Category Archives: Personal

Outgrowing Religion

The above is a perfect allegory for throwing off religious crutches.

My last post reviewed Lewis Vaughn’s autobiographical, Star Map: A Journey of Faith, Doubt, and Meaning. Vaughn’s book describes his severe Southern Baptist upbringing, the doubts about religion that subsequently set in, and how his introduction to philosophy helped him find meaning in life without the gods.

Naturally, this led me to recall escaping my own religious indoctrination. For those interested, here briefly is that story.

I was born in 1955 to a very Catholic family. Needless to say, I was baptized, received communion and confirmation, went to confession, was an altar boy, etc. (Talking about this is bizarre. Not only because those actions themselves were bizarre but because ordinarily I never think about any of this.) I went to St. Ann’s Catholic school in Normandy MO, just outside the city limits of St. Louis, from first thru eighth grade. I more or less assumed that everybody was Catholic; I was aware there were some Protestant people in the neighborhood, but I assumed there was something quite different about (or maybe wrong with) them. And I never played with the non-Catholic boys.

In addition to going to Catholic school every day, I accompanied my father to our church every evening. He spent most of his free time on the church grounds. The parish had a large auditorium which was used for weddings and dances and an athletic field with a concession stand. My dad was basically in charge of all activities related to the auditorium and concession stand; he had an unpaid part-time job. There were books to keep, soda, candy, snacks and liquor to be ordered and served (yes, they had a liquor license.) Accompanying him every evening, I spent an inordinate amount of time around the church, so I grew up sort of “extra Catholic.” And my father would be in a Catholic hall of fame if there were one.

The rest of my family was and is very Catholic too. My mother was devoted to the church till the end of her life and died in a Catholic retirement home. My oldest brother studied almost 8 years for the priesthood and though he wasn’t ordained he is still a practicing ultra-conservative Catholic. My sister worked primarily for the church and her husband is a deacon. Their son, my nephew, is the chancellor of a diocese. And my other brother finds his only comfort from believing he will be reunited with lost loved ones in heaven. I came from a really Catholic family.

After grade school, I attended and graduated from a private Catholic high school. I really didn’t doubt religion much until right after high school. As I put it in my biography:

… it was the summer before college that marked the true beginning of my intellectual voyage. A good friend was a philosophy major and discussions with him awoken me, as Kant said of encountering Hume, from my dogmatic slumber. I now realized that there was a world of ideas to explore. It was as if a dam had broken within me, exposing the parochialism of my youthful indoctrination. I was determined to explore this mindscape and die with as large a mind as possible.

Then during

My first semester of college, I eagerly enrolled in a class called, “Major Questions in Philosophy.” There I was introduced to Descartes’ epistemological skepticism, Hume’s critique of religion, and Lenin’s criticism of the state. Wow! Knowledge, the gods, and the state all undermined in 16 weeks. I am not sure why I was open to new ideas, whereas so many cling to the first ideas they are exposed to, but I was hooked.

Severing the cord of religious indoctrination was, for me, quick, painless, natural and liberating. It all happened in a few weeks. After that, I was done with Catholicism and have never for a moment reconsidered.

In fact, it’s not even a matter of reconsidering. Some ideas become self-evident and others just aren’t available to you after being sufficiently educated. So I believe the earth rotates around the sun, and that biological evolution is true, but I can’t believe that Jesus rose from the dead, or that Allah dictated the Koran to Mohammed. And it’s not like I have to try to believe the former two things and not believe the latter two. Heliocentrism and evolutionary theory just follow from knowing how the world works, whereas the other notions are self-evidently absurd.

From the outside, religious beliefs are so, well, weird. To watch people eat a little wafer at a church—which I’ve done exactly twice in the last 30 years, both times at my one of my parent’s funerals—is like entering the twilight zone. From the outside, you just wonder “what are they doing?” Once you have seen from the outside … you never want to go back inside. After escaping the cult, you don’t want to rejoin. If only believers could see their beliefs from the outside, like they see the religions they don’t belong too.

At this point, I’m so removed from the beliefs of my childhood that they never come to the surface unless I make a conscious effort. It is like trying to remember believing in Santa or the Easter Bunny. You can sort of do it, but not really.

However, I would add a caveat. For some, the comfort of the religious drug may be worth it. Perhaps they can’t or don’t want to live without it. If it provides that much comfort to some persons, who am I to try to take it away from them. But for those capable of breaking the bonds of their childhood indoctrination, I can say that a lot of things won’t change after you discard religion. You’ll still be able to live, love, work, and care for your children, just without the burden of believing in imaginary gods. And you’ll be less likely to want to impose your views on others—a defining characteristic of most religions.

As for me, I’m so glad I long ago left all that behind. I long for the day when reason and knowledge finally banish ignorance and superstition forever. I want to know not just believe. I do think that religion as we know it will go extinct, especially if humans evolve into posthumans. And if we don’t evolve, we’ll probably go extinct anyway. As for those worried about the meaning of life after losing their religious beliefs, I have addressed the topic in some detail here.

(Disclaimer, I received my Ph.D. from a Catholic Jesuit School. Here’s why. For a number of reasons, I had to attend graduate school in St. Louis. But by the time I was ready to apply to my preferred school, Washington University, their deadline had passed. I then accepted a fellowship to St. Louis University intending to switch schools. However, doing so was problematic mostly because of the difficulty of moving my young family. And, at some point, it was quicker to finish where I had started. But though my choice of schools has haunted me, I did receive an excellent, non-religious education in St. Louis University’s philosophy department for which I am grateful.)

Well, that’s my story. It almost 50 years ago since I lost my childhood crutches. I’m glad I did. I now dwell, not in what Carl Sagan called the demon-haunted world of religion, but in one lit by science and reason. As Heinrich Heine said:

In the Dark Ages people found their surest guide in religion—just as a blind man is the best guide on a pitch-black night. He knows the way better than the seeing. But it is folly to use the blind old man as a guide after day-break.

Mr. Daniel Gray, Bachelor of Arts, The University of Washington

Mr. Daniel Gray, B.A. History, 2019, The University of Washington

I taught university philosophy at various institutions for thirty years from 1987 – 2017. In that time I had between 8,000 and 10,000 students. Of all those students I only remember about 25 of them really well.

And of those, there are only two that I still have regular contact with. (This is partly due to the fact that we have moved around the country.) One is my son-in-law who took two of my classes at UT-Austin where he met my daughter. The other is a young man I met while teaching briefly at Shoreline Community College near Seattle. In the ensuing years, we have become good friends and regularly get together. (He is pictured above at his recent graduation from The University of Washington.)

I recently wrote him a congratulatory email which he humbly described as “about the nicest thing anyone has ever written or said to me.” That may be true but it is nearly impossible not to love Daniel. He is a man of intellectual and moral virtue—both a careful and conscientious mind as well as a humble and honorable soul. He is also an epitome of courage. In short, he is one of the “good guys” in this world.

June 14, 2019

Dear Daniel:

Congratulations! The road to your degree was much more difficult for you than for many others—just getting to class is tough for you. You should be proud.

I still remember seeing you wheel through the door of room (about) 1812 at Shoreline CC about eight years ago. You stuck out—being late, as tall sitting as I am standing—and you had a big smile on your face. You cracked some joke shortly thereafter and I thought—I like this guy! A very clear memory. I thought I had a lot to teach Daniel, little did I know he had a lot to teach me.

Daniel, you are a world-class human being, one of the few such people I’ve ever known. Consider how many persons seek nothing but money or fame or power, while you mostly seek wisdom.

And while I’m sure life is tough on you in ways I can’t imagine, you never whine, complain, or bemoan. You have found the Stoics secret to happiness—not getting what you want but wanting what you get. And this in a world where people who have it all are constantly dissatisfied. They are rich but want to be richer, powerful but want more power, famous but not famous enough. They are lucky enough to play golf under blue skies but then complain that the round is too slow.

Let me just say that some of the most memorable times I’ve had in the last few years have been when you motored around your neighborhood and I tried to keep up while listening to your jokes. And thanks too for listening to an old retired philosophy professor pontificate—something he really misses doing! You always let me babble on about something stupid without interruption.

And let me also say that no matter how painful and tragic and meaningless life is, you are a shining star within all this madness. Knowing you has been a great privilege, and one of the things that have made my own life worth living. You are making what Joseph Campbell called, the hero’s journey. You are, like Dicken’s Copperfield, the hero of your own life. And you have enriched mine more than you know.

Finally let me say, Daniel, as Plato did of his beloved friend Socrates, that you are of all those I’ve known one of “the best and wisest and most just.”

with my deepest affection,
with my most fervent wishes for your future health and happiness,
I remain,
as ever,
your friend,

Dr. J

Random Musings

I recently finished a series of posts summarizing a lifetime of thinking on the meaning of life (they begin here if you’re interested.) Since then I have been using my blogs to let a number of regular readers submit guest posts. I much appreciate their contributions.

What then have I been doing? Mostly 1) playing golf, 2) caring for of my grandchildren, 3) reading and thinking and 4) following world events. The first three of these I find rewarding, the last one extraordinarily depressing.

I play golf mostly for the 6-mile walk, the enjoyment of nature, the camaraderie with friends and the joy of simply hitting a ball. Golfing also elicits fond memories of playing with my father when I was young and of the many times when the solitude of walking on a course brought inner peace in troubled times. In the park-like setting in which I play I find a haven from a troubled world; my own monastery if you will.

Playing with my grandchildren brings out my inner child, a kind of playfulness that we lose as we mature. So it too provides an escape from troubles of the world. And children find joy in nothing more than the movement of their arms and legs. Yet their innocence also evokes a sweet sorrow within me. It is so beautiful and yet it saddens me deeply to think of the evil of which they’re ignorant and which they’ll soon enough confront. Why must these little souls be forced to live in such an awful world?

Thinking is intrinsically rewarding. To contemplate reality lifts the mind beyond itself. Unity of the mind and the universe is one of the highest achievable goods. We truly transcend the world in thought, going beyond what is to what it could be. Thus we can momentarily forget the world’s troubles through contemplation, just as we do when playing, meditating, listening to music, creating art, or enjoying nature.

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Yet while playing and loving and learning lift our hearts, the world is always there to bring us back down. We live in a country where elected members of a major political party willingly destroy democratic government and chance further descent into violence and chaos … simply to be reelected. And what do they then do? Simply accept and affirm the abuses of authoritarian fascists. All around the world, human avarice destroys the earth and climate on which our survival and flourishing depend, which is to say nothing of the pain, poverty, and violence that constitutes so much of life. Humans, myself included, are such deeply flawed monkeys.

Still, any regular reader knows that at this point I’ll turn to hope. Perhaps the future will be better than the past; maybe we can lift ourselves up from our primate roots, outgrow our medieval institutions and make something of ourselves and the world. I hope so.

In the meantime, I’ll try to enjoy walking and playing and thinking. When I move my body, play with my grandchildren and exercise my mind, I find a little peace in a mad, world—experiencing, perhaps, a small taste of what life might someday be.

As Bertrand Russell put it in his final manuscript:

Consider for a moment what our planet is and what it might be. At present, for most, there is toil and hunger, constant danger, more hatred than love. There could be a happy world, where co-operation was more in evidence than competition, and monotonous work is done by machines, where what is lovely in nature is not destroyed to make room for hideous machines whose sole business is to kill, and where to promote joy is more respected than to produce mountains of corpses. Do not say this is impossible: it is not. It waits only for men to desire it more than the infliction of torture.

There is an artist imprisoned in each one of us. Let him loose to spread joy everywhere.

My Biography

My Biography

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CHILDHOOD AND PARENTS

My earliest memories are vivid and illicit nostalgia: the aroma of baked goods from my mother’s kitchen, a large cottonwood tree in our backyard, the smell of burning leaves in the fall, the glow of a real fireplace, sledding down the hills at the golf course up the street in the winter, and spring … when one could play baseball again. Was life ever better than when playing baseball? Or when playing sandlot football in the rain, snow, mud, and freezing cold? I don’t think so.

 Normandie Golf Course

I was loved by my parents more than I deserved—they loved me unconditionally. How indebted I am to them. My mother died on September 18, 2005 at the age of 86. She is no longer the beauty that stole my father’s heart in the 1930s; no longer the wife who waited through world war II for her husband to return; no longer middle age—but she was my first love, she was my father’s only love, and she was beloved by all her children.

My father died in 1989 at the age of 71, but not before he talked with me about politics, religion, history, sports and so much else. He labored physically for more than 50 years so that his family could have more than he did in his depression era youth. My parents did their best. They may not have received the wages due them—not many parents do—but they labored nonetheless. So now, after more than 50 years, I thank them for their labor and their love. My mother was comfort, consolation, and tenderness; my father was strength, guidance, and toughness. Both resonate within me still.

GRADE & HIGH SCHOOL (1961-1973)

Image result for greendale moA house like mine on the street I grew up on.

I grew up in Greendale, Missouri, a middle-class suburb of St. Louis in the midst of the baby boom. There were plenty of kids to play with and I grew up “with a ball in my hands,” as a childhood friend used to say. We played outside every day—baseball, soccer, and football mostly—since there wasn’t much to do inside back then. Our grade school soccer team won multiple city championships, and some of my soccer teammates went on to play college and professional soccer. (Needless to say, I was not among them.) Our baseball team was less successful, mostly because I was a pitcher who threw every ball right down the middle—with little or no velocity. As for football, I was “all-sandlot,” at least until we neared puberty when I found out I was too little for football. By high school, my sport of choice had changed to table tennis. I was lucky enough to play a number of the top-ranked players in the world, but I was beaten soundly by all of them.

 A picture of my high school, long since torn down.

The private high school I attended marked the beginning of my academic life. There I encountered the New England Transcendentalists—Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman—the first philosophers I had ever read. But it was the summer before college that marked the real beginning of my intellectual voyage. A good friend was a philosophy major and discussions with him awoken me, as Kant said of encountering Hume, from my dogmatic slumber. I realized that there was a world of ideas to explore. It was if a dam had broken within me, and I saw immediately the parochialism of the ideas to which I had been previously exposed. I was determined to explore this mindscape and die with as large a mind as possible.

COLLEGE – UNDERGRADUATE (1973-1978)

 The Univ. of Mo-St. Louis

My first semester of college, I eagerly enrolled in a class called, “Major Questions in Philosophy.” There I was introduced to Descartes’ epistemological skepticism, Hume’s critique of religion, and Lenin’s critique of the state. Wow! Knowledge, the gods, and the state all undermined in 16 weeks. I am not sure why I was open to new ideas, whereas so many cling to the first ideas they are exposed to, but I was hooked. Subsequently, I took the maximum number of philosophy courses possible; learning about Medieval, American, Modern, and Asian philosophy, and a bit of philosophy of religion, science, mind, and law from instructors like Edward Costello, Peter Fuss, Paul Gomberg, and David Griesedeck. In the meantime, I discovered women, and later, high stakes poker.

YOUNG ADULTHOOD & CHILDREN (1978-1986)

I headed off to Las Vegas with my poker winnings in 1979 and made a meager living playing poker over the next few years. On returning to St. Louis, I wooed my soon-to-be wife by the display of hundred-dollar bills I carried around in case a game surfaced. She was quite impressed, although less so when she found out that was all the money I had. (And that only 1 of the 4 doors on my dilapidated car opened!) But she married me in 1980, and during the next few years, we welcomed two beautiful children. We struggled financially during these years, as my poker income was inconsistent. By 1985 we had moved to Las Vegas where I dealt blackjack. However, the desert wasn’t to our liking and we moved back to St. Louis where I started graduate school in 1986. I wanted to go to Washington University in St. Louis, but unfortunately, I missed their deadline. So I accepted a graduate fellowship to St. Louis University, planning to switch schools. For a number of reasons, I never did switch.

GRADUATE SCHOOL (1986-1992)

 Dubourg Hall, St. Louis University

This is when I really became a good student. I raised kids, study hard, taught my own classes, and made some good friends. I learned much, both from my fellow graduate students—especially Darrell Arnold and John Ries—and from my professors—especially Richard J. Blackwell and William C. Charron. (For more on my professor’s influence see the “academic genealogy.”) I’ve always had mixed feelings about attending St. Louis University, which often leads people to mistakenly assume that I’m religious. The idea of attending a Catholic university sent shivers down my spine before I started, and somewhat haunts me to this day. Yet, I received an excellent education there for which I am immensely grateful. The other significant event was the addition of a new daughter in 1988. Like all my children, she has provided much joy.

POST-DOCTORAL (1992-PRESENT)

My first full-time job was at Ursuline College in Ohio—big mistake—both Ohio and the college. I rose to become chair of the philosophy department and had an office that overlooked the campus lake, but I wanted out of Cleveland—the weather there is horrific! Yet I did had some good students there, many of whom I recall fondly to this day.
(Especially Darcy A, Wendy W, Michelle F, Judy A, Donna O, Mary B, and Meredith V.S.)

 The view from my first office.

In 2000 I accepted a position as lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin, where I taught in both the philosophy and computer science departments. In was while teaching at UT that I first realized the role that computer science would play in bringing about a future much different from the one I imagined. And I was always moved when walking through a quad whose main building has an inscription: “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” But of course, this had no religious significance for me.

 Waggener Hall, UT-Austin

We left Austin in 2009 to follow our grown children to the Northwest—it was lonely in Texas without them. Since then I have taught part-time at a few different institutions, but now spend most of my time doing my own writing and research. I have left teaching behind, and have no desire to return. As the lyrics of an old Cat Stevens song say: “I’m not making love to anyone’s wishes, only for that light I see, Cause when I’m dead and lowered low in my grave, that’s gonna be the only thing that’s left of me.”

Today I live in Seattle, within walking distance of Puget Sound and the Space Needle. From my kitchen window, I can see both the Seattle skyline and Mount Ranier. Seattle is the best place I’ve ever lived. It is politically progressive and set in a breathtakingly beautiful natural setting—surrounded by snow-capped mountains, active volcanoes, undeveloped ocean coastlines, old-growth forests, temperate rain forests, alpine lakes, islands, waterfalls, and the Puget Sound fiord. Still, I wish I could live abroad, and long to die an expatriate, but for now, family obligations leave me in the United States.

My wife Jane has been the only woman I have ever loved, and we have been married for more than 35 years. She is an extraordinary woman in every conceivable way; intelligent, thoughtful, introspective, disciplined and conscientious, while at the same time possessing a heart full of warmth, compassion, and love. She is too good for this world. And, if all that is not enough, she is remarkably physically fit! I can’t keep up with her on our daily walks. For her, the most appropriate words are not my own, but the Bard’s:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments.
Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error, and upon me prov’d,
I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.

Finally, as I look back over my life in search of its purpose, my sentiments are best echoed by the prose from the Prologue to Bertrand Russell’s autobiography. It is so beautiful that I long ago learned to recite it verbatim. (Which I can still do!)

Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a great ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair.

I have sought love, first, because it brings ecstasy—ecstasy so great that I would often have sacrificed all the rest of life for a few hours of this joy. I have sought it, next, because it relieves loneliness—that terrible loneliness in which one shivering consciousness looks over the rim of the world into the cold unfathomable lifeless abyss. I have sought it finally, because in the union of love I have seen, in a mystic miniature, the prefiguring vision of the heaven that saints and poets have imagined. This is what I sought, and though it might seem too good for human life, this is what—at last—I have found.

With equal passion I have sought knowledge. I have wished to understand the hearts of men. I have wished to know why the stars shine. And I have tried to apprehend the Pythagorean power by which number holds sway above the flux. A little of this, but not much, I have achieved.

Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to earth. Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my heart. Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people a burden to their sons, and the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what
human life should be. I long to alleviate this evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer.

This has been my life. I have found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me.

Children

Thirty-four years ago today my wife and I welcomed a beautiful, first-born, child into the world. The thrill of watching a child grow from an infant, to an inquisitive child, and to a wonderful adult has been one of the most profound experiences of our lives. All of this has reminded us of some simple poetry we read long ago:

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable. ~ Kahlil Gibran

And what advice should we give our children? The best advice any parent can give their children is that they should strive for a meaningful life filled with joy, love, and inner peace. The best advice for parents is to listen to your children, they have a lot to teach you too.

So happy 34th birthday to our firstborn, and thanks for all you have taught us. We love you. Live long and prosper.