On Greatness

Pelikan 100For the first time in 37 years, we have a Triple-Crown winner. American Pharaoh didn’t win by a nose. He won by five and a half lengths! It was thrilling to watch him pull away from a group comprised of the fastest horses on the planet, to see him establish a lead that it was increasingly clear would be impossible for any of the other horses to overcome. It was an elevating spectacle. Joe Draper, wrote in The New York Times that “[t]he fans in a capacity crowd strained on their tiptoes and let our a roar from deep in their souls. It was going to end, finally – this 37-year search for a great racehorse.”

That’s right, he said the fans let out a roar “from deep in their souls.” Many cried. Toward the end of that same story he refers to American Pharaoh’s run as “ethereal.” The spectacle of greatness is always edifying because there is something sublime about it. We know this, all of us. We know it innately. We are always on the lookout for greatness, just as all mammals, as social creatures, are always on the lookout for individuals to follow, individuals who can lead them, even when they have no idea of where they might be going. This is the source of the cult of personality that seems to hold sway, to some extent anyway, in even the most egalitarian of societies.

It’s easier for us to admit that some animals are superior to others than to admit that some people are. American Pharaoh is superior to all other race horses. Seabiscuit, though not a Triple-Crown winner, was superior in his time as well, not just in speed, but in endurance and intelligence.

The rhetoric of democracy leaves little room, however, for the idea that some people might be superior to other people. Even the suggestion is frightening, conjuring up as it does, thoughts of the bad old days of slavery, of the rise of National Socialism in Germany, and of other genocidal movements around the world.

“We hold these truths to be self evident,” reads Declaration of Independence, which then goes on to describe the purported inherent equality of all human beings (or at least all “men”) as chief among these self-evident truths. And yet all human beings are not equal, not even at the moment, so to speak, of their creation. It isn’t just nurture that accounts for differences among human beings, though my suspicion is that it accounts for most of them. Nature has her say as well. Some people are more beautiful than other people, some faster, some smarter or more talented in one way or another, some people are even kinder or more tolerant by nature than others. Parents who are honest will admit that many of these differences appear to be present from birth.

Why is it hard for us to admit that some people are superior to other people? Is it because we’re afraid to awaken the sleeping monster of exploitation that so often lives parasitically on this truth? That’s part of it, I believe. Religion can prevent such exploitation, however, even while acknowledging inherent differences among human beings, on the grounds that we are all God’s creatures and hence have, despite our differences, equal claim to dignity as such.

Even secular humanism can protect people from the exploitation that can come with the recognition that some people are superior to other people on the grounds that no rational, or even merely sentient, creature should ever be treated merely as a means to the ends of others.

The real source, I believe, of our failure to openly acknowledge that all human beings are not, in fact, equal comes not from fear of the evil consequences of such an acknowledgement, but from fear of the good ones. Kierkegaard talks about that, about the fear of what Plato called “the Good.” We all have it to some extent or other.

There is a relentlessly leveling dynamic in contemporary Western culture, a desire to tear down, to discredit anyone who dares to rise above the fray. Danes call this Janteloven, or the law of Jante, which can be summed up as: No one should have the temerity to think he is any better than anyone else.

This leveling tendency masquerades as a progressive force, yet it is anything but. The spectacle of greatness is sublime. It elevates us above our petty egoisms, confronts us with the fact that there is something larger and more important than our paltry, individual selves. And this, my friends, is a dangerous, dangerous truth that what I will unfashionably call “the forces of darkness” would rather keep hidden from us.

To glimpse this truth is life changing. Those whose lives are illuminated by it are not compulsive consumers. They are not petty, envious of neighbors, neurotically fearful of perceived enemies. They support the development of human potential, not retributive systems of justice and endless war.

Egalitarianism can be a force for positive social change, but all too often it is a lie designed to keep us down. We need heroes. Martin Luther King may have had his faults, but he was still better than the rest of us, and so, I submit, is Noam Chomsky. There are lots of these superior people. They have always been with us and, thankfully, they always will be. Our lives, and society as a whole, would be made better if we were allowed to openly acknowledge them as such, to celebrate them, to let out a roar at the spectacle of them – from deep within our souls.

(This article originally appeared in the 9 June 2015 issue of Counterpunch.)

On Death and Dying

Otis elementary school 2One of the most frightening things, I think, about dying is that we do it alone. Of all the natural evils for which one would like to blame the creator, this seems one of the worst. It would have been so much better, wouldn’t it, if we left this life in groups, left perhaps with the people we came in with, with the children we remember from our earliest days in school, and perhaps also with the people we have come to love, if they are suitably close to us in age. If we could go in groups, as if on a field trip, it would be easier.

But we go alone, even those unfortunates who die in accidents that take many lives die effectively alone because they don’t have time, really to appreciate their fates as shared. They say the people who remained on the Titanic sang as the ship went down. That’s what I’m talking about. It would be so much better, so much easier to bear if we were assigned a time along with many others. We could begin to gather a little before that time, all of us who were assigned to leave together, we could begin to gather and prepare ourselves and share with one another the joys and sorrows of our lives. If we did that, I think we would realize that our lives had really all been variations on the same theme, that we were not so different from one another as we had thought.

I’m not certain if I believe in life after death, even though I am very religious. I’m not certain what it would be for. I doubt I will be ready to leave this life when my time comes. I think I’d like to live much longer than I know I will, say three or four hundred years. I think I’d eventually get tired of living though, so the prospect of living forever is not all that appealing.

It seems to me, however, that if there is life after death, that that place where we will all go (and I believe we will all go to the same place because I am a universalist), wherever it is, that we will all actually arrive there together. Even though each of us will die individually, alone, if we go anywhere, it is to eternity and since there is no temporal change in eternity, there cannot be any arriving earlier or later. Where we will go will be where everyone will go at the same time, or where everyone, in a sense, already is. There will be no waiting for the loved ones who die after us. They will be there waiting for us, so to speak, when we arrive, even if they are in the bloom of youth when we leave.

When I think about death, which I do more and more as I get older, I wonder if perhaps part of the point of it, of the horrible specter of that trip one must take alone, is precisely to make us understand that we never really are alone. And by that I don’t mean simply that God is always with us, although I do mean that also. I mean that we are all part of the whole of humanity, that we are connected to everyone and, indeed, to every living thing.

There is a poem I love by Molly Holden that conveys this sense of connectedness very well. It’s called “Photograph of Haymaker, 1890.” It goes like this:

It is not so much the image of the man
that’s moving — he pausing from his work
to whet his scythe, trousers tied
below the knee, white shirt lit by
another summer’s sun, another century’s —

as the sight of the grasses beyond
his last laid swathe, so living yet
upon the moment previous to death;
for as the man stooping straightened up
and bent again they died before his blade.

Sweet hay and gone some seventy years ago
and yet they stand before me in the sun,

That’s not the whole of the poem. I left out the last couple of lines for fear of violating copyright. You can read the whole of it though if you go to Poetry magazine. Of course the poem is about the haymaker in that it’s about mortality which is inseparable, I think from temporality. Time passes, people pass, as they say. The haymaker will pass, just as the grasses he’s cutting down in the vigor of his manhood. And he is gone now of course the man who was young and vigorous in that photo taken so long ago.

I love to read philosophy and learn that others who lived and died long before me had precisely the same thoughts that I have had. I feel suddenly linked to those people in a mystical way. I feel as if they are with me in a strange sense, that we are together on this journey we call life, even though they completed it long ago.

Kierkegaard speaks often about the idea of death and how one must keep it ever present in his thoughts. I did not understand this when I first read it, but I believe I do now. To think about death, really to think about it, to think it through, will bring you right back around again to life and what a miracle it is, and by that I don’t mean your own small individual life, but all of it, life as a whole, and you will be filled with reverence for it. You will be kinder to every creature.

And you will feel less alone.

This piece is for Otis Anderson, February 6, 1959 – July 14, 2013.

Dawkins’ Delusions

Cuisinart EM-100

Cuisinart EM-100

I’d put off reading any of the ”new atheists” until recently. What I knew of their criticisms of religion had not impressed me as particularly sophisticated or even as new, so there seemed no urgency to read them. I’m teaching philosophy of religion this term though and my students expressed a desire to look at the new atheists, so I reluctantly purchased a copy of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion and began reading it in preparation for class.

I was afraid I wouldn’t like it. I was wrong. It’s hilarious! Not only has it caused me to laugh out loud, but it has brought home with particular force what an egalitarian industry publishing is. Anyone can publish a book, even a blithering idiot making claims that are demonstrably false and pontificating on things he knows nothing about and on works he has not read.

To be fair to Dawkins, I should point out that he’s clearly not a run-of-the-mill blithering idiot or he’d never have risen to his current position of prominence in science. He’d have been wise, however, to have restricted his public pronouncements to that field. His foray into the fields of religion and philosophy has made it clear that he’s closer to an idiot savant on the order of the infamously racist Nobel Prize winner James D. Watson, than to a genuine intellectual such as Stephen Jay Gould.

The preface to the paperback edition of The God Delusion includes Dawkins’ responses to some of the criticisms that were advanced against the book when it first appeared. In response to the charge that he always attacks “the worst of religion and ignored the best,” Dawkins writes

If only such subtle, nuanced religion predominated, the world would surely be a better place, and I would have written a different book. The melancholy truth is that this kind of understated, decent, revisionist religion is numerically negligible. To the vast majority of believers around the world, religion all too closely resembles what you hear from the likes of Robertson, Falwell or Haggard, Osama bin Laden or the Ayatollah Khomeini. These are not straw men, they are all too influential, and everybody in the modern world has to deal with them (p. 15).

From where does Dawkins get his statistics concerning the proportion of religious believers who subscribe to “understated, decent, revisionist” views of religion? How does he know their numbers are negligible? Evidence suggests otherwise. That is, most people in the economically developed world appear to accept modern science, so if surveys concerning the proportion of the population in this part of the world who are religious are correct, then the numbers of the “decent” religious people are not negligible, in fact, these people are vastly in the majority.

Of course to give Dawkins credit, he does refer to believers “around the world,” and not just in the economically developed part. It’s possible that Dawkins intends his book to enlighten the followers of Ayatollah Khomeini and other Muslim fundamentalist leaders, as well as to the few fundamentalists in the economically developed world who reject science. It does not appear to have been aimed, however, at such an audience and I’ve not heard anything about Dawkins’ underwriting the translation of the book into Farsi or Arabic.

Also, how come science gets to “develop,” but religion that has changed over time is referred to pejoratively as “revisionist.” Germ theory was not always part of natural science, but I wouldn’t call contemporary science “revisionist” because it now includes belief in the reality of microorganisms.

“I suspect,” writes Dawkins, “that for many people the main reason they cling to religion is not that it is consoling, but that they have been let down by our educational system and don’t realize that non-belief is even an option” (p. 22).

Dawkins is either being disingenuous in the extreme or he is, in fact, feeble minded. Notice he says “our” educational system, so here he is clearly not talking about Iran or the Middle East. The whole reason that it is occasionally controversial to teach evolution in school in the U.S. is that religious extremists have become offended by the ubiquity of evolutionary theory in the science curriculum.

Far from education “letting people down” in failing to make clear to them that non-belief is an option, it more often lets people down in failing to make clear to them that belief is an option. It tends to caricature religious belief in precisely the way Dawkins’ conflation of religion with religious fundamentalism does, with the result that young people are literally indoctrinated with the view that religion itself, not one particular instantiation of it (i.e., fundamentalism), but religion itself is simply a particular form of superstition that is essentially in conflict with the modern world view. Dawkins would appear to be a victim of such indoctrination himself in that he repeatedly conflates religion with religious fundamentalism. He acknowledges occasionally that not all religious people hold the views he attributes to them, but he can’t seem to remember this consistently.

The reader of The God Delusion is faced with a dichotomy unflattering to the book’s author: either a rigorous systematic distinction between religion in general and religious fundamentalism in particular taxes Dawkins’ cognitive abilities beyond what they can bear, or his repeated conflation of these these two distinct phenomena is cynically calculated to raise a false alarm concerning the purported threat that religion in general presents to the advancement of civilization in the hope that this alarm will cause people to storm their local Barnes and Noble in an effort to secure, through the purchase of his book, ammunition they can use to defend themselves against the encroaching hoards of barbarian believers.

In the preface to the original hard cover edition Dawkins writes:

I suspect— well, I am sure— that there are lots of people out there who have been brought up in some religion or other, are unhappy in it, don’t believe it, or are worried about the evils that are done in its name; people who feel vague yearnings to leave their parents’ religion and wish they could, but just don’t realize that leaving is an option (p. 23).

Really, he writes that, I’m not kidding. I cut and pasted that text from the ebook. Yes, Dawkins is seriously asserting that there are people “out there” who do not realize that it’s possible, even in principle, to reject the faith they were born into. Obviously, these are not church-going folks. If they were, they would surely notice the children who cease at some point (usually in late adolescence or early adulthood) to attend church with their parents, or overhear the laments of parents whose children have “left the faith” during the coffee and cookies that often follows services on Sundays.  These people who “just don’t realize that leaving is an option” must be a rare non-church-going species of fundamentalist. Even the Amish, after all, know that “leaving is an option.”

It’s admirable that Dawkins is so concerned about this infinitesimally small portion of humanity that he would write a whole book for their benefit. The view, however, that they represent a significant threat to Western civilization is hardly credible.

A charitable reading of Dawkins might incline one to think that what he meant was that it was not an emotional option, that it would wreak more havoc in their lives than they fear they could bear. (This, presumably, is why more Amish don’t leave the faith.) But if that were truly Dawkins concern, he’d have written a very different type of book because that problem has nothing to do with science or the failure of religious people to understand it.

Atheists, according to Dawkins, are under siege. “Unlike evangelical Christians,” he bemoans, “who wield even greater political power [than Jews], atheists and agnostics are not organized and therefore exert almost zero influence” (p. 27). Oh yeah, atheists exert “zero influence.” That’s why we’re all taught the Bible in school, right? And why my university, like so many universities in the U.S., has such a huge religion department relative to, say, the biology department.

Wait, we’re not taught the Bible in school, that’s part of what fundamentalists are so up in arms about. We don’t teach creation, we teach evolution. We don’t have a religion department at Drexel. We don’t even lump religion in with philosophy, as is increasingly common at institutions that appear to be gradually phasing out religion all together. We don’t teach religion period, not even as an object of scholarly study, let alone in an attempt to indoctrinate impressionable young people with its purportedly questionable “truths.”

The Penguin English Dictionary,” observes Dawkins, “defines a delusion as ‘a false belief or impression’” (p. 27). Is the belief that religion represents a serious threat to the advance of civilization not obviously false?  “The dictionary supplied with Microsoft Word,” continues Dawkins, “defines a delusion as ‘a persistent false belief held in the face of strong contradictory evidence” (28). Is there not “strong contradictory evidence” to the claim that atheists are under siege?

Is it possible that the survival of modern science really is threatened in Britain, in contrast to the clear cultural hegemony it enjoys in the U.S.? Maybe. Eating baked beans on toast has always seemed pretty backward to me. My guess, however, is that Dawkins suffers from the delusion that we in the U.S. are more backward than the folks on the other side of the Atlantic.

I’ll give Dawkins one thing. He’s right about how our educational system has failed us. That’s the only explanation I can think of for the popularity of Dawkins alarmist clap trap. It ought to be obvious to anyone with even a modicum of formal education that Dawkins is talking sheer nonsense. But then Dawkins is a scientist, not a philosopher or theologian. He simply doesn’t seem to understand Stephen Jay Gould’s lovely straightforward presentation of the nonoverlapping magisteria view of the relation between science and religion.

But then it’s hard to say whether Dawkins failure to understand, NOMA, as it is now called, is an expression of his cognitive limits or of his intellectual irresponsibility in that it appears he hasn’t actually read Gould’s paper. What makes me think this, you ask? Well, because Gould goes on at length in this paper about how creationism (Dawkins’ apparent primary concern) is “a local and parochial movement, powerful only in the United States among Western nations, and prevalent only among the few sectors of American Protestantism that choose to read the Bible as an inerrant document, literally true in every jot and tittle” (emphasis added), and one could add here “has made no inroads whatever into the system of public education.”

Perhaps Dawkins thought it was unnecessary to read Gould, that anyone who would defend religion must not be worth reading. We all have our blind spots. I, for example, though I am devoutly religious, refuse to believe that prayer effects any change other than in the one who prays. It’s not because of some paranoid fear I have of inadvertently falling into superstition. It’s because the idea of a God whose mind could be changed by a particularly passionate entreaty, that is, of a God who is capricious and vain, is not at all edifying to me. I refuse to believe God is like that, quite independently of anything that might be presented to me as evidence for or against such a view.

Fortunately, my understanding of the relation between science and religion is a little more sophisticated than Dawkins’, so I can rest easily in my convictions, unperturbed by the phantom of their possible overthrow in the indeterminate future by some hitherto unknown type of empirical evidence. There is no such thing as empirical evidence either for or against the truth of religious convictions of the sort I hold. Fundamentalists may have to live with their heads in the sand but people with a proper understanding of the relation between the phenomenal and numinal realms do not.

That’s where our educational system has failed us. Too many people, even well educated people, have been taught that science conflicts with religion, not with a specific instantiation of religion, that is, not with fundamentalism, but with religion period. Education has failed us in a manner precisely opposite to the one in which Dawkins claims it has. The problem is not that the educational system has led people to the position where they feel that non belief is not an option. The problem is precisely that the pretentious misrepresentation of the explanatory powers of empirical science and the reduction to caricature of anything and everything that goes under the heading of “religion” has led people to the position where they feel that belief is not an option.

I have enormous respect for honest agnostics, despite William James’ point in his essay “The Will to Believe,” that agnosticism is formally indistinguishable from atheism in that it fails just as much as the latter to secure for itself the good that is promised by religion. Agnosticism is at least intellectually honest. The question whether there’s a God, or as James puts it, some kind of higher, or transcendent purpose to existence, cannot be formally answered. Even Dawkins acknowledges that it’s not actually possible to demonstrate that there’s no God (though he asserts, bizarrely, that God’s improbability can be demonstrated). But if God’s existence cannot be disproved, then disbelief stands on no firmer ground than belief, so why trumpet it as somehow superior?

The fact is that we’re all of us out over what Kierkegaard refers to as the 70,000 fathoms. I’m comfortable with my belief. I’m not offended by agnostics. I’m not even offended by atheists. I’m not offended by the fact that there are people who don’t believe in God. I would never try to argue to them that they ought to believe. That to me is a profoundly personal matter, something between each individual and the deity. What’s strange to me is that there are many people, people such as Dawkins, who are apparently so uncomfortable with their atheism that the mere existence of anyone who disagrees with them on this issue is offensive to them. It’s as if they perceive the very existence of religious belief as some kind of threat. What kind of threat, one wonders, might that be?

Religious belief, at this stage of human history anyway, certainly does not represent a threat to scientific progress. Dawkins blames religion for the 9/11. Experience has shown, however, that terrorism, of pretty much every stripe, is effectively eliminated with the elimination of social and economic inequities, just as is religious fundamentalism. So why isn’t Dawkins railing against social and economic inequities?  That would appear to be a far more effective way to free the world of the scourge of religious fundamentalism than simply railing against fundamentalism directly. Direct attacks on fundamentalism are analogous to temperance lectures to people whose lives are so miserable that drinking is the only thing that brings them any kind of joy.

“[A] universe with a creative superintendent,” asserts Dawkins, “would be a very different kind of universe from one without one” (p. 78). But what is the difference for people such as NIH director Francis Collins, and myself, who believe that the description of the universe that is provided by science is precisely a description of the nature of God’s material creation? Dawkins is right in that there’s a difference between those two universes. He’s wrong though in believing that difference to be material.

Suppose that one morning you found on your doorstep an apple. Suppose you love apples. Suppose as well that though you could not preclude the possibility that this apple had simply fallen from an overly-full grocery bag of some passerby, for some reason that you cannot explain, you were infused with the conviction, as soon as you laid eyes on the apple, that someone had placed it there for you. What a lovely thought! The whole experience changes your morning, even your day, in a positive way.

In a material sense, of course, it makes no difference whether the apple came there by chance, or by design. It is the same apple, after all, whatever the explanation for its presence. It is not at all the same experience, however, to believe that one has found an apple by chance and to believe one has found it by design.

Now suppose a well-meaning friend, points out the superfluity of your assumption that the apple had been placed there by someone. Suppose this person pointed out that nothing in the mere presence of the apple compelled such an assumption and that you should thus content yourself with a “natural explanation” of how it came to be there. Ought you to abandon your belief in your invisible benefactor? What would you gain by abandoning it? If your friend had been ridiculing you for your “foolishness,” then presumably that would cease. You would regain his respect. But at what cost? It’s none of his business what you chose to believe in such an instance. That he would make fun of you for believing something the truth of which he cannot disprove but which makes you happy paints a very unflattering picture of him. So you would regain the respect of someone whose respect many would rightly disdain, even while you would lose something that had made you happy. And why is the explanation you have supplied for the presence of the apple less “natural” than his? You didn’t assume the apple had spontaneously sprung into existence. The real difference between your view of how the apple came to be there and his is that yours is nicer, that it makes you feel better.

Or to take a more apposite example in my case: Say that for as long as you can remember, you’ve wanted one of those fancy, expensive home cappuccino makers. You know the ones I’m talking about. Not the little cheapie things that can be had for under a hundred dollars, but the really expensive ones that resemble the real thing that they use in fancy cafes and coffee houses. Say that you have always wanted one of these fancy cappuccino makers but because you had chosen the life of an academic and the modest salary that went along with it, you felt a fancy cappuccino maker was an extravagance you simply couldn’t allow yourself. Lawyers can afford such things you reasoned, but then they also needed them because they are generally very unhappy in their work. If you had gone to law school, you could have had a fancy cappuccino maker. You knew this, of course, but chose to go to graduate school in philosophy instead because you believed a career in philosophy would be more fulfilling than a career in law. You made your choice and so must content yourself with a fulfilling career and more modest coffee-making set up.

This seems to you a reasonable trade off, so you do not waste away large portions of your life lusting after a fancy home cappuccino maker. Still, you do think wistfully of such machines sometimes, particularly when you see them in the homes of your lawyer friends, or in one of those fancy kitchen stores that always have so many of them. You have accustomed yourself, over time, to this occasional quiet longing.

But then one Saturday, when you are on your way back to your apartment, after having done your morning shopping, you spy a large bag on the sidewalk in front of one of the houses on your block. People often put things out on the sidewalk that they no longer want, so you stop to see if there is anything there you might be able to use. As you approach the bag, your heart begins to beat more quickly. Peeping out of the edge of the bag is what looks for all the world like the top of one of those fancy, expensive cappuccino makers that you have always wanted. You peer disbelievingly into the bag and discover that not only does it indeed contain such a machine, but all of the accoutrements that generally go with them, a little stainless steel milk frothing jug, metal inserts in both the single and double espresso size (as well as one to hold those Illy pods that you would never buy because they are too expensive), and a coffee scoop with a flat end for tamping down the coffee. As you are peering into the bag, your neighbor emerges from the front door of her house with more bags of stuff to put out on the sidewalk.

“Are you giving this away?” you ask tentatively.

“Yes,” she replies.

“Does it work?” you ask.

“Yes,” she replies.

“Why are you giving it away?” you ask incredulously, convinced that any minute she will change her mind.

“Well,” she says nonchalantly, I’ve had it for four years and never used it. I figure that if you have something for four years and never use it, you should get rid of it.”

You nod and laugh, affecting a nonchalance to match your neighbor’s. As soon as she has disappeared into the house, though, you snatch up the bag that contains the machine and all the accoutrements and stagger under its weight the short distance to your door. You download the manual for the machine (a Cuisinart EM-100, which you discover retails for $325), set it up and give it a trial run. It works like a dream!

Your innermost wish for a fancy, expensive cappuccino maker has been fulfilled! One was deposited practically on your doorstep. Of course it came there in a perfectly natural, explicable way, but still, your heart overflows with gratitude toward God whom you believe has arranged the universe, in his wisdom and benevolence, in such a way that this fancy, expensive cappuccino maker should come into your possession now. God has favored you with the rare and coveted have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too status in that you have been allowed to pursue your life’s calling of being a philosophy professor and have a fancy, expensive cappuccino maker!

You do not need to attribute this turn of events to any supernatural agency in order to see “the hand of God” in it. It does not trouble you to think that your neighbor had very likely been considering putting that machine out on the street for quite some time. That the whole event came about very naturally. But still, it is deeply significant to you and fills you with a sense of awe and wonder. Why should that bother Richard Dawkins?

It is fair, of course, to point out that you might just as well be annoyed that God had not arranged for you to receive this fancy, expensive cappuccino maker earlier. But you do not think that way. Why, you do not know. You attribute this wonderfully positive psychological dynamic to God’s Grace, but of course you could be wrong, perhaps it’s genetic. Earlier it seemed to you that the sacrifice of a fancy, expensive cappuccino maker in order to pursue your life’s calling was really not so very much to ask, and you accepted it stoically. Now, you are overcome with gratitude toward God for so arranging things that your wish for such a machine has been fulfilled. Earlier you were happy, now you are happier still. What’s wrong with that? That seems to me to be a very enviable situation.

Experience may incline us to expect certain emotional reactions to various kinds of events, but reason does not require such reactions. Many religious people are effectively deists in that they accept what scientists call the “laws of nature” and do not believe that God arbitrarily suspends those laws in answer to particularly passionate entreaties. Such people accept that God must thus be responsible in some way for the things they don’t like just as much as for the things they like, but consider that perhaps there is some reason for those things that human reason simply cannot fathom, and look to God for emotional support when the bad things in life seem to overwhelm the good and thank God when the reverse seems to be the case.

To be able to find strength in God when times are bad and to thank him (her or it) when times are good is an enviable gift. Who wouldn’t want to be like that? Of course it is possible to rail against God for not ensuring that times are always good, but it isn’t necessary. The failure to condemn or to become angry is not a failure of logic. Objectively, everything simply is, nothing necessitates a particular emotional reaction. The dynamic of faith is just as rational as the dynamic of skepticism. In fact, it could be construed as even more rational. That is, happiness is something that it is generally acknowledged human beings almost universally pursue and the dynamic just described is clearly a particularly good way of achieving it in that it effectively ensures a generally positive emotional state. Maybe believers are wrong, but even Dawkins acknowledges that no one will ever be able to prove that. Even if they are wrong, however, it seems there is little, if any harm, in their beliefs and a great deal of good.

Why does religion so offend atheists such as Dawkins? No one is forcing them to sign up. Dawkins is not alone in his outrage. It’s pervasive among atheists. The invectives they hurl at believers always put me in mind of those hurled by a child at the participants in an invisible tea party to which he has not been invited.

“There isn’t really any TEA there, you know!” he yells.

But is the outrage over the fictitious nature of the tea, that anyone should pretend to drink something that isn’t really there, or is it at not having been invited to the party? Perhaps the problem with the atheist is the feeling of being left out. Perhaps they are angry that other people get to enjoy something from which they have been excluded, something they have been led to believe is “not an option” for them.

(For a really excellent piece on The God Delusion see Terry Eagleton’s “Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching” in the London Review of Books.)

Eros and Gender

Portrait caricature

I have a friend who writes what he likes to refer to as “gay romance novels.” I was surprised to learn that many of his readers were women. He met them, he explained, at book signings. It seems women like guy on guy action. They like men’s bodies and enjoy explicit and appreciative descriptions of them in various states of sexual arousal even if those descriptions are done from the perspective of another man.

I hadn’t given this issue much thought until I began reading Artistic Impressions: Figure Skating, Masculinity, and the Limits of Sport by Mary Louise Adams (University of Toronto Press, 2011).  Figure skating is generally considered an effete sport. It wasn’t always so, though; it was originally practiced almost exclusively by men, so the question of how it came to be considered a sport for women is interesting. More importantly, it’s a pressing question for people who love skating and are concerned that its reputation as a sport for women discourages young men from taking it up. Unfortunately, few people within the skating community have made any effort to answer this question, but have attempted, instead, to constrain male skaters to perform in ways they consider to be acceptably masculine. This is done formally through the imposition of different technical requirements for “men’s” and “ladies” programs and informally through different approaches to the training of male and female skaters.

Dance, like figure skating, is also widely considered to be an activity best suited to women, but like figure skating, this was not always the case. So Adams looks, in her book, at the history of gendering dance movements, or at what is referred to in the dance community as “the problem of the male dancer.”

Ted Shawn, she observes, one of the pioneers of modern dance in the U.S., believed, there were fundamental differences in male and female movement. “If we can get these specific qualities of masculine and feminine movement separated,” he wrote,

it will be like breaking up white light into the colours of the spectrum … We shall then be able to split up our orchestra of dancers – the percussion and brass for the men and the woodwind and strings for the women, each sex contributing a different but complementary quality of movement to the enrichment of the art of the dance as a whole. (Adams, 226).

According to Shawn, men make big movements while women make smaller movements. Men’s arm movements “are a continuation of the body movement, as for example, the movement of a man using a scythe.” Women’s movements, he continues, are smaller. “[T]he little, fluttery movements of the wrist and hands” he asserts, “are legitimately a woman’s movement.” Shawn, writes Adams, “described men’s movements as ‘positive, aggressive, forceful, definite, explicit.’ Women’s movements, by contrast, were described as ‘tender, protective, conservative, conciliatory, delicate and tentative” (Adams, 226).

But are these differences innate, or something that boys and girls must be taught? Nikolai Tarasov, a renowned teacher from the Moscow Choreographic School and author of Ballet Technique for the Male Dancer, seems, according to Adams, to suggest that they are both innate and learned. Tarasov thus recommended that boys not be taught by women. Shawn, Adams observes, “made similar arguments, claiming, on the one hand, that gender differences in styles of movement are natural and, on the other, that men and women should follow separate training regimes to make sure that men do not develop an effeminate style, full of soft, pretty movements instead of vital and dynamic ones” (Adams, 227).

Dance critic Tobi Tobias suggested in a 1977 article in the New York Times that male dancers should focus on jumps … while women and girls should focus on “fluidity and finesse of line” (Adams, 227). The same gendered conceptions of movement have been imposed on figure skating to the detriment of the sport.

Christine Brennan, the author of Edge of Glory: The Inside Story of the Quest for Figure Skating’s Olympic Gold Medals (Scribner, 1998), quotes Olympic champion Ilia Kulik as lamenting the excessive emphasis on jumping in men’s skating. “For me,” he explains, “it’s more interesting when I’m doing something between the jumps. … This is figure skating. It’s not jumping. It’s not just going into the jump and out of the jump and waiting for the next jump. I want to show the program. I want to show the step sequences. … That’s what figure skating is” (Brennan, 222).

Restricting emphasis on “fluidity and finesse of line” to women’s skating was done on the assumption that a flowing style and a fine body line were not masculine. Yet women are drawn to these qualities in men. Brennan writes that Kulik’s practices, when he was preparing for the 1998 Olympic Games, used to draw small crowds of young female admirers. Male skaters often cause female skaters to pause and watch with an admiration that is not limited to an appreciation of the male skater’s technical skill.

Adams argues that the gendering of movement has hampered the development of dance, and by extension, figure skating, which seems to have followed the lead of the dance community in its conception of what constitutes masculine and feminine movement. The notion, she observes, for example,  “that physical flexibility is a feminine characteristic has contributed to many men not seeing value in working on their own flexibility” (Adams, 222). Bruce Marks, who performed with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet and the American Ballet Theatre in the 1950s, explains that at that time,

[f]or a man to lift his leg higher than hip level in extension just wasn’t done. A man’s leg was to be kept at a forty-five degree angle. And men were not to stretch … There was no one who could do a split on the wall like Misha [Baryshnikov] does, when I started studying ballet – no men. None of them wanted to. The first year I danced, I remember Pierre Lacotte came from the Paris Opera and stretched constantly. I had never seen a man so stretched; it was considered taboo. We made fun of French male dancers for that. They were considered effete because they were looking for a kind of line that was forbidden to us as men. (Adams, 222).

Yeah, French men are effete, everyone knows that, right? Except that, for many women in Western culture, French men also seem to embody an ideal of sexual attractiveness. I actually know a guy who pretends to be able to speak French just to get women into bed. He says it works too, so long as the woman in question does not herself know French.

There is a bizarre schism in Anglo-American culture between officially sanctioned ideals of masculinity and femininity and what men and women actually find sexually attractive. Men are told they ought to like women who are so slender their shape is effectively androgynous and men whose self esteem is so low that they feel the need to impress others with their choice of a spouse will often marry such women. I wonder, however, if there are any statistics on how many of these men have curvaceous mistresses, because the fact is, most men are naturally drawn to women who look like women.

Something similar is the case with women in that despite the fact men are not supposed to care what they look like, women are attracted to men who do care. That’s part of the appeal of Frenchmen, and even more of Italians. Those guys care about their appearance because they know women care about it. And despite the fact that the ideal of masculinity perpetuated by Anglo-American culture is one of lumbering, awkward, brutish inarticulacy, women the world over have always been drawn to poets and dancers.

Grace is a powerful aphrodisiac. If anyone thought about it, they would see that this makes sense. Okay, I don’t know what grace is in a chicken, or more correctly, a rooster. I do know though that male birds dance for females as part of their seduction ritual. Indeed, throughout the animal kingdom males perform in order to win, to put it delicately, the affections of a female and one presumes that the winners are the ones deemed, in some sense, the most graceful.

There is, in fact, no species that I know of, apart from human beings, where the female performs in order to attract the attentions of the male. Mostly they spend their time trying to avoid those attentions, so the males have to be really good at their little dances. My suspicion is that what actually sets human beings apart from other species is the level of sophistication involved in the refinement of those dances, that and the fact that while other animals, no matter what their level of skill, are invariably on the right track in terms of their assumption of what they need to do to get a mate, a large portion of masculine humanity has become derailed.

Many Anglo-American men laugh at male dancers and figure skaters. Not so many women laugh, though. Women love to watch a graceful man. That’s why ballroom dancing classes are so popular. Few women who take these classes harbor any hope of ever getting their mates on the dance floor. They go for themselves. They go to watch–and to be with–graceful men. That’s a large part of why women like ballet, and, of course, why they like figure skating. Yes, they like to imagine themselves as sylph-like ballerinas, but part of that is because the sylph-like ballerina ends up in the arms of a powerful, and graceful, male, a man such as Mikail Baryshnikov.

Baryshnikov was a famous womanizer and reputed effectively to have played himself, in his role as “Yuri Kopeikine,” the Casanova-like dancer who was gradually working his way through all the up-and-coming female dancers in his company in the film The Turning Point. This aspect of Baryshnikov’s private life came as something of a surprise to people who knew nothing about ballet. It was no surprise, however, to insiders. Male dancers are not all gay, and the ones who are not are like human catnip to women with any sort of aesthetic sense.

Watch Baryshnikov on YouTube. Now there is a dancer with what is referred to as “beautiful line.” Baryshnikov is arguably the greatest male dancer of all time. When he’s dancing, there is no part of his body of which he is unconscious. Even the movements of his fingers are beautiful. There is a man who is completely absorbed in his craft. He is a master–and the effect is overwhelmingly erotic.

I’m not trying to suggest that Baryshnikov’s appeal is primarily to women, or that the appeal of male dancers more generally is primarily to women. My point is that grace in anyone is inherently erotic; both men and women are drawn to it. My point is that what is sexually attractive is more or less universal. Grace attracts sexual attention–period.

Grace is, of course, only one of many things human beings find sexually attractive. Vulnerability, intelligence, humor, and host of other qualities also have more or less universal sexual appeal. What sets grace apart is that while most of us appreciate, that a good sense of humor, for example, is appealing in both men and women, many people, or at least many men, fail to appreciate that grace is no different.

Just as grace confers an important reproductive advantage to many male animals, so does a striking appearance. Most male animals are more gaudily arrayed than are their female counterparts–again, precisely in order to attract amorous attentions. Yet male skaters are encouraged to wear more conservative costumes than their female counterparts and are forbidden from wearing tights, presumably on the assumption that this garment is inherently feminizing. Spanish men, however, arguably the most relentlessly macho on the face of the earth, have no problem climbing into a pair of tights. Why? They know that a well-muscled masculine physique tightly wrapped in silk and sprinkled with beads and sequins is as enticing a sight to a mature woman as is a pony with a bow on it to a little girl. There are already a significant number of women who follow figure skating primarily to watch the men, but imagine how the popularity of the sport would soar if male skaters took to the ice with the bravado of matadors on parade?

One of the problems, I would argue, with male figure skaters is not that their performances are effeminate, but that they tend toward asexuality. Only in ice dancing, it seems, is any overt reference to sexuality officially sanctioned. The problem is not merely with figure skating. It’s with the whole of Anglo-American culture. We’re a bunch of prudes. Perhaps that’s part of the explanation for our taste for violence. We’re angry and frustrated because an essential aspect of our humanity is systematically rejected and condemned.

Kierkegaard, and the romantics more generally, used to speak of “the erotic” in a general sense rather than in a specifically masculine or feminine sense. Eros has to do with a beauty that transcends limited cultural definitions of gender. Fortunately, the dance world appears to have caught on. When will figure skating catch up? Adams is right. It would help the development of the sport if it would give up its limiting conceptions of gender. And maybe if figure skating did that, it would help the rest of the culture as well.

(This article originally appeared in Counterpunch Aug. 27, 2012.)

Newsflash– “Piety” is a real Surname!

Portrait caricatureI’d like to clear up what may be a confusion in the minds of some of my readers. I got an email awhile ago, from someone who liked my blog on Kierkegaard, asking me if “Piety” was a pen name. That’s a natural question, I suppose, especially for a Kierkegaard scholar (I’m sure John Wisdom was always being asked if “Wisdom” was his real name). “I know that word,” people probably think, “and it’s not a name!” That, in any case, was the explanation offered by my friend David Leopold when the American Academy of Religion misspelled my name. That seems plausible. Either that, or they simply didn’t know how to spell “piety” (which, if it were true, would confirm the suspicions of the folks over at the Society of Biblical Literature).

No, “Piety” is my real name. There have been Pietys in the U.S. since before the Revolutionary war. In fact, my ancestor, Thomas Piety, served under Gen. Arthur St. Clair in the American Army when George Washington was president. Arthur St. Clair was an ancestor of Jeff St. Clair, editor of the wonderful online journal Counter Punch, for which I sometimes write, so a Piety is still serving under a St. Clair.

My father, Harold Piety, was briefly the religion editor at the East St. Louis Journal. According to my mother, he used to enjoy answering the phone: “Religion, Piety speaking.”

My middle name is Gaye. I changed my name when I married the legal scholar and humorist Brian J. Foley, to “Marilyn Gaye Piety Foley,” so “Piety” is still my real name, or at least part of it. I plan to keep using it too. I think it’s a good name for a Kierkegaard scholar.

(An earlier version of this post appeared on the blog Piety on Kierkegaard.)

On Nostalgia

We seldom recognize the best moments of our lives when they are happening to us. Most people, particularly new age gurus, will tell you that this is because of how difficult it is to live in the present. They think we’re doing something wrong, that if we would simply make more of an effort to live in the present we would be able to extract the full potential for joy from each moment of our lives, while that moment was present.

I think they’re wrong. I think the problem, if you want to call it that, of appreciating the present while it’s present in the way we appreciate it when it’s past, is insoluble, and not because of any weakness or flaw in human nature, but because of the essence of temporality and the role of the imagination in human experience.

I just read a wonderful piece in the Nov./Dec. 2011 issue of Poets and Writers magazine on the Egyptian expatriate writer André Aciman. Aciman is a novelist and essayist, but primarily he’s a memoirist. If he’s not writing straightforward memoirs, he’s using his memories as raw material for his novels. “André,” according to his friend the writer Colm Tóibín, “is interested in loss, in time which has passed, and what can be done with that now if you are writing…. [H]e manages a sort of eroticism of the past, by which I mean he deals with events and moments that are over with such caressing care that its almost sexual” (61).

“I don’t know how to be in the present,” proclaims Aciman, “I don’t’ know how to enjoy the moment in and of itself without comparing it to something else or without anticipating that I will want to remember it” (61).

No one knows how to do that though because it’s not actually possible to do that. The present is a vanishingly small slice of time between the immediate past and the immediate future, both of which tug at it in opposite directions. The past is there in the form of guilt, satisfaction, regret. The future is there in the form of anticipation, an ineluctable appreciation of the play of possibilities that the present represents. There is no experience, and cannot be any experience, of the present that is not faceted in this way.

Kierkegaard is inclined to characterize our inability to live in the present as a kind of curse, or as an expression of sin. It can take that form, I suppose, if it keeps a person from deriving any joy from his experience. I’ve come, though, to think of the elusive nature of the present as more a gift than a curse. Time distills experience like spirits, extracts what was essential to it in terms of what we value. We wouldn’t be the creatures we are if the present, while it was present, were not also anchored by earlier experience to the past and stretched by anticipation into the future. Nietzsche understood this. “Consider,” he said

the herd grazing before you. It knows not what yesterday, what today, is, but leaps about, eats, rests, digests, leaps again, from morning to evening, day to day, its likes and dislikes tied to the moment and thus neither melancholy nor bored. It’s hard for a human being to see this because he’s proud of being human. Yet he envies the beast its happiness, wants nothing more than to live like the beast, neither bored nor melancholy. But he envies in vain because he does not desire like the beast desires. He wants to ask the beast: “Why don’t you speak to me of your happiness, instead of only looking at me?” The beast wants to answer and say: “Because I always forget what it is I would like to say”–but it forgets this also and is thus silent––to the bewilderment of the man. (Vom Nutzen und Nachteil der Historie für das Leben).[1]

Human beings can’t live in the present the way philosophers speculate that animals do, because the imagination is an essential part of human consciousness and it adds to the present both memories of the past and expectations of the future. But if the imagination steals, in a sense, the present from us, it redeems itself by delivering it to us again later burnished to a glow it did not originally have.

The sweetest moments of our lives are given to us twice: the first time when we are either completely unaware, or only dimly aware, of how important they will become, and then again later when, to use a phrase of Heinrich Böll, they take on a “cabalistic significance.”

I have all kinds of memories like that, some of insignificant events that for some reason or other have become emblematic of various periods in my life, memories that carry with them the essence of a time or a mood long lost. The ones I cherish most, though, are those that are, as memories, pregnant with a future of which I had no inkling at the time. Such are my memories of the first exchanges I had with the people I would later come to love. One never knows the form an attachment will take. Attachments grow organically over time, often beneath the surface of consciousness, until they become so firmly a part of who we are that they can no longer be uprooted. The memories of those first exchanges are thus like glimpses into creation in that they are glimpses into the creation both of ourselves and of the reality we have come to cherish.

I would not trade the complexity of human experience for the imagined simplicity of the beast’s–not for anything.


[1] The translation here is my own.