Sunday, December 13, 2009

Of accountability and car-jacking

The "man" in Cormac McCarthy's novel "The Road" soothes his son's bad dreams in the midst of a post-apocalyptic living nightmare by telling him,
"When your dreams are of some world that never was or of some world that never will be and you are happy again then you will have given up. Do you understand? And you can't give up. I won't let you."
This week Detroit parents demanded that public school teachers and officials meet jail time and civil law-suits for their failure to teach basic math. Their outrage however seems ironic because it begs the question of accountability. These parents, unlike the man in the road, seemed to assume a dream-world where a passive approach to their children's educational possibilities is sufficient. Did they think that learning is a fast-food transaction where little money and less time can be spent to fill immediate needs? Did they think they could just send their hungry child's mind to seek processed gratification trading sustainable nutrition for salty goodness? Or did they try to satisfy the hunger for learning with some home-cooked lessons? If these parents are looking for culpability (and my personal understanding of the DPS would seem to indicate a high probability assigned to teachers and administrators) they need to consider themselves co-conspirators to these crimes.

I say this in the wake of my parents getting car-jacked yesterday. The criminals were, according to my Dad, between the ages of 15 and 18. They made a dash for my parent's Taurus as it was running in the driveway when my Dad went back into the house to see why my Mom was dawdling. My Dad looked to get control of the car from the teen driving it who, in an attempt to get away fast, gunned it down the drive-way hitting my Mom and shattering her legs. My Mom had surgery last night while my Dad did not sleep because his guilty imagination would not allow him to forget my mother tumbling and broken.

My parents are victims of a crime but my Dad's first response was to question his judgment in protecting his car rather than my Mom. His willingness to pose questions of himself in the midst of a tragic circumstance will sustain him but, his level of accountability seems lacking within Detroit's parents who too easily blame. The failure of Detroit's students is first their own; followed by the parents of these students and then by extension the teachers, administrators, and city, state, and federal officials but, when accountability begins with blame, an infinite regress from reality is practiced for the sake of fantasies that are neither true nor sustainable.

My siblings are pressuring my Dad to move from Detroit and he is struggling to fight them off. He wants to stay in his home. He doesn't want to give up.

I don't know what's best for him or my Mom. I don't live in Detroit so those closer to the situation have better information. I won't pretend to trade my 41 years for my Dad's 70+ and assume wisdom I have yet to earn but, I do fear for him and my Mom. I fear they will be victims again. I fear my Mom's long rehab on surgically repaired legs. My fears for my folks however are far fewer than those for the children of my hometown.

My Mom will heal and the pride that led her to confront hostile teenagers will sustain her recovery. My Dad's inventory of his failings will provide deeper wisdom and caution. But, what lessons will those teenagers learn? Will they be considered the criminals they are by their community and their parents? Or will they continue to dwindle in an apocalyptic half-light where parents' aversion to accountability ensures that persecution complexes lead to victimizing pain.

I'm not the praying type but I ask for your prayers. Please keep my Mom and my Dad in your thoughts. May their sense of responsibility keep them looking forward and struggling to find accountability in the midst of tragedy. Pray too for those boys who are now felons charged with larceny and attempted murder. May they not imagine righteousness in their actions but only dread for the pain and the hurt they've invited.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

I don't like Buddy Jesus

Oh my name it is nothin'
My age it means less
The country I come from
Is called the Midwest
I's taught and brought up there
The laws to abide
And the land that I live in
Has God on its side.

(B. Dylan "With God On Our Side")

A friend recently confided in me that he thought my writing here is bullying and hypocritical. He suggested that my examination of faith is cruel. His theory is that deep down, no matter how mature we may be, we are all essentially children needing a Santa Claus to help buoy our hopes. He told me that my analysis of faith amounts to a mean-spirited "Humbug".

I concede that my ideas regarding belief are blunt but, I find the psychology of faith fascinating and often wonder what 14 years of Catholic education combined with 7 years of Evangelical Christianity have done to me. I like to slice open my mind and probe.

I'm not a delicate surgeon and have little bed-side manner.

This is all done because as I grow and view the world, I find I am changing my mind when it comes to belief.

I still believe in belief or, that our brains find solace in it and I think my friend is correct; we all desire to imagine a transcendent possibility beyond ourselves. And most would say this demands theology, doctrine, orthodoxy but, I don't.

I guess I am unorthodox because I don't know what I believe but admit I am awed by the love I feel for my wife as she sighs her way into consciousness every morning.

Is that God? I don't know.

I've heard the term "Agnostic Christian". Maybe that is me.

My theology was once intricate and arcane but now it is simple - to love and be loved. I no longer wish to defend exclusive claims to universal truth based upon shared cultural stories. I find that type of truth divisive. It seems stupid to me.

I admit now that the stories I claimed as truth are incoherent to me and the only reason I agreed to them was because it afforded me popularity, today I crave authenticity.

The stories of the faith I was given demand a level of self-hatred that I no longer consider sane or useful. The theological concepts of Original Sin and Atonement seem products of primitive minds living in a bloody and dangerous world. I don't know how the insistence that I am corrupt and depraved and worthy of an eternity of torture is an animating idea towards mature awareness. And I really don't want to accept that it is my fault that god sacrificed himself to himself so that I might be able to know Heaven and be released from the generational crime perpetrated by mindless innocents in a garden 6,000 years ago.

I do believe the stories we share can help us deal with the mysteries of life but, this past year I've seen that the stories people tell can often times contradict the morality they claim. I've experienced arrogant and ugly attitudes and behaviors supported by exclusive and presupposed truth. I was afraid of it at first, then disgusted, now I am just tired.

That's not to say I don't enjoy the company of my believing friends and for the most part find them incredibly good people. I count many Evangelical Christians, Catholics, Observant Jews and at least one Buddhist as good and trusted people. They are part of my network of "go to" folks.

Unfortunately some of their doctrine is also upheld by another segment that embodies hate, and fear. These are old acquaintances who embrace a "Buddy Jesus"; a tough god with wrath in his hip-pocket; a thick muscled deity who assures them the hatred they harbor against the disobedient is a revelation into his Godhead. They are the ones who are certain that God is on their side. I fear these folks because I believe that, without our secular protections, they'd become drunk on their religious fervor and, like the Calvinists they are, would enjoy burning me, my liberal friends, and the loving homosexual couples I admire. To these people, Christ is not the Prince of Peace but is the Ultimate Fighter ready to kick the tail of those who defy inerrant Biblical theology. They anxiously await his re-arrival clothed in bloody robes at the end times slicing in half those that are disagreeable.

They are the "Prayer Warriors" who told me they were certain Barack Obama was a Muslim because in their scrupulosity God told them so.

They are the Christian Right who whooped it up with Rush Limbaugh's endorsement of Sarah Palin because she humbly upheld the sixth commandment and boldly violated the ninth.

And they are the ones who, for the sake of tradition, demand their First Amendment rights extend into every area of society including depriving homosexuals their 14th Amendment rights.

I'm stuck. I like my civilized friends who happen to hold storied faith beliefs but, I can no longer honestly identify with the darker members of their body who allow belief to justify unexamined righteousness.

Reinhold Niebuhr wrote in his essay, "The Christian Witness in a Secular Age" that the church,
" . . .must be embarrassed when it calls attention to itself as a proof of the powers of God. For the very pretension of virtue is yet another mark of the sin in the life of the redeemed,"
but I fear the believers in "Buddy Jesus" would discount the good theologian's admonition as evidence to his sinful Marxist politics and support of the UN. Professor Niebuhr, Dean of Union Theological Seminary and author of The Serenity Prayer, wouldn't be on the side of the righteous. "Buddy Jesus" would consider his pacifism disgusting when he claimed in his wise and paradoxical Christian Realism,
"religiously inspired good will, without an intelligent analysis of the factors in a moral situation and of the proper means to gain desirable ends, is unavailing."
I am looking to avail myself of desirable ends. I have come to doubt it will be found in religiously inspired good will and if that makes me a bully well, please just don't burn me at the stake.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

To the brain, faith is fact

Sam Harris of the Reason Project has completed a study that shows people of faith take their "belief without evidence" as fact.

You can read commentary on the study here:

And the study details here:

This seems to offer a hypothesis that supernatural claims of knowing are not what they appear to be. To put it more bluntly, there is no such thing as a Holy Spirit. Victor Stenger in his new book The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason argues for the material manifestation of mind. Harris' study offers confirmation for material reality over supernatural claims and shows that faith as belief without evidence may feel like fact to the person comprehending it but, it does not mean that it is fact.

I find this science fascinating because it supports my understanding of faith and the availability heuristic.

It's amazing that people of faith will activate their brain in such a way to endorse as fact untestable claims. I understand now how people can fly planes into buildings or why James Dobson can shamelessly compare concensual homosexual relationships to some kind of mental illness.

To their brains their faith is a fact and they will do whatever is necessary to animate these facts into righteous action.

It doesn't make faith any more noble but it does explain the power of self-righteous delusions.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Heaven, Hell and the Behavior of God

As we enter Autumn here in Chicago and contemplate Winter, I thought a post about death and imagined suffering appropriate.

This past year for me has been one of existential grumbling. It started with our economic melt-down and gained momentum when I was asked by a friend if I've ever heard a faithful person use the concepts of Heaven and Hell as anything more than a carrot or a stick.

I've discovered that the contemplation of this type of blunt suffering is a specific branch of theology known as theodicy. Theodicy looks to justify the behavior of god.

David Hume in his Dialogues concerning Natural Religion says it this way, "Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then evil?"

True believers rationalize all sorts of answers to defend their faith and justify their god or gods. There are many and they range from the concept of free will to the concept of impotence. None of these theories however provide me a workable answer to my friend's question regarding the use of Heaven and Hell. A person's imagined concept of each, based on my experience, has been nothing more than either a carrot or a stick to get people to behave in the face of fearful unknowns.

I recently have entered dialogue with a true believer regarding the concepts of god and afterlife who said that, "looking at it without the lens of Christianity- simply by looking at the vast expanse of the universe and realizing our very small and tiny place in it---you must admit that we are not in control."

I agree with him and in observation see this recognition as why we invent concepts like Heaven and Hell; to control our fear in the face of randomness.

Scientists that deal with randomness call this pre-supposition, the availabilty heuristic and it is a fallacy derived from our ability to conceive outcomes.

The theory of the availability heuristic states that simply, "if you can think of it, it must be important." For example, A person argues that cigarette smoking is not unhealthy because his grandfather smoked three packs of cigarettes a day and lived to be 100. The grandfather's health could simply be an unusual case that does not speak to the health of smokers in general

The availability heuristic provides good explanation for our attachment to Heaven, Hell and the Behavior of God. We manifest our personified understanding of a better self in an imaginary relationship with a character in a book (e.g. Jesus, Allah) and then we take actions against fellow humans to protect these imaginary relationships (e.g. The Inquisition, 9-11).

To be frank, I find most of theology to be unjustifiable rhetoric and all of it ignores the exclusivity of its own claims or, to be direct, the historical injustices done in the name of their exclusivity. At a certain point it seems like it has the same importance as discussing what color light saber cuts better, blue or red?

History shows that the enlightened thinker Denis Diderot was correct when he said, "Men will never be free until the last king is strangled in the entrails of the last priest."

There is nothing unfalsifiable or self-evident in the claims theologies make and they rely on a non sequiter.

Major Premise: The universe is a chaotic environment beyond the control of sentient beings

Minor Premise: Humans are sentient beings

Conclusion: God is in control of human beings

This is an argument from ignorance. Thinking people realize they can't control the randomness of the universe and therefore assign meaning to it by creating a more powerful personified "other" who can control it for them.

They place this imagined "other" in control to minimize the conscious understanding they have of their own death. This imaginary relationship then defines their sense of courage and morality which, by definition, delegitimizes all other relationships that don't share their imaginary one.

I can understand the psychological motivation to do such a thing and even accept it as a human need to order our consciousness but, reject the implication that this type of fear ennobles the imagined "other" we create.

The concepts of Heaven and Hell extend from this imaginary relationship. They only serve the one imagining the relationship because they serve to ennoble the imagined "other". This service often comes at the expense of intrinsic life (e.g. The Inquisition, 9-11).

Superstitious revelation becomes the weight-bearing mechanism to leverage the unknown. These superstitions contradict the virute they purport (e.g. "It takes courage to recognize that we need a God").

No, it takes courage to realize no one is coming to save us yet, our common welfare demands that we submit to the self-evident truth all people are valuable regardless of their race, creed, sex and sexual orientation.

They matter because they live and they will die. Their worth is not predicated on how they give god his/its glory.

Theology and religion deny the self-evident truth all people are created equal. They demand sanctioned attitudes, beliefs and behaviors to legitimize intrinsic life and, by doing so, create violent seperation between us.

They are products of our imagination to minimize our fear and therefore will be fearfully defended (e.g. The Inquisition, 9-11) when someone attributes them to be what they are, imaginary.

I've lived within the world-view faith purports and now, am living outside of it.

I feel a greater sense of morality knowing that my exercise of kindness, accountability, respect, and love extend from my humanity rather than some imagined divinity. For me, Heaven is simply a metaphor where I find the authentic freedom to live my life and let others live theirs.

Unfortunately, true believers take ritualistic actions where this metaphor's possibility becomes obscured due to the haggling over its meaning.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Reevaluating Perfectionism = (Accepting Agitation + Embracing Mistakes)/Self-Delight

Yesterday my wife and I were discussing her discontent.

Jackie, my wife, is an accomplished jazz dancer and fledgling choreographer. The last two years have seen her take risks in her craft. She's developed her choreographic voice while completing her MFA.

Last month she finished her thesis and resigned from the professional company she has been a member of for 8 years.

She's between gigs awaiting a teaching opportunity at Northeastern Illinois University.

All this seems to be a catalyst for what appears a healthy dose of existential angst.

She is unsure if she deserves to consider herself an artist when her days now seem filled with grocery lists, novel reading and her Pilades practice.

She, like most creative people, is a perfectionist who weighs her appreciation for her chosen craft against vague ambitions and current circumstances. This usually creates a perception where the creative person comes up on the losing end. Living life is a mundane practice that suffers against the imaginings of aesthetic invention.

As we spoke I suggested that her desire to perceive her current experience with some form of duality discredits the appreciation she might have in recognizing that no matter what she does there is no chance anybody will create a "Jackie Brenner" piece because she is the only Jackie Brenner there is. Creativity is an act of selfish self-will that does not need the approval of others to be.

We've had a lot of these discussions because both of us are choosing to practice our crafts. Self-consciousness and the perfectionistic need for approval stop the urge that drives creativity. We keep encouraging each other to keep going.

Perfectionistic attitudes can be reevaluated and be seen for the silliness they are.

Dudley Randall, in his poem, "A Poet is not a Jukebox" writes that a writer, " . . . writes what agitates his heart and sets his pen in motion . . ."

From the age of 20 (when my first play was produced) and over the next 10 years I dreamed self-expressive dreams equivalent to Randall's pledge but, always ran headlong into a self-defeating level of perfectionism triggered by public criticism and competition. I wanted so badly to be seen as good I contradicted the truth of Randall's poem.

Dudley Randall was the poet laureate of Detroit and he was a hero of mine but in a popular sense never really climbed to the imaginary pinnacle I placed him. He always trailed and continues to trail a list of more well known Detroit popular "poets" like Smokey Robinson, Eminem, "Dutch" Leonard and Jack White.

I mistakenly made my private appreciation of Randall somehow evidence of his fame failing to acknowledge he spent much of his professional life scribbling beautiful poems dedicated to simplicity and realism while working at the Wayne County Federated Library System as head of the reference-inter-loan department.

I gave up on play-writing in 1999 for various reasons, of which, the two primary ones were a failed marriage and a failed commission. I had poisoned good relationships with my inability to reconcile how writing not only offered me the experience of respecting my unique life and perspective but demanded I do so with no greater expectation than Randall's day-job. I had promised my wife at the time (now ex-wife) a part written for her (not my promise to make) so she would find me adorable and smart (something that was increasingly rare in our relationship) and promised the theatre whose commission I accepted an entertaining play that combined humor and truth (yet delivered a ghost story centered on suicide and the victimization of a society by a government determined to develop weaponry that could perfect germ warfare).

I honestly tried to be adorable, smart, humorous and truthful with the focus on creating something that would serve the expectations of my ex-wife and commissioned employer.

I failed miserably because I was too focused on being adorable, smart, humorous and truthful with a focus on creating something that would serve the expectations of my ex-wife and commissioned employer.

I instead could have just been myself.

I failed to recognize that promises towards perfect outcomes relative to other's expectations is a contradiction to the power art provides. I was hoping to be the single in the juke-box with the well-worn button that people pushed to shake their booty against a popular rhythm. I tried really hard to be a crooning well-loved Temptation and succeeded in being a reviled and misunderstood Stooge.

I share this in the wake of empathizing with Jackie's angst and finishing my first full-length play in 11 years. I did it as an act of completing the commission I lost in 1999 and my process was about what was true to me. I hope people get it but, don't know if they will. I tried to write a play that was about what is agitating me and something I'd like to see.

My journey back to writing plays started with this blog and this blog started because I needed a place to put down my honest thoughts. It was necessary to climb out of a people pleasing hole I started digging with my failed commission. Fearing I was stupid I attempted fitting in for the last 10 years and just succeeded in deepening a rut gouged by mediocrity. I left play-writing for a career in advertising as a brand planner. For those outside the advertising business, a brand planner is a corporate social scientist who tries to honestly contradict client mandates for the sake of consumer relevance. In reality, too often, he or she needs to be a spin doctor satisfying client mandates for the sake of the agency's profitability. Or, as one planning friend shared with me, "Man I want so badly to believe I work in the Bauhaus but feel like an order taker at a Fast-Signs franchise."

The ad game is a shuck and jive childish pretense where the perfection it pretends to offer is real. A place where nobody ever admits they don't know. But, embracing mistakes is the only way I've been able to understand my ideas. I am not perfect. I never will be and I realized as I wrote the latest play that making art provides a relaxation not found in pretentious perfections.

To be creative is to be sloppy, a tinkerer and live within the premise, "Progress, not perfection." It is all progress. My life as a writer is a way I can bring value to all of my life and allows me to embrace mistakes as evidence of something uniquely me. Getting lost inside the puzzle of the latest play felt like an encouragement. It was a science of the mind that allowed me to observe my confusion and determine its meaning.

Or as Dudley Randall writes:

"A poet is not a jukebox.
A poet is not a juekbox.
I repeat, a poet is not a jukebox for someone to shove a quarter in his ear
and get the tune they want to hear.
. . . a poet is not a jukebox.

So don't tell me what to write."

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Twitter Vs. Solitude: Unpopularity as Mental Health

In a recent Rolling Stone interview Bob Dylan quotes Scipio as an explanation in how he so ably has disconnected from the rat race, "I'm never in such good company as when I'm alone." I admire Bob Dylan and Scipio but since I am neither a poetic nor military genius I've struggled to reconcile this truth into personal habit. Yesterday however I realized that the source of my life-long angst has been an unwillingness to accept that sometimes being alone is the only way to ensure good company.

I've pulled my mind apart by concerning myself between false choices of popularity and integrity. I can't blame myself too much. I chose the theatre for my first profession and advertising for my second. Both industries enable people-pleasing as a competitive advantage. I'm just now seeing however that my valuation of popularity as a security towards happiness is a fallacy. I've never been so unhappy as when I agree with the crowd as a means to be agreeable. In short, people pleasing sucks. I feel phony, afraid and unsure.

But, we seem to live in a world where the pursuit of popularity is burning on ample oxygen and to avoid it is to invite the anxiety one feels when ostracized from the herd. Twitter filled air-waves capitalize on tweets as a self-esteem currency where people long to be followed. Yet, I find myself reacting as a reclusive paranoid amidst this socialized narcissism. Mostly because I think that popularity has little to do with insight or intelligence. I was the kid beaten up on the playground due to late onset puberty and an astigmatism that led to coke-bottle lenses in welfare frames. Growing up poor and unattractive creates a longing for and distrust of the popular kids. I see in the twittering twits the same bullet-headed aggression. The instinctive tweeters fail to consider the possibility that tweeting too hard can often contradict their own self importance.

Bob Dylan again, "It's peculiar and unnerving in a way to see so many young people walking around with cellphones and iPods in their ears and wrapped up in media and video-games, it robs them of their self-identity. It's a shame to see them so tuned out to real life. Of course they are free to do that, as if that's got anything to do with freedom. The cost of liberty is high, and young people should understand that before they start spending their life with all those gadgets."

In the battle of Twitter vs. Solitude I'm starting to lean towards the latter. It's happier knowing that the ideas and experiences I hold are intrinsically good because I have the capacity to hold them. For me, socializing them leads too often to the unintended but predictable conclusion towards consensus. Everyone wants to be aware of what everyone else likes to ensure that personally held likes will not create uncomfortable dislike. Like-mindedness masquerades as mindfulness in a culture that values mass-appeal and I'm starting to find it disagreeable.

I don't do this without angst. I want to be the popular kid. I want to be well loved and mediate my personality via the most viable social media but, deep down, I have to listen to the still small voice that responds to the invitation, "You can follow me on Twitter" with, "Why the fuck do I want to do that?"

I'm beginning to see popularity as sugar on my tongue. A tasty rush that has little nourishment.

I'm starting to prefer the uncomfortable but more durable option of becoming a majority of one.

I wonder if doing so will provide the insight to recognize my own idiot wind or the courage to face down an army of elephants.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Fire the Critic

I'm 51 pages into the first full-length play I've attempted in 11 years. The current writing spurt is a by-product of my reaching out to an old colleague, Guy Sanville of the Purple Rose Theatre, and asking him if it would be to his liking if I finished an assignment I left unfinished 11 years ago. I was commissioned by Guy to write a play in 1998, and did so, but delivered a story that lacked emotional coherence. My need to live up to the expectation of being smart led me to write something that would create the appearance of intelligence. As such, it didn't seem true. Guy demanded re-writes which made me afraid that I wasn't really as smart as I pretended to be and, therefore, I stubbornly invited an impasse which led to the project's downfall. I didn't write with any consistency for the next 10 years until I started this blog. My internal critic told me that my last attempt was evidence of my mediocrity and therefore I should think of other things than writing. I've since earned an MBA and started a new career in Marketing. Both pursuits have been interesting but not satisfying. The dissatisfaction stems from the fact that these pursuits seem to benefit from enabling the internal critic.

As Billy Crystal said in his alter ego, Fernando, "It is better to look good than to feel good." Or as an old friend of mine who is a recovering alcoholic says, when faced with the reality he has to practice rigorous honesty or die drunk, "You can't save your ass and your face at the same time."

Creativity in the business world for the most part is about looking good and saving face. It is sales. I mistakenly thought it was creativity when I pursued it and thought I could put the internal critic to rest. People practicing innovation in business will probably tell me I say this because I am no good at it but, recently a friend of mine, an Account Planning Director and therefore a "thought-leader" in the world of Advertising (a seeming contradiction in terms) admitted as much to me when he responded to my criticism of his blog as self-serving by saying, "I guess you could call this blog self-serving, but what blog isn't? I think most planner's blogs are self-serving to some degree". I agree with him. This blog is self-serving. I write it so I can practice respecting my opinion and clear up the confusion I've created by trying to look good. The only difference is, I am not trying to look smart in this blog by turning sales promotion (e.g. Advertising) into a pseudo-science and saying things like, "In a world where sharing is the new media, friendship is the new currency and advocacy is the new goal," which is a thought my friend promotes at his blog. That sounds creepy and Machiavellian because it is and it is evidence of the type of creativity one manages when the internal critic motivates looking good and saving face as a means to selling.

Part of the brief I received from Guy was to, "fire the critic" because you can't, "re-write an empty page".

The poet Dudley Randall once wrote, "a poet writes what agitates his heart and sets his pen in motion." Firing the critic allows this. Practicing it with my creative writing has led me to practice it in my work-life too and I no longer look to offer ideas as a means of selling an image that will allow me to look smart. Instead, I'm watching out for my own bullshit and when I start looking to position intrinsically meaningful realities like friendship in fungible terms I fire the critic and seek honesty.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Belief is illogical and powerful

The events of the past two weeks seem to scream this with the full force of "bloody murder." My initial response to each of the recent shootings was sadness and shock. My emotions triggered my confusion and as usual I stared at the ugliness in the hope of understanding its motivation.

Some friends admonished my interest in the sub-text of each murderous event as an unhealthy urge to see conspiracy in the craziness of lone-wolf extremism. Their ability to reconcile these murders as random acts of violence did not and does not satisfy me. I see within the isolated incidents a common mindset. Each psycho-drama's central figures were actors who held as scripture a system of belief honed and hardened through the communal honor of its worship.

I don't believe as my friends seem to believe that the shooter in Arkansas, Dr. Tiller's murderer, or the latest in a long-line of Holocaust deniers were egregious examples of tangential thinking. To me, they were perfect examples of how belief forms faith and conspires against reason to inspire destruction. It seems to me my friends' dismissal of the recent killings as some mad "Catcher in the Rye" theology ignores the calcified and widely held ideologies motivating each action.

Voltaire said, "Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities."

What do you believe? What atrocities does this belief allow you to dismiss, contemplate or commit?

Does your belief in the necessity of religious respect compel you to argue Islam as a "religion of peace" and the shooter in Arkansas as a wild contradiction to this theology or, do you like Bat Y'eor in his book "Islam and Dhimmitude" see that,
" . . . the ideology of jihad was formulated by Muslim theologians from the eighth century onward. It separates humanity into two hostile blocks — the community of Muslims, and the infidels. According to this ideology, Allah commands the Muslims to conquer the whole world in order to apply Koranic laws. Hence, they have to wage a perpetual war against the infidels who refuse to submit. Its principle is based on the inequality between the community of Allah and the infidels. The first is a superior group, whose mission it is to rule the world. The second must submit."

What are your views on America's heritage?

I don't want to equate the respect for belief or the dismissal of the recent horrendous acts as equal to the acts themselves but, I do see the acts of each killer as a logical action of their beliefs.

The willingness of those who would like to dismiss these acts as craziness seems to me like a weak immunization against the viral potential found in pre-suppositional beliefs. It seems like just another absurdity which will inspire inevitable atrocity.

I don't see myself as immune to atrocity born from absurdities I might hold as belief. I don't see myself exempt from the craziness the recent killings created. I don't see these killers as "lone wolfs" separating from the pack at left or right angles but, instead see them as examples of ideological fitness who sprint to the head of the pack and, in their commitment to the pack, separate themselves as the alpha member. I see myself as willing as anybody to commit atrocities for the sake of belief.

Therefore belief to me is powerful and it is dangerous because it allows us to embrace "knowing" absent of doubt. And in this knowledge we dismiss alternate possible theories of reality as craziness.

I am reading an interesting series by Valerie Tarico on Christian belief through a cognitive lens. My interest in the subject is fueled by the realization of how long-held Christian beliefs I claimed no longer work for me. I had to face the atrocities (akin to dhimmitude) I argued for against my homosexual friends who look for equality under the law. My Christian passion demanded I see their identity as sin and therefore same-sex marriage as a capital crime demanding the substitutional death sentence of Jesus Christ. My knowledge of who my gay friends are revealed to me the absurdity of my belief and the atrocious implications it inspired. My belief unraveled because new evidence introduced doubt. This doubt kept me from taking further action which would demonize my fellow humans for the sake of my belief.

Tarico argues that reason and logic are opposed to belief because,
" . . . belief is not bound to regular standards of evidence and logic. It is not about logic and it is not obliged to follow logic. Arguments with believers start from a false premise—that the believer is bound by the rules of debate rather than being bound by the belief itself. The freethinker assumes that the believer is free to concede; but this is rarely true. At best the bits of logic or evidence put forth in an argument go into the hopper with a whole host of other factors."
What beliefs are you bound by? Do they argue against evidence? How extreme would you become in the fulfillment of them?

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Take an outsider test and find a new idea

What do you believe? What beliefs do you reject? Are you willing to address your certainties with skepticism as a means of testing your certainty?

Are you willing to get back to your childhood and approach the big wide world with one question, "why?"

John Loftus challenges true believers to take an Outsider's Test of Faith at his website "Debunking Christianity". He says
"The outsider test . . . challenges believers to examine the social and cultural conditions of how they came to adopt their particular religious faith in the first place. That is, believers must ask themselves who or what influenced them and what the actual reasons were for adopting their faith in its earliest stages. "

I'm finding this test fruitful.

It seems taking an Outsider Test can keep one from inadvertently co-signing someone else's BS.

Loftus' challenge is targeted to true believing evangelical Christians but, I think the practice could be applicable to any impassioned ideology. It's a great way to twist your noggin and invite humility. The Outsider Test demands one to examine their control beliefs and humbly admit (as Loftus suggests) the truth Voltaire stated, "Every man is a creature of the age in which he lives, and few are able to raise themselves above the ideas of their time.”

I work in the idea industry so, something that helps me recognize my lack of novelty can be a useful creative filter.

What ideology do you hold dear? What would happen if you asked yourself why these things are important and/or superior?

You might not have the comfort of your control beliefs but you might just find a new idea.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Some weapons in the battle against confusion

Before I begin publicly wrestling my accumulated bad ideas, I want to share with you some resources I've encountered recently that are proving to be weapons in the battle against confusion.  These have helped me cut through what I've discovered to be flimsy conviction and have evolved my certainty towards healthy skepticism.  I recommend them to you.  If you are familiar with any of these I'd love to hear your comments.  

Also, please recommend to me what you're getting into.  I'd love to check out what excites you.  This list includes a ton of theological sources.  My faith is the most recent source of confusion so, if you are interested in themes of god and/or apostasy then you might dig this list.  Enjoy.

The writer's almanac podcast. This is a good five-minute bolt of literary history and daily poetry which will put any thinker's personal frustrations regarding the futility of their own life within the context of the futility of the lives of great writers.  When I come to realize that history's great thinkers were not exempt from self-loathing, confusion, and anxiety I understand
that my own existential angst is not evidence of my stupidity.  It is also great to listen to Garrison Keillor read poetry just before I run to catch the bus.  I selfishly entertain his sign off as a personal encouragement, "Be well, do good work, and keep in touch."
The planet money blog and podcast.  For all of us wondering how the hell we got to where we are, this is a great non-partisan resource that is committed to communicating our shared financial pain in human terms.  If you are like me and sick of your leftist friends cheering on a new age of the proletariat while your right-wing friends blame our current circumstances on things like the CRA then you will enjoy this show and blog.  If you are a loud-mouth who likes to hold tight to an ideological point of view because you enjoy feeling the comfort of presuming you are morally superior then you will probably hate the information these guys share.  I suggest starting with the podcast on bad banks and then subscribing to the show through i-Tunes.  Or, if you want to remain blissfully ignorant you can retreat to the rationale that our current economic circumstances are, "All Bush's fault," and/or "Obama is a fascist socialist; look at my tea-bag."

The Fourth Turning by William Strauss and Neil Howe.  If you identify with either of the caricatures I describe above then you will hate this book but, if you enjoy having your certainty challenged then you will find this read exciting and scary.  Strauss and Howe provide a system of understanding history that uses clinical-historical comparison and evidence-based analysis to posit the notion that time is non-linear. Rather it is a circular pattern that follows a seasonal cycle driven by the relationship living generations have with one another.  We move through social seasons which add up to a societal year.  Each season mirrors the natural seasons in possibility and mood and lasts every 20 years with a full societal year adding up to a "long-life" or approximately 80 years.  What season are we entering?  Well do the math for yourself but about 80 years ago we were facing a financial crisis due to over-exuberance and the misuse of leverage.  We entered a social winter that led to America moving from an isolated republic to an international super-power.  The only thing I hope that defeats the prophecies in this theory is that social winter turns to social spring with the advent of total war.  The last two fourth turnings didn't avoid it (WWII, The American Civil War) but I hope for all of our sakes our current one does.

Jesus Interrupted by Bart Ehrman will help all my Evangelical Christian friends realize that claims to inerrant scripture can reasonably be considered attestations to oxymoronic thinking.  Mr. Ehrman is a former evangelical who attended Moody Bible Institute, Wheaton College, and Princeton Theologically seminary and now claims "happy agnosticism" due to the realities found in a clincial-historical reading of scripture.  His thesis came along right about the time I have wrestled doubts with my own faith due to the certainty true believers claim that a loving God allows horrible suffering as a means to proclaim His glory.  

Another one by Mr. Ehrman and a read that helped me understand that my anger towards suffering need not be dismissed as shameful sin or evidence of my disobedience towards God.  A seminarian friend recently posited the reason for current and past martyrdom can be explained in a salient quote by Tertulian, one of the early church fathers, which reads, "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church."  If you feel like me, that this idea is one full of moral pretense to rationalize human suffering for the sake of mystical status then, "God's Problem" will arm you with biblical fact to call "BS" on similar apologetics.  A good read.

The Reasonable Faith site of Dr. William Lane Craig.  This is an ironic citation because it was recommended as a source to quiet the doubts I have had recently but became one to enflame them.  Dr. Craig is a noted Christian Apologist and I recommend you read his debates.  If you are like me and love words you will enjoy his vocabulary and might even discover interesting thinkers debating him (how I came to know Dr. Erhman in fact).  But, if you are like me, and also fear too much ideological certainty driven by subjective experience, then you will find Dr. Craig's postulations that historical methodology as unnecessary in assessing the historicity of the resurrection to be quite frightening.  If you are a true believer then I challenge you to put Dr. Craig's arguments to the test of Occam's Razor and ask yourself if his perspective purports truth or is assumptive rhetoric.

I held the opinion that atheists were morally inferior to Christians.  After reading Mr. Harris' book I no longer hold that belief.  This is a quick and cogent read to recognize that claims to moral superiority as evidenced by the "Jesus Prayer" are morally and intellectually pretentious.  True Believers should read this and answer the arguments within.  It will probably strengthen your faith or, if you are like me, help you drop preconceived opinions as harmful superstition.  If the culture wars are to end then all Americans will need to embrace the liberty ensured by our common secular protections where non-establishment of religion is the only way religious freedom and personal liberty can coexist.

The Language of God by Francis Collins is a stimulating read.  It provides a look at the latest scientific frontiers from the perspective of a bible-believing Christian who also happens to have been a leader on the Human Genome Project.  His description of the scientific method and why it makes things like "Intelligent Design" nothing more than a fear-based polemic are galvanizing.  It is nice to read a man of faith embrace reason and science.  His Christian view does not offer a definitive argument for a Judeo-Christian God and at most can only ask for ecumenical civility but, that perspective is helpful to recognize our desire for belief can be respected as part of what makes us human.  His appendix on bioethics is a great primer to what will surely be the central issue in healthcare and human services as genomics leads to personalized medicine.

That's all for now.  My new posts will probably reference these sources as well as many others.  I wish you peace and as Garrison Keillor says, "Be well, do good work, and keep in touch."