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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Top 10 posts of 2010

Now that we're nearing the end of the year, I will follow my tradition of selecting a 'top 10' from among my posts over the past 12 months. They are chosen based on (1) how much original thought of my own is present in them, (2) how important the concept is to the overall focus I'd like my work to represent, (3) how entertaining or interesting I think the post is. All listings are in order of posting. Without further ado, here they are:

Two approaches to desire
A response to Sam Harris on moral questions
David Brooks & Justin Bieber on "Happiness"
Do you have a sense of progress in your walk?
On loving humanity
Taking a pass on wisdom?
Stoic Compassion
The hidden vice
What we worship
Jesus in New York

I also keep a collection of top 10 posts from previous years, and I've selected from among those a top 10 list of all my posts (going back to 2004). The full top 10 page can be viewed HERE.

Best wishes to all my readers for a happy new year!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Charter for Compassion live webcast Thu, Nov 18th

Karen Armstrong
Photo: (c) Charter for Compassion.
This Thursday, November 18, 2010, the Charter for Compassion will be celebrating it's one-year anniversary with a live webcast, taking place 10:00am CST (Houston time). Viewers will be able to see it then by visiting

When the Charter was first unveiled I reported on it, which can be read HERE. The project was initiated by former nun, author, and religious historian Karen Armstrong after winning a prize from TED for her presentation on the topic. The Charter was then developed over about a year and 9 months and involved leaders from multiple faiths and others. By 10 months into the process 150,000 people from over 180 nations had submitted suggestions for the charter and a Council of Conscience then formulated the final draft. It called for all people and ethical centers to recommit themselves to the golden rule. Since then, there have been efforts to promote it and causes which are consistent with its message.

One of my aims in my articles, essays, and occasional speaking engagements, has been to reassert the central and foundational role of compassion in Humanism so I, of course, endorse their efforts. The webcast on the 18th will include talks on compassion from Karen Armstrong, Rev. Dr. Joan Brown Campbell, Matthieu Ricard, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, Chade-Meng Tan, Krista Tippett, Fred Luskin, and more.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Twellow adds Humanism category

Twellow adds Humanism category.
Photo: Twellow logo (c) WebProNews.
Twellow Humanism!

In response to my request, the website Twellow (, a "yellow pages" for Twitter users recently added Humanism as a sub-category to its Religion & Spirituality section. The popular website allows users looking for interesting Twitter accounts to follow to browse by topics and categories, as one would in a yellow pages telephone directory. It also has a handy feature called Twellowhood, that lets the user find people in their city.

I use Twitter to put out announcements of my new articles, as well as some other occasional notes that may be of interest to my readers. As such, I wanted to update my profile on Twellow. When selecting categories yesterday, I noticed there were many other faiths and traditions listed under the Religion & Spirituality section, but not Humanism. So I emailed them the following request:

I am writing to ask that you please add Humanism as a sub-category under Religion & Spirituality. Humanism, though a minority, is a major tradition with a long history. Humanist organizations, both local, national, and international exist all over the world. In many European nations their populations are significant. There is a Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard University. Many notable figures such as scientist Carl Sagan, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, and noted writer Kurt Vonnegut are Humanists, as are many Nobel prize winners today.

Humanists outnumber some of the sub-categories you already have listed, and many are twitter users. While Humanism is non-theistic, so is Buddhism. Like Buddhism, Humanism is more than mere atheism and has specific principles.

I am a Humanist minister who writes one of many Humanist columns on Humanism for newspapers and other publications (in my case, the Houston Chronicle and Examiner) and would appreciate being able to list myself by my actual tradition.

For more information, please see:

International Humanist & Ethical Union

American Humanist Association

Council for Secular Humanism

Humanism at Wikipedia

Thank you :)

Daniel Strain
Humanist Minister

This morning, to my surprise, Twellow responded with the following:

Hi Daniel,

I am pleased to announce that "Humanism" has been added to Twellow's 'Religion & Spirituality' category. The respective URL of this new category is provided below.

Please be sure to follow @twellow ( for future category additions and updates.

Thank you for your category suggestion and also for your continued interest in Twellow!

Chad Sweely
Support Analyst

So I went back to my profile and added myself under the new category. In the process, I discovered that currently the number of Twitter accounts falling under the Humanism category outnumber those in the categories of Baha'i, Gnostic, Hare Krishna, Hinduism, Jehovah's Witnesses, New Age, Santeria, Scientology, Taoism, and even Unitarian Universalism. There are 16 other categories outnumbered by Humanism, which are other sorts of things, such as Interfaith or Feng Shui, for example.

I have made a request long ago to MySpace to add Humanism to its list of religion choices in the drop-down menu on the Details section of a person's profile. There was no response. Yesterday I was inspired to ask MySpace again to add Humanism - and got back a similar 'we'll look into it' form letter. I guess we'll see. If you'd like to contact MySpace and join me in requesting Humanism be added, you can click here.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Christian writer: why being gay is not a sin

Stacey Johnson Donovan,
(c) Stacey Johnson Donovan.
Today's post is from guest writer Stacey Johnson Donovan. Stacey writes romance novels and poetry. Her blog is, The Poetry Habit

Most people understand how this works, but just in case.

First off, don’t talk to me about Leviticus. Don’t even. Are you doing everything in Leviticus? Really? Every time you have your period, you go off by yourself for seven days and you don’t touch anything for fear of getting your lady cooties on it? And on the eighth day you take two pigeons or two turtles to a priest and have them sacrificed? And you don’t wear any clothes with mixed fibers…no rayon/spandex, no cotton/polyester? Your church doesn’t let any handicapped people near the altar? You think buying slaves is fine? If you believe everything in Leviticus, I think you are a terrible person, and also a very weird person. Seriously. Just shut up about Leviticus.

All right, what about the New Testament? Well, it's good to be a little knowledgeable here. When Paul wrote his letter to the Romans, he had just visited an area where people were having orgies in the temples, castrating themselves in honor of Venus, and having sex with child prostitutes. In that context, his talk about people exchanging the natural for the unnatural is probably a little more specific than being gay and lesbian. As far as Corinthians goes…no one is really sure what the Greek words “malakois” and “arsenokoitai” really mean. The most likely bet is that one of them refers to married men who use child prostitutes, which is in fact disgusting.

The truth is, I take Paul’s opinion with a grain of salt anyway, because he seemed to be okay with slavery also. I don’t know anything about slavery in his time and region, and I doubt that it matched the horrors and holocausts of slavery in the Americas, but I’m sure it was wrong. Anti-abolitionists and segregationists dug up Bible verses supporting their positions, too, but in the end most people listened to their innate understanding of good and evil.

Paul was human, a product of his era and his culture. I think it’s okay to recognize that people have evolved and become more enlightened in some ways over the centuries. As far as I can tell, Jesus was kind of hoping for that.

Speaking of Jesus, let's move on to the Gospels. What does Christ Himself say about same-sex couples?


If it’s important, why didn’t He mention it? If you believe He’s the Son of God, and perfect, I think it would be sort of heresy to suggest He just, like, forgot. You could say they neglected to write down the anti-gay rant part of the Sermon on the Mount, but whatever, I could argue that they left out the part when he said, “Blessed are the gays, for they are God’s favorites.” And honestly, my guess would seem more in character than yours.

The most logical conclusion is that Jesus didn't care if people were gay.

What did He care about? We know his Big Rules are Love God and Love One Another. Other favorite topics include taking care of poor people and working on improving yourself instead of going around judging others. Now whether you’re a Christian or not, you are almost certainly doing a better job at these things than I am, but you’ll probably still admit that just focusing on these things is plenty of a challenge for one lifetime.

Even if a Christian can't convince herself that it's okay to be gay, she should ask herself why other sins aren't condemned with the same fervor. Why aren't judgmental people kept away from children who might pick up their bad habits? Why aren't people who aren't generous enough with their money (i.e., almost all of us) ostracized? The argument that gays aren't trying to change doesn't hold up. Are you trying to become someone who sells all her belongings and gives all her money to the poor, like Jesus suggested? Is that going to happen soon? If not, then who are you to get up in arms about this one thing? And if so, I'll buy your elliptical machine, if it's cheap.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Jesus in New York

Statue of Jesus and the twin towers,
(cc) Michael Dolan,
A friend recently posted on his Facebook wall about the parable of the good Samaritan. In this familiar tale, a Jewish traveler is beaten, robbed, and left for dead. Others walk by, including a priest, without helping him. Then a Samaritan (a member of an ethnoreligious group once numerous), stops and helps the Jew. Many of us take the parable as a simple story underscoring the importance of being kind to others, but its lesson is much deeper.

I have actually heard some individual Christians try to qualify the ethical dictate to 'love thy neighbor' by saying that neighbor means other Christians, or Americans, or literally those living around you. They do this in a poor attempt to reconcile the teachings of their savior with the massive military of their country, and what they see in their own lives as the practical necessity of violence in certain cases.

But the whole meaning of the parable of the good Samaritan is an answer to the question, "who is my neighbor?" It was significant that a Samaritan helped the Jew. The term 'good Samaritan' was seen as an oxymoron by Jesus' Jewish audience who would have been shocked to hear this because Jews and Samaritans disliked one another. Tensions were high and the Samaritans had desecrated Jewish temples and had even given Jesus a hostile reception. Yet, here was a Jew teaching other Jews that their neighbor was the Samaritan.

It would be as if Jesus in today's time told a story to Christians in which a Muslim was the hero, and then said: the Muslim is your neighbor, and you are to love him as you love yourself.

Such humility and nobility of character shames us all.

It's unfortunate that so many who call themselves Christians do not take seriously the greatest teachings of the one they claim to follow. It's *easy* to love the neighbor who dresses like you, goes to your church, or lends you sugar on the weekends. This was not Jesus' profound prescription.

Many Christians do try to live by Jesus' teachings, and we need more of them in the spotlight. My father would be the first to tell you he is not a 'perfect' Christian (there are none, of course, as there are no perfect people). But in a modest church in a run-down part of his small town, he decided to help the poor. He played host to the poor, the elderly, the homeless, drug addicts, prostitutes, and others simply on hard times; sharing conversation with them over coffee and a doughnut. Believe it or not, there were times he even took Jesus' example and washed their feet. He never questioned whether or not these people deserved their condition, or whether they would make use of his help to set themselves right, and he never admonished them. That was his 'program' for the poor: compassion. The rest fell into place. Many of them did begin to see a return of hope and improve their condition, and some simply enjoyed doughnuts and coffee.

In the book of Matthew, it is written that if someone tries to sue us for our tunic, we should give them our cloak as well. Peter asks Jesus if we should forgive others as many as seven times, and Jesus responds "seventy times seven" times. Point being, by the 490th time we surely would have lost count.

I am not a Christian by any common use of the term. When it comes to the unknown or the improvable, I prefer the humble approach of making claims only regarding what I can measure and prove to others. As a naturalist, I hold no supernatural beliefs, yet we all have the ability to understand truth when it is presented to us. I have found similar truths in Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Stoicism, and other philosophies; and in these lessons of Jesus there is truth. I know this by the evidence of their efficacy in my life and in the numerous examples I've seen and read in the lives of others.

While I have lost people close to me at other times, I did not lose anyone close to me in the tragedies of 9/11, or any similar attacks. But it is the right and the responsibility of everyone to support and convey wisdom when and wherever it is needed, as well as they can understand it.

Judging by his parable of the good Samaritan, it is easy to know what the Jesus of scripture would say were he to visit New York today. Not only would he say to let the Muslims build their center, but once it had been built he would tell the families of victims of 9/11 to invite those Muslims into their homes, to feed them, and perhaps even to wash their feet.

And if Jesus were to come to New York and when you had heard what he'd said, the counter-intuitive profundity of it would shock you to your core. And, if you truly loved Jesus, you would then realize how huge was the gulf between where you had come to and his teachings; and you would fall to your knees in shame.

But the best part would be what would come next. Because after you had put his teachings into practice, you would understand why he had told you to do this.

The heart of the approach found in the philosophy of Jesus, the Buddha, and others when it comes to one's enemies, is reliance on the fact that there is goodness in everyone, and certainly when you're talking about large groups of people. When others see complete sincerity and kindness, they cannot help but be transformed by it. No one wants to consider themselves "the bad guy". Jesus' teachings are wise because they recognize deeper truths about how human beings operate. They are based on a transformation of the human heart, moved by extraordinary acts of peace, courage, and compassion - especially in the face of danger and hostility.

But Jesus' philosophy is meant to be applied in full, without reservation. If you extend one hand, with the other holding a weapon 'just in case', then what would be an act of peace, humility, and sacrifice becomes an ultimatum. The message is twisted into something like, "I'll offer you peace if you behave the way I want, but if you don't then you're going to get it". This is about as far from Jesus' teachings as one can be, and as such the technique loses all its power.

Your enemy must see and know that you are trusting him. This convinces him that you believe there is good in him, and you are willing to risk yourself in order that the two of you may find it in one another. But it also shows that you believe so strongly in peace that you are willing to give your life for it if you must. Only such a risk and sacrifice has the transformative power in the heart of others - the same transformative power in the story of Jesus' sacrifice which built a faith of billions.

This is what Mohandas Gandhi understood when he forbade his followers to use violence in resisting British rule in India (something which they imperfectly followed). It was the pearl within Dr. Martin Luther King's struggle for equality which endeared him and his cause to so many. It was the Buddha's intention in teaching compassion for all beings without exception.

Thus, you have to be willing to risk - and yes, it is risk because many times an enemy's heart may not be transformed, or it may take longer to transform it than the time until more deaths occur. So many of us are willing to die for a cause - as long as we get to go down with a machine gun in our hands. But this is not the cause which Jesus assigns us. The question is, are you willing to die for his cause; for the cause of peace?

Yet, after doing as Jesus said, breaking bread with the Muslims at the center in New York, and caring for them in your home, you would realize that what he had commanded was not just about helping the Muslims. While the Muslim would leave with a fuller belly and cleaner feet, you would have gained something as well. You would have felt the deep healing such humility, kindness, and forgiveness can create. Then you would see that in the effort to transform the heart of your enemy, yours had been transformed.

Special thanks to Joe, whose post on the parable of the good Samaritan inspired this article.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

To those against the Quran burning: you're doing it wrong

Book burning. (cc) Michael
Bina (mrtwism),
As many know by now, a small church in Gainesville, Florida has gathered national attention with its plans to burn copies of the Quran this September 11th. Muslims, other Christian churches, General David Petraeus (U.S. commander of the war in Afghanistan), the U.S. Attorney General, and even the President have all been urging the church's pastor to call off the event, but their approach is misguided.

At least as far as the General, Attorney General, and the President are concerned, the argument has been that such an event will inflame public opinion, incite violence, and endanger U.S. forces. Firstly, if one was of the mindset of those in this Gainesville church, then confrontation would be expected; perhaps welcome. As for U.S. forces, part of their duty is to fight for our freedom of self expression, so from these folks' perspective, not putting on their event to lessen danger to the troops would undercut a major reason for having troops in the first place.

But worse, the real problem with this line of argument is that it is based on fear. It attempts to motivate with the fear of violent reprisals from extremists. The very endeavor of terrorism is about motivating people through fear of violence. In that regard, this approach turns the President, the General, and everyone else voicing this argument into the media services center for the terrorists. In order to terrorize a people, you must do two things: violence, and make broad threats of further violence unless compliance takes place. People who try to motivate by threatening further violence from terrorists are simply saving the terrorists time and expense on the second part of the terrorism formula. Osama doesn't need to make another video because Obama already has.

Consider that the people in this church already have a mindset based on fear - fear of islam and what it means, and this argument is only more of the same. To make matters worse, the pastor has been getting death threats, which only serve to justify his fear-based views and see himself as some kind of warrior or potential martyr. Fear should never be used as a tool, no matter how good you think your cause or purpose.

The right approach is the truth. The real reason why members of this church shouldn't burn the quran has nothing to do with fear of reprisal. Is that why you don't burn qurans? Simply because you're afriad of Muslims attacking you? If this fear didn't exist, you'd be burning Qurans? I hope not. Let me share with you why I don't burn Qurans...

  1. I am not unaware of the fact that Islam does not equal or necessitate terrorism. I understand that most Muslims are not terrorists and do not condone terrorism.
  2. I believe that two wrongs don't make a right. If I am offended by some Muslims' choice on where to put a mosque, or even by the terrorism of some, it doesn't justify similar behavior. My behavior is based on my values and standards; it is not to be determined or controlled by the actions of others. How I behave is about who I am, not about who they are.
  3. I have tolerance and respect for the beliefs of others, even if I don't share those beliefs. I do this because I would want the same in return, and because I know that's the only productive way diverse people can proceed in the future.
  4. A love for learning gives me a natural revulsion at the idea of destroying books. A respect for reason and thinking brings me to reject the notion of 'dangerous ideas and thoughts'. I believe thinking people can learn about all things, evaluate them, and come to good conclusions without censorship or banning things.
  5. Love of my fellow human beings makes me considerate of their feelings. Even if I think they have bad ideas, I separate the ideas from the person. If I disagree with them, I will try to discuss with them in the spirit of brotherly love.

These are the reasons why we should not burn Qurans, and they are the only legitimate reasons to present. When we resort to fear based arguments, we ourselves forget those principles above. Before long, we start to believe what we're telling the people in Gainesville - that fear of reprisal is the reason for not burning books. If burning the Quran was right, then no fear of reprisal should stop the people of that church or this nation. But, alas, it isn't right, and that's the point.

The issues burdening the people of the church in Gainesville run deeper and are more broad than this one topic. They don't see that, ironically, their position at its core runs counter to these American and Christian ideals and virtues. The only road back from their dark place can be a loving and truthful one. Unfortunately, walking that road may take longer than the time until this planned event, but if we had all been promoting these positive points, perhaps some with a wider conscience at the church may have been reachable. Perhaps they still are.

No matter what happens on the 11th, let us remember that these people are burdened by their own demons, and more of the same toward them is not the way out.

Comment, Tom B:
Hatred does damage to the 'hater'. Violence invites retaliation. Fear is a very unpleasant emotion. So if one wants to be an unhappy, fearful person inviting others to hurt one, go for it. Personally, it's a lot easier to just live in an imperfect world trying to 'get a grip' on one's emotions and 'power' through 'stuff.' Oh, and courage is precisely the refusal to let fear govern one.

Comment, @nervoustwit:
Finally someone says something sensible on this subject. You're right. Do unto others what you would have them do unto you. That's not just a biblical idea, any mature adult of any belief system would agree that it is a sensible way to live. The fear factor that dominates the dialogue on this subject typifies our cultural self-centeredness. Similarly, most people who object to sending troupes over-seas usually site the cost, and the risk to American lives as their main reasons.

Comment, little chair:
Thank you for reminding us about the dangers of using fear as a motivator.
It's nice to see/hear/read that some people do not enjoy inciting destructive emotions in other people, for whatever reason. Compassion and tolerance for fellow human beings is the only way to move towards peaceful... times.

Comment, DT Strain:
Thanks for the comments everyone. As for having the right to do this, I do support that right and would not agree with government interference or force from others to prevent it. But not everything we have a right to do, is right to do. And for those who say that it doesn't matter because it's just a book, or that they themselves wouldn't care whether they did it, or that Christians and Muslims 'deserve one another', I'd ask you to consider the following. It's true that it's just a pile of paper. Books are destroyed all the time, when they're old, discarded, won't sell, and so on. And, it doesn't even really matter so much whether others care what you're doing or not - not in itself. What matters is *motivation*. What will performing certain acts based on anger, hate, fear, or even apathy or disregard, do to your 'soul' (or, to your habits, inclinations, and character as a person). Actions condition us over time. What is a person like who would do things needlessly without concern for the feelings of innocent people, or who wish for those they dislike to meet horrible ends, or who justify any kind of action on the basis of the same behavior by their worst enemies? And becoming more like that kind of person - how will that affect your quality of life? When we act from pure motivation - good, loving, and pure motivation, we cultivate a character that is more capable of enjoying a deeper and more genuine joy.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

An evolutionary benefit to theism?

Does belief in God help our survival?
Photo: Altered from photo
(cc) Brent Danley,
Yesterday, NPR published an article on its program, All Things Considered, called, "Is Believing In God Evolutionarily Advantageous?". Here, psychologist and atheist Jesse Bering conducted some tests of three groups of childred. Each were given a game to play involving landing a ball in a very difficult position, and then believed themselves to be left unattended, but with an exception in the second and third group. In the third group someone sat and watched them, and in the second group, an empty chair was left. The children were told an invisible woman was watching them. Cheating was high in the unwatched group, and lower in the other two groups (which were about equal). Bering hypothesized that such beliefs had an evolutionary advantage because they encouraged us to behave and cooperate better. I have two main problems with Bering's endeavor here, and both relate to my belief he's trying to explain why something came to be, that I don't really think even 'came to be' in the first place[1].

The first problem I see with Bering's hypothesis regards how typical a judging-God is in human culture. I don't think this "overseeing judging God" is as common as Bering seems to think it is. First of all, consider that Christianity, Islam, and Judaism are all Abrahamic religions, sharing close inspiration from one another, and them having been influenced by the Zoroastrianism of Persia before that (in terms of god/s and the universe seen through a lens of Good/Evil). Many other traditions of the supernatural do not feature gods in those roles, such as the Greek gods, whose follies may have provided lessons on 'what not to do', and who may have had desires and actions against mortals, but who rarely served as moral guides themselves. Other supernatural views involve things like spirit guides and great mothers, such as with Native Americans, or karma and cycles of rebirth rather than gods, as with many Eastern views. Here too, the referee-god doesn't hold.

So, although Abrahamic religions grew to have great numbers and influence, their nucleus began in one small geographic region and relatively short span of time. It is therefore not a good indication of 'overall human nature' regarding belief. Like the Good/Evil dichotomy, the puritanism, and the "our way or the highway" exclusionary traits of Abrahamic religions, the God-judge may be another aspect that has been over-magnified by the happenstance of Western guns, germs, and steel, along with the fortuitous marketing made possible by being on the good side of a major world Emperor at the right time. This often leads people into imagining the peculiarities of the Abrahamic stream to be more indicative of the human religious norm than they really are. In fact, there's good reason to believe that many traits of some of our largest religions are anomalies of the human religious impulse.

The second problem is that supernaturalism is not as common as Bering and many others think. In fact, it may be only one of a few examples, coming about as late as the 2nd Century C.E. We hear and read about a lot of things in ancient philosophy and traditions and automatically interpret them in 'supernatural' terms today, but this was often not the case. Rather, ancient peoples were theorizing about how their One, holistic Natural universe operated. Their notion of souls and entities, and even the gods were often naturalistic. It may not have been until Jesus' failure to return from the dead that early Christians began to conceive of a supernatural realm separate from the natural, as an explanation of what was meant by the Kingdom of God. Today, with our modern Christian-colored glasses, when we look back and read many of the concepts before that time, we tend to cast them in a supernatural context when that wasn't the original conception.

But, alas, the essential question remains as to whether or not people can be good without direct oversight, or the belief of direct oversight. We know for a fact this is possible anecdotally, so it's a question of degrees and proportions. Rather than comparison with undisciplined children, I would like to see the cheating behavior of groups of believers compared with groups of people who had been trained in enlightened ethical principles that go beyond direct punishment/reward, which is the lowest level of ethical education. Consider psychologist Barry Schwartz's criticism of incentive based systems in a talk last year at TED on our Loss of Wisdom, where he said, "...excessive reliance on incentives demoralizes professional activity". The same is true throughout all morality.

There's no question that this kind of advanced ethical education requires more societal energy than enforcement through incentive based dogma; but then, it is also more reliable and stable than good behavior based on faith. In other words, you get what you pay for. 


Many thanks to Rick Bamford for making me aware of this article, and thanks to Nate Custer for drawing my attention to Barry Schwartz's talk! 

[1] I also had a minor quibble with Bering's comment, "I've always said that I don't believe in God, but I don't really believe in atheists either... Everybody experiences the illusion that God — or some type of supernatural agent — is watching them or is concerned about what they do in their sort of private everyday moral lives." I think again, Bering has made a larger claim than he can support. I have never had this feeling, even momentarily, since becoming an atheist. But I admit I have a considerable degree of philosophical underpinning to my natural worldview, which many atheists who merely lack theism do not have. Such occasional suspicions would not be surprising for them.

Monday, August 30, 2010

That which is sacred

Even those without supernatural beliefs
benefit from a sense of the sacred.
(cc) Nick Merzetti,
This weekend, I was invited to speak at Thoreau Unitarian Universalist Church in Stafford, Texas. The topic was Stuart Kauffman's book, Reinventing the Sacred, which I've written on briefly before. Our discussion covered much broader areas, including everything from Humanism to the role of ritual. One topic was on the use of the word Sacred.

Though many secularists, naturalists, and nontheists are uncomfortable with it, Sacred is a word Kauffman uses, and which I use as well. I explained that the Latin word sacer touched on the concept of setting apart. That which is sacred is that which we set apart from the mundane and the ordinary (or profane, though that word too requires a naturalistic context). While many have used the concept of the sacred to refer to supernatural things this, I submit, is merely happenstance because the things they find sacred (the things they set apart for reverence), for them, include the supernatural.

However, even for the naturalist, it is essential to have a sense of setting some things apart from the ordinary as being worthy of reverence, awe, and special respect. What things might those be? Ultimately, they tend to be those things which are essential to our flourishing as human beings. This begins at the most rudimentary level, with a respect for reason and the rational order by which the universe operates. Were it not for that Natural Law, then no life could arise, nothing could be understood and no progress could be made. Up the scale a bit, the sacred includes the creative faculty of the universe - that aspect of Natural Law that serves as a counterpart to entropy and results in the formation of complex systems. Among these, life itself, would be included in the sacred. Moving up further, an appreciation for our place as a species in the web of life is a way of setting it apart as special.

Getting to human affairs, our natural proclivities that tend toward peaceful and prosperous coexistence are sacred. These include our sense of empathy and compassion. Also sacred are the virtues, ethical principles, and practices which allow for human beings to interact with one another in manners that help us flourish, both outwardly and inwardly.

This stream of phenomena ranging from the most rudimentary up the emergent scale to our families, friends, communities, and all of life, are those things worthy to be set apart for special reverence, respect, and attention. For that reason, I call them sacred and I think it is to our benefit to do so. Conversely, I think we would do ourselves harm by rejecting the notion of the sacred out of some misguided fear that we are using a word others have used, simply because they find additional things sacred which are not a part of our worldview.

Friday, August 20, 2010

What we worship

The ocean womb of life and source
of its energy together.
(cc) Ingo (meironke),
Well known film critic Roger Ebert wrote in his online journal for the Chicago Sun-Times this month about Christopher Hitchens - the 'militant atheist' known for such books as God is Not Great and others. Hitchens has contracted a very serious form of cancer, like Roger Ebert, who lost his ability to speak from the disease. You can read Ebert's eloquent thoughts on Hitchens and his recent CNN interview by clicking this link. However, my comments are about one particular part of Ebert's excellent post. As he wrote:

"I was asked at lunch today who or what I worshiped. The question was asked sincerely, and in the same spirit I responded that I worshiped whatever there might be outside knowledge. I worship the void. The mystery. And the ability of our human minds to perceive an unanswerable mystery. To reduce such a thing to simplistic names is an insult to it, and to our intelligence."

As I read that paragraph, I was first struck by the personal way Ebert opened up to us. I soon realized as I completed it, that it's probably the coolest paragraph I've read this week. Upon reflection, although I still believe that, I now have mixed feelings about it's content.

On the one hand, I can relate to Ebert's awe and wonder at the great mystery of existence. I think that fascinating puzzle ads to life; so much so, that to ever have such questions answered might be less satisfying a position than the one of pursuing them. But the question of worshiping the mystery sticks in my craw, and I think I've realized the reason.

It is not, as some might expect of a nontheist, because of the concept of worship. I'm prepared to accept a certain kind of worship - as in, having a sacred respect for something. But the problem with worshiping "the void", as Ebert puts it, is that it leaves all that wondrous stuff we can see, and that we do know in the natural universe, discarded. The stuff of all those inspiring Einstein posters, and Carl Sagan Nova monologues, and Neil deGrasse Tyson speeches are not about the gaps, so much as they are about our visible, approachable, universe.

Further, the volumes of Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucian wisdom (some immaterial caveats, granted) are largely about how nature, people, minds, and experience work and what kinds of things lead to the good life. Heraclitus and countless other ancient philosophers also brought us some of the most useful and inspiring lessons.

At some point in our past there was a great schism, whereby we divided up things into the natural and an alleged 'supernatural' and then we regarded everything of value and meaning as being of the latter. The reason worshiping the void, the unknowable, doesn't quite work for me, is that it is ultimately just a modern version of tossing everything of value into the unreachable darkness. Even with the supernatural assertion removed, It is still a surrender - a shrugging of the shoulders - which serves only to relieve us of the effort of connecting with what we worship. I, then, am a naturalist version somewhat akin to those Christians who tell people that God is not in some far off unreachable realm, but He is right here with us, in us, and part of all creation. They realize that you can tell a lot about a people by what they worship, and it is important that what we adore be something with which we can connect.

Ultimately, I can't escape the suspicion that Ebert's view on this, is of the same philosophic family, as a view that doesn't see what it needs in the knowable natural realm, and is inspired to relegate it to the unknowable. Instead, I would offer this...

If we are to 'worship' (take or leave that word per se), then let us find sacred truth and its pursuit, let us praise reason - not just the human capacity for reason, but the underlying rational order by which the universe operates and makes possible all things. Let us be in awe of the self-emergent complexity and the ever-changing maelstrom of cause and effect that arises from that natural law. Let us then value all life which is borne of that complexity. Let us appreciate our place among that life. Let us love one another, and let us find meaning in sharing with one another in the time we have borrowed from the universe. And, when it comes time to repay that debt, let us play our part gracefully in harmony with the way of the universe. And along the way, let us indeed take note of all we don't know, and may never know, and let that humble but inspire us.

That's a lot more than void, and worth some reverence I think.

Having said that, Roger Ebert's post was exceptional and I recommend it; and I wish both men all the best.

Thanks to D. J. Grothe for making me aware of Ebert's article.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The hidden vice

The killer Anton Chigurh is a metaphor
for the randomness of fate in
No Country for Old Men. (c) Miramax Films.
A friend of mine has been having a really hard time in her home life. Things are not good with her partner and she is distraught that he is rejecting her, becoming emotionally abusive, and they seem to be falling apart. She is scared for her kids and what will come of things; where she will go. She asks why people bother forming relationships if they can be dissolved so easily? If nothing is permanent then what was it all for? Why bother? She also finds herself wondering where she went wrong and what she could possibly do to make things right again - to change her partner's behavior. She believes her needs to be so simple and so humble. She is a loving, caring, smart, and selfless person, but all she has ever wanted is a loving stable family life, and she believes this should not be too much to ask.

If Socrates and Epictetus are correct in saying "virtue is both sufficient and necessary for happiness", then it stands to reason that the inverse is also true. Where there is suffering, there is also vice of some sort. This is true no matter how good a person the sufferer appears to be. But saying vice is present is merely a way to track down what may be contributing to our suffering. Here is what I do not mean by suggesting vice is present in the sufferer:

  • I do not mean that all forms of suffering are included:
    We all know the difference between happiness or pleasure, and True Happiness - a deep contented happiness independent of circumstance. Along the same lines, True Suffering is a deeper inner crisis than physical pain or tragedy of circumstance. Therefore, for example, there is no vice of the sufferer of deformities or tragedies, whether caused by others or other acts of nature.
  • I do not mean that vice is equal to evil:
    Saying there is a vice present does not mean 'evil intent'. Rather, in the broader view, it means there is some defect of perception or value system that is magnifying the suffering.
  • I do not mean that our circumstances are our fault:
    This is not about assigning blame, or blaming the victim, or minimizing moral responsibility for those who do wrong to us. The vice has not necessarily caused our circumstance, but it is making our happiness more vulnerable to circumstance than it could be.
  • I do not mean that we deserve our suffering:
    Every one of us has vice of some variety or degree, and we always will. As William Munny (Clint Eastwood) said in the film Unforgiven, "deserve's got nothin' to do with it".

Rather, if we can use the inverse of the Epictetan and Socratic virtue/happiness relationship as a means to spot vice, we can proceed to ask what are we missing - what are we lacking - that will allow us to overcome this suffering and weather our circumstances? This is not about blame, but about discovering opportunity and hope; it is about empowerment.

Living in Nature

Marcus Aurelius (Book 2, #11) reminds that "death and life, success and failure, pain and pleasure, wealth and poverty, all these happen to good and bad alike..." He goes on (Book 4, #6) to talk about bad people: "These [people] are natural and necessary results from creatures of this kind, and one who wants this to be otherwise may as well resent the fig tree for yielding its acrid juice. And in general remember this, that within a very little while both he and you will be dead, and a little after not even your name nor his will be remembered."

This helps us to realize that bad things happening because of the actions of others are just like natural disasters; they are inevitable and a part of how the universe is. They are equally outside of our control. We already knew that people did bad things to one another, and should not be so surprised when, on occasion, we find ourselves in the way of it. On the other hand Marcus' note on death truly inspires us to ask what the point of it all is?

The first alternative: the promise of permanence

When my friend asked "why bother?" it reminded me of the time I've written before on the distinction between two major branches of thought about life, which find themselves in our philosophies, religions, and spiritual traditions. The first being the notion that there is a permanent and stable condition which we might achieve or have given to us. For Christians there is a notion of salvation and an everlasting realm beyond death, but there are other examples of this as well. These philosophies must contend with the undeniable impermanent nature of reality we see around us. As such, the reward is generally relegated to another kind of unseen reality beyond this one.

This philosophic approach has profound implications in our psychology, our history, and our culture. In movies we commonly see good triumph over evil and the happy ending. Our deep fantasies to control what seems like insurmountable challenges are fulfilled as we see superhuman heroes use their powers to defeat evil and stop the bad things from happening.

Yet, at least where living this present life is concerned, these superheroes betray us - be they in movies or in scriptures. They color our mindset and our general way of thinking becomes such that if something doesn't lead to a permanent preferred external outcome, that it lacks purpose or value - that it was all for nothing. This is a very vulnerable condition in which to live, surrounded by such an unpredictable and impermanent universe.

The second alternative: acceptance of change

The second major branch of thought about life takes another approach. It faces full on the reality of our world. It calls us to accept life as a continuous flux of change and impermanence. Although anyone of any faith or philosophy can benefit from doing this, Stoicism and Buddhism are two philosophies that have exemplified this approach.

In a recent meeting of my Humanist Contemplatives group, we were discussing Stoicism as opposed to say, Epicureanism. One member said he thought of Stoicism as nihilistic or pessimistic. This is a common first impression of these kinds of philosophies. However, there is an eye to this hurricane. In other words, there is a point you come to in acceptance of what seems to be so negative, which ultimately brings an even greater peace, contentment and hope that we had before. I have written on this sense of hope in my article, Adieu to Immortality.


In the film No Country for Old Men, Sheriff Ed Bell is close to retirement but tracking a ruthless killer whose seemingly senseless wake of destruction only highlights to him a changing world where the morals he'd grown up with are slipping away. It is all too much for him to handle. Another law man concurs, saying, "It's not the one thing, it's the dismal tide." He feels overwhelmed, and defeated. Upon retiring he goes to visit his uncle, an older law man himself, now retired and disabled by a man who had shot him some years earlier. Bell conveys this feeling, to which his uncle replies, "What you got ain't nothin' new... You can't stop what's comin'. Ain't all waitin' on you. That's vanity."

There is a common idea of what vanity is, but this particular vice has many guises. I think most people, when thinking about vanity, would imagine a person who is conceited or elitist; a person who is concerned with looks and who treats others as inferior. But this is only the most outward and obvious example of vanity. We all know that kind of behavior is poor and ultimately harmful to ourselves and others; that's no revelation. But there are other forms of vanity that are less obvious, more insideous, and can sneak up on even the best natured of us. This kind of vanity hurts ourselves the most, because we believe ourselves to have greater control over things than we do. Unaware of the presence of this vice, we begin to ruminate about what we can do to make things go our way, and what we could have done to have made things turn out differently.

Universal wisdom

While this wisdom may be prominent in Eastern religion and ancient Greek philosophy, anyone may be helped by its insight. Christians will notice similarity to the concept of leaving things in God's hands. The serenity prayer says, "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference". Matthew 5:45 (KJV) reads, "That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust."

As a literal tale, the story of Job doesn't paint a very flattering picture of God, who tortures Job with misfortune after misfortune. But like the Architect in The Matrix, or the villain in No Country for Old Men, the murdering Anton Chigurh, both represent the grandiose magnitude Nature, which can seem capricious, random, and cruel but which are ultimately not what they appear. When Job finally questions God, he replies out of a storm (Job 38-40), asking, "Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation?... when I set the stars in the sky... and made the clouds its garment... when I set the borders of the oceans? Can you bring forth the seasons? Do you know the laws of the heavens?" As a figurative tale it inspires appreciation of the fact that the universe which brings us everything we thought bad, also made possible everything good, and that we lack the control or understanding to even know what is good for us and what is bad. How can we take on such a task as to think we can engineer all events? How strange that we dwell over what we "should have done", or endlessly ruminate upon machinations to "make everything right"? When God finishes his questions, Job has no reply, and shuts his mouth.

Asking 'only' for a happy stable home life and family may seem more humble and noble on the surface, but in terms of how it functions in our minds and in the world in which we find ourselves, it is no different than asking for money, power, or fame. That's not a judgment on a person who seeks these things, but it is a fact about life. In this sense, both are 'asking too much' because both are a form of demanding certain conditions for your happiness. But whether you believe the dealer to be Nature or God the point is, you don't get to tell the dealer what cards you get. It is your job to simply play your hand right.

Controlling the outcome of events is not your job. Saying that is not an admonition; it's not a punishment or a restriction. Rather, recognizing that managing the universe isn't your job is the lifting of a burden. You don't have to worry about how everything turns out, or how others behave, or what choices they make. All you need do is be a good person, make sure your motivations are pure, do your best, and let your happiness spring from that. You have power over your choices and those choices can be compassionate for those in need, including compassion toward yourself.

Whatever happens after those choices is external to you; it is a matter for the universe, fate, the Logos, or God to decide (take your pick). You may or may not get what you want, but you can choose to reject bad treatment and the bad things that happen to you and move on. Regardless, there is no 'should have' and there is no 'what if'; it happened the only way it could happen, just the way it was 'supposed' to happen.

This burden presses on our shoulders because of the sneaking vice of vanity. When we recognize our efforts to judge ourselves and control more than we really do control are symptoms of that vice, it makes it easier to let go. Then we can place our sense of value and our source of happiness where it belongs - with our virtuous choices and motivations, and not with their outcomes.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Review: The Nature of Existence

The Nature of Existence.
(c) Roger Nygard, Blink, Inc.
Yesterday I saw the documentary film, The Nature of Existence, by Roger Nygard. Nygard is the filmmaker who was previously known for his documentary, Trekkies and has also directed some episodes of major television shows. In this one, a wide variety of people from around the world are interviewed on their thoughts about, well, the nature of existence.

The format followed a common technique in these kinds of documentaries; a process whereby the editor takes all of these various conversations (about 450 hours of footage) and chops them into bits and pieces, categorized by subject. In the opening, it's a little jarring and confusing as we see a number of people we don't know (and some we might happen to know) saying various contradictory things about why we exist, without any context. Then, after we see the segue ways into the different segments, and people we've been seeing are introduced, the structure starts to make more sense. The format seems to have been created to keep those with very low attention spans interested, but still runs about 10-15 minutes too long.

One of the film's strengths is it's emotional palette, which ranges from thoughtful, to sad, to ironic, to funny. The best line in the film comes from a self-defined "confrontational evangelist" who yells in a public forum, "All you vagina lickers are going straight to Hell, lickadee split!"  Additional bonus points go to Nygard for mentioning the place where I once experienced the best barbecue of my life - the restaurant run by the New Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Huntsville, Texas.

I wanted to devote more of my review to the ideas presented in the film, but they are so choppy and cursory that there isn't much to discuss that one couldn't get by reading the opening sentence of the Wikipedia articles for each of the belief systems shown. Only a very short time into the film it becomes obvious that we aren't going to be getting any definitive answers to Nygard's profound questions. The whole treatment is fairly shallow, but its breadth is good for stimulating thought, ideas, and further discussion afterward.

After the film, in the lobby, I overheard one woman saying that she thought the film would be good for those people who stop and question things, but for the "masses" who never do it wouldn't be entertaining. With its broad but shallow format that only seeks to inspire in its viewer more and more questions, I could believe it was made with this view - that the masses need to be stimulated to question things. In reality, I'm not sure I've ever met a member of these mythical "masses" who supposedly never question the meaning of existence. I think that may be something some people tell themselves to feel spiritually elite. Maybe if we listened more to the people who we dismiss as common, we'd find out that they really do think more about these things than we give them credit for, even if they may have chosen to answer those questions in a way we don't care for. I suspect the average farmer, plumber, and homemaker have thought more about the meaning of existence than the depth this film's material reach. Nevertheless, the aim of the film was noble, and I'd recommend it for anyone looking for a good kick-start for discussion among young people on deep topics.

The Nature of Existence is playing now at Angelika Theater in Houston, Texas.
Official Website
Angelika Theater

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Is Positive Psychology the New Stoicism?

Michel Daw's choice of symbol for Stoicism,
invoking the golden mean. (c) Michel Daw.
Today's article is by guest writer Michel Daw. Michel is a training manager and Stoic practitioner living in Quebec, Canada...

In a recent blog-post by Jules Evans, he explores the Positive Psychology approach to Flow. This note is a response to that post.

It would seem that history is repeating itself to some extent. Stoicism, through various direct and indirect means, seems to be seeing a small but meaningful resurgence of late. Admittedly, there have been several false starts, and opinions as to whether Stoicism is a fool's quest are legion.

It would seem, however, that Stoicism has a new challenger, perhaps even in the guise of a defender. While Positive Psychology has in fact brought us an updated set of Character Strengths (Virtues), many of which align with the classical virtues, it seems to go off in a slightly different direction. In this way it is reminiscent of the ancient rivalries between Stoicism, Epicureanism, Astotelianism and others. The Positive Psychology (PP) movement seems to have provided yet another avenue to achieving the worthwhile goal of personal 'happiness'. Isn't this what all of the philosophical schools were seeking?

In a word, No. What many ancient schools were after was the most reliable path to 'eudaimonia', flourishing, that is the ability to fully integrate and express one's true nature in the light of Nature. So onto the stage the PP movement brings 'flow', but again flow is not flourishing, for the reasons that Jules has so eloquently outlined.

I will therefore attempt to address the challenges to the PP approach, and the possible Stoic response.
The question of worth: is the activity that you habitually absorb yourself really 'worthwhile'? Is it helping the world? Is it healthy for you?

The Stoics would respond by examining a given activity against 'oikeiosis.' Does this activity contribute to my personal preservation and flourishing as a physical and rational being? Does it do so for those for whom I am responsible, and to whom I am connected through common bonds of society, species, or life itself? If it does promote the expansion, sustainment, or improvement of these circles of influence, then the likeliness of the worth of the activity will be much higher.

The question of talent: are you really any good at it? Are you wasting your time?

The Stoic conception of Phusis (understood in its 'cosmic' form) helps us to focus our thoughts in this regard. Phusis is more than the natural world of plants, animals etc. although it does include it. It also encompasses the entire natural order to the universe, from the birth and death of stars, right down to the subtle interactions of sub-atomic particles and beyond (in both directions). Phusis is the process that turns an acorn into an oak, carbon into diamonds, start-stuff into people. Phusis is also the limiter and definer however. It determines that a particular oak will be so tall and so broad, if the conditions exist for it to do so. In human terms, Phusis urges us not only to live according to, and in harmony with, the Natural realm, but to explore our own personal Phusis as well, the talents and abilities that are ours to acquire, express and improve. In other words, part of experiencing fulfillment is to Fulfill the Promise of our Natures.

The question of balance: should you spend all your time pursuing the flow moments, or is there something to be said for balancing your 'gift' with other activities, such as building loving relationships or taking exercise?

For the Stoic, the only real 'end' that should be pursued is the state of 'eudaimonia', that is a state of flourishing, and the only real path to eudaimonia is arete, or the practice of 'virtue' towards appropriate goals. The Stoics identified five approaches or reactions to the situations one would face in life as we seek to fulfill our responsibilities and roles (see oikeiosis above for the importance of relationships).

We are to pursue those things that promote or preserve all of us as rational beings (virtue/good) We may then prefer those things that promote or preserve us as physical beings (A.K.A. the classical preferred indifferents.) We should remain neutral to those things that do not affect us rationally or physically. However, we should look to avoid those things that endanger or destroy us as physical beings (Non-preferred indifferents). The only things we should categorically reject though are those things that endanger or destroy us as rational beings. (Vice/Bad)

While this may seem UN-balanced, the Stoic approach allows us to quickly triage choices that would fit the definition of 'flow' as an engaging activity. Addiction to Heroin is clearly out. The match-stick car would likely fall under truly neutral activities (unless there was some therapeutic purpose to it) and would thus be superseded by the first thing that would be beneficial to either physical or mental well-being, like going for a walk.

While Positive Psychology seems to sound the right notes, the tune it is playing is a thoroughly modern one. While it seems to have borrowed themes from the Stoic symphony, it has reduced the pursuit of the 'good' life to a top 40 song. It isn't bad, but it won't last. Stoicism, rightly understood, realistically applied and rigorously practiced, will produce a life of worth and balance.

Comment, Jules Evans:

Hi Michel

Thanks for bigging up my post! And I enjoyed your post very much. Can I make a response?

I don't think Positive Psychology would want at all to be known as 'the new Stoicism'. It does draw on some of the ideas of Stoicism, such as the cognitive theory of emotions. But it seems almost ashamed of its debt to Stoicism, which is still seen as a philosophy of emotional suppression by ordinary people, so had a very bad 'brand'.

But I also don't think modern Stoics should be too quick to dismiss cognitive psychology's engagements with Stoicism and ancient Greek philosophy in general. I would raise four points:

1) What cognitive psychology have people actually read? It's worth engaging directly with the original material, plenty of which is on the net, by Aaron Beck, Albert Ellis, Martin Seligman and others. The best contemporary philosophy books on Stoicism, such as Martha Nussbaum's Upheavals of Thought, engage directly with contemporary psychology.

2) Isn't there a value in modern psychology's attempt to really test out empirically the therapeutic efficacy of ancient philosophy's ideas and techniques?

3) Isn't there also a value in the way psychology has taken the ideas and techniques of ancient philosophy, adapted them, and brought them to a very wide audience? Let's face it, modern Stoicism is INCREDIBLY niche. About 100 people are into it. Cognitive sychology has reached, and helped, millions of people.

4) Isn't there an interesting dialogue to be had between psychology and philosophy? For that to take place, we have to be open to what both sides can bring, rather than saying 'you're wrong, I'm right', and retreating to our own comfort zone. The encounter between ancient philosophy and modern psychology is potentially rich, in my opinion.

All the best as always,

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Stoic Compassion

Oikeiôsis is growing our sense of 'self'
outward in concentric rings to include
others. (cc) Kathleen Tyler Conklin
Can a practitioner of Stoic philosophy be compassionate?

The ancient Hellenistic philosophy of Stoicism is something I refer to a great deal in my articles and essays. It is a major influence in the 'tossed salad' that is my own life philosophy. Stoicism is not quite the emotionless Vulcan philosophy of Star Trek's Mr. Spock, but elements of it can be found in the fictional Jedi philosophy of the Star Wars films. It advocates eradication of harmful feelings. These can include some varieties of both painful and pleasurable but ultimately harmful passions. This is accomplished through practice over time to: focus on what we control, pursuit of a kind of non-attachment, and living virtuously.

So, it may seem an oxymoron to use the phrase Stoic Compassion - even to many avid and accomplished students of Stoicism. Some even say flatly that Stoics do not practice compassion.

However, in an excellent example from an authoritative Stoic source, the Roman Stoic philosopher Gaius Musonius Rufus advises brotherly love and forgiveness. It is not all emotion and feeling which is forbidden to the Stoic, as there are appropriate feelings. These feelings can properly motivate the Stoic to act on behalf of himself provided these choices are not evil. Along with this, Stoicism has a concept called oikeiôsis a practice/principle by which we seek to expand our sense of self to encompass others. Thus, there is sound Stoic reasoning which supports "feeling for others as we feel for ourselves, with motivation to act accordingly" - a reasonable definition of compassion.

The Buddhists, who have similar concepts of concern for others without attachment, and a shared historic influence with the Stoics, often use the English word "compassion" although it is an imperfect translation. The choice to use "compassion" as a translation for Buddhist Karuna or Metta is as close as using the word for Stoic oikeiôsis. Surely there are differences between loving kindness and the attachments implied in the common usage of the word "compassion". But it would be misleading to say "Buddhists don't believe in compassion" simply because many Westerners practice compassion (and thus describe it) in non-Buddhist ways. The same applies to Stoic Compassion.

Stoics do practice compassion, and their very focus on virtue must include it. But that doesn't absolve the student of Stoicism from the need to investigate more precisely what Stoic Compassion is, how it differs from common understandings of compassion, and how it is to be practiced.

This has been a brief summary of a more detailed and slightly more technical essay I have recently written, called Compassion & Stoic Philosophy, now available on my website, The Humanist Contemplative. I hope those interested in reading it will find it useful.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

French burqa ban violates atheist principles

Muslim woman. (cc) deepchi1 (bob),
Today, AP reported that the French parliament voted to ban burqa-style Islamic veils. In typical political fashion, this was preceded a few years ago by the lesser (easier to argue) step of banning Hijab head scarves among minors while on public school property (which I criticized). There, it could serve as a test ground to get younger people accustomed to the idea that it's ok for your government to be telling you how you may dress. That, in turn, increases the chance you can later pass something referring to adults at any location. This is the cunning way that liberty is often whittled away bit by bit.

This reminds me of the Swiss, who not long ago voted to ban Islamic minarets, the onion-shaped towers commonly seen on mosques. At the time, I denounced that move as well in my article, Some basics on religious freedom. In that article, I outlined the important differences between the United States' version of secular government, which is a restriction on the state, and the French-style version of enforced secularism that looks at the issue as a restriction on citizens - the former being essential, and the latter being horribly misguided.

Last month, I reported that the Atheist Alliance International (AAI) had made a declaration from Copenhagen, Denmark on religion in public life, and listed their shared principles. What may be surprising to some is how diametrically opposed France's latest move is to these atheist principles on religion in public life.

In that document, atheists state, "We assert the need for a society based on democracy, human rights and the rule of law". Another item is, "We affirm the right to freedom of expression for all..." More specifically it states, "We assert that the only equitable system of government in a democratic society is based on secularism: state neutrality in matters of religion or belief, favoring none and discriminating against none." Even more to the point, another item declares, "We recognize the unlimited right to freedom of conscience, religion and belief, and that freedom to practice one’s religion should be limited only by the need to respect the rights of others" (bold on all quotes mine). How does a person's choice of dress infringe upon the rights of others?

Although reading its references makes clear the Copenhagen Declaration is consistent with several documents on international law, the declaration is not by any means a legal document or enforceable, of course. It is merely a statement of shared principles by a large organization that represents many atheists (though not all). But it is interesting to note the irony of a declaration that so clearly stands in contrast to France's latest moves, which are no doubt the result of social pressures, fears, failed understanding of democratic principles, and reactionary responses.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Philosophical Revolution

Thomas Paine wrote "Common Sense",
which argued for a new perspective on divine
authority. Photo: Graphic compilation by
DT Strain. Elements,
(cc) GenBug (U.S. Flag), (cc) porteous (statue).
The American revolution was not merely a political revolution, but a philosophic one. In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson (with editing and revisions by several other founding fathers) wrote to their King their intentions to defect from the British Empire:

"When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation."

The philosophical significance of this statement cannot be overlooked. This is no mere declaration as it might be taken simply today, "Hey, we've had it up to here with you and we're doing our own thing now." Rather, this was what would have been looked at in its time as an outrageous and presumptuous act of boldness, treachery, immorality, and to some, even sacrilege. One's King was not merely a political ruler, but placed into power by the providence of God. Yet, here were these people declaring not only rebellion to that authority, but having the nerve to refer to "Nature's God" in their proclamation. Not only saying, "we are doing this thing you think is immoral" but with the added claim that it is not immoral, but rather that it is the King who is immoral.

This type of ethical reversal reminds me of the tone in the ballad sung from the 60's generation to their parents, The Times They Are a-Changing, by Bob Dylan. In one verse he sings, "your sons and your daughters are beyond your command" but this is no mere disobedience. Inviting mothers and fathers throughout the land to join with them he ads, "your old road is rapidly aging. Please get out of the new one if you can't lend your hand." The ethical upheaval has reached such a point in this kind of phenomena that rebels not only defend their own actions, but cast moral indignation upon the powers against which they rebel, inviting them to make themselves useful and be a part of the new vision. They have moved beyond the discussion and debate over who is right, as the momentum of history has already propelled them on to the next battle of making the new paradigm a reality.

The Declaration of Independence outlined a conceptual break from the model in which authority flowed from: GOD to STATE to INDIVIDUAL. And turned this ethical foundation on it's head. Now, authority flowed from: GOD to INDIVIDUAL to STATE. Thus, what gods have to say about anything is a matter for each individual and their conscience, and they direct the state to those ends. No longer would the state be telling us what god has to say. One can imagine how those of the old school (including the King, no doubt) would find such a declaration not only highly unethical, but perhaps even nonsensical.

The principles outlined in the declaration were inspired by the enlightenment and philosophers such as John Locke, who wrote of Natural Law, and Thomas Paine who spelled out this flow of authority in his pamphlet, Common Sense. Only by understanding this principle and mindset of the founders regarding the flow of authority, can one begin to understand the principles separating church from state in our country. It explains why, despite the deism and other beliefs of various founders, they saw fit not to include any mention of God in the U.S. Constitution, why they forbid Congress from making laws having the effect of establishing a religion, why they forbade religious tests for office, and why President Thomas Jefferson refused to proclaim a day of prayer. It also explains the Supreme Court ruling stating that the rest of the governments in the U.S. are bound by the same restrictions, and it explains many of the Supreme Court rulings on the separation of church and state today.

Included in this would be their decision on prayer in public schools. Contrary to many conservative religious folks' conception of that decision, children can (and always could) pray in school. Many public schools, in fact, allow student prayer groups to meet on their grounds. What is forbidden is for a teacher to lead children in prayer - because a teacher at a public school is an employee of the state, a representative of the government - and the state has no authority to tell you or your children what God says, or wants of them. Rather, it is families who have their own religious beliefs which act as a personal guide to them in their lives, including their political participation and the causes for which they work. The people tell the state what God wants, and the state is to obey their direction.

When we declared our independence from the British Empire, we declared our independence not from one King, but from all Kings; and not from one government, but from all would-be political powers that would attempt to tell us what God wants or doesn't want. If anyone ever questions the use of philosophy, one need only point to the American revolution as one example where philosophical ideas changed the course of human history.

Happy Independence Day 2010!

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

International atheists declare church/state principles

The Black Diamond building in Copenhagen.
Host to the Royal Danish Library and
the AAI conference. Photo: (AAI)
The Atheist Alliance International (AAI) is an organization founded in 1992 with about 50 member organizations from 15 nations. AAI held its conference this month in Copenhagen, Denmark. The conference was on Gods & Politics, looking at the issue of religion and government and challenges facing non-believers. It hosted a wide range of speakers, including Richard Dawkins, James Randi, Dan Barker, PZ Myers, and one of my favorites, author A.C. Grayling who wrote Meditations for the Humanist.

One result of the conference was the Copenhagen Declaration on Religion in Public Life. The declaration was as follows:

Copenhagen Declaration on Religion in Public Life

We, at the World Atheist Conference: “Gods and Politics”, held in Copenhagen from 18 to 20 June 2010, hereby declare as follows:
  • We recognize the unlimited right to freedom of conscience, religion and belief[1], and that freedom to practice one’s religion should be limited only by the need to respect the rights of others.
  • We submit that public policy should be informed by evidence and reason, not by dogma.[2]
  • We assert the need for a society based on democracy, human rights and the rule of law.[3]
  • History has shown that the most successful societies are the most secular.[4]
  • We assert that the only equitable system of government in a democratic society is based on secularism: state neutrality in matters of religion or belief, favoring none and discriminating against none.[4]
  • We assert that private conduct, which respects the rights of others should not be the subject of legal sanction or government concern.[5]
  • We affirm the right of believers and non-believers alike to participate in public life and their right to equality of treatment in the democratic process.
  • We affirm the right to freedom of expression for all, subject to limitations only as prescribed in international law – laws which all governments should respect and enforce[6]. We reject all blasphemy laws and restrictions on the right to criticize religion or nonreligious life stances.[7]
  • We assert the principle of one law for all, with no special treatment for minority communities, and no jurisdiction for religious courts for the settlement of civil matters or family disputes.
  • We reject all discrimination in employment (other than for religious leaders) and the provision of social services on the grounds of race, religion or belief, gender, class, caste or sexual orientation[8].
  • We reject any special consideration for religion in politics and public life, and oppose charitable, tax-free status and state grants for the promotion of any religion as inimical to the interests of non-believers and those of other faiths. We oppose state funding for faith schools.
  • We support the right to secular education, and assert the need for education in critical thinking and the distinction between faith and reason as a guide to knowledge, and in the diversity of religious beliefs[9]. We support the spirit of free inquiry and the teaching of science free from religious interference, and are opposed to indoctrination, religious or otherwise.

Adopted by the conference
Copenhagen, 20 June 2010.
[a PDF of the declaration can be downloaded here]


[1] Article 18 of the Universal declaration of Human Rights and Article 18 of the International
Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

[2] Societies in the 21st century must be built on a culture of objective knowledge and rational
thinking based on evidence provided by the sciences within the legal framework of international
human rights. Religions are inherently based on faith and guided by myths and hearsay interpreted
by a self-established clergy. Religions should therefore be relegated to the private sphere and have
no role in public affairs

[3] The Brussels Declaration 2007.

[4] Research in social science show that strongly religious modern nations have been unsuccessful
in terms of basic social and economic indicators such as levels of crime and incarceration, life
expectancy, the adverse consequences of sexuality and in securing prosperity. The most secular
advanced democracies are consistently the most successful.

[5] The State should neither punish nor favor any group for any reason

[6] Articles 19 and 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

[7] Recommendation 1805 (2007) of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.

[8] Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.

[9] Article 14 of Recommendation 1720 (2005) of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of

Special thanks to Humanists of Houston President Roxie Deaton, who first informed me of this news, through an article at Atheist Ireland .