Friday, May 26, 2017

Science o' religion

For the fun of it (mostly) I've decided to check out the new EdX online MOOC "The Science of Religion." It's led by Edward Slingerland, whose translation of Confucius' Analects we used this semester, and a young cognitive psychologist named Azim Sharif, and features cameos by various people whose work I know, starting with Ann Taves. Taves' "building block" approach to religion, with which I end "Theorizing Religion," turns out to be foundational for the "science of religion," and is their way of dodging the question of the definition of religion.

I've finished half of the course now. (It's just videos, rather snazzily if sometimes snarkily edited and illustrated - no required readings, as in "World Religions Through Scripture," though each section has a bibliography and bonus videos.) Much of it is material I've encountered before, but it's nice to have it all presented together. Does it all fit together, come together? Perhaps not, or not yet. Lots of methodologies: Darwinian theory, big data analyses of ancient and contemporary social structures, a sort of folk philosophy about "intuitive" belief concerning existential questions (representative is the part of the text of a discussion above)...

And I remain a skeptic about psychology experiments, as when they claim to show that "priming" people with a reminder of mortality is more likely to make them report religious belief. Belief isn't a momentary thing, surely; no doubt it ebbs and flows in awareness and urgency in response to triggers great and small, but that's not what they claim to be showing. On the other hand, I was pleased to hear (in an explanation of "supernatural deterrence theory") that priming people with religion made them more fair and even generous with strangers - though I was also happy to learn that priming them with civil institutions of justice and order achieve the same! 

What to make of the finding that people who repeatedly choose the intuitive but false answer to word problems are more likely to say they've "had an experience that has convinced me that God exists"? Although the different researchers featured are talking about vastly different things and draw often divergent conclusions from them, the broader sense seems to be that religion comes naturally to human beings (more so than does science!), whether as a byproduct of evolved individual and group traits or as itself a selected trait. Of course not all individuals and societies are religious today - they discuss atheists, secularization, etc., too, along with Charles Taylor's idea that everyone needs strong moral views of some kind - so opting out of religion seems a possibility, albeit with limits. 

These questions are close to those of Durkheim and Freud (mentioned early in the course): can social cohesion be ensured once religion is revealed to be an illusion? I'm curious to see where they end up... I'll keep you posted!

Thursday, May 25, 2017

To the library!

Did something I never thought I'd do today - took coffee into a library. Not that it's not allowed - libraries now allow even food, shocking my bibliophile self. But it was rainy today, so sitting in Washington Square Park wasn't an option. And I knew, the summer just having begun, that I'd have a table discreetly to myself.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017


Some flowers from the Kailash trip, safely preserved in a diary...

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Meditations and Sacrament

Although we bounce rather promiscuously between three churches - two Episcopal, one Catholic - probably our favorite is the Sunday evening Service of Meditations and Sacrament at the Church of the Ascension. The first of this past Sunday's three meditations, generally related to the uncertainty of the disciples at Jesus' upcoming Ascension, was by Mary Oliver.

What is there beyond knowing that keeps
calling to me?

I can’t turn in any direction
but it’s there. I don’t mean

the leaves’ grip and shine or even the thrush’s
silk song, but the far-off

fires, for example,
of the stars, heaven’s slowly turning

theater of light, or the wind
playful with its breath;

or time that’s always rushing forward,
or standing still

in the same—what shall I say—

What I know
I could put into a pack

as if it were bread and cheese, and carry it
on one shoulder,

important and honorable, but so small!
While everything else continues, unexplained

and unexplainable. How wonderful it is
to follow a thought quietly

to its logical end.
I have done this a few times.

But mostly I just stand in the dark field,
in the middle of the world, breathing

in and out. Life so far doesn’t have any other name
but breath and light, wind and rain.

If there’s a temple, I haven’t found it yet.
I simply go on drifting, in the heaven of the grass and the weeds.

This Service is interfaith in spirit, ecumenical. I don't know of Mary Oliver identifies in terms of any particular religion, or none. Most recently I saw her words featured in the masthead of the Religious Naturalist Association (along with Einstein and Kazantzakis). It hardly matters. It's bread and cheese for our journey.

Monday, May 22, 2017


Look what arrived in the mail today: yours truly in italiano!

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Blog milestone

When I started this blog almost eleven years ago, I was nine days from flying to Australia for the first time. Today, four thousand posts later


(!), another Australia trip is on the horizon, eleven days off this time. Four thousand posts! Have we really been through so much together?

Saturday, May 20, 2017


A wreath of parsley, cilantro and dill, ready to add fragrance to an Ottolenghian confection. (With no sous-chef we include the stems.)

Friday, May 19, 2017

New Pole

University Commencement was in a new location this year, Arthur Ashe stadium in Queens, home of the US Tennis Open. It's a long way from where most students and their families, not to mention faculty and staff, live, though, and the New York City subway was, as is increasingly its wont, uncooperative. We started half an hour late, faculty lined up in an airless corridor waiting, and baked together for the next two hours of recognitions and speeches...  but it's still an exciting experience to see the sea of faces of fresh graduates. Where will they go next? Where will they be in five years, in ten, in twenty? One of our Honorary Degree recipients, who received a BA and and MA from New School, became the first African American women to go to the North Pole, and then also to the South - both after she turned seventy-five! Graduates, commence! 

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Stone shelter

A detail from the entrancing senior project of one of our students, a joint BA/BFA students of Lang and Parsons (Fine Arts). She made the carpet which seems to interact with natural lacework in a slice of stone,and embroidered the paisley in another stone slice. The larger work is inspired by ancient Iranian stories about women seeking refuge inside mountains, a trip to Ladakh, and many months of work with stone.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017