Saturday, December 8, 2007

The faithless under attack

An article in today's NYT put into words a feeling I imagine is shared by many an atheist beside me. In the article "Faith vs the faithless" the Op-ed columnist writes:

When this country was founded, James Madison envisioned a noisy public square with different religious denominations arguing, competing and balancing each other’s passions. But now the landscape of religious life has changed. Now its most prominent feature is the supposed war between the faithful and the faithless. Mitt Romney didn’t start this war, but speeches like his both exploit and solidify this divide in people’s minds.

This confirms my impression of the direction the umwelt has taken. America is trying to make it uncomfortable for all of those who, like me, do not adhere to any form of religious dogma. He mentions how Romney, in his latest speech describes the faithful as being united in
a tribe, marked by ethnic pride, a shared sense of victimization and all the other markers of identity politics
which brings nothing to mind as the Nietzschean postulate about the weak claiming victimhood status, though their numbers clearly deny such a claim. 90% of all Americans adhere to one form of religious belief or another: wherein lies the threat?

From where I sir - and Romney's speech does warn about the faithlessness of Europe (why, pray tell? What horrible excesses should America be worrying about? A vibrant culture and economy, greater tolerance for differences that feed the vibrancy?) - it seems clear that what we should be worrying about is the way the U.S. is preparing to wage war against the "faithless". Will we soon be so reviled that we will no longer be allowed to set foot in the "land of the free"?

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

On Head Scarves

Here in France, the question of what a woman wears on her head (and sometimes I wonder if soon the facial hair worn by a man might not come under the same scrutiny) is no longer left up to the individual. I can't say whether a woman should or should not wear one, knowing that either way she is often not at liberty to decide. While on the one hand the govt. here forbids it in specific circumstances, there are others where she is obliged to wear her scarf by a male in her family. Should a woman not have the right to decide for herself?

The question is all the more puzzling when one takes into consideration the fact that many women now wear the hijaab out of choice. I have to say that for my part, I find the idea of not having to spend any time worrying about how my hair looks is very appealing. I often yearn to live in a society that didn't judge me on my looks - oh, but to wear a large black wrap that covered me head to foot while wearing pajamas underneath! Only that isn't at all what we're talking about, is it?

But more than cultural protest - or even a defiant expression of faith - the wearing of the scarf can be the manifestation of total male dominance, or - and this is the aspect I find intriguing - a means of defining oneself, a desperate way to assert one's identity.

Right now, I'm reading "SNOW" by the Nobel prize winning author Orhan Pamuk. the central "story" question of which revolves around head-scarf wearing girls who commit suicide, why they kill themselves: is it because they are forbidden to wear it in post Ataturk Turkey? Or do the other conditions in their lives provoke the desperate act? (I'm still reading, will I know when I reach the end?)

The thing is, I was told an anecdote recently about a young girl here, whose parents were staunchly secular in their way of life, who began wearing the hijaab of her own accord when she was about 14. In doing so she has brought a measure of ostracism upon herself, and is being treated for severe back-pain for which there is no evident cause. (I'm taking this - as her doctor does - as an expression of her inner suffering made physical.)

Discussing this with the doctor involved who suggested to her parents that to relieve the pain - as far as he was concerned, since it was to him a psychological problem - the best recourse was to take her to a therapist. But I'm not sure it can be "cured" so simply. In the current context, I wonder if the socio/cultural climate here is not what would need to be fixed instead.

At her age, the question of identity - not just who she is, but what group does she belong to - is the central question of her life. The doctor is convinced that by her choice of head wear, she is condemning herself to ostracism. But I wonder if such ostracism was not already in place. I am all too aware of the climate here, the attitude of the non-Muslim French towards those they consider to be immigrants, though they may have been here for several generations. The evidence of how the French ostracize their fellow citizens on the basis of their ethnic origins is everywhere. How can a young woman develop a modicum of self-respect except by distancing herself from those who would deem her unworthy of their respect - regardless of the scarf she wears. And what other choice does she have but assert her otherness in a way that allows her to become a part of something larger than herself, a group in which she can be included, and even be respected for wearing the scarf?

I imagine that as long as the portion of the French population who trace their origins to the Maghreb continue to be discriminated against, the wearing of the hijaab will be on the rise. From where I sit, it is a symbol of hope. The efforts to assimilate here have produced none of the intended - and much touted - effects. Rather than try to impose by rule of law that the scarf not be worn, maybe it's time to invest in trying to change the mindsets of those who continue to refuse them access to the very closed society that is mainstream France.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Exceptionally French Riots

Here we go with the riots again. French exceptionalism is going to allow the country to live its own Watts riots, which, considering the social climate here, are unavoidable.

Reading articles in the press both in France and in the U.S., there’s little mention of the ubiquity of racism here, except for Sarkozy’s response to the riots in 2005 of which this is now a re-enactment. Yet a major factor in the man’s election is that his response typified that of the average French man (person, really, but men speak their minds on the subject more readily than women, who tend to veil their views). Though I realise that racism is still rampant in the U.S., albeit cloaked under a blanched P.C. sheet, there are fewer qualms about expressing disdain here. Say what you will about how civilized the French are, they are filled with at least as much racism as resveratrol, and their resulting bile is probably as instrumental in their longevity as the much touted molecule found in red wine.

The result of this prejudice – beside having made for many a distasteful dinner topic – is that their are no jobs available to minorities (read Arabs and blacks) here. In an experiment designed to bring attention to the problem, C.V.s were sent out with or without names attached. With the ethnic sounding names, there was not a single call-back for an interview. (Interestingly enough the experiment was also done with visuals where results were similar for extremely unattractive and/or overweight people – not to mention the handicapped). Is it any wonder that social unrest is at an explosive level now?

What’s (not so) funny about the situation is that the guilty deny being racist. There’s no room for discussion because according to them, the problem just doesn’t exist. Never mind all the racial stereo-typifying, the slurs and the discrimination, for a majority of the French, it’s the unavoidable result of the nature of the people against whom discrimination is directed. I was too young during the events in the U.S., but I don’t see how change can be brought about here. The anti- discrimination laws already exist. It’s motivation that’s lacking, something that would bring about a change of mentality. I’ve heard my mother-in-law tell of her early years as an Italian immigrant here and how she suffered from prejudice. The hostility against the lowly Italian race has been purged for the most part now, but wouldn’t you know it, she and others like her are the most vociferous racists now. What new ethnic group could be invited here to displace the ones chosen to take the brunt now?

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

To be powerless in a world full of riches

Isn’t the powerlessness we all feel to a certain degree the same as what the « martyrs » for Islam feel, only in their minds – as well as in reality – the odds are stacked higher against them than they are for us? As I see it, there are 3 possible ways to go: Fight, Flight or “Learned Helplessness” (see Seligman et al.) (the latter leading to and/or being a major cause for depression, or even the definition thereof, and really, isn’t depression the condition of staying put and fighting with yourself to the point of exhaustion?)

The article in the NYT magazine (Where Boys Grow Up to Be Jihadis, Nov 25/07) mentions that the men discussed in the article all had reasons to feel despondent prior to their engagement with Jihad. Then they joined movements – groups of like-minded peers – for whom they became willing to give up their lives. In other words, they externalized their conflict, and opted to join a group (strength in numbers is due, at least in part, to the sense of invincibility belonging to a group confers) thanks to which they finally felt empowered; they stopped being victims and became actors in their lives.

people prone to terrorism share a sequence of experiences, […]They feel a sense of moral outrage that is interpreted in a specific way (the war in Iraq, for example, is interpreted as a war on Islam); that outrage resonates with the person’s own experiences (Muslims in Germany or Britain who feel marginalized might identify with the suffering of Iraqis); and finally, that outrage is channelled into action.
This process, Sageman told me, is rarely a solitary one. He and a growing number of law-enforcement officials and analysts argue that group dynamics play a key role in radicalization. While ideology may inspire terrorists, they say, it takes intimate social forces to push people to action. Friends embolden one another to act in ways they might not on their own. This might be called the peer-pressure theory of terrorism. Experts in the field refer to it as the BOG, for bunch of guys (or GOG, for group of guys). “Terrorism is really a collective decision, not an individual one,” said Sageman, who coined the theory. “It’s about kinship and friendship.

The point I’m trying to make is that there would probably be a lot less of this if the Western world owned up to using the developing world (or just about any market that can be exploited) as a well of riches with which to fill their coffers. We use their resources to produce our wealth at a fraction of what it would cost if we produced everything at home - mostly by paying horrendously low wages - and we develop markets there for our products in order to accumulate more wealth. We use whatever they have for our benefit, and we use all available means to convince them to buy products they don’t need when our own markets become saturated.

How would we feel if we had to watch someone else get rich at our expense, while that same someone made it impossible for us to attempt to ameliorate our own circumstance by denying us access to the means to do so?

Sunday, November 25, 2007

My Good, your Bad?

Why do we feel the need to invoke exterior help to accomplish something we can (only) do ourselves? Why does faith necessarily come into it?

We are predicting creatures.

We don't just get an urge, and then lunge to satisfy it (unless we're standing right next to the refrigerator).We consider the various possibilities, evaluate them for possible benefits and costs, and once we've narrowed them down, we scheme to attain our goals. The problem we're immediately confronted with is that we can never plan for all eventualities. Not only are we not prescient, even if we were, we couldn't store all the ramifications on the hard-drives of our brains.

That's the scary part. Not knowing.

And we've got a multitude of ways of dealing with the unknown, the imponderables. The all-time most popular way is of course the invention of the all powerful, omniscient Being who oversees everything and guarantees that things will go according to whatever we consider to be the "good" rules governing the universe (which bear an uncanny resemblance to what we feel is good for ourselves.)

(I am not remotely qualified to expound on any of this. But who's to stop me? At the end are a couple of leads to explore if you feel so inclined.)

In a nutshell, we evolve, as human "systems" through interaction with our surroundings (environment, other people) and we "construct" our selves along with our external "reality" as we go along (which in turn affects reality, which affects us etc..). We do it with reference to what is necessary for the perpetuation of the system that we embody. Not necessarily or exclusively for our physical survival, but according to ever changing and shifting criteria from which we generate and update our sets of rules: I'll call that Me/Good as in what I feel is good for me, and Other/Bad as in "this isn't conducive to the purpose of perpetuating my self" (I have a theory that the more "evolved" we become, the more flexible we can be about the distinction between the two.)

Obviously we wish for all that is Me/Good to prevail, and try to maintain Other/Bad to a minimum and/or at an acceptable distance. But the world is mostly "other", beyond our control, outside our scope. That is what leads us to the next logical step: to posit a Being that is on our side, a just and benevolent father who will do for us what we can't. (and the Good that Being guarantees is - coincidentally - the same as Me/Good).

The problem is that there are as many different versions of Good as there are of Me, and I don't see - short of massive cloning of Me (me, really, because I like me the best) - how it can ever be otherwise? The most we can do is to find common ground, and that has its limits. Any effort to globally "unify" our conceptions of what is Good (from any perspective, scientific, religious or philosophical) is bound to fail. We are products of our cultures as much of our genes. There will always be diverging points of view, not to mention continuous change.

Better to develop more secure foundations upon which to anchor a greater sense of self-reliance instead of deferring to a Being to insure our Goods, the definition of which we can never agree upon and about which there will always be conflict. After all, isn't insecurity – the fear about what tomorrow will or will not bring - the real fuel behind all extremism? Isn't fundamentalism/literalism – the strict adherence to a set of rules and the rituals we perform to uphold them – akin to magical thinking as a way to ward off all that we fear might happen?

For more information re: the Me/Good - Bad/Other theory of auto-poïesis, and in terms of evolution/social interaction:
Auto-poïesis, see: Varela & Maturana, G.A. Kelly, G. Bateson, N. Luhmann
On constructivism, radical or otherwise, see E. von Glasserfeld, P. Watzlawick

Saturday, November 24, 2007


There's this interesting video on where Philosopher Joshua Cohen and economist Glenn Loury discuss the essence of Christianity. The philosopher tackles the question from an ethical pov, and the economist, from the personal necessity aspect of religion. In one segment Loury refers to "A Raisin in the Sun" to highlight the fact that it is through belief in God that one finds the courage to confront adverse conditions. Of course.

Among the responses to the vlog, one person declared being against the idea of calling into question anyone's belief system, and I agree that there is absolutely no value in trying to invalidate anyone's faith. The problem as I see it is that to not believe in God is a belief system in itself. It takes determination to maintain such a stance in our day and age. And I think I am not alone in feeling that our freedom not to believe is increasingly threatened.

When you see all the democratic candidates falling over each other to prove how more devout than the others he or she is, it's hard not to fear for the future. Whatever happened, I wonder, to the separation between Church and State? Where I live now - in France - religion has long been a very private matter, because like taste, there is no accounting for it.

P.S. Off subject: if anyone is reading this and has the answer to why posting the links, by using the button that's meant to do it automatically, doesn't work? (I've tried with both Explorer and Mozilla to no avail)

Friday, November 23, 2007

The 13th step

Re-reading the preceding posts, it occurs to me that the WIP I mentioned was in fact completed. Or the first draft anyway. Right now I'm fighting with myself to stick to the NaNo project I took up this year. Only one more week and I'll be done with it, for now. I don't know if it's the usual Inner Editor conflict, but I've become convinced these past couple of days that it's really not very good. To compensate, I've been touting the Factory of Being project to myself again, and I'm eager to start on the first edit now.

This in turn relates to this project because of another article I read in the N.Y.T. about the "Happiness Project", wherein one keeps a gratefulness journal, on the principle that if you keep one long enough for it to work - I think it was at least 3 months - you start to feel better. Does this mean that the brain rewires, or is it just that, like a Learned Optimism process, just taking a different POV about your life transforms the reality into something positive, or both?

Anyway. Let's begin. I don't really know where to start, because there is little to complain about in my life. My only dissatisfaction is with myself.

Reasons to be Grateful:
- Perfect overall health
- Very good marriage (all things considered)
- A wonderful daughter (and if this were ordered according to importance, this would have come first)
- No financial woes (they only exist in my husband's head. Objectively our situation is better than adequate)

All of these factors should mean I'd be happy, right? Not really, because of my outlook on life, thus the new project.

So today I'm adding a specific point. I've regained some faith in the F.o.B. as a worthwhile project. Considering it's been the focal point of my creative life for an incredibly long time, I'd say that's a major plus.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

The consciousness of rocks

I've been having a hard time coming back here. It all seems so pretentious of me to continue, but I still haven't resolved the vexing God question, and from reading the following article

it appears I am not alone. I mean some people actually dedicate their whole lives to the endeavour of trying to disprove the existence of a higher form of being, in this case, within the entity of lifeless rock matter.

Now, what could be sillier than a scientist even exploring such a possibility - unless said scientist was spending an inordinate amount of time repressing within him/herself the urge to believe - in something, just about anything.

Essentially this is what I experience with surprising frequency. There's a (small and whiny) voice that makes itself heard when things in my life overwhelm me. But I quash the damn nuisance, because it makes no more sense to believe in a higher power than in the tooth fairy.

Oh, how I wish I could simply give in and believe like 90% of humanity. I really do, but it goes completely against everything else I believe in, namely personal responsibility as the only chance there is of making the world a better place to live in.

Which brings me to yet another article in the N.Y.T. about denial. Read it here:

Now I already knew that. But the knowledge doesn't prevent me from wishing I could just reach out for the nearest flimsy explanation to lift my spirits

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Further thoughts

Where does the need to rely on God arise?
Principally in the space created between our wants and the sense we have of our own capacities, what I call efficaciousness.
And it seems to me that an aspect of our present civilisation - relative wealth and an abundance of free time not unlike that which was enjoyed by the ancient Greeks around the time of the birth of philosophy - contributes to our awareness of the gulf that separates the two.
On the one hand we have access to a wealth of ressources and models to emulate, while at the same time the same awareness results in an accrued sense of our own limitations with regard to what we could be obtaining. Of course the materialistic society we live in does nothing to reduce this sense of our inadequacies.
We want, we want, and we want more.
No wonder we feel a greater need than ever to call upon a power that surpasses our own.
Of course this problem has already been examined at length.
Where our well-being in this life-time is concerned, the Stoics, Epicureans and Buddhists, among others, all have had some very insightful things to say about the question.
Basically, limit or get rid of your wants and desires altogether, and you will be free of suffering, content.
My problem with such a viewpoint is that it does not give enough weight to the basic human (or animal) characteristic that is the pleasure drive.
Ancient Greeks and Asians, however, did not have the brain research results we now have at our disposal. And I think it's safe to say that the pleasure seeking drive is an intrinsic part of the animal kingdom's drive to survive. I think there are a number of things we'd have stopped doing long ago - like risk-taking - if there weren't some reward to the process. This, to me, would point to the insufficiency of any system that did not give a wide berth to the drive.
It's important to learn how not to be overwhelmed by your wants.
I am all for living in the moment so as to differentiate between those of our efforts that are conducive, and those that are not. But it is necessary to acknowledge and make room for our wants and needs first, because our well-being cannot consist solely of freedom from suffering, but a sufficient quantity of pleasure that our brains and bodies require..

With the above in mind, I propose the following method as the first step towards achieving the goal of helping myself:

1) Consider what it is I really want: the goal.
2) picture it happening:
a) is it do-able?
b) at what cost?
c) how much well-being does it afford, and how durable is the well-being
3) Reassess and make a decision according to the cost-effectiveness of the goal
4) Set things up accordingly, in order: what do I need to accomplish first, second, etc... At each step of the process check this information to stay on track.

Will this get me to the end of my WIP?

Monday, March 5, 2007

A Spandrel (Look it up)

Have you ever wanted to do something about your life, but every time you try one of the usual formulas, you bang your head against the old "Let go and let..."? CRAP!
A contradiction in terms? Self-help with external assistance?
That's what this is about. Getting a grip, through an informal look at why it's so hard to do just that.
This is not about knocking religion. At least not overtly.
But if you wanted to improve things in your life, does it make any sense to hand over the reins to an invisible, intangible entity and just hope you get to where you want to go?
Wouldn't He have more important matters to attend to?
Okay. I'll admit it.
I am envious. I wish I could just blindly trust that without taking all of the necessary active steps things in my life - I - would change for the better. It's true. I wish I could believe in God. It is probably a much more restful way to live.

Why am I doing this?
Obviously I am still not satisfied with things as they are.
The problem is that I am continually "sabotaging" my own efforts.
I have highly unlikely goals and very little of the self-esteem and wherewithal necessary to reach them.

At the top of my list is the completion of my W.I.P., a novel begun at least a decade ago. But every time I get a little steam going, I come down with some diversion that casts it in a whole new light and I go back to the drawing board to figure out how to make it better (read: more difficult still). Then I get really depressed and become finger-tied for an indefinite period of time that lasts until I reach the bottom. Though I wallow, I'm always in search of the spark that will pull it all together again.

The problem is the subject of my WiP: Being.

I happen to think that I am not an isolated self in need of repair, and that the cognitive and emotional dissonance I share with a great number of people in this world is at the root of much of the angst that drives people to do irrational things in the name of a Higher Being that is supposed to be in charge of all that we turn away from out of fear, doubt, mostly the sense that we don't know enough (everything) about the problem at hand. Because we're not omniscient and our minds are hard-wired to "seek and ye shall find" ad infinitum.

In other words, I may not be against religion per se, but I do think that to depend on it to right our wrongs is not a reasonable way to lead our lives.