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November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving without a Giver

I very much liked James Carroll’s reflections on how the sense of gratitude occurs in those who do not believe there is a Giver of the gifts we have received.

When it comes to atheism, I am agnostic: I’m not sure if I believe that there isn’t a Giver. But that’s about as close as I come to believing there is one. As a result, I have no One to thank. And even if I did believe, I don’t think I would be grateful for anything except what we all share: Lives on a planet we can make into a home. If I were to thank the Giver for the particularities of my health, my family, and the fact that I was born in a country that enjoys (and squanders) abundance, I’d also have to blame the Giver for withholding these gifts from most of my sisters, brothers, and other fellow creatures. How do you thank the Giver for your good fortune without either blaming the Giver for not granting it to all, or thinking that you are especially deserving of favors? Gratitude without a Giver doesn’t have that problem. We non-believers obviously can’t accomplish the social act of acknowledging the good qualities of the Giver, but does G-d really care about the thank-you note?

Gratitude for believers and the rest of us is, of course, more than a social act. It’s a way of dwelling on the fragile boon you’ve been granted. If there is no Giver to thank, then our gratitude — as an appreciation of the gifts we have — can embrace the shared and unshared boons without equivocation or hesitation, remembering how unearned and unfairly-shared they are. (Happiness is here, it’s just unevenly distributed.)

Happy Thanksgiving.

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October 8, 2009

Please don’t honor me with a cross

In the early 1980s, I was teaching philosophy at Stockton State College. At one point, I said something like, “OK, guys, let’s get started — and I mean ‘guys’ in the generic sense.” Afterwards, a couple of the young women in the class came up to me and said, “You can’t get out of being sexist by saying you don’t mean what you said.”

“‘Guys’ stands for everyone,” I said, thinking that my embedded apology had been rather enlightened of me.

“Then next time try saying ‘OK, gals, let’s get started.'”

Got it.

Justice Scalia says of a cross on public land* honoring U.S. war dead: “It’s erected as a war memorial. I assume it is erected in honor of all of the war dead … What would you have them erect?…Some conglomerate of a cross, a Star of David, and you know, a Muslim half moon and star?”

He’s right that it’s intended to honor all the war dead. The problem is the assumption that you honor all war dead by putting up the religious symbols honored by some.

Scalia should talk with the young women who set me straight 25 years ago.

NOTE: I posted this at Huffington Post where the comments are, um, interesting.


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*The case seems to be turning on whether the land was made private simply to skirt the problem with erecting religious symbols on public land.

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March 23, 2009

Arguing for the sake of Heaven

Disagreement is, in its nature, like the creation of the world.
For the creation of the world came about in essence by way of open space,
without which all would have been endless divinity,
and there would have been no place for the creation of the world.
Therefore, God withdrew light to the margins,
and the open space was formed,
and in that space God created the world,
through acts of speech.
And so it is, too, with disagreement—
for if all the sages were of one mind
there would be no place for the creation of the world.
It is only by way of the disagreement between them,
and their dividing one from another,
each one drawing to a particular side,
that open space comes into being between them—
which, in its nature, is like the withdrawing of primordial divine light to the margins—
in the midst of which creation can take place, through acts of speech.

—Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav (1772–1810)
Jonah Steinberg, translator

This is a text a lecture (now postponed) by Nehemia Polen was going to discuss at a class in Newton, MA.

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November 26, 2008

Thanking whom?

Thanksgiving is far and away my favorite national holiday. Family, food, gratitude…what’s not to like?

Just as the meal is slightly more complicated for those of us who don’t eat meat, the holiday is a little more gnarly for those who don’t believe in G-d. We agnostics and atheists have all of the believers’ joy in what we have, as well as the simultaneous sad remembering of those who do not, but we don’t have anyone to thank. That’s a loss; religion as I’ve seen it practiced — my wife is an Orthodox Jew — sanctifies the everyday, which leads us to care ever more for the world we’ve been given and our companions in it.

I don’t have that sense of sanctity because I lack the sense of a Sanctifier. I am left believing that while the Renaissance distinction between Fortuna and Virtus is useful in some instances, in the final accounting when you’re stripped down to bare wood, even your virtues are accidents. If you hadn’t been born to those particular parents, in that particular time and place, with a body that can do this but not that, with the set of experiences that happened to form you, you wouldn’t have the virtues you claim as your own. It’s all Fortuna. I happened to have won the lottery: I have a healthy family, work I love, water, and a roof. I have no One to thank, but that does not make me less appreciative of what is spread on my table and aware that it could be overturned tomorrow.

I’m fine with that, especially since without Anyone to thank for singling me out for a happy life, I also don’t have Anyone to blame for leaving so many behind. That’s a more gnarly question than how to make a good vegetarian stuffing.

Happy Thanksgiving to us all.

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September 24, 2008

Who was saved in Sodom and Gomorrah?

My wife just blew my mind. I thought I knew the basics of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. I’ve always cottoned to it because you have to like a religion in which people get to argue with their god. But I thought it was obvious that Abraham was arguing to save the innocent.

Nope. My wife, who is a scholar about these things (although she denies it), says that on the contrary, the traditional Jewish commentators take it for granted that G-d will save the innocent. And, indeed, He brings Lot out, even though Lot is only semi-innocent. In fact, Abraham is arguing that the presence of the innocent ought to save the guilty.

Why would having ten righteous people in a city be reason enough to save the guilty, given that either way, the innocent were going to be saved? That’s where the Jewish discussion of this passage begins. And maybe it’s where everyone’s discussion begins. But not me. I had it quite backwards.

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September 6, 2008

[ae] AKMA

I’m sitting on the speakers panel at Ars Electronica, listening to AKMA. “Theological discourse intrudes awkwardly into tech conferences,” he says. Theologists and technologists frequently talk past one another, he says. They are mutually suspicious. Theologians sometimes suffer from “replacement panic,” the fear that online will replace real world interaction. The church needs to “indiginate” itself online. [Live blogging. Poorly. Omissions, typos, mistakes. That’s just the way it.]

Jacques Paul Migne discovered in the 19th century the most efficient means of editing a paper: outright plagiarism. He’d copy an entire article, while introducing it by noting where it was first published. “He scraped newsfeeds and republished them.” Migne owned five steam presses in 1861. He published a “universal theological library” comprising 25 vols of Biblical commentary, 25 vol encyc, 18 vol of Christian apologetics, 13 vols in praise of the blessed Virgin Mary, and many more. While most relied on public domain sources, he sometimes republished volumes still within copyright. It was a “theological literature Pirates Bay.” Charles Sheldon’s “In His Steps” (“What would Jesus do?”) had a technically flawed copyright notice, so it was republished without permission.

So, situate all of this in the transition to digital media, AKMA suggests. Theological might serve as a useful “fishbowl” for technological innovators. There are online libraries of theological works, but “no organization has broken through to offer open access digital works” in comfortable, readable formats. “The conditions for publishing will go through some sort of convulsive change.” It will not replace books. But it will enable a “vastly more open exchange of digital literature.” We need “shareable, searchable, downloadable, disposable” texts, as well as durable, ownable printed texts. We need an open, standard format with a direct correlation to print copies (because print will survive and will generate cash flow). This will provide users wioth the “tools and the incentive to particiapte in the production of knowledge.”

Q: (James Boyle) You say technologists should see in the theological domain an opportunity to expand the commons. Why have not the faithful seen IP issues as something that gets in the way of the practice of their faith? E.g., many pieces of sacred music is under copyright. The organist at a local church said that she has a parishoner who is dying of cancer and I want to send her a cd of the music. They want $5,000 for a hymn.” I told her to go ahead and when they sue you, come to me. Why isn’t the world of the faithful looking at these issues?
A: The Bible publishing industry was one of the startups in 19th century US because the King couldn’t enforce copyright on this side of the ocean. Replacement panic causes the church to fear that personal interactions will evaporate. And assimilation to the culture of property rights. [Tags: ]

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June 23, 2008

73% of American atheists don’t believe in God

Yes, that’s how devout Americans are. Even a bunch of our atheists believe in God.

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April 13, 2008

McCain’s Constitutional scholarship

John McCain explaining — in a disturbingly incoherent way — that this is a Christian nation (found via JedReport):


My favorite part: When he confuses what’s on our money with what’s in our Constitution.

And while I’m youtubing, here’s an oddly inappropriate response from Hillary Clinton to what seems to me to be a reasonable, albeit aggressive, question:


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