Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Charitable Atheism is up and Running

My new blog project is up and running over at WordPress. I'd like to invite those who have read this blog to make their way over there and comment on what you see.

The project to audit Professor Ed Feser's book on Aquinas will begin September 1. The intellectual challenge of it seems to be appropriate to a "back to school" time of year.

I've posted some blogs on current events and the purpose of charitable atheism in my criticism of a New Atheist canard I call "The Jerry MaGuire Defense". I've already have been accused by fellow atheists of not being a "real atheist" due to my desire to expand reason through charitable investigation of belief rather than my prior strategy of debunking religious claims through shame and ridicule. So, I now am not a "real Christian" nor am I a "real atheist". I understand the criticism but, for me, the latter strategy allows for greater peace and happiness and therefore, my moral instincts seem to inform me that it may have greater ethical value.

Thanks for the comments here and please comment on the new site.

I'd love to hear your ideas for topics we might discuss at the new site and will take them under consideration as series ideas. Peace.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Battle is Over -- Shutting it Down

My friend Thom Stark suggested to me yesterday that many atheists are still trapped by religion and I agreed with him.

For the most part, this blog has been a project of me seeking to escape my religious bonds. I've, more than often, however, knotted the ties by which religion held me down, through a rage-filled response to a narrow theological tradition.

My response was necessary to clear my mind of group-agreement and move towards a new world-view that does not seek safety within institutional authority.

The time to maintain that position however, seems to be over so, I'm closing down this blog in the hope to start fresh in examining belief from a more charitable view.

I've grown tired of the New Atheist cliche where rancor towards the religious is born out of a presupposed caricature towards religious belief and, would rather understand the religious mind, rather than seek easy (and fallacious) methods of debunking it.

This desire is born from my appreciation of empirical realities and material truth.

I've discovered that the limited strategy of mockery towards the religious to be a false premise that does not reflect the realities in which the religious move.

My wife is a devout Christian and she isn't a stupid and superstitious person who simply believes because she is told to believe. Two of my best friends, Steve and Jen Bishop are devout Christians, Steve also holds an MDiv in Theology from Trinity Seminary, and they are two of the most thoughtful people I know. They wrestle with moral questions from a place of honesty and never accept blind belief as an answer.

If I am going to understand what is real inside of belief than I need to expand my way of knowing what those beliefs are. The best way I can think of this is to begin the practice of Philosophical Charity where I interpret, a speaker's statements to be rational and, in the case of any argument, consider its best, strongest possible interpretation.

This will be a fun challenge and I think will yield knowledge.

That said, I don't think a blog committed to "battling" is appropriate to the project and therefore will be shutting this down.

This choice also affords me the opportunity to move to WordPress software and begin anew.

The URL for my next blog is and the first project I will attempt there will be an audit of Ed Feser's book on Thomistic Theology entitled "Aquinas". Ed is a Roman Catholic and scholar of Thomistic-Aristotelian ethics. The former institution is something I distrust and the latter school is something I am ignorant of.

My goals with the blog will be spelled out on the opening page but, generally speaking will be to pursue what I consider the true New Atheist goal - a public space where reason rules. This goal has been misunderstood by me in the past to mean, where science rules and, that misunderstanding, has led to polemic rather than insight. I'm sick of polemic. I'm tired of being angry. I want to be wise.

I also want to leave a legacy for my son where he can choose disbelief as a world-view rich in wonder and peace and mystery.

For those who have read this blog and commented, thanks. This has been cool. I don't think I attracted many readers but, I think I became a better writer for working on this.



Friday, June 24, 2011

Miss USA, pandering to supersition as a positive virtue or, an example of why I write "atheist screeds"

I have been accused of being hateful towards religion. I think the accusations may be fair. I do hate certain aspects of religion. My hatred stems from the time I spent believing the presuppositions of Evangelical Christianity and how this belief led me to enable sexism, bigotry and willful ignorance under the guise of complementarianism, Just-World Theory, and Biblical Inerrancy.

I started to doubt the virtue of my former faith and began to consider the positive intent within atheist arguments when I investigated the recent public conflicts regarding Darwinian Evolution and the preferred Christian "alternative theory" of biological diversity known as "Intelligent Design" (ID).

I investigated this conflict as a bible-believing-Calvinist-Christian and came away a depressed agnostic.

The arrogance and unscrupulous dishonesty practiced by my fellow Christians in defense of their "alternative theory" led me to doubt the doctrine of the Holy Spirit where, "The Holy Spirit has come to glorify Christ and bring attention to Jesus. He does this by empowering believers in the areas of evangelism and discipleship." I had always believed that salvation in Jesus provided a moral sense via The Holy Spirit which would provide wisdom in discerning fact from fiction.

Upon investigating the "ID" arguments I came to doubt a Holy Spirit as real. I didn't see any of the gifts of the spirit displayed in "ID" enthusiasts and, in fact, saw a contradiction to many of them. Where my religion said a believer should be wise, insightful, prudent, and knowledgeable, I saw frightened in-groups demeaning science because it challenged religious assertions with experimental fact.

When I understood the conflict between atheist scientists like Jerry Coyne and Richard Dawkins and pious Christians like Al Mohler and the leadership of my home church, I became frightened.

The atheists had a deeper commitment to evidence outside of their preferred bias than any Christian I knew. The atheist scientists practiced a truth-seeking method where they humbly admitted, "I don't know" and then allowed the probable facts to lead them towards a functional truth consonant with reality.

Religion didn't work this way. It asserted the truth and demonized opposition to this assertion in defense of the assertion. The confidence in demonizing contrary assertions were supported by additional "Gifts of the Holy Spirit" namely, "Piety"; "Fortitude"; and "Fear of the Lord".

I submitted myself to learning the theory of evolution in the face of this confusion and, continue to try to grasp its meaning. I have come to learn that life's diversity does not need a supernatural agency to explain its reality. My considerations have also led me to see the doctrine of the Holy Spirit as a superstition which keeps someone safe from the discomfort of ever having to change their mind, while ensuring the believer feels they have revealed knowledge which provides superior intelligence.

A Christian can be certain they are correct about what life is without ever having to defend this certainty or have it tested by evidence.

I was honest about my experience as a Christian and came to admit that the religion offered me the benefit of self-righteousness. This benefit was endorsed by a community of similar self-righteous people who could be blinded to their self-righteousness via the Doctrine of the Holy Spirit. It wasn't they who were operating in the revealed knowledge of the world, it was the Holy Spirit moving within them. So bold assertion with an obstinacy to objective investigation was not cognitive bias but rather a holy commitment to god's saving grace.

I don't think this seemingly destructive idea is perceived as destructive by those who hold it. I think those defending Jesus against science believe they are pursuing something positive. The recent Miss USA pageant reminded me of my days in the Christian faith and why I am such a staunch critic of religion today.

The ignorance and lies of Christians defending "alternative theories" to evolution are not what make me an atheist today. I am glad I no longer have to identify with a group of people who seem to hide behind emotional appeals to privilege as a means of avoiding the hard work of understanding the real world but, my atheism is more complex than my fear of this type of in-group.

My fear however does motivate my criticism of religion and it is due to my unique understanding of the theories, like the Doctrine of the Holy Spirit, that animate religious thinking. The Christian women in the Miss USA video are probably not aware of their ignorance of reality, nor the consequences towards social ill their anti-evolution and anti-science stance provides. My experience within the Church indicates they think their opposition to Darwinian Evolution is a positive thing because it allows them to evangelize for Jesus. Jesus is the only answer to every question.

I see that religion allows a person to be proud of their pandering to superstition as a positive virtue and therefore I choose to be a critic of their belief.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Mamet the Solipsist

Christopher Hitchens has a scathing review of David Mamet's latest attempt at narrative essay. The Hitch does an excellent job of exposing in Mamet's latest what I've always believed to be true about the playwright's attempts at playing philosopher.

Mamet's forays into narrative essay have always been lousy (as evidence I recommend his book "Some Freaks" which, if the publisher were honest, should be bound in straw to warn the reader of the quality of Mr. Mamet's premises).

Mamet has been an excellent playwright but a playwright is not a philosopher. A playwright simply is able to bring to life unique people who may not have a thorough understanding of their own psychology and, put these characters into situations that demand they act based on their limited knowledge. Philosophy doesn't work the same way.

Mamet as a philosopher does a good job of evincing flawed dramatic character but, sadly, that becomes incoherent philosophy. Mamet is to narrative philosophy as Eddie Murphy is to pop-singing, a competent artist in one arena believing their talent can translate to all expressions. It is embarrassing.

The theater craft invites the practitioner to remove inhibitions so he or she can take emotional risks. Mamet's Meisner-training is a pretty advanced example of the kind of self-centered and reactive process actors indulge. This can lead to art that is powerful because it makes the illusion of pretend seem real but, can also empower the theater artist to believe their emotional response to external circumstance is reality.

Too often, the theater artist over-trusts his or her emotional guidance system and practices solipsism when they think they are practicing logic.

I quit the theater for 10 years because I saw the same in myself and recognized it may be false and shameful. I hope Mr. Mamet can feel the sting of a similar reality but, fear that his awareness that he is "DAVID MAMET" gets in the way of his thinking.

Sunday, June 5, 2011


Pursuing creativity leads me to experience an idea that dominates my imagination which moves me to make something with this idea. The making is often accompanied by invited (and too often unsolicited) criticism which makes me realize that what was in my head hasn’t been realized. I wallow. And sometimes, this is where the story ends but, when I have luck and providence, a new experience occurs—my failures evolve and the original idea matures into a vision that sparks greater ideas.

The cliché goes that one must suffer for their art and, try as I might to bracket this observation as stereotype, it seems the creative process is fraught with emotional pain.

Otto Rank, the existential psychoanalyst, in his work Art and Artist, put it this way in distinguishing between a neurotic and a creative:

The neurotic, in the voluntary remaking of his ego, does not get beyond the destructive preliminary work and is therefore unable to detach the whole creative process from his own person and transfer it to an ideological abstraction. The productive artist also begins . . . with that recreation of himself which results in an ideologically constructed ego; [but in this case] this ego is then in a position to shift the creative willpower from his own person to ideological representations of that person and thus render it objective. It must be admitted that this process is in a measure limited to within the individual, and that not only in its constructive but also in its destructive aspects. This explains why hardly any productive work gets through without morbid crises of a ‘neurotic’ nature.” (emphasis mine)

It seems that the pursuit of art can make an obsessive demand on the artist, which can resemble madness. Those who have faced a real or figurative blank canvas have felt their mind twist when they’ve had to consider disappointment bleeding towards despair.

Rank summed up art as, “. . . life’s dream interpretation. . .“ and his method towards understanding its practice is stated well by Anais Nin in The Diary of Anais Nin, Vol.1: when she describes the doctor by, “. . . his curiosity, not the impulse to classify . . . relying on his intuition, intent on discovering.” The psychoanalysis Rank practiced with Nin deviated from his fellow Freudians, in that he lived through the author’s “writer’s block” with her (to the point of a sexual relationship), rather than removing himself from it towards diagnosis, and emerged as a character within her work, “The Winter of Artifice”.

Rank practiced a more active and egalitarian psychotherapy focused on the here-and-now, real relationship, and conscious mind and will, rather than past history, transference, and the unconscious. He therefore used empathy as a means to insight, which in turn made the creative process, and its inherent anxieties, real.

The words used to describe the creative process seem to validate the observation that creativity and crisis are inevitable partners.

We speak of great works being “wrought” with “painstaking” attention and “born” from “vulnerable” places that can be “raw”, “tender” and “fragile”.

But, why is this?

The creative cycle seems to follow a predictable path of awareness, introspection, self-criticism, despair, back to awareness. Each new Idea seems to come with a mix of enjoyment and angst.

My writing process often goes something like this:

  1. I get excited about an idea I consider ambitious,
  2. I share this ambitNumbered Listious idea
  3. People don’t get it and I get upset at their confusion
  4. Embarrassment follows when I understand and agree with the confusion
  5. Despair strikes, I want to give up
  6. I start over

F is usually the point where my inner-critic tells me to run from the embarrassment I’ve brought and suggests a scheme to do something else that has lower emotional costs.

A sort of Rankian empathy from a fellow creative person (usually my wife) accompanies G with a call to improvise.

It seems that the pain of creativity is related to the loneliness of disappointment and the cure for this pain is to consider that I’m not as terminally unique as I might think.

I’ve made a recent discovery that has accelerated my ability to get past my disillusionment.

My “day job” is in the world of communications strategy and recently I’ve been doing some reading on an idea known as the "Gartner Hype Cycle".

Considering the “Hype Cycle” has given me a better idea of how my creative process is not an anomaly, but rather a standard experience for any new idea that looks to be meaningful to other people.

Gartner is an information technology research and advisory firm located in Stamford, Connecticut and their "Hype Cycle" was developed to show a visual path for the maturity, adoption and social application of specific technologies. Here’s what it looks like:

It’s easy enough to read. You consider a new idea against the visibility it engenders (e.g. sharing a play concept with a variety of friends) relative to the time it takes to make that idea meaningful to others.

There is an initial peak of inflated expectations, and this peak is followed by an inevitable crash when the new idea doesn’t seem to live up to its expected importance (e.g. Microsoft’s “Zune” as a competitor to Apple’s “iPod”).

Recently, The Hype Cycle has been used to better understand how “old” media (e.g. TV and print) has become secondary to “new” media (e.g. Twitter feeds) and the resulting analysis that is needed in the face of strategic confusion and/or disillusionment (e.g. the inability for companies to monetize the attention their Facebook page gets, where the anticipated instant groundswell of “customer created” grass-roots campaigns has not resulted in immediate profitable product sales, despite the campaigns “branding” success, evidenced by the “likes” their Facebook page has received).

For my creative discipline, play-writing, this cycle seems to approximate my creative process.

I refer you back to my A through F experience above.

I find it difficult to persevere sometimes while working on a play because I worry that the struggles I have evidence my illegitimacy as a writer.

My wife is a choreographer and she has shared the same struggles.

And while we are only a sample of two, it seems that the angst we experience is similar to that of fellow creative friends.

These struggles have made me keep asking, why is that?

But when considering the Hype Cycle, I’ve started to think that asking “why” is less important than asking “where”.

It isn’t necessary I understand why I feel the way I do but rather what my feelings tell me about where I am in the process.

If I am filled with certainty that my new idea will create a revolution within the concept of say something like, how exposition works, then it might be good to check my “Hype Cycle” and at least consider that I am riding a wave of inflated expectations.

If I am in despair that I am dried up and no ideas can come to me after another scene in my writing group has failed to communicate my intention, then I might need to see that I am resting in a trough.

And whatever my feelings might be in a given moment I can recognize that if I provide myself the charity of time there is a probability given the “Hype Cycle” that I can ride towards enlightenment and productivity.

The “Hype Cycle” and more specifically learning to ride my personal “Hype Cycle” seems a good navigation device to get through the emotional storms that crop up in the creative journey. I’m seeing how it can be a model for me to better understand that the despair I often feel when trying to create something has little to do with my personal failings, it might just be the creative pursuit’s objective nature.

Disillusionment stops being an abusive parent and instead becomes part of the process where the slow climb out of it towards future productivity is enjoyed over time.

To reiterate Rank, considering the “Hype Cycle” puts me, “in a position to shift [my] creative willpower,” and seems to offer a partial answer to the question of creativity’s suffering.

An artist is not that different than the "idea generating technology" Gartner has mapped.

I shared this hunch with my writing group and we seemed to agree that a writer grows as a writer when she identifies a process that brings her enjoyment or, as Rank puts it, when the artist can detach from their work and, “ . . . render it objective.”

Letting go in this way helps new ideas to happen.

The question remains, why do creative pursuits hurt sometimes?

The Hype Cycle offers an implicit answer, because they do until you understand that they do and, that’s what they are supposed to do and, then they don’t anymore.

And you keep writing.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Flattering the King

Anthony deMello an Indian Jesuit priest and psychotherapist Roman Catholic in the mold of that religion's social justice wing wrote a small parable I have often found inspiring.

He references the father of cynical philosophy Diogenes and demonstrates how individual integrity can be found in acting as a stoic. It reads,
"The philosopher Diogenes was eating bread and lentils for supper. He was seen by the philosopher Aristippus, who lived comfortably by flattering the king. Said Aristippus, 'If you would learn to be subservient to the king you would not have to live on lentils.' Said Diogenes, 'Learn to live on lentils and you will not have to be subservient to the king.'"
We are a country of lentil eaters who seek to flatter the King to improve our diet and we pretend this flattery somehow constitutes an enlightened philosophy.

My criticism comes as a reaction to the recent budget dispute in Washington and the support working men and women have towards the Republican party's rhetorical fear-mongering that casts government, rather than unchecked plutocratic Capitalism, as the source of their restricted diet.

My gorge does not rise because of the incompetence demonstrated by the politicians involved.

I think incompetence is the primary job description of those who truck in politics.

I am wasted by the popular opinion of my fellow citizens who somehow believe empowering policies that benefit the top 1% of wealth in this country translates to the best path towards integrity and a democracy for, of and by the people.

Roger Ebert has an excellent piece on his latest blog that demonstrates the by-product of our current financial ethics and the sheer stupidity of the former Middle Class, now the growing working poor, who deny our recent history in the hope of being excused from the lentil dinner they are forced to eat.

This kind of popular cowardice dressed up as ideological discipline is not new or unexpected.

Orwell wrote in 1942 when remembering his time in the Spanish Civil War, while fighting fascism for the sake of worker's rights, how conservative MPs cheered the bombing of British supply boats by Italian aircraft because these supplies would furnish aid and comfort to the Communist Russian forces looking to overthrow Franco (who had to be on the side of Capitalism because he opposed Socialism.)

History shows that the Communist Russian forces implicated in the pursuit of Franco never existed and were a bogeyman invented by Conservative politician rhetoric to furnish their industrialist base with perceptions of ethical integrity within their plutocracy and, when given the opportunity, Franco conspired with Adolph Hitler to bomb the shit out of England when he had the chance.

Orwell goes further and identifies how the primary desire of those that allow totalitarian rule is not individual freedom but mindless comfort when he rightly states,
" . . . the Leader, or some ruling clique, controls not only the future but the past. If the Leader says of such and such an event, 'It never happened' - well it never happened. If he says that two and two are five - well, two and two are five."
We are living in the aftermath of a conscious decision to maximize greed as a catalyst for growth. And we ignore the fuzzy math of our recent history because to question the games played in the stock-market with home mortgages would demand that we interrogate our Capitalist system. It is easier to pretend that our enemies are those that would challenge Capitalism rather than ask why it was necessary to eliminate financial regulations put in place to avoid the kind of unchecked speculation that atomized the Great Depression. Why was an allegiance to derivative math that could inspire exponential debt financing the best social policy? Or do we simply ignore this because trying to understand it takes some thinking power and it is better to invoke our collective risibility and believe 2+2=5.

But when this speculative greed had to face its losses those that drove the gambling fit, the Wall Street Bankers, were protected by casino bosses, our Federal Government, and given better suites and more chips while those that cheered them on at the craps table, the average Middle-Class home-owner, were bounced from the club.

Instead of recognizing the bullying eccentricities of this collusive elite, the Middle Class has queued up like perky titted cheer-leaders looking to win the affection of the handsome football star (who unbeknownst to the fecund bubble-head in this analogy wants nothing more than to slip a roofie into her coke and sodomize her to his heart's content).

And yet the loudest outcry comes from a chorus of Aristippuses who will embrace all manner of irrational flattery and invite rape so they can deny the lentils they are left.

Ebert states it well when he writes,
"What puzzles me is why there isn't more indignation. The Tea Party is the most indignant domestic political movement since Norman Thomas's Socialist Party, but its wrath is turned in the wrong direction. It favors policies that are favorable to corporations and unfavorable to individuals. Its opposition to Obamacare is a textbook example. Insurance companies and the health care industry finance a 'populist' movement that is manipulated to oppose its own interests. The billionaire Koch brothers payroll right wing front organizations that oppose labor unions and financial reform. The patriots wave their flags and don't realize they're being duped."
The self-interest we are succeeding in applauding serves the King well. I wish we would start trading lentil recipes and tear down his authority. I doubt it will happen. Imagined comfort is too tempting when realistic integrity needs facing.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Anything, Nothingness and Becoming

At the end of Robert Bolt's play "A Man for All Seasons" the Common Man who acts as narrator and audience-proxy assures us (with dripping irony) the nobility we opt for when we make our identity ulterior.

He says,
"It isn't difficult to keep alive, friends- just don't make trouble - or if you must make trouble, make the sort of trouble that's expected."
In the Preface to the Vintage International edition of the play Bolt explains this theme by offering the idea that,
". . . we no longer have, as past societies have had, a picture of individual Man (Stoic Philosopher, Christian Religious, Rational Gentleman) by which to recognize ourselves and against which to measure ourselves; we are anything. But if anything, then nothing and it is not everyone who can live with that, though it is our true present position."
The themes of this play are relevant to me, probably because I am going through a mid-life crisis, while enjoying early fatherhood, and the worry I once carried about other people's impression of me fades in the face of my son's life and his smile.

The collision of these experiences have made me reconsider the necessity of basic values.

The world seems to invite each of us to be anything yet when this achievement is reckoned there is a nothingness about it.

Mark Erelli, one of my favorite singer-songwriters, summed our current social values (when commenting on the recent teacher demonization in Wisconsin) by observing that,
". . . the American Dream has taken quite a hit in recent years. We have 'American Idol' but there's no popular TV show called 'American Expert.' We deride the educated as 'elites,' preferring instead the sexier narrative that one event or contest could pluck anyone from obscurity and set them on a pedestal to be revered and worshiped."
There is a nothingness about a popularity that chases after notoriety for its own sake (as evidence of its value).

When faced with this nothingness, I've decided to take stock in my innate desires and consider what I am rather than what I do.

The adjustment has led to a joyful experience where the act of becoming has replaced a need to arrive.

Sir Thomas More says prior to the death sentence brought by his unwillingness to compromise his self and his values,
"You have your desire of me. What you have hunted me for is not my actions, but the thoughts of my heart. It is a long road you have opened. For first men will disclaim their hearts and presently they will have no hearts."
As I face the second half of my life I hope I can strive for this sort of courage and if I discover unexpected trouble I won't make my heart ulterior as a condition for "living".