AAR/SBL high school teachers meet up?

I mentioned to my friend David Burnett (on Facebook) that we should try to get together a group of people at AAR/SBL who teach religious/biblical studies in a high school context. I don’t know how many of us there are but I do know our experiences are unique to the field and it would be good to create some sort of network of support. Any takers? (And, if so, does anyone have a spot in Denver near the conference that they’d favor?)

Some brief thoughts on a few recently read books

I won’t be writing full posts on these books either because they’ve been available for a while or their focus isn’t quite aligned with this blog. But I think they’re worth mentioning as books that I read, enjoyed, was challenged by, and recommend.

The first is Slavoj Žižek’s 2008 repackaging of his 1989 classic The Sublime Object of Ideology. Admittedly, there were stretches were I was lost. Then there were stretches where Žižek’s engagement with the thought of figures like Marx, Freud, Hegel, and Lacan were enlightening. For a helpful overview, see Epoch Philosophy’s video on the book.

The second is Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism. I found Fisher’s critiques of the problems of capitalism agreeable but as with many books like this one, it seems as if solutions are harder to provide. Again, not a paid promotion, but Epoch Philosophy’s overview of Capitalist Realism is more helpful than anything I’d write here.

Finally, I read Kenneth P. Miller’s Texas vs. California: A History of Their Struggle for the Future of America. It’s a wonderful book. I devoured it in a few days. Miller sees Texas and California as sibling rivals. He shows how Texas and California weren’t always on the polar opposite side of things but also how they evolved to be. The book goes back and forth, juxtaposing the two states’ origins, people, economies, and cultures before exploring how Texas turned deep red and California deep blue. The second half of the book contrasts their “rival models” on everything from taxes, labor, energy, the environment to poverty and other social issues. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a proud Californian who happens to live in Texas. I’ll always feel this way. But there were points where I can see how the Texas model is right for Texas (e.g. taxes) or at least understand why Texas approaches things as they do (e.g. energy). There were moments when I thought California could learn from Texas (e.g. affordable housing). But overall, I came away homesick for California mostly when reading about social issues where my values are far more Californian than Texan regarding things like embracing LGBTQIA+ peoples, welcoming immigrants, and promoting a woman’s right to her bodily autonomy (a.k.a. pro-choice), etc.

Defining “utopia”

As I mentioned in a previous post (“Contrasting Utopias”), I was reading Thomas More’s Utopia this past week. I used Yale University Press’ Second Edition translated by Clarence H. Miller which has an afterward from Jerry Harp, a professor at Lewis and Clark College. Harp reminds the reader that most of us come to this book with a preconceived idea of what “utopia” means and reminds us that we need to understand what More meant by the word. The word is a “Greek pun”: “‘Utopia’ is the good place (eu-topos) that is no place (ou-topos).” In Latin, it’s Nusquama, which means “Nowhere” (pp. 146-147). Harp draws from this polyvalence of “good place,” “no place,” and “nowhere” the following observation:

Although the term has come to mean an imaginary and ideal place, an impractical social scheme, More’s text works in more complex ways than popular usage allows. Utopia is a nowhere that opens into new discursive spaces. Were the realm of the present and pragmatic concern to dominate entirely, we would be led into stagnation. The nowhere of Utopia—the work as well as the genre and mode of thinking—provides one way to keep consciousness on the move even though it is an impossible place.

Utopia, p. 147

With this in mind, Harp says, “We do well to read the text in more complex terms that as a blueprint to an ideal state.” (p. 147) For Harp, “Reading Utopia means entering into a dialogue, with oneself and others, that continues to this day.” (p. 153). This dialogue goes back to St. Augustine of Hippo who imagined the “City of God” as standing outside of the “City of Man” (pp. 148-150). It goes further back to Plato’s Republic (p. 155)

Harp draws our attention to one of the key participants in this dialogue, Paul Ricoeur, who links utopia to ideology—ideology being “the taking of the provisional and pragmatic for the metaphysical.” (p. 157) Harp writes of Ricoeur:

In his reading, the best function of the utopian thinking is as an antidote to ideology, for such thinking provides an opportunity to play one’s identity out and away from the prison house of the here and now. As he puts it, ‘This function of utopia is finally the function of the nowhere. To be here, Da-sein, I must also be able to be nowhere.” Utopian thought relates to identity because part of identity is prospective, who and what we desire and strive to be— “What we call ourselves is also what we expect and yet what we are not.” But ideology and utopia will not remain separate; they tend to interweve, and one issue worth further reflection is how the two function together as well as tend to tear apart, in Utopia and elsewhere.

Utopia, pp. 157-158

While Harp reminds us that utopia can’t be divorced from ideology (discussing and citing Ricoeur’s Lectures on Ideology and Utopia, pp. 310-312), I want to briefly highlight Ricoeur’s point that utopia can contrast ideology. If ideology is, as Ricoeur defines it, a categorical confusion where we claim ontological necessity when it’s unwarranted, then utopia helps us break free from our assumptions that what is now must be what is. It allows us to question our norms and taboos. It asks us to stop claiming that this or that is “natural” and ask what the world looks like if we remove appeals to nature as an excuse for inactivity. (In a sense, this is where SciFi thrives.)

But as Harp observes, and when we return to the aforementioned previous post, ideology and utopia can’t be separated. This is what the “What’s Left of Philosophy?” crew recognized: normalizing and essentializing what we know as if it must be is another form of utopia. It assumes that the reality we know can remain as it is without consequence. This line of thinking acts as if it’s based on empirical reality but it’s as fanciful as utopias-for-change, if not more. The best example may be climate change. Yes, it may be utopian to imagine this or that action, or international agreement, is going to save us (collective humanity) from this or that consequence but it’s equally utopian, probably more so, to stick our head in the sand and imagine we can go on without global disruption and dysfunction. When we advocate for static utopias against dynamic ones, we’re refusing to admit that we’re fine with the trajectories that our current ways of life may take us, and we’re masking that refusal with the justification that our contemporary ways of life are good and right and shouldn’t be changed. While this or that aspect of our current ways of life may be good, it’s foolish to act as if there aren’t things that by being changed would be better for others and in turn better for us (due primarily to our ultimate interconnectivity with one another).

Imagining dynamic utopias can be scary. For one reason, my utopia may not be your utopia. I don’t know that I would want to live in Plato’s Kallipolis or More’s Utopia. In fact, I’m sure I wouldn’t. So, there’s a risk in moving toward a world that’s imaginary and dreamy. All of our dreams may not align. Your utopia may be my dystopia. But this is true of static utopias. My comfort with the current status quo might be someone else’s discomfort; my utopia may be their dystopia. Either way, we risk making things worse while trying to make things better—whether by action or inaction. So the question isn’t so much whether the present is good or not but whether we are willing to risk the present for an even better future.

Contrasting Utopias

This week I’ve been reading St. Thomas More’s Utopia (specifically Yale University Press’ Second Edition translated by Clarence H. Miller). I was drawn to it by an episode of the “What’s Left of Philosophy” Podcast (30 | What is Utopia? Part I. Thomas More: Critical Realism in a Time of Enclosure). And while there’s much to say about the book, the thing that has stood out to me the most was planted in my head by that podcast episode —which features Gil Morejón, Lillian Cicerchia, Owen Glyn-Williams, and William Paris—before I began reading the book itself. They pointed out that while Book II of Utopia provides a vision of an ideal place, Book I offers a counter-utopia, of sorts. That counter-utopia isn’t the perfect place but it’s a utopia nonetheless. How is it a utopia? Let me explain (or, go listen to the aforementioned episode).

In Book I, the character Raphel Hythloday is visiting Thomas More (who is a character in his own story). While Book II explains what kind of place Utopia is, Book I is critical of England so that a juxtaposition can be formed. (More published Utopia in 1516 when King Henry VIII reigned.) This can be read as realism v. utopianism. King Henry’s England was a real place while More’s Utopia is imaginary (like Plato’s Kallipolis). One may be inclined to reject More’s vision in favor of what was real because reality should trump fantasy in our expectations. And utopianism can be even more demoralizing than realism. But here’s why real London was as utopian as imaginary Utopia: London in the early 16th century had allowed a variety of injustices to simmer; for Hytholoday, the status quo couldn’t stand without dire consequences. In other words, as the “What’s Left of Philosophy” crew observed, while Utopia may be utopian, it is as much utopian thinking as to look at the status quo and ignore the potential questions of social stagnation.

Many of the social ills that Hytholoday critiques mirror modern troubles. There are critiques that can be applied to some of our own parallel ills today, at least in the United States: obsession with being armed (p. 21: “standing armies of mercenaries…destroyed not only their government but also their fields and even their cities”); the military-industrial complext and nation-building (p. 38: “their blood was being spilled to provide someone else with a smidgeon of glory…at home the war has corrupted morals, imbued the citizens with a lust for robbery, that slaughter in warfare made them completely reckless”); the prison-industrial complex (p. 23: “even as vagrants they are thrown in jail because they are wandering around idly”); environmental deprivation (p. 22: “they destroy and despoil fields…these good men turn all habitations and cultivated lands into a wilderness”); inflation and recession (p. 23: “the price of grain has risen sharply in many places”); the school-to-prison pipeline (p. 25: “when you bring people up with the worst sort of education and allow their morals to be corrupted little by little from the earliest years, and then punish them at last as grown men when they commit crimes which from childhood they have given every prospect of committing”); etc. As regards the willingness of the wealthy to allow the poor to remain in their state, Hytholoday says:

…how wrong they are in thinking that the poverty of people is the safeguard of peace, for where can you find more quarrels than among beggars? who is more intent on changing things than someone who is most dissatisfied with his present state of life? or, finally, who is more driven to create a general disturbance in the hope of gaining something that someone who has nothing to lose?

Utopia, p. 41

For Hytholoday, it’s outrageous to imagine that the status quo is safe; to imagine that there are no consequences when we fail to care for our most disadvantaged neighbors.

The most privileged in our society have some cushion between them and the least fortunate. Elon Musk isn’t impacted by homelessness in Los Angeles, the assault on women’s bodily autonomy in Texas, or gun violence…well, everywhere now. But as January 6th, 2021, showed us, social instability is always present. And social instability may not impact Musk the way it would impact me but it would impact him. Jeff Bezos may be untouchable but I think Amazon does better if there’s stability. The kingdoms of these men may seem invincible but they’re not if the common good is abandoned. And to presume that they are is as utopian as anything More or Plato can imagine. As Americans, to imagine our country is invincible is utopian. If 9/11 didn’t teach us that we’re not invincible then 1/06 should’ve. Social unrest can’t be ignored. Growing inequality can’t be ignored. Climate change can’t be ignored. To do so is utopian thinking.

Hytholoday makes the argument that “it does not befit the dignity of a king to rule over beggars but rather over wealthy and happy subjects” (p. 41). We don’t have a king in the United States though we do have oligarchs (like Musk and Bezos) and these oligarchs are probably semi-permanent figures for the foreseeable future. Their comfort with growing inequality, social unrest, environmental deprivation, etc., show us that they’re utopian thinkers. Their counter-utopia is one of the status quo. More through Hytholoday asks us to consider what’s more absurd: imaging a better, more equitable world or imagining that maintaining the status quo won’t have negative consequences. I don’t know that there’s a universal answer for all times and places but both have the potential to turn out to have been wildly utopian. If this is so, which utopia would we rather seek?

A balanced high school religious studies curriculum

I’m writing this for myself. All my blogging is basically journaling. If I wanted more interaction, I’d have to catch up with the times and shift to Tik Tok. But Tik Tok isn’t like journaling, so I won’t be doing that. Also, this is for me because there are few people with jobs like mine who work in schools like mine with departments like mine. So, why do I put it on a blog? Well, a way that blogging isn’t like journaling is the decision to make your thoughts public. I want to make these thoughts public just in case (A) someone out there has feedback to contribute or (B) one of the estimated seven people in the world who are in similar situations come across it and find inspiration—or whatever the opposite of inspiration is.

What’s my situation? Well, I teach at an Episcopal school. Episcopalianism isn’t a monolith but among Christian traditions in North America, it tends to be one of the most hospitable to academic freedom. I’m confident that there isn’t even one other school in the Greater San Antonio region that would give me the green light to teach what I do like I do. Also, I teach high schoolers, and as anyone reading this is aware, very few high school teachers get to say much about religion in their courses let alone teach multiple classes completely devoted to the discipline. While you can teach religion in a public school setting, for various reasons related to sensitivity around the Establishment and Free Exercises Clauses of the First Amendment, and trouble budgeting for someone qualified to teach these types of classes, few public schools are willing to offer anything like what I teach. If you teach religious studies in a high school, usually you have major “confessional” restraints. You need to stay in line with the Catholic or Evangelical doctrine of the schools that exist independent of the public school system for the central purpose of raising young people to adhere to the worldviews they are promoting. Episcopalian schools exist to shape young people from within the Christian tradition but most Episcopalian schools see fidelity to Christianity as compatible with higher levels of pluralism and academic freedom than their Catholic and Evangelical counterparts.

Many public high school teachers won’t be interested in what I’m saying because while they may be able to talk about Hinduism for a class period while teaching more specifically about India, they can’t spend a month on Hinduism. Many private school teachers won’t be interested in what I’m saying because they either disagree with my approach or have administrations that would never allow anything like it. This brings me back to the seven or so people out there who may be in similar situations! And this ends a prolegomenon to this blog post.

When I first began teaching high school religious studies, our courses were (A) “Old Testament”; (B) “New Testament”; (C) “World Religion”; (D) “God Debate: An Introduction to Philosophy”. I’ve worked to change some of the names to better align with how I teach and how I think religious studies should be taught at our school. “Old Testament” is now “Hebrew Scriptures” because we consider Jewish interpretations of the Tanakh as much as, if not more than, Christian interpretations of the Old Testament. “New Testament” is now “Christian Scriptures” because we don’t restrict the content to what’s canonical—for example, the Gospel of Thomas and Infancy Gospel of Thomas get a lot of attention—and most of the class is now spent on the Gospels with only a little time being given to the Epistles. “World Religion” has been abandoned in favor of “Religion in Global Context” because (1) our freshman-sophomore classes, Global Studies I and Global Studies II, led me to realign the focus to parallel those classes and (2) the “world religion” model tends to focus on overviews of some of the “big” religions—Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, usually—at the expense of literally every other religion. Since my pedagogical philosophy is concerned more with teaching students how to think about “religion,” the concept, rather than trying to provide them an impossible overview of these “major” religions, it made sense to change the name. Finally, due to personnel changes, the “God Debate” class was dropped.

A few years ago, I added a class titled “Religion in the United States” that examines, amongst other things, the concept of “religion” as it has been interpreted and applied in this country. We talk about Supreme Court “definitions” of religion and rulings related to the First Amendment; the role of the IRS; Native American spirituality; religion when the United States was founded; race and religion; how religions that were “imported” (i.e. pre-existed the country’s birth, e.g. Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism) have evolved in this context; and what expressions of religion have been created in and “exported” from this country (e.g. Scientology, Pentecostalism).

As I prepare for my seventh year, the catalog (not including classes like “Religion in San Antonio” that were designed specifically for the summer school context) will be:

  • The Hebrew Scriptures
  • The Christian Scriptures
  • Religion in Global Context
  • Religion in the United States

Now, what I’m about to suggest may be rejected by my superiors but I want to process it out loud here anyway. Generally, I’m comfortable with these offerings but I think some improvements can be made. For one, while Episcopalians are Protestant or Protestant-ish (the so-called “Middle Way”), they aren’t biblicist, usually. Many within the Anglican tradition, of which Episcopalianism is part, talk about a “three-legged stool” upon which the tradition sits: (1) the Bible; (2) the “great” tradition; and (3) reason. Some within the Wesleyan/Methodist tradition add (4) experience, which I see as a positive addition. (Pentecostals add experience too…though their meaning is slightly different at times!) For this reason, while most of my academic training has been in biblical studies, I think the catalog is flawed when half of the religious studies offerings are related to the Bible. This means that the Bible receives as much attention as every other religion combined—including Christianity, which isn’t limited to the Bible (even when traditions are biblicist ones). One alternative would be to shrink “The Hebrew Scriptures” and “The Christian Scriptures” into a single class and then add a course on church history or theology. There are contexts where this may work. Ours might be one of those contexts but I’m doubtful for a whole variety of reasons, beginning with my presumption that only a handful of students want to talk about the intricacies of the Trinity or care for a week on the Nicene-Arian controversies.

What then is the alternative I’m suggesting? In my uniquely Episcopalian context, with the pluralistic student body we educate, and considering the present context of the world into which they’ll be graduating, here are the four courses I think would provide the most balanced high school religious studies curriculum (if only four can be offered):

Why these four? First, they encourage critical thinking that’s introductory in nature and “meta”. By the latter, I mean I’ve noticed that most of my students are very engaged when we’re thinking about the subject we’re thinking about. In other words, I can teach them the content of the Bible but they’re more interested in the concept of the Bible. The content of the Bible becomes more relevant when they’re considering what the Bible “is” and what’s at stake when we interpret it. Second, this balances what they need to know as emerging citizens while also aligning with the decision to go to a private school with a religious affiliation. Third, and related to the second point, it’s an alternative to the aforementioned approach of Catholic and Evangelical schools—our school has a daily chapel where constructive spiritual formation occurs for a pluralistic student body through the paradigm of Episcopalian spirituality. How that works exactly is the concern of our chaplain. My concern is that spiritual formation will be as strongly equated with human formation as possible so that my atheistic and agnostic students can take a religious studies class and come away just as mature in their thinking and acting as my Christian or Muslim students. In other words, there shouldn’t be any confessional barriers to their learning and participation.

“Introduction to the Bible” would retain the Bible’s place within a school that reads from it in daily chapel while focusing more so on what the Bible “is” than the type of deep dive that may be better suited for seminarians who plan on preaching and teaching from it. It would connect to whatever literary studies are happening in our English classes and study of the ancient world that’s happening in our history classes.

This would bring philosophy back into the mix. When my colleague Fr. Nate Bostain left, our curriculum developed a gap that needs to be filled. Also, I’m increasingly interested in philosophy, sponsored our school’s philosophy club for years, and have incorporated philosophy into our biblical and religious studies classes, so this would be more natural than say a course on historical theology or church history.

The theory class, “Introduction to Religion,” would be “Religion in Global Context” with a simplified name. It would retain the “global” focus which aligns nicely with “Religion in the United States” which has more of a local focus and is more historical and social in nature with an emphasis on our civic lives. Also, as I plan on doing this year, it’ll place more emphasis on the 3 B’s model that encourages students to recognize that while “belief” is part of what makes something religious, religions don’t always center on belief—rituals, holy days, communities, etc. can be even more central to someone’s religious identity.

Finally, and most importantly, each of these classes can become stand-alone so that there’s no need for one to be a prerequisite for the other like “The Hebrew Scriptures” is for “The Christian Scriptures” and “Religion in Global Context” is for “Religion in the United States” in our current catalog. I’m sure that would make scheduling easier for our Registrar!

Now, this blog post may be a futile writing exercise, and it may be that my superiors will disagree, but I plan on making a pitch like this to them this year in preparation for the 23-24 academic year.

Bertrand Russell’s invitation to epistemic humility

Next summer, I plan on offering a class on the philosophy of religion. While I’ve read philosophy on the side since I was an undergraduate, I didn’t major in it, nor have I logged anywhere near the same number of hours into studying it as say biblical and religious studies. So, while the class isn’t for another year, I find myself preparing now, reading all I can, and trying to envision the shape that the class will take.

Bertrand Russell. Image via Wikipedia.

One essay that I’m considering having my students read on the first day is Bertrand Russell’s “Philosophy for Laymen” (which can be found in Unpopular Essays, pp. 32-44). It’s a gem. Russell begins with the claim that since the dawn of civilization, humans “have been confronted with problems of two different kinds”: (1) how to master “natural forces” and (2) “how to best utilize our command over the forces of nature” (p. 32). Another way he puts it is that we have sought “a theoretical understanding of the structure of the world” and “tried to discover and inculcate the best possible way of life.” He concludes that philosophy has related to both of these concerns (p. 32) and therefore, “Philosophy has thus been closely related to science on the one hand, and to religion on the other.” (p. 33)

Then he goes on to warn against what today we call “scientism” and “anti-science” (p.36). Both are a bridge too far because both are a form of dogmatism. In this essay, the one thing that Russell presents as a great danger to us all is dogmatism. This doesn’t mean he promotes skepticism because, as we’ll see, skepticism is dogmatic too.

The reason that philosophy belongs to the “layman” and not just the professional is that everyone needs to learn how to approach thinking about and acting in the world in a way that is philosophical in nature if we’re to avoid the dogmatism that leads to the either/or, us-against-them, zero-sum approach that we see emerging again today not only in the UK from where Russell hailed but here in the United States and also in places like India. Democracy has become strained in these countries as certain ideologies—the kind promoted by figures ranging from Steve Bannon to Yogi Adityanath—promote a nativist, nationalist, and often theocratic justification for just winning, even if the principles that hold pluralistic democracies (like the United States and India) must be abandoned.

Russell’s words remain a relevant response to the willingness of the mob to follow people like Bannon and Adityanath when he writes:

…so long as men are not trained to withhold judgment in the absence of evidence, they will be led astray by cocksure prophets, and it is likely that their leaders will be either ignorant fanatics or dishonest charlatans. To endure uncertainty is difficult, but so are most of the other virtues. For the learning of every virtue there is an appropriate discipline, and for the learning of suspended judgment the best discipline is philosophy.

Unpopular Essays, p. 38

This call to “endure uncertainty” is seen as necessary for maturity but as I said, he doesn’t advocate a pendulum swing to skepticism or nihilism. Russell writes:

But if philosophy is to serve a positive purpose, it must not teach mere skepticism, for, while the dogmatist is harmful, the skeptic is useless. Dogmatism and skepticism are both, in a sense, absolute philosophies; one is certain of knowing, the other of not knowing. What philosophy should dissipate is certainty, whether of knowledge or of ignorance.

Unpopular Essays, p. 38

For Russell, “The pursuit of philosophy is founded on the belief that knowledge is good, even if what is known is painful.” (p. 41). But not all “knowledge” is the same: “all that passes for knowledge can be arranged in a hierarchy of degrees of certainty, with arithmetic and the facts of perception at the top.” (p. 39) My confidence that 2+2 = 4 should be higher than my confidence that a certain form of capitalism or socialism will be the most utilitarian. We can’t be frozen by our uncertainty, as Russell writes: “…it is necessary, at the same time, to learn to act upon the best hypothesis without dogmatically believing it.” (p. 39) Pragmatically, Russell tells us that we should ask what potential harm might come from acting on what we think we know. “When you act upon a hypothesis which you know to be uncertain, your action should be such as will not have very harmful results if your hypothesis is false.” (p. 40).

This last line reminds me of a claim found in the United States Declaration of Independence:

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.

I interpret this to mean that the architects of the Declaration are asking their audience to take their call for independence seriously because they know that something like revolution should be the last option. Now, for many who are oppressed or feel oppressed, this claim may seem unjust, but it should be remembered that the results of a revolution aren’t always positive. Yes, things can get better but they can get even worse as well. Most revolutions fail (remember the “Arab Spring”?) and stability is a virtue unless the suffering being experienced in a stable situation is worse than the potential suffering caused by the instability of revolutionary action.

Russell’s concern is that we don’t usually know if we’re right in the same way we know 2+2 = 4. And since there’s room for doubt, we must be cautious. We must allow our epistemic humility to guide us away from rash decisions. Is this to say that there’s never a time for action that might have some form of “collateral damage”? That’s unclear. The Founding Fathers appeared willing to act on principles that would suggest that they saw certain levels of pain and suffering to be worth it if certain freedoms were obtained, and maybe worth it even if those freedoms weren’t obtained, but they recognized that this is rare. Russell himself held to an evolving form of pacifism over his lifespan. Though his pacifism wasn’t absolute later in life, his belief that epistemic humility requires us to “pump the brakes,” if you will, seems to have remained consistent.

Now, epistemic humility isn’t always high-stakes. For Russell, it’s an attitude that should be applied generously. For my students next summer, I hope it’ll help them develop a posture of openness and inquiry. I think that would be a great way to open a philosophy course.

Book Note: David J. Chalmers’ “Reality +”

David J. Chalmers, Reality +: Virtual Worlds and the Problems of Philosophy (W.W. Norton, 2022).

(Amazon; Bookshop)

I’ve been intrigued by some form of simulation theory since I saw The Matrix a couple of decades ago. When I introduce Hinduism to my students, I connect simulation theory to the concept of “Brahman,” the name of existence itself, of which all of us are part. For many Indian philosophers, everything and everyone is Brahman since everything participates in “existence”. When Brahman is personified, questions can be asked as to why there is difference if all of us are ultimately the same thing: lila and maya. Lila is “divine play” where Brahman “decides” to experience endless realities as a way of “enjoying” all the different perspectives that all of us create. Maya is the negative illusion that we’re individuals. Our stress and anxiety come from the false separation of “I” from everything else. So, lila and maya are two sides of the same coin. In order to enjoy our experience of reality, and for Brahman to have that experience, we must believe we are individuals, unique and distinct from the whole of reality in some way. But that sense of self, that illusion, also leads to our own entrapment in samsara, cycling through almost endless lives, until we can realize our oneness with Brahman, releasing ourselves from the illusion of distinction, and merging back into the whole. This is called “moksha”.

Hinduism is said to be “monistic” as in there isn’t one “god” like the popular forms of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, but just one “thing” or one “reality”. Again, that reality is Brahman.

Why do I connect this to simulation theory? Well, simulation theory asks whether or not we are in a simulation and if we could know if we were in one. I push my students to consider the possibility that we are in a simulation, or that we are emanations of Brahman, and then ask them whether discovering that we are simulated or emanated would change how they view themselves and their lives. Since many of my students have been raised in homes where Christianity is practiced, or where Christianity is the unspoken influence, they tend to think of themselves as creations distinct from a Creator—creations with a unique, eternal soul that will never lose its distinction. For these students, the concept of Brahman, and simulation theory, can be unnerving. For students who tend to be more naturalistic, who already see themselves as material beings emerging from a material world to which their bodies will return when they die, neither Brahman nor simulation theory causes much unease.

David J. Chalmers, one of the foremost philosophers in the area of the study of mind, has written a wonderful book titled Reality +: Virtual Worlds and the Problem of Philosophy that deals a lot with simulation theory. When I’ve told people about the book, some of them say something like, “I can’t imagine reading a whole book on that topic.” But it isn’t about simulation theory only, just like when I teach my students about simulation theory, I’m really trying to help them conceptualize Indian concepts of Brahman. The book uses simulation theory as a gateway to many of the fascinating “problems of philosophy,” as the subtitle suggests. Chalmers has chapters on epistemology, ontology, and ethics that all use virtual worlds as thought experiments. When we ask whether we can know if we’re in a simulation, we’re jumping into a conversation about how we can know what we know or if we can really know anything (and what we mean by the word “know”). When we consider simulation theory, we’re asking what is “real”. It physics the only “real” world. Is our perceptions “real” or completely constructed. And when we consider what it would be like to see sentient life emerge in a simulation—whether we are the created or the creator—it forces us to consider our own ethical paradigms around how we treat other minds.

For this reason, the book can serve not only as a niche study of virtual worlds and how we should consider them—whether that be wearing an Oculus, enjoying whatever Meta is creating, or participating in Second Life—but it can serve as a general introduction to many of the problems that philosophers have been addressing and will continue to address. Also, the illustrations found throughout the book are excellent which makes the book all that more effective at teaching difficult philosophical concepts.

Book Note: “Philosophy’s Big Questions” edited by Steven M Emmanuel

Philosophy’s Big Questions: Comparing Buddhist and Western Approaches edited by Steven M. Emmanuel (Columbia University Press, 2021).

(Amazon; Bookshop)

Philosophy’s Big Questions: Comparing Buddhists and Western Approaches, edited by Steven M. Emmanuel, contains eight essays that each do what the title suggests: examine one of philosophy’s big questions through the lens of “Western” philosophy in dialogue with Buddhist philosophy. These essays cover topics ranging from epistemology (e.g. Chapter 2: “What Is Knowledge? Knowledge in the Context of Buddhist Thought” by Douglas Duckworth) to ontology (Chapter 3: “Does Reality Have a Ground: Madhyamaka and Nonfoundationalism” by Jan Westerhoff) to ethics (e.g. Chapter 7: “How Much Is Enough? Greed, Prosperity, and the Economic Problem of Happiness: A Comparative Perspective” by Emmanuel; Chapter 8: “What Do We Owe Future Generations? Compassion and Future Generations: A Buddhist Contribution to an Ethics of Global Interdependence” by Peter D. Hershock). There’s a mix of theoretical-leaning essays (e.g. Chapter 4: “Can Consciousness Be Explained? Buddhist Idealism and the ‘Hard Problem’ in Philosophy of Mind” by Dan Arnold) with practical-leaning ones (e.g. Chapter 1: “How Should We Live? Happiness, Human Flourishing, and the Good Human Life” by Stephen J. Laumakis).

The reader will encounter the conflict of similarity and dissimilarity. By this I mean, that sometimes “Western” philosophy seems worlds away from what Buddhist thinkers have suggested—for example, Hershock’s discussion of the “Bodhissatva” figure in Mahayana Buddhism— while at other times it seems like they arrived at similar places from different directions—for example, Laumakis’ discussion that also cites ancient Greek philosophers or Arnold’s essay that engages the work of philosophers like David J. Chalmers while speaking of the Buddhist doctrine of “no-self” (anatta) in a way that resonates with view of Daniel Dennett and others that our “consciousness” is just an illusion.

On a side note: one thing I really appreciate about this book is that it answers the call of those like Bryan Van Norden who have challenged philosophers to look beyond the Western canon. This volume definitely accomplishes that objective!

Book Note: Carolyn Chen’s “Work Pray Code”

Carolyn Chen, Work Pray Code: When Work Becomes Religion in the Silicon Valley (Princeton University Press, 2022).

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In Work Pray Code: When Work Becomes Religion in the Silicon Valley, Carolyn Chen asks us (p. 196), “What happens to society when its members worship work?” Then she responds, “Silicon Valley offers us an answer.” The answer is, on the one hand, enlightening, and on the other hand, terrifying. It’s enlightening because it provides us with much-needed insight into the spirituality of the so-called “Nones” (i.e. those who answer the question “With what religion do you affiliate?” with the answer “none”). When people hear “Nones” they may think of people with a religious void, or people who claim to be “spiritual-but-not-religious” (which is a claim founded on a misplaced concreteness regarding the word “religion”). But few “Nones” are religiously apathetic; they place the energies that others may devote to going to a church, synagogue, mosque, temple, etc., to something else but with similar vigor and intent.

While Chen doesn’t provide a working definition of “religion” until Appendix A, her implied definition is clear and aligns with her stated one in the appendix. In short, Chen admits (p. 213), “To find ‘religion’ in Silicon Valley, I realized that I’d have to reexamine my assumptions about what is ‘secular’ and what is ‘religious’.” To do this, she says that there “are two ways of studying religion empirically in a secular age” which she claims are through the clearly “religious” “religious traditions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and so on” which doesn’t work well for finding religion in the Silicon Valley, and through the less clear idea of “the sacred” which are “the institutions, ideas, practices, spaces and things a community sets aside as special and worthy of worship. Something is sacred because of the power it has over the members of the community.”

This reminds me a bit of Paul Tillich’s definition of “religion” in Theology of Culture (pp. 7-8), “Religion, in the most basic sense of the word, is ultimate concern. And ultimate concern is manifest in all creative functions of the human spirit.” For a Christian, ultimate concern may be a relationship with their god through the person of Jesus resulting in the award of eternal life, and for a Buddhist, ultimate concern may be to reach nirvana, extinguishing the pain of suffering and dissatisfaction. For a Google employee, ultimate concern may be the creativity inherit in their job and the mission of the corporation of which they’re a part.

And this is where it’s terrifying. We should use the word “cult” cautiously because as we know it’s a pejorative that’s often used to dismiss or demonize a religious movement that seems fringe or unfamiliar. As it’s said, “cult plus time equals religion”. Most religious movements are seen as fringe and unfamiliar, dismissed and demonized, in their earlier state but come to receive some level of “respectability” over time. But I do think that when most of us use the word “cult” casually, we’re expressing discomfort not only with the difference we’re observing but the difference plus the level of demand. We’re used to Catholic priests and Buddhist bhikkus giving their lives but outside of these very old, well-established institutions, when a religious movement begins to demand all of someone’s life, especially when it results in that person becoming divorced from the world outside of their religious community, popular discourse refers to this level of control as “cultish” or “cult-like” and the group/community/organization as a “cult”

As you read Chen’s account of how much tech employees pour of their lives into their place of work, and how much it shuts them off from the outside world, you’ll begin to understand why some people see the religious devotion of Silicon Valley workers to their companies as, at least, “cult-like”.

In the Introduction, “How Work is Replacing Religion”, and Chapter 1: “Losing My Religion…and Finding It at Work”, the reader comes to see how and why work has begun to fill the hole where religion used to reside in the hearts of many people. In Chapter 2: “Corporate Maternalism: Nurturing Body and Soul” and Chapter 3: “Managing Souls: The Spiritual Cultivation of Human Capital” we receive insight into how the tech industry sees their employees, in a competitive “knowledge economy”, as investments. They can’t burn out their workers when these are some of the best and brightest minds coming from the top universities and colleges, so they must invest in them, and keep them healthy and happy. Pardon the analogy but it’s like this: you won’t get as much from a cow if you work it to death, so for as much extraction as you may require, there better be an investment. Similarly, free snacks and drinks, yoga lessons, on-site gyms, child care, etc., help corporations keep their employees happy and satisfied, and in return, with every need met on location, it allows for the employee to put in more hours for the corporation.

Now, if this seems dehumanizing, remember what the introduction and first chapter establish: work has become one of the ultimate forms of fulfillment in our society. And as I read these sections, I was reminded of something I’ve seen stated by people who survived the tragedies of The Peoples’ Temple, the Branch Davidians of Waco, and Heaven’s Gate: those were some of the most excited, fulfilling, best days of their lives, even if it all came crashing down on them. And many survivors of these movements, while recognizing something went wrong, never could get the same high as when they were on a mission to save the world. Silicon Valley is full of companies that encourage their workers to see themselves as world-changers, so 12-16 hour days, 6 days a week, isn’t a sacrifice.

Chapter 4: “The Dharma according to Google” and Chapter 5: “Killing the Buddha” examine what happens when workplaces import religious practices while often stripping them of their religious affiliations. This process is what Chen calls, “the secular diffusion of religion” (p. 16). We’ve seen it: yoga has hardly anything to do with Hindu thought and practice in the minds of most Americans who practice it; mindfulness has little to do with the Buddhist meditative practices from which it derives. So, what happens when a Zen teacher is contracted by a corporation to come and teach mindfulness while leaving their Buddhism at the door? Cognitive dissonance is often what happens. For many “spiritual coaches” in the Bay Area, there’s the pragmatics of needing to afford to live in one of the most expensive places in the world, so if they have to offer “Diet Buddhism” so be it. For others, there’s a sense that some Buddhism, even if unnamed, does more for the world than no Buddhism. And for others, it was too much, and some tech workers, meditation teachers, etc., decided that their religion was being corrupted by its marriage to big tech and then decided to choose their religion over big tech.

Chapter 5: “Killing the Buddha” may be worth the price of the book (though, you benefit from the rest of the book when it comes to understanding this)! Chen takes from the Zen saying, “If you meet the Buddha, kill him” (which, while interpreted diversely, has come to mean for some that you should kill the “religious trapping in the practice of Buddhist meditation” [p. 155]), and shows that this can be very problematic when we observe how it’s applied. Chen discusses five types of Buddism that emerge when corporations want the perks of Buddhist practice without all the things that may be considered “religious” sounding and looking. Those types of Buddhism are “Hidden Buddhism” as in the practices are Buddhist, but out of fear of violating Title VII, must be done without reference to their origins. Whitened Buddhism is Buddhism not only without its religiosity but “It erases the ‘ethnic’ and ‘religious’ Buddhism of Asians and Asian Americans in favor of the thinking and experience of White Westerners.” (p. 162) Scientific Buddhism is when CEOs or HR can be sold the benefits of Buddhism by appealing to the scientific studies that may indicate that meditation/mindfulness has certain psychological and physical benefits to it that will benefit the company (remember the themes of chapters 2 and 3). Bottom-Line Buddhism is directly connected to Scientific Buddhism: if workers are serene, peaceful, and free from anxiety, this will bring down lost hours, health-care costs, etc. So, Bottom-Line Buddhism is sold to corporations on the promise that it’ll increase productivity, reduce costs, and ultimately result in profit. Finally, On-the-Go Buddhism is just as it sounds: a religion that may ask you to spend time being in meditation is squeezed into a fast-food version of itself that’s suitable for busy tech workers.

The Conclusion: “Techtopia: Privatized Wholeness and Public Brokenness” examines the fallout of this sort of work-as-religion worldview, ranging from work “colonizing” the time of its employees to the displacement and economic turmoil the tech industry has caused in the Bay Area. Now, as I’ve spent much more time on the negative impact of work-as-religion, I want to be clear that this book isn’t a hit job. It’s quite fair to tech industry at many points. Chen embedded herself in that world for five years, so she got to know the people, the companies, and their culture. And as a former resident of San Francisco myself, I can resonate with the high of Bay Area life. It’s not just the West Coast of the United States but it often feels like you’re on the edge of the future, and I didn’t even work any jobs even remotely related to tech. So, while we may be rightly concerned with people giving their everything to work so that they’re no longer part of a church, or a PTA or HOA, or local politics, etc., let’s remember that tech jobs do provide purpose and mission, and as many religious institutions have failed to be able to show people their “purpose-driven life” (to borrow from Rick Warren’s 2000s approach to American Christianity), the tech industry has been able to do it. As religion becomes less relevant in the lives of many Americans, new forms of “ultimate concern” are created and offered to seekers everywhere.