Notes on some recently read books

The school year has begun, so of course this blog has gone dormant. Sorry!

I do want to mention/recommend a few books I read as summer break was ending:

Michael J. Sandel, The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?
(Amazon; Bookshop)

I’m sure there are a million reviews of this book available already, so all I’m going to say is this: as a high school teacher who has a front row seat to the Hunger Games that is college admissions, I wish each of my students and their families would read this book. Sandel exposes the flaws of the meritocratic worldview: not only that it’s not real (the hardest workers don’t receive the best rewards) but also that it harms even the “winners”.

Jason Ananda Josephson Storm, Metamodernism: The Future of Theory (Amazon; Bookshop)

Storm is brave. He attempts to do something constructive in an era that is dominated by deconstruction. The main focus of the book is this (to oversimplify): how does the humanities move past postmodernism without denying postmodernity’s critiques and returning to modernistic thinking. This book could be a game changer when it comes to epistemology and it offers a new constructive approach to several topics that are desperately needed in the humanities since we’ve poisoned ourselves for a generation by telling everyone why our fields of study are flawed and not really real. For example, modernity sought a concrete definition of religion. Postmodernity helped us realize this is quixotic and that there’s no “form” of religion (to draw Plato and then Wittgenstein into the discussion). But something important still needs to be said about things like “religion,” even if it lacks concreteness. Storm offers a way forward.

Christine M. Korsgaard, Fellow Creatures: Our Obligations to Other Animals (Amazon; Bookshop)

On Ash Sunday 2020, I became a vegetarian. I’ve been looking for a philosopher to give me words to help me think about this change because it’s not dietary as much as ethical as relates to how we treat animals and the environmental impact of animal consumption. Korsgaard’s attempt to ground animal ethics in a Kantian framework has a lot to offer. Her writing has begun to reshape my understanding of “the good,” how humans relate to other animals in our differences and similarities to other creatures; and why we humans shouldn’t think of ourselves as superior to other creatures. Yet, Korsgaard notes that what makes us different also makes us responsible and while she concludes things like vegetarianism is ethically ideal and that factory farming is deeply immoral, so also draws the readers into ongoing conversations about topics like breeding animals away from being predatory; whether we should have pets; whether we should leave all animals to be wild, among other topics. It’s the type of book I plan on reading again in the future.

A reflection on birthdays (on the occasion of my 39th)

LaVeyan Satanists tell us that our birthday is one of the most important holidays of the year because the person of ultimate importance is the one you see when you look in the mirror. Jehovah’s Witnesses tell us that celebrating your birthday will displease god, because they claim it’s ultimately pagan, connected to astrology, and (positively?) “the day of death is better than the day of birth” (quoting Ecclesiastes 7:1). This spectrum of interpretations is completely understandable as I find myself both loving and loathing birthdays.

I have found that after 30, birthdays are a mix of celebration and ongoing existential crisis. Every muscle pull and popping joint reminds you that your time is limited. Gravity is taking its toll! But now your mind is not as clouded as it was by the thrill and angst of adolescence (which lasts, at least for American males, until about age 27 now). You can see more in the rear view mirror which makes the journey a little easier. You’ve got a little more, what they call “wisdom”. But the future is less “open,” and knowing that you’re (or supposedly should be) settling on a career, a place to live, etc., feels like a first retirement.

This is 39, the last year of my thirties. Overall, I find myself balancing the pride of certain accomplishments this decade with the melancholy of recognizing the costs of certain ambitions. More importantly, this decade has taught me that even if you’re the captain of your own ship, the sea we’re on is vast. Any success—financial, emotional, physical—can’t be divorced from choices you’ve made but also couldn’t have happened without a whole lot of luck, chance encounters, and moments when the multiverse was favorable to your consciousness so that you experienced one of the better of infinite outcomes. And this principle is true of the failures as well. You can steer but you can’t control the weather. Thankfully, in spite of very real storm, my waters have been relatively smooth.

Next year’s 40, one of Hollywood’s favorite decades (“40 Year Old Virgin”; “This is 40”). For now, I enjoy the end of my 30s, and take comfort in being loved, relatively healthy, and materially comfortable. Also, Happy Birthday Barack Obama; Meghan, Duchess of Sussex; Billy Bob Thornton; and Jeff Gordon.

War and Pestilence: reading Camus during a pandemic (1)

Like many others, this ongoing pandemic (yes, it’ll still happening for those who don’t check the news) has motivated me to read the writings of the French philosopher, Albert Camus. (For reasons probably related to my last name, I enjoy the French philosophers, including those despised by others, such as Foucault and Derrida…though I’m not so arrogant as to claim that I always understand them!) Currently, with one hand, I’m reading The Plague (Le Peste in French but no, my French reading skills are not where they’d need to be for me to enjoyably read Camus in his mother-tongue), and with the other, The Myth of Sisyphus (Le Myth de Sisyphe). But it is The Plague that drove me to Camus being that I want to engage something philosophical that reflects our current crisis.

I was asked how Camus holds up the twenty-first century. My quick summary is this (which I’ll unpack over a series of posts): Camus’ observations regarding human nature could be commentary on how people have reacted to the Covid-19 pandemic but advancements in human technology create a stark difference between Camus’ fictional plague and our present and real one.

Today, I pause to reflect on some of his comments about war and pestilence. These are fitting as we’re technically ending the American war in Afghanistan which has been going since I was in college. I share some quotes from Stuart Gilbert’s translation.

In Part One, Camus’ narrator, whose identity is hidden until later in the book, comments:

Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky. There have been as many plague as wars in history yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.

The Plague, pp. 36-37

When news came out of Wuhan that something strange was happening there, someone I know who was from there was telling me about it, but it seemed a world-away. I don’t think I felt worried until suddenly many were dying in Italy. So, I can’t claim to be an exception to Camus’ observation. I didn’t foresee this. Others did. The Obama Administration did. Bill Gates did. I guess they’re the exceptions to the rule.

Likewise, I don’t plan for war, even as many fret that America will one day trip into our second civil war as our growing partisanship grows violent. If this happens, I know I’ll awaken one day saying I had heard this was possible but couldn’t imagine it actually happening much like we knew something like what happened on January 6th was possible but we didn’t expect that!

Camus’ narrator comments further:

When a war breaks out, people say: “It’s too stupid; it can’t last long.” But though a war may well be “too stupid,” that doesn’t prevent its lasting. Stupidity has a knack of getting its way; as we should see if we were not always so much wrapped up in ourselves.

The Plague, p. 37

Remember when President G.W. Bush declared “Mission Accomplished”? We want wars to end sooner than wars end. Likewise, as vaccination rates increased, we began to grow comfortable. I even went placed, indoors, without a mask…for a few weeks. But like Iraq, “Mission Accomplished” has proven premature, and the Delta variant has proven human arrogance mixed with ignorance can prolong any misfortune.

But this shouldn’t be surprising. Camus captures this in explaining his fictional townspeople:

In this respect our townsfolk were like everybody else, wrapped up in themselves; in other words they were humanists: they disbelieved in pestilences. A pestilence isn’t a thing made to man’s measure; therefore we tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogy of the mind, a bad dream that will pass away. But it doesn’t always pass away, and, from one had dream to another, it is men who pass away, and humanists first of all, because they haven’t taken the precautions. Our townsfolk were not more to blame than others; they forgot to be modest, that was all, and thought that everything still was possible for them; which presupposed pestilences were impossible.

The Plague, p. 37

How this depicts everything from what we’ve heard of and heard from our last president in early 2020 to the people dying of this virus even now who express deep regret for failing to get a vaccine that was free and available at your local CVS or Walgreens! And as infuriating as these people may be, they are different from the more cautious of us only in degree. Any one of us who lives as if we’re captains of our own ship—as if the sea has no say in our fate—entertains a similar folly. The person speeding and weaving through busy traffic to get home a few second or minutes faster than they would had they sat in their lane in traffic exhibits the same hubris as the person who presumes that this virus won’t get them. It’s easy to fail to be modest thereby denying the reality of reality—until you get sick or wreck your vehicle. (And this isn’t to mention those who take precautions, or who drive defensively, who still get sick or in a wreck!)

Finally, Camus’ narrator comments, and I end with this:

They fancied themselves free, and no one will ever be free so long as there are pestilences.

The Plague, p. 37

Chambers’ future religion

Several days ago, I mentioned having read Becky Chambers’ A Psalm for the Wild-Built. Unsurprisingly, the thing that caught my attention the quickest was her depiction of religion. A Psalm for the Wild-Built has been characterized as “hope punk,” or SciFi that bypasses dystopian visions of the future—especially those caused by climate change and rogue technology—in favor of a vision where humanity figures out how to change for the better, becoming better aligned with the environment of which we’re part. And for Chambers, there’s also the optimistic presentation of kind-AI. When robots awake, they don’t want to kill us; robots just want to be free from the constraints of their “purpose”.

Dex, the main character of this novella, is a monk. The religion that seems to be commonly held by future humans is polytheistic, or better “pantheonistic” in that the number of gods is limited. There are “Parent Gods”. “Bosh” is the “God of the Cycle”. “Grylom” that of the inanimate. “Trikilli” is the “God of Threads,” i.e. “chemistry, physics, the framework of the unseen.” Then there are “Child Gods”. “Samafar” has something to do with knowledge and is symbolized by a sun jay. An old shrine to this god is a library. “Chal” must have to do with work of some sort, as this god is represented by a workshop-shrine and symbolized as a sugar bee. Then there’s “Allalae,” the “God of Small Comforts,” symbolized by a summer bear, whose monks, like Dex, serve people tea while listening to their problems, among other activities. That’s Dex’s role in society. They are a “tea monk”. Before Dex has an existential crisis, of sorts, they learned how to be a tea monk and spent their time traveling, serving tea, and listening to people.

In a novella that depicts the “Factory Age” as what almost ruined humanity (i.e. “the Industrial Age”), the gods of the contemporary world seem absent. There’s no dominant monotheistic being like we see in the so-called Abrahamic religions—at least not one mentioned. Does Chambers associate this sort of deity with the Factory Age? Instead, the religion that survives, thrives, and helps humanity live harmoniously with nature looks more like a collection of deities we’d find in ancient, ancient India or Greece, or maybe akin to Indigenous religions around the world.

The theology of these gods, and their interaction with humans and nature more broadly, isn’t quite deism but the nature of causation between the gods and things that occur seems to be more of a domino effect that direct intervention. Dex tells Mosscap the following:

“But the thing is, the Child Gods aren’t actively involved in our lives. They’re … not like that. They can’t break the Parent Gods’ laws. They provide inspiration, not intervention. If we want change, or good fortune, or solace, we have to create it for ourselves. And that’s what I learned in that shrine.”

The Parent Gods appear to have created a reasonable universe, governed by laws. The Child Gods inspire humans to do well in the environment given to them by the Parent Gods but humans (and other creatures, and robots) are ultimately in control of their own fate.

This doesn’t prevent gratitude and worship. Dex will say “Thank Allalae” and even chants to Allalae, saying, “Allalae holds, Allalae warms, Allalae soothes and Allalae charms.” The gratitude appears to be the point. Gratitude that emerged once humans had to learn that you might really miss something when it’s gone—something like clean air and water? No other miracles are necessary. The deities have provided the basics and for that they’re worthy.

Chambers’ presentation of future religion had me pondering the topic. What will religion look like in the future? Clearly, certain secularist dreams of a religion-less society (impossible?), or at least an agnostic-y one, don’t align with Chambers vision and I think the basics of anthropology push us in this direction. Is there’s a near cataclysm, I don’t imagine humans responding irreligiously. But they might alter their religions if there’s a sense that the “results” of their pieties almost annihilated them. So, what does religion look like in a couple of centuries from now? Chambers’ vision is one of many possibilities.

Vaccine effectiveness, California’s water crisis, and American individualism

A few news stories/podcasts that caught my attention this week:

Recently read: Chambers’ “A Psalm for the Wild-Built”

Becky Chambers, A Psalm for the Wild-Built (Tom Doherty Associates), 2021. (Amazon; Bookshop)

If you want a review of this book, I recommend Amal El-Mohtar’s for NPR: “A Monk And A Robot Meet In A Forest … And Talk Philosophy In This New Novel”. It’s what led me to buy it!

I don’t read much fiction or SciFi but this was a great book. It’s set in a somewhat pleasant post-apocalyptic world where humans avoided catastrophe and learned how to live sustainably. At some point, robots became self-aware and humans agreed to give them their freedom in the wilderness, so humans and robots don’t interact and haven’t for a long time. Except a monk (of a future, pantheonistic, nature-based religion) named Dex wanders into the wilderness (driven there because of their existential crisis) and runs into a robot named Mosscap. Mosscap guides Dex in their wilderness journey to keep Dex safe and as they travel their conversations turn philosophical.

My favorite part is when Mosscap questions Dex as to why humans are obsessed with having a purpose. Mosscap can’t understand this since humans celebrated robots choosing their freedom-to-be over their intended “purpose”. Mosscap says,“…why, then, do you insist on having a purpose for yourself, one which you are desperate to find and miserable without? If you understand that robots’ lack of purpose—our refusal of your purpose—is the crowning mark of our intellectual maturity, why do you put so much energy in seeking the opposite?”

I’ll write a couple of blog posts about this book in the near future.

This is the first novella of a triquel by Becky Chambers (fellow Northern Californian!). It’s a quick read (I finished in less than a day) that leaves the reader anticipating the rest of the series. I highly recommend.

Gen Z’s religiosity (or lack thereof)

The aforementioned PRRI “2020 Census of American Religion” continues to provoke a lot of thought and conversations. For example, the eyebrow raising stat that the white mainline is remaining static, or maybe even growing, while white evangelicalism plummets, is being questioned (e.g. Ryan Burge’s “Why It’s Unlikely U.S. Mainline Protestants Outnumber Evangelicals”). Also, the PRRI census seemed to indicate that the rise of the “nones” was slowing. Well, there’s other data out there like what Ryan Burge tweeted about Gen Z based on the data from the Cooperative Election Study.

Introducing Confucianism

One of the final projects for my “Religion in Global Context” class asks my students to do a YouTube or podcast episode explaining what Confucianism is and whether it’s a religion. (I’ve blogged about it: see “Chinese Religions Podcast Project”.) Future renditions of the project will juxtapose Confucianism with Daoism and Shinto and not just Daoism. Thankfully, my life as a teacher keeps getting easier as Andrew Henry’s “Religion for Breakfast” project, which already includes several episodes on Shinto, now will have a series on Confucianism. The first video was released a few days ago:

NPR discusses the prosperity Gospel

In the New Testament, Jesus says it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. In the United States today, many Christians believe in something radically different. In what’s known as the prosperity gospel, wealth is a sign of virtue and God’s favor. The effects of this belief can be seen throughout American life from business to politics to social policy.

Listen here.