spoliamag:

When I lived in Christian places like Kansas and Texas, every so often I’d get a Christian trying to convert me. Now, though, I only get atheists trying to do the same thing.

I regularly receive emails from atheists who need to bring me to the truth and the light, and the most recent one came two weeks ago. “I feel sorry for you,” he wrote, which is always a good opener. “I feel sorry for anyone who continues on fantasies of Santa Claus or god past the age of 4.” 

He wanted to save me through conversation and conversion. The thing is, I had just the week before written this, in my essay on polytheism for the Los Angeles Review of Books, now up on their site:

What a tremendous weapon pity is! If you can frame someone as “pathetic,” then it’s okay to take their land, destroy their language and heritage, steal their children and place them in “decent” homes, and kill off their gods and heroes. It’s for their own good, after all.

In duBois’s book, the language monotheist believers use to talk about the heathens is essentially the same as the language New Atheists use to talk about all believers: “pathetic,” “superstitious,” “irrational,” “a stupendous system of error.” (That last one was said by Scottish missionary Alexander Duff about Hinduism.) Those who believe in something else are not simply different: they are misguided and need correction. This has been the justification for any number of wars or cultural erasings. Religion and dogma as colonialism.

And I wanted to write back, thank you for the concrete example of what I had just been writing about in the abstract! That’s amazing! But his email continued:

“I’ve seen your picture, and I think maybe we could have some fun. :) If you would like to meet up to discuss further, I’d love to buy you a drink.”

Women! Do not fuck your colonialist oppressors! Starve them out until they see the error of their ways or at least die without corrupting any others!

I did not write him back. 

Image: get it, St. Hildegard

The Jefferson Bible – The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth by Thomas Jefferson

I figured I should read this eventually. I mean look at this thing. It cuts off the miraculous bookends of Jesus’ life and focuses on the Enlightenment-friendly moralizing. There was nothing in here I hadn’t heard before, but reading it in all in one go made me remember how many common phrases come out of the Bible. A quick run-through, just from the Sermon on the Mount:

  • blessed are the…
  • salt of the earth
  • light of the world
  • town upon a hill
  • turn the other cheek
  • left hand knowing what the right hand is doing
  • serving two masters
  • can’t serve God and mammon
  • lilies of the field
  • ye of little faith
  • tomorrow will worry about itself
  • just not, lest you be judged
  • cast pearls before swine
  • seek and you will find
  • do to others what you would have them do to you
  • wolf in sheep’s clothing
  • by their fruit you will recognize them
  • bearing bad fruit

And that section is only, what, 2500 words? That’s some influential shit.

The Jefferson Bible – The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth by Thomas Jefferson

Quaker Mode – The Pastry Box Project | 22 April 2013, baked by Mike Monteiro

The incredibly great thing about Quaker meetings is that everyone just sits there. Silently. And they talk only if the spirit moves them to talk. They only open their mouths if it improves on the silence. I’m gonna repeat that phrase because I love it so fucking much: “if it improves on the silence.”

When we were staying over at grandma’s house, when me and my brother and sister were getting annoying, we knew fun time was over when Grandma would say firmly, “Okay. Let’s play Quaker.” The three of us then groan and sigh and collapse on the floor, mortally wounded, sulky, resentful. Quiet time had begun. I hated that “game” so much. Mike Monteiro’s idea sounds good, though.

Quaker Mode – The Pastry Box Project | 22 April 2013, baked by Mike Monteiro

Feeling-Making Machine: An Interview with Mary Karr – R A I N T A X I o n l i n e Spring 2010

This interview is such a gold mine.

I differ from the most diseased part of myself, and I think that an irony of spiritual practice is that when you get out of yourself you kind of more become yourself. When I was a little kid I was bouncy and I made a lot noise and I broke shit. I ran around, I was very enthusiastic. In all the pictures of me I’m smiling. Now, I’m pretty happy. I laugh a lot. I have joy on a given day. I’m not a blithering idiot, and I suffer when it’s hot out or it’s raining and I can’t get a cab. I worry about my kid or my friend getting chemo or whatever. I suffer. But I’m pretty happy. And it’s almost like, I remember my mother saying when I was getting sober, “you’re going to come back to that [childhood happiness].” And I said, “Mother, I don’t even fucking remember that.” I just don’t remember feeling that way. But I really think that voice—not the one that says, fuck you, you stupid bitch, you’re a whore, but the one that says, you can do better than this, honey—that voice is God. And that’s actually who you really are. The other stuff that’s telling you what an asshole you are all the time is fucking noise, your ego or your head or whatever. The Buddhists would call it your ego. Pentecostals would call it Satan. It doesn’t matter what you call it. It’s my fucking head talking.

Feeling-Making Machine: An Interview with Mary Karr – R A I N T A X I o n l i n e Spring 2010

Religion for Atheists (review)

Religion for Atheists
Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists has a simple, reasonable, open-minded premise: whether or not you believe in God/Jesus/Heaven/afterlife/salvation/etc., religions can still be interesting, useful, and consoling. The idea here is to explore function rather than truth. Religious institutions are some of the most successful, influential, widespread, long-lived things that humans have ever done, so there’s a lot to learn.

There’s the idea of community, for one. “Religions know a great deal about loneliness” de Botton writes. And if you’ve been to mass with any frequency, you know how often things like poverty, sadness, failure, and loss come up—because the church “sees the ill, frail of mind, desperate, and elderly as aspects of humanity and ourselves that we’re tempted to deny.” But acknowledging these things can bring us closer, or at least make us more humble.

De Botton talks about this sort of groundedness again later. There’s an earthly pessimism that comes with some religious belief. Hopes are ascribed to the next life, not this one. For this one you just try to do right, be generous, and get by as best you can. This pessimism deflates our hopes a bit, but helps to balance those needy, absorptive, consuming, ever-optimistic desires that come in everyday life. Christianity is sober, where perhaps the secular world is too optimistic, or maybe too cowardly, to face life’s hard facts. I like this line where de Botton summarizes all secular arguments:

Why can’t you be more perfect?

Luckily, “sermons by their very nature assume that their audiences are in important ways lost.” We need teaching, and religion’s insistence on that is pretty useful.

Christianity concerns itself with the inner confused side of us, declaring that none of us are born knowing how to live; we are fragile, capricious, unempathetic, and beset by fantasies of omnipotence.

The ever-seeking nature of secularism can also lead to lack of gratitude. Religions bring us back to the basics. A prayer of gratitude before you eat. Marking the passing of the hours with prayer or the seasons or harvests with celebrations. We need reminders of the transcendent, of our smallness. We need rituals and practices that put us in our place.

Art could do this, perhaps—“We need art because we are so forgetful”. De Botton has a great section on the opportunities that modern museum culture misses out on.

We tend to enter galleries with grave, though by necessity discreet doubts about what we are meant to do in them. […] It would take a brave soul to raise a hand.

Museums have a hard time explaining why they’re valuable. Education, sure. They’re not made for prayer or worship, really. We end up with buildings about history of art-ness. But what about something more ambitious? There’s an opportunity to meet our own psychological, emotional needs. We see placards on the walls about style and era and medium and influence. But just like churches aren’t made to teach us about the history of theology, necessarily, museums need not teach us about art history (exclusively). Why don’t we see an exhibition about Death? Or Parenting? Loss? Courage?

De Botton makes similar arguments about secular education, which is fairly impractical. Things like accounting and psychology are useful, yes, but where are the classes about tensions in marriage, or dying gracefully, or the struggles of friendship? (Of course, a philosopher would argue for these things, of course.)

Topics aside, there’s also the structure and etiquette of the modern class to consider. Lector, desks, students, whiteboard. Boring. Contrast with a vibrant church where the attendees are shouting “Amen” and “Preach on!” and “Thank you, Jesus.” You can’t underestimate the value of rapture and assent and an active audience. Teaching is a kind of performance, too.

What purpose can possibly be served by the academy’s primness? How much more expansive the scope of meaning in Montaigne’s essays would seem if a 100-strong and transported chorus were to voice its approval after ever sentence.

There’s also the idea that religious education isn’t, well… it’s not all that new. But the lack of novelty is a blessing in its own way. It makes room for reflection. The church hasn’t had big discoveries or breakthroughs. But it does a fantastic job for structure, schedules, repetition, and reinforcement of its long-held ideas.

A Catholic lectionary, for example, outlines everything you’ll be reading over the course of three years, with readings matched to season and occasion in the church calendar. If you’re devout and interested, there’s a plan there for you to follow. Even if you’re a casual but regular churchgoer, you’re going to cover a lot of material, and it’ll be appropriate to the season. But what’s the best way and context for me to revisit Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations? Is there a good calendar for reflecting on Leaves of Grass, if that’s your thing? How can you carve out a space for secular reflection in your life? It’s not just a scheduling thing. It’s knowing what to do when the time comes. Church attendance is a kind of rehearsal for life outside its doors, and inside its doors you know exactly what’s going to happen.

Another favorite passage:

An absence of religious belief in no way invalidates a continuing need for “patron saints” of qualities like Courage, Friendship, Fidelity, Patience, Confidence, or Skepticism. We can still profit from moments when we give space to voices of the more balanced, brave, generous–and through whom we may reconnect with our most dignified and serious possibilities.

Again, whether or not Mary gave virgin birth, or whether or not Jesus was also God, or whether or not Saint So-and-so really bled from her hands and levitated? Make your own call. The truth is secondary to De Botton’s argument. The function of these beliefs is to get you to be a better person.

This is one of the best books I’ve read in 2012 so far. Very highly recommended.

Composers As Gardeners – Brian Eno – Edge

The reason I have an a cappella group is because it gives me every Tuesday evening the chance to do some surrendering. Which is, by the way, the reason people go to church, I think, as well. And to art galleries. What you want from those experiences is to be reminded of what it’s like to be taken along by something. To be taken. To be lifted up, to be whatever the other words for transcendence are. And I think we find those experiences in at least four areas. Religion, sex, art, and drugs. […] Essentially they’re all experiments with ourselves in trying to remind ourselves that the controlling talent that we have must be balanced by the surrendering talent that we also have. And so my idea about art as gardening.

More from Brian Eno. (via)

Composers As Gardeners – Brian Eno – Edge

More and more, a psychiatrist is approached today by patients who confront him with human problems rather than neurotic symptoms. Some of the people who nowadays call on a psychiatrist would have seen a pastor, priest or rabbi in former days.

Viktor Frankl. For better or worse, who knows?

Flannery O’Connor’s Androgynous Prayer from the Emory University collection.

Oh universe which is the all of being–reverence to you–your rule be known–and acceded to in darkness as in light. Feed us by the truth of our need. Let us not be deluded that we may transgress or be transgressed upon. Deliver us from the violence of the false. Amen.

I was reminded of this when I read a 1949 Time article about Death Be Not Proud. The author’s dying son comes up with an “Unbeliever’s Prayer”:

Almighty God forgive me for my agnosticism; For I shall try to keep it gentle, not
cynical, nor a bad influence. And O! if Thou art truly in the heavens, accept my gratitude for all Thy gifts and I shall try to fight the good fight. Amen.

For what shall I wield a dagger, o lord?
What can I pluck it out of or plunge it into
when you are all the world?

Devara Dasimayya, 10th century Indian poet/saint. (via)

billa:

Reading between the Lines

On September 24th, Gijs Van Vaerenbergh will reveal a construction in the rural landscape, by a cycle route, that’s based on the design of the local church. This ‘church’ consists of 30 tons of steel and 2000 columns, and is built on a fundament of armed concrete. Through the use of horizontal plates, the concept of the traditional church is transformed into a transparent object of art. 

The Unlikely Disciple (review: 4/5)

The Unlikely Disciple
The Unlikely Disciple chronicles Kevin Roose’s semester “abroad”–he transfers colleges for a semester, from Brown University to Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. This is exactly the kind of nonfiction I like: adventurous, curious, open-minded, respectful. You get a sense of his attitude in the Acknowledgements section, where Roose’s final thank-you is to the students, faculty and administration at Liberty: “By experiencing your warmth, your vigorous generosity of spirit, and your deep complexity, I was ultimately convinced—not that you were right, necessarily, but that I had been wrong.” I love that attitude. LOVE.

Why did he do it? Unfamiliarity, mostly:

One recent study showed that 51 percent of Americans don’t know any evangelical Christians, even casually. And until I visited Thomas Road, that was me. My social circle at Brown included atheists, agnostics, lapsed Catholics, Buddhists, Wiccans, and more non-observant Jews than you can shake a shofar at, but exactly zero born-again Christians. The evangelical world, in my mind, was a cloistered, slightly frightening community whose values and customs I wasn’t supposed to understand. So I ignored it.

I’m in the half that knows quite a few evangelicals, so it was really refreshing to see them treated sympathetically. It is so easy to dismiss crowds you might not agree with, or that you only know by association with FOX News (shudder). Roose offers a bunch of anthropological observations, which I found to be the best part, because many of them ring so true:

Outside of Jane Austen novels, nowhere is marriage a more frequent topic of conversation than at Christian college.

He also talks a bit about how, even at an evangelical college, everybody doubts… There’s a sort of paranoia about yourself and a concern for others that animates social life. What he first perceives as prying (“Are you saved?”) is actually an expression of genuine concern. And at the same time, this paranoia is balanced with a kind of self-help/empowerment vibe. Sin and salvation are two sides of the same coin:

Of all the people I expected to have a moral awakening this semester, Joey was at the bottom of the list. Liberty does this to you, though. It tempts you with the constant possibility of personal realignment.

Later in the book he joins a group for a spring break evangelism trip, down at the wild, sinful beaches of Florida. No success. Part of what cripples this crowd is a language barrier:

Claire’s other problem is total linguistic isolation. She, like many other Liberty students, speaks in long, flowery strings of opaque Christian speak. When a twenty-something guy named Rick tells Claire he doesn’t believe in God, Claire sighs and says, “Listen, Rick. There’s a man named Jesus Christ, and he came into my heart and changed me radically. And there is a God who loves you, and who sent his son to die on the cross for you, to take away your sins and my sins, and God shows himself to me every day. When I don’t have hope for tomorrow, Jesus never fails. His love is never ending.”

It’s no surprise that language is one thing that separates particular communities, but I’d never thought about it in a religious context before. Later in the book, when he’s talking about conversion, he echoes the bit about language and community:

Maybe the transition isn’t so smooth when the foreign experiences deal with God. The anthropologist Susan Harding defines a religious conversion as the acquisition of a form of religious language, which happens the same way we acquire any other language–through exposure and repetition. In other words, we don’t necessarily know when we’ve crossed the line into belief.

If there’s a weakness in this book, it’s that I would have liked to read more about the culture that is Liberty University. He says he peppers other people about their history, beliefs, reasons for being at Liberty, etc. (sometimes to the point of raising suspicions of his true purpose there), but it’s mostly about his own experience. This is a fair approach, but there’s still a voyeuristic side of me that would like to dig more into the sociology of the college itself. Anyway, great book. Recommended.

“The Greatest Love Story of the 20th Century”

austinkleon:

Sarah Vowell on June Carter’s “Ring of Fire,”

In this song, to compare love to fire isn’t just the music sexy/heat cliche like you give me fever, or, hunka-hunka burnin’ love, or, it’s gettin’ hot in here. This is fire as in brimstone. Old time religion. Written by the daughter of a people who believe in the eternal flames of hell. June Carter was coveting her neighbor’s spouse, which meant she was breaking one of the Ten Commandments. Loving Johnny Cash was a sin. And for her, the wages of sin were death. A death in which the sinner spent all eternity as nothing more than kindling. When June Carter admitted to herself that she loved Johnny Cash, it is, in a small country and western love song way, not unlike the moment Huck Finn resolves to help the slave Jim escape, even though he’s been told that doing so would be wrong. Alright then, he says, I’ll go to hell.

Act Three of This American Life #247, about 47 minutes into the show.

“The Greatest Love Story of the 20th Century”