Archive for February, 2010

WWED (What Would Einstein Do)

February 27, 2010

So what does Einstein have to add to the God debate? Or rather how one should approach the God debate?

This Wednesday evening, March 3, Paul Holdengraber, Director of Public Programs at the  New York Public Library, will moderate a conversation on the subject as part of his consistently satisfying series of talks.  Joining him will be Krista Tippett, host of  the radio program Speaking of Faith , and Andrew Solomon, who speaks and writes about biological psychiatry and whose most well-known book is The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression. Tippett just published the book that prompted this conversation — Einstein’s God: Conversations about Science and the Human Spirit, for which she spoke with both religious and non-religious scientists, including Mr. Solomon. Both seem interested in exploring the ideas of religion, ethics and and science through a “cross-cultural” prism — the different cultures of the faith and non-faith spectrum — essentially those who seek to understand the universe through a belief in an underlying set of “rules”, be they God’s or Physics’ or other humanistic strains. 

Einstein, like Orwell, has been posthumously appropriated by all sides of a contemporary debate, mostly because of his famous quip, “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” However, it seems he mostly rejected faith (and he certainly totally dismissed organized religion, but that’s less interesting).  He definitely rejected the idea of a personal god and as a recently publicized letter of his illustrates, he considered it mostly a silly superstition.

However, a Guardian article that appeared on the occasion of the sale of this letter helps us better understand him on the specific question of the current debate between Hitchens, Dawkins et al.  According to a leading Einstein authority, John Brooke of Oxford,  “Despite his categorical rejection of conventional religion…Einstein became angry when his views were appropriated by evangelists for atheism. He was offended by their lack of humility and once wrote: “The eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility.”

The God Backlash

February 24, 2010

Christopher Hitchens likes nothing better than rolling up his sleeves for a good fight. Apart from the Iraq war business he tends to champion worthwhile causes and plant his feet in the right corners (yes, “How was the show Mrs. Lincoln?” is certainly apt here). You certainly want him writing about your cause – there are few rhetoricians and writers like him out there – if you want an essay to forward to your friend to show why you are right, you want Hitchens to have written it.

For this reason, when he chose to expend his enviable energy on fighting for the virtues of atheism, I was personally delighted. I respect those who have faith, and only wish for atheism to receive the sort of status religion is accorded in American society in return (which  I accept will likely never happen).  However, Hitchens’ God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (2007), and the rest of the long-winded sermons against faith and religion published around the same time, quickly left a bitter taste in my mouth .  There’s just something about fighting dogma with dogma (especially patronizing and belittling dogma).

Not surprisingly, a backlash to the Atheism Crusade ensued. Several books arrived, written by sophisticated, bona fide intellectuals who are both deeply immersed in the modern world and believe in God. However, a new book presents a completely new and welcome approach to the debate – a novel in fact – 36 Arguments For the Existence of God, by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. Goldstein is a MacArthur fellow, novelist and philosopher and became a sort of spokesperson for atheism after the publication of her wonderful biography of Spinoza – Judaism’s most famous heretic.  However, as she explained on the Leonard Lopate show, although she is an avowed atheist, she soon became uncomfortable with her new role and this ultimately led her to writing this novel.  Rather than write a book “for” or “against” Goldstein reminds us of the importance of fiction in providing answers to the big questions. In fiction there is the kind of nuance and empathy and creation of experience that can genuinely address things like faith, which is something that is felt, not reasoned. I will never completely understand how one arrives at a belief in a non-material “higher” being but I love trying to, and think it is worthwhile in figuring out how to go about fixing the many messes that are out there because of it.

The Tall Poppy Syndrome

February 18, 2010

Within minutes or hours of meeting a Kiwi (they can be shy, so it might take a bit for them to warm up), you are likely to hear moaning about New Zealand’s rampant epidemic of the Tall Poppy Syndrome. Most Americans will likely not have heard of it as it is a truly exotic condition for any citizen of a country that deems self-confidence and  self-promotion as god-given rights. As James Bellamy, of Wellington, NZ,  first explained it to me, in New Zealand, if anyone is seen as getting a tad too successful, ambitious and proud of  her achievements — i.e. is a Tall Poppy — those around her will want to cut her down to size (and it will, very likely, be a she — women rule the roost in NZ, it is an exceptionally matriarchal country).

Whether or not this truly afflicts Kiwi society and undermines individual amibition is up for debate. And  success doesn’t always have to be loud and conspicuous– this all may just boil down to a matter of style. Peter Jackson’s movies are certainly not understated quiet achievements, but Jermaine and Bret of Flight of the Conchords, whose tagline is  “Formerly New Zealand’s fourth most popular guitar-based digi-bongo acapella-rap-funk-comedy folk duo,” have made a minor, kiwi-sized industry of their cheeky celebration of self-deprecation and slacker mediocrity.

The Tall Poppy Syndrome appears to be a Commonwealth-wide phenonmenon and comes to mind these days while reading the heaps of words printed about whether or not Canada suffers from a severe case of it. And whether or not it should “get over it” and “be proud of itself” (be more American?). The Olympics have unleashed Canada’s perennial debate about “who” Canada is exactly, and if it aspires to more than merely not being the US. In his piece in Pajiba about the Winter Olympics, Michael Murray, a mostly unapologetic Canadian writer in Toronto, sums it up as best I’ve heard it (and happens to be very funny), while in the New York Times, Timothy Egan implores Canadians to be more proud, stop blushing and recognize Vancouver as “Manhattan with Mountains.”

Oh Canada

February 15, 2010

There are many different ways to appreciate our friends to the North —  whole movies  have been made about it —  some “highlights” include Strange Brew with Rick Moranis, about your average  Canadian hoser who wears flannels and confronts vicious hockey players, and Canadian Bacon, a movie by Canada’s No.1 fan, Michael Moore. But this Winter Olympics in Vancouver has provided some of the more inspired words on Canada I’ve come across in a while — from this week’s New York Times, Crib Notes on Canada.