All That Glitters Isn’t Oranje

It should come as no surprise that my postings have been less frequent, in proportion to the success or lack thereof of the Dutch at the World Cup, which has just (mercifully) ended.

First: I’m happy we made it to the Final.

Second: I’m happy we lost (even though I wanted us to win at the time).

Allow me to explain: I will always support Oranje, but that doesn’t mean I have to suspend my critical faculties while doing so. It also doesn’t mean I am living in a nostalgic cloudbank in which Holland must either play soccer like the Kirov ballerinas dance or else they are “cynical” – a word bandied about by once-every-four-years-I-pay-attention-to-soccer pundits.

In case I haven’t beaten this point enough, my Oranje is the team of 1998. It always will be. They were beautiful to watch (take a look at my Ryeberg essay if you haven’t already) and most aficionados consider that squad the greatest team of the competition, regardless that they lost to Brazil in the semi-finals. The thing is, if you accept that, then you must also accept they were the very same team who flamed-out against Italy in Euro 2000 in the quarters, in perhaps one of the most humiliating games I’ve seen us play: same squad, folks. How’s that for beauty?

The toughest question in the world if you are a Dutch international soccer player: What can you do when the public, the pundits, the former stars from the Golden Age all want to see you play ballet if playing ballet doesn’t win anything? Don’t get me wrong: I like the Oranje ballet – I am one of those people who can walk away from a loss, still chuffed that we played “as we should”. I do side with author David Winner’s thoughts about Dutch soccer philosophy, as laid out in his (brilliant) book, Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Soccer. But inevitably you want to win something, and the only silverware the Dutch have is the Euro title in 1988.

This brings us to the present. Sadly. Sadly, because for the most part Oranje did not live up to the philosophy we had come to World Cup 2010 expecting. Under the direction of Bert van Marwijk, they took a detour: individual beauty, sure, when necessary, but collectively less a ballet than an assembly line with a very narrow directive: win, above all else. And they did. They were rusty at first and their games, outside of pockets of that ol’ Clockwork Oranje we hoped to see, were not pretty, but they won, and continued to win. Lord, I wanted them to win, too – I was a willing enabler.

When the final against Spain came, I was a nervous wreck. I can only imagine how it must have been in Holland, for those making their way to the Museum Square in Amsterdam where the games were shown for the public. They had come so far, had been through so much, for so many years: 1974, 1978, the glimmer of 1998, the disappointment of missing 2002. So much baggage that you wanted them to win just to shake off the voodoo of the past.

But as I got prepared that morning I visualized what it would be like if we won, if for the first time ever we won the Cup. Instead of tears of joy, I have to tell you, I saw that it would have felt as if we had cheated. As if in winning, we had not done so as ourselves but as a cunning machine, as if someone had invented a “Dutch Soccer Team” to take our place. I cannot describe how difficult it was to deal with that: to stare at a historic vindication within reach of your fingertips, knowing simultaneously there was something inherently inauthentic about it. In fact, had we won, I fear the “victory” would have irrevocably punctured the heart of Dutch soccer, as opposed to the bittersweet reality I live with now: we lost, Dutch soccer is merely dented. Coach van Marwijk’s corporatist approach has been repudiated, that is for sure. What I don’t know is who or what, philosophically speaking, has been vindicated, since we are bridesmaids once again.

Perhaps it is our souls? I can’t speak for yours, but mine is in a better if not exactly comfortable place right now.


God Is In The Details

A new documentary, if it can be called that, has been recently released through a limited selection of venues in the U.S. and Canada. I’m not interested in naming it, though a cursory glimpse of recent newspapers will make it clear which I’m referring to. It takes the Michael Moore approach (in other words, disingenuously removing anything which does not conform to a frustratingly partisan point of view) in an attempt to prove its thesis that there is a systemic (nay conspiratorial) effort to discredit scientists who believe in creationism (more specifically, the recently-minted term “intelligent design” or “ID” for short) by those in the scientific establishment who extol the findings of Darwin.

Reading the paper Friday morning, my wife commented on an interview with the film’s host and narrator, Ben Stein. She took note of his perspective on the debate and thought it was interesting. I was less than enthusiastic (if not hostile toward Stein), though to be honest his interview wasn’t that bad (unlike the film, which has been almost universally derided with contempt outside of evangelical circles). What upset me is that I actually think there is a debate to be had (if not owed) between secularists and Creationists.

I’m not a religious person. I was raised a quasi-Catholic, but found myself too interested in other streams of thought to figure that any one system of belief – secular humanism being one in a series of legitimate choices – had the copyright on truth. I’m very comfortable calling myself Agnostic, though these days wary of those who would have the public believe that Agnosticism is simply a less-assured branch of Atheism. I respect Atheists. I just wish more Atheists would respect Agnostics.

For me, Science, Art, and Religion are the same; they each aim to spelunk the chasm between knowing and not knowing. To investigate the disparity between the I and the not I in the universe. I’ve never been prepared to declare that there is or isn’t a higher intelligence/level of consciousness at play in the unfathomable orchestration we find ourselves surrounded by, whether it exists only for mankind to perceive or something more holistic and all-embracing.

I’m frustrated that, in this age of elaborate misinformation, the only time an interesting perspective is given publicity it’s usually loaded with so much subjectivity and partisan half-truth that it’s tainted with suspicion before it even comes to the table of debate. And this is my problem with this documentary. The dice of its argument are so loaded from the start that it negates intelligent discussion from the start.

One cannot talk about this without referring to previous unsuccessful efforts by the current United States government, endorsing “intelligent design” to be taught in science classrooms as a legitimate alternative, and that the theory of evolution be referred to as a “current theory”. The problem being, procedurally speaking, there’s nothing remotely scientific about “ID”, whereas Darwinism and the theory of evolution are demonstrable, regardless that there are many disagreements on the details. As a result of this meddling on behalf of the Bush administration, scientists across America took to the streets (or the web, at least) denouncing the idea, aided by the burgeoning Atheist movement, driven by the likes of Richard Dawkins.

In other words, the water in this wading pool is poisoned.

The question of Darwinism’s compatibility with the idea of a higher intelligence/consciousness, if such a thing exists, is not a zero sum game. One does not, theoretically, eliminate the other’s existence. I would love nothing more than an open discussion on the subject, if only to highlight the limits of understanding in both Science and Religion and perhaps find perspectives which intelligently respect opposite approaches. Unfortunately, given the current climate, this isn’t likely to happen outside of a university campus, and in the case of the documentary released last week, the prospects of we – the intelligent public, of which I include you, dear reader – being treated to such a thing without the deck being stacked by partisan ideologues of either side of the argument is slim.


A Vote For Uncertainty

ag·nos·ti·cism [ag-nos-tuh-siz-uhm] –noun

  1. An intellectual doctrine or attitude affirming the uncertainty of all claims to ultimate knowledge.
  2. The doctrine that certainty about first principles or absolute truth is unattainable and that only perceptual phenomena are objects of exact knowledge.
  3. The belief that there can be no proof either that God exists or that God does not exist.

[Origin: 1870–75; agnostic + -ism]

I don’t want to wade into the current (or latest, if you look at this historically) spat between atheists and theists, but I find it tragic that – and I don’t know why I’m surprised – there is no middle ground of perspective in the discussion. It’s not much of a “discussion” to begin with, is it?

I don’t particularly care about Richard Dawkins, his followers/imitators, fundamentalist zealotry of any sort, and atheism in general. I think atheism, while legitimate, is about as interesting and constructive as a “zero” on a chalkboard. Of theoretical curiosity, but not much else. Yet lately there have been many books published – the latest of note being Christopher Hitchens’ – throwing down the atheist gauntlet against organized religion.

I have a healthy wariness toward organized religion and I understand, in light of the recent alignments in many parts of the world between fundamentalists and political/military activity, why the gauntlets are hitting the ground on either side of the theist atheist debate.

Or at least I think I understand – I’m just a layman.

Yet agnosticism is never mentioned. Atheists joke that agnostics are just vacillating fools and leave it at that. The problem is this: history proves that certainty has a best-before date. Anyone remember the Age of Reason, when classical physics had reached such austere heights that it became referred to as the Age of Certainty? And then those crazy guys, like Neils Bohr and Albert Einstein, had to go and blow the head off of it – essentially showing that presumptions about time and space (as well as lot of other things) were not as they had been presumed to be. And yet, perplexedly, many pro-atheism websites contain quotes from Einstein proudly questioning the limits of God.

You can be certain that the sun will rise every morning (even if obscured by clouds), yet, technically speaking it’s in the process of burning out (when it reaches thermal equilibrium with that cold “space” stuff). So, not even that is certain.

I argue that our need for certainty is an ancient one, and whether it be expressed in theistic or nihilistic terms, it is always coupled by Thoth’s ape: the spectre of an annoying footnote which clearly states “You know this could all change at any minute.”.

What’s wrong with embracing uncertainty – does it not open more doors, feed more thoughts, raise more questions? Is it not more analogous to the inherently uncertain and complex world around us? Allowing for uncertainty is being honest with the way life works; it is neither cynical nor pessimistic. In fact, I consider it more spiritually genuine (although agnosticsm itself does not need to be used only in those terms) than holding a fixed idea of what “lies beyond”, whether it be God or maggots.

I just wanted to put this out there, as I’m tired of only hearing two sides to an argument which cannot be limited to such a static form.


Cheers to Charles Taylor

From the Globe & Mail:

NEW YORK — Charles Taylor, a Canadian philosopher who says the world’s problems can only be solved by considering both their secular and spiritual roots, was named Wednesday as the recipient of a religion award billed as the world’s richest annual prize.

Dr. Taylor, a professor of law and philosophy at Northwestern University, has won this year’s Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries About Spiritual Realities. The award is worth more than $1.5-million (U.S.).

In a career spanning more than four decades, Dr. Taylor, 75, has investigated a wide range of issues, including how it is that the search for meaning and spiritual direction can end in violence. He contends that relying only on secular analyses of human behaviour leads to faulty conclusions.
(read the rest)

Not only am I happy that a nice Canadian boy won the prize, but that a well-measured and (dare I say, in this fractured age of ours) balanced look at the price society pays, being the lost children in the divorce between the strictly secular social sciences and the often inflexible tenets of religion.

I will definitely check out this man’s work – please read the full article.


Agnostic Affront

Back when I had free time (ha ha…sigh) I came across a neat little site/feature called StumbleUpon. Essentially, it allows users to add websites they like to the StumbleUpon aggregated index, which is sorted by topics. You can then “stumble” through the sites of any selected subject(s) of interest using a browser extension button that sits on your toolbar. Each time you press it, you move on to the next random website which matches the content that interests you. As a StumbleUpon user, you can rate websites on your own and add them to the aggregated content available to other users.

It’s a nice idea, however I was troubled by how the topics were gathered. Some of this, I admit, was for aesthetic or personal reasons – for example, I rather object to the separate topics “Liberal Politics” and “Conservative Politics” (under “Society”); I mean, really – are beliefs that easy to categorize? I know people who, for instance, claim to be left-of-centre but support NAFTA (if only because they work for companies that profit from the arrangement). My point being that political thought – like everything substantial – is inherently complex; if we choose to have supplied to us only the information we want to see (as opposed to a variety of differing viewpoints), our minds will turn to soggy cereal. Politics isn’t like music appreciation where one could be excused for only collecting mid-80’s Art Rock – our individual tastes in music won’t collectively affect society; however, when political information becomes individualised to the point of being cocooning, the result, I fear, is a mind which is incapable of seeing the larger picture, even if the whole picture may never be clear to us.

Anyhow… amongst other topics I selected, I chose the following, under Religion: Atheist/Agnostic.

First off, I thought it a bit odd that they would group these together, if only because there were no listed Religions that had been treated as such. Wicca was separated from Paganism for Christ’s sake. Anyhow, I squinted and pushed forward. What came about as I browsed disturbed me to no end…

But first, a fact: I’m agnostic 1.

…anyhow, what came about as I browsed disturbed me to no end: atheists were assholes. I do not mean Atheists (or atheists) in general, but – for the most part – the ones with websites proclaiming their atheism were overbearing assholes. Which I find hilarious.

The “proud atheist” sites (and I couldn’t come across any that didn’t fall into this category 2) almost uniformly included the following:

  1. Terribly disrespectful things to say about organized religion.
  2. Quotes from Einstein.

My first response was: leave Einstein out of this 3. My second response was: if these atheists were so enlightened, having supposedly thrown off the shackles of organized religion, why were they so evidently obsessed with religion as to put their refutations front and centre on a freaking website? It seemed so bizarre and irrational to see this in people who, supposedly more than any other person, espoused the rational above all else. Judging from this consistency, I can only conclude that the louder the atheist the more insecure they seemed to me. Further, as opposed to us agnostic types, atheists as a whole seemed unable to live comfortably without religion – as either a catalyst or muse.

This tangent takes me back to what I originally wanted to say: agnosticism is not atheism. Not by any stretch of the imagination. So why the hell would StumbleUpon group them together…yet find it necessary to separate Wicca from Paganism 4? I have no clue, and I’ve written to them to ask that they separate the two – or at the very least remove them as a subset of Religion.

Please fulfill my sense of irony by rating this article on StumbleUpon.

1. I’m not going to spend hours trying to define what agnosticism is or what it means to me. Let’s just say that I consider it the most sensible choice for me. If you would like a dictionary definition, try here.

2. This pertains solely to what StumbleUpon provided – this was not a self-directed attempt.

3. Why does everyone with a point to prove turn to Einstein?

4. Instead of making the former a subset of the latter.