Saturday, June 30, 2007

Alternative Media on Science vs. Religion

I found this to quite intriguing. The alternative Vancouver media sheet The Republic of East Vancouver, a pleasingly eclectic and broadminded anarcho-socialist paper, has a pair of articles in the current edition relevant to our purposes. It represents the possibility of a synthesis - which will either aggravate or stimulate....
Update: responsing to an e-mail from a classfellow; what I am most intrigued by is the organ in which this line of argument occurs. As I mentioned to that person, I can't yet get my head around the significance of this fact.

Contributor Matt Hogan writes on "The false dichotomy of Science vs. Religion."
One of the big questions of the day is whether capital “S” Science will win out against capital “R” Religion. To my mind this is a false debate: no self-respecting scientist would take religion on as a suitable opponent, and no religious person should posit their spiritual conception as factually accurate. Nevertheless they both do, and this immature conflict seems to be one that we can’t get beyond. In a more mature society, the opposition between Science and Religion, or Science and Art for that matter, would simply disappear.
Next, writer Michael Nenonen argues that "Muslims have good reason to fight secularism."

Like many people, I once thought that secularization was always a good thing, and that as Middle Eastern countries secularized they would become more democratic. The longer I study the history of the Middle East, however, the less convinced I am.
I’ve come to suspect that the Muslims of the Middle East have compelling reasons for opposing secularism....

"Skeptical Inquirer" edition

The latest edition of the journal Skeptical Inquirer is entitled "Science, God and (Non)Belief. The articles, uniformly atheist, are online at this link.

The enticement on Arts & Letters Daily -- itself a pro-secular organ -- reads as follows:
What is prayer, and how can it work? This is not just a question of religion, but of neurophysics – and logic...

The Noah's Ark Theme in "Life After God"

Course TA Candace Knighton sent me a delightful and subtle pensée on the depths of Coupland's use of the Noah's Ark story, which she kindly permits me to share for wider benefit:

The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth…and the LORD was sorry that he had made man…so the Lord said “I will blot out… man and beast and the creeping things and birds of the air. Genesis 6: 5-7

And the LORD said in his heart “I will never again destroy every living thing as I have done. Genesis 8: 20.

Noah’s ark is a symbol of global destruction, but also a promise from God. On page five of Life After God, Douglas Coupland mentions and illustrates the ark (a truly post-modern moment). We see birds fly in the sky while the sun shines over the iconic boat from the Old Testament. It is a pleasingly cruise-like image, but under the still water (suggestive of Cathy’s secret world “just on the other side of the water”), are the bloated corpses of man and beast. According to the Bible, all humans are descendent from Noah’s family. We are all related to a man who closed up his boat and listened while his neighbour’s drowned. All humans have survivor-guilt, but are also the Christian God’s chosen and blessed.
We have been discussing fear of death and the possible symbolism of animals in Life After God. Coupland depicts humans sharing the earth with the animals which were given the chance to survive the Flood. According to Coupland, animals only live in the moment; “Dogs only have a present tense in their lives” (223). In “The Dead Speak” Coupland depicts everyday scenes impacted by nuclear devastation. Understanding of time, past, present and future, becomes meaningless and humans are forced into the present tense, like animals, to watch their own demise. Wisdom, or goodness, or evil becomes irrelevant.
Today’s apocalyptic vision is centered on global warming. I do not think it is just a coincidence that the movie Evan Almighty (a Noah’s ark remake) is in the theatres at this time. Many people have seen "An Inconvenient Truth" with its graphic depiction of inhabited land gradually being drowned by rising ocean water. Some others may remember the movie "Waterworld" (1995) in which all but the tip of Mount Everest is under the ocean due to climate change. Anxiety over death and chaos is usually depicted in art. After the Black Death, people danced the danse macabre and created paintings of animated skeletons inhabiting the earth. The comedy “Dr. Strangelove or How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb” dealt with human anxiety over global nuclear destruction. Evan Almighty allows people (Christianity’s descendents of Noah), to huddle together in the dark, to laugh at the ridiculousness of the upcoming Flood as well as their helplessness against it.

Environmental Religion

Classfellow M.E-P. sends alone the following information about an upcoming event from the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, Protect our Sacred Waters, which she contextualises as follows:
It is both environmental and Religious!! And didn't you say that Generation Y's eschatology was global warming etc. Well in that case some of them might want to go and listen to this.
It does indeed make interesting support for my suggestion.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

A Dialectical Response

Classfellow A.N. makes the following audacious dialectic response to my lecture presentation of Life After God.
Update: by 'audacious' I mean that I like it very much, and would be glad of more!

I don't buy the notion of Life After God being an non- or anti-polemical. Is Douglas Coupland being deceptive? Dishonest? Cunning? Elitist? Probably.Let us take a look at page 273:

"I think there was a trade-off somewhere along the line. I think the price we paid for our golden life was an inability to fully believe in love; instead we gained an irony that scorched everything it touched. And I wonder if this irony is the price we paid for the loss of God. But then I must remind myself we are living creatures - we have religious impulses - we must - and yet into what cracks do these impulses flow in a world without religion?"

This is undeniably an intensely polemical statement regarding human nature. I find myself struggling to remove personal feeling from this argument, but I digress; I cannot help myself. I, as a staunch atheist along the lines of Harris and Dawkins, firmly believe in love. I do not believe that lack of religious conviction equals lack of compassion, but exactly the opposite; citing events such the Crusades of the 13th century, the Thirty Years War, religious conflicts in France in the 16th century and Ireland in the modern day, as well as the numerous acts of violence god commits against heretics and non-believers should be more than enough evidence to prove Christianity's obsession with violence. Furthermore, to assert that human beings are naturally religious is simply ridiculous. The fact that two paragraphs of fiction are inspiring me to angrily write polemic should be proof enough that Douglas Coupland is not only blatantly trying to be polemical in Life After God, but is clearly glorifying Christianity in a way that Graham Greene could never hope to achieve.

Lamenting the Death of a Charming Polemicist

I have just learned that a most wonderful man, renown polemicist on the anti-God side, and jewel in the SFU faculty (Psychology) has died unexpectedly. Dr. Barry Beyerstein was a gentleman and a scholar, a vigourous, publically activist and unrelenting Skeptic, who remained persistently gentle, gracious, and cheery.

He and I had a public debate back when I was an undergraduate (not on any topic relevant to this course) and we had pleasant encounters periodically after that; including a guest lecture he gave, to my benefit, at a course of mine at Harbour Centre a couple of years back.

Links here, here and here. His like is rare and valuable. Resquiat in pacem, Dubitare.

More response to "Life After God"

From classfellow J.L:
The idea that an act of human goodness was rewarded by god with the gift of animals directly contradicts the order and (according to my own textual interpretation) spirit of the story of Eden. The naming of the animals takes place before the fall- in fact before the creation of Eve. Coupland's vision of an act of goodness in this time frame makes a substantial change to the story, and the fact that such a huge idea is left as a conspicuous loose end makes me wonder if there's a deliberate literary function for it or if it's just a beautiful thought that made it into the book and just didn't tie neatly into other things. It's quite profound either way. Also, my brief reading on reveals what may be another direct (though subtle) biblical parallel (and not necessarily a deliberate allusion): 15 The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. 16 And the LORD God commanded the man, "You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; 17 but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die." Genesis 2:1 15-17 This is the first time that death is mentioned anywhere in the old testament. There's an odd starkness to this explanation; Adam has no knowledge or experience that could inform him of the nature of death, and God talks about it as if he (Adam) should know. The way that Coupland talks about understanding death- when he compares it with recycling for instance-strikes me as being expressive of what me may infer Adam's understanding of death to be. In scripture we need to see someone die- Abel, at the hands of Cain,before we can grasp the concept in this literary form. Coupland seems to have expanded this dynamic. We are first treated to various views of the Flash, always quite removed from it. We know intellectually what it connotes but it is divorced from the visceral response that comes from confronting death. And then in The Dead Speak we witness death first hand and it becomes real.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Group Project Review

A reminder that the next tutorial -- Monday July 9th -- is the peer review of the Group Project.

Click on the hotlink here for the criteria. The topic has been left open for your group to decide among yourselves: if you should be uncertain I recommend that you advocate for some aspect of the books which invigourates you by your strong agreement, disagreement, love or hate.

You can chose a literary aspect of the texts -- the characterisations, or the plot, or the settings, or the ideas, or even your judgement of their literary worth-- or, you can start with an idea of your own -- denial or affirmation of God, for instance -- and use two texts to support or elaborate your idea.

Then let the dialectic commence. As always, if you have any questions, simply leave a comment on the blog.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

On Coupland & Destabilisation

K.N. sent the following question by e-mail, which matched an conversation I had in Office Hours with another classfellow, which challenges the lecture expectation of a destabilising effect of reading Life After God.

Do you think that Coupland assumes that the majority of his readers ARE stabilized to begin with? It seems to me that his destabilizing style is actually comforting to the destabilized generation(s) that form his intended audience. The intensely questioning nature of his writing is very familiar to those who have grown up in an increasingly confused world, where a generation gap occurs every 5 years and we are constantly flooded with information that changes our ability to place ourselves in a constant narrative.

This is certainly a provocative point: Coupland's generation "X" (my own generation) is more stable than your generation, "Y," and so what looks like a destabilising book to Gen. X will simply be life to Gen. Y.

For lecture purposes, however, I will cut the Gordian Knot, and say that the uncertainty and instability is the characteristic of Life after God and will ask you to identify and understand the specific literary aspects of that characteristic: the status of the narrator, for example, the presence of existential Fear, etc.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

This Weekend's Examples of our Course Dialectic

This weekend's examples that I found of the course dialectic on the God question are from Scientific American and Foreign Policy, via, of course, our friends at Arts & Letters Daily.
  1. Two prominent defenders of science exchange their views on how scientists ought to approach religion and its followers....the authors explained their respective tactics for engaging the enemy and tackled some of the questions that face all scientists when deciding whether and how to talk to the faithful about science: Is the goal to teach science or to discredit religion? Can the two worldviews ever enrich one another? Is religion inherently bad?
  2. Jürgen Habermas, a veteran leftist German philosopher stunned his admirers not long ago by proclaiming, “Christianity, and nothing else, is the ultimate foundation of liberty, conscience, human rights, and democracy, the benchmarks of Western civilization. To this day, we have no other options [than Christianity]. We continue to nourish ourselves from this source. Everything else is postmodern chatter.”

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Coupland-esque Lyric

From classfellow K.N.

These are the lyrics to a song by The Weakerthans that I think has total relevance to Coupland's message in Life After God....

"Sounds Familiar"

We emerged from youth all wide-eyed like the rest.
Shedding skin faster than skin can grow, and armed with hammers,
feathers, blunt knives:
words, to meet and to define and to...
but you must know the same games that we played in dirt,
in dusty school yards has found a higher pitch and broader scale than we
feared possible,
and someone must be picked last,
and one must bruise and one must fail.
And that still twitching bird was so deceived by a window,
so we eulogized fondly,
we dug deep and threw its elegant plumage and frantic black eyes in a hole,
and rushed out to kill something new,
so we could bury that too.
The first chapters of lives almost made us give up altogether.
Pushed towards tired forms of self immolation that seemed so original.
I must, we must never stop watching the sky with our hands in our pockets,
stop peering in windows when we know doors are shut.
Stop yelling small stories and bad jokes and sorrows,
and my voice will scratch to yell many more,
but before I spill the things I mean to hide away,
or gouge my eyes with platitudes of sentiment,
I'll drown the urge for permanence and certainty;
crouch down and scrawl my name with yours in wet cement.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Sample Individual Writing Presentation

I post the following revised version of the Individual Writing Presentation, with the author's permission, chosen as a representative sample which captures the spirit of the assignment, and has itself the absolutist and bellicose tone which exemplifies the polemical mode being treated of.

I will restrain myself from responding to the substance of the poelmic itself, but you are encouraged to do so, using the comments section here. You might look first at the comments to this post for the most immediate direction from which counter-polemic would come.
It is argued by aesthetic philosophers that polemic messages should not be incorporated into art. In this essay I will make two cases. My first task will be to dispose of the claim that polemic and literary art (in this case the novel) are in some way incompatible. I will then argue that not only is polemic perfectly compatible with all forms of art, literary or otherwise, but vital to them as well. In order to make the first case, I am forced first to deal with the idea that the purpose of art is to “create beauty” or to “delight”.
Art is often defined implicitly or explicitly as bearing a direct connection to beauty. This assertion is demonstrably false. Much of ancient art is clearly not intended merely to be pleasing to the eye, but to express and perhaps make sense of difficult aspects of life (the skull motif present in much indigenous art, for instance). More recently, the works of Marcel Duchamp (including Fountain, which consists only of an ordinary urinal) are some of the most well known in examples of art that is specifically intended to subvert ideas of beauty.
The argument that art is in any way defined by beauty, therefore, is reduced to making one of two fallacious arguments. The first is to redefine beauty to include any feeling that art produces in anyone. Obviously if this definition is accepted, then the argument is reduced to a trivial truth, and the word beauty robbed of its meaning. The other is to assert that anything not deemed beautiful (generally by the person making the case) is not art. If we accept this arbitrary premise, then there can be no dialogue about the subject at all.
Having established that art can have any number of intents behind it, and that the intentions of the artist are not always correlated to the way in which the work is received, it is now appropriate to direct our inquiry to the specific instance of polemic, as it is only now that the question becomes truly relevant. Because having set realistically broad parameters for what art intends to do, we open the particular technique of polemic for even more nuanced criticism. For now the question is not whether polemic is compatible with beauty (and we will see that it is) but whether or not polemic is compatible with artistic expression of any kind, and with any intent.
Given that the question is whether polemic and novels should ever mix, polemic need only be proven to be compatible with a single set of artistic goals in order to answer this rather ambiguous question of ought. And here the evidence is overwhelming: not only can polemic be successfully harmonized with art, it has been throughout history. And not only is polemic compatible with some artistic goals, but it is demonstrably so even with the narrowly defined goal of beauty. The Sistine Chapel, Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, and (most relevant to our concern) the works of Orwell, Salinger, and Twain all contain powerful and often explicit polemical statements.
It is not, however, enough to simply state that polemic needn’t hinder a novel. A case can, and should, be made with greater force in defense of polemic as a vital and valuable technique in its own right. For if polemic and novel were never to be combined, some of the greatest works of literature would never have been. There would be no 1984, no Paradise Lost, no Candide.
In modern society, forceful rhetoric and the art of stating one’s views with the intent to convince has become stigmatized through association with politicians and lawyers. Anyone who adopts a polemical approach to self-expression in most public forums risks censure on the grounds of not being open-minded or fair. Given that polemic in its raw form is so frowned upon, and that beauty remains highly respected, the ironic truth of the matter may well be that the novel is in fact the best place for contemporary polemical speech.

Punk Conference

Those who have the type of musical interest indicated in the comments threads here, note that the English Department is running an International Conference on Punk in Spring 2008, with courses in Punk-Lit in support.

Comment here for more information.

Business & English Courses

Here is the link to the biennial report from the 2006 biennial "Skills & Attributes Survey Report" from the BC Council of Business titled "What are BC Employers Looking For?"

As shown in lecture, of the top ten skills sought by businesses in all employment sectors, only one -- the lowest ranked-- is a technical skill. Writing, reading, analysis, teamwork and other abilities taught and developed in the Arts faculties are ranked far higher.
Read the document and keep it to mind for guiding your course selection & study focus through your undergraduate years.

Monday, June 11, 2007

An On-going Dialectic on our Course Subject

The indispensible Arts & Letters Daily has been sustaining an informal dialectic in its "Essays & Opinion" column (main page, right-hand side) for the past few days on out course topic.
  1. Supernatural ideas have never helped human beings to understand the natural world. Alchemy, faith healing, astrology, creationism: none has advanced our grasp of nature one iota... more»
  2. Many agree that the decline of religion may be a cause of the decline of the family. But what if it’s the other way around? Mary Eberstadt speculates... more»
  3. Christian Wiman was raised with “the poisonous notion that you had to renounce love of the earth in order to receive the love of God.” Since he’s had his diagnosis... more»
  4. Shouldn’t every educated person be instructed in the great religious and secular traditions, as well as their greatest books? Atheism is not enough... more»
The article from left-wing journal The Nation indentifies the polemical character of the anti-God warriors -- "The New Atheists" -- this way:
....each man is at war, writing as if no others had preceded him, and with a passion that can only be described as political.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Course Dialectic: Sibling Polemicists

Update: Here is an 'Anatomy of the Sibling Row.'

Well, well: here's the dual ling sibling polemicist version of our course dialectic. Perhaps the most uncompromising polemicists of the present day are the Hitchens brothers - Christopher & Peter. To get a sense of their extremity, Christopher is literally the Devil's Advocate: appointed advocatus diaboli by the Vatican to oppose the canonisation of Mother Theresa, whom Hitchens charges with Crimes against Humanity. Peter on the other side ... well, let's just say that Peter is on the opposite side.

Christopher Hitchens' current book is one of the currently-popular atheist polemics: God is Not great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Extracts can be found online here. Brother Peter has now responded in an article, online here.