Sunday, August 27, 2023

"I've been selling my soul ..."

I usually take a pass on whatever is currently trending in pop culture*. It's generally not of much interest to me, and often feels marketed, contrived, manipulated. And for purposes of this blog, I don't expect much spiritual relevance to the latest thing. So when the current viral song "Rich Men North of Richmond" came out, I took a pass. Based on the thumbnail view, I had no expectations that I would like it; it looked like I lived in a different world than he did. (I didn't notice that my attitude there was part of the problem.) But after some time as the view statistics ramped up high enough, curiosity got the better of me and I decided to give it a listen. As many reviewers of the song have said, "I did not expect that ... "

From the first line ("I've been selling my soul ...") I heard someone being honest about his struggles at a depth that is rare. I've heard all those Faust stories about someone who sells their soul, and it sounds like a crazy-outlandish premise but anyway who would ever do that? He calls himself out from the very first measure: he does it every day, and doesn't see a better choice. It's something we don't often admit to ourselves in private, much less say out loud. So the singer launches his song by voicing his own doubts and fears about whether he is selling his soul and wasting his life (with a nod to his own previous tendency to numb out with alcohol after a day like that). I watched many reactions to the song where once-skeptical listeners found themselves relating, pausing to say that was their own life too, and continuing to nod along, on the chorus even sing along. I have never seen so many people of so many different backgrounds relate to a single song. In reaction videos, as the singer continues I have seen rappers drying their eyes and metal-heads with tears streaming down their cheeks, all deeply moved that someone would honestly discuss struggles that they share. The singer's own "clearly country" appearance strengthens his point: the dawning realization of how many different people from how many different backgrounds share that struggle, that we're more alike than we are different. It's been a rare unifying moment, not just in the U.S. about around the world for the working class. As testament to its broad appeal, various fans have now made subtitles available in Spanish, French, German, and Korean. There are reaction videos available from all over the English-speaking world -- not just the usual suspects (Canada, Australia, UK) but the Caribbean and even the English-capable world with some reactions from India. 

While part of the song is a lament, the song comes with a strong voice for justice for the forgotten, the marginalized. (Had I really judged the singer before I heard him, just because of his looks and my preconceptions about someone "like that"? Yep, to be honest, I had.) The singer picks up steam as he pivots from his struggles to the system at the root of those struggles, starting with what it's like to go to a low-paying job and watch helplessly as political and corporate manipulators take away or devalue those earnings or savings. For a three-minute song it has a surprisingly wide range. He places his own despair in the context of politicians' indifference to the workers, of how the rich can get away with anything, of how the homeless are overlooked while tax money he can scarcely afford is funding excesses which he resents, to the epidemic of deaths of despair, to the totalitarian ambitions of the ruling class and the accompanying surveillance state, to the insulting condescension of those managing the system (the "rich men north of Richmond", which is to say D.C.). It's surprising that he can fit so much into such a short and relatable song; I expect that's part of why people watch it again and again. 

As I watched a good collection of reaction videos, a few things stood out. The first was how many people shared the same journey I had: at first skeptical that this fellow could say anything that I could relate to, then my breath taken away at the raw honesty with his struggles and how accurately he was articulating some of my own private thoughts, then stunned again at how fearlessly he called out the greed and corruption which put "people like me, people like you" in a situation like this. Another element was disturbingly common in the reactions: a voiced fear of saying something that would bring down the cens0rs. Apparently YouTubers can't say certain things or they will be dem0netized, losing their income for speaking their minds. It could not have been clearer to me that their lives were lived under the constant surveillance mentioned in the song's chorus. 

For my own part, if the song were mine I'd have left out the part about welfare abuse, that "taxes ought not to pay" for things that are unnecessary and make health problems worse. To be clear, I'm not ok with welfare abuse, but that topic is easily misconstrued by the well-practiced on that point. I recognize the injustice in taking someone who is struggling and coercing them to pay for someone else, particularly when we can see the system being abused. Still, the main beneficiaries of the political system are in a certain wealthy district just north of Virginia. 

The song ends where it began: back to the singer's line about selling his soul (etc, with saltier language than I use on this blog). It's a well-crafted song which makes its point that we're still back where we started. But we're less alone. We've gotten so used to staying within insulated camps, distrusting each other; this song took tens of millions of people past that. I took one look at the thumbnail for that video, thought "he's not like me", and decided not to listen to him. I was part of the problem. Once I got curious enough it turns out he is like me, and I'm glad he gave me a voice too. The divisions between us don't belong there, and accepting those divisions is a problem in itself. 

If there is anyone who hasn't seen reactions to the song yet, I'm linking a video someone has made which is a mash-up of various different reaction videos, edited to show a single play-through of the song (3 minutes 17 seconds). 

* On usually taking a pass on pop culture: I've made occasional exceptions for Harry Potter, Twilight, etc when I see pop culture striking a relevant note. I think this also deserves one of those rare exceptions for something that is clearly resonating with a lot of people. 

Sunday, August 20, 2023

Sowing faith, hope, and love: St Francis' prayer

St Francis is among my most-cherished of the Catholic-recognized saints. His well-known prayer has its roots firmly in Scripture: 
Where there is hatred, let me sow love
Where there is doubt, faith
Where there is despair, hope
St Francis' prayer names the three imperishable virtues in quick succession: first love in the place of honor, then faith and hope. St Francis' prayer here shapes itself after St Paul's teaching on the enduring virtues of faith, hope, and love. Paul's reasoning follows Jesus' teaching that love has the place of honor as the first and greatest calling, and his many encouragements to faith. St Francis' prayer also corresponds with St Peter's teachings on the reason for hope, which St Peter anchored in Christ's resurrection. 

I have long looked for ideas on how to sow those light-giving virtues either in myself or beyond. One thing I've considered is that in Scriptural roots, St Francis used the language of Jesus' parables: sowing faith, hope, and love as if they are seeds. In those parables, Jesus speaks of the word of God as the seed that is planted and takes root as new life. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus uses words to speak a series of blessings -- words that build faith and convey hope. Scripture also shows evil working in the world through words. In the account of Eden, the evil one works through words of doubt instead of faith ("Did God really say ...").  

It's a common saying that "words are cheap" when they are a substitute for action. But so often words are the only available package in which to send kindness -- or faith, or hope, or love. I believe I've under-valued them. 

Sunday, August 13, 2023

A field guide to belief systems -- and the narrative that involves us

In his new book, Joseph Hinman lays out a simple chart to demonstrate his analysis that New Atheism is a belief system: 

Chart (c) 2023 Joseph Hinman

Many people have noted that atheism and Marxism set themselves up as a replacement for religion. Hinman's chart appeals to the analytic mind by laying it out cleanly for easy analysis. While Hinman notes there is some over-simplification involved in that brief chart, he makes a case that the basic features of a belief system are filled by New Atheism in the same way that they are for Christianity (or for Marxism). I find myself tempted to adjust words here or there; still, Hinman's point stands that these systems share many of the same features and functions. Hinman worked through three examples, but it's easy enough to find more. For my own part, I tend to think of partisan politics along those lines, but the reader may have other things that are volunteering to be placed on that "belief system" spectrum. 

Do you see, on the chart, the first column with the criteria for belief systems? From another viewpoint, those same things are the criteria for dramas. It would be simple to re-label the rows in dramatic terms: conflict, victim, villain, hero, resolution, action (though in a drama we'd have saved the resolution for last). On a related point, those systems also meet the criteria for Karpman's Drama Triangle that deals with the psychological analysis of conflict: in addition to the victim we have the "villain" as the perpetrator and the "hero" as the rescuer. The fit onto Karpman's drama triangle comes with the classic warning of Karpman's triangles: often and easily the victim or rescuer slides into the persecutor / villain role before the end, in real-life examples.

One of the observable lessons of 20th Century communism was that as the old regime falls, the "rescuer" generally replaces the perpetrator at the top of another scheme as corrupt and oppressive as the one before it. The power propping up the oppressive system changed, but the oppression remained. Systems obey what I think of as the Law of Pyramids: the bigger the system, the more people are on the lowest tier and the less they are considered by those at the top. And there actually is such a thing as a class difference: it's just that it resides in the pyramid itself, and so isn't fixed by changing who is at the top.

This problem isn't unique to communism, but comes with the large scale of the system. Because of this Law of Pyramids, globalism is inherently dangerous to almost all of the population, who can never be relevant to the decision-makers. However, also because of the Law of Pyramids, the influence and decision-making will be in the hands of people who benefit from this system. 

The next point I'd like to add to the conversation is that these narratives make a claim upon our actions. To follow Hinman's chart: Those who believe the great struggle is to eliminate class differences (and that the solution is to put the party in power) then would seek to advance a certain party line. Those who believe the great struggle is to eradicate belief in God then seek to mock and ridicule religious belief. Those who believe the great struggle is against the corruption in the human heart seek to spread the message of forgiveness and renewal in Christ. In each case what we believe isn't a story outside us, but a story that involves us -- and as such, calls us to action.

I briefly mentioned globalism as the ultimate example of the Law of Pyramids: the bigger the system, the more people are on the lowest tier and the less they are considered by those at the top. What globalism has lacked has been that narrative about why people should join its cause, in fact why they should consider themselves as already caught up in its cause. In our day we can see global health and environmentalism both vying for the key spot in that narrative. They both speak of a dramatic and existential threat. Those who believe the great struggle is to eliminate global problems (and that the solution is to take away local power) then would seek to advance a certain party line. 

My thanks to Joseph Hinman for a thought-provoking look at belief systems. 

Sunday, August 06, 2023

Joseph Hinman's new book - a first look

Readers here and other religious bloggers may be familiar with the work of long-time friend and blog-neighbor Metacrock, aka Joe Hinman. I'd like to spend some time interacting with Joseph Hinman's newest book, God, Science, Ideology: Examining the role of ideology in the religious-scientific dialog. Joe has graciously provided me with a review copy.

There's an issue with doing a mere review of anything written by Joseph Hinman: his main style is dailectic, and it works best in conversation. So I have been enlisting the help of ChatGPT (via to start a discussion about the book, with the bot taking Hinman's point-of-view as known in the book.

Bot: Welcome to this informative PDF file about the relationship between science and religion! In this file [chapter 1], we explore the idea that science and religion are often seen as opponents, but is this really the case? We examine the arguments of Colin Blakemore and Richard Dawkins, and question whether any success for science must automatically mean defeat for religion.

Example questions:
  1. What is Colin Blakemore's view on the relationship between science and religion?
  2. How does Richard Dawkins believe Darwin's theory of evolution impacted religion?
  3. Is it possible for science and religion to coexist peacefully, or will they always be in conflict?

As the discussion continues, I will include these suggested questions and some additional ones of my own.

WF: What is Colin Blakemore's view on the relationship between science and religion?

Bot (for Hinman's POV): Colin Blakemore sees science and religion as opponents in a chess match. He believes that advances in science are automatically viewed by his camp as a detraction from religion, and that the discoveries of Watson and Crick were a defeat for religion. Blakemore wants to see religion as some primitive thing that science is beating.
WF: Please provide some brief background on Colin Blakemore using any available resource.
Bot (for Hinman's POV): Colin Blakemore is a British neurobiologist who was born on June 9, 1944. He is known for his research on vision and the development of the brain, and has published numerous scientific papers and books on these topics. Blakemore has also been involved in public debates on science and society, and has written articles and given talks on topics such as the relationship between science and religion, the ethics of animal experimentation, and the role of science in education. He has held various academic positions throughout his career, including Professor of Physiology at the University of Cambridge and Director of the Centre for Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Oxford. Blakemore has received many awards and honors for his contributions to science, including a knighthood in 2014 for services to scientific research, policy, and outreach.
WF: Leading up to Blakemore's knighthood, what are Blakemore's key policy recommendations?
Bot (for Hinman's POV):  I'm sorry, but the PDF file does not provide information on Colin Blakemore's key policy recommendations leading up to his knighthood. The file mainly focuses on the relationship between science and religion, and Blakemore's views on this topic.

WF: How does Richard Dawkins believe Darwin's theory of evolution impacted religion?

Bot (for Hinman's POV): Richard Dawkins believes that Darwin's theory of evolution was a vital move in the chess game between science and religion, and that it removed the main argument for God's existence. Dawkins sees nothing beyond the material universe, and therefore, if science gets the material realm, then it has everything . He makes an "in your face" attack upon all religion, revealing an ideological sense of "all or nothing."
WF: Is it possible for science and religion to coexist peacefully, or will they always be in conflict?
Bot (for Hinman's POV): According to the PDF file, there are different views on whether science and religion can coexist peacefully or not. Colin Blakemore sees religion and science as opponents in a chess match, and believes that any success for science is an automatic defeat for religion. On the other hand, Richard Harries, former Bishop of Oxford, claims that religion has a territory that science can never invade, a totally safe sanctuary for Christian field mice, and that religion is the only approach to questions that start "why" . Stephen Jay Gould, a paleontologist and evolutionary biologist, also believed that science and religion could coexist peacefully, as long as they were kept in separate domains. Therefore, the answer to this question depends on one's perspective and beliefs.
WF: The question whether they can coexist peacefully does not yet address the question of whether people -- and culture at large -- accept the use of one tool to suppress the other. Does the current pdf address the involvement of people and policies in the question of a peaceful coexistence?
Bot (for Hinman's POV):  The PDF file does not directly address the involvement of people and policies in the question of a peaceful coexistence between science and religion. However, it does mention that Christian leaders, even the Catholic church, have reluctantly accommodated the discoveries of scientists, with the odd burning at the stake and excommunication along the way. This suggests that there have been conflicts between science and religion in the past, and that some religious institutions have been resistant to scientific discoveries. The file also mentions that some philosophers and physicists are becoming more attuned to tolerating diverse opinion, which could suggest a move towards peaceful coexistence. However, the file does not provide a comprehensive analysis of the role of people and policies in this issue.
WF: Are there more specific examples of tolerating diverse opinion?
Bot (for Hinman's POV):  The PDF file does not provide more specific examples of tolerating diverse opinion between philosophers and physicists. It only mentions that at meetings where the two groups come together, they strike the author as quite compatible, and that the philosophers in attendance tend to have training in physics, and the physicists are eager to learn, even if they can’t tell their Hegel from their Heidegger.
WF: Some parts of the pdf seem to discuss a conflict between science and religion; others seem to discuss a conflict between science and philosophy. Does the author explain his views on the relation between religion and philosophy?
Bot (for Hinman's POV):  The author of the PDF file does not provide a clear explanation of their views on the relation between religion and philosophy. The file discusses conflicts between science and religion, as well as conflicts between science and philosophy, but it does not explicitly state the author's position on the relation between religion and philosophy. However, the file does mention Stephen Jay Gould's concept of "Non-Overlapping Magisteria" (NOMA), which proposes that science and religion are about different aspects of reality and do not overlap. This concept suggests that religion and science can coexist peacefully, but it does not address the relationship between religion and philosophy.

Hinman's new book tackles a key issue for Christians in our day: stepping clear of the ideological traps that seek to frame faith in God as anti-scientific. Hinman's background in philosophy -- and in decades of discussions with new atheists -- should lead to more interesting conversation. 

To be continued