A possible case for teaching intelligent design

The philosopher Thomas Nagel, who declares himself an atheist, argued in a 2008 article in Philosophy and Public Affairs that intelligent design (ID) can not be dismissed as easily as young earth creationism. Yes, ID is very problematic, as Nagel knows:

“I understand the attitude that ID is just the latest manifestation of the fundamentalist threat, and that you have to stand and fight them here or you will end up having to fight for the right to teach evolution at all.” [Thomas Nagel, “Public Education and Intelligent Design,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, v. 36, no. 2, p. 203.]

However, Nagel says, both ID and scientific naturalism are grounded in worldviews that originate outside science. He then asks, Why is it OK to disallow one of these world views in public education, while allowing the other worldview? Speaking as an atheist, he says:

“I do not regard divine intervention as a possibility, even though I have no other candidates. Yet I recognize that this is because of an aspect of my overall worldview that does not rest on empirical grounds or any other kind of rational grounds. I do not think the existence of God can be disproved. So someone who can offer serious scientific reasons to doubt the adequacy of the theory of evolution, and who believes in God, in the same immediate way that I believe there is no god, can quite reasonably conclude that the hypothesis of design should be taken seriously.” [pp. 202-203]

Many political liberals will reject this notion out of hand, but Nagel makes a convincing argument that they should think more carefully about their rejection. It is worth reading the entire article, in order to follow Nagel’s careful and nuanced line of thought; the article is online here.

Mystics and Transcendentalists

Below is the uncorrected text of the talk with which I began a class on the mystical tradition within Unitarian Universalism, focusing (of course) on the Transcendentalists. A fascinating discussion followed, in which participants offered corrections where I was vague or in error, amplified things that needed to be amplified, and added lots of good thinking. So if you read this, remember that you’re missing the most interesting part of the class. Also, I diverged from the text at several places, so the talk you heard may not be the talk you read here.

Yes, liberal religion has a mystical tradition!

It seems odd that I have to assert this so vigorously. But our Unitarian and Universalist traditions, and Unitarian Universalism today, have not been particularly hospitable towards mystics. Throughout our history, and into the present day, the rationalists dominate our theological conversations — and I include both the theistic rationalists and the atheist rationalists. Our faith tradition clings to its belief in a rationalism inherited from the Enlightenment; we believe in carefully reasoned arguments; we have a tendency to focus on the brain and mind and ignore the heart and the rest of the body; we are most likely to use logical thought, and we are inclined to ignore other ways of knowing and interpreting the world.

However, by the same token, the mystics among us been not been kind towards their non-mystical co-religionists.

Emerson against religious formalism

Back in 1838, Ralph Waldo Emerson gave what is now known as the Divinity School Address; he spoke to the graduating class of Harvard Divinity School, supplier of most Unitarian ministers of the day, and told them how to be good ministers. Do not be coldly rational formalists, he warned. And then, speaking of the minister of his Unitarian church in Concord, Massachusetts, a man by the name of Barzillai Frost, Emerson said:

photo of Ralph Waldo Emerson“Whenever the pulpit is usurped by a formalist, then is the worshipper defrauded and disconsolate. We shrink as soon as the prayers begin, which do not uplift, but smite and offend us. We are fain to wrap our cloaks about us, and secure, as best we can, a solitude that hears not. I once heard a preacher who sorely tempted me to say, I would go to church no more. Men go, thought I, where they are wont to go, else had no soul entered the temple in the afternoon. A snow storm was falling around us. The snow storm was real; the preacher merely spectral; and the eye felt the sad contrast in looking at him, and then out of the window behind him, into the beautiful meteor of the snow. He had lived in vain. He had no one word intimating that he had laughed or wept, was married or in love, had been commended, or cheated, or chagrined.”

Emerson was prone to really bad puns, and here he indulges himself in a hidden pun: It is Barzillai FROST who is speaking in a SNOW STORM; bad as this pun may be, it points up a difference between two kinds of coldness: there is the coldness of the snow, which is real and can be experienced; and there is the coldness of religious formalism. Continue reading “Mystics and Transcendentalists”

Turmoil, part three

Since some people are not able to feel spiritual turmoil, I thought I’d briefly describe what it feels like from the inside. And then, less briefly, I’ll reflect on spiritual turmoil from the perspective of phenomenological investigation.

One of the main feelings I have experienced during spiritual turmoil is a feeling of unease — not a feeling of dis-ease or pathology, but a lack of ease. Things are changing, internal landscape is shifting, a sense of ease is impossible. This feeling is akin to the feelings of unease that arise during other periods of human change: the physical unease that comes after growth spurts in childhood when suddenly arms and legs are longer than they used to be; the unease that comes during the hormonal changes of puberty; the unease that comes during situational changes such as falling in love or losing a job or death of someone close to you or the birth of your child. However, the unease that comes with spiritual turmoil has not, in my experience, been necessarily tied to either physiological changes or situational changes; indeed, in my experience spiritual turmoil can lead to situational changes, and even to physiological changes, especially when someone ignores the spiritual turmoil and tries to get on with life as if it’s not present.

Where, then, does spiritual turmoil come from? I certainly don’t have a definitive answer to that question. The easy answer in Western society, since at least the time of the ancient Greeks, is that spiritual turmoil comes from the gods or from God. I’m not satisfied with that easy answer, but I’ll take a moment to review it.


According to Plato, Socrates sometimes fell into a trance-like state, when his daimon was communing with him; and his daimon directed him, as it were, to cleave to the truth even at the cost of his life. Continue reading “Turmoil, part three”

Diné bahané, part four

5. The Flood, and Journey to the Fourth World

The people moved to different parts of the land. Some time passed; then First Woman became troubled by the monotony of life. She made a plan. She went to Atse’hashke, the Coyote called First Angry, and giving him the rainbow she said: “I have suffered greatly in the past. I have suffered from want of meat and corn and clothing. Many of my maidens have died. I have suffered many things. Take the rainbow and go to the place where the rivers cross. Bring me the two pretty children of Tqo holt sodi, the Water Buffalo, a boy and a girl.

The Coyote agreed to do this. He walked over the rainbow. He entered the home of the Water Buffalo and stole the two children; and these he hid in his big skin coat with the white fur lining. And when he returned he refused to take off his coat, but pulled it around himself and looked very wise.

After this happened the people saw white light in the East and in the South and West and North. One of the deer people ran to the East, and returning, said that the white light was a great sheet of water. The sparrow hawk flew to the South, the great hawk to the West, and the kingfisher to the North. They returned and said that a flood was coming. The kingfisher said that the water was greater in the North, and that it was near.

The flood was coming and the Earth was sinking. And all this happened because the Coyote had stolen the two children of the Water Buffalo, and only First Woman and the Coyote knew the truth.

When First Man learned of the coming of the water he sent word to all the people, and he told them to come to the mountain called Sis na’jin. He told them to bring with them all of the seeds of the plants used for food. All living beings were to gather on the top of Sis na’jin. First Man traveled to the six sacred mountains, and, gathering earth from them, he put it in his medicine bag.

The water rose steadily. Continue reading “Diné bahané, part four”

Turmoil, pt. 2

Spiritual turmoil, by its nature, is messy and chaotic. When you’re in the middle of it, you may not be entirely aware of what is causing your turmoil. I’ve been trying to identify what is causing my turmoil; I can’t say that I’m entirely sure, but I have come to some preliminary conclusions. Most of all, I think I’ve been bothered by theological anthropology — by the great religious question, “What is the nature of humanity?”

It started out, I think, a couple of months ago as I grew increasingly bothered by the way we treat teenagers these days. I was teaching a group of seventh and eighth graders, and one of them observed — with a voice tinged with anguish — that adults view teenagers as sick, as insane. It’s true, I thought to myself. There’s even a book out now titled Yes Your Teenager Is Crazy — a title that reduces young people to pathology. Our society understands adolescence as a pathological state; by definition, when a young person reaches puberty, adults assume that young person is consumed by a pathology — is not quite fully human — until the end of adolescence, which comes when the young person gets a full time job and moves out of their parents’ house.

But we don’t just see teenagers as pathological. There is a pervasive lack of trust throughout our society. Here in the United States, surveillance cameras are everywhere, because no one trusts you; and we Americans are increasingly likely to feel the need to carry a handgun, because we don’t trust the police, we don’t trust the government, and we don’t trust our neighbors. Churches and other voluntary associations are facing dwindling membership because we find it harder to be with other people, and to trust other people to make decisions with us.

And I think this lack of trust is tied to two other things. First, we are more likely to think of other persons as bundles of information that can be manipulated, just as information in a computer is manipulated. We are told that we are little more than biological computers — wetware — responding to the world based on our internal programming. Honor, duty, respect — these are not virtues, we are told, rather these are subroutines in our overall programming.

Second, we are more likely to view ourselves and other persons as cogs in an economic machine. We no longer live in a market economy, as Michael Sandel has pointed out, we live in a market society. Everything we do involves a commercial transaction or contract; everything and everyone can be bought and sold.

What is the nature of humanity? Well, to begin with, young people are pathologically crazy, at least until they get a full-time job. Then they become adults who are programmable biological computers. And what is the end of human existence? — to buy and to sell, trusting no one.

This is as far as I’ve gotten in analyzing what’s causing my spiritual turmoil. There is more to it than this. I know I am bothered by the way Unitarian Universalists mostly are not engaging in serious and careful theological reflection about the nature of humanity; two of the dominant theological positions within Unitarian Universalism, old-school religious humanism and angry liberal Christianity, spend their energy in facile and shallow arguments about the existence of “God,” and cede the realm of theological anthropology to pop psychology or consumer capitalism. I know I am increasingly drawn back to existentialism; I’ve been reading Dante’s Purgatorio for the first time; I’ve been reconsidering many of my assumptions about education. But that’s as far as I’ve gotten — mostly, it’s still just turmoil.

The New Gilded Age

At the very beginning of the Gilded Age, Louisa May Alcott wrote the novel Eight Cousins. In the course of that novel, she offers several pointed moral critiques of the American love of money, as in this exchange:

“‘Yes, but there’s no time to read nowadays; a fellow has to keep scratching round to make money or he’s nobody,’ cut in Charlies, trying to look worldly-wise.

“‘This love of money is the curse of America, and for the sake of it men will sell honor and honesty, till we don’t know whom to trust, and it is only a genius like Agassiz who dares to say, “I cannot waste my time in getting rich”,’ said Mrs. Jessie sadly.”

— Chapter 17, “Good Bargains,” Eight Cousins

Today we live in the New Gilded Age. The only reason to read now is to learn how to make money. Morality is tied to value in dollars. And if we have any Agassizes today, their voices are so few and so quiet that they can’t be heard over the clamor of the marketplace, where everything and anything — honor, honesty, morals, trust, duty — may be bought and sold.

Diné bahané, part three

4. The Men and Women Live Apart

Now at that time there were four chiefs: Big Snake, Mountain Lion, Otter, and Bear. And it was the custom when the black cloud rose in the morning — as there was no sun, and no true division of night and day, time was counted by the black cloud rising and the white cloud rising — for First Man to come out of his dwelling and speak to the people. After First Man had spoken, the four chiefs told them what they should do that day. They also spoke of the past and of the future.

But after the harvest, the Turquoise Boy from the East had come and visited First Woman. When First Man had returned to his home, he found his wife with this boy. First Woman told her husband that Turquoise Boy was of her flesh and not of his flesh. She said that she had used her own fire, the turquoise, and had ground her own yellow corn into meal. This was corn that she had planted and cared for herself.

When First Man found his wife with Turquoise Boy, he would not come out to speak to the people. The black cloud rose higher, but First Man would not leave his dwelling; neither would he eat or drink. No one spoke to the people for four days. All during this time First Man remained silent, and would not touch food or water. Four times the white cloud rose, and still he would not come out.

Then the four chiefs went to First Man and demanded to know why he would not speak to the people. The chiefs asked this question three times, and a fourth, before First Man would answer them.

He told them to bring him an herb which was an emetic. He made a hot brew from the herb, and drank it, and it caused him to vomit, and in this way he purified himself. First Man then asked them to send Turquoise Boy to him. Continue reading “Diné bahané, part three”

A gift horse

In an excellent post on the new Congregational Consulting blog, John Wimberly explodes several myths about the possibilities for congregational growth among the Millennial generation (ages 18-33). He begins by exposing an obvious falsehood with some simple arithmetic:

“So we have 80 million people between the ages of 18-33, 86% of whom say they believe in God, and we are bemoaning the future of our congregations? In Wisconsin, where I grew up, that is called ‘looking a gift horse in the mouth.’ It might also be called an excessive lack of imagination regarding the possibilities inherent within a generation of young adults who poll as optimistic about the future of our nation, don’t want to engage in generational warfare, and love diversity.”

I agree with him. I’ve never seen such a large number of pleasant, interesting newcomers as I’ve seen coming to our UU congregation in the past few years, including quite a few people younger than 35. When a gift horse like that appears on Sunday morning, I’m not going to say, “Could you please open your mouth so I can look for the rise of the ‘nones’?” — I’m going to say, “Welcome, glad you came, you’ll like it here!”

Wimberly goes on to explode other myths, such as the myth that the Millennial generation resists traditional worship and classical music, and the myth that Millennials spend all their time online so they won’t come to face-to-face congregations. But instead of reading my summary, you can go read the post yourself by clicking here.

Better easy bubble juice recipe

Back in 2012, I posted an easy bubble juice recipe for making soap bubbles 9-12″ in diameter. Here’s a better easy bubble juice recipe, which uses easily obtainable ingredients, and features a superior mixing procedure for the lubricating jelly. With this mixture, I’ve made bubbles that start out at 4-5 feet long tubes, then stabilize into two or more spheroids up to 30 inches in diameter. The glycerin isn’t absolutely necessary, but it does seem to make the bubbles last a bit longer, an important point in our dry Bay area climate.

4 oz. tube of personal lubricating jelly (store brand is fine)
2 oz. container of glycerin
12 oz. of Dawn Ultra dishwashing liquid (do not substitute another brand)
water to make up about 1 gallon
Total cost: $12-15


Put 3 quarts of water in a gallon container. Continue reading “Better easy bubble juice recipe”


It’s a warm day, the windows are open, and I heard some sort of chanting or singing somewhere outside. Some kind of religious chanting is what it sounded like, but I didn’t really pay any attention. It kept getting closer. I went to the front window. Several young people wearing blaze orange safety vests and carrying stop signs were standing at the crosswalks, ushering a long stream of people. The first people were singing something doleful. Then came — yes, it was a man dressed in an white ankle-length robe, with a big wooden cross on his shoulder. He was being escorted by a dozen or so angry-looking men in uniforms of short red robes and gold-colored helmets with plumes; one of these men periodically hit the man carrying the cross with a whip. It was a Good Friday procession passing right in front of our house.

At one level, I couldn’t help but see that this was just acting: the angry men were wearing Roman soldier costumes that I had purchased for Sunday school; the white robe worn by the one man was far too pristinely white and unwrinkled; the flogging was too gentle to be real. And not everyone was fully engaged: a happy toddler smiled and laughed in its stroller; a young woman seemed to be paying more attention to the sweet coffee drink she held; the priest in his Roman collar looked a little tired and distracted and I imagined that he was thinking ahead to what came next.

At a deeper level, this wasn’t acting at all. These people were serious enough about their religion to spend an evening re-enacting an important religious moment; perhaps they left work early to do so, certainly they were going to have a late dinner. They were serious enough to go to the trouble of purchasing costumes, organizing safety wardens, and showing up for the procession. A processional like this inhabits both the mundane and the sacred realms; and I was glad that these people brought something of the sacred to our busy street, sharing with their neighborhood a little bit of what’s important to them.