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Ask Dr. Time: In Praise of Hope

posted by Tim Carmody   Nov 30, 2018

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This week’s edition of Noticing, the Kottke.org newsletter, features the return of Doctor Time, the world’s only metaphysical advice columnist. In this case, the good doctor tries to explain the difference between faith and hope, and tries to understand what hope might mean in the absence of God. Here’s the section in full. For more thoughtful goodness, subscribe to the newsletter! I write it just about every week; if you like my posts or Jason’s posts at all, I think you’ll like it.

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What’s the difference between faith and hope?



Okay, to be fair, nobody actually asked this question in this way, but the distinction came in conversation more than once this week, and for lots of reasons, it’s worth talking about right now. For the answer, we’re going to start with an excellent podcast episode from the BBC’s In Our Time, all about the philosophy of hope.

The episode starts its genealogy with Hesiod, who right away poses the problem of Pandora’s Box and/or Jar: Hope is sealed up in the jar of all the evils in the world, but does that make it one of the evils Zeus sent to punish humanity with, or is it a good in our pantry that helps us deal with all the other evils? Even the Greeks seem split on this: Hesiod’s original story is decidedly pessimistic, and Plato and Aristotle didn’t set much store by hope, but one Greek-speaker, St. Paul, thought enough of hope that he put it with faith and love as part of a second Holy Trinity of Christian virtues. (I guess if faith is God the father, and love is Christ, hope is the holy spirit? Probably not worth mapping them onto each other too closely.)

Anyways, the really great thinker on hope is St. Augustine, who is MY MAN for many, many reasons. (I’m not Catholic or Christian any more, but I love the way the great theologians think about the universe and its problems, and Augustine is the very best one.) For Augustine, hope is first and foremost about the second coming, and the ultimate fulfillment of human beings and their potential. So you have faith, a belief that God is real and salvation is possible, which is given to you by God, you can’t manufacture it. You have love — also caritas, or charity — a kind of selfless outpouring of affection and righteous deeds towards God and all His works, especially other human beings. And then you have hope, which is this imaginative representation of being fulfilled and made whole at the end of time.

Time is important for Augustine, and hope becomes a kind of ontological structure for understanding time. Augustine thinks of temporality as a kind of eternal stretching of the now, from the beginning of time in the creation through the end of time in the resurrection, and hope is also imagined as a kind of stretching. This is how he puts it in his tractates on the first letter of John:

The entire life of a good Christian is in fact an exercise of holy desire. You do not yet see what you long for, but the very act of desiring prepares you, so that when he comes you may see and be utterly satisfied.

Suppose you are going to fill some holder or container, and you know you will be given a large amount. Then you set about stretching your sack or wineskin or whatever it is. Why? Because you know the quantity you will have to put in it and your eyes tell you there is not enough room. By stretching it, therefore, you increase the capacity of the sack, and this is how God deals with us. Simply by making us wait he increases our desire, which in turn enlarges the capacity of our soul, making it able to receive what is to be given to us.

So, my brethren, let us continue to desire, for we shall be filled. Take note of Saint Paul stretching as it were his ability to receive what is to come: Not that I have already obtained this, he said, or am made perfect. Brethren, I do not consider that I have already obtained it.

It’s kind of sexy, isn’t it? Holy desire! Stretching ourselves to be filled up! Utter satisfaction! It’s a kind of religious tantra. And every kind of hope or desire, no matter how base, is a prefiguration of (and ideally, subordinate to) that ultimate desire: to be reconciled with the universe in the godhead. We imagine, i.e., represent to ourselves, the satisfaction of our desire by stretching ourselves across time to the endpoint of our fulfillment.

And hope, like faith, is a thing that happens to us. We don’t will it; it’s inflicted on us and we receive it, make it manifest, and figure out what to do with it. This bothered the classical Greeks tremendously, because their virtues were virtues of control and mastery. But for Greek-speaking Jews and the Christians that followed them, the passive nature of hope was itself a virtue. It left room for the Messiah to walk through the door.

It also means that hope has a secular dimension that faith just doesn’t. Any object can be an object of hope. Hoping for ordinary fulfillment trains us to hope for spiritual fulfillment. It stretches us out. It makes our hearts bigger. It makes time intelligible for human beings. For all these reasons, hope, more so than faith and even love, is my favorite theological virtue. It’s the most powerful. It’s the easiest one to lose. And we are at our best and most human when we find room to hold holy our deepest hopes.

Borges on God’s Nonexistence and the Meaning of Life

posted by Tim Carmody   Nov 30, 2018

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This link comes from Zito Madu, who knows what I like. An interview with Jorge Luis Borges from 1981.

On the meaning of life:

If life’s meaning were explained to us, we probably wouldn’t understand it. To think that a man can find it is absurd. We can live without understanding what the world is or who we are. The important things are the ethical instinct and the intellectual instinct, are they not? The intellectual instinct is the one that makes us search while knowing that we are never going to find the answer.

I think Lessing said that if God were to declare that in His right hand He had the truth and in his left hand He had the investigation of the truth, Lessing would ask God to open His left hand - he would want God to give him the investigation of the truth, not the truth itself. Of course he would want that, because the investigation permits infinite hypotheses, and the truth is only one, and that does not suit the intellect, because the intellect needs curiosity. In the past, I tried to believe in a personal God, but I do not think I try anymore. I remember in that respect an admirable expression of Bernard Shaw: ”God is in the making.”

On time and space:

I am naturally idealistic. Almost everyone, thinking about reality, thinks of space, and their cosmogonies start with space. I think about time. I think everything happens in time. I feel we could easily do without space but not without time. I have a poem called ”Cosmogony” in which I say it is absurd to think the universe began with astronomical space, which presupposes, for example, sight, which came much later. It is more natural to think that in the beginning there was an emotion. Well, it is the same as saying, ”In the begining was the Word.” It is a variation on the same theme.

On faith in God:

I cannot believe in the existence of God, despite all the statistics in the world.

But you said you believed some time ago.

No, not in a personal God. To search for the truth, yes; but to think that there is somebody or something we call God, no. It is better that He should not exist; if He did he would be responsible for everything. And this world is often atrocious, besides being splendid. I feel more happy now than when I was young. I am looking forward. Even I don’t know what forward is left, because at 86 years of age, there will be, no doubt, more past than future.

When you say you are looking forward, do you mean looking forward to continuing to create as a writer?

Yes. What else is left for me? Well, no. Friendship remains. Somehow, love remains - and the most precious gift, doubt.

On death and life after death:

In the ”Zohar” (”The Book of Splendor”), which Gershom Scholem considers the most important literary work of the kabbala, there are many speculations about life after death. Swedenborg describes in detail hells and paradises. Dante’s poem is also about hell, purgatory, paradise. Where does this tendency of man come from, to try to imagine and describe something that he cannot possibly know?

In spite of oneself, one thinks. I am almost sure to be blotted out by death, but sometimes I think it is not impossible that I may continue to live in some other manner after my physical death. I feel every suicide has that doubt: Is what I am going to do worthwhile? Will I be blotted out, or will I continue to live on another world? Or as Hamlet wonders, what dreams will come when we leave this body? It could be a nightmare. And then we would be in hell. Christians believe that one continues after death to be who he has been and that he is punished or rewarded forever, according to what he has done in this brief time that was given to him. I would prefer to continue living after death if I have to, but to forget the life I lived.

Borges’s thinking has strong gnostic influences, which appeal to me and are well represented here: essentially, taking a Platonic-Christian metaphysics, but subtracting a benevolent God from the center in favor of one who’s capricious, if not evil, or has absconded from the world. His magnificent short story “Three Versions of Judas” extrapolates this brilliantly to a new understanding of the Messiah:

Toward the end of 1907, Runeberg finished and
revised the manuscript text; almost two years passed without his handing it to
the printer. In October of 1909, the book appeared with a prologue (tepid to the
point of being enigmatic) by the Danish Hebraist Erik Erfjord and bearing this
perfidious epigraph: In the world he was, and the world was made by him, and the
world knew him not (John 1:10). The general argument is not complex, even if the
conclusion is monstrous. God, argues Nils Runeberg, lowered himself to be a man
for the redemption of the human race; it is reasonable to assume that the
sacrifice offered by him was perfect, not invalidated or attenuated by any
omission. To limit all that happened to the agony of one afternoon on the cross
is blasphemous. To affirm that he was a man and that he was incapable of sin
contains a contradiction; the attributes of impeccabilitas and of humanitas are
not compatible. Kemnitz admits that the Redeemer could feel fatigue, cold,
confusion, hunger and thirst; it is reasonable to admit that he could also sin
and be damned. The famous text “He will sprout like a root in a dry soil; there
is not good mien to him, nor beauty; despised of men and the least of them; a
man of sorrow, and experienced in heartbreaks” (Isaiah 53:2-3) is for many people
a forecast of the Crucified in the hour of his death; for some (as for instance,
Hans Lassen Martensen), it is a refutation of the beauty which the vulgar
consensus attributes to Christ; for Runeberg, it is a precise prophecy, not of
one moment, but of all the atrocious future, in time and eternity, of the Word
made flesh. God became a man completely, a man to the point of infamy, a man to the point of being reprehensible - all the way to the abyss. In order to save
us, He could have chosen any of the destinies which together weave the uncertain
web of history; He could have been Alexander, or Pythagoras, or Rurik, or Jesus;
He chose an infamous destiny: He was Judas.

In vain did the bookstores of Stockholm and Lund offer this revelation. The
incredulous considered it, a priori, an insipid and laborious theological game;
the theologians disdained it. Runeberg intuited from this universal indifference
an almost miraculous confirmation. God had commanded this indifference; God did not wish His terrible secret propagated in the world. Runeberg understood that the hour had not yet come. He sensed ancient and divine curses converging upon him, he remembered Elijah and Moses, who covered their faces on the mountain top so as not to see God; he remembered Isaiah, who prostrated himself when his eyes saw That One whose glory fills the earth; Saul who was blinded on the road to Damascus; the rabbi Simon ben Azai, who saw Paradise and died; the famous soothsayer John of Viterbo, who went mad when he was able to see the Trinity; the Midrashim, abominating the impious who pronounce the Shem Hamephorash, the secret name of God. Wasn’t he, perchance, guilty of this dark crime? Might not this be the blasphemy against the Spirit, the sin which will not be pardoned (Matthew 12:3)? Valerius Soranus died for having revealed the occult name of Rome; what infinite punishment would be his for having discovered and divulged the terrible name of God?

Intoxicated with insomnia and with vertiginous dialectic, Nils Runeberg wandered through the streets of Malmö, praying aloud that he be given the grace to share Hell with the Redeemer.

The messiah as Judas, the rejected cornerstone, a mirror Christ buried in ignominy and forever doomed to suffering in hell for humankind’s sins and his own degradation. It’s both the ultimate extension of the Christ story and, like George Steiner said of Euripides’s Bacchae, a dark miracle. For my money, it’s the only catechism worth professing.

Some Reflections from My Short Trip to Istanbul

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 07, 2018

Istanbul 2018

At the end of October, I spent barely 48 hours in Istanbul — too quick, but I saw a lot of stuff in a short time. When planning this trip, I had a lot of different thoughts about places I could go — the American Southwest, Barcelona, London, Edinburgh, Seattle/Portland, Miami — but the thing that really sold me was a relatively cheap plane ticket that would take me to both Berlin and Istanbul. A two-fer? Sign me up. I’d been to Berlin before, but I was a bit nervous about Istanbul because it seemed so culturally different than other places I’d been. I needn’t have worried.

Just after I had checked into my hotel room, I heard a chanting voice over a loudspeaker coming from outside. I opened my window for a better listen — it was the adhan (the Muslim call to prayer) for the sunset prayer (probably from the Hagia Sophia, which was quite close). As I walked around the city for the next day and a half, I heard the adhan several more times. Watching the sunset in Kadikoy, you could hear the call ringing out from several mosques across the city, nearly in unison. I’m not Muslim or even remotely religious, so I was surprised at how much I liked hearing it. As with tolling European church bells, the calls to prayer knits cities together in an auditory way that secularism has yet to manage.

The nightstand in my hotel room had a sticker on it pointing the direction to Mecca. (There are apps to help with this as well.)

There are cats all over the place in Istanbul — I must have seen a dozen inside Hagia Sophia alone. My friend Jodi investigated why there are so many cats in the city.

Istanbul 2018

My first morning in Istanbul, I headed to Van Kahvalti Evi for breakfast on the strong recommendation of a reader. What greeted me was an amazing breakfast, the best I have had in quite some time (annotated above). As I was dining solo, I wasn’t able to get full breakfast (it was for 2+ people only), but I did pretty well. My favorites were the braided cheese, kaymak & honey, and the saltiest fresh cheese. The couple sitting next to me ordered the full breakfast and the waiter’s tray was like a magical clown car…he just kept putting little plates of delicious cheeses and pastes and fruits onto the table until it was completely covered. The freshness of everything was underscored by that morning’s food delivery coming in through the front door and streaming past me, a seemingly endless procession of fresh fruit, vegetables, and such. Highly recommended.

Everything I read about Istanbul taxis basically said to avoid them at all costs because they try to rip you off (and I’m not a huge fan of taxis on a good day), so that’s what I did. Upon landing, I bought an Istanbulkart to use the metro & ferries the whole time I was there. Getting from the airport to my hotel was pretty easy on the metro (thanks Citymapper), didn’t take too much longer than a taxi would have, and cost a lot less. Tip: machines are cash only, so you’d better have some Turkish lira on hand before exiting the airport.

Istanbul is not a bicycle city, at least not in the areas I visited. I saw maybe three people on bikes the entire time I was there? For starters, the city streets in the oldest parts of town are so small there’s nowhere to even put bike lanes. And then there are the hills, which made walking challenging at times, never mind biking. Even where there are dedicated lanes, they can be overwhelmed by pedestrians. In a park in Kadikoy, the balık ekmek (fish sandwich) vendors set up their carts right in the bike lane.

Although the interior was being renovated when I visited, Hagia Sophia was staggeringly impressive. Originally built in just under six years by Emperor Justinian, ruler of the Byzantine Empire (aka what was left of the Holy Roman Empire after the fall of Rome in the 5th century), it was completed in 537 as the world’s largest building and largest cathedral, retaining the latter title for almost 1000 years. Justinian wanted Hagia Sophia to be the biggest church in the world, partially for the glory of God and partially to best his peers. At the building’s dedication, he was recorded as saying, “My Lord, thank you for giving me chance to create such a worshipping place” followed by “Solomon, I have outdone you.” in reference to Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem. IN YOUR FACE SOLOMON!

Hagia Sophia was Byzantine until 1204, Roman Catholic for more than 50 years, and Greek Orthodox for about 200 years after that. In 1453, Mehmed the Conqueror of the Ottoman Empire — wait for it… — conquered Constantinople and turned Hagia Sophia into a mosque. It became a museum in 1935. Walking around inside it, you can see and feel all of this history, layered all around you. The marble floors are worn down from centuries of devoted foot traffic. The wear pattern is uneven due to differing hardnesses of the rocks in the marble, giving the floor a marvelous wavy quality. The Christian aspects of the church were covered or destroyed when the church was converted to a mosque, but now they peek through here and there again. A remarkable experience of time travel through cultures, mirroring Istanbul’s own long and varied history as a crossroads between East and West.

I pretty much had the They Might Be Giants cover of Istanbul (Not Constantinople) on repeat in my head the entire time I was in town.

Istanbul 2018

Along with many of its tourists, the overwhelming majority of Turkey’s population is Muslim, so it wasn’t surprising to see women with headwear like hijabs and niqabs all over in Istanbul. I have lots of thoughts about this religious and cultural practice, but mostly it made me think about how the dress of women in the US and other western countries is also restricted by our culture in many ways.

As I had less than 48 hours to spend in Istanbul, I mainly stayed in the central part of the city where most of the tourists were. Walking around was unpleasant at times because it seems like almost everyone is trying to sell you something. In the busiest areas near the top attractions and restaurants, someone tried to sell me a tour, a rug, a meal, or some sweets about every 30 seconds. It was oppressive. I mentioned this to a friend of mine and she said, “Now you know how women feel all the time walking around pretty much everywhere.”

The constant selling also put my guard up far more than it normally is (which is admittedly pretty high). In Taksim Square, a guy asked me for a light and we struck up a conversation. Super friendly guy, said his name was Ahmed, hailed from Qatar, in town for the day on his way to London, was a computer programmer, wasn’t particularly religious, liked travlling alone because his girlfriend (a lawyer) worked and talked too much. He was pleased to find me because this meant us two solo travellers could hang out for the evening. He’d asked at his hotel where to go and was heading towards this place with whiskey and belly dancing. Now, this is the point in the story where I’m supposed to head off into the evening with Ahmed and have an adventure. But because of the constant barrage of selling (plus I was sick and tired and wasn’t drinking), I mostly felt like I was being scammed and that “Ahmed” was actually pals with the guy who owned this belly dancing establishment and was tasked with suckering tourists like me into the place to spend money. Was he just a friendly guy or just another salesman? I still don’t really know, but I bid Ahmed a firm goodbye and still have not crossed “see belly dancing in Istanbul with a stranger” off of my bucket list.

But the next day, I finally succumbed to the relentless pressure. As I was contemplating joining the longish line at the Basilica Cistern, I made the mistake of looking contemplative, as if I were perhaps confused. A man came up to me, asked me if I spoke English, and then said I should come back later when the line is shorter. “Don’t worry,” he said, “I’m not trying to sell you a tour. I’m just on my way back to work from lunch.” Thus disarmed, we started chatting. His name was Musa and he had a business just up the street…perhaps he could give me his card and I could come for a visit tomorrow? Maybe, I said, wanting to be polite. We chatted some more, about other things. I agreed to go with him to get his business card; he still had not mentioned what business he was in…something to do with art, he said.

When we got to his place, it was a rug store. Musa’s friendly onboarding process had worked to get me into the store, penetrating my defenses by using my midwestern politeness against me. We sat down on a nice sofa and Musa served me apple tea; it materialized seemingly out of nowhere, part of a practiced routine. We chatted for about 5 or 10 minutes, sometimes about rugs and sometimes about other things. He told me about watching a TV program that featured this strange street food from NYC: hot dogs. At this point, I was feeling totally suckered, helpless under the thrall of this master salesman. But then I had another thought: this guy is not actually in control of this situation because I’m never in a million years buying a rug from him. Emboldened by my newfound power in our relationship, I thanked Musa politely for the tea, accepted his card, and left to join the line at the cistern.

Istanbul 2018

For dinner on my last night, I sat down at an outdoor table at Meşhur Filibe Köftecisi, figuring that one of the few restaurants where no one was trying to get me to look at a menu was actually a good place to find delicious food. It’s a tiny place on a small street with several other restaurants filled with what looked like locals, another good sign. I asked for a menu but the owner shrugged me off with a friendly gruffness. “We have köfte,” he told me. “Meatballs. Someone like you orders nine. Nine meatballs. Salad to begin. What’s not to like?” I gave him a thumbs up and he yelled something to the chef, an older man who I never saw without a cigarette and had probably made about 10 million köfte over the course of his life.

While I waited for my food, I noticed an order of köfte going out of the kitchen…to a diner at the restaurant across the street. When he was finished, the staff at that place bussed the dishes back across the way. Meanwhile, my meal arrived and the köfte were flavorful and tender and juicy, exactly what I wanted…no wonder the place across the street had outsourced their meatballs to this place. I’d noticed the owner, the waiter, and the cook drinking tea, so after I finished, I asked if I could get a tea. The owner nodded and started yelling to a guy at the tea place two door down. A few minutes later, a man bearing a tray with four glasses of tea arrived, dropping one at my table and the other three for the staff. Just then, a server from the place across the street came over to break a 100 lira bill. Me being a big nerd, this all reminds me of Unix and the internet, all of these small pieces loosely joined together to create a well-functioning and joyous experience. There’s only one thing on the menu at Meşhur Filibe Köftecisi, but you can get anything else within yelling distance. I declined dessert…who knows where that would have come from.

I also visited the Basilica Cistern (impressive ancient infrastructure), The Blue Mosque (under construction and so underwhelming), Topkapi Palace (underwhelming, but I was pretty museumed out by this point so perhaps an unfair assessment), Taksim Square (very crowded on a Friday night), and walked the length of Istiklal Avenue (very commercial in a Western sort of way).

Getting to my departure flight from Ataturk Airport was the tightest security I have ever gone through. To even enter the airport, you go through a metal detector. Then in the line to check into the flight, my passport was checked by three different people before my boarding pass was issued. Passport & boarding pass were checked again to get into the security line and then went through security, where most people’s bags got searched (but not mine). At the gate, my boarding pass was checked by at least six different people, who each put a different mark or stamp or signature on it, and then my carry-on luggage was searched (mandatory search…everyone got this treatment). Only then were we allowed on the plane. (Upon arrival in Boston, after waiting in a massive line, the border control officer barely glanced at my passport before waving me through.)

Istanbul 2018

I only posted a couple of Istanbul photos on Instagram but posted a bunch of Instagram Stories (collected here). And big thanks to everyone who offered advice on where to go and what to eat. I really enjoyed Istanbul and hope to make it back someday.

Recommendation: Caliphate, the NY Times podcast about ISIS

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 12, 2018

For the past several weeks, I have been listening to the NY Times’ fantastic and unsettling podcast series Caliphate. The series follows Times foreign correspondent Rukmini Callimachi as she attempts to figure out the inner workings of ISIS. Callimachi and her producer & fellow reporter Andy Mills talk to an Islamic State member from Canada about how he was recruited, investigate the group’s organization, and dig through documents left behind by ISIS as they were driven out of Mosul in July 2017. The podcast is quite upsetting and tough to listen to at times, but I highly recommend doing so.

Here are a few things I kept thinking about while listening:

1. The recruitment process is fascinating. As Callimachi and the recruit talk about how he was persuaded to join up, you can see how young people are enticed by the promise of an Islamic state, of living an ideologically pure life according to one’s religion. What the ISIS recruiters tell them makes sense, it’s logical. (It’s all the things they don’t tell them…therein lies the rub.)

2. The eerie parallels between ISIS and an American business. They’ve got the onboarding process and the rapid expansion plan of a startup like Uber (down to the “ask forgiveness, not permission” tactics). They use tools like YouTube, Tumblr, and Twitter to market themselves with professionally produced videos and marketing materials. When they seized power in an area, ISIS kept much of the existing bureaucracy in place and set about winning hearts and minds by improving services for the people living there.

The world knows the Islamic State for its brutality, but the militants did not rule by the sword alone. They wielded power through two complementary tools: brutality and bureaucracy.

ISIS built a state of administrative efficiency that collected taxes and picked up the garbage. It ran a marriage office that oversaw medical examinations to ensure that couples could have children. It issued birth certificates — printed on Islamic State stationery — to babies born under the caliphate’s black flag. It even ran its own D.M.V.

The documents and interviews with dozens of people who lived under their rule show that the group at times offered better services and proved itself more capable than the government it had replaced.

In the podcast, they talked to residents living in ISIS-controlled areas who say that garbage collection and availability of electricity improved after ISIS took over.

As the group grew, they diversified their income:

One of the keys to their success was their diversified revenue stream. The group drew its income from so many strands of the economy that airstrikes alone were not enough to cripple it.

Ledgers, receipt books and monthly budgets describe how the militants monetized every inch of territory they conquered, taxing every bushel of wheat, every liter of sheep’s milk and every watermelon sold at markets they controlled. From agriculture alone, they reaped hundreds of millions of dollars. Contrary to popular perception, the group was self-financed, not dependent on external donors.

More surprisingly, the documents provide further evidence that the tax revenue the Islamic State earned far outstripped income from oil sales. It was daily commerce and agriculture — not petroleum — that powered the economy of the caliphate.

ISIS was in some ways a model business: adept at PR and marketing, focused on the financial bottom line, sweated the details, and they wanted to keep their “customers” happy.

3. The stated goal of ISIS in establishing a caliphate — to turn back the cultural clock to the time of Muhammad — reminded me slightly of similar efforts here in the US: MAGA, etc.

The podcast is available at Apple or on Spotify. If you are a NY Times subscriber, you get early access to episodes.

See also a 5-minute history of the war in Syria and the rise of ISIS and my past recommendation of the Slow Burn podcast.

Carl Sagan’s tools for critical thinking and detecting bullshit

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 02, 2018

In his 1995 book The Demon-Haunted World, astrophysicist Carl Sagan presented a partial list of “tools for skeptical thinking” which can be used to construct & understand reasoned arguments and reject fraudulent ones.

Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the “facts.”

Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.

Arguments from authority carry little weight — “authorities” have made mistakes in the past. They will do so again in the future. Perhaps a better way to say it is that in science there are no authorities; at most, there are experts.

Spin more than one hypothesis. If there’s something to be explained, think of all the different ways in which it could be explained. Then think of tests by which you might systematically disprove each of the alternatives. What survives, the hypothesis that resists disproof in this Darwinian selection among “multiple working hypotheses,” has a much better chance of being the right answer than if you had simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy.

Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours. It’s only a way station in the pursuit of knowledge. Ask yourself why you like the idea. Compare it fairly with the alternatives. See if you can find reasons for rejecting it. If you don’t, others will.

Quantify. If whatever it is you’re explaining has some measure, some numerical quantity attached to it, you’ll be much better able to discriminate among competing hypotheses. What is vague and qualitative is open to many explanations. Of course there are truths to be sought in the many qualitative issues we are obliged to confront, but finding them is more challenging.

If there’s a chain of argument, every link in the chain must work (including the premise) — not just most of them.

Occam’s Razor. This convenient rule-of-thumb urges us when faced with two hypotheses that explain the data equally well to choose the simpler.

Always ask whether the hypothesis can be, at least in principle, falsified. Propositions that are untestable, unfalsifiable are not worth much. Consider the grand idea that our Universe and everything in it is just an elementary particle — an electron, say — in a much bigger Cosmos. But if we can never acquire information from outside our Universe, is not the idea incapable of disproof? You must be able to check assertions out. Inveterate skeptics must be given the chance to follow your reasoning, to duplicate your experiments and see if they get the same result.

I found this via Open Culture, which remarked on Sagan’s prescient remarks about people being “unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true”.

Like many a science communicator after him, Sagan was very much concerned with the influence of superstitious religious beliefs. He also foresaw a time in the near future much like our own. Elsewhere in The Demon-Haunted World, Sagan writes of “America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time…. when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few.” The loss of control over media and education renders people “unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true.”

This state involves, he says a “slide… back into superstition” of the religious variety and also a general “celebration of ignorance,” such that well-supported scientific theories carry the same weight or less than explanations made up on the spot by authorities whom people have lost the ability to “knowledgeably question.”

Yeeeeeeeep.

Update: After I posted this, a reader let me know that Michael Shermer has been accused by several women of sexually inappropriate & predatory behavior and rape at professional conferences. I personally believe women, and I further believe that if Shermer was actually serious about rationality and his ten rules for critical thinking listed above, he wouldn’t have pulled this shit in the first place (nor tried to hamfistedly explain it away). I’ve rewritten the post to remove the references to Shermer, which actually made it more succinct and put the focus fully on Sagan, which was my intention in the first place (the title remains unchanged). (via @dmetilli)

I and You: a short appreciation of Martin Buber’s ‘Ich und Du’

posted by Tim Carmody   Mar 12, 2018

When I was in college, I was crazy about Martin Buber. Well, really, I was crazy about Friedrich Nietzsche, and I was dating an evangelical Christian, provisionally going to her church, so I needed a way to put the two together. Buber’s book Ich und Du (I and Thou) was it.

It’s tricky to translate, in one of those “here are some basic differences between English and German” ways. German has two pronouns for you; “du” is the informal one, “sie” the plural or formal. “Sie” is also a third-person pronoun. But “du” is the way you address God, so it winds up turning into “thou.” Still, there’s nothing all that archaic about “du”; you’d call your pets “du.” Kind of like how Freud’s “ich” and “es” become “ego” and “id,” but are really just “I” and “it.” It’s a weird bit of business.

Anyways, Aeon has a new essay on Buber’s I and Thou by a grad student, MM Owen, that’s making me think of picking up Buber again. Here’s his breakdown of the basic insight.

Human existence is fundamentally interpersonal. Human beings are not isolated, free-floating objects, but subjects existing in perpetual, multiple, shifting relationships with other people, the world, and ultimately God. Life is defined by these myriad interactions ­- by the push and pull of intersubjectivity. This conception ties to Buber’s belief in the primacy of the spoken word. One of his life’s great projects was the 37-year process of producing an idiosyncratic German translation of the Bible wherein, to do justice to its oral roots, the text was divided into ‘breath measures’. For Buber, the act of speech embodied the deep-set interrelatedness of human beings. In speech, as in life, no ‘I’ is an island.

I and Thou argues that within this elementally networked reality there are two basic modes of existence: the I-It, and the I-Thou. These two stances make up our basic ‘twofold attitude’. In the I-It mode, an ‘Ego’ approaches another as an object separate from itself. This type of engagement is driven by a sort of instrumentalism; the object is engaged primarily as something to be known or used, and its nature is always mediated through the subject’s own self-regard. From the I-It stance, we don’t engage with things in their entirety. Instead, we engage with a web of distinct and isolated qualities notable for how they are useful to us. Buber regarded this kind of self-centred outlook - typified, in his view, by proto-existentialists such as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche - as a grave error.

By contrast, in the I-Thou relationship, rather than simply experiencing another, we encounter them. A subject encounters a fellow subject’s whole being, and that being is not filtered through our mediated consciousness, with its litter of preconceptions and projections. ‘No purpose intervenes,’ as Buber put it. The I-Thou stance has a purity and an intimacy, and is inherently reciprocal. In relation to others, he argued, we can step into an intersubjective space where two people coexist in (and co-contribute to) what he called the Between. In this Between lurks the vital, nourishing experience of human life, the real sacred stuff of existence. As he put it: ‘All real living is meeting.’

The First Lady of ISIS

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 06, 2017

This short documentary from The Atlantic features Tania Georgelas, who was in Syria with her husband (the highest-ranking American member of ISIS) until she began to fear for the safety of her children and her husband left her.

Just a few years ago, Tania Georgelas was living in Syria and married to John Georgelas, who would become the most influential American member of ISIS. Together, they traveled the globe, befriending jihadis and grooming their children to become “assassins.” But after ten years of living on the run, Tania began to fear for her family’s safety. That’s when she says her husband abandoned her “to become the next Osama bin Laden.”

What a fascinating situation. I had many complicated and conflicting feelings watching it. I imagine it might make some feel angry & disgusted and make others feel hopeful…and everything in-between.

Update: Abigail Pesta wrote a long piece for Texas Monthly about Georgelas (who now goes by the name “Tania Joya”).

To add to her anxiety, her husband began talking about wanting to move to Syria, where a civil war had begun. “He felt like he had to go and help Syria. It’s a Muslim’s duty to help your family. I felt for the Syrians. They are wonderful people, but I didn’t want to bring my boys to a war zone. They were children. It wasn’t their fight.” As her brawls with her husband escalated, he became physically abusive, and she wanted out. “It came to a point where I told him, ‘I don’t love you anymore.’ I felt suffocated. I would say, ‘One of us is going to need to die.’ He would say, ‘I could break your neck.’” One night, she put a pillow over his head in bed. He woke up and forced her off. “I didn’t really think I’d kill him,” she said. “It was more of a cry for help.”

(thx, jesse)

An explanation of the ethnic cleansing of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 26, 2017

If you want to get up to speed about the growing humanitarian crisis in Myanmar involving the government’s long campaign against the Rohingya people, this 5-minute Vox video is a good place to start.

In what has quickly disintegrated into a humanitarian disaster of historic proportions, a staggering 400,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled from Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state to Bangladesh over the past three weeks alone. At least 240,000 of them are children.

The Rohingya are fleeing a campaign of indiscriminate violence by Myanmar’s military, whose tactics are being widely condemned as a form of ethnic cleansing.

Entire villages have been burned to the ground. Women have been raped. Rohingya refugees report that soldiers shot at them as they fled. Along the border with Bangladesh, there are reports that the military has laid land mines to ensure those fleeing won’t return. Though independent observers have no access to the region, the Myanmar government now says 175 villages in the region — 30 percent of all Rohingya villages — are empty.

1000 marathons to spiritual enlightenment

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 06, 2017

The monks of Mount Hiei in Japan perform a spiritual practice called Kaihōgyō in the form of a 1000-day pilgrimage that’s spread out over seven years. There’s secrecy around the practice so it’s difficult to know the precise details, but the gist is that each year, a monk undertaking the practice spends 100 days (or more!) walking 25 miles (or more!) in the middle of the night (because monks have their regular duties and chores to do during the day), stopping at more than 250 sites to recite prayers. That’s 25 miles each day, mind you.

And then there’s this, thrown in about 2/3rds of the way through, just for good measure:

After 700 days, the Kaihogyo practitioner faces what Mitsunaga calls an exam. He enters a hall and prays nonstop for nine days, without eating, drinking, sleeping or even lying down. It’s a near-death experience, the monk says.

“Put simply, you just have to give up everything and pray to the Immovable Wisdom King,” he says. “By doing this, he may recognize you and allow you to live for nine days.”

The practitioner interrupts his prayers every night to come to a small fountain and get an offering of water for Fudo Myo-o. Toward the end of the nine days, the practitioner is so weak, he must be supported by fellow monks.

Finally, his old self dies, at least figuratively, and he is reborn to help and lead all beings to enlightenment.

You can read more about at Wikipedia, The Guardian, and Nowness.

An appreciation and reevaluation of Contact, 20 years after its theatrical release

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 12, 2017

Contact, based on Carl Sagan’s book of the same name, is on its face a movie about science vs. religion. On the 20th anniversary of its release, Germain Lussier rewatched the film and came away with a different impression: director Robert Zemeckis wanted viewers to think about our relationship to media and technology.

Once Ellie and her team discover the signal from Vega, seemingly every scene in the film features a monitor or some kind of television-related paraphernalia. Whether that’s unpacking a TV to unveil the Olympic footage, people watching news reports on CNN, a terrorist videotaping himself, or multiple scenes in the screen-filled Mission Control, Contact is filled with monitors, forcing both the characters and the audience to watch them. Full scenes of the film are made up of fuzzy TV footage. There are numerous press conferences on TV. The selection of the Machine representative unfolds via the news. Ellie’s interactions with Hadden are almost entirely done over a monitor. Even in scenes where the camera is in a room with the characters, Zemeckis often films them watching TV, or simply puts TV monitors in the frame to constantly remind us they’re there.

But that’s not it. People video chat regularly, which was not common in 1997. The terrorist attack on the Machine is first discovered on a TV monitor and subsequently played out there too. Then, finally, what’s the smoking gun of Ellie’s whole trip at the end of the movie? Eighteen hours of video footage. I could go on and on with examples where Contact uses television and monitors, but once you start seeing the film’s obsession with video, it’s almost comical how often it’s used. Which poses the obvious question, “Why?”

In this light, the organized religion & organized science depicted in the film are just other forms of mediated experience, separate from the personal experience of seeing something with your own eyes.

Contact is one of my favorite movies — I watch it every 12-18 months or so — and this makes me appreciate it all the more. And I had forgotten how good the trailer was:

It’s dead simple: that amazingly resonant Vega signal sound over a series of quickly cut scenes that tells the story in miniature. Surely this belongs on best movie trailers lists as much as any of these.

Oh, and while I’m not generally a fan of reboots, I would love to see what Denis Villeneuve could do with Sagan’s story. I’m also not crazy about Jodie Foster — I find her less and less tolerable as Arroway with each viewing — so it would be cool to see another actress in the role. Arrival’s Amy Adams is almost too on the nose…how about Lupita Nyong’o, ?Emma Watson, Janelle Monáe, Brie Larson, or Emma Stone?

Atheism in the Arab world

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 20, 2017

Writing for New Humanist, Brian Whitaker writes about the rise of atheism in the Arab world. The differences between atheism in Christian societies and Arab ones include political considerations, how science is viewed, and how scripture is interpreted.

While there’s little doubt that an Islamic reformation would benefit the Middle East socially and politically, atheists cannot advocate this without sacrificing their principles. Progressive versions of Islam generally view the Qur’an in its historical context, arguing that rules which applied in the time of the Prophet can be reinterpreted today in the light of changing circumstances — but that involves accepting the Qur’an as the supreme scriptural authority.

The status of the Qur’an is a particularly important issue for both followers and opponents of Islam. Whereas Christians usually consider the Bible as divinely inspired but written by humans, the Qur’an is claimed to be the actual words of God, as revealed to the Prophet Muhammad by the Angel Gabriel (Jibril in Arabic).

The Goddesses of Venus

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 08, 2017

Goddesses Of Venus Map

Last year, Eleanor Lutz made a medieval-style map of Mars. As a follow-up, she’s made a topographical map of Venus. The features on Venus are named for female mythological figures & notable women and Lutz provides a small biography for each one on the map. Among those featured on the map are:

Anne Frank
Selu (Cherokee Corn Goddess)
Kali (Hindu Goddess, Mother of Death)
Virginia Woolf
Sedna (Eskimo Whose Fingers Became Seals and Whales)
Ubastet (Egyptian Cat Goddess)
Beatrix Potter
Edith Piaf

Here are the full lists of the craters, mountains, and coronae on Venus.

How Scientology works

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 06, 2017

Using PT Anderson’s 2012 film The Master as a jumping off point, Evan Puschak discusses how Scientology’s audit process works. You can take the Oxford Capacity Analysis test he mentions right here.

The land, the sea, and the heavens above

posted by Tim Carmody   Feb 01, 2017

Argo.jpg

Geoff Manaugh at BLDGBLOG has written a terrific riff on historian John R. Gillis’s new book The Human Shore: Seacoasts In History. After a phrase from Steve Mentz, it’s called “Fewer Gardens, More Shipwrecks”:

“Even today,” Gillis claims, “we barely acknowledge the 95 percent of human history that took place before the rise of agricultural civilization.” That is, 95 percent of human history spent migrating both over land and over water, including the use of early but sophisticated means of marine transportation that proved resistant to archaeological preservation. For every lost village or forgotten house, rediscovered beneath a quiet meadow, there are a thousand ancient shipwrecks we don’t even know we should be looking for…

We are more likely, Gillis and Mentz imply, to be the outcast descendants of sunken ships and abandoned expeditions than we are the landed heirs of well-tended garden plots.

Seen this way, even if only for the purpose of a thought experiment, human history becomes a story of the storm, the wreck, the crash—the distant island, the unseen reef, the undertow—not the farm or even the garden, which would come to resemble merely a temporary domestic twist in this much more ancient human engagement with the sea.

The Hebrew Bible famously begins human history with a garden, followed by agriculture, then a flood, then cities, then wandering in exodus — but that story’s probably completely inverted. (The fact that the story’s written in a script likely borrowed by seafaring merchants is a tell.)

Even after agricultural urban civilization settles in, there are continued raids from “sea peoples”, Vikings, Mongols, and the British Empire — wanderers over land and sea who periodically crash into the farmers’ cities and make them their own, through trade and/or plunder.

Robert Graves thought all Greek mythology (and maybe all mythologies) dramatized the conflict between new and old gods, particularly the matriarchal gods of agriculture with the patriarchal gods of the sky and sea. In all the stories, he thought, you could find a trace of the suppressed gods, a counter-narrative that was never completely erased.

Here, too, we get our opposing views of nature: the regular, settled rhythms of Hades and Demeter, and the inhuman danger of Zeus and Poseidon — Walden vs. Moby-Dick.

Maybe the most successful myths are the ones that reconcile the two strands, legitimizing the victorious shipwrecked wanderers by explaining that the gardens they conquered were always theirs to begin with — that they had brought civilization and enlightenment to the farmers, whose songs their children sung, without knowing where they had come from.

(Top image from D’aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths)

The Aberdeen Bestiary, a gorgeous medieval illuminated manuscript

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 17, 2016

Aberdeen Bestiary

Aberdeen Bestiary

Aberdeen Bestiary

A bestiary was a type of book popular in the Middle Ages, featuring descriptions of animals accompanied by moral lessons. The Aberdeen Bestiary is a particularly fine example of a 12th century bestiary.

The Aberdeen Bestiary (Aberdeen University Library MS 24) is considered to be one of the best examples of its type due to its lavish and costly illuminations. The manuscript, written and illuminated in England around 1200, is of added interest since it contains notes, sketches and other evidence of the way it was designed and executed.

Thanks to the work of the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, where the book has been housed since the 1620s, a high-resolution copy of the book is available to browse online. The level of detail at full magnification is incredible. The text accompanying the top image of a panther is translated as:

There is an animal called the panther, multi-coloured, very beautiful and extremely gentle. Physiologus says of it, that it has only the dragon as an enemy. When it has fed and is full, it hides in its den and sleeps. After three days it awakes from its sleep and gives a great roar, and from its mouth comes a very sweet odour, as if it were a mixture of every perfume. When other animals hear its voice, they follow wherever it goes, because of the sweetness of its scent. Only the dragon, hearing its voice, is seized by fear and flees into the caves beneath the earth. There, unable to bear the scent, it grows numbed within itself and remains motionless, as if dead. Thus our Lord Jesus Christ, the true panther, descending from Heaven, snatched us from the power of the devil. And, through his incarnation, he united us to him as sons, taking everything, and ‘leading captivity captive, gave gifts to men’ (Ephesians, 4:8). The fact that the panther is a multi-coloured animal, signifies Christ, who is as Solomon said the wisdom of God the Father, an understanding spirit, a unique spirit, manifold, true, agreeable, fitting, compassionate, strong, steadfast, serene, all-powerful, all-seeing.

Jesus, the true panther. (via hyperallergic)

We’ve reached the end of white Christian America

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 25, 2016

America is no longer a majority white, Christian country.

At 45 percent of the population, white Christians are a shrinking demographic — and the backlash from many members of the group against the increasing diversification of America has been swift and bitter.

The narrator of the video, Robert P. Jones, wrote a book about this new reality called The End of White Christian America.

For most of our nation’s history, White Christian America (WCA) — the cultural and political edifice built primarily by white Protestant Christians — set the tone for our national policy and shaped American ideals. But especially since the 1990s, WCA has steadily lost influence, following declines within both its mainline and evangelical branches. Today, America is no longer demographically or culturally a majority white Christian nation.

Atheist Stephen Fry confronts God

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 24, 2016

Interviewed by Gay Byrne for a program called The Meaning of Life, Stephen Fry shared what he would say to God if Fry met him at the gates of heaven.

Bryne: Suppose it’s all true, and you walk up to the pearly gates, and are confronted by God. What will Stephen Fry say to him, her, or it?

Fry: I’d say, bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dare you? How dare you create a world to which there is such misery that is not our fault. It’s not right, it’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world that is so full of injustice and pain. That’s what I would say.

Byrne: And you think you are going to get in, like that?

Fry: But I wouldn’t want to. I wouldn’t want to get in on his terms. They are wrong.

An Honest Liar

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 08, 2016

A few days ago, I watched An Honest Liar, a documentary about the magician and charlatan-debunker The Amazing Randi. I had forgotten that in the 70s and 80s in America, belief in psychics like Uri Geller, faith healers like Peter Popoff, extraterrestrial abductions, and the like was not all that far from the mainstream. Such events and people were covered in newspapers, on the evening news, and featured on talk shows, including The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

The media is awash in pieces attempting to explain the success of the Presidential campaign of Donald Trump. Many are puzzled…how could this happen in America!? After watching Randi debunking hoaxes, I’m no longer surprised at Trump’s success. Maria Konnikova, author of a recent book on scams and cons, wrote about Trump and con artists for the New Yorker.

A line, thin but perceptible, divides even egregious liars from confidence men. People deceive one another for all sorts of reasons: they might lie to stay out of trouble, for example, or to make themselves seem more interesting, or to urge a business deal toward its consummation. David Maurer, a linguist turned historian of the con, said, “If confidence men operate outside the law, it must be remembered that they are not much further outside than many of our pillars of society who go under names less sinister.” Still, there is a meaningful difference between an ordinary liar and a con artist. A grifter takes advantage of a person’s confidence for his own specific ends — ends that are often unknowable to the victim and unrelated to the business at hand. He willfully deceives a mark into handing over his trust under false pretenses. He has a plan. What ultimately sets con artists apart is their intent. To figure out if someone is a con artist, one needs to ask two questions. First, is their deception knowing, malicious, and directed, ultimately, toward their own personal gain? Second, is the con a means to an end unrelated to the substance of the scheme itself?

She doesn’t express an opinion on whether Trump is a con artist — it’s difficult to tell without knowing his intent — but it’s clear that like Uri Geller and Peter Popoff, Trump is adept at making people believe what he is saying without a lot of hard evidence. Like The Amazing Randi said in the movie: “no matter how smart or well educated you are, you can be deceived.” Hopefully, like Geller, Popoff, and UFOs eventually did, the idea of Trump as a viable candidate for President will soon disappear back into the fringes of American discourse.

NY Times-style obituary of Jesus of Nazareth

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 26, 2016

Vanity Fair had Sam Roberts, an obituary writer from the NY Times, come up with an obit for Jesus, as it might have been written 2000 or so years ago.

His father was named Joseph, although references to him are scarce after Jesus’s birth. His mother was Miriam, or Mary, and because he was sometimes referred to as “Mary’s son,” questions had been raised about his paternity.

He is believed to have been the eldest of at least six siblings, including four brothers-James, Joseph, Judas, and Simon-and several sisters. He never married-unusual for a man of his age, but not surprising for a Jew with an apocalyptic vision.

The “about 33” in reference to his age is a nice touch.

The backstory of Spotlight

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 23, 2016

In the latest issue of Nextdraft, Dave Pell points to an episode of the Reveal podcast that goes behind the scenes of the investigation into the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal depicted in Spotlight.

Spotlight (one of the key contenders in the Oscar race) is an excellent movie that tells the story of an endangered species in American life: a well-funded, local, investigative reporting team. My friends at Reveal go behind the scenes to provide the backstory on how Boston Globe reporters broke the story of the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal, and provide a look into the latest developments in what is, sadly, an ongoing story.

Spotlight was one of my favorite 2015 movies.

Pastrami on Rye

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 18, 2015

Pastrami On Rye

Pastrami on Rye is a full-length history of the NYC Jewish deli, written by Judaism scholar Ted Merwin. From a review in The Economist:

Jewish delicatessens may now be known for knishes, latkes and pastrami sandwiches, but back in their heyday, during the 1920s and 1930s in the theatre district in New York, they also served beluga caviar, pâté de foie gras and Chateaubriand steak. Jewish classics were gussied up and defiled: chopped chicken liver was served with truffles. Treyf, like oysters and pork chops, was eaten with abandon alongside kosher delicacies.

That reminds me…a trip to Katz’s is looooooong overdue.

Saint Fred Rogers, the patron saint of neighborliness

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 03, 2015

Jonathan Merritt writes about Fred Rogers, ordained Presbyterian minister and beloved children’s TV show host who used his faith and TV to help millions of children.

Fred Rogers was an ordained minister, but he was no televangelist, and he never tried to impose his beliefs on anyone. Behind the cardigans, though, was a man of deep faith. Using puppets rather than a pulpit, he preached a message of inherent worth and unconditional lovability to young viewers, encouraging them to express their emotions with honesty. The effects were darn near supernatural.

I watched Mr. Rogers religiously growing up, pun intended. Actual church, with its focus on rites, belief in the supernatural, and my pastor’s insistence that the Earth was only 6000 years old, was never appealing to me, but Mr. Rogers’ unconditional, graceful, and humanistic brand of religion was just perfect. I heard him say this line at the end of his show hundreds of times:

You’ve made this day a special day by just your being you. There is no person in the whole world like you, and I like you just the way you are.

It’s easy to roll your eyes, but when you’re six or eight years old, such a simple message from someone who obviously loves you can mean everything.

True religion

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 10, 2015

Tyler Cowen on Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson and our selective preference for some religious beliefs over others.

Loyal MR readers will know that I am myself a non-believer. But what I find strangest of all is not Ben Carson’s pyramids beliefs, but rather the notion that we should selectively pick on some religious claims rather than others. The notion that it is fine to believe something about a deity or deities, or a divine book, as long as you do not take that said belief very seriously and treat it only as a social affiliation or an ornamental badge of honor.

To the non-believer, the Scientologist’s belief in thetans and the vengeful sky god of Christianity are both equally implausible.

The Four Horsemen of Gentrification

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 10, 2015

From Zain Khalid at McSweeney’s, The Four Horsemen of Gentrification: Brine, Snark, Brunch, and Whole Foods. From the book of Millennials of the New Standard Greenpoint Bible, chapter 6, verse 1:

Then I saw when the Landlord broke one of the rent-controlled seals. I heard one of the four living creatures saying as with a voice of thunder, “Gentrify.” I looked, and behold, a green horse, and he who sat on it had a mason jar; and a fedora was his crown, and he went out pickling and to pickle.

Vertical panoramas of churches

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 02, 2015

Richard Silver Churches

Richard Silver Churches

From photographer Richard Silver, vertical panoramic photos of churches that emphasize their often incredible ceilings. (via ignant)

The retail churches of the cult of Apple

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 25, 2015

Apple Store Church

Sarah Laskow of Atlas Obscura took cultural historian Erica Robles-Anderson to the Soho Apple store. Robles-Anderson recently studied the use of technology in churches and Laskow wanted to know: are Apple stores the new temples?

“People have used technology for a long time to speak to the gods,” she says — to create collective experiences of the sublime.

These days, technology is more often talked about as a way to create personalized, individual experiences, but Robles-Anderson thinks that’s only part of the story. Communal ritual is always a part of technology: Early computers came into group spaces, like families and offices. (Mad Men understood this dynamic: the computer as an event weathered together.) Powerpoint presentations gather people to look at giant screens. Even using an iPhone to tune out the human beings around you requires being part of a larger group.

And Apple, more than any other technology company, has been able to access both these experiences, the individual and the collective. “They feel iconic, like an emblem of the personal,” says Robles-Anderson. “And yet it’s a cult. Right? It’s so obviously a cult.”

The architecture of the stores contributes to the sacred feeling of cult membership.

“The oversized doors are fantastic,” says Robles-Anderson. “There’s no reason for them.” They’re there only to communicate that this place is important. Also, they’re heavy, like church doors, to give purpose and portent to the entry into the space.

We walk inside. It’s light and bright, and immediately in front of us, a wide staircase of opaque glass sweeps up to the second floor.

This is an old, old trick. “It’s used in ziggurats, even,” Robles-Anderson says. “It creates a space that emphasizes your smallness when you walk in. You look at something far away, and that makes your body feel like you’re entering somewhere sacred or holy.”

Superstorm Francis descends on the US

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 24, 2015

It’s the Pope’s first time in America and we sent him straight to Congress. That doesn’t exactly seem like we’re putting our best foot forward. In his historic speech to a joint session of Congress, Pope Francis addressed climate change, capitalism, the death penalty and immigration. MoJo pulled out the ten most important lines from the speech.

“This Pope often operates through symbolism and gestures that convey his intentions in ways that words never could.” The New Yorker on Pope Francis and his little Fiat.

Oliver Sacks, human treasure, 1933-2015

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 31, 2015

Oliver Sacks

Oliver Sacks was a champion of one of humankind’s most admirable qualities: Curiosity. The neurologist and writer died on Monday. He wrote beautifully about his impending death in a piece published a couple weeks ago:

And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life…

Longform has a collection of links to some of Sacks’ most popular essays.

What is the meaning of life for an atheist?

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 28, 2015

BuzzFeed’s Tom Chivers asked several atheists How They Find Meaning In A Purposeless Universe.

The way I find meaning is the way that most people find meaning, even religious ones, which is to get pleasure and significance from your job, from your loved ones, from your avocation, art, literature, music. People like me don’t worry about what it’s all about in a cosmic sense, because we know it isn’t about anything. It’s what we make of this transitory existence that matters.

These kinds of questions always make me think of Richard Feynman on beauty, science, and belief.

Nine dead in Charleston shooting

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 18, 2015

From the NY Times, Nine Are Killed in Charleston Church Shooting; Gunman Is Sought.

An intense manhunt was underway Thursday for a white gunman who opened fire on Wednesday night at a historic black church in this city’s downtown, killing nine people before fleeing.

The police chief, Greg Mullen, called the shooting a hate crime.

Chief Mullen said that law enforcement officials, including the F.B.I. and other federal agencies, were assisting in the investigation of a shooting that left six women and three men dead.

Chief Mullen said the gunman walked into the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and attended the meeting for about an hour before open firing. Among the dead, according to reports, was the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who was also a state senator.