Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy New Year

In my last post I gestured towards one of the ways in which we are limited: Whatever the real nature of time, our experience of it is like an inexorable current, carrying us into the future and away from the past. Only one moment is present to us. The past can be recalled but not revisited. The future can be anticipated, but will be experienced only when it becomes the present. And then that moment, too, will fall behind us, further and further back until even the memories are hazy.

This past week, I've found myself thinking about my childhood. Not surprising, since I'm visiting my parents, who still live in the house I grew up in. I type this from an office that used to be my bedroom. The bookcase behind me is the one that I used as a child--the results of my father's amateur carpentry, constructed before I was born.

For some reason, I keep thinking about station wagons with fake wood paneling on the sides--the minivans of my childhood. Even though my parents' station wagon didn't have the paneling, that particular design seems emblematic of a time in my life that I keep returning to in my thoughts, perhaps because my own children are coming into that same age. As they run through the house, I'm running with them, hiding in the same places, banging out the same nonsense on the piano.

The present and the past get knotted together in a strange way. And the traditions of this season--the rituals of Christmas and New Years--tighten those knots. But they also highlight the changes. Vince, a friend of my parents, passed away yesterday (following his wife, Ilse, who died a few years back), and I can remember a New Years Eve about fifteen years ago when they were with us to usher in the New Year. I remember playing Hava Nagila on my violin, and people dancing to it in a kind of parade through the house. I remember Ilse bringing out a tiny cast iron pan that she used to melt lead pellets, which were then dunked in cold water. We were supposed to read our fortunes for the coming year in the shapes that were created.

Whatever entanglements there might be between the present and the past, they cannot restore to us the years that lie behind us. And whatever fortunes we read in globs of metal, the future remains an undiscovered country. For humanity, time flows in one direction, and we have no choice but to follow.

This fact makes it important for us to think about time and its passing. On an individual level, we mark and commemorate each year of our lives on the anniversary of our birth. Couples commemorate each year that they have been together (as my wife and I did yesterday, commemorating nine years together).

And then there's the celebration of the New Year. Different cultures have chosen different moments to collectively pause for reflection and anticipation. But the Western tradition of celebrating the New Year at midnight tonight has spread to many parts of the world. Midnight hits at different moments. The ball drops at intervals of an hour. Cheers and toasts, kisses and laughter, melancholy and maudlin renditions of Auld Lang Syne--we face the future together with joy or trepidation, and the past with an ache or a good riddance.

Let it be so. Happy New Year to all.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Believing the Christmas Story

What does it mean to believe in the Christmas story? In terms of substance and significance, what does it mean?

I’m not asking about facts. I’m not asking for a recitation of one or more of the Christmas narratives with the concluding remark, “To believe in the Christmas story is to believe that these events really took place.” If there is one thing that bothers me more than anything about biblical literalists, it’s that their religion is, far too often, so shallow. Their faith becomes about affirming that this or that happened, that this or that factual claim is true. There is no effort to really dwell on what it means to live as if this is true, to let one’s attitudes and choices, one’s patterns of engaging with the world, be informed and transformed by a narrative vision. When I ask what it means to believe in the Christmas story, that’s what I’m asking for.

I ask for it in the midst of my own finitude. I live with a constant awareness of my limitations, limits which I feel in so many different ways. My wife is a triathlete. She’s run marathons, swum unfathomable (to me) distances. Recently, my 7-year-old son has taken up running—and I’ve found myself called upon to keep up with him in the fun run or the 5K at an area event while my wife runs a longer distance. And so I’ve been trying to run, to build my stamina. I’ve been feeling and pushing the limits of my aging body.

One can extend one’s limits, but they remain. I might find myself huffing less intensely after a mile on the treadmill. I might stretch the distance I can cover without a walk break, until I can run around Boomer Lake in Stillwater twice without a rest. But the limits will remain. And starting to run in my forties means that I do so with a clear awareness that whatever limits I stretch will soon close back in on me, as countless little signs of age have their inevitable cumulative effect.

My father was recently diagnosed with cancer. He will be having surgery in a little over a week. This fall, a fellow violinist and retired music professor in my congregation passed away, and I sat at his funeral listening to the testimonies of his violin students and remembering Bernie, my own wonderful violin teacher, who’d passed away decades ago. This summer my wife’s grandfather died, and so I found myself thinking about the deaths of my grandparents—one dying in indignity and anguish, the other with unexpected swiftness. A few months back, Dame Joan Sutherland—La Stupenda—breathed her last. Only recordings of her exquisite breath control remain (many of them in my music collection). All of us confront this ultimate limit, the outer boundary of our mortal life. The generations take turns pushing at it.

Our consciousness moves inexorably forward through time. Even if Einstein is right and we live in a “block universe,” one in which time is just another dimension of reality—even if my experience of “now” is a kind of illusion of consciousness, and that past (and future) are every bit as real, every bit as much there, as the present—even so, it remains the case that my experience of time is sequential, that I am caught in a current I cannot turn against or step out of.

That current not only points me towards the limit we call death, but constrains me at every moment—constrains me in every moment. I’m visiting my parents, who live in the same house I grew up in. Earlier this week I drove past the home of my childhood friend Doug. I’ve reconnected with him recently on Facebook, so I know he was in Buffalo this summer, emptying out his childhood home. I saw the “Sold” sign out in front of Doug’s house, and I saw the bronze eagle that his family had installed over the garage decades ago. I wondered how long that ornament would last once the new tenants moved in.

And I remembered playing in Doug’s basement. I remembered his mother coming downstairs with toast slathered with raspberry jam. I remembered the taste of it, the crunch of toasted Wonder Bread and the burst of sweetness. And for one anguished moment I want to visit then. I wanted more than just the memory, the ghost that haunts the present. I wanted to be that child playing with that friend, tasting the flavors of that moment. And it seemed a terrible injustice that one can travel to old familiar places but not to old familiar times.

The other experiences of limitation are more personal, having to do with my incapacities, my inability to find the right words or gestures to help or comfort those I love. Presented with their needs, I come face to face with my faults. Too often, because I don’t know the right thing to do, I do nothing when something is urgently required.

My “pleasure” reading these days is Stephen R. Donaldson’s fantasy novel, Against All Things Ending. If anything—like all his novels—it’s a narrative meditation on finitude, on the flaws and limits that not only constrain us but define us. His characters’ flaws are always extravagant, their brokenness almost unendurable. And he casts these broken people into a mythic universe which reflects and magnifies that brokenness as well as their beauty, an environment whose threatened virtues demand their self transcendence.

In this novel, Thomas Covenant—who in earlier novels sacrificed his humanity to become an integral part of the mythic Arch of Time—is thrown back into mortal life due to the extremity and reckless urgency of his former lover’s (Linden’s) efforts. Towards the end of the novel he finds himself wrestling with what it means to be a finite mortal creature again, and he has these thoughts:

Now he was human again: he could no longer see past his limitations. Like every creature that died when its time was done, he could only live in his circumscribed present.

This was the truth of being mortal, this imprisonment in the strictures of sequence. It felt like a kind of tomb.

In his earlier state, he had recognized that this prison was also the only utile form of freedom. Another contradiction: strictures enabled as much as they denied. The Elohim (mythic beings of pure “Earthpower”) were ineffectual precisely because they had so few constraints. Linden was capable of so much because her inadequacies walled her on all sides.

Now, however, he had to take that perception on faith.

In the Christmas story, Christians affirm something like what Covenant strives, in the midst of his limited perception, to hold onto on faith: the idea that limits can encompass redemptive possibilities.

One of the most extraordinary images to come from the Hubble Space Telescope emerged when the telescope was pointed towards an area of seemingly empty space. What would the telescope reveal? The answer was galaxies. Galaxies upon galaxies. Multitudes of galaxies filling that tiny sliver of darkness. The vastness of the universe, the immensity of creation, came to light in a stunning way.

To believe in the Christmas story is, first, to believe that behind that immensity is an infinite creator whose vastness dwarfs His creation. The creation itself is one that we cannot even begin to fathom, and which demands our stunned silence—but that stunning immensity is only a symbol of the magnitude of what lies behind.

Second, to believe in the Christmas story is to believe that this infinite creator descended into His creation to take on the boundaries of matter and time and vulnerable flesh. All that immensity, all that unfathomable vastness, became paradoxically defined by mortal limitations: the strictures of sequence, the inevitability of death, helplessness, susceptibility to despair.

Our anguished consciousness of our limits, our fallibility and fragility, finds no purer symbol than the wailing infant, the baby whose only power is to scream out its need. And in the Christmas story, that symbol of frail finitude is juxtaposed against the heavens: the blazing star over Bethlehem, the heavenly host that comes with terrifying splendor to the shepherds—or, in the language of our own age, the vastness of the universe, galaxies upon galaxies that fill up one sliver of darkness in the sky.

But part of the message is that what the child represents is something far greater that the teeming enormity of the physical universe, despite the strictures of sequence, despite mortality and frail flesh. The eternal Logos, the Word that from the beginning was with God, one with God, fully present in a child stripped of any trappings of grandeur. A stall. Hay. Outcast shepherds. Peasant parents. It isn’t the emperor who is exalted, who can claim the mantle of the infinite. The infinite presses itself into mortal strictures at that point where its meaning cannot be warped by artificial hierarchies, the imagined constructs we fashion to tame the vastness of what lies beyond us.

We exalt a man in a big room, on a big chair, wearing glittering clothes—and if such a man is the definition of greatness, then greatness is a miniscule thing. It won’t dwarf us. Such a parochial vision of greatness can help us not to think of the galaxies upon galaxies filling up one tiny corner of the heavens. If God came to Earth in such a man, we’d make God as small as an emperor.

But in the Christmas story we are asked, not to tame our vision of God, but to expand our vision of frail humanity. In the Christmas story, we are invited not to hide from the immeasurable vastness of the universe and its creator, but to confront it in the knowledge that we will not be lost or crushed or driven to despair by its enormity. Rather than taming God, rather than putting God in a manageable box, the Christmas story buttresses us in all our frailty so that we needn’t hide from what transcends us. It does so not by making us equal to God; not by erasing our limits. It does so by making the infinite God one with us, by bringing God down into those limits. To believe in that, to believe in the Christmas story, is to be capable of enduring and accepting our limits, our finitude, the strictures of physical existence and the one-way flow of time—capable of accepting them even when we honestly see them for what they are.

And this capacity in turn enables us to do what inevitably exposes every frailty and imperfection in a blazing light. It enables us to look to the infinite, to open ourselves to it, to face the mysterium tremendum with the joy of relationship rather than in despair over our own inadequacy.

And to believe in the Christmas story is to set aside the fear of inadequacy and all the ugly things that go with it: the jealousies of others’ accomplishments; the envy of others’ talents; the shame of being merely human; the other-directed judgments and condemnations that are really about misdirection, about getting those around us to look somewhere else so that they don’t see our own glaring sins; the self-directed loathing and despair that comes when we cannot hide from our own sense of insufficiency; and all the superficiality, the consumerism, the empty entertainments that we throw ourselves into in the hope of distracting ourselves, of keeping ourselves from noticing our staggering limitations.

To believe in the Christmas story is to look at all this friable life, in ourselves and others—this life constrained by mortality and sequence, impotence and ignorance, sin and fallibility—and to treasure the precious reality that dwells within those limits, rather than the vast nothing which lies beyond them.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Merry Christmas...erm, Happy, Season's Greetings?

Since I'm get ready to leave town today and will likely will be out of touch for the next few days, I thought I'd take the chance now to wish my readers a merry Christmas. Unfortunately, this has become a rather delicate and potentially controversial thing to do.

On the one hand, not everyone who might read this blog celebrates Christmas--or if they do, they inspire the outrage of conservative Christians because there is no "Christ," let alone a mass, involved in their celebration.

On the other hand, a generic "Happy Holidays" or "Season's Greetings" will make me a potential target of Fox News pundits, who would see me--the author of a critical response to the New Atheists--as treasonously becoming part of the War on Christmas.

I could, of course, start listing individual holiday celebrations from different traditions in a long disjunctive greeting, inviting you to select the disjunct that applies to you. But some of the celebrations which I might mention are already past (calling attention to the fact that I was insufficiently sensitive to offer a timely holiday greeting), some are still some time away, and there is always the danger that I might leave someone out, inspiring their ire.

Furtunately, James McGrath has provided me with a working alternative. Armed with The Articles of Christmas, I can safely wish you an appropriately qualified merry Christmas. May your travels be safe, your celebrations joyful, your feasts filling, your reunions happy, and your worship inspiring--if any of these things apply to you, of course.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

My Cousin Shakes the President's Hand

This morning, my cousin Jake Reitan--who has for several years been fighting on the front lines against DADT ("Don't Ask, Don't Tell," the discriminatory policy that has precluded gays and lesbians from serving openly in the US military)--was on hand for the historic signing of the bill repealing DADT. It was a moving event for everyone who has been part of the effort to end what Jake has described as "the single most discriminatory [current] practice in this country."

A nice article profiling Jake and his experiences--including a star-struck handshake with President Obama--can be found here.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Proof that the Best Satire Makes Fun of Everbody

Haven't laughed this hard in awhile. And since this is of such clear relevance to ongoing topics of conversation on this blog, I'm inspired to make the effort to post a video. (Thanks go to John Shook for calling this to my attention). Enjoy:

If the Shepherds had Facebook

Being a shepherd and hence a member of a marginalized group, Mark has few Facebook friends, all of them shepherds like him—and most of them don’t update regularly. After all, signal for a cell phone is rather spotty out in the pasture, and since the shepherds can’t afford Smart Phones they have to use a traditional phone keyboard to update their status, which is slow even with intuitive texting. Usually, this means that Mark’s Facebook newsfeed is pretty dull. But even a shepherd’s newsfeed can sometimes come alive. This is what it looked like one particular morning...

Zachariah My friends have been smoking that funny moss again.
about a minute ago

James So what do we do now? Just go back to herding sheep like nothing happened?
15 minutes ago via Mobile Web
Mark I guess so.
David I have a feeling herding sheep won’t be so bad. Not after last night. You know what I mean? It’s not like one of those big events which makes everything else seem smaller. It makes everything bigger. Even herding sheep. It’s like God is THERE, herding sheep with me.
James I want to see that baby again.
Zachariah You’re turning into a baby-stalker. All of you guys have *totally* lost it.

David wrote on your wall
What do you make of last night?
about an hour ago via Mobile God
Mark I don’t know. I mean, it was just a couple of peasants and a baby, sleeping in a stable, right? But it seemed like more. It seemed like the biggest deal ever.
David What about the stuff before that? Did you hear…not exactly singing, but it was LIKE singing. It was like…well, if the sky had suddenly exploded with light and a bunch of silver people with wings had poured down and started singing the most beautiful music…well, that would’ve blown me away in something like the same way. It was like I was surrounded by angels singing “Peace to all” over and over, except without words or notes.
Mark I think I know what you mean. To me it seemed like the brightest star in the world, brighter than the full moon, but instead of light it was love and peace shining out of it. I thought it might be...well, I haven't had enough sleep lately. Or food. But I know what you mean about angels. And I just knew I was supposed to go into the village. I just knew where to go. And then you were there, too. And James.
Zachariah You guys a freakin’ scaring me. What were you smoking last night?
James Show some respect, Zach. I had the same experience. It was…well, it was God.
Zachariah God doesn’t suddenly start talking to a bunch of shepherds. We're nothing.
James That’s just it, Zach. We’re NOT nothing. You should’ve seen that baby.
Zachariah What does a baby have to do with God?
David God was THERE, in that baby.
Zachariah In a stable. Yeah, right.
James Yes, in a stable. That’s the whole point.
Zachariah Whatever. You just got so *freakin* bored you started hallucinating. Happens to me all the time.
Usually babies don’t do anything for me. But I REALLY wanted to hold that baby.
2 hours ago via Mobile Web
David and Mark like this
Zachariah Was it *that* cute?
James No. I mean, yeah, I suppose it was cute. Babies are cute, right? But that wasn’t it at all. There was just something…I don’t know how to explain it. I was just suddenly really jealous of the mother, who got to hold THAT baby.
David Jealous? I don’t know if I could have felt anything like jealousy last night.
James Jealous is the wrong word. Envious. I think I want to be a daddy.
Zachariah Yeah, like that’s gonna happen. You’re a shepherd. You *stink*.
Wow. That was like…was I dreaming?
3 hours ago via Mobile Web
David likes this
David Probably. But I had the same dream.
James No. Definitely not a dream.
Zachariah Were you guys smoking that funny moss again?
This may sound totally stupid, but I’m never going to be the same again.
3 hours ago via Mobile Web
James I know what you mean.
Zachariah What’s going on?
What’s going on?
12 hours ago via Mobile Web

Bored. Bored, bored, bored.
14 hours ago via Mobile Web
Mark I know what you mean.
David Lucky Zach, getting the night off.
Zachariah Suckers! Enjoy your SHEEP.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Overactive Spam Filter

I want to apologize on behalf of the so-called "spam filter" that blogger has installed and that I can find no way to disable. It has been overactive recently--and since I have been busy grading, I've forgotten to check it's work. This morning it suddenly occured to me to look at what was in the spam box--and I found that a dozen legitimate comments had been directed there instead of being posted (whereas NOTHING that qualified as actual spam was there). There was too much, scattered over too many posts, for me to go back and check for each misdirected comment whether the commenter had finally succeeded in getting a version of the comment up. I did find a few such cases, which are hopefully now posted. And I prioritized posts from newer participants simply because the spam filter is supposed to "learn" from its mistakes--if it's been told before (by me) that you're not a spammer, it's less likely to treat your comment as spam in the future (but still will do so occasionally for inexplicable reasons).

Friday, December 17, 2010

University of Maryland Study on Misinformation Among the Electorate

As a grading break I went on Facebook, and I was promptly bombarded by links to liberal websites announcing the results of a recent university study. The recurring headline was this: Extended exposure to FOX News makes you stupid.

So I tracked down the website of the study's sponsor,, which is a project managed by the University of Maryland's Program of International Policy Attitudes. The summary of the study that I found there was both more interesting and more complex than what the liberal websites picked up on.

The study certainly did note that, on a range of key issues, regular viewers of FOX News were more likely than the general population to be misinformed (leading liberal outlets to announce that the more you watch FOX news, the less you know). And, of course, the issues on which these viewers were most likely to hold false beliefs were precisely those that favored Republican politican agendas (for example, the belief that the economic stimulus produced job losses or that the new health care policy was likely to increase the deficit).

But the study also noted that regular consumers of MSNBC and NPR/PBS were more likely to believe, falsely, "that it was proven that the US Chamber of Commerce was spending money raised from foreign sources to support Republican candidates." While the correlation between partisan misinformation and favored news source was more extensive and obvious with FOX than with other sources, other sources were hardly immune.

But in all of these cases, one can reasonably ask questions of cause and effect. For example, are FOX News watchers misinformed because FOX News is airing false and misleading information; or are FOX News viewers drawn to watching FOX news because of certain political attitudes, attitudes which in turn make them predisposed to believe the worst about, say, the new health care policy? Do NPR listeners tend to mistrust big business and see Republicans as in the pocket of big business, and so believe it when some less reputable online source announces proof of such a thing--even though NPR itself makes no such claim? While I have a tendency to regard FOX as consistently engaged in partisan deception in a way that, say, NPR is not, I don't think this study establishes anything of the kind.

In a sense, however, the important insight from the study is not how misleading FOX News is. That is hardly a new insight in any event (I've watched FOX enough over the years to raise my eyebrows over how overtly supportive of conservative political agendas it really is). The important insight of the study is twofold: first, American voters in general, regardless of political party affiliation, are seriously misinformed; second, American voters in general think (rightly, it seems) that they are being exposed to a great deal of false information. But the latter sense of being lied to does not seem to have a great deal of effect on how likely they are to mistrust those who are lying to them. It doesn't stop them from confidently believing lies.

And this leads me to wonder whether both survey observations--the level of false beliefs and the widespread sense of being lied to--have their origins in the same phenomenon: the growing ideological bifurcation of favored information sources. Voters are deceived because they trust a partisan source of information that has political and ideological motives for misleading its viewers. They think they are being lied to because there are rival partisan news sources saying things at odds with what they are convinced (by their favored news source) is true.

Their sense of being lied to, rather than making them more wary of those who are most likely to successfully deceive them, is an outcome of the deep trust they place in those who are most likely to successfully deceive them. That is, the reason they think they are being lied to is precisely because, in the polarized world of ideological echo chambers, they instinctively trust what is bouncing around in their own echo chamber--and so, when they glance over into other echo chambers, they see what appears to be a barrage of lies bouncing around.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

A Slice of Christmas Fiction

In honor of the season (and because I'm too busy grading to offer a substantive post), I thought I'd share with my blog readers the opening scene of my Christmas novel--a kind of fantasy in which the protagonist, a high school senior wrestling with grief and guilt surrounding the death of his sister two years before, finds himself seeking redemption in the world on the other side of a Christmas painting. So, here it is: the opening scene from...yeah, I'm terrible at titles.

When the first snow fell that second year after Clara’s death, it hurt like hell behind my eyes.

It came down heavy—fat flakes, the kind you get when the temperature hovers just below freezing. By dawn there was close to a foot on the ground and almost as much weighing down the branches of the oak tree outside my room. It was the first Sunday in Advent, and the world outside was dressed for the occasion in Christmas white.

It didn’t take long for the neighborhood kids to pour out squealing into the cul-de-sac. From my window I could see them in their yarn-bob hats, their mittens trailing bits of shattered snowballs. I imagined my little sister out there with them, making snow angels on the slope.

Abruptly, vividly, I remembered her calling me bubba as she hurled a hasty snowball at me. I could see it coming through the air, falling apart as it flew, shedding glitter until the last fragments barely dusted my boots.

I’d teased her for it, of course, because that’s what big brothers do. But I remember thinking it was beautiful. I remember thinking, That’s Clara’s kind of snowball.

How many years ago? Five, six. Some of the older kids out in the cul-de-sac would’ve been there. Perhaps she’d thrown glitter balls their way. I wondered if any of them even thought about her anymore.

“Stupid.” The sound of my voice startled me. I hadn’t meant to say it out loud. But I decided to say it again, deliberately, as if that could drive off Clara’s ghost.


The word was swallowed by the silence of the house. Somehow my parents had never received the memo that you’re supposed to be up by seven when you get to be their age. But I knew their alarms would be blaring soon. It wouldn’t do for them to be late for the 10:30 service. Not today.

A few more moments was all I had.

I wandered downstairs and found myself pausing in the living room, staring at the place where, later today, the Christmas tree would stand in all its tasteful, Scandinavian-inspired glory. A small table now sat where the tree would go, and on it was Delilah: the terra cotta sculpture of a young woman’s head, her face tilted upward, eyes mostly closed and lips parted. It was, of course, Clara who’d named her.

“You should be on my side,” I said aloud. “They’re going to put you away for at least a month. Stick you in a closet with nothing but linens for company.”

She seemed to be listening, but my words didn’t ruffle her serenity. “Alright, be that way. I’m just saying it’d be a whole lot easier for everyone if we just skipped ahead to January.”

I squatted down beside her and looked into Delilah’s exquisite features, at the hints of rapture there. “They really should listen to me, you know. I’m a certified genius. Just last week Mrs. Landry said I was the most brilliant student she’s ever had the privilege to teach in her thirty years at Dawson High.”

I imagined Delilah rolling her eyes. “Okay, okay. But just watch.” I made my voice conspiratorial. “Watch my mother. All perky, except that she won’t sit still, not even when everything’s put up. And then she’ll start talking about how beautiful it all looks—not because she’s actually stopped to look at anything. Just because that’s what you’re supposed to say.”

I’d seen her do it last year, that first full Christmas season without Clara: a rigid smile plastered to her face as she darted about the house, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s Spirit of the Season turned up way too loud.

“Oh yeah,” I said, patting Delilah on the head. “I forgot. You’ll be packed away in the closet before it gets bad. In fact—” I stared at her suspiciously. “There’s a kind of Clark Kent thing going on here. Christmas comes, you go. Is there some secret identity business you want to tell me about?”

She didn’t answer, but I thought I could detect the trace of a smile.

“Never mind,” I said as I stood up. “Keep your secrets.”

I turned away and that’s when I felt it—so sudden and so total that for a moment I stood paralyzed. The dread was like something in my chest, pressing outward against my ribs. Except it wasn’t something. It was nothing. A great weight of nothing.

I wanted to say stupid again, but I didn’t have the breath for it.

And then something red darted across my vision, and for an absurd moment I was convinced it was a nisse, a little Norwegian Christmas elf hurrying by in his red wool hat and scarf. When I saw the cardinal preening on a snow-glazed branch just outside the window, my relief freed my lungs. But it wasn’t enough to clear away the bubble of nothing in my chest.

I sucked in air and turned from the window, hoping the mundane familiarity of the living room would cure me of this strange dismay. But instead, all around, I saw the places where the Christmas decorations would go. Today, of course—because it was the first day in Advent and by God the house would be decked for the season and the Christmas CD’s would come out, and it didn’t matter that none of us wanted to do it, that none of us could think of anything but Clara, almost two years in the dirt with an angel for a headstone (it had to be an angel, because my mother didn’t believe in subtlety).

There, on the end table—that’s where the red Norwegian candelabra would go. Just to the right the straw Advent star would hang in the window. Atop the low bookcase the brass angel chime would sit, and after dark the heat from four candles would set it spinning. And scattered through it all—perched on windowsills and tabletops, clustered around the hearth like some kind of bizarre Christmas orgy—would be all the little hand-stitched nisses, dozens of them with their white cotton beards and tiny yarn hats.

And the painting.

I saw it vividly, the painting of the Christmas sleigh that Clara had picked out one snowy December four years ago, just before she was diagnosed. I could almost stand the rest of it, but the painting…no. Just no. Somehow, in a way I still couldn’t understand, the painting was bound up intimately with what I’d done.

My parents’ alarms tore through the house. I jumped and let out a screech. Absurdly, both were going off at once as if neither of my parents had trusted the other to set theirs the night before.

I took a breath, sighed, and turned back to Delilah, trying to formulate something appropriately sarcastic. I was stopped by her face. It was as if her terra cotta features had taken on the hint of something new. I stared, and after a moment I saw what it was: she seemed to be looking at something through her half-closed eyes.

I couldn’t help it. I followed her gaze, followed it to the kitchen doorway, and beyond it to the place where the painting would hang.

I could almost see it there, but it wasn’t the sleigh or elves or village houses that I saw. It was the forest in the background. Not the outer edges where gestures of green and white suggested snow-laden pine boughs, but the interior—the dark places where snow and moonlight couldn’t reach.

I told myself, not for the first time, that it was just a painting. Nothing to be afraid of. But somehow I still couldn’t get myself to say stupid.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The No Hell Noel

So we had our department holiday party today, and one of the things we do at the party is sing "fractured" holiday songs. Over the years department members past and present have composed original lyrics to accompany familiar holiday melodies. Some are dated. Some remain funny ( such as the "Publish or Perish" song sung to "The 12 Days of Christmas" melody, which begins, "The first time I sent it off the critics said to me, you've just proven P and not-P").

One of the songs was written by me and John Shook (who's now at the Center for Inquiry) some eight years ago, and seems fitting to include on this blog--with some minor modifications. Specifically, a key line of the song originally named a colleague in the department, which is funny only if you know the person involved. So I've replaced that name with a more familiar one. Also, in the original song the one who "sees" the absurdity of the doctrine of hell is identified as "Reitan"--but since I am hardly the only person to find the doctrine untenable, I've replaced my name with a blank and invite you to plug in your own name in the appropriate spaces (or the name of your favorite universalist, in case you are benighted enough to disagree with me when it comes to the doctrine of hell).

So, here it is: the "No Hell Noel" (sung to the tune of "The First Noel")

The doctrine of hell, to Aquinas did mean
that some of God's creatures would not be redeemed.
And the Lutherans agreed, in spite of the creed
that held God's grace alone was what all people need.

No hell, no hell, no hell, no hell
If all are saved only God can tell.

The Calvinists believed that each of the damned
was predestined to hellfire by God's steady hand.
And the Baptists, they confess, if you're not born again
or if you're gay endless torment's your end

No hell, no, hell, no hell, no hell
When all are saved only God can tell.

Then _______ did see that these ideologies
were unworthy of God's love and majesty,
Whose benevolence extends to the good and the bad
bringing bliss even to PZ Myers and clan.

No hell, no hell, no hell, no hell
That all are saved even _______ can tell.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Some Thoughts on Religious Exclusivism

In my last post I explored the religious pluralism endorsed by, among others, the theologian John Hick and my mother. Both see the various religions of the world as historically and culturally situated responses to a transcendent reality. But this transcendent reality is infinite, and our grasp of it is only partial (what “part” we see being a function of what our cultural ideas and presuppositions enable us to see). Furthermore, this transcendent reality defies literal description in terms of ordinary human concepts. As such, Hick and my mother see all religious belief systems as literally false. These systems of belief need to be understood as metaphors, as gestures towards a mystery that defies our understanding. As metaphors, their worth is measured pragmatically—by how well they help us to attune ourselves with this transcendent reality, and so live our lives in harmony with it. Insofar as different religious traditions succeed in achieving this goal, they are all pathways to “salvation” in the broadest sense, and they all have a share in “truth” in some non-literal, pragmatic sense.

Now there is much about this picture of religion that I admire and think is on the right track. Clearly, there is much religious language and narrative that is best understood as metaphorical—and that loses its value when treated in essentially literal terms (the first two chapters of Genesis come to mind). But this does not entail that all religious doctrines and narratives are purely metaphorical, that there is nothing implied by a statement like “God is good” that could qualify as literally correct. Respecting religious diversity doesn’t require denying this possibility. Nor does admitting this possibility undermine the pluralistic interpretation of religious diversity. The hypothesis that the diversity of religions is consistent with a common inspiration, that this diversity springs from the same well of divine revelation, doesn’t depend on the nothing-but-metaphor hypothesis.

Recall again the Hindu parable of the blind men who encounter an elephant. If the man who grasps the trunk says, “It’s a snake,” that will be literally false but metaphorically useful. But if the same man says, “It’s flexible,” that is not a metaphor. And when the blind man who grasps the tusk says, “It’s hard,” that is not a metaphor either. In this case, the diversity arises because, even though they are using literal language to correctly describe what they've encountered, they are in contact with different parts of the beast.

But whatever we think of the issue of just how much religious language is metaphorical (and this issue here is not one of all-or-nothing), the idea that divine revelation is limited to one faith tradition—and that there are no insights into ultimate reality that can be gleaned from serious attention to other worldviews, other traditions—is deeply troubling. We might call this view “extreme doctrinal exclusivism”: the view that divine revelation has only been poured into your faith tradition, and that all other traditions are mere lies and human invention.

(Notice that someone like PZ Myers, on this definition, qualifies as a certain kind of extreme doctrinal exclusivist, insofar as he regards all supernatural religious traditions as nothing but lies and human invention. This may help explain why, when religious fundamentalists give up their faith, they are more likely to become atheists in Dawkins’ or Myers’ mold than they are to become pluralists. From the starting point of “They’re all made up except one,” it’s a shorter step to “They’re all made up” than to “They’re all finite, partial, and fallible responses to the same underlying transcendent reality.”)

Much of my aversion to extreme doctrinal exclusivism is pragmatic. First of all, if different religious traditions do have insights to share with one another, and wisdom to gain through such sharing, then the idea that one’s own tradition has exclusive access to all the truths that matter would block the open-mindedness which is a prerequisite for such mutual learning. This seems a bad pragmatic bet.

Furthermore, this extreme exclusivism seems a pathway to a kind of ideological division, a cultural bifurcation of the world into “us” (those who have been enlightened) and “them” (all others, who’ve been left in the dark). If human history has taught us anything, it is that such divisions are a source of intractable conflict and violence. No good has ever come of them.

These pragmatic considerations can be supplemented with theological ones. If there is a God anything like what the Judeo-Christian tradition affirms, it would seem strange indeed that this God would limit divine self-disclosure to one small corner of the world, leaving the rest of humanity in the dark about the existence and presence of a caring creator until such a time as unsubstantiated testimonies should wend there way across the globe. And if there is some other sort of transcendent reality which has in some fashion impressed itself upon the consciousness of people in one cultural and historical context, it would seem strange that it wouldn’t happen in other cultural and historical contexts, given that it is the same human nature that exists everywhere.

None of this, however, implies that one religion won’t have insights that other religions lack, or that one religion won’t have been the only vessel into which some distinctive truth of great importance has fallen. In fact, the possibility of religious traditions learning from one another seems to presuppose that each religious tradition at least potentially carries insights that are unique—insights into the divine that are left out, underappreciated, or mistakenly rejected by the others.

Not only does it seem important not to deny this possibility when considering traditions other than one’s own. It seems important not to deny this possibility when it comes to one’s own faith tradition. In other words, it is consistent with this model of interreligious respect to believe that your own faith tradition has something important to contribute to the conversation, some insight into the truth that other religions might not have.

And if you do believe this--perhpas with respect to most central and distinctive teachings of your faith tradition--aren’t you then being an exclusivist about those teachings? Clearly, you’re not being a soteriological exclusivist—that is, you’re not ascribing to the view that salvation only comes through your faith, and that adherents to rival religious traditions are damned. Nor are you an extreme doctrinal exclusivist.

But you would be an exclusivist in a broader sense, encompassed by the following definition of exclusivism offered by Alvin Plantinga: “the exclusivist holds that the tenets or some of the tenets of one religion—Christianity, let’s say—are in fact true; he adds, naturally enough, that any propositions, including other religious beliefs, that are incompatible with those tenets are false." (emphasis added)

Another point to keep in mind about religious exclusivism is that the Hickian pluralist is an exclusivist on a meta-level. While Hickian pluralists do not hold that one religion is true and others false, don’t they hold that their pluralistic take on religion is correct, and that other takes on religion are incorrect to the extent that they disagree? It seems so, and this is what leads Kevin Meeker, for example, to conclude, “The real debate is not whether we should exclude, but what type of exclusion is defensible… In short, there is no sharp dividing line between exclusivism and pluralism; so we are faced with a continuum of options.”

In fact, it is precisely because progressive religion does exclude, does reject some modes of religious expression (most notably fundamentalism), that it doesn’t fall prey to Sam Harris’s overgeneralized critique of moderate religion. Harris accuses moderate religion of teaching the “terrible dogma” that “every human being should be free to believe whatever he wants about God.”

But religious progressives don’t believe this terrible dogma. They reject the image of God as a vengeful tyrant, insisting that such an image is dangerously mistaken. That’s exclusion. They reject the notion that God has entrusted His revelation to only one faith in human history. That’s exclusion, too. They reject the idea that God chose to reveal His will inerrantly in a single holy book. That’s exclusion. They reject the notion that God planted fossils of creatures that never existed and created evidence of great age in a world that is only a few thousand years old, all in order to test the faith of those who might question His inerrant literal revelation in the aforementioned holy book. That, again, is exclusion.

Without some measure of exclusivism, religious believers would fall prey to Harris’s terrible dogma. And so I don’t want to treat exclusivism in every sense of the word as an evil. There are reasons to exclude—some based on a preponderance of empirical evidence, some based on morally pernicious implications, some based on logical coherence, some based on pragmatic fruits.

But sometimes we don’t have compelling reasons of any of these kinds. What then? Under those circumstances, should assuduously eschew exclusivism in any form?

Perhaps not. Allen Stairs, a philosopher at the University of Maryland, attempts to offer a portrait of a certain kind of religious exclusivism—what I’m tempted to call a friendly exclusivism—that might be legitimate even if you have no compelling reason to reject those who disagree with you.

Stairs explains what he has in mind by offering a kind of portrait of a certain sort of religious believer: one who doesn’t “settle for a vague, free-floating theism” but has more concrete religious beliefs that exceed what the weight of evidence can sustain. But her belief, he says, “is not a sham; she thinks they might really be true and that even if they aren’t fully true, they capture something important about the Ultimate. They also flesh out her sense of the Ultimate into something that can form the basis for a religious practice.” Stairs goes on to describe the view as follows:

…Plantinga takes religious belief at face value; Hick maintains that all specific religious belief is strictly speaking false. The view we’re considering isn’t like either of these. It agrees that, broadly speaking, the believer is entitled to trust her sense that the skeptic is wrong. It allows that perhaps some one religion captures The Truth, and perhaps the Ultimate is a Kantian noumenon, entirely beyond our cognitive grasp. At the level of practice, however, the view is more like exclusivism; the Hindu will believe as a Hindu does; the Christian will believe like a Christian. But behind the belief there will be a higher-level lightness; not an ironic attitude, but trust coupled with a deep sense of epistemic humility.”
In capturing this “higher-level lightness,” Stairs offers the example of Paul, a Roman Catholic who accepts the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation—that is, the belief that the bread and wine really become the body and blood of Christ in the Mass. “Nonetheless,” Stairs writes, “he knows that most people, including many Christians, believe otherwise. I think the following is perfectly possible: actively believing this is deeply important to Paul’s religious identity. At the same time, actively disbelieving contrary doctrines isn’t important to him at all.”

Paul, as portrayed by Stairs, feels no urgent need to persuade those who think otherwise. They are as entitled to their view as he is to his own. Even so, he remains deeply devoted to this doctrine to the exclusion of others that conflict with it. He believes this and not that. But if you believe that, it doesn’t bother him in the least. And, says Stairs, “he might not be willing to say that people with this Protestant view are making a mistake, and if asked whether he thinks they are wrong, he might reply that the question seems beside the point for him; saying ‘no’ would do a bad job of capturing his attitude, but so would saying ‘yes.’”

Stairs offers a careful look at what he takes to be the underlying rationale for this kind of attitude. I won’t go into the details, but the core of it is a balance between two things: first, the inescapable sense (which defines the person as a believer) that “there is something Ultimate and that it is to be trusted or even loved,” a sense that excludes “beliefs that make the Ultimate morally ugly”; second, an awareness that the specific elaboration of this sense which grounds our religious life does not rise to the level of knowledge, and as such could be mistaken. Not only that, but on crucial matters other religious traditions could, on matters where they disagree with us, be right, or partially right—or the nature of the divine could defy our grasp in such a way that the tension between our own views and those of rival faiths might do a better job of capturing the divine reality than any of those beliefs alone.

The kind of “friendly exclusivist” Stairs has in mind (which Stairs is inclined to call a “pluralist exclusivist”) holds to her religious beliefs in a manner that does not rule out these possibilities—that one’s beliefs are in error, that one has mistaked metaphors for literal descriptions, that one can gain genuine insight from listening to and engaging with those who have an opposing view.

So, is this kind of exclusivism something we should hold up as legitimate, as expressing a way of cleaving to religious faith that is (in language I use elsewhere) intellectually respectable and morally benign? I think more needs to be said before reaching any final conclusions, but it does seem right to me that we should resist the urge to too quickly label exclusivism as “bad” and pluralism as “good,” and treat the two as incommensurable opposites. The situation, as usual, is muddier and messier than that.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

My Mother's Religious Pluralism--Formalized by John Hick

On Monday I turned to the last topic of the semester in my philosophy of religion class: religious diversity. This is a topic that, in a way, strikes close to home—specifically, the home in which I was raised. Not, however, because my home was characterized by religious diversity.

As I think I’ve mentioned before, I am the son of two agnostic preachers’ kids. Growing up, I cannot recall my father ever talking about God or religion or anything supernatural. I think it was in college that he once told me about a time he found himself in church reciting the words of the Lutheran liturgy—only to realize that he was simply mouthing words that meant nothing to him (and which, when he reflected on their meaning, he didn't believe).

My mother, by contrast, was bitter about her fundamentalist upbringing and so spoke about it quite a bit. If she had a faith, it was in the worth and dignity of all people regardless of their religion. If she had a doctrine, it was this: If there is a God, that God wouldn’t give a damn what religion you are and certainly wouldn’t condemn you to hell for being raised in the wrong faith tradition...or for failing to convert to the right one when you encounter it (even though its being the right one is obvious only to those who happened to be raised in it).

I can’t count how many times my mother said to me growing up, “If I’d been raised a Jew, I’d be a Jew today. If I’d been raised a Hindu, I’d be a Hindu today.” And I’d snidely think to myself, “Then why aren’t you a fundamentalist Baptist today?”

Of course, her mantra was precisely intended to explain why she was no longer a fundamentalist Baptist: The faith of her childhood taught that those who had not explicitly accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior would suffer eternal hell after death. My mother’s point was that which beliefs seem reasonable to you will be largely a matter of upbringing. Someone raised Muslim would be as likely to believe that salvation depends on accepting Jesus as Lord as someone raised Christian would be to embrace the Koran as the inerrant revelation of God.

On this basis, my mother came to the realization that if salvation does depend on explicitly accepting Jesus as Lord, whether you're saved will be largely a function of how you were raised. My mother—quite rightly—found this implication intolerable. When my grandfather, a baptist minister, relocated the family from Norway to California in pursuit of a vision of joining an American evangelist in leading a great religious awakening in the United States (didn't happen), my mother found herself in the vibrant artistic and intellectual climate of the Bay Area. Other faiths took on human faces, faces that my mother could not in good conscience condemn to hell. Nor could she work up any enthusiasm for trying to convert them to Christianity. After all, what reasons could she give that would sound any more convincing to them than an argument for converting to Islam would sound to her?

And so, instead, her natural curiosity and open-mindedness inspired her to respond to people of other faiths in a different way--by seeking to learn about their beliefs and traditions. And the more she learned, the more wonderful she found all of that diversity to be. She became appalled by any worldview that would cast a negative judgment on such diversity. She condemned all religious exclusivism. She became a respecter of all faith traditions...but a believer in none.

I remember, once, telling my mother that in order to have a rainbow, you need to have discrete bands of color. And in order to have religious diversity, you need people who are committed to a particular faith--that is, people who really believe what their religion teaches. And to the extent that one's religious teachings conflict with those of other faiths, to believe in one's own religious teachings is to believe that the opposed teachings are mistaken. "What you value," I told her, "depends on there being people who are exclusivists. Take that away, and it's like the kid who starts a painting with all the colors of the rainbow but keeps blending the colors together. Eventually it's all just a uniform brown."

When I got more philosophically sophisticated, I diagnosed my mother's error in terms of a distinction between soteriological exclusivism and what might be called doctrinal exclusivism. The former refers to the view that was rampant in the fundamentalist world of my mother's childhood: the view that salvation only comes through one particular faith. Fail to follow the path laid out by that religion...and you are doomed. The latter refers to the belief that one's own religion has a unique claim on the truth--that other religions, insofar as their teachings differ from one's own, are in error. The point I wanted to make was that while the existence of the religious diversity my mother so valued did not require soteriological exclusivism, it did require doctrinal exclusivism. Furthermore, my mother's objections to exclusivism were really targeting the soterliological kind, and didn't have any clear implications with respect to doctrinal exclusivism.

I don't think I ever tried to make this argument to my mother in such technical terms, but in whatever form I did make it, she wasn't impressed. What did impress her (far more than my kid-painting-a-rainbow analogy) was the Hindu parable of the blind men who encounter an elephant. One touches the elephant's side and declares, "It's like a wall!" One grasps the trunk and says, "No, it's like a snake!" Another takes hold of a leg and announces, "No, it's like a tree trunk." Still another grasps the tail and says, "It's like a rope."

(I have a cartoon clipping that used to hang on my office door, of four bindfolded men touching a strange construct--a wall standing on tree stumps, with a snake coiling over one end and a rope hanging from the other. All the men agree that it's an elephant.)

Now this parable captures, in a narrative way, not only my mother's view of religious diversity but also the religious pluralism of John Hick. In its briefest form, Hick sees world religions as culturally situated interpretations of  "the noumenal Real" that transcends our conceptual and empirical grasp. As Hick sees it, all religions, "at their experiential roots," are "in contact with the same ultimate reality, but that their differing experiences of that reality, interacting over the centuries with the different thought-forms of different cultures, have led to increasing differentiation and contrasting elaboration..."

For Hick, the divine, as infinite, "transcends the grasp of the human mind." As such, "the God whom our minds can penetrate and whom our thoughts can circumnavigate is merely a finite and partial image of God." Culture and historical setting influence what aspects of this infinite reality one can connect with. In Hick's words, encounters with the same divine reality "from different historical and cultural standpoints" will produce "differently focused awareness of the reality."

More significantly, the language we use to make sense of our encounters with the transcendent will be in terms of concepts and images that our culture makes available, and which are at best metaphors for the reality we are attempting to make sense of. As such, religious teachings--in the manner of metaphors--will only gesture towards truths that they cannot literally describe.

In sum, then, our cultural context provides us with mataphors for understanding and making sense of divine self-disclosures, and it also impacts which features of the manifold mystery of the divine that we are prepared to encounter and grasp (even in a finite, metaphorical way). Put in terms of the Hindu parable, our culture determines both what part of the elephant we are likely to touch and what metaphor we use to describe it.

If we can recognize our religious language as metaphorical--and if we can learn to understand the very different metaphors of alien cultures--then diverse religions can begin to appriate the insights offered by other religions, leading us towards a truer and more complete understanding of the divine. Put in terms of the Hindu parable, if the blind men come to see that "wall" and "snake" and "tree trunk" and "rope" are metaphors for something that is none of these things--and if they can realize that these metaphors may actually be about different aspects of the underlying reality they've come in contact with--then they can begin to construct a more complete picture of what they've eoncountered. At first, that picture may be a bit like the one in my cartoon: the metaphors mashed together into a strange construction. But, perhaps, if the metaphorical nature of the language is kept firmly in mind, a more elephant-like understanding will eventually emerge.

One of the things about this "Hickian" pluralism is that it does provide a framework for respecting and valuing religious diversity--a framework that does not require that adherents to various religions be exclusivists in any sense. In fact, exclusivism may actually block religious diversity from achieving the good that it is uniquely suited to achieve, namely, supplementing the limitations of each isolated religion. And so, in a sense, Hick's pluralism succeeds in undermining my kid-painting-a-rainbow analogy. My mother was right not to be impressed.

But, of course, much religion is explicitly exclusivist. Furthermore, much religion sees its teachings as more than just metaphorical. And so, if Hick is right about the nature of religion, then it is not the case that every religion deserves equal respect. Hick himself addresses the value of individual religions in pragmatic terms. In his view, the purpose of religion is to bring us into a kind of lived alignment with the ultimate reality, moving us out of a self-centered and towards a "Reality-centered" existence. That is, we live out lives with a sense of attunement and at-one-ness with the whole...what I am tempted to call a moral existence (and which is nicely captured in the quote from Simone Weil that serves as part of the header for this blog).

Not every religion bears such pragmatic fruits, and this provides Hick with a standard for critically assessing religion despite his embrace of diversity. Likewise, his commitment to the partial and metaphorical nature of every concrete religious understanding gives him a basis for critiquing religious communities that claim exclusive access to a satisfactory, non-metaphorical vision of the divine reality. Such communities are, in Hick's view, deluding themselves.

Now, my mother is clearly a Hickian pluralist. If she has a religion, that would be it. Am I a Hickian pluralist? Not quite. Instead, I think it's better say I'm a kind of Hegelian pluralist--a perspective which I sketch out, for example, in this post. And I'm not sold on Hick's tendency to view all religious language as metaphorical. I worry about the implications of casting too heavy a shroud of mystery over the divine, for reason I've gestured to here. And while I respect and admire many other faiths, I've preserved this much from my kid-painting-a-rainbow analogy: To have a rainbow, you need fields of different colors. If everyone were like my mother--a respecter of diverse religions but an adherent to none--there'd be no religions to respect.

And I love religion too much to stand outside the rainbow. To be part of the rainbow, you need to fall somewhere in the spectrum of colors. And Christianity sings to my soul.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Most Perfect Holiday Gift Idea EVER

Have you been wondering what to get for that hard-to-shop-for person on your Christmas shopping list? Have you been wrestling with finding the right balance between the commercialism of popular culture (not to mention the consumerist expectations of your relatives) and the true spiritual meaning of Christmas?

Then I have the perfect suggestion! My book, Is God a Delusion?, isn’t merely a wonderful choice for the God Delusion-toting atheist in your family who rolls his eyes and snorts derisively when you start to read Luke 2: 1-20 at the Christmas dinner table. In addition to its obvious spiritual value, Is God a Delusion? is an ideal stocking stuffer for literally anyone on your shopping list. It’s suitable for infants (who enjoy chewing on and slobbering over the pages), preschoolers (who will delight in the rainbow corona image on the cover), teens (who can trade them with classmates after school, trying to acquire the most pristine copy), and adults (who can perch copies strategically on coffee tables and appear to be “cultured” as they tell visitors, “It was named an Outstanding Academic Title of 2009”).

In fact, it is such a perfect gift that you might as well just order multiple copies and so have all your Christmas shopping done with one easy order at any of these convenient online vendors: the usual one, the other usual one, and the publisher.

(And if you have no money to buy Christmas presents, then make my book the number one thing on you own wish list, being sure to badger your parents/grandparents/wealthy aunt repeatedly so you are sure to get one of the elegant hardbacks under your tree this year!)

But supplies are limited, so hurry! Order today, before this truly ideal gift opportunity disappears!

Either that, or you could go to Alternative Gifts International and make a donation on behalf of those on your holiday shopping list to help alleviate human suffering and advance the quality of life around the world.

(Seriously, if you haven't heard of Alternative Gifts--or Heifer International, which offers a similar concept of charitable gift-giving but focuses on supplying dairy cows to families in poor communities--then I highly recommend that you not only check it out but let others know about it. If you really want to offer a spiritually meaningful holiday gift in our consumerist culture, give to those who have enough a donation in their name to those who don't.)

(Last year, we gave my son the alternative gift of helping to rescue a child from slavery--and he STILL mentions it. He's completely forgotten about the toys.)

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A Question for My Readers

I'm still swamped with the task of reviewing dossiers for an entry level position in our department, trying to sift through hundreds of qualified candidates (grateful that I'm not on the job market right now). On top of that, I now have final term papers pouring in. Hence, blogging is taking a bit of a back seat.

But there is a question I've been thinking about recently, and it seems a fitting one to ask on this blog--since it has to do with the blog. The other day, my friend and co-author made the observation that there seem to be an inordinate number of atheists and agnostics (and other kinds of secularists) who comment on my blog--by which he meant, I think, that a higher proportion of secularists comment on my blog than on comparable blogs.

Now his experience here is clearly anecdotal, and I certainly haven't conducted a systematic study on the proportions of secular to religious commenters on blogs like my own (nor do I know of any such study--or who would fund one). So I can't say whether his observation is accurate. In fact, it's hard even to say what is being asserted here until we have some sense of what counts as a comparable blog. That is, what is the broader class of blogs against which the comparison is being made? So-called "biblioblogs"? Philosophy of religion blogs that are sympathetic to religion and theism? Progressive religious blogs? The class specified by the overlap of these?

But whatever we're to make of the comparative claim, it certainly is true that (at least in the blog's recent history) there are at least as many comments coming from secular visitors to the blog as there are from more religious visitors (and, arguably, more from the former). I don't know if this is representative of the readership of the blog, since there clearly are far more readers than there are readers who comment. It may be that readers who agree with me are simply less prone to post comments (unlike PZ Myers' readers, where the reverse seems to be the case). It may also be that this pattern is a function of the small number of regular commenters (if only a handful post comments on a regular basis, then the fact that half of them are secular may be a kind of accident).

But still, my friend's observation got me wondering why the regular followers of this blog are here--especially the secular followers who comment regularly, but not only them. So, I throw it out to you: If you read and/or comment on this blog on a regular basis, why? With thousands of blogs to out there, what brought you to this one, and what made you stick around (especially once you figured out that I have a tendency to write REALLY long posts)? Are you here to blunt the impact of my message with telling critiques, because you worry that unwary readers may actually be convinced by my misguided views unless they are properly opposed? Are you here because I try address issues of religion and faith without demonizing or belittling those who disagree with my position? Or is it something else?

I'm also interested to hear from the "silent followers" who don't usually comment--in part because, as I've learned from years of teaching, if you can inspire a student who is generally quiet to talk in class, they're more likely to do it again.