Thursday, December 07, 2017

USAO might be losing its board of regents and, in case you haven't heard, everything is about business now

So it looks like the college where I work might be having its individual regents eliminated, putting us under the aegis of one of the larger boards in the state. I'm not even sure I am opposed to reorganizing the higher ed regents as a thing; I have not had a chance to study the question or hear any real information on how my school would be affected. But this article from the OK state regents is troubling.

I want everyone to note that there is no mention here of public education as a vehicle for intellectual, ethical, and civic growth for individuals and communities:

Corporate speak:
"The State Regents' Task Force on the Future of Higher Education considered recommendations from the task force’s four subcommittees during its meeting today in Oklahoma City. The task force, which was formed by the State Regents in March 2017, has examined every aspect of system operations, including academic models, online education, structure, fiscal services and operational efficiencies, workforce development, and information technology during the past 10 months."
Even more heinous corporate speak:
“Maintaining accessibility and affordability remains the State Regents’ highest priority,” said State Regents Chair Ronald White, M.D. “We are mindful that Oklahoma’s economic prospects depend on our state colleges and universities producing more college-degreed and trained employees. Given the harsh economic realities of the precipitous decline in state support for state system institutions over the past three years, we must consider ideas to optimize performance and boost productivity. Our 68 member task force tackled the charge head-on, reviewing our governance and operational structure, administrative practices, and productivity relative to new academic innovations and emerging technologies.”
What's the purpose of higher education, everyone? Wait, is it...pushing back the darkness of ignorance with the light of understanding and wisdom? Is it...contributing to an informed and activated citizenry? HAHAHAHA! Nope! It's:
"The College Degree Completion and Workforce Development Initiative Subcommittee reviewed current college degree completion initiatives and developed recommendations to increase college degree completion rates and align academic programs to meet current and future workforce needs."
Welcome to the capitalist hellscape, folks! Want some more snacks?:
"The Academic Program Innovations and Online Education Subcommittee reviewed best practices in academic program delivery and web-based education and developed recommendations to promote innovative, collaborative academic programming and scale online education in Oklahoma. Subcommittee co-chairs President Don Betz, University of Central Oklahoma, and Ken Parker, President, and CEO of NextThought, presented the subcommittee’s recommendations, which focus on the design and implementation of micro-degrees/micro-credentials and competency-based education; expanding public-private partnerships to address academic and non-academic student needs; and development of a systemwide delivery model for online education and best practices in online instruction. The task force voted to approve the subcommittee recommendations."
You may be thinking, "What the fuck is NextThought? it sounds like something from a SF dystopia." (Oh, you sweetheart. We're already in one! Didn't you know?) NextThought is, of course, a company that provides online course and learning management services to the OU system. I'm sure they're lovely people, but they are participating in a government discussion about a profound shift in educational focus that will enrich them. How can they not have a conflict of interest?

And now a word from FSEATS:
"The Fiscal Solutions, Efficiencies, Affordability, and Technology Subcommittee reviewed system resource allocation, revenue trends and projections, alternative sources of revenue, and capacity for improving operational efficiencies through institutional collaboration and technology."
("Alternative sources of revenue," one presumes, means "Bitch, don't even think the state is going to start funding you again.")

And, in case you didn't catch it before, please remember that public education has fuckall to do with old fashioned liberal ideas of enhancing the intellectual lives of citizens and everything to do with serving business:
“Oklahoma needs more college graduates to remain economically competitive in the years to come,” said Chancellor Glen D. Johnson. “As we discovered during this comprehensive self-examination of our higher education system, the time is right to reconsider and rethink our entire public higher education structure. We have taken a hard look at our traditional approaches and practices. At times, it was uncomfortable as we considered whether our structure, governance, programs, and strategies properly align with the incredible pace of the change happening in both education and business."

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Thoughts on the God's Not Dead Debate

Ten days out from my first official debate about the existence of gods, I feel ready to talk about how it went.

First off, I want to thank Red for inviting me; I don’t know that I would have done this unless I had been asked by someone I trusted. Second, I would TOTALLY do it again. I had not anticipated how invigorating it would be to say what I really think about religious claims and have people engage me with vigor instead of shutting down with pearls firmly clutched and expecting me to do the same. Many thanks to Red and to Matt and Billy for a wonderful experience.

One note: We didn’t talk about the film God’s Not Dead as much as we might have, but that’s just as well because it is execrable and we are way more interesting.

Here’s a brief breakdown of stuff I said and stuff I should have said:

Things I’m Glad I Did Say

One of the pastors kept talking about the “absurdity” of the universe’s existence. (I confess to being a little disappointed that these claims were such textbook apologetics and thus so picked over. You can find them all, with accompanying explanations, in the Talk Origins “Index to Creationist Claims”: I was able to respond, though, more than once by pointing out that nothing in the physical universe, no matter how wacky and inconceivable, can ever be *more* wacky and inconceivable than the claim that an immense, omniscient, all-powerful being created it with its mind. Give me the craziest question about the universe that you can imagine—abiogenesis, dark matter, event horizons, big bangs—and all you do when you posit a magic creator is crank the crazy up to eleven. It’s a position that offers absolutely no explanatory power; it does nothing but engender more questions. I mean, if the existence of the universe is too much for me to handle, how can I grasp the existence of such a creature as a universe-creating deity?

Another all-too-familiar claim from the Christian side had to do with how my life has no meaning without a god to assign it to me. Doesn’t that worry me, that my life is meaningless? I do understand why religious people think this way—and one thing I did manage to get out was that I used to be a believer, so I get it. But I don’t believe it anymore and I’m really fine with that. No, really. I’m fine! When a pastor asked about my life’s meaning, I responded that it has meaning to me. And I do my best to contribute to meaning in the lives of others in ways that are positive rather than negative, and that also has meaning to me as well as, I hope, to them. This is one of those things that religious people should be able to understand much more easily than they often do, because they feel the same way underneath the religious trappings. They find meaning in relationships with loved ones, just as I do. They add religious explanations to those feelings, and I don’t, but that’s the only difference. They don’t consult their scripture before deciding whether they feel love or friendship or connectedness; their emotional experiences are as intrinsic as mine. For me, that’s enough. I don’t need my feelings validated by an external authority.

Things I’m Sorry I Didn’t Say

A couple of people who attended the event have mentioned that I seemed to stop myself from saying something at times. They’re right, of course, and after time to reflect…I wish I had said some things that I didn’t. That’s me, though: pushing 50 years of life and still hindered by fear of making others feel bad, like a proper southern woman. If I get another opportunity to do an event like this one, I promise to do better. For now, here are some things I didn’t say:

At one point, the more sermonic pastor started in on prophecy and Israel and historicity of the Bible. I did say that no one disputes the existence of the ancient Hebrews or that the Bible represents their story about themselves—because, for real, that argument is very strange to me. India is still there too. Does that tell us anything about Shiva? What I didn’t articulate was how much it gets under my skin when Christians take this proprietary attitude toward the Jews and their scripture. I’m not Jewish, ethnic or religious, and I’m no more a fan of that religion than any other (though I admit to a fondness for their stories over those of the New Testament) but man, that annoys me. The shameless appropriation that they don’t even acknowledge, chanting “Judeo-Christian!” as if that will keep anyone from hearing the Jews in the background saying, “Um, we don’t actually believe that our religion is most notable as a prologue to yours? Also, we don’t so much buy Jesus as the son of our god? Hello?” At one point when he was holding forth about Isaiah and how it’s all about Jesus, I opened my mouth to say, “You know the Jews don’t agree with you, right? Remember them? The Jews? Who wrote that book for themselves, about themselves, NOT ABOUT YOU?” Ugh.

But I did not say that, which brings me to my other most pressing regret also, oddly, related to the Jews. The same pastor went to the Hitler place, though now I can’t recall why…I think he was trying to make a point about cosmic justice because I do remember him saying that in the atheist worldview Hitler “got away with it,” to which I replied “HE DID GET AWAY WITH IT. He KILLED A BUNCH OF PEOPLE!” And right here is something I cannot stand about Christianity—its privileging of the reactionary over the proactive. I should have said so, too, but I didn’t, maybe because I wasn’t sure I could do it without getting upset, as it really does upset me when someone acts like suffering is somehow canceled out by punishment when it so is not. Even if I believed that Hitler were being punished somewhere in a hell, how does that help all those people who suffered horribly and died? Or suffered the grief of losing their loved ones, their homes, their countries? How about a god who uses its incredible universe-building powers to get out in front of shit like holocausts instead of showing up afterward with bloodthirsty vengeance promises? Because how does that help the victims? Also, how is that morality?

As one pastor pointed out, while the hamfisted death-road conversion of Professor Atheist in the movie God’s Not Dead may be off-putting, it is consistent with Christian doctrine, which should inspire any Christian presiding over the death of a non-Christian to do everything possible to convert that person and keep her/him out of eternal damnation. I agree with him. So answer me this: Where are all those Jews that Hitler killed, if we’re being consistent in our doctrine? It seems safe to assume that they did not have a pastor like the one in the film hovering in the gas chambers feeding them the salvation prayer as they choked out their last tormented breaths, so if they died as Jews, meaning they did not accept Christ as their Lord and Savior, where are they now? And again: how is that moral?

I guess Christianity’s perverse refusal to view suffering as something we all—gods and mortals alike—should strive to eliminate lines up naturally with the ghastly story of Christ. I love and respect many people who happen to be Christians, but Christianity itself will remain morally repugnant to me as long as its central narrative celebrates the blood sacrifice of an innocent as its mechanism for communal salvation. Everyone sees that killing Christ is essentially the desert version of throwing a virgin into a volcano, right? The classic scapegoat tale? In which the people who get to live and supposedly benefit from the victim’s pain console themselves and each other by focusing on their deep gratitude for the sacrifice, as well as the comforting belief that the victim is being rewarded for that sacrifice in some other realm of existence? It’s barbaric and gross, and everyone would see that if it were the religion of a culture not your own. I couldn’t see it myself until I was out and able to assess it with disinterest. Now, though, I state with confidence that if someone asked me if I would accept the torture and murder of another person for my own sake, I would say NO—and I hope every Christian I know would refuse as well. No, thank you. I will be responsible for my own vices, as should we all. I don’t consider myself in need of redemption; I want no martyrs on my conscience, and nor should you.

I didn’t say any of that in the debate, but I might next time.

Once the video appears, I imagine I will see plenty of other ways in which I screwed this up. I’ll be sure to post it here so you can all make sure I don’t miss anything. ;)

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Reality TV Let Me Down This Week

I'm concerned too, Tim

I have complaints about all 3 of the tv shows I watched this week. In order of airing:

1. Master Chef. I enjoy this show very much. I do not enjoy Hells' Kitchen, Gordon Ramsey's other cooking competition show. Hells' Kitchen has too much yelling and too many morons being stupid and nasty and acting like petty children. Master Chef usually does not involve a cast of sneering Survivor-reject jackasses, which is a big part of why I like it, so I do not appreciate the recent trend of stoking personal grievances by borrowing the Cutthroat Kitchen gimmick and letting one contestant take the pasta machine away from another. Don't do that, Master Chef. Let people win with talent and ingenuity like the classy competition you claim to be.

2. So You Think You Can Dance. This show has some of the most freakishly talented competitors of any competition show, ever. I will stand by that claim. But even the staggering gifts of the dancers and choreographers can't cover for how obnoxious literally everything else about this fucking show is (with the possible exception of Cat Dealey, who seems like a lovely person). You couldn't pay me to watch it without fast forward. This week, they made poor Cat introduce Christina Perri by pointing out the last time she was on the show she "didn't even have a record contract" but because Mandy Moore used her song in a stunning routine she's now super famous and has records. OMG, they just totally made an intro of a singer about nothing but themselves. That was the tackiest thing EVER. I hate Nigel, hate Mary, and just hate everything about how this show presents itself. Ugh.

3. Project Runway. OK, wtf this week. The task itself was stupidly convoluted. Use inspiration from your 20-years-ago self to create something for 20 years from now. Jigga-wha? Why not just do the last part, which is actually interesting? What will fashion--and your designs in particular--look like in 20 years? Boom. Good challenge! What does 1994 have to do with anything? Nothing. A couple of them were toddlers then. Stupid. My real complaint though is that NOT ONE DESIGNER thought, "I bet in the future we'll be less obsessed with binary gender roles so I will design with that in mind." Not ONE even went with androgyny, which seemed to me like the most obvious idea ever. Come on! Like, 90% of the contestants on this show are non-hetero and/or non-cis and SHOULD be primed to interrogate gender with their designs, and this was the perfect opportunity. What a disappointment.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Hey, people! I love you. Not in a restraining order kind of way, just a love kind of way.

Sometimes human beings are hard to love. I won't deny this; I'm on too many animal rescue lists, for one thing, too often exposed to the viciousness and cruelty perpetrated by so many people on creatures weaker than themselves. Also, I have a 60-mile one way commute to work, which means I spend a lot of time on the road, and driving doesn't exactly showcase humans at our best. Most of the time, however, I find people breathtakingly beautiful. I suppose something in me has always been prone to love them; it's not like anyone goes into teaching for the money. (Or the respect. Or the prestige...)

I have been attending an exercise class called Body Pump for three years now. This is ostensibly what it looks like:

Except when I do it, at the Edmond YMCA, it does not look like this. For one thing, we stay indoors and a terrifying hellscape of burning sky does not threaten us as we pump (seriously, wtf?). Sometimes on rainy days the roof does leak a bit, but we just place a trashcan under the drip and it's not scary at all. Also, the people do not, in general, look like those people. Some look more like this than others, of course; it's a challenging class and we have some pretty fit folk in there. Overall, though? We're a cross section of people, of different ages and shapes and abilities, and it's cool. It's really so cool. Tonight during class, as I looked in the giant mirror at a room full of people lifting weights with all their different expressions--some concentrating really hard, others bobbing our heads to the music, or laughing aloud at how hard it is to do another biceps curl when you've already done more than you thought you could do--I felt that love well up in me as it does at weird unpredictable times like this, and I was transported by affection for everybody. I mean, look at them! Look at us! We're fucking awesome!

Endorphin high? Maybe. I don't know. Who cares?

People with no religious beliefs are asked regularly by religious people: "How do you live without believing in anything?" Or sometimes, "But what do you believe in?" This is the answer. It's really very simple: I believe in you. I know you're like, oh, shut up, Cheesy McCheeseball, but I swear it's true. I don't need a supernatural entity to believe in, because I have you. And you're beautiful and I love you.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Dennis Prager is a moron

“The left passionately supports the most remarkable and radical change in modern social history -- the redefinition of marriage from male-female to include male-male and female-female.”

*GASP* [dies of shock]

“Marriage is the building block of society. “

Defend this assertion, please.

“Changing its nature will therefore change society. Among other things, same-sex marriage means that because sex (now called "gender") no longer matters for society's most important institution, it no longer matters in general.”

The underlying claim here being that changing society is always a bad thing? Please also defend that assertion. Additionally, you do not understand the definitions of “sex” and “gender.” Sex is not now called gender; sex is biological sex and gender is the complex system of markers associated with what gets labeled “feminine” or “masculine.” Try to keep up with the basic terminology.

“Men and women as distinct entities no longer have significance. Which is exactly what the cultural left and the gay rights movement advocate -- even though the vast majority of Americans who support same-sex marriage do not realize that this is what they are supporting. Most Americans who support same-sex marriage feel (and "feel" is the crucial verb here, as the change to same-sex marriage is much more felt than thought through) that gays should have the right to marry a member of their own sex. It is perceived as unfair to gays that they cannot do so. And that is true. It is unfair to gays. But the price paid for eliminating this unfairness is enormous: It is the end of marriage as every society has known it. And it is more than that. It is the end of any significance to gender. Men and women are now declared interchangeable.”

Are you high right now? I don’t even know where to start with this steaming pile of crazy. What “significance” are you so desperate to preserve with regard to the difference between men and women? I literally do not understand what you are trying to describe. Also, “every society” has defined marriage exactly as America defines it in 2010? Are you really ignorant enough to believe this or are you merely hoping your readers are? It’s so far from true I can’t even get to a place where I can start telling you how untrue it is. Besides which, who gives a shit? “It’s always been this way,” even when accurate, is not an argument for maintaining anything. Oh, and, by “unfair” do you perhaps mean “unconstitutional?” I give up trying to parse the last bit about men and women being interchangeable. It sounds like you’re all worked up because girls are walking around in pants instead of skirts or something?

“That is why, as I noted in a recent column -- the "T" has been added to "GLB:" "Transgendered" has been added to "Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual." "T" does not represent transsexuals -- people who choose to change their sex. No one is arguing against such people.”

Really? Golly, that’s a relief!

“Transgendered" refers to people who are members of one sex and who wish to publicly act as if they are members of the other sex, e.g., men wearing women's clothing in public. The transgendered who publicly act out are living the cultural Left's primary agenda: rendering gender insignificant. Your sex is what you feel it is; and if you feel both, you are both.”

I love your use of “act out” here, as if these people are children who need discipline. I guess you would classify me as part of this devious cultural Left (?) so I’ll tip you a wink: That’s not our primary agenda. In fact, we’re the ones who have pissed you guys off all this time by MAKING GENDER SIGNIFICANT. Jesus Christ, what do you WANT? You don’t like women’s studies or feminism or gender studies or queer theory or anything that pays attention to gender as an actual force in culture and society, and now you’re accusing us of what…DENYING the influence of gender? SPEAK SENSE, MAN.

“Gender doesn't matter.”

It really does. More than it should, in point of fact. Look how wadded up your utterly masculine shorts are about it right now, if you need an example.

“That is why Judge Walker and his supporters dismiss the argument that, all things being equal, it is better for children to be raised by a married man and woman than by two men or two women. If Walker or GLBT activists and their supporters admitted that children need a mother and father, they would be affirming that there is great significance to the differences between men and women.”

What do you mean by “need?” It’s demonstrable that children do not “need” a mother and a father to survive, or to grow up well-adjusted and happy. Why do you keep saying things that you do not make any effort to back up with evidence, as if everyone should simply take your word for it? You don’t even know what “sex” means; forgive me if I mistrust your research skillz.

“They reject that. Instead, they and Walker offer studies that purport to prove that it makes no difference whether or not a child has parents of both sexes. These academic studies are as unserious as all those academic studies of a generation ago that "proved" that boys do not prefer to play with trucks and soldiers but would be just as happy to play with dolls and tea sets, and that girls do not prefer dolls and tea sets but would be just as happy to play with trucks and soldiers.”

OK? By unserious do you mean to charge the researchers with playing a joke?

“These newer "studies" of same-sex parents are as valid as the earlier propaganda in the guise of scientific studies. Like the boy-girl studies, these were conducted by academics with agendas: the denial of male-female differences and the promotion of same-sex marriage.”

“Studies.” I see what you did there with the scare quotes. When did “academics” become a pejorative, by the way? I’m still trying to figure out what you’re frothing to protect. “Male-female differences?” Meaning what, exactly? I do make a habit of denying essentialism, I confess, because I think it’s bollocks, not because I have an “agenda” to think it’s bollocks. I also do indeed promote same-sex marriage. Guilty!

“That many Americans believe these studies -- studies that are in any case based on a small number of same-sex couples raising a small number of children, during a short amount of time (a couple of decades), based on the researchers' own notions of what a healthy and successful young person is -- only proves how effectively colleges and graduate schools have succeeded in teaching a generation of Americans not to think critically but to accept "studies" in place of common sense.”

A tangled web of wtf that I don’t want to read again, except to point out the insidious anti-intellectual rhetorical strategy of pitting science (“studies”) against personal “common sense” or “gut feelings.” AKA prejudice and bigotry and superstition. Someone has to stand up to the experts! With their data and their “studies” and their “notions!” They think they’re so smart!

“Ask anyone who supports same-sex marriage this: Do you believe that a mother has something unique to give to a child that no father can give and that a father has something unique to give a child that no mother can give?”


“One has to assume that most people -- including supporters of same-sex marriage -- would respond in the affirmative.”

Shit. Did I fail? Can I take the test again?

“How, then, can they support same-sex marriage? The left's trinity -- compassion, fairness and equality -- is one reason. And "studies" and "facts" are another.”

Oh noes, not FACTS!!1111!eleventy!! OK, look, Prager, you ridiculous ass, I will only say this once: I support gay marriage because it’s right. No one has to like it. No one has to declare gender (or sex) over and go home and lop his parts off. We just have to look at our constitution, do what’s right, and go on with our goddamn lives. No, I am not the same as a man. I’m not the same as anyone, actually; your whole premise smells so foul my cats would scrape litter over it if they weren’t too smart to read this shite.

“That is exactly how so many college graduates came to believe that boys would be happy with tea sets, and girls would be happy with trucks -- compassion, fairness, equality and "studies."

Ah, the evils of college. Keep your kids away from education and facts, parents. Nothing good can come of them!

“That is also how many Americans, including a judge who overturned a state's constitutional amendment, have come to believe that never having a mother or never having a father makes absolutely no difference to a child.”

Did anyone ever say such a stupid thing? I call straw man.

“And if mothers and fathers are interchangeable, men as men and women as women lose their significance.”


Friday, April 02, 2010

My thoughts on Easter

Up front, please understand that I'm not trying to take away anyone's happiness in their Easter holiday, whatever that means for you. I'm not saying you're a terrible person if you like Easter or if you have a Christian easter celebration, or you find bunnies soft and adorable, so please save your cries of "intolerant!" for the next time I display intolerance. You probably won't have to wait long.

But...Easter bothers me. Troubles me, like, viscerally.

Human sacrifice as a magical expiation of community guilt is a concept much older than Christianity, and it's immoral and gross. The story of Christ's martyrdom is no different from throwing a virgin into a volcano, which we all now find immoral and gross and, like, soprimitive and uneducated. Seeing normal otherwise reasonable people so happy about it and so accepting of allowing another to suffer and die for their benefits makes me cringe, every year, in a way that other religious messages and attitudes do not. It creeps me out, this Easter story.

Here's what I always end up thinking about on Easter: Sidney Carton from Tale of Two Cities.

Carton makes a sacrifice [SPOILER ALERT!] in going to the block for his cousin Charles Darnay. Some people would read this act as "Christ-like," but that would be an egregious misreading. Carton's choice does NOT involve an "innocent" who is tortured and murdered for the benefit of sin-ridden others; Sidney is not redeeming anyone but himself, because Sidney is not the innocent here, Charles is, and that's a major reason why Sidney makes his choice.

Sidney's epiphany is that Sidney kind of sucks, while Charles is a good guy who is about to be martyred in the French revolution's communal redemption that involves purging itself of the aristocracy. The book rejects that communal expiation of sin utterly, focusing instead on personal responsibility and actual moral and immoral actions by individuals, as opposed to magical effects that cannot be measured or observed and that apply to people who didn't even do anything wrong. The effects of Sidney Carton's sacrifice are obvious and objectively real: Charles will live and he and Lucie will escape France. Carton also imagines that someday they will have a child named for him, representing his awareness that his personal choice to go to the block for Charles, this "far, far better thing," is an attempt to repair his legacy, to give the people he cares about reason to remember him fondly.

In addition--and perhaps most appealing to me in this context--Sidney has to DRUG Charles to make this happen. Because Charles is a "good" moral character, there is no way he would ever agree to let Sidney do this, and Sidney knows it, and the reader has to know it or the character of Charles Darnay doesn't work anymore. How would we feel about him if Sidney managed to convince him to escape with his pretty little wife and let Sidney die horribly in his place? We would lose respect for him as a character, and rightfully so. He has to be tricked, they all do, or they're complicit in Sidney's death, which the book codes as immoral, as it should.

My point is, the novel correctly identifies zealotry and dogma as elements of a corrupt system under which people end up sacrificed and martyred, and though characters like Sidney can achieve dignity through suffering, it would still be better if the suffering didn't happen at all. The culprit is the corrupt system, and that system is the real Bad Guy. Why should we not look at the "system" that necessitates Christ's suffering in his story and conclude the same? Because that story ends up somehow affirming the horrific idea that violently shed innocent blood can wash away the sins of other people and is thus necessary, which is so morally repellent I am grieved that people find this okay, that they perceive it as moral.

Which is why I dislike Easter so much, I guess.

The moral compass of Tale of Two Cities is more moral by far than that of the gospels, and this has nothing to do with atheism and everything to do with why belief systems that valorize suffering and martyrdom bother me so much. Ugh. Why couldn't we have stuck with the fertility celebrations? We could've kept the eggs and bunnies and grass and gotten excited about the return of spring and left blood and death out of it.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

I get annoyed about a book I haven't read

I have not read Karen Armstrong’s new book, but this Newsweek review seriously got on my nerves.

From the September 29, 2009, issue of Newsweek: The latest salvo in the war between the atheists and the believers comes from the doyenne of religious intellectual history, Karen Armstrong. Her tone is one of high-minded irritation. Her argument is compelling. To oversimplify: "faith" and "reason" are not like political parties. You don't join one after having been convinced via argument of its validity.
Well, no, you don’t; the vast majority of people “join” a religion because it’s the one in which they are raised from birth, the one they get from their parents. Political party affiliation often works the same way, of course; we tend to take on the beliefs of our immediate community. But more importantly, there is a category error here: “reason” is a process, not a conclusion, while “faith” implies a belief in something one has already decided to be true. It’s an extremely common false analogy, but an important one. Think of it this way: What people want to compare when they set up this dichotomy are two ways of arriving at an answer. The comparison is false because beliefs based on faith begin with the answer and work backwards to justify that answer; to have faith in something you have to know what that thing is FIRST. Reason, however, is merely the process one goes through to work toward an as yet undetermined answer. Thus, the application of, say, the scientific method, is not something one “joins,” but it is very much a way of arriving at answers that can be taught and demonstrated as valid, and it can be applied to many more situations, while belief-without-evidence is a position we celebrate in no other circumstance that I can think of outside of religion. Sam Harris often uses the example of someone asking, “Don’t you have faith that your partner loves you? You can’t determine that scientifically, right, smartypants?” No, you can’t, but you can certainly view the evidence in the way your partner treats you, for example. It seems to me that if you have to believe in your partner’s love based only on faith, your partner may not in fact love you.
What the Greeks called logos and what they called mythos define two different aspects of the world and our experience in it: the knowable and the unknowable. You can believe in both. The bridge between them, Armstrong submits, is not the snarky badinage or righteous browbeating that has so defined faith-versus-reason debates of late, but practice. By practice she means not the occasional yoga class but genuine, difficult, repetitive practice, which over time gives the practitioner—even the reasonable practitioner—glimpses of the transcendent or the divine. Call it God.
WHY? No, really: why? Why shouldn’t I call it neurochemistry? Or black magic? Or Jim? This is a bizarre claim that I hear all the time and I can never figure out how the person making it can be serious. Just because you might point to things that feel funky in your head or that science hasn’t provided answers for yet or that seem transcendent to you, how on earth do you make the spectacular leap from there to ergo X=The God in Which I Already Conveniently Believe? So, again, I would love to know if Armstrong has stories to tell about people who discover Jesus Christ through “practice” without ever having heard of him before.
The Case for God, which comes out this month, is Armstrong's 19th book, and it rides the crest of a wave of books meant to dismantle the arguments of the atheists Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins. Armstrong is uniquely qualified to write on this subject, for having been a Roman Catholic nun, she then rejected faith. "For many years, I myself wanted nothing whatsoever to do with religion," she writes. "But my study of world religion during the last twenty years has compelled me to revise my earlier opinions…One of the things I have learned is that quarreling about religion is counterproductive and not conducive to enlightenment."
OK, ugh, I hate this so much. Questioning religious beliefs or dogma and/or their function in our society does not constitute “quarreling” or “snarky badinage” or “righteous browbeating” or meanness, and these charges, again very common, merely allow one to shift the focus and avoid addressing the actual criticisms being raised. And of course quarreling can be productive and can lead to intellectual enlightenment, if we approach it correctly and use it to hone our own beliefs in an honest way. That’s why debate has held a respected position in the exercise of intellect for so many hundreds of years.

Armstrong shows that for most of human history, "faith" and "reason" were not mutually exclusive and that even today all kinds people believe in a God that in no way resembles the God the atheists despise.

GAH. I do not “despise” anyone’s god; I do not believe such beings exist, so I could not possibly despise them.
"Jews, Christians, and Muslims all knew that revealed truth was symbolic, that
scripture could not be interpreted literally, and that sacred texts had multiple meanings, and could lead to entirely fresh insights," she writes. "Revelation was not an event that had happened once in the distant past, but was an ongoing, creative process." This critique has not been articulated often or clearly enough: the new atheists are, in effect, buying into one particular modern, Western fundamentalist notion of God in order to make God look ridiculous and knock him (or her or it) down. For them to fail to concede that what William James called "religious experience" is far more complex than what certain contemporary believers preach is extremely disingenuous.

Really? The Crusades and the Inquisition and the Holocaust and Proposition 8 were carried out by people who saw scripture as symbolic? I know that’s such a cheap shot, but come on. Yes, some religious people have seen scripture this way, but the ones with the most power and the loudest voices do not, so let’s not be “disingenuous” here. Here’s a question: If atheists are “buying into” a “notion of God,” who is selling it? What strikes me about this screed is that it should be directed at fundamentalists, not atheists, if Armstrong is being, dare I say, ingenuous in her complaints. When atheists (or theists, for that matter) complain about religious dogma interfering with medical research and civil rights and reproductive health and science education and sex ed and any number of other areas that affect all of us, we are not reacting to something that we’ve made up because we don’t like god. I understand Armstrong’s wish to disclaim her embarrassing relatives, but sorry, you can’t, not if you want to defend this plurality in scripture you’re positing, because that means their reading of “practice” is as valid as yours. But more importantly, if scripture is an ever-changing facilitator of subjective experience as opposed to an actual signifier of determinable meaning, what bloody good is it? This is all so goofy, I’m sorry, but believers do not read “sacred” texts the way they read John Grisham novels; they think there’s something magical about them. Otherwise, how are they special? How are they worthy of existing outside the frame of rationality that we place over everything else? What makes them worthy of faith?

Most provocative is Armstrong's focus on practice—on the activities that help a person engage with God: reading, singing, chanting, meditating, praying, and so on. She has a special affinity for the mystics. The yogi, the Christian mystic, the Kabbalist, the Sufi, the poet—all these, she argues, access transcendence through disciplined work, through failure, anxiety, and the redoubling of effort. By submitting to the unknown, mystics are supposed to become more wise and more loving. At its best, then, mythos has a positive, pragmatic effect on logos.

I may have to read this book, I guess, because I would love to know what it looks like when someone “submit[s] to the unknown.” Wtf does that mean, and why should I attempt it or value it? I want the unknown to become the known. That’s why I like education! And science. And the quest to cure cancer. And the space program. MRI. Pregnancy tests. (I could go on…) She talks about “enlightenment” but then describes its pursuit as “submitting to the unknown”? Sounds like a load of pseudo-intellectual baloney to me. When Socrates acknowledged that the wisest person understands that he knows nothing, he didn’t mean to suggest that we should celebrate ignorance as a virtue. Perhaps this is the main reason that what others call “spirituality” has never worked for me; I am never, ever happy about not knowing.

"The point of religion was to live intensely and richly here and now," she writes. "Religious people are ambitious…They tried to honor the ineffable mystery they sensed in each human being and create societies that honored the stranger, the alien, the poor, and the oppressed." It doesn't always work, she adds, but it's worth a try. (Critics will charge that Armstrong's affinity for mysticism leads her naively to overlook the destructive differences among religions. Like Robert Wright, whose recent book, The Evolution of God, argues for a kind of divine morality among humans, Armstrong is more of an optimistic about religion than a pessimist.)
Again: “ineffable mystery in each human being.” Don’t know what that means. Also, though, I flat do not believe this claim. A minute ago religion was individual and personal and all about each believer’s needs. Now it’s about honoring strangers and aliens? Again, what does that look like? The Christian Bible is unapologetically tribal. Oh, wait, those words in the book don’t actually mean what they say because they’re mutable and symbolic and all. So on what does she base these statements about the purpose of religion, if we can’t even take what the religious texts say at face value? I am getting so confused.
Armstrong's argument is prescient, for it reflects the most important shifts occurring in the religious landscape. In the West, believers are refocusing their attention away from creeds and on practice—on making the activity of faith meaningful in daily life.
I don’t care what people do with their own time, obviously, but when “practice” or “activity” includes attempting to inject your religion into the public schools or into the laws of the state, I will fight you every step. It doesn’t matter too much, though, because I do not believe this is true at all, that believers are moving away from creeds. It certainly is not true where I live.
Examples of this are legion: in the Bay Area, a new school called the Gamliel Institute teaches Jews in every denomination about chevra kadisha, the ancient mitzvah of washing and shrouding a dead body. In evangelical circles, Christians are turning away from salvation talk and toward helping the sick and the poor.
Bullshit. They are not. Churches have always involved themselves in ministering to the disadvantaged, which is lovely, but there is not some big movement going on—at least not in the US—toward doing so instead of talking about salvation. Sorry, no.
Pentecostalism, the fastest--growing brand of religion in the world, stresses the gifts of the spirit: healing, and speaking in tongues. In his new book, The Future of Faith, Harvard professor Harvey Cox calls this new era "the age of the spirit": "Faith, rather than beliefs, is once again becoming [Christianity's] defining quality," he writes.
WHAT? With no beliefs, what do you have faith in? That makes no sense!
For me, the most refreshing change of all is the possibility, clearly articulated in Armstrong's book, that belief in God requires uncertainty as much as certainty. Sixteen percent of Americans recently called themselves "unaffiliated," a figure that sent religious professionals scurrying for fixes and explanations. But these Americans may just be signaling to pollsters an unwillingness to choose sides.
Miller Is Newsweek’s Religion Editor.
If a belief requires uncertainty, I’m not sure you can even call it a belief without playing very loose with that word, but what matters here is that once again she asks me to rejoice in ignorance, now called “uncertainty,” and I reject that recommendation with everything I am; the thinker, the educator, the parent all recoil from such mealy-mouthed, self-effacing resignation.

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