Got “First World Problems”?

SapiensNow there’s a paradox.

Many of us living in industrialized Western nations enjoy the highest standard of living any humans have ever known.

Yet rather than making us happy, it makes us feel alienated and depressed.

Yuval Noah Harari explores this and many other subjects in his book SapiensA Brief History of Mankind.

He explores the alienation, depression, and pressure many modern sapiens feel as originating, at least in part, from the mismatch between our pre-agricultural brains and post-agricultural lifestyle:

For nearly the entire history of our species, Sapiens lived as foragers. The past 200 years, during which ever increasing numbers of Sapiens have obtained their daily bread as urban labourers and office workers, and the preceding 10,000 years, during which most Sapiens lived as farmers and herders, are the blink of an eye compared to the tens of thousands of years during which our ancestors hunted and gathered.

Harari argues that, although our daily lives have changed dramatically, the evolution of our brains and minds has not kept pace. According to research, many of our present-day social and psychological characteristics were forged during our long hunter-gatherer history:

The flourishing field of evolutionary psychology argues that many of our present-day social and psychological characteristics were shaped during this long pre-agricultural era. Even today, scholars in this field claim, our brains and minds are adapted to a life of hunting and gathering. Our eating habits, our conflicts and our sexuality are all the result of the way our hunter-gatherer minds interact with our current post-industrial environment, with its mega-cities, aeroplanes, telephones and computers. This environment gives us more material resources and longer lives than those enjoyed by any previous generation, but it often makes us feel alienated, depressed and pressured.

There may be no simple fix for this dilemma. And even assuming this were possible, who would want to forgo the comforts of modern life for a return to the life of our earliest ancestors?

For now perhaps the closest we can get is a periodic return to nature. As summer draws to a close, make some time to spend outdoors.


Rewriting the Ten Commandments

Atheist Mind, Humanist HeartHere’s some good advice: get some good advice.

The Ten Commandments are often cited in our culture as the best words to live by. But they may present some challenges for secular humanists.

Or so, it would seem, was the thought process of Lex Bayer and John Figdor when they co-wrote Atheist Mind, Humanist Heart: Rewriting the Ten Commandments for the Twenty-First Century.

Lex, a secular Jew, and John, a lapsed Christian, each share some of their own personal experiences in the book with the loss of faith, and their search for meaning in a world without God. Over the course of the book they explore and craft a set of ten new “non-commandments” reflecting their own beliefs.

The book ends with a call to action for each reader to create his or her own list of ten non-commandments. They recommend all would-be authors to consider “the nature of existence, truth, and facts, and human behavior, morals, and ethics” in their own lists.

An important thing to keep in mind, the authors point out, is that none of these guidelines are (literally or figuratively) set in stone. We should allow ourselves to modify or edit our beliefs at any time, in the face of new evidence.

With all of that being said, here’s my list for now. Thanks for reading and please leave a comment if you feel so inclined.

  1. You are a unique individual. No one quite like you has ever lived before, nor will again. Strive to understand and celebrate what makes you “you.”
  1. Our senses and our reason may be imperfect, but they’re still probably the best resources we have for understanding the world and our place in it. Do your best to keep both in good working order.
  1. Gods are human creations. Perhaps in this sense they can be said to exist, like so many other human creations—art, money, systems of belief—but if you’ve got a problem that needs solving, you’re better off putting your trust in yourself and other human beings like you.
  1. Make it a point to “put yourself in someone else’s shoes” when you can. Try to understand where the other person is coming from, to the extent possible.
  1. Revere and protect nature.
  1. Honor your family, even if you’ve had your differences with them.
  1. Carve out “alone time” for yourself when you need it, but don’t remove yourself from your community or from society completely. Work in your own way to try to make both better.
  1. Remember your past successes and failures without dwelling too much on the past. Plan ahead without worrying too much about the future. Seek to live in the present more of the time.
  1. Avoid excessive drug or alcohol use, and other unhealthy obsessions.
  1. Strive to be tolerant of other people, even if you disagree with their life choices. Feel free to try and persuade them of your own ideas if you like, but respect their right to live their lives their way, as long as they don’t encroach on your rights or anyone else’s.

2016 Reason Rally

The season for reason…

On June 4 I attended the 2016 Reason Rally on the National Mall in Washington, DC. The Reason Rally Coalition is a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to hold large events in celebration of atheist, humanist, and secular identity and to demonstrate the power of the secular voting bloc. The goal of the Reason Rally is to showcase the presence and power of the nonreligious voting bloc, and to demand that reason be put at the forefront of our public and political discourse.

Speakers included Bill Nye, Carolyn Porco, Lawrence Krauss, Penn Gillette, and many others.

It was a fascinating day and an eye-opening experience. I would estimate there to have been on the order of 10,000 people or more in attendance, and most of the interactions I had with other people there were very positive. Curious to see what impact, if any, secular voters en masse will have on the 2016 Election. From my point of view, their voices to be heard now more than ever.

“Where Does Your Morality Come From?”

ethics1It’s a good question.

And not one that necessarily has tidy answers. At least for secular humanists.

For the religiously-affiliated, the answer is often simple: “My morality comes from God.” But whether they admit it or not, what they are really saying is that their morality comes from religious authority and tradition.

“Thou shalt not murder,” “Thou shalt not steal,” and “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor,” are all perfectly human values that come from these sources. They are rendered no less valid by virtue of this fact.

But, as we all know, some sources of religious authority and tradition also offer some far more challenging positions with regard to many contemporary issues. This includes women’s rights and LGBT rights, among other things.

Those who want to hold onto this religious authority and tradition, while at the same time espousing contemporary values such as feminism and LGBT acceptance, sometimes have their work cut out for them. They may have a hard time explaining Bible passages such as, “Thou shalt not tolerate a sorceress” (Ex. 22:17) or “You shall not lie with a man as with a woman; it is an abomination” (Lev. 18:22).

Secular humanists don’t need to try to fit the square peg of traditional religious teaching into the round hole of contemporary values. But then, where does our morality come from as secular humanists?

In his Living the Secular Life, Phil Zuckerman explores this question:

The bald truth is, secular morality doesn’t have a simple, observable, obvious origin. Secular men and women don’t get their morals from some singular, readily citable source or supernatural deity. Rather, our morals are complex creations. They are the outcome of numerous forces, factors, and influences working simultaneously— many of which we aren’t even fully aware of, at least most of the time.

He cites findings from psychology, sociology, anthropology, criminology, and history as evidence that human morality is a complex question. Then, using a conversation with Gwen as a point of reference, he summarizes his findings:

…if I could offer a suggestion to Gwen, or any other secular individual out there who’d like a pat, simple answer to the question at hand, I’d offer the following: “I get my morals from the people who raised me, the culture within which I live, the kind of brain that I have, and the lessons I have learned from things I experience as I navigate life.”

At the risk of oversimplifying the issue, I’m prepared to offer an even more succinct answer: as secular humanists, our morality comes from usWe are the ones who know and decide what is right and what is wrong. And since we don’t accept the validity of accounts of supernatural revelation, we acknowledge that this is where theists’ morality comes from too.

A Visit to the American Museum of Natural History

20150503_125425Prepare to feel small.

Whenever I am in New York, I love to go to the American Museum of Natural History. One of my favorite exhibits is inside the Rose Center for Earth and Space. It winds around the room and deals with scale, from the largest to the smallest known objects.

In the center of the room is the Hayden Sphere. I didn’t get a good picture of it directly, but you can begin to get an idea of the size from the people walking around it in some of the photos.

As you make your way around the room, you’ll see panels that read, if the Sphere is one object in the Universe, then the small model in front of you is another object in the Universe. It begins with the scale on which the Sphere represents the observable universe

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Albert Einstein

Einstein pipeHis name has practically become synonymous with “genius.”

And that’s not all.

He was perhaps the first great scientist who was also a great moral philosopher.

A German Jew by background, Albert Einstein was a believer in humanity with a universalist worldview. In 1935, he wrote: “In the last analysis, everyone is a human being, whether he is an American or a German, a Jew or a Gentile.”

His idiosyncratic religious beliefs remain a subject of controversy, a subject on which the Israeli physicist and philosopher Max Jammer sheds some light in his 1999 book Einstein and Religion. On at least one occasion, it seems the famous scientist was comfortable referring to himself as “religious,” and many of his quotations referring to the force or entity he called “God” are well-known.

But Einstein rejected the concept of a personal God, or a God who responds to the prayers of individual people and intervenes in the world:

“I cannot conceive of a personal God who would directly influence the actions of individuals. . . . My religiosity consists of a humble admiration of the infinitely superior spirit that reveals itself in the little that we can comprehend of the knowable world. That deeply emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, forms my idea of God.

Einstein’s views earned him some strongly-worded responses from some American religious leaders in his time. These remarks were often clothed in the ugly language of antisemitism. One such leader wrote, “we invite you, if you do not believe in the God of the people of this nation, to go back where you came from.” Another offered, “In the past ten years nothing has been so calculated to make people think that Hitler had some reason to expel the Jews from Germany as your statement.”

Perhaps aware of these critics, Einstein was less than comfortable using the term “atheist” for himself. He said instead, “you may call me an agnostic,” and wrote, “I prefer an attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our being.”

Christopher Hitchens described Einstein as a “genius” whose mission was “to spread the message of enlightenment and humanism.”

Sounds good. That’s what I want to do too.

Who Wrote the Bible?

who-wrote-the-bibleSpoiler: it might not be who you think it is.

The story of the authors of the Bible, as best we can understand it today, is the story of the Jewish people from their earliest times to their return from the Babylonian exile. Richard Elliott Friedman offers us some answers, along with some beautiful textual analysis and history in his 1987 book Who Wrote the Bible?

Biblical criticism begins formally in the 19th Century, but some of its impulses can be traced back much earlier. Arguably it can be said to begin with the 17th-Century philosopher Baruch Spinoza, who dared to suggest that Moses was not the author of the Torah and suffered excommunication for his heretical ideas. The documentary hypothesis, taking shape in the 19th Century and codified by Wellhausen, forms the foundation of Friedman’s analysis. It holds that the Bible, as it came together in its final form, is primarily the work of four separate authors known as J, E, P, D. They are differentiated from one another by a handful of distinctive factors, including style, syntax, and names for God.

J and E are the earliest, perhaps dating from the time of the split of the unified kingdom of Israel into the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah. J is from the south (Judah); E is from the north (Israel). These sources include the second of the two creation stories (Gen. 2:4-4:26), stories of the patriarchs, and other portions of Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers. Wilhelm Vatke, a nineteenth century pioneer of biblical criticism, argued that these sources date from a time when Hebrew religion was concerned primarily with nature and fertility.

D was composed after the Assyrian conquest of the northern kingdom and during the reign of King Josiah of Judah. The D text includes nearly all of the book of Deuteronomy as well as the books of Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings. D represents a spiritual/ethical phase in the evolution of Hebrew religion.

The last major source, itself almost as long as the other three sources combined, is the P text. The first creation story in Genesis (“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth…”) comes from the P source, as well as the entire book of Leviticus, and numerous other stories from the Torah dealing with covenants and ritual sacrifice. The P source represents a priestly stage of Hebrew religion.

Friedman devotes a good amount of space to discussion of when the P source was most likely to have been composed, and he presents evidence suggesting it was probably written much earlier than had at one time been thought. He references passages from the books of the prophets suggesting that they were familiar with the P text and that it therefore, too, must have been pre-exilic in its formation. He places its creation during the reign of Josiah’s grandfather, Hezekiah.

Friedman also devotes some time to a discussing of the fifth author of the Bible: the redactor. It seems there was another separate individual who took the four sources and skillfully and artfully combined them into the unified text as we know it today. This text is not without its own internal contradictions and inconsistencies, but it is one which has nonetheless occupied a place of central importance in world culture for thousands of years.

Friedman concludes by asserting that the Bible is “more than simply the sum of its parts” and issues a charge to different kinds of readers:

For those of us who read the Bible as literature, this new knowledge should bring a new acquaintance with the individuals who wrote it, a new path to evaluating their artistry, and a new admiration for the book’s final beauty and complexity.

For those of us who read it in search of history, this enterprise continually opens new channels to uncovering what was happening in various historical moments, and new sensitivity to how individuals in biblical society responded to those moments.

For those who hold the Bible as sacred, it can mean new possibilities of interpretation; and it can mean a new awe before the great chain of events, person, and centuries that came together so intricately to produce an incomparable book of teachings.

And for all of us who live in this civilization that the Bible played so central a part in shaping, it can be a channel to put us more in touch with people and forces that affected our world.

Stick-in-the-Mud Science

stonehenge winter solstice

Science doesn’t always have to be hi-tech.

Indeed, you can learn things just by driving a stick into the ground.

Any old stick will do, as long as it’s straight.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson explores this and other topics in his book Death by Black Hole. Chapter 5 is called “Stick-in-the-Mud Science.”

In this chapter Tyson goes on to discusses various ancient religious and cultural sites around the world in Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Stonehenge in England is only one famous example. These sites doubled as “low-tech astronomy centers” and continue to fascinate many modern people for a variety of reasons.

The astronomical knowledge required to build these sites, he says, “is not fundamentally deeper than what can be discovered with a stick in the ground.” So why are so many people still so astonished by the scientific achievements of these ancient civilizations?

Tyson goes on to speculate as to an answer:

Perhaps these ancient observatories perennially impress modern people because modern people have no idea how the Sun, Moon, or stars move. We are too busy watching evening television to care what’s going on in the sky. To us, a simple rock alignment based on cosmic patterns looks like an Einsteinian feat. But a truly mysterious civilization would be one that made no cultural or architectural reference to the sky at all.

Today is the Winter Solstice. Do yourself a favor and look up at the sky at least once today. Think about all the ancient civilizations for whom this was one of the most important days of the year and about the common humanity that links us all together. And if you’re really feeling ambitious, hammer a stick into the ground and see what else you can learn.

The Search for Dignity

snoopy meaning of lifeWhat is the meaning of life?

Are we here for a purpose?

If so, what is it? If not, why go on?

Greg Epstein explores these questions and many others in his 2005 book Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe.

In Chapter 3, “Why Be Good Without a God?” he discusses the concept of dignity.

In his discussion Epstein acknowledges his friend and teacher Sherwin Wine, and explains how his teacher defined this term, refining his definition over the course of many years.

But Epstein also acknowledges that “Wine didn’t invent this concept of a meaning to life beyond God,” and that others have known this concept by the name humanity, or “being fully human.”

Epstein makes the case that, by whatever name it is known, this requires more than mere self-actualization. It requires community:

We don’t have everything we need for a good life inside ourselves alone. If we did, we could all go off into separate little rooms and just enjoy.

He introduces the concept of meaning as another crucial part of the equation, citing the psychologist Jonathan Haidt and Rabbi Hillel’s famous words, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

Then Epstein gets to the heart of his argument:

All of us know what it feels like to realize “I am a person.” But it takes a little more awareness to realize, “You are also a person.” And it takes even greater awareness still to recognize that I am more of a person when I am helping you to be more of a person.

In my spare time I volunteer with a local community theatre group.

The other night I heard a 77-year-old man from the chorus talking with the choreographer from our show.

He was talking about how he had been struggling with the choreography in this one number for weeks, but that he finally got it right today.

When I heard him say this, I smiled to myself and said:

That’s why I do this.

Maybe that man was a little bit more of a person because he worked hard and got that choreography right.

And maybe I was a little bit more of a person to whatever extent I was able to help him.

And maybe that is what this word means.

Does Religion “Poison Everything”?

250px-Religious_syms.svg.pngIs religion harmful?

Are the fruits of religion on the whole more bad than good?

Would the world simply be better off without it, in all its forms?

Christopher Hitchens explores these questions and others in his 2007 book God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. The author is sometimes associated with a worldview known as antitheism, defined in the book as the view that “none of the religious myths has any truth to it, or in it.” Yet his writing style, witty and eloquent, is offered in refreshing contrast to the disturbing realities he often presents, and his tone is that of the detached academic, even as his main argument in the work is that “religion poisons everything.” But while the breadth of the author’s knowledge is certainly impressive, and his argument is well-reasoned as far as it goes, I am reluctant call his views my own.

Hitchens begins the book, fittingly enough, with a laudatory portrait of his childhood teacher of religion, Mrs. Jean Watts. He describes Mrs. Watts as “a good, sincere, simple woman, of stable and decent faith,” and recalls admiring the breadth of her knowledge as a teacher of botany and Scripture. But he also notes the first moment when he began to question the wisdom of his beloved teacher’s Christian worldview. He quotes her as having said, “So you see, children, how powerful and generous God is. He has made all the trees and grass to be green, which is exactly the color that is most restful to our eyes. Imagine if instead, the vegetation was all purple, or orange, how awful that would be.” Hitchens relays somehow knowing, even at age nine, that “[t]he eyes were adjusted to nature, and not the other way about.”

Considering the nature of his point of view, Hitchens is often more conciliatory than one might expect. In one such passage, he writes: “When I go to the mosque, I take off my shoes. When I go to the synagogue, I cover my head. I once even observed the etiquette of an ashram in India….” His genial tone, coupled with the many refreshing witticisms such as “Heaven hates ham,” make the reading experience digestible and even entertaining. Yet Hitchens’ critique of religion is lengthy and thorough, extending to many groups, including Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Mormons, Hindus, and Buddhists. Included in many are detailed descriptions of the various practices of female and male genital mutilation and various incarnations of institutionalized child abuse and pedophilia.

martin luther kingIn the second half of the book, Hitchens highlights the three individuals from history whom he deems exemplary in their life’s work and legacy: Martin Luther King, Jr.; Abraham Lincoln; and Albert Einstein. This is all the more intriguing for the fact that all three of these individuals publicly professed belief in a force or entity they referred to as “God.” But as for Lincoln, Hitchens is probably correct to describe him as “a tormented skeptic with a tendency to deism,” and regarding Einstein, Hitchens is correct enough to describe him as a “genius” whose mission was “to spread the message of enlightenment and humanism,” yet who was nonetheless “[d]ecidedly Jewish.”  Perhaps more provocative is his description of Dr. King, of whom he writes: “In no real as opposed to nominal sense was he, then, a Christian,” going on to say, “When Dr. King took a stand on the steps of Mr. Lincoln’s memorial and changed history…he did so as a profound humanist…his legacy has very little to do with his professed theology.”

In the last quarter of the book, Hitchens concedes the point that “secular totalitarianism has actually provided us with the summa of human evil,” and cites Hitler and Stalin as only the two best-known examples. He attempts to salvage his main point about religion by affirming that “a totalitarian state is in effect a theocracy” [italics original]. It’s a clever argument, but it begs the further question: if Hitchens’ critique of religion extends also to political systems such as Nazism and Soviet-style Communism, does it in fact extend to any organized worldview or philosophy, with or without reference to the supernatural? One wishes that Hitchens had spent some time in this book discussing the French Revolution, a period in which horrible atrocities were also committed, in the name of secular Enlightenment ideals such as liberty, equality, and fraternity.

God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens is a thoughtful and erudite critique of religion, coming from a largely enlightened worldview, and refreshingly lacking in malice or envy. Nevertheless, I am less than inclined to agree with the main thrust of Hitchens’ argument that “religion poisons everything.” My own view is that religion, like almost anything else, can inspire human beings to do either good or bad. For me the better version of Hitchens’ thesis might well be: “some religious people poison everything.”