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Retreat to My Study

After a year of mostly daily blogging on this site, I am cutting back.

As most of you know, I am writing a book on the history of disbelief for Carroll and Graf. The blog -- produced while working on the book -- was an experiment conceived by the Institute for the Future of the Book. It has been a success. I have been benefiting from informed and insightful comments by readers of the blog as I've tested some ideas from this book and explored some of their connections to contemporary debates.

I may continue to post sporatically here, but now it seems time to retreat to my study to digest what I've learned, polish my thoughts and compose the rest of the narrative. The trick will be accomplishing that without losing touch with those -? commenters or just silent readers -? who are interested in this project.

If you would like to be notified of any major activity on this site and of the status of the book, please leave your email below. I will not, of course, use it for any other purpose. Otherwise, do try to check back here once in a while. There will be some updates and, perhaps, some new experiments.

permanent link | post a comment (14) | filed under: Book Writer's Journal , blog , book

posted by Mitchell Stephens on 12.19.2006 at 7:14 PM

A Year of Progress

Something odd and encouraging appears to have occurred in the year I have been doing this blog: The revival of religious orthodoxy, which seemed so powerful a year ago, now, in the United States at least, seems to have eased. Freethinkers seem resurgence.

The evidence for this began, perhaps, with the decision, on December 20 of last year, by Judge John E. Jones, a Republican, that requiring teachers in Dover, Pa., to read a statement presenting "intelligent design" as an alternative to evolution was unconstitutional and characterized by "breathtaking inanity." School boards calling for this sort of thing have been voted out of office. Protestations of disbelief have been turning up in the press, on television, even on the best-seller lists. The Republicans, and their faith-based president, suffered, last month, a significant electoral defeat.

Such evidence is, of course, spotty and unscientific. And statements like this by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof (while taking a swipe at atheists) -- the "Christian Right has largely retreated from the culture wars" -- seem hugely overstated. A court decision, six-figure book sales and a vote against an administration. most of whose policies have failed, are poor measures of the religiosity of hundreds of millions of people.

But is it possible that a trend has at least been reversed and that the Enlightenment, after a couple of decades of reaction, is once again moving forward? Do you think?

permanent link | post a comment (6) | filed under: America , Bonner's Field , Bush , Jones , Republicans , blog , politics , resurgence , revival

posted by Mitchell Stephens on 12.16.2006 at 2:54 PM

Continuities vs. Differences

Here are two paragraphs I have drafted for an early chapter of my book. The first uses a fascinating sect of ancient nonbelievers -- "Who paints the peacocks, or who makes the cuckoos sing? There exists here no cause excepting nature" -- to make a (sweeping) point about continuities in human disbelief:

The C?rv?kas are the best answer to the argument that disbelief is a product of the Enlightenment or the scientific revolution. They are the best answer to the argument that disbelief is a phenomenon limited to the West. The C?rv?kas are the best answer to the argument that other, earlier societies did not have the conception of belief necessary to open the possibility of disbelief, that they didn't have the requisite understanding of the natural to dismiss the supernatural or that their societies were insufficiently liberal or pluralistic to tolerate disbelief. For the C?rv?kas are thought to have begun in India before the time of the Buddha and are known to have survived in some form if not as long as Buddhism, at least a couple of thousand years. And the C?rv?kas were as dismissive of supernatural beliefs as were eighteenth-century Parisian philosophes. They stand - in one form or another - as by far the longest lasting group of nonbelievers in human history. They are a crucial part of this story. Which is not to say that we know an awful lot about their history....

The second paragraph, which would appear after a couple of pages outlining what we know about the C?rv?ka and their philosophy, attempts to clarify the point by acknowledging there might be some differences between India at the time of the Buddha and Paris during the Enlightenment:

In fairness, the point being made here - that the disbelief subscribed to by this ancient movement sounds remarkably thorough and modern - depends on English translations of an unfriendly ninth-century report. Undoubtedly it would be possible to go over the documents here, look closely at the language and the cultural context and find numerous ways in which the C?rv?ka saw the world very differently than, say, Charles Bradlaugh [a nineteenth century atheist who will be a major character in the book]. It would be useful to know more about those differences. A study of what allowed such a group of nonbelievers to survive in this place at these times would also be valuable. Nothing said here is meant to obscure that which might have been unique about these peoples and their situations. My goal is simply to point out what has not often been pointed out: that despite all the inevitable and significant cultural differences that flavor our conceptions of disbelief there have been some important similarities in such conceptions, too; that scientifically inclined Western societies have hardly been the first societies in which, for example, the notion that death is the end of us has arisen. On the subject of the afterlife the C?rv?kas could not have been clearer: "After death no intelligence remains"....

Yo, literary theorists, anthropologists, partisans of Foucault! Am I off base -- too imbued by the Enlightenment (and all it tramples in the name of universal reason) in this attempt to debunk the significance of the Enlightenment?

permanent link | post a comment (5) | filed under: Book Writer's Journal , Carvaka , Enlightenment , India , book , disbelief

posted by Mitchell Stephens on 12.14.2006 at 8:41 PM

The Sweeping vs. The Narrow

Still thinking of the rather large question of method in historical and social science research.

Spoke with a colleague today who remembers when the sort of feminist inquiry into continuities in oppression of women in various times and places went out of fashion -- to be replaced by the study of inequities in gender relations in specific cultures.

Hope there is interest in learning of continuities in disbelief in across societies. That is what most interests me. Why do people disbelieve? What form do such disbeliefs generally take? How have they developed and changed. An anthropologist who listened to my paper insisted that I also note that different times and places have been more or less hospitable to disbelief. And, yes, that is interesting and important and certainly part of my book, too.

permanent link | post a comment (6) | filed under: Thinking Out Loud , book , disbelief , feminism , method

posted by Mitchell Stephens on 12.12.2006 at 10:01 PM


We had a lively discussion of my paper on the emptiness of the Holy of Holies, and perhaps at the heart of religion. at NYU's Center for Religion and Media.

A number of interesting smaller points were made, including:

** The analogy between Pompey's intrusion into the Jewish temple in 63 BCE and Ariel Sharon's provocative visit to the Temple Mount in the Jerusalem in September of 2000.

** The presence of similar struggles with the question of emptiness in other religions -- in, for example, the debate over what was to be inside the Muslim holy place in Mecca, the Kaaba.

The larger debate, however, was on these questions:

** Have anthropologists slighted the presence of disbelief and doubt in preliterate societies? It was argued both, as I heard it, that it is wrong to speak in these post-Enlightenment terms of the mentalities of such cultures and that anthropologists already have acknowledged evidence of such disbelief anyway.

** How valid or useful is the sort of sweeping historical study I am undertaking in my book (and have undertaken before)? The argument against it is that cultural differences tend to get trampled in the search for human constancies and that, in the process, modern categories and understandings are inevitably and inappropriately imposed on other cultures. The argument for it -- my argument -- is that the basic work on tracking cross-cultural causes of and elements of disbelief has not been done and must be done if we are to have the background against which cultural differences might better be understood. Of course, this argument depends upon there being such cross-cultural causes and elements -- similarities among disbelief in India in at the time of the Buddha, in the Tongo Islands in the early 19th century and on the best-seller lists in America today. It also depends upon my ability -- in trying to get a handle upon disbelief in such a wide variety of societies - to get what they think right.

permanent link | post a comment (3) | filed under: Book Writer's Journal

posted by Mitchell Stephens on 12.10.2006 at 11:48 PM

Disbelief in the Holy of Holies

Does doubt lurk even at the very heart of religion -- even in the Holy of Holies?

That is one of the claims made in the new experimental paper we have posted on the Web. We do hope you will take advantage of the more advanced format for commenting it offers and weigh in.

permanent link | post a comment (2) | filed under: Jews , Thinking Out Loud , belief , blog , disbelief , doubt

posted by Mitchell Stephens on 12.07.2006 at 12:52 AM


In a new site connected to this blog:

** I have taken some of the more controversial ideas -- on disbelief and belief -- from the blog and early chapters of my book and combined them in a spiraling, twelve part paper (to be presented to a working group of the Center for Religion and Media at NYU).

** The Institute for the Future of the Book has come up with a new form that better integrates comments and allows readers to weigh in on individual paragraphs.

Thus we hope to expand the experiment begun with this blog: using the Web to sharpen and deepen a work in progress.

I hope you will check out this site and further the experiment with your comments, annotations, additions, references, corrections or criticisms.

permanent link | post a comment (0) | filed under: Book Writer's Journal , Derrida , Geertz , Heidegger , Jews , Pompey , Reason , Temple , anthropology , atheism , belief , blog , disbelief , emptiness , faith

posted by Mitchell Stephens on 12.05.2006 at 11:46 PM

Irreligious Intolerance?

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof is the latest, now that athesists are for the first time in my memory getting some attention, to fret that they are guilty of irreligious fundamentalism:

Now that the Christian Right has largely retreated from the culture wars, let's hope that the Atheist Left doesn't revive them. We've suffered enough from religious intolerance that the last thing the world needs is irreligious intolerance.

It is not possible, alas, to say that atheists would never resort to violence. As Kristof notes, Mao, Stalin and Pol Pot certainly did (though in the name of what began to look like another religion). However, is it not unfair to equate our current crop of loud, proud atheists -- Richard Dawkins and ? What atheist today has launched a fatwa, banned a book or grabbed a gun?

What is happening is that some individuals are now arguing that those who believe the universe is governed by a supernatural Being are wrong. The religious insist upon their beliefs in books, on radio stations, television channels and in various houses of worship weekly, daily. Is it intolerant to disagree? What is so awful about the debate finally, in some small way, being joined?

And, oh yeah, has the Christian Right really retreated from the culture wars?

permanent link | post a comment (7) | filed under: Bonner's Field , Dawkins , Harris , Kristov , Tolerance

posted by Mitchell Stephens on 12.02.2006 at 1:53 PM

Religion and Science -- 8

Richard A. Shweder, writing in the New York Times, notes triumphantly that:

Science has not replaced religion.

If he means that lots of people in the world still attend mosques or churches, including even some people in Paris, well okay. It's true: Belief in God, has declined dramatically in Western Europe and certain other cosmopolitan redoubts, but it remains undead. And in some places -- southern Afghanistan, the White House -- it is frighteningly vibrant.

But it is absurd to claim that there hasn't been an astounding switch among much of humanity from religious explanations of the universe, of life, of disease (including mental disease), of human purpose -- a switch that has occurred since Copernicus, since Newton, since Jefferson, since Darwin, since penicillin, since Einstein, since education rates have skyrocketed and information technologies have flourished. No these lesson may not have sunk in yet in Kandahar or the West Wing, but even lots of churchgoers now believe the earth revolves around the sun and we descended from monkeys.

permanent link | post a comment (1) | filed under: Bonner's Field , Darwin , Einstein , religion , resurgence , revival , science

posted by Mitchell Stephens on 12.02.2006 at 11:23 AM

Who Lost Iraq?

Here's a perspective on the Iraq disaster from Richard A. Shweder, writing in the New York Times:

In Iraq, the "West is best" default (and its discourse about universal human rights) has provided a foundation for chaos.

By "West is best" here we are supposed to read "Enlightenment," whose alleged failings mean a lot to Mr. Shweder. So the point is that the war in Iraq represents a failure of secularism. This despite the fact that the war was launched by an intensely religious American president who admitted to consulting his heavenly "Father" on the matter and to basing his foreign policy on his religious beliefs. This despite the fact that support for the war came overwhelming from the religious right. This despite the fact that much of the indigenous bloodshed in the country can now be traced to a more than thirteen-hundred-year-old religious dispute having to do with the ousting of Mohammed's son-in-law, Ali, as caliph.

And, certainly, neither the Bush administration, which started the war, nor the Shia and Sunni fighters who help continue it, are known for their weakness for the "discourse about universal human rights."

permanent link | post a comment (0) | filed under: Bonner's Field , Bush , Enlightenment , Iraq , Islam , Shia , Sunni , war

posted by Mitchell Stephens on 11.30.2006 at 10:41 PM

Competing "Stories"

The popularity of the current counterattack on religion cloaks a renewed and intense anxiety within secular society that it is not the story of religion but rather the story of the Enlightenment that may be more illusory than real.

This is Richard A. Shweder in a New York Times opinion piece a couple of days ago. Now I'm too much of a postmodernist to be a die-hard Enlightenment guy, but isn't there something really screwy about such comparisons. What, perchance, is the story of religion? That the universe was created in six days? That we go to heaven or hell when we die? That there are seventy virgins waiting for suicide bombers? That premarital sex or homosexuality are sins? That some omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent Being rules the cosmos? Or is it just that we all should be moral (however that might be defined) because some never-seen, never-heard creature in the heavens, who had a son but then had that son crucified for our benefit, insists that we be?

If the story of the Enlightenment was that the whole world was going to be democratic, pluralistic and secular by now (and in exactly what "holy text" of ours was that written?), yeah it hasn't happened. Just a whole lot of the world is more or less that -- a dramatic change (even a postmodernist wants to say "improvement") from the days before the Enlightenment or even from twenty-five years ago. And while progress in this direction is far from smooth, it seems reasonable to assume that more of the world will be democratic, pluralistic and secular at the end of this century than it is at the beginning.

permanent link | post a comment (3) | filed under: Bonner's Field , Enlightenment , Times , resurgence

posted by Mitchell Stephens on 11.29.2006 at 11:52 PM

Gone Writing

Currently working on a multi-part paper on disbelief that should be up here soon. Will be a bit of a lull while I complete that.

permanent link | post a comment (0) | filed under: Book Writer's Journal , blog

posted by Mitchell Stephens on 11.28.2006 at 10:45 PM

Values and Traditional Societies

Stumbled upon this testament to the superior wisdom and morality of traditional societies on the website of a Turkish newspaper. It concerns "a married woman who was raped by a man, also married":

The case was exposed when the rape victim spoke up.... The elders of her village aiming to avoid a blood feud found a "peaceful solution." The 16-year-old daughter of the rapist would be given to the husband of the rape victim. Since the men would have settled the issue, no blood feud would emerge.

permanent link | post a comment (1) | filed under: Bonner's Field , ethics , modernity , morality , tradition , values

posted by Mitchell Stephens on 11.25.2006 at 6:48 PM


This from the New York Times account of that recent conference on science and religion in California:

Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City and an adviser to the Bush administration on space exploration, hushed the audience with heartbreaking photographs of newborns misshapen by birth defects -- testimony, he suggested, that blind nature, not an intelligent overseer, is in control.

permanent link | post a comment (0) | filed under: Bonner's Field , evil , nature , science

posted by Mitchell Stephens on 11.23.2006 at 10:59 AM

Religion and Science -- 7

A few things are extraordinary about the New York Times report, by George Johnson, on a conference on science and religion in California.

1. The general anti-religious tone of the conference. Some quotes:

"The world needs to wake up from its long nightmare of religious belief....Anything that we scientists can do to weaken the hold of religion should be done and may in the end be our greatest contribution to civilization." -- physicist Steven Weinberg
"Let's teach our children from a very young age about the story of the universe and its incredible richness and beauty. It is already so much more glorious and awesome -- and even comforting -- than anything offered by any scripture or God concept I know." -- Carolyn Porco, a space scientist (whose ideas have been discussed here before)

Indeed, anthropologist Melvin J. Konner said at one point about the conference:

"With a few notable exceptions, the viewpoints have run the gamut from A to B. Should we bash religion with a crowbar or only with a baseball bat?"

Since public debate on such matters has been stuck so long at Y and Z, this may have been useful.

2. It is also significant that the ever-cautious New York Times felt comfortable printing an article that is so critical of religion -- an article that ends with this exchange between Weinberg and Richard Dawkins:

Before he left to fly back home to Austin, Dr. Weinberg seemed to soften for a moment, describing religion a bit fondly as a crazy old aunt.
"She tells lies, and she stirs up all sorts of mischief and she's getting on, and she may not have that much life left in her, but she was beautiful once," he lamented. "When she's gone, we may miss her."
Dr. Dawkins wasn't buying it. "I won't miss her at all," he said. "Not a scrap. Not a smidgen."

3. And the debate on how scientists should respond to religion (discussed here often) is also of interest. Here's a dissenting (maybe L or M) voice:

"Science does not make it impossible to believe in God. We should recognize that fact and live with it and stop being so pompous about it." -- Lawrence M. Krauss, a physicist

Dawkins' hard-line response to this sort of statement is here.

permanent link | post a comment (1) | filed under: Bonner's Field , Dawkins , Porco , Weinberg , physics , religion , resurgence , revival , science

posted by Mitchell Stephens on 11.22.2006 at 9:42 AM