Archive for the ‘Religion and Atheism’ Category

LESSONS FROM OUR OWN HISTORY

Thursday, April 13th, 2017

by Barry Jagoda

Reunions to celebrate the “good old days” are privileges of growing older. Three such emotional, memorable events have been experienced in April, 2017.

Joining 200 high school friends and acquaintances brought back warm memories of growing up in the suburbs of Houston 50 years ago.

Then, after 40 years, getting back with Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter—in Atlanta and in Plains—reminded one of the power of the ideas, the moderation and the passion that enabled the election of the 39th President of the United States in 1976.

And a 50th reunion of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University marked a passage back to 1966-1967 underscoring what had helped turn a young Texan into a reporter—a professional journalist–with commitments to keeping an eye on government.

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As the poet John Dunne wrote, “Make new friends, but keep the old—for these are silver and those are gold.” Friendships and bonds of attachment characterize these reunion meetings. As one participant, viewing a photograph from our adolescence, wrote, “We could not possibly have been that young but now it is impossible that we are that old.”

As one survives into an eighth decade a wise friend from earlier times now writes, “Health is Everything,” appreciated less if one currently suffers from no debilitating illness.   And, the half-joking admonition from another half-century long pal, “If you do get sick make sure it is something they can fix,” becomes more real as one ages into the 70s and beyond.

The luckiest among us may be those who still have meaningful family connections—children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews. A very few still have a living parent. At some time in the growing up process we leave childhood homes, with their rules and their unconditional love. We develop our own set of values and new aspirations. And now, looking back over the decades, pictures of “what formed us” become clearer.

Neuroscientists and others puzzle over the competing claims of nurture and nature—our genetic inheritance and our lived life experiences. But in the lingering last years of life one sees overlap, the near impossibility of sorting out just what came along with our embryos versus what we have learned over the ages. Curiously, though, as a wise friend jokes, “At age 30 I thought I knew all the answers but now, at 70, I realize how very little I know.” This charming comment is not necessarily true: A wonderful discovery of older age is to find new old mistakes to correct, new life-lessons that can still be gained.

A goal of life, as expressed by psychologist Abraham H. Maslow, is to become “self-actualized,” to be dependent on one’s inner life for meaning, perhaps the opposite of David Riesman’s “other-directed” personality. But none can deny the deep benefits of the power of “significant others,” who have come into our lives and—with luck—are still there, in real life or influencing us from the grave.

It is perhaps at night as one tumbles off to sleep that there is best the realization of how fortunate one might be to have another with whom one might share the slings and arrows—as well as the ice cream—of being human. But life lessons are still there to be had: An art gallery curator’s recent comment helps put this into perspective with a summing up of culture that transcends, yet also populates: Asked the meaning of art, the gallery expert explains, “Art fills the soul.” And, “Where is the soul?,” asks the skeptical journalist. “The soul is where love and joy reside,” says the wise professional.

Another approach to the soul is often associated with teachings from the various religions. Listen to the Ten Commandments or understand the urgency of the teachings of the Islamic Prophet. Knowing that such creation stories are all about us, hard to miss, one can fall back, perhaps, on the Golden Rule, dealing with others as one would hope to be treated.

For a secular individual—having no belief in a deity—there is the additional challenge of sorting through ideas inherited from the centuries to find one’s own values, ethics, moral principles. And herein is a great virtue of being a mere human being. It is said that we each have primitive brains, derived intellectually from the Darwinian tradition. Our rational faculties are even taken over by these earlier constructs which try to focus us. As this understanding may be true, the human challenge is shown to be even more difficult.

Finding decency is a quest not to be undervalued. But for an older human the chance for a second look—a glance back—makes a reunion another chance to mull over what has come before. One might revel in the good fortunes but not forget what may have gone wrong. Perhaps too late for much change but at least having history’s lessons for intellectual satisfaction.

 

 

 

 

 

 

MODERATION IN PURSUIT OF VIRTUE IS NO VICE

Monday, April 4th, 2016

By Barry Jagoda

As an open society the United States is mixed economically, culturally, socially and with regard to belief. With no fixed agreement on the very greatest issues of human exchange it becomes crucial for government, and for a responsible public, to be moderate so no particular segment of society feels entirely excluded from the process.

Generally American politics reflects this mixture of values but in contested elections, on the left and on the right, one can see deviation, often leading to subordination of a party or candidate who occupies one extreme or another. These extremes show up in other elements of our life but political conflict gets more attention and we are currently undergoing a historic polarization. These gulfs can be seen throughout our culture.

But in 2016, particularly in the Republican presidential nominating process, all of the candidates—17 in total at one time—have run to the right of center. And, as the process winds down, the leading two candidates are far to the right or leaning in that direction. The Democrats have seemed more moderate but from the perspective of the GOP, their more liberal opponents must seem just as deviant.

Republican candidates for public office have tended to find corners of darkness for their anti-government message while Democrats have bounced from calls for a remaking of political society to underscoring the need for more balance.

Passion is a great driver in public life but it can easily cause proponents of one perspective to alienate their fellow citizens. It was this very danger that gave the lie to the famous comment from a right-of-center Presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater, when he said, “Extremism in pursuit of virtue is no vice.” But whose “virtue,” what “extremism” and what sort of “vice?”

Questions such as these, with a variety of answers depending on initial assumptions, lead to bad public policy. The answers—for a healthy society—require moderation.

This is why the economy works best when government is joined with private sector entities to accomplish projects when possible. Mixing funding from public sources—such as for artists, scientists, public broadcasting—with creative forces from the private economy becomes crucial for start-up projects. And with Constitutional requirements for freedom of religion the main role of the public sector is to shield these organizations from restrictions.

Perhaps in no other system does the collective power of government—at local, state and federal levels—come to play a supporting role providing a social safety net. Mixing good jobs with poverty reduction, and underpinning minimum housing, food and clothing, provides a huge role for government but as a supplement to the disorganized private work forces.

Ironically it is with institutions of religion that one can best see how a mixed system works. Because of the very great diversity in religious belief—and because there must be an open platform for each of these traditions—here the wider public sector simply plays an enabling role. In other cultures, where the religion is proscribed and imposed, clashes of values are much more likely. The American system, however, allows for a variety of belief and even protects the 20 percent of citizens who profess no supernatural values.

But American history, through 250 years has seen perpetual conflict between those who had acquired wealth or substantial economic assets and others who have fought for a larger share for those outside the financial circle of influence. With the “establishment” in perpetual fights with the underclasses, with leaders in the various religious sects on the defensive against those who question faith, and related arguments between the “haves” and “have nots,” society has been in turmoil for most of its modern history.

The story becomes quite murky when candidates for public office take on a populist tenor thereby fooling segments of the population who feel left out by government. This is a particular problem in primary voting for national office when candidates seem willing to say anything or do anything to attract their base of voters, often found in extreme pockets at the left or at the right.

It is for this reason that political scientists barely joke when they say “There are two positions in American politics: The moderate position and the wrong position!”

Barry Jagoda is a San Diego-based journalist and international consultant. He was an award-winning writer and producer at NBC News and CBS News, and a founding contributing editor of the highly regarded Texas Monthly magazine.

Muslim-American Culture, with Passion, Insight and Humor, At La Jolla Playhouse

Thursday, February 20th, 2014

by Barry Jagoda

Vision, courage and a willingness to create theater out of a central conflict of our time was required for La Jolla Playhouse to stage a drama focusing on a Muslim-American family and the contradictions this religion has created all over the world.

The February 19 world premier of an unforgettable play “The Who & The What,” by Ayad Akhtar, was a triumph not merely because the production was a “crowd pleaser.”  Playhouse opening night audiences are not used to deep and thoughtful theater—which this production truly is.  And there was enough humor and superficiality to draw loud and heartfelt applause throughout the evening.

But if one seeks depth on the topic of religion, particularly the Islamic faith, go see this play!  It is a wonderful exposition of Muslim culture, with references to a homeland in Pakistan but otherwise the story plays out here at home in America, with a healthy infusion of wit and wisdom underlying much seriousness. The play is contemporary and set in Atlanta.  It will be performed nightly at The La Jolla Playhouse until March 9th with two matinees each weekend.

The story is of a traditional, but transplanted, deep believer in the Prophet Mohammed, but now a taxi driver in Atlanta whose wife (“broken” by her husband) died of cancer, leaving the father of two daughters struggling with their faith but a father whose Muslim tenants are NEVER doubted.   Of course the girls have other thoughts about this.  The three are seen below:

An unlikely fourth player is the part-time Iman of a local mosque, an intellectual plumber when not engaged in his faith work.  Named Eli, he ends up marrying one of the girls—fights ensue, but a baby is born.  An American convert to Islam, the young clergyman has a modern view of religious requirements.  Iman Eli and his wife, Zarina, the brilliant older of the Muslim women–she has a Harvard graduate degree in literature and her life’s work is a novel with a very questioning perspective on the Prophet–are pictured below

Kudos particularly go to Artistic Director Christopher Ashley who signed up this project after just one dramatic reading.  In so doing he accepted the enormous challenge of bringing a serious play on the subject of Muslim culture (particularly in its American context) to a venue which has been more partial to mass cultural theater than to an extremely thoughtful, highly cerebral examination of what is perhaps the world’s most vexing issue.  Religion, and particularly the Islamic faith of more than 1.2 billion persons world-wide, get an examination in this case study of the girls, their various boyfriends—and husbands—and the dictatorial influence of the father.

 

Playwright Aktar’s Pulitzer Prize in Drama for an earlier production, “Disgraced,” had not been announced prior to The Playhouse taking on this new story thus adding to the leap of faith by Ashley and his creative team.   They brought in Director Kimberly Senior (who had earlier worked with Aktar) and the four stars of the play:  Monika Jolly, Meera Kumbhani, Kai Lennox and Bernhard White.

To their lasting credit, the producers did not water down this project.  The many conflicts about The Prophet—particularly what the playwright calls “gender politics”–are present and the subject of many long, loud, passionate and very interesting arguments.

Amazingly, for all the bluster and anger in the family, there is a happy ending.  Dear Reader, you are invited, even encouraged, to go see for yourself.

 

Caleb’s Crossing: Another Triumphant Novel from Geraldine Brooks

Wednesday, June 8th, 2011

Pulitzer prize-winning novelist Geraldine Brooks has produced another wonderful story, the exciting and passionate page-turner “Caleb’s Crossing.”

Brooks has taken us to the 17th Century frontier of Massachusetts, particularly the island known today as Martha’s Vineyard.  Its 1660 wildness was scantily populated by original Indian residents, with their ancient pagan beliefs, and a consequential group of settlers, hard-working farmers, most of whom were believers in a personal God and Puritanical teachings.

The story is told through the eyes and voice of Bethia Mayfield whose adolescence includes the development of a very close friendship with a young Indian tribal heir apparent who gets the English name of Caleb.  Bethia is a precocious young woman, who masters Latin, Greek, her native English and the Indian language, Wampanoag.  She tries to adhere to the strict values preached by her Minister Father.   From Caleb she also learns the ways of the wild, which berries to pick, where to find the best clam flats and what to know about nature on the Island.  But spiritually and intellectually, the “crossing” of the book’s title, is Bethia’s conversion of Caleb from a culture that worships the sun-god, “Keesakand,” to conventional liberal learning and Christian belief.

Were it not for the third-class citizenship applied to girls and women, this would be Bethia’s story.  Instead we are focused, as well, on Caleb’s struggle with his own Indian spiritual values and his gradual conversion to Christianity.  At the same time he dutifully undergoes the rigors of Indian “wilderness training” in preparation for his tribal leadership.  At the heart of the book is learning and self-improvement.  The young men are tutored and prepared for higher learning.  Bethia has to overhear what she will learn.

The Puritan perspective is well-represented here with every character having enough guilt for a whole life.  Imagining some error Bethia tells herself, “Sin stains us at birth and shadows our every hour.”  Here is an expanded engraving of the original sin concept that mirrors the iteration from Robert Penn Warren in the great “All the Kings Men,” where the Huey Long figure announces, “Man is conceived in sin and born in evil.”  This god-fearing perspective is a central theme in “Caleb’s Crossing,” and all one can say is that these same fears are with us today among a very sizable percentage of the population.  Brooks has gotten this religious aspect of her characters exactly right.

Caleb’s more literal “crossing,” in addition to adaptation to the white man’s religion and culture, is leaving the island for the mainland of Massachusetts Bay Colony where he will matriculate at Harvard and eventually be the first Indian graduate of that already august institution.  Brooks, a one-time reporter for the Wall Street Journal,

bases the Caleb character on what was apparently exhaustive research in Island archives, among the libraries of Harvard and from the earliest records of Massachusetts.  Bethia and most of the other figures in this novel are completely made-up but have been given multi-dimensional, compelling lives by this fine story-teller.

The earliest tension in the book is between the Indian spiritual perspective and the Christian.  Bethia decides to rename her new Indian “wild boy” friend:  “I will call you Caleb after the companion of Moses in the wilderness,” she announced.  “Who is Moses,” he asked.  She explained that he was a very great sonquem (leader) who led his tribe across the water and into a fertile land.  “You mean Moshu,” he said.  “Moshu made this island.   He dragged his foot through the water and made this island.”

In her narrator’s voice Bethia says, “I let him speak because I did not want to vex him and I liked to hear him tell the story with expression and vivid gesture.  But as I rode home that afternoon, it came to me that our story of a burning bush and a parted sea might also seem fabulous to one not raised up knowing it was true.”

Brooks has chosen to set the entire narrative and dialogue in the letters and vocabulary of 17th Century New England characters.  This makes moving through the story something of a slower process.  As an experiment I bought the book from Kindle and downloaded the text to my iPad.  There most of the old English words came to life through the “dictionary” feature of Kindle.  Just click on an unfamiliar term and its definition is instantly provided.  I prefer to hold an original book in my hand while reading but here is a good reason to go digital.

Meanwhile Bethia holds our attention.  She’s gone rapidly from 12 to 17 and has become a sexy young woman.  Still she is confined by the anti-feminist mores of the age.  As she puts it, “Silence was a woman’s sole safe harbor.”  And it is time for the island youth to move on.  Caleb and two or three others aren’t quite ready for college admission so they go to the mainland to a finishing school.  Bethia goes along as a general servant to help pay tuition costs.  And the next year Caleb, and two others from the Island, gain admission to Harvard, which had been founded 30 years earlier.  Bethia gets a job as a dining room maid.   She loves the location because this is also the area where the main college lectures are given.  Of course she listens in while pretending to run the service window.

As expected, Caleb receives Harvard’s first diploma for an Indian lad.  Young men are all around at the all-male Harvard College.  One grad student, son of Harvard’s president, gets Bethia’s attention and they marry, on her terms.  She is an unforgettable character in our literature, smart, sexy and determined.

ENLIGHTENING SPEAKERS AT SAN DIEGO’s UNIV OF CALIFORNIA: ATHEIST/MORALIST SAM HARRIS, VISIONARY POLITICO TOM HAYDEN

Friday, October 29th, 2010
Tom Hayden

Tom Hayden

Sam Harris
Sam Harris

In contrast to all the media bunk on election eve, clear thinking was on passionate display when Sam Harris, author of a wonderful new argument against religion http://www.samharris.org/site/full_text/the-moral-landscape and the venerable leader for social change, Tom Hayden, www.tomhayden.com spoke with students at UC San Diego, October 27 and 28.

Asked about a solution to what was termed the “terrorist problem,” Hayden said getting Americans out of Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and 16 other Muslim countries would put an end to Islamic radical attacks on the west.   Ending reliance on the Koran, “a mediocre book,” Harris argued, would be a good start.  Harris, a fierce and articulate opponent of all supernatural constructs, urges that morality be based on what can be known about human “well-being.”
In an age when pandering office-seekers spew low common denominator political and philosophical nonsense in all directions through the media, on the campaign trail and, very often, from religious pulpits, it is inspiring and gratifying to hear back-to-back speakers expressing common sense and reminding that there are rational solutions for many of mankind’s most pressing problems.
Both the philosopher and the political organizer object to the imposition of moral values based on false patriotism and on questionable ideological dogma.  Their common solution to universal problems lies in application of social science.  For Hayden this means use of the tools of political analysis and community organizing.  For Harris, the moral path travels through science, particularly neuroscience, and the rejection of supernaturalism.

To get a sense of Harris’s profound thinking I must quote here from some sentences in his new book:

“The more we understand ourselves at the level of the brain, the more we will see that there are right and wrong answers to questions of human values.  There are ancient disagreements about the status of moral truth:  people who draw their worldview from religion generally believe that moral truth exists, but only because God has woven it into the very fabric of reality; while those who lack such faith tend to think that notions of “good” and “evil” must be the products of evolutionary pressure and cultural invention.  On the first account, to speak of “moral truth” is, of necessity, to invoke God; on the second, it is merely to give voice to one’s apish urges, cultural biases and philosophical confusion.  My purpose is to persuade you that both sides in this debate are wrong.  The goal of this book is to begin a conversation about how moral truth can be understood in the context of science.”

That is to say, for Harris, “human well-being entirely depends on events in the world and states of the human brain.”

Hayden, clearly buoyant about the prospects of a victory in the California governor’s race for progressive Democrat Jerry Brown, spoke of the possibilities for the state becoming a national engine for conservation and alternative energy and for defining an alternative to the backlash against immigrants from Mexico and Central America.

Then, getting fired up and reminding one of his history as the brilliant student opponent of the American war in Vietnam, Hayden said, “I believe today that nothing is more important than for student, faculty and universities taking up the challenge of critical analysis of the war on terrorism and the alternatives.”

He elaborated, “Much greater support is needed for an expanded program of research, undergraduate education and global dialogue with the Muslim world.  It was said in my generation that communism was a closed, monolithic system, but a Michael Gorbachev proved the Cold Warriors wrong.  Today it is said that Islam is a unique fundamentalism, but I think this generation will prove that view to be too narrow and self-serving.”

Below your reporter is seen with Tom Hayden.

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It has been said that there cannot be a great city without a great university.  Here at the end of October, 2010, one is grateful to be in the La Jolla, California environment where important, mind-expanding ideas are within walking distance of your front-door.