Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Art of Choice P. I

What choice will you make?
It occurs to me that everybody is an anarchist. There isn't a person alive who doesn't freely exercise choice between alternatives. Even those within the most oppressive political climates make choices every day, choices that compel them toward whatever is in their best interest in the moment. And those of us who live in freer political situations have no more freedom than the oppressed: we simply have less to fear from the consequences of our choices.

Anarchy, when distilled to its most sedimentary concept, simply means "rulerless," or "leaderless." This is a way of being that all of us accept in our day-to-day, mundane lives. You don't have to go to work: you choose to go to work. You don't have to research your paper for university; you choose to. You don't have to scoop your dog's droppings from the lawn; you choose to. You rule your own life on your own terms. You, as an agent of action, choose between the alternatives available to you. Even when things are chosen for you, you compel yourself to accept or reject the choice made for you.

So why do people feel so beholden to have their choices made for them? I'm thinking specifically of churches now. The religious person, it seems, accepts the choices of her predecessors--no! she chooses the choices of her predecessors when she chooses the particular brand of Christianity she will participate in. The Catholic convert can only be accepted by her socio-ecclesial circle if, like the rest of them, she chooses to accept the doctrinal choices chosen (often) 1600+ before her existence.

She may choose trinitarianism, but quietly nod at Arianism. Yet to air her innermost, her truest choice, she would be summarily forced to decide between alternative punishments for her free-thinking assent: recant or be excommunicated. So while she thinks she may be making a choice for Catholicism, by choosing a certain expression of Christianity, her mind has been decided for her long before she arrived at confirmation class. She is anarchist essentially, and Catholic positionally.

This is the juggernaut we are all (in a bitter irony) forced to face when we consider our participation in society and social infrastructure: to get along, we must go along. In order to be, we must be ordered. But we are not to order ourselves; we are not to freely compel ourselves. In religion, as in politics, we are late on the scene; we are to content ourselves in the same pasture, not choose the pasture we know we will feel most content in. Doing so, naturally, makes one anarchistic (leaderless) and heretical (literally, "able to choose").

And since we freely choose between alternatives in mundane ways all day (every day), we must certainly be incapable of choosing in extraordinary ways on any day, yes? The logic doesn't follow, I know. But before I explore this topic any further, ask yourself this question: are you choosing the life you want, or wanting to choose a life that is you?

I'm interested in thinking through this with you, if you're willing.

Friday, March 25, 2011

38% of Americans Are Insane

What happened in Japan recently was terrible. The aftermath, and continued crisis is devastating. But is it "divine retribution," as one Japanese official put it? 38% of Americans seem to think so. So, with a well-deserved leap over the middle (the excluded one, that is), I have concluded that of those Americans polled, 38% of them are utterly insane.

What causes an earthquake is pretty basic: shifting of tectonic plates.  It is a natural occurence not needing divine prompting.  If God sees fit to dip his hand into the Sisyphean burden of pushing giant rocks, well then whatever.  Who's going to argue?  In the meanwhile, until we have some evidence of that reality, I'm content to take the operations of the planet on an evidentiary, naturalistic basis.  Because I'm not insane.

*Thank you Atheist Media Blog for this gem.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Jiddu Krishnamurti

Jiddu Krishnamurti
This morning, a friend of mine inadvertently tipped-me-off to an Eastern philosopher, Jiddu Krishnamurti.  I had encountered his theosophical writings when I was in bible college in 1996.  In particular, I was launched into many years of socio-cultural reflection by this one quote: "It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society."

Having been reminded of this sage this morning, I sifted through some other material I could find on the net, and came across this quote.  I hope you enjoy it, and feel free to comment on it.
"Truth is a pathless land." Man cannot come to it through any organization, through any creed, through any dogma, priest or ritual, nor through any philosophical knowledge or psychological technique. He has to find it through the mirror of relationship, through the understanding of the contents of his own mind, through observation, and not through intellectual analysis or introspective dissection. Man has built in himself images as a sense of security – religious, political, personal. These manifest as symbols, ideas, beliefs. The burden of these dominates man's thinking, relationships and his daily life. These are the causes of our problems for they divide man from man in every relationship.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Souls of Black

I ended up with a song stuck in my head for most of the day, today.  I thought I'd share it with you.  Enjoy!

An oldie, but a goodie!

Review: The Atheist's Way

Since I can't seem to stop saturating myself in books to do with religion, irreligion and philosophy, I have found myself racing through a wonderful little tome by Eric Maisel. It is called, The Atheist's Way: Living Well Without Gods (pictured left).  Maisel also has a blog -- though it seems a little inactive -- dedicated to the subject matter in the book.

Where Maisel's book differs from the spate of recent atheist literature (e.g., Hitchens, Dennett, Dawkins, Harris, et al) is in his focus: where a thick brace of literature has been dedicated to showing the poverty of the religious life, Maisel has written to draw attention to the richness, beauty, and meaningfulness of the non-religious life.  Hitchens writes to highlight the toxicity of religious thinking; Maisel writes to encourage meaning-making in the atheist's approach.  Dennett writes to convince the reader that religion is a mental spell, a collective notion that gods influence nature therefore we worship them; Maisel writes to spur the religious into letting go of their assumptions of beneficient gods and face an indifferent universe open to innumerable possibilities for self-actualisation.  Dawkins writes to dispell delusions and rationalisations about the supernatural; Maisel writes to reassure the disbelieving that making your meaning is better than adopting an already prescribed religious meaning.  Harris writes to discourage adherence to any religious systems, and to shun the moderates for their cowardly, yet inadvertant support of extremists; Maisel writes to enliven a sense of life in the irreligious, and to move on bravely toward a whole sense of selfhood--a quality he suggests cannot be had in the religious life.

I'm sure you already see that Maisel is taking a positive approach to an often overly negative subject: disbelief.  And by negative, I don't mean to say that authors like Hitchens and Dawkins are a bad influence, or inappropriately dark and cynical.  They're not.  Still, Maisel has gone in a direction the so-called New Atheists have not: rather than tearing down gods, God, and the religions that attest to gods and God, he has taken the opportunity to outline the positive side of disbelief.

So, what are the positive net gains (if I can word it that way) of disbelief?  In a nutshell, Maisel argues that the disbeliever makes his own meaning.  He does not adopt, or super-impose over his own life the meaning that religious traditions have on offer, as if fitting himself into a body-suit with the symbol for a religion splashed across his chest.

Instead, the disbeliever chooses what he values, recognises the ultimate subjectivity of participation in life, and makes his own meaning.  This bears some similarity to Ayn Rand's stance on selfishness: people always act in such a way as to keep what they value; they are therefore "selfish" or self-interested.  The man who values personal freedom acts in such a way as to keep his freedom; he develops the virtue of productivity.  He does not allow others to hand him the value of freedom because it was never anyone else's to give to him in the first place.  And the mentality that suggests meaning needs to be earned by other's approval or permissions is the very same mentality that is on display in religion: your values, your meaning, your personal actualisation is imposed on you by an already established system, and that system gives approval or not to your worth.

The evidence for this is ample.  Consider, for example, the Catholic teaching that the use of condoms is immoral.  This article suggests that the Catholic laity is in disagreement with the current pope about the immorality of condoms; but does that change anything?  It might in private practice, but in public religious life, a lot of these same Catholics who disagree with their pope will still buckle under his imposed ruling: condoms should not be used (spare, of course, if your are interested in the propositions of male prostitutes infected with AIDS).  More, those Catholics who do sheathe their swords, as it were, will struggle uselessly (and infuriatingly, if you ask me) with guilt and shame for their choice to shag in latex.  They may even go so far as to confess their wicked deed, feel better, then repeat their "sin" and be told, after multiple confessions that their values are disorderly, not in line with the teachings of the church, or that their salvation is in danger because of habitual mortal sin.

The example above illustrates rather graphically that the struggling Catholic condomite is deriving his value from the teachings and constructed meanings of his chosen church.  Maisel, if I have understood him right, would suggest that that Catholic individual is allowing some of his meaning to be chosen for him, instead of making his own meaning.  Sadly, billions of people allow themselves to be bullied by clergy that tells them they have to seek their meaning in the teachings of the church, rather than make their meaning by the act of choosing and self-actualising on their own terms, and with their own resources.

And that, it seems, is Maisel's chief point: meaning is not something you need to seek.  It is not beneficial to you simply because it is prepackaged in the guise of religion.  It is not helpful because it can be easily accessed by the ministrations of clergy who tell you what to believe and how to believe it.  That is the structure those religious people choose, and in return, because of the structure they choose, their meaning is determined for them.  They are part of the overall meaning of that religion; they do not have a self-actualised meaning of their own.

You don't have to "find" meaning.  You have to make meaning.  In other words, you have to invest yourself into your own passions, your own interests, your own wants, and then you have to do what only you can do--because you're the only one who is you--to achieve your passions, maintain your interests, and gain what you want.  You have to choose your values, not piggy-back the values of others or use stand-in values such as those enforced by religions.  Maisel, in fact, goes so far as to state that religion itself is a stand-in for meaning; that is, religion takes the rightful place of personal meaning by imposing itself as over above self-chosen meaning.

Maisel's writing is clear, gentle, and inviting.  That last qualifier, however, sometimes serves to be a detractor from his efforts, as if by writing in an inviting style he is luring or tempting the reader to try on the religionless life.  I don't think I'd mind that so much if it weren't for the fact that I appreciate much more the blunt approach of Harris or Hitchens when it comes to addressing the moral necessity for atheism.  I'm not appreciative of saccharine, or glad-handed tones regarding major life decisions.  As minor a criticism as that is, I think Maisel's book adds a much needed, and excellent view of the areligious life, and how to self-actualise even after the experience of deconversion and the confusions such a switch can make.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Nicely Stated

Paul Cooijmans
"Modesty is the worst form of bragging. It is the vanity of the dishonest; the arrogance of cowards." -- Paul Cooijmans

Love it!

Shame and Catholicism: Bedmates

Denial, shame: Catholic.
First, read this (it's not long, and is quite interesting).

Second, my response to the article linked above:
I personally think that the Catholic heirarchy, were they allowed to legitimately indulge their sexual desires, would have a very different view of sexual intimacy. I really don't hear tale of the Eastern Orthodox church having sexual scandals or legalisms surrounding sexual pleasure between consenting couples. Their priests are allowed to get married, and allowed to enjoy the benefits that confers.
In Catholic quarters, their psycho-social and sexual development is stunted by the blunt force of useless prohibitions on sexual exploration between couples, masturbation, and other harmless hedonisms. Predictably, some Catholic clergy therefore have unacceptable deviances, and Catholic couples are demeaned and disempowered by imposed guilts and harmful preachments about how they should use their body (bawdy!) parts.

I find it a supremely interesting observation that Catholicism stands against legalisms in devotional life (i.e., the notion that one can effect favour with God through efforts at purity) but sets in place a massive legalistic social framework for its adherents (e.g., Canon Law). Is it any wonder that people feel horrible when they come to the instinctual understanding that their devotion to God has resulted in a shame-based identity with their church? This confusion around sexually acceptable practice is one among many, many, many crimes against sanity.
What are your thoughts about this issue?

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Rot and Stink

"In a criminal society, goodness is a crime. We have no moral obligation to tell the truth to the devil. To do so is likely to be actually immoral." --Dee

I was in a conversation with a well-spoken activist--at least, that's what I'll label him for the purpose of ease--and we were enjoying an exchange about the principles of anarchy (see quote above).  For example, anarchic philosophy calls for non-violence; anarchic philosophy emphasizes the sovereignty of the individual over above the collective; the responsibility of the individual is to provide for his own needs by the work of his own mind and hands, not by leeching off of the handouts of infrastructure when he is capable of doing otherwise.

However, our current socio-political climate does not allow for non-violence.  Consider our nation's involvement in wars that have nothing to do with us (e.g., Iraq).  Consider, also, that in Canada each person is in a holding pattern so far down in the lattice-work of control that considering yourself a 'sovereign' (solely over your own life, mind, and no-one else's) comes across as "eccentric" or "idiotic" or "crazy."  Or, consider that taxes are enforced: you earn your living, your country takes money from you it didn't earned, puts it towards ends you may not support, and then threatens you with fines and possibly jail-time if you don't give over a portion of your money.  This last example has the same rot and stink about it that the medieval church's enforced tithing did.

Whether or not I agree with these principles, I was given pause to think about who I am in contrast to the larger collective (society), and what the nature of our present collective is: are we living in an actual democracy?  Is democracy defined simply by being able to vote at elections?  Or is there something more to it that isn't being effected in Canadian culture?  If I were to consider myself a sovereign, how would that effect my participation in the common-place infrastructure of society?  Is it "criminal" to not give your money to a bigger group of people (the government) when they haven't earned it, and simply because they declare it criminal to not give money to them?  Should the government be re-labeled Big Vinny, and considered a sophisticated leg-breaker?

I don't know.  At the very least, I was forced to think of some very interesting alternate points of view.  And, being the curious person that I am, I appreciated the mental exercise said activist gave me.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Recommendation: A Place Called Freedom

Ken Follett, author of international best-sellers The Pillars of the Earth (also a TV mini-series) and World Without End has stormed into my mind and heart with his totally enthralling, relentlessly visceral yet beautiful story A Place Called Freedom.

It is the story of a coal-miner, Malachi McAsh--affectionately known as 'Mack'--who wants nothing more than his freedom, his definition and right as a dignified human being.  His slave-masters, the Jamisson's, however, consider him a dangerous upstart, and set themselves against Mack and his desire for freedom.  Mack is eventually sentenced to death but, by a fortuitous twist, is shipped to America.  Once there though, he continues to fight for the only thing he's ever wanted: freedom.

I cannot heap enough praise on this book.  If you have enough room in your life to fill it with 437 pages of intense and gorgeous story-telling, you will not go wrong reading this book.  It is, quite simply, one of the best fictions I have ever read.

Ken Follett gets the Saint Cynic Award of Awesomeness, and in spades!

I can't wait to read Follett's other two novels I listed!  But first, The Fountainhead.

Friday, March 4, 2011


Happy birthday to me!

37 and still rockin'!

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Unending Love

Rabindranath Tagore
I came across this poem this morning while I was waiting for my van to warm up.  Apparently it was Audrey Hepburn's favourite.  I can understand why: it's beautiful.

Unending Love

I seem to have loved you in numberless forms, numberless times...
In life after life, in age after age, forever.
My spellbound heart has made and remade the necklace of songs,
That you take as a gift, wear round your neck in your many forms,
In life after life, in age after age, forever.

Whenever I hear old chronicles of love, it's age old pain,
It's ancient tale of being apart or together.
As I stare on and on into the past, in the end you emerge,
Clad in the light of a pole-star, piercing the darkness of time.
You become an image of what is remembered forever.

You and I have floated here on the stream that brings from the fount.
At the heart of time, love of one for another.
We have played along side millions of lovers,
Shared in the same shy sweetness of meeting,
the distressful tears of farewell,
Old love but in shapes that renew and renew forever.

Today it is heaped at your feet, it has found its end in you
The love of all man's days both past and forever:
Universal joy, universal sorrow, universal life.
The memories of all loves merging with this one love of ours -
And the songs of every poet past and forever.

~Rabindranath Tagore

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

We The Living

As some of you already know, I'm on an Ayn Rand binge right now.  At first, I was a little reluctant to jump in to her fictions because the scenery is just so different from the usual English hillsides or fantasy settings I'm used to.  The stark black and white of the 1917 Revolution in modern-day Russia, the hollow cities, the sickly and oppressed peoples of Petrograd (present-day St. Petersburg), food lines and the G.P.U. -- these were all new story-settings to me.

I've read Dostoevsky before, and some of Turgnev.  I have a deep fondness for Russian authors.  But when I set-out to read Rand's works, I knew I was in for something different.  I wasn't sure if I would like her writings because there are so many bipolar opinions about her style, her philosophy, her narrative, her intentions, etc.  So from the get-go, I was hesitant.  It's quite easy to enjoy universally acclaimed authors such as Dickens, Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn, Collins, Eliot, et al. because they are enjoyed by almost everyone.  Rand's writings, however, are generally classed to either ends of the extremes "Hate it" or "Love it."

Well, after taking the plunge with Rand's novella, Anthem, I fed my curiosity a little more with her first full-length novel, We The Living.  Published in 1936, We The Living enjoyed limited success (3000 copies).  After Rand's international sensation, Atlas Shrugged (which is presently being made into a movie), We The Living was republished and sold 3-million copies.  And after having just read We The Living, I can understand why it skyrocketed to best-seller levels.

Without giving too much away about the story, it is a vivid capture of life in Bolshevik Russia, after the October Revolution of 1917.  Kira Argounova, the story's heroine, struggles as an individual against the machinations of the Soviet state.  Her brave and iron-cast ideals give her the strength to persist in the face of a deep romance with a handsome maverick, Leo Kovalensky, and the constant dangers of being close friends with a young officer of the G.P.U., Andrei Taganov.

That is as much of the story as I'm willing to write about because I think it is a story that has to be read.  Parsing the details anymore than I already have would have the infelicitous effect of giving too much away.  And believe me, with the way the story moves and grows, it would be a pity to give it away in a mild review, such as this one.

In the end, between the extremes noted earlier, I have so far landed on "Love it."  It is my understanding that Rand's particular views on philosophy, politics, human nature, art, sex, and many other hot-button issues becomes more articulated in her later novels, The Fountainhead, and Atlas Shrugged.  For now, however, for fear of saturating my enjoyment of Rand, I have moved on to Ken Follett's classic, A Place Called Freedom.  I'm already 50+ pages into the book and absolutely enthralled!