Let’s talk about climate change.

Dear world,

When I used Facebook, I would post often about the climate crisis. Taking a scattershot approach, the idea was to blast large numbers of people with small doses of various climate emotions – grief, anger, determination, hope. I had a conviction that in order to act collectively, we needed to process our emotions together, too. Now that I’ve largely left social media, I’m trying a different approach – intensive, targeted treatments, one person at a time.

Today I’m launching a video interview project, 10 Questions about Climate Change. The first three episodes, an hour and change each, are up now. I’ll be posting a new one at least weekly, for the indefinite future.


(Johana, episode #2)

In each episode, I ask my interlocutors the same 10 questions – questions designed to get at the basic scientific facts of the climate crisis, how we feel about it, our understanding of the socio-political causes, and possibilities for taking meaningful action in the time we still have. I hope the conversations normalize talking about what is, by all accounts, a pretty fucked up situation. And I hope they help people feel empowered to become engaged with the growing climate movement. We need you.

Check the project out, and be in touch!

’til the future,


It’s been a while

9DSC_7702_UCSanDiegoPublications_ErikJepsen (1)

(photo Erik Jepsen)

Hello, dear readers!

It’s been a hot minute since my last post. I wanted to share a little bit of what I’ve been up to lately.

I’ve been working on my PhD in music at UC San Diego. The best part has been the health insurance. I’ve also been staying engaged with climate activism.

We are building a Green New Deal movement in the UC system for climate justice and rapid institutional decarbonization. Check us out here: https://ucsdgreennewdeal.net/

And sometimes I post a column, which I call Fire Season, in UCSD’s independent student newspaper, The Triton. See my posts here: https://triton.news/tag/fire-season/

The Triton has also featured me in a couple reports/interviews:



Off campus, I was involved with SanDiego350’s Raise the Alarm campaign. We did “sonic sit-ins” in members of Congress’s offices. See some coverage here: https://www.kpbs.org/news/2019/sep/26/protesters-take-over-san-diego-congressmans-office/

The world is bad, but I love you!


Is it getting heavy?

genoa_bridge_003(photo Reuters)

Is it overwhelming to use a crane to crush a fly?
It’s a good time for Superman to lift the sun into the sky
‘Cause it’s gettin’ heavy
Well, I thought it was already as heavy as can be
Tell everybody waitin’ for Superman
That they should try to hold on best they can
He hasn’t dropped them, forgot them, or anything
It’s just too heavy for Superman to lift
-The Flaming Lips, Waitin’ for a Superman

The death toll is rising in Genoa, Italy, where the collapse of the Morandi bridge Tuesday has claimed at least 39 lives. In a scene a little too easy to imagine for an American movie-going audience, a 260-foot segment of the 150-foot high, 3/4-mile long span gave way during noonday traffic, and dozens of cars and trucks and their drivers fell fifteen stories from the sky, crushed amid multi-ton slabs of reinforced concrete in a massive pile on top of buildings and other roads below. A survivor of the collapse described feeling the road drop beneath his car. People who saw it with their own eyes call it “unbelievable.” The ongoing search and rescue operation resembles the aftermath of 9/11.

This is something that’s not supposed to happen. This bridge is the main route for people and goods between one of the busiest Italian port cities and neighboring southern France. It’s true the bridge has been criticized for its engineering integrity and has been subject to constant upkeep, and in 2016 it was extensively overhauled. But Morandi’s private-sector operator, Autostrade per L’Italia, is pushing press statements claiming it contracted routine inspections from reputable partners using industry-standard techniques, as approved by the Italian government, and that these inspections raised no alarms whatsoever. What initially looks like boilerplate corporate bullshit may obscure a more essential and frightening truth. What if there really was no warning that such a catastrophe was so imminent? What if the models were wrong?

GenoaBridge3500(photo The Guardian)

News reports are noting the “torrential rain” that pounded Genoa the day of the collapse. None that I’ve read yet have made the connection to the ongoing record heatwave hammering southern Europe, including the Italian Mediterranean. Exacerbated heatwaves and intensified downpours are both features of a warming Earth. Concrete expands and warps in the heat. One witness to the Morandi collapse described the concrete pylons crumpling, incredibly, like “papier-mâché.” Not coincidentally, this week in Vigo, Spain, a dock platform collapsed into the Atlantic Ocean, injuring hundreds of people. There, too, authorities are claiming the structure met regulatory standards. Standards written for old Earth, a ground dropping fast beneath our feet, something formerly sturdy, changed by the heat.

When we talk about climate change, we aren’t just talking about starving polar bears. We are talking about unsuspecting motorists swallowed up by the constructed Earth. We are talking about the collapse of the Morandi.

Kathleen and I have been in two life-threatening car accidents. In west Texas (of all places), just outside of a town called Alpine, we hit black ice and spun out at 50 mph, colliding ultimately, ass-first, with the concrete sidewall of a low bridge on US-90 W, totaling my Honda Civic. And in southern New Mexico, on NM-27 S between Hillsboro and Hatch, an 18-wheeler making an illegal pass around a Winnebago over a blind hill drove us off the two-lane undivided 70-mph highway and into the Chihuahuan desert scrub with mere feet to spare. I know what it’s like to suddenly see things you shouldn’t be seeing. I know what it’s like to suddenly lose control.

The time spent spinning, after our wheels disengaged the icy pavement in west Texas, but before the tail end of our Honda slammed into the concrete barrier, wasn’t exactly sped up or slowed down, but it definitely was not normal, like it grew an extra dimension. I don’t remember seeing anything; either my eyes were closed or my head was down or both. I do remember reaching out through the centripetal force, touching Kathleen’s hand, and saying, “It’s going to be alright.” That was a promise I had no basis to make in that moment. It was a claim for which evidence was scant. Chance alone proved me right.

I wonder how many of the dead drivers in Genoa turned to their passengers and made that same promise on the way down. 150 feet offers time to think. I wonder how the steering wheel felt in their hands, and whether their seatbelts offered any familiar comfort. I wonder what time felt like, in that moment, to those minds, strapped in and pitching forward, knowing that for now, and for only now and not much longer, they were still safe.

Here’s my take on The Flaming Lips’ song, Waitin’ for a Superman.

We don’t have to agree.

(As usual, this post first appeared as a Facebook status.)


If the social media response to this week’s firehose of horrible SCOTUS news is any indication, the wounds from the 2016 Democratic primary are still raw. Democratic party loyalists still lash out at “Bernie Bros,” Green Party voters, and abstainers, while the disaffected Left continues to place the blame exclusively on the party bosses. It’s really not pride or stubbornness on either side. The party-liners and the left-wingers just see things differently. The dialogue has been on repeat for years and I think each side knows where the other stands. Party-liners believe every individual is morally obligated to reduce harm by voting against the worst candidate, period. Left-wingers take a more systems-level approach and note that repeated lesser-evilism has lurched our entire politics to the right, resulting over time in great violence to the very populations Democrats hope to defend. Each side has a point. Neither has been particularly inclined to hear the other out, and two years later I don’t see that changing.

It’s because we just have a few real divergences, and at deep levels. Success as a coalition requires the bravery to agree to disagree. Endlessly mud-wrestling on the visible tip of the iceberg of our differences is a waste of fucking time, while our enemies sail on by.

2016 brought calamitous results that none of us wanted and few of us foresaw. But the only surefire way to seal the deal on the clusterfuck that was 2016 would be to refuse to learn from the failure and to refuse to change. This is a post about how to stop fighting, and win.

Our system, featuring an electoral college tailored to appease slaveholders and a first-past-the-post primary system that guarantees vote splitting, is built to fail. It was designed by people who do not share our values, it pits us against each other, and it guarantees anti-democratic results. If your main complaint with 2000 is Nader voters in Florida and not then-Governor Jeb Bush and SCOTUS, and your main complaint with 2016 is Stein voters in Michigan and not the electoral college – for your own sake reconsider.

Liberals and leftists aren’t always on the same side, but we can reshape the field to our shared advantage. No matter which side you’re on, if you don’t want to see another result like 2016, then I think you should support these next steps:

-Abolish the Electoral College. Actually, hack the Electoral College. The EC is in the Constitution, but states are free to allocate their electors as they choose. The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact is one solution. 12 states are already on board, and when enough states representing a majority of the Electoral College sign on, they will all pass laws agreeing to allocate 100% of their state’s electors to the winner of the nationwide popular vote. This doesn’t require a constitutional amendment. It doesn’t even require an act of US Congress. Clinton won the popular vote by 3 million votes.

-Ranked Choice Voting. Maine put it in place statewide in 2016 and will try it out this year. Many American cities, international panels, and other decision-making bodies use this system. Voters rank their candidates in order of preference, and if no first-choice candidate wins a clean majority in the first round, losers are eliminated and a series of instant run-offs are triggered. This stops vote splitting. If you believe Stein voters cost Clinton the win and that all Stein voters had Clinton as a second choice, then under this system Clinton would be President, without anyone having to “hold their nose.” This also helps minor parties advance their message without the stigma of vote splitting.

-Abolish the Commission on Presidential Debates. This is a private entity jointly run by the DNC and RNC, set up in the 80’s. They set the rules for who appears on corporate broadcast presidential debates, rules designed to effectively exclude minor parties. We don’t need this entity at all. A huge point of bitterness among third party voters is our candidates’ exclusion from the mainstream debate. This is supposed to be a democracy. People deserve to learn about their options. Don’t defend this garbage gate-keeper.

-Lower the bar for ballot access. Third parties devote almost all their resources to getting on the ballot at all. This attracts a certain kind of principled lost-causer. Green Party is full of gadflies. If you want minor parties to act more like major parties, then let them play by the same rules.

This doesn’t even get to other electoral reforms like public financing, reversing Citizens United, automatic registration, mandatory voting, and local election consolidation. But the bullet points above are my honest offering for how the left and the center can, if not always agree, at least play on the same side again. Solidarity across difference. That’s coalition politics.

“This is not a border wall.”

(This piece began life as an embryonic Facebook post, and also appears, fully matured, over at Counterpunch.)


Last Saturday, a few hundred border residents, including myself, gathered to register our discontent with the ongoing and escalating militarized assault on the borderlands waged by the Trump administration, and by administrations before that. We assembled down in Santa Teresa, New Mexico, just west of the Port of Entry there, where federal contractors have broken ground on what is to be 20 miles of newly installed 18-foot steel wall, sunk 6 feet into the red Earth.

A picture I took of the western front of the wall was widely shared on Facebook, and as a result the post got flooded with comments from the general social media public. There was the unsurprising slew of Trump die-hards, lost souls to a toxic ideology. I don’t really engage these sad folks – healing the social wound that is American Naziism will likely not look like shooting memes back and forth on social media. But one commenter was a partisan Democrat pushing an initially surprising YouTube video of CNN’s Jake Tapper “fact-checking” Trump’s “claims” that he is building his wall. Tapper’s mind-trip conclusion? There is no wall. And his viewers’ response? Nothing to see here. Why so upset?

CNN’s 3-minute video clip, which you should see for yourself, is focused on “debunking” Trump’s claim that he’s begun building the wall. Jake Tapper practically rolls his eyes as he ranks the claim “Mostly False,” even while admitting that an 18-foot steel barrier is being erected, right now, along 40 miles of the southern border that previously had no barrier. (It’s not clear whether Tapper neglects to mention the 20 miles in southern New Mexico, the site of our demonstration, where wall is replacing vehicle barriers, or whether he mistakenly rolled us into his 40-mile figure. His “fact check” was light on facts that matter.) Tapper makes a lot of hay out of a distinction between a “fence” and a “wall” – a distinction he pulls, crucially, from Trump’s own tweets – and points out that the design going up in southern New Mexico is different from the prototypes being shown in San Diego. He also reveals that the $1.6B currently being spent on border wall development was allocated by Congress in a way different from what Trump had originally sought. Therefore, the 18-foot steel thing going up in our backyard isn’t truly Trump’s wall – “not really.” The claim is mostly false! Feel better?

What facts are missing from Tapper’s checking of them? What essential truth is obscured behind “Mostly False”? For starters, what about the fact that 18-foot impenetrable steel barriers across the border region threaten and contribute to the extinction of over 100 protected species, including large migratory mammals like Mexican grey wolves (who know neither the words “wall” nor “fence”)? Or what about the fact that the sites of border walls are chosen in part to deliberately funnel desperate migrants, with children in tow, into more dangerous, increasingly fatal, routes across the Chihuahuan and Sonoran deserts? What about the fact that the 18-foot steel thing, whatever you call it, is being built without any environmental review or public input, thanks to a little-known but often-used provision of the post-9/11, Bush-era, Secure Borders Act (2005) that allows the Department of Homeland Security to waive all laws – all laws! – in service of anything they claim to be relevant to border security? On that matter, what about the fact that no government agency has ever produced a report concluding the 18-foot steel thing indeed advances border security at all? Shouldn’t CNN’s viewers know these facts, too? And what about the fact that 400 local residents gathered last week, arm in arm, at the site of the 18-foot steel thing, to protest not only its construction but all elements of border militarization, including detention centers, unconstitutional police tactics, illegal killings, family separation, and environmental destruction, all in one unified display of intersectional, popular solidarity? Has Jake checked these facts? Do his viewers see us?

Jake Tapper looks his viewers straight in the face and says, “This is not a border wall. This is fencing.” My lying eyes! Why is CNN producing this content? I don’t know, but it’s hard to miss that Tapper’s argument aligns 100% with what Democrats in the Senate would like the public to believe – that they have blocked Trump’s wall through budgetary maneuvering (nevermind the steel, uh, fence?). It’s worth noting, we activists on the ground saw this coming last year, as these budget fights played out. As money was appropriated to replace existing 3-foot vehicle barriers with 18-foot steel bollard wall, I promise, we called it: “Republicans will say this is the wall, Democrats will say there was no money for new wall, both sides will score a ‘W’, and their respective bases, consuming entirely disjunct media, will happily gobble it up.” What you call a win-win. CNN is in the game, of course – the network chooses to promulgate this partisan spin as objective fact, and with no small sneer. Their host is entirely concerned with assuring his viewers that Trump is a big fat liar. A regular Edward R. Murrow, to be sure! What does Jake believe he’s accomplishing, by “calling out” Trump in this way? I couldn’t say, but I know the result is a petty, narrow language game tailored to make Democratic donors feel generous and to gaslight the popular left. It certainly doesn’t do a damn thing to help those of us on the ground fighting this rot, or to mobilize more to join us. It neither represents reality nor helps anyone create a new one. And that seems to be the point.

The people, cultures, and web of life in the borderlands are no less erased by Jake Tapper than by Donald Trump. Jake Tapper does not even mention the name of the locations where the 18-foot steel thing is going up. We live in Doña Ana County, Jake. And it’s a damn wall! In this political theater of the absurd, Tapper and Trump stand together, center stage, directing their audience(s)’s eyes away from the black death creeping in the wings.

Here’s my photo, and CNN’s video below that. Check the facts for yourself, and then pick a side.


Pratītyasamutpāda (“contingent-arising”)

I’m excited to share my newest piece: Pratītyasamutpāda (“contingent-arising”), for string quartet and gamelan. If you can, please listen on headphones or nice speakers.


Pratītyasamutpāda is a Sanskrit term for a Buddhist concept. Translated as “dependent-origination” or “contingent-arising,” it refers to two (or more) entities that bring each other into existence, by virtue of their relationship, which comes before the things related. Ready examples include the student and the teacher, the species in an ecosystem, the ideologies of major political parties, or the personalities and mannerisms of life partners. In each case, A does not cause B, and B does not cause A. Instead, A and B arise together, in a continuously unfolding process, reflecting one another like a photo and its negative, their essences enveloped within the heart of the other.

In this piece, the string quartet and the gamelan stand in this bi-polar relationship to each other. In the space opened between these two poles, pluralistic collections of sounds gradually come into being, grow to fruition, and then recede over time, sonic crest leading to trough following a logic both naturalistic and dream-like. Individual sounds will likely not be the listener’s focus. In fact (with a few exceptions) rhythms are not determined, and performers, following timers, have some flexibility and freedom in when (and what) they play. The system is the material, and the process is the event. So don’t try to catch each drop, just enjoy the rain.

This piece is dedicated to my partner, Kathleen.

Performed by the Lightbulb Ensemble and the JACK Quartet.

Recorded at REDCAT in Los Angeles, January 15, 2017.

Light: An essay on third wave atheism

I wrote a long facebook post yesterday that got a lot of positive feedback, so I’ve edited and fleshed it out into a fuller essay, on the history of atheism, as I understand it, and some thoughts about the future. I gave it a title, “Light.” Here it is:

Today I rise to a young spring morning, the air both cool and bright — the world somehow at odds with itself. The view from my window is clearer than it has been for some time, and as I brew myself a pot of coffee and listen to the birds, my mind slowly comes online. I find myself wondering about my beliefs — or, rather, my lack of a particular belief. Today, I am thinking about how I can best not believe in God.

Atheism — like feminism, anti-racism, socialism, and all other liberatory philosophical/political/social movements — travels through history in waves. The first wave in the West was championed perhaps most strongly by the late 19th century German scholar, critic, and philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche. A search through Western history for “mad geniuses” would reliably turn up Nietzsche’s crusty, hirsute visage; after revolutionizing and revitalizing ethics, epistemology, and metaphysics — all three major branches of Western philosophy — he succumbed later in life to torturous and debilitating mental illness. But Nietzsche’s work permanently reoriented Western thought. The moody German’s famous proclamation, “God is dead,” turned out to be not so much a claim or a description, but a marching order, as generations of thinkers, from Anglophone authors like Aldous Huxley and Bertrand Russell to French intellectuals like Jean-Paul Sartre and Michel Foucault and feminists like Simone de Beauvoir, carried out a meticulous, systematic assassination of the traditional conception of God. Nietzsche’s project of “transvaluation of all values” — that, rather than prioritize and cherish false ideals of rationality or the divine, we should find the root of all value in the murky, complex, actual world in which we find ourselves; that, rather than live for the promise of eternity, we should live as if our every conscious moment would eternally recur; in other words, that we should exalt life, not death — was thus something of a theological atomic bomb, obliterating centuries-old moral truisms and devastating millennia-long modes of thought in a tidal wake that rushed outward along every line of thought for nearly 200 years, unabated. And while theology has since regrouped and rebuilt around the damage, the landscape has been transformed. It’s no coincidence that, for most of the history of Western philosophy, almost every philosopher was a theist, of one sort or another, and that now, less than 15% describe themselves as such. Conversely, as of 2014, over three quarters of professional philosophers, worldwide, are atheists.


If the first wave of atheism resulted from a sort of explosive intellectual annihilation, the second wave emanated from carnage and devastation somewhat more literal: the miles-high dust cloud, visible from space, was still settling in lower Manhattan, around approximately 3,000 bodies and two tangled masses of twisted steel, when philosopher and writer Sam Harris began work on “The End of Faith.” Published in 2004, Harris’s manifesto opened the gates for a flood of “New Atheist” writings that sparked and stoked a heated dialogue over the role of religion in modern, public life. Harris, followed closely by biologist Richard Dawkins and writer Christopher Hitchens, had nothing particularly novel to offer, philosophically, but this second wave of atheism was not a philosophical movement; it was social. These and other authors sold best-selling books written at a high school level that pulled no punches in laying out a basic point: religion was, more often than not — or often enough — a force for evil, not enlightenment. These “Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” as the national press dubbed them, marshaled incontrovertible evidence that, from funeral protesters to suicide bombers, ordinary people could be made to do extraordinarily heinous, reprehensible things they would never otherwise do by offering false promises of eternal rewards (or threats of unending torture) in a world that is separate from and better than the real one. Harris characterized faith as “belief without sufficient evidence.” Hitchens called Yahweh a “cosmic dictator.” They blasted religion as “dangerous bullshit,” and millions of Americans said, “damn right.” And their words had an impact. There are now hundreds of highly active college and community non-religious groups in every state in the country (I helped organize such a group at the University of Alabama), and proud, outspoken non-believers occupy almost every position in our society. More and more people are discovering that “none at all” is a perfectly acceptable faith. Billboards have popped up, encouraging people to “Skip church, and just be good for goodness’ sake.” The president of American Atheists, an organization that has existed since 1963 and is devoted to “fighting for the civil liberties of atheists and the total, absolute separation of government and religion,” is routinely invited on cable news talk shows, and thousands attend the group’s annual convention. Red-state Satanists brazenly delight in political tricks and mischief, calling out our continued, unconstitutional preference for Christian culture in the public sphere. And this year, for the first time in my life, we have a serious contender for President who makes no attempt to pander to theocrats, telling applauding crowds that his “spirituality” is about “people helping each other” — and so far no one has batted an eye. For these reasons, people of all beliefs should thank the second wave atheists for advancing the cause of religious freedom in this country. They expanded the social space, and one need not agree with the ends of their labor to enjoy its fruits.

But the second wave has crested. The reality of American imperialism, anti-Arab racism, and Islamophobia complicates the narrative and compromises the position of wealthy white Western men telling us that religion is the sole source of our worldly woes (and specifically the religion of those brown people whose region we have, for lack of a more apt, appropriately brutal term, raped). Second wave atheism was a vital rising up against an oppressive social paradigm, but it becomes harder — untenable — to argue that professional blowhards like comedian Bill Maher (a second wave-riding, derivative, inconsequential charlatan of the most refined vintage) are “punching up” anymore, as Mosques are burned and women in hijabs harassed, as college students are gunned down in their own homes, and as Obama’s drones routinely murder the innocent and teach young children, a world away, to fear the sky. Yes, the second wave atheists offered a necessary critique of the world. But the world has replied, and the conversation continues to evolve.

So, what’s the third wave? Like every social movement today, from the push for climate justice to calls to address LGBT youth homelessness, the latest iteration of atheism must be intersectional. (If you don’t know what intersectionality is, open a Richard Dawkins book to any page to find an example of what it isn’t.) Intersectionality seeks to understand phenomena in the appropriate and relevant context and is wary of reductive, simplistic solutions for complex problems. For instance, it’s sloppy, indefensible thinking to talk about the violence commanded in the Quran without mentioning the blood-soaked Torah. It’s naive — and, to take a page out of the second wave playbook, dangerous — to invoke the West’s centuries-long secularist project of moderating and mitigating scriptural violence while ignoring our even longer-standing project of colonizing the world, seizing capital, and enslaving and subjugating peoples. Is there any doubt that Sean Hannity and Mike Huckabee would be rigging car bombs right now if world history were flipped? Our religious liberalism is a direct function of our history of power; the Enlightenment cannot be neatly partitioned off from Colonialism. So we can only congratulate ourselves for being the biggest monkey, not the most sophisticated theologians or most tolerant, rational people, in the room. I’m not rushing to pat myself on my big hairy back over that.

Third wave atheism need not back down, philosophically. Nietzsche is still right. Darwinism is still true. The 9/11 hijackers really did believe in jihad and paradise — as they understood the terms — and wouldn’t have acted as they did otherwise. And as the fight for marriage equality shamefully drags on in some corners of the country, a shocking percentage of American Christians and the Lord they worship really do, still, “hate fags.” But we must condemn the eliminativist — frankly, exterminist — tenor, historical naivety, and self-satisfied snark that saturates every sentence of second wave polemics. I recall seeing Sam Harris say onstage, some time ago, that the best single change that could occur in the world would be for Islam to disappear. That’s a shocking and deeply concerning sentiment. Contrary to Harris’ and other second wavers’ assertions that religion is reducible to a set of claims and commandments, Islam is in fact a central component of the lives of human beings — 1.6 billion of them — a strand woven into the deepest core of a person, not some after-the-fact abstract add-on. Islam, simply put, is not separable from Muslims. In fact, substitute the word “Muslims” for “Islam” and then read Harris’s plan for global betterment again. And then go take a cold shower. The idea that an entire religion — its texts, its traditions, its people, its art — could or should somehow be made to “disappear” displays stunning and perhaps willful ignorance of the entanglement of individual personhood, social systems, and meaning. The insistence that theological conceptions can be neatly skimmed off the top of a churning cultural milieu is naive and unserious. And while Harris has more recently made more effort to acknowledge other factors that drive human behavior, and his most recent book, a dialogue with author and activist Maajid Nawaz, seems to moderate some of his earlier, peak second wave sentiments,  his enduring prioritization of religious belief, above all else, seems to give short shrift to myriad other deep structural forces — like ecological forces, economic forces, geopolitical forces — that manage knowledge, motivate behavior, and sometimes, in crisis, give rise to violence. Yes, jihad can be a problematic concept, just like heaven, or hell, or any other theological notion that invokes a supernatural realm and prioritizes it over the real world, but history has shown that humans, driven to violence, tend to reach for whatever tools are handy, like, for instance, secular political concepts that invoke utopian futures or pristine pasts or ideal order. The twentieth century saw its share of violence done in the name of the State. There are many ways to look when we turn our backs on the real.


Second wave atheists argued that religion, simply, is the problem, thus implying that the solution is, simply, to burn it down. But what would be lost in the blaze? Some of the most stunning art I have witnessed (only in pictures, and I hope I’m lucky enough to one day see these in person) are the mesmerizing mosaics in the geometrically vaunted ceilings in the ancient Mosques of Iran and Pakistan. What would my musical world be without the Cantatas and Fugues of that Lutheran Kapellmeister from Leipzig, J.S. Bach? Yes, Protestant thought was deployed to justify American slavery, but it’s also constituted the communal hymn sung in time with every step on the long walk to freedom. And what of the countless millions of people who have reached out — perhaps past intellectual justification — grasped for hope and found it, in private moments of otherwise insurmountable darkness, desperation, and despair? I’m unwilling to throw these immaculate babes out with the bathwater, no matter how rancid. I was a card carrying second wave atheist my entire adult, thinking life, but I, and many like me, have moved on. We are no longer interested in erasing the real beauty that has not only been funded but inspired, deeply, by a profound faith, even as we cannot countenance the philosophical foundations of that faith. We can’t argue against hope — genuine, life-sustaining hope — in any of its forms. We shouldn’t tolerate arguments that don’t acknowledge the undeniable truth that religion, for better and worse, is an institutional expression of deep, indelible needs of the fragile and hopeful human heart. Atheists today should focus on reform, not elimination. We should work to decouple all that is good, beautiful, and important, even necessary, in religious traditions from wretched Iron Age myth, outmoded anti-modern philosophy, and rank, manifest misogyny. Can’t we all agree on that?

Third wave atheists recognize that, while God is an unacceptable answer, pressing questions still remain. The Cosmic King was shackled and sent to the guillotine, but his throne still sits empty, waiting to be filled. We need third wave atheism and a sophisticated, modern theism to meet, not in the middle but on the other shore (so to speak), as a sort of ecological humanism. We need not only a theology that takes the objective world seriously but also a philosophical materialism that takes the subjective world seriously. We need to live in the wide space between the false poles of Fact and Value until we cultivate a new and fertile center. We need a spiritual practice that acknowledges — celebrates — Darwin’s insights and all their implications: that we are brothers and sisters of all life; that we have no special claim to transcendence; that our fate is forever entwined with the fabric of all that is real. We still do not understand how consciousness — qualitative, subjective awareness, that greatest of mysteries — can possibly arise in an unconscious, physical world. It remains unclear whether human agency, free will, is real and meaningful. I wonder whether — and how — one can ever truly justify existence, which seems to necessitate in every instance occupying space, seizing control, and exerting power. I want to learn how to let go, accept death, and embrace life.

Our time is genuinely urgent. From renewed nuclear stockpiling to the spiralling climate crisis, humanity has never before faced a more serious existential threat: ourselves. Our technologies (nuclear weapons, fossil fuels) and institutions (nation states, corporations) are to blame, but they are driven, at bottom, by our beliefs, and a profound reassessment of humanity’s place in the world is our only hope and prospect for designing a just, sustainable future. Theists and atheists must call a ceasefire in our contemporary intellectual culture war and affirm our common material and spiritual needs. We must recognize ourselves as neighbors and friends on an unlikely, tiny, “pale, blue dot,” as astronomer Carl Sagan movingly described our planet, “suspended in a sunbeam… the only home we’ve ever known.” Our resources are finite; may our imagination, creativity, and empathy never be. For the Universe so loved the Earth, It gave us our one and only Sun. May we live, together, in Light.


Definite Relief: Martian Forest

Recorded by Jesse Mangum at the Glow Recording Studio in Athens, Georgia, a new trio — definite relief — with Killick Hinds (guitar), Stephen Roach (tenor sax, drums), and myself on trombone, toy instruments, and Fender Rhodes piano. This was a somewhat spur-of-the-moment project but a surprisingly rewarding one, the fruits of which we determined were best described as a “Martian Forest.” A 45-minute-long collective exploration of outer spaces and inner worlds. Please download and listen for free, donations optional.