When I was in high school, I made it a point to never miss the five-minute radio program in which the deep-voiced Earl Nightingale explained surprising and uplifting things about the world. I had to miss a few, but only a few, from 1972 to 1975. Radio stations (worldwide) that carried his program offered to send free copies of his scripts in a self-addressed stamped envelope. Of course, today, the programs would all have been on a website, which Nightingale, who died in 1989, did not live to see. I sent for all of his scripts. The secretary at the radio station wrote to me, wanting to know more about this unusual, perhaps unique, little boy who listened to every show.
Nightingale talked about anything he wanted to. A common structure of his programs was, I’ve been reading a book by x entitled y. I think you would enjoy hearing about it. And he was usually right. He seemed to like Eric Hoffer and Abraham Maslow a lot. He usually talked about successful business and personal life, and how to have a healthy mind—for example, how to not be a mumpsimus. But he sometimes threw in things that were a bit puzzling, such as how there might be UFOs, about the Bermuda Triangle, or about an article called “Secret Thoughts of a Happy Husband.” Not sure where that came from. But we all listened to whatever he said, and most of the time were enriched by it. One of his broadcasts was about the dangers of smoking. In the photo above, notice the absence of an ashtray—a noticeable absence in the mid-twentieth century.
Nightingale knew by experience what he was talking about. When he was twelve, in the middle of the Depression, his father abandoned the family, and he lived in a tent city with his mother outside of Los Angeles. But it was not long before he worked his way into successful military and business careers.
Nightingale’s messages were simple, often obvious—at least, obvious after someone says it. They were based upon the secrets of his vast success in business. He would give examples of how you have to treat your customers with respect, give them what they want, convince them that you care about them, and then really do it. As he was the first to admit, his ideas were not new; they sound strangely like the Golden Rule. But at the time, like today, many people in business thought that the path to success was to beat down your competitors and to get every nickel out of your customers that you can. Nightingale explained that this was a sure path to failure.
As it turns out, in the decades after Nightingale’s death, exactly the kind of oppressive corporate atmosphere that Nightingale hated, one that leaves us customers feeling like the scum of the earth, has become the dominant experience in the marketplace. He would not have liked to see what has happened to our economy in the twenty-first century. When Nightingale was recording his programs, he said that executives really deserved getting paid more than the average worker. But at the time, executives got paid only ten times more; today, it is more like two hundred times. I doubt that executives are twenty times as valuable to their companies today as they were in the 1970s. The modern American economy, dominated by TBTF corporations, would have outraged him.
Nightingale was definitely a conservative, as the concept was understood at the time. He was always defending free enterprise, and was puzzled at the counter-culture people who thought that working for monetary reward was bad. He even said that socialist countries like Sweden were an economic disaster and suffered massive crime waves. Maybe they did at the time, but socialist democracies have since that time flourished. He had the typical mid-century male view of women, they should be secretaries etc., but he was also open to them progressing to an equal status with men, someday. He championed female college education. But he never mixed religion with his conservatism, and he never said one word about the Vietnam War or Richard Nixon, as I recall. He was the kind of conservative we wish we still had.
This is one of several websites with Nightingale quotes.
In my science blog, I have explored one of his themes. In this blog, I explore a different one. In one of his programs, Nightingale quoted extensively from a man who wrote beautifully about how to live a good life. “My creed: To love justice, to long for the right, to love mercy, to pity the suffering, to assist the weak ... to wage relentless war against slavery in all its forms, to love wife and child and friend ... to make others happy ... to receive new truths with gladness, to cultivate hope, to see the calm beyond the storm, the dawn beyond the night ... This is the religion of reason, the creed of science.” This man was a military and political leader. Nightingale then tersely observed, “He also became one of the world’s most hated men, and a living symbol of the devil in hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of homes. To mention his name was to blaspheme in many circles.” The man? Robert Ingersoll, the agnostic. Nightingale was a conservative, but unlike modern conservatives did not brandish the Christian religion as a weapon to use against any and all who disagree with him.
In some ways, Earl Nightingale was the world’s first blogger. He posted short essays on whatever topic he wanted. Anybody can do a blog now, for free, but back then, Nightingale had to convince sponsors to pay for his show. Maybe my blog posts are my way of doing what the great Earl Nightingale did.
Religious people, especially fundamentalist Christians, believe that, in order to know God, you have to know all about him. You have to have your doctrines all figured out. To them, it is utterly impossible to know God if you do not even know whether there is a God. Furthermore, they insist that, in order to love other people, you have to have your doctrines all figured out. One can, therefore, summarize conservative Christian belief as “He who knows about God is born of God and loves.”
But the Gospel of John says exactly the opposite. It says, “He who loves is born of God and knows God.” Fundamentalist Christians have it exactly backwards, even according to their own Bible.
I love, therefore I know God (not necessarily aboutGod). When I say I love, I mean that I care about other people, as individuals and as a world. I love God’s creation, even though I believe it was not supernaturally created; I love it because it keeps us all alive, and I love it for its own sake. Of course, I do other things besides loving. Sometimes I hate. Sometimes I lust. Sometimes I feel infatuated, although as I get older this is rare and mild. I am sometimes greedy. But these things do not negate the fact that I love. How about the rest of you? You probably do also.
One way of showing love is to encourage others. I spend a lot of time encouraging my students. I help them achieve their goals, and I also help to open their eyes to the wonders of the world and of creativity. I encourage my colleagues (usually). And I appreciate the encouragement of others.
Back in 1992, I was getting fired from a faculty position, by a process that I believed was unfair and inaccurate. It was a major disruption in my life at the time, although I am glad that I am no longer at that college. (It was a Christian college that considered Republican faith to be Christian faith.) I sought out a professor at a nearby major university. I am not sure how I chose him, but he was active in the American Association of University Professors, the professorial union. (Christian colleges generally do not have, or even allow, professors to band together for mutual benefit.) He was a busy man, in a field quite unrelated to mine. But he took the time to write a thoughtful, information-filled letter to the president of the college I was leaving, explaining that he had no personal connection to me but that he believed the process of my termination was unfair. (The college administration ignored him.)
I had forgotten all about this letter until, in the process of clearing out old boxes, I found it. This encouragement was powerfully important to me at that time. Although I had forgotten about it, it must have been one of the influences that turned me from a young professor who worried mostly about his own advancement into a mature professor who, as this man did, encourages and defends others.
By encouraging others, you can turn them into encouragers. He who loves knows God, if there is one.
John Gunther was a famous American journalist. His works are mostly now outdated, such as Inside Russia Today. But his most lasting work is probably Death Be Not Proud, which documents the story of his son dying of brain cancer (Pyramid, 1963). It was made into a TV movie in the 1970s.
His son, John Gunther, Jr., wrote an “unbeliever’s prayer” while he was dying in July 1946.
In 1947, in the wake of World War II, Coward McCann Publishers released a 700-page book called The Questing Spirit: Religion in the Literature of Our Time. All during the war, editors Halford E. Luccock and Frances Brentano gathered their examples of stories, plays, essays, and poems in the hope, which must often have seemed dim to them, that the War would end. This book is now virtually extinct. For the first few hundred pages, which I read to induce sleep, a little bit each night, I thought its extinction deserved. I was going to give it to the library, which might then recycle it, since it is falling apart. Indeed, many of the entries are merely devotional, even pieces by such recognized writers as E. M. Forster and Saki. I kept hoping for something that was actually a questfor understanding.
But a few passages stuck out. Lloyd Douglas (author of The Robe) referred to the world as “not fit to live in, much less die for.” L. P. Jacks wrote that humans were “ill adapted for living an easy life, but well adapted for living a difficult one.” And there was another story about shepherds that ran off to greet the birth of the Messiah, except one, who would not leave his sheep. He explained that he was a savior to those hundred sheep he stayed to protect. One particularly thought-provoking story was Peter’s Difficulty, by Frank Harris. Peter, guarding the gates of heaven, was worried that someone was helping deformed people sneak into heaven. Upon investigating, Peter found that it was the Virgin Mary who was doing it.
Some authors lived through the same spiritual angst that I had experienced. The loss of fundamentalist religious doctrine left me angry because God ought to exist. I wanted, and want, God to exist. But fundamentalism demanded that I believe all good people are going to hell if they did not accept the narrow Christian doctrines that I held. Even in the midst of fundamentalism, I never believed this. One author who shared my anger was the famous historian Will Durant. He wrote a letter (presumably to God, though he left it blank). He wrote, “Every invention strengthens the strong and weakens the weak; every new mechanism displaces men, and multiplies the horrors of war.” Human life, he said, was a “fitful pullulation.” Perhaps foreseeing Deep Ecology, Durant wrote that humans were “a planetary eczema.”
Some particularly striking entries were:
The Dawn of Peace, a poem by Alfred Noyes about how peace was coming like the dawn; what was once a vain dream is now an unstoppable reality: “Dreams are they? But ye cannot stay them, or thrust the dawn back for one hour.” I think that before he died, Noyes was sorely disappointed.
Vachel Lindsay exactly reflected what I believe today in his poem The Unpardonable Sin. “This is the sin against the Holy Ghost: This is the sin no purging can atone: To send forth rapine in the name of Christ, To set the face, and make the heart a stone.” This is what I would like to say to the warlike Trump-worshipers 72 years later!
John Galsworthy wrote a poem, Wonder, that made a similar point. “If God is thrilled by a battle cry...If God laughs when the guns thunder...Then, bewildered, I but wonder God of Love can love such things!” He ended the poem, “Merciless God, goodbye!”
Perhaps most striking was a poem by Sara Henderson Hay, The Shape God Wears, in which different animals described what God is like, in their images, and then the human tells them they are all wrong: God is actually in man’s image. A forgotten masterpiece.
The editors must have hoped that their quest would have some effect on the world. It did not. But even if the rest of the world has forgotten this book, I will remember it, even if for just the dozen or so pages that stood out.
Paul Manafort, Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman, was sentenced to prison today. His sentence could have been almost twenty years for the crimes he committed, but he received only 47 months, from which “time already served” was subtracted. He had to pay back the money he had gotten illegally, and pay what for him was a small fee.
And yet, through his lawyer, he whined that this sentence was causing him emotional distress and physical discomfort, and he wants us to all feel so freaking sorry for him.
Do convicted criminals deserve any punishment at all? Republicans seem to think that Republican criminals do not. This is just one more way in which Republicans consider themselves to exist on a godlike plane above the mundane world of human beings.
There are lots of ways to love thy neighbor, most of which non-religious people affirm as well as religious people. Many of these ways are costly and time-consuming. I cannot afford the time or money to go help people in the latest war-torn site of starvation, disease, and despair—at the moment, I cannot even remember where this is. Yemen? South Sudan?
But there are some very simple ways, also. For example, by not throwing your garbage in the street or, especially, in your neighbor’s yard. I mean, how hard is that to figure out?
You can quickly gauge a community’s sense of spiritual love by counting the number of pieces of garbage in public areas. Oklahoma, where I live and work, is in the middle of the Bible belt and ought to be the place in the world most permeated with the love of God. But this is what I have found, based on actual count:
Tulsa: My wife and I walked along residential streets and through about a mile of city park land along a creek, total distance of about 1 ½ miles. Total number of garbage items: 1,325 plus or minus about 15. This is 833 pieces of litter per mile.
Durant: I walked about six blocks (about six tenths of a mile) through my neighborhood, and counted 640 pieces of garbage. Some were in my yard, but I did not put them there; they were things I would not even have bought. This is 1067 pieces of litter per mile.
(The image above is not from Oklahoma.) This garbage was everything from chunks of furniture down to cigarette butts. All of them were visible without having to stop and look closely.
American evangelicals like to consider France to be a spiritually desolate country, because most of its Christians are people the evangelicals will not admit are Christians. But in Paris, which is notoriously dirty, the number would be far less than the approximately 900 pieces of garbage per mile typical of my Oklahoma samples. I was too busy to count while I was there, but I’ll bet it’s around 100. And in Strasbourg, it would be about 20, or even close to zero. The French people, especially outside of Paris, are thoughtful of the environment they share with their neighbors.
Since you were wondering, only one of the pieces of garbage—in a parking lot in Tulsa—was a condom.
Fundamentalist Christians insist that, since God controls the seasons and the weather, there is nothing that we can do to alter it. This is the basis for their insistence that, no matter how much carbon dioxide we release into the atmosphere, global warming will not occur unless God wants it to. That is, if God has decided that global warming will occur, then it will occur even if we totally cease all carbon emissions; and if God has decided it will not occur, then we can pour all the carbon we want to into the air and nothing bad will happen.
The fundamentalists base this belief upon Genesis 8:22, in which God tells Noah right after the big Flood, “While the Earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.” This verse does not say that global warming will not occur, so long as the seasons continue. There are no scientists who say that global warming will cause seasonal and geographical differences to cease to exist. But to fundamentalists, this verse means that God is in charge of climate and seasons, and that whatever happens on Earth is whatever God has already planned. We cannot reduce global warming by driving smaller cars, nor can a rich televangelist make global warming worse by flying around in a private jet.
This would be a laughably trivial matter except that it is the principle upon which the Republicans who are largely ruling America believe. The most famous global warming denier, Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe, has said that, because “God’s still up there,” the “arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He is doing in the climate is to me outrageous.”
But the Bible also suggests in several places that God is also in charge of your lifespan. God has already decided how many days you are going to live, and there is nothing you can do about it. The verse that says this most clearly is Psalm 139:16, in which the psalmist records words he attributes to God: “Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there were none of them.” Fundamentalists usually use this verse to prove that an “unformed substance” (an embryo) is fully human (“my” unformed substance). Almost in passing, they acknowledge that this means our days are numbered.
Elsewhere, Jesus says that the hairs of our head are numbered. I remember listening to evangelist Garner Ted Armstrong on the radio telling us all that his hair was falling out, and that if he counted them, he could calculate the exact date on which he would become bald. He seems to have been unaware that, in most cases, when a hair falls out of a follicle, a new one grows back.
Perhaps “numbered” just means “limited”? The hairs of our head, and the days of our lives, are finite, and we should be mindful that we will not live forever, and we had better get our lives in shape before it is too late. This is a good interpretation, but is not a fundamentalist one. The psalm says, regarding “the days that were formed for me,” every one of them. Each day of our future was written individually in God’s advance plan. In another psalm, the psalmist said that our lifespan was limited to 70 years (or, he concedes, maybe 80). I knew someone who literally believed he would drop dead on his 70th birthday. But most fundamentalists would say that only God knows how many days we will live, and each one of us has a different number of days. This assertion is scientifically untestable (how could you ever prove that someone died on a day different than the one written on God’s secret list) but seems to be a straightforward literal interpretation of Psalm 139:16.
If fundamentalists then took this verse one step further, they would have to conclude that your number of days is predetermined, no matter what you do. Don’t bother with eating healthy food; go ahead and drink and smoke; don’t worry about hiking or walking, just go ahead and sit on the couch and listen to televangelists and Fox News all day, because it won’t make any difference. Eating vegetables will not make you live any more, and eating fat and sugar will not make you live any fewer, days. Fundamentalists generally do NOT take this interpretation. Instead they say that God made your body and you should take care of it, at least a little bit.
If God is in charge of the climate, and He is also in charge of your lifespan, why do fundamentalists tell us there is no point in working toward planetary health, but that it is important to work toward personal health? I think there is only one possible reason: they are using Genesis 8:22 as an excuse to ignore, or even be hostile toward, the science of climate change. Their fundamental beliefs therefore appear to be, “God is in charge of everything except when He isn’t,” and, “God’s truth is whatever the Republican Party says that it is.”
God is the tool of the fundamentalists. You would think that one advantage of being God is that you are in charge. But, poor little God; He has to do whatever the fundamentalists tell Him to do.
This past week has been a banner week for global warming. We finally understand that President Trump has Godlike powers even over the weather. So, we have nothing to worry about. Trump will protect us from the consequences of global climate change.
Here is the email I sent to the White House:
“Dear President Trump,
I wish to praise you for your Godlike power, wisdom, and ability. Many Christians worship you, but I have hesitated to do so. Perhaps I should reconsider. Last week you told global warming to come back, “we need you.” And it did! In Oklahoma, where I live, it was 20 degrees, and very soon after you spoke your holy words, the temperatures increased to almost 80. The very weather obeys you! How can anyone, now, deny your Godlike power?”
I assume nobody on the White House staff will read this, certainly not Trump.
Another reason this is a banner week: Trump is appointing one of America’s most famous climate change deniers, John Christy, as his science advisor. Christy vigorously maintains that, because of his Christian faith, he will never believe that global climate change is occurring. But now he might have to reconsider whether it is God, or Trump, who controls the weather.
Even if he does read this, I doubt that Trump would catch the sarcasm.
In the previous essay, I summarized the Nevil Shute novel On the Beach and the famous movie made from it, and how it was an example of fiction that used the scientific method. Now I would like to follow up on some religious reflections.
At no point in the movie or novel is the question directly addressed, “Why did God allow nuclear war to eradicate the human race?” The closest that the novel and movie came to this was:
In the novel: The Commander (Dwight) went to church even though he was not a believer, perhaps as part of his fantasy that nuclear annihilation was not really going to happen.
In the movie: There was a big revival meeting in the Australian city. Its evangelist led the people in prayer to help them accept the inevitable suffering and death.
In On the Beach, the Australians continued the comfort of their daily lives right up until their deaths by radiation poisoning. This appeared to be the case also throughout the Northern Hemisphere, in which entire cities appeared to be empty but intact. But I believe that this would not happen in America, and the reason for it is religion.
Americans not only have a long tradition of doing whatever the hell they want, and taking whatever the hell they want (from Native Americans, or through predatory business practices), but of justifying it by a perverted form of Christianity. Over and over we see American religious groups claiming that God has chosen them to lead the nation and the world. Millions of evangelical Christians today believe that God has chosen Donald Trump to be the supreme ruler of America and, perhaps, of the world. These fundamentalist groups have also stockpiled lots of weapons. They are ready to act even in the event of a national disaster far smaller than nuclear annihilation.
If On the Beach had taken place in modern America, I believe that armed militias (using Biblical justification) would arise and take over their local regions. Then these balkanized regions would begin to fight one another for domination. Their leaders would consider themselves holy, and if they get killed, their followers would consider them martyrs.
I think everyone who reads this blog knows that this is almost certainly true. Our only hope is that more moderate people, including liberal Christians and people without doctrinal faith, can keep this from happening.