The Spiritual Life of An Atheist

May 13, 2012

Spiritual Life of An Atheist: Both Thumbs Up for “Religion for Atheists”

Alain de Botton’s “Religion for Atheists,” which has received harsh criticisms from the likes of David Brooks (the NYT review) and The Economist, is an insightful and moving treatment of wisdom without doctrine.  At the outset, de Botton dispenses with the most frequent subject of engagement for today’s vocal atheists–arguments with believers against the existence of God–and elaborates on the more fundamental question for atheists: So now what?

De Botton writes: “[T]he real issue is not whether God exists or not, but where to take the argument once one decides that he evidently doesn’t.”  (p. 11)  Although de Botton talks of “argument,” he sets his sights on a post-theistic discussion of proper nurturance of our quite material and mortal souls.  De Botton’s title for his first chapter “Wisdom Without Doctrine” frames his endeavor.

By pursuing wisdom, de Botton invokes an old-fashioned concept.  His is a contemporary exposition on the ancient (and somewhat out-of-mode) philosophical question of “the good life.”  Understood this way, de Botton is offering the opening voice in a Platonic-style dialog.  His work is an invitation to engage and, of course, disagree with but not dismiss the ideas he presents.  Taken up with the intended spirit, Religion for Atheists has much to offer.

De Botton is a lucid and incisive writer.  So, if nothing else, his writing craft is pleasing. His aphoristic essays provide many thoughtful nuggets to reflect on.  Challenging the commercialization of the public sphere, de Botton explains, “In truth, we are all fragile in our commitments and suffer from a weakness of will in relation to the siren calls of advertising, an ill-tempered three-year-old entranced by the sight of a farmyard play set with inflatable dog kennel as much as a forty-two-year-old captivated by the possibilities of a barbecue set with added tongs and hotplate.”  (p. 88)

The marketization of almost every aspect of secular society is a key concern.  De Botton is troubled that the secular world appears to be abandoning to the religious sphere all values except market ones.  He writes, “[W]e have allowed religion to claim as its exclusive dominion areas of experience which should rightly belong to all mankind – and which we should feel unembarrassed about reappropriating for the secular realm.”  (p. 15)   And later, “One of the losses modern society feels most keenly is that of a sense of community.  We tend to imagine that there once existed a degree of neighborliness which has been replaced by ruthless anonymity, a state where people pursue contact with one another primarily for restricted, individualistic ends: for financial gain, social advancement or romantic love.” (p. 23)

To counter the perceived secular trend toward ruthless pursuit of individualistic ends, de Botton reappropriates “agape”–an ancient Greek concept itself appropriated by early Christians to refer to the self-sacrificing love of God for humanity.  Refigured by de Botton, agape would mean an un-self-involved love of humanity by humanity.  An analog would be the Buddhist emphasis on all-embracing compassion.  To de Botton, we urgently need institutions designed to help cultivate this wide-armed love and compassion.  Why? Because we are fallen in our natures, fundamentally sinful in a purely secular sense.  Without corrective institutions, we tend to the selfish and venal and petty.

At the same time, even in the wealthy West, we suffer in our vulnerability and need mercy.  In his chapter “Tenderness,” de Botton details an imagined scene in a centuries-old chapel on a town backstreet, where a middle-aged man “shakes down his umbrella and steps inside . . . The man is exhausted.  His joints ache.  He feels weak, vulnerable and close to tears.  No single event has brought him to this point, just a run of minor humiliations that have cumulatively contributed to an overwhelming sense of mediocrity, superfluousness and self-hatred.”  With striking emotional insight, de Botton then outlines the subtle failures that have led this mid-life everyman to despair.  As a result, “He wants to fall asleep and be held.  He wants to cry.  He wants to be forgiven and reassured.  There is music playing . . . the aria ‘Ebarme dich, mein Gott’ from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. He searches for ideas he can cling to, but nothing seems solid.  He is unable to think logically and even making the effort to do so has become more than he can bear.”  In this state beyond reason, the tender image of the Virgin offers him solace.  (p. 166-167)

In this single, lyrical passage, de Botton captures a common, lived experience well-addressed by religion, which atheism/secular humanism, if they are to flourish, must find ways to fulfill, rather than rebuff.  De Botton lectures, “By contrast with religion, atheism is prone to seem coldly impatient with our neediness.  The longing for comfort which lies at the heart of the Marian cult seems perilously regressive and at odds with the rational engagement with existence on which atheists pride themselves.  Mary and her cohorts have been framed as symptoms of urges which adults ought quickly to outgrow.” (p. 173)

For the truth of de Botton’s characterization, one need only remember the American Atheist’s “You KNOW It’s A Myth” Christmas-time billboard campaign.  De Botton’s Religion for Atheists, while not perfect in all its particulars, is a powerful and much-needed antidote to the prevailing curmudgeonly atheist approach.

De Botton recognizes that our spiritual needs do not lapse along with superstitious belief, and atheism and secular humanism will never replace religion until the secular sphere is actually able to replace religion.  De Botton’s Religion for Atheists is a heartfelt and welcome engagement with this dilemma.

copyright 2012 by S. Anne Johnson


December 4, 2011

Spiritual Life of An Atheist: Talking Transcendence

Being a body can be a pain.  We catch diseases, have accidents, deteriorate with age, and ultimately stop all function altogether.  Being a mind can be a drama.  We are often guided by motives hidden to us, have opposing interests and wishes, and experience unpleasant feelings we can’t always control, even with focused attention.  No wonder the idea of transcendence is so attractive.  It suggests there are ways to overcome the commonly painful drama of being human.

I’m all for learning more integrity, patience, compassion, and perspective, aspiring to our better qualities, even living longer, healthier lives with the help of modern science.

I’m not so drawn to dreams of taming our tumultuous nature or dispensing with our corporeal selves.  And I don’t care at all for illusory immortality.

Ray Kurzweil wrote “The Singularity Is Near” (which I have not read and most likely will not).  The movie “Transcendent Man” was made about him.  (Available streaming on Netflix.)  Ray Kurzweil is by many measures a genius.  As a teenager in the 60s, he built and programmed a computer to compose music.  He has pioneered computer optical recognition and text-to-speech and other electronic technologies.  Ray Kurzweil is obsessed with overcoming what he feels are human biological limitations.  He wants humans to merge with machines and to become immortal.  He believes that attempting to transcend the painful drama of human existence through acceptance of the limitations of biology is the wrong direction to take.  Instead, we should attempt to overcome through challenging, perhaps even obliterating, the fragility of our flesh.  Kurzweil in fact believes that this convergence of man and machine, this “singularity,” is ineluctable.

What will we gain from this “singularity?”  Nanobots coursing through our cells, our brains supplemented by implanted bluetooth wikipedia, revived graveyard DNA clones with reconstructed consciousness.

Kurzweil describes his father’s death as “unbearable.”  Kurzweil’s personal fantasy is to regenerate his father’s genetic twin and download his actual father’s partially reconstructed consciousness into the clone.  Kurzweil perceives this as bringing his father back to life.  It seems he may have skipped class the week Frankenstein was taught in high school English.

Let’s get real.  Immortality, i.e., unending existence, is not possible.  Even if man were to merge with machine, what’s the longest your iPod battery has lasted? How many of us have owned a computer that didn’t experience a fatal hard drive error after a few years?  Terminator movies aside, machines aren’t indestructible.  Like us, they are subject to entropy.

Where will all the energy and other resources to produce, implant, maintain, update, and unendingly reproduce the enabling electronics come from?  How will we dispose of the waste created by millions, if not billions, of immortal man/machine beings?  What planet will all this immortality be taking place on, since our own planet will be experiencing lethal increase in the Sun’s luminosity within 1 billion years and its consuming the Earth as a red giant within 5 billion years?

Maybe Kurzweil thinks that within the next 1 billion years, we will have transformed ourselves into some kind of photon beings that stream their timeless energy around the Universe–the observable portion of which is presently 93 billion light-years across.

Does anyone really want to be immortal?  We are creatures with lifespans to around 100 years at best so far.  Can we truly conceptualize an ongoing logarithmic increase in our lifespans and everything that would entail?

Maybe Kurzweil didn’t mean literal immortality.  Maybe he just meant a really, really long time, like 1,000 years or 1,000,000 years.  How many of us want to live for 1,000,000 years?  Can we actually conceive of what it would mean to live to 1,000,000 years?  How many of the world’s now 7 billion people would have access to these really, really long lifetimes?

If immortality is not realistic, if we have to face the end of our individual existence at some point, why not now?  Why not focus on the quality of the years we have, rather than on avoiding death at all costs–even perhaps at the cost of our humanity itself?

copyright 2011 by S. Anne Johnson

May 8, 2011

Spiritual Life of An Atheist: Justice Agnostic

By all accounts May 1, 2011 was a banner day for the United States.  A team of Navy Seals stealthily invaded Osama bin Laden’s personal compound in northeastern Pakistan and fatally shot him.  Following President Obama’s lead, near universal acclamation prevailed that bin Laden was brought to justice.  Rowdy crowds cheered in the streets because justice had been done.  The next night Stephen Colbert threw a “long-awaited We Got Bin Laden party,” exhorting his adoring audience into chants of “USA USA USA” and playing snippets of the triumphal at Dorothy’s killing of the Wicked Witch of the West. 

In the next segment, Colbert’s guest, the President of the Council on Foreign Relations, Richard Haass, soberly explained that “the only bad news with” bin Laden’s killing “is that it really won’t change things all that much” because since 9/11 terrorism has been franchised.  Other commentators have noted that the Yemeni Al-Qaeda is in ascent, while bin Laden’s branch has been on the wane.

The United States caused bin Laden to suffer the ultimate penalty for his lethal crimes against its citizens.  This tit for tat is what the more boisterous members of the nation were celebrating.  Tit for tat is not just a schoolyard tactic.  It is an ancient impulse and potentially powerful strategy against a committed adversary.  Failing to respond in kind can embolden an adversary to further attack because they believe they can act with impunity.  Countering this effect is the logic underlying mutually assured destruction as a deterrent to nuclear war.  When commentators heralded the killing’s puncturing of bin Laden’s mythology, they were alluding to his seeming invulnerability to retaliation.  Until May Day 2011, bin Laden appeared to be able to attack the United States without consequence.

Was finally evening up the score against bin Laden justice?  By the ancient measure of retribution, yes.  On this scale, the United States gave bin Laden his due. 

But justice weighed only on retribution’s scale is a thin account.  Retribution between well-matched adversaries can spawn an escalating cycle of tit for tat.  Responding in kind can spur an adversary to additional attack out of vengeance or to prove they cannot be outmatched.  This is why the Obama administration warned of the increased terrorist threat following bin Laden’s killing.  Retributive cycles are wars of attrition, with the possibility of no side feeling vindicated in the end due to the losses inflicted.  Was the notorious Hatfield-McCoy feud justice?  Is the interminable Israeli-Palestinian conflict justice?

To take the bold step of killing bin Laden in his compound, President Obama must feel confident that the United States and Al-Qaeda are not well-matched adversaries and that the United States can contain whatever retaliatory responses bin Laden’s killing inspires. 

President Obama’s presentation of the killing was equally strategic. In his announcement, President Obama invoked both justice and God, suggesting that not only might but also God was on the United States’ side.  No doubt bin Laden and his followers believed their bloody hands gripped God’s just sword.  Such invocations of divine justice are appeals to tribalism writ large.  The Obama administration’s decision to kill bin Laden was about geo-political strategy rather than divine right, and its public packaging similarly calculated.

Piling on the justice theme, a favorite media play was to interview a survivor of 9/11 about how the killing made them feel.  Most described a sense of closure, but some did not.  The off-script moments made the interviewers pause.  Justice brings a satisfied feeling, so the denial of closure undermined the storyline.  No follow-up inquiry was made. Perhaps the unobliging survivors longed for a richer justice than simple retribution, such as the restoration of peace, or felt the loss they had suffered could not be put right.  Is justice always, or even often, possible?

None of this is to say that the killing of bin Laden was not justified.  But that the United States was justified in killing bin Laden does not mean that his death itself constitutes justice.  Justice is a big word, much bigger than the death of one man.

copyright 2011 by S. Anne Johnson

April 3, 2011

Spiritual Life of An Atheist: The Longing for Real Connection

I watched a quite disturbing and excellent documentary the other day, The Secrets of the Tribe, about anthropology’s use of one of the last first-contact tribes on Earth in the 1960s, the Yanomamo.  One of the anthropologists who studied and lived with the Yanomamo, Ken Good, married a Yanomamo woman, had 3 children with her and brought her back to the U.S.  She ended up leaving him and returning to her village in the Amazon rainforest.  In the documentary, he said she told him, in essence, she did not like living within the walls of the nuclear family.  She missed waking up in the morning and being able to see all her fellow villagers from her hammock.

Living in such a physically open and close-knit community is difficult to imagine.  I grew up in a little town, not an urban setting, and I’m actually a fan of the single family home.  I like at least a 5-foot-setback’s worth of elbow room from my neighbors.  Having been raised with a particular amount of space and privacy, I would probably find life in a small, open village about as intrusive as the Yanomamo emigrant found modern suburban American living isolating.

When I was a kid, I knew almost all our neighbors.  A couple of older sisters, who my mother knew, lived down the street from each other, and I would go to their houses for milk and cookies sometimes–and to sell my lastest extra-curricular activity fundraising wares.  I was friends with both the girls who were my age who lived around the corner from me.

My mother still lives in the area I grew up, which is where she grew up, and where many people she grew up with still live or have returned to live.  As a result, my mother has relationships with people spanning 65+ years.  Such long-lived relationships are almost as difficult for me to imagine as a view of my whole village from my hammock.  My mother is a member of probably one of the last sustained-contact tribes in the U.S.

I have lived in the same house in the Bay Area for almost 12 years.  Many of my neighbors have lived here as long or longer.  I know some of my neighbors well enough to wave at them or maybe chat about the weather when we both happen to be out in our front yards at the same time, which is not very often.  No one spends time in their front yards.

In numbers, I feel confident that I know a lot more people than my mother does, even though I have lived just over half as long as she.  Living in the Bay Area and working at a large private law firm in downtown San Francisco for almost 13 years, I have come into contact with a lot of people.  (And that is not even counting grade school, high school (half spent in southeastern Louisiana and half spent in north central Louisiana), college in New York State, a 3-year interlude in Phoenix, and law school–the start of my now 16-year-long stint in the Bay Area.)  But the number of people I know really well is a handful, and the number of people I will have known for 65+ years will be zero.

I was not raised in a world where relationships were actual market commodities.  But I have worked in that world, and I think that world’s net is ever-expanding.  A recent independent film that satirizes this phenomenon is The Joneses, with David Duchovny and Demi Moore.  It wasn’t ever in line for an Oscar, but it is worth seeing.  It is an appeal for authentic human connection in an age where everything is about the sale.  It is ironic to watch Demi Moore, with her clearly plasticized (albeit still lovely) features, carry a movie with this message.

I have hated marketizing my relationships, to the extent I have managed to.  I don’t long for a return to the Edenic life of a small village without walls, but I do want to build relationships with people because they make me laugh or say insightful things or share my same quirky interests or just because.  And now I know I’m not alone in this longing, because someone has made a movie about it.

copyright 2011 by S. Anne Johnson

March 27, 2011

Spiritual Life of An Atheist: Generosity and Cooperation Make Good Sense

We are beings imbued through evolution with a moral sense–a capacity to ponder and attempt to answer and even enforce our answers to complex questions of morality.  Evolution itself is an unthinking, amoral process that does not tell us what is a morally correct or incorrect course of action.  It explains how it is that humans, as social animals, have a moral sense and perhaps the rough parameters of that  sense.  Right and wrong are not Platonic forms suspended in a celestial sphere. They are value decisions we have to work out using our culturally refined moral sensibilities.  

The question of what is “moral” in any given circumstance is complex and reasonable minds can differ.  But some values are demonstrably more harmful (to ourselves, other individuals, society at large) than others.  Game theory tells us that we can create “win-win” situations through cooperation. Cooperative behavior begets trust, fostering a positive feedback loop of increasing trust and cooperation.

Cheating is sub-optimal because it prevents a “win-win” situation. You can trust others when you know they know they can trust you and you both know that the only way to the best outcome for both of you is to hang together. When you cheat against someone who can be trusted, you rob yourself of the best outcome you could have achieved for yourself.

But game theory also tells us that where we cannot trust our fellow participants, we are personally better off to cheat first. So, behaving in a cooperative manner is only “rational” under conditions of trust.  In the short-term, cheating can be in one’s “rational self interest”–if one believes that one is not likely to get caught or if caught, the benefit of cheating outweighs the cost of its penalty. But chronic cheating is not a very good long-term strategy because the more one cheats, the more likely one is to get caught and the consequences of getting caught repeatedly can be exile from the group. This of course assumes some order.

Conditions of distrust erode cooperation, creating a negative feedback loop of distrust and hostile self-interestedness.   There are many places in the world today where chronic cheating is a common strategy because there are not sufficient resources/institutions for catching and punishing cheaters. The living conditions in these places are undesirable and we acribe to them “lawlessness” and “chaos.”  After a certain tipping point, widespread, chronic cheating leads to living dystopias–a race to the self-interested moral bottom.  Think of the present day Congo.

The consequences for society of unimpeded chronic cheating and the terrible, disordered living conditions it fosters are a strong indicator that cheating is undesirable and chronic cheating is wrong.

The necessity for cooperation doesn’t come from a social contract. It comes from the inescapable fact of our social relationship to each other and the provable dynamics built into those relationships.  Our entire survival and reproductive scheme is based on belonging to a group. We call inveterate cheaters against the group “outlaws” and they become “outcasts.”  Because we live in social relationship with each other–not as a matter of theoretical contract, but as a matter of fact–good must encompass more than just consideration of one’s own desires and ends.

Maintaining cooperation in a society of strangers, such as the urban US, is a particular challenge.   There is no generally understood moral requirement to give a stranger aid.  Doing so is considered charitable, altruistic, heroic.  Even though giving a stranger aid is going above and beyond, there are good reasons to do so.  It may simply feel good.  Or you may recognize that society is better off if people are more often willing to give without expectation of direct reciprocation and you want to behave in a way that fosters the generosity and trust that benefits society.

copyright 2011 by S. Anne Johnson

March 12, 2011

Spiritual Life of An Atheist: When Mortality Stares Us in the Face

My heart is heavy at the loss of life and destruction from the earthquake and tsunami in Japan.  Before the earthquake hit, I was thinking about the subject of mortality because I learned earlier this week that a friend was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a rare and incurable blood cancer.

Mortality surrounds us.   We lose our grandparents and then our parents.  We lose peers.  We learn of close brushes with an early death–perhaps we experience one in our own lives, even if just the split-second veering from an almost certainly catastrophic car accident.  When we shelter pets, we sign up for the experience of having their deaths most probably precede our own, and if we love other animals a lot, we do this over and over again.

Some feel that, given ineluctable death, without God life is a cruel joke.  This is a framing problem, I think.  If one approaches life as an entitlement, it seems unjust when it is snatched away.  If one understands life as a time-limited privilege, death becomes a seriously sad but manageable fact.  In saying this, I am not advocating some stiff-upper-lip stoicism.  I am talking about a fundamental shift in thinking–and feeling.

The physical laws of our Universe which allow for life in the first instance also dictate its dissipation.  Under the second law of thermodynamics, i.e., entropy, things tend to disorder.  A good way to conceive of entropy is to think about an ordinary deck of 52 cards.  When you buy the deck the cards are ordered numerically within suits.  You drop the deck and the probability that it will fall into that order is infinitesimal.  That’s because there are exponentially more ways for the deck to be disordered than ordered.  So, ordering the deck takes a lot more effort than disordering it.

Ordered systems, such as living beings, are momentarily stealing order from the disorder through the expenditure of extra energy.*  Eventually however entropy will prevail, and we will all face the deaths of our pets and friends and family and ultimately ourselves.  This is not an easy fact, but neither is it cruel.  Life is in fact a privilege, not an entitlement, and we get the benefit of temporarily experiencing that privilege through the unique lens of our embodied human consciousness.  And what is death–that embodied consciousness’s coming to an end–like?  Most probably what it was like before your consciousness was born.  A great nothing.

None of this is to lessen the significance of the pain, grief and mourning we feel at loss.  Entropy hurts.  But it is possible without God to not rail against cruel fate or take pause in what dreams may come in the sleep of death.

*Metabolism is the biological mechanism that makes this consumption of extra energy possible in life as we know it.

copyright 2011 S. Anne Johnson

January 17, 2011

Spiritual Life of an Atheist: A Very Personal Note On the Necessity of Tolerance this MLK Day

There is an ongoing debate in the atheist community about the proper tone of our public discourse.  Some are quite understandably angry at the hate-filled nonsense fundamentalist theists can be wont to hurl.  The approach advocated is gloves off, let loose the harsh truths.  This is not my favored approach.  My comment to (and is reproduced below:

I grew up in Louisiana, surrounded by very conservative Christians. I knew I was gay from early on in high school and every day on the way home, I had to pass a billboard that read, “AIDS–God’s Judgment Has Come.” I left Louisiana when I was 17 and have returned only periodically to see my parents. When I visited my mother in 2009, that same property had a billboard with a pair of glaring eyes that read, “He Is Watching.” I assume it was referring to some totalitarian, End of Days Jesus. No question that Big Brother Jesus would be the first to stone me for my homosexuality.

There is no geographic cure. The street where I reside in Oakland, California has a Samoan Mormon church at the top, and I have lived through two anti-gay marriage campaigns where the church vigorously opposed my right to marry. Some of the ugliest Prop 8 confrontations occurred in my neighborhood. Tensions were riding so high between the pro- and anti-factions, who were initially elbow to elbow, that the police separated us out onto opposite street corners. Before the police separated us, I feared for my safety a bit, and I am confident that there would have been blood otherwise. The anti-gay marriage folks shouted rude, insulting slurs about gays. I wore my throat raw shouting them down with positive slogans like, “Support love” or “Civil rights can’t be wrong,” etc. I never shouted an insult at them, no matter how personal and painful their attacks against gay people got, and believe me, they got ugly.

Every gay pride we have to suffer literal soap box preachers with bullhorns telling us we’re all going to burn in hell as sinners. Sometimes I shout back at them–things like, “Judge not lest ye be judged” or “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” Do I feel anger at these people who monger very personal hatred against me for who I love? You betcha. When they are wishing me dead, or mocking my inability to sexually reproduce with my life partner, or calling me filthy, etc., I feel bilious hatred toward them.  I do not act on that hatred. I note it and I contain it and I move past it.

Tolerance does not equal silence. It means not responding in contemptuous kind. I do not tolerate and behave diplomatically or constructively toward those who publicly wish me ill and actively work to deprive me of rights for their benefit. I do it for mine.

copyright 2011 S. Anne Johnson

January 16, 2011

Spiritual Life of an Atheist: Longing for Transformation After Tucson (Edited)

It would be lovely to think that the Tucson shooting was an anomaly in America.  I could recall a handful of other mass shootings over the years but did not know how many had actually occurred.  Some internet research revealed an answer that startled me a bit.  In the U.S., we have an ever-lengthening history of mass shootings–at least 22 in the last 45 years, with 20 happening in the last 26, including:

(1)  University of Texas Clock Tower Shooting on August 1, 1966 (16 killed, 32 wounded)
(2)  California State Fullerton Library Shooting on July 12, 1976 (7 killed, 2 wounded)
(3)  San Ysidro McDonald’s Shooting on July 18, 1984 (21 killed, 19 wounded)
(4)  Edmond Post Office Shooting on August 20, 1986 (14 killed, 6 wounded)
(5)  Stockton Schoolyard Shooting on January 17, 1989 (5 killed, 29 wounded)
(6)  GMAC Shooting on June 18, 1990 (9 killed, 4 wounded)
(7)  Luby’s Shooting on October 16, 1991 (23 killed, 20 wounded)
(8)  University of Iowa Shooting on November 1, 1991 (5 killed, 1 wounded)
(9)  Lindhurst High School Shooting on May 1, 1992 (4 killed, 9 wounded)
(10)  101 California Street Shooting on July 1, 1993 (8 killed, 6 wounded)
(11)  Long Island Railroad Shooting on December 7, 1993 (6 killed, 19 wounded)
(12)  Westside Middle School Shooting on March 24, 1998 (5 killed, 10 wounded)
(13)  Columbine High School Shooting on April 20, 1999 (12 killed, 21 wounded)
(14)  Red Lake Senior High School Shooting on March 21, 2005 (5 killed, 5 wounded)
(15)  Goleta Postal Shooting on January 31, 2006 (7 killed)
(16)  Capitol Hill Shooting in Seattle on March 25, 2006 (6 killed, 2 wounded)
(17)  Amish School Shooting on October 2, 2006 (5 killed, 5 wounded)
(18)  Virginia Tech Shooting on April 16, 2007 (32 killed, 17 wounded)
(19)  Northern Illinois University Shooting on February 14, 2008 (6 killed, 18 wounded)
(20)  Binghamton Shooting on April 3, 2009 (13 killed, 4 wounded)
(21)  Fort Hood Shooting on November 5, 2009 (13 killed, 30 wounded)
(22)  Tucson Shooting on January 8, 2011 (6 killed, 13 wounded)

The Tucson shooting is like the other mass shootings in that the shooter was quite clearly mentally disturbed.  But it is different from the other mass shootings in that a Congress member was the principal target.*  Also, the shooting’s occurrence at a Representative’s meet-and-greet in front of a Safeway in a strip mall–the most axiomatic of democratic activities outside of voting itself–injected a sense of the vulnerability of our democracy to attack that the other mass shootings did not.

I believe this visceral recognition of the vulnerability of our democracy to actual assault spurred the calls for greater civility in our public political discourse.  I am confident that the overwhelming majority of Americans do not want our country to become one where a real threat of violence discourages civil servants from serving in public office, our elected representatives from reaching out in-person to their constituents, and our citizens from peacefully voicing their views to the people who are supposed to speak for them.

Jared Lee Loughner himself does not pose a threat to American democracy.  He, like the other mass shooters, appears to be a loner gunman, not a member of a violent organization poised to inflict greater harm.  But his singular disturbed act of political violence serves as a wake-up call.

Of course, talking to each other about our disagreements more respectfully will not change the fact of our fundamental disagreements.  We are in the midst of a profound political/cultural clash within our own country.  But the history of our country is not a story of anodyne consensus.  The very purpose of our democratic institutions is to provide a peaceful process for negotiation of serious, sometimes vicious, societal disputes.  

Since the country’s founding, there has been one disagreement our democratic institutions were not sufficient to resolve–the abolition of slavery.  Everything else (and there has been a lot) we have worked through with our peaceful processes intact.  Again, I am confident that the vast majority of Americans want to keep it that way.

We may have deep disagreements about the role of government, its relationship to religion, taxation, immigrants’ rights, abortion rights, and gay rights, but we don’t actually want to kill each other over these disagreements–we only too often talk to each other like we do.

Only 4 Congressmen have been assassinated in U.S. history: James M. Hinds, Representative of Arkansas, in 1868; John M. Clayton, Representative-elect of Arkanas, in 1889; Huey P. Long, Senator from Louisiana, in 1935; and Robert F. Kennedy, Senator from New York, in 1968.  Also, on March 1, 1954, 5 Congressmen were injured by 4 Puerto Rican nationalists who opened fire in the House of Representatives.

copyright 2011 S. Anne Johnson

January 9, 2011

Spiritual Life of An Atheist: Can We Change the Way We Talk to Each Other?

There has been pretty much only one news story in the last 24-hour cycle—the shooting of Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, along with 19 others, at a Congress on Your Corner event at a Safeway in northern Tucson.  I was in my car, listening to the news summary before Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me, when I first heard the story.  I felt stricken.  Was this some type of coordinated political assassination, or the rage of a lone looney?  Thankfully, it appears more likely to be the latter.  (

Was I paranoid to entertain the former as a possibility?  I don’t think so.  We have seen an escalation of violence-tinged rhetoric, unusually unruly public meetings with Congressional representatives (think, out-of-control health care reform town halls), and vandalism of Democratic Congressmembers’ offices, including Ms. Giffords’.  In our prevailing political climate, a fear of organized violence on the basis of political belief is not unreasonable. That what happened does not appear to be a coordinated political attack is a welcome relief. 

Like many others, when I heard of Ms. Giffords’ shooting, I immediately thought of Sarah Palin’s map of crosshairs targeting Congressional candidates.  It turns out that Giffords was indeed a target on Palin’s map.  But presently there is no evidence that this map, or any other specific recent on-the-edge-of-advocating-violence expression, influenced the shooter. 

In response to the linking of the right’s heated rhetoric with the attack, the Tea Party Nation has stepped out front and characterized the shooter as a “leftist lunatic.”  (  The right’s incipient effort to pin the shooting on “leftist” thinking could be seen on FoxNews yesterday when Shepard Smith pointed out the “ irony” in Giffords having this last week read on the House floor the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom and the shooter’s apparent hostility to belief in God, purportedly demonstrated by his anger at having received a Bible from a military recruiter and his refusal to “trust in God,” as expressed in his near-incomprehensible internet rants.

For its attack on the left, the Tea Party Nation leadership is blaming the “liberal” Pima County Sheriff, who asked that this tragic shooting cause Americans to do some “soul searching” about “the vitriolic rhetoric we hear day in and day out.” (  He went on to discuss two other specific “vitriolic” incidents that had occurred against Giffords.  He decried the impact “vitriol” about “tearing down the government” has on “unbalanced minds” and said, “the anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous.”  The Sheriff did not name names and did not single out any particular party or affiliation for criticism.  When asked if Representative Giffords had received death threats, the Sheriff said he did not know a public official who had not.

The state of our public discourse is indeed sad.  It is often rude, insulting, and even threatening.  We don’t know whether its deteriorated state had anything to do with Giffords’ shooting.  But it is ironic that calls for civility are treated as an antagonism.

I hope that Gabrielle Giffords survives and recovers some semblance of normal functioning, and I hope that we can change the way we talk to each other about the things we disagree on.

copyright 2011 S. Anne Johnson

December 31, 2010

Spiritual Life of an Atheist: A Prose Requiem for the Past Ten American Years

I can remember approaching the onset of the 21st Century with a great deal of optimism.  Perhaps it was my life stage–I was just entering my 30s.  Then the dot-com bust bottomed out with September 11 fast on its heels.  The protracted and costly (in every way) US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq followed.  The US Department of Justice doctored an argument for a policy of torture of “enemy combatants” and the Bush Jr. administration advocated indefinite detention without any process.  The Space Shuttle Columbia exploded on re-entry.  Hurricane Katrina devastated the New Orleans area and the Mississippi Gulf Coast–the region where I grew up.  The culture wars continued to rage, with gay marriage made legal first in Massachusetts and then legal and then not in California; a Republican Congress inexplicably intervened in the very personal Terry Schiavo case; and, in the last few weeks, a lame duck Democratic Congress finally repealed Don’t Ask Don’t Tell–on which John McCain seriously flip-flopped ( 

All the while interest rates stayed at historic lows and helped fuel the near-catastrophic real estate bubble that burst in 2008 and the global Great Recession began, with millions of jobs lost and housing and stock values plummeting to what they were just after the turn of the millennium.  The US elected an African-American president, who was quite prematurely awarded a Nobel Peace Prize.  An angry, misguided guy got on a plane Christmas 2009 and tried to blow everyone up with his explosive underwear, shepherding in even more invasive security screens at airports, threatening all our junk with being touched.  (As usual, Jon Stewart had the last laugh, “Even if the bomb works, there’s going to be 72 very disappointed virgins.”)  The US Supreme Court, in its infinite conservative non-activist wisdom, overruled existing precedents and found that corporations are people with rights of free speech, striking down corporate campaign finance restrictions.  The Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico (definitely not the best decade for the Gulf region) resulted in the worst oil spill in US history.  A proposed Muslim cultural center in the vicinity of the former World Trade Center sparked national ethnic outrage.  At the Democratic President’s urging, a Democratic Congress voted to continue historically low income tax rates for the wealthy, despite a mounting debt, crippling cuts in basic services, and an increase in the number of Americans living in poverty to over 43 million.  Women continued to face a daunting glass ceiling.  (See

Technology marched on.  The mapping of the human genome was completed in 2003 and Facebook was founded in 2004.  In the developed world, AIDS became a livable disease rather than an immediate death sentence.  Due to our ever-increasing life spans, Alzheimer’s became practically epidemic in the elderly, and we developed the ability to diagnose it earlier and earlier but made no progress on treatment, much less a cure.  (’s&st=cse)  Although global climate change was well known enough in the early ’90s for me to study it in college, the past ten years saw almost no progress in confronting it.  Perhaps people were just too confused about how global warming could result in worsening winters.  (See  In less than 2 short years, science reversed itself on whether we are or are not part Neanderthal.  (See and  Downloadable music captured the market and ebooks began their own rise to dominance.  American consumption grew to an average of 11,000 watts a person–the equivalent of a blue whale.  (See  Our collective waistlines expanded to match.  The US population topped 310 million, with 80% urbanization.  The world population approached 6.9 billion, with over half now living in cities, and cities joining to form mega-regions.  Enormous garbage patches in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans were documented.  The imagined end of the world remained nigh with The Day After Tomorrow, Children of Men, I Am Legend, WALL-E, 2012, The Road, and The Book of Eli.  Theists railed at atheists and vice versa. (See

While Verdi’s Dies Irae is fantastically fun to sing (, it’s not so great to live through.  I for one am happy to ring out the 10 years from ’01-’10.  Here’s to hoping that with some concerted effort, despite all the formidable challenges we face, the next 10 will more resemble Beethoven’s Gloria in spirit.  (

copyright 2010 S. Anne Johnson

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