Archive for May, 2012


Semper Fido

May 25, 2012

“k1f” Kirby Farrell

What we can’t think about: We’re barking animals

Why it matters: We pretend we’re not

Case in point: the other night, when a thunderstorm broke over the house, Gracie the mini-dachshund responded with bellowing, explosive barking.  Her noise was many times bigger than the pipsqueak dog herself: an outraged, alarmed, do-or-die protest.  She threw her whole body into it, and the intensity of it was, well, electrifying.

Like the explosion of a bomb or an artillery shell, a thunderclap is terrifying not only because it’s destructive, but also because it engulfs us.  The sound is omnidirectional, a rumble whose vibrations shake the earth under your feet.  It demonstrates that the everyday world we experience is artificially sized to make us feel at home. Compared to the voltage splitting the sky, the world we know is the sort of model railroad town for sale in hobby shop kits as Plasticville.

So thunder disrupted the predictable boundaries of the dog’s world as it does a child’s.  It punched a hole in the dog’s reality, and Grace reacted to the shock with a roar of protest. Most of us–dogs and humans–seek shelter from a thunderstorm. But the dog mixes flight with fight by rages against the storm’s attack on the tame everyday world.

In dog-terms, without being anthropomorphic about it, the storm assaults the dog’s expectations.  It violates her sense of what is right. Shakespeare’s King Lear howls at a storm because his everyday world of family and law has broken down.  The storm objectifies a terrific violation of what is right, and he reacts as the dog does, with threat-display, panic and defiance.

Thunder reminds us that reality is contextual.  To the dog, the dog’s reality is complete and natural, thank you very much.  It may change with growth and training, as our does, but it’s still what is.  We too assume that our reality is the real thing, or at least approximately complete.  Like the dog, we too show caution and doubt when things are unfamiliar, but we fill those blank spaces with theories or question marks.

But just as we know the dog’s reality has limits, so we can appreciate that our own does too.  Thunder dramatizes those limits, reminding us that we’re puny creatures in a vast and strange field of play.

As brainy bipeds, we’ve worked out theories to explain thunder, and Ben Franklin has given us the lightning rod.  So we reassure children and dogs when the sky shatters.  We get control over our distress by turning anxiety into creative curiosity and technology.  We organize.

But the dog’s response is revealing.  The bark is a social act, an alarm signal.  It’s also a threat display working to intimidate the “enemy.”  Specifically, the bark enlarges the dog.  Like the cobra’s hood or the warrior’s feathered helmet, the bark magnifies the appearance of power.  It advertises danger and announces a willingness to fight over what is right.  Yes, it’s a show.  Fido is not about to go mano-a-mano with Thor.  For one thing, there’s no one there for her to bite.  For us too, the gods are only enabling fictions.  Sacrificing a chicken to Zeus will give you less protection than a knowledge of electrical grounds and a surge protector.

Still, the bark is profound. It signifies the wish to be bigger than we are–a bigshot.  Even the term “bigshot” suggests an explosion, as of thunder or gunpowder: the ability to command attention and control others through overwhelming shock.  We hunt and go to war with “big shots.”  We kill fish with underwater explosions, and humans with an arsenal of “shock and awe.”   Nazis “storm ” troopers used Blitzkrieg–“lightning war”–to subdue stunned neighbors.

The links of course range far and wide.  As a technology for dealing with cosmic threat, Christianity in early modern Europe took the storm to be the work of the Devil working through malicious, crop-destroying witches who could be detected, tortured into a confession, and burned alive.  The churches saw the storm as personified demonic rage attacking life-giving, death-defying food crops, even as witches were accused of killing and eating babies: the living embodiment of human hopes to overcome death.

Not that the bark has to be cosmic.  The urge to be a bigshot is the urge to be heroic, for better or perverse.  As Ernest Becker has eloquently barked, the drive toward heroism is a core motive in the repertory of behaviors that we draw on to manage the terror of death and make the world fulfilling.  But the bigshot bark also shows us that the wish to be bigger than we are can be unrealistic, false, all bluff and hot air.

In Beast and Man, the British philosopher Mary Midgley eloquently demolishes the arguments we use to separate us from the other animals. One after another she demystifies our claims to be elevated above other creatures.

Like the dog, we’re built to cringe and bark at thunder.  But of course some dogs learn from experience that barking is pointless.  And the tail wags most exuberantly when we create new ways to ground the exploding skies and our barking selves in a wider world.


Mixed feelings about same-sex marriage

May 22, 2012

“Normal Dan” Dan Liechty

I knew it would happen–that somehow the issue of “same-sex marriage” would push front and center into the politics of our nation leading up to November’s elections. For the last 20 years, this issue pops up before elections as predictably as dandelions in my front yard, assuring an energized turnout from the religious segment of the Republican base.

I confess. I have mixed feelings about the dispute centered on “same-sex” marriage. That’s probably a dangerous thing to say in relation to such a polarizing matter. Neither side wants to see this as anything other than good versus evil. Let me explain.

Certainly I support full civil and human rights for all people without exception. That is not the cause of my mixed feelings. My concerns focus on the question of marriage itself as it is practiced in the USA. If we simply open up marriage as it is currently practiced to any couple that desires it, that is in one sense a “step forward.” But in doing so we miss an opportunity to make needed and necessary changes in our current practices that would be beneficial on a number of different fronts.

Most specifically, our current marriage practices perpetuate a problem in the relationship between church and state that could be easily remedied, and the by-product of that remedy would also totally solve the problem of same-sex marriage. Presently, ordained clergy have state sanction to declare a couple legally married. Regardless of the justification this had historically, it is no longer justified. Furthermore, since this practice essentially turns every ordained minister into an ad hoc administrator for the state, a good case could be made against it on Constitutional grounds.

There are two aspects of marriage that should be conceptually separate, but which get too easily confused because of our current practices. These are the LEGAL aspect, which pertains to rights, responsibilities and privileges under the law, and the HOLY aspect, which can only be conferred by the blessings of a community, and in which the state has no place and must remain neutral. Much of the rancor related to same-sex marriage, rancor that divides our nation right down the middle, is a direct result of practices that seamlessly align these two very different aspects of marriage. One side feels that to deny same-sex partnership its recognized legal status is clearly discriminatory. The other side objects that were the state to sanction same-sex marriage, they would be forced by the state to recognize as holy that which their interpretation of true religion tells them is not holy, a clear intrusion of the state into their religion.

I would like to see the sanction to declare a couple legally married withdrawn from religious clergy and placed completely in the hands of secular state administrators, such as Justices of the Peace. It should be clear that marriage as a LEGAL status emanates from the state. Those desiring to enter into the legal status of marriage would go to a designated secular official of the state, declare their intentions, and have this legal status bestowed on them by the state official. Those who want to enter into HOLY matrimony, receiving the blessings of their chosen community for their union, would go to the official designated by that community for this purpose, for whatever ceremony is in keeping with the customs of that community.

In short, I would like to see “civil unions” for all couples, regardless of sexual orientation, as the recognized legal status for a couple, conferring upon all who enter into it with the same legal rights, responsibilities and privileges. Conferring this legal status is what the state is fit to do.

Those desiring to have their union recognized by their chosen religious community as a condition of Holy Matrimony are then free to pursue that within their chosen religious community, in addition to the civil declaration, or for that matter without the civil declaration (though they would then not enjoy the legal status of union.) While this might seem radical to Americans (and no doubt many of the professional clergy would resist having their marriage-declaration powers withdrawn) it is the standard practice in many nations today.

This approach completely solves the same-sex marriage dispute that is dividing our nation, because it dissolves the religious aspect of legal marriage. It is clearly in better keeping with the non-establishment clause of the Constitution, because it does not even temporarily put religious clergy into the position of being clerk for the state. Each religious community would be free to decide for themselves what unions they want to bless, and how to bless them with whomever designated to officiate, without overtones of legal discrimination for their customs. Whether a given religious community chooses to bless or not bless any particular union would be of no interest to the state, as indeed it should not be. Those belonging to communities that refuse to bless some unions as holy would still be expected to respect the legal nature of the civil unions of fellow citizens outside their communities, and would have no reason to feel threatened by doing so.

My hope has been that the issue of same-sex marriage would spark a much wider critical examination of current marriage practices in the USA. I fear that the current headlong rush into solidified positions on same-sex marriage, hammered out in the context of power politics and the coming election, will actually hinder the process of real critical examination of current marriage practices. Discussions quickly devolve into a bifurcated pattern of “for it” or “against it,” but “how might we agree to do this thing differently” remains off the table. Clearly a missed opportunity. That is why my feelings are mixed.


Not to laugh, not to lament, not to curse, but to understand

May 17, 2012

“The Single Hound” Bruce Floyd

I read today some comments by a doctor who has spent a lot of time with dying cancer patients. He says he has noticed two methods the dying use to allay their fears of death, two delusions, if you will. One is the belief in one’s specialness, the notion that one is somehow invulnerable, beyond the stain that soils others, beyond the cold hand of death. At some point in life, though, most of us will face a crisis, a major crisis, one which leads on to say, “I never thought it would happen to me.”  Well, why not?

The second method the dying use to deny death is to put their faith in a rescuer. No matter how bad things are, we suspect some thing or some person is watching over us, that we will, ah, always find reprieve, always pulling the game out in the bottom of the ninth. I think right until the end a friend of mine, who had it all at one time, thought that once again he, because of who he was, would beat the odds. Until death glared in his eye, bearded him, the sick man could not believe a virulent and unappeasable cancer had chosen him upon whom to batten. He was a man who always won: the game, the prettiest girl, the most money. When he finally knew the truth, though, knew beyond all doubt, knew in his gut, that he had only a few weeks to live, when at long last, after a valiant battle, he understood he was going to die, he took to his bed, turned his face to the wall, and, retreating into silence, there he died.

Events in my life have taught me that he worst can, and often does, happen. And even though we joke about gaining another reprieve, we are not foolish enough to think cruel words and ugly prognosis are somehow forbidden ever to fall upon our ears. When Oedipus cries, “It has all come true,” I want to say, “Yes, it always does.” Queens have died young and fair, and dust hath closed Helen’s eyes.

I am not sure–perhaps some existential sage could tell me–but I’d hazard that knowing a few truths about life contribute to the living of it, and these truths are dark ones; for example, all those we love and we ourselves are going to die. Another truth, I’d think, is that each of us is on his own. Each of us is what each of us is, which means we have such a thing as will. A concatenation of decisions brought us to where we are today. We make choices in life. Sartre says that each of us is condemned to be free. I’d say, too–might as well go whole hog–that we have to understand that not only are we not special but that the universe has no obvious meaning and that life has, perhaps, no purpose beyond the living of it–or no purpose beyond what we attribute to it. I think Hardy meant what he said when he wrote: “If a way to the Better there be, it exacts a look at the worse.” A “look,” not a prolonged studying and brooding, a quick look, an understanding, and then the moving on with life. Perhaps when one determines that the purpose of life is incomprehensible, the whole damn thing inscrutable, that we come and we go, going probably into oblivion, yes, perhaps knowing these things is liberating to one. It could be, too, that not accepting the dark truth about human existence can lead to a stunting of life, an embrace of illusions. I have no idea which path a person should take. I wouldn’t presume to advise anyone.

I read what I have written, think that I don’t know jack squat about anything, assuring myself, of course, that nobody else does either. We all “see through a glass darkly.” I spend half my time lying to myself and the other half trying to unravel the lies. It is hard to turn one’s back on the heroics culture provides. I’d never mock the need we all have to belong, to fit into a group where we feel warm and cozy. It’s the goddamndest thing when a fellow figures out he’s been booted out the club, not so much by the other club members but by himself, when he determines that he can tolerate his loneliness easier than he can the sensibilities of the club members. It’s all a mystery to me where these different sensibilities come from. It’s a hard lesson when a man finds he no longer fits in. He’s never sure how the rupture happened. All he knows is that it happened, and it’s irremediable. He’d be a fool to brag about his situation.


Teaching About Religion in the Public Schools

May 10, 2012

“Normal Dan” Dan Liechty

I listened in the other day on a conversation among students sparked by a news report on a proposed Alabama bill that would allow churches to teach religion classes to public school students for credit. []. The teaching would take place off campus, would require parental and local school board approval, and the parents and churches would have to cover any cost incurred, including transportation. The conversation revolved mainly around the question of what should be taught in the public schools about religion, if anything at all. Though I have strong ideas on this topic, I remained an eaves dropper on this conversation, both to avoid professorial intrusion into the situation, and also because I have an outlet for my thoughts in this blog spot. So here goes…

Let me begin by saying that this question is more than merely academic or theoretical for me. It engages me directly, as a father of a public school child, as a citizen taxpayer, an educator, and as a religiously affiliating person. Early in my career, I taught World Religions in a secular (though private) school and history/social studies in public schools. Raised a Christian (Mennonite), I am the male partner in an interfaith marriage, a gentile father in a modern Jewish family. We are members of a small Reform congregation that is situated within an overwhelmingly Christian Midwestern town. My daughter has always been the only Jewish girl in her public school classes through the years, and one of only a few other-than-Christian students in her school.

While for religious minorities it is often most expedient to support a blanket “no religion” policy for the public school curriculum, I don’t agree. Teaching about religion should not be ignored because, as contributions to The Denial File have repeatedly underlined, religion is one of the most pervasive elements of individual and communal human life. An educated human mind inevitably seeks answers to deep questions of purpose and meaning in life, and most people naturally turn to the teachings and practices of religion in response to those questions.

Starting at the earliest levels, we can help students recognize why people take their religious beliefs so seriously. At the same time, with increasing sophistication across the curriculum, we can help students recognize that by its very nature, religious beliefs and practices are always tentative and partial. Individuals and communities of people will naturally find some types of beliefs and practices to be more satisfying for themselves than others. It is one of our strengths as a democratic people that we do not always line up together in complete agreement, but that we strive to keep the conversation vibrant and alive.

Specific content of teaching on religion in the public schools will vary, depending on the grade level. Likewise, there is a good case to be made for infusing such learning throughout the curriculum, as it naturally arises, rather than offering specific courses. But two points should guide us throughout: 1) teaching about religion should not be ignored, and 2) teaching about religion must underscore the value of religious pluralism.

Far from being a necessary threat to strong religious faith, recognition of this fundamental pluralism (including strong doubt, agnosticism and atheism) yields the most valuable opportunity we have to learn from each other, and to develop and mature in our encounter with life’s deepest questions. All religious faiths (and most secular social philosophies) place some form of the Golden Rule (mutuality in respect and concern) at the heart of their teachings. If we have the courage to infuse this basic teaching throughout the public school curriculum, not only our children but our larger democratic social institutions will greatly benefit.


Baptism Under Fire

May 3, 2012

“k1f” Kirby Farrell

What we can’t think about: the best way to defuse religious intolerance is remember that “belief” and “faith” are enabling fictions.

Let’s look again at this recent “Denial File” topic:

” Recently there was a minor uproar when people learned that it is a practice of the Church of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) to “baptize the dead.” Although this practice is supposed to be limited to the direct bloodline ancestors of Mormon people (thus assuring that those of their ancestral line will be assured of salvation in the afterlife) the practice apparently has expanded (without official sanction from the church hierarchy) to include others as well.” –Daniel Liechty

As critics, we can’t evaluate the ultimate truth of any religion because we don’t have any evidence of “God.”  Sooner or later all of our accounts of the supernatural become inadequate or conflicted.  Is a loving, omnipotent “God” killing your kid with brain cancer?  Or wiping out families on the coast of Japan?  For that matter, why design absurd and awful “death” into “life” in the first place?  You can postulate some ineffable divinity, but the moment you attribute qualities to it, you’re making it human.  This is why religions speak of religious faith.

While we can’t assess the ultimate truth of religion, we can consider religious behavior.  Anthropology shows us people using religion as a tool like other tools that an insolubly ambivalent, vulnerable creature uses to manage life in an overwhelming world.  Like other technics, religious behavior ranges from the sublime to the ridiculous.  It consoles and nurtures, and as history witnesses, it has also fueled centuries of fanatical rampage killing in pogroms and crusades.

We live by enabling fictions.  Most of what we know is not, strictly speaking, provable.  We take for granted that we’ll be alive tomorrow night; that most people don’t lie; that nobody spit in your soup.  We talk about our “ancestors,” but go back any distance at all, and nobody knows who their ancestors were – and certainly not personally.  Likewise, the world was stuffing you with “your” identity long before you began to remember at age 4 or 5.  You accepted your name and a vision of “what’s right” as if you created it. In this sense “my” name and even “me” is an enabling fiction even as “the Gross National Product” is.  At best, it’s approximately true, tacitly real.  It’s pragmatic: it works well enough for today.

The trouble is, some enabling fictions turn out to be wrong.  Some – Jews and Muslims are evil, the poor are parasites – are vicious.

What helps to tame the viciousness is the ability to see that these beliefs are enabling fictions. Why?  Because enabling fictions are frankly provisional, subject to reality-testing and criticism.  To hold a modern, scientific mentality, you need to acknowledge that we live by enabling fictions.  I don’t have to tell you that most of us can only be scientific part of the time, and the world’s fanatics can hardly manage it at all.

So what about “baptizing the dead”?  If you consider it as an enabling fiction, you want to ask what kind of work it’s doing as a tool for believers.

For one thing, such baptism is mooting the terror of death for believers. In Becker’s terms, it’s an immortality ideology.  Not only does the practice project an infinite future life, it also imagines a ground of being.  Like ancestor worship, it implies a beginning.  For good measure, the baptism process shapes behavior.  It prescribes a practically endless practice to keep anxious minds distracted from terror.  The pool of converts is limitless.  The belief is a kind of enchantment.  As such, it serves as a tool for managing morale: boosting upbeat motives, controlling fear.  At the same time it puts the baptizers in a godlike heroic role, rescuing “souls” from oblivion.

One problem of course is the “minor uproar” when baptism starts enrolling non-Mormons.  Other groups with their proprietary enabling fictions resent this as poaching “their” ancestors.  What is going on here?

As behavior, the “baptism” process is recruitment, expanding one group at the expense of another.  History shows us no end of sects that have been outraged by the loss of members and therefore forbidden relations outside the “sacred” group.  As Canetti argued in Crowds and Power, the group is power.  The conviction is grounded in our biology, and of course every group’s urge to expand  threatens the planet with overpopulation, not to mention the violent quest for Lebensraum evident all around us today, from Tibet to the Middle East. The fuel for this expansion, needless to say, is the claim to superiority and special privilege implied in the baptism process.

No wonder the process pumps up baptizers and frightens others.

If you doubt the depths of anxiety that group-encroachment arouses, consider the forms those fears take in popular culture, from homophobia to vampires.  In the past it was Satan who “proselytized” or converted the faithful.  Closer to home, recall the McCarthy attack on “Communism” for subverting “us” and enrolling its dupes as “card carrying” members.  These are deep tropes, as ordinary as they are cruel and absurd.

To defuse these toxic emotions it’s necessary to see them for the enabling fictions that they are.  The difficulty, naturally, is that the belief systems are counterphobic.  They soothe fears.  Disenchant them by adding critical self-awareness, and you risk triggering the fear and rage they work to tame.  After all, it’s taboo to challenge another person’s religion precisely because religions are grounded in death-anxiety, and reactions to death-anxiety can be lethal.  You can’t run for president without professing religious faith.  Most American media prophylactically censors open criticism of religion.

But there are other, equally important reasons to remember that beliefs are enabling fictions.  Consider the premise that the practice of baptism is supposed to be limited to direct bloodline ancestors of Mormons, yet has apparently expanded to include others.  Evolution shows that ultimately we’re all related.  Where do we draw the line?  When did evolving hominids became human enough to need – and warrant -salvation?  Shouldn’t all living things past and present be eligible for “salvation”?  Some forms of belief require strenuous doublethink in order to honor science and religion.

And finally, consider this: if you recognize that we live by enabling fictions, you realize that you can’t judge others’ motives until you know them well enough to understand the work that their beliefs are doing for them.  You recognize that it makes little sense to respond to their ineffable ultimate “truths.”  Instead of fighting with “infidels” over doctrine, you need to look closely at religious behavior.  Of course there’s no guarantee that what you find will be healthy or even rational.  But at least criticism will be operating with evidence and with aspirations to logic.  Hey.  Gotta start somewhere.