know it when we see it. In reality, we tend to pick up from our elders and peers the criteria by which we measure perfection.

It strikes me though that if you are going to ceaselessly strive for perfection, you are doomed to fail. You are suffering the fate of Sisyphus, who as you may recall was doomed to push the same boulder up the mountain, always to have it fall back down the mountain due to the steepness of the mountain and his human limitations. So striving to be perfect seems ultimately pointless because there is no way that you will achieve it. Moreover it’s impossible to measure. Are you ten percent perfect? Fifty percent? Maybe you find out with death if Saint Peter let you through the heavenly gate.

To be truly perfect, in some ways you must cease to be human. A truly perfect person would never feel lust, and certainly not act on it. Maybe it was possible to feel it when they were imperfect, but when they have evolved sufficiently somehow they never will again. Instead, you become serene, eternally smiling, a lot like the Dalai Lama. (I must be imperfect, because I think orange robes look, well, pretty hideous on just about anyone.) Even the Buddhists are having a hard time with the brotherly love thing, showing their imperfections and humanity. Witness news reports out of Burma. Buddhists, feeling encroached on by Muslims, have been rioting, killing and maiming Muslims. Buddha would certainly not approve and would doubtless be aghast. Buddhists though are human and are just as capable of foibles and hypocrisy as the rest of us. As I have noted many times, the vast majority of Christians in American simply are not.

In fact, to be a hypocrite is to be human. The root of hypocrisy is the contrast between your behavior as it actually is and the behavior you profess to emulate. You cannot possibly be a hypocrite if you reject the meme that you must be perfectly consistent in all aspects of your life. The best way not to be a hypocrite is simply to stop proclaiming that you have some superhuman ability to live up to your ideals. Admittedly, this can be hard.

Take infidelity, as an example. It’s an easy example because all but a handful of people into open marriages set the bar too high. Most of us go into marriage publicly promising to our spouse, not to mention to everyone at the wedding, that we will foreswear all others but our spouse for the rest of our lives. No sex from someone else ever, unless of course you divorce, or your spouse dies. You take this vow even if your spouse decides to stop having sex with you. Your only honorable option is to first get a divorce and while separated not even date anyone else. That’s right, you are forbidden from creating profile on until the divorce decree is final, and even though you are busting your nuts to get laid and feel as emotionally empty as a homeless man who spent the last decade inhabiting the underside of an overpass. To address the whole honor and consistency thing, you can’t take any steps to address your misery. You are required to be more miserable.

How long the misery lasts depends on how long your state makes you wait for a divorce. At least in Nevada they got it right: make it easy to get married, and easy to get divorced. This way you can move on. So a hint to those looking to get married: use the left part of your brain and get married at a wedding chapel on the Las Vegas strip. That’s because the odds are that about even that you will get divorced, so why make yourself needlessly miserable in the future? So many of us though adopt the hypocritical approach. This means infidelity, either sexual or emotional but perhaps both. We choose it because it turns out we are human beings. We choose it because we realize, in retrospect, that despite the considered thought we (hopefully) gave to the whole fidelity thing before getting married, we find in actuality that we can’t handle it. Actually, it’s more complicated than that. Anyone can file for divorce. Most infidelity is probably a result of the societal pressure to appear to be faithful no matter what. As I document in my monthly reviews of the Craigslist Casual Encounters section, there is an overwhelming amount of hypocrisy in this one area alone.

I pick infidelity as a prominent example of foolishly chasing at best improbable ideals, but of course there are so many more. My former stepfather was a secret boozer, something I was not aware of until my mother in law passed away. No wonder he was so often slipping off to the garage for a smoke, and a likely a swig from his hooch. In retrospect, I would have preferred to see him drinking regularly in his recliner. Even the most passionate vegan is likely to work in a Chick-Fil-A sandwich once in a while. Pick the “vice”: smoking, booze, drugs, sex; we’re all likely to have at least one of these, at least occasionally, and we are doomed to succumb to some of them from time to time. If we didn’t have vices, we wouldn’t be human.

So why not then just accept our flawed nature and stop pretending that we among all the other imperfect humans out there will be a perfect creature? For if we do so we actually gain a virtue: the virtue of honesty. If you think about it, being real instead of ideal is akin to being a revolutionary. It may explain why so many of us are attracted to “bad” people and why, perhaps, we avidly read any story about a Kardashian sister. It may also explain why we are drawn like moths to a flame to any story in which hypocrisy is exposed. It makes us feel good to know there are others just like us that simply cannot live up to their professed ideals. No wonder that so many women want to date bad boys. Bad boys may be flawed, but at least they are real. Similarly perhaps that’s why many men are attracted to loose women. We can’t admit it to ourselves, but perhaps secretly we are sick of the Stepford wives around us. All that poise and makeup and hoity behavior strikes us, and usually is, hypocritical and dishonest. A loose woman may be dealing with major issues, but perhaps they give themselves the permission to enjoy sex the same way many of us indulge at our local Old Country Buffet.

How would your life be different if you gave yourself permission to be yourself? My suspicion is most of us would be a lot happier. One thing is for sure: we could no longer be accused of being a hypocrite. Moreover, all the energy that we invest in striving for perfection could be used in other ways, perhaps to just enjoy the life we got, which is already full of hassles and heartaches.

Having produced what I hope is an eloquent essay, let me keep myself out of hypocrisy. Some part of me would like to be real instead of ideal, but it’s too engrained in me. For many aspects of my life, I will always strive for the ideal, even if I know it is impossible. Call it a Catholic upbringing or whatever, but it’s not something I can wholly stop. I do hope though that as I age and my attractiveness level recedes, I will hear nature’s call (which many seniors do) to stop living a good part of my life this way, and simply be my authentic self. Maybe I will be seen as a bit cranky, maybe I’ll come across as a bit inconsistent, but at least I will be real. And that sounds so much more comfortable.

Consider the price you are paying for trying to model ideal behavior. Consider being real instead of surreal. Maybe if you succeed you can channel your inner Dr. Martin Luther King: “Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty I am free at last.”

The Thinker

Going to the dogs

It was a brief moment today. I was driving to work through a residential neighborhood. As I often do on Tuesdays, I had to wend my way past the trash truck. I give these guys a brake and wait for them to say it’s okay to pass them. Today though the guys on the trash truck were oblivious to me. They were petting a dog.

One of the homeowners had her dog on a leash and was doing walkies along the sidewalk. This dog, like most dogs, is a friendly dog, as was evident by its wagging tail. I didn’t quite catch the breed, but it was smaller than most, and black. The guys hauling the trash, unsurprisingly I am sorry to say, were also black. There were two in the back and one in the cab. The two in the back normally gather trashcans from both sides of the street at once, and the guy in the cab drives.

Today though the crew had gone to the dogs, er, dog. Both of them had stopped the hauling and were petting the dog that was happily making their acquaintance and straining at his leash as if he wanted to sit on their nonexistent laps. The lady at the other end of the leash was laughing. The guys on the street were laughing as they petted the dog. The guy in the cab smiled through his side view mirror at the encounter. I pulled around them cautiously and made my way to work, smiling as well.

That one dog provided a lot of happiness. Moreover, like most dogs, this was a colorblind dog, both physically and metaphorically. Dogs, bless them, have no sense of social class. One friendly human is as good as another to them. Black face, white face, brown face, red face – it just doesn’t matter to them. All that matters is their sense of you and how you relate to them. Everyone in this encounter appeared to be a dog lover, at least for that moment. No one cared if a minute or two of productivity was lost. There was a friendly dog that wanted some attention and was glad to give some attention. At least until that encounter ended, social class simply did not matter. The dog had brought together people who would probably never talk to each other otherwise.

In the gospels we learn that Jesus was a man from Galilee, he was definitely human and that he was also a holy man who many believe was God in human form. Jesus of course spent some years in Galilee and Judea preaching about love and inclusiveness. It’s hard to know where Jesus was in the social class of Judea at the time. If he was truly a carpenter’s son, he could probably be considered middle class for those generally impoverished times. For a while he developed quite a following, at least according to the Gospels, but he also developed enemies. The priests in the temple did not like him because he was so different and because people called him a rabbi. The Romans put him to death. And it appears he drew the scorn of many because he hung out with losers like Mary Magdalene, a common prostitute in the eyes of many, as well as lepers, the homeless and general miscreants. Our understanding of Jesus is of course imperfect. We have only the legend of Jesus, as there is no scrap of evidence that he actually lived, and the original gospels have long ago returned to dust. But Jesus as he is depicted certainly believed in transcending class, and in universal love, and in recognizing our common humanity.

Jesus, in other words, was a man who had gone to the dogs. It would not have surprised me if his family had a dog. For if you have to learn about love and have no other guide, in most cases you can get it courtesy of the family or neighborhood mutt.

I am a cat person more than a dog person, simply because my wife introduced me to cats and I had no pets to speak of growing up except for a family parakeet. I have spent enough time though with dogs to know they are fundamentally different than cats. Cats are Republicans. They want to know what’s in it for them and it’s almost always me first. In general, they will only return affection when they first get some. They may rub at your heels for attention, but their attention tends to be fleeting. If you ignore them for a few weeks, you will probably lose any affection they had for you.

Dogs, on the other hand, are Democrats. Certainly not all dogs are friendly, and many will be affectionate only with their master. But once you have earned their trust, and it usually takes nothing more than a chew toy, snack or just a scritch of their heads, you are part of their tribe. It may be fleeting or it may be permanent. Dogs are all about finding joy in life and in getting in touch with the feelings of creatures around them. Class means nothing to them. Most of the time they will radiate love, particularly with their owner, but often with anyone in their locality. If you don’t look happy they will sense this and come over to you, and darn well try to make you happy. It’s their nature.

Christians are still waiting for the second coming of Christ. Many believe he will descend from heaven through the clouds, with his radiance pouring down across the earth. Then the saved will be saved and the damned will be damned. As for me, today’s encounter makes me think that Christ has already returned. In fact, he’s been here for a long time and you can find him nearby. Just seek out your family or neighborhood dog. Feel their love, feel their radiance, feel the cares of the world recede when you are with them or, as I saw today, see class barriers momentarily disappear. If you want to be more Christ-like, perhaps you could just imitate your mutt more. Be friendly, be open, be loving by nature and if you sense someone is hurting go over and say you want to help them feel better.

We should all go to the dogs.

The Thinker

God says the darndest things

I’m not much of a believer in a deity, at least not the kind of deity that most people pray to. I believe in the abstract deity, one wholly indifferent to my personal sufferings, maybe because it has bigger fish to fry. If you are the praying type, you sort of assume God is listening when you pray, and that’s God with a capital G, the big one, not some intercessor like an angel or Sylvia Browne. God is, after all, omnipotent so, sure, God can listen to billions of people’s prayers at once, sort through all of it and channel back some sort of catharsis to all those prayees. God does it without working up a sweat.

God rarely replies back personally when you pray, although God apparently spoke directly to Moses and mostly some very ancient Old Testament dudes. It would be nice if God spoke in words but the best you can hope for is some feelings that can maybe will help direct your life through the nebulous and often painful reality that it is. If you like messages direct from God with no ambiguity, you will be happy to know that God does Twitter.

It turns out that God, or rather @TheTweetOfGod, is a compelling reason to use Twitter. On a typical day God has a half dozen or so tweets of enlightenment for us sinners to absorb, but they may primarily stimulate your laugh reflex. God’s tweets are also sometimes quite insightful, or actually point to a larger thought. If the Bible could be funny and sarcastic maybe it would be like following @TheTweetOfGod.

Sadly, there is evidence that this Twitter God may not be that God because God is supposed to be all spiritual and not materialistic. But this God apparently mostly uses an iPhone, but sometimes tweets come just from the web. But hey, if you are God then by inference you are omnipotent, so you can conjure up an iPhone, tweet with it and broadcast your omniscient message. Or maybe God has a Swiss bank account to pay for his iPhone; I am sure his credit is good. But, no, there is strong circumstantial evidence that God is really David Javerbaum, who apparently has been writing material for Jon Stewart for a very long time. If Javerbaum is the second coming of Christ, be prepared to laugh. Or to do a second take:

If ignorance is bliss, why is the world so unhappy?

A lot of what God says actually makes a lot of sense, if you ponder it for a while.

Am I pro-life? Yes, but if you’re familiar with My work you know I’m not exactly anti-death, either.

But God does can have something of an attitude:

I am watching you read this. And I know your inmost thoughts about it. And I control your life. And I love you. #notcreepythough

God also has 730,000-some followers, and rising. This is a peculiar way to spread enlightenment, but if so consider me a devout follower.

Reading is fundamental but misreading is fundamentalism.

God can even be self-deprecating:

Power tends to corrupt. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. I’m omnipotent. Do the math.

God can give us some insight into dying:

Your life flashes before your eyes right before you die. It takes an average of 70-80 years.

God, of course is white. Whites are the master race, right? And of course, God is a he because men were created before women — it’s in the Bible, just look it up! Which gives chase to thoughts about God’s anatomy. Doubtless he is blessed way beyond all mortal men with his equipment between his thighs. No wonder women swoon in his presence. And God has a recent book out, The Last Testament, apparently dictated to apostle David Javerbaum. I wonder what God does with the royalties? What can you give God that he doesn’t already have or can instantly conjure up? Maybe his real gift is humanity. For it is our weirdness and unpredictability that God seems to find endlessly amusing. It keeps him entertained for an eternity. You got to admit that we give him plenty of good source material:

The problem with government of the people, by the people and for the people is the people.

To err is human, to refuse to acknowledge it even more so.

To conclude: just do what Jesus would do. Especially on Mothers Day:

What would Jesus do? Today, take Mary out to Olive Garden.

The Thinker

Capitalism’s minuses

This just in: former TV conservative crybaby Glenn Beck is going Galt, John Galt, that is. Galt is the central character in Ayn Rand’s seminal novel “Atlas Shrugged”. Through Galt, Rand fully articulated her philosophy of Objectivism, which emphasizes the virtue of complete, unfettered Laissez-faire capitalism. It is capitalism freed from the burdens of tariffs, subsidies, monopolies and annoying government agencies like the Federal Trade Commission. Beck wants to build “Independence, USA” where its citizens can go completely Galt all the time. No taxes ever. Anyhow, it’s not necessarily cheap to Go Galt. Beck estimates he needs about two billion dollars to create Independence, USA. Presumably to construct his capitalist utopia he won’t invite a bunch of capitalists to create the machinery he will need on site. But anyhow when it’s all done, the citizens of Independence, USA will be a completely self-enclosed market. People will make stuff that other citizens will buy. Perhaps they will have their own currency. It’s unclear what governmental mechanisms they will have, if any. Laissez-faire capitalism is not exactly the same thing as no government, but presumably it would be a very austere government, far more austere than the State of Florida after several years of Rick Scott as Governor. That’s pretty damned austere.

Also presumably the city will operate more like its own country, since it won’t want anything to do with state and federal laws. There will be no annoying consumer protection laws and no warranties expressed or implied on anything sold. If your next door neighbor wants to turn his house into a smelter and spew out dangerous carcinogens in your general direction, well, more power to him. You are, of course, free to buy your own anti-pollution devices (presumably made only in Independence) to encase your house so you don’t have to breathe the pollution coming from next door. I don’t know if they will have a sheriff in Independence, but maybe not. So perhaps you can express your displeasure the old fashioned way, and load up your semiautomatic assault rifle and empty it into your neighbor’s house. He, of course, is free to wear only bulletproof clothing and encase his house in steel to deter assaults. You, of course, are free to up the ante, buy yourself a bazooka and wreak your unhappiness that way. Presumably since all residents share the same values about capitalism, there will be only brotherly love and no onerous taxes.

My guess is Independence, USA will never get built, but who knows? Beck can use more income to finance his vision, but the Koch brothers have plenty of it and might put up the two billion dollars. If it gets built, Independence, USA will doubtless become the center of capitalism worldwide. It will become the ultimate enterprise zone.

A friend of mine commutes regularly to China for her small business. She reports that contrary to reports that China is a communist country, it is already a lot like Independence, USA only they have gone nationwide. The truth is that China has pretty much ditched communism and is now a capitalist utopia. The state and the Communist Party pretty much exist to ensure capitalism remains free and unfettered. Freed of archaic concepts like religion, China has become a money-grubbing entrepreneurial heaven. She reports that the acquisition of wealth is pretty much the only thing on the mind of the Chinese. They get together to compare how fancy their Rolex watches are.

One thing she has noticed in particular is that the Chinese (or at least the Chinese businessmen she works with) don’t understand ethics. You might as well try to explain nuclear physics to them. They just don’t get why anyone would want to do anything ethical. They will happily do everything possible, legal or illegal, to allow a competitor to fail and for themselves to prosper without even a tiny qualm. This is hardly news. Even we self-absorbed Americans have read press reports about how copyright law is meaningless within China. DVDs and software are pirated, copied and sold for whatever they can get for them. Famous brand names are cheaply imitated and passed off as branded items. The idea of sales territories seems to not exist. Her company supposedly has sales territories within China where only one distributor is supposed to distribute her product, but of course these territories are widely ignored by their various sales agents.

While lots of people are getting richer in China, there have been a few undesirable effects. For example, there is the rampant air pollution in major cities. Lately it’s been so bad that no one in Beijing goes outdoors without wearing a facemask. So I am betting if Independence, USA ever gets built it will devolve quickly into a place that looks a lot like Beijing. It’s not a hard inference to make since this is pretty much how it has gone everywhere since the start of the Industrial Revolution, at least until government said “Enough!” Capitalism is all about making money and increasing your personal standard of living. The cost is borne by those not skilled, agile or moneyed enough to make the transition. Capitalism without regulation also ensures the land will get raped. This should not be news but just in case you don’t get it, maybe it’s time to reread Dr. Seuss’s “The Lorax”. I’m guessing Brother Beck hasn’t.

While there are undeniable virtues to capitalism, there are many ugly sides as well. Perhaps its ugliest side is that it strips us of our humanity and appreciation of the connections between each other. In China, dog-eat-dog capitalism means you cannot expect a consistent set of rules because the government will be largely hands off. There is also no religion to speak of, so there is nothing to ground you, and no set of moral standards to use to measure your behavior. There is no reason to care at all about your neighbor, or your community, or your neighbor’s future, unless you can profit from them. It’s all about me, not about we.

Capitalism is simply an amoral system to help facilitate the acquisition of wealth that has the benefit of allowing for the broad distribution of goods and services at reasonably low prices. If there is one thing it is not, it is not a philosophy of living. Here is where Ayn Rand, John Galt and Glenn Beck fall off their moral railings. They don’t get this. Ayn Rand constructed a whole philosophy of life around capitalism, as if it were the shiny city on the hill that Ronald Reagan envisioned. (Independence, USA is literally that city, in Beck’s eyes.) In their eyes, capitalism has become a church, and its cathedral is the inside of a bank vault. They assume that capitalism had a meaning greater than what it is: a meta-meaning. It does not. The consequences of unchecked capitalism though are easy enough to see: the collapse of our moral fiber, the heightening of self-interest over shared interest and the natural tendency to rape the land of resources and the people of their connectedness. It destroys trust and integrity and makes ethics obsolete. It dehumanizes us and turns us from people into profit centers.

There was a time in my living memory where you went to work for a company for life. A company was an extended family. You were a valued worker and were nurtured. You were cared for and your earned loyalty was given back in the form of intimate concern about the company and meeting its goals. Money was put aside into a pension fund so that you could live comfortably in old age. It was paternalistic. Companies reflected the values of the society in which they thrived. Over time, companies changed their values from human-centered to profit-centered. Pensions died. You became a worker, not a strategic asset. Your pension became a 401(k). You became mere a cog in a bigger wheel. You became disposable, something to be used and thrown out when no longer needed.

Sorry Brothers Beck, Galt and Sister Rand. Capitalism is not a utopia. It has its virtues and it has its weaknesses, but unrestrained it will suck the soul out of the society it exists within. It will either use you up as cheap labor or it will crush you spiritually as you acquire wealth. You will have become a slave to profit, loss and wealth and bereft of the values that connect us and enrich us.

The Thinker

Adrift in the Sea of Relativity

There is lot of twittering among the denizens at DailyKOS over Republicans and their recent convention. Particularly humorous for us was not Mitt Romney, who comes across as a generally decent but vacillating and contradictory buffoon, but his vice presidential pick Paul Ryan. What makes Ryan particularly interesting to us progressives is his ability to hold two completely contradictory notions in his head and pledge fealty to both.

This is hardly news among Republicans, but in Ryan’s case the choice is so stark that it is hard for us Democrats to not feel glee at the resulting contrast. Paul Ryan is simultaneously a big believer in Ayn Rand and her philosophy of Objectivism and claims to be a devout Catholic. Anybody with even a surface knowledge of both Objectivism and Catholicism has to ask: WTF?

Long time readers of this blog may remember my little treatise on the ridiculousness of Objectivism. I too was briefly under its spell. Fortunately, I sobered up pretty quick once I realized it was both crazy and unworkable. Yet Objectivism stuck to Ryan like superglue, but of course being conservative and a Catholic he couldn’t just stop going to mass and confessing his devotion to the Catholic faith. And yet Ryan is the same person whose budget plan passed the House in 2011 and consisted chiefly of the cutting the poor off at their kneecaps (well, actually more like the waist) while lavishing tax cuts on the rich.

Wags on DailyKos wondered how a true Objectivist like Ryan could run for office in the first place: politicians are supposed to address issues for the benefit of their constituents, but a real Objectivist would only take an action if it was solely in his selfish interest. Moreover, Ayn Rand was an atheist. The Catholic bishops, hardly examples of shining virtue, quickly cut Ryan down to size, reiterating, among other things, that Catholics must care about the poor and work for social justice. Ryan, of course, remains tone deaf to the church’s criticisms and calls the controversy a mere “difference of opinion”.

Everyone seems to have pillars of truth that they anchor their lives around. In Ryan’s case they are weirdly self-contradictory. Be it Objectivism, or Catholicism, the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths or secular treatises like Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, there is comfort to be had in going with an off the shelf solution. Many, many years back I opined on what it might be like if we all built our own personal philosophy, perhaps by pulling pieces from elsewhere. That appears to be Ryan’s approach. Something about Objectivism he found very appealing, but there must be some nugget of Catholicism that he found appealing as well. Apparently it wasn’t the social justice part. Maybe it was the no divorce ever part. Whatever. Glue them together and with whatever bastardized shape emerges label it “my truth”.

And why not? Because in the end, we all end up dead. So you might as well grab onto some philosophy or religion to get through life. Your life will likely be too short for your tastes anyhow, and you probably don’t want to spend most of it wallowing in an existential angst. We may be compulsively driven toward faith, for the same way we are driven to eat and sleep. We need some faith, even if it is not a religious faith like Communism, to make sense out of a life that would otherwise appear pointless, random and very chaotic.

We get occasional reminders that we keep barking up the wrong trees. Harold Camping’s revelation that the world would end on May 21, 2011 proved incorrect, but at least for a while it got him some attention. When he does pass his fallacious prediction will at least warrant him a real obituary, rather than a death notice. The world will not end this fall when the Mayan calendar resets itself either. One of the reasons I am a Unitarian Universalist is that we don’t profess to a creed and thus we never suffer the shame of looking ridiculous like Harold Camping. If we have a creed, it is that our creed is changeable depending on what science discovers. However, Unitarians are weird. We are like people who never want to get off the roller coaster. Most people prefer the solid feel of terra firma under their feet.

The evidence is overwhelming that our lives are accidental rather than a part of some grand design. In that sense, life really is like riding a roller coaster. So you might as well enjoy your random ride through life for the time that you have. If you get the opportunity to enjoy it, consider yourself fortunate. However, be aware that you probably have this chance only because your parents invested time and money in you, and shepherded you through many obstacles so that you could thrive in the jungle called life. For those of us fortunate to be in the canopy, the view is nice, but down on the jungle floor life is hell. Most people on this planet live lives that, if not in hell, are deep in purgatory. When your life is mostly hell, faith anchored in an afterlife has a lot of appeal, which probably explains why faiths have been so overwhelmingly popular. That religion is diminishing in places like Europe suggests a critical mass there has truly achieved enlightenment. So perhaps their time on earth will be decent overall, but we all share the same fate: death.

What do the faithless like me do? Do we live each day like Hugh Hefner? Do we attempt to alleviate suffering even though such efforts are microscopic in the grand suffering going on around us? Should we feel no sanctions against murder, or fleecing our neighbors, or chasing our neighbors’ wives? Is there a point to anything we do when we die and everything else dies as well, and when a thousand years from now we can infer with great confidence that our lives and times will be wholly forgotten?

For me, despite being over fifty, this reality is still pretty scary. Some part of me still longs for the certainty by which the faithful anchor, or seem to anchor their lives. There are no real guideposts for people like me, only our own confused and flawed consciences. We keep trying to do the best for ourselves and those we live with. We are adrift in a Sea of Relativity, and we know it. We also know why so many of those around us, like the Paul Ryans of the world, prefer the delusion of certainty to the uncomfortable angst of being awake.


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