Neil deGrasse Tyson is a name that’s been bandied about the office in the last several weeks as a potential guest. While scanning RSS feeds, one keys in on keywords one may not have paid attention to previously.
In this interview with The Humanist, the popular astrophysicist has some intriguing things to say about beliefs, education, and communication. When asked if he’s a humanist:
I’ve never identified with any movement. I just am what I am and occasionally a movement claims me because there is resonance between my writings and speeches and what they do, and that’s fine; I don’t mind that. But no, I have never been politically or organizationally active in that way. Astrophysics—that’s what I identify with.
I gave a talk to the National Science Teachers Association. That is an important group of people, K-12 educators in science. I asked by show of hands how many people—because I knew it would get an interesting reply—didn’t own a television. Half of the hands went up. Of those who owned a television, I asked how many only occasionally used it to watch a movie, and half of the hands went up. So fully three quarters of that audience whose job it is to teach the next generation science don’t watch television, yet the average American watches thirty or forty hours of television a week. That disconnect is pedagogically fatal.
…and when I say pop culture I don’t mean only the TV shows that are kind of cool and interesting. I also mean the hit shows. I’m talking about Dancing with the Stars. I’m talking about the reality shows most educators thumb their noses at as being of no educational or intellectual value. Yet clearly millions of people watch them every week so there is a disconnect. Once there is a disconnect, you’re not communicating.
On a new atheist’s style of communicating science:
In the category of worst practices, there are occasions where people—either humanist or atheist—are just completely obnoxious in a conversation with others. I even had a tussle with Richard Dawkins (I think it’s my most viewed YouTube clip) in which I accused him of being completely ineffective because he is so sharp of wit in the service of his point of view, and he is so well educated that he may fail to fulfill the directive of his title, which at the time was Professor of the Public Understanding of Science. That implies that your conversation with another person is an act of persuasion in some ways, not hitting them over the head. You want to understand what is going on in another person’s mind and meet them there. Otherwise, you’re not as effective as you could be.
The Australian Broadcasting Company offers a lot of religion programming across multiple formats, so I like to keep an eye on what they’re doing. This week, the television program Compass is replaying a 2008 episode that followed two Muslim families during Ramadan. In light of our Revealing Ramadan project, I enjoyed watching this 30-minute video about how Muslims “down under” experience the holy month:
"Break-Fast At Mobinah’s"
Ramadan, the world-wide Muslim month of fasting and feasting, has begun and Compass follows two families through the most important event on the Islamic calendar. Fadi and his family are Lebanese-Australians who run a busy restaurant. Each day, on empty stomachs, they cook for crowds of ravenous diners who descend after sunset. Mobinah Ahmad and her extended Indian-Australian family work and study through Ramadan, and hope to lose a little weight along the way. The Ahmads also run Sydney’s largest Eid celebration to mark the end of Ramadan. What sustains them through the day when food doesn’t? And how can not eating bring you closer to Allah?
FB Friends Connect a Line from "The Novelist as God," an Islamic Mystic, and Norse Mythology
Raymond Sigrist:...At one point Ms. Mary Doria Russell quotes a character in her book as saying, “I don't need hell to scare me into behaving decently or heaven to bribe me.” ...I suspect this insight must be part of the wisdom which has been written into the collective subconcious mind of all of us. It is remarkably close to the words of the Islamic mystic Rabia: “O Lord if I worship you out of fear of hell, burn me in hell. If I worship you in the hope of paradise, forbid it to me.” Rabia (from Early Islamic Mysticism, Michael Sells, page 163)
Eilan Loveridge:In Norse mythology there is Ragnarok, Destruction of the Gods, where the ruling powers cannot prevent the triumph of evil. Knowing this, they defy the forces of destruction."Victory or defeat have nothing to do with right and wrong, and that even if the universe is controlled beyond redemption by hostile and evil forces, that is not enough to make a hero change sides. In a sense this Northern mythology asks more of people than Christianity does, for it offers them no heaven, no salvation, no reward for virtue except the sombre satisfaction of having done right" ~JRR Tolkien
Over the summer, I’ve been doing research for an upcoming program we’re producing on the spiritual legacy of Sitting Bull. I’ve been on board with Speaking of Faith for under a year and so far, and all the shows I’ve worked on have featured guests who are alive — people like novelist Mary Doria Russell and torture expert Darius Rejali who can speak in the first person about their life and ideas. But this upcoming Sitting Bull show is different. Here we’re trying to find the right voice(s) to illuminate an iconic historical figure. At times I’ve felt like a detective as I’ve sifted through names and followed one lead to the next, keeping my fingers crossed that someone would return my phone calls.
Fortunately I’ve encountered some helpful and responsive guides who’ve helped steer the search. One of those is biographer Bill Yenne, author of Sitting Bull. He was nice enough to take time out of his day recently to answer my questions and offer big-picture advice.
One thing that sticks with me from our conversation is Yenne’s gentle caution about using terms like “spiritual legacy” or “Lakota spirituality” (Sitting Bull was Lakota Sioux) when talking to people — that my understanding of those terms might not translate well across cultures. Honestly, I haven’t resolved this as I’ve reached out to Lakota contacts in South Dakota and beyond. Being an outsider to Lakota culture, I’m still learning to find language that’s respectful and appropriate.
Yenne (pictured here) also advised me to do more listening than talking and to get over a deadline-driven expectation that things are going to come together quickly. He recommended traveling to the Pine Ridge and Standing Rock reservations in South Dakota with a willingness “to sit down and hang out.” And not just hang out but also to give people gifts of tobacco as an offering. He said the legacy of Sitting Bull is complicated and we’re not going to get the story from one person.
Coming out of that conversation I was convinced that Mitch and Trent needed to make their way west to South Dakota with tobacco in hand. But Kate, our sage managing producer, shook me from this reverie. She said the demands of our weekly program couldn’t support such a plan, one that had no guarantee of finding the voices we needed.
So, with that, I regrouped with my colleagues to figure out where to go next. I’ll be sharing more of that journey, including conversations with former SOF guest David Treuer and University of South Dakota law professor Patrice Kunesh in the coming weeks and months. Our plans are still coming together, but, with each conversation, the path forward gets a little bit clearer.
In the past few years, we’ve produced shows for a biographical series, generously funded by the NEH, profiling well-known and lesser-known historical figures: Rumi, Niebuhr, Semple McPherson, Einstein, Heschel, Darwin. Many hours of research and speaking with scholars about these dynamic characters informs our radio and online productions. And each treatment reveals its own journey to that greater understanding.
As we are quickly learning, Sitting Bull’s legacy has many threads, many truths. We want to present you with the varieties we encounter. More than a matter of transparency, reporting what scholars and ancestors of this legacy share and how we wrestle with these dichotomies and mutual understandings is to present an in-depth look at this great man and the complexity of that heritage. And, in the process, we hope to demonstrate our due diligence and the important work of the many scholars who bring Sitting Bull to life.
I’ve asked our production staff to document and share with you, on this blog, what we’re learning about Sitting Bull — and the editorial decisions we make in the process, including what we choose not to do. We’ve done a fair amount of research over the years and delayed production so we could find the right voices that can speak to the themes, the ideas we want to tease out.
Nancy Rosenbaum, our associate producer, was tasked with making this happen and finding those voices. She’s done an admirable job, and we’re well on our way. Look for a series of posts from her (and others) in the coming weeks in which she’ll share more about her conversations with scholars and storytellers and family members.
And, if you have an feedback or recommendations, please leave a comment or contact us. We welcome good advice.
Revealing Ramadan: Samar Jarrah - “Fasting in a Place Like No Other” » download [mp3, 4:28] Trent Gilliss, online editor
One of the more difficult decisions of turning a group of 16 interviews into a limited-run podcast series within 24 hours was deciding who should be the voice to open the first day of Ramadan. Samar Jarrah eloquently captured a sentiment that we heard from many foreign-born Muslims who immigrated to the U.S. — that being a Muslim in America is to practice her faith, to fast, to pray, in a way like she would not have in Kuwait or Jordan or Egypt.
And, she expresses such joy and delight in discovering Islam anew. You can hear it in her tone. She’s still excited, and it’s been 20 years since she moved to the U.S. Hearing her story about rushing back from the Middle East to celebrate Ramadan in her adopted country makes me proud to be an American; but, she also makes me realize how tiring it must be to answer the same questions over and over again — about the veil, Islam as a violent faith, and so on.
We’ll be releasing her complete interview and essay in the coming weeks. Until that time, please enjoy this charming woman and her Ramadan reflection.
So many wonderful Ramadan stories. Only 1 hour of radio. Let them sit + collect dust? No! But what to do… Hmmm… Create a new project: Revealing Ramadan. 1 story per day for the month of Ramadan. And, share your story and images.
Whew! It’s hard to keep up with all the books that get sent to us for consideration. The table in our office fills up quickly each week, and since our territory is “religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas” we get a little bit of everything. Some are good fits, others are too abstract; some come with thoughtful pitches about why the author would be a good guest for us, others have no relevance and I assume come just because we got on some publisher’s mass distribution list.
While we make earnest attempts to plough through these, the reality is we pay attention to program ideas from many diverse sources. But looking at the stack on the table this week made me wonder what summer reads our listeners are enjoying that might be of interest to us. Please tell us — but don’t send us a copy, OK?
For those of you who haven’t gotten to that late July issue in the stack of New Yorkers on your coffee table or just gave up and unsubscribed like me, Krista just clued me in on this satirical commentary by Andy Borowitz.
This series of mock diary entries about Britney’s conjectured conversion to Judaism experience all begin with “Shalom, Diary” until the final entry when she “abandons” the process because the rabbi won’t indulge her points system. Although it can seem a bit mean, Borowitz does get at the whole pop star conversion thing and the faddish tendencies of celebrities. Now, whether this is a publicity stunt or media speculation (based on this photo of her wearing a necklace with a Star of David pendant) to begin, I’ll leave that up to you to decide.
A caution to more sensitive readers: the piece does contain a fair amount of foul language (and an excessive use of exclamation points for dramatic affect *grin*).
Last week I retweeted an article about the booming industry of cosmetic surgery in Saudi Arabia, and whether it’s halal or haram. And then, last night, I watched a roast for the 76-year-old comedian Joan Rivers on Comedy Central. Almost all the comedians focused their acts on her many facial reconstructions and sundry plastic surgeries. Yes, the barbs were brutal, but it jogged my memory about Rabbi A.J. Heschel's words about our growing vanity and narcissism and how it separates us from others, from ourselves, and even from God.
As we focus increasingly on ourselves, who do we leave behind, abandon? Heschel reflects on this in his essay “To Grow in Wisdom,” which was initially delivered at the 1961 White House Conference on Aging (yes, they still occur). It knocked me out in the first several paragraphs, talking about the idolatry of youth and the disregard for the elderly. His words couldn’t have been more prescient, and personally challenging:
"I see the sick and the despised, the defeated and the bitter, the rejected and the lonely. I see them clustered together and alone, clinging to a hope for somebody’s affection that does not come to pass. I hear them pray for the release that comes with death. I see them deprived and forgotten, masters yesterday, outcasts today.
What we owe the old is reverence, but all they ask for is consideration, attention, not to be discarded and forgotten. What they deserve is preference, yet we do not even grant them equality. One father finds it possible to sustain a dozen children, yet a dozen children find it impossible to sustain one father.
Perhaps this is the most distressing aspect of the situation. The care for the old is regarded as an act of charity rather than as a supreme privilege. In the never dying utterance of the Ten Commandments, the God of Israel did not proclaim: Honor Me, Revere Me. He proclaimed instead: Revere your father and your mother. There is no reverence for God without reverence for father and mother.
In Jewish tradition the honor for father and mother is a commandment, the perfect fulfillment of which surpasses the power of man. There is no limit to what one ought to do in carrying out this privilege of devotion. God is invisible, but my mother is His presence….”
Heschel’s book of essays, The Insecurity of Freedom, contain many of these kinds of reflection. It’s a wonderful introduction to his thought and poetic approach to life and faith. If you’ve been wanting to read him but were daunted by The Prophets — or even if you’ve never heard of him before — I highly recommend revisiting his relevant outlook on the society he saw developing before his very eyes.
Though it is just over a month old, I found this comparison of American and Iranian revolutions to be still highly relevant as Ahmadinejad, now sworn in as president, attempts to control Iran’s international profile while "the world is watching."
“The moral is that there is no such thing as ‘mere’ entertainment. The human mind is an attachment machine, forming emotional bonds with stuffed animals, invertebrates and Izzie Stevens. A good drama might ease our loneliness, but a breakup is still a breakup”—
From my peripheral vantage point, it’s been an interesting summer to consider the character(s) of sport. Roger Federer finally won the elusive French Open, prompting reviews that “nice guys can come first.” Now that the Tour de France is over, media attention has turned to the "drivel" between Lance Armstrong and this year’s champion Alberto Contador. I’m still pondering how Tom Watson must feel after coming so close to winning the British Open, just missing setting a record for the oldest player to win a major championship. Hailed as one of the classiest players in the game, Watson drew praise and respect while the tournament temper of the most beloved player, Tiger Woods, was not overlooked in the media this time. (I’ll skip the continuing saga of steroids and baseball - see Mitch’s post.)
A nine-year-old boy shows his support for Michael Vick outside federal court in Richmond, Virginia in 2007. (photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)
And now comes the annual return of the NFL. As training camps open, I find myself monitoring the future of Michael Vick now that the NFL has reinstated him post-dogfighting conviction, and reflecting on how forgiveness and second chances take the field in the elevated world of professional athletes. I’m a dog lover, you may recall, and so this one tugs at me closely. I’ve heard several reports that Vick is “a changed man” and sincerely sorry for his participation in dog-fighting rings. He’s returning to the NFL under the mentorship of former NFL coach Tony Dungy, a magnanimous sportsman, who said of Vick:
"I think Michael deserves the chance to show people he has changed and learned from past mistakes, but my true hope is that he will make sound decisions about his future and, at the same time, let people know more about the person that I’ve come to know recently. I know the public will be skeptical, but I think, over time, people will find there’s a different side to him than what they’ve seen so far."
Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, added:
"We support the principle that one should not only be allowed, but also encouraged to return to their chosen profession after fulfilling their debt to society. Michael Vick’s offenses were tragic and wrong and he has paid a debt through both prison and public ridicule. Now [Vick] can demonstrate that he can and will serve as a role model for young men in communities across the nation."
I think that’s the best possible outcome for this situation. Eventually a team will select him, so, a la Michael McCollough, I’m inclined to calm my revenge instinct (he should not be allowed to play or make big bucks in the NFL) and embolden my forgiveness intuition (give him a chance to prove himself and return to his profession). I’m skeptical, but I will hope Vick sets a new example and writes a redeeming chapter for modern professional sports.