Saturday, January 29, 2011

From the Archives: Reflections on the Symbols of Faith: A Case Involving the Sikh Kirpan

While lecturing this past week, I found myself drawing examples from some of my experiences while I was in India, back when I was 19. That reminded me of this post from a couple of years ago. Enjoy!

Last month, a former IRS revenue agent, Kawaljeet Kaur Tagore, sued the IRS for wrongful termination. The story caught my attention because of why she was fired. They fired her because she was ordered to remove her kirpan, a symbolic item that--as a baptized Sikh--she’s required to wear at all times along with four other symbols of her faith. She refused, and so lost her job.

Although the original kirpans were full-length swords, the typical kirpan today resembles a small sheathed knife, its blade blunt since it’s meant to be symbolic rather than functional. Despite the fact that the office building where she worked was replete with scissors and box cutters that could do far more damage that a blunt kirpan, the object was treated as a weapon and judged inappropriate at the workplace.

This case is one among many similar cases—including a recent case in Denmark, in which a young Sikh was fined for violating the Danish weapons ban. The case interests me in part on a professional level, for the issues it raises about freedom of religion. But I’m also interested in it for more personal reasons.

When I was a sophomore in college, I took a semester off to go to India with my family. My father was traveling there on a Fulbright—to work at the Indian School of Mines in Dhanbad, Bihar—and the rest of the family decided he wouldn’t go without us. And so we all ended up in an out-of-the-way mining town. Since the place wasn't exactly a tourist destination, we were something of a novelty (my mother's pale blue eyes often inspired astonished stares).

The president of the school was a Sikh with a daughter my sister’s age, and so we were often at their house. It was one of the few places where we watched American movies on TV, since they had a VCR. Other Sikh faculty invited us for tea in their homes. One in particular invited us to attend a Sikh service at the Gurdwara (a Sikh place of worship).

It was at the Gurdwara that I met Raju, a young Sikh my age. Raju became my best friend while I was India. He was a frequent visitor at the guest house where we stayed, and I was at his home a number of times (a modest place with two main rooms, a kitchen area, and a larger courtyard where many in the extended family slept). The family ran a small kiosk where you could buy everyday items such as soap and packaged cheese. I saw much of Dhanbad riding on the back of Raju’s light blue scooter, which he was expert at steering through streets crowded with rickshaws and cows, pedestrians and black Ambassador cars.

Somewhere there’s a photo of me wearing a turban wrapped in Sikh style. Raju put it on me after he unraveled it from his own head. This was something he did in order to show me the comb that he wore in his hair as well as the hair itself, a long coil that had never been cut. The unshorn hair and the comb are two of the five articles of faith, or “kakars,” that “baptized” Sikhs (that is, Sikhs who’ve been through the commitment ceremony of Amrit) are required to maintain on their person at all times. The other three are loose-fitting undergarments, a steel bracelet, and the kirpan.

Each of these items has symbolic significance for Sikhs, and Raju was patient enough to explain each to me while we sat in my little room at the guest house. The unshorn hair, or kesh, represents a commitment to respect God’s creation as God created it—that is, not to tamper with God’s intentions for the world. It also represents a guard against one of the five vices that Sikhs are committed to resisting in their lives: the vice of “ego.” Ego encompasses vanity. Vanity, an excessive interest in one’s own appearance, is really one manifestation of a broader fixation on self. As I understand it, kesh pretty much blocks any impulse you might have to fuss over your hair, and thus reminds the Sikh of the broader obligation to set aside any sort of undue fixation on oneself, and to give oneself over to God.

The comb, or kanga, is used to untangle the hair and maintain it, and as such is a reminder not only to maintain cleanliness but more broadly to preserve the hygiene and health of the body one has been given—that is, to take care of what God has given you. Also, as one combs through the length of one’s hair (usually twice a day) dead hairs fall away. This can serve as a reminder that this mortal life is a passing thing, and so can help to guard against another of the five vices: a false attachment to the impermanent things of this world.

The undergarments, or kacchera, are a symbol of modesty, but more broadly of the commitment to resist unseemly desires, especially the vice of lust, and to exhibit self-control.

The steel bracelet, or kara, is the symbolic item that the Sikh is most likely to see most often through the day. Worn on the right wrist, it is a sign of the unbreakable bond between oneself and God, and among one another, and to the Guru. It also serves as a visible reminder that one’s hands should be put to good purpose. Since one steals with one’s hand, it is a broad symbol to resist the vice of greed.

And finally, there’s the kirpan, the ceremonial sword that’s usually today little more than a blunted knife kept in a sheath. A typical pair of scissors would be a more dangerous weapon than your typical kirpan. It symbolizes the Sikh’s commitment to standing up for justice, defending the weak, and more metaphorically to struggle for what is right and good and to resist vice. The kirpan is never to be drawn in anger, and is in fact intended to symbolize the need to resist the vice of anger. We are, after all, dangerous when we’re angry. The blade stays in the sheath just as our anger stays under control. If the kirpan is drawn at all, it is in defense of oneself or another (although I doubt the symbolic kirpan would be much help in either case).

These are the five symbols of faith that Raju showed to me. I don’t remember the exact words that he used to describe them. My own descriptions above draw not only on what Raju told me that first time, but also on my own reading about Sikhism in the decades since. As such, whatever misreprentation of Sikhism my descriptions express are my own—an attempt by a non-Sikh to explain the significance of these holy symbols.

As Raju led me through the five kakars, what I remember more clearly than his words was the reverence in his tone. He became very solemn as he spoke of them, and the earnest expression in his eyes was a testament to how deeply meaningful they were. They were an integral part of his identity, symbolic tokens of what he aspired to be, of his connection to a broader community and to God. Wearing them was not just an act of obedience, a response to the mandate of Guru Gobind Singh, the last of the ten Sikh Gurus and the one who called upon all baptized Sikhs to wear each article of faith. For Raju, wearing them was a matter of honor and a gesture of daily devotion.

There is little in my life that I can compare the five kakars to. The closest I can come is the Advent wreath, with its four candles for each Sunday in Advent (Norwegian Advents wreaths have only the four; although the more common Advent wreath has five). Each candle symbolically represents an important Christian virtue (peace, hope, love, joy), and it has always meant a lot to me to take time every Sunday in Advent to light the candles, and to recite the Norwegian poem that names each of the virtues in turn (in that poem, “lengsel” or yearning takes the place of love, but I have always understood it to refer to the yearning of the soul for God, the questing love that reaches out to the God who is love).

That weekly Advent ritual may be the most deeply religious and personally affecting ritual I participate in. It moves me. The act of lighting each candle, one more every week, and speaking the words of the poem (one additional verse every week), puts me in touch with my best self, that part of me that stands in an existential relation with God.

But that ritual and its symbolism are isolated to one month every year. It isn’t a daily ritual. The symbols are not ever-present, every day of one’s life, on one’s very person. I can only imagine the kind of power such symbolism has, the power to penetrate one’s deepest sense of who one is.

I saw it, however fleetingly, in Raju’s eyes as he showed me each symbol in turn, and explained to me what it meant. And then, in typical Raju fashion, he turned to me, saw his unraveled turban—and then laughed as he began wrapping it around my head. And then we went in to show my parents, who ran off to get the camera.

It’s in the light of this memory that I think about a Sikh woman being told she must either relinquish her kirpan or lose her job. I remember Raju’s earnest eyes and the tender, trembling fingers as he held up each token of his faith. I do not think that any of us can adequately assess this case without at least attempting to understand the reverent significance that the five kakars have for a sincere Sikh.

As I read some of the blogging about this case, I was struck by the almost cavalier way in which the woman’s complaint was dismissed. A common comment was something of the form, “If it’s just a symbol, why not just wear a lapel pin?” The best I can do, in response to this quip, is to liken it to someone who prohibits me from lighting my Advent wreath and then quips, “If it’s just a symbol, why not just turn on some electric bulbs?”

The power of a symbol, its psychological impact, depends in part on what it’s like. A candle that one lights with a match has a different symbolic resonance than an electric bulb. Something that can be drawn from a sheath and hefted in one’s hand has a different symbolic resonance than a bit of tin pinned to one’s clothes. And when a ritual practice works its way into your sinews through daily repetition, when the objects implicated in the ritual resemble those that were used by others long ago and far away, forging connections and community across time and space, it’s not a simple matter to trade out one ritual token for another.

I do not know enough about the IRS case, about Ms. Tagore’s unique circumstances or the requirements of her job, to make any sort of definitive judgment on this particular case. Some bloggers have pointed out that revenue agents need to visit businesses and private homes in the course of their work, and that what looks like a knife at one’s hip may create ongoing difficulties for carrying out work responsibilities. There may be safety concerns that I don’t know anything about.

But what I do know is this: We cannot evaluate this case or similar cases without an empathetic understanding of what the kirpan means to the sincere Sikh. I have Raju, and the memory of his reverent posture and solemn words, to remind me of that.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Blog Neglect

Some may have noticed that I've been neglecting this blog a bit for the last few weeks. I'm afraid this will continue for a little while longer. In addition to all the final revising, editing, and footnoting of the manuscript for That Damned Book, which is due at the publisher at the end of February, I am also part of an interdisciplinary panel at the AAAS convention in mid-February which I have to prepare for (I'll be addressing the panel question, "If our way of life is unsustainable, what must change?" from the standpoint of my work in business ethics, environmental ethics, and pragmatism) . On top of this I'll be traveling to be with my family while my father has major surgery (and, assuming that goes well, giving a talk at my alma mater).

All of this rolling in at once has meant that several blog posts I've been inspired to write have had to be set aside so I could focus on these more urgent projects.

Fortunately there is an ETA for the end of blog neglect, namely March 1 (assuming the manuscript is in on time). In the meantime, I will occasionally repost essays from the archives that relate to ongoing discussions. I may also, on occasion, throw up something short. But I won't be able to participate in the subsequent discussions until March.

But that doesn't mean you can't...

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

From the Archives: Baby's Big Adventure

Two years ago today, Maxwell Luther King Hussein Reitan (a dog) joined our family. In honor of his "birthday," I feature a reprise of "Baby's Big Adventure," a blog post in which Max plays a pivotal role. Enjoy!

I recently mentioned to my wife, Ty, that our new dog Max is kind of like Buddhist meditation on legs. When I said it, I was thinking about how I’m drawn into the present moment when he plunks his big black head on my lap. My usually racing mind stills itself, and for a little while I’m existing in the Now, just experiencing the presence of this furry Other. Worries and preoccupations fade away, and I get some inkling of what Buddhists mean when they talk about “mindfulness.”

But a couple of weeks ago, Max helped to give us all a different lesson, an “ethico-religious” lesson about responding to change and loss. With the help of Max and some good friends, we were all reminded of how minor tragedies can be transformed into something lovely and delightful.

You see, Max decided to turn Izzie’s home-made baby-doll, Baby, into a chew toy. He gnawed off her hair and punched some holes into the fabric on the side of her head.

This wasn’t wholly surprising, given Max’s penchant for chewing on things. It took us awhile to figure out that he wasn’t limiting himself to what we’d inadvertently left lying around on the floor. He was actually lifting the lid of Izzie’s toy box to extract what he wanted from inside. Since joining our family, Max has helped himself in this way to a number of toys. But chomping on Baby was more serious than some of his other offenses. To understand its full significance, a bit of history is required.

A couple of years ago, when Izzie was still a few months shy of her first birthday, we spent a weekend with friends at a rented cabin in an Arkansas forest. It was a wonderful occasion in which we had the chance to connect with old friends, walk in the woods, eat good food, and watch our children play together.

One of our friends, Leslie, brought everything that was needed to make cloth baby dolls. While my wife and a few others struggled to create baby dolls, Leslie made several, including one for Izzie. The result was Baby. It was the first doll Izzie ever became attached to, and it remains her favorite—although it was temporarily dethroned by a plastic Tinkerbell.

Incidentally, Max also chewed enthusiastically on Tinkerbell a few days after going to town on Baby’s scalp. We considered attaching a hook in place of Tink’s gnawed-off hand, but decided instead to buy surreptitiously a replacement. We didn’t want Izzie to start thinking of Max as The Favorite Doll Killer.

But Baby couldn’t be replaced so easily. It isn’t hard to imagine the sentimental value that all of us attached to this little doll made of brown cloth and black yarn. And it’s not hard to imagine how we felt when we came home to learn that Baby, of all Izzie’s toys, had become the target of Max’s separation-anxiety-induced destructiveness.

It would’ve been easy to turn on the poor dog in outrage, or to see the doll’s destruction as the severing of a thread linking us to Izzie’s infancy. We might have looked at this little girl who was growing up so fast, who was no longer even a toddler anymore. We might have noted how quickly it was all going by, vanishing into a past that could never be reclaimed. And we might have attached all those feelings to this object of sentimental memory, now wet with dog slobber.

And I suppose, for a little while, we did all of those things. But then my wife picked up the phone, and she called her friend Leslie, Baby's creator.

Leslie promptly offered to try to stitch up the puncture wounds and make Baby a new head of hair. But the offer wasn’t really about restoring what was lost. It was about embarking on a new journey. And a journey is precisely what it became—a journey in which all of us participated, if only vicariously.

It began with a trip to the post office. Ty took Izzie with her, and together they sent Baby off to “the doll hospital.” And by a coincidence of timing, Baby arrived at Leslie’s just as she and her family were about to leave town for spring break. And so Baby went along.

And that’s when the photos started to arrive. At first it was a bald-headed Baby, unrepaired and ready for a trip to New Orleans. Then it was Baby in front Graceland. At some point Baby got a new head of hair, longer than it had been before. And so, by the time we received the pictures of Baby in Mississippi and Louisiana, she was a new doll. In some of the pictures she began sporting new outfits that Leslie had made for her.

There were pictures of Baby posing with Leslie or her daughter--or, in one case, with another doll.

And then at last we got the message that Baby was on her way home. On the day that she arrived, Izzie squealed with delight. We opened the box and took out a baby doll who was now sporting pig tails (her old hair had been short) and a new pair of flannel jammies. Izzie joyously swept the doll into her embrace while Ty read the “discharge papers,” which instructed us on follow-up care to ensure a full recovery (the most significant instruction being to keep Baby away from the dog).

In many ways, Baby’s journey isn’t very important, especially in a world where there are children who go to bed without food. But it is a story which carries with it some lessons that are less than trivial. One of those lessons is this: Had Max not chewed off Baby’s hair, Baby would never have been shipped off to Leslie. The gestures of friendship that followed wouldn’t have happened. And Baby’s wonderful journey, photographed for our delight, wouldn’t now be a part of our lives.

This is not to say that the destruction of a sentimental toy isn’t bad. What it means is that through creativity and humor and love, people were able to make this bad thing into part of a bigger story. Baby’s unfortunate encounter with Max became an integral part of something good, something that gave meaning to what might in a different context have been nothing but an unfortunate loss.

It matters what we do with the events that occur to us. The stories we jointly weave around those events can turn a minor tragedy into one episode in a lovely tale of friendship. But the stories we weave can also turn a minor tragedy into the start of something far worse, a deeper tragedy defined by hostility and regret. The latter is more likely when we cling to the past and won’t move on, when we won’t accept the finitude of things and refuse to journey into the unknown future.

Change is inevitable. Loss is inevitable. We cannot freeze things in place. Dolls will be destroyed. Relationships will end. Friends and loved ones will die. These realities are among the pieces from which we build a life. And the choices we make about what kind of life we’ll build do not just affect our own story. We also impact other lives and life stories, just as they do our own.

We don’t tell the story all by ourselves. We can’t control its course. We can only make choices about what we’ll do with the pieces that fall before us, and then wait to see what falls before us next. The challenge is to focus on building the best life we can out of the pieces that tumble into our path, and to help others do the same.

As soon as we say, “I need to acquire these pieces or the story is ruined,” we’re in trouble. That’s when we resent the pieces that tumble in our path rather than doing the best that we can with them. As soon as we say, “All these pieces need to stay in place or the story’s ruined,” we’re in trouble. Some losses are horrible, and it may well be that part of building a good life is treasuring those pieces that are most precious and preserving them from loss as best we can. But we can’t control the story. Loss is inevitable. And when loss happens, even bitter loss, we have to decide what to do, what story to build around that loss…and then strive to build the best story we can.

It’s easier to do that, and do it well, when the loss is relatively minor, when it’s a doll that’s been chomped on by a dog. But it’s by doing it well in such cases, when the loss is small, that we develop the habits of character that will carry us through the more brutal losses, the times when we confront in all its dark terror the finitude of this life.

All of this can be said without any reference to God or the transcendent. I suspect that secular humanists and die-hard naturalists will agree with the wisdom of striving in this life to make the best of what comes without trying to control what comes, to achieve that balance between accountability for ourselves and acceptance of what is beyond our control—in short, the wisdom embodied in Reinhold Niebuhr’s extraordinary Serenity Prayer, which has been embraced by twelve step programs around the world.

But it’s hard, this task of taking responsibility for how we engage with the world while letting go of the outcome. Nobody does it perfectly, especially in the hard times, no matter how much we practice when the stakes are less high. When the finitude of this life slaps us in the face, and we confront in an unfettered way own limits and the limits of everyone and everything we hold dear, it is easy for some of us to allow a pretense of indifference to replace acceptance, and for recklessness to replace responsibility. For others, it is easy for angry defiance to reign, inspiring a futile effort to take control of the world, to defeat the inescapable boundaries of our existence.

And so, it may be that what we most need to practice when the stakes are less high, what we most need to learn from hapless dogs and shredded toys, is how not to be afraid of finitude. And one antidote to this fear, perhaps the only true antidote, is what Friedrich Schleiermacher called “the intuition of the Infinite in the finite”—that is, the sense that beyond our limits, instead of finding Barth’s dark and terrible “Das Nichtige,” the Nothingness, we will find instead a boundless Yes.

To trust this sense, despite the impossibility of proving that it is veridical, is the essence of religious faith as I understand it. It is to decide to live in the hope that this boundless Yes we sense in fleeting whispers is not an illusion, not a mere projection of our desires.

Sometimes our capacity for such faith is strengthened by the smaller but important yeses that come from our friends, perhaps in a series of photographs. Or in an affable dog who, despite a penchant for chewing up toys, can lift you out of yourself with the weight of his head on your lap. Or in a doll that is suddenly sporting a new pair of pig tails.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Martin Luther King Day Reflection

It is easy from the distance of history to sanitize Martin Luther King, to treat his words as platitudes and his legacy as something that happened years ago—rather than something that continues to challenge us today. It is easy to stand on the smug side of history, to focus only on those parts of King’s message and mission that were controversial in his day, and to ignore those parts that remain controversial today.

Today, most of us look back at segregation and agree that it was an injustice, an objective wrong perpetrated systemically against a class of people. We look back at the Civil Rights Movement and nod in approval, projecting ourselves onto the side of those who took a courageous and principled stand against the social forces that marginalized, disempowered, and disenfranchised. We forget that in every society and every generation, there are social forces that perpetuate injustice. And just as there were many supporters of Jim Crow—some who just took it for granted, others who passionately defended it as right and just—so too are there defenders of the forces that perpetuate injustice today.

It doesn’t take courage to look into the past and side vicariously with the heroes who fought against what, in today’s mainstream, everyone agrees was unjust. It doesn’t take vision to agree with the mainstream view of justice. What King and the civil rights activists did, however, was courageous and visionary—because at the time they had the courage to stand up (or sit down) and say no to practices that were vigorously defended as right and good. They had the vision to discern the moral truth behind the controversy, and the eloquence to express with prophetic clarity this truth.

When we consider King’s legacy, we honor him the most by striving to emulate in our own lives some part of the courage, vision, and eloquence that he embodied. In other words, rather than pronounce sagely that Jim Crow was wrong and declare King a hero for standing up to it, we should turn our attention to our own time, our own communities, and strive to discern what is being done now that is unjust, what social forces today perpetuate human marginalization, disempowerment, and disenfranchisement. We should strive to have the courage to stand up (or sit down) in support of those today whose dignity has been battered, whose life prospects have been diminished, by the patterns and systems that define our own age. And we should know that in so doing, many will sincerely declare that we are wrong, that we are the ones who are threatening what is right and good, that we are the villains of the story and not the heroes.

Towards the end of his too-short life, King was focused not on segregation but on what he took to be another systemic problem: poverty. The Poor People’s Campaign was born out of the conviction that economic realities undermine human dignity and welfare as surely as segregation. And King believed that poverty was not the result of individual failings that could therefore be solved by individual generosity. He saw poverty as a systemic problem, that is, as a consequence of our economic and social arrangements. While he clearly distanced himself from communism, he was not afraid to stress what he took to be right about socialist and communist ideas. In so doing, he found himself confronting a struggle far more difficult, in many ways, than his battle against segregation.

Unlike segregation, in which the defenders have faded into obscurity, the controversy over the meaning of poverty, its causes, and the scope of our collective obligation to alleviate it, remains as divisive and unsettled today as it was in King’s day. But it is clear that honoring King’s legacy requires that we wrestle with these kinds of unsettled controversies, in which our own embeddedness in the system can obscure the clarity we often enjoy from the vantage point of history, in which taking a stand isn’t easy because there will be many—neighbors, friends, and family—who are as convinced that they are right and we are wrong as we are convinced of the reverse.

It was King’s awareness of this feature of social conflict and social change that helped confirm his commitment to nonviolence, to loving the opponent, to holding fast to the idea that the opponent is just as sincere in their beliefs, just as motivated by a sense of moral purpose. King knew that in social conflict, the enemy was injustice, not the persons whose activities and convictions perpetuate it. And so, like Gandhi who helped to inspire him, King held fast to the idea that the civil rights movement should rely on means of social change that would only ultimately succeed to the extent that truth was on the movement’s side—means of change that would be responsive to truths that might be embodied in the opposition.

This is the notion that President Obama was advocating in his speech last week, as he reflected on the horrible tragedy in Arizona. In Obama’s words, “But at a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized—at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do—it's important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.”

This is a message—a message worthy of King—that forces me to reflect on my own choices, on my own ways of struggling for what I believe is right and just. I hope that all of us, on this Martin Luther King Day, will treat King not merely as a cherished relic from the past but as a living challenge—a challenge to cultivate courage and vision, to pursue our sincere understanding of what is best with an openness and responsiveness to the humanity of our opponents and the truths which they might speak.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Politician's Beatitudes

Blessed are those who act to preserve the privileges of the rich, for they shall receive substantial campaign contributions.

Blessed are those who swallow back tears at strategic moments only to quickly compose themselves again, for they shall be regarded as having a sensitive side but still be seen as strong, thereby being judged more trustworthy by the electorate (unless they’re women, in which case they risk being seen as dangerously emotional).

Blessed are the aggressive, since negative campaigning has proven time and again to work even though the electorate complains about it.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for prestige and influence while pretending to care primarily about serving the public, for they will gain levels of political influence that those motivated more by a spirit of public service than ambition can only dream of.

Blessed are the merciless, because they’ll ruin the political credibility of their opponent before their opponent does the same to them.

Blessed are those who can look earnestly into the camera and sound really sincere as they say things like “God bless the United States of America,” for they will win the heartland.

Blessed are the warmongers, at least if they can properly time their war-related popularity surge to an election cycle.

Blessed are those who can spin their political opponent’s attack ads as persecution for righteousness’s sake, for they can engage in an underhanded attack on their political opponent while appearing as if they are standing against negative campaigning—thereby both enjoying the benefits of a negative campaign and enjoying the benefits of pandering to the public’s theoretic opposition to negative campaigns.

Blessed are those who, in moments of moral integrity, defy this cynical list of political beatitudes and act from a sense of authentic justice, compassion, or moral purpose—for although they might not get reelected, they may actually find true fullfilment in the lives they lead after leaving public office.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

In the Crosshairs

A short while ago, Arizona Representative Gabrielle Giffords was having a public meeting with constituents outside a grocery store in Arizona when a shooter opened fire. A federal judge, a nine year old child, and several others were killed. Many others lie in critical condition, including Giffords, who was shot in the head.

The shooter was 22 years old.

We can't know (yet, at least) what was going through his head. That said, it is past time for American political pundits to rethink their political rhetoric. Take, as an example, Sarah Palin's rhetoric. I've expressed before on this blog my unhappiness with its pugilistic character, but her recent "crosshairs" campaign has now taken on a terrible new meaning. Gabrielle Giffords was #4 in the crosshairs.

While Palin clearly and absolutely did not intend this to be taken literally, the belligerence of the metaphor has a dark and disturbing potency. At the very least, it has the power to interfere with efforts to promote greater civility and mutual respect in our political discourse; at worst, it contributes to an increasingly polarized and bellicose culture.

When the Arizona governor, Jan Brewer, went on the air to talk about the tragedy, she had to stop to compose herself--because Gabby Giffords was a close friend. The governor is a Republican. Giffords is a Democrat. Partisan affiliations needn't imply animosity.

But more and more, the public discourse is being shaped by the most polarized and polarizing voices. The public hunger for civility and the personal friendships across party lines, while real and pervasive, are increasingly subsumed under a culture of bellicosity. That is, we collectively think of our nation as trapped in a zero-sum struggle between two radically opposed groups, rather than as a nation in which people with different ideas about what is best for the country can sit down and reach workable compromises and even, sometimes, consensus agreements based on shared values.

Such a culture of bellicosity usually doesn't inspire overt violence. But some are psychologically vulnerable, prone towards the extreme bifurcating ideologies exemplified in racism and religionism; and some of those are damaged or despairing enough to look for meaning in an act of brutal violence.

In such cases, when influential figures use their platforms to villify or even demonize public servants for their votes or views on the best direction to take the country, the wrong words at the wrong time can be a trigger.

Those in positions of leadership, those who are looked up to as role models, those who enjoy the media limelight and a national audience, have a special responsibility to choose their words with care: words that encourage civility and respect in the face of disagreements, rather than words which invite viewing politics as war and political candidates as targets to be taken out.

And when those in such positions of influence make a profoundly poor choice, they should apologize without qualification or rationalization.

Perhaps in a tweet.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Science and Religion and the Science of Religion

Readers of this blog may be interested in some recent online essays pertaining to the scientific study of religion and its significance. The Guardian's online blog, Comment is Free, has launched a new series of essays on the question, "Is there a God instinct?", and the inaugural post in the series is by atheist psychologist Jesse Bering--who articulates a variant of the atheist argument (promulgated in different ways by Dawkins and Dennett) that belief in God can be explained away by the evolutionary adaptiveness of a propensity to believe in supernatural agency.

In an essay replying to Bering in the Guardian, evolutionary biologist Denis Alexander offers a concise response from the standpoint of his own discipline, while Arni Zachariassen, at I Think I Believe, provides a thoughtful theological response in which, among other things, he makes the following points:

(Bering) says that there are "simply no good scientific reason[s]" for theism. Well, of course there aren't! Science brackets out the question of God as a matter of principle and method, and so plainly and simply doesn't address the question, this way or the other...(T)he simple fact that we have evolved certain biases towards seeing reality as being a certain way does not necessarily mean that reality is not that way. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't. Science will not settle that question for us. Bering's research, as interesting as it is (and it is! Very!), says something about human brains, not God's existence or the validity of religious truth claims.

Arni's response reminds me of my interest in writing a review of the bestseller by journalist Barbara Bradley Hagerty, Fingerprints of God: What Science Is Learning About the Brain and Spiritual Experience. Hagerty's book offers a wonderful catalogue of diverse religious and spiritual experiences, as well as an engaging lay person's summary of the range of scientific research being done on human spirituality (I leave assessments of the accuracy of her summaries to those more versed in the relevant disciplines). 

But what I like best about the book is its potential to help defuse the reflexive suspicion and animosity that religious believers so often direct towards the scientific study of religion (and science in general). It has this potential precisely because Hagerty embodies in her journalistic inquiry the same perspective that Arni so nicely articulates in his recent post. Whatever might be said about the defensibility of this perspective (and I know there are regular followers of this blog who are inclined to challenge it), I think that from a purely sociological standpoint it is a pragmatically fruitful one: It inculcates an openness among religious believers to taking science seriously rather than treating it as an enemy to be rejected.

While new atheists like Dawkins and Victor Stenger (author of God: The Failed Hypothesis) have gotten considerable personal mileage out of promulgating the message that (a) science and religion are essentially opposed and (b) so much the worse for religion, the social reality (as far as I can tell) is that this message has not substantially reduced the number of religious believers. Rather, it has succeeded mostly in reinforcing their belief in (a)--to which they then add, "So much the worse for science."

While my own view is that (a) is false, I know there are those who take it to be true. What I want to say to them at this point is this: At best, surely, (a) is a contentious philosophical position. And given its controversial character, it may be worth treating it with caution when it can have such damaging pragmatic effects for the advancement of science. By treating it with caution, I don't mean refusing to express (a) even if it happens to be your view. I don't mean refusing to share your reasons for this view, or what you find lacking in the arguments of those with a different position. Rather, I mean adopting the kind of fallibilism that is appropriate when the costs of being wrong are high.

Suppose you catch a glimpse from a passing car of someone who, at a quick glance from a distance, you take to be your friend Joe leaving an apartment building in which you know Mary lives. It is one thing to say without qualification, "I saw Joe leaving Mary's apartment yesterday afternoon," when gossiping with friends. It is something else again to say this on the witness stand when Joe has been accused of murdering Mary. High stakes call for humility, an awareness of our fallibility. And the stakes are pretty high when it comes to the idea that science and religion are essentially opposed.

Beliefs can be "innocent" or not, and whether they are innocent or not can be a matter of context. The less innocent a belief is, the more significant our epistemic duties become.

Let me be clear about something here. I don't think that scientists should pander to religious audiences or downplay the implications of their research when that research directly challenges specific beliefs held by religious communities--such as the belief in a "Young Earth" or the doctrine of special creation (the idea that diverse species were created individually rather than evolving from common ancestors). But if one treats the new atheists' controversial and polarizing philosophical view on science and religion as if it were a matter of certainty, then one will pre-emptively alienate the great mass of religious believers, so that when scientific research does challenge their specific beliefs you can be sure they won't be listening.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

My Upcoming Graduate Seminar on Religion and Morality

This coming semester I will be leading a graduate seminar on a topic that is presumably of interest to readers of this blog. Although I will not link my blog to the seminar in the way that I did with my philosophy of religion course last term, I anticipate that many of my blog posts over the coming months will be inspired by the seminar readings and discussions.

The title of seminar is "Does Morality Depend on Religion?"--a title that offers an enormous range of options, and which was selected more for its pithiness than for its analytic precision. However, since the seminar is supposed to satisfy a graduate requirement in ethical theory, that narrows the focus considerably. In effect, the course will need to devote attention to critically reflecting on ethical theories--a requirement that led me to refine the pithy title question into a more precise course objective. Here's how I describe the focus and aim of the course in the syllabus I just finished composing:

In this seminar, we will consider the following broad question: In the effort to offer an adequate theoretic understanding of value, morality, and moral agency, does a broadly theistic ontology provide resources for offering a more satisfying account than can be offered on the assumption of a naturalistic ontology?

This question is both narrower and broader than the question posed as the title of the course. It is narrower in that it asks whether a theistic ontology enables more adequate theories of morality and value than could otherwise be constructed, rather than asking if “religion” in some vague sense does so. It is broader in that, insofar as it asks whether the adoption of a theistic worldview makes possible a better account of morality than could otherwise be provided, it may admit of an affirmative answer even if we aren’t convinced by arguments to the effect that an adequate account of morality is impossible given atheism.

In order to pursue this broader question, we need to do far more than is possible in a single semester. However, one of the things we need to consider is what resources for ethical theory are actually provided by a theistic ontology. To begin addressing this question, it helps to consider the merits of various attempts to construct an account of ethics within a theistic context. Looking critically at three fairly recent attempts of this kind will be a primary focus of the course. Specifically, we will examine attempts made by Robert Adams in Finite and Infinite Goods, Linda Zagzebski in Divine Motivation Theory, and John Hare in The Moral Gap. The first two are different comprehensive efforts to construct theistic moral theories—that is, holistic understandings of the nature and foundations of value and obligation that appeal to God in a fundamental way. The third focuses more on a specific problem for ethics famously emphasized by Kant: the supposed gap between what morality properly understood requires of us and the psychological limits of human moral agents. Hare argues both that this gap needs to be closed for any account of morality to make sense, and that the theistic strategy for closing the gap is more satisfying than other strategies.

To frame our critical reflection on these attempts to make sense of morality in theistic terms, we will start the course with a concise and forceful recent defense of the view that morality and value can be adequately accounted for without positing some form of theism—specifically, a defense of this view provided by Erik Wielenberg in his recent book, Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe.
This blog seems like a fitting place for some points of elaboration in relation to this course description. Specifically, why narrow the focus as I do, and why broaden it as I do? Of course, given the nature of graduate seminars, this narrowing and broadening has at best a tentative character. Since I won't be lecturing much at all, and since seminar participants will be leading discussions over the readings, the focus question serves more as a starting point and a basis for creating an initial reading list, as opposed to determing what, exactly, will be covered in the class. Still, my reasons for focusing and expanding the title as I do warrant some elaboration.

On the first issue--why focus on God rather than religion more broadly?--I was in large measure motivated by two considerations. First, there's the matter of relevance to contemporary debates in the West. In the ongoing "God Debates," (which, by the way, is the name of my friend John Shook's new book), morality is often invoked in defense of theism--but these invocations aren't usually very well thought-out. The so-called "Karamazov's Thesis"--that without God, anything goes--is treated as almost axiomatic by many conservative theists (a propensity that helps to explain both the importance and success of a popular-level book like Greg Epstein's Good Without God).

Second, there's the matter of available philosophical literature. It is not hard to find carefully developed book-length philosophical discussions of moral theories that explicitly invoke theism as part of the theoretical groundwork for making sense of morality--or, as the case may be, rigorous philosophical attempts to show that the existence of God is not a "necessary postulate" for morality.  Finding comparable works that seek to ground morality in a religious worldview that is not explicitly theistic is substantially more difficult. If anyone knows of good options in this regard that are still in print, let me know. (Peter Byrne's book, The Moral Interpretation of Religion, moves in this direction from a theistic starting point--but it is now a "print on demand" book, and the book store strongly discouraged me from assigning it).

As for the broadening of the focus question for the course, there are (again) two main reasons for doing so. First, it seems to me that the broader question is more philosophically open and hence more fruitful. Suppose one asks, "Do you need eggs to make chocolate chip cookies?" Even if the answer is no, there remains much that's worth considering about the egg/cookie relationship. How do eggs affect the consistency of the cookies relative to egg alternatives? What about flavor? These interesting and important issues might be overlooked if the focus is on the narrow "do you need eggs" question.

Second, I think that our epistemic situation is such that we are better served by the broader question. With the diversity of moral theories out there, and the ongoing philosophical debates surrounding them, it seems to me that the best we can often do in relation to rival moral theories is note that theories of this kind have certain advantages over theories of that kind (and potentially vice versa). If we want to support one set of moral intuitions, we might conclude after a fair bit of philosophical reflection that Kantian ethics does a better job than does utilitarianism. But with respect to some other consideration, utilitarianism may be preferable. Such reflection might lead us to pursue a synthesis of the theories which preserves a feature of the Kantian theory precisely because we've concluded that this feature is what is responsible for the theory's capacity to account for the intuitions it accounts for.

This kind of piecemeal process is what I think leads to progress in moral philosophy. And asking whether theism offers any distinct advantages for moral theory--and if so, what they are--is part of just this kind of process.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Frustrating Spam Filter Issues Continue...

Since blogger's spam filter cannot be turned off but has been nothing but a disruption on my blog, I went onto the blogger forum to explore options and lodge complaints. The recurring message is that everyone who is part of blogger needs to help "train" the spam filter by correcting its mistakes--by marking misidentified messages in the spam box as "Not Spam." Here is the message I posted in relation to this:

If disabling the filter isn't an option, I'd like to help "train" the filter--which has blocked dozens and dozens of legitimate comments on my blog (and one lonely piece of actual spam, while letting some spam through).

But the problem with "training" it is this: My regular commenters are often engaged in lively ongoing philosophical discussions sparked by my post, discussions which are going on during a period when I am away from the blog and can't sit at the spam filter to hit "Not Spam" every time the filter makes a mistakes (and, in my case, its error rate approches 100%--that is, virtually EVERYTHING it regards as spam is not).

Because my commenters are energetically discussing issues they are passionate about, when their comment disappears they try again. In fact, they keep trying until they find a version that passes the spam filter. By the time I check the filter, there can be up to 20 legitimate comments that were blocked.

But here's where things get tricky. If I mark them all as "Not Spam," they all get published, cluttering up my comments page with redundant and out-of-order comments that disrupt the capacity of readers to follow the conversation that has been evolving. So I find myself wasting precious time comparing what is in the spam filter with what got through, to see if I can identify comments that didn't eventually make it through and only marking THEM as "Not Spam." Sometimes--being a busy person--I just don't hae the time for that. But even when I do, this is such a selective effort that it is hardly going to educate the spam filter properly.

To properly "train the filter" by letting it know every time it makes a mistake, I need to make the comments page an incoherent mess. But if I don't train it, my commenters will continue to face the frustration of having to fight to figure out how to be part of the conversation. Either way, everybody on my blog loses. As far as I am concerned, this filter has been a disaster (perhaps because spam was never really a problem on my blog and continues to be a trivial issue). Any suggestion about how to train the filter to be less disruptive without the training process being disruptive would be more than welcome.
So that's what I wrote, which may or may not get a response. In the meantime, let me ask all of you who regularly comment on my blog what you would prefer. Here are several options: I could go through and mark every one of your filtered comments as "not spam," resulting in a sudden glut of comments cluttering up comment threads on many posts. This would be a messy option but might help teach the filter more quickly and reduce future problems. (I might then go through and delete every comment that just got posted to clean up the mess--but I'm not sure what that would teach the spam filter, since it may be programmed to learn from what bloggers delete).

Alternatively, I could continue with my current policy (and try to be better about checking the filter's spam box regularly). This could mean a slower learning curve for the filter and ongoing frustration of the sort you've been dealing with, but wouldn't turn the comments page into a mess.

Or we could all agree for the next week or so not to attempt reposting when the filter is blocked, and I will try to check the spam box at least once in the morning and once in the evening (except weekends, when I can't promise to make it online)--and mark all comments as "Not Spam" (unless I actually start getting real spam...). This will slow down the pace of conversations, making them partly dependent on my sporadic moderation--but we might find out whether this teaches the filter, leading to a diminishing need for moderation.

Or are there other options people can think of?