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Beautiful writing, and I completely relate. As someone who was raised fundamentalist, “atheist” is such a loaded word and it just doesn’t fit...but I certainly don’t “believe” either. This is the first year (after nearly 15 years of doubt/disbelief) that we are doing nothing for Holy Week/Easter. Nothing. Feels strange, but also...nice to not have to explain things to my kids that I don’t even buy.

Im so impressed by your reading lists! 💛

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Coincidentally, this is the first time in 15 years I am not doing anything for Easter, either! And what’s so weird is I never added the religious element for my kids, which is the *whole reason* for it. So why did I start in the first place? I honestly can’t remember. And we’ve always had two, because my stepmother is Russian Orthodox—a different Easter day—and takes it very seriously.

I quoted this in another comment below, but my brother-in-law and I texted a bunch after he read this. He was raised very strict Mormon, and though he’s no longer with the church, he said that Atheism/agnosticism are acknowledgements he can’t come to terms with for some the same reasons I mentioned.

“Can one ever undo who they were forced to be without denying what they are? It feels disingenuous to oneself, potentially leading to other untruths one might feel the need to subject themselves to cope with the ‘truth.’”

I thought that was incredibly insightful and am looking forward to talking about it more with him around the fire.

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Wow. Yes. So true and so relatable.

I remember feeling so judgmental of people who only did egg hunts & candy but didn’t appreciate the “real” reason....now I’m happily filling dozens of eggs with peanut butter cups for my kids and so giddy to do an egg hunt and sleep in on Sunday😅

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Peanut butter cups are definitely a weakness of mine 😂

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There's a whole cottage industry that I think of as "off-ramps for evangelicals/fundamentalists." One of its books, "Finding God In The Waves," was the end of my "deconstruction" journey. I had reached the bottom; all the parts were laid out for inspection. I could finally start rebuilding.

In that book, Mike McHargue offers a list of different theological categories, and splits "atheist" into three: the "lack of belief" style, the "antitheist" style (Dawkins fits this category), and the "nontheist" style. Looks like this article offers a similar distinction: https://authorofconfusion.com/2018/03/24/what-kind-of-theist-are-you/

Maybe the extra categories will be useful to you, too?

I've been listening to The Overstory for the past two months and it's making me want to be some sort of animist. I like the "ecotheist" idea someone else mentioned here. I feel like part of the "religious impulse" is a longing is for some larger mysterious narrative in which to find purpose, to be swept up in, at which to marvel. But like, how does the actual natural world not offer an excess of that, every moment, to anyone who stops to look?

Ezra Klein's discussion with Richard Powers gets into "scientific animism" some: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/28/podcasts/transcript-ezra-klein-interviews-richard-powers.html

Quoting the most relevant part:

> EZRA KLEIN: You bring up the arts, and I think people typically do — and I will say, of course, that you are a quite profound practitioner of this. I don’t think anybody who reads “The Overstory” ever looks at a forest quite the same way again. But I also want to go back to your idea of the humble sciences or the humbling sciences. I’ve heard you say before that you’ve become something of an animist, but I don’t get the sense that you mean an animist in the way you’ve had that in some religious traditions. You seem to me to be something of a scientific animist.

>

> And I’d like to hear you reflect on that, because there are a lot of people like me who yearn for a religion-like force, despite not themselves being personally religious. You can’t just will yourself to believe in things, but I’ve been struck that your path has been simultaneously quite spiritual and scientific. And I think people sometimes note things like scientism is a belief system. But it’s not really a constructed one in an intentional way, but I’ve begun to see people beginning to build out of the humbling sciences a worldview that seems quite spiritual. And as you’re somebody who seems to me to have done that and it has changed your life, would you reflect on that a bit?

>

> RICHARD POWERS: Well, sure. If we turn back to the new forestry again and researchers like Suzanne Simard who were showing the literal interconnectivity across species boundaries and the cooperation of resource sharing between different species in a forest, that is rigorous science, rigorous reproducible science. And it does participate in that central principle of practice, or collection of practices, which always requires the renunciation of personal wish and ego and prior belief in favor of empirical reproduction. At the same time, the vision that results the new understanding of what’s happening in the forest floor profoundly increases my sense of that system having agency, and having power and subtlety and anima in a way that seems less metaphorical than it did before.

>

> The more we understand about the complexities of living systems, of organisms and the evolution of organisms, the more capable it is to feel a kind of spiritual awe. And that certainly makes it easier to have reverence for the experiment beyond me and beyond my species. I don’t think those are incommensurable or incompatible ways of knowing the world. In fact, I think to invoke one last time that Buddhist precept of interbeing, I think there is a kind of interbeing between the desire, the true selfless desire to understand the world out there through presence, care, measurement, attention, reproduction of experiment and the desire to have a spiritual affinity and shared fate with the world out there. They’re really the same project.

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Oh wow. I'm going to have to listen to that interview! I really loved The Overstory, too, and responded to it much in the way you mention. And also, the fact that it was a big hit and so many people were reading it was heartening to me. I walked around wondering how many people were starting to ask themselves what green wants of us.

There's a Danish guy who runs a YouTube channel about Nordic Animism. It's a bit all over the place, but sometimes he gets into stuff that really hits the mark for me, and he interviews people like Tyson Yunkaporta (Australia) and Bayo Okomofale (Nigeria), who connect the strands of these ideas across the world. You kind of have to just scroll through and see if an idea strikes you: https://www.youtube.com/@NordicAnimism/videos

And I appreciate that insight into off-ramps. The first time I ever heard of something like that was when I lived in upstate New York adjacent to a huge Hassidic (Orthodox Jewish) community. Someone lent me a book called "Unchosen" about people who tried to leave the Hassidic community in Brooklyn and found themselves without the skills needed to find their way in the world outside that community. The women often don't learn English, and I remember one of the men had no concept of geography outside of his neighbhorhood. Somewhere in the book, she introduced an organization that helped people leave the Hassidic community if they chose. It is definitely not easy.

But also, one of my brothers-in-law was raised very strict Mormon (he's not anymore), and we have a lot of discussions about religion. We had an extensive text conversation after he read this post and he said something that really stuck with me: "Can one ever undo who they were forced to be without denying what they are? It feels disingenuous to oneself, potentially leading to other untruths one might feel the need to subject themselves to cope with the 'truth.'"

Thank you for reading, and for these thoughts. A lot to chew on here, and I appreciate it. 🧡

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Your post and this conversation helped start me on a journey and I'm so happy to be able to share my initial post inviting you to join me on this journey https://scientificanimism.substack.com/p/scientific-animism-lets-invent-a

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That is so awesome! Subscribed 😀

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I loved reading your thoughts on this--and how do we explain those moments that we know with a child or loved one that is simply unexplainable by terms we are schooled in. I think it would be surprising to have others share similar experiences--there are so many like that we keep to ourselves, because there is no explanation. Maybe explanation is too rooted in the dualism that we are indoctrinated with, between subject and object, mystery needing to be explained. Explanations are fascinating, and yet there is always more than just that--explanations don't describe the feeling or experience of such occurrences. Maybe faith isn't the word--maybe more it is just a knowing that there is always mystery. And how allowing for that, witnessing it, noticing it, is the key.

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Maybe it all just is, not needing explanation but just being there.

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Mar 18, 2023Liked by Antonia Malchik

I find myself trying to sort out "faith" and "belief." Perhaps I'm overwhelmed by the idea of faith or burdening it with attributions it doesn't really require (but that I was at least implicitly taught as a child), but it seems to demand much more than simply believing (which is assuming, I guess), for example, that most people (someone said this in the comments) are ok, or at least try to be. Rather than thinking that this means my "faith" function is broken, I am wondering why faith would be a necessary component of our being. If its as trivial as having "faith" that you, too, will take your turn at an all way stop, then you can call that behavior whatever you want and my taking the word "faith" too seriously is my personal issue. But to say that there is an inborn religious impulse, which I would define as an impulse to worship something, just doesn't strike me as true. So, I guess I am also saying that I think faith can (or maybe I am saying should here) be disconnected from feelings of awe, mystery, wonder. Its quite a tangle, sin't it.

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I really think I shouldn't have cut out the original thoughts about faith, but in a way I'm liking the ideas that are coming out about it here in the comments. I hadn't really thought about faith being disconnected from the feelings of awe, mystery, and wonder (obviously, organized religion doesn't necessarily engender or foster these things but the kind of faith I'm thinking of would be related to it), but your point about 4-way stops brings two things to mind:

1) This is actually something I have been thinking about a lot the last couple years because people locally have gotten much less reliable about it! It feels directly linked to the explosion of enormous trucks with lifted wheels and the feelings of entitlement and "own the road" that comes with it. The road rules feel sketchier, and what is there to really enforce a 4-way stop except our faith that everyone else will respect the order?

2) When anti-masking started it made me also think a lot about how difficult it is to "believe" science even when it's proved to you. Equations and graphs and even cool graphics don't guarantee belief. At some point, you have to trust the person giving you advice. I thought about gravity, how you can only really prove gravity through equations but also by dropping a pencil. That might not *prove* gravity in a math and science way, but it does show its effects enough that even if conspiracy theorists started running around saying gravity isn't real, I don't know what percentage of people would start attempting to fly. There'd be some sad believers, but it's hard to imagine en masse rejection of that reality in the way that masks were rejected by so many. But showing that a mask stops a virus getting in or out is much more difficult than demonstrating gravity.

(This is actually something I've thought about a little obsessively for many years regarding environmental damage and pollution. At some point continuing it demands some form of science denial because it's so hard to prove causation between pollution and ecosystem health consequences, including human.)

I like the idea of disentangling faith from awe, mystery, and wonder. Maybe I'm just stuck with old ideas that have outlived their usefulness.

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Mar 19, 2023Liked by Antonia Malchik

You and I are using "faith" a bit differently. I tend to think of it as "a faith" or "my faith" as my mother would say until she became disenchanted with the church as she aged. So I tend to think of it as an extension of ego. I don't think you are quite in that space, buyt maybe not quite out of it either? And once its not an extension of ego (or identity if you prefer) then you can unhook the idea from other "spiritual" feelings/experiences. Your point about four-way stops adds to one of my dilemmas. I didn't move east because I wanted to. I had to, to be near my kids. At some point every day, I fiercely want to be back in a Western landscape. And yet, yet: I don't see the social fabric of New England fraying so much. There is the occassional idiot, but you can count on good behavior virtually always, including also people stopping for pedestrians in crosswalks. Nor do I see people packing pistols (and it is perfectly legal in most places in allegedly liberal Vermont, people just don't do it). And informal trails over private land are only infrequently as issue. I am not sure I want to trade off the more reasonable civic reality here for the scenery.

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Yes. I can't deny that it's all a serious worry. I'm not leaving, but I'm not confused about why many do. The fraying of the social fabric is the main focus of the volunteer work I do locally, but even with all the volunteerism and community work in our area I fear it's not enough. We'll have to see what time shows.

On the other hand, I don't envy the prevalence of Lyme disease out there, so there's that!

I never thought about faith as an extension of ego, but can see the distinction when you phrase it as "a faith" or "my faith." That's going to get me to think differently about this, and perhaps more deeply (which your ideas often do!). If there's any reading you suggest on that idea, I'm all ears. Eyes. Whichever.

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Mar 19, 2023Liked by Antonia Malchik

It looks as if there will soon be a vaccine against Lyme disease. In the meantime, one must be vigilant. But it shouldn't keep you of the woods (where, interestingly, transmission is less likely than in suburban environments).

I have no specific reading for this thought. It has bubbled out of all that I have read and heard and experienced, I guess.

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A vaccine against Lyme would be tremendous. I'd take it before someone could get all the words out. I know 4 people with chronic Lyme and it's just a horrible thing to go through. And I believe all but one of them got them basically in suburban environments. The exception being the friend here in Montana and there's no knowing where she got it. The rest were 2 in suburban New England and 1 who lived in New York City and had rarely ever left it.

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Mar 18, 2023Liked by Antonia Malchik

Totally relate. I agree there is not the quite word for what we are describing , but that is the inherent thing with language, and why we need other ways to express ourselves. I always think the quantum physics has more in common with the ‘spiritual’ and it’s just like they are describing the the same thing but with different terms and coming from different angles.

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Quantum physics is so fuzzy and slippery and elusive that it really lends itself to other interpretations. No matter how many equations get wrapped around parts of it, it seems very effective at slipping away ...

I guess similar to language, now that you point it out!

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Seems to me you are by no means lacking in belief or faith or some sort of god -- so atheist (in its literal meaning) indeed does not work. I myself go (for the time being) with ecotheist (and refuse to look up any prior formal definitions for it). I know what it mean to me -- and am in it outside on earth every day.

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I love ecotheist. Probably not quite animism but something akin to it? Probably knowing what these things mean to ourselves is the most important thing.

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Mar 17, 2023Liked by Antonia Malchik

Beautiful thought provoking writing! A favorite topic of mine to mull over. I think of Atheism as a “belief” in its own right and when there’s a belief it seems to require defending. I am fond of the belief phrase “hopeful agnostic”. Who are we if we don’t have hope and who really knows what the Mystery is? I began leaning more towards hopeful when I made the personal decision that I did not need to know or define but could relax into and revel in the wonder of it all.

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You know, I've heard that about atheism before, maybe not quite in those terms, and had forgotten about it. Thank you for reminding me! I like the idea of hopeful agnostic. Unknowing, but wishing for the best. Mystery and wonder are lovely things to linger among.

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Mar 17, 2023Liked by Antonia Malchik

Beautifully and thoughtfully penned. Thank you so much.

I believe that opening up new possibilities of being in the world requires a new language. Tonight I was gifted a new word—"unselfing." I am going to steep in that word for a bit.

I also just realized that I am agnostic about eggplant.

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Mar 17, 2023Liked by Antonia Malchik

Yes, a new language might help with transitions in being. But how can one not believe in eggplant? I saw one just the other day in a produce bin at the grocery store. You can go and see for yourself. It can't be merely a matter of taste whether or not they are. Can it?

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I’ll cede that eggplants exists. But I’m certain it was never meant to be consumed in any form except babaghanoush. 😂 (Maybe ratatouille if done right.)

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You must have been doing some reading. 😂 I still don’t like eggplant. But I do love that word “unselfing.”

Thank you for asking the question. It was actually good to revisit those thoughts. Important for me to do because I knew things had changed since walking into that Russian Orthodox church looking for something.

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Mar 17, 2023·edited Mar 17, 2023Liked by Antonia Malchik

But often, in the world's most crowded streets,

But often, in the din of strife,

There rises an unspeakable desire

After the knowledge of our buried life;

A thirst to spend our fire and restless force

In tracking out our true, original course;

A longing to inquire

Into the mystery of this heart which beats

So wild, so deep in us—to know

Whence our lives come and where they go.

—from The Buried Life, by Matthew Arnold

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That is beautiful.

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Bearing in mind that I have only a foggy layperson's understanding of the phenomenon, your description of waking up and hearing your child cry for you at the very moment his chest was being cut into makes me wonder if the deep connection between a mother and her child is something akin to quantum entanglement.

I have more to share in the way of my own experiences, but not tonight. I'm going for a walk.

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I always approve of a walk!

I did think of quantum entanglement. That’s such a rich field that I can’t really hope to understand.

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Isn't quantum entanglement another word for love?

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Maybe if the physicists keep playing with it that’s what they’ll find. Einstein called it “spooky action at a distance.”

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Mar 17, 2023Liked by Antonia Malchik

Sure did seem like you would enjoy! An educated guess :-)

I sure am digging your writing! So fascinating, virtually a polar opposite environment from where I am. I'll take a ride at night and be at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean with palm trees and a balmy breeze. Let's not forget the salsa music after sunset! I could go for a look at the Aurora and snowy mountains! Thanks for taking us on your journey!

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It’s wild to think of, how different life is in different parts of the world. Been a while since I was anywhere where warm is the norm.

Thank you, as always, for reading! And yes, that Marginalian really hit home.

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I'd call myself an atheist, but I certainly have no need to disabuse people of their own beliefs. And why would I ever want to take something that gives people comfort away from them. That would be awful.

And I do have my own faith. I have faith that most people are good and that overall humanity is a little bit better than our history might otherwise suggest. Which is why things have mostly gotten better over the eons.

And I have faith that no matter what, the earth will abide because while there might be eight billion of us currently calling earth home, we are still only a small part of things.

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We really are only a small part of things. And I agree about humanity--researching my book on walking fully persuaded me that more people than not want what’s best for everyone. We just need to find one another.

As with many things, it’s the loudest voices that define terms and narrative. Which in the case of atheism tends to be a particular group of high-profile mostly men who made a name for themselves not just talking about their own atheism but belittling everyone else’s faith. It really does seem awful to me. Organized religion has a lot to answer for but they don’t have any solutions, only scorn.

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I don't know if it's getting older or how much of the world I've seen the past six years, but I'm far less judgemental of religion than I was at 28. With some good reasons for how I felt back then.

But now faith -- without dogma and intolerance -- seems like a pretty beautiful thing to me, even if I don't share the religion.

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Same. I wrote the Russian Orthodox parts of that essay when I was 30, and even then felt the acute role of faith. That seems like a lifetime ago ...

There’s plenty of case to be made against how the world’s major organized religions are practiced, and it’s always been hard for me to separate the practices from the religion (Christianity being my main experience) but I keep trying. Steven Newcomb differentiated between Christianity and Christendom (intertwined with the state and probably capitalism too) in “Pagans in a Promised Land,” which was a helpful distinction for me.

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This resonates on many levels, Nia. So many. I, too, don’t “choose” to be an atheist and often envy those who glean comfort in their religious beliefs. Thank you as always! 🙏🏻❤️

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Thank you so much, Greg. 🧡

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Mar 16, 2023Liked by Antonia Malchik

I wrote about something very similar just the other day. I attribute my tentative, first toe-test into feeling spiritual, to age. Something of a wall has fallen away a little, just enough to allow in experiences similar to those you describe. It feels both unfamiliar and also just right. I’m glad you wrote about this today.

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I would love to read that! I only just found your newsletter (after our exchange about cabins in the Swan Valley) and have some catching up to do.

I actually was thinking about your work while writing this. I didn’t want to get into something I don’t know much about, but was thinking about what might be different if we learned local langauges in Montana schools instead of mostly only being offered French or Spanish.

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Mar 17, 2023Liked by Antonia Malchik

Beg to differ. Seems you are into something you don't know much about, the cosmos, as we all are. A pleasure meandering along with you and the OTC crew.

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True.

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Mar 17, 2023Liked by Antonia Malchik

Well, here it is. Upon reflection it's less about the meat of what you described, but I get to it in the end. https://annaeast.substack.com/p/the-church-basement-is-the-junk-drawer

As for languages (and a lot of other things) in schools, man...I have plenty of thoughts!

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That is lovely. I was raised mostly Episcopal and Lutheran (we switched after we moved to Polson because my mother found the Episcopal Doxology weird, probably rightfully so), and I had a big argument with my mom when I was 12 about believing that Jesus existed as a person but not that he was the son of a Christian God. There’s something about being 12? The potlucks were hit and miss.

I’ve never been a teacher but have worked in textbook publishing for over 20 years. You’re welcome to share all the thoughts. ;)

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Mar 16, 2023Liked by Antonia Malchik

Coincidence or...

Today's marginalian

https://www.themarginalian.org/2023/03/14/the-transcendent-brain-alan-lightman/

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What an incredible post. She’s so good at this! (And yes, that’s a bit of an eerie coincidence.) That book sounds good enough I might read it. And Iris Murdoch with the “unselfing,” what a fantastic word. I went through a devoted Murdoch stage around 20 years ago and ate up all of her novels. She had such a facility for language.

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Ah. I love this missive and loved revisiting that essay.

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I couldn’t believed it when I looked at the date, Karen. And saw your original comment on it. We’ve known each other so long!

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Hope you get some sleep soon. Thank you for this essay. My husband is also an atheist and a retired science teacher and would not describe himself as spiritual and just repeats the first law of thermodynamics- that energy can neither be created or destroyed. That gives me some comfort.

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I used the First Law of Thermodynamics just the other day to (poorly) explain my approach to this subject!

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Mar 16, 2023Liked by Antonia Malchik

That's awesome! I'm stealing your husband's line (credit to joule and mayer) The earliest human thinkers were more obliged to belief as no other explanations were available. No true scientist would say they know anything for sure. Atheism doesn't feel like a lack in my experience. I don't feel a need for explanation where there isn't one available. It doesn't mean I don't have curiosity. Like Feynman I revel in the mystery and beauty (and brutality) that is the universe! The concept of the unlikely position we hold, knowing we're flying around on this rock and everything that we know came from a star and impossible odds keeps me busy enough. Thanks again for the great conversation!

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Feynman has always been an inspiration. I suppose many scientists are, since wonder at the universe is part of the core of what draws out that kind of search to understand it. He had such a way of writing and talking about it, though. My advisor in my undergraduate program was like that. Really inspiring simply by example without even trying to persuade.

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Thermodynamics gives us a lot to work with!

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Mar 16, 2023Liked by Antonia Malchik

“What I experience—and I am sure that many others do, too, even if they haven’t identified it—is lack.”

This is what it feels like, and all the effort is on re-connecting *back*. I have faith (sic) that there is connectedness, but maybe the weight of millennia of western european cultural baggage has ground this connectedness from the face of consciousness, it’s still there but there’s not the means to readily experience it. Maybe.

“What would a person’s life have to be built of to make them incapable of believing there’s something caring in the universe”

FWIW, *I* care! Peope care. Maybe that’s all we have, in which case maybe I need to cherish people more in the short time that I have?

I know what you mean about the guitars. And what a lot of maybes.

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Maybe I overdid it. 😅

I’m personally in favor of cherishing all of it--people, moonrise, signs of spring, wild rivers, family, friends, mountains, ...

It’s that reconnecting that feels needed. And now I realize that I should have left a line I cut--maybe the word “faith” itself isn’t enough, either. It seems to me that it almost creates a false dividing line that I think must go back at least to scientific “enlightenment” between what’s considered “real” or not.

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I think there is a colonizing/imperial aspect to "faith" -- it's a word that divides and as such doesn't have a place in the cosmology of Jesus.

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Mar 17, 2023Liked by Antonia Malchik

Perhaps you are more comfortable with something like “innocence” rather than “faith” in this context.

“Truly I tell you,” [Jesus said] “unless you turn and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

It needn’t be the innocence of ignorance, nor a “turn” from some proscribed moral “sin.” It needn’t be the abandonment of logic, reason and science, but laying aside those important tools and honoring how a child picks up a piece of the universe and glows in a sacred space of curiosity, wonder and awe before she moves on to something else. That space need not leave us with age. In fact, I know we can expand it.

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Never thought about it that way!

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