The Varieties of Religious Experience – Lecture 1

Why am I blogging my chapter-by-chapter thoughts on William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience (hardcover, Kindle)? First, I’m correcting the slightly embarrassing fact that I have never read it, despite it’s being a classic of non-fiction and one of the most famous secular analyses of religion ever written. Second, because I’ve been lassoed into leading a discussion of it at a book club meeting a couple of months from now, and this will help me organize that task. Third…well, I’ve done this sort of thing before (see my chapter-by-chapter posts on Richard Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth, Irshad Manji’s Allah, Liberty and Love, Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape, and Harris’s Waking Up), and I’ve generally had a good response.


What a badass. William James in 1866.

Since this is the first time I’ve blogged like this on a book that is not contemporary, a little background info is in order. William James (1842-1910) was an American philosopher and psychologist, a New York scion and a graduate of Harvard Medical School. He made his career as a professor at his alma mater, but in 1901-2 he delivered a series of lectures on religion at the University of Edinburgh (yes, in Scotland). These lectures were subsequently published as The Varieties of Religious Experience, James’ most famous and most influential work.

Lecture I – Religion and Neurology

In introducing himself James notes that he is “neither a theologian, nor a scholar learned in the history of religions, nor an anthropologist.” His interest is in approaching religion as a psychologist. We will also see that James is necessarily limited by the state of psychology and medicine at the turn of the 20th century. While the germ theory of disease (to pick an example) had long been accepted by the medical community of 1901, medical science as we think of it today was still in its infancy. James occasionally makes odd references to “overinstigated” nerves, torpid livers and disordered colons as among the physical conditions that might affect a person’s overall attitude or mental states. (It may be significant to note that, while James was an MD, he never actually practiced medicine.)

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A Week of Firsts


John C. Snider at the ACA March, Atlanta, GA, February 25, 2017

A week of firsts:

  • My first protest march.
  • My first political planning meeting.
  • My first cash contribution to a political campaign.

Due to previous social and personal obligations, neither Allison nor I was able to participate in the Women’s March (Atlanta version) that took place the day after the Marmalade Charlatan’s inauguration. (Allison did, however, knit several pussyhats, which were well-received and went to good use.) So, I did not want to miss the opportunity to show support for the Affordable Care Act (aka ACA aka Obamacare) in a march in downtown Atlanta yesterday. It was hard to tell from the middle of it all how many participated, but I’d say easily over 1,000 people. Modest, yes, but I think every little bit helps in trying to put some fear into both the Republicans in power and the Democrats in opposition, showing them that there are Americans who want progress in this country, and we’re going to hold them accountable for what they do (or don’t do) about it. Continue reading

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In Praise of Ka’ahumanu


My wife and I plan to vacation in Hawaii later this year, and in preparation we decided to read a few books about Hawaiian history and culture. Among the books I recommend are Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell and Captive Paradise by James L. Haley. (Both books cover the period from European discovery of the islands through American annexation, roughly 1778 through 1898; if you’re in a pinch, Vowell’s book is shorter and funnier, but if you have time Haley’s book is deeply researched and quite compelling.)

One of the most fascinating historical figures we’ve read about–and, honestly, one of the overlooked feminist and freethought heroes of history–is Queen Ka’ahumanu (c. 1768 – 1832). She was one of the wives of Kamehameha the Conqueror, the man who, using newly available Western weaponry, was the first to unite the islands under a single crown. Ka’ahumanu was an imposing woman, by most accounts over six feet tall and north of 400 pounds, but she was also well-known for her intelligence, kindness and humor.

For centuries, Hawaiian society had been deeply stratified, with a squabbling nobility that, in partnership with the kahunas (the priestly class), ruled with near-absolute impunity over the longsuffering peasants. Hawaiian religion was both harsh and capricious, often requiring human sacrifice, and characterized by a complicated system of kapus (i.e. taboos, many of which, if broken, carried a sentence of death). Women were (oddly) forbidden from eating common foods like bananas and pork, and it was death for men and women to eat together. For a peasant’s shadow to touch the Queen was also death, but it is well-documented that Ka’ahumanu routinely pardoned the inevitable infractions. (Indeed, Ka’ahumanu, according to the rules of rank that governed Hawaiian society, was so high in the pecking order that even the Conqueror had to show obeisance in her presence.)

Things came to a head with the death of the Conqueror in 1819. His son and successor, Liholiho (also called Kamehameha II) was a drunkard and a poor ruler, and Ka’ahumanu, along with Keopuolani (another of the Conqueror’s widows, and the mother of Liholiho), conspired to bring down the kapu system or die trying.

During a royal feast, Ka’ahumanu rose and delivered a short but eloquent speech, which she concluded by saying, “We intend to be free from kapu. We intend that the husband’s food and the wife’s food shall be cooked in the same oven, and that they shall be permitted to eat from the same calabash. We intend to eat pork and bananas and coconuts. If you think differently you are at liberty to do so; but for me and my people we are resolved to be free. Let us henceforth disregard kapu.” Liholiho’s mother then urged him to join the women, but when he relented, she recruited his six-year-old brother to break the taboo.  No one moved against them, and a short time later Liholiho fell in line.

Within a matter of months, a religious system that had developed over the span of 1,000 years was ended, its idols burned, its sacred places plowed under, and replaced by…nothing. In 1819 there were only a few hundred foreigners (Americans, Brits, etc.) living on the islands, and no one had yet mounted a serious attempt to proselytize the natives. For good or bad, this would soon change. In 1820 a ship carrying the first of dozens of New England missionaries arrived, delighted to hear that the islanders had abandoned their pagan ways, making it much easier to persuade them to turn their hearts to Jesus Christ. Among the converts were Ka’ahumanu and Keopuolani. For all its wrongness, at least Christianity wasn’t demanding human sacrifices or execution for an errant shadow.

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Letters to a Young Muslim

letterstoayoungmuslimHardly anyone would disagree that Islam is at war. But who defines what it is to be a Muslim? And who exactly are the combatants? These two questions are almost impossible to answer, and without answers it is nearly impossible to solve the global problem of Islamic-fueled violence.

Many non-Muslims are convinced that Islam is at war with Western civilization; that Islam is hopelessly retrograde and that violence is an inherent, inseparable aspect of Muslim belief. Some Muslims believe this too, no doubt, but others believe that Islam is at war with itself; that the Ummah (the worldwide community of Muslims) is in an epic struggle between those who hold a harsh, fundamentalist view of the faith and those who believe that Islam is flexible and adaptable, capable of addressing 21st century issues like women’s rights, democracy and “alternative” sexualities.

Ironically, this bitter, internecine conflict is intended to unify the Ummah; one side seeking to enforce an unyieldingly narrow interpretation of the Quran and Islamic history; the other side by creating a culture of tolerance, where many ways of being Muslim are recognized and tolerated, and where differences of religious opinion are resolved by discussion rather than bombs and beheadings.

This war will not be over soon; indeed, its resolution (if there ever is one) will rely on future generations. But the seeds of victory are being planted today, by both sides. Which seeds will flourish remains to be seen. While the fundamentalists plant seeds of hatred and intolerance, others–like Omar Saif Ghobash–are planting seeds of a more hopeful sort.

Ghobash is currently Ambassador of the United Arab Emirates to Russia, and the author of the new book Letters to a Young Muslim (available in hardcover or for Kindle). Addressed primarily to his older son, Ghobash’s letters are part memoir, part history and part fatherly advice. Ghobash recounts his difficult childhood: his mother was Russian; his father (UAE’s first Foreign Minister) was assassinated when Omar was only six years old. Growing up as an English-educated “halfbreed” who spoke imperfect Arabic, Ghobash struggled to find his place within the Arab world. He expresses his heartfelt desire to be a good father, to raise his two young sons to be responsible, thoughtful Muslims in a world literally terrorized by horrific violence perpetrated in the name of Allah.

Letters to a Young Muslim, given its intended audience, is necessarily not as deep or as definitive an exploration of the problems currently plaguing the Islamic world as an adult reader might like. But it’s a good and necessary start. Ghobash repeatedly emphasizes the need to think, to empathize, to doubt authority and to be suspicious of those who insist that they have the answers. Islam, Ghobash insists, is capable of embracing modernity and all its controversies. What he doesn’t fully address is how Islam might accommodate issues like women’s equality, democracy, homosexuality and rapidly advancing science. In short, can Islam modernize in the ways that Christianity and Judaism have? Can “moderate” Muslims defang their rabid coreligionists? It won’t happen in this generation, but Ghobash hopes to pass a torch of tolerance and enlightenment to his sons.

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Podcast #265 – Final Episode

podcastlogo300x300Our final episode! We reminisce about the best (and worst) of the podcast, read listener feedback on our demise, and thank the many, many people who helped make the show a success.

To listen to this episode click here.

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Podcast #264 – Transgender Activist Vandy Beth Glenn

vandybethglennWe interview transgender activist Vandy Beth Glenn. She was the plaintiff and victor in the groundbreaking (and precedent setting) federal lawsuit Glenn v Brumby. She is also the first transgender person to testify before a Congressional committee. For more about Vandy Beth and her projects visit, or follow her on Twitter @redvelvetcakes.

To listen to this episode click here.


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Podcast #263 – Too Faithful to Be Faithless


A Texas member of the Electoral College has resigned rather than cast a vote for Donald Trump, stating that the president-elect is not “biblically qualified” to hold office.

Also in Texas, the Republican-controlled government is implementing a new regulation requiring abortion clinics to dispose of fetal tissue only via cremation or burial. They cite health and public safety concerns, but offer no explanation as to how such tissue differs from other medical waste like removed organs, amputated limbs, etc. in terms of its danger to the community.

Finally, Donald Trump has selected Georgia Congressman Tom Price as his Secretary of Health and Human Services. Yes, an anti-abortion, anti-gay, anti-regulation, anti-global warming, anti-Obamacare crusader will be in charge of the nation’s healthcare system.

To listen to this episode click here.

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Podcast #262 – Democracy Good and Hard

trumpH. L. Mencken said, “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.” They (and we) are about to get Donald Trump, a crooked businessman with no governmental experience who channels old-school misogyny, racism, bigotry, and near-complete ignorance on almost every topic of importance. Trump has pulled off one of most unlikely upsets in political history. He stunned the Republican establishment, as well as nearly every pollster and pundit, to capture the most powerful office on the planet.

So how did he do it? How could voters support a candidate like this? To help us understand, we talk with political scientist Arthur Lupia, author of the new (and incredibly timely) book Uninformed: Why People Know So Little About Politics and What We Can Do About It, available in hardcover and for Kindle. (Please note: a technical glitch which led to some problems in sound quality and continuity. We apologize for the inconvenience.)

To listen to this episode click here.

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Podcast #261 – SPLC vs Ayaan Hirsi Ali

ayaanhirsialiWhy has the Southern Poverty Law Center placed Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Maajid Nawaz on their list of “anti-Muslim extremists”? Certainly both Ali (who was the victim of female genital mutilation and narrowly escaped an arranged marriage before making a success of herself in the Western world) and Nawaz (himself once a jihadist who spent jail time in Egypt, and who now heads a counter-extremist think-tank in the UK) have been critical of Islam, but is it fair to call them extremists in turn?


Virginia pastor Terry Wayne Millender and his wife have been arrested, accused of orchestrating a $1.2 million scam that victimized members of their church.

In recent years, churches have organized “Hell Houses” at Halloween. Instead of traditional scares like vampires and zombies, Hell Houses showcase sadistic fundamentalist fantasies of the horrors that await the unsaved in the afterlife. This year, a Chicago area church abandoned a plan to recreate Orlando’s Pulse nightclub massacre (which took the lives of 49 LGBT victims) as part of their annual Hell House. The key word here is “abandoned”–but it’s pretty disturbing that a church would think of doing such a thing, even going so far as to put out an ad for actors to play the victims.

The 2016 election will be over soon, and Republican candidate Donald Trump is widely expected to lose. Most analysts and consultants expect the GOP to face an “existential crisis,” an epic tug-o-war between the more traditional leadership (the mundane pro-business foreign policy hawks who would ordinarily be happy to compromise with the Democrats so both sides can win something) and the rabid “base” who are so desperate to burn “the system” to the ground they were willing to vote for Donald Trump. Grab the popcorn.

To listen to this episode click here.

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Podcast 260 – Moore No More

roymoore2Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore has been suspended without pay from his office until the end of his term, effectively putting an end to his judicial career. Moore becomes (as far as we can tell) the only judge in US history to be removed from office TWICE (the first time over his installation of a 2.5 ton Ten Commandments monument in the judiciary building; the second time over his obstruction of the US Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage ruling in Obergefell v Hodges. Moore is appealing the decision, although there seems very little chance it will be reversed. Good riddance, we say, although it wouldn’t surprise us to see him continue in the political arena; e.g. running for governor or for Congress.


Teresa MacBain, who left the Methodist ministry in 2012 and “came out” as an atheist, has in recent months quietly returned to religion. The freethought community is obviously dismayed and disappointed by this decision, although we wish her the best as she explores what she has describes as a more “progressive” Christianity. (Listen to our interview with Ms. MacBain back in episode 160.)

Baseball legend Curt Schilling (lately an infamous anti-evolution tweeter and anti-transgender pinhead) has said he’s considering running against Senator Elizabeth Warren in 2018. This could be interesting, but it seems a fair bet at this point that Warren would crush him like a bug.

To listen to this episode click here.

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