Monday, June 21

You’ve Read This Post Before, Too

skepticIf nowhere else, you have at least read it here. Well, now you are going to read it again.

I have not written anything about the terror inflicted by Dylann Roof via the slaughter of nine innocent Bible study participants at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC, on 17 June. I found that my capacity for rational thought was paralyzed. For the most part, it still is. But that is perhaps as it should be. Perhaps there are crimes so vile that they render rationality itself indecent. Like certain sounds that the ear cannot hear, there may be certain experiences that only the id, only the reptile brain, only the limbic system, only the endocrine glands can process. I am old enough to remember an episode of All in the Family, back in the late ‘60s, when Archie Bunker (the late Carroll O’Connor) and his son-in-law Mike Stivic (Rob Reiner) were having one of their eternal political arguments. At the end, Archie made some non sequitur remark that, even by Archie’s standards, was simply over-the-top bigoted and irrational, so much so that Mike, who had been rational and civil up to that point, simply stared glassy-eyed at Archie for a moment and finally just primal-screamed in his face: Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh! That is the point I reached in the several days following the murders, except that my scream was silent.


For me – and speaking only and exclusively for myself – the horror and outrage are potentiated by the fact that this terrorist act occurred in a church. Would the outrage have been diminished if it had been a case of a Timothy McVeigh blowing up a government office building? Of an Aum Shinrikyo emulator releasing poison gas in a city’s subway system? Of a Bagwan Sri Rajneesh poisoning a salad bar in The Dalles, OR? My cerebral cortex says “No … both are outrageous, but one is no more outrageous than the other”. My glands say “Yes … terrorism against places of worship is intrinsically more heinous”. In this case, the glands win. The glands also win in cases of pedophilic priests and the Church’s episcopal leadership that enabled and covered up the crimes … that acted – shall we speak plainly? -- as de facto child-sex pimps. The glands won in Birmingham, AL, when white supremacists blew up the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963, killing four young African-American girls: Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley. But the case of Emanuel AME Church is wormwood-and-gall (Jer. 23:15) to an exceptional degree because the very name of the church – “Emanuel” – is Hebrew for God with us.

Full disclosure now: I am an ex-Christian. I am also a functional atheist. I emphasize “functional” to distinguish being a functional atheist from an ontological atheist. I am a functional atheist in the sense that, while I believe God may exist, whatever God may exist is pristinely disconnected and dissociated from anything that happens in human affairs. (People like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Bill Maher, and the late Christopher Hitchens are ontological atheists, believing that God does not exist in any sense, no-way, no-how. Ontology, from the Greek diphthong on meaning “is”, is the branch of philosophy that investigates the nature of existence tout court and per se.) That is on an abstract level. On a more personal level, my individual history with God has been such that any kind of relationship with whatever God may exist is always, and has always been, fraught with depression, frustration, serial disappointment, and stress of what I can only call lyrical intensity. Does God really exist? Depending on what those last two words mean, I have no idea. All I know for slam-dunk certain is that my history with God strongly indicates that God is to me what the abusive husband was to his wife in the harrowing Stephen King novel Rose Madder. Or the God of David Blumenthal's Facing the Abusing God.  So ... bottom line: I have never had much luck with gods. They have never cared for me, nor I for them, despite a 55-plus-year gut-busting effort on my part to forge relationship. Whatever love I may have once had for God was always – in fact, “always already” – unrequited.


So whence my outrage over the Charleston, SC, atrocity? If God is supremely disconnected from human life, human affairs, and human concerns, why should we be surprised that people – Christians, Bible-study participants, no less – were slaughtered – and that this slaughter occurred in a church whose very name proclaims that “God [is] with us”? Why the surprise? Most of all, why the outrage? In such a God-less … God-free? … universe, are not such obscenities to be expected as a matter of course, like the march of the seasons and the sun rising in the east? From a strictly rational standpoint, all these questions – and many of a similar nature – are well-taken. But as I said above, the glands will have their due. The glands' judgments and moral differentiations cannot be defended rationally, of course.  But then, the glands owe the cerebral cortex and rationality neither allegiance, subordination, nor explanation. (Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connait point: “The heart has its reasons that reason does not know” – Blaise Pascal, Pensees) And here, too, the glands win.

My rational mind recognizes that in a Catholic Church more concerned with protecting the institution than protecting children, and with an episcopal culture likewise more concerned with the former than with the latter … yes … of course, children are going to be sacrificed on the altar of perverted sacerdotal lust. Yes … of course … in a political and social culture rooted in four centuries of racism whereby human beings were bought and sold like pork-belly futures, where people were willing to rend the Nation and assassinate its President in the name of subjugating a race whose members were regarded as glorified apes, black children could, of course, be killed like cattle in an abattoir. Of course. But my glands – my reptile brain, my limbic system – were all formed under the tutelage of a Christianity that, like its parent religion, insists that, instead of being detached from history, God’s fingerprints are all over it. That I no longer find this view tenable – in fact, that I find it oppressive – does not, for all that, alter that visceral programming. So I end up with my glands expecting and demanding that God act – on behalf of others, not me -- even though my cerebral cortex knows better. I end up disappointed at God’s failure to do what – I know ahead of time – God can(will?)not do. I never became proficient enough at building theological and philosophical Ptolemaic epicycles of sufficient subtlety to allow me to save appearances by salvaging belief in an "omni-benevolent" God -- I suspect precisely because I knew that is what I was doing. (Excuses only excuse if you think they are not excuses.) At any rate, my fatal flaw:  I always expected a God who could do anything to do something. My bad!


Well … quite frankly, that’s my problem. But not just mine. That is the problem of all of us – not just me – who no longer find belief in a God active in human history even worthy of being taken seriously, much less cogent, least of all compelling. Disappointment, however understandable given our prior theological / Sunday School indoctrination, is, in the end, felonious nostalgia, a mere narcissistic self-indulgence in the face of such reckless evil … and a consequent failure to take our own responsibility seriously. Others may find belief in such a God – the God of “God with us” – compelling. Who knows? Maybe they are right. Seriously. Moreover, not only may they be right, there are many moments when I envy them their belief in a benignly supervenient  Providence. Why? I dunno ... maybe because they believe they have Someone in the stands at least rooting for them, a belief I do not have, though over the years I got pretty good at faking it. In any case, I can form no one’s conscience but my own. But I can form my own. And – for me and speaking only for myself – the events in Charleston at “Mother Emanuel” did for me what the Prophet Nathan’s parable did for King David. As a means of alluding to David’s adulterous theft of Bath-sheba, wife of David's faithful soldier Uriah the Hittite, Nathan told David a parable about a rich man who, determined to practice the trickle-up economics of c. 1000 BCE, stole a poor man’s only sheep to slaughter and make a feast for a wealthy visitor. Nathan asked David what should be done with such a man. David replied that the man was worthy of death. Nathan pointed at David and said in Hebrew Hata ha’ish: “Thou art the man”.

David was responsible. David was the man. So am I. I am the man. Not God. Me.

James R. Cowles


  • A point well made, James. A point, nonetheless, that not many people will be, mentally, psychologically, cerebrally, glandularly or in any other way, able to take on board, particularly in regard to attributing and thereby justifying the cause of such horrendous human events to their God(s) for the woes of mankind, rather than simply accepting that it is us human beings, who have to be accountable for all that we do as human beings.

    The questions that arises from this – given that it is man, who truly has the capability to tackle this, not God – as well as from so many other mass killings (one of which I wrote about myself some time ago:, is what should we do to prevent the mind of rogue individuals scrambling to the point where they lose control of their humanity and what else could be done to reduce the risks e.g. limiting the availability of firearms (and keep vested interests – the NRA – out of the debate!)…?

    • I think we first have to reconcile ourselves to a couple of things, neither of which can be changed, at least not in our lifetime: (1) there will always be deranged individuals whose sociopathic tendencies drive them to kill others, and no amount of legislation will alter that; (2) there are elements in American culture that make that culture more predisposed to violence, even armed violence, than other nations’ cultures. Compare gun violence in, e.g., England and France, with the incidence of gun violence in the States. Part of the difference can be accounted for by MUCH stricter access to guns in the former, but not all. Certainly comprehensive, no-exceptions background checks would help. I would also favor prohibiting the sale of even semi-automatic, magazine-loaded weapons, i.e., 6-shooters only, and limitations on ammunition caliber, e.g., no higher caliber than .30 to private owners. In a certain sense, Dylan Roof is a bad paradigm to use, because my understanding is that, if existing laws had been properly enforced, he would not have been allowed to gun a gun. Law enforcement dropped the ball.

      Theologically, I think we — by which I mean “me, too” — have to outgrow our infantile dependence on some paternalistic father figure to take care of us. There is no one to do that but us. God has repeatedly demonstrated His / Her irrelevance vis a vis science, which has been largely accepted, except by the lunatic-fringe fundamentalists and creationists and intelligent-design people. But God has also demonstrated at least as exhaustively HIs / Her irrelevance morally. But, as you say, people are much more reluctant to relinquish that security blanket. After 20 or so years of indoctrination and rational recognition that God really is thus irrelevant, I still succumb to “felonious nostalgia” for a time when I tried to believe, ultimately unsuccessfully, that I was being “watched over”. And part of me — the guts / glands part of me — still wants to be watched over, even though the rational part of me would see that as living in a kind of interiorized North Korea.

      So I guess that’s my prescription, both in terms of gun violence and theology: grow up.

      • Couple of things, James, in response to the above.

        Yes, I agree that it is not legislation per se that will stop the kind of extreme behaviour that characterises the broken rogue sociopath. What I was hinting at was more about what can be done to ‘capture’ these rogue individuals before they crack. This of course would require significant change in attitudes toward a social-welfare system and engender a debate on how this could be brought about, not least of all how it could be resourced. It would have to have the will of government as well as, probably, a change in legislation to enable it, but would also need to be focussed, but not exclusively, on those families and communities, which are most disadvantaged and therefore most at risk of raising damaged individuals. I know this is ‘blue skies’ thinking, but it has to start somewhere.

        Yes, I made reference (in my own blog post on the subject) to the much higher risk that semi-automatic weapons present in the mass killing scenario. Of course that would be a significant start.

        As for God and science, I come from the same base as you I think. I was raised a Christian, so have an innate understanding of the culture and ethos, at least inside the Church of England. However, when I left home to go to University to study science and engineering, I started to think for myself and concluded that God is a creation of the human mind. But what is important that we must not forget is that the human condition is innately fragile. None of us, even those most capable, privileged, powerful and influential people in the world, are ever in full control of our destiny. At some point in our life, if not throughout it, we become ill, suffer tragic, shocking or emotionally moving events – vis: war, crime, abuse, love, loss, birth, death – through which we come face to face with our own frailty, the response to which in our weakness, for all but perhaps the most hardened intellect, is a need for a ‘father’ figure, a shoulder to lean on, which is much more universal and substantial than any of our family or loved ones can provide. Then, I would argue, there is a need for a much more substantial faith and support system which provides a wider community of like minds, with a moral compass that promotes mutual respect and generosity of spirit that is able to support us in our time of need.

        I believe the human mind in those circumstances needs a ‘God’, who / which goes above and beyond mere physical human presence. This is why my logical reasoning has led me to this position, whilst I may no longer truly believe in the God I was brought up to believe in, I firmly believe there is a human need for belief in something ‘higher’ than humanity. My personal place in this spectrum of belief / non-belief, is nearer to pantheism (including the position that tolerates all Gods) than to anything. A healthy respect for all religious as well as non-religious (whether atheist or agnostic), provided they do not promote anti-social agenda. is where we should be. If anyone of a particular persuasion adopts a political stance of always ‘knocking’ the opposition, it is not helpful in any way and, if anything, such partisan behaviour is more a demonstration of human frailty and, as we know, so often triggers conflict.

        So thank you for your in depth response, James. Anything that helps promote a more thoughtful approach to the causes of the woes of the world is a worthy endeavour.

  • My apologies for the delay in replying. For some reason, your responses after the first one all went to the “Junk Mail” folder, and I just now discovered them.

    I’m about to leave home on an all-day errand running jag. But more tomorrow.


  • Hope your errand running was fun!

    I believe that humanity is the root of all failure to love. But my theology is more refined than magic God. I love Albert North Whitehead’s expression on the human/divine relationship.

    When it comes down to it, we fail to love. When we fail to love, we never fail to hurt. We are all the man. We all make choices from a selfish perspective rather than from a holistic, communal, common good perspective. My hope is that I can hear the call to the greater good, greater love, and make choices that uplift the common good.


    • If believing in a “process-theological” God helps you toward that goal of love, then I say “Put the pedal to the metal and peel rubber”. So the following is said with all respect …

      From my knothole, I do wonder … What does belief in God — any kind of God … Yahweh, Allah, Odin, Great Cthulhu, the process-theological God … etc. — what does belief in God render possible, or even easier, that would be impossible, or even more difficult, in the ABSENCE of such a belief? IOW it’s an “Ockham’s Razor” kind of question.

      I suppose my reaction originates in my desire that God — any god … you name it — actually … well … DO SOMETHING, something that would not get done in that God’s absence. Many years ago, right after we bought our present house and got the landscaping done, Diane and I went shopping for a lawn mower to replace the little Weed Whacker thingy we had been using to mow the much smaller / pre-landscaping lawn. So we bought an electric lawn mower KIT — lawn mowers are hard to buy already assembled — and went to work putting it together. It was actually pretty easy. There were only a few major parts. But when we finished, we discovered that we had a little widget “thingy” left over. It was small. Several of them would fit in the palm of your hand. But we couldn’t figure out what to do with it. The mower worked fine without it; in fact, we still have, and occasionally use, the mower. We even still have the little “thingy”, though we still don’t know what to do with it. The mower works fine without it, but the “thingy” seems just superfluous because it doesn’t … you know … DO … anything.

      Diane and I have reached that point with God: Diane after going through multiple iterations with various types of conservative evangelicalism and Catholicism; me, after going through fundamentalism, various flavors of conservative evangelicalism, right-wing Catholicism, left-wing Catholicism … etc. We couldn’t, either of us, figure out what to do with the Mega-“Thingy”. We’re good people without It. I’m actually a BETTER person without It (no drumbeat of negative judgments about me and my life and my having “always already” failed because I’m just “dung covered with snow” whose liver God graciously refrains from frying with a lightning bolt … the main message I heard from conservative Christianity).

      So to me, the key question is “What does God DO?” I mean “What does God DO that could not — at least as well — be done withOUT God?”

      Duzzis make sense at all?

      • It makes sense to me. With regard to the “doings” of God, my experience tells me that the call to greater love and greater justice and greater mercy is God. That God doesn’t do the “doing” alone, that it is a cooperative effort. That there is a transcendence afoot, and that is God. Whether that God someday turns out to be a little biological trigger or a big dude in the sky (please, no) is not something I can say.

        All I can say is that I perceive there to be a call to something more. I smack the label God onto it. Process theology is all about the creative response to the call. God calls, people respond. That makes it all an act in creation. And makes God not omnipotent.

      • As for your answer to my own, albeit rather long reply to your reply to my … etc, I guess, James, that you either need to re-read what I wrote, or (perhaps more likely) I need to re-write it. My precise perspective is different from Terri’s, which is different from yours and, probably, different from the perspective of everyone else in the world.

        So, to reiterate, my view on the human need (or not) for God, is that it is simply very personal, undoubtedly like that of your mother. I honestly think that your question “what does God actually DO”, in a physical sense, isn’t relevant; it really doesn’t matter. What he does DO in the minds of those who perceive him is the more pertinent question, it seems to me. In this respect, it is more important to ask what people (not God) can and should do for themselves. To paraphrase the saying, much quoted in my childhood: “God helps those, who help themselves” is relevant here. And even if someone, for whatever reason emotional, psychological, or physical, is not capable of helping themselves, then it is incumbent on those, who do have that capability, to be charitable and DO something for them instead.

        I am personally well beyond looking for God as some scientifically proven being; some spirit in the sky, or who has a definable and recognisable shape and who is able to speak to us with a real voice and make decisions for us when needed; that we’d feel more comfortable and satisfied with if we were being scientifically objective about it. Some of those, who do believe in God, believe that he is everywhere, in all of us, all at once! In other words every living, frail and fragile mind throughout the whole of humanity has the capacity to divine their God and usually the facility to join in a community of like-minded people, with whom they can find some peace of mind, some relief from grief or pain, and sanctuary or salvation in a troubled world as well as, hopefully, some help and guidance from the leadership of that community.

        Above all, respecting those who have need of a belief in God, respecting the way in which they chose to conduct themselves in their belief – providing that they themselves are respectful of others in the process – is, I truly believe, the most important objective any of us can ever seek to have in this arena. As a scientific footnote, whether or not God can be proven to exist doesn’t matter. There are many things in the world and the Universe that we don’t yet understand, and may never be able to resolve scientifically or otherwise, so we have either to accept or reject ideas, based on our best knowledge, guess or intuition. For me, this is a very good reason why we should not question the decisions of anyone to believe in God and why we should continue to accept those who desire or need to do so.

    • I suppose there are people — NOT TO INSINUATE THAT YOU ARE ONE OF THEM … WHICH YOU ARE NOT — who would indeed simply fall apart without God — or more accurately, without a BELIEF in God. My mother was one. She suffered from a smorgasbord of psychological and emotional instabilities and needed fundamentalist — not just conservative, but hard-fundamentalist — Christianity to be able to navigate through life, and even then it was often chancy in terms of her mental health. (My mother remains, to this day and by a light-years-wide margin, the neediest person I’ve ever known.) In that case … sure … God, or at least, BELIEF in God, does indeed “do something”. Without God such folks might open the gas-oven door and do a Sylvia Plath.

      For other people, people who are reasonably healthy emotionally / mentally … I dunno …

  • “So, to reiterate, my view on the human need (or not) for God, is that it is simply very personal, undoubtedly like that of your mother. I honestly think that your question ‘what does God actually DO’, in a physical sense, isn’t relevant; it really doesn’t matter. What he does DO in the minds of those who perceive him is the more pertinent question … ”

    I can agree, and do agree, that people have diverse psychological / emotional needs. But when I hear religious people talk about God, the love of God, the will of God, the mystery of God, etc., etc., etc., it SOUNDS as if — and maybe this is just a trick of language — that they are talking about an entity that exists someplace outside the confines of their own skulls, their own subjectivity “in the minds of those who perceive him”. So I accept that at face value: their conception of God — right or wrong — is that God exists in the same sense as the computer monitor I am looking at as I type this. God may, in their estimation, exist even “more” so than my computer monitor, but certainly no less than.

    So … OK … maybe they’re in the position of the blind guys who each have hold of a different part of the elephant: one the trunk who says the elephant is like a fire hose, one the tail who says the elephant is like a rope, one the ear who says the elephant is like a big rubber sheet, one the leg who says the elephant is like a tree trunk, etc. But even in that analogy, there is SOMEthing — namely, the elephant tout court — beyond or behind the different tactile sensations.

    So when people talk about God, they seem to do so under an ontology of objectivity: impressions may vary, but there is a God behind them all. But then, upon examination, the rhetoric changes to a rhetoric of subjectivity.

    Anyway, that’s what I find puzzling.

    So in my particular case, I have to choose between a God who is objectively real, like the elephant — but who doesn’t DO anything — and a God who is … forgive my bluntness … like my preference for strawberry over chocolate, which is PURELY subjective. The kicker, for me, is that I spent (optimistically) 2/3 of my life, (pessimistically) 3/4, trying to please the “elephant-God” and, at age 66, finding that doing this accomplished nothing. (Not that I’ve accomplishing nothing, period, but certainly accomplished nothing as a result of my pursuit of the “elephant-God”.) HOWEVER, there are people — I know some — whose pursuit of the “elephant-God” led to abundance. So either (a) the “elephant-God” doesn’t love me or (b) the “elephant-God” is bullshit and it’s purely a matter of preference for strawberry over chocolate. Together with dumb luck. Given the choice between (a) or (b), I am … I say this seriously … a natural-born atheist.

    Anyway, that’s my personal stake in this and what I did in the war.

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