Monday, October 25, 2010

God, Reason, and Sam Harris

I have long been troubled by the fact that public discussion of and media attention to the existence of "God," assumes that the word "God" refers to a supernatural person who is rather like a super version of a human person, a "guy" who lives way "out there" somewhere, answers our prayers, and occasionally performs magical acts called miracles.

I do not understand the term God to be restricted to signifying this cosmic super-being, and many professional theologians and philosophers do not either. Just read Charles Hartshorne, Paul Tillich, J.A.T Robinson or David Griffith and you will quickly see that there are other possibilities.

I've posted on this before and I refer my readers to my previous posts on God and religion, for my own views. Public discussion, however, has very seldom recognized this distinction.

I am happy to report that Newsweek has changed this trend. In a recent article on so-called "atheist" Sam Harris We learn that for Harris

The answer to the question “Do you believe in God?” comes down to this: It depends on what you mean by “God.” The God Harris doesn’t believe in is, as he puts it, a “supernatural power” and “a personal deity who hears prayers and takes an interest in how people live.” This God and its subscribers he finds unreasonable. But he understands that many people—especially in progressive corners of organized religion and among the “spiritual but not religious”—often mean something else. They equate God with “love” or “justice” or “singing in church” or “that feeling I get on a walk in the woods,” or even “the awesome aspects of existence I’ll never understand.”

Even more encouragingly

According to a 2008 study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, a quarter of Americans believe that God is “an impersonal force.” Among Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox, and the unaffiliated, the number rises to a third. Among Jews, it’s half. In a Gallup study done in May, 9 percent of respondents said they believe in a God who doesn’t answer prayers.

When polled about God, “people substitute in their own ideas,” says John Green, senior research adviser at Pew. “People have a vague, fuzzy notion of transcendence, and they substitute God for it...When you try to make the definition more specific, fewer people answer in the affirmative.” Or put another way, “If you let the concept of God float a little bit, almost everybody is a theist,” says Stephen Prothero, author of God Is Not One. What Sam Harris believes in—rationality, morality, transcendence, humility, awe, community, selflessness, and love—meets a fairly common definition of God.

It seems that a sizable, though I confess a minority, of people who think that they believe in God reject the idea of a divine super person who answers prayers and performs miracles, they believe in "God," but don't believe "the old man in the sky."

Harris has a reason for his beliefs, a reason that will resonate with many spiritual people

Harris is ... promoting The Moral Landscape, his new book. Even here, he briefly explores the connections between spiritual experience—especially an experience of selflessness—and human happiness. “I see nothing irrational about seeking the states of mind that lie at the core of many religions. Compassion, awe, devotion and feelings of oneness are surely among the most valuable experiences a person can have,” he writes. Over lunch, he says with a smile how much he looks forward to working on the next project, which will allow him to pull back, after six long years, and focus on things that support human flourishing. “Ecstasy, rapture, bliss, concentration, a sense of the sacred—I’m comfortable with all of that,” says Harris later. “I think all of that is indispensable and I think it’s frankly lost on much of the atheist community.”

This is really quite astounding. I've very often been told by atheists and theists alike that because I don't believe in a rather crudely anthropomorphic conception of God, I am really, therefore, an "atheist," despite my claims to the contrary. It's refreshing to finally see a major news magazine, and a popularly known atheist, recognize and embrace the fact that the world "God" need not refer to merely one idea.

I hope this becomes far more common.

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Saturday, October 23, 2010

Tea, Racism, and Armey's Billions

Please watch the following video to the end, look at all the signs:

Now, can anyone honestly tell me that these "Tea-Party groups" are really but a grassroots movement of "simple folks" who just don't like big government?!!!

No. They are largely a pack of racists and other extremist bigots. Nor are they grassroots. The Tea-Party is pretty much bankrolled and organized by far right billionaires. Their mental illness, ignorance, xenophobia, religious fanaticism, homophobia, and racism is being used to protect and serve corporate interests.

Don't believe me?

Check out the following:

or this

And finally,

Enough of this game of pretend. The Tea-Party is not a group of decent conservatives who are just "mad as hell," they are, rather, a group of radicals and unbalanced lunatics who are bought and paid for by corrupt rich men looking to increase the size of their already grotesquely swollen wallets.

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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Other Political Halloween Masks

It turns out that you can find Halloween/monster images of other political figures:

here are a few:

First: Reaganstine

It will be noted that this mask, unlike the Obama mask, is actually rather "cute" and "cuddly." The guy looks more like Herman Munster than the genuine Frankenstein's creature.

Next, Sarah Palin as a "rogue Zombie."

A bit more gruesome than Reaganstein, but still a nice smile and much more clearly a "funny" and "goofy" Halloween Mask.

Again contrast that with the cruel face of Baruckula:

The difference strikes me as very marked. Finally however, there is a parallel to Obama, with Bush as a Vampire:

It would appear, then, that my worries about Racism in portraying Obama were without foundation? Not so fast. Here again is the Obama statue of Liberty/Vampire picture:

Notice that obama's features are greatly exaggerated in a parody of stereotyped ideas of African American faces, but Bush's normal face is used. Why is that?

Why is "Barackula's" mask cruel and malicous looking, but Reaganstine, lovable and grandfatherly? And why is Palin's mask merely goofy?

Perhaps the vampire images of Obama are not racist, I don't insist that they must be, but the differences in portrayal cries out for explanation, and racism is clearly a possible explanation of these different looks.Bookmark and Share

Friday, October 8, 2010

Obama Vampire Mask: Racism and Xenophobia for Halloween

It is obvious to anyone who has paid attention that Barack Obama has been demonized by the right-wing. He is regularly referred to as a "Keynan anti-colonialist," birthers rave that he was not really born here, and others shriek that he is a secret muslim terroirst!

It appears that this demonization has gone to new extremes. I checked out some of the seasonal Halloween stores the other day and found the mask you see in the above picture.. The mask was called "Barackula." It is normal to make and sell masks of political figures, I have not, however, ever seen one as a vampire. This mask is not an isolated incident, the image of Barackula has been used fairly regularly by the far right, as a simple Google search will reveal.

And look at the picture: Obama is here portrayed clearly has a bloodthirsty demon. I can't help but see racism behind the image. The reason I see racism here, is that the stereotype of African-American physical features are the very features that seem to be cruelly twisted into the the disturbing and demonic features of the vampire. And, then, of course, there is this image form a Tea-Party rally:

Before some reader protests that portraying Obama as a vampire is not racist, remember three things; first the vampire is regularly portrayed as an embodiment of the frightening "other." For instance, in Bram Stoker's Dracula, the Count is clearly a foreign and alien power who has come to destroy all that is good about "our" British society. Now, and this is my second point, I've not seen other Presidents portrayed as demons or vampires. I grant, however, that it could have been done. If anyone knows of such a case, please point it out to me. Finally, I could avoid reading "Barackula" in terms of "the other," and the "alien," were it not for the already mentioned hysteria about his Kenyan ancestry, and the lunatic conspiracy theories that he was not born here. It seems likely that the mask is part the fears of some people who see Obama as an alien force, threatening "real Americans."

If this is an instance of racism, it may very well be about Obama's perceived "Muslimness" and not his "blackness." I am even willing to believe it merely reflects anger at "liberals" - though I suspect all three biases are at work here - but it is clearly a demonization. If any of my readers are prepared to see the mask as something intended to simply be funny, look at the image again. The face is cruel, nasty, and terrifying.

But what do my readers think? Am I right to fear that racism, or, at the very least, tremendous hatred of Obama is manifested in this Halloween mask?

Personally, in light of the tradition of portraying "the other" as a vampire, the xenophobia and racism of prominent groups who oppose Obama, and the actual appearance of the mask, I find myself greatly disturbed and can't help but ask the question if this image does not cater to that kind hostility towards our President. In the end, I am strongly inclined to think that it does appeal to the demonization of Obama constantly spewing forth from right wing extremists.

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Tuesday, October 5, 2010

White House Summit On Community Colleges

Today the White House held a massive summit on Community Colleges. This is crucial for putting such institutions center stage.

Most higher education is very expensive and, therefore, favors the wealthy and powerful. Community Colleges serve the middle and working classes. It follows that this is higher education for the rest of us, for the people! We have a moral duty as a nation to support such colleges.

The Chronicle of Higher Education provides a good analysis of the merits and problems with this summit and the administration's treatment of Community Colleges. Rightly angry that the funding for Community college has been greatly cut from what Obama originally promised, as well as the hasty and half-hearted nature of the entire summit, the Chronicle nonetheless claims that
most participants said they were looking forward to the event and appreciated the fact that the summit will thrust community colleges into the spotlight like never before .... At least three national efforts to expand the work of community colleges are scheduled to be announced at the summit. President Obama plans to announce a national public-private partnership to help retrain workers for jobs that are in demand. The national program is in response to frustrations that have been expressed both by workers and by employers who complain that public-retraining programs frequently do not provide students with employable skills. The new program is intended to help better align community-college curricula with the needs of local companies.

The Aspen Institute, a Washington-based not-for-profit, private research organization, will run the partnership, named Skills for America's Future. The president will also announce the creation of a government task force that will include representatives from the Department of Labor, the Department of Commerce and other federal agencies. The task force will ensure that federal efforts are coordinated and facilitate the private sector's access to federal training and education programs.

Melinda Gates, who is attending the summit, will announce that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will spend $35-million over five years to help increase the graduation rates of community-college students. The Completion by Design program will award competitive grants to groups of community colleges, which will then use the money to devise and enact new approaches to making the colleges more accessible to students, especially those from low-income families.
Community Colleges are filled with great teachers, fine administrations and students of a very high quality. Watch the summit here, I embded the videos for the full summit below:

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Saturday, October 2, 2010

Remembering Mr. Gandhi

Today marks the anniversary of the birth of Mohandas Gandhi. I paste the following video of Gandhi's words to remember what he stood for.

I find that, unlike Gandhi, I cannot fully embrace total non-violence. For instance, Gandhi opposed the use of force even against Hitler! Even in self-defense! I don't say he was wrong, just that I cannot take the doctrine that far myself.

Non-violence, however, is more than just not using force. It is a commitment to a way of life, a way of life that rejects the normal injustice, discrimination, and brute use of power by governments, in relationships, and between people in every day encounters.

For Gandhi, we must stop responding to each other in hostile terms, stop thinking of each other as separate and opposed. Non-violence is really about our connections with each other, the unity of the human family, and the rejection of hostility and power struggles as part of our relationships to one another.

It is this rejection of hostility and distrust and its replacement by cooperation, love, and peace that we remember when we remember Mr. Gandhi. In the current political climate, where extremists shout out fears of government take overs and communism, where tea-baggers bring automatic weapons to political rallies, and where disagreements on policy are primarily expressed by ranting and raving and bullying your opponents ... we would do well to reflect on the example of Gandhi

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