The SnideShow Episode 003 – Islamophobia and Racism in America

islamophobia

Islamic terrorism is undoubtedly a problem, but if you look at the numbers, it kills far fewer Americans than almost anything you can name: cancer, heart disease–even falling out of bed. So why are Americans so obsessed with being killed by Muslims?

In his new book Islamophobia and Racism in America, sociologist Erik Love argues that “fear of Islam” is really nothing more than good, old-fashioned racism against non-Europeans–a problem with roots planted well before the events of 9/11.

003 – Islamophobia

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The SnideShow Episode 002 – Set in Stone

I interview historian Jenna Weissman Joselit, author of Set: American’s Embrace of the Ten Commandments. We discuss controversies over the display of the Decalogue on government property.

002 – Set in Stone

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The SnideShow Episode 001 – Uninformed

Episode 001 of The SnideShow has been released, featuring an interview with political scientist Arthur Lupia on how we can reach and teach voters.

001 – Uninformed

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000 – A SnideShow Primer

snideshow_logo_720x720Folks, I’ve just posted a “primer” episode for the upcoming SnideShow podcast. The SnideShow is a left-leaning, interview-driven podcast covering a variety of topics, including politics, current events and social issues. Episode 001 is due out May 1st. Check it out!

000 – A SnideShow Primer

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The Varieties of Religions Experience – Lectures 6 and 7

Chapter-by-chapter thoughts on William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience (hardcoverKindle).

Lecture VI & V – The Sick Soul

I admit I’m a bit confused by James’s treatment of “healthy mindedness.” In his last lecture he seemd to praise it as an outlook that motivated the believer, enabling him to see evil as an anomaly, a defect, something bad but that can be overcome. But in “The Sick Soul,” he eventually declares healthy mindedness as inadequate to (philosophically) tackle the problem of inherent evil in the world.

That said, this entire lecture is devoted to an analysis of depression (melancholia, whatever you’d like to call it). James reads accounts from several sufferers, both anonymous and world-famous, describing their fear and hopelessness; their desire to end it all (some with the hope of being with God, of course).

Naturally, people suffering from depression are not likely to see the universe in a balanced way. They’ll obsess about the bad things in life and the “evil” of the world. Beyond that, James never really draws strong conclusions on what depression has to say about religion. He does say that one’s outlook is determined by one’s inherent mental attitude–if you’re born an optimist, you’re likely to take a rosier view of God and sin and evil; if you’re depressed, perhaps the opposite. As James puts it, “There are men who seem to have started in life with a bottle or two of champagne inscribed to their credit; whilst others seem to have been born close to the pain-threshold, which the slightest irritants fatally send them over.”

James concludes that perhaps the depressive has the right idea; that certain kinds of religion cannot reconcile itself with the inherent, overwhelming downbeat of life. Other religions like Buddhism and Christianity, for which “the pessimistic elements are best developed,” are more complete. How festive.

On to Lecture VIII!

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1st Episode of Politically Incorrect

His occasional stupidity on vaccines and alternative medicine notwithstanding, I remain a big fan of Bill Maher. I still can’t believe that his current HBO show Real Time with Bill Maher has lasted LONGER than the show that put him on the map: Politically Incorrect, which started on Comedy Central and later moved to ABC. Anyway, I stumbled on this recording of the very first episode from 1993. His guests included Jerry Seinfeld and Robin Quivers (of Howard Stern fame). Bill started out nervously in front of what sounds like an audience of twelve, but he obviously found his stride, since he’s been at it for 24 years!

 

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My Interview with Challenging Opinions

Check out my interview in episode 8 of William Campbell’s Challenging Opinions podcast. We talked about my review of Omar Saif Ghobash’s recent book Letters to a Young Muslim, and about the worldwide struggle over the future of Islam. I’m certainly no expert on Islam, and my voice was a bit shot from a recent cold, but overall it was a good conversation–William’s a great interviewer–and the conversation was fun. Be sure to leave feedback and subscribe to Challenging Opinions!

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The Varieties of Religious Experience – Lectures 4 and 5

Chapter-by-chapter thoughts on William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience (hardcoverKindle).

Lecture IV & V – The Religion of Healthy-Mindedness

It’s the power of positive thinking! James starts this twofer lecture by asserting that happiness is the chief concern of human life. Fair enough. What constitutes happiness and how it might be achieved could–and does–fill many, many books. James doesn’t get bogged down with that specifically, but he does address the ability of religion to address people’s happiness. He highlights the fact that, when he was delivering these lectures, there was a liberalizing movement in Western religion. The guilt-trips of established Protestantism and Roman Catholicism were giving way to less depressing worldviews of Unitarianism and reformed Christian denominations, which de-emphasized Hell and focused on, if not Heaven, at least communion with the Almighty. James also looks at the aggressively optimistic writing of transcendentalist Walt Whitman, which make the poet come across as if he’s trying to prove a point, but hasn’t really adopted a natural, knee-jerk indifference to the vagueries of the world. (I’m no Whitman scholar, so I leave such judgments to others.)

And so, James addresses the trend toward blindly happy religion, that which seeks to ignore the evils and horrors of the world, and instead emphasize happiness and oneness with the Infinite. E-liminate the negative; ac-centuate the positive, as it were.

James looks at the collection of mind-over-matter denominations in vogue at that time: Christian Science, “mind-cures,” and “New Thought,” all of which apparently insisted that even physical ailments could be prevented or reversed simply by the power of belief. He outlines several anecdotes in which people claim to have avoided injury or sickness simply by repeating some mantra or consciously calling out to a higher power. James seems alarmingly gullible in accepting these assertions at face-value. Even if one believed that the believers were honestly recounting their stories, it only takes garden-variety skepticism to see that these were, in fact, simply anecdotes that prove nothing.

Sadly, this kind of postive-thinking folderol is common even in the 21st century. One of the biggest-selling books of recent years is The Secret, which is eerily similar to James’s description of the mind-curers’ “doctrine that thoughts are “forces,” and that, by virtue of a law that like attracts like, one man’s thoughts draw to themselves as allies all the thoughts of the same character that exist the world over. Thus one gets, by one’s thinking, reinforcements from elsewhere for the realization of one’s desires…” I guess bullshit never dies.

Now, there’s no doubting the power of a healthy attitude toward life, especially during times of stress and trouble. Considerable research has borne out the benefits of stress-reduction for people with serious illnesses, and the placebo effect is well-documented. But none of this supports claims that the mind can cure the body of illness or injury. And lest you think James is really just documenting the ability of people to convince themselves of the truth of these mind-over-matter claims, he tosses this out at the end of the chapter: “I believe the claims of the sectarian scientist are, to say the least, premature. The experiences which we have been studying…plainly show the universe to be a more many-sided affair than any sect, even the scientific sect, allows for.” Perhaps if James were alive today, and were able to review the vast progress that science has made in the 100+ years since, and the lack of progress religious thinking has made, he would change his tune.

On to Lectures VI & VII!

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The Varieties of Religious Experience – Lecture 3

Chapter-by-chapter thoughts on William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience (hardcoverKindle).

Lecture III – The Reality of the Unseen

“Were one asked to characterize the life of religion in the broadest and most general terms possible, one might say that it consists of the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto.” James opens his third lecture with this definition of belief, and I think it’s a pretty good one–certainly, it takes care of the problem of whether a religion must include a diety (answer: no). Simply some unseen (dare I say “spiritual”) realm.

James discusses the belief of Immanuel Kant (a dense thicket if ever there was one) that abstract or conceptual beliefs can be as concrete as actual physical things in front of us. Things have meaning in practice. We behave as if they are true, even if they are not directly observable.

James looks at several cases of religious experience, in which the experiencers have a profound sense of presence, even seeing something or someone, or having a feeling of being actually touched. Sometimes these experiences trigger strong emotions (e.g. fear). Sometimes the experiencer a direct connection to something transcendent. Of course, various experiencers interpret their experiences in different ways. Some dismiss them a mere (albeit powerful) hallucinations; some see them as direct connections to the Almighty. In any case, James presents these experiences are real and not manufactured; in other words, people who are otherwise physically and mentally healthy really do have these personal experiences, and are not lying about them.

That these experiences are not rational (or cannot be supported through rational analysis) is immaterial to their power. James briefly mentions the then-new movement of the ethical societies, and the attempts some were making to apply rational methods to religious systems. But, James so far withholds final judgment: “I do not yet say that it is better that the subconscious and non-rational should thus hold primacy in the religious realm. I confine myself to simply point out that they do so hold it as a matter of fact.”

(Nearly 100 years later, the scientific approach to religious experience is still controversial. Researchers have been able to trigger “religious” experiences in some volunteers by stimulating their brains with powerful electromagnetic fields. And even “New Atheist” Sam Harris has raised eyebrows by claiming to have had profound experiences through psychodelic drugs and/or meditation: “I was not overwhelmed by a new feeling of love. The insight had more the character of a geometric proof: It was as if, having glimpsed the properties of one set of parallel lines, I suddenly understood what must be common to them all… Love was–as advertised by mystics and crackpots through the ages–a state of being… Now I knew that Jesus, the Buddha, Lao Tzu, and other saints and sages of history had not all been epileptics, schizophrenics, or frauds.”)

On to Lectures IV & V!

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A Colony and a Nation by Chris Hayes

A Colony in a Nation Catalog adjusted IL.inddI’ve been reading a lot of books lately that touch on African-American history as well as current issues like the Black Lives Matter movement: older works like W.E.B. du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk and the essays of Lillian Smith, but also new works like Ta-Nehisi Coates’s heartbreaking Between the World and Me. (I also heartily recommend the new Netflix documentary 13th, which covers much of the same territory.)

I think you have to be living under a rock, or willfully delusional, not to understand that, for whatever reasons (conscious or unconscious, accidental or deliberate), the United States justice and law enforcement systems treat black suspects far more severely and view all black citizens with far more suspicion than the general (read: white) populace. You may deny this truth, but to steal from Coates: “I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world.” Continue reading

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