Atheists in Foxholes

Because I susbscribe to Alternet, I occasionally read the blogger Greta Christina.   She’s an atheist, one who believes that it is important to be aggressive in overcoming “religion.”   I have many philosophical disagreements with her, such as a belief in God, but more fundamentally, she is a useful example of an atheist who is tone deaf to the experiences of those who find religious traditions worthy and useful.  She is also one an atheist who doesn’t believe she needs to learn much more.

In her most recent Alternet column she takes on the phrase “there are no atheists in foxholes.”  It’s a charming, quaint assertion, one that, she rightly points out, is most likely empirically untrue.  Atheists do face death and they don’t suddenly become metaphysicians in those times.  My father, when he was diagnosed with cancer, didn’t start praying,  although he did continue going to a Unitarian Universalist church (he was one of those atheists who wasn’t offended by religion) and did not drive out the Episcopal chaplain who offered consolation when he was in hospice.

She also argues that it is a bigoted assertion.  That somehow it insinuates that atheists, in their moment of questioning, will then abandon their beliefs and join, for example, the Catholic Church.

At heart of the conundrum is the example of the “praying atheist.”   What she doesn’t seem to understand is that the issue is not about the afterlife, or about death, nor is it really about belief.

For her, in a foxhole, the true atheist may fret, complain, twiddle their thumbs, anything except pray to something that doesn’t exist.   But does an atheist in a foxhole who does pray suddenly a theist?   No:   all they have done is express a desire to be rescued.

And there would be nothing wrong with that.

The phrase, as Ms. Christina reads it, is a good example of one that misdirects.  To add to the confusion, she mistranslates it, interpreting it mainly as a comment on the faith of atheism, rather than on their desires.  Religious language, however, directs the hearer to look and hear in a particular way.  Greta Christina hears religious language in a foxhole as a communication to a non-existent object.

But is that all it is?  Not really.

Being in a foxhole presumes a couple things. One is that we would be completely powerless.  We would have no control.  And that our lives are at stake.  In these situations, our mental energy might be consumed, believer or non believer, by one possibility.

We’d want to be rescued. And that presumes that rescue is possible, even when the facts, the reality, is that we won’t be.  Reality matters, of course, and in a foxhole, the reality is that we would probably die.  To a religious believer, in these situations, prayer is justified.  And I would assert that it would be perfectly reasonable to do so, even if it were inefficacious.

But it seems to me that any sort of prayer, for Ms. Christian, is that prayer is an incomprehensible language, the expression of which is not merely nonsense, but also – even in its utterance – morally circumspect.

When someone says “there are no atheists in foxholes,” however, the assertion is not merely that they will become metaphysicians.  It is not necessarily about the supernatural.  It is an expression that asserts that even when we are powerless, we may desire a power that will rescue us.   It may be a natural, materialistic power.  But the desire still exists.    Even when the object, the rescue, the rescuer, may not exist.

If anything, the praying atheist is merely taking a bet, covering all bases.  When one is powerless, it is fully rational and pragmatic to put ideology aside and take a risk, even if is a poor one, if only because the only temporary cost to prayer is one’s identity as a non-believer.  If praying is merely an archaic tool that probably has no use, there is no shame in using it in a time of need.  But if it is a tool that is morally and conceptually offensive to one’s own identity, then it becomes a problem.  Greta seems to be in the latter category.  Praying is not merely incomprehensible, no true atheist would use it.

Granted, not all atheists require a belief in human power.  But for many people – including non-believers – power is desirable, especially when faced with death.   Such a statement about atheists in foxholes is to place them in the company of human beings who have such desires.  And these desires are reasonable, even if the outcomes are not guaranteed.

Greta is clear:  “the fact that atheists love life, that we’re deeply attached to the people we love, and that we experience fear and grief in the face of death. It’s a lie that tries to depict us, as not just callow and naive, but as something less than human.”   Well, I do hope that Christians could understand that.  In fact, it might be exactly why they say “there are no atheists in foxholes.”  Even an atheist loves life and experiences fear and grief in the face of death, and a desire not to die.

Atheists often make a similar assertion about Christians:  that if they really believed in the afterlife, why wouldn’t they just love death and kill themselves?  After all, isn’t the afterlife a better place?  Although there is a legitimate tension, the truth is that there is no place in Christian theology that requires a Christian to love death.   There is a strong tradition of not being afraid of death, but the two virtues are not identical.  One can be both brave and love life.  If anything, the doctrine and tradition of the church is precisely directed thus.  This why suicide is circumscribed and the funeral mass is a resurrection mass.  The challenge to the belief in the afterlife that Christians should love death, illustrates a misunderstanding of the tradition and human experiences within that tradition.

A Christian may admit that merely wishing does not make things happen.  Wishing, after all, is only one dimension of prayer, and not even the most important one.   But if I were in a foxhole with an atheist, and s/he started to pray I would neither condemn her for her hypocrisy or her weakness.  I wouldn’t expect her to ascribe to any metaphysic or join a church afterwards.   I would understand the desire.  I might share in that wish.  For sometimes we are powerless, and we want someone to rescue us, and have to find a way to express that hope.  And prayer is a rhetoric that is not circumscribed only to believers.

When we do get rescued, it may be a human face that does, and for me, that face would seem a lot like God’s.

Slacktivist on Health Care

Fred explains why we’re not getting raises and knocks down a couple sacred cows.

15. Do you see the point here? You are angrily, loudly demanding that Congress make sure that you never, ever get another pay raise as long as you live. Because of you and because of your angry demands, you and your family and your kids are going to have to get by with less this year than last year. And next year you’re going to have to get by with even less. And if you keep angrily demanding that no one must ever fix this problem, then you’re going to have to figure out how to get by on less and less every year for the rest of your life.

The entire rant.

About the Massachusetts Election

1.  Scott Brown has a compelling narrative.  He is presidential material – he’s telegenic, smart, socially moderate, financially conservative.  He’s strong on defense, and unlike many Republicans, he’s actually served.   In some ways, he is like Obama – very himself, confident and clear.  Furthermore, unlike many conservatives,  doesn’t have the personal animosity towards Obama being fostered by plenty in the wingnut branch of the party.  That suits him.

2.  This MAY presage bad news for the Democrats.  Yes, perhaps they were not responsible for the economic fiasco.  But they were not able to provide a narrative about how we got here, in part because they, also, were complicit.  They were still at the bank’s bidding.   When the union party sells out the unions, a union man might just decide to vote Republican.

3.  Obama has generally been reticent about playing the economic populist.  He’s not an economic populist.  He’s a centrist, a libertarian of the behavioralist school.  In spite of the ridiculous assertions that he’s a closet Marxist, he actually believes that banks have a proper function in the economy.   This means the Republicans, being the alternative party, are getting to play that role.

4.  People don’t get Keynes.   The stimulus may have prevented jobs from being lost, but people don’t quite understand that.   They buy the easy (and possibly false) idea, that the deficit means something.   People are aware that they are not getting much for their taxes.   They don’t seem to understand that our taxes are helping our military, the Iraqis, the Afghanis, the Israelis, and the Pakistanis.   Good causes, to be sure, but its expensive to help millions of people in the rest of the world, and our own military and not get a much else in return, especially when we can’t seem to police our own borders as well as we should (unionized, skilled TSA workers might help).

5.  Scott Brown is more liberal than some southern Democrats.  He’s unformed by focus groups, and may actually be an independent.

6.  The national health care plan is basically Massachusetts but for the entire country.

7.  Perhaps Obama will be forced to form a bipartisan committee with Republicans and challenge them when they oppose a minimum plan.

8. Obama should challenge those companies, including pharmaceutical companies, who oppose legitimate free-market principles.  A national health exchange and allowing imports from Canada are popular, and legit to libertarians.

9.  Obama mainly wants people to be kept on task.  the task is to reform the system.  He can still be an effective leader, but you start with the possible to get to the impossible.

A year after the inauguration

From 2009

Like the two million people who went to the inauguration, I’m captivated by the change in administration.

Although my personal politics are *ahem* non-partisan, or “Red Tory,” I think that Obama has demonstrated – even apart from his political slant – sophisticated and agile leadership. The most important evidence is his ability to stay connected to people who think differently. He is motivated by curiosity and a sense that everyone has a view worth sharing.

I share some interests with our President. I moved to Chicago in 1992 for because Chicago was where community organizing was part of the Divinity School curriculum. The city’s physical landscape was organized around neighborhoods. In 1982 it elected Harold Washington, who some think was one of the truly great politicians of all time – a man who combined realism with idealism in a way that transformed Chicago. At the time, I was fascinated by the city more than New York.

The university itself was also the center of rigorous conservative thought. It avoided an instinctive leftish position but was rigorous and fair, generally unimpressed by identity politics. Obama’s teaching at Chicago was a time when he would have been connected to both social action, politics, and conservative thought that would help ground his ability to look at the world in complicated ways. I think this is a worthy gift – being able to see the world through many different lenses.

He inherits a challenge. Yet, our role is not to assent without understanding, to idealize without reflecting, or to worship. We must still organize ourselves as witnesses to love in the world, speak truth to power, and hold up a mirror to our leaders, holding them accountable for their actions. We can do so by remaining magnanimous and remembering the cardinal rule of organizing: there are no permanent enemies. Which is another way of saying, “love your neighbor.”

Martin Luther King Day Prayer

The Benediction given at the Martin Luther King White Plains Unity Dinner, January 17th.

Holy G-d, source of life, lover of souls,

You led your people out of bondage into freedom.

You have shown us the road to righteousness.

We give thanks for this wonderful morning

Of song and story

To remember the movement

That inspired and challenged this country

to liberate the marginalized among us,

and to also remember Martin, your beloved, who challenged this nation to live the promise of human dignity.

Although we know we must continue on that journey,

We lift up to you the sacrifices we have made

Through your love.

We know that this joury for justice will not be easy.

It will not make us popular; it may not bring us bounty,

But it may bring us to a better land.

Bless us for we know this

Now send us now into the world in peace.

To go and serve as you have commanded.

Strengthen the hands and hearts of those who help others in the midst of adversity;

Grant us all firm resolve to stand with our neighbors who are in need,

And support of them in this their time of trouble;

May we speak the truth, though it may be uncomfortable;

May we challenge the powers, though it come at great expense;

But may we do so with love an humility,

Keeping our eyes on the prize.

And the blessing of God almighty, by whom, in whom and through whom we have our power, but upon us, and remain with us forever more. Amen

A Reflection on the Earthquake

Written in 2004 after the Tsunami by David Bentley Hart.

Go Here to Make a Donation.  Episcopal Relief and Development is a 4-Star Charity.  The money goes where it needs to.

As a Christian, I cannot imagine any answer to the question of evil likely to satisfy an unbeliever; I can note, though, that–for all its urgency–Voltaire’s version of the question is not in any proper sense “theological.” The God of Voltaire’s poem is a particular kind of “deist” God, who has shaped and ordered the world just as it now is, in accord with his exact intentions, and who presides over all its eventualities austerely attentive to a precise equilibrium between felicity and morality. Not that reckless Christians have not occasionally spoken in such terms; but this is not the Christian God.

The Christian understanding of evil has always been more radical and fantastic than that of any theodicist; for it denies from the outset that suffering, death and evil have any ultimate meaning at all. Perhaps no doctrine is more insufferably fabulous to non-Christians than the claim that we exist in the long melancholy aftermath of a primordial catastrophe, that this is a broken and wounded world, that cosmic time is the shadow of true time, and that the universe languishes in bondage to “powers” and “principalities”–spiritual and terrestrial–alien to God. In the Gospel of John, especially, the incarnate God enters a world at once his own and yet hostile to him–“He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not”–and his appearance within “this cosmos” is both an act of judgment and a rescue of the beauties of creation from the torments of fallen nature.

Whatever one makes of this story, it is no bland cosmic optimism. Yes, at the heart of the gospel is an ineradicable triumphalism, a conviction that the victory over evil and death has been won; but it is also a victory yet to come. As Paul says, all creation groans in anguished anticipation of the day when God’s glory will transfigure all things. For now, we live amid a strife of darkness and light.

When confronted by the sheer savage immensity of worldly suffering–when we see the entire littoral rim of the Indian Ocean strewn with tens of thousands of corpses, a third of them children’s–no Christian is licensed to utter odious banalities about God’s inscrutable counsels or blasphemous suggestions that all this mysteriously serves God’s good ends. We are permitted only to hate death and waste and the imbecile forces of chance that shatter living souls, to believe that creation is in agony in its bonds, to see this world as divided between two kingdoms–knowing all the while that it is only charity that can sustain us against “fate,” and that must do so until the end of days.

Craig Uffman also quotes Hart.

What is Church For? On Being Boring

How are we supposed to experience church? What does it mean to encounter the “holy”?

For some, church is supposed to be a time of reflection. While words and music float through your mind, you consider your failures, your losses, your hopes; the laundry and what’s for dinner; your old friend you haven’t called back.

For others its a time to let go of all the things you did wrong that week. Or to feel more self-righteous.

For others, Church is where I, the priest, tell you what to do. Like, if I were to say, “Please bring the rector a steak and a 2005 Bordeaux, now! It’s good for God, and good for me.” Or, more traditionally, “stop having a good time” or “don’t put a whoopee cushion on the rector’s seat, Jack.”

When I was vicar of the Anglican Cathedral in Seoul, I asked the American Ambassador, James Laney, who was also a pastor, if he would preach before he left town. “I appreciate the offer, but when I come to church, its a time for me to just sit and do nothing. I am always preparing during the week, and I’m always pleased just to listen.” For him, Church is a place to do nothing, to sit still. We’re always doing something, and church is a place to do the opposite.

Unless we’ve made you an usher, a Lay Eucharistic Minister or a member of the altar guild. Or put you on the vestry.

For some, church should be boring. James Alison, the theologian, says “When people tell me that they find Mass boring, I want to say to them: it’s supposed to be boring, or at least seriously underwhelming. It’s a long term education in becoming un-excited, since only that will enable us to dwell in a quiet bliss which doesn’t abstract from our present or our surroundings or our neighbour, but which increases our attention, our presence and our appreciation for what is around us. The build up to a sacrifice is exciting, the dwelling in gratitude that the sacrifice has already happened, and that we’ve been forgiven for and through it is, in terms of excitement, a long drawn-out let-down.” Excitement means we’re ready to go burn something down or creat a lynch mob. The mass is about becoming unexcited.

Sometimes, we experience the holy as a kind of enchantment. That’s how kids experience Disney, or I experienced Michele Pfeiffer in The Fabulous Baker Boys. To some extent, the mass is like that: a time to become a child, or to be crooned to by God’s holy, loving, intimate voice.

The eucharist might be also disenchanting, revealing the world for what it is, our own hands of love exactly what God has given us to get through this world. There are illusions all around us: the immediate promises of wealth and power, opposed to the simple symbol of people sharing bread and wine, now connected as one body.

But in either case, the holy is a time where we are awakened. Suddenly we see the world a little differently, in a new cast, in a different hue. All God has done is change the lighting. We saw dimly, but now what is real is apparent, heightened and lovely.

The holy is not about getting the world right; it is not about perfecting our souls, as if we could do that. It is not about doing what the priest says, no matter how I would enjoy that power. It is, perhaps, a state where we see the world differently, suddenly enchanted when we are despairing, or disenchanted when we had been fooled.

And then we are invited into the understanding that we are a bit more powerful than we thought we were, and not simply taken along for the ride.

Rules for Eating

Matt Baldwin, a close buddy of mine, has had a truly transformative year.   In one of his more recent blog posts, he recognized his own need to set up dietary rules that were specific to him.  What is useful is how he goes through a process of reflection, adjustment and recalibration.  In a way, it’s a practice that contemplative and spiritual.  This year, I’m going to do the same.  The fundamental insight I’ve gained from him is that it is about movement and improvement.

I have some good habits already:  I’m not much of a sugar junkie.  I gave up sodas, candy bars and ice cream years ago, as well as most white food.   I’m good about cooking and avoiding processed food, although I do sneak a Zone Bar occasionally.    I have three major issues:  I’m a heavy drinker; I eat starchy foods, especially rice and potatoes; and I eat very fast.  Add a habit of wings twice a week, chicken vindaloo with two cups of rice, and you’ve got a Padre Mambo with a spare tire as a partner.

I’ve read numerous books on dieting, understanding that this is really about a lifestyle change and not merely about making temporary changes.  Most fundamentally, there must always be a practice of discipline.  I doubt it is possible to stay healthy in this culture without being attentive and diligent.  There are, simply put, too many factors, interests and institutions who have an interest in people eating fatty, salty and sweet foods.

So I’ve read the literature.  I’ve especially been influenced by Mehmet Oz, Joel Furhman, David Kessler, John Gabriel, Susan Roberts, Brian Wansink and Various paleo authors.    Here is my list that will guide me, I hope, until Easter, when I will recalibrate and see what’s successful and what’s not.

I’ve formerly been successful at losing weight.  Two times had to do with women.  One didn’t drink; we ran a few times a week together.  During this time I would have either eggs or oatmeal in the morning; a salad with tuna for my afternoon snack; and a Cambridge shake for dinner.   It was a South Beach Diet variation, low carbs.  I stopped drinking beer.  In August of 2003 I weighed 145.   We never dated, alas.  The work was for naught.

I met someone else, during which I gained 42 pounds, reaching a morning weight of 187 in October, 2006.  My roommate at the time only ate white food, and would buy large packages of potato chips and french onion dip, both of which were comfort foods for me.  We’d make popcorn and pour 1/2 cup of butter on it.  We ate lots of pasta.  We would treat ourselves to ice cream.  Then my girlfriend and I broke up, and I changed – or restored – my eating habits.

I followed one primary rule, which helped me lose 25 lobs.  I learned to feel when I was becoming full.  I tried to eat slowly, and would only eat half what I ate.  I would eat nuts before I went out, and was attentive about drinking water.  When I had wings, I shared them.  I also stopped drinking beer and eating rice, but these were secondary.   I kept a very basic food diary.

My goal is to get to my ideal weight, which may be anywhere from 130 to 150 lbs.  I have a thin frame. I’d like to reduce my waistline to 36, which would be close to losing about 40 lbs for me – which would bring me to 142, from 182.  It’s possible.

I’m also participating in Crossfit Stamford, which is an inspiration for me.  I’ve spent this week mainly in prayer and consideration, recovery from writing for my thesis, and mental preparation for this change, and am ready to hit Crossfit on a every day basis,  starting on the 11th.

So here are my new rules.

  • One pint of beer on Sundays and Thursdays.   The rest of the week no more than 2 glasses of wine an evening.  Mondays and Saturdays dry.
  • Share all calorie dense food (say, wings).
  • Pay attention and eat slowly, at a table.
  • Eat on smaller plates.
  • Half of all plates should be vegetables.
  • Drink Water.
  • Eat at least one salad a day.
  • Say wonderful things about myself and how in control I am.
  • No less than seven hours of good sleep every night.

I will be adjusting these, testing them occasionally.  I think they are a good beginning.  I don’t exclude anything, but that may come when I start the Paleo challenge on January 23rd.  Several of my friends are teasing me about this, but we’ll see.

Lent also begins on February 17th, so as Paleo ends I’ll also be completely giving up alcohol and refined sugars (including grains) until Easter.    It will be a big shift for me, in part because I’m a heavy drinker, and have used it as a reward for a long day.   Your encouragement will be essential as I begin this journey to greater health and power.