Running from America


(originally published in New Oxonian 2009)

I was having dinner with friends before leaving the sweltering Lahore summer to return to Maine in June.  Discussion turned to politics, as it often does in foreign parts.  Having spent most of my professional life, by choice, outside the United States, I have learned to fine –tune my discourse, even to absorb comments that betray a woeful lack of information or historical perspective on America.

The one that requires the deftest response is what I have come to call the “German question.” Every expat has heard it in one form or another:  “How is it that America continues to be strong?”  A rough translation is, “Given your Coca-Cola view of the world, your cave-dwelling masses who can’t find Europe on the map,  a national legislature whose debates we run on our comedy channels, why hasn’t your country blown itself up?”

America, as we all know, is unavoidable.  I have spent my whole life running from it.  Probably because the various movements ranging from tepid socialism to anarchism to secular humanism that try to make a dent in its demeanor and overt sense of Exceptionalism are full of Americans, they quickly become homespun, dull and remind you of church.  To avoid this curse of serial movementeering  I  joined the motley band of those who take exception to exceptionalism in the far corners of the world.  Here we try to avoid each other by pretending we’re a lot more interesting than we really are.  The common denominator among expatriates is that each of us privately thinks the reasons he is living abroad are terribly important  and special whereas your countryman’s presence abroad marks him as a misfit or a political refugee.  In the case of missionaries, this is usually true.

But the word “misfit” will do, especially for Americans.  I have been a misfit in Australia, where my older daughter was born, in England, where my younger daughter was born, and with wife and them in tow developed graduate skills as a misfit in three African nations, in Beirut, in Wider Europe, in Pakistan.

I knew I was at an irredeemable point in my exile when, on her return to Oxford, a teacher asked my nine-year-old daughter if she had ever lived out of the country–in this case outside the UK—and when she began to rattle off for the benefit of a dazzled group of classmates the places she had lived the teacher said, “No dear, I didn’t ask where you have gone for holiday.”

Unfortunately, the condition of being a real misfit is probably an irreversible condition.  You know this when you realize that the only place you feel really Not at Home is back in the USA.  Odd, because I always considered myself a non-extremist politically.  I do not seek the overthrow of the United States government nor predict with French hauteur that America’s ascendancy in the twentieth century was a drole act of Fate, serving as further disproof of the existence of a just God.

I do not believe America is evil.  I do not think other countries, with the exception of Iceland, are “better,” or at least not much better.  And I regard the idea that America is the “greatest nation on earth” as the kind of Barnumesqe mildew that grows on the brains of gun lobbyists, NASCAR addicts and people from Alabama generally.  Like a pretty good novel, America has a pretty good story to tell.  But as the hearings for judge Sonja Sotomayor just demonstrated, it can sound ugly in the mouths of dumb southern lawyers who get elected to the United States Senate.

My  misfitedness has now reached a critical level.  This visit home coincided with two epic events, or rather the aftermath of them:  the election of Barack Obama and the  (consequent) possibility that other countries would begin to see an aspect of “America” that corresponds to what Americans think about themselves—the “liberty and justice for all” bit.

As a believer in omens and appreciator of the British knack for getting ceremony right—especially occasions of state—I was a bit thrown off by the Inauguration—a Chief Justice who botched the only solemn component of the day, the Oath of Office, ah! and that dreadful flatulent praying and that worse poem (etc.).  But I could defend these things by saying, “Hey: we’re a seriously democratic place that takes mediocrity seriously.  Why shouldn’t awful liturgy be the appropriate paradigm for what we’re all about?”

But six months on, my return passage is booked.  “Yes we can” has become, “Maybe not.”

Simple principles of justice, embedded in the reform of health care for this allegedly rich and powerful and compassionate nation, are turning into another fight about bogeymen—euthanizers, atheists with syringes visiting hospitals and hospices.

Arguments that would be risible in almost any other country on earth—the “birther” discussion, for example–are dealt with by “serious” newscasters as coming from a nutty fringe that they fertilize with every news story devoted to the nuts.

Billions of dollars are going to be spent not on giving people a break with their insurance plans but in advertising campaigns designed to convince old people that liberals are trying to send them to their grave. (“And crowned thy good with brotherhood.” )  Forgive my saying that a big, wide more interesting world that doesn’t give a camel’s fart about this idiocy beckons.

As the country eats more and learns less, its historical revolutionary spirit in politics has descended to the level of a football game where policy and real issues matter far less than popularity and the opportunity to change the team at half time.  America’s brain seems to have gone to its trans-fatty butt.

Flash: The President is in Trouble. Poll numbers down.

Flash:  Republicans are gaining ground, poised to take back the House in 2010.

Never mind that literally nothing has happened to cause these numbers to change.  The point is, a game is being played.  Half time is coming up.  The paradigm for politics has been set by Wal-Mart, where store wide Thanksgiving comes in August and Christmas on Labor Day.

Is the point to get to the Apocalypse sooner?  Just to vindicate the expectations of those southern Republicans?

Misfits of the expatriate variety have an acute awareness of what the citizens of other places hear when they listen to CNN International or the edgier-bordering-on cynical reports about America on the BBC and other international channels.

The average American sitting in his living room in Ropeadope, Iowa (if he listens to news at all) doesn’t give a flying fig about the giftie gie us.  I’m sure there was a time when I didn’t care either, because like all Americans I thought the world was in orbit around American power and interests.  It came as quite a shock when I discovered my cosmology was way off, that American mass and strength didn’t make America great except in the derogatory sense Freud meant when he said, “America–great, yes:  a great mistake.”

I am old enough alas to remember Viet Nam era bumper stickers that read, “America: Love it or Leave It.”  I was living in the American south in those days, and I tended to agree.  Why would you stay if you could leave.  It’s a free country.  The doors are open.  That’s how people including my ancestors got in.

But now I am a stranger in a strange land, where not the election but the assassination of JFK has become the seminal and defining element in a country that seems to have taken another giant step forward in advance of many bigger steps back.

I suppose America has always been an idea, more than a country.  That is why it is hated around the world.  It’s a theological dilemma isn’t it?  Just like the God who is meant to be sublimely good and compassionate and merciful and fair can be the opposite, America turns out to be nothing but a disappointment, the negation of the ideal.  You learn to doubt a God like that.  You learn to be a political atheist about a country like that.

With its gaming politics, its weird sense of what racism is or isn’t, its refusal to rise above sensationalism to its better instincts, and its stubborn refusal to put its best face forward in times of international stress, it has become (to borrow a phrase) Hollywood’s suburb, and easy to hate.

But I do not hate it.  I am merely a misfit, a prophet not at home in his own country.

So, I said to my friend in Lahore:  “You’re going back to Paris, but will you come back—from Paris?”  And she said, “Yes, I can only be French when I am out of France.”

And I said, “I know what you mean.”

Of Humanist Spirituality


A Jewish historian and a Chinese historian are arguing over whose culture is the oldest.  The Chinese historian says, “Our great culture goes back 4000 years.”  The Jewish historian smiles and says, “That’s nothing, our civilization is 5000 years old.”  The Chinese historian pauses for a minute.  Then he says, “Amazing.  What did you people eat for 1000 years?”

That’s my joke, now for something that sounds like a joke:

A guy walks into a bar.  He sees an attractive young woman sitting there and offers to buy her a drink.  They begin to talk.  The conversation turns to religion.  Finally he says to her, “So, are you religious?”  She says without a moment of hesitation, “I’m not religious but I am kind of, you know– spiritual.”  And he says, “Yeah, me too.”  Fade.

My guess is that this is a very common conversation for Gen X and Gen Y spiritual-seekers and the multifaithed and unfaithed and partly secularized masses of North America and Europe. The question we’re left with is what does it mean to be spiritual—how is it that these two people seem to know what they’re talking about, and do they mean the same thing when they use the word?

For example does spiritual mean

  1. Not religious
  2. Not dogmatic
  3. Not too fussy about details
  4. Not a member of a church
  5. Not judgmental
  6. Not a believer
  7. Not interested in abiding by the moral rules of a denomination. (I guess if we locate this conversation in a bar, the answer is 7—they’re saying they are open to whatever happens as the conversation unfolds; if the conversation is between two people feeding pigeons in the park, it may mean simply, “I believe there’s something beyond this life, but I can’t be bothered  worrying about it.”)

One of the things secularists and humanists tend to care about is language.  Words need to mean what they say, they need to refer to something.  Humanists love dictionaries. I’m convinced that the compiler of the first dictionary was a humanist.

Many humanists have trouble with the word “God” because–even though a lot has been written about him (including a whole book called the Bible, and a  supplement called the Quran, which claims to contain his words) only very religious people actually believe that a being named God or Yahweh or Allah actually said any of it or did any of the things attributed to him.

God means something in the same way that Santa or Reynard the talking fox or “dragon” or “unicorn” mean something: an idea based on stories made up of images, some of which come from our experience of similar things: Giants are overgrown men; so were gods; unicorns are malformed horses; some of the gods were composites of men/women and birds or crocodiles. We should celebrate the imagination that gives us stories—humanists will say—but we should not lead our lives as believers in stories.

When we come to a word like “religion,” we’re on safer ground—because we know what religion is, even if no one is quite sure about what God is.  You can define religion as believing in and conducting your life in accordance with some form of faith. It doesn’t matter whether the objects of faith are real or imaginary, unprovable or unproven.  The specifics are going to be different between faiths, between denominations, and between people.  It might mean reading the Bible, going to mass or temple or Friday prayers, it might mean venerating saints or ancestors or speaking in tongues, or lobbying to get scripture reading back into the schools. It might even mean murdering the infidel as a fanatical advocate of your cause.  I don’t want to equate all of these activities and behaviors—but I do want to say such behavior is characteristic of religions in historical terms.

We also have a social context for religion. We can look at religion anthropologically, as a feature of human cultures; we can explore it historically in terms of where it developed, how beliefs arose, changed, or died.  Most of the gods who ever lived as objects of belief are dead gods.  And dead gods are a consistent feature of vanquished nations and extinct cultures. Anyone who doubts this fact of religious history doesn’t really know very much about religion.

Religion can be explored geographically and comparatively, culture to culture–linguistically, and more recently, in terms of brain science and studies of cognition.  In other words, while it’s very tough to do much more than argue about God, religion can be studied.  Words like liturgy, prayer, sacrament, vision, inspiration, ecstasy, martyr, sin, etc.–the ingredients and gradients of religion–can be defined.

The problem with a word like “spirituality” whether you use it in a bar or on a park bench is that it is very hard to pin down.  Before his alleged conversion to deism, the philosopher Antony Flew in a famous essay called “What is Spirituality” called it hogwash. A less famous atheist Chris Dykema was more direct  “The most charitable interpretation of  being spiritual but not religious”  he said, “is that it means the speaker feels a disposition towards masochistic submission of the sort that used to find expression in systematic religious faith, but that he or she doesn’t really believe in what you have to accept to be religious.”

So the problem is this:  if you can’t define something, how can you practice it, and why bother using the word?  People who have stopped believing in god and heaven and the afterlife have obviously stopped believing in an immortal soul—so why should we bother about spirituality?  Especially when, at the other end of a very wide spectrum of uses, we find this kind of language.   This comes from something called a spiritual sharing group in Colorado:

The MISSION of our Spiritual Sharing group will include learning about the spiritual part of our lives, seeking peace within, centering ourselves, gaining clarity in the vision of spirituality, and learning about ourselves as we listen to others, gaining philosophic knowledge, and changing attitudes.

I don’t know about you, but this kind of language makes me nervous.  I imagine a room full of people with perpetual smiles on their faces doing centering activities and offering me green tea as we join hands in the quest for “philosophic knowledge” and exercises in attitude modification.  Frankly I’m perfectly fine with where my attitudes are centered, I don’t like green tea, and I got my philosophic knowledge in the classroom, not in a circle of friends.

But to be fair, the term is everywhere.  And because humanists do care about meaning with a small m—how words mean and what words refer to, and also meaning with a capital M, sort of, the meaning of life as its lived and affirmed, and not supplied by books and dogmas–we probably should try to figure out what someone means when she says, I’m spiritual but not religious.  So, let me make the following points:

First:   What it doesn’t mean. I think we have to accept that the normal laws of semantic change are at work in the case of a word like spirituality.  The word knave used to mean boy, not a villain; the word nice used to mean foolish; the word fast still exists in two contradictory forms in English—it means standing totally still, as standing fast, and it means moving quickly.  In jive, hot used to be cool and cool became hot—an attractive person no longer looks good, she’s bad.  So let’s move slightly beyond the arrogance of linguistics and philosophy, where words are supposed to behave themselves like good children, and accept the fact that language transforms itself in unpredictable ways.

The word spiritual used to mean mystical—holy–men and women from various religious traditions who developed a more intense or extreme pattern in their religious life than others following the same religious regimen.  When we think of certain religious orders like the Carthusians in the Catholic tradition, or the Hesychasts in the east, or the Tarika or Sufi sect in Islam, we’re speaking about people who in very particular ways also felt that the normal forms of religion tied you down.  The formality of text and doctrine for such individuals was suffocating rather than liberating. True, in some of these traditions there was a kind of communal mysticism, or spirituality.  But basically the spirituality of the mystics was an individual thing.  A good modern example is the Catholic monk Thomas Merton who by the end of his life had departed so measurably from his Catholic roots that in all but name he was a Buddhist, living in the corner of his monastery away from his fellow monks.

But can “secularly inclined” people hope to learn from people who seem to have been even more religious than the very religious people around them.  No, not if we fail to recognize the process at work in the rejection of literalism.  The “spiritual” impulse among the mystics and quietists often connoted people who weren’t very fond of dogma, or authority, or following the pack, or even of the conventions of their religion.  That’s why mysticism and spirituality have always been a problem for religious bureaucracies. After all, if you have monks and nuns and farmgirls speaking directly to God while the bishops and pope can only talk to each other, you have a problem.

The second thing I’d ask us to consider is a piece of history.  When I tell my students that the idea of the soul isn’t a Jewish idea, even my Jewish students get agitated.  But it isn’t:  “dualism”—the fancy term for what we normally call the body-soul arrangement is a Greek derivative, and was an old idea when the Greeks received it.  In Hebrew, Adam’s name meant mud—or earth.  He’s a purely physical entity.  The nephesh, the word that’s used for what Adam becomes when God breathes life into him, just means animal or living being– not a soul—it was the breath of life, because the only distinction in Hebrew is between a living thing and a dead one—based on whether it’s breathing or not.  But it’s not a soul.  And when you die, you die. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, to quote the book of Job.

It took until the 4th century bce before certain Jewish writers began to speculate about souls, and by the time the Christians came along souls were all the rage: everybody had to have one.  Even the unborn.

Both religions had been transfused with—dare I say it—the spirit of Greek speculation, especially Platonism.  But don’t blame the idea of the soul or even of an afterlife on religion.  Even in Greek religion, the gods are immortal, people aren’t.  And even after souls were all the rage, we find certain writers, like the author of the Hebrew book called Q’holeth by Jews and Ecclesiastes by Christians wondering out loud, “Who knows whether the spirit of man rises up or like the beasts goes down to the earth”.  (He guesses, it goes down.)

In fact, the single biggest boost to the idea of souls in Christianity wasn’t even the idea of the resurrection of Jesus.  That was meant to be a bodily resurrection (and why the very thought was so repugnant to certain classical observers of the new religion).  It was a later theological doctrine that exalted the idea of the soul: the belief that Jesus had two natures—human and divine, and that baptism as it were “activated” the divine nature in humans, made it like Christ, and thus made resurrection possible.  You can thank an over imaginative theologian named Paul for the early phases of such thinking and church doctrine for the rest of it.  I might just add that in the classical period, Islam too suffered from overindulgence in Greek philosophy, so that the doctrine of the nafs or soul became prominent in the work of the great Islamic thinkers of the 11th and 12th century.

So does this little piece of history shed any light on the word “spiritual” as it’s being used today by all of these people who are saying they’re not religious.

Maybe to this extent:

First of all,  the word has its roots in an antiestablishment and nonconformist tendency to resist being governed and controlled by the regimen of religion, church and mosque.  The spirituals ranging from the mystics of the middle ages to the 18th century Quakers were religious dissenters.  In fact, the church even learned to control the mystics, or in the case of Islam, to expel them as heretics.  In any case, take one dimension of the meaning as dissenting from the norm.

Second, spirituality can be perfectly naturalistic.  You don’t need a theory of a soul or an afterlife or heaven or a theology that divides the person into more parts than a butcher’s beef cut chart.  You don’t even need to solve the body mind or mind brain problem before you can start using the term.  The 1st century poet-philosopher Lucretius ridiculed certain ideas in his own day—which happens to be the same century Christianity was born—by poking fun at a banquet of unattached souls in heaven that had sloughed off their bodies,  fighting over which one got to dive into a marriage bed and leap into a fetus about to be born.

“For surely it is utter madness to combine
A mortal thing with an eternal, and opine
That both can feel and act as one, what more detached
Can we imagine, more repugnant, more ill-matched,
Than an immortal and a mortal thing together
Trying to stay united through the fiercest weather?

Like Lucretius, most humanists have a low tolerance for dualism.  I tend to agree with Lucretius and the author of Ecclesiastes that this life is the life we have and we are what we make of it.

But in another poem, Lucretius talks about the meaning of our lives:

“Our lives we borrow from each other; and like runners, we pass along the torch of life.”

We are what we are because we inherit culture, shape it, inevitably change it through the product of any particular time, and pass it on.  Unlike Al Gore, I didn’t invent the internet, but I can remember life before it, just as educated men and women in 1440 could remember never seeing a printed page.  At a basic level, these adaptations and adjustments are evolutionary and at one level might be reducible to genes and memes. But the torch of cultural life is unique to humans. There are no equivalent non-biological adaptations among other species, none at least that the species brings about through will, knowledge, learning, reflection and experiment. So if we resort to a phrase like the human spirit to represent those evolved capacities and achievements that mark us off from the other animals–all the humanly created aspects of life that we pass along to the next generation, we can be forgiven for wanting a word to express it.

Among these achievements the evolution of language and the evolution of the way in which we communicate ideas symbolically has to be primary. Knowledge depends on it.  No outside force or entity placed it there. God neither wrote the Bible nor inspired Einstein. When we speak of spirituality in terms of the human spirit—the passing of the torch– we are—as the Canadian sociologist Pat Duffy Hutcheon has said, “referring to all the wonders that followed from the emergence of a distinctively human consciousness: that awareness of the boundaries and singularity of oneself–that extends beyond mere animal sentience –a consciousness gradually brought into being by one particular species of upright primates, as they learned to manipulate symbols.”  Symbolic language made possible, for the first time in evolution, the sharing of experience: experience removed in space and time from the current moment.

If we see it in this way, spirituality includes certain activities that come to us through language and thinking—the way we value knowledge over ignorance, the use of language and technology to create beauty, the understanding of responsibility for our actions, ethical principles and ideals, virtues, even the obligation to test, experiment and revise our conclusions against our experience.

Spirituality so defined is not grounded in the idea that we need to find the source of what is distinctive about humanity in some unseen power, some super-natural order.  But it does offer us a way of speaking about those aspects of the human condition that take us beyond creaturely feeling, everydayness, and the ordinary to that other, largely symbolic level of existence that is not satisfied by being thin, rich and successful.  The level that still holds out for good, true, and beautiful.

What’s to Believe?


In response to an almost microscopic reference on this site to the fact that I am ploddering away on a book on the failure of secular humanism, together with a mystifying blognote to the effect that I have left the Legoland of organized unbelief for Dystopia,  I have received some very interesting email.  Some of it has been well-intentioned and all of it has been grammatical. Thank you.

Since I have always maintained that what anybody believes is relatively unimportant unless, to quote Jefferson, it picks my pocket or breaks my legs, I have been somewhat dumbfounded that anyone should care what I believe.  I have spent most of my life telling undergraduates that what they believe isn’t important until they have published their third book or made their second million.  –And warning graduate students that if they begin one more sentence with the phrase “It seems to me, ” even if speaking about Foucault, they will banished from the classroom.  Quaint, therefore, that I am being called upon to explain myself.

It also marks me out as an Older Man.  Students of my generation fought for free expression and later, as an afterthought, invented the world wide web.  (In fact I marvel to this day that Timothy Berners-Lee isn’t a houehold name in the way, say, Bill gates is.)  My spoiled rotten generation virtually created the wherewithal through which the cult of personal expression has come into being.  But now we are old and stodgy (we prefer hearing mature)  and upset that the ones who are using it  use sentences like “rofl thats so funny 🙂 lmao! yo dwag u gotta see that desinger! hes like 1337 dood but that other dood is a noob nywy i g2g mate….”

What people (doods) seem to want to know is why I have “left” unbelief behind and embraced the alternative.  Only one correspondent asked me to seriously consider the possibility of early onset Alzheimers.  The majority use the following logic:  (1) Unbelief is the Emerald City. (2) Belief is Kansas. (3) Why would anybody who’d arrived at 1 return to 2?

But to respect my inquisitors, here are a traditional ten points I happen to believe:

First I do not believe that Unbelief is a logical stopping point in thinking about the world.  I do not remember a time when I considered myself a lukewarm atheist that I did not feel like a tourist.

Second, I believe that I am no smarter than the many religious persons I know.  I do not look for excuses to rub the noses of friends and relatives in my worldview (or lifestance) just to see if they bristle or lose their point.  I do not believe that being an unbeliever is like “coming out” if you’re gay or lesbian.  And I find the whole phenomenon of coming out the nether side of extreme honesty anyway.  If I were forced to come out, however, I would come out uncertain.

Speaking of uncertainty, I share, thirdly, the view of many confused people that cowboy skepticism and pistol-packing atheism is a waste of time.  I have (as Bertrand Russell said somewhere, once) no ideology that I would fight and die for–certainly no position I have ever embraced, religious or secular.  So if you regard me as a lukewarm, backsliding atheist you’ll have to take us both out.

Fourth, I believe that there is real excitement in uncertainty.  I don’t give a damn if the only people still interested in Pascal are underpaid junior lecturers or if he erred on the side of belief thereby privileging an absurd intellectual position.  Ok, I do care a little.  But I’m not certain.

Fifth: There is a difference between uncertainty, not being able to make up your mind, and not caring.   In a recent New Humanist article, Laurie Taylor opined that (contra Francis Thompson and pro Thomas Aquinas) it isn’t God who won’t let you fall but “the concept of God that won’t let you go.”  It is endlessly fascinating in all its images, aberrations, and iterations, artistic, linguistic, dramatic, philosophical, theist and atheist.  I do not believe that this fascination serves either as a proof of God or as a warrant for belief or even as justification for religious feeling as “pointing” James-style to the possibility of a source for the feeling.

I believe, sixth,  that the God of the Hebrew, Christian, Islamic and monotheistic traditions generally has no more actual existence than the gods that came before or exist in non-book traditions or may come after.  I do not think that the denial of the gods of human history closes the door on the question of a god. The procession–the life and death–of gods is part of a creative process that also gives us culture, art, the novel, political constitutions and psychiatry.  It also gives us literary criticism which is much harder to take seriously than God.

Seventh, I believe that the sacred texts of all religious traditions are the competing stories of people, nations, movements.  None is “true” in a historical or scientific sense.  All look foolish when they are used for law, science, history, and ethics.

Eighth, I believe the philosophy of religion is bunk: on the theological side,  nothing more than apologetics choreographed by questions framed a thousand years ago, and on the philosophical side by a number of maneuvres, points and counterturns equally archaic, to point up the absurdity of the religious position.  This ballet is now so stale that it is amazing anyone can watch it any longer without laughing, or write books on the subject that still sell.  But they do.

Ninth,  I believe that organized humanism has lost its way in a labyrinth of special causes, interests and agendas; that it is now a clash of competing secular doctrines and lifestyles and that reasonable people will look elsewhere for intellectual energy and support. In the end, smart women and men save themselves from dogma and superstition, even the dogmas of the age.  Especially the dogmas of the age.

Tenth, I believe in two commandments, not ten.

Thou shalt be curious.

Thou shalt form thy conscience with learning and reflection.

Letter from Camp Question


Dear Mom and Dad

First I am sorry that Jason and me burned down the house. It’s just that every summer you say it will be the last one grammie stays but then when June comes she is still alive.  You and dad had been talking for a long time about getting a bigger place and we figured that either the insurance on the house or that death benefit of grammie’s you and dad are always talking about would make life easier.  We were only trying to help.

By the way, did anyone ever find Pete the Python?

I am having a pretty good time here at Camp Question.  I know it’s a good idea for me to ask questions and think critically and not to be fooled or duped, but I do miss marshmallows and swimming like we had last year  at Camp Chippewa.

Today Tommy Braddock was caught telling a ghost story and was sent home with a letter to his stepfather.  It was his third year at camp and the head counselor said he should have known better.

We saw a film last night on crop circles.  The night before they showed a film on the Roswell aliens.  We learned that crop circles and the aliens are a load of crap.  I think crop circles are amazing but the aliens are a load of crap.

The night before that some guy did a powerpoint on the Loch Ness monster and said he could prove it was an otter.  Sarah Shilepki shouted “That’s one big fucking otter” and everyone laughed so hard that Sammy, the program director, told Sarah that if she ever said anything against critical thinking again she would be sent home with a letter to her stepmother.  It didn’t look like an otter. I almost peed I laughed so hard.

After lunch and on Sunday we have Anti-Prayer-in-School rallies.  We learned that “Under God” was not a part of the original pledge of allegiance and that America was a better country before it was introduced by a president named Eisenhaus (?).  David Eisenhaus said no Jew would do that and that all the really big wars and slavery and shit had come before God got into the pledge.  The ethics counselor said “So I guess Jews shouldn’t care if  Christians stick a nativity scene in front of a court house” and Davey says, “Frankly I don’t give a shit where they stick it,” and everyone laughed realllly hard, so the counselor said “And I guess you want to see the ten commandments in a classroom,” and Davey says “I go to the Hillel School, theyre already there but they’re in Hebrew so we can’t read them.”  Anyway the ethics counselor quit and said that all of us were fucking freaks.

We get lessons on science every day.  What we learn is that God didn’t make the world and that if there was a God the world would be better designed and not to believe anybody who sasy the world is designed. Especially religious people who we call “Duhs.”  I don’t really get that part–about how it’s not designed but is just awesome if it’s not designed because such an unawesome place can’t have been designed by a really awesome creator but I hope we’ll cover that tomorrow.

Science is kind of crap though because when Tom Slater asked the science counselor why a boat floats on the water he couldn’t tell us and Tommy said maybe it’s because at Camp Question we don’t have any boats or water.

We also have anti-magic shows here. They bring in a magician who pulls quarters out of your ear and makes match boxes disappear.  Then he kind of smiles and says, “You can’t always believe your eyes, can you?”

Rachel Goldman said “Can you make yourself disappear,” and he says “No.”  Then she says, “Can you make a hundred dollar bill appear in my left shoe right now because I’m trying to buy a Vespa?” and he said “No” and she said “Can you make Camp Question disappear because I think it Q R A P.”  I didn’t see Rachel at lunch.  We had a lecture on freedom of speech.

Anyway I really think I get the whole thing about evidence and not believing anything until you have reason to believe it.  The Leader of Camp Quest says it’s the basis of our whole democracy and the only way we can really lead a happy and fulfilling life.

At yesterday’s Fundamentals of Thinking Right he said “Question everything–accept nothing–demand proof, even if someone tells you the sun will rise tomorrow.  Ask him ‘How do you know that?'”  I think they should have sent Sol Jameson home when he grabbed Margie Talbert’s boobs and says let’s see ’em maybe you’re a dude but no one expected Margie to do it and Jesus she is no dude.  No way.

Anyway I have to go look at the stars and there’s a guy coming in to talk about how small the earth is. I asked our dorm assistant if it was about taking care of the planet and he said “Nah, just about how small the earth is.”

Anyway, I can’t wait to see you guys next week and I hope grammie gets out of the ICU really soon.  Let me know if anyone finds Pete.