The Casual Blog

Category: religion

Pope Francis’s vision

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It’s been ungodly hot in Raleigh this week, with a record high of Fahrenheit 99 on Tuesday. Humid, too. So instead of running on Saturday, I settled in to read some of Pope Francis’s new encyclical, Laudito Si. From newspaper reports, I’d expected a sort of primer on the perils of global warming, but it turned out to be much more than that, and I felt enriched and inspired by the experience. It’s available online here.

Even though I’m a thorough-going non-believer, I’m a big fan of Francis. He seems to be a genuinely warm, caring, and thoughtful person. What are the odds? How daunting and disorienting to be considered by many as infallible, and fully realize you aren’t. (Remember his famous words,“Who am I to judge?”) How dissonant to live amid Vatican magnificence and rock-star adulation and try to focus on the problems of the poor. And who would volunteer to be in charge of cleaning up pedophile priest networks, bishop cover ups, money laundering holy bankers, and God knows what other crimes and misdemeanors? And after all that, who would have the courage and drive to speak truths that implicitly threaten the world’s wealthiest, most powerful interests on what are, for them, as well as us, issues of existential importance? That’s right: my man Francis.

I was hoping that Laudito Si would have an executive summary, but it does not. Still, I kept reading. The prose is lucid and emphatic, with an animating passion. Francis leaves no doubt that he agrees with the scientific consensus that man-made greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide are responsible for much of the global warming crisis. He states that there is an urgent need to reduce such emissions and develop renewable energy. If he accomplished nothing more than calling more attention to this issue and inspiring high level discussion and action, that would be a lot. But Laudito Si does more than that, persuasively articulating a powerful ethical vision that calls for reforming both societies and our selves.
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Francis calls on the people of the world to recognize that we are in an ecological crisis, and need to expand our dialog and work together to address this crisis. The dimensions of the crisis include air and water pollution, fresh water shortages, rising oceans that threaten large cities, and increasing extreme weather events. Not to mention the extinction of many species. He states, “Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost forever. The great majority become extinct for reasons related to human activity. Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right.”

At the same time, Francis reminds us of the vibrant beauty of the natural world. He has sections on rainforests and other wonders. On a topic particularly close to my heart, he writes of “the immense variety of living creatures” in our oceans which are threatened by uncontrolled fishing and the coral reefs that have been harmed by pollution and rising temperatures.

Early on, Francis rejects the reading of the Bible that entitles humans to dominate and exploit all earthly resources. He writes instead that humans are meant to be careful stewards of those resources, and regard them with awe and wonder, and recognize our essential connection to animals, vegetables, and minerals. “Because all creatures are connected, each must be cherished with love and respect, for all of us as living creatures are dependent on one another.” He returns a number of times to the theme of our interconnectedness to each other and the world.

An aspect of this theme is concern for both the poor and for other living creatures. He writes, “We should be particularly indignant at the enormous inequalities in our midst, whereby we continue to tolerate some considering themselves more worthy than others. We fail to see that some are mired in desperate and degrading poverty, with no way out, while others have not the faintest idea of what to do with their possessions, vainly showing off their supposed superiority and leaving behind them so much waste which, if it were the case everywhere, would destroy the planet. In practice, we continue to tolerate that some consider themselves more human than others, as if they had been born with greater rights.”
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Similarly, Francis draws connections between our treatment of animals and our basic humanity. Recently I’ve been feeling indignant about the new North Carolina ag gag law, which among other things protects industrial agriculture operations from those who propose to publicize their cruelty to animals. Let me just say, this is so wrong! This excerpt is apropos: “When our hearts are authentically open to universal communion, this sense of fraternity excludes nothing and no one. It follows that our indifference or cruelty towards fellow creatures of this world sooner or later affects the treatment we mete out to other human beings. We have only one heart, and the same wretchedness which leads us to mistreat an animal will not be long in showing itself in our relationships with other people. Every act of cruelty towards any creature is ‘contrary to human dignity.’”

Part of the ambition of Laudito Si is to reset our relationship to technology. “Ecological culture cannot be reduced to a series of urgent and partial responses to the immediate problems of pollution, environmental decay and the depletion of natural resources. There needs to be a distinctive way of looking at things, a way of thinking, policies, an educational programme, a lifestyle and a spirituality which together generate resistance to the assault of the technocratic paradigm. . . . To seek only a technical remedy to each environmental problem which comes up it to separate what is in reality interconnected and to mask the true and deepest problems of the global system.” Francis envisions a world where the capitalism and technological progress are no longer allowed to drive increasing inequality and alienation, but instead are put in the service of human needs.

Of course, I don’t mean to endorse all of Francis’s views. I read the sections on God’s acts and intentions in much the spirit that I read the poetry of Milton. I think he’s quite mistaken about the value of building a market for carbon credits, which would creative incentives to reduce emissions. I also regret that he dismisses the serious risks of overpopulation, which needs to be moved way up on our list of priorities. But I’m finding the work inspiring, and hope many will read it and think about it.

A wintry mix, musical Mormons, and Wall Street wolves

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It started to snow and sleet in Raleigh around noon Wednesday, and Red Hat and many other businesses shut down that afternoon. There were many who got stuck on the road and lost power, but I was able to walk home, which was cozy and warm. The next morning Larisa couldn’t make it to our personal training session, so I worked out in the little gym on our building’s top floor. Just after sunrise, I got some pictures of clouds and ice.
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It was windy and cold, and the sidewalks were icy, when I walked to work on Thursday. The office was officially closed. It was pleasant to have some uninterrupted time to think, read, and write. I worked on an amicus brief for the Supreme Court concerning a complex legal and social problem, and felt the flow. I’d been scheduled to do a speaking engagement for the NC Bar on Thursday afternoon, but this was cancelled on account of weather, so I could make some good progress on the brief.
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On Friday we went to see the musical The Book of Mormon in Durham. Diane, my mother-in-law, generously treated us to the seats. I was glad to see the show, which had some good laughs. But the things I thought were good were mostly in the dialog and lyrics. The music was almost willfully unoriginal. At its best, it sounded like a really good commercial for a new Ford. But I will say the soaring anthem, I am a Mormon (and a Mormon just believes) is, however derivative, a truly clever, and sort of moving, hoot.

I expected to feel a little guilty for being complicit in making fun of a minority religion, especially when there are people who I really like and respect who subscribe to it. But the Mormons actually come off as mostly likeable, responsible, and with high ideals, and with the same problems as everybody else. Of course, the doctrine seems bizarre to non-believers. But a lot of the barbs could easily be read as aimed at religion in general.
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There was an interview with Leonardo DiCaprio in the Saturday NY Times about The Wolf of Wall Street, which we saw last weekend. While I didn’t think it was a movie for the ages, and did think it was too long, I also found myself thinking about it through the week which means it touched something.

The subject matter is the rise and fall of a penny stock boiler room fraudster, and the atmosphere is one of extreme excess – the biggest mansion, biggest yacht, most exotic cars, most beautiful prostitutes, and lots and lots of cocaine. LD is in almost every scene, and holds our interest, as a character with incredible drive and confidence, and an absolute indifference to the plight of the people he’s exploiting. He’s addicted, not only to drugs, but even more to money. He’s sick, but also recognizably human.

I suspected, and the interview tended to confirm, that Scorsese and DiCaprio viewed the penny stock king as emblematic of the more-difficult-to-dramatize Wall Street shenanigans of the mid-2000s leading up to the crash of 2008. Of course, pure stock fraud and financial engineering + speculation aren’t the same thing, but they both run on greed and require similar heedlessness and indifference to others.
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The way to San Jose, Ridge Winery, and E.O. Wilson on human nature

I missed my flight out of RDU on Tuesday morning after trying to send off one too many emails. On the drive to the airport, as reality set in, I went through the five stages of travel anxiety: concern, serious concern, alarm, panic, and finally, acceptance. By the time I made it through the American Airlines queue and the agent said I was too late, I was able to agree calmly, and ask politely what my next best option was. She put me on standby for a flight three hours later.

With my unexpected airport time, I got an excellent shoe shine and a half-hour chair massage at Express Spa. A couple of times a month I try to get a chair massage from the Red Hat massage therapist, which I had to miss because of my trip. I was interested in some work on my shoulder, where there have been minor issues. I assumed that an airport massage would be more about feeling pleasant than serious therapy, but I was not averse to a release of some endorphins.

My masseur, a small guy from China, asked how hard I liked it. I said pretty hard. He obliged with a serious deep tissue approach. It took all my determination to resist begging for mercy. At one point I took note that massage therapists are required to pass a licensing exam, as it was coming into focus that massage could cause bodily harm. Then I realized I had no way of knowing if my guy was licensed. He finished with some blows that shook me like a punching bag. It was almost frightening. But once it was over, I felt great!

Being on standby involves a degree of anxiety. You’re either barely making the flight, or you’re going back to square one. On this trip, the gate agent said the I had a good chance of getting on the flight out of Raleigh, but a less good chance of getting on the connecting flight in Chicago. When I felt a wave of tension, I took a few deep calming yoga breaths, and tried to stay positive. Eventually, four and a half hours late, I got to San Jose, got a rental car, and headed to the hotel.

I was assisted by a Garmin GPS device, which smoothly directed me through every turn. This little tool has greatly reduced the anxiety of travel to unknown lands. Getting lost is almost a thing of the past. I still carry printed directions as a fail safe system, but I haven’t used them in a while. Thus have I outsourced a part of my mental load, and in using this now-common tool become a little more of a cyborg. I could lament the possible loss of map-reading skills, but won’t. Thanks to Garmin and all the scientists, engineers, and technicians who’ve reduced my worry level and bestowed more creative mental space.


There’s something about northern California that I really love. It isn’t the glamor, which I was far from, but it may be something about the light. After various meetings, I got a chance to tour Ridge Vineyards in the Santa Cruz mountains. It involved a drive ascending 2,0000 feet along narrow roads with hairpin turns. The landscape was dry and craggy.

Our tour guides were experts and scholars of wine making, and I got a deeper understanding of the significance of soil and water conditions, vine life cycles, vine placement and spacing, pests, harvesting techniques, pressing, oaking options, considerations for blending, and aging decisions. The vineyard mountain views were beautiful, and the wines were excellent. It was also a great pleasure to meet our guides and experience their joy and passion for their craft.

On the long flight home, I finished reading for the second time The Social Conquest of Earth by E.O. Wilson. Wilson, a senior professor at Harvard, is one of our foremost experts on ants, but his scientific passions are wide-ranging. In this latest book, he attempts to revive and develop an approach to evolution that includes selection not only at the individual level but also at the level of groups. He argues that this accounts for some of the defining characteristics of homo sapiens, including our intense desire to be part of a tribe or group and our superlative skills at interpreting the thoughts, feelings, and intentions of others.

These skills made it possible for our ancestors to cooperate in a way that led to success versus other animals (including predators and our close relatives the Neanderthals), and to collaborate in agriculture, technology, and artistic expression. He also thinks multilevel evolution (individual and group) accounts for our never-ending interior conflicts between the urge toward cooperation and altruism (which benefits the tribe) and the opposite urge to seek competitive advantage over other individuals.

Wilson has a persuasive account of the origins and persistence of religious thought. In his view, it is characteristic for human animals to generate narratives to explain the unknown, and thus natural for communities to compose creation myths. Myths and rituals are adaptive in creating group cohesiveness, which contributes to tribal success. Religion has inspired great art and helped groups and individuals in difficult times. But Wilson ultimately concludes the costs of religion thinking outweigh the benefits, particularly once humankind acquired the tools of science.

Wilson would admit that the evidence for his multilevel approach to evolution is incomplete, and his theory is bound to be controversial. But right or wrong, I admire his willingness to engage and take some intellectual risks on the big questions, like the nature of human nature and the foundations of morality. He brings to the table spirited curiosity and the ability to draw on recent discoveries from biology, neurology, genetics, anthropology, climatology, and paleontology, not to mention, of course, myrmecology. He demonstrates the use of science as both a method and a world view — a world view that is both practical and inspiring.

My flight out of San Jose left 20 minutes late for Dallas, and my original Dallas connection was only 25 minutes. Dallas is a big airport, and getting from a gate on one side to a gate on the other can easily take 30 minutes. It seems I never leave from a nearby gate, so I had some worries, and took some yoga breaths. We came in at A37, and the flight out was at A33. I heard the announcement for final boarding for Raleigh as I stepped into the terminal, and took off in the OJ Simpson airport sprint. (I’ve noticed that gate agents sometimes look around for last second sprinters.). I was the last to board. Kind Fortuna!

Shortly after I got home, we had a thunderstorm and a strange sunset.

There were some birds this morning at the boardwalk off of Raleigh Boulevard. Most of them hid from me (like that small bird in the Frost poem), but a robin, a great blue heron, and a mallard family didn’t.





Cultural diversity: yoga, Gambia, Lucretius, hockey, and Wagner

Looking west from the balcony

Daylight savings time ended this morning, and so we gained back the hour we lost in the spring. It’s strange that hours can be moved from one season to another. Anyhow, the leaves are changing, with yellows, oranges, and reds, and the temperatures are cooler. It’s fall.

Tuesday is my usual day for the Early Bird Yoga class at Blue Lotus with Suzanne. I normally get up at 5:30, do half an hour of interval work on the elliptical machine in my building, change out of my sweaty tee shirt into a fresh one, grab my yoga mat, and get to the 6:30 class in good time. Some yoga breathing, lowering, lifting, balancing and stretching is a good way to start the day.

Suzanne’s instructions are direct and clear, and her strength and grace are beautiful and inspiring. Each class is different, and lately she’s been taking us noticeably beyond our comfort zone. She seemed really pleased last week when she got us all up in tripod headstands. This week she had us all try side crow. This did not work at all for anyone (except her). Lately I’ve been working on front crow, and making progress, so perhaps we’ll do side crow one day.

Early Wednesday morning (5:40) I got in a cab to go to the airport. The cab driver was winded, and said he’d been doing jumping jacks to stay awake while waiting for me. It was better, he said, not to drink too much coffee. I agreed. He asked me where I was going, and I told him the bare fact (Boston), thinking I’d rather not get involved in a chat. There’s effort involved, and no guaranteed reward. But after a couple of minutes of silence, I relented. I figured I would try to be a decent chap and throw a lifeline to a lonely soul, so I asked him where he was from. Answer: Gambia, a tiny country in west Africa which I knew almost nothing about, and which he dearly loved.

He was a lively guy, and much more interesting than NPR. He described the government in terms that sounded benign though authoritarian, and improvements in roads, schools, and hospitals. He said that most people were at least part-time farmers and described how they stored crops in their own warehouses. When I asked him about his languages, he said he spoke seven, including three from Gambia and French, Spanish, and German. His English was accented but just fine.

The weather was clear and mild in northern Massachusetts, but there was still snow on the ground from an early season storm that had left many thousands without power. I did a bunch of meetings in Westford and then went down to Cambridge for more. On the flight back I read How to Read Montaigne by Terence Cave. Montaigne (1533-1592) is a startlingly original, modern thinker.

I was inspired to start exploring Montaigne by a few comments in an excellent book I finished a couple of weeks back: The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt. The Swerve recounts the discovery in a monastery in 1417 of a copy of an ancient Roman manuscript, and explains how that discovery changed history. The discoverer, Poggio Bracciolini, was a former apostolic secretary for a deposed Pope with a classical education and passion for finding and saving ancient books. The book that was almost lost, On the Nature of Things, was written by Lucretius about 50 BCE. It’s an epic poem that describes the philosophy of Epicureanism. Greenblatt covers a lot of ground, from the philosophers of Greece and Rome, the creation of libraries, the fanaticism of early Christianity, the preservation of books in medieval monasteries, the intrigues of the popes, religious wars, the intellectuals of the Renaissance (including Montaigne), and onward.

In addition to a lot of lively history, there’s a pithy account of the ideas of Epicurus (b. 342 BCE), including the notion that the entire universe is constructed of tiny indivisible building blocks called atoms. This carried with it a view of the world as a natural phenomenon, not something magical created and controlled by gods. Epicurus espoused freedom from superstition and the pursuit of pleasure.

By pleasure he meant not pursuit of wealth or debauchery, but something more nuanced that included a sense of wonder at the beauty of the natural world.. According to Philodemus, a follower of Epicurus, “It is impossible to live pleasurably … without living prudently and honourably and justly, and also without living courageously and temperately and magnanimously, and without making friends, and without being philanthropic.” The Epicureans celebrated friendship, emphasized charity and forgiveness, and were suspicious of worldly ambition.

According to Greenblatt, Epicureans, including Lucretius, believed that the gods existed, but that they couldn’t possibly be concerned with human beings. Along with atoms, Lucretius’s ideas encompassed the notion that living beings have evolved through a long process of trial and error, that the world exists for reasons that have nothing to do with humans, that humans are not unique but rather linked to all other life forms and to inorganic matter, there is no afterlife, that religions are superstitious delusions based on longings, fears, and ignorance, and that by fashioning gods humans became enslaved to their own dreams. Happiness could be attained through discarding delusions through reasons, looking squarely at the true nature of things, and discovering a sense of wonder.

These ideas were, of course, not congenial to early Christians, who almost succeeded in stamping them out. But somehow a copy survived, which Poggio discovered and copied, and which is recopied many times, and ultimately influenced thinkers in subsequent generations up to our own. Greenblatt’s book is a true pleasure.

We saw some professional hockey on Friday night: the Caroline Hurricanes vs. the Washington Capitols. I’d learned from my new assistant about a free bus that runs between downtown and the hockey games, and it turned out that it made a stop right at our building. The bus arrived on time, with many cheerful fans dressed in Hurricanes red and white. We had a good view from box seats.

The Hurricanes started strong but collapsed in the third period and got trounced. As long as the game was close, it was fun. As with soccer, the more hockey I watch, the more I see and appreciate the incredible athleticism. The drama is simple, but effective: there’s a surge of great joy at every goal our team makes, and stab of pain at a goal of the opponents. The bus trip back home seemed slower and much less cheerful.

On Saturday we saw quite a different sort of drama, Siegfried, the third opera of Wager’s Ring cycle, broadcast live from the Metropolitan Opera to all over the world, including the North Hills Cinema. I know the music well from CDs, and love it, but had some qualms about the amount of sitting required: five and a half hours. Wagner is musically dense, and that’s a lot of Wagner. It was, it turned out, for us, incredibly powerful.

The story is about courage. Siegfried is a callow young hero who forges a magic sword and uses it to slay a dragon and an evil dwarf, then travels though a ring of fire to save and win a beautiful maiden. In pre-broadcast comments, Renee Fleming (a great soprano who would know) described Siegfried as the most difficult tenor role in the world. Our Siegfried was Jay Hunter Morris, a relative unknown who subbed in at the last moment and had a total of three performances under his belt when he performed before a worldwide audience of many thousands yesterday. This took true courage. Morris gave a performance for the ages, vocally powerful but nuanced throughout. The entire cast was superb, and the technical effects (especially the ring of fire) were impressive. Fabio Luisi conducted brilliantly. The famous horn solo, the exciting few bars that horn players test and polish their whole lives, was perfect.

This Siegfried, the opera, moved me deeply (tears). Driving home afterwards, I felt wrung out but exhilarated. Sally also loved it, and announced that she was now a Wagnerian. I found this very cheering.

Post-Enlightenment thinking and Michelle Bachmann

Is there any question that science, logic, and reason are excellent tools for problem solving? OK, these systems aren’t perfect, and they don’t apply to every problem. But can any thoughtful person fail to recognize their power to transform civilization and improve lives?

The answer is yes. Some people rely primarily on myth and magic as thought systems. But I normally think of these people as a not-very-significant minority. It may be, though, that that minority is getting more significant.

A column in the NY Times today by Neal Gabler posits that we live in a post-Enlightenment society that has gone backward intellectually to a method that does not employ rational thought. Gabler takes this as settled, and argues that it’s even worse: that we are moving into a post-idea world, where thinking is simply no longer done. Instead, we exchange undigested facts. As evidence, he cites social media such as Twitter and Facebook.

I’m not persuaded that social media is killing ideas, or even that the post-Enlightenment has arrived. But anti-rationalism is alive and well. Exhibit A: Michelle Bachmann. Yesterday Bachmann won the Iowa straw poll. In this week’s New Yorker, Ryan Lizza discusses the ideas that shaped her thinking.

Bachmann comes out of a tradition that believes the Bible is the literal, infallible, and unerring word of God. She claims to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and believes that he controls her life. She’s also been influenced by various fundamentalist thinkers who have some disturbing notions, including a revisionist view of slavery that holds that it was not all that bad.

It strikes me as implausible that Bachmann could be a serious contender for the presidency, but her style of thinking is having an impact on public policy. It’s hard to understand how the Tea Partiers could refuse to discuss the issue of tax rates, and be prepared to insist on this point at the cost of economic catastrophe. But if you believe that your ideas are coming directly from God, how could you question them? Why would you care to listen to opposing views? Why would you consider compromise? Thus usually harmless nonsensical beliefs become dangerous.

Religious intolerance in Afghanistan and Raleigh

I’m not a big fan of either the Bible or the Koran, though I don’t think it’s a good thing to burn either of them. Burning any book as an expressive act seems angry, hateful, and benighted. I imagine that if I thought a book contained unusual insight or beauty that meant something to me, I’d be pissed off if someone burned it.

But I wouldn’t murder them! Much less join a mob to murder random people who had nothing to do with the burning! In Afghanistan this week, hundreds of Muslims have rioted and killed several United Nations employees and injured hundreds of westerners. The reason? First, a plainly disturbed fundamentalist preacher in Florida burned a copy of the Koran a couple of weeks ago. Then political and religious leaders in Afghanistan publicized the event.

What’s up with these rioting Afghanis and their random killing? Do they mean by this to show the world their love of Islam? Their hatred of invading westerners? Are they expressing their anger at the violence, corruption, and poverty that engulfs them?

Harnessing religious zeal, ignorance, and intolerance for political purposes is nothing new. In this case, it appears that Hamid Karzai, the beneficiary of billions of American taxpayer dollars, has again shown his appreciation for this benevolence by encouraging the most radical elements of his society toward anti-western violence. This raises yet again the good question: what in the name of all that’s holy are we doing sacrificing our children’s lives (1,521 so far) and almost $400 billion in Afghanistan? But I’ll shut up. Nobody seems to want to talk about this, I guess because it’s depressing. But isn’t the solution here really simple?

Moving on to more cheerful news: our local paper, the News & Observer, ran a front page, above-the-fold story this morning about North Carolina unbelievers coming out of the closet and attempting to build a more positive image. A billboard campaign with pro-humanist messages has been rolled out by the Triangle Freethought Society. A few local citizens who are otherwise unfamous have lent their names, photos, and four or five words, like “Science is my co-pilot!” or “Freethinking moves America forward!”

It will be interesting to see whether this helps promote tolerance, which would be good. It could certainly serve to smoke out intolerance, of which there is plenty. An example: the North Carolina Constitution officially disqualifies from public office any person “who shall deny the being of Almighty God.” This provision should be held invalid under the U.S. Constitution (Art. 6), though I’d hate to have to test that before a Bible-believing federal judge. The point is, there’s a long, strong tradition of intolerance in these parts for non-mainstream views on religion.

Hatred of atheists is almost certainly much stronger than, say, hatred of minority races or gays. And so it’s not surprising that most non-believers in these parts keep a low profile. But views on minorities and gays have changed in the direction of greater tolerance in recent years (which is not to say the work is done). It’s possible that there could be a quiet increase in tolerance for non-believers. Hats off to the brave souls willing to test that proposition with their own names on billboards. I hope they stay happy and safe.

The crucible of a massive earthquake in Haiti

Last week an earthquake hit Haiti with devastating force.  The destruction was so massive.  Airports, ports, roads, bridges, utilities, and communication networks were all shut down or disabled, and rescuers, aid workers, and journalists still cannot even see much of the area affected.  We know that the scale of death is huge, and the scale of suffering is enormous.  Reports yesterday said there had been 40,000 bodies recovered so far, and without food, water, or medical care, people will continue to die.

Disasters are natural crucibles.  They can reveal unexpected kindness and generosity.  At Red Hat, the population that insists on broadcasting company wide emails on their personal concerns is on an average day a minor but continual annoyance.  After the Haiti earthquake, though, there were many of those emails concerning how to contribute to charitable efforts effectively.  Many people everywhere pity the Haitians and wish they could help. For most Americans most of the time, if they think of Haiti at all, it is as a far away place of unfathomable poverty.  Some may be discovering, as I am, an unexpected feeling of solidarity, kinship, and shared sorrow with Haitians.

But disasters also expose character flaws and crazy ideas.  Pat Robertson, a well known religious TV personality, had this take on the Haitian earthquake:  that the Haitian people made a “pact with the devil.”  He was referring to Haitian slaves’ successful revolt at the end of the eighteenth century against their French rulers.  Robertson thus suggested that Haitian slavery was God’s will and that struggle against it was the work of Satin.  He implied that God personally gave the OK last week to kill tens of thousands of Haitians.  And God was justified in undertaking this slaughter based on the sins of ancestors several generations back.

To judge from press reports ridiculing Robertson, a great many people appreciate that such a view is morally demented.  But it does bring up in a starker-than-usual form difficult issue for religious people who are also concerned with ethics.  If  God is all knowing and all powerful, why would He trigger, or even permit, an earthquake to kill tens of thousands of innocent people?  Indeed, what possible justification could He have for the violent death of one innocent child?  Or for any of the other atrocities that we all see in the ordinary course of  life?  This line of questioning was really valuable to me in finding the courage to step off the path of conventional religious thinking.

An Xmas Carol

As a nonbeliever, I feel a deep ambivalence about Christmas.  The customs and traditions are strongly evocative of a many happy episodes in my childhood — longed-for toys, rich food, friendship and love.  But it also evokes memories and feeling of sadness and loss for loved ones now gone, who were integral to those early years.

And I’m deeply ambivalent at the sweet and absurd idea of Santa Claus.  The red felt suit, the jolliness, the limitless generosity are all great ideas.  But even now, I feel a slight bitterness and chagrin that my normally reliable and credible parents, when I put the “Is he really real?” question  to them squarely, gave some type of yes and set me up to make a fool of myself in defending the existence of Santa to the neighborhood kids.  I trusted them to tell the truth!  There may be, as recent studies suggest, some value in Santa for developing children’s imaginative powers.  But for me, even years later, there was a cost in terms of injured trust.  My Mom’s solution was to let me read the old chestnut Yes Virginia, There is a Santa Claus, which proposes to escape the problem of no Santa by redefining Santa as the Christmas spirit.  Really?

I know I’m not the only one with complicated feelings about Christmas.  Some love the shopping and the happy surprises, some love the story of the baby Jesus, some love being with family.  With all the pain and confusion in the world, I have no wish to add to the store without good reason.  I usually keep a low profile about my own irreligion, and especially so at Christmas time, when it seems that Christian beliefs are  for many on balance a source of joy.  But I don’t like flying under false colors, and I feel less than forthright when I say Merry Christmas.  There’s no problem with “merry,” but I don’t care to suggest I’m on board with the Christ part.  I usually go with “happy holidays” or something like that, but really, that just doesn’t sound as happy.  Yet another problem with no good solution.

Still, yesterday, after playing some really rich and beautiful music of Debussy, I found myself digging through the bottom of the music pile for my rarely used Xmas sheet music, and without any particular internal discussion I was soon playing through some favorite carols of my youth:  Angels We have Heard on High, Oh Christmas Tree, Oh Come All Ye Faithful, Joy to the World, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, and the Chipmunk Song.  It was a bit like Proust’s madeleine:  memories of family gatherings caroling, happy shopping, beginner band concerts, presents, vacations from schoolwork, trips to see grandparents, fresh smelling decorated trees, wrapping presents, and houses smelling of fresh-baked cookies hit me all at once.  I felt the pure childlike joy of Christmas.