Monday, December 12, 2005

I Am Not a Caveman

My older brother is always good for a laugh. He has this idea that there are two kinds of people in the world: upstanding Christian conservatives like himself, and liberal crackpots. Since I am not in the former category it follows, in his mind at least, that I must necessarily be in the latter category.

He never hesitates to tell me what I think.

Last summer, at a family reunion of sorts at a park in my home town, my brother informed me that, if it were up to me, "we would all be living in caves."

Thursday, December 8, 2005

A Fir Tree By Any Other Name

Today was the last day of class for the semester, and I unwound a bit by having my students discuss a simple question: "When we get up to leave today, should I wish you a Merry Christmas?"

The discussion in each case was livelier than many we've had this semester, and covered a lot of the ground I've covered in this blog in the last few days. My students helped me to clarify my thinking.

Plan Ahead and Keep Moving

It's an unusually cold morning in Atlanta, and there's a good chance of rain this afternoon.

Yesterday, looking ahead to today with a certain dread, I once more consoled myself with the thought that this is the kind of weather that makes us know we're alive.

On my way up the hill to my office this morning, mulling over the idea, it occurred to me why it is so: it's easy to die in this kind of weather. When I lived up north, I experienced winter days that could easily kill a person in a matter of minutes. All you would have to do is go outside without heavy clothing (coat, scarf, hat, gloves) and stand still for a while.

But then, this is generally true. To stay alive, we always have to plan ahead and keep moving. Winter just makes that necessity more pressing, closer to our immediate awareness.

Wednesday, December 7, 2005

Yuletide in Public and in Private

While I celebrate Yule and accept that others celebrate Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa, and the Feast of Acquisition, I think it is important to draw a line between the public realm and the private realm regarding the various observances of the season.

Tuesday, December 6, 2005

Happy Chanuchristnicholanzaa Yulestice!

I have a guilty secret that I always have to grapple with at this time of year. I am no longer a Christian, but I love Christmas.

This may be just an artifact of my upbringing. With my family, Christmas has always been a big deal, with unrestrained decoration and big family gatherings with lots of good food. There were church services for Advent, pageants, the works.

I don't go to church any more. I don't celebrate Advent or the birth of Jesus. Even so, the lights, the music, the food, even the shopping (especially now that I have children), all of it is still strangely moving to me.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Pat Robertson v. Intelligent Design

In response to last week's election in Dover, Pennsylvania, where voters turned out of office all eight conservative school board members who supported the introduction of intelligent design into the science classroom, Pat Robertson has been quoted as saying:
I'd like to say to the good citizens of Dover: if there is a disaster in your area, don't turn to God, you just rejected Him from your city.

And don't wonder why He hasn't helped you when problems begin, if they begin. I'm not saying they will, but if they do, just remember, you just voted God out of your city. And if that's the case, don't ask for His help because he might not be there.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Again? So Soon?

Here I am again, in the box at press level, watching Hurricane Rita cross the Gulf of Mexico. It's now a Category 4 storm, though it peaked as a Category 5 early this morning, with top winds of an astonishing 170 miles per hour.

So, the struggle resumes between fascination and dread - only now I'm watching myself as I watch the storm, trying to catch every swing of the pendulum. I'm also trying, in the interest of decency, to let dread win out.

Monday, September 12, 2005


The other night I had a dream in which I made an important connection about apocalyptic thinking. I dreamed I was talking to people about all this when it occurred to me that the whole thing may be wrapped up in the lived experience of time.

Friday, September 9, 2005


Further reflections on Hurricane Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans have helped me to draw together some of the threads that have run through this blog.

At least part of what it means to be a skeptic in public life is to steer a course between credulity and incredulity, and between the perverse relish for the apocalypse and simple denial. This is a difficult course to steer: the extremes exert a powerful influence on the human psyche (or, at least, on my psyche; I shouldn’t over generalize).

So, (for me, at least) to be a skeptic in public life is to maintain a tension among these influences, and to somehow find a way to live within and through this tension.

This is very hard to do.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Hoping for the Apocalypse

Watching the unfolding story of Hurricane Katrina yesterday left me struggling, once again, with my own fascination with the apocalypse.

I've written, in other contexts, that this fascination pervades Western culture, and that it may have deeper roots in the human psyche. Witnessing or being a part of cataclysmic events, I've noted, seems to elicit a pair of responses, both of which are basically perverse: "Cool!" and "That'll teach 'em."

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Intelligent Design and the Argument from Incredulity

Something about Intelligent Design Theory has been bugging me, and I finally figured out what it is.

Intelligent Design Theory (IDT) is the latest ploy by opponents of Darwinian evolutinary theory to bring religious teachings into public school classrooms. Rather than embracing Christian fundamentalist doctrine directly, IDT is dressed up as a scientific hypothesis: life on Earth is too complex to have arisen by chance alone, so there must have been some sort of Designer.

Tuesday, July 5, 2005

A Scratch

By the way, I came across the quotation from Hume I mangled back on June 27. It comes from hist Treatise of Human Nature, book II, part III, section III. It turns out that the irrelevance of reason to moral action cuts both ways:
'Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger. 'Tis not contrary to reason for me to chuse my total ruin, to prevent the least uneasiness of an Indian or person wholly unknown to me.

Deep Impact

I read a story from the Associated Press that a Russian astrologer is suing NASA over the collision of the Deep Impact probe with comet Tempel 1. It seems that the impact "ruins the natural balance of forces in the universe" in a way that would "deform" the astrologer's horoscope.

She is asking $300 million for "moral sufferings."

For comic relief, it's hard to beat astrology.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Faithlessness and Faithfulness

I am now halfway through a month-long separation from my wife and children, and I find myself thinking about what it means to be "faithful", especially for someone who, as a skeptic, might be described as "faithless".

As an aside, that's one of the things that amused me most about the Universists. They proudly take on a label - "the faithless" - that could easily be construed as pejorative: "those who do not keep faith, and who are thus unworthy of trust."

Wednesday, June 8, 2005

Tragedies and Miracles

I am increasingly annoyed by the widespread misuse of two words, generally in media accounts of dramatic events - or in dramatic accounts of media events: "tragedy" and "miracle".

In the most precise sense, a miracle is an event so extraordinary as to actually violate a law of nature. If a large building were to levitate in the air before a crowd of reliable and otherwise sane witnesses, that would be a miracle. As a skeptic, I would want to know a lot about those witnesses: extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, and all that. But I still respect the word, and want to reserve it for its original use.

Strategic Skepticism and Climate Change

The New York Times is reporting today that "a White House official who once led the oil industry's fight against limits on greenhouse gases has repeatedly edited government climate reports in ways that play down links between such emissions and global warming." The official in question, Philip A. Cooney, made the changes in order to emphasize, even exaggerate the uncertainty of current climate science.

This hardly comes as a surprise.

Friday, June 3, 2005

It Was an Accident

I guess the truth of the matter is that I came to think of myself as a skeptic by way of an accident.

I was working on the manuscript for my book, in which I critique the speculative pretentions of the conventional approach to environmental ethics. Since I consider myself an environmental philosopher, I wanted the title of the manuscript to convey that I am an environmentalist who entertains some serious doubts about a particular way of arguing for environmentalists' values rather than some kind of rabid anti-environmentalist.

"Skeptical Environmentalism" seemed to fit the bill.

Thursday, June 2, 2005

A Skeptic's Creed

The whole idea is ridiculous, of course.

I mean, skeptics aren't supposed to believe anything, and a creed is a statement of belief, so there can't really be any such thing as "A Skeptic's Creed", can there?

I'm not so sure - and I don't just mean that as a play on words.

Wednesday, June 1, 2005

Two More Thoughts about Universism

What disappoints me most about Universism is the near-total absence of modesty on the part of its founders.

As I understand it, skepticism is really just a kind of modesty, a willingness always to question our own most cherished assumptions and (to use Sextus' words), to continue the inquiry. Serious and enduring doubts about all claims regarding transcendence or the divine seem to come with the territory.

Monday, May 30, 2005

Half a Conversation on Universism

I wrote to the Universists at The note I sent was a shorter, earlier version of the previous posting to this blog.

To my surprise, I received a reply from none other than Ford Vox himself. Here is my half of the exchange that followed, with brief summaries of Mr. Vox's responses.

Why I Am Not a Universist

I recently read an article in my local paper about a new religion called "Universism", created by a medical student in Massachusetts. I was intrigued.

I am a skeptic in all matters transcendent, with existentialist leanings. At the same time, I miss the sense of community that can be a vital part of religious life, especially as I have encountered it in more progressive Christian congregations. So, I was curious to see what a "faithless" religion would look like.

I checked out the Universist web site (, and read the recent speech by Ford Vox, "Rise of the Faithless."

I have to say that I am more than a little disappointed. In fact, I was alarmed by what I read.