rebeccmeister: (bikegirl)
Somehow or another this book came up in some discussions with my mother during the period when I had broken up with [ profile] scrottie and was trying to sort through a bunch of emotional stuff. I was interested in the book not so much in the context of that immediate relationship situation, but more in general because I've felt for a long time like I haven't entirely understood the concept of forgiveness.

This actually stems back to my Catholic upbringing. One of the important rituals (sacraments, actually) in the Catholic church is the ritual of Reconciliation. Depending on who you talk to, you will hear different stories of what Reconciliation is and how it goes. The earlier versions of it were what you know of as Confession, with the private chambers where the priest hears about your sins, tells you to do some penance, and you go on your way. Growing up when I did, Confession had taken on a different tone that involved face-to-face meetings with a religious figure, but at that time I often felt like I was supposed to be coming up with a list of bad things that I had done so I had some basis for asking for forgiveness. I think this is in part because I didn't really understand the sacrament, but in part because I only received half-explanations of how it was supposed to work. I had this understanding that it was an important ritual, but that was the extent of it.

Fast-forward to graduate school. Two or three years into grad school, I hit something of a crisis point in the time right after Zack disappeared. One of those phases of, "What am I DOING with my life?!" I came to feel like I couldn't trust some of the people I had thought of as some of my closer friends, in good part because I didn't like who I became when around them. For instance - they found me funny when I was drunk, where I experienced a profound sense of alienation from myself and other people.

After certain things happened, I instinctively needed to push away, hard. Pushing away from those friends was more about who I was than it was about them, but regardless, it was a big rift. Breaking up with friends is incredibly hard.

But after some time had passed and I reached a point where I felt like I had re-aligned my sense of self, I started to experience another thing: I had this incredibly strong urge to forgive those former friends, but I also had this awareness that I really didn't know how. Ever since that point, the whole concept of "forgiveness" has been high on the radar as something I want to understand and practice better. For instance, this piece talks about teaching children to do a better job of reconciling wrongs.

I also copied out a quotation from a friend: "Forgiveness is for the forgiver and not the forgiven. Personal power arises from the ability to transcend the need for acknowledgement of our personal work. Let the action be the reward."

And when I encounter incredible stories of forgiveness, like this Holocaust survivor forgiving an Auschwitz guard, I listen.

What is going on here?

It feels like Desmond and Mpho Tutu hit some pretty big nails squarely on the head in this department. The Book of Forgiving contains some utterly horrific stories of the awful things that human beings do to each other, but it also makes a crucial point about human connectedness. The point is this: when another person hurts you, you have two options. You can retaliate, which will extend into a cycle of revenge, or you can choose to enter a cycle of forgiveness. There's a strong human impulse to retaliate, which is why the Tutus take a step back to ask, why and how can we choose to do something different?

Their perspective on humanity resonates deeply with my perspective, which is that we all need to recall our shared humanity even when faced with acts of extreme depravity. Towards the very end of the book, they talk about the distinctions between restorative and retributive justice. I deeply believe in the capabilities of human beings to become better, even while recognizing that we still live in a flawed, hurtful world. Tutu does not shy away from talking about some of the very worst things that humans have done to each other, including genocide, over the course of the book, and this is part of what makes the book so powerful.

As such, I would highly recommend the book, and I would be interested to hear your perspective, too.
rebeccmeister: (Default)
Yesterday evening was splendid. It began with another game of Scrabble in the Bunker, [ profile] trifold_flame's new office. Only this time, the Bunker's harsh edges were softened with the aid of a new rug, gentle lighting, and a hand-crocheted amoeba. E is truly amazing. As I said to D as we walked over to the Bunker, playing Scrabble in E's office somehow makes it feel like an erudite activity. I almost wanted to be wearing a sweater with elbow-patches, although it would have gotten a bit too warm after a while.

Scrabble wrapped up just in time for [ profile] sblat and I to head over to listen to a lecture by Daniel Dennett...or so we thought. I had e-mailed to ask about tickets for the lecture, and was informed that there would be no tickets, so I mistakenly assumed that the size of the venue would accommodate the audience. Alas, we were directed to an unplanned and hastily assembled overflow room, where, several minutes into the talk, we were finally able to both see (sort of) and hear Dennett. [Eventually, you might be able to watch his lecture courtesy of the Beyond Center, here.]

Dennett's talk was entitled "Darwin's Strange Inversion of Reasoning," and thus focused on one of Dennett's favorite subjects, the theory of evolution by natural selection. [The "strange inversion," in this case, was Darwin's idea that higher levels of complexity could emerge from simple processes, which Dennett likened to Turing's reasoning about how computers could work]. I'm not sure that I learned much that was new, but I'm not sure I expected much that was new, for Dennett covers this subject extensively in Darwin's Dangerous Idea and related concepts in Consciousness Explained. So instead, I focused on observing the semantics of his lecturing style (his, I assume, intentional re-appropriation of the word "design," for example, to refer to the products of evolutionary processes).

In the lecture, he did a slightly better job of elaborating on his meaning of the word "truth," which was something that had been bothering me after reading Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. He basically indicated that he believes in the arrival at scientific truth through a process of approximation, which is a more satisfactory explanation than what he had stated about science in BTS (where he simply referred to arrival at truth through science).* And yet at the same time, we hypothetico-deductive-ly trained biologists in the crowd cringed every time he used the word "prove."

At the end of the lecture, in response to a question from the audience, he also took a minute to talk about his academic mentor, who, he said, was a beautiful writer who wrote only sentences with impact.

*Aside to Dad: I don't think Dennett's perspective on "truth" is mutually exclusive with the concept of "encompassing truth" outlined by Primack and Abrams, although it might be more short-sighted. Though one could argue that the short-sightedness itself is a critical issue. I've considered contacting Dennett to find out.


Mar. 10th, 2008 10:24 pm
rebeccmeister: (Default)
Today at lunch, D and I sat and talked about atheism and prayer (I do miss our regular lunches together; our schedules this semester just generally don't coincide for lunch). We both have this feeling that the expression of gratitude for the miracle of good food to eat is important, even if we don't feel it necessary to call upon a deity in doing so. But then, we wondered, what would be an appropriate expression? No solid answer appeared, though we learned that we're both inclined to sing about things.

Sometimes I feel like my attitude towards prayer hasn't developed beyond an adolescent impatience with anything that isn't perceived as cool--I view it either with impatience (something between myself and doing something else) or irritation (it doesn't express the way I feel and think about things). I take pride in simply being able to quell my impatience (good for me, I can sit through an hour of church, etc etc). Sometimes I can derive more from the experience, but those times are rare. So how does someone like myself bring thoughts and feelings about existence to the table for a meal, a shared experience? How does one otherwise create time and space for reflection and celebration?

What immediately leaps to my mind are the beets that we ate on Sunday. They were so glorious in their roasted bloody pinkness, so delicious dipped into the yogurt-with-chives. We didn't really have to do much to make that meal special--eating it in an unusual place made it special enough (and oh, the bees!).

And I think of my Wiccan friend, V, who has created so many of her own rituals. And though I don't know the answer, I'm at least grateful to ask the questions.
rebeccmeister: (Default)
To follow up on my previous, more important post:

Last night, Richard Dawkins gave a talk at ASU based on his latest, best-selling book, The God Delusion. The audience was one of the largest audiences he has ever addressed (Gammage Auditorium was filled). Although he praised science and the process of natural selection, he did not explain these two concepts fully. Much of his talk focused instead on logical fallacies associated with typical arguments used to support the existence of the Westernized Judeo-Christian concept of God, as well as on addressing the fundamental logical flaws associated with Intelligent Design (I was pleased to see the phrase "Failure of imagination" appear on one Powerpoint slide). He also gave some time to the subject of raising consciousness about how religions/religious thinking appear in societies (can we really label 4-year-old children as Jewish, Muslim, and Christian?).

None of these subjects was surprising, and also unsurprisingly the content overlapped considerably with Dennett's recent book Breaking the Spell, though Dawkins was perhaps even more forthright about the fact that by nature he is not inclined to be highly diplomatic in his dealings with religious thinkers. I also appreciated his mention of the fact that he does not think it necessary to be highly versed in theological studies to be able to hold the above discussion (does that mean, by extension, that I am qualified to hold a philosophical standpoint despite being poorly-versed in classical philosophical texts?).

But. There were a few moments that I wish I could remember better, when the audience laughed or applauded inappropriately, still demonstrating a sheep-like response to the presented ideas. To that, I object. And I think the two points raised in my earlier post still stand. As I've said to a few people before, I have found my studies of Biology quite humbling for what they have revealed to me about the limitations of science as a way of knowing.

After Dawkins's talk, I'm still thinking about writing a letter to Dennett about those two points. I just wonder if there's even a remote chance that I will get an honest response. Perhaps I should omit the fact that though I'm a rationalist, I never claim to be rational.

Lastly, I think I'll never get over the fact that Dawkins was perhaps overly successful in his coining of the term "meme" in The Selfish Gene, for the word has been co-opted to mean something much less meaningful than he originally intended, and its utility as originally intended is still incredibly questionable in my mind at least (augh, the "meme" meme! So Meta.).

Silly scientists. If only it were possible to intelligently discuss these things and derive some meaning from the discussion. Alas, it's but a spin of a hamster wheel. Perhaps it's time for some poetry or art instead.
rebeccmeister: (Default)
It would be perhaps interesting to write a lengthy piece in response to Dawkins's talk, but I won't. Instead, here are two matters I take issue with:

1. The idea that science can be used to arrive at truth. Both Dawkins and Dennett quite simply state that that is the function of science. An oversimplification, gentlemen, or what? Spend some more time looking at your supposed truth, and discover where reductionism does and does not get us.

2. How to move the conversations forward. It's one thing to target something like Westernized, monotheistic religions. That's a reasonably straightforward target. But can we move past it, please? Dennett at least acknowledges that we don't exactly have a replacement for this thing we call religion (and should we?), but regardless, where does that leave those of us who are bumbling around in the midst of an ongoing existential crisis? I'd like more dialogue, less monologue.

My thoughts went to two people as I listened: to David Abrams (The Spell of the Sensuous) and Wendell Berry (The Gift of Good Land would be a reasonable start).

But I suppose if I was looking for something new and different, I wouldn't have attended the Dawkins-fest.
rebeccmeister: (Default)
I passed by the office of a friend today and we got to chatting about stuff, as we are wont to do. Here's what I want to remember of the conversation: He had been asked if he would like to switch departments from our giant, biology-oriented one into the newly formed School of Sustainability. He felt resistant to the idea, but couldn't quite put his finger on why, until he heard a talk about what sustainability means.

The crux of the matter is this: the SoS actually wants to leave the definition of sustainability wide-open, because "sustainability" is being used as a catch-all term. Sustainability is actually one way to answer the question of how people should live their lives. It thus serves as a replacement for the western Judeo-Christian concept of God, which is also a[n] [intentionally] vague concept, a fact that shapes its use and utility. People clearly feel a need to look to some sort of outside force or concept to provide meaning for their lives, and this is equally true of atheists and non-atheists. If the concept were made too rigid, it would become more exclusionary.

This is an idea deserving further thought, because perhaps it can provide some insight into my simultaneous enthusiasm and frustration with the changing meaning of the word "green." I don't think that this revelation is a bad thing for sustainability; we humans do need guidance for how to live our lives (though it is an open question to be sure). But it helps to put the term in the appropriate framework so that it can be properly discussed.


Jun. 21st, 2007 09:45 am
rebeccmeister: (Default)
Happy Solstice, everyone (and happy birthday, [ profile] figment80).

A couple of months ago, I started looking at the Astronomy Picture of the Day, something that my father also likes to look at. Sometimes the pictures are less than thrilling, but sometimes they are mind-boggling because of the massive astronomical events and things they depict. They challenge my ideas of size and space and time, and remind me to think of my life on different scales. It is a miracle to merely exist.

In my struggles to relate to religious thinking and institutions (I am trying to be a respectful athiest--perhaps a uni-theist--but what's in a name?), I do feel with some certainty that it is important to recognize and celebrate important events, such as changes in seasons or celestial relations. So today is a good day to reflect, and to celebrate. Human events should probably figure in there somewhere as well, but I'm still not sure quite how.
rebeccmeister: (1x)
Happy Easter!

I received an incredible gift in the mail yesterday--a letter from my mother about what Easter means and has meant to her. I'd had some appreciation for how the Catholic church has fit into her life (i.e. being given no alternatives as a child), but it was good to learn about how she developed a renewed relationship with the church as a young adult. I must respect and honor where she's coming from because I benefited greatly as a result of that renewed relationship (that's where she met my father and my best friend's parents; that's the community I grew up in). My parents' commitment to their church community is the sort of commitment that seems to be rare these days, and it's commendable.

I feel somewhat similarly about my commitment to rowing--somewhat. Rowing at its best teaches many of the same values as a religious community, and requires the same sort of persistence and dedication (even on those mornings when you just don't feel like going, you still go; here I am, 11 years later, and I don't see myself stopping any time soon). The rowing community here isn't quite as stable as a community like my parents' church (although it has experienced no small number of shake-ups over my lifetime at least), and yet rowers still share a sense of community.

One of the most admirable qualities of my parents and their church is their ability to continue to reach out to others in all sorts of positive ways. The reaching out happens through such diverse things as helping communities in war-torn countries like El Salvador, through interfaith dinners and dialogues, and through writing letters that remind me to celebrate renewal in my life. And for that I am forever grateful.
rebeccmeister: (Default)
When I refer to atheism, I need to clarify that I think that people of all religious persuasions--athiests, agnostics, and theists--are called equally to continue to explore their beliefs and convictions. And I think that if one were to ask (in a carefully worded fashion) people of all religious persuasions if they did as much, one would find that the proportions of each that do so are actually close to equal.
rebeccmeister: (australia)
Well, I have finished reading Daniel Dennett's latest book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. He uses a rationalist approach to show putative origins of religious (superstitious?) thinking/behavior and the subsequent development of organized religion. This is a quick-and-dirty summary of major points of the book that have helped me contextualize some ideas I have thought through idly but never systematically. Altogether, I'm grateful that the book has helped me clarify and articulate my "beliefs." (the book has some pretty interesting commentary on how beliefs end up muddling religious arguments)

In addition to describing the origins of religion, Dennett explores the development of the concept of God, first using rough distinctions between God as being and God as essence, as described by [argh can't remember his name and am not near the book]. The God as being definition emphasizes God as an omniscient, omnipotent force capable of action/intervention in an individual's life. He shows that the concept of God as being is, well, hard to believe when one considers it more closely--it basically doesn't make sense because such a thing turns into an all-or-none phenomenon (if God's omniscient, God must be listening to everything, everywhere, all at once (human or otherwise), and really, there's no good direct evidence for any God-like being actually having done anything--in any case, major religious figures consider this perspective to be a fairly primitive understanding of God). Dennett then argues that the God as essence concept can be dismissed through a logical argument, which I'll attempt to summarize. Essentially, if God-as-essence is the greatest thing there is, the only possible thing that could be greater is God-as-essence existing as an actual thing. (this borders on the tautological and is pretty damn tricky to argue about, as best I understand at the moment). For me, the God-as-essence arguments go back to my personal everything-is-sacred/nothing-is-sacred understanding of the universe. Dennett argues that this perspective is equivalent to atheism, because major religious institutions tend to get bogged down on the details about God and make the term less meaningful than simply referring directly to the material world as sacred. So I suppose I prefer the term "athiest" because it seems more parsimonious.

As a side disclaimer, it's important to note that perhaps as many atheists as theists or agnostics carefully consider their personal philosophy, and thus it's wrong to characterize any of these three groups as unthinking, uncaring individuals. Respect for the traditions/histories behind religions is cruicial, but should not overshadow the fact that pretty much all major religious establishments also inadvertantly shelter extremist sects associated with them. That's one of my major reasons for wanting to no longer be identified with them, although of course I expect to continue to respect, talk to, and work with people will all manners of belief systems as my personal proclivities permit.
rebeccmeister: (australia)
Merry Christmas, everyone. (this might seem a bit premature, but we're 18 hours ahead of most of you)

After serious consideration (namely, reading Dennett's latest book, Breaking the Spell), I have decided that I am an atheist (or Bright, if you are familiar with the concept). I'm not going to try to convince you of my position or fully explain how I got there at the moment, but this is a pretty recent conversion from agnosticism. Now I have to consider how I would like to celebrate the things that I consider sacred outside of religious contexts. Wish me luck.

The weather here is a bit crappy (i.e. rainy, cold, and windy, with a touch of hail), so we cannot collect bees today. Instead, T and I are going to go on a short expedition along the Great Coastal Road.

Anyway, I wish you all well today, whatever your religious proclivities.


rebeccmeister: (Default)

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