Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Twenty Years Ago

12-18-87 . . . Another student, Richard P[.], asked if [sic; should be “whether”] I’d like to get something to eat after the exam. I ate just before leaving home, but I agreed to get something to drink. Richard, as I wrote several weeks ago, is a born-again Christian who once rode in a motorcycle gang. He has a good job with United Technologies and is taking classes for the fun of it. The odd thing is, he still looks like a motorcycle-gang member. He has long, straight hair, a ten-inch beard, and wears a black leather jacket and worn, black boots. On his head sits a baseball cap with the word “Repent!” emblazoned on the front. He cuts quite a figure. But I enjoy talking to him. He drove us (in his beat-up 1974 [Mercury] Cougar) to the Plaza hotel on Speedway [Boulevard] and Campbell [Avenue], where he ordered steamed clams and I ordered iced tea. There we talked about the course, about his career plans, and about religion. It’s hard to avoid talking about religion with Richard, because it informs every aspect of his life. He lives and breathes it. Several times during our conversation he pulled out a bible to make a point. I didn’t mind, because I know Richard well enough to tell him when he’s going overboard. For instance, he slips quickly and easily from historical claims about Jesus to claims about miracles. I pointed out that the latter claim requires a leap of faith that I, and others, are unprepared to make.

I’ve met lots of people like Richard in my lifetime. Without trying to refute his beliefs, I can explain them. Richard, as I say, was involved in a motorcycle gang. He got to a point where his life, as he puts it, “lacked meaning”. This made him suicidal, but he found religion instead, and that has filled a void in his life. Now, having read parts of the bible, attended prayer meetings, and talked to many others, he’s putting the pieces together. He’s reinterpreting the world as a Christian, seeing charity where before he saw self-interest, seeing humility where before he saw wimpiness, and so on. It’s an interesting phenomenon. But there’s a certain eeriness about Richard. How can a secular person get so caught up in religious thinking and religious dogma? How can someone go from a tough gang member to a devout Christian so quickly? I deplore the proselytizing tactics of these people, Richard included. That’s why I was so offended the first time I met and talked to Richard. It transpires that he was trying to convert me! Rational persuasion is one thing; subtle manipulation is another. I got the feeling that, for Richard, it was more important to convert me than to do it for the right reasons.

Proselytism is interesting. I’ve long wondered why Christians and other theists are so intent on spreading the word, on converting the heathens. Richard and I talked about it. We agreed that the explanation is as follows. Religious convictions are so strong, and so all-embracing, that one cannot help but think that one has latched onto the truth. What is more valuable or important than truth? Nothing. So why not give the gift of truth to others. In doing so, one will be giving them the supreme gift. Richard uses an analogy to describe it. The nontheist, he says, is a drowning person, and the theist has a life preserver in hand. Proselytizing is like throwing the life preserver to the person. But I used a different analogy to describe the same act. The nontheist, I said, is a surfer who is enjoying the waves and in no danger. For the theist to throw a life preserver is to interfere with the surfer’s activity. See how an analogy can shape one’s thinking? In any event, I enjoyed the discussion. Richard offered to, and did, drive me home. I thanked him and vowed to keep in touch.


Ross Douthat has advice for the Republican presidential candidates.

Baseball Notes

1. Pete Rose says he would have had 5,000 hits if he had used steroids.

2. Roger Clemens denies using performance-enhancing substances. I can’t wait to hear him testify to that effect under oath. By the way, Andy Pettitte is Clemens’s friend. Pettitte has admitted to cheating. Will he rat on his friend?

Best of the Web Today


From Today’s New York Times

To the Editor:

Re “Campaigns Like These Make It Hard to Find a Reason to Believe,” by Eduardo Porter (Editorial Observer, Dec. 14):

In the 17th century, Blaise Pascal argued that people should believe in God—even if they didn’t!—because if God exists, only believers will go to heaven. He wrote, “If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing.”

Today, our presidential candidates, humbly touting their church’s beliefs, are bending over backward to appeal to religious voters, ignoring, at best, the agnostics and atheists in our country. Religion is suddenly a political hot topic, regardless of the so-called separation of church and state. It shouldn’t be.

“Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction”—a remarkable quote from none other than Blaise Pascal.

William O’Fallon
Brentwood, Tenn., Dec. 14, 2007

Note from KBJ: Two can play this game:

There are only three kinds of people: those who serve God having found him; others who spend their time seeking him who have not found him, and the rest who live without seeking him nor having found him[.] The first are reasonable and happy, the last are lunatic and unhappy, those in the middle are unhappy and reasonable[.]

Blaise Pascal, Pensées and Other Writings, trans. Honor Levi (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 59.


I have news for the editorial board of the New York Times: The good people of Arizona (where I lived for five years) don’t care what the board thinks, about immigration or anything else. The state has been overrun by illegal aliens. Arizonans don’t like it and are taking steps to correct it.

Gregory S. Kavka (1947-1994) on Egoistic Motivation

Common sense and ordinary observation of human actions lend initial credibility to Predominant Egoism. Part of our growing-up process involves learning to identify hidden motives of people’s behavior—very often concealed self-interested motives. In the public realm, it is generally more reliable to rest our expectations of others’ behavior on discernment of their interests than on hopes of their altruism. As Adam Smith put it, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” Analysis of everyday social practices reveals an underlying presumption that people cannot be trusted to refrain from self-interested conduct that is harmful or unfair to others. What do we imply about our families, servants, and neighbors, Hobbes asks, when we lock up our valuables and travel armed on the highways? Similar and additional distrustful practices pervade modern life—credit checks, surveillance cameras, tax audits, and so on. Even in the relatively benign halls of academia, we often find people locking up final-examination questions, reading cynically between the lines of administrative and departmental memos, and concealing their ideas and discoveries from colleagues. Hobbes would ask them to consider what they imply, in doing so, about the motives and character of their students, superiors, and colleagues.

(Gregory S. Kavka, Hobbesian Moral and Political Theory [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986], 68-9 [footnotes omitted])

Progressive Faith

One of my students sent a link to this interesting column by Dennis Prager.

A Year Ago