Note about my militant atheist students

Fairy 1I would like to point out, in a manner that does not originate with me, that being very against and even very mad at some entity that you have decided does not exist is perverse. In fact, to carry on an agonistic attitude to God, it is necessary for Him to show up in order to be insulted and rejected. Attacking empty air is the behavior of a madman. If God does not present Himself, but instead retreats in the manner of Russians before Napoleon and the Germans, then the militant atheist is in the equally odd position of actively pursuing his hated one across the icy steppes, braving starvation and chill weather to catch a glimpse of his beloved, um, I mean, enemy. In the Fall semester, I had one student ask me what percentage of the course was going to mention God so he could decide whether to continue with the class or not, in a manner that suggested that he had a God allergy, and thus needed “accommodating,” another who wanted me to simply remove religious references from an ethics course – so much for Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Berdyaev, critiques of attempts to create naturalistic foundations for ethics, and most of the other articles – and two more, in another class, started posting rude and derogatory comments about the readings and, by extension, me in “discussion” submissions – one even claiming that bringing up God in an article defending the notion that life is worth living was “shameful.” My rather satisfying response to the students turned trolls was to ban one of them, since he had been warned, from further comments and for me to apologize on their behalf to the rest of the class for exposing them to such gross behavior. Continue reading

Whom Do We Imitate?

pink floydWe imitate absolutely everybody, at least potentially. We will imitate homeless drug addicts with psychiatric disorders, our boss, celebrities, our children, and anyone we interact with socially. When anyone at all says “Hi” to you, you will say “Hi” back, unless you are angry with them and are passively aggressively refusing to speak to them. In a small town, when we walk down the street, other pedestrians might give a little close-lipped half-smile, we give exactly the same close-lipped smile back. You extend your hand in friendly greeting, I extend my hand in friendly greeting. Someone, such as the homeless person, addresses me rudely and angrily, I address them rudely and angrily, unless, for instance, I am worried the homeless guy might be a physical threat. We cannot exist socially without constant imitation. Conversationally, you wait for me to finish my sentence. I wait for you to finish your thought. You reveal some intimate thing about yourself, I do the same. Continue reading

Plato and Love


10Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, and all your soul. And your neighbor as yourself. This is the first and greatest commandment.

Love is experiential, mysterious, and only minimally analyzable. Kant was suspicious of it because it cannot be commanded, it comes and goes, and thus seems like an unfirm foundation for ethics. It is, however, central to Plato’s philosophy (and Christianity). It drives the development and the education of the philosopher. The philosopher is defined by love. He is the lover of wisdom and wisdom is practical. A pretentious hypocrite is not wise. The merely intelligent are not wise. Plato loved the Form of the Good, and Beauty, Justice, and Truth, its progeny. Continue reading

René Girard – Imitation and Life Without God

Rene-GirardIn preparation for teaching a literature course in the 1950s, René Girard reread some of the classic novels. In the process, he realized that the novelists had had profound insights into aspects of the human condition and that to a large degree, they were the same insights. Not only that: they all ended the same way, with the despised central protagonist recognized by the author, finally, as an aspect of himself. Gustav Flaubert, for instance, commented about the heroine of Madame Bovary, whose delusions he had spent the novel describing and lambasting, “C’est moi.” Cervantes also spends his time having Don Quixote be repeatedly beaten up and humiliated for his stupidities, but, in the end, has Don Quixote recognize and renounce his errors on his deathbed in a way that forgives his protagonist and accepts him. Thus, all the great novels end with a moment of transcendent self-revelation. This claim is certainly immensely provocative and intriguing. Continue reading

Prisons and Punishment

Gnosticism imagines that the disorder and conflicts of earthly existence can be overcome with gnosis – special knowledge; insight and learning. Ruth Gilmore Wilson, a prison abolitionist with arguably gnostic tendencies states: “Instead of asking whether anyone should be locked up or go free, why don’t we think about why we solve problems by repeating the kind of behavior that brought us the problem in the first place?” Wilson suggests that prisons “model” cruelty and vengeance. She admires Spain’s policy of incarcerating even cold-blooded murderers for just seven years. “Which is to say…in Spain people have decided that life has enough value that they are not going to behave in a punitive and violent and life-annihilating way toward people who hurt people. And what this demonstrates is that for people trying to solve their everyday problems, behaving in a violent and life-annihilating way is not a solution.’”[1]

Murderers are locked up in prisons because leaving them free represents an intolerable danger to innocent people. This is not itself “violent.” It is not violent to imprison someone in the interests of public safety. Nor is it “life-annihilating.” It could be considered life-affirming. We care enough about people to try to protect them from those who wish to murder them, rape them, rob them, and assault them. If there is a punitive aspect to their incarceration, then that might be acceptable as a possible deterrent to this kind of behavior. The claim “for people trying to solve their everyday problems, behaving in a violent and life-annihilating way is not a solution” is an odd and misleading one. Imprisoning cold-blooded killers is not what is plausibly meant by the harmless-sounding phrase “people trying to solve everyday problems.” Such a locution suggests activities like locating a plumber to fix a sink, or finding enough time to exercise, not dealing with killers. If it is in fact dealing with killers that is being referred to, then behaving violently in self-defense, for instance, is completely reasonable. Continue reading

Monism vs the Trinity

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There seems to be some universal tendency to want to find the single underlying thing or principle that unites and maybe explains everything. The person regarded as the first known Western philosopher, Thales, began this with “all is water.” Materialists claim the single unifying thing is matter, some theists claim it is God or Spirit, while Buddhists might say Emptiness, or Pure Awareness. It seems strange that people with such differing beliefs should have this shared intuition. It can seem as though monism (one-ism) must have some basis in fact if such very different views come to the same conclusion, even if the actual imagined make-up of “the one” differs so wildly. Continue reading

Why Spiral Dynamics Now?

Bruce Charlton writes:

“Actually, I think this kind of secular, abstract, group-level analysis is now revealed to be intrinsically leftist – feeding into the totalitarian-bureaucratic world view; whatever the intentions may be. I think we absolutely need (here, now) to be grounded in the individual, personal, experienced, intuited – although it’s difficult to break old bad habits, I find.”

Spiral dynamics can be a useful part of one’s intellectual arsenal. Just a tool, and definitely not an all-explaining theory of everything. The pathologies of the Green level are hard to understand without some such perspective.

We need both a vision of shared humanity, and a recognition of the supreme value of the individual Person made in the image of God; sharing this divine inheritance as people. Spiral dynamics, it is true, taps into communal aspects of the human mind. It is certainly not a stand-alone ethic. But, it attempts to recognize that we need every “type” of person and every type lives within us – either realized or as developmental potential. It also has great explanatory power for why people behave in certain ways and points to clusters of ideas and tendencies that cohere into a worldview. Continue reading

Clare Graves and Spiral Dynamics

Clare Graves is an American psychologist who started teaching in the 1940s and retired in 1978. His “emergent cyclical theory of human development” 1began by asking people to describe their conception of a successful person, and then ranked them in a developmental hierarchy. Someone’s notion of success reveals what he admires most, and thus his values and ideals.[1]

Don Beck contacted Graves after Graves published an article in The Futurist in 1974 outlining his theory.[2] Graves’ health was declining and Beck wanted to make sure Grave’s ideas were not lost. Beck was later joined by Christopher Cowan with whom he wrote Spiral Dynamics in 1996 twenty-two years later. They introduced color-coding for the levels.[3] The levels cycle between being more individualistic and more conformist.[4] Each level represents a survival advantage over the next and tends to be an improvement. Purple tribal life offers an advantage over Beige “bands” of people wandering the savanna, while Red empires offer more protection still; messing with a city in an Empire risks the wrath of, say, the giant Roman Imperial Army, while Blue law-governed societies are more stable and predictable. At the Blue level, even the King is supposed to be below the law, not above it. Knowing what the rules are, even if the rules are unfair or imperfect, is generally better than an unpredictable free-for-all. Continue reading

The Burden of Proof

The phrase “burden of proof” has to do with who it is who needs to back up his claims with evidence; the one who needs to prove what he is saying. The person who has the burden of proof is the one making a controversial claim. If the claim is noncontroversial, no argument, evidence, reasons, or proof, is necessary to have the claim accepted. Where no proof is necessary, there is no burden of proof. The person questioning what is normally considered a noncontroversial claim then has the burden of proof because he is making the controversial claim that the accepted wisdom is wrong. 1Fluoride is added to almost all toothpaste because it has been accepted as a scientific fact that fluoride is good for teeth. If someone disputes this claim, he has the burden of proof to counter a noncontroversial claim, whereas someone asserting that fluoride is good for teeth has no need to marshal evidence for his assertion. When Copernicus claimed that the earth orbits the sun, the burden of proof was on him, because that was not accepted wisdom at the time. It certainly looked as though the sun orbits the earth. Having the burden of proof in no way suggests that a person is wrong. Who has the burden of proof is just a matter of logic; not of who is right and who is wrong. Continue reading

On the wrongness of “common wisdom” and “received opinion”

When someone knows a great deal about a topic, it is a very common experience to find that the way it is being reported on, and the “common knowledge” on the topic, is wrong. The tendency then is to think, oh well, the reporters messed up on this one thing, but then to go back to trusting that they are reporting reasonably accurately on other topics. We are all limited finite creatures with limited time and we can be extremely well-informed on only a few topics, so none of us will ever know just how many false things are being presented to us. But, it is reasonable and rational to extrapolate from the fact that when you do know a lot about a topic the “common knowledge” is almost always wrong, to the idea that perhaps most of what we are told is incorrect. This includes leaving out things vital for an adequate understanding of events – lying by omission. An extra reason for being skeptical, is that experts on other topics have the same experience. If it were just one person whose special knowledge contradicted “received opinion” it could plausibly be a fluke, but it is not. Continue reading