Category Archives: Religion

Religionless Christianity

Now that the New Year is upon us, I’m anxiously awaiting word that my latest book, written during my 2015-16 sabbatical and under contract since last May, has successfully made it through the editing process at my publisher (it’s supposed to be coming my way for final revisions this month or next). It’s like waiting for a kid to be born.

WIrisorking on this book project during sabbatical put me back into direct conversation with a writer who over the past fifteen or so years has been as influential on my thinking and overall development as any other—Iris Murdoch.In preparation for the book I thought I was going to write during my previous sabbatical in spring 2009, I read all of her twenty-plus novels and her most important philosophical essays; over the past three months I have been reviewing well over a hundred pages of single-spaced notes I took as I wandered through her extensive body of work. Iris came into my life when I discovered that Simone Weil—a thinker so influential on my intellectual and spiritual development that Jeanne calls her my “mistress”—was similarly influential for Iris Murdoch. In her last completed work (she died in 1999 after several years of descent into the hell of Alzheimer’s), Murdoch asks a question that is arguably the central issue explored in both her fiction and her philosophical work—“What can we do now that there is no God?”

Writing in the decades after the Second World War, Murdoch assumes that human beings are required to grapple with a difficult world lacking the tools provided by traditional Christianity (or any other traditional religious framework). Yet she is by no means a happy atheist along the lines of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris or Daniel Dennett.ddh Murdoch believes that the traditional conception of the divine, along with the various frameworks that have traditionally surrounded that conception, is meaningless, yet points out that while it is easy to say that there is no God, it is not so easy to believe it and to draw the consequences. Human beings are not the sorts of creatures that can simply fill the vacuum created by the absence of God with the closest thing available. We are incapable, by sheer force of will, of addressing the spiritual hunger and need that now-defunct frameworks and vocabularies were intended to address. There is something in the human heart that needs to believe in something greater than ourselves.

The search for the transcendent, for what is greater than ourselves, in Murdoch’s hands becomes a high-wire act with no safety net. She sets for herself the task of finding out what can be preserved of belief in the transcendent and in moral goodness without the trappings of religion that have supported such beliefs—a “Religionless Christianity” if you will. She preserves the notion of faith, but without guarantees—persons with such faith intuit something greater than themselves but refuse to embrace traditional descriptions of this something. Murdoch calls such a person a “mystical hero”:e and m

The man who has given up traditional religion but is still haunted by a sense of the reality and unity of some sort of spiritual world. . . . This hero is the new version of the man of faith, believing in goodness without religious guarantees, guilty, muddled, yet not without hope. This image consoles by showing us man as frail, godless, and yet possessed of genuine intuitions of an authoritative good.

Such a person, Murdoch believes, will exhibit many of the characteristics that traditionally religious people might aspire to.

Our life is an interconnected whole and a religious man would feel responsible for the quality of all his thoughts and experiences . . . This sort of–perpetual work–seems to me what religion is . . . It’s humility, and unselfishness–and setting yourself aside to make room for other things, and people.nones

I thought of Murdoch’s mystical hero not long ago when reading an article describing how more and more of the students enrolled at various divinity schools across the country are unaffiliated with any religious denomination. Such students are called “nones” (pronounced “nuns”), since they are the sorts of people who check “None” when asked about their religious affiliation on a survey.

Secular Students Turn to Divinity School

I think this is very cool, but something tells me that many people would stop reading after finding out early in the article that nones are predominantly found at places inclined toward theologically and politically liberal Protestantism like Harvard Divinity School and Chicago Theological Seminary. “Well of course,” the complaint might go. “Such places are bastions of secular humanism with words like ‘Divinity’ or ‘Theological’ on their letterhead for show.” Such concerns are not unique to the Protestant flavor of Christianity; cinoI have taught for the past twenty-one years at a Catholic college that, at least according to its current President, seeks to thread the needle between extreme conservative Catholic campuses and larger Catholic Universities (usually Jesuit) that many judge as CINO (Catholic in name only).

The game of “who is more faithful to the message” is usually zero sum, though, and leaves little room for phenomena such as the nones. What might an agnostic or even an atheist find attractive about divinity school? Several of the nones interviewed in the article provide clear answers. “I am attracted to the search for social justice and for spiritual meaning. And I recognize those things as the fruits of religious tradition,” one none said. “So it makes sense to go to a place where you can study religious tradition.” Another could have been channeling Iris Murdoch: “If you were simply looking for the skills, you might go to the Kennedy School of Government . . . and philosophy and liberal-arts fields have given up on the project of finding a moral language, an articulation of values. That language isn’t found in many places. And when you find it, it’s not easy to abstract it. You have to connect it to a tradition.” I am currently leading a discussion group at church using a text about knowing God written with millennials in mind; current research shows that one-third of millennials are nones. Where are such persons to find a spiritual home or community? If Iris Murdoch is right, the answer to that question will require great creativity and courage across the board, even in traditional places where such creative and courageous challenges to the status quo seem to strike at the very heart of what the place stands for.eckhart

I am not a none, but only because I believe that the Christian tradition is broad and resilient enough to accommodate outliers with the nerve to call themselves freelance Christians. And a “heads up” to the nones who are deliberately placing themselves in the atmosphere of divinity school—you never can tell what might happen. Meister Eckhart, a medieval Dominican monk who almost lost his life due to his out of the box theology, wrote that “God begets his Son in you whether you like it or not, whether you sleep or wake—still God is at work.” And more recently, Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber reported that a person wrote her a worried email:

I think I’m having a crisis of faith . . . I think I believe in Jesus.

nadiaTo which Nadia replied:

I’m so sorry. But sometimes Jesus just hunts your ass down and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Learning Our Lessons

I’ve often said during my close to three decades of teaching philosophy on the college level that I did not enter academia because it’s one of the few places a philosopher can find to make a living. I entered academia because I wanted to be a college professor—philosophy just happened to be the disciplinary vehicle that got me there. If it hadn’t been philosophy, it would have been history (and if it hadn’t been history it would have been literature . . .). Whatever it took to get me into the academic life. My approach to philosophy has always been contextual and historical; I have taken great delight in teaching regularly in an interdisciplinary course with a historian for over twenty years. As it turns out, my reading for the first ten days or so of Winter Break has reflected my love of history. Moving backwards from the first decade of the twentieth century to Ancient Rome, I have been reminded of just how relevant history is to understanding the present.

Everyone knows a version of the truism that “those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it,” but few know where the original of the truism came from. As it turns out, lots of people have said something along these lines, from Edmund Burke (“Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it”) and George Santayana (“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”) to Jesse Ventura (“Learn from history or you’re doomed to repeat it”) and Lemony Snickett (“Those unable to catalog the past are doomed to repeat it”). I finished the second half of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit just before Christmas. Goodwin tells the story of the first decade of the twentieth century, focusing on Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, two of the towering political figures of the time. I am a great fan of Goodwin’s work and anxiously awaited reading The Bully Pulpit between semesters after her October lecture on campus as part of my college’s centennial celebration.

The period of American history between the Civil War and the Great Depression has always been somewhat of an empty field for me, so I was fascinated to find that the politics of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had a remarkably contemporary feel. A progressive movement (within the Republican party, no less) favoring the rights and interests of “the little man” is being resisted by big money, huge trusts and corporations run by fabulously wealthy individuals who are loath to release even a molecule of their power. The centers of activity are different from today—the progressive movement is centered in Kansas, Iowa, Minnesota, and the West with conservative resistance centered in the Northeast, but questions about how economics, politics, the common good, and foreign interests should be balanced were the same then as they are today. The Great Depression that followed within a decade after the end of the events in The Bully Pulpit shows that they did not figure things out very well back then—will we do better? The best I can say is that the jury is out on that one.

My favorite takeaway from The Bully Pulpit is entirely personal. Threaded throughout the book are the stories of two remarkable marriages, Teddy and Edith Roosevelt, side by side with William and Nelly Taft. The letters exchanged were intimate and revealing, including the following tribute from William to Nelly which I copied verbatim into Jeanne’s Christmas card:

I cannot tell you what a comfort it is to me to think of you as my wife and helpmeet. I measure every woman I meet with you and they are all found wanting. Your character, your independence, your straight mode of thinking, your quiet planning, your loyalty, your sympathy when I need it (as I do too readily), your affection and love (for I know I have it), all these make me happy just to think about them.

“Wow,” Jeanne said on Christmas morning, “you could have written that!” She also claimed, as did Nellie, that she didn’t deserve such a tribute—but Bill and I know better.

Photo by Chris Boland,

After The Bully Pulpit, it was on to SPQR (Senatus PopulusQue Romanus–“the Senate and people of Rome”), Mary Beard’s recent history of ancient Rome. One of my teaching partners this past semester in the interdisciplinary course in which I regularly teach is a classicist whose specialty is ancient Rome; when Fred gave the book an enthusiastic thumbs-up, I put it on my between-semesters reading list. I’m currently about half way through the book, and am reminded on almost every page to what extent the ancient Romans shaped our contemporary world. The issues they grappled with are still with us, issues almost too numerous to list. One in particular has caught my attention in SPQR, something about the Romans that I did not know until my colleague stressed it in a couple of lectures this past semester. Unique among ancient civilizations, the Romans were remarkably willing to incorporate outsiders into their world, not just as visitors, marginal members of society, or conquered people, but as citizens. The Romans were notably tolerant of different ways of doing things, an attitude that is, at least theoretically, something that we value in our country. Although the Romans were often suspicious and xenophobic in their initial actions toward others, the inhabitants of conquered territories were gradually given full Roman citizenship, along with the legal rights and protections that went with it. This openness, at least in theory, is something that we have aspired to during our country’s short history—which makes the current swing toward suspicion and concern about “the Other” in our politics and social attitudes so disturbing.

There are reasons, of course, to be careful about openness—like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, one never knows what one might end up with. One interesting example from SPQR illustrates the point. Roman religion was complex, with a pantheon of gods and goddesses and a dizzying array of practices and festivals to honor them, events that also marked celebration of culture and what it meant to be Roman. But the Romans were also remarkably open to incorporating new deities and practices into their religion. In the early part of the second century BCE, the Great Mother goddess, the focus of worship in part of Roman territories in Asia Minor, was brought with great fanfare into Rome, at the advice of an ancient oracle, to be incorporated into the Roman pantheon. She was the patron deity of Troy, the mythical ancestral home of Rome, so in a sense the Great Mother belonged in Rome. Beard reports that the temple built to house her “would be the first building in Rome, so far as we know, constructed using that most Roman of materials . . . concrete.” A deputation was sent to Asia Minor to collect the image of the goddess and transport her back—a deputation that included a highly placed senator and a Vestal Virgin. But, as Beard relates, “not everything was quite as it seemed.”

The image of the goddess was not what the Romans could possibly have been expecting. It was a large black meteorite, not a conventional statue in human form. And the meteorite came accompanied by a retinue of priests. These were self-castrated eunuchs, with long hair, tambourines and a passion for self-flagellation. This was all about as un-Roman as you could imagine. And forever after it raised uncomfortable questions about “the Roman” and “the foreign,” and where the boundary between them lay.

These are exactly the sorts of questions we must struggle with today. We might say that we will be accepting of the “Other” just as long as that Other over time becomes like we are. But what exactly are we? Romans regularly welcomed all sorts of people and practices into their sphere, and then had to grapple with the implications of openness. We must do the same, all the time remembering that were it not for a fundamental openness to strangers and the “Other” in our history, most of us would not be here.

Being a Fanatic

Both the men’s and women’s basketball teams are off to great starts, just as the soccer team completed an Elite Eight season. I am happy to reminded of why I am a sports fanatic . . .

Sunday morning kneeling at the altar rail as the communion assembly line does its thing is not a great place to be having less-than-holy thoughts. Up past midnight the night before, up at six this morning, I could think of dozens of things I’d rather be doing than being in church. The communion procession approached from my right–“The body of Christ, the body of Christ, the body of Christ . . .” I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t have to be, I thought. I am so unprepared for the discussion group I’m leading after church. I hope someone has something interesting to say, because I sure as hell don’t. My buddy Bruce, one of the morning’s chalice bearers along with his wife Cathi, approached from the right with cup in hand. “The blood of Christ, the blood of Christ, the blood of Christ . . .” go friarsI looked up as Bruce lowered the cup to me. “Go Friars!”

Bruce gets it. Eucharist celebrations come and go—I could celebrate every day if I wanted to (I don’t). But the Providence Friars basketball team winning the Big East Tournament title? That happens once every twenty years. Literally. On a March Saturday in 1994, I received the call we had been hoping and praying I would receive—the offer of a tenure-track teaching position in the philosophy department at Providence College. CBUIt was the ticket for my family of misplaced Northerners out of Memphis, the South, and the little college that was my first teaching job out of graduate school. Since it was March, it was also March Madness—the best sports month of the year. The final game of the Big East tournament was on—underdog Providence College playing the evil and strongly favored Georgetown Hoyas. A few minutes later Jeanne returned from grocery shopping—“Come watch your new basketball team on TV!” I yelled out the door toward the driveway. The Friars pulled off the big upset—their only Big East tournament championship in the thirty-five year history of the Big East conference. Until last Saturday, that is. Up well past midnight watching their victory, up early to read as many articles about it on the Internet as I could find—no wonder I was bleary-eyed at the altar rail.

I am a sports fan in the true sense of the word—a “fanatic.” This is not easily accounted for. I am not an athlete—the only sports I ever have been decent at are skiing and tennis. I grew up in northern New England, hundreds of miles from any sports beyond high school. But I was a fan of all sports from an early age, a fanaticism that has distilled, as an adult, to theBoston strong Boston Red Sox and the Providence Friars. My passion for college basketball in general, and the Friars in particular, surprised my students and colleagues when I first arrived on campus, although it should not have surprised my colleagues. During a lunch with the philosophy faculty that was part of my on-campus interview in February 1994, someone asked “why do you want to teach at Providence College?’ The honest answer was that I wanted a tenure track job somewhere other than Tennessee. I think the continuation of my marriage depended on it. The answer I actually gave included some making some noise about wanting to teach at a place that takes philosophy seriously, focuses on the history of philosophy, and so on. On a more personal level, I continued, my wife and I badly want to return to our native Northeast (she’s from Brooklyn, I’m from Vermont). I concluded my response by mentioning that Division One basketball was also a very attractive feature of working at Providence College. There were a few snickers and smiles—but I wasn’t kidding.

I’m a different person entirely at a basketball game. It’s a great place for my inner beast to come out—even introverts have one of those—in ways that sometimes even I am surprised by. Once during our second year at Providence, when my season tickets were still in an upper deck nosebleed section, we were given two seats on the court by the Admissions Director Jeanne worked for. It was not a pretty game—we were being beaten by Iona. Providence should never be beaten by Iona, so obviously it was the referees’ fault. After a particularly horrendous call, one of the zebras went trotting by our seatszebra, just a few feet away, causing me to scream in his direction, along with several thousand other fans, just what was on my mind. A few seconds later I asked Jeanne “Did I just call the ref a fucking asshole?” “Yes you did,” she replied. That’s why I love basketball games—they provide the opportunity for unfiltered expression of what I really am feeling and thinking. Later in the game I looked up toward our usual seats where my son Justin was sitting. As he screamed with a beet-red face and veins popping out of his neck, I wondered “Why is he getting so upset? It’s just a game. Where does he get that from?”

I have had two season tickets in Section 104 for the past nineteen years. Section 104 is a family sectionS of A—if your family has a “Sons of Anarchy” disposition. Once several years ago a young man a couple of rows in front of me, the son of one of the season ticket holders, was telling a story to a friend during a timeout with all the energy, volume, and foul language that a half-inebriated twenty-something male can muster. “HE SAID BLAH BLAH BLAH SO I SAID GO F%&K YOURSELF! THEN HE SAID BLAH BLAH BLAH SO I SAID  GO F%&K YOURSELF!!” After a few more GFYs, a guy in the front row of the section turned around and yelled “Hey! Knock it off! I’ve got my wife with me!” The young guy apologized—“sorry, man”—but front row guy wouldn’t let it go and kept complaining. Before long, GFY guy goes “I SAID I WAS SORRY!! GO F%&K YOURSELF!!Me on the JumbotronI love Section 104.

I knew something special was up two weeks ago, at the final home game of the season. Our opponent, as it turns out, was my alma mater Marquette Warriors who had defeated us nine straight times over the past few years. It was Senior Night, with a pre-game ceremony honoring the five seniors on what has
turned out to be my favorite Friars team of the nineteen I have followed since showing up in Providence. During the first timeout, my seat was chosen, out of 11,000 plus fans, as the “lucky seat” of the night. I was interviewed briefly, was on the Jumbotron for half a minute, and got a signed basketball. We then proceeded to win a double-overtime game that I pronounced to be the best basketball game I had ever seen. And it was. Until last Saturday night. We were, against all expectations and predictions, playing in the championship game of the Big East tournament for the first time in twenty years. We were playing Creighton University, the twelfth-ranked team in the country who had beaten the crap out of us by fifteen points just a week earlier. 1981970_950337533977_574254381_nBut it was one of those magical nights that happens every once in a while in college basketball. The Friars flawlessly executed a brilliant game plan concocted by the coaching staff, led the whole way, and won the championship. As they celebrated and cut down the Madison Square Garden nets in front of a national television audience, I had tears in my eyes.

Why am I a fanatic? There are all sorts of reasons a basketball obsessed academic might come up with. College basketball at its best is teamwork, dedication, solidarity, hope, and dreams on display. I have a colleague who teaches a “Philosophy of Sport” course, although I’ve never seen him at a game. I could teach that course. But for me this is personal. I suspect that my youngest son’s top five memories of his childhood involve being at a basketball game with me. I organize my memories of the past two decades by reference to memorable games and teams. fanaticsThere’s something excitingly visceral and primal about being in a crowd of several thousand cheering so loudly that the building vibrates. But bottom line I love being a fan because it reminds me that I’m more than a brain, more than the sum total of the roles I play, even though I love every one of them. Being a fan reminds me that there is still a kid inside who can get inexplicably excited, to the point of hyperventilation and tears, over something that makes no sense other than that I love it. Forty years from now, when I have just turned 100 in a nursing home, I will probably die of a heart attack as the Friars win their first national championship with a buzzer beating three-pointer. I’m good with that.

What Cuba Taught Me About My Faith

For many reasons, I have been interested in Cuba for the past dozen years or so. With Fidel Castro’s death a few days ago, all sorts of memories and thoughts have flooded back. The standard news coverage has been of the “Miami Cubans” dancing in the streets and celebrating, various political figures noting the passage of a repressive dictator, and speculation about how soon capitalist markets will start influencing Cuba’s socialist economy. My own experiences with Cuba brought me to very different attitudes about our neighbor 90 miles to the south, as I described in my article entitled “Shattering the Myths About Cuba,” included in one of my college’s publications in the Spring of 2004 . . .

The story is told that Augustine used to get annoyed at his students when, as he pointed toward something that he wished them to consider, they focused their attention on his finger instead. Anyone who is–or ever has been–a teacher will understand Augustine’s frustration. As a philosophy professor, I know that the most crucial, yet most difficult lesson to teach is the lesson of learning to “see beyond seeing,” of discovering what russellBertrand Russell called “the strangeness and wonder lying just below the surface even in the commonest things of daily life.” In its most practical applications, this lesson shows us that often what we believe we “know,” what seems most self-evident and obvious, is an opaque barrier that prevents us from being open to the possibility of better knowledge.

I traveled to Cuba last summer for a week-long visit as a member of a 12-person delegation of professionals, nine of them from Rhode Island. There were a number of interrelated goals for our visit, including visiting the Latin American Medical School in Havana (where a number of American students are studying at the invitation of President Fidel Castro, free of charge), learning firsthand about Latin American School Of Medical SciencesCuba’s admirable universal health care system, visiting a number of multicultural centers to learn about Cuba’s commitment to education and cultural development, and laying preliminary foundations for educational exchanges between Cuban and Rhode Island institutes of higher education.

The greatest impact of this trip on me, however, was that it shattered everything I “knew” about Cuba. This shattering has made it possible for me to reflect ever since my return on what the undermining of these “truths” might reveal concerning deeper human issues.

I was born in the 1950s, in the middle of the Cold War. One of my earliest memories from the nightly television news was the failed bay-of-pigsBay of Pigs invasion; I was 6 years old during the perilous days of the Cuban Missile Crisis. My attitudes concerning Cuba were fashioned during those early years and remained largely the same ever since. I did not claim to know much about Cuba, but there were several things that were clear and beyond question. Cuba is an enemy, aligned with everything our country despises–a likely terrorist state, a repressor of religious and secular freedoms, a violator of human rights, an embarrassing challenge to what is most near and dear to us, a mere 90 miles off our coast. Not that I, as an educated, independent thinking adult would ever consciously allow that I carried these largely unchallenged assumptions around with me; I’m not sure that I knew of my preconceptions until I visited Cuba. elian-gonzalezI never even thought about Cuba except when some event deemed newsworthy, such as the Elian Gonzalez case, brought the island to my attention.

When, before the delegation’s trip to Cuba, I was asked what my expectations of the visit were, I continually said that I had no expectations–I was going with an open mind, the classic case of the tabula rasa, the “blank slate” that John Locke claimed all human beings are born with. Little did I know just how much would have to be erased from my slate before I could truly see. I, for instance, thought that I “knew” there was very little, if any, religious freedom in Cuba. After all, Cuba is a Communist country whose official stance on religion, in the style of the former Soviet Union, is atheism, right? Imagine our surprise when we discovered that religious faith is not only alive in Cuba, it is flourishing.

On a bright and sunny Father’s Day morning, our delegation’s first full day in Cuba, we attended services at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Marianao, ebenezer-baptistone of the many economically impoverished neighborhoods in Havana. In a hot and stuffy auditorium packed with persons of all ages and colors, we observed the most active and vibrant church service that I, a lifelong churchgoer, have experienced in years. The worship was filled with contemporary liturgical dance, congregational singing and participation, and testimonials (including a touching tribute to fathers from a young girl around 12 years of age, read in Spanish and English, that brought tears to the eyes of many of the fathers present). After this, the pastor and one of his guest ministers from Colombia delivered brief talks about the need for men to overcome “machismo” and open their minds and hearts to the voices of women.

Uncovering false “truths”

Two days later, more “truths” about Cuba were proven false when our delegation had the opportunity to return to Ebenezer Baptist and its accompanying Martin Luther King, Jr. Center in order to meet withpastor-suarez Rev. Raul Suarez, the pastor of the church. When the Cuban Revolution succeeded in 1959, 90% of the pastors in Cuba fled for other countries, believing that religion and belief in God would no longer be tolerated. Rev. Suarez and a few others stayed, however, He explained, in his own words, “If Communism is the big bad wolf, we need to protect our sheep.” By staying, he realized immediately that the lives of the people in Cuba were being improved by the Castro government’s commitment to 100% literacy, to universal health care and education, to true socialist principles, and to equal access to and excellence in sports and the arts.

Rev. Suarez described for us how the Cuban Revolution caused him to rethink his faith and evolve from a conventional Southern Baptist minister to a proponent of liberation-theology“liberation theology,” from advocacy of spiritual wealth in the next world to a vision of radical social change in this world, and from silence to active leadership in the struggles against racism, poverty, and other societal ills. He described that he had been taught what Christians supposedly could not have (they could not smoke, dance, drink, etc.), but “no one taught us that poverty is a sin. That ignorance is a sin. That racism is a sin. That economic inequality is a sin. The Revolution taught us that.”

His church, once a largely white church in a predominantly black neighborhood, is now a powerful instrument for social change and improvement, dedicated to the betterment of human lives as they are lived in this world as well as to the tending of spiritual needs.

Church and State dialogue

So how do things stand between church and state in Cuba? Very differently than U.S. citizens are led to believe. Over the past 20 years, there has been a continuing dialogue between Cuban ministers of all faiths and the Cuban government. At the first of these meetings, the ministers told Fidel Castro that the official position of atheism was hurting the Cuban people and that Christianity is a religion meant to help the people, not to be enclosed within church walls. Castro said to the ministers: “You work in your churches and help them to understand us better, and I’ll work with my people and help them to understand you better. And my work will be more difficult than yours.”castro-and-pope

Incrementally, things changed so that by 1991, atheism was eliminated as a requirement for membership in the Communist party, all reference to Marxism/Leninism as the official philosophy of the Cuban government was eliminated from the constitution, Christians were allowed access to all professions, were granted full access to all means of communication to spread the good news of the Gospel, and were allowed to establish new congregations across the country. The congregations of all denominations in Cuba are continuing to grow rapidly to this day.

This is but one example of how the truth about Cuba turned out to be quite different than what I believed it to be. I could have written a similar article about the political process in Cuba, human rights violations in Cuba compared to such violations in this country, or how our “free” press in the United States regularly distorts the truth about what is occurring in Cuba.

As a philosopher, I find an important lesson beneath these different factual issues. As human beings, our frequent natural tendency is to assume that we know the truth about a given thing, then to selectively interpret the “facts” to fit our preconceived piece of knowledge. Whether in religion, politics, social structures, interpersonal relationships, or simply regular day-to-day existence, this is a tendency that must be actively and consciously resisted. bonhoefferThe truth, for human beings at least, does not come in bumper sticker-sized, “sound bite” form. To believe that it does leads to rigidity, absoluteness, and blindness to the evolving nature of our interaction with what is true. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the 20th-century German Protestant theologian murdered by the Nazis in the final days of World War II, wrote, “The responsible man has no principle at his disposal which possesses absolute validity and which ha has to put into effect fanatically, overcoming all the resistance which is offered to it.”

In a world of ideology presented as self-evident certainty, the following warning from Albert Camus is worth taking seriously: “On the whole, men are more good than bad; that, however, isn’t the real point. But they are more or less ignorant, and it is this that we call vice or virtue; the most incorrigible vice being that of an ignorance that fancies it knows everything . . .”

Life After Tuesday

facebook-friendA Facebook friend, who has helped the traffic on this blog increase exponentially over the past few weeks by sharing my posts on various Facebook pages that she administers, challenged me in a Facebook message the other day:

If you don’t already have your topics set for the next week, I’d love to see something that addresses the effect that this election time is having on relationships—family and friends—and, maybe how to move through and past it . . . to “healing.”

I responded that my posts for the coming week were written and scheduled, but I would take a shot at something shortly after the election. It has turned out to be one of the most challenging posts to write of the hundreds I’ve posted here over the past four-plus years, for reasons I’ll describe below. t-v-hBut it strikes me that it is worthwhile for all of us to think today—the day before the election that will (hopefully) put an end to one of the nastiest and most divisive Presidential campaigns in American history (certainly in my lifetime)—about how we will move forward after tomorrow. Regardless of the result in tomorrow’s presidential vote, more than forty percent of those who voted will believe that voters have made a horrible mistake, our country is swirling its way down the drain, and life as we have known it will not continue. But believe it or not, no matter who is elected President tomorrow, the apocalypse will not be triggered, Wednesday will dawn, and we will have to figure out what to do next. Good luck to us.

The philosophy department on my campus, of which I have been a member for twenty-two years (and which I chaired from 2004-08), has over the past two or three years earned a college-wide reputation for being one of the most dysfunctional departments on campus (only one or two other departments are serious competitors with my department for the title). Three weeks ago our dysfunction was on full display in an important meeting—without revealing confidential matters, I have told various people since then that the fault lines at the meeting were so deep that something like the following was regularly on display, at least by some colleagues:idiot “If you don’t agree with me, then you either didn’t take the time to become aware of the facts, you are stupid, or you are immoral.” No fourth option, such as “we have all done our homework, are familiar with the facts, have made a principled decision, and we just happen to disagree,” seemed to be available. I am always dismayed by such “discussions,” believing that the prohibited fourth option often happens to be the truth. But in thinking about that meeting, I’ve come to realize that when it comes to the almost-completed Presidential campaign, I have often found myself thinking of those persons likely to vote for the major candidate other than the one I will vote for tomorrow in precisely the same ways as were on display at the recent department meeting: If you vote for that “other person,” you must either be ignorant, a moron, or dangerously lacking in moral principles.

I doubt that I am alone in having effectively constructed a political echo chamber over the past several months in which I hear only voices that I want to hear. I only listen to radio and television stations likely to lean toward my own political and social beliefs and commitments. When such stations, in the interest of “balance,” include voices from the other side of things, I mute the machine or turn it off. When my candidate is having a good week or the opponent is not, I’ve been known to watch or listen to 2-3 straight hours of talking heads on my preferred stations. But when my candidate has a bad week or stumbles in some way, game-showsI would rather watch “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy” than news analysis. My 650+ Facebook acquaintances have been carefully culled on several occasions to weed out persons who might have the audacity to post materials and arguments supporting the other side. It’s not just that I don’t want to hear arguments intended to challenge my own—I know that such arguments are out there and I reject them out of hand. It’s also that listening to more than a minute or so of representatives of that other candidate’s perspectives literally starts making me ill. I am one of those people who has said that if my candidate’s opponent wins, we’re moving to Canada. Enough of this shit.

I should know better than this. The other day in my General Ethics class, I reminded my students of a passage from an interview that was part of the day’s assignment. Toward the end of the interview, the interviewee said that “A sense of responsibility about one’s beliefs, a willingness to defend them if challenged, and a willingness to listen to the reasons given by others is one of the guiding ideals of a civil society.” The interview focused on the often fraught dynamic between atheism and theism, but the interviewee’s comments have direct application to our lives as citizens of a democracy. As we discussed the interview and accompanying article, I reminded my students that when someone presents an argument whose conclusion is something you disagree with strongly, the proper response is not “that person is an idiot,” or, slightly more charitably but just as illogically, disagree“I disagree, therefore that person is wrong.” In philosophy, you have to earn the right to have an opinion, I often tell my students—and earning the right to an opinion involves careful reasoning, argumentation, and above all cultivating the ability to listen, even to those with whom you disagree most strongly. But I, along with just about everyone else during our current political cycle, have been doing none of this. Consequently, we no longer have a civil society.

No matter how things turn out tomorrow, the apocalypse will not happen, the sun will rise on Wednesday morning entirely oblivious to what happened on Tuesday, and we will all be faced with a huge question: Now what? Forget the ruptures in our national fabric; for many Americans, the problems are personal. This election has divided friends and families in ways that might seem impossible to repair. civil-war-brothersI heard someone the other day liken the problem to members of the same family fighting on opposite sides during the Civil War a century and a half ago. That’s an extreme comparison, but it is difficult to imagine these divisions healing with the simple passage of time. Truth be told, I’m not sure that I’m ready to do my part in helping with that healing. I don’t even want to imagine the feeling in my house if our candidate does not win tomorrow. If our candidate does win, self-satisfaction and relief may well overwhelm concerns about healing for a while. But there will be life after Tuesday–and I do have a recent personal example of how people with very different convictions can coexist in peace and love.

Earlier this year, Jeanne and I had the opportunity to spend some time with my cousins and their families for the first time in many years. They know us to be dedicated liberals and we know them to be committed conservatives—the-cousinsthese differences spread across social policies, politics, and religion. Yet a wonderful time was had by all, and nary a discouraging or inflammatory word was heard.When we left to head for home, as he helped me put our luggage in the car my cousin said, “This is amazing—you’re a liberal, I’m a conservative, and yet we haven’t argued once.” We gave each other virtual high-fives over that amazing development. How did we manage to spend several evenings together without spouting incompatible talking points? Not simply by avoiding minefield conversations by talking about the weather and sports (although we did talk about both of those on occasion). We had a wonderful time because we continually sought out what we share in common—histories, faith, pets, kids, and more. We shared decades of stories, many of which were new to some of those present, talked about common interests, and were reminded that what truly connects human beings together is far more important, with the long-term in view, than what divides us.

I need—we all need—to remember this as we look forward to our shared lives past Tuesday. Don’t define people by what they post on social media. important-issuesDon’t assume you know anything about someone simply because you discover that they do not share all of your most important beliefs. Don’t get me wrong—this is going to be very difficult for all of us. It’s not as if the issues that have divided our country so sharply are unimportant; they are crucially important. But even more crucially important is our shared humanity and the fact that we all must find ways to share our nation, our communities, our circle of friends, and our families while believing very differently on issues that matter. Perhaps a good place to start is to replace the time spent on social media and listening to radio or television analysis with spending time in the company of real human beings. We might be amazed to discover how much we share in common.

To My Satisfaction

One morning in response to a recent blog post, a friend and colleague sent me the following email:

One thing I’ve been struggling with . . . is the (im)possibility of certainty in the realm of religious belief/faith. How does one lead a religious / faithful life without ‘certainty’ that God exists, for example? Does one’s faith in God amount to a kind of certainty? If it doesn’t, how can it stand on a firm foundation?

GuttingIt is no surprise that one of my blog posts raises such questions, since I have grappled with related issues for as long as I can remember. Over the past several months the New York Times has published a series of interviews on its “Opinionator” blog in which Gary Gutting, a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, explores the topic of whether belief in something greater than ourselves is rational with several contemporary academics whose work intersects with such questions. These interviews have caused me to return yet again to a well-worn theme: how can I profess to be both a person of faith and a philosopher at the same time?  

Antony bookOne of these interviews was with Louise Antony, a professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. She is the editor of Philosophers without Gods: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life and represents the hardcore atheist position among Gutting’s six interviewees. In response to Gutting’s query as to why she is an atheist, going beyond the agnostic position that we cannot know whether God exists or not to the more definitive position that one can know that God does not exist, Anthony explains:

When I claim to know that there is no God, I mean that the question is settled to my satisfaction. athiest theistI don’t have any doubts. I don’t say that I am agnostic, because I disagree with those who say it’s not possible to know whether or not God exists. I think it’s possible to know. And I think the balance of evidence and argument has a definite tilt. . . . The main issue is supernaturalism—I deny that there are beings or phenomena outside the scope of natural law.

I must confess that I found much of the succeeding conversation to be tiresome and spinning its wheels in bottomless intellectual ruts. Antony will only accept a specific type of evidence—that which can be verified within the parameters of the laws of nature. The theist makes a serious mistake when she or he agrees to play the “does God exist?” game by these rules. In truth, Antony’s belief that “everything is the product of mindless natural laws acting on mindless matter” operating according to the inexorable laws of nature is as much an act of faith as the theist’s belief that there is at least one being—God—that transcends those laws.

sastisfactionOf greater interest is her claim that “the question is settled to my satisfaction,” because this raises the threshold of conviction question. Just how convinced does someone have to be of the truth of something before further investigation is stopped? Is the threshold of conviction different from person to person? And if so, how can a person with a low threshold of conviction fruitfully converse with the doubter or skeptic whose threshold is significantly higher? Gutting and Antony’s conversation shifts in this direction when it moves its focus from scientific to experiential evidence. Gutting asks What do you make of the claim from many theists that the best evidence for the existence of something greater than us is direct religious experience? imagesCAN6WX2YAfter denying that she has had such experiences, Antony offers a connective bridge that many atheists refuse to consider.

O.K., if you hold my feet to the fire, I’ll admit that I believe I know what sort of experiences the theists are talking about, that I’ve had such experiences, but I don’t think they have the content the theists assign to them. I’ve certainly had experiences I would call “profound.” . . . I’ve been tremendously moved by demonstrations of personal courage (not mine!), generosity, sympathy. I’ve had profound experiences of solidarity, when I feel I’m really together with other people working for some common goal. These are very exhilarating and inspiring experiences, but they are very clearly about human beings—human beings at their best.

Shifting the conversation from the ways in which we describe our experiences to the content of those experiences offers an opportunity for new understanding.

Antony’s comments remind me of a long-standing problem that I had with my father well into my adulthood. From my earliest memories, he peppered his conversations with phrases like “God told me that . . .,” “the Lord directed me to . . .,” and “I was going to do ___, but God told me not to,” bush and godgiving the impression that he and the Divine had a direct line of communication others did not have access to. Knowing that I had no such direct line, I had no idea what the experience of talking directly to God was like. After many years of first thinking I was my father’s spiritual inferior, then thinking that he was simply nuts, one day in my early thirties in response to yet another “God told me that” pronouncement I confronted him. “You say that all the time—what exactly does it feel or sound like when God says something to you?” Taken aback by what he perceived as an attack from his passive, introverted son he grew a bit defensive. “Well, you know, it’s a strong feeling, an intuition, a sense that I should do this rather than that.” “It’s not a voice?” I asked. “No—it hasn’t been yet, at least,” he replied. “I know what those sorts of experiences are like,” I sputtered—“I just don’t call them God talking to me!” And for the first time we had come to at least a partial truce. imagesCACEO8TNOur failure to communicate was the result of vastly different language, not vastly different experiences.

In a moment of the sort that is all too rare in conversations between atheists and theists, Antony suggests that we focus our attention on the experiences that all human beings share, not on the various sorts of descriptions and explanations that divide them. Because after all, just how important is it, in the larger scheme of things, to be absolutely right about something that is ultimately beyond the reach of our usual sorts of evidence?

AntonyWhy do theists care so much about belief in God? [And, I might add, why do atheists care so much about not believing in God?] Disagreement over that question is really no more than a difference in philosophical opinion. Specifically, it’s just a disagreement about ontology—about what kinds of things exist. Why should a disagreement like that bear any moral significance? Why shouldn’t theists just look for allies among us atheists in the battles that matter—the ones concerned with justice, civil rights, peace, etc.—and forget about our differences with respect to such arcane matters as the origins of the universe?nuns and soldiers

This strikes me as wise advice. As Anne Cavidge says in Iris Murdoch’s Nuns and Soldiers,

What do my thoughts matter, what do their details matter, what does it matter whether Jesus Christ redeemed the world or not, it doesn’t matter, our minds can’t grasp such things, it’s all too obscure, too vague, the whole matrix shifts and we shift with it. What does anything matter except helping one or two people who are nearby, doing what’s obvious? We can see so little of the great game.

At the very least, Louise Antony suggests, theists and atheists should practice basic charity when involved in their seemingly interminable debates.

I believe I have reasons for my position, and I expect that theists believe they have reasons for theirs. Let’s agree to pay each other the courtesy of attending to the particulars.

What Do You Want From Your Religion?

About half way through the 1989 film “Field of Dreams,” Ray Kinsella (played by Kevin Costner) and Terrence Mann (played by James Earl Jones) are in the bowels of my beloved Fenway Park. Ray has brought Terry there in an attempt to involve him in a ludicrous scheme that Mann is trying to resist getting sucked into. Mann was a major player in the 60s civil rights and anti-Viet Nam protests who now, twenty years later, is tired of being everyone’s unofficial guru and voice of the flower power generation. He just wants to be left alone. “So what do you want?” Ray asks Terry.ray-and-terry

Terry: I want them to stop looking to me for answers, begging me to speak again, write again, be a leader. I want them to start thinking for themselves. I want my privacy.

Ray: (gesturing to the concession stand they are in front of) No, I mean, what do you WANT?

Terry: Oh. Dog and a beer.

Sometimes what we claim to want and what we really want are two entirely different things. Often our expressed desires for lofty sounding goals and achievements are, in reality, a cry for at least some sort of guidance on how to make it through our days and weeks with a modicum of our integrity and character intact. None of us comes into the world knowing how to live a good human life—all of us need as much help as possible. Last week I worked with my General Ethics students on an article with the attention-getting title “Does It Matter Whether God Exists?” that begins with a provocative quote from John Gray, an atheist philosopher:religions

In many religions—polytheism, Hinduism and Buddhism, Daoism and Shinto, many strands of Judaism and some Christian and Muslim traditions—belief is of little or no importance. Rather, practice—ritual, meditation, a way of life—is what counts . . . It’s only religious fundamentalists and ignorant rationalists who think the myths we live by are literal truths . . . what we believe doesn’t in the end matter very much. What matters is how we live.

Careful there, dude—I grew up with the “religious fundamentalists and ignorant rationalists who think the myths we live by are literal truths” who you are stereotyping. But Gary Gutting, the author of the article who teaches at the University of Notre Dame, observes that a religious person need not respond to someone like Gray defensively or with outrage.gutting

It all depends on what you hope to find in a religion. If your hope is simply for guidance and assistance in leading a fulfilling life here on earth, then a “way of living” without firm beliefs in any supernatural being may well be all you need.

Gutting’s comment reminds me of something I once heard a Jewish colleague say: “Judaism is the only monotheistic religion that one can be part of and also be an atheist.” What, I asked my predominantly Catholic juniors and seniors, could my colleague have meant by that? Although such a comment was outside the normal frame of reference for many of them, they realized that, despite typical preconceptions and assumptions, there might be reasons for placing oneself in a religious tradition that have nothing to do with God. Judaism, for instance, is a way of life for my colleague, providing the traditions, practices, moral guidance, and community support that every human being seeks, at least occasionally, as we construct frameworks of meaning and purpose around our lives.

There are also many groups of Christians for whom the Christian faith is about how to live a good and flourishing human life now; the texts and traditions of Christianity undoubtedly provide a great deal of guidance concerning how to do just that. And, as the atheist quoted at the beginning of Gary Gutting’s article provocatively points out, what one believes or does not believe concerning God need not be important for such people. sermon-on-the-mountI can (sort of) imagine, for instance, an atheist finding a great deal of direct guidance for how to live a good human life from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel without feeling obligated to sign on the dotted line concerning anything about God’s existence and nature. Such guidance, of course, can be found in all sorts of place, both religious and non-religious; one’s choice of which framework to adopt will depend largely on one’s history, personality, commitments both social and political, and simply where one finds oneself most at home.

But, of course, many persons of faith want a lot more from their religion than just daily guidance for how to live a life. Gutting continues:

But many religions, including mainline versions of Christianity and Islam, promise much more. They promise ultimate salvation. If we are faithful to their teachings, they say, we will be safe from final annihilation when we die and will be happy eternally in our life after death. If our hope is for salvation in this sense—and for many that is the main point of religion—then this hope depends on certain religious beliefs being true. In particular, for the main theistic religions, if depends on there being a God who is good enough to desire our salvation and powerful enough to achieve it.

I have noted frequently on this blog my observation over the years that, for the majority of my students, the primary benefits of being a religious believer are “comfort” and “security about what happens after I die.” That’s certainly the religious world I was raised in. are-you-savedThe people I grew up with were obsessed with “being saved,” a salvation that had a lot more to do with what happens after I die than anything that might be applicable to how to live my life today and tomorrow. As I look back five decades and more on that world, I realize that even then I was far more interested in how the religion imposed on me applied to my daily life rather than what sort of mansion I would occupy when in heaven and what sort of harp I would be playing. Truth be told, heaven sounded pretty boring to me and I wasn’t sure I wanted to spend eternity there. I was much more interested in whether being a Christian could help me avoid bullies, find a girlfriend, and grow up to be at least a marginally well-adjusted adult.

These days I find myself thinking about atheism a lot, not because I’m thinking of becoming one (I tried that once—it didn’t take), but because the more I realize why my faith is important to me, the more I realize that these matters of importance don’t primarily rely on my believing anything particular about God, God’s nature, or what happens after I die. I don’t know what will happen after I die, and I spend a remarkably small amount of my time thinking about it, even though the amount of days I have left on earth are far fewer than the ones I’ve already lived.  Don’t get me wrong—I believe that God exists, that God is intimately interested in relationship with human beings, and that this requires something important of me. different-faithsBut I also believe that the values and moral commitments that are closely related to my belief in God are available to persons who are of a different faith than mine or of no faith at all. If what people of faith want out of their religion is only available to people who sign on to the very specific beliefs concerning God and more that define their religion, there is little hope for dialogue with those who do not share those specific beliefs. But if, first and foremost, what I want out of my religion is guidance for how to live a good human life now, then I am looking for the very same sort of guidance that billions of other human beings seek. That gives us a lot to talk about—regardless of what we believe concerning God.

Silence and Submission

trump-and-bushDuring the past two weeks, reports concerning the attitudes and actions of one of the major party candidates for President of the United States towards women over the past few decades has dominated the news cycle. The attitudes and actions of the husband of the other major party candidate for President towards women have been part of the news cycle for lewinskydecades as well. It’s difficult to imagine that there is a person in this country who either finds such attitudes acceptable or wants to hear yet another person’s opinions about them—so I won’t dig further into the details. Instead, I’m interested in why so many people, from every political and religious persuasion imaginable, has been surprised by the offensive, demeaning, and degrading attitudes and actions that have been illuminated over the past two weeks. Misogyny and prejudice toward women has been part of our social structure for centuries—one if the most powerful sources of these attitudes and actions is the dominant religion in our culture: Christianity.ancient-other

In the team-taught, interdisciplinary course that I teach in, we recently completed a unit called “The Other,” focusing on how the ancient Greeks and Romans understood and treated those who were different. During one seminar we considered ancient views of gender, with two of Aristophanes’ comedies and an assortment of excerpts from other authors as our texts. Some were remarkably equitable, including Plato’s insistence that both males and females are equally capable of being rulers of his idealistic and imaginary perfect community, and hence should be educated in the same ways. Other ancient voices were not as complimentary toward women. From Aristotle, for instance, we learned that women are “deformed males,” arguing that “as regards the sexes, the male is by nature superior and the female inferior, the male ruler and the female subject.” And in the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians we read thatpaul

I wish you to know that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of every woman is her husband . . . a man is the image and glory of God, but a woman is the glory of her husband. For man was not created from woman, but woman from man. And man was not created for woman’s sake, but woman for the sake of man . . . In all the churches of the faithful, let women be silent in the congregation, for it is not appropriate for them to speak. If they want to learn something, they should ask their own husbands at home . . .

But wait . . . that’s not all. A couple of Sundays ago, one of the readings was this from the Paul’s first letter to Timothy:

Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.silence-and-submittion

After the lector finished I leaned over the back of the pew in front of me and whispered to the couple sitting there “Wow, I guess Paul was having a bad day when he wrote that!” “No shit!” the guy whispered back. I’ve often wondered what the experiential and/or psychological sources of Paul’s obvious problems with women might have been—I’m still wondering. But whatever the sources were, such attitudes, fully resonant with the majority of philosophies of his day with which he was fully familiar, had a powerful influence going forward—an influence that afflicts Western culture to this day.

I found that many of the dozen-and-a-half eighteen-year-old freshmen in each of mif-onlyy seminars on ancient perspectives on gender assumed that the attitudes toward women they were exposed to in the readings they prepared for seminar are no longer with us. We moderns are, fortunately, respectful of all and treat everyone equally, no matter what gender or sexual orientation. If only. I wish. It didn’t take very long or much encouragement, however, for a few female voices to start providing plenty of evidence that we not only have not moved that far from ancient attitudes on gender, but in many cases are arguably very much the same.

female-priestDuring that seminar I asked the students to start thinking about the ways in which we use gender to organize social structures by asking them to identify a job description for which one’s gender is truly relevant. They had a difficult time coming up with one, despite our culture’s history of making gender relevant to decision making in everything from wages to educational opportunities, until someone said “I know one—priest!” I pointed out, first, that one of my best friends is both a woman and an Episcopal priest, so clearly it is only priests of a certain sort (Catholic) who can only be male. The rules and traditions of the Catholic church notwithstanding, however, none of my students were able to identify any specific thing a Catholic priest does that could not be done equally well by a qualified male or female.gmm

Given that it is difficult to find anything in the actual reported teachings of Jesus to support either treating men and women differently or assuming that men are superior to women, it is truly remarkable to observe just how thoroughly such attitudes and actions became entrenched in the religion that grew out of Jesus’ teachings. There is plenty of evidence that many members of Jesus’ inner circle were women and that women were important leaders in the early Christian communities. But the documents containing such evidence did not make the cut when the New Testament was officially assembled, and such evidence was suppressed and ignored as a male-dominated ecclesiastical hierarchy emerged. After two millennia there are signs that biases against women are changing in some Christian circles, but there remains much to do and a great deal progress needs to be made.

When misogyny and Neanderthal attitudes toward women rear their ugly heads, as they have with a vengeance during the past couple of weeks in the context of the Presidential campaign, we should not be surprised. This is the natural outcome of centuries of history in Western culture, a history in which Christianity has been a central driving force. Christians are in nearth-and-heaveno position to take the high road and respond to such ugliness with moralistic tut-tutting and judgments. The truth of the matter is that Christian churches of all sorts have contributed to the embedded misogyny and sexism that still infects our world in many ways. If Christians truly intend for God’s will to “be done on earth as it is in heaven,” as we recite in the Lord’s Prayer every week, it is incumbent on us to put our house in order before casting stones elsewhere. There is a great deal of work to be done.

Evangelical Atheism

A couple of weeks from now I’ll be starting a new unit in my General Ethics classes with fifty juniors and seniors: Does ethics have anything to do with God? pc-catholicOn a Catholic college campus, where a significant portion of the students are products of many years of parochial school education, this is a big issue. Religious folks have been known to argue that the only possible reliable foundation for moral absolutes is belief in God, implying either implicitly or explicitly that atheistic non-believers lack any reason to be moral. Yet my students know either intuitively or through personal experience that it is entirely possible for a dedicated atheist to be a highly moral person. How does that work?

I have been a person of faith, sometimes reluctantly, for my whole life—the very existence of this blog is due to my continuing commitment to grappling with issues of faith in writing. Yet I have always been fascinated by atheism. Four years ago, my second blog post ever used Simone Weil’s comment that “Atheism is a purification” as a jumping off point, imagining how a season of atheism might be a healthy exercise for a person of faith.

A Practicing Atheist


Daniel Dennett

Several years ago when I was chair of our philosophy department I was responsible for the two-semester capstone seminar required of all our senior majors. Each year during the summer I would send the rising senior majors a list of three or four possible topics to spend the fall semester working on—one year they chose “Philosophy of Religion,” not surprising since half of the eighteen seniors were Catholic seminarians (required by the diocese to major in philosophy in their undergraduate years). Some of the seniors, particularly the seminarians, were probably surprised to see texts from avowed atheists such as Sigmund Freud, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Dawkins on the semester syllabus, but as a new professor in the theology department commented at the time, such works are “good for them” (the seminarians) to grapple with. Atheists, after all, struggle with the same issues as theists—they just do it a bit differently.

Last Sunday’s early morning episode of “On Being” with Krista Tippett on our local NPR station was an hour-long discussion of these very issues. The show was a repeat of a 2012 interview with Alain de Botton. De Botton is trained as a philosopher, but is best known as a sort of Renaissance man whose popular books include The Consolations of Philosophy, How Proust Can Change Your Life, and Religion for Atheists. I knew I was going to enjoy the interview when it began with the following from de Botton: The most boring and unproductive question one can ask of any religion is whether it is true.

Alain de Botton and the School of Life

De Botton was raised in “a devoutly atheist family,” a Jewish family fully aware of the enormous suffering Jews had suffered historically and particularly in tdevout-atheisthe twentieth century, often in the name of religion. De Botton experienced in early adulthood what he described a “crisis of faithlessness,” during which he learned that there were a number of things tangentially associated with religion, including music, art, architecture, and moral guidance, that he found “incredibly interesting, fascinating, beautiful, [and] inspiring.” What’s an atheist to do?

De Botton’s story is a familiar one, regardless of one’s beliefs concerning God. While stories of people who were raised in a religious household and became atheists as adults, as well as of people raised as atheists who became religious believers as adults, are out there, the more common story is of those who are so shaped by their early years that they find it impossible, in spite of good reasons to do so, to radically change that framework as adults. De Botton occasionally implies that he wishes he could become a theist—but if there is something like a “religious gene,” he is lacking it. Knowing that the foundation of religious belief for many people is a feeling or experience, he notes that

I’ve not had this feeling . . . all I can report is that many of these bits of religion do impact me greatly. If I was different, I would be a believer, is all I can say. I can only speak from a non-believing position . . . I really don’t feel a belief in a divine being is something that rings bells with me. I’m happy to be in the atheist box, but it’s a much broader box than we might have allowed for.

The power of how one is raised cannot be overestimated. De Botton has no more natural access to what it is like to be a person of faith than I, raised in an all-encompassing religious atmosphere, can pretend to know what it would be like to frame important issues as an atheist would.

And yet, de Botton continues, atheists and persons of faith have much in common. Neither atheists nor theists are necessarily happy to hear this—each side is taught that the other is the enemy, a phenomenon encouraged by popular writers from the atheist camp such as Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Sam De Botton reports that he is occasionally accused in emails or print of having “betrayed atheism,” professing that “I didn’t know that’s what atheism was supposed to be about, being mean to religion . . . I think there’s an image of the fierce atheist who has faith in science and ridicules all religious moments and religious impulses. I couldn’t be further from that point of view.” Instead, he argues, religion has offered and continues to offer too much of importance to be rejected out of hand even if one is an atheist.reality-and-religion

An awful lot that seems to us intrinsically religious is not; it’s part of the treasury of mankind. These religions at their highest points, at their most complex and subtle moments are far too interesting to be abandoned merely to those who believe in them . . . I think a lot of what’s attractive in religion is that it puts us in a wider perspective both in time and in place because most of our lives are lived right up against the present moment . . . And suddenly, that brings a kind of calm to our inner lives because it’s nice to made to feel small against the backdrop of a vast universe.

Even if one sets arguments awrestlingbout the existence and nature of God as well as speculation about what happens after we die aside, religion has much to offer even to the most secular person. “Religion is this long tradition of deep thinking and wrestling with the complexity of the human condition as much as about the nature of God.” How then should we live? is a human question, not a religious question. We do not come into the world knowing how to navigate the minefield of human existence—de Botton is more than happy to poach on the ideas offered by religion, just as religions have “hoovered up” the best that the secular world has to offer since the beginning. De Botton’s “School of Life,” now situated in many cities across the globe, “picks up on the idea that we need guidance, that learning how to live is not something we just do spontaneously.” At this thoroughly secular school one will hear sermons, experience what feels all the world like liturgy, and even perhaps sing some hymns, all intended to be in service to human needs that are far deeper than what religion  one belongs to (if any).  As Krista Tippett says in the interview, “What I see you doing is carving out what has been traditionally, religiously called ‘sacred space’ in secular culture.”evangelical-atheism

Toward the end of the interview, Tippett also comments that “I do feel that another religious and particularly Christian impulse that you are taking up as an atheist is that of being evangelical, which is about spreading the good news that you’ve discovered.” The good news is that “there’s so much more in common between believers and nonbelievers than we’re sometimes encouraged to think. At the very last moment under the stars we may differ about what’s going on, but we can still have a very nice time together for a long, long part of this journey.” Just as many other supposedly incompatible binaries—Republican/Democrat, conservative/liberal, and more—atheists and religious folks need not be at permanent odds with each other. Each of us is human, sharing the same needs, hopes, and dreams that all human beings possess, no matter how we package them.

West of What?

ruaneThe heart of Providence College’s core curriculum is the Development of Western Civilization (DWC) program, a sixteen-credit, four-semester, interdisciplinary and team-taught series of courses required of all freshmen and sophomores regardless of major. From its origin in the 1970s, DWC (or “Civ,” as many call it) has been both a regular source of pride and occasionally of controversy, both of which have been the case recently. I have taught in the program for sixteen of the twenty-one years I have taught at the college and directed the program for the four academic years before my 2015-16 sabbatical. At the end of August on the first day of the current semester (my first day back in the classroom in fifteen months), my colleagues and I chose to spend our first ninety minutes with our new freshman students by raising the question that many of them were probably thinking but were too afraid to ask: Why study Western civilization at all?

The very existence of a program such as ours is controversial in many quarters where many wonder, in an increasingly diverse and globally connected world, whether the study of dead-white-guys“dead white guys” is anything more than a lame and outdated exercise in cheerleading for white folks. But others seek to defend the primacy of Western civilization over all others. One of my colleagues began the class with a clip from the Republican National Convention a couple of months earlier. A talking head panel was filling up air space waiting for the first speaker of the evening. After one person mentioned that the hall was filled with lots of angry white people, Iowa Congressman Steve King took offense.

King: This “old, white people’ business does get a little tired. I’d ask you to go back through history and figure out, where are these contributions that have been made by these other categories of people that you’re talking about — where did any other subgroup of people contribute more to civilization?”

Panel moderator: Than white people?

King: Than Western civilization itself. It’s rooted in Western Europe, Eastern Europe and the Unites Stated of America and every place where the footprint of Christianity settled the world. That’s all of Western civilization.

King’s comments astounded a couple of people on the panel and outraged a third—as the table exploded into shouting, the moderator wisely broke for a commercial.

The congressman’s comments reminded me of something brought to my attention a few weeks earlier. A person who gave a talk at my college over fifteen years ago remembered it in a recent column on a conservative website, recalling that some of the people present were not happy with the content of his talk.

 I am sure I noted the fact that some cultures are better than others and I might well have quoted (with enthusiastic approval if I did) William Henry’s observation, in his book In Defense of Elitism, that “It is scarcely the same thing to put a man on the moon as to put a bone in your nose.” I am very fond of Henry’s native prosuperior-civiliztionsboscis image, not least because, like Saul Bellow’s question: “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?”, it is so reliably productive of rage among pampered left-wing academics.

These comments could have been written or said by some of my colleagues on campus who often defend the existence of our DWC program by asking “Why wouldn’t we want to focus close-to-exclusive attention on Western Civilization? It’s the best civilization ever!”

After Congressman King’s clip from the RNC, my teaching colleagues began a conversation with our students by asking basic questions such as “What is Western Civilization?” The students seemed unsure how to answer other than to say “we are!” After a few minutes I made my first contribution. “This is going to sound like a stupid question,” I said, “but I’m sitting over here listening to all of you talk about ‘Western Civilization’ and I’m wondering: West of what? Are we talking geography here? What is Western Civilization west of?” None of us had thought to load a map onto PowerPoint, so I just asked the students to picture Europe, Asia, and Africa in their imaginations. “If we draw a dotted line from north to south to divide the East from the West, where would we draw it?”drawing-the-line

The first suggestion was that it would go through the Middle East, in a way that would perhaps include Israel in the West but perhaps the rest of the Middle East in the East. “What about Turkey?” one of us asked. They weren’t sure. Of course if the dotted line continues straight south from Israel, another question arises. “What about Africa? Is it in the West?” I asked.funny-africa “No,” just about all of the students answered, meaning that our dotted line needs to take a sharp turn left from Israel, bisecting the Mediterranean Sea so that Europe to the north stays in the West (as everyone knows it should) and Africa to the south stays non-West (as everyone knows it should). Remembering Congressman King’s inclusion of the United States in Western civilization (even though it does not make an appearance in DWC until the beginning of sophomore year), the dotted line should cross the Atlantic so that the U.S. and Canada lie on the Europe (northern) side of the line. Mexico and Central America? Iffy. South America? Not sure. It was pretty clear that the line was intended to include those most like us in the West and exclude everyone else.funny-asia

This exercise established pretty quickly that the answer to West of What? cannot be geographical. One student then helpfully suggested that “I think ‘Western’ refers to various ideas rather than geographical areas.” Asked for examples, students suggested things like democracy, human rights, capitalism, and monotheism. One of my colleagues, a theologian, jumped on that one. “Is Christianity a Western religion?’ he asked—“Of course!” was the answer (Congressman King would have been proud). “What about Judaism?” The students weren’t as sure there, even when my colleague pointed out that both Christianity and Judaism started in the same place and that Jesus was a Jew. “What about Islam?” Most of the students thought not (Donald Trump would have been proud), prompting my colleague to point out that for a number of centuries during the Middle Ages the westernmost area of Europe—Spain—was Muslim. Trying to define “Western” by religion doesn’t work much better than geographically.monotheism

Finally, one brave student said “I think that ‘Western’ for most people means pretty much the same thing as ‘White’.” And I suspect there’s a great deal of truth in that suggestion. When we study Western Civilization, we will undoubtedly end up studying predominantly dead white guys unless a concerted effort is made to engage with non-Western influences. I mentioned to the students, for instance, thg-and-iat most people don’t know that one of the greatest—perhaps the greatest—philosopher in the Western tradition, Plato, was heavily influenced by thought from Persia and India. The dotted line is porous, in other words. Furthermore, one of my colleagues who is of Italian ancestry pointed out that one hundred years ago in this country, immigrants from southern European countries such as Greece and Italy were not considered by many in this country as white.

After ninety or so minutes of this, I’m sure our students left largely in confusion. And that’s a good thing. Despite the name of the course, “Western Civilization,” upon close scrutiny, turns out to be as much a reflection of our expectations and prejudices as anything else. This is good for seventeen- and eighteen-year-old young adults to understand at the outset of their forays into their college education. We live in a polarized political and social climate in which labels and categories are used as if they are as objective and set in stone as the Ten Commandments. Only when we realize that all such dividing lines are at their roots random, porous, and fluid might we seize the opportunity to do better.