Kinds of atheism, kinds of theism

Elisa Freschi, a philosopher specializing in Indian-subcontinent philosophy, has written an interesting post about atheism, in which she says: “in European history, atheism is the refusal of theism as conceived in modern times, with God as one ‘thing’ among others.” Thus if you refute a theism in which God is a “natural cause” — which is mostly what modern atheism does — you wind up with modern atheism, which can be defined as atheism-as-naturalism. However, such atheism-as-naturalism doesn’t have much to say about the God of Meister Eckhart.

In Indian philosophy, according to Freschi, when people talk about God, “God” may have at least four different meanings: the devatas (the mythological gods); the isvara (the God of rational theology); the Brahman (an impersonal deity); or the bhagavat God (the God of personal devotion). Freschi contends that “atheism in India is mostly targeted at two concepts of god, on the one hand the gods (devata) of mythology and on the other the Lord (isvara) of rational theology.” Freschi goes on to outline how in the 13th to 14th centuries C.E., Indian philosophers such asĀ  Venkatanatha responded to the atheism of the earlier Nyasa school by developing new forms of theism, which Freschi calls “post-atheism theism.”

This discussion becomes relevant to Unitarian Universalism when one considers that many current arguments against theism in our congregations are arguments for naturalism; that is, arguments for modern atheism, which considers God as a “thing.” These arguments become less intelligible when considered as arguments against, e.g., Martin Buber’s conception of God as “Thou,” or God considered in panentheist or pantheist terms.

Another way of saying this is that when using the English-language term “God,” you have to be careful to define in what sense you are using that term. When you argue against God as a thing which is a natural cause, your arguments will have little effect on those for whom God is defined in terms of a personal devotional relationship.

Furthermore, if a modern atheist winds up arguing with a mystic, someone like Henry David Thoreau or me, they might find they’re arguing with a religious naturalist who agrees entirely with their naturalist arguments, but who does not define God as a thing which is a natural cause. If we don’t clarify which definition of God we’re using, the argument is going to get confusing very quickly.

Animal ears

The No-Rehearsal Christmas Pageant we do every year requires some kind of minimal costume for the six animals in the manger scene. The vinyl animal noses I’ve been using for the past decade and a half have started to get tacky, and it’s time to stop using them. Nor did I want to purchase new animal noses; the world doesn’t need any more cheap vinyl junk. First I made a chicken hat as a possible replacement for the chicken nose, but this week I decided that making five other animal hats (and finding a place to store them) simply wasn’t practical.

So instead I made animal ears mounted on head bands. It turns out that animal ears mounted on head bands are a substantial cottage industry, sold on Etsy (just search for “farm animal ears”) and elsewhere. But I decided to make my own — cow ears, donkey ears, dog ears, pig ears, mouse ears, and a chicken crest — using hair bands, felt, wire for stiffener, and a hot melt glue gun.

It would have been cheaper (once you figure in my time) and easier to purchase the ears available on Etsy. However, having made them I know how to repair them, and I anticipate that these animal ears will last until I finally retire.

Why capitalism sucks

You’ve been trying to explain why capitalism sucks, but when you use the term “alienated labor,” people just roll their eyes and appear bored. So maybe you should say “shitty jobs” instead, which is what Natalie Wyn does on her Youtube video “What’s Wrong with Capitalism, Part I.” Wyn gets extra points for being funny, for knowing her Marxism (she dropped out of a PhD program in philosophy, so she really does know Marxism), and for having a good eye for the medium of video.

Maybe Wyn loses points because Youtube sticks an advertisement at the beginning of her video. Or maybe she gains points, because it’s so ironic: an advertisement preceding a video in which advertising is revealed as a tool for irrational manipulation. In any case, Wyn does lose points for comparing capitalist overlords to reptiles; I happen to like reptiles, even snapping turtles, more than I like Donald Trump and Mark Zuckerberg. Though even I have to admit, her reptiles are hilariously funny.

Bottom line: if you’re trying to explain to someone why capitalism sucks, don’t hand them Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, show them this video.

Chicken hat

For quite a few years now, while serving in four different congregations, I’ve been doing a No Rehearsal Christmas Pageant as an intergenerational service on one of the Sundays before Christmas.

The simple costumes are what make this participatory pageant so much fun. Back in 2003, I bought a bunch of rubber animal noses at a theater supply store in Berkeley to serve as costumes for the farm animals who gather around the manger. These rubber noses have to be rubbed down with alcohol after every performance, which is easy enough for the cow, camel, and pig noses — but the chicken noses have lots of hard-to-reach interstices, and are difficult to clean adequately.

So this year I decided to come up with alternate costume for the chicken. Starting with with a cotton baseball hat and some yellow and red felt, here’s what I came up with:

Chicken Hat

I think this chicken hat will be a fun addition to the No Rehearsal Christmas Pageant.

Bad-mouthing working-class whites

The December, 2018 issue of the Atlantic carries an article by Joan C. Williams titled “The Democrats’ White People Problem.” White argues, in part, that Trump and the Republicans have a strategy of keeping liberals focused on race and racism, instead of addressing class issues:

“These gestures [Trump’s inflammatory comments on race] may seem like pandering to racists. But in truth they are aimed equally at the left, in an effort to keep liberals’ attention focused on race rather than class. If Democrats were to focus more attention on economic issues, they just might be able to win back the non-elite white voters they’ve been bleeding for half a century.”

I admit that I have little skill in political analysis, so I have to take Williams’ political analysis on faith when she outlines some strategies that the Democrats could follow to regain votes.

But Williams is also making an ethical observation here, and ethics is something I know more about. She is speaking of ethics when she says:

“A final dynamic will be particularly hard to fix: the broken relationship between elite and non-elite white people, for which people of all races are paying the price. This is a white-people problem, and white people need to fix it. (I wouldn’t presume to advise people of color on how to respond to racism, or to suggest that they should refrain from seeing the 2016 election through the always-powerful lens of race. But as an elite white person, I do see it as my place to tell elite whites to stop displacing blame for their own racism onto non-elite whites.)” Williams emphasizes this last point later on: “Once you start a conversation about class, elite white people have to admit they have not only racial privilege but class privilege, too.”

We elites whites cannot dodge our own ethical responsibilities by bad-mouthing Trump and his supporters. Fighting classism is as ethically necessary as fighting racism, and in both cases we elite whites have to begin by examining ourselves: How are we contributing to the problem? And then: How can we stop contributing to the problem?

Or, as a sage two thousand years ago put it: Don’t go trying to pull the sawdust out of another’s eye when you’ve got a chunk of wood stuck in your own.

Air quality

The poor air quality has been getting me down. On Friday, the Air Quality Index was well over 200 in our area — that’s into the “Hazardous” range. I stay in the house as much as I can, and we have a room air purifier running all the time. But of course I have to leave the house to go to work, and to run errands, and when I do go outside it tires me out.

Whine, whine, whine. Yes, the air quality is poor, and my ongoing recovery makes me feel a little more vulnerable. But I’ve got nothing on the rickshaw pullers of Delhi. The poor air quality we’ve had here in the Bay Area for the past week and a half is not much worse than the usual poor air quality in Delhi. Most of the rickshaw pullers live on the street, so they can never go indoors for respite. They may have to work eighteen hour days. They may have inadequate amounts of food. And there is a bitter irony in their situation, according to a rickshaw puller named Himasuddin: “As a rickshaw puller, I hardly contribute to pollution. Ours is a clean way of transportation. But it’s ironic that we are the worst affected from the toxic smog.”

Here in the Bay Area, rain is forecast for later in the week, and that will end our unusual period of hazardous air quality. I will have experienced minor inconvenience for two short weeks. All I can say is, thank God for strict laws against air pollution.

What to do with racist dead white men

Should we repudiate dead white men who made racist comments?

To make it a Unitarian Universalist question: Theodore Parker was an abolitionist. But as has been documented by Mark Morrison-Reed and others, Parker also believed blacks were inferior to whites, and he espoused views that today many would define as white supremacist views. Should we repudiate Parker for his racism?

There’s a strong argument to be made that Parker is morally suspect because of his racism. But in an article on Aeon titled “Why sexist and racist philosophers might still be admirable,” philosopher Julian Baggini argues that we should be careful about condemning dead thinkers out of hand:

“Why do so many find it impossible to believe that any so-called genius could fail to see that their prejudices were irrational and immoral? One reason is that our culture has its own deep-seated and mistaken assumption: that the individual is an autonomous human intellect independent from the social environment. Even a passing acquaintance with psychology, sociology or anthropology should squash that comfortable illusion. The enlightenment ideal that we can and should all think for ourselves should not be confused with the hyper-enlightenment fantasy that we can think all by ourselves. Our thinking is shaped by our environment in profound ways that we often aren’t even aware of.”

In other words, progressives in the early twenty-first century have our own blind spot: we still believe in the myth of hyper-individualism — what Baggini terms the “hyper-enlightenment fantasy.” We believe this myth, or fantasy, even though it is so patently false.

This doesn’t mean that Parker gets a pass. It does mean that, even though he was really smart, Parker could not entirely transcend his social environment.

Rather than rejecting Parker for his racism, I think about the fact that even though he couldn’t transcend his social environment, he pushed as hard as he could along the moral arc of the universe towards justice. And I’m pretty sure that if I could measure his progress along that moral arc of the universe, I would discover he moved further from where he started to the ultimate goal of justice than I ever will. That same statement would be true of most people alive today: I imagine there are very few people alive today who are righteous enough that they are in a position to condemn Parker (I know of none personally); it is given to very few to transcend their social environment that far.

This tallies with an observation I’ve made about how progress is made in the fight against racism. I’ve seen more than one congregational program to get white people to understand how they personally are racist; in my experience, those kinds of programs lead to some personal enlightenment for a few individuals, but don’t really change the system. What works better is setting up policies and procedures in a congregation that dial back the institutional racism; in my (limited) experience, this is more effective than consciousness-raining exercises. We can and should think for ourselves; but lasting change is more likely to happen through changing the social environment than through changing individuals.

What it looks like when people are really singing

You are unlikely to see people looking like this when they sing hymns at a Unitarian Universalist church:

I took this photo at today’s Sacred Harp singing in Davis, California. Everybody, even the people who are new to this kind of singing, are in full voice, not holding back, letting the song carry them away even if they disagree with the lyrics.

Unitarian Universalists, by contrast, tend to be of three types: Trained Singers, Overly-polite Singers, and Timid Singers. Many of the Trained Signers will be in the choir, and the rest of the congregation defers to them because they have at least some training. The Overly-polite Singers are the inheritors of Lowell Mason’s Better Music Movement, which swept both Unitarians and Universalists in the mid-nineteenth century: this movement expunged American composers and singing styles and replaced them European composers and bel canto singing. The Timid Singers, usually the majority of people at any given Unitarian Unviersalist worship service, having been cowed by the Trained Singers and the Overly-polite Singers, assume they can’t sing.

Sacred Harp singers don’t fit into any of these categories. Sacred Harp singing is an American tradition (there are both black and white versions, but they’re closely related) that does not sound like bel canto singing. Sacred Harp singers may get carried away with the music. Sacred Harp singers know that they should sing as well as they can for every song, even if they don’t like it, so that everyone else sings along on their favorites. Sacred Harp singing is a distinctly egalitarian tradition that says everyone can sing. And Sacred Harp singers let themselves be carried away with the music, as in the photo above.

(There might also be a fourth type of singer in some Unitarian Universalist congregations: the Popular-music Singer. These are the folks who sing along to various types of popular music. They may not read music, but once they hear a song they can generally sing it. They tend to be more egalitarian than the other three types of singer, and they tend to be more passionate singers. However, they are generally outnumbered by the Better Music Movement Singers.)

I wish more Unitarian Universalist congregations sang as if they were being carried away with the music. I wish we were less polite singers. But I suspect that music feels a little too uncontrolled, too irrational: we want to keep it carefully under control.

Below are some videos of faith communities that let their singing get ecstatic. Probably the majority of Unitarian Universalists will find these recordings unpleasant, and disturbingly passionate. Besides, we don’t want to look funny while we sing. That’s who we are; we don’t want to sing like our lives depended on it.

(Just to be clear, on some songs we sing like we mean it out in my own congregation in Palo Alto; we may not have quite the urgency of Sacred Harp singers in full cry, but we’re not too bad!)