Category Archives: Atheism/Religion

The Christian Right’s Faustian Bargain With Donald Trump

“Gog and Magog are at work in the Middle East. The biblical prophecies are being fulfilled. This confrontation is willed by God who wants this conflict to erase his people’s enemies before a new age begins.”

According to former French President Jacques Chirac, these are the words former U.S. President George W. Bush said to him sometime prior to what is now known as the colossal blunder that was/is the invasion of Iraq in 2003.  I should note that Bush himself has never confirmed, nor denied saying these words.  But regardless of whether Bush’s words are actually being quoted verbatim, or are a paraphrasing on Chirac’s part, my reaction to quotes like this is the same as it is to all babble coming from the political mouthpieces of the Christian Right in this country:  “What the fuck is he even talking about?”

It’s the same reaction I always have when this same sect of self-appointed moral crusaders will in one breath espouse their belief regarding the sanctity of life, and in another breath oppose legislation that would give people access to life-saving healthcare.  Or when they pontificate about the importance of upholding family values (read: their values), while working tirelessly to deprive families of any assistance that would actually help them feed and cloth their loved ones.  As far as I’m concerned the only proper reaction this this sort of schizoid babbling is, ” What the fuck are they even talking about?” as trying to humor these disjointed thought processes would be a disservice to the process of thought itself.

Given all this, one might believe that the way in which the Christian Right pledged their unwavering support for a man like Donald Trump is yet another example warranting a snide, rhetorical remark disguised as a question.  I disagree.  The reason I disagree is that, when it comes to Trump, I know exactly what the Christian Right is talking about.

Undeniably, President Donald J. Trump is a narcissistic, petty, mean-spirited, disgusting shell passing for a human being.  He is greedy, selfish, self-serving, self-aggrandizing, and incapable of holding the simplest of conversations without spouting out an inarticulate string of lies that both mocks and puts to shame the very language he has such a painstakingly low grasp of.  He shows no sense of loyalty towards anyone or anything, let alone the basics of human decency when it comes to how he treats those he views as his adversaries (and, at times, even his supposed allies).  He has no qualms about breaking campaign promises, and then berating anyone who points out his inconsistencies to him as the dishonest party in the discussion.  Among all these things, Donald Trump is also the darling of the Christian Right; who praise his name, and talk of him as if he truly is the second coming Christ had promised (and, some would say, failed to deliver on) to the followers of his generation nearly two millennia ago.  And when I hear them talk like this about Trump, I know exactly what they are talking about.

It’s not about the flaws of Trump’s character, either as a person or as a head of state.  Any and every fault can be dismissed under the nauseating cop-out, “Is all mankind not fallen and flawed?  Are we not all sinners?”  When faced with such a boldfaced heap of meaningless platitudes, one is apt to point out the fact that few of us–and no decent person in general–would ever walk up to unsuspecting women and “grab them by the pussy,” like President Trump has bragged about doing.  That is definitely one sin I can attest to having never committed, and, yes, I feel quite justified in saying that it morally places me on better footing than those who have.  But even mentioning that to this crowd is pointless, because ultimately it doesn’t matter to them if Donald Trump is a chauvinistic, perverted scoundrel.  The only thing they care about–the only thing they have ever cared about–is shaping the legal arm of the nation in accordance with their will, and impose their sets of hypocritical edicts on everyone else, whether they like it or not.

It layman’s:  The Christian Right is backing Trump because he will appoint the judges who will align with their views of how laws ought to be interpreted in this country.  He will give executive backing to legislation that will reshape this nation into what they always wanted it to have been from the start–a fundamentalist, conservative hallmark for Christendom; rife with the great tradition of hypocrisy and intolerance that is entailed by it.

In this context, the fact that they are undercutting their own sanctimonious virtues by throwing their lot with a person as un-Christlike as Donald Trump is irrelevant.  The fact that their current actions are causing younger generations to walk away from their congregations is a moot point.  It ultimately does not matters what convictions anyone individually holds; as long all are still forced to abide by the laws and legal precedents implemented by the Christian Right, victory has been ensured for generations to come because once a matter becomes the judicial status quo (regardless of how draconian or unpopular) it becomes that much harder to overturn, socially and politically.  Rather than flailing in the wind towards irrelevance, this sect is playing what they believe to be the long game in the culture war to reshape American society.

And for once, I know exactly what the fuck they are taking about when they spout their babble, and there is nothing meek or humble about it, in either a Christian or secular sense of the words.  If the other side of the political aisle wishes to have a fighting chance against such blatant subversion of the democratic process, the pushback has to be equally biting with a succinct and unrelenting, “Like hell you will!”

Mindlessly Mindful: How Meditation Stifled my Creativity

Over the course of the last few years, the practice of mindfulness meditation has sparked a great deal of interest in private and public discourse.  For many this discourse takes on the form of a full-scale spiritual reawakening in their lives–the rationale of looking back to what some would call time-tested wisdom, as a guide to navigate through modern life.  Still to others, who might belong to a more pragmatic mindset, the adoption of meditation into their daily routine is less about reaching an esoteric sense of enlightenment, and more about wanting to find a means of focus for the cluttered thoughts they feel are clogging up their minds.

My own interest into mindfulness meditation began sometime in late-2016, and stemmed from a general curiosity regarding the positive results being attested to by its practitioners–ranging from all sort of different personalities; including (but not limited to) self-appointed gurus, public intellectuals, corporate bosses, average laborers, and everyone in between.  What peaked my curiosity most was how the underlying message from this diverse group of people was a resounding agreement that: “Yes, indeed, meditation works!”  The full definition of how it “works!” and what it means for it to “work!” often vary as much as the individual backgrounds of meditation practitioners, however there are some very clear commonalities among all the positive testimonials.

A greater sense of focus is one reoccurring benefit attested to by mindfulness meditators.  Specifically, a greater awareness and appreciation of the details encompassing the moment one happens to be currently occupying, as well as the multitude of thoughts that accompany it.  Another common theme among meditation circles is how it leads one to confront the (supposedly false) preconceptions surrounding the fundamental concept of the Self, and the illusory nature by which we think of our Self in relations to both our internal dialogue, as well as the external world our Self interacts with (whether it is even coherent to think of the Self as an independent agent relating to the world, rather than another component in an endless string of interacting affects that make up existence).

I spent weeks researching the practice and philosophy of mindfulness meditation to get a better understanding of it, until finally, on January 1st, 2017, I decided to put theory to practice and devote a significant portions of my free time trying to gain some firsthand experience of what it truly means to incorporate meditation in my daily life.  Recently, on January 1st, 2019, this personal experiment of mine came to a full stop.

When I first set out on this personal journey I expected the possible results to go one of two ways:  1.  A net positive, wherein I would enjoy the benefits of reaching some semblance of self-awareness, self-discovery, and hopefully even personal growth (like so many others testified to having experienced through meditation).  2.  A net neutral, the results of which would be no more dire than having wasted some portion of my time on a fruitless exercise that offered no real benefits, but ultimately no harm.

Having now gone through it, I can’t say what I experienced to have been neutral, since the practice definitely affected me on more than one level.  Unfortunately, from my perspective, the affects I felt leaned more towards a net negative as a whole; so much so, I decided to give up meditating completely as something that may simply not be a suitable practice for someone like me.

Once I ceased meditating, a subsequent curiosity came over me in which I wanted to find out if there were others that have had a similar (negative) experience to my own while practicing mindfulness meditation, but surprisingly enough the answer to that questions seems to be a resounding, “No.”

I came across a few blog posts here and there of people saying they weren’t completely satisfied with what mindfulness meditation offered, or that it wasn’t what they expected, but they were still overall happy to have had the experience (even if they decided it wasn’t the right fit for them).  I also finally took the time to research the medical and psychological data regarding the long-term benefits of meditation (or, more aptly, the lack thereof) I had intentionally avoided while engaging in the practice, so as not to be prematurely biased against it.  Yet, other than a general confirmation that little to no empirical evidence exists to validate its self-proclaimed benefits–possibly making meditation more comparable to a placebo effect than genuine self-awareness–I still didn’t come across reports that confirmed anything close to my personal (negative) experience.

I’m not going to go into deep details regarding the exact nature of the sort of mindfulness regiment I did during this two year period; partly because I’d rather be guilty of leaving details ambiguous, then have every meditating Tom, Dick, and Mary who fancies her/himself a guru lecture me about how “real” meditation ought to be done.  If that is the sort of objection coming to mind as you read this, I am unfortunately failing to get the crux of my point across.

It’s not that I meditated and got no results from it, or that my results were drastically different from what I’ve read, heard, and observed others state about their own experiences while meditating.  In fact, my experiences were more or less in line with what the typical person claims to go through while practicing mindfulness exercises.  My problem with meditation–and mindfulness meditation, specifically–are what I view to be the negative impact it had on my creative wherewithal.

What exactly do I mean with this? Allow me to explain.

A heightened awareness of the current moment is one of the major benefits promoted in favor of meditation.  While I see how it might help those who have a habit of wearing their emotions on their sleeves to meditate–or maybe those who suffer from impulsive decision-making in general–I’m someone who came into meditation already relatively calm and collected, possessing a decent set of stress management skills to begin with.  Furthermore, I’m someone who relies on having to construct imaginary plots, involving imaginary people, and projecting them into contrived scenarios that could resolve themselves any number of ways I see fit to write.  Now, seeing that creative writing is generally penned in the past tense, about things that have yet to be imagined, involving situations which do not exist, I never expected mindfulness meditation to offer much in the way of benefits in this part of my life.  But I also wasn’t prepared for how downright harmful it could be to it, either.

Prior to incorporating meditation into my daily routine, sitting at my desk and passionately typing away at my laptop’s keyboard for long enough to lose my sense of self because I am too immersed in the world I’m creating, was the feeling that gave me satisfaction at the end of a day when I went to bed.  And, slowly but surely, I felt this passion begin to erode the more progress I made with my meditative practice.  (Then subsequently return when I stopped meditating altogether.)

Sure, I got better at focusing on my breathing, as well as the various physical sensations that made up my moment-to-moment experiences, which in turn made me more aware of not just my thoughts, but the process by which these thoughts seemed to spontaneously manifest into my conscious monologue, but all of this came at a cost.  Being more aware of my thoughts–moreover being conscious of the act of thinking–made it harder to lose myself within those thoughts when I needed to weave together thoughtful writing.

And it wasn’t just writing.  Other creative outlets like painting became harder, too, because a large part of my painting process revolves around being able to foresee and focus on what shapes and images can be created (rather than what are present in the moment), and what method/color scheme will illustrate them best.  Being aware of the moment, and the act of what I’m doing (in this case sitting in a chair while painting) offered no benefit to the act itself, and ironically often served to distract from letting my thoughts roam towards conjuring up the inspiration needed to complete the project.

Yes, inspiration.  That is the key ingredient that I felt slipping the deeper I delved into meditation.  Ironically, as a result I found myself feeling more frustrated and stressed as a person when I sat down to do my work; traits I largely did not possess (at least not to the level I developed) going into meditation.

Like a lot of bad side effects, it took time for the signs to come to the surface, at which point meditation had already become part of my daily routine (and, really, routines can be so hard to break once they’ve cemented into our daily lives).  So I carried forward through all of 2017, and the first half of 2018, somewhat oblivious to what was the source to my depleting creative spark.  Then, last summer I wrote a post on this blog titled, The Pitfalls of Self-Help, after which I started to consider the possibility that all the positive testimonials I had heard in praise of mindfulness (which got me interested in it) were just as vacuous as the testimonials of people following any other self-help/self-awareness fad.

I started to seek out other mindfulness practitioners to see what insights they had to share, and was largely met with not-fully-thought-through regurgitations from self-proclaimed meditation gurus, whose wisdom sounded more like buzzwordy slogans from the reject bin of yesterday’s fortune cookie stash.

One particular conversation proved most enlightening.  The gist of it went something like:

Meditator:  “How you perceive of the Self is an illusion.”

Me:  “I perceive of my Self as a collection of atoms that make up the matter that is me; occupying a specific space in time that only I occupy.  In what sense in this an illusion?”

Meditator: “That’s not how people define the Self.  When people talk about a Self, they speak of it in terms of a separate entity that’s observing their doings, instead of being a part of it.  That’s an illusion.”

Me:  “But I just told you that doesn’t apply to how I, personally, conceive of the Self; as it pertains to me, or anyone else.”

Meditator:  “It does.  You’re trying to intellectually rationalize you perception.  In reality, you’re just not being honest with how you really perceive your Self, in everyday practice.”

I’m fine with accepting that I have blind spots regarding my own conscious and subconscious awareness.  What I take issue with is being told I have to accept the idea that someone else–with absolutely no firsthand access to my thoughts or perceptions–has figured out where all these blind spots are, how they pertain to my experiences, and how it all conveniently fits into her/his own preconceived generalizations and worldview.  In other words, feel free to tell me that I’m wrong in my opinion, but don’t condescendingly tell me you know what I’m really thinking, in order to make me and my thoughts conform to your philosophy.  That’s not awareness; that’s just bullshit.  And I hate to say it, but a lot of meditation seems to run very close to this level of discourse.

In the last half of 2018, as I drifted more and more away from seeing any value for keeping meditation in my life, I was given two further explanations by meditation practitioners for my lack of positive results:  1.  I’m not spiritual enough, and 2. I’m too straight-edge.

I’ll freely grant the truth of the first explanation as a strong possibility.  Even with the most elastic definition of the word “spiritual,” I can honestly say that it does not, and cannot, apply to me.  While I know there are efforts made to promote a secular form of spirituality, I still feel the need to point out that I have never believed in the supernatural, nor the mystical, and the values and passions I have in life I do not equate or think of in any deeper “spiritual” terms.  The things that give my life meaning and joy, are simply the things that give my life meaning and joy, and I see no reason why I need to lump on belabored spiritual terminologies that do little to further elucidate what is innately a tautological experience for everybody.  Apparently, this type of thinking doesn’t sit well with the sort of people who claim to get concrete benefits out of meditation.  In such circles, simply saying you appreciate any aspect of life, and your roles and perceptions in it, is an affirmation of your spirituality.  Which is fine, but to me that just redefines spiritual so broadly that it becomes meaningless as a term.  I’m not invested enough in the semantics behind it all to debate the issue, but it’s safe to say that I don’t personally consider myself to be a spiritual person (regardless of whether others want to see me as such).

As to the second point, concerning my lifestyle choices; on more than one occasion, it was suggested to me that meditation can only be truly of benefit when performed under the influence of psychedelics.  I have no way of knowing if this is true or not, as I do not partake in recreational drug use (though I support anyone else’s right to do so).  But I have to ask, how do you know that what you perceive to be a greater self-awareness while high on psychedelics isn’t just a drug-induced delusion that has no bearing on reality as it actually is?  If being on drugs, and then meditating, is the key to opening the door to a greater truth about life, how come no one has ever emerged from these drug-fueled meditative states with any tangible, verifiable realizations about the world?

How come in all the centuries of taking mushrooms and meditating in caves, none of these yogis and gurus came out of the experience with something like “E=mc^2”, or the formula for penicillin, or even something as basic as “hey guys, guess what, the world is actually round” (in fact, there is a growing following of people online, at least some of whom I imagine are very prone to getting baked, that argue in favor of a flat-earth).  It’s always some esoteric and vague platitude, like “the Self is an illusion” (as long as both “Self” and “illusion” are defined in very particular terms) or “states of happiness and suffering both depend on consciousness to be realized” (no shit, you’re telling me people who are brain dead can’t feel happy or sad?–Brilliant!).  So, I must ask, what exactly is the point of a greater awareness, if said awareness has nothing tangible to say about the most fundamental, verifiable facts regarding the reality we inhabit?

And, look, perhaps there are those for whom such musings and conversations are of great value, and their personal experiences have been greatly enriched by their existence.  If meditation has brought these people happiness, and impacted their personal growth as individuals positively, I would never argue to take it away from them on the basis that it wasn’t my cup of tea.  We’re all different, and what works for you may not work for me, is one underlying message here.

The other reason for writing this post is to speak to anyone who may have had a similar experience with meditation to my own, and also struggled to find others voicing said experience.  Although I didn’t find much in the way of negative testimony regarding mindfulness meditation, I have a hard time believing that there isn’t someone–at least one person–in the world who, like myself, has tried this out and found it to have been more of a hindrance in her/his life, rather than a benefit.  To this person(s) I’d like to say, there’s in no point in struggling to move forward in a futile quest, and there’s in no shame in walking away from something that is doing you no good.  There are many different ways to experience life and achieve personal fulfillment, and just because something is presented as a cure-all to what ails you, doesn’t mean that there aren’t better alternatives out there more suitable for you.

And if you think everything I’ve written is unwarranted drivel, let me know, and I’ll be sure to meditate on your concerns post haste.

Treatise on Blasphemy

Recently the Republic of Ireland held a referendum to repeal longstanding blasphemy offenses in its country.  While blasphemy still stands as a finable offense in the Republic under the 2009 Defamation Act, the referendum is still a demonstration that, as far as the Irish people are concerned, charges of blasphemy ought not to be a part of punishable civil law in their nation.

Friends of my adopted homeland here in the United States usually have a conception of Western Europe as being made up of a set of predominantly secular and progressive cultures.  And speaking as someone who spent many years growing up in Western Europe, this conception isn’t wholly unfounded.  As a result, it might astound many Americans to hear that some of these secular, progressive, ultra-liberal, borderline lefty countries still have enforceable blasphemy laws in place.  Granted, the actual enforceability of such laws is largely theoretical in nature, given that they are usually undermined by far more salient laws allowing for the freedom of religious expression and the freedom to believe in accordance to one’s personal conscience.  Thus, blasphemy laws currently exist as a vestigial organ in European law books; without practical purpose or application, but still present nonetheless.

“If these laws are unworkable, than why even bother to fret about them with referendums at all?  Why not just continue to ignore them, and get on with your blaspheming ways?”

This could be a reasonable response, but it misses an important point concerning blasphemy laws.  Putting aside the fact that it makes perfect sense to oppose the criminality of blasphemy on principle alone as unbecoming of any modern democratic nation, there is also the issue of the frailty on which the laxity of these laws currently exist.  To put it more plainly, the reason blasphemy charges are unworkable in most of the European nations that have them is precisely because the current sociopolitical climate is too secular and progressive to enforce them.  However, as any student of history knows, sociopolitical climates are anything but static.  So what happens if the political pendulum swings too far to the right, towards a political faction that views the protection of religious sensibilities as far more important to a nation’s cultural well-being, than the free expression of its citizenry?  Suddenly, these outdated blasphemy laws that have had no real thrust in civil law for almost two centuries, become a very powerful weapon in the hands of reactionaries all too eager to use the existing rule of law to conform society to their line of quasi-pious thinking.  And this is a potential threat both believers and unbelievers alike ought to be concerned about.

Blasphemy isn’t simply the act of professing one’s disbelieve in religious claims, whole cloth.  Blasphemy is the very nature in which all religions profess the very doctrines that make up their faiths.

Whenever polytheistic faiths, like certain sects of Hinduism, profess the existence of multiple gods, they are blaspheming against monotheistic religions which insist that there is only one god, and none other (and vice versa).  Within the monotheistic Abrahamic faiths, when Christians profess that Jesus Christ is the foretold messiah, they are blasphemy against the Jewish faiths that claim that the messiah is yet to come (and vice versa).  When Muslims claim that Jesus, though a prophet and a messiah, is not the son of God, they are blaspheming against a central claim of Christianity.  The Catholic Church’s stance on the supremacy of the Roman papacy is blasphemous to the Eastern Orthodox Churches, and the Protestant rejection of Catholic ecclesiastical authority is blasphemous to Catholics.  The Methodists are blasphemers to the Calvinists, and just about every Christian sect considers Mormonism a heresy.

The obvious point here is that to take away the right to blaspheme is to make it impossible for religious pluralism to exist within a society.  Perhaps this is fine as long as your religious opinion is the dominant one in the society you inhabit, but what happens if you find yourself just short of the majority opinion?  What if a population shift occurs, and the very laws that enforced the thin-skinned sensibilities of your religious persuasion becomes the means why which the new dominant line of thought undermines your right to religious expression?

I could stop writing now, and end on this appeal for mutual cordiality between people of all faiths, and how it is in everyone’s self-interest to oppose blasphemy laws, but I fear it would leave things very much against the spirit of healthy discomfort that blasphemy really should elicit in a person when coming across it.  On that note, allow me address the elephant in the room that needs to be brought up when concerns regarding religious offense of any sort, in law or public discourse, rears its head.

Undeniably, religions make bold claims for themselves.  Claims that offer definitive answers on matters concerning life, death, morality, with a wager on possessing a monopoly on Truth with a capital T.  And they are always keen to wrap this all-knowing, all-encompassing bit of absolutist wisdom in a garb of self-proclaimed humility, as if to say, “No, no, don’t mind me…I’m simply professing to know the answers to all of life’s mysteries, ready made with the consequences (read: threat) that will befall you if you don’t follow along with my modest creed.”

In short, religions by their inherit design simply claim to know things they couldn’t possibly know.  But I, in turn, admit that I don’t know.  I don’t know what the answers to life’s mysteries are; nor do I know which of today’s mysteries will remain mysterious forever, and which might become common knowledge for subsequent generations to come.  I don’t know which moral answers yield the most objective good for humanity; nor can I say for sure that such answers are even completely knowable.  The truths I do know come with a lowercase t, held provisionally in accordance to forthcoming evidence and reasoned arguments, and I don’t know if I can do anything other than to reject the grammar of bolder Truth claims when confronted with them.

It is precisely that I don’t know that I am left with little recourse than to examine, question, dismiss, disbelieve, and (when I see fit) deride those who do claim to know, but offer hardly a dearth of evidence for their claim.  It took centuries of debate and bloodshed of previous generations of thinkers for any of us to be able to enjoy this simple — yet powerful — privilege to skepticism.  A privilege I do hold up as my right, and which I will speak up for without hesitation or apology.  What you call blasphemy, I call critical thought.  And if anyone can appeal to traditions as a means to protect religious sensibilities by legal means, I am fully within my right to appeal to the tradition of cultural and intellectual pushback towards religious doctrines and religious authorities that has made it possible for any sort of interfaith (and non-faith) social cohesion to exist in the modern world.  A tradition that includes both the right to the profane and the blasphemous, which cannot be allowed to be abridged in a democratic republic, for as long as one wishes to be part of any nation worthy of the claim.

Quick Thoughts on Jordan Peterson and his reading of Nietzsche

As rare as it is for me to have interactions with Kronstadt Revolt (KR) readers, the few times it does happen it’s exclusively occurred outside the actual confines of the blog (i.e. mostly emails and private messages through twitter).  My best guess is that due to my low posting frequency they want to make sure there is actually someone still typing away at a keyboard behind the dashboard menu before fruitlessly putting a comment into moderation limbo that may never be read or approved by anyone (as an fyi, comment settings are set to only moderate the first comment you post, to make it easier to control spam from bots; after that first-time approval showing you’re human, your subsequent comments should post automatically update: comments are no longer moderated at all).  Never mind that my twitter updates are about as (in)frequent as my blog posts, it is the trend that has developed, and I’m happy to interact with readers who feel the need to check in on a thing or two, here and there.

By far the most viewed posts I have on KR are the one’s about Friedrich Nietzsche (with Nietzsche’s Views on Women in particular getting the lion’s share of these views).  Given the popularity of the subject, I suppose it makes sense that the majority of questions I get revolve around people either asking for clarification about Nietzschean philosophy, or challenging my interpretation of it.  Neither of which I mind.  Considering I wrote a book about the guy’s philosophy that earns me some amount of profit, it would be absurd of me to scoff at either people asking for more details, or questioning my perspective on the subject.  (If nothing else, I can at least point them to better resources than myself on anything I personally fail to address; usually Nietzsche himself.)

Over the past few months, however, the sporadic question or two I find in my inbox about Nietzsche have more than a few times come attached with one other name: Jordan B. Peterson.  Although usually not so much in the form of a question, as an eager endorsement for me to explore the man’s views on similar topics (or just any of the wide range of social/psychological topics he covers).  If nothing else, the man has an enthusiastic fan base, which very much has grown exponentially since his name started making the rounds on the online “memosphere” in late 2016.  Since then his lectures have become increasingly popular on YouTube, and many people (mostly young men, but others, too, I’m sure) regard him as a foremost intellectual of our time, going so far as to credit him for re-instilling guidance to their lives.

In part, I’m writing this post to serve as a bookmark I can direct future inquiries to that may come my way regarding my thoughts on the man.  Let me start off by saying that I was aware of Peterson somewhat before I was actually aware of Peterson.  To put it less cryptically, I first saw the man in a YouTube segment back in 2011, where he opposed a set of atheist bus ads in Toronto, and where he stealthily mentioned that atheists like Richard Dawkins maybe should be oppressed (one might be inclined to assume he’s come a long way in the promotion of free speech given he has cultivated it as one of his leading mantras over the course of the last 2 years, however a general dislike, and outright hostility towards open atheism–let alone outright anti-theism–is not an uncommon theme for Peterson to this day, despite his popularity with centrist-to-conservative leaning atheists online).

Unfortunately, in the segment Peterson is never asked whether it’s warranted to be so hostile towards a limited bus ad campaign put on by atheist activists (on their own dime, no less), when one often can’t go 2 miles in most North American metropolitan centers without coming across scores of billboards, posters, films, books, songs, graffiti, church signs, church buildings, and motel room nightstands, all advertising on behalf of Christianity, with little worthwhile resistance from secular voices.

While I didn’t notice it at the time of my first viewing of that debate, I had also come across Peterson’s work a few years prior in the form of his 1999 Maps of Meaning, a book that left no impression on me due to its overemphasis on Jungian psychoanalysis (much of which rests on highly unfalsifiable assertions, which irks not just me, but modern psychology as well, since as a fields it has largely moved away from Carl Jung’s theses and conclusions).  The writing style in the book is also occasionally laced with a distinct tone of self-importance (i.e. repeated mentions of how grand the contents held within it’s pages truly are) that I find personally distracting.  This is just a subjective matter of literary taste (so think of it as nothing more), but my take has always been that if a work is important/intelligent/paradigm-changing it is better to let the work speak for itself, then boast about it to the reader within the very work.  And as a result I quickly forgot the book, the man who wrote it, and failed to recognize him as the “Canadian man opposed to atheist bus ads” I saw years later.  I honestly never expected to come across him again, especially not with the large following his views have garnered since my first exposures to him.

Yet, since around early 2017, he has popped back up not just on my radar, but a great deal of the sociopolitical/culture discourse, causing me to try to familiarize myself with his views again (though with a bit more concentration then before).  Peterson is a psychologist by trade, and a lot of his content deals with the dynamic behind chaos and order as prominent in the lives of individuals struggling to find meaning in their existence.  This may be why he’s been described as a surrogate father figure to a segment of millennials who feel directionless in the modern world; a viewpoint both as much harped on by his critics, as it is embraced by his admirers.  His advice can range from the practical (“Clean your room; straighten yourself out first”), to dire warnings against the influence of cultural Marxism (lately, he’s been more keen on dropping the cold war terminology in favor of a more updated “Neo-Marxism,” or just plain “postmodernism”–two distinct terms he has a habit of using interchangeably), to his more spiritual messages bemoaning the modern world’s loss of traditional (i.e. Christian) faith (essentially, he finds that there’s value in the historical/psychological meaning religion, in particular–if not exclusively–Christianity, offers to the human psyche; this social criticism of his is often tied in to his screeds against Marxism and postmodernism, too).

Because the questions directed at me about Peterson involve my thoughts on his thoughts about Nietzsche, I’ll write my quick take on what I’ve seen of him on the subject so far.  To me, the man strikes me as someone who doesn’t so much read Nietzsche’s writings, as he reads into Nietzsche’s writings (a habit I warn against in my own book) to make the philosopher’s views sound more sympathetic to his own.

Whenever he brings up Nietzsche in his lectures, it’s usually to point to the Prussian philosopher as an intellect who foresaw the nihilism that the Western world’s gradual move away from traditional (i.e. Christian) faith would lead to, and to cement Peterson’s personal views on why the preservation of Christianity (even if only as a metaphorical archetype to be aspired to) is important both for the individual, and for Western civilization as a whole.  The caveat that he doesn’t usually bother to focus on in these lectures, however, is the fact that as far as Nietzsche was concerned, Christianity itself is ultimately a form of nihilism, precisely because its grounding foundation is imagery and can therefore offer no lasting counter to the harsh empirical reality the modern age has forced on us.  Nietzsche’s subsequent objections to contemporary secular philosophers attempting to create alternatives to Christian values wasn’t due to their move away from Christianity as a moral framework, but their continued reliance of what he considered to be fundamentally Christian morals.  Hence, the philosopher’s wider intellectual project of wanting to create a transvaluation of all values, in which Christian concepts like GoodEvil, and Sin, are to be displaced by a philosophy that affirms life, rather than fetishizes death.

In Nietzsche’s view, Christianity at its core will always be (and can never be anything more than) a death cult that inverts man’s base instincts and desires into absurd notions of sinfulness, rendering it as a moral system to be entirely hostile to life.  (As a reference, I offer every page, paragraph, and sentence of Nietzsche’s The Antichrist, which in German also translates to “The Anti-Christian”.)

I’ll grant that given the many hours of lecture footage Peterson has up on YouTube where he explores numerous philosophical topics, it’s possible that I missed the part where he goes into depth regarding Nietzsche’s staunch anti-Christian position, and how it’s completely incompatible with his own defense of Christian moral values as a framework for society.  But from all the footage I have seen (and it personally seemed like quite a bit at the time of viewing), Peterson seems to always evoke Nietzsche as a kind of kindred spirit, who would have sided with him against the godless forces undermining Christian morals as a sound foundation of meaning for people.  And, speaking as someone whose familiarity with Nietzsche is just a bit more than the average layperson’s, this strikes me as mistaken at best, and downright deceitful at worst.

I’ve been warned that Jordan Peterson fans have a tendency to get cheeky when they come across even the mildest push back to their favorite psychologist, so my preemptive retort is that, yes, my room is always in a state of unmatched tidiness, and my stance is so upright one would be mistaken to call me anything less than permanently erect.  Hope that settles that matter.

Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Man”

British poet Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Man” (1734) captures perfectly the symbiotic mindsets emerging during this time period from a religious believer’s perspective; wherein the hitherto dominant worldview based on faith-based reasoning–which was simultaneously nurturing, incorporating, but also quite often competing with–alternative naturalistic philosophies growing among cultured circles of Europe.  But unlike similar works of the time touching on near identical themes, Pope’s poem conveys a unique dose of optimism at the cooperative relationship between faith and science, and the former’s inevitable superiority of the latter.

It begins rather pointedly:

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan
The proper study of Mankind is Man.

If there is one thing that the Enlightenment is known for it is the gradual shift from a focus on a Divinely guided understanding of the world, to one that places greater emphasis on empiricism to study the natural order of things.  That is not to say that all Enlightenment thinkers eschewed the Almighty in their personal philosophy, but that the intellectual work they produced began to rely more on naturalism to explain life, than appealing to the supernatural (this is evident even in works that set out to support the existence of the supernatural realm–like Descartes–while still using largely rationalist arguments as opposed to metaphysical ones to make their case).  What Pope is characterizing in the the above lines is not new, of course, but a reversion to the ancient adage of Protagoras where “Man is the measure of all things,” which had once again now become the starting point of the philosophers of the poet’s day, from whence they advanced all remaining premises and deductions they set out to theorize and prove.

Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A Being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the Sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the Stoic’s pride,

Pope’s diction suggests that man, at his core, exists in a state of constant conflict.  His great wisdom, a feat that has made him capable of attaining unprecedented knowledge, also has the capacity to give rise to great arrogance, stifling modest and balanced introspection.

He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a God, or Beast;

Despite man’s reasoned understanding of his great intellect, he nevertheless cannot help but be constantly confronted with his innate limitations.  Least of all, how no matter the vastness of his capability to study and learn expands, this same knowledge betrays the undeniable fact that–just as all things in nature–the fintie mortality of every man, of every talent and intellect, is ever-present and inescapable.

In doubt his mind or body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reas’ning but to err;

Unlike the rest of nature, man holds an added burden that while all other creatures have the fortune to maintain a level of blissful ignorance regarding their mortality, man alone must carry forward with full knowledge that there awaits an end to the road of life.  He also carries with him the knowledge that the advent of man in nature, both physically and intellectually, is traced by a tradition of succumbing to an innumerable number of falsehoods, often as direct result of his intellectual limitations.

Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little, or too much;
Chaos of Thought and Passion, all confus’d;
Still by himself, abus’d or disabus’d;

It is man’s greatest gift–his intellect, his ability to reason and contemplate the natural world–that is the source of his greatest misery.  Seemingly, the more man understands about the world, and ultimately about himself, the more he is torn as he is confronted with doubts, fears, and insecurities regarding his place in the grand scheme of nature, which his perception places him master of, but his intellect relegates him from.

Created half to rise and half to fall;
Great Lord of all things, yet a prey to all,
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl’d;
The glory, jest and riddle of the world.

The conflict between science and religion is a well-attested phenomenon in the modern age, whether one agrees or disagrees with the validity driving either side of the argument.  And it was during Alexander Pope’s lifetime, with the advent of the Age of Reason and Enlightenment ideals, that a true push for alternative ways of understanding the natural world began to take root among the intellectual circles of Europe.

For a devout believer like Pope, these naturalistic alternatives would seem ultimately unsatisfied and foolhardy.  However, unlike the more authoritative stance taken on by religious institutions both in Pope’s days and generations past, the poet doesn’t give a modicum of resistance in his writings to the new scientific values and trends man is leading himself towards:

Go, wondrous creature! mount where science guides,
Go, measure earth, weigh air, and state the tides;
Instruct the planets in what orbs to run,
Correct old time, and regulate the sun;
Go, soar with Plato to th’ empyreal sphere,
To the first good, first perfect, and first fair;

Pope personally rejects the notion that man is the measure of all things, as he accepts the existence of a higher plane of knowledge and being.  Therefore, he gives no credence to the idea that the finite intellectual pursuit of the modern, enlightened man can have any bearing on the infinite knowledge of God.  For the former is by the nature of its earthly creators’ limitations, doomed to fall short of the omniscience and glory of the Creator of all things in existence.

Or tread the mazy round his followers trod,
And quitting sense call imitating God;
As Eastern priests in giddy circles run,
And turn their heads to imitate the sun.

Whatever threat might be perceived by some as coming from the advances in intellectual realms of science, Alexander Pope remains unimpressed, and sees them as self-defeating imitations of the deeper satisfactions and knowledge revealed by spiritual truths, which for the poet far surpass the wisdom and musings of even the cleverest of God’s creations, precisely because they are still God’s creations; be they aware of it, or not:

Go, teach Eternal Wisdom how to rule—
Then drop into thyself, and be a fool!

 

Bibliography

Pope, Alexander.  An Essay on Man: Epistle II.  1734.

Hypotheses non fingo, hypothesis non egeo

“A god without dominion providence, and final causes, is nothing else but Fate and Nature.”[1]

Much of the 18th Century Enlightenment can be explained by the approach framed by one man, Sir Isaac Newton, whose emphasis on analysis and observation served as a model for future scientific generations that sought to follow in his footsteps.  But unlike many of the minds that would succeed him, Newton was a devout believer in divine authority, and saw no reason to dissever the word of the Almighty from the laws of Nature—ultimately deducing them to be one and the same.  Although Newton saw no contradictions in appealing to the supernatural as a valid explanation to matters of scientific inquiry, the empiricism of 18th Century France began to direct science further away towards the realm of strict materialist rationalism.  In the late 18th and early 19th Century, mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace, admiringly called the Newton of France by contemporaries, was the embodiment of the latter sentiment; working relentlessly to understand and solve the minute details Newton had either overlooked or deemed divinely guided.

Laplace’s work was an ambitious attempt to account for how the solar system works; hence appealing to agents beyond the scope of man’s intellect (meaning his intellect) was not just unsatisfactory, but downright unacceptable.  This naturalistic mindset is best illustrated by the oft repeated exchange he had with Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802: the story goes how upon receiving one of Laplace’s latest manuscripts aiming to systematically account for the functions of the universe, Napoleon turned to the mathematician and asked Laplace why it is that he had written an entire book about the intricate details of the universe with no mention of God in it, to which Laplace answered bluntly, “I have no need of that hypothesis.”[2]  This exchange reveals much about Laplace’s personal weltanschauung concerning the utility of accepting metaphysical analyses.  Ironically, it also further imitates Newton’s legacy by setting a precedent; a standard of doing science that influenced the subsequent generation of European thinkers to come.  Except in the model set by Pierre Simon Laplace, theology and deities could have no role in scientific reality.

In Laplace’s quest to decipher the mathematical properties of the universe, he committed himself wholeheartedly to Newton’s theory of universal gravitation as proposed by the English natural philosopher in his Principia Mathematica.  To Laplace, if there existed a concept that could bring all the functions known to science at the time together it was gravity as described by Newton, and it is of importance to note that when it comes to his mathematical calculations, Laplace is a strict Newtonian.  And the system he deduced to be at work from all this was self-operating, and firmly set, rendering appeals to the supernatural redundant in the highest degree.  Thus, Laplace must have been baffled to know that Newton himself was not as strict a Newtonian as Laplace was, because despite laying out a mechanical approach to understanding the cosmos, he still left room for a supernatural agent—i.e. God—to not just set the mechanism in motion, but also tinker with it as the he saw necessary.[3]

One particular case that Newton noted as evidence of occasional divine intervention in the solar system concerned the gravitational interactions of Saturn and Jupiter, whose strange pattern of accelerating and decelerating as they revolved on their orbits produced certain mathematical irregularities that suggested that the planetary system would become unstable over time.[4]  And it is in this sort of an apparently scientific anomaly that Newton asserted that the hand of God is required to sustain and stabilize the system into order.  Laplace could not accept Newton’s conclusion on this problem, and would spent a significant amount of his professional career providing mathematical evidence as to why Newton was wrong to presuppose divine assistance when his own work points to quite the opposite.

Laplace’s earliest attempt to answer the dilemma posed by the Jupiter/Saturn problem, presented in 1773, resulted in his conclusion that the gravitational attraction mutually exerted by planets was negligible, even nil.[5]  However, he did not find this answer satisfactory, and presented another—what he considered more thorough—explanation a decade later to the French Academy of Sciences, in his famous 1785 paper, Memoire sur les inegalites seculaires des planets et satellites.  Here, Laplace approached the Jupiter/Saturn problem by stating that the discrepancies observed in regard to planetary orbits, and how their motions affected the relative stability of the solar system, can be accounted for mathematically because they do in fact regularly reverse themselves when one maps out their motions on a long-term basis, proving the system to be stable after all.[6]  Though we know today that Laplace’s calculations exaggerated the stability of the solar system (there exists quite a bit of irregularity in the cosmos), his unyielding pursuit of a naturalistic explanation to the problem gives a lot of insight into his staunch determinism, where every event is caused by a verifiably preceding event and will result in a predictable consequent, excluding supernaturalism from its framework.  It is the principle around which Laplace would strive to orient his scientific career, and establish his personal ideals under.

By 1802, the year of his famous encounter with the First Consul of France, Laplace was 53 years old and highly regarded as one of the greatest living mathematicians in France.  He had survived the turmoil of the French Revolution that had taken the lives of so many of his colleagues by always maneuvering himself in the right political circles, but never associating himself to any one group closely enough to suffer their eventual downfalls.  Throughout the mid-late 1790s, Laplace began to have an increasing presence within political circles, starting with a string of leading positions in the founding of the Bureau des Longitudes (created in 1795 for the advancement of astronomy in the French Republic) and the Institute National des Sciences et des Arts (serving as a successor to the defunct Academy of Sciences, organized for the purpose of utilizing science for the benefit of the new Republic).  Laplace’s role as a leading figure in France’s scientific community made his inclusion in these activities a necessity for the state, and brought him closer into the spotlight of the national scene, meaning closer to the man who was accumulating more power within France, Napoleon Bonaparte—the recipient of Laplace’s blunt statement about God’s absence in the workings of the universe.

A lot of Laplace’s influence in the early 19th Century can be attributed to his personal relationship with General Bonaparte, who upon seizing power in 1799 appointed the mathematician as his minister of the interior. This gave Laplace his first taste of true political power (even though Napoleon soon regretted the decision, as the ministerial post proved to be a poor match for the meticulous scientists).  Later in life, Laplace would comment how when it comes to politically ambitious individuals, “rather than crave their lot, I am more likely to pity them.”[7]  Though he relieved Laplace as minister of the interior soon after appointing him, Napoleon ensured Laplace’s position in a more politically ceremonial role in the newly forged Senate in late 1799, naming him secretary of the Senate in 1800, and eventually chancellor of the Senate in 1803.  Laplace used his sway in politics to benefit science and its practitioners, and indeed it appears as if his primary actions involved the advancement of scientific institutes,[8] earning him much praise from the rest of the academic world.[9]  This is very much in contrast to his idol Newton, who mostly shied away from the public eye all through his life.  Also unlike Newton, Laplace did not care to allow potential successors to arbitrarily follow in his footsteps, but sought to carefully select the best and the brightest to be included in his scientific projects; founding an elite social club for budding scientists called the Societe d’Arcueil in 1806 to promote what is referred to today as the Laplacian program.  The Laplacian program of precise experimentation and consistent mathematical theory set-up by the Societe would influence the direction of French scientific learning for nearly two decades, only fading out close to Laplace’s death in the 1820s as the group virtually imploded in its overreaching quest to account for everything in existence.

The standard by which Laplace was eager to frame and promote the study of science was a clear reflection of his own ambitious attempt to explain the nature of the various components, and how they operate to make up all the matter surrounding life and the universe.[10]  Thus, the only logically consistent position this sort of mindset could lead to for someone like Laplace is that as far as he is concerned the laws of nature are static, leaving no room for miracles of any sort, chiding past and contemporary scientists for straying away from what he thought ought to have been their better judgment and slipping into the realm of unfounded superstition.[11]

Laplace clearly idolized Newton, and was thoroughly committed to Newton’s theory of gravity as a universal truth that gives a sufficient account of how the solar system functions.  But he never shared Newton’s strong religious convictions, and never understood how a mind so great as to practically invent physics, did not reach the same metaphysical conclusions Laplace himself had done through his own work on calculating the cosmos.[12]  Whereas Newton asserted that the observation of peculiar patterns in the motion of planets and other celestial bodies was a sign for the occasional suspension of natural laws to validate the necessity of a Supreme Being’s oversight in the ultimate structure of the universe, Laplace saw these same peculiarities as natural consequences of these very same laws Newton was willing to suspend, seeing no function for God to play in what he considered to be a wholly deterministic system.

Laplace was a young man he was dubbed the “Newton of France,” but, unfortunately, Newton had not left a lot of unexplored domains for his intellectual heir to discover, leaving the ambitious Frenchman to be content with exploring the areas where his forbearer had been negligent: working out the minuscule details that combine to make up the grand picture.  To a devout believer such as Isaac Newton, the presence of God within our reality is the grandest of all explanations; to a man like Pierre-Simon Laplace, focusing on the minute workings of the larger framework, the concept of God can never reach more than a hypothesis.  A hypothesis that might be satisfactory to the philosophically inclined, but to Laplace, the empiricist, the scientist, it is a hypothesis for which there is no need.

[1] Newton, Isaac.  1687.  Principia Mathematica. “Rules of Reasoning in Philosophy, Rule IV”.

[2] Hahn, Roger. The Analytic Spirit, ed. Harry Wolf. “Laplace and the Vanishing Role of God in the Physical Universe” (Ithaca, 1981), p. 85.

[3] Newton, Isaac. 1776.  Principia. General Scholium.

[4] Gillispie, Charles Couston.  Pierre-Simon Laplace: A Life in Exact Science (New Jersey: Princeton University Press), 1997, p. 47.

[5] Hahn, Roger.  Pierre Simon Laplace: A Determined Scientist (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press), 2005, p. 78.

[6] Laplace, Pierre Simon.  1785.  “Memoire sur les inegalites seculaires des planets et des satellites.”  A detailed account that helps to clarify some of the technical jargon of Laplace’s conclusions can be found in Chapter 16 of Gillispie’s book, titled “Planetary Astronomy”, p. 124-145.

[7] Hahn 2005, p. 130.

[8] Hahn 2005, p. 133-134.

[9] Monatliche Corrospondenz zur Beforderung der Erd-und Himmels-Kunde 6, 1802, p. 272-278

[10] Laplace, Pierre-Simon. 1801. Mecanique Celeste, p. 121-122.   

[11] Moniteur Universal. 28 January 1795, p. 530.

[12] Hahn 2005, p. 201.

Exploring William Blake

In his poem “The Shepherd,” from Songs of Innocence, William Blake describes the scene of innocent sheep being diligently watched over by a sweet shepherd.  The obvious message is the absolute sense of tranquility that is found by the herd from having a benign celestial father alertly protecting them.  But, as is with much of Blake’s writing, there is also a sense of a sinister totalitarianism being exercised by the benign shepherd.  He asserts guard over his sheep from “morn to evening,” “following his sheep all the day,” and, “his tongue shall be filled with praise.”  The Shepherd’s benefit from this relationship appears to be a self-aggrandizing one, basking in the sheep’s dependence on him.  The sheep, for their part, blissfully bask in innocent ignorance, enjoying the peace of mind grated to them through the shepherd’s protection.  Though the poem diverts the reader’s attention from sensing anything menacing with the strategic usage of gentle words like sweet, praise, innocent, tender, and peace, the dire message here can be read as indeed one of solace for both the sheep and shepherd, but also of a particularly menacing variant, reminiscent of captive victims who have learned to identify with their captors (Stockholm Syndrome).

In contrast to “The Shepherd,” Blake’s poem in Songs of Experience titled “The Angel,” approaches the same theme from a different standpoint.  Here, a maiden is being guarded over by a benign angel, similar to how the sheep were watched over by the shepherd, except unlike the sheep the maiden is filled with anguish rather than bliss.  The telling piece in the poem is that the angel is by no means a brute, but a concerned protector, yet the maiden seems to resent his presence anyway.  Whereas “The Shepherd” is comparable to a child yearning for the fawning of an overbearing parent, “The Angel” is that child maturing into adulthood, and desperately yearning for independence from her parents’ authority.  When the angel does flee the situation and the maiden is left alone, she “dried [her] tears, and arm’d [her] fears,” and upon the angel’s return she states, “I was arm’d, he came in vain,” because through her maturity she has made the conscious decision in her advanced years to—if need be violently—break free from the self-deprecating condition the angel’s preoccupation with her has created.

In line with the underlying anticlerical message evident in much of William Blake’s work, both “The Shepherd” and “The Angel” can be read as subtle, but stern, condemnations against church establishment.  “The Shepherd” illustrates the churches relation towards the youth of their flock, instilling within them a herd-like obedience towards its own authority and at the same time teaching them to praise this same authority.  It is fitting that “The Shepherd” is in the Songs of Innocence collection, since it appeals to the time in people’s lives before they are capable of reflecting on a situation and figuring out on their own what decisions are best for them.  It is the sort of innocence, which according to Blake, can be easily corrupted by organized religion and lead men further away from the truth of God in favor of expanding its own power; crushing creativity for the sake of conformist obedience.  Mention must also be given that the poem is written in third person, meaning that the true thoughts of the sheep are ultimately closed off to us, and the entire narrative serves as a representation of the oblivious public that gives cover to a harmful system because it itself is incapable of noticing that the dependence the shepherd had trained in his sheep is a form of mental submission, rather than sincere devotion.  On that same note, “The Angel,” from the Experience, shows a first person narrative, giving a personal account into the loathing and grief experienced by a creative mind craving to be free from an overbearing guardian.  Whereas, the young sheep sought the guidance of the shepherd because their reasoning skills were not developed enough to know better, the aging maiden’s experienced rationale had rebelled against her guardian.

Just as the church in Blake’s view seeks to do what it thinks is best for the salvation of man’s soul, “The Shepherd” and “The Angel,” demonstrate the irony of how the imposition of guarded and conditional deliverance can only be perceived as virtual imprisonment, and will–contrary to its own goals–impose a token brand of cerebral tyranny.