“AI” generated writing

Neil Clarke, editor of a respected science fiction magazine, reports on his blog that numbers of spammy short fiction submissions are way up for his publication. He says that spammy submissions first started increasing during the pandemic, and “were almost entirely cases of  plagiarism, first by replacing the author’s name and then later by use of programs designed to ‘make it your own.'”

Helpfully, he gives an example of what you get with one of the programs to “make it your own.” First he gives a paragraph from the spam submission, which sounds a little…odd. Then he provides the paragraph from the original short story on which the spam submission was based. However, Clarke says: “These cases were often easy to spot and infrequent enough that they were only a minor nuisance.”

Then in January and February, spammy submissions have skyrocketed. Clarke says: “Towards the end of 2022, there was another spike in plagiarism and then ‘AI’ chatbots started gaining some attention, putting a new tool in their arsenal…. It quickly got out of hand.” It’s gotten so bad that now 38% of his short fiction submissions are spammy, either “AI” generated,* or generated with one of those programs to “make it your own.”

38%. Wow.

Clarke concludes: “”It’s not just going to go away on its own and I don’t have a solution. … If [editors] can’t find a way to address this situation, things will begin to break….”

This trend is sure to come to a sermon near you. As commenters on the post point out, writers are already using chatbots to deal with the “blank page struggle,” just trying to get words on the paper. (To which Neil Clarke responds that his magazine has a policy that writers should not use AI at any stage in the process of writing a story for submission.) No doubt, some minister or lay preacher who is under stress and time pressure will do (or has done) the same thing — used ChatGPT or some other bot to generate an initial idea, then cleaned it up and made it their own.

And then “AI” generated writing tools will improve, so that soon some preachers will use “AI” generated sermons. For UU ministers, it may take longer. There are so few of us, and it may take a while for the “AI” tools to catch on to Unitarian Universalism. But I fully expect to hear within the next decade that some UU minister has gotten fired for passing off an “AI” generated sermon as their own.

My opinion? If you’re stressed out or desperate and don’t have time to write a fresh sermon, here’s what you do. You re-use an old sermon, and tell the congregation that you’re doing it, and why — I’ve done this once or twice, ministers I have high regard for have done this, and it’s OK, and people understand when you’re stressed and desperate. Or, if you don’t have a big reservoir of old sermons that you wrote, find someone else’s sermon online, get their permission to use it, and again, tell the congregation that you’re doing it, and why. Over the years, I’ve had a few lay preachers ask to use one of my sermons (the same is true of every minister I know who puts their sermons online), and it’s OK, and people understand what’s it like when you’re stressed and desperate and just don’t have time to finish writing your own sermon.

But using “AI” to write your sermons? Nope. No way. Using “AI” at any stage of writing a sermon is not OK. Not even to overcome the “blank page struggle.” Not even if you acknowledge that you’ve done it. It’s spiritually dishonest, and it disrespects the congregation.

* Note: I’m putting the abbreviation “AI” in quotes because “artificial intelligence” is considered by many to be a misnomer — “machine learning” is a more accurate term.

Is it Theodore Parker, or not?

I was thinking about using the well-known Theodore Parker quote in this Sunday’s service, the one that reads:

“Be ours a religion which, like sunshine, goes everywhere; its temple, all space; its shrine, the good heart; its creed, all truth; its ritual, works of love; its profession of faith, divine living.”

It didn’t sound quite right somehow, so I thought I’d check up on it. Did Parker write it, or is it simply something attributed to him?

First I searched his collected works for the phrase “Be ours a religion like sunshine.” Nothing. Then I searched his collected works for “sunshine.” Finally I found what I was looking for in Rufus Leighton, editor, The World of Matter and the World of Man: Selected from Notes of Unpublished Sermons (Boston: Charles W. Slack, 1865). It’s the last sentence of a one-paragraph sermon note which bears the title “Man’s Spirit Reported in His Physical Condition”:

“A man’s soul presently reports itself in his body, and telegraphs in his flesh the result of his doings in spirit; so that the physical condition of the people is always a sign of their spiritual condition, whereof it is also a result. I mean the bodily health of men, the food they eat, the clothes they wear, the houses they live in, the average age they reach,— all these depend on the spiritual condition of the people, and are a witness to the state of their mind and conscience, their heart and their soul. True religion, like sunshine, goes everywhere; or a false form of religion, like night and darkness, penetrates into every crack and crevice of a man’s life.” (pp. 76-77)

Hmm. This actually has a quite different meaning than the well-known Parker quote. It’s about “true religion,” not about “our religion.” And it’s about how religion affects the physical body. And it’s really just notes towards a proposed sermon, so it’s not really an idea that has been fleshed out.

Now, where does the rest of that well-know Parker quote come from? It comes from the book Spiritualism, chapter four of which is titled “Of the Party That Are Neither Catholics Nor Protestants.” This chapter begins by saying, “This party has an Idea wider and deeper than that of the Catholic or Protestant, namely, that God still inspires men as much as ever; that he is immanent in spirit as in space. For the present purpose, and to avoid circumlocution, this doctrine may be called SPIRITUALISM.” It’s important to note that by “spiritualism,” Parker did not mean the spiritualism that involves seances, communicating with the dead, or the Spiritualist Church of America. I supposed he meant Transcendentalism, but a Spirit-filled version thereof; I suspect he means something like a religion that is moved by the Spirit directly intuited.

In any case, Parker then goes on to tell us how his version of “spiritualism” may be defined. He says things like: “It relies on the divine presence in the Nature of Man”; and “It calls God Father and Mother, not King; Jesus, not brother; Heaven home; Religion nature.”

Parker then locates his version of “spiritualism” within what we today might call a post-Christian religion. He says, “The ‘Christianity’ it rests in is not the point Man goes through in his progress, as the Rationalist, not the point God goes through in his development, as the Supernaturalist maintains; but Absolute Religions, the point where Man’s will and God’s will are one and the same.” Now cone a series of further definitions, such as: “Its Source is absolute, its Aim absolute, its Method absolute. It lays down no creed; asks no symbol; reverences exclusively no time or place, and therefore can use all time and every place.” After a few of these defining sentences, we finally reach:

“Its Temple is all space; its Shrine the good heart; its Creed all truth; its Ritual works of love and utility; its Profession of faith a manly life, works without, faith within, love of God and man.”

Somehow phrases from this longer chapter got picked up and passed around, and mushed together. So in 1888, we get:

“One man may commune with God through the bread and wine, emblems of the body that was broken and the blood that was shed, in the cause of truth, another may commune through the moss and the violet, the mountain, ocean, or the scripture of the suns which God has writ in the sky. Its temple is all space; its shrine the good heart; its creed all truth; its Ritual works of love and utility, its Profession of Faith, a divine life.” (Everyday Helps: A Calendar of Rich Thought, compiled and arranged by L. J. and Nellie V. Anderson [Chicago: New Era Publishing Co, 1890], entry for May 24)

And gradually, over time, as different editors picked this up and altered it — and stuck on the bit about “be ours a religion” — we wind up with the familiar quotation. But that familiar quotation is really two quotations combined. Both of those quotations are taken out of context. The wording of both quotations has been substantially altered.

In short, I would no longer call this a Theodore Parker quotation. It’s Theodore Parker filtered through New Thought, and with much of the Transcendentalism removed. Or to put it in terms of a food metaphor, it’s Theodore Parker with much of the nourishment removed, and extra sugar added to make it more palatable; empty calories, in other words.

Final verdict: if you’re going to use this quote (and honestly, after finding all this out I’m hesitant to use it ever again), the best attribution would probably be “arranged from Theodore Parker.” Or maybe “based on Theodore Parker.”

Separating the art from the artist

Science fiction author Charlie Jane Anders takes on the J.K. Rowling brouhaha in a post to her Buttondown newsletter. Anders asks, can we separate the art from the artist? Or, to be more specific, can we separate Hogwarts from notorious transphobe J.K. Rowling?

Anders reminds us that not every artists gets to have their art separated from the artist:

“…I don’t think marginalized creators, including trans creators, ever quite get that luxury. Our identities are always going to be bound up with the stuff we create, even if we aren’t explicitly writing about our own marginalizations, and we’re highly dependent on our own communities to support us. Someone like Rowling has a lot more leeway to behave like a jerk in public, because she belongs to most of the default categories: white, cis, straight, abled. If you are not viewed immediately as a ‘mainstream’ creator, your life is going to be scrutinized a lot more no matter what you do….”

Anders also points out that part of the problem with J.K. Rowling is that she’s been turned into a celebrity:

“We really need to stop turning authors into celebrities, y’all. It’s toxic and shitty, and leads to bad behavior at least some of the time. One of the many problems besetting the publishing industry is this star system, which turns a handful of authors into supergods, and keeps everyone else, even pretty successful authors, in a lesser category. Even if someone wrote books that are really, really good and they’re selling like hotcakes, let’s resist the impulse to turn this person into the One True Author To Rule Them All.”

Anders has a good point. If J.K. Rowling hadn’t been turned into a celebrity (acknowledging that she herself was eager to turn herself into a celebrity), we would not care what she thought about transgender people. Nobody pays much attention to Jane Yolen’s opinion about much of anything, even though she’s a successful writer who’s written a successful book about a wizard’s school (Wizard’s Hall), along with some 350 other books. While Yolen gets to check off the same identity boxes that Rowling checks off — white, cis, straight, abled — she’s not a celebrity like Rowling. (Parenthetical note admitting my bias: I love some of Jane Yolen’s books, and in my opinion, she’s a better writer than Rowling.)

So yeah. Maybe we really do need to separate the art from the artist.

Christian nationalists in the U.S.

Religion News Service (RNS) reports that a recent poll finds that 10% of United States residents are hard-core Christian nationalists, and another 19% are fellow travelers. On the other hand, 29% of U.S. residents reject Christian nationalism. Another 39% are skeptical of Christian nationalism. You can read a detailed report of the PRRI survey here.

Are you a Christian nationalist? If you’re reading this blog, I sincerely doubt you are. Nevertheless, if you strongly agree with all of the following statements, according to PRRI you are indeed a Christian nationalist:

  • U.S. laws should be based on Christian values.
  • If the U.S. moves away from our Christian foundations, we will not have a country anymore.
  • Being Christian is an important part of being truly American.
  • God has called Christians to exercise dominion over all areas of American society.

That last statement is the one that really creeps me out. Unitarians and Universalists got kicked out of the U.S. Christian club a century ago, when the National Council of Churches wouldn’t let us join. So even if you’re a Christian Unitarian Universalist, the Christian nationalists want to exercise dominion over you…tell you what to believe, probably.

This is worrying because the Republican party has become dominated by Christian nationalists. Last summer when RNS asked fifty prominent Republicans whether their party should become a Christian nationalist party, only two of them responded to say, contrary to Christian nationalist rhetoric, that they supported the separation of church and state (Senator James Lankford and Representative Nancy Mace). All the other Republicans refused to answer, probably because they were too scared to say anything.


I finally watched the BBC’s video clip showing the moments when the Republicans heckled Democratic president Biden’s “State of the Union” speech. Looks like heckling has now become a normal part of the “State of the Union” speech.

What interests me is the hecklers shouting about lies and lying. The first such heckler, if you remember, was the fellow who shouted out that Obama lied. This tradition was upheld this year by the Christian nationalist shouting “Liar!” at Biden.

Knowing what is true is a major concern for U.S. society right now. And those who are within a traditional Christian worldview seem to suffer most from a sense that truth is under attack. Traditional Christians who believe that non-Christians will go to hell are often troubled by the multi-religious landscape of the United States today; those non-Christian people are going to hell, and yet our legal system protects them. This must be extremely disconcerting to certain traditional Christian worldviews.

So it is no surprise that one of the people shouting about lies during this year’s “State of the Union” speech was Christian nationalist Marjorie Greene. I suspect that Greene, who’s a bit of a drama queen, prepared herself in advance for her moment in the spotlight: she wore a dramatic white coat with a big furry ruff, which must have been dreadfully hot but was clearly meant to set off her blonde good looks. And she so obviously enjoyed the moment when she made the audience turn and look at her. She seems to have forgotten, however, that when you shout, it distorts your mouth and face and throat, and it brings out all the little lines in your face making you look older than you are. (This is why I hate seeing videos of myself preaching.) No matter: she made her truth claim in a very public manner, that she knows the truth, and unless the rest of us agree with her she will shout us down as liars.

Cartoon of Marjorie Greene shouting "Liar" during the State of the Union speech.

Back in 2005, philosopher Richard J. Bernstein argued that there were two prevailing mentalities in the United States. On the one hand there is a “mentality that neatly divides the world into the forces of good and the forces of evil.” On the other hand, there are those of us who “live without ‘metaphysical comfort,’ … live with a realistic sense of unpredictable contingencies” (The Abuse of Evil: The Corruption of Politics and Religion Since 9/11 [Malden, Mass.: Polity Press, 2005], pp. 12-13).

Greene and other Christian nationalists belong to the mentality that neatly divide the world into good and evil; they long for comfort and fear the unpredictability that pervades the world. Because of their fear, they cling to whatever certainties they can manufacture, and call those manufactures divine revelation.

But they should remember that when they shout, it distorts their faces….

Noted with a brief comment

Josiah Royce, in his 1913 book The Problem of Christianity (pp. 213-214, 2001 reprint edition):

“No religion can survive unless it keeps in touch with men’s [sic] conscious needs. In the future men’s needs will be subject to vastly complex and rapidly changing social motives. In the future, religion, as a power aiming to win and keep a place in men’s hearts, can no longer permanently count on the institutional forces which have in the past been amongst its strongest supports. Its own institutions will tend, with the whole course of civilization [i.e., Western culture], to come increasingly under the sway of the law of accelerated change. The non-religious institutions of the future, the kingdoms and democracies of this world, the social structures which will be used for the purposes of production, of distribution, and of political life, will certainly exemplify the law of accelerated changes. And these social structures will not be under the control of religious institutions.”

There are one or two problems with Royce’s argument here. His use of “civilization” really means those parts of the world dominated both by Christianity and by persons of European descent. So there are some colonialist assumptions baked into his argument. His use of “men” to represent all human beings reveals his assumption that male human beings are the most important ones. When he talks about “Christianity,” he assumes a monolithic Christianity of which the largest English-language Protestant denominations in the United States in his day serve as the paradigm.

Nevertheless, he got two important things right. Religion is now very much under the sway of the law of accelerated change. And religion that doesn’t meet the conscious needs of people doesn’t survive.

Sometimes I need to shut my brain off. One way I can do that is by writing. But writing can also act as a stimulant, making my thoughts go round even faster.

People tell me meditation will shut my brain off. I meditated seriously for years, until I realized that I really disliked meditating, and that it made me detached and mean. I’m one of those people who gets “meditation-related adverse effects.”

Nope, prayer doesn’t work either. I want fewer words going around in my head, not more of them.

Walking is a sure-fire way for me to quiet my brain. Talking with my spouse will do it. Singing. Doing chores (sometimes).

But right now, I’m going to read a murder mystery. It’s too late to go for a walk or sing, my spouse is in Wisconsin, I’m sick of doing chores. A murder mystery, that’s just the ticket. It will engage my brain just enough, but it won’t require much concentration.

You do your spiritual practices, I’ll do mine. Erle Stanley Gardner, here I come.

Reading list: Red Flags

Red Flags, a novel by Juris Jurevics, was originally published in 2011, and reissued as a paperback in 2021 by Soho Crime. Soho Crime typically publishes mysteries, but this isn’t exactly a mystery. Maybe it’s a thriller, thought it’s not one of those thrillers that raises your blood pressure and keeps it high.

I’d say Red Flags is maybe a war novel. It’s set in Vietnam circa 1967 or 1968. Two noncommissioned officers in the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Division are ordered to find who’s behind a large opium growing operation that’s netting huge amounts of money for the North Vietnamese. The two non-coms are sent to Cheo Reo, a backwater town in the Central Highlands of Vietnam that served as a provincial capital. Eventually they find out who’s in charge of the drug operation, and of course it turns out to be someone that was right in front of them the whole time.

Considered as a mystery, or even as a thriller, the plot is a bit thin. But really the genre elements are just there to support a portrait of what it was like to be in Vietnam in the Central Highlands. Jurevics actually served in Cheo Reo for more than a year, in 1967-1968:

“Juris Jurjevics deployed to Vietnam and was assigned to C Company, 43rd Battalion in the 1st Signal Brigade at Kontum, but spent very little time there before being assigned to a remote outpost in Cheo Reo, in what was formerly Phu Bon province, in the Central Highlands. Shocked by the austere defenses of his camp, he found the corruption staggering. Supplies intended for the troops or for Montagnard auxiliaries rarely reached their destination, or arrived in significantly reduced quantities. He noticed that everything in Vietnam was for sale, and extortion through tribute was widespread. While in Vietnam, he felt a bond with the Montagnards, but noticed the South Vietnamese disdain for the mountain people.” (from the introduction to an oral history video, West Point Center for Oral History)

Or maybe this is more of a history book thinly disguised behind an entertaining veneer of genre fiction. The level of detail in this 390 page book is almost overwhelming. You learn about the diseases, the parasites, the wildlife, and the beauty of the Central Highlands. You get portraits of people that are probably based in large part on real people (presumably suitably disguised to prevent lawsuits). You get a stunningly detailed look at corruption caused by the Vietnam War.

I would also say this book is a meditation on morals and ethics. There is no ultimate Goodness in this fictional/historical world. Even the essentially good characters have compromised morals. On the other hand, there is plenty of evil, but the evil grows out of the overall situation and can never be fully attributed to individuals.

The United States pulled out of the Vietnam War when I was fourteen years old. I spent my childhood listening to nightly body counts on the evening television news. I spent my teen years listening to adults argue about what happened in Vietnam, why we pulled out, whether it was a war we lost or a war we threw away. By the time I was a young adult, most everyone stopped talking about the Vietnam War. Every once in a while a Vietnam vet would talk a little bit about what they had seen. So Vietnam was a huge real-life mystery story for me. What had happened? People my age had to piece together clues. I’ve looked at any number of histories of the Vietnam War, but most of the histories turn out to be dry recounting of battle plans, with the human story mostly left out. I’ve read any number of Vietnam memoirs, but too many of them are gung-ho boring military porn. Because I’ve read so many bad books on the Vietnam War, I no longer go looking for books about it. Yet every once in a while I run across a good book that manages to give me a little part of the answers I’ve been looking for: Graham Green’s The Quiet American (1956); Tim O’Brien’s book If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home (1973); Robert Mason’s Chicken Hawk (1983)….

And now Juris Jerjevics’s Red Flags (2011) has just given me another little part of the answers.

Recommended. But only if you don’t mind a grim book with lots of killing that gives a depressing portrait of humankind.

Review on Kirkus Reviews

Screen grab showing a head and shoulders shot of an older white man with a beard.
Screen grab from the West Point oral history interview showing Juris Jurjevics


I knew I shouldn’t go to the Registry of Motor Vehicles right after lunch. I knew there would be a long line. I knew I’d have to wait forever. I was there 3 hours. A 30 minute drive each way made it 4 hours total.

And before you ask, no I couldn’t use a runner. No I couldn’t make an appointment. No I couldn’t go to the local AAA office. If you’re transferring an out-of-state registration, you go in person and wait in line.

Having said all this, the RMV staff were all polite, knowledgeable, and efficient. The long wait is mostly the fault of Massachusetts voters who don’t want to fund adequate staffing for the RMV.

Reading list: The New Climate War

Michael E. Mann, The New Climate War (New York: Public Affairs, 2021), 2022 paperback edition with a new Epilogue.

Michael Mann is a real live actual climate scientist, a professor of atmospheric science at Penn State. He’s also a pretty good writer. That’s a great combination, if you want to read about climate change.

His book The New Climate War doesn’t bother rehearsing the arguments for the validity of global climate change. As he says in the book, the science is clear now. There is now doubt that climate change is real, and that we are already witnessing some of the predicted changes (and disasters) that result from climate change.

Instead, Mann takes on Big Oil. He points out that Big Oil is no longer engaging in climate change denial. They have changed tactics. They want to slime out of taking any responsibility for causing climate change. Even though they knew that climate change was real back in the 1970s and 1980s, even though they made accurate predictions of the effects of climate change that far back, they desperately want to pretend they have no responsibility for climate change.

So instead of taking responsibility for climate change themselves, Big Oil wants us to believe that if we would just change our personal behavior — if we would just drive electric cars, stop flying on jets, and turn the thermostat down — climate change will end. They want us to believe it’s our fault. And Big Oil has figured out that if we believe that our personal behavior is what’s most important, we are far less likely to demand that Big Oil be held politically accountable.

That’s not the only sleazy, manipulative practice that Big Oil is engaging in. Mann details several other tactics, such as doomsaying — it’s all so bad, we can’t change anything, so let’s just give up. Once again, doomsaying lets Big Oil off the hook. Another tactic is promoting wild-eyed technological fixes — because if there’s some wild technological fix that’s going to come along in a couple of years (we can spew particles in the sky to block the sun! we can wait for cold fusion!), then yet again, Big Oil will not be held accountable. Yet again, Big Oil will be able to keep on raking in record profits.

But Mann says that we know what we have to do. We don’t need what he calls “false solutions.” We have to do things like follow the 2015 climate accords (which Big Oil would love to have us ignore, because it will cut into their profits). We have to push proven technologies like renewable energy (which Big Oil wants us to stop doing, because renewables cut into their profits). And we, the citizens, have to hold our political leaders’ feet to the fire (and stop electing leaders who are beholden to Big Oil). We cannot let Big Oil distract us from what actually needs to be done.

A quick read, and well-written, a necessary call to arms. Highly recommended.

(I only wish someone would write equally good books about the other ecological disasters facing us, like the spread of invasive species, and toxication, and land use change.)