Is faith essential – even if you don’t believe in the supernatural?

The FTC Building in Washington, D.C.
The FTC Building in Washington, D.C.

Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind covers an enormous range of topics in 400 plus pages. But one (of many) ideas that got me thinking is his claim that we all believe in things that aren’t objectively real.

Money is a cultural myth.

Take money. Why do we think a green piece of paper is so valuable? By itself it has no practical use (though you can exchange it for things, such as food, that do have a practical use). A dollar is backed by the United States of America, and that’s good enough for us.

But why do we trust the US government? It’s faith.

On page 117 Harari writes that “an objective phenomenon exists independently of human consciousness and human beliefs.” The subjective is dependent on the “beliefs of a single individual.” But the inter-subjective “exists within the communication network linking the subjective consciousness of many individuals.”

Money is inter-subjective. It’s a cultural myth.

We as a society believe that a little green piece of paper is valuable. But if society lost faith in the backing of the United States then the dollar would become worthless overnight.

Not so with an apple. An apple can provide nutrition even if you don’t believe it can.

Human rights don’t exist objectively.

Harari also argues that human rights don’t exist objectively like an apple does. Human rights are a cultural belief, and a relatively new one at that.

But this doesn’t mean that human rights aren’t real. This mythos is real because it serves not only a practical, but an essential, purpose in human societies.

The “cognitive revolution,” as Harari calls it, occurred when humans evolved the ability for abstract thought. Abstract concepts are mental tools just as spears are physical tools. We need to conceptualize our world, and shared concepts are essential for cooperation and cohesion in a society of more than a hundred or two hundred people.

The gods, and later the one God, are also social constructs. Zeus no longer exists because too few people believe in him. But the God of the Bible does still exist (as a human construct rather than an objective reality) because many people do believe in him.

A lot of people see religious diversity (especially atheism) as a threat to social cohesion because diversity and disbelief mean that society loses the uniting mythos of the one true God.

The faith that science will save us is mistaken.

How does this bode for the atheist quest to rid the human race of faith?

From Harari’s point of view, reason also is a human construct with no objective reality. Though reason has been immensely useful as a cognitive tool.

But the belief – the faith – that science will save us is mistaken. On page 253 Harari states that, “All modern attempts to stabilise the sociopolitical order have had no choice but to rely on either of two unscientific methods.”

One is to “declare that it [a scientific theory] is a final and absolute truth.” The Nazis did this with biological claims, and Communists did it with economic claims.

The other is to reject science in favor of “a non-scientific absolute truth.” This is what evangelicals and Islamic fundamentalists do.

A casual look at the progressive/conservative divide in America today reflects these options. Conservatives deny climate change and want biblical myths taught in science class rather than the theory of evolution. And some progressives (particularly radical left-wing students) insist that their theories about social justice must be believed and not debated.

The 1950s mythos will not reassert itself in the long run.

As such, today’s culture war (like all culture wars) represents a rejection of the established mythos and an attempt to have a new mythos dominate.

The 1960s and ’70s saw the rejection of the 1950s mythos. The 1980s through the early 2000s saw the new mythos’s quest for mainstream acceptance, which was accomplished through cultural relativism. Demanding dominance would have failed, but asking people just to think about the new mythos as one set of beliefs among many gets your foot in the door.

Today we see a demand for ideological dominance among progressive students at private colleges (and some state universities). Where this will go is hard to say.

There are several possibilities. Progressive students might see their mythos dominate within three or four decades. Or, mainstream culture might adopt some ideas that today are considered radical (much like gay marriage was radical twenty years ago) while retaining some traditional ideas. Alternatively, a third as yet undefined mythos could emerge (though that’s highly unlikely).

But the 1950s mythos will not reassert itself in the long run. Donald Trump wants to make America great again, implicitly invoking the 1950s of the Silent Generation’s young adulthood, Baby Boomer’s childhood, and Generations X’s imagination. But even if Trump becomes president the older cohorts that elect him will eventually age out of the political system.


Reflections on Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations

Mt. Blue State Park. Weld, Maine

Meditations is a disjointed book. It’s the personal journal of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (A.D. 121-180), which he called “To Himself.” He didn’t intend for it to be published, so he didn’t bother to do much polishing.

Aurelius’s journal rambles a bit. But his perspective comes down to the notion that, “All is as thinking makes it – and you control your thinking. Remove your judgments and there is calm” (12.22).

Metaphysical Speculation

Life is Like a River

Many of his musings are metaphysical speculation. Today’s scientific knowledge renders some of it moot. The rest parallels Buddhism in some ways. The Buddha lived many centuries before Aurelius. So who knows, maybe some Buddhist ideas had already made their way West by the second century A.D.

Aurelius likes the analogy of a river (5.23-24 & 6.15). The universe is a constant succession of change. Things that exist or which are coming into existence are quickly swept away in the ceaseless flow of time. Even some aspects of what is still coming into being have already been extinguished.

All things vanish into the past. We cannot gain a foothold but must go with the flow and not worry when some things race past us. So ambition or indignation at our lot in life is folly. Considering all of existence, we are but the tiniest part. And we’ve been assigned only a brief and fleeting moment of it.

Everything is Connected

Depressing? Not really. Everything in the universe is interwoven, so we are all connected and stand in relation to all things. We can think of others as part of a large extended family. And that’s the common spirit, the unity of all being (6.38).

Being in relationship to the whole, we should not resent any part of it or do anything anti-social. We should be happy with whatever happens to us because the whole contains nothing that doesn’t benefit it (10.6). All is right in the world in the sense of being just (4.10).

I find that last part hard to swallow. Being tortured or catching a nasty disease and dying a painful death are things I should be happy about because it benefits the whole? How does it benefit the whole? Certainly it sucks for me.

Aurelian Psychology

Thinking Straight

Aurelius’s psychology says nothing external can touch the mind. If something external causes us distress then it’s not the thing itself but rather our internal judgments of it. Reducing anxiety is a matter of correcting our misjudgments (4.4 & 8.47).

And we shouldn’t be concerned about other people slighting us because this mostly stems from ignorance, not maliciousness. Identifying someone’s flawed sense of what good or bad, right or wrong, can help us put other people’s negative judgments of us into perspective without getting angry (6.20 & 7.26).

Besides, why should we desire praise from someone who has a negative view of life? (8.53)

Dangers of Hedonism

Negativity is often the result of pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain. Bad people often enjoy pleasure while good people suffer. Nature is indifferent, so expecting the world to be different only leads to resentment. And avoiding pain leads to fear of what might happen in the future, while pursuing pleasure can lead to taking advantage of others for one’s personal gain (9.3-4).

It’s better for us, like Nature, to be indifferent – in the sense of impartial to cause and effect, which is the inevitable result of fate (9.4-5). After all, healthy eyes don’t want to see only one color. A healthy nose can handle any odor, not just pleasant ones. So a healthy mind is ready for anything life might throw at it (10.35).

Aurelius repeatedly says that the ultimate is to be indifferent even to death. We’re all going to die one day anyway.

His determinism is also a hard to swallow. Is it really possible to be indifferent? It seems that would require having no sensation at all. Maybe accepting external events (even if it’s a bummer) is a more realistic goal.

Reason is Humanity’s Strength

But Aurelius is right that we control nothing outside of ourselves (though we can have degrees of influence in some situations). Aurelius says that reason – which we all possess – is like sunlight: a steady, inexhaustible stream that flows in all directions. Its path is straight. Sunlight settles on an object and doesn’t slip off. But it doesn’t do so forcefully. Sunlight isn’t violent. Rather, it illuminates whatever it settles on (8.57).

Anger, however, is not reasonable. Anger just causes more grief. And anger is a sign of weakness and pain. There’s strength in keeping your cool (11.18.8).

Kindness is invincible if it’s without pretence or fawning. Kindness can diffuse aggression because in the face of kindness the other person will have no cause for further aggression. This doesn’t mean being a pushover, but rather correcting his vice by living rather than preaching virtue (11.18.9).

Baby Boomers and Millennials don’t exist

Franconia Notch State Park, New Hampshire

Some say Millennials are really two generations – younger Millennials had different experiences growing up.

And P.J. O’Rourke claims Baby Boomers are made up of four classes.

I know what he means. My father was born in 1946. His youngest brother was born in 1964. Both are Baby Boomers, but they’re not from the same generation.

In today’s fast moving world, people born sixteen to eighteen years apart grew up in different cultural contexts.

Maybe it’s better to talk about cultural cohorts rather than generations. The world of your tween years to early 20s has a far bigger impact on your worldview than any other time in your life.

You’re likely to share a similar cultural context with someone born three or four years before and after you. That’s a six to eight year span. Anymore than that and your cultural context drifts farther apart.

Pop culture makes an early impact. And while politics comes later, pop culture recedes as you get older.

But there’s a big overlap. I didn’t list specific years in the chart below because you might have been ahead or behind the times.

The first column lists when different cohorts were born, when they came of age and formed their worldviews, and the important political and pop culture events of that time. I’m sure I’ve missed many things, but you get the picture.

Born Early/Mid 1920s

Came of Age Before 1945

Great Depression & World War II, Glenn Miller Band, big band
Born Late 1920s to Mid 1930s

Came of Age Mid 1940s to Early 1950s

Early Cold War, nuclear fears, 1950s conformity, TV introduced, Frank Sinatra, I Love Lucy
Born Late 1930s to Mid 1940s

Came of Age Mid 1950s to Early 1960s

Beginning of the Civil Rights movement, early rock n roll, Elvis
Born Late 1940s to Mid 1950s

Came of Age Mid 1960s to Early 1970s

Countercultural revolution, Civil Rights, Vietnam, second wave feminism, early gay rights movement, the Beatles, acid rock, hard rock, The Mary Tyler Moore Show
Born Late 1950s to Mid 1960s

Came of Age Mid 1970s to Early 1980s

Post-Nixon malaise, stagflation, disco, All in the Family
Born Late 1960s to Early 1970s

Came of Age Mid to Late 1980s

Reagan Revolution, culture wars 1.0, AIDS crisis, MTV & HBO, Madonna, Cold War ends
Born Mid 1970s to Early 1980s

Came of Age Early to Mid 1990s

Neoliberalism, third wave feminism, Internet 1.0, grunge rock & hip hop, Seinfeld
Born Mid to Late 1980s

Came of Age Late 1990s to Early 2000s

Tech bubble bursts, 9-11 & fighting 2 wars, Internet 2.0, American Idol & reality TV
Born Early to Mid 1990s

Came of Age Mid 2000s to Early 20-Teens

Continued war, first smartphones, Great Recession, first black president, social media, gay marriage gains ground, Lady Gaga & Katy Perry, Internet TV
Born Late 1990s to Early 2000s

Will come of Age Mid 20-Teens to Early 2020s

TBA: The Donald Trump vs Hillary Clinton presidential race will set the stage

What does this tell us about Americans today?

Look at how the world has changed for people born in the early to mid 20th century! Not just technologically, but culturally as well. Who in 1945 would have believed that gay marriage would be a nationwide thing by 2015?

Older Baby Boomers came of age just before the countercultural revolution. Some of them stuck with the old ways. But younger Baby Boomers were more likely to embrace this shift.

Older members of Generation X developed their political consciousness in the late ’80s after the Reagan Revolution had taken hold. But younger GenXers were more informed by Bill Clinton’s neoliberalism.

Older Millennials distinctly remember 9-11 and graduated from college just as the Great Recession hit. Younger Millennials barely remember 9-11 but do remember how scared adults were. In their experience, the US has always been at war and the economy has always been terrible. That creates a sense of unease and uncertainty.

And what about people born in the first decade of the 21st century?

They’re just starting to come of age. Their first political memories are of a loud and opinionated man who wants to be president, and who promises to bring back the past. (They must be thinking, “What was the past like?”)

His opponent looks like grandma. But adults say they don’t trust her even though she doesn’t say mean things like the other guy does. And most adults seem really mad about the whole thing.

How will their worldview develop and mature? I don’t know. The outcome of the 2016 presidential election will have a lot to do with it.

When Did Americans Lose Their English Accents?

American and British speech are so different that even professional actors struggle with sounding authentic.

So when did Americans lose their English accent?

Maybe Americans never had an English accent. At least not a modern British accent.

English is constantly changing. In the late Middle Ages Geoffrey Chaucer wrote the Canterbury Tales:

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour

And it sounds even stranger that it looks.

English started out as an Anglo-Frisian dialect of Old Western German, with some influences from the Saxon dialect and Old Norse (brought by the Vikings). The Norman French invasion of 1066 dramatically changed the language. English before that was unrecognizable:

Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.

A sound clip of Beowulf shows how incomprehensible Old English is to a modern speaker.

Back to what English might have sounded like when the British first colonized America four hundred years ago.  Shakespeare wrote his plays a few decades before Jamestown and Plymouth Rock, and linguists today have reconstructed the sound of Shakespearean English using elocution guides from the early 1600s, analyzing spelling errors and rhyming schemes, etc.

Several things stand out while listening to a sound clip of Romeo and Juliet in the original pronunciation. One is that there’s no English dialect today that sounds like this, but it’s easy to see how this dialect could evolve over time into American English, Irish English, and Scottish English. Notably, the letter R was fully pronounced, unlike British and Australian English today.

However, London English of 1600, like today, was not representative of all British dialects. It’s notable that elocution guides from Shakespeare’s day say that one should pronounce R like a growl. Today’s soft R sound didn’t become widespread in England until around 1800. But the fact that elocution guides from 1600 had to point out the proper pronunciation of R means that some British dialects were non-rhotic early on.

In other words, America was settled when most English was still rhotic but with some exceptions. England eventually went full blown non-rhotic, but America did not. Today, American rhoticism is displacing New England’s historical non-rhoticism. Here in Maine, summer tourists are often disappointed that most of us sound more like Ben Affleck than John F. Kennedy. Australia, however, was settled after the American Revolution, which is why its dialects are non-rhotic like modern day England’s.

But it’s more than English sounding very different 400 years ago when America was settled. British dialects of centuries past were even more diverse than they are today. There are five foundational groups that created American English:

The South

Can you guess which dialect this biblical passage is written in?

De Song of Songs, dat is Solomons’s
Let him kiss me wud de kisses of his mouth
for yer love is better dan wine…
My beloved spoke, an’ said to me: Git up, my love, my fair un, an’ come away…

Song of Solomon 1:1-2 & 2:10

That would be Sussex, England of centuries past. In Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America, David Hacket Fischer notes that this dialect had disappeared in England by the mid-1800s, largely due to rising educational standards and British insistence on proper London English.

The first British colonists in America settled in Virginia, and from there they established other Southern colonies. These colonists hailed mostly from southwest England, and their speech patterns have lived on in Dixie while becoming extinct in Britain.

The elongated vowels, such as Aahm instead of I’m, was another dialect feature brought across the pond, as were certain words that today we think of as not only uniquely American but uniquely Southern: howdy, moonshine (whisky), laid off, mighty (instead of very), mess of greens, pekid (ill), book learning, jeans, traipse, unbeknownst, tote, disremember, woebegone, chomp, true grit, and belly ache.

New England

Fischer quotes a Pennsylvania woman’s surprise upon meeting a Southerner “who…never pronounces the R at all” (page 256). This speech habit also has long been associated with New England. East Anglia was the 17th century Puritan stronghold from which most New England colonists hailed. This might be the origin of New England’s “pahk the cah” accent.

While filming a movie in Maine in 2001 British actor Tom Wilkinson described the broad Maine accent as a “brother” to an English Norfolk accent, going so far as to say that a Mainer with a thick accent could walk into an East Anglia pub and convince folks that he’s a local (though that’s an exaggeration).

Middle America

Non-rhoticism may have started in East Anglia, reaching northern England last. But the Quakers left for Pennsylvania before non-rhoticism reached Yorkshire. The hard R sound of the American middle colonies was destined to become the dominant American dialect, perhaps because its geographical position allowed it to spread not just west, but northwest and southwest as well.

Fischer says that the dialects of northern England resulted from the commingling of Anglo-Saxon and Nordic languages. He calls it “muscular speech – bluff, literal, direct, vivid, forceful and plain-spoken” (page 470).

As various British dialects commingled in America, some English regionalisms disappeared while others survived. Americans discarded the northern England pronunciation “coom” for come, but retained northern Britain’s short A in dance.

Middle American words adopted by the rest of the country include bamboozle, abide, blather, boggle, by golly, chuck (throw), dumbfounded, flabbergasted, fuzz ball, elbow grease, flare up, good grief, guzzle, gumption, mad (angry), thingamajig, and many more.


Another key group are the Scots-Irish. They were the last foundational group of colonists. Recruited to act as a buffer between the polite English settlements of the coast and the Native Americans to the west who were angry about their land being taken, the militant Scots-Irish were cut out for the task.

For centuries the Scots tried to fight off their English conquerors (think Braveheart), and later when they settled in Northern Ireland this militancy was extended to religion as a clear marker between Protestant Ulstermen (Scots-Irish) and the Catholic Irish.

The Scots-Irish contributed much to American culture (praise God and pass the ammunition!), which extended west as whites fought Native Americans (how the West was won).

Coming late to the colonial party, they mostly adopted the dialects they found in America, so their Scots-Irish brogue didn’t survive. But they did leave a linguistic mark, such as yonder, thar (there), wrassle (wrestle), buck nekkid, critter, adding a- before a verb such as a-goin’, scrawny, honey as a term of endearment, and of course little shit referring to a small child.

Other Influential Groups

Other groups, though less influential, also played a foundational role in American English. For example, Native Americans gave us numerous place names, and words like raccoon for species native to North America.

Africans were involuntarily brought to America and learned English informally, giving rise to speech patterns such as verb omission (“where you at?”). African-Americans gave us juke (as in jukebox), okra, gumbo; revised forms of non-English European words such as banana and banjo; coined new words such as jive and boogie-woogie; and popularized other words such as okay and jitterbug. Use of language is also key. Rhyming to make a point and greater expressiveness than found in European culture greatly influenced American speech.

The Dutch, who settled New Amsterdam (later New York) before the British, gave us Yankees and cookies.

Later immigrant groups also contributed. The Irish taught Americans to say “I will” instead of “I shall.” I could go on and on about Spanish words that have entered American English. Finally, what would American English be without Yiddish borrowings such as schmuck and schlep?

US History from a Latino Perspective

European colonization of what is now the United States starts with the English landing in Virginia and Massachusetts.

Well, not so fast, says Felipe Fernández-Armesto. In his book, Our America: A Hispanic History of the United States, Fernández-Armesto points out that in 1508 Puerto Rico became the first permanent European settlement in what is now US territory. St. Augustine, Florida and Santa Fe, New Mexico are also Spanish settlements predating the English.

Fernández-Armesto challenges us to read American history, not east to west, but north to south: as Mexico expanded into Tejas, California, Colorado and points between, it ran up against US manifest destiny.

The Mexican territory of Tejas, for example, had an illegal immigration problem: white Anglos were moving into the land they mispronounced as Texas, and they brought black slaves with them despite slavery being illegal in Mexico. There were wars (remember the Alamo?) culminating in the Mexican-American War, which Anglo-Americans have mostly forgotten, but which Mexicans and Mexican-Americans remember as well as Southerners remember the Civil War.

Following US acquisition of what is now the Southwest, property owned by Mexicans was confiscated, programs of forced Anglicization were imposed, and racial discrimination (including lynchings) began.

Yet, today we hear people asking, where did all these Hispanics come from?

Fernández-Armesto closes his book by explaining “Why the United States Is – and Has to Be – a Latin American Country” :

…the perspective advocated in this book [is] the United States as a country with a Hispanic past as well as a Hispanic future. Migrants from Hispanic America need not be feared as intruders: they can be welcomed as homecomers. Their language need not be treated as a threat, but relished as an enhancement and embraced as an opportunity. …In the United States we must make pluralism work because, paradoxically perhaps, it is the one creed that can unite us.