Tuesday, May 31, 2011
Everyone looks at you as if to say, "How could you?"
I blame Guido Reni and Carlo Dolci for this.
Everyone smiles like an over-enthusiastic high school guidance counselor.
I haven't figured out exactly who to blame for this. Delacroix is too ironic, David is too classical, and Courbet is too detached and dry-eyed.
And then there are Pierre and Gilles who appreciate the camp quality of both, and how similar they can be.
The Virgin of the Blessed Heart, 1990
Le Petit Communiste, 1990
My Memorial Day was a long stressful holiday of final grading and really bad asthma. I'm seeing the lung doctor tomorrow, and as you can tell from this intellectually undemanding post, my holiday finally starts today, and lasts until summer school starts the last week of June.
Yes, I will be working in my studio, just not today.
And then there is that ultimate mother line, "Oh go ahead then, be a fine art major, just stick another knife in my heart!"
Is there Anglican kitsch? Yes, it's called the Pre-Raphaelite painters.
Monday, May 30, 2011
I am no militarist, and contrary to Clausewitz and many others, I see war as the failure of politics.
I think it's no accident that most of the peace activists opposing the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that I know are veterans.
I am grateful to those who put themselves at risk and make the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of us all.
Today I remember both of my grandfathers who were soldiers in World War I. My grandfather Harry Schumacher served as a frontline medical officer in France. When he graduated from medical school, he joined all the rest of his fellow graduates at the recruiting office right after the ceremony.
I remember my cousin James Corey who served as a Marine in the Pacific during World War II. He was on the USS Arizona on December 7, 1941 in Pearl Harbor, and was one of 13 survivors of the attack that destroyed the ship. He went on to see some of the worst fighting in the Pacific.
I remember all of the many friends I've known who were veterans of the Korean and Vietnam wars.
And I remember colleagues and students who are veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Saturday, May 28, 2011
Thanks to My Friends, It's Always Good to Be Back!
And We're Back!
It's good to be back, and I have such wonderful friends through this blog and through Facebook!
So, for no reason at all other than it's really upbeat, let's all sing the Italian national anthem, Fratelli d'Italia!
Friday, May 27, 2011
Blogger Troubles Again
Counterlight's Peculiars is having troubles again. I cannot access my blog, or anyone else's blog, from my computer using either Safari or Firefox. I cannot post, and I cannot read the comment threads on mine or anyone else's blog. I'm even blocked out of Blogger tech support. Until I can find out what's going on, I won't be posting, and I won't be posting or reading comments on anyone else's blog. I am effectively silenced on Blogger. If you wish to contact me, please do so through my email address posted in the sidebar, or through Facebook. Don't try to contact me through Blogger, or bother to comment because I can't read it.
My great apologies to all of my readers.
I am posting this from Michael's PC.
More Fallout from the Colin Slee Memo
From Leonardo Ricardo:
Thursday, May 26, 2011
No Payback in Kind
Wednesday, May 25, 2011
Colin Slee's J'Accuse From Beyond the Grave.
The fraught divisions have been laid bare in the leak of an anguished and devastating memorandum written by the Very Rev Colin Slee, the former dean of Southwark Cathedral, shortly before his death from pancreatic cancer last November. Dr Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, and John Sentamu, the archbishop of York, vetoed candidates from becoming bishops of the south London diocese.
The document reveals shouting matches and arm-twisting by the archbishops to keep out the diocese's preferred choices as bishop: Jeffrey John, the gay dean of St Albans, and Nicholas Holtam, rector of St Martin-in-the-Fields in central London, whose wife was divorced many years ago. Eventually Christopher Chessun, then an assistant bishop, was chosen.
Slee described Williams shouting and losing his temper in last year's Southwark meeting, which left several members of the crown nomination committee, responsible for the selection of bishops, in tears.
Slee also in effect charges the church with hypocrisy, stating that there are several gay bishops "who have been less than candid about their domestic arrangements and who, in a conspiracy of silence, have been appointed to senior positions". The memo warns: "This situation cannot endure. Exposure of the reality would be nuclear."
Slee said of the meeting: "We had two very horrible days in which I would say both archbishops behaved very badly. The meeting was not a fair consideration at all; they were intent on wrecking both Jeffrey John and Nick Holtam equally, despite the fact that their CVs were startlingly in an entirely different and better league than the other two candidates …
"The archbishop of Canterbury was bad tempered throughout. When it came to voting, certainly two – possibly three – members were in tears and [Williams] made no acknowledgement but carried on regardless. At a critical point Archbishop Sentamu and three other members simultaneously went to the lavatory, after which the voting patterns changed."
When persuasion fails, there is always intimidation. Interesting how the next Bishop of Southwark was chosen by the two Archbishops in a men's room. I don't think even the most aggressive satirist could come up with a more emblematic image of the whole process.
This is behavior which to me appears more like Cromwell (Thomas and Oliver) than Hooker. This whole Covenant business, the whole right wing effort to transform the Anglican Communion into the Anglican Church, to transform a tradition of Lex Orandi Lex Credendi into a confessional church, is starting to look less like a legitimate campaign and more like a bishops' coup.
A Very Violent Spring in the Midwest
I've never seen or been through anything like this, and I hope I never do.
And here is that same store the next day.
Joplin will never be the same again.
Here is the Red Cross link. Please be generous.
Tuesday, May 24, 2011
Christians Are All Exactly The Same
Your praise of the ...hallowed, and adored be Jesus Christ in His most glorious throne in heaven, in the most holy sacrament of the altar, and in the hearts of all of His faithful people."
Makes me ill! It is people like you who feel we have to keep beliving in a book like the Bible and those who claim to be "good Christians" and be like them and trust that they are "good at heart" when in truth ythey do hate us and want us dead! The polls are all lies since I find it hard to accept that if the vast majority of Americans and Christians say we should have equal rights, why then do we lose EVERY BLOODY TIME if we are on a balot fo gay rights?"
So, in Uganda, the heterosexual self-righteous people have drafted this Bill to exterminate the LGBT people. The Bill is draconian. According to President Obama, it is odious. The United States Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton; former Prime Minister Tony Blair, and others have opposed it. Yet – we still wait to hear loud voices from the churches.
It is the work of the bearers of Christ’s Gospel to go to the aid of the oppressed.
LGBT people are being attacked to the extent of extinction. But they have done nothing to deserve this criminalization. They did not create themselves. As a counsellor, I have shared many of their stories. They are good people who are being systematically abused, beaten up and even killed – for no reason other than simply being themselves. We have not allowed them a safe space to express themselves. Instead, there are law makers who would send them to the gas chambers!
And from Archbishop Henry Orombi,
From a plain reading of Scripture, from a careful reading of Scripture, and from a critical reading of Scripture, homosexual practice has no place in God’s design of creation, the continuation of the human race through procreation, or His plan of redemption. Even natural law reveals that the very act of sexual intercourse is an experience of embracing the sexual “other”. The Church of Uganda, therefore, believes that “Homosexual practice is incompatible with Scripture”
Yes, both of these statements from these two Ugandan Anglican bishops are exactly identical. No difference.
Here is Uganda's principal gay rights advocate, Kasha Jaqueline Nabagesera on her own work and on the murder of David Kato:
Both the late David Kato and Ms. Nabagesera identify themselves as Christians.
Here is Nigeria's leading gay rights advocate, Davis Maciyalla, who now lives in exile after repeated threats to his life.
He too identifies himself as Christian.
Monday, May 23, 2011
The Ordeal of Gay Adolescence
Are Gays The Evil Spawn of Satan and the Enemies of Christ?
Before we put all Christians, and all Texans, into the same homophobic category, check this out. I've been to Farmer's Branch many times, and it is no liberal paradise, and yet ...
Sunday, May 22, 2011
And back 40 years ago when I was a suicidal gay teen, this was unimaginable.
A thousand mile journey always begins with one step, and we've come three thousand miles in my lifetime, even after some major setbacks and defeats, a lot of them. In my time, the biggest was the AIDS plague. So many people died. I went to funerals every week. We thought it was the end of our world, that all was lost. And here we are today, stronger and more visible than ever.
And we still have many miles to go. There is still no protection against discrimination in housing and employment on the federal level. Our civil rights, if we have any protection at all, are a patchwork of local and state level laws that vary wildly from state to state. Men and women who can marry their partners and enjoy the full protection of the law in Massachusetts are legally just barely this side of criminal in Oklahoma.
There is no federal recognition of our relationships. Again, marriage laws are a wildly varying patchwork from state to state.
With that in mind, there is every reason to be hopeful about the future. In the meantime, we should live our lives as fully, as well, and as happily as we can in the teeth of all who hate us (as we always have).
Happy Harvey Milk Day!
Happy Harvey Milk Day!
His struggle and our struggle continue, especially in this time of reaction when a corporate funded creeping coup d'etat by the far right appears to be advancing state by state.
Here's what happened in Minnesota yesterday:
Similar scenes are being played out in state houses around the country right now.
Tip of the beret to JoeMyGod for the video.
His signs and posters are everywhere in the subway. There were big vans with loudspeakers emblazoned with "May 21st ! Doom!!!!!!!!!!" all over them roaming around midtown. There were people with signs passing out pamphlets everywhere. Apparently, Mr. Fitzpatrick paid for all of it, and he's not a rich man.
The perils of the literally minded.
Saturday, May 21, 2011
After The Rapture That Wasn't
When I was a child my parents belonged to the Assemblies of God church. When they were missionaries on Okinawa I went to a school which was run by evangelical, fundamentalist Christians, so I've been around this rapture stuff all my life. As a child I was always scared that I would be left behind when the Rapture took place. I was very relieved when, as a young adult, I did some research and discovered that the idea of a Rapture of the Saints was not a teaching of the ancient church but a nineteenth century invention. The return of Christ is the hope of the Church, but this Meet-Jesus-In-The-Sky-While-All-The-People-Who-Disagree-With-Me-Suffer-Terrible-Plagues-Oh!-Won't-THEY-Be-Sorry! stuff is something I left behind many years ago. I believe in living my life as if Jesus will return at any moment, but I don't spend any time worrying about it anymore.
I've had a lot of fun this week and especially yesterday and today mocking this belief system and I believe it deserves to be mocked, but now it's after 6:00 pm Eastern Daylight Savings Time and nothing predicted by Harold Camping has taken place, just like the last time he made such predictions. However, last time the only people really aware of his heresy were those in the San Francisco Bay Area; this time, thanks to the innertoobes, his claims have spread around the world and many people have given up everything to spread the word. They've left their jobs, they've stopped saving for their children's education, and they've given their life savings to Family Radio to spread the word. I'm expecting a lot of people around the world who have been crushed, spiritually.
So, as my friends James Holloway and El Profesor Jay Johnson have pointed out, we are going to be dealing with a lot of people whose faith has been severely damaged. I believe we need to be there for them, we need to help them through their disappointment and the destruction of their trust (that's how I define "faith"). They were sincere, yet misled, and they have been spiritually abused, in a way. I spent some three years in a cult and I can understand their pain in realizing that all they believed was a crock. It takes a while to recover from such spiritual betrayal. We are also going to have to deal with Harold Camping. Will he be humbled by this experience and finally decide to quit treating the Bible like some cryptic puzzle he could only decipher with the right formula, or will he realize the error of his ways, apologize and perform retribution to those he led astray and STFU from now on? I must say that, from observing Brother Camping's past behavior, he's gonna figure that there was some mistake in his calculations and STILL work on figuring out when Jesus will return in the sky and kill everyone Brother Camping disagrees with. As extremely difficult as it will be, we will also have to treat Brother Camping in a loving manner. If we take this Christian stuff seriously, we have to do a lot of stuff we don't like. I'm actually hoping that this will be another nail in the coffin of Fundamentalist Christianity, but, since it is so much a part of the nationalism of the U.S.A., it may not make any difference in their belief that God created 'Murica.
Many years ago I helped administer a password protected website for people leaving Divine Light Mission/Elan Vital/The Prem Rawat Foundation, a psuedo-Hindu cult, providing a safe place for them to work through their issues. It wasn't as safe as we thought, but I believe many people were able to work through much of their spiritual betrayal. Perhaps we, the Christians who don't accept nineteenth century Christian innovations, can help these folks in such a place. I would be interested in hearing from anyone so inclined.
This is a sad situation, but also an opportunity for evangelization amongst The Churched, and opportunity to expose them to the more traditional and ancient traditions and beliefs of the Christian faith. I'm wondering how we will all deal with this situation. ¡Maranatha!
Rembrandt, the "Hundred Guilder Print" illustrating the entire 19th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, an image of Christ in solidarity with the suffering, the innocent, and the sinful.
Rejoice, the bells
Cry to me, Blake’s Old Nobodaddy
In his astronomic telescopic heaven,
the Big White Christian upstairs is dead,
and won’t come hazing us no more, nor bless our bombs.
--WH Auden, from "Whitsunday at Kirchstetten"
O look, look in the mirror,
O look in your distress;
Life remains a blessing
Although you cannot bless.
--WH Auden, 1937
"We'll Meet Again ..."
Wickedly clever Stanley Kubrick!
And in the words of Lowell Thomas, "So long until tomorrow!"
Friday, May 20, 2011
The Second Comin'
More on Atheism
Here is a small sample from her posts:
Believe it or not, most non-believers really don't care if you believe. We aren't making a religion out of our faithlessness, because we just don't get it. When people ask me if I "worship" Darwin, I am really puzzled. They are projecting their need to believe in Something, and assuming that someone who doesn't believe in God has replaced Him. But this concept is completely alien to me. Darwin was just a scientist, who like all of us got some things right, and some things wrong. I don't "worship" him or anyone else. I really don't have that wiring.
Ah San Francisco!
I love San Francisco dearly, one of the most beautiful and wonderful cities on earth, but there are times when the place is just a little too meshugge.
Imagine, no more mohel jokes in SF. No more would the punch line "... and he just took tips" be heard from Golden Gate Park to the Mission District.
Wednesday, May 18, 2011
The End of the World
This is a series of paintings that I did between 2005 and 2007 that came out of my anger. Apocalypse is supposed to be religious teachings about destiny, what waits for all of us at the end of our journey through time. Frequently, apocalypse becomes an excuse for revenge fantasies writ large upon the cosmos. In our age of violent fanaticism and tribal passions, apocalypse usually means, “you bastards are going to get what’s coming to you!”
This a series of paintings about evil, the worst kind, done in the name of righteousness. When people believe that they are absolutely and exclusively right, they become arrogant and value ignorance. They become capable of amazing cruelty and brutality.
When they try to become angels, men become beasts.
Men never do evil so willingly and so happily as when they do it for the sake of conscience.
I lived in the East Village when the September 11th attacks happened. In the days that followed, the neighborhood filled with smoke and dust. I remember that the crazy people with agendas came out of the woodwork that week. There was an old man wearing a construction helmet, waving a huge American flag, marching up and down the middle of Avenue A yelling “Wake up!” followed by some spiel that I could not understand. There was a woman standing in the middle of Astor Place yelling insults and abuse at everyone who passed by. I forget where I saw him, but there was another old man clutching a Bible, listening to something on a pocket recorder, and laughing loudly and uncontrollably. I commemorate those folks, and every crank that yearns for apocalyptic revenge, in this painting.
Whatever prophetic vision the fanatics see, this is what the rest of us see when they act upon their wishes.
This comes out of remarks by a Muslim cleric about suicide bombers making themselves fragrant and beautiful offerings to God. This painting is about not only that, but about the whole idea of God requiring payment in blood.
Fanatics frequently take it upon themselves to separate out the Elect from the Doomed. What it really boils down to is who’s a Member and who is not. The Members always suffer unjust humiliation at the hands of their enemies. They bear it all knowing that it is their destiny to rule the world and to inflict revenge upon all who are not them.
This is based on a famous painting by Millet. In the end, fanatics are all the same, and the result of their work is there for all of us to see.
Some fanatics willingly die to kill indiscriminately as many people as possible. There are other people who willingly face death to indiscriminately save as many people as possible, frustrating and rebuking the designs of murderous fanatics determined to so brutally simplify and purify the world.
Tuesday, May 17, 2011
Padre Mickey found this one. Young, white, and sexy get the Rapture. Yeah baby! So God is a horny racist old letch?
A less interesting version of Thornton Wilder's Our Town, Anywhere USA, gets the Rapture. I suppose places like the Bronx and Williamsburg, Brooklyn don't count as Anywhere or USA.
I don't know why, but I look at this painting, and Elton John's "Rocket Man" comes to mind.
Who knew that the Kingdom of Heaven would be made so safe for white people? A Methodist congregation from an affluent part of Dallas, circa 1962, goes up to safe blandly conventional glory. Why does this picture make me think that Hi C will be served at the Heavenly Banquet?
And I must conclude with this classic, early 1970s Dallas gets The Rapture.
In fact, all of these lily white Christians look like they're extras from the old Ozzie and Harriet Show, or like they're refugees from a 1974 Sears Catalog.
Looking forward to May 22nd.
Monday, May 16, 2011
"When the Little Violets Bloom"
It's been a rotten Spring around much of the country. The South, especially Alabama, has been clobbered with deadly storms. The Mississippi Delta is enduring its worst floods since 1927. Western Oklahoma is suffering its worst drought since the Dust Bowl in the the 1930s.
And here in New York City, it's rainy and cold, has been most of Spring, and will be for the rest of the week at least.
Here's a salute to the fondly remembered short-lived violets of this year's awful Spring.
The tune is a song by Robert Stolz, apparently the German language equivalent to George Gershwin or Harold Arlen, and still a huge sentimental favorite in that part of the world.
Sunday, May 15, 2011
It's not about God/god/"god".
It's about mechanical "Fact A fits into Fact B" certitude, vs "Let's get high, take our clothes off and dance! Or, failing that, let's have Mass and eat God. Or sumthin' like that. Possibly" doubt.
Here is a Shiva Puja from 1997 performed near Mysore in India.
Here is another Shiva Puja performed by a very young Brahman priest in Katmandu.
For reasons that are not clear to me, Shiva Pujas fascinate me. Shiva is the one deity in the Hindu pantheon represented by an abstract symbol, the lingam which is being worshiped and very messily anointed here in both ceremonies. It is far more than the phallic symbol most Westerners assume it to be. It embodies the fundamental unity of male and female, creation and destruction, being and nothingness, life and death, etc. that come together in the god.
In all Hinduism, God is one and God is millions. There are millions of gods, and yet The Deity is fully present in each one, and also in their images and manifestations in this world. Everyone receives the god's (and God's) grace just by looking upon the image.
I don't think anyone has to be religious to find this interesting. I could imagine a number of atheist friends who would find this to be a marvelous articulation of meaning in an ancient ritual. They might even feel a twinge of envy at the skilled use of symbolism. Like me, they would appreciate the ritual without fully understanding it. Watching the ritual might not be the same as participating, but the experience is still very moving and meaningful without quite knowing fully what that meaning is exactly. I'm not Hindu, and my atheist friends are not religious, but both of us could fully enjoy a rich, mysterious, and profoundly human experience.
And then there are those, religious and anti-religious, who would find this ritual to be amusingly or frighteningly unfamiliar and incomprehensible. Their view of the world is too brittle and too easily threatened to find any room for anything outside their narrow field of reference. That goes for religious fundamentalists of all kinds, and for facile secularists of all kinds.
You don't have to be religious to believe in Salvation By Doctrinal Soundness.
There is no promise of certainty in this world, whether you believe in God or not. We are all prisoners of a moment in time and a place in space. We live in a world with a horizon that we cannot see beyond. All of us must find our own way through an unknown and unpredictable world. We all yearn for a map, but there is none. We have only our wits, our sense, our courage, and each other to find our way through it. We can recoil at the dark mystery of life as full of the terror of the unknown. Or, we can embrace it as filled with possibility, and relish the thrill of exploration and discovery, thanking God or Fortune that we are alive.
Saturday, May 14, 2011
I Love Google Image Search
Teddy Roosevelt versus Bigfoot by an artist named Sharpwriter.
Words just die right on my lips ...
And the really funny part is that TR would have probably loved this. Bully!
Friday, May 13, 2011
I’ve heard arguments over atheism all of my life. People forget that while the South may be the Bible Belt, it has more atheists per square mile than any other part of the USA, including America’s Scandinavia up there in the Pacific Northwest with the lowest rates of church membership and attendance. The atheists down South can be just as hard-shell as the fundamentalists who alienated them in the first place. In their own way, they believe in a “turn or burn” scorched earth approach to religious pluralism that is little different from their fundamentalist antagonists. Dallas in the 1960s and 70s may have famously produced the Reverend WA Criswell of the First Baptist Church, but it also had very publicly atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair. Their gladiatorial combats were staples of local teevee and radio for years. Here’s a sample of Ms. O’Hair from 1968, from a radio show in Austin.
The religious always point out that God is invisible and unknowable, that our belief in Him is a matter of faith and not evidence. And yet we are shocked when some people come to the very reasonable conclusion that there’s no one there. Atheists are, in turn, taken aback at the shock and feel themselves alienated in a culture that may no longer be quite so religious, but whose cultural reference points are still very religious. Conflict inevitably begins, and with conflict comes the hardening of positions as both sides circle the wagons and break out their rifles. Each assumes the other to be a united and entirely hostile monolith. We know, dear readers, that religion is hardly monolithic, but how about atheism? I don’t mean secularism, but atheism, the conviction that God is not there. Could there really be history, an evolution, variety, and even conflict there too?
Just as religion evolved into a wide and frequently conflicting variety, so did atheism. It was never a single monolithic entity, no more so than religion. It was never the same thing down through time, and surprisingly, it was not always in conflict with religion.
In my amateur research on the fly (keep in mind that I’ve never darkened the door of a seminary or a philosophy department), the earliest form of atheism I could find was in ancient India in the 6th century BC. The Charavaka school of thought was probably the earliest articulation of atheism, and in its surviving writings, there is much that a modern atheist would find familiar:
There is no heaven, no final liberation, nor any soul in another world,
Nor do the actions of the four castes, order, &c, produce any real effect,
The Agnihotra, the three Vedas, the ascetic's three staves, and smearing oneself with ashes —
Brihaspati says, these are but means of livelihood for those who have no manliness nor sense.
If he who departs from the body goes to another world,
how is it that he come not back again, restless for love of his kindred?
Hence it is only as a means of livelihood that Brahmans have established here
all these ceremonies for the dead, — there is no other fruit anywhere.
The three authors of the Vedas were buffoons, knaves, and demons.
All the well-known formulae of the pandits, jarphari, turphari, etc.
and all the obscene rites for the queen commanded in Aswamedha,
these were invented by buffoons, and so all the various kinds of presents to the priests,
while the eating of flesh was similarly commanded by night-prowling demons.
--Quotations from surviving Charavaka fragments.
The Charavaka was an extreme reaction against the excessive ritualism and doctrinalism of the ancient Vedic religion of India. It was especially a protest against the caste system. As you can see for yourself, the surviving writings of the Charavaka School have a sharp anti-clericalism and skepticism familiar to modern readers.
And yet, this very ancient atheism took on a lot of trappings that could be called religious. It had its own sutras. Far from fear and revulsion, thoughtful religious people of that time and place were deeply affected by Charavaka, and took its protest very seriously. Later Hindu thinkers saw it as a necessary and healthy corrective to religious excesses. There is evidence of influence from Charavaka on early Buddhism and Jainism.
Probably the earliest articulation of something like atheism in the West was in the writings of Epicurus. He would be very surprised to see himself described as such. Epicurus makes references to the gods in his writings frequently, and he participated in all of the customary public religious rites of his day.
And yet, Epicurus’ conception of the gods is very different from the temperamental beings of ancient sacrificial religion. He describes the gods as immortal and blessed, as almost abstract symbolic beings preoccupied with the creation and ordering of the cosmos. They are completely indifferent to human affairs. Epicurus denied the existence of anything like the soul or any kind of an afterlife (not quite so exceptional a point of view in the ancient world as we would imagine; lots of cultures with lots of gods had no belief in an afterlife, such as the earliest Greeks; the Egyptian preoccupation with the afterlife was exceptional). Something that would be very familiar to modern readers, Epicurus expanded on Democritus’ theory of atoms that the world and everything in it were made out of the random collisions of tiny particles. Epicurus rejected Democritus’ determinism and insistence that atoms always travel in straight lines. Epicurus said that the movements of atoms were random and unpredictable in an uncanny anticipation of quantum mechanics. Epicurus insisted that everything had a mechanistic explanation.
Epicurus would never have heard of the word “atheism.” That word is based on a theoi, “without gods,” a term coined by later educated Philhellene Romans to describe those ultimate blasphemers against all things sacred, those unspeakable desecrators of the family, the gods, and the Patria, who trampled on all things good and holy, the Early Christians. The Romans saw the Early Christians as far from being today’s ferocious guardians of conventional morality and established order. They saw the early Christians as dangerous incendiaries, as nihilists ready to desecrate temples, storm Olympus, and throw out the gods themselves, turning the world upside down in the process. Today’s Christian hierarchies are much closer in spirit to the priests and augurs of ancient Rome defending all that is established and sacred.
Modernity clearly did not invent atheism, though atheism is usually thought to be exclusively modern.
Is all modern atheism the same? Is the atheism of Karl Marx the same as that of Friedrich Nietzche? Is the atheism of Lenin the same as that of Sartre or Genet? Is their atheism identical to that of Richard Dawkins or Ayn Rand or Madalyn Murray O’Hair?
That very insightful running commentary on contemporary ethical dilemmas, South Park, ran an episode imagining a post-religious future completely dominated by atheism. However, atheism was divided into three warring schools of doctrine, each insisting that it was the true atheism and that all the others were imposters. South Park, I think accurately, suggests that religious warfare would survive the end of religion. What the show’s writers accurately suggest is that these conflicts are not driven by anything intrinsic to either religion or atheism, but by people’s addictive demand for certainty in a world that promises none. People don’t like ambiguity, nuance, paradox, or complexity. Especially in times of strife and hardship, people want clear and easy answers, and if none are forthcoming, then they make up their own. As Jacob Bronowski once dramatically pointed out, when people demand certainty, when people require absolute knowledge, and aspire to the knowledge of gods, then they can turn “a nation, a civilization, into a regiment of ghosts – obedient ghosts, or tortured ghosts.”
In the conflict with religion, atheism wins all of the arguments. It has far and away the superior advantage in arguments over whether or not God exists. On the other hand, a wide variety of religious thinkers from Lao Tse to Saint Augustine insist that any God whose existence can be proven and demonstrated is no God at all. The classical arguments for God’s existence were all written to be demolished as so many religious thinkers demonstrated.
My current favorite argument against religious belief, one that is particularly effective against Christianity, is from psychology, the cognitive dissonance argument. Cognitive dissonance is when people carry two contradictory ideas together, and they clash. Dissonance occurs when a belief is proven to be wrong, for example, a prophecy of the end of the world fails to come to pass. Many will address the dissonance by abandoning that failed prophecy. Others, unexpectedly, will cling all the more fervently to the prophecy and the prophet, rationalizing away the disconnect between fact and belief. You could argue that Christianity was the creation of such a cognitive dissonance. Jesus’ followers did not see the Kingdom of Heaven arrive. Instead, they saw their young prophet arrested, condemned for blasphemy, and executed for sedition. By all measures, the movement failed catastrophically. So then, his surviving followers, clinging to their faith in the face of all evidence to the contrary, came up with the whole business of the resurrection, and the idea that his death was necessary for the fulfillment of his mission.
That’s a very reasonable and compelling argument for skepticism. So good, that I don’t have an answer for it.
No one, however, is argued into belief or disbelief. People don’t arrive at decisions at the ends of strings of syllogisms. Even when we change our minds, we arrive at our convictions after a lifetime of experience and reflection.
Genuine atheists see the absence of God and the transcendent as liberation. I doubt that I could see that absence as anything other than a loss. Atheists are happy to be atheists. I wish evangelizing Christians would drop the presupposition that atheists are unhappy or immoral. I know atheists who live out Christian morality far more conscientiously and successfully than most Christians. Christianity does not have any copyright on morals and ethics (thank God). Curiously, both secularists and religious mystics come to similar conclusions about morality and the divine. Morals and ethics ultimately are for mortals who need them. They belong to the world, not to heaven; “Why do you call me good?” asked Jesus in the Gospels.
So many times, I listen to atheists (especially new ones) talk about what they don’t believe in, and it turns out that I don’t believe in a lot of those things either. I don’t believe in any homicidal father figure in the sky cherishing an ancient grudge for some small slight generations ago, requiring a sacrifice of blood to be appeased, preferably that of his own son. I agree that we make our gods (and God) in our own image. That doesn’t necessarily mean that He’s not there. I don’t believe in a world run by magic and hocus pocus. A loving God would not create a world in which anything can happen and without consequences. I’ve never believed in God as some great puppeteer pulling the string of everything that ever happens. God is not a controlling tyrant or a micro-manager. The world and all that lives in it lives and acts on their own for their own sakes. I don’t believe in ghosts. Why would the dead be interested in visiting the living? They don’t need or care about time anymore. They don’t even have to wait for us. I don’t believe in the idea of God as some great moral auditor adding up our ethical credits and debits. God is not a forensic accountant or an exam proctor. God does not run any extortion business demanding that we believe in this or that or accidents will happen. I don’t believe in any eternal underground prison and torture chamber called hell. If there is anything like hell, then we make it for ourselves, and we can always leave it if we really want to.
I notice in my discussions with atheists that they try to demonstrate that I don’t need God, that there are plenty of things out there that can take His place. The marvels and workings of nature and its great aesthetic experiences should be enough, I’m told. I love nature and marvel at its wonders as much as anyone. But the enjoyment of flowers, birds, mountains, and stars is the pleasure of being alive. I don’t think experiencing nature needs any more meaning than that. I resist religious attempts to use nature and its marvels as “proof” that God exists. Nature proves no such thing. The only things that the complexity of the brain and the mathematical structures in nature prove is that our minds prefer order to chaos, and value complexity over simplicity. I don’t believe that God is necessarily there in “mountain-top experiences.” What’s there on the mountaintop is a great view and the pleasure of climbing it. I notice in the Gospel stories that there is only one that could be called a “mountain-top” experience in the sense that we usually mean, the Transfiguration. The rest of the Gospel narratives are so very un-aesthetic. The writers seem to go out of their way to downplay the usual spectacular theophanies and apotheoses that accompany divine visits and miracles in so much ancient literature. If God is anywhere in the Gospels, it’s not on mountaintops, but by the side of the road, in a village lane, or amid an urban crowd. Even the miracles have a remarkably prosaic and quotidian quality. Jesus spits in the dust and rubs it in the eyes of the blind to restore their sight. Lazarus comes back from the dead not in a big sound and light show, but with the stench of a few days in the grave. God in the Gospels is as ordinary and necessary as bread and water.
I don’t see religion as an “alternative explanation” to science. I don’t think the point of religion is to explain anything. Philosophers hate religion for good reason. It is so messy. Yes, religion is a human creation out of the tangled mess of human need. Religion is as flawed, conflicted, confused, and messy as the people who make it, and that’s what makes it so marvelous and so awful. But the Object of religion is above and beyond all religion. Religion is about trying to talk to whatever may, or may not, be there on the other side of death. It’s about looking across that barrier between being and nothingness and trying to see what’s there in between making the difference. Religion assumes that whatever’s there is as alive and self-conscious as we are, and that somehow we can talk to it, that it’s not an abstraction, but a being, a person. Real or not, religion is that conversation between us and whatever it is.
I understand the reluctance of people in this day and age to find any credibility in Christianity. Aside from the churches crapping all over themselves regularly, Christianity asks a lot from people. It asks people not only to believe in a personal God whose existence is hardly demonstrable, but that same God became a man and walked and talked among us, that he died and rose from the dead, and somehow in some fashion still lives. Christianity asks people living in an age dominated by science and technology to believe that God can beget a child with a mortal woman, that a virgin can give birth, and that the dead can live again. That's a lot to ask, especially now. I don’t think most evangelically minded Christians appreciate how difficult it is for people to believe such a proclamation, or even to take it seriously.
Islam has the great advantage over Christianity in the simplicity and clarity of its creed. Buddhism appeals to contemporary people because of its pragmatism and indifference to the supernatural.
If Christianity has any advantage at all, if it can get out from behind that ugly wall of right wing supremacist ideology trying to hijack it for political advantage and turn it into a tribal identity, then it has generosity and equality. Salvation is a free gift for everyone, not something earned by moral or spiritual athletes, or reserved for the white and well off, but a gift from God for everyone no matter what type or condition. The message of Christianity is not that rich white straight men rule, but that God is with us, and for us, all of us, in true solidarity with each and every one of us forever no matter what.
The Hindu sages from the time of the Upanishads were right. Atheists do the religious a service (and sometimes vice versa). Nietzche’s greatest influence was on Christian theology. He raised questions that had to be answered and made criticisms that forced religiously minded people to take a good hard look at assumptions they long took for granted. The Danish pastor Soren Kierkegaard all of his life thought of himself as a sincere believing Christian, and yet his radical criticism of systematic doctrinal theology would have a profound influence on some schools of atheism in the 20th century.
Francisco de Goya, plate from The Disasters of War showing a long dead corpse writing the word "Nada" (Nothing) on a tablet. This was once interpreted as a confession of Goya's atheism, but its meaning is not so clear or so simple. The darkness surrounding the corpse is hardly empty, but full of shrieking babbling faces. Perhaps Goya suggests in this powerful and mysterious image that the realms of death beyond the range of our mortal vision are too terrible and mysterious for either the easy comforts of conventional religion, or for the generalizations of a facile secularism.
If The World Really Does End On May 21st ...
Sign The Petition
And We're Back!
YouTube nicked from JoeMyGod.
Sunday, May 8, 2011
Saturday, May 7, 2011
May 21st, And I Feel Fine
I'm not changing my plans.
Growing up in dear old Texas, I heard "Jesus Is Coming!" warnings broadcast more often than tornado warnings. As REM from Athens, GA knows, millenialist obsession is part of growing up in the South. Down There, God is everywhere, and he's always pissed off about something or other. And he's always on his way back to give us all a whippin'. I read a Southern writer (whose name, alas, I can't recall) describe the Southern conception of God as "a mean old grand-daddy home from a three day drunk."
There are a lot of times these days when I think that all the obsessive cranks that I knew growing up -- the ones who spent all of their time writing elaborate exegeses of Atlas Shrugged, or who spent hours and hours drawing up concordances between Revelations, the Book of Daniel, Ezekiel, and the Fort Worth Star Telegram -- have completely taken over. What other people are calling "progress" I call rebuilding the same old prison, and making it escape-proof.
Thursday, May 5, 2011
Wednesday, May 4, 2011
And Now, We Dance
Counterlight's Peculiars, always au courant.
Tuesday, May 3, 2011
Osama Bin Laden is Dead
It's time to move on and to quit letting him determine so much of our policy and spending priorities. He did so for the last 20 years.
As Rachel Maddow recently pointed out, we've trashed our own economy and our society trying to protect ourselves from this man and to get back at him.
Curious how these things work out. Osama bin Laden sent 19 guys armed with nothing more than box-cutters and succeeded where Hitler, Stalin, and The Japanese Empire with their enormous armies failed. He sent the United States into a panicked tail-spin from which we have yet to fully emerge.
And after trillions of dollars spent, a huge mushrooming national security state, 2 wars, and thousands dead, Osama is taken out in a fly-by-night whack job.
The Morning After.
I'm against the Afghanistan occupation.
I'm really against the extralegal detention and torture of prisoners of war (remember when we put people on trial and executed them at Nuremberg and Tokyo for doing this same thing?).
I'm very much against the dramatic expansion of The National Security State with plenty of new surveillance capabilities of dubious legality (remember when the idea of listening in on the phone calls of thousands of Americans would have been considered a scandal?).
I think we're not exactly blameless when it comes to the Middle East. For decades, we've practiced a heavy handed imperial policy that treated the region as Our Oil Pump, propping up client kings and appointing satraps to pacify a resentful population and to secure a vital natural resource. We should not have been surprised to see such a legacy create someone like Bin Laden and his many imitators.
And I don't feel ambivalent about Bin Laden's death. He got what he deserved. None of his victims deserved what they got.
If it was up to me (and it's not), Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz & Co would be on trial for war crimes. Joining them would be the CEOs of several contractors and mercenary companies, among them Blackwater and Haliburton. I would also have people in the media who cheer-led this thing face the music, companies like the Washington Post, the NY Times, several teevee networks (not just Fox News), and a long list of columnists from Charles Krauthammer to Christopher Hitchens.
They too have a lot of innocent blood on their hands.
A Further Thought:
Just to be clear, "joy" is not the sensation that I've been feeling for the last 48 hours. I don't feel that kind of "booyah!" joy that would make me stand up, wave the flag, and go all jingoistic yelling "USA! USA! USA!". That, I think, belongs to the wide world of easily threatened American machismo. I notice that the "joy" is mostly felt by people who were very young at the time of the attacks.
What I do feel is a kind of grim symmetrical satisfaction.
Monday, May 2, 2011
Rejoicing in the Death of Sinners
I'm very reluctant to pass judgment on the people out celebrating the death of Osama Bin Laden. A lot of people here in New York suffered very badly at this man's hands, losing family and friends. Almost a third of the FDNY perished on September 11th because of him. They are not sorry he's gone, and neither am I. They are celebrating his death like they celebrated Hitler's death, and why not? Hitler and Bin Laden were monsters cut from the same cloth. Dying was the best thing both men ever did for a world that suffered so much at their hands. People had good cause to rejoice, in 1945 and now.
At the same time, I'm reluctant to pass judgment on my dear Christian friends (they are dear and they are friends) for feeling ambivalence about all of this celebration. They are right. God does not rejoice in the death of sinners. They point out, rightly, the decades of American imperial policy that treated the Middle East as a big dumb gas pump that made someone like Osama Bin Laden possible. Of course, the same could be said about post-Treaty of Versailles Europe, and many vindictive and short sighted policies, that made someone like Hitler possible. And we have not exactly covered ourselves in glory since September 11th.
There is a Midrashic tale about God rebuking the angels for celebrating the deaths of the Egyptians pursuing the Israelites through the Red Sea. He forbade them from singing pointing out that the Egyptians too were His children created in His image.
I am not an angel. I'm celebrating. But then, God was right to rebuke his angels.
A further thought:
I think the thousands upon thousands of bereaved people here in New York, and around the world in places like Morocco, Nairobi, and Bali can take a measure of relief and satisfaction in Osama bin Laden's death without feeling any remorse about it.
Congratulations President Obama!
We can now say "Mission Accomplished" without irony. It took a black Democrat to finish a white Republican's job.
Now brace yourselves for the next phase in the conflict, the one with the terrorists abroad and the Fox News crowd at home.
"It took Obama to Get Osama" tee shirts are already on sale.
This is now making the rounds on the internet tubes:
It's a bad day to be a Fox News reporter.