Thursday, February 26, 2009

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

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.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A Case of Atheistic Fundamentalism?

Over the last few weeks I’ve been working on my “book talk,” which I’ll be giving at various venues in which I’ve been invited to speak on themes related to my book. The process of preparing that talk forced me to immerse myself in the blogging of a rather unsavory character—a man named PZ Myers.

Let me explain. I inaugurated the book talk about a week ago, at a public lecture at Oklahoma State University, and was pleased by the crowd that turned out. But if that crowd was hoping for an overview of my book, they were disappointed. They didn’t get a narrative of the book’s origins or anecdotes about how it’s been received. They didn’t hear me lay out in detail one or more of the arguments found in the book. In short, I didn’t give them the kind of talk that, for example, I saw Bart Ehrman give with such wit and energy a couple of years ago, while he was promoting Misquoting Jesus.

I decided to do something different. You see, about the time that I sent in the first draft of my book to the publisher, the paperback edition of Dawkins’ The God Delusion came out, complete with a new preface by the author. In that preface, Dawkins responded (in a very general way) to a number of criticisms of his book.

One of those criticisms is this: In The God Delusion, Dawkins leaves the familiar territory of biology and treads brazenly into the domain of theology and philosophy…but clearly has no idea what he’s talking about. His ignorance of theology and philosophy is staggering. One of the most prominent scholars to make this charge was the eminent biologist H Allen Orr, of my alma mater, in The New York Review of Books. But it’s also a charge that I level in more than one place in my book.

In the new preface to The God Delusion, Dawkins doesn’t deny that he has little knowledge of theology and philosophy. What he denies is that he needs to be especially expert in these disciplines in order to make the points he wants to make in The God Delusion. In making this case, Dawkins relies almost entirely on a bit of satire written by PZ Myers.

Myers, an associate professor of biology at the University of Minnesota at Morris, is perhaps best known as the atheist blogger who challenged his readers to “score” him a consecrated communion wafer so that he could desecrate it (something which he later did, along with pages from the Koran and from The God Delusion, in order to highlight his conviction that nothing should be held sacred). But aside from this incident, his most well-known contribution to the intellectual world is a ribald little elaboration on H.C. Anderson’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” a piece of satire that Myers calls “the Courtier’s Reply.”

It is this piece that Dawkins leans on, quoting almost in its entirety in the new preface to The God Delusion. In the piece, Myers adopts the persona of one of the emperor’s courtiers, expressing disgust at Dawkins for accusing the emperor of nudity without having read any of the learned treatises on the properties and aesthetic merits of the emperor’s raiment. The point, of course, is that these treatises are just obfuscation, and that one needn’t pay any attention to them in order to see that the emperor is naked.

My book talk is an attempt to explain why Dawkins really does need to be an expert in theology and philosophy of religion—or at least far more expert than he happens to be—in order to develop the kind of case he wants to make in The God Delusion. As such, developing my book talk forced me to take a look at PZ Myers’ blog—which, all things told, I found to be a rather unpleasant experience, something like being forced to have dinner with a boorishly bombastic relative who spends the entire evening leveling eloquent insults against everyone you love.

Now I don’t want to lay out here, in all its details, my response to Myers’ “Courtier’s Reply.” My book talk is a forty minute lecture, and culling it down to a more bloggish size is a project that will take more time than I have available right now. All I’ll say is this: Myers’ Courtier’s Reply likens theology in all its richness and diversity to pandering obfuscation. But this analogy reveals a profound failure to understand the substance and content of the best theology. Theology is not just about describing the properties of God and giving bad arguments for God’s existence. It is more profoundly about offering a holistic interpretation of human experience, an interpretation which differs from a materialistic or naturalistic one in that it draws its meaning from the conviction that there is something vast and important and essentially purposive behind the empirical surfaces that science studies.

When it comes to holistic interpretations of experience, or worldviews, the best way to decide among them is to compare how well they do in making sense of our actual experience (including but not limited to our empirical experience), and in how well they guide us in our efforts to engage the world around us effectively and with integrity. We cannot decide between atheistic and theistic worldviews without doing this comparative work. And we cannot do this comparative work adequately if we ignore the most comprehensively and carefully developed theistic worldviews—especially those that take the lessons of science seriously and incorporate them into the data that our worldview is supposed to explain. In short, we cannot decide whether a theistic worldview is better than an atheistic one without studying the most important works of theology.

Myers might have recognized all of this had he actually read the best theology. But he hasn’t. He doesn’t think he needs to. His argument against reading theology is one of those insular ideological arguments that immunizes itself from criticism by rejecting in advance that which would expose its failings. Its basic aim is to celebrate and justify one’s failure to critically engage in an open-minded way with the most careful of one’s intellectual opponents, and in this respect is just like what Dawkins himself is complaining about when he refers to the “immunological devices” that keep “faith heads” from listening to the arguments of their opponents—the most effective of which he takes to be “a dire warning to avoid even opening a book like this, which is surely the work of Satan.”

Myers replaces warnings with ridicule, and thinks anyone who bothers to open a book like, say, Rudolf Otto’s The Idea of the Holy, is an idiot, since the book is surely the work of an obfuscating panderer.

But enough of this. My main objective in this post isn’t to offer a detailed counter to the Courtier’s Reply, but to reflect on an exchange I discovered when I went to PZ Myers’ blog, “Pharyngula,” while researching my book talk. As I was reading the pages of comments posted in response to Myers’ satire (most of which were of the form “Hear! Hear!”), I noticed one commentator who questioned whether Myers’ satire really applied to H Allen Orr’s scathing review of The God Delusion.

Myers responded by quoting a passage from Orr’s review, a passage that he said “falls squarely into the pigeonhole of the Courtier’s Reply.”

But then something interesting happened. A commentator whom I’ll call JR examined the very passage from Orr’s review that Myers quoted, and he argued that the nature of Orr’s complaints in this passage could not be dismissed by a simple appeal to the Courtier’s Reply. In effect, JR claimed that Dawkins was doing more in his book than simply arguing that there probably is no God—that he was also making claims about the dangers of religious faith, for example. And some of Orr’s complaints related to Dawkins’ failure to consider theological ideas relevant to these other concerns.

So, how did Myers reply to JR? He replied by shutting him down. He pointed out (accurately) that JR had admitted on another blog to having not yet read The God Delusion. And then he told JR to “toddle off”—or Myers would block him from posting on the site.

And then he launched into the following angry outburst:

This is a bad thing: criticizing books at length that you’ve never read. It really pisses me off, too, because I at least try to read the other side. I’ve read Collins (execrable), Miller (half bad/half good), Wilson (not bad), Roughgarden (pretty awful), and even Coulter (gibbering insanity)...what is it with people who think it’s OK to tear into Dawkins on 2nd or 3rd hand echoes of what he actually wrote? It’s intellectually dishonest.

Now, I agree that it is bad to criticize what you haven’t read based on hearsay about its contents. For example, it’s a really bad thing just to assume that the great works of theology have no bearing on Dawkins’ claims in The God Delusion when you’ve never actually read these works. I’m happy to agree with Myers wholeheartedly on this point. It’s intellectually dishonest. Shame on Myers and Dawkins for doing it.

But the thing is, JR wasn’t doing it. He wasn’t talking about The God Delusion, but rather about Orr’s review of it and Myers’ dismissal of that review. JR was pointing out that the claims made in Orr’s review couldn’t be dismissed by an appeal the Courtier’s Reply.

Myers never answered this challenge. He never even tried. Instead, he told JR to shut up and go away or he’d silence him. And he did it on the basis of an essentially irrelevant ad hominem attack.

This kind of behavior may be a pretty good way to ensure that the comments section of your blog is populated mainly by yes-men. But it is not the way to promote a serious intellectual conversation that engages opposing views and arguments fairly.

Now there may be times and places in which it might be appropriate to end a conversation with someone, perhaps to ask them to leave your parlor or your blog site, because they are interfering with the productivity of the conversation rather than contributing to it. But what prompted Myers’ injunction to “toddle off” was a single post—a post which, I might add, raised an issue worth raising. What’s on display here is not exactly what I’d call a free thinker who cares about reasons and arguments and a careful consideration of their merits. But isn’t that what Myers wants to be?

One gets the sense that he does, especially when he protests that at least he tries to read the other side. But I think his list of the works on “the other side” is instructive. Francis Collins, Ken Miller, E.O. Wilson, and Joan Roughgarden are all biologists like him, all of whom have written books addressing the relationship between science and religion in a manner sympathetic to religion, all of whom wrote with a general audience in mind. Some of their books are very good ones taken in these terms, but none of these authors is expert in theology or the philosophy of religion. None of their books displays the rigorous treatment of the subject that you’d find in an academic work written by an accomplished philosopher or theologian. Ann Coulter, the last name he mentions, is a lawyer and a conservative political commentator (to put it charitably). What expertise she brings to the table is, I think, a mystery to most.

If Myers wants a reading list of truly important works on “the other side,” I’d be happy to give him one. It would likely include classics by Friedrich Schleiermacher and Hermann Lotze, as well as more recent books, such as the provocative Agnostic Inquirer by Sandra Menssen and Thomas Sullivan, and the game-changing analysis of naturalism (simply titled Naturalism) by Stewart Goetz and Charles Taliaferro. I suppose I’d narcissistically include my own book as a more accessible introduction to the philosophical and theological grounds for challenging Dawkins and the other “new atheists,” but I wouldn’t recommend it as an alternative to reading the more detailed academic works and the classics in philosophical theology.

But here’s the thing. I want to have conversations that are thoughtful and careful, conversations that make a serious effort to understand and respond to opposing perspectives, conversations in which all parties are open to being moved—if not moved to abandon their beliefs, then at least to modify them in the light of important criticisms.

I’m not opposed to conversations that get passionate. Let’s let everyone in the conversation be human—and part of what it means to be human is to care so much about what you’re saying that you sometimes get carried away. You say things that aren’t fully thought through, or you say them in a way that isn’t all that nice. Let’s have patience with each other when this happens. But let’s not indulge our capacity for vitriol. And let us, above all, strive to listen to each other with charity.

I think there’s something to be said for conversations of this sort. But to have them, there are some things we need to set aside. Among them are “immunological devices” that justify our refusal to take seriously what others have to say. Reliance on such devices seems one useful definition of "fundamentalism."

And it seems to me that it isn’t just religious fundamentalists who are prone to making use of such devices.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Reflections on the Argument from Design

A number of readers of my book have asked me why I’m as dismissive of the argument from design as I seem to be. My best friend is among them. He finds considerable power in several formulations of the argument, including Indian versions which, based on his descriptions of them, I think I probably need to study.

I am open to being convinced. But there are several reasons why I’m hesitant to give the argument from design too much evidentiary weight in my thinking about theism. First of all, in many if not most of it formulations, the argument’s soundness depends on the scientific facts. Since I am not a scientist, I don’t feel sufficiently qualified to weigh in on the scientific disagreements over which these versions of the argument turn.

Secondly, “God” names something transcendent, that is, a being that exists beyond the empirical world that science studies. As I’ve said before, science simply cannot discern whether there is more to reality than science can discern. Now many defenders of the argument from design in effect deny this, at least in one sense. They proclaim that there are empirical facts about the physical world, facts which have been or can be uncovered and described by science, that are like sign posts pointing to some cause beyond the physical world. Their view is that science can discern that there must be something more to reality than what science studies, even if it can’t actually study this “something more.”

But what this thinking ignores, on my view, is how the scientific method works. Science is methodologically naturalistic. That is, it confronts every empirical phenomenon by looking for a naturalistic explanation of it. This means that scientists, in their role as scientists, will always treat phenomena that haven’t been explained in naturalistic terms, not as signposts pointing towards the supernatural, but as research projects. The majority of scientists will therefore view those who explain these phenomena by appealing to the transcendent as jumping ship from the scientific project.

To propose supernatural explanations before science has finished pursuing naturalistic ones strikes many scientists as not giving science a chance to do its work. And since science can in principle always keep looking for naturalistic explanations, there never comes a point at which it becomes appropriate to say that “science has shown” that a supernatural explanation is best. Instead, from a scientific standpoint the only conclusion to reach is that science hasn’t explained this phenomenon…yet.

Now I don't think that any of this means one can’t or shouldn’t embrace supernatural explanations. What it means is that when you do so, you’re no longer pursuing the scientific project.

For those who doubt the ability of scientists to explain the newest mystery in naturalistic terms, scientists can point to past mysteries, once invoked as reasons to believe in God but since explained in naturalistic terms. They might say, “Give us time. We’ll eventually pull the rug out from under you again.”

The result is an image of theologians in constant retreat, staking their claim on a shrinking island of mysteries and defending the mysteries that remain against the forces of scientific progress. Their God becomes the “God of the gaps” that theologian Dietrich Bonheoffer warned against—the God that we introduce as a quasi-scientific hypothesis to explain the mysteries that the ordinary work of science has so far failed to solve. And as the “gaps” get smaller, it begins to seem to many observers as if scientists are explaining God out of existence.

This image is not wholly unwarranted if one's case for God's existence depends on the existence of such mysteries. And if, furthermore, your religious faith hinges upon some phenomenon remaining inexplicable in scientific terms, you will fight tooth and nail to keep the phenomenon scientifically inexplicable. In other words, you will fight against the efforts of scientists to do what scientists do. You will thus become an enemy of science. And in your efforts to keep science from de-mystifying the ground on which you make your religious stand, you may be led to intellectual dishonesty, or towards bizarre maneuvers to explain away the empirical facts, or even (in the last gasps of resistance) to rejecting the scientific enterprise altogether. When the case for theism is made on this turf, science and religion become enemies in a way that benefits neither.

But the “God of the gaps” defended in this particular turf war is not the God in which I believe. My God is not first and foremost an “empirical phenomenon-explainer” (certainly not in anything like the sense in which the theoretic entities invoked in science are “empirical-phenomenon explainers”).

My God is invoked to explain my religious experience. But when I invoke God in these terms, it's as an alternative to something else I might do with my religious experience—namely, explain it away. By “religious experience,” I mean an essentially non-empirical experience, a deep sense that there is something fundamental lurking behind the ordinary appearances of things, something that is truer than the mechanistic and chance-governed universe uncovered by science, something that transcends my conceptual grasp but feels enormous and inexpressibly good. To borrow Rudolf Otto’s term, it is the feeling of the numinous.

This is a feeling that comes at me from a variety of directions—sometimes all by itself, and sometimes in conjunction with other powerful experiences. I’m talking about those occasions of wonder when I witness love or beauty or tenderness and think, “This is good.” And this sense of goodness transcends the empirical facts in front of me, seeming to reach into a deeper well of reality than what my eyes can see. I can’t reduce this sense of goodness to any empirical property of the world, at least not without, in the same gesture, stripping it of its significance.

I could, of course, appeal to the side-effects of evolutionary forces on the development of the human brain to explain this experience away, rather than invoke some transcendent good in order to explain it. Why do the latter rather than the former?

I do it out of hope. I do it because it confers a special meaning on the world encountered in experience, the world that science seeks to describe. I do it because it also helps make sense of certain other non-empirical experiences without explaining them away (such as my intimate experience of myself as a conscious agent, and my experience of beauty, and my sense of the intrinsic value of persons as persons). I do it because the complex world of living things, which could be nothing but the product of chance and natural selection, thereby acquires a deeper significance: it becomes something intended by love.

I don’t choose this interpretation because the science demands it, but because my moral nature seems to demand it of me. This moral voice inside me calls me to live in hope: the hope that the universe on some fundamental level is not “pitilessly indifferent to the good” as Dawkins maintains; the hope that the universe is better than it would be if the objects of scientific study exhausted what was real. When I encounter rival worldviews which all meet a basic standard of rationality—internally coherent as well as consistent with the entire field of human experience, including the facts discerned by science—my moral voice urges me to favor that worldview which invests greater moral meaning into those same experiences and facts.

In short, my God is not ultimately an “empirical phenomenon explainer” but, rather, a “hope-fulfiller” and a “meaning-bestower.” Belief in this God does involve reading design into an empirical world which allows for such a reading even if it does not demand it. But belief in this God does not in any way hinge upon the existence of empirical phenomena that simply cannot be explained in naturalistic terms.

Belief in a transcendent benevolence, something that would fulfill our hope that the universe is on the side of goodness, does not depend upon science being finally and permanently “stumped” in its efforts to provide naturalistic explanations. Theistic religion in this sense therefore doesn’t see scientific progress as a threat. Because it’s not.

And while I think there are ways to formulate and develop the argument from design which don’t put such reasoning on a collision course with scientific progress, the history of this argument, in terms of its tendency to foment conflict along these lines, makes me wary of it.

Friday, February 6, 2009

44 Mostly Dishonest Answers to Impertinent Questions

For awhile now, there’s been this list of 44 questions going around on Facebook. The other day I decided to put up my answers on my Facebook page—but with a twist. I now post the outcome here, even though it has almost nothing to do with the philosophy of religion. Read at your peril.

Below are my answers to the 44 questions going around on Facebook. 6 are true. The rest are lies. A prize (from the dollar store) will go to whoever can correctly identify all of (and only) the honest answers.

(Blog readers: The contest has already run its course on Facebook, but if you care to post your guesses, anyone who gets it right will receive the intangible and inestimable reward of being right.)

1. Do you like blue cheese? Only if it’s totally blue. I mean, what’s the point in eating “blue” cheese if it’s mostly white with the occasional ribbon of green mold running through it? It’s like your eating a lie.
2. Have you ever been drunk? Um…once. Years and years ago.
4. What flavor of Kool Aid was your favorite? I love them all, better than scotch.
5. Do you get nervous before doctor appointments? Only when there’s drug testing involved.
6. What do you think of hot dogs? I think of them often, usually when I’m in bed at night, just before falling asleep. And then I dream about them.
7. Favorite Christmas movie? The Magic Gift of the Snowman. It’s also my son’s favorite. He’s replayed it so many times (and not just during the Christmas season) that I couldn’t help but fall in love with it, especially the musical number in which the children are lulled to sleep by a chorus of singing cockroaches.
8. What do you prefer to drink in the morning? Blood, but preferably BEFORE sunrise.
9. Can you do push ups? Yes.
10. What's your favorite piece of jewelry? When I earned my PhD, my father gave me his PhD ring (Norwegian PhD’s are given them upon completion of their degree). I wear it on my right hand every day.
11. Favorite hobby? Noodling. This is an Oklahoma pasttime that I just fell in love with when I moved here. It involves catching catfish by waggling your fingers in a streambed until the fish chomps down.
12. Do you have A.D.D.? No, but I do have S.U.B.T.R.A.C.T.
13. What's your favorite shoe? At night, when everyone is asleep, I slip into my wife’s closet and fish out those glittery high heels she used to wear before we were married. I bring them to bed with me. I set the alarm early so that I can return them to the closet before my wife wakes up.
14. Middle name? Humperdink
15. Name 3 thoughts at this exact moment? Dental hygiene is important for overall health, especially as you get older; my wife is hot; I hate doing footnoting. (Note: this one is a giveaway. I couldn’t have written down these thoughts without having them at the moment that I was writing them down. Hence, this MUST be one of the true answers. Good luck identifying the remaining five)
16. Name 3 drinks you regularly drink? Scotch, Wine, Coffee
17. Current worry? Will anyone show up for my Tulsa book signing this Sunday now that the campus ministry person at Tulsa University that I was counting on to invite all her Facebook friends is down with Scarlet Fever?
18. Current hate right now? The fact that every one of these prompts ends with a question mark, even when it’s not a question.
20. How did you bring in the New Year? Hula dancing with two men, both of whom were wearing coconuts on their chests.
21. Where would you like to go? Back to the tiered tea fields in the foothills of the Himalayas, which I passed on the way to and from Darjeeling when I was 19.
22. Name three people who will complete this? You mean complete READING THIS? Nobody. It’s way too tiresome.
23. Do you own slippers? Several pairs: A boring blue pair, a moccasin-style pair, a pair shaped like ducks, and a pair of fuzzy monster feet.
24. What color shirt are you wearing right now? I’m writing this bare-chested.
25. Do you like sleeping on Satin sheets? Yes, but only when the Satin is capitalized. Lower-case satin has never really done it for me.
26. Can you whistle? Interestingly, I’m only able to whistle the Hawaii 5-O theme music. Anything else, and it comes out sounding like an anemic whine.
27. Favorite color? Red…no, green…AAAAAAAHHHH!
28. Would you be a pirate? It is my secret dream that the current “Captain Feathersword” will suffer the same fate as the former yellow Wiggle (Greg) and that I will be chosen to replace him with a new and slightly edgier character, Captain Chainsaw, thereby positioning me to finally be able to…take care of…Dorothy the Dinosaur.
29. What songs do you sing in the shower? Usually rap, but sometimes 18th Century French drinking songs.
30. Favorite girl's Name? Brunhilda
31. Favorite boy's name? Brunhild
32. What's in your pocket right now? One yellow piece of Styrofoam, a pink children’s sock, two black buttons, a nickel, and a handkerchief most recently used to wipe the slobber from my dog’s jowls.
33. Last thing that made you laugh? My response to #32.
34. Best bed sheets as a child? The dracula sheets.
35. Worst injury you've ever had as a child? The fatal injury that I sustained when the vampire bit my neck. But it has since proven to be…well, I suppose “blessing” would be the wrong word.
36. Do you love where you live? “Love” is too mild to describe the rapture I feel when I reflect on the town of Stillwater, OK.
38. Who is your loudest friend?That would be either Tim or Mary.
39. How many dogs do you have? I HAVE no dogs. There are two dogs living in my house right now. Their names are Cujo and Flipper. Cujo is a dachsund.
40. Does someone have a crush on you? Hmm…hope so.
41. What is your favorite book? It’s a tie between Hal Lindsey’s classic, SATAN IS ALIVE AND WELL ON PLANET EARTH, and Richard Dawkins’ flawless exercise in the philosophy of religion, THE GOD DELUSION.
42. What is your favorite candy? John
43. Favorite Sports Team? The Oklahoma State Cowboys
44. What song do you want played at your funeral? The Debbie Boone recording of “You Light up My Life.”

One final thing: When I indicated the number of honest answers, that was one of the lies.