Author Archives: Ray Woodcock

An Inquiry into Open Source Religion

I was thinking about some things I had written on the subject of religion, and about other things I might write. I realized, of course, that much of what I would write had probably already been said by someone somewhere. As always, however, there was the problem of finding that material and, perhaps, of recognizing it when I did find it — because people sometimes conceptualize and express ideas in terms that other people find odd, until they come to understand the writer’s starting point.

Somewhere in this reverie, I thought of the phrase “open-source religion.” I wasn’t sure exactly what that would be about, or even if anyone had used the term. I think my general idea was that there might be something like a wiki, somewhere, where people would pitch in and contribute bits of information to build up a sort of religion-by-consensus. That seemed to be how open-source work had progressed in other areas, notably the development of software.

Some Open-Source Religion Websites

A search led to an impression that, in fact, people had divergent ideas of what open-source religion might be. First, a brief Wikipedia article seemed to indicate that there had been open-source efforts within specific religious traditions (e.g., Judaism, Wicca). Even within those relatively narrow boundaries, there appeared to be some divergence. For example, within the Jewish religion, the Open Siddur Project seemed to be oriented toward building a database of Jewish religious materials, while the Open Source Judaism initiative seemed to emphasize an open-ended approach to the questions of what Judaism was and what people might want to do with it, or how they might develop it.

Judging from that Wikipedia article, other open-source religious efforts were not necessarily based upon any pre-existing tradition, but sought instead to develop religious materials and views through group participation and consensus. One such effort, calling itself Yoism, welcomed me to “the way of yo.” The name seemed like a bit of a joke — which, as I thought about it, would not necessarily be bad, except if it turned off people who wanted or needed something with some weight to it. The Yo webpages had an annoying habit of loading audio files that I didn’t want to hear, as I clicked around on my way to Yo’s “ten sacred principles” and “7 main beliefs” and “5 pillars.” What I saw, in these travels, was not an obviously open-source, wiki-style project: I just saw someone’s recitation of their ideas, with space to add comments but, on most pages, few comments actually added.

The other main open-source project identified in that Wikipedia article was The Community page within OpenSourceReligion’s website boasted over 1,200 members. The Forums page identified over 1,300 discussions, but these appeared to be aging with very little traffic.

There was another initiative on the well-known Wikia website called YouReligionWiki, stating that its contents included “476 articles about religions formed by our contributors.” In their Religions page, it appeared that some had posted materials on existing religions (e.g., Hinduism) while others had invented new religions. As an example of the latter, The Cult of the Mighty R! (selected more or less at random) was described as being focused on “the basic ideas of rebellion and revolution.” It seemed to be a somewhat frivolous enterprise; one of its “basic rules to live by” was “Thou shalt not judgeth another, unlesseth thy wisheth to be bitch-slappethed.” The prevailing concept of “open-source” applied in this website seemed to be, not that people were working together to develop religious beliefs or principles, but just that a workspace was being provided within which people could post whatever they liked and call it a religion.

Another effort, using another well-known website (in this case, Wikibooks), offered a start on an Open Religion book. It appeared to be the work of just one person, offering a skeletal introduction. It appeared to me, at this point, that a wikibook might be the sort of thing I was looking for. On closer examination, however, I had second thoughts. At the very early stages, with as few as one contributor, a wikibook would not enjoy the structured protections available in, for example, a Wikipedia article. There could be vandalism; there could be shoddy work; there could be arguments that the absence of a user base would leave unresolved. It tentatively seemed that a better approach would be to work up at least a skeleton text in a more controlled environment, and move it to a wikibook if a user base did form.

Hinduism and Open-Source Religion

I had noticed a blog post titled “Hinduism: An Open Source Religion.” That was an interesting concept. As I read the writer’s explanation, I wondered whether his/her interpretation of Hinduism conformed with established understandings. Wikipedia quoted the Supreme Court of India:

Unlike other religions in the World, the Hindu religion does not claim any one Prophet, it does not worship any one God, it does not believe in any one philosophic concept, it does not follow any one act of religious rites or performances; in fact, it does not satisfy the traditional features of a religion or creed. It is a way of life and nothing more.

Elaborating somewhat on this, an article said,

There is no “one Hinduism”, and so it lacks any unified system of beliefs and ideas. Hinduism is a conglomerate of diverse beliefs and traditions, in which the prominent themes include:

  • Dharma (ethics and duties)
  • Samsara (rebirth)
  • Karma (right action)
  • Moksha (liberation from the cycle of Samsara)

It also believes in truth, honesty, non-violence, celibacy, cleanliness, contentment, prayers, austerity, perseverance, penance, and pious company.

Now, as a reader of the daily news, I was of the opinion that India, and many of its Hindus, were not in fact very good at nonviolence and such. I appreciated that Hinduism might have potential as an illustration of how an open-source religion could develop over time, and I suspected that a Hindu upbringing could facilitate flexibility toward diverse religious beliefs. But I also felt that nobody is holy — that everybody, whatever their background, would be capable of bringing some benefits and also some detriments to the development of an open-source religion.

Moreover, as an American ex-Protestant trained in law and somewhat exposed to Jewish culture, I was inclined to think that an attempt at open-source religion would want to remain open to discussion, debate, and refinement of one’s positions in light of new ideas. In this sense, I thought, the “open” within “open-source” could have a double meaning. Not only would one’s source code be open to inspection and revision, but also one would want to practice an attitude of openness.

In that spirit, I appreciated that Hinduism could indeed be viewed as in some ways an open-source sort of religion. It occurred to me in passing that Christianity could too, if one took account of the great variety of beliefs expressed by Christians of various conservative and liberal persuasions. Possibly spreading and internally inconsistent claims would be a tendency within any sufficiently large and old religion.

Structuring an Open-Source Religion

I recalled, from my childhood, that religions might condense their core beliefs into a catechism, defined as a book presenting a summary of a religion’s fundamental principles or beliefs, often in question-and-answer form. A bit of searching led, quickly enough, to catechisms of various religions, including Luther’s Small Catechism, versions (1 and 2, possibly identical in content) of the Catholic catechism, versions (1 and 2) for Hinduism, and versions (1 and 2) for Islam. These examples would barely scratch the surface of the world’s assortment of catechisms, but they seemed adequate for starting purposes.

Needless to say, such catechisms would differ radically on various points. But I suspected they, or other comparably brief summaries of various religions, would also agree on numerous points. For example, one Hindu catechism defined sin as “any action which intentionally causes suffering and pain to another being directly or indirectly,” and the Lutheran catechism indicated that sin included violation of the Ten Commandments, which could have the same effect.

It appeared that a catechism of an open-source religion (OSR) could present a primary or consensus view on a particular issue, and could offer supplementary elaborations to capture nuances of interest to various subgroups of followers. In the case of sin, for example, one might begin with references to harmful actions, offer a few examples, and then leave it to various people to add footnotes as they saw fit.

A search, and further browsing, led to many sources claiming to identify the key elements of a religion. It seemed that these authorities would not overrule Hinduism, for example: it would continue to be a religion even if its catechism lacked something that some expert considered essential. But it did seem reasonable to consult experts on what a religion should include. For present purposes, I decided to draw upon the descriptions of religion offered by Wikipedia, the Free Dictionary, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, an apparently influential law review article on the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (which promised freedom of “religion”) by Choper (1982), and the practical current interpretation of First Amendment law offered by the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) in Internal Revenue Manual 4.76.6 & 7.25.3 and IRS Publication 557. (No doubt there would be many other documents to consider for purposes of actually creating a religious organization.)

Beginning at perhaps the most abstract level, the Stanford encyclopedia identified a number of topics in the philosophy of religion, involving especially the existence and nature of God but also including Hick’s effort to synthesize religions. Unfortunately, I did not find this material particularly useful for present purposes. The Free Dictionary was closer to the mark, in a bare-bones way, with its indications that religion was variously defined as including belief in, reverence for, worship of, and/or obedience to a supernatural power or powers, or involving the cause, nature, or purpose of the universe; a way of life (in e.g., a religious order); observation of sacred rites and ceremonies; a set of beliefs based on the teachings of a spiritual leader; a moral code; and/or a formal or institutionalized expression of, or the set of people involved in, such beliefs or behaviors.

The Wikipedia article noted that religion had many definitions. It offered Buddhism as an example that might illustrate the reference, in the previous paragraph, to the nature of the universe, without requiring any deity; it added the topic of life after death; it mentioned the role of religion as a pervasive shaper of societies, and offered a further definition of religion as the full cultural reality emerging from behaviors mentioned above; it cited William James for a more individual and psychological concept of religion as “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men” in relation to their concept of the divine. Wikipedia suggested that, perhaps because of religion’s role as a sphere of so-called intensive valuing or ultimate concern within the life of the believer, its adherents were typically not very swayed by scientific and philosophical arguments.

Choper’s law review article attempted, not to define religion per se, but only to try to account for the approaches that American courts have taken, or might take, toward the interpretation of laws that could affect freedom of religion. Choper said that, with relatively few exceptions (primarily for compelling public interests), the Amendment prohibited governmental impositions on or discrimination in favor of or against religious belief, conduct, or speech, including the nonverbal symbolic speech of religious ritual. Choper offered the example of a case protecting a worker from losing state unemployment compensation benefits after being fired for disobeying an employer’s order to work on the worker’s sabbath. For religions not postulating anything like the Christian God, Choper cited Supreme Court language focusing on “whether a given belief that is sincere and meaningful occupies a place in the life of its possessor parallel to that filled by the orthodox belief in God.” Choper argued, however, that the foregoing idea of issues of “ultimate concern” was too broad to support constitutional protection — that people consider all sorts of patently nonreligious matters to be issues of ultimate personal concern — and thus a better measure would have to do with whether the government is trying to impose upon religious behavior in ways that are believed to have “extratemporal” (i.e., post-death, e.g., eternal) consequences.

Finally, I came to the concepts of religion indulged by the IRS. The IRS cared about religion because of the tax-exempt status accorded to religious organizations. Publication 557 (2013, p. 29) stated that the IRS used two guidelines to determine whether an organization was religious. First, its religious beliefs had to be “truly and sincerely held.” Second, its religious practices and rituals could not be illegal or contrary to public policy. Without researching the question in detail, I guessed that a religious organization indulging homicidal doctrines would fail the “public policy” test. Internal Revenue Manual 4.76.6 indicated that the organization would have to be organized and operated exclusively for religious purposes. These would apparently exclude commercial or business purposes and political activities. (See also IRS Publication 1828. For religious (e.g., monastic) orders, see Revenue Procedure 91-20.) Consistent with Choper’s remarks (above), Internal Revenue Manual 7.25.3 adopted this definition of religion: “A sincere and meaningful belief which occupies in the life of its possessor a place parallel to that filled by the God of those admittedly qualifying for the [tax] exemption.” The document further noted that a belief in a supreme being was not necessary for this purpose. In a somewhat unclear reference to a Supreme Court decision involving a conscientious objector to military service, the Manual said that religious beliefs could be found “If an individual deeply and sincerely holds beliefs that are purely ethical or moral in source and content but that nevertheless impose upon him a duty of conscience to refrain from participating in any war at any time.”


This post briefly explores the concept of open-source religion, as it appears in various websites. The post observes that Hinduism has been described as, or analogized to, open-source religion, insofar as Hinduism apparently incorporates a rangy and potentially incompatible panoply of materials and beliefs.

It did not appear that general-purpose attempts to form open-source religions had achieved critical mass. I wondered what sorts of principles an open-source religion (indeed, any religion) might have to develop, in order to gain general acceptability as a religion. It seemed that catechisms from various faiths, supplemented by other ideas of what constitutes a religion, might help to answer that question. A brief look into various materials produced a collection of topics that one might take into account, for purposes of formulating the outline of a religion.

Armed with those materials, I decided to develop such an outline. The result will appear in a separate post.


When It’s My Turn to Take a Bow (Feb. 20, 1995)

According to Benjamin Franklin, “In this world, nothing is certain but death and taxes.” I don’t think I need to show you my I.R.S. filings for the past dozen years to convince you that I’ve done a much better job of planning for the taxes than I have for the death.

It’s not that I’m ignoring death. Not at all. Death is ignoring me; and for this small favor, I am thankful. No, I started out thinking about death at a very early age. I grew up next to a cemetery. I would mow the grass there, and sometimes, if I was lucky, I’d get paid to fill in a grave after a funeral. To me, death had great significance: it was worth $25.

That cemetery still matters to me. It contains my great­-grandfather’s grave. He was probably the only relative I’ll ever have whom they’ll allow to be buried there. When I was younger, I would go down and look at his tombstone. Then I would be off for a game of hide-and-seek with my friends, using the graveyard as a playground.

I went back and visited that cemetery a couple of weeks ago. It was pretty much the same, except that, like everything else back home, it seemed to have shrunk. The big trees weren’t so big anymore. I don’t know. Maybe they had cut down the really big ones and these other, smaller trees had grown up in their place.

Oh, and this time around, I recognized more of the names on the gravestones. Art Mertz was there, and so was one of the Kammerers. There was a tombstone for Don and Shirley Williams, too. They weren’t buried there yet — they’re still living in town — but I guess maybe they’ve been thinking ahead, about where they’re going to go when they leave that retirement home. I recognized some other names on those headstones, and I said to myself, You know, there are some damn good people buried here. They’re dead, and that’s a hard thought.

Ben Franklin was right: death is certain. But more than that: it’s inexorable. It doesn’t quit. It’s like the forces of nature, constantly eroding the earth: sometimes it’s a hurricane, and sometimes it’s just a gentle current in a quiet stream. You might read that famous poem by Dylan Thomas:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light

but you know that the old guy he was singing to, his dad, was probably in a cancer ward somewhere.

Rage? Oh, yeah. Right. As though death weren’t a lot more cunning than that. You think about those lines from the Bible — O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?–) and you know that the writer was talking about salvation or something. He sure wasn’t talking about how the mourners feel. You attend a Christian funeral, or any other, and you watch the people there, and you know: it stings, all right.

I am not an old man, but I’m probably old enough to reach a few basic conclusions about death. The main thing, I think, is that death is bigger and smarter than me. It will be around a hundred years from now, and I won’t. A head-on confrontation, me versus death, would be like that movie, Bambi Meets Godzilla: it was a good flick, but terribly brief and one-sided.

By the time I was eleven years old, screwing around in that cemetery, I had already realized that the better strategy, for me personally, was to negotiate. So I made a deal with death. The deal was this: I will live until I die, and then I will die and shut up. Some people may say that I could have gotten more, but it was not a bad deal, and I was comfortable with it.

I did overlook an important point, though. I didn’t realize how much it could hurt to lose someone else. At a certain age, you begin to suspect — no matter what they say in the movies — that death is not the ultimate sacrifice. The ultimate sacrifice is loss. It doesn’t go away, and it can’t be filled. It’s a hole, an emptiness.

And yet, I don’t think that’s the end of the story. I know that, at my own funeral, I am going to want my friends to cry, make noise, and then get over it. Like I say, I’m not in a rush to die, but when I do, I believe I will make the adjustment successfully. Why should anyone else make more out of my death than I do?

The obvious answer is that I’m just a loveable guy, and they don’t want to lose me. But the other obvious answer is that they are all control freaks. They have some rosy memory of who I am and what I stand for, and now they think I should be playing that role for the rest of eternity. I mean, I would do this for them, but I suspect that if we actually talked about that magical moment in their lives, the one they’re remembering so fondly, we would find that they and I do not remember it the same, and we’d probably wind up arguing about it.

Better, I think, for me to make a big splash, do what I’m going to do, and then exit. My friends should come to the cemetery, let their kids play hide-and-seek on my grave, and count their blessings that they, too, have not yet experienced this unique way of taking a break. That is the way I feel about my death. I can’t help it. It just makes sense to me. And so, unless someone notifies me otherwise, this is how I’m going to think of them too.

And it seems right. I like to believe that if my great-grandfather and Art Mertz and those other dead folks down at the cemetery are watching me, or if they sent me off with any final thoughts, it was this: Relax. Live your life and prosper, and then, when your time comes, come lie in the dust with your fathers. That, too, is a Biblical perspective — and it sure beats the image of them running around in some poorly lit afterlife, yelling “I’m dead? Oh, no! This wasn’t supposed to happen to me!

So at the funerals we’ll be scheduling in the next 50 or 100 years, I hope we will all have the courage to be ourselves and to tell good, happy stories about each other. I know, I know: in America, the tradition is to let the person in front of the audience set the tone for the entire group. I’m just trying to say that the corpse at a funeral should be one exception to this tradition. The grey, stiff look has been out of fashion for years.

There will come a point with each and every one of you, my friends, when I will not see you any more. I don’t know whether that point will come because we die, or because we get mad and stop speaking to each other, or maybe just because we drift apart. It’s all the same. What I want is to do the best I can: to make sure that the time I spend with you now is good time, and to do you justice in my memory. That is, after all, what I hope for in return.

You’re Wrong

You may think you’re right, but you’re wrong about that too.

But what was I wrong about in the first place? you might ask. That’s a good question, but not important. The point here is just that you’re wrong.

This may seem like a ridiculous claim. A person can’t just be wrong; s/he has to be wrong about something in particular. You’d be right about that, except for just one problem: you’re wrong.

But I’m not wrong, you might say, and I can prove it. I say you can’t. You say, Well, how about 2 + 2 = 4? I’m not wrong about that, am I?

And the reply is, yes, obviously. Because 2 + 2 can only really equal 2 + 2. You can define 2 + 2 to be equal to 4, but that’s where you start to go off the tracks. Because defining 2 + 2 = 4 leads, pretty quickly, to strange creatures like division by zero (which cannot be defined in this number system), and irrational numbers, and numbers that cannot exist, like the square root of minus one. You can define yourself as being right, by defining 2 + 2 = 4, but that’s like defining yourself as Bill Gates and then living as if you were rich. It doesn’t add up.

Try again, if you’d like. The sky is blue? Which part of the sky? Where? Does the person blind from birth agree? Would you care to compare it against a color chip from the paint store, to make sure it’s not actually aqua or periwinkle?

The point here is not that everyone is always wrong about everything. It’s that it is hard to be right, and even harder to stay that way. When I say you’re wrong, I’m just generalizing, because you usually are.

Well, how about me, you might ask – am I not wrong too? Good question. If you think it’s important, I encourage you to get your own blog and write about it. But you’d be wrong – it’s really not important.

So, to clarify: yes, you can define 4 to be 2 + 2. You can define blue to be what a certain part of the sky is, at a certain place and time, as if it were possible to preserve that lost moment. You can carve out bits of being right, from a larger world in which you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.

The reason you’re wrong is that being right tends to be a matter of contingencies and particulars, the tentative and usually temporary result of concerted effort in the face of a general reality of being wrong. On 3 + 9, you nailed it, but only because you had already given yourself that trophy, starting with your definition of things like 2 + 2. On that little spot of blue, congratulations, and big deal.

But surely you know things more important than that. Or do you? Example: you think your kids love you. Do they? Maybe. Janie, down the street, loved Jimmy, and that’s why she shot him. Do your kids love you like that? No, of course not. So you see. You have to define the word the way you want, and keep tweaking it until it doesn’t fit any of the situations that you don’t want to include. Your knowledge isn’t an apple that just falls off the tree into your hand. It isn’t an apple at all. It is a creaky little gizmo that you invented out of bits and pieces, and then tried to glue together. It takes work, the result looks awful, and it wants to fall apart.

Well, but doesn’t being right about lots of little things add up to being right on the big level, about some pretty impressive problems? Good question: does it? You’re right, in some ways, about things like hemoglobin, and viruses, and the body’s immune system, and somehow it all adds up to a polio vaccine. But (a) you, yourself, weren’t right about those things; invariably your path required reliance on other people, sometimes finding truths contrary to what you might have expected, and (b) what you were right about is still not keeping up with what you were wrong about. Among other things, polio is back. Again, congrats.

Collectively, the things you are right about are like the time when my brother’s wife got a job in a department store. They were always having sales. She would come home with new merchandise, telling him how much money they had saved. He said to me, Ray, I saved money yesterday on a new microwave. Last week I saved money on new drapes for the windows. I’m saving so much money, I’m going broke.

You are so right, these days, about so many important things, that humanity is at the point of jeopardizing its own existence, in a world that is on its way to becoming unliveable. If you were any more right, we would all be dead already. So keep it up – you’re doing a heckuva job.

* * * * *

See also this Kathryn Schulz excerpt and my own later post on the arrogance of experts.

Drives Within the Life Force: Striving vs. Resting

Previous posts in this blog have portrayed life as a restless, aggressive force that is forever striving to grow and become more powerful. Alongside that orientation, however, there is the reality that nothing has as much strength or control over its environment as it might desire. There are times when living things are growing, and there are also times when they choose, or find themselves compelled, to rest and regroup.

Indeed, that understates the case. If the drive to grow is a clear-eyed focus on not resting until the job is done, the drive to relax is an intoxicating compulsion to take a break and enjoy life. Some forms of entertainment do function as extensions of the workplace. Even there, however, there tends to be a real difference between genuine enjoyment and the mere use of recreational activities in a disciplined manner for preconceived ends.

Hence, when previous posts evoke the relentless striving of the life force, they might be refined to acknowledge that the striving actually does relent sometimes. Beyond the essentials of sleep, food, and other rest and refreshment to which virtually everyone must submit periodically, there is an endless smorgasbord of diversions. People vary greatly in their choices and indulgences among those offerings, ranging from solo reflections and private physical pleasures to highly social engagements. But everyone indulges at least some of them, at least some of the time, and their indulgence can take place even while they are working.

This refinement clarifies the role of death as life’s antagonist. Death terminates life, not only by confronting and defeating the drive to grow, but also by capitalizing on openings provided by the drive to rest. The strong can be killed while they sleep; the healthy can be undone by indulgence of unhealthy entertainment; the hardworking can be defeated by losing sight of the big picture. Vigilance may be key to survival; but as with many other virtues, vigilance is a word easier to say than to practice consistently.

Previous posts have talked about life and death, and also about the social force. Like death, the social force interacts with both of life’s core drives. This interaction is complex. Different social groups (e.g., religions, corporations, families) variously favor and oppose different kinds of striving and resting behaviors, disagreeing with and contradicting one another and sometimes themselves. Acts of working or avoiding work, eating or not eating, enjoying oneself or not, and so forth are approved or rejected in assorted ways, according to rules that can be very convoluted, precise, and even petty.

Unlike life, we do not know much about death. From life’s perspective, death is simply the absence of life, and life’s perspective is essentially all we have. It is thus not feasible to speak meaningfully about divergent drives within death. Things are different with the social force: to the extent that it reflects the life force, it incorporates its own combinations of striving and resting.

The gist of these remarks is simply that, as noted in prior posts, life can be summarized as a striving and restless force, and in the aggregate it is indeed that: there is always someone or something, somewhere, that is interested in eating your lunch. At the same time, life’s striving has the potential to undermine itself, insofar as the most aggressive striving often comes closest to triggering potentially self-destructive physical and social errors and countermeasures. Experience with life often teaches people to leaven the striving compulsion with personal and social relaxation, achieving some measure of reconciliation between one’s personal objectives and one’s personal and social limits.

Dominant Religions in the Best and Worst States in the U.S.

I was interested in differences between the best and worst American states. This post reports on one dimension of those differences, having to do with religion. (A companion post reports on race and ethnicity.)

First, to identify the states in question, I ran searches for best-run states, best governed or administered states, and simply best states. For 2013, these and related searches led me toward two widely cited rankings. One was the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index. Its findings were based solely on self-reports by interviewed individuals. The other was the 24/7 Wall St. Index, which added survey and observational data going beyond the well-being focus of the Gallup-Healthways research.

The general drift of the Gallup-Healthways study is illustrated visually in this map, which depicts the results of another study, in which the Commonwealth Fund examined state healthcare systems:


Given the financial orientation of the 24/7 Wall St. Index, and divergent opinions on the importance of money, it seemed best to try to draw upon both the 24/7 Wall St. and the Gallup-Healthways state rankings. To do that, I listed the state-by-state rank numbers reported by each of these two sources, and then calculated the difference between them. Thus, as shown in the last column of the following table, 24/7 Wall St. and Gallup-Healthways did not differ at all regarding the relative rank of North Dakota, but they differed greatly in the case of California.

State 24/7 Wall St. Rank Gallup-Healthways Rank Difference
ND 1 1 0
VT 6 6 0
NE 4 3 1
MI 35 37 2
MN 7 4 3
WA 12 9 3
NC 29 32 3
LA 44 41 3
NY 39 35 4
SC 42 38 4
MA 18 13 5
MD 24 18 6
IA 3 10 7
UT 5 12 7
SD 9 2 7
WI 21 14 7
GA 34 27 7
FL 37 30 7
AL 40 47 7
AK 8 16 8
OR 17 25 8
RI 47 39 8
KS 11 20 9
ID 20 29 9
PA 27 36 9
OK 33 42 9
VA 14 24 10
MT 15 5 10
CT 41 31 10
TX 10 21 11
KY 38 49 11
MS 36 48 12
AR 32 45 13
HI 22 8 14
NH 25 11 14
DE 13 28 15
MO 28 43 15
ME 30 15 15
NM 49 33 16
OH 26 46 20
NJ 43 23 20
NV 46 26 20
IN 19 40 21
CO 31 7 24
AZ 45 19 26
IL 48 22 26
WV 23 50 27
TN 16 44 28
WY 2 34 32
CA 50 17 33

That is, the Gallup-Healthways and 24/7 Wall St. research took very different views of the states at the bottom of that list. I was not going to research those states in detail, so as to arbitrate between these two sources. Instead, I decided to focus on the states where those two sources were in less extreme disagreement.

In the interests of getting a good representation of states that appeared at the high and low ends of both scales, and in various regions of the U.S., I went down the preceding list and drew the line at Nevada. That gave me a set of 42 states, rather than the original 50. For those 42 states, I calculated the average of the Gallup-Healthways and 24/7 Wall St. scores. Then I ranked those 42 states by that average score:

State 24/7 Wall St. Rank Gallup-Healthways Rank Average Rank
ND 1 1 1 1
NE 4 3 3.5 2
MN 7 4 5.5 3
SD 9 2 5.5 3
VT 6 6 6 5
IA 3 10 6.5 6
UT 5 12 8.5 7
MT 15 5 10 8
WA 12 9 10.5 9
AK 8 16 12 10
HI 22 8 15 11
MA 18 13 15.5 12
KS 11 20 15.5 12
TX 10 21 15.5 12
WI 21 14 17.5 15
NH 25 11 18 16
VA 14 24 19 17
DE 13 28 20.5 18
MD 24 18 21 19
OR 17 25 21 19
ME 30 15 22.5 21
ID 20 29 24.5 22
NC 29 32 30.5 23
GA 34 27 30.5 23
PA 27 36 31.5 25
NJ 43 23 33 26
FL 37 30 33.5 27
MO 28 43 35.5 28
MI 35 37 36 29
CT 41 31 36 29
OH 26 46 36 29
NV 46 26 36 29
NY 39 35 37 33
OK 33 42 37.5 34
AR 32 45 38.5 35
SC 42 38 40 36
NM 49 33 41 37
MS 36 48 42 38
LA 44 41 42.5 39
RI 47 39 43 40
AL 40 47 43.5 41
KY 38 49 43.5 41

Next, I compared this composite state ranking against dominant religion. From the immediately preceding table, I took the top 10 and the bottom 10 states and wrote their rank numbers onto this map from the 2010 U.S. Religion Census:

2010 U.S. Religion Census

For instance, there is a 41 on Alabama and a 41 on Kentucky because, of the 42 states shown on the immediately preceding table, they tied for last (i.e., 41st/42nd) place.

That enumerated map provoked several thoughts. First, it appeared that Mormonism had been good for Utah. This was not entirely clear: there was great disagreement, between those two data sources, as to the desirability of Wyoming, another heavily Mormon state, and the sources agreed that Idaho was in the middle of the pack. It was difficult to say more, because my sources were also in great disagreement as to California, Nevada, Colorado, and Arizona.

It also appeared that Catholicism was not necessarily a good predictor, given the good showings of Montana and Washington and the bad showings of much of the Northeast. Location may have been a confounding factor there: except for three small states in New England, no state on the East Coast achieved the top 40% of the composite ranking.

Probably the most visible aspect of the religion map (above) is the contrast between the Lutheran states of the upper Midwest and the Southern Baptist states. Every state in which the Evangelical Lutheran Church maintains a substantial presence falls into the top ten in the composite ranking, whereas not one of the states in which the Southern Baptist Convention maintains a substantial presence made it into the top ten. Indeed, except for Texas and Virginia — both of which display substantial non-Baptist influence — every Southern Baptist state landed in the bottom half of the list.

But perhaps that is merely coincidental. How important is religion, for inhabitants of these various states: what kind of influence do these denominations exert? A PewResearch study in 2008 indicated that, except for Utah, Southern Baptist states accounted for every state in which at least 50% of residents said they attended church at least once a week. By contrast, in the top-ranked north-central states, claimed attendance rates ranged from 47% in Nebraska down to 38% in Minnesota. The Pew study further found that, in most Southern Baptist states, between 66% and 82% of residents said that religion was very important in their lives, and that they prayed every day, whereas in the Lutheran states the percentages saying similar things ranged between 51% and 58%.

These findings suggested that the two different denominations might play different roles in believers’ lives. For one thing, there is the contradiction between New Testament passages emphasizing the continued importance of the Mosaic law and those indicating that believers are freed from that law. On that issue, Southern Baptists come down in favor of the law. Thus the South seems to be forever generating controversies involving the erection of Ten Commandment sculptures in public places. In other ways as well, Southern Baptist beliefs seem to emphasize control over individuals by authority figures: women are subordinate to men, and may not be ministers; God prohibits abortion, some forms of birth control, and many forms of sexual behavior; there is a need for an infallible written guidebook to life, and the Bible is it. By contrast, Evangelical Lutherans, like most mainstream Protestant denominations, take less simplistic and generally less condemnatory stances on a variety of issues.

There is also a potential difference between the Evangelical Lutherans and the Southern Baptists on the nature of piety. As suggested by personal experience and by the foregoing PewResearch findings, Southern Baptist belief tends to emphasize the constant immediacy of God’s presence and activity in the believer’s life. Given life’s persistent and recurrent reminders that, in fact, God does not seem to be doing very much along these lines, either for the individual believer or for the state in which s/he resides, this tends to be magical thinking. As an occasional lottery player, I sympathize with the never-say-die, hope-springs-eternal mindset in which God is always just around the corner, almost ready to play his hand. But the net result is debilitating. It substitutes a massive, unknowable divine plan for the personal believer’s disciplined focus and persistent effort to achieve desired outcomes. Leaving it in God’s hands, as Baptist-style fundamentalists often proclaim they are doing, can amount to mere laziness or defeatism. In other words, a claimed devotion to God in one’s daily life may not be that at all.

Those remarks raise, in turn, the problem of accountability. Magical thinking seems to entail the endless generation of excuses for the palpable contrast between a religion’s claims and its realities. In particular, as a search readily indicates, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) has been plagued by hypocritical contrasts between the denomination’s rule-oriented claims and its rule-breaking behaviors. It is not just the high-profile cases, such as the supposedly taboo divorces among leading SBC preachers and the alleged frequency of sex abuse by SBC clergy; it is also the fact of bad behaviors among SBC believers — worse, sometimes, than among the supposedly ungodly general public — in such areas as divorce and premarital sex. It would be an understatement to observe that this denomination has been more driven by wishful thinking than by data — except in one area: membership. Confronted by the reality of a shrinking membership, in 1995 the SBC finally decided it was time to admit its historical role as a supporter of slavery, and to welcome blacks into the church.

This brief look suggests, in short, that perhaps it is not so much the fact of religion, as it is the form of religion, that influences whether a particular state will be among those going forward or backward. Some might suggest that this look at the matter is flawed by its reliance upon secular values prioritized by researchers, but it is not clear that the views of believers and researchers are terribly different, in such matters as life expectancy and criminal behavior; nor can one easily discount research based on participants’ own assessments of their personal well-being.

Social Existence in Life’s Territory

Earlier posts in this series had sketched out a sporting metaphor, where life and death are like two teams trying to gain control of parts of the playing field, or like two sides in a tug-of-war contest. But then, in something of a departure, the immediately preceding post identified three key forces in human experience, not two: in addition to life and death, there was also a social propensity in various living things, notably humans.

The sporting metaphors are useful for visualizing interactions between life and death, but they don’t leave much room for the social force. Accordingly, the present post develops a different metaphor, that of the battlefield.

As noted in the preceding post, life and death are the consummate forces in human experience, but our encounters with those forces tend to be socially mediated. In other words, the attempt to enjoy life’s opportunities for growth and strength tends to be facilitated in some ways, and restricted in other ways, by our group memberships (by e.g., one’s family, job, community, and local government). Likewise for the risk of death, and of derivative conditions threatening death: a given group can provide safety from mental and physical deterioration and injury, but that same group can also ridicule, ostracize, expel, or otherwise attack, punish, and harm a disfavored member.

On the battlefield of life and death, we observe the front lines, where opposing forces struggle back and forth, variously seizing and surrendering bits of desperately defended turf. Medical treatments and other ways of improving and prolonging life seize territory formerly held by death; then again, plagues and other catastrophes occasionally send the force of death raging across spaces previously considered safe.

We do not see beyond the frontier: we have no firm knowledge of what, if anything, might be happening on death’s side. But on life’s side, within our years of existence, we find that civilians – humans and other living things – tend to take up residence, settle down, and develop their various cultures. Or instead of the battlefield, one could think of the process of building a house: once you get the walls up and the roof on, you can begin to bring in the furniture and decorate the place; but you know that cold or hot air, mold, earthquakes, and thieves will forever exploit ways, bold or subtle, to intrude.

Not to overdo the impression of a barrier: in fact, houses have windows and doors, intended to admit some of what lies outside, and battlefields have their moments of confusion and fraternization, their traitors, their generals who unwittingly help the enemy by clinging to mistaken impressions. What serves us can also serve our adversary, be it death or the merest mold spore.

And so it is with the social force. Just as a belligerent nation’s merchants may secretly aspire to do business on both sides of the battlefield, the social force that serves life simultaneously maintains communications with death. We experience the social force as a life-based phenomenon; and yet, as noted above, the social force is also prepared to indulge hostility, treachery, and other threats to growth and strength. Indeed, the social force is useful, for purposes of steering life’s energies, precisely because it brings death into life – because, that is, it threatens and, if necessary, delivers death and its derivative aspects (e.g., privation, exclusion, injury) to those who violate a group’s expectations.

Basically, if you want to steer and shape the life force, you use the death force; and since the people whose life force you want to control tend to be persons other than yourself, this sort of thing typically takes place, not in solitary existence, but in the social space that accounts for most of human life experience. The social force unfolds within life, and yet it reaches out beyond life. Like a parasite, it thrives within its host, and yet pursues its own agenda: the social force would not benefit from an end to life, but it is certainly willing to countenance an end to some lives, for the benefit of others.  Like a merchant or emissary that has carved out latitude to deal on both sides in wartime, the social force is tolerated for the benefits it brings, which is not the same as saying that its results are always lovely.

The force of life, like a great army, is as dangerous as an earlier post suggested: it will do anything to secure survival and growth. War is too important to be left to the generals, and life too is a raw drive that we generally prefer to see channeled in socially determined directions.  Hence the social force, despite its downsides, has become a refinement without which human existence would be virtually unbearable.

The social force exists, not as a fundamental reality like life and death, but as an experience-based invention that has come to permeate our thoughts, words, and actions.  By this point, when people talk about life, what they invariably mean is life as shaped by the social force.  This terminological confusion can lead them to look askance on, for instance, that earlier post that was so critical of life:  what people typically mean by “life” is a highly social matter, polished with the judicious use of death and destruction, to convert the bare-bones life force into a kind of social existence.

Life, Death, and the Social Propensity

Previous posts in this blog have characterized life as a sort of bully, one that compels people to follow its lead and do things in its preferred way. Life’s preferred way involves striving to grow and become stronger, usually at the expense of other living things, often including members of one’s own species. As described in a previous post, the struggle between life and death can thus be viewed as a kind of tug-of-war, where everyone starts out on life’s side but ends up on death’s side, as life dismisses those who do not continue to meet the elite standards necessary for a place on its team.

As also noted in that previous post, most people find themselves somewhere between life’s most powerful winners and those who, from life’s perspective, have wound up in death’s collection of losers. For most of us, life is a mix of comfort and struggle. The constant risk of injury or other harm, potentially putting us on a downward slide toward death, motivates us to protect ourselves and seek ways of becoming stronger and more comfortable.

That previous post also observed that those who become most powerful in life often do so by enlisting the support of others. People commonly join and seek advancement in the service of various individuals and organizations, so as to protect themselves against threats and take advantage of opportunities unavailable to the lone wolf.

This grouping tendency is quite powerful. When nearby populations permit, people tend to become affiliated with multiple groups, organizations, and institutions. Some such affiliations are voluntary (e.g., a parent-teacher organization; a political party); others are involuntary (e.g., one’s childhood family; society as a whole). Some are perhaps theoretically voluntary but practically involuntary (e.g., the market). Of course, people vary in how much they put into such memberships, and how much they get out of them. The point here is just that, for the enjoyment of life and/or for protection against death, groupings tend to form, with various costs and benefits for their members.

The tendency to join or belong to organizations and other groups – the propensity to be social – necessitates a significant refinement of the picture sketched out in the previous posts. Those posts have emphasized the binary opposition of life and death. Life and death do continue to vie for control, in myriad ways large and small. Life and death remain the consummate forces of human experience. But most of us are neither at life’s pinnacle nor at immediate risk of dying, whereas we are almost always interacting, thinking about interacting, or preparing for interaction with others. Hence, for purposes of the human beings with whom these posts are primarily concerned (and also, no doubt, for other species), the social propensity often appears more immediately compelling than either life or death.

It seems, in other words, that the social propensity would be optional or dispensable, without the struggle between life and death outlined above; but because we are torn by that struggle, the social propensity tends to play an important role. It has the capacity to make an enormous difference in how much we will grow and become stronger, and also in how vulnerable we are to become weaker and die. In both such regards, the social force plays both sides of the table — sometimes assisting in our growth, and at other times retarding it; sometimes sheltering us against a fall, and sometimes pushing us over the edge.

The social force may not be the peer of life and death, in the starkest times of our lives; but for practical purposes, on the day-to-day level, the social force has everything to do with what life and death mean to us. For the most part, in human existence, the social force operates as a peer of life and death. The well-known statement that something is a matter of life and death underlines the consummate importance of those two forces, but it also implies that, normally, we tend to be preoccupied with things other than life and death.

From the perspective of life and death, the social force is a tremendous modifier. Within outer parameters contested by life and death, questions such as who will be born, who will thrive, and who will die, and how quickly, tend to be decided by arrangements among groups of humans.

It certainly is possible that the nature and functioning of life, death, and the social force are due to the workings of some kind of supernatural source. This discussion leaves out the possible interventions of a deity, not because such a being would be incompatible with the scenario developing here, but because it is not necessary to add that layer of speculation. Attributing these matters to a divine being does carry the risk of blaming him/her/it for things that are ultimately caused by humans or perhaps by other beings. In that sense, divine attribution is worth avoiding, not only because it potentially invents an additional, unnecessary complication, but also because it risks blasphemy.

It may be wiser, and it certainly seems more reasonable, to credit or blame a divine being for our human conditions when (a) the divinity has made a clear and credible claim of responsibility or (b) to the extent that divine intervention is necessary to explain aspects of human existence. In short, at this point, it tentatively appears that the elemental forces of life and death, and the derivative social propensity, account reasonably well for basic realities of the human situation — regardless of whether any divinity has set those forces in play.

Thumbnail Sketch of Parody Religions

This post offers a counterpoint to my criticism of fundamentalist Christianity.  Here, we have brief introductions to certain parody religions listed in Wikipedia. (See also hyper-real religions.)

This post excludes entries in that Wikipedia list that do not claim to be religions, but instead merely hail from some medium, or otherwise didn’t seem to have much to offer.  Those excluded entries include Eventualism (appeared in the movie Schizopolis), Invisible Pink Unicorn (a symbol), Kibology (used to be a funny faux religion usenet group), Last Thursdayism, Bokononism (scriptures solely from Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle), and Iglesia Maradoniana (website defunct).

The selected parody religions, and representative quotes and icons, are as follows:



Come join the slowest-growing religion in the world – Dudeism. An ancient philosophy that preaches non-preachiness, practices as little as possible, and above all, uh…lost my train of thought there.

Anyway, if you’d like to find peace on earth and goodwill, man, we’ll help you get started. Right after a little nap.

Church of Euthanasia

Save the planet – kill yourself

Landover Baptist Church

Where the worthwhile worship.

All Jesus, all the time.

Guaranteeing salvation since 1620!


Matrixism aims to encourage people to think about the possibility that the reality they live in might be simulated, both literally and metaphorically.


Do we really exist?


When asked why he wore a colander on his head, Schaeffer said he was a minister of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.This may be the first openly Pastafarian sworn into office.


Tarvu – creator of Universe A and Universe B (we live in Universe B) – came to Earth over 3,000 years ago as a tiny baby boy.

First Church of the Last Laugh

Sayings of St. Stupid:

The closer you get, the nearer you are.

I know, I know, but you know, you never know.

For the time being, always.

Church of the SubGenius

“They believe in something called Slack. I dont quite understand it.”


The PENTABARF was discovered by the hermit Apostle Zarathud in the Fifth Year of The Caterpillar.


Jedi believe in the Force, and in the inherent worth of all life within it.  In the sanctity of the human person. . . .  In a society governed by laws grounded in reason and compassion.


When we look at the evolutionary history . . . we can identify four basic principles worth highlighting:  Creativity, Copying, Collaboration and Quality.


The Struggle Between Life and Death

An earlier post in this blog suggests that we can talk about life and death as large abstractions; but for personal purposes, one tends to experience life and death, not as gigantic monoliths staring at each other across a no-man’s-land, but rather as wrestlers or sporting teams, forever grappling and struggling for a slightly stronger hold or another inch of turf.  (Of course, the intention here is not that life and death are gods or other beings, nor do they necessarily reflect the workings of any divinity or supernatural force.  It is simply convenient to speak as though they had personalities and objectives of their own.)

Our experience of this conflict between life and death comes down to countless day-to-day confrontations among people, animals, other living things, and inanimate forces and objects.  This post offers a few observations about those confrontations.

There is a saying:  “That which does not kill me makes me stronger.”  The idea seems to be that losing a fight tends to make a person faster, more powerful, more motivated, or otherwise better prepared to win next time.  There is some truth to this notion.  But often it is simply false:  you may come away intimidated or crippled.  Being a loser often brings real impairments.  In other words, losses in the struggle between life and death can have real and permanent consequences.

There is another saying:  “Pick your battles.”  The concept here is that you conserve your strength, plan your strategy, and then strike when you are positioned to win.  It is a nice idea in theory, but it tends not to work out in practice.  For one thing, the people who adopt this approach tend to be cautious.  The battles they pick are not the ones where they have a 51% chance, or even a 60% chance, of winning.  They tend to hold out for the ones where they have a 95%-plus likelihood of coming out on top.  This means they all flock together on the bandwagon when they manage to find a cause that has been officially approved as a matter of the Good Guys vs. the Bad Guys – they all want to get their turn to land a few blows on the target of their collective ire, without much actual personal risk.  The rest of the time, unfortunately, they tend to facilitate evil rather than confront it.

Among those who say, “Pick your battles,” what we usually see is not usually a matter of courageous individuals carefully building their strength in preparation for a masterful strike that will effect significant change.  The people with courage tend to be taking action when the time is ripe.  What we see, among those who claim to pick their battles, tends to be individuals who are simply hiding behind the excuse that they are waiting for the right time to make their move.  For the most part, the only move they will be making is a promotion, once they have convinced the big shots that they are reliably similar to the person they are replacing.

Often, conflict operates as follows:  You are walking down the road.  Here comes the bully, walking toward you.  The bully says, Join me or I’ll thrash you.  You were not particularly interested in fighting at that moment.  You do not stand to gain much from fighting the bully.  It is easier to join him and look for a better moment to free yourself.  So you turn around and follow the bully.  What the bully knows – what you do not realize – is that, once you surrender to him, you will probably continue to defer to him, especially if he continues to offer a tolerable situation.  So the bully continues down the road, and confronts another individual, and another, and another.  Altogether, the bully encounters a hundred people, one at a time.  Each of them is just like you.  Each time the person looks at the bully – and, as his followers grow, at the collection of people behind him – and concludes that fighting makes no sense.  So each person follows the bully.  And now he is the leader of a force, and anyone who dares to oppose him gets mauled by a pack.  It may seem that many of these individuals, following him, would be prepared to flake off and turn against him in the event of misfortune.  Sometimes that does happen.  But what often happens is that some particularly weak individuals take shelter in his strength.  These people are motivated to root out dissension among his followers, so as to preserve the bully’s organization and to enhance their own standing within it.  Others, who initially would have been able to stand against him, or at least to flee when the opportunity arises, instead become preoccupied with their position within his operation.  He has a private army, or something like it, and it develops an internal structure and logic.

That is how conflict operates in general.  There is a version of it to be found within the behavior of life itself.  Life is a kind of bully.  As the saying goes, nothing succeeds like success.  In pursuit of its own project, life rewards those who prove most adept at converting opportunities and resources into personal advantage.  The path of least resistance tends to entail going along with life, focusing on growing and becoming stronger.  As you progress from youth to maturity, you are steadily less likely to question this.  It becomes second nature.

Life in general (and the organizations of various bullies and tyrants) tends toward hierarchical arrangements.  Like the mountain of success, the list of successful climbers is pyramid-shaped because those who reach its higher levels tend to offer other climbers a stark choice:  support my climb, or I will shove you over a cliff.  At the higher levels, not many climbers are left, and those who do survive tend to be the most ruthless in garnering ever more power to themselves – for their own enjoyment, and also to prevent any competitors from getting it.  This is very different from death, where there is room for everyone.

The analogy of sports teams might thus be narrowed to the tug of war, where one team grabs one end of a rope, and another team grabs the other end, and they try to pull each other across a dividing line.  But in the case of life vs. death, it is an odd kind of tug-of-war, where everyone starts out on life’s side, but ultimately everyone ends up on death’s side.  There is only so much space on life’s end of the rope, so life is forever throwing people off the team.  Life runs an elite organization, ruthlessly picking and choosing, discarding the weak ones as soon as a stronger one comes along.  Even if you made the cut this year, perhaps next year you won’t.

The struggle between life and death tends to leave people in a difficult position.  There are the strong and, on the opposite extreme, there are the dead.  Between those extremes lies the vast bulk of humanity, neither supreme nor expired.  For most people, the conflict between life and death entails an ongoing struggle – sometimes strenuous, sometimes not – to stay alive and to try to make things a bit better for oneself, without attracting hostile attention from dominant individuals.  This state of affairs leads people to engage in certain protective behaviors, discussed in a separate post.

Characterizing Life and Death

Everyone knows what life and death are.  Life is when you are alive, and death is when you stop living.

Several posts in this blog have offered a different perspective.  In the vocabulary used here, life and death are actors or forces.  Life is the force that impels living things to strive for their own increased size, power, and comfort.  Death is the agent that seeks to damage, impair, and ultimately kill living things.  In place of medicine’s black-and-white dividing line between the living organism and the dead one, this blog favors shades of gray.

It may seem odd to talk about shading, when death is so stark and final.  Doctors struggle to keep people from dying precisely because, once they are gone, there is no getting them back.  Or so it has always seemed.  The problem is that, in recent years, the time-honored dividing line between life and death has become interesting, for several reasons.

There is, first, the fact that people who would have been dead in the old days can now sometimes be brought back to life.  An example:  cold-water drowning, in which the person’s body is not only as cold as death but has drowned to boot; and yet the combination can mean survival and full recovery.  Another example:  asystolic (i.e., “flatlined”) cardiac arrest – which, again, has often been taken as a sign of death but can sometimes be reversed.  Even brain death, which would seemingly be a convincing cessation of life, turns out to be much more complicated and uncertain than one might expect.

In addition to the issue of determining when brain death is final, we have definitional (and sometimes legal) problems arising from brain-dead people who are kept “alive” by machines.  We also have glimmers of the opposite:  the brain in a vat, continuing to function after the body has gone.  Although it is still in the realm of science fiction, one can at least imagine, now, a database that would store the contents of one’s brain, and a set of bioengineering procedures that could recreate one’s body, such that even a person blown to bits might someday be reconstructed.

Along with complexities on the physical level, there are strange reports on a more spiritual level, involving near-death experiences and the like.  As noted in a previous post, not all of these reports are obviously wishful thinking or religious invention; some appear to come from credible sources and seem to be backed by varying levels of third-party verification.  While the whole line of thought is a long way from being established, it is possible that temporary physical death could quiet the noise and distractions, enabling some remnant of a person to recognize an alternate or subsequent world, or a substratum of existence, in which that human remnant might experience a form of post-death individual awareness lasting for seconds, minutes, or longer.  If there is anything at all to such reports, the underlying mechanisms may someday become as familiar as today’s “magic” of using defibrillator paddles in the emergency room to shock a heart attack patient back to life.

In short, the reliable old black-and-white line between life and death is still with us, in the large majority of cases, but it is showing signs of vulnerability.  As in other areas, straight lines are hard to draw.  There always seem to be exceptions that complicate any simple division of situations.

For some purposes, it can be more useful to think in terms of dynamic rather than static definitions – in terms of processes or agents rather than fixed entities.  Rather than treat life and death as vast and unchanging monoliths, it appears that sometimes we might characterize them as grabby kids with their fingers in each other’s pies.  On our side of the line, in the world of the living, we see physicians digging into death’s territory – striving, that is, to preserve, prolong, and even resurrect life in the ways just described.  We can’t see what, if anything, may be happening behind the curtain, in the realm of death.  But we do see that death is likewise constantly probing into our sphere of life.  On physical and mental levels, death fights every medical advance.  Combat veterans do survive wounds that would formerly have been fatal, but many of them also struggle with bodily and psychological legacies of their brush with eternity.  Old and ill people live on, now, long after they would have been extinguished, back in olden times; but often they, too, remain with us at a price:  sometimes their minds and/or bodies are halfway in the grave, long before doctors announce the final lightening of their burdens.

The interactions of these dynamic forces are often not well captured in large, fixed abstractions of life and death that attempt to incorporate everything from the amoeba to Jesus Christ.  Especially when speaking of one’s own lived experience, sometimes the contested frontier between these kingdoms is better captured in private terms.  On that level, the individual may perceive that life and death adopt unexpected strategies, variously appearing as personal benefactor or foe with changes of scene.

To adopt another metaphor characterizing the large notions of life and death, it may be interesting to observe the land and the sea from far above; but it tends to be more compelling to experience their interface at surf’s edge, where the waves meet the sand.  Then one may be positioned to contemplate the personal reality of existence and departure, as the water reaches one’s toes, or is closing about one’s nostrils.  Then, perhaps, the preconceived notions and canned assumptions can give way to firsthand learning about the interplay of life and death, in forms custom-tailored to one’s own existence.

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