A Short Note on Sylvester A. Johnson’s African American Religions, 1500-2000

Sylvester A. Johnson, African American Religions, 1500-2000: Colonialism, Democracy, and Freedom (Cambridge, 2015).

(Amazon; Bookshop)

The subtitle to Sylvester A. Johnson’s African American Religions, 1500-2000 is key to understanding the aim of the book. It isn’t a generic overview of the history of African American religion but a precise examination of how African American religion intersects with American ideas around colonialism, democracy, and freedom. The reader will encounter figures, events, movements, etc., that you expect, whether that be the Transatlantic slave trade, American slavery, the American Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement, or major characters in those stories ranging from Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth to Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. But the directions Johnson goes with those stories, and the stories he tells that may be less familiar, are what make this book an essential addition to your religious studies or American studies library.

Johnson’s history introduced me to pasts with which I had little familiarity, ranging from people like Dona Beatriz and her role within Kongolese Christianity to the rise and role of corporations, to the subversive interpretation of the Bible modeled by Olaudah Equiano, and on and on and one. I found myself encountering a history of which I knew little. Concepts like Black Settler Colonialism in relation to places like Sierra Leone and Liberia, or Marcus Garvey’s “Garveyism” as a philosophy of Black identity and a strategy for engaging White supremacy may be ignored in most American and American religious history textbooks but upon reflection appear to be essential elements to those histories. If you want an excellently written book with dynamic content that will give you a broader understanding of the worlds that shaped our own, then this book is a “can’t miss” read.

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A Short Note on Aaron W. Hughes Muslim Identities

Aaron W. Hughes, Muslim Identities: An Introduction to Islam, 2nd Edition (Equinox, 2022).

(Amazon; Bookshop)

Aaron W. Hughes’ Muslim Identities is an introduction to Islam that I would highly recommend. His goal in creating this resource is to “maneuver delicately between an overly critical approach and the apologetic approach” (p. 1). Muslim readers should find a fair representation of their various traditions; non-Muslims should find a sound, scholarly introduction to one of the world’s most prominent religions. Hughes avoids framing a single, “normative” Islam (p. 2), instead introducing readers to the varieties of Islam that exist. This project is framed around the shared, inherited, and created identities to be found among Muslims (hence the title of the book). Hughes understands the varieties of Islam as being a variety of ways that Muslims enter into and shape “communities” that “are socially constructed or imagined by the people who perceive themselves as part of a group” (p. 6). He comments that “identity is something that was and is actively constructed in response to various needs, and these constructions derive their potency from being projected onto the past, where they are thought to exist in pure form.” (pp. 6-7)

This framework of seeing Islamic history, traditions, sectarianism, etc., through the prism of identity formation is what makes this introduction unique. In many ways, it’s similar to the other introductions to Islam that can be found in the type of content it covers but the emphasis on identity formation is far more enlightening than it might seem at first glance. In fact, I would say that since reading this book, almost everything related to religious studies that pass through my brain must now cross a checkpoint that evaluates how these elements relate to the way people shape their personal and group identities. Shia and Sunni aren’t mere opposites or sects, but groups that form their identities in relation to one another. Muslims in Saudi Arabia and Muslims in Iran may shape their forms of Islam with an eye toward how their neighboring country is practicing the religions. When we ask why a religion took this or that shape, aligned with this or that political movement, or thrived in this culture but not that one, we’d do well to inquire how it is that said religion provided people with a sense of identity in a given time and place.

A Short Note on Liz Bucar’s Stealing My Religion

Liz Bucar, Stealing My Religion: Not Just Any Cultural Appropriation (Harvard, 2022).
(Amazon; Bookshop)

Liz Bucar’s Stealing My Religion is a humble, open-hearted, scholarly examination of the ethics of appropriating the religion of others. I say that because this is not a book where you will find Bucar demonizing other people nor will you find an apology for why anyone, anywhere should be able to practice whatever element of whatever religion they want. Instead, you will find a sincere attempt to navigate between these two poles, with Bucar using her own pedagogical practices as a case study for one of the chapters, and transparently questioning herself and thinking out loud about taking students to Spain to participate in Camino de Santiago de Compostela, even when they are not Catholic, or even religious at all. Her other case studies—non-Muslims wearing a hijab in solidarity with Muslim women and people practicing yoga divorced from its Indian spiritual roots—are both thought-provoking.

It is fair to say that for Bucar, not all borrowing is the same. Her presentation shows that appropriating religious practices can be far more ethically ambiguous than say appropriating something that has to do with another race. And some religious appropriation, e.g. wearing the hijab, seems to be more problematic than others, e.g. practicing yoga for its health and psychological benefits. The key point is that we should be careful when engaging the religion of others when we do not intend on becoming part of the communities and histories that gave us this or that belief or practice. If this ethical engagement with religions that are not your own is a concern to you, then I highly recommend this book as a thought partner.

Book Note: La Carmina’s “The Little Book of Satanism”

La Carmina, The Little Book of Satanism: A Guide to Satanic History, Culture, and Wisdom (Ulysses Press, 2022). (Amazon; Bookshop)

La Carmina “is an award-winning alternative travel/culture/fashion blogger, author of four books, journalist and TV host.” She reached out to me a few weeks ago to ask if I’d be interested in reviewing her new book, The Little Book of Satanism. Of course, I was happy to review it. (And I wasn’t told how I should review it, so everything I say here is my opinion.) On this blog, I’ve reviewed biblical studies scholarship on the development of Satan in the Jewish and Christian Bibles and modern religious studies scholarship on contemporary Satanism. In my “Religion in the United States” class, I teach a lesson on American Satanism. It’s always my goal to represent religious movements as fairly as possible, so reading La Carmina’s book provides me with a resource that explains Satanism from a perspective that practicing Satanists would recognize. If you want to understand Satanism, its history, and what draws people to it, I highly recommend this book.

First of all, it’s short at a little over 130 pages of content. It’s very readable; very accessible to all audiences. You don’t need to know anything about Satanism to jump into it.

After the Forward by Lucien Greaves, one of the co-founders of the Satanic Temple, La Carmina provides a brief history of the development of the figure of Satan, going back to predecessors in, for example, Zoroastrianism and the Hebrew Bible and Satan’s emergence in Judaism and Christianity. La Carmina explores the various names given to the Devil; artistic depictions; and symbols associated with Satan.

Part 2 summarizes how the figure of Satan evolved from the Middle Ages to the present, highlighting the influence of Dante’s Inferno, the concept of exorcisms, and European and North American Witch Hunts. By the end of this section, La Carmina notes on p. 56, “By now, a theme has emerged: it is always ostracized out-groups who are targeted as Satan’s bedfellows.” And this will become part of the motivation of modern Satanists. On p. 61, we read that some of the events in the past (e.g. “the Affair of the Poisons”) have led to many Satanists, “striving to defend reproductive rights and disempowered minorities.” Part 2 continues with a look at John Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost and its influence, as well as other writers who are classified as “Romantic Satanism,” viewing Satan as a rebel against tyranny.

This last part is key. Satan’s “meaning” changes. Rarely Satan is seen through the lens that most Christians see this figure through. It could be argued that while the same word/name is used, as Wittgenstein would show us, the “language-game” isn’t the same. This isn’t to deny the intentionality of the use of the word/name “Satan” but to say “Satan” doesn’t mean to everyone else what it might mean to you!

Part 2 wraps up with a hoax (“the Taxil Hoax”), a couple of groups, and a major figure, Aleister Crawley, who influenced what Satanism would become. Part 3 continues the history of Satanism but with a focus on modernity. We meet groups like the Process Church of the Final Judgement and the Church of Satan (CoS), the latter led by Anton LaVey out of San Francisco, and the group that marks the birth of modern Satanism as we know it. It would seem to me that when most people think of “Satanism” they think of the CoS and “LaVeyan” Satanism, specifically. La Carmina’s exploration will help clear away cartoonish ideas that people may have about LaVey and his movement. Satan’s place in pop culture (e.g. Rosemary’s Baby), association with serial killers in the 1960s, and the Satanic panic round out this era and Part 3.

Part 4 focuses on Satanism in the 21st century. The Satanic Temple (TST), founded in 2013, dominates this section. La Carmina discusses their origin, ideologies, and activism, as well as what makes them a modern religion (e.g. rituals and holidays). For those interested in the trajectory of modern Satanism, this will be the most important chapter. (No offense to the CoS but TST is the most prominent representative of Satanism today!)

The Conclusion glimpses Satanism in a global context, looking at other “dark” figures (e.g. Santa Muerte; Yama) who have received similar veneration, both metaphysical and symbolic, and La Carmina predicts that this new religious movement will continue to spread.

Again, if you’re interested in a fair presentation of modern Satanism, and if you want to know what this movement is about without all the posturing that can occur when Satanism is discussed, this is a great place to begin.

Book Note: Harvey Cox’s The Market As God

Harvey Cox, The Market As God (Harvard University Press, 2016). (Amazon; Bookshop)

In The Market As God, the Hollis Research Professor of Divinity at Harvard University, Harvey Cox, ponders the deification of “the Market”. This begins will a series of comparisons between the way people have spoken of the personified “Market” and deities like the biblical “God”. For example, the “Invisible Hand of the Market” echoes discussions around Providence in Christian theological works. The Market is presented as a Creator who brings into existence the “corporation-person” or the corporation-with-personhood. This deity is contrasted with some of the images of the biblical “God” who prohibits things like “usury” (i.e. predatory lending) and calls for periods of wealth redistribution (e.g. the “Jubilee”).

Once Cox has accustom the reader to a theological way of talking about economics, he explores the many unhealthy deficiencies in our capitalist system. To be clear, Cox will come to argue at the end of the book that “the Market” can redeemed when it is saved from the burden of being “divine,” so he doesn’t appear to be anti-capitalist, per se, as much as critical of what he perceives to be abusive forms of capitalism that can’t bear the weight of our expectations.

The final third of the book explores the history of how money and religion have related, looking at how money may have played a role in providing St. Augustine with his victory of the (declared heretical) monk Pelagius; how Adam Smith’s economics was grounded in his theology; and other similarities between modern economic-speech and theological-speech, such as a sense of mission and the missionary mindset, the function of “liturgical” seasons, and various forms of eschatology.

This book is insightful. While connected, certain parts could be read independently of the others as mini-essays. Whether or not Cox’s confidence in the small-m “market” is justified is something not all readers will resonate with but his broader comparative insights are thought-provoking and at least raise the question of whether work and business is taking the place in people’s lives that religion once occupied.

On a related note, I’m happy to promote a video that I had a small part in scripting: Religion For Breakfast, a.k.a. Andrew Henry, has addressed a related book, Carolyn Chen’s Work Pray Codehttps://brianleport.home.blog/2022/06/03/book-note-carolyn-chens-work-pray-code/ in the video (“Tech Companies: A New Religion?”) linked below:

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?

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!