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ARTIST: Dar Williams
TITLE: The Christians and the Pagans
(from Gunther Anderson)

Amber called her uncle, said “We’re up here for the holiday
Jane and I were having Solstice, now we need a place to stay”
And her Christ-loving uncle watched his wife hang Mary on a tree
He watched his son hang candy canes all made with red dye number three
He told his niece, “It’s Christmas eve, I know our life is not your style”
She said, “Christmas is like Solstice, and we miss you and it’s been awhile”

/ G C Am D / / Em C Am D / / G C Am D / /

So the Christians and the Pagans sat together at the table
Finding faith and common ground the best that they were able
And just before the meal was served, hands were held and prayers were said
Sending hope for peace on earth to all their gods and goddesses

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All from


[Lat.,=coming], season of the Christian ecclesiastical year preceding Christmas, lasting in the West from the Sunday nearest Nov. 30 (St. Andrew’s Day) until Christmas Eve. In the Roman Catholic Church it is traditionally considered a season of penitence and fasting, to prepare for the holy day, and its liturgical color is purple. However, the Roman observance has always contained an element of joyful anticipation of Christmas, a feeling that prevails during this season in Western churches today. Originally Advent was seen as a time of preparation for the feast of Christ’s nativity. But during the Middle Ages this meaning was extended to include preparation for Christ’s second coming, as well as Christ’s present coming through grace.

The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. Copyright © 2007 Columbia University Press.

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In the Bleak Midwinter
by Christina Rosetti

(from hymns and carols of Christmas)

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty,
Jesus Christ.

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William Shakespeare (1564–1616)

WHEN icicles hang by the wall
And Dick the shepherd blows his nail,
And Tom bears logs into the hall,
And milk comes frozen home in pail;
When blood is nipt, and ways be foul       5
Then nightly sings the staring owl
To-whit, Tu-whoo! A merry note!
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

When all about the wind doth blow,       10
And coughing drowns the parson’s saw,
And birds sit brooding in the snow,
And Marian’s nose looks red and raw;
When roasted crabs hiss in the bowl—
Then nightly sings the staring owl        15
To-whit, Tu-whoo! A merry note!
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.


This is day 1 of an Advent lectionary we’re putting together this year. I’ve got a few readings that I definitely want to include but will be looking for good stuff to put in it if anyone has any ideas.

Last year, about this time (maybe a few weeks or a month from now, to be honest), I believe I made up a tune and sang this one to Violet when she was in her deep struggling to sleep days. Nowadays, she still fights it, but at least you can sit down.

I love poems about winter. Especially with Thanksgiving and Christmas, I tend to get a little wrapped up in the bustle of the season, which is nice in its own way, but the thing I have always loved about winter is the boarding up of the house, the heading indoors, the feeling that the song “Let it Snow” captures so well, of being safe from the storm with the people you love. It’s the opposite and equal of the feeling on the first warm day of Spring, where you cross your threshold in a short-sleeve shirt for the first time and the balmy gust fairly launches you out into the world, like an impulse-driven coaster, ready to kick shoes on sidewalk and hit the ground running.

Winter has the feeling of needing to brace yourself for the outdoors, and the ritualistic girding with hats and scarves and coats and gloves, or the mighty sprint to the mailbox and back, thoroughly underdressed–both carry with them the wonderful feeling that the out of doors is relevant again after being a sea of lukewarmness for a lovely long time.

Here’s wishing all y’all happy holidays of whatever variety you enjoy.

Another really amazing class. The material was very critical of Unitarian Universalism in a really insightful and responsible way, and it really gave me a new sense of depth on the foundations of our institution and on the challenges we face as a community. I’m very new to the UU thing, so I have a bit of a tin ear to the internal monologues common to UU-ers, but I got the sense that there was a sense of skepticism, interest and critical thought among the group tonight–which is pretty much what I think you shoot for in a class like this.

The material for today’s class was:

David E. Bumbaugh – On Being a Born-Again Unitarian Universalist

Anthony David – Torn Between Unitarianism and Universalism

Anthony David – A Unitarian Universalist Creation Myth

Before class started, I started thinking about the material we read before class and drawing up a little mental map for myself about “born-again-ness”, and mostly came up with stuff about devotion and diversity–devotion to making faith and metaphysics a central part of life and diversity in the sense that it is no longer compartmentalized into a small segment of life, but instead covers all aspects of your life.

I started making a list of questions that would go on the “faith form”: who are you, where are you, what were you, what will you become, where will you go, why are you here, etc. I then started thinking about meta-questions. “Is the individualistic paradigm a valid approach to these metaphysical questions?” “Does ‘who am I?’ even makes semantic sense?” “Upon what assumptions are my fundamental questions predicated?”

That was as far as I got, more or less, and then class started.

As an ice-breaker, we paired up and tried to come up with UU signature aspects. I was a little disappointed in myself, I think. I went for the ingathering of the waters, which has deep and personal meaning for me, but it was right there at hand, and I feel like I would have earned more for trying harder.

(The summer after freshman year, when I went to the river and moved rocks and smoked cigarettes with my pant legs rolled up and tried to find a place to fit–it’s worth writing about some time in here, as a lot of my analogues derive from what I learned moving rocks and changing the course of the river.)

The majority of the class was about the “ghosts” that haunt our Unitarian Universalism and the reading on a creation myth started us off–the driving force there being that as a tradition derived from a standing order church continues to feel a compulsion to serve everyone within the sound of its bell.(which, upon further review, is an interesting economic institution. The argument was that the presence of the church was a Public Good, and so in order to solve the freerider problem, taxation was used to support the church…makes economic sense, but violate the principle of separation of church and state)

While the idea of ghosts was by no means intended to be negative, I argued that ghosts are unavoidable in a liberal religious tradition. Insofar as liberal religious traditions take pains not to “throw out the baby with the bathwater,” there will always be aspects of the baby that then become our haunting spectres. We call it a church, and neither a mosque nor a synagogue, despite my atheism, for example. That said, I wouldn’t argue that we should just call it a building… In many cases, these ghosts just complicate things, like baroque ornamentation, or other odd architectural features that merely seemed like a good idea at the time. In some cases, though, they can hold us back.

We talked at length about the idea that Unitarian Universalists favor universality rather than particulars, and that this is both a strength and a weakness. At its best, it belies our belief that there are many paths to truth. At its worst, we end up doing nothing but singing songs about how inclusive we are and taking a Noah’s Ark (two of each)–or Pokemon (gotta catch ’em all!)–approach to building a congregation. Rev. David made the very good point that, for all our inclusiveness, we are neither a terribly large nor an incredibly diverse faith tradition. He also noted that megachurches–not renowned for their inclusivity–are among the most culturally diverse faith organizations.

This got me thinking–why do megachurches work?

One reason: trying to get two of everything doesn’t work. Then each person only has one person like them in the congregation. Try getting 150 of every type of person and suddenly you have a diverse community where everyone feels like they have someone to talk to. So sheer scale can help a lot.

At the same time, I think there is an irony to inclusiveness. By valuing our inclusiveness so much, we effectively become a very exclusive congregation: we only attract people who can stand to be around strangers, people who are themselves personally inclusive. So by trying to include lots of kinds of people, we end up only attracting one kind of person–the inclusive kind. Consequently, we are a pretty exclusive bunch.

Megachurches only attract one kind of person as well–those willing to embrace conformity, within certain bounds. They, too, are an exclusive bunch.

As conformity has historically been favored by evolution, and as a willingness to embrace strangers is sort of a freakish mutation (although one I value greatly), it’s not surprising that megachurches have a larger draw than UU congregations. (I have to say, though, I think UU has a lot more to offer many people than they realize, and at least some of this difference is certainly due by a relative difference in willingness to evangelize.)

We talked about a bunch of other stuff, but as I’ve got a TychoCelcchu CoH shoutcast (don’t ask–it’s dorktacular) burning a hole in my desktop, I’m gonna wrapt this up pretty soon.

So, the last thing on my mind is the idea of questions as ends in themselves. We talked about this briefly in class, but I think about it a lot. We require at least tentative answers to take actions, but without negative capability (or omniscience), we will have trouble drawing a conclusion without certainty, and trouble being okay without a conclusion.

When the nagging need for answers gnaws at us, we have to either embrace doubt (this is especially integral for undecideable propositions, the definition of which I torture into including such questions as “Does God exist?” and “Does free will exist?) or turn to faith. In truth, I think doing both is the best course of action. Without at least a tentative answer, we cannot act. In order to arrive a tentative answer in a morally responsible way, we have to move past doubt to take a leap of faith; that said, in order to arrive at a tentative answer in an intellectually responsible way, we have to remember that we doubt our faith, and thus that the answer can only be tentative. More on this later, for sure.

Another heck of a class.

I just had a few thoughts in the shower this morning and wanted to elaborate on my reinterpretation of the concept of sin. As I interpret sin, the idea of “original sin” and the “fallen state of man” have radically different interpretations, in that they become almost tautological. This is to say that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” is literally equivalent to the statement “Nobody’s perfect.” The denotation is pretty similar (although I don’t believe in the existence of the divine except insofar as it represents an humanly constructed ideal to which we all strive), but the connotation is incredibly different.

In particular, human conscience is fundamentally correct, but limited by our human fallibility. That human fallibility is the source of our essential triumphs, our ability to appreciate our brief existence for its scarcity, and our ability to work together to transcend our individual mortality and fallibility to be better version of ourselves and achieve greater goals than any of us could achieve individually before we shuffle off this mortal coil. By the same token, that fallibility is the source of many of our shortcomings, as we underestimate the risks inherent in future tasks and make bad decisions based on faulty information, and give in to time-inconsistency of preferences, and fall victim to our lacks of sympathy and foresight.

In my view, though, this “sin” should never be a source of shame–for one thing, without sin, we would each be perfect, and there would be nothing of interest. For another thing, and this is the really important one for me, perfection is simply not feasible–it doesn’t exist outside of our concept of the divine; it’s a stylized model, just like perfect competition or a frictionless vacuum. We don’t expect the world to feel guilt or shame for having friction or air–in fact, while a world without friction might make Newtonian mechanics a little easier to understand, it would be a fundamentally (and, since I love the world we live in, tragically) different world than the one we know and love. It’s not even clear what it means–it’s not internally consistent, because the source of friction is the electromagnetic forces that keep solids coherent and thus a projectile wouldn’t just take a purely parabolic arc in a frictionless world, it would also cease to cohere. All of which is why we ended up coming up with physical models that incorporate friction and electromagnetics and why scientists keep searching for better and more coherent models.

By the same token, I think sin functions much better as a descriptive concept–a heuristic device, really–that allows us to think about the negative space between intention and action, and allows us to engage with these ideas in useful ways. It’s tautological in that “sinful” means “less than perfect” which is to say “possible in our universe.” Wherever there is entropy, there is “sin” in this sense, and it becomes the source of all beauty and love, chaos and complexity and change. Without sin, there is no growth, no progress; all is stagnant and fixed.

So to the extent that “sin” is useful as a concept for thinking about human behavior, I like to make use of it, but I’d really like to see it stripped of its associations with shame. I think all human error derives from our very real and beautiful limitations, which we can come to embrace, accept, and occasionally transcend, but which should not be associated with guilt or recrimination.

Tonight’s class was really great–a revelation in a lot of ways. There’s so much to talk about, so this may come out a bit scattered.

I suppose I may as well start at the start and go over what we went over. We broke the ice by discussing our UU moment, and mine goes a little something like this.

I grew up Moravian, and really had a generally very good religious experience growing up. The Moravian motto is “IN ESSENTIALS, UNITY; IN NON-ESSENTIALS, LIBERTY; IN ALL THINGS, LOVE.” which is really a very UU approach to life, although I disagree with the Moravian Church about what, exactly, are essentials. During the confirmation process (I would have been about 13 or so), I had some doubts about the Apostles’ Creed. In retrospect, they seem kind of pedantic, maybe even contrarian, but they were really the start of my personal search for truth, so they are waypoints that are important to me. It was a real struggle, and I worked with my confirmation mentor, who I think was at least a little strained about how to help me through, and the end result was basically the idea that I had to have faith. At the time, I didn’t really know what faith was, but as far as I could tell, it mostly meant I should say the words, pray about it, and trust that things would come together later.

Since then, I have come to disbelieve the theology and cosmology of the Christian church (although a lot of the ethics and traditions remain dear to me) and have become what I call a devout atheist. In the earlier days of my atheism, I maintained some of the fundamental beliefs of Christianity–the dogmatism and the intolerance, for example, both of which I mean in a valueless context. Christianity is dogmatic and intolerant in ways that are, within its structure, quite morally sound, although to me they ring untrue.

When Cheryl and I first started going to the Unitarian church in Baltimore, I really struggled with it. Whenever a Christian or a Wiccan or a Buddhist would talk, and would ascribe any of their feelings to a belief in a divine power, I had to hold my tongue from shouting them down, or from trackng them down afterwards and trying to convince them that they were wrong and blind and if only they’d listen, if only they’d realize, then they’d understand that the way they were looking at things just didn’t make internal sense–it couldn’t be true–and then they’d know what was really true and they’d live freer and better and more moral lives.

Unitarians believe in a free and responsible search for truth, and I had an easy time with the responsible part (in some sense, at least), but a really hard part with the free part.

My UU “moment” came a few months back, when a ministerial candidate, speaking at our church, talked about her sense of the divine in nature, and how it sheltered her and reminded her of her connection to the world, and how that made the world make sense for her. I had become much less pugilistic and contrarian in the intervening several years, but it hadn’t really crystallized until that moment–just how far I’d come. Despite the fact that I felt no personal truth in her belief in a divine force surrounding us all, I felt nothing but joy for her and connection to her. Here was someone who had found a personal truth, a way of looking at the world that made it make sense to her–not only that, but it gave her a belief in the fundamental benevolence of the universe. She had found this faith in a way that was honest and forthright, by following her internal sense of the true and the good, and I was thrilled to hear her story of personal triumph, and her vision of a beautiful and embracing world. And despite the fact that I didn’t believe as she did, I was able to recognize someone who had found joy and hope, a fellow traveler on a similar but different search or path or journey. In that moment, I realize that I got it–I understood and embraced the free and responsible search, and saw what a world that held that tight would look like, with each person focused on being good in the ways that they knew how.

It really was a transformative moment, a long way from duking it out over the Apostles’ Creed, and I couldn’t help but feel an immense affinity for the institution that we support and that supports us on our paths.

After the ice breaker, we talked about the course about what we were going to be learning. We talked a little bit about a liberal faith tradition as distinct from conservative or radical approaches to faith. A liberal faith tradition, as I understand it, is neither one where tradition is treated as the arbiter of all truth, wherein followers are to take the tradition that is handed them and accept it whole-cloth, and where the response to skepticism is explanation followed by an exhortation, or even a command, to exhibit religious discipline by searching their soul, using prayer and meditation to find a way to make peace with a tradition they find exceptionable. Nor is it an approach where all received tradition is treated as the bondage of ill-informed and cruel-intentioned forbears, each more determined than the last to lay the yoke of religion upon the masses, to control them–or as simply bunk, to be tossed out as valueless and misguided, mere epicycles on the spiritual orbits we have come to know as “true truth”.

Instead, a liberal faith tradition is an inherently moderate and contemplative one, where the traditions of the past are received and examined in good conscience. Those ideas which makes sense to our current believers are accepted and modified as needed to remain current. Those ideas which seem reprehensible or unhelpful are considered and modified, if possible, or rejected and repudiated, where to do so strengthens our faith.

The example we discussed in class is that of the idea of “sin.” A conservative approach to sin might rely heavily on scripture, on the language of the time and on the intentions of the writers. It might also rely heavily on historical church doctrine. To the extent that the moral content of sin might appear to be modified by changes in technology or political or social institutions, a conservative approach is wary of allowing changes to be made to the idea of sin.

A radical approach is likely to reject the whole notion of “sin” as a useless social construction of a bygone era, designed to make people feel guilty for behavior that threatened the power structure that existed at the time–an idea best left utterly repudiated, now that modern man knows better.

A liberal approach is more likely to try to make use of sin, if possible, as a way to bridge understanding–certainly the problems we face today can be informed by the wisdom of the past, and so perhaps sin is best thought of as an addiction–as self-destructive behavior that is at the crux of an internal conflict of intention within each person. While we may or may not believe in the concept of separateness from God, each of us might make use of the idea of sin to understand the world better.

The way I think of sin is informed by the use of the Greek word hamartia to denote sin in the New Testament. Hamartia derives its meaning from the idea of “falling short of the mark” and consequently has been used, by analogy, to mean separateness from God.

I view it as falling short of the mark in the sense that the mark might be thought of as the Path or the Tao–which, for the sake of explanation I can characterize this way: The Path consists of the future series of actions taken by an individual if that individual were purely good and omniscient. For Christians, this is essentially “What Would Jesus Do?” For Taoists, it is following the Tao.

I don’t really believe that the idea of “purely good” has any sensical meaning–a point upon which I’ll elaborate at a further date–but for now just run with it. Because human beings are not omniscient, we all inevitably fall short of the mark. This is, in my view, the source of the idea that human beings are essentially flawed, and the belief that “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” In the Christian ethic as I have received it, this has generally come to mean that all people are inherently depraved in some way, and need to reconnect with God in order to be saved from their fallen state.

My liberal interpretation of sin–which seems to me to be a very useful concept indeed–is that we have a moral imperative to set unattainable goals for ourselves–our reach should exceed our grasp–and in so doing, we will inevitably fail to achieve our goals.

When I say this, I mean that we should use our internal conscience to envision worlds we prefer to the current one, worlds we conceive as being more perfect and more moral and more just than the one we live in, and we should strive to make this world more like the ones we envision.

By failing to reach that goal, we learn humility. By striving and succeeded in small measures, we earn pride. This process of pride at our successes and humility at our shortcomings builds character, hones our moral sense and provides us with a sense of empathy–for our fellow human beings who all must necessarily fail–and moral righteousness in our desire for a world of increasing justice and kindness.

It helps us to become less judgmental to see the world this way–we know that everyone must ultimately fail to be their best self in a real and personal way, and are more forgiving for having experienced it. There is an essential separation between making judgments about the acceptability and social permissibility of certain people’s behavior–and the consequent decision about freedom and imprisonment–and judgments about the value and worth of those human beings in a moral sense. By striving and failing we can learn to accept the necessary justice required for maintaining and protecting the rights and freedoms granted by our society while honoring the inherent worth and dignity of every person in a truly and radically compassionate way.

It also helps us to be less judgmental of ourselves. While we learn humility from striving and failing, falling short of the mark, in this sense, is simply a foregone conclusion. It is no reason to feel shame, nor is it an indication of our inherent depravity–all of us are moving steadily toward the target, as best we can. Our inner compasses are sound, but the nature of existence is that each of us is limited by our mortality, and as we are neither omnipotent nor omniscient, we can take pride in our successes without needing to feel shame about our failures. This belief in the concept of sin without requiring the concept of shame makes sin something that we can understand in a more coherent and human fashion.

That’s an example of my application of a liberal approach to faith. There’s lots more where it came from, as I hope to explore further, later on.

We talked about the things we UUs believe in, and the difference between framework beliefs and what I’ll call focus beliefs.

All UUs share framework beliefs, such as the belief in a free and responsible search for meaning or the belief in the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

We don’t all share focus beliefs, such as the belief in the divinity of Jesus, or the belief in the reincarnation of souls–or even the existence of souls. It’s because of this distinction between framework and focus that I can be an atheist and a Unitarian Universalist.

We explored our beliefs further by looking at a column published several weeks ago in the AJC, written by Lorraine Murray. In it, she rejected the idea of a multi-denominational church that allowed members to “pick and choose” what they believed it, claiming that it led to a “wishy-washy” religion, which she called the “Church of Anything Goes.”

Rev. David wrote a letter to the editor in response, which was subsequently published, and he invited us all to read the article and try to articulate a defense of Unitarian Universalism in response. My response, to put it briefly (as it’s late and I should be asleep), is that my faith and the faith of the Unitarian Universalists I know is the least wishy-washy of anyone i have ever met–and certainly Anything Does Not Go. Unlike more conservative faith traditions, each member of a Unitarian Universalist congregation holds only hard-won beliefs, each of them open to question. There are no easy ways out, no “pray about it and it will come to you.” If you’re uncertain about life after death but fear mortality, there’s no one telling you, “Don’t worry, it says so in the Bible, so it must be true.” To claim that one can simply choose to believe–even against the voice of conscience–and then all will be cured seems to me an ultimately untenable approach to religion. Instead, Unitarians believe that each of us has to find  our own truth, and so we are each congregants and theologians both, striving to make sense of the world we live in. It is through the incredible strength of the thick and tightly braided rope of the world’s stock of wisdom and faith traditions that we are able to pull through to a fuller, more serene and substantial faith on the other side. By the same token, you won’t find many UUs who say “yeah, I kind of believe this, but not really, but I just try not to think about it too much.” That was not my experience as a Christian. Each of us is a seeker, with a moral responsibility to search and to support the search of others. To be part of a faith community that acknowledges and embraces the price and promise of that committed search is to be fully spiritually engaged.

I’m looking forward to next week’s class.

Cheryl thought it first, apparently. Violet’s gotten into this habit of sleeping one day and being awake the next. It seems like a pretty nice life, to be honest.

I’ve been reading a lot of online parenting articles and blogs lately–well, a lot for me, at least–and it really seems like there are two competing, self-reinforcing, and (it seems to me) incredibly counterproductive tones. Articles are either:

  • full of panic, uncertainty, regret, self-flagellation and questioning as to whether they can parent at all, let alone well
  • defensively authoritative, occasionally accusatory, forthright mandates on how to raise your children

These are both broad generalizations, so I run the risk of just having conjured this out of thin air–this objection and criticism of my hypothesis is totally valid. If I’m wrong, please convince me that that’s the case. The fact is that these occur to a greater or lesser degree, from the most shrill to the most tender, but I think there is something fundamental at the root of it.

Evidence of this phenomenon:

Can a Lack of Sleep Set Back Your Child's Cognitive Abilities? -- New York Magazine
Bossy McBossypants (I love Catherine Newman's writing, by the way.)
Are Kids Getting Too Much Praise?
Will your Preschooler Need a Tutor? (Seriously.)

It drives me nuts. Before I go on, I should probably establish something. While I think hyperanxious parenting is wrong-headed, neither do I subscribe to the idea that parenting just comes naturally and parents should just chill out and do what occurs to them. Lots of people are stupid or inexperienced or even downright malicious.

Somewhere, though, around the Vietnam era, I think, we lost our collective sense of authority. My guess is that we actually realized how incredibly terrible authority can be in and of itself, when it is incorrect. I am considering the possibility that there was a systematic loss of faith in authority on a social scale.

This is really hard stuff to talk about and think about, by design, almost. It’s complicated and abstract and I think, ultimately, amounts to what feels like and what we may as well consider a fundamental spiritual shift. Religion was way into authority and when the world was religious in a big and serious way, which is to say, when the people who wrote things that got read by others, when the idea-makers were religious, authority was truly a big and serious deal. Feudal lords told their serfs what to do. Parents told their children what to do. Authority stemmed from on high, followed the chain of command all the way down into the right hand of the father and the switch there held was held to be, truly, an instrument of God.

Science takes authority out of the hands of individuals and puts it in the hands of Nature–from the point of view of scientists. It is great and fantastic for this reason. It makes progress more rapid because ideas are pitted against each other and they fight and may win or lose, but ultimately (by which I actually mean “in the limit”) there is no individual who is an authority. It is here where we learned to defer to the wisdom of numbers, and authority over any individual child became more diffuse.

There are, suddenly, if not “right” and “wrong” ways to handle your kids, there are better and worse ways. Malnutrition exists and can be prevented. Your kids should be vaccinated and a hug every now and again decreases the likelihood that they’ll go shoot somebody later–maybe not to zero, but still, we as a society would appreciate it if occasionally, in addition to spanking your kid, you let them know you love them.

One of the difficult aspects of science stems from the fact that human society is necessarily atomistic. While authority in the divine sense may not exist, expertise certainly does. If you want to have your appendix removed or know the difference between a charm and a strange quark or solve a third-order differential equation, you can’t just ask anybody. Well, the beauty of it is that you actually can, and, given enough time, a lot of people will be able to develop the expertise to tell you the answer or provide the service. Which is to say that simply because you do not have expertise does not mean you can’t get it.

Still. It’s pretty costly to get it. You have to observe the same stuff for a long time in order to really get it as well as somebody else gets it. Some people may never get it. And there’s a big fat undecidable proposition required for the whole endeavor: positivism. It’s undecidable because it can never be clear whether anything is true or causal or whether it just looks that way.

The two of these combined, philosophically, I think. Suddenly in the middle of the century, like say post-WWII, there’s a new “priesthood” — very deeply involved in the actual war, like the killing of a lot of people — made of scientists. While these scientists may not claim to be authorities over things they know nothing about, they do claim to have models that describe the world well, which translates poorly into English as knowing the “truth.” There’s a big hole when you try to claim that it’s the “Truth,” which is that one of the founding assumptions is the assumption that the “Truth” is knowable: positivism.

It turns out, for real, that it doesn’t “matter” whether the truth is knowable, if all you want to do is make a really good guess at what will be the consequences when you perform/observe a certain action.

I attribute the most recent part of this to literary critics. Post-structuralism pulled off a hell of a feat of equivocation by hijacking the fact that light travels at the same subjective speed but that time passes at different subjective rates depending on your frame of reference. They used that intuition to stake a claim that the fact that the Universe behaves in a way described by the General Theory of Relativity implies, in some fuzzy way, that the Universe is, generally, relative.

Maybe it seems like none of this stuff is relevant to your parenting or my parenting. I contend that that is not the case. When Barthes declared “The Death of the Author,” how could that not have had an effect on parenting?

It had a heck of an effect on individuals’ senses of identity.

It had a heck of an effect on characters in our stories.

Authority was revealed as a hoax, and with the Vietnam War, it was revealed as a dangerous, irresponsible, and morally bankrupt hoax. American culture was well-suited to accept this belief, I think, being composed primarily of the progeny and products of incorrigible contrarians. So a dash of French philosophy, some depressed post-war writers like Hemingway, Faulkner, and later Saul Bellow, and even later, Don Delillo…

Out of time. It’s Halloween! More on this later.

Pickle, my apologies. I have friends who’ve promised me that they’ll lead you astray so that you don’t inherit my vitriol. You’ll probably hear me vent about this stuff occasionally, but I really only want everyone to get along, to behave like we can all be civil, to talk about this stuff with love in our hearts, humility, and a shared goal of making the best life for everyone and believing what we should.


I had a post here earlier, about my atheism and about the ability of animals to reason. They’re all good thoughts, just not ones that I feel the need to share. It’s all just too contentious, and there’s no real point, as far as I can tell, because I’m railing against a silent wall. As a result, I’m cutting it. If anyone is interested, let me know and I’ll re-post it at some point.

I’d rather take a deep breath and say that I care deeply about goodness and I don’t care if you have religion or don’t: I want for you what you want for yourself. I mean that to you, Pickle, but I mean that to everyone else, too. May we all make it home safely.

So. It would appear that people get unhappier around my age and then get happier when they get to retire. More interestingly, Americans seem to be unhappier now than “ever before” defined very loosely. Check it:

The midlife happiness crisis. – By Joel Waldfogel – Slate Magazine

Why are we less happy now than we used to be? Do we know how to be happy?

My hypothesis: Increased opportunity leads to greater chances for failure. Past generations have outstripped any dream they could have had for themselves–explosive economic growth has meant that lives their parents couldn’t have imagined, lives they, as children, couldn’t have imagined, became suddenly possible.

Anecdotal evidence: my grandfather was the oldest of eleven, dropped out of school in the eighth grade. Worked three jobs, owned a house and saved enough money to put all five of his kids through college, despite the fact that he died at 55. In a world where life used to mean the same fate as your parents and theirs before them, for a brief period, a lot of people in each generation (5 in my dad’s family alone, not counting my grandfather, who didn’t have 11 kids) outstripped the previous generation.

My dad had a lot of opportunity. He went to Cornell, got a degree in Chemical Engineering. If he and my mom weren’t living in Shanghai, though, their life would be very similar to that of the previous generation. Owning a big house is not that qualitatively different from owning a small house, really–not for two people. All the entertainment in the world can’t provide the same overriding sense of significance and accomplishment, real, deep-seated utility and subjective well-being measurements as expanding your family’s capacity.

So economic pioneers feel really good; that’s my theory. It feels good to cross particular lines, to go from not quite having enough to having enough. There’s a huge utility jump from being unsure you’ll be able to grant your kids the freedom to live as they want to being sure you will.

For a lot of people, those lines are still there, but as a society, we no longer feel ourselves crossing that boundary. The birth of the middle class was a social welfare windfall. If we want to be happy now, we have to work for it.

Religion probably has something to do with it; it’s similar to the opportunity thing. With no opportunity, no one feels like a failure. With opportunity, lots of people do. With religion as a fundamental force in life, people can let things go, acknowledge that there’s not much they can do to change the order of things–God’s will be done. But in the falling-off of religion as an institution and the adoption of religion as life philosophy, people take responsibility for the things they shouldn’t, for the error terms in life. People feel like they are responsible for their outcomes, good or ill.

I don’t think it’s true. I’m not sure that what I’m positing is actually happening, although I think it is. I think people have turned economics into religion, but have ignored the uncertainty. This is the whole point behind “it’s not whether you win or lose; it’s how you play the game” in my view. If outcomes are y, and effort is x and characteristics are z, we can model outcomes like this: y = a + bx + cz + e. All you can control is your x. A is determined by society at large, z is nature and nurture, and e is sheer random chance. You can’t take credit or blame for y. You can only take credit or blame for x. And that’s not something anyone else can observe, really. Some of it, they can, but only you really know if you did what you could.

And if you do what you can, then for some people, society screws  you. For other, society gives you a leg up. For some people, your genetics screw you; for others, it’s a boon. The error term screws everybody sometimes. For other people, it’s the only reason they’re hanging on. You don’t have to believe in God to “give it up to God.” You just have to admit you’re powerless. I think it makes everybody happier to explicitly acknowledge the existence of the error term.

A problem arises because y is positively correlated with x, and all we get to see is y, and so if we need to hold people responsible for their actions, all we can really hold them responsible for is their outcomes.

Additionally, a problem arises if we’re relying on other people to let us know whether our level of x is sufficient or not. That kind of external measurement is not going to give us a very good estimate of the effectiveness of our level of x. The error term is probably correlated with our level of z and our level of a. So those with preternatural talent or beauty are often congratulated as though they’d expended a lot of effort, while those who try hard and fail are soundly dismissed.

In truth, x and z are probably codetermined, and so we might not be able to assume the two are even separable. This has serious implications for our approach to moral and ethical responsibility in a metaphysical sense, but I think a good justice system should be invariant to metaphysical changes in responsibility–founded on a consequentialist rather than an intentionalist structure. Only you and God know your intentions, and I don’t believe in God, and so I’d support measures to be taken based on what we observe and what we expect, rather than what we think we know.

Happiness is having a good metric of one’s own worth, and a good metric for the extent to which things are out of our control.

Any ideas on experiments or data sets that would help me look at this stuff more is greatly appreciated.