Philosophy

Review: We Should All Be Feminists

We Should All Be Feminists

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This brief and brilliant essay (it comes in around 20 pages) from the celebrated author of Half of a Yellow Sun, Americanah chimamanda-ngozi-adichie-we-should-all-be-feministsand Purple Hibiscus is one of the most interesting pieces I’ve read all year. It was adapted from Adichie’s famous TEDxEuston talk, and whether you prefer the visual or the text, make sure you get a hold of one of them.

“Feminist” is a word long-since stripped of its original meaning: politicized, glorified, demonized. It’s got more ill-fitting baggage than an overhead compartment. Adichie cuts through the connotations to get at the core value of feminism and how it celebrates and benefits both men women.

Reading this essay brought me back to my first day of Human Sexuality class at Penn State. “How many of you consider yourselves feminists?” the teacher asked. None of us men raised our hands (I hadn’t yet learned that, by definition, men could be feminists), and maybe only half the women raised theirs.

The teacher asked the hands-downers why they weren’t feminists, and though the reasons they gave were myriad, every response was prefaced with some variation of “I support equality and fair treatment and don’t believe that women are inferior to men, but…”

Interesting.

The teacher’s point, of course, was to show the class how this word had been bastardized and appropriated by so many groups for so many reasons that half the women disowned the label. Adichie shares similar anecdotes of her own struggles with the term.

This was almost 20 years ago, and the word “feminist” is more loaded than ever. With one or more women expected to compete for the presidency in 2016, attack-ad narrators are surely practicing their intonations for the coming voice-over work.

The Nigerian-born Adichie addresses one of the most common criticisms of feminism: Why the gender-specific language? Why not humanist? Or equalist?

“Because that would be dishonest,” Adichie writes. “Feminism is, of course, part of human rights in general—but to choose to use the vague expression human rights is to deny the specific and particular problem of gender. It would be a way of pretending that it was not women who have, for centuries, been excluded. It would be a way of denying that the problem of gender targets women. That the problem was not about being human, but specifically about being a female human.”

But this isn’t an essay about terminology. It’s a call to arms to imagine a generation of children raised without the biases that, consciously and unconsciously, perpetuate gender norms. It’s a call to rethink masculinity so that the next crop of men grow up healthier than the last. It’s a call for all of us to “do better.”

The essay may be short, but the conversation it generates is long and important.

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A Trinity of Science and Spirituality

Faith and Wisdom in Science

Tom McLeish

As much as I love a good intellectual debate, when it comes down to it, I’m a sucker for a good reconciliation faith and wisdom in sciencethesis—a text that searches for common ground, or at least common interests. It’s why I loved Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, and why, despite my passions, I do my best to avoid polemics, with varying degrees of success (I think Christopher Hitchens should be required reading, while I didn’t care for Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, though I agree with his premise).

Reading only what supports your beliefs leads to entrenchment and intellectual idleness. Equally lazy is cherry-picking only the extreme views on the opposite side, as it offers a skewed perspective that is easily caricaturized and dismissed (e.g. thinking the Westboro Baptist Church is representative of all Christians or that Ann Coulter is speaking on behalf of human beings).

So it was with great interest that I cracked open (does that expression apply to e-books?) Faith and Wisdom in Science by Tom McLeish, a physics professor at Durham University.

I liken it in tone and intention to Buddhist Biology, by David Barash, a brilliant book in which the author explicates his self-proclaimed Buddhist atheism. However, while Barash delivers a very personal narrative, McLeish takes a more historical focus.

McLeish is a talented writer, which makes Faith an easy and enjoyable read. He explores the history of both scientific discovery and biblical narrative, finding commonalities in the ways humans in each arena are awestruck and inspired by the natural world. Here, he points out parallels, but I don’t think he presents a strong argument. Yes, people from biblical days share our fascination with reality, and myth-making was our earliest stab at explaining the world.

That doesn’t mean that biblical passages are relevant to modern science.

I do appreciate his discussion of the individual’s experience with the natural world. There is room, he argues, for the sublime in science. “By actually working through some real science ourselves, so that we are reminded what it ‘feels like’, we have found it to run rather deeper and to touch more nerves…”

Which segues to McLeish’s strongest topic: The unfortunate divide between the sciences and the humanities. The earliest scientific studies were not the cold, heavily controlled research we have today, he writes, but passionate probes of the natural world. There has since developed a rift between the science and humanities. Science got custody of the brain in the divorce, and humanities, the heart.

Somewhat tangential, though I think relevant, is an article in the Summer 2014 issue of Philosophy Now, “Are There ‘Other’ Ways of Knowing?” The author, philosophical science correspondent Massimo Pigliucci, revisits a conversation on science and philosophy he had with heavyweights Dan Dennett and Lawrence Krauss.

The takeaway is that science, he writes, is too quick to dismiss non-scientific, or non-empirical, knowledge, such as mathematical knowledge, phenomenological experience and intuition (as in subconscious processing, not precognition).

I found it a helpful companion to McLeish’s book, as it shows how easy it is to become dogmatic in the sciences.

But to finish with McLeish, I will draw one final comparison: Cosmos. Both the original and the reboot are classics because they impart knowledge without diminishing the wonder of the natural world. In fact, I would argue that the more we learn of the natural world, the more wondrous it appears.

And like Neil deGrasse Tyson, McLeish is affable, informative and, in my opinion, has written a book not so much about science and religion, but rather on that greatest of virtues that we should never lose, but often do: childlike wonder.

If you still feel the sublimity of mountain peaks, marvel at existence at the subatomic level or can be moved to tears by a sunrise, you’ll enjoy Faith and Wisdom in Science.

 

Why Be Catholic?

Patrick Madrid

I would love to grab a beer with Patrick Madrid. Beginning by analogizing the Catholic Church with Noah’s Ark—andwhy be catholic not always in a flattering manner—he comes across as funny and self-effacing, and very likeable.

It’s easy to see why Madrid is a popular blogger, lecturer and apologist. It’s this accessibility that will draw readers to Why Be Catholic?: Ten Answers to a Very Important Question, a short work with a lot of personality—but little to offer in terms of intellectual debate.

Going into this book, I had hoped it was intended for a general audience. Unfortunately, it is directed toward the choir. As I’m not part of the choir, I had hoped there would be a substantive argument drawing on scholarship and exegesis, but Madrid’s answers appear to have been composed to reinforce the faithful and educate believers of other denominations on the customs of the Catholic Church.

It is not an argument for Catholicism for nonbelievers, but rather for non-Catholics.

Madrid makes reference to atheists, agnostics and others, but never directly addresses these groups. Case in point: He mistakenly writes of the “miracle” of Lanciano that “Scientists have not been able to explain it, nor have atheists been able to debunk it.” Well, the burden of proof is on the believers, not the scientists. The church is in possession of a bit of human tissue and blood, allegedly consecrated from bread and wine ~700 C.E. No dispute there. They have human tissue and blood. So does Dexter. What proof exists that they started as tapas?

But to be fair, that’s not the point of Why Be Catholic?. This book is for readers for whom issues of existence or nonexistence have already been decided. If you count yourself among them, then I recommend this book as a light, enjoyable read.

For theological debate, try elsewhere.

My preference would be to discuss it with Madrid over a beer. Or maybe tapas.

 

Blood: A Critique of Christianity

Gil Anidjar

I’m not sure where to begin with Blood, except to say that it may well be defining its own genre. It’s challenging, bloodcontroversial, lyrical, overly referential, meandering, meta-everything and modest.

OK, I lied about the last one. This book is quite full of itself.

But don’t take that as a bad thing. It’s a book that demands its own terms, and I respect any author willing to challenge their reader. Anidjar does present a challenge. The fault, though, is that he doesn’t appear to address it to the reader.

Reading this felt like missing the first day of class and coming to the second with no review. There is a conversation happening that I don’t seem to be a part of. Perhaps that’s because I’m a lay reader. Academics and the many readers smarter than me may have better luck, but I struggled with this one.

While that’s partly on me, there is also a lack of clarity in Anidjar’s writing. He has a penchant for winding sentences, extended parentheticals and pivots of thought that left me in the weeds. He strikes me as a brilliant thinker, but struggles with communicating those ideas.

Again, this is partly on me and partly on him.

This is a worthy challenge for any reader.

Review: The Humor Code

The Humor Genome Project

A journalist and a scientist walk into a bar… travel the world, return to the lab and come out with what is likely the best book you’ll read all year

by Vince Darcangelo

 

In my graduate form and technique class, our instructor, Steven Schwartz, devoted a three-hour class period to humor. I was shocked to learn that there was a dearth of The Humor Codecomic literature to study.

Why had so few serious writers ventured down that rabbit hole?

“Comedy is not kind,” Schwartz explained to us. “There is blood in comedy, which is why most people shy away from being comic writers.”

Joel Warner and Peter McGraw would agree.

“We’re here to explore the dark side of humor, how comedy can divide and degrade,” they write in their new book, The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny.

“Here,” in this case, is Denmark, but also Japan, Palestine, Peru and beyond. For more than two years, this odd couple of comedy—Warner a journalist (Westword, Wired, Slate) and McGraw a humor researcher/marketing instructor (at the University of Colorado at Boulder)—traveled the world to learn what incites nasal milk projectiles in other cultures.

Specifically, the intrepid twosome tested whether McGraw’s Benign-Violation Theory (BVT) of humor applied to an international audience.

The theory itself is quite intuitive and elegant in its simplicity: Humor arises from the violation of a norm (be it political, social, personal), but in a way that is recognized as harmless or good-natured (“jk”) by all involved.

The prime illustration is tickling. Taken outside of its traditional context, tickling is a clear violation of personal space, yet it sometimes elicits laughter.

More importantly for the BVT, sometimes it does not.

If a stranger on the bus jabs his fingers in your armpits and begins to wiggle them, the appropriate response is a slap or the tossing of a hot beverage in his face. This is a close encounter of the non-benign kind.

Now, pause for a moment and try to tickle yourself. Go ahead, no judgment. Couldn’t do it, could you? Your fingers go through the motions, but it’s just not the same. That’s because though your intention was benign, it was not a violation of personal space.

Therefore, not funny.

But let your personal tickle monster have at the back of your ear lobes, and you just might cry with laughter. It’s a violation of personal space, but by someone on the guest list—ostensibly with good intentions.

*

So that’s the theory of BVT, how about the application?

For that, Warner and McGraw visit a humor science library in Japan; deliver clown therapy to a Peruvian barrio alongside Patch Adams; interview notorious Danish cartoonists; participate in laughter yoga (yes, that’s a thing); attend comedy festivals; and McGraw even gives stand-up comedy a try in Denver’s toughest room.

That’s a lot to fit into a single book, but you’ll want to read every word. The Humor Code is an engaging blend of science writing, travel writing and narrative nonfiction. This is one of the best books you will read this year, and it is deserving of major awards.

*

Here I’ll pause for a short disclaimer. Let it be noted that Joel Warner is a friend of mine. I have cat-sat for him on occasion, not to mention the numerous times we’ve helped each other stumble home from the Boulder bars at 2 a.m.

For three years, Warner and I were co-workers at an alternative newsweekly in Colorado, and on a daily basis I was witness to his talent, integrity and work ethic. From our earliest days in the newsroom, the editorial team knew he would be writing best-selling books someday.

That day is today.

*

If I had to make comparisons, I would liken The Humor Code to Sam Kean’s The Disappearing Spoon and Eric Weiner’s The Geography of Bliss. Like those two books, the reader comes away knowing more about the topic, and about the world at large, than they would’ve thought when they first cracked the spine—and in a way that makes you laugh as much as you learn.

Mixing the experimental with the anecdotal, here are a few of their discoveries:

  • “Japan is a high-context society. The country is so homogenous, so unified in its history and culture, that most zingers don’t need set-ups at all.” (“The United States, on the other hand, is as low context as you can get.”)
  • “…A sense of humor is seen as a sign of intelligence, social desirability and overall genetic fitness. In other words, good jokes are a guy’s version of colorful peacock plumes…”
  • “We found humor designed to ease people’s pain, a laughter shared by Palestinian street kids and Israeli Holocaust survivors alike.”

The latter observation is the exclamation point to a friendly interaction between a Palestinian shopkeeper and an Israeli policeman. It was a beautiful moment that even had this cynical bastard singing “We Are the World.”

*

But there’s more to humor (and The Humor Code) than just the har-hars and the touchy-feelies. Alongside the camaraderie is the reality of political and cultural blowback. For the tender moments observed in Palestine, there is the reminder that the sketch comedy television show was shut down when it became too controversial. We learn that real life goes on for Patch Adams after his Hollywood ending. There is personal tragedy and, lest we forget, reminders of the embassies and churches that were set on fire, the people who were murdered and those who remain captives in their own homes for fear of their lives because of a newspaper comic.

Yes, because of a newspaper comic.

In a commentary that would do Professor Schwartz proud, Warner and McGraw write:

“We laugh loudest at the most arousing humor attempts, the stuff that’s laced with a bit of danger. So in order to come up with the best comedy, we have to skirt ever closer to the realm of tragedy, hurt and pain. For some people, the result will hit that perfect, hilarious sweet spot. For others, it goes over the line.”

Warner and McGraw aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty, whether they’re mining gallows humor in war zones, dissecting the world’s funniest joke or bombing onstage before a crowd of angry drunks, these guys bravely submerse themselves in the blood sport that is comedy.

They write: “It’s almost as if making people laugh during dark and troubling times is so vital, so crucial, that it outweighs common sense, and maybe even self-preservation.”

Their observations are sharp, insightful and they’re not afraid to explore the breadth of emotions comedy elicits. They’re even bold enough to be funny on five continents.

Their conclusions? Well, you’ll have to read the book for those, but of course, as with all great literature, you’ll soon learn that the joy is in pursuing the question, not necessarily finding a definitive answer.

The journey might take you to some dark places, so be sure to pack a clown nose with your Band-Aids.

And may all your violations be benign.

Review: Buddhist Biology

Buddhist Biology

David P. Barash

Forgive me a nostalgia trip to 1994, when alt-jazz rockers Soul Coughing released their Buddhist Biologydebut album Ruby Vroom. The lead track was “Is Chicago, Is Not Chicago,” a hypnotic, oddly existential number allegedly inspired by a bad acid trip in which singer Mike Doughty must distinguish between himself and his surroundings.

It made for a great song, but any biologist will tell you it doesn’t hold up to modern science. Or, for that matter, not-so-modern philosophy.

But Doughty was working toward something significant in that trippy little tune: Where does the “I” end and the “everything else” begin?

It may very well be at the intersection of science and spirituality, according to scientist and self-described Buddhist atheist David P. Barash, author of the brilliant Buddhist Biology.

He admits at the beginning that his goal is an ambitious one: to locate common ground where science and spirituality may coexist. Whereas the Abrahamic religions have long been at odds with science, he argues that Buddhist thought is compatible with high school textbooks.

“Why? Because among the key aspects of Buddhism, we find insistence that knowledge must be gained through personal experience rather than reliance on the authority of sacred texts or the teachings of avowed masters, because its orientation is empirical rather than theoretical, and because it rejects any conception of absolutes.” (18)

That is to say, it allows for the scientific method.

Barash eloquently connects the principles of anatman (not-self), anitya (impermanence) and pratityasamputpada (interdependence) to current biological knowledge. Science has shattered the duality of the actor and the environment, and in doing so has validated thousands of years of Buddhist philosophy.

I am particularly interested in anitya, which leads us into discussions regarding the illusion of time and motion. In considering life as a sequence of moments, Barash distinguishes between the experiencing self and the remembering self (which is similar to Sartre’s Pre-Reflective Cogito, but don’t get me started on my boy Jean-Paul).

The main idea is that each moment is unique and temporary. Nothing lasts, except for in memory, through which we develop a narrative and impose continuity.

Now, I’ll leave the scientific explanations to Barash, as I’m not very qualified to give a proper breakdown, and only slightly more so to discuss eastern philosophy. What I am qualified to provide, though , is a recommendation of Buddhist Biology. Barash takes difficult concepts and presents them in a thoroughly readable and enjoyable narrative. You’ll learn new things, brush up on your philosophy and find it difficult to close this book.

You’ll come away with the realization that there is no distinction between Chicago and Not Chicago, Is and Is Not. There is only this moment.

Or more simply put, There Is.

Trending Now: Trollies

 Thomas Cathcart

The Trolley Problem, or Would You Throw the Fat Guy off the Bridge?: A Philosophical Conundrum

David Edmonds

Would You Kill the Fat man?: The Trolley Problem and What Your Answer Tells Us about Right and Wrong

Not since Rice-a-Roni has the trolley car been so popular.

What started as a philosophical thought experiment (first posed in the 1960s by Trolley ProblemBritish philosopher Philippa Foot) has become fodder for barroom chautauquas and classroom debates. It goes a little something like this: You are the conductor of a runaway trolley, and you’re headed toward five men working on the track. You have no way to stop or slow down, and you know that all five men will die.

Then, you notice a side track, and by simply pulling a switch, you’ll reroute the trolley and spare the workers. However, you see another man on this side track. The worker will surely die, but this lone death will save five.

Do you pull the switch?

What makes the trolley problem so interesting is that it can be reframed in many ways, all essentially asking the same question: Is it better that one person dies in order to save five lives?

The utilitarian gut response is usually affirmative, but the problem gets trickier as you introduce different scenarios. The darkest and most humorous of these is the fat guy on the bridge. Rather than the conductor, you and an obese stranger are on an overpass looking down at the track. In this scenario, there is no side track and no way to reroute the train away from the workers. The only way to spare their lives is to stop the trolley… and the only way to do that is by pushing the obese man off the bridge.

That’s quite the game-changer. But yet, the principle question remains the same: Is it better that one dies to save five?

This dilemma has moved from the classroom to cultural conscience thanks to the work of philosopher Michael J. Sandel and his book/mooc/PBS lectures on justice. This fall, two more intellectual titans offer their take on this ethical dilemma.

In The Trolley Problem, or Would You Push the Fat Guy off the Bridge?: A Philosophical Conundrum, published Sept. 10, Thomas Cathcart presents the arguments before a judge and jury, albeit fictitious. Cathcart is best known for a series of books coauthored with Daniel Klein that explains complicated philosophical ideas through jokes and anecdotes, and as with these bestsellers, like Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar…, the tone is light and irreverent.

Though the jests overshadow the ethics, there is some substance to the work. Ethical arguments are accompanied by short bios of their progenitors, and the introduction and conclusion put forth serious thought.

That said, the jokes amount to insider baseball. The greatness of Cathcart’s other books is that they serve a general audience. The humor in The Trolley Problem, or Would You Push the Fat Guy off the Bridge? is geared toward a readership already familiar with the thought experiment.

Those familiar with the work of Sandel and Foot will enjoy this short, light-hearted laugher. Those looking to explore the complexities of the dilemma should look elsewhere, get up to speed, and then dig into this trial by philosophy.

At least Cathcart gives us something the others don’t (sort of): a juried decision. The final verdict?

You’ll just have to read it for yourself.

The trolley debate gets a deeper look on Oct. 6, with David EdmondsWould You Kill the Fat man?: The Trolley Problem and What Your Answer Tells Us about Right and Wrong.

Edmonds is co-host of one of my favorite podcasts, Philosophy Bites, which has spawned two books and Trolley Problem Edmondsbrought contemporary and historical philosophical concepts to a general audience.

His treatment of the trolley problem traces the history of moral philosophy and modern ethics with the entertaining flair he brings to Philosophy Bites.

Though covering the same topic, these two books offer complementary takes on this complicated thought experiment. Fans of philosophy, moral inquiries or deep thinking in general will enjoy both of these fine book.

Review, On Dissent: Its Meaning in America

On DissentNot many books from Cambridge University Press make it to the summer reading list, but On Dissent: Its Meaning in America is one of the better ways to revolt against the light-hearted beach-readers out there. Hell, it’s patriotic. America was born in dissent, and we celebrate it still. With fireworks—even illegal ones (though from now on I argue that M-80s are not outlaws, but rather the tools of dissent).

But why is dissent so much of our DNA? What does it even mean to dissent? These were the questions nagging at Ronald K.L. Collins and David M. Skover, two esteemed political scholars who were surprised to find that there was no true analysis of the concept of dissent.

That’s what they set out to create with this short, thought-provoking work.

For the most part, Collins and Skover accomplish their goal. The tone is philosophical in nature, and the authors begin by attempting to define dissent and identify its practitioners. Sure, anyone can point to the examples of Thoreau, King and Paine, but the authors take on trickier issues, such as how clear the line is (or isn’t) between civil disobedience and criminality. What role does violence play in dissent, or does an action cease to be dissent once it becomes violent?

Collins and Skover do a great job, and scholarly service, by identifying the fundamental traits of dissent, such as its being goal-oriented and indicative of a power dynamic. They buttress their definition by exploring hypotheticals and philosophical dilemmas (is a hired protester a dissenter?), and they do it all with an accessible writing style that will appeal to non-academic readers who might not otherwise seek out this book.

Of course, it’s not perfect, and the biggest issue I have is with the authors’ overreliance on expert commentary, such as that of Howard Zinn and Ralph Nader. The quotations are often redundant and unnecessary. The collective intellect of Collins and Skover is authoritative enough, and I recommend skimming through the offset commentary.

But there’s nothing else I would skim over in this book—particularly the epilogue. Here, the authors move away from definitions and thought experiments and present their own take on dissent—that contrary to rebellion, dissent is a vital and cohesive component of a democracy:

“Consent and dissent are two sides of the same coin. Without dissent, consent is meaningless; without consent, dissent loses much of its animating purpose” (152).

On Dissent is a quick and wonderful read. It will get you thinking. It will get you talking. It will remind you that though we may disagree, the freedom to disagree and express opposing viewpoints is what makes us strong.

Garry Wills: Why Priests?

Why Priests?, the latest book from author and historian GarWhy Priestsry Wills, is one slippery fish. The provocative title suggests a foundation-shaking argument, but the book is as much biblical history as contemporary critique. At first glance, the title may sound anti-Catholic, but Wills is a Catholic, and even dedicates the book to a priest.

And his argument has nothing to do with church scandals, church politics or past or current leadership.

So slippery is this book that is has two different titles, appearing in most places as Why Priests?: A Failed Tradition and in others as Why Priests?: The Real Meaning of the Eucharist.

I refer to it by the former, as that seems to be most prevalent, but I believe the latter provides a better description of the book. “A Failed Tradition” suggests an accusation or a polemic, but Wills answers the question, “Why priests?” not with slings and arrows, but with scripture and scholarship. It reads more like a history of the priesthood.

And what a curious history indeed. Wills sifts through a Gibraltar-esque mountain of biblical research, interpretation and second and tertiary sources. He explores the familiar (the AAA trinity of theologians: Augustine, Anselm and Aquinas) and the lesser known (Melchizedek). Most of his time is devoted not to priests directly, but to the Eucharist and the New Testament’s Letter to Hebrews.

Overall, this is a fascinating, well-written and -researched book, and I enjoyed the biblical scholarship and moments of philosophy. However, I’m not buying it as an argument against the priesthood. Only in his opening and conclusion does Wills concentrate his energies directly on the issue of priests. The rest is a somewhat tangential flow of information.

I recognize what Wills is doing: He’s searching every back alley and byway for any topic related to the priesthood. But it’s easy for the reader to lose the thread. The subject matter was interesting enough to keep me reading, but at the end of every chapter, I wasn’t quite connecting the material with the thesis.

In the chapter, “A New High Priest,” Wills turns from historian to philosopher, and this is when the book is most compelling. First, he examines the ritual of sacrifice and the logical pitfalls one stumbles upon when making parallels with crucifixion in Letter to Hebrews:

If what Jesus is doing is making out a bequest, the receivers of the bequest are not the receivers of the sacrifice—which is offered to the Father, who can get no benefits from the bequest [147].

Most interesting is the chapter titled, “Who Killed Jesus?” Again, scripture and theology are bound in logical paradoxes. Even Anselm, father of the ontological argument, struggles with the order of the Trinity (a biblical family tree with seemingly circular paternity). Is the Father the prime mover? The Trinity?

Perhaps my favorite paradox is the Eucharist. If the body and blood of Christ is truly present in the bread and wine (transubstantiation), what happens when it comes out the other end? Is Jesus still present post-processing? Apparently, this was, historically, an important topic of theology, and the answer, as you might expect, is a little odd.

In the closing section, Wills lays out his final argument: “If Peter and Paul had no need of priests to love and serve God, neither do we” [256].

I believe this is his elevator pitch. He’s not arguing against Catholicism, he’s not even calling for (nor expecting) the abolishment of the priesthood. He’s simply making a case that, spiritually, priests aren’t a necessary conduit to God.

For that, Wills makes a strong and compelling case.