posted on 12.30.2005 at 4:12 PM
All of us would qualify as atheists by the definition that, as I've been reading, mostly applied in Greece and Rome: not honoring the residents of Mt. Olympus. For Zeus/Jupiter, Athena/Minerva, Hermes/Mercury, the sacrifices, lately, have been few and far between.
Have we been in the process of moving beyond the angry, meddling, jealous god of, say, Exodus? "Thus says the Lord God of Israel: 'Let every man put his sword on his side, and go out from entrance to entrance throughout the camp, and let every man kill his brother, every man his companion, and every man his neighbor.'"
Is Jesus, the worker of miracles, beginning to seem a little distant? "The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up." Is this what they're so nervous about out in the red states? (A friend reports seeing a billboard decorated with flames somewhere in Indiana upon which is written: "Hell Is Real.")
Might societies someday look back even on our more retiring god -- who provides meaning, hope and a beginning but stays out of the way of evolution, planetary motion and football games -- the way we look back on the notion of Apollo chauffeuring the sun?
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 4:12 PM
posted on 12.30.2005 at 9:25 AM
Great moments in the history of atheism.
This from the first avowedly atheistic book published in Britain:
"As to the question whether there is such an existent Being as an atheist, to put that out of all manner of doubt, I do declare upon my honour that I am one. Be it therefore for the future remembered, that in London in the kingdome of England, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty-one a man publicly declared himself to be an atheist."
Great moments in anti-atheism.
He still was not believed. One of the few to review the book claimed this avowal could not be credited because, without belief in God, it was impossible to swear to tell the truth.
Not so great moment in atheism.
The only name mentioned in this ground-breaking, courageous book, William Hammon, seems not to have existed. Best guess is it was written by a chemist from Liverpool.
(Above information from David Berman's A History of Atheism in Britain.)
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:25 AM
The Problem of Evil
posted on 12.29.2005 at 12:13 AM
As I stroll through the history of atheism in this book, I hope to peek in on all the major arguments against belief in gods. One of them -- the problem of evil -- recently received an energetic workout on the Web courtesy of Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith.
It's an old argument. Cicero makes much of the existence of evil in his seminal dialogue, The Nature of the Gods -- asking how, "if God has made all things for the benefit of mankind," it is possible to explain "mice or cockroaches or snakes." Cicero then provides a dozen examples of virtuous men whom the fates treated unkindly.
Harris, writing two thousand years later, turns for one of his examples of inexplicable evil to "those elderly men and women who fled the rising waters" of Hurricane Katrina "for the safety of their attics, only to be slowly drowned there."
Both Cicero and Harris apply a little logical analysis to the situation: "Either God wishes to remove evils and cannot," is how the Roman puts it, "or he can do so and is unwilling." Harris suggests that "God, therefore, is either impotent or evil." Cicero quotes a poet: "If gods did care, the good would prosper, and the bad/Would suffer; that's not the way of things."
Theistic responses to this argument usually boil down to "it's humans not gods who have mucked things up" or "gods work in mysterious ways."
Cicero seems to back down at the end of his powerful dialogue -- saying he endorses the religious position. Harris does not. "Only the atheist," he writes, "has the courage to admit the obvious: these poor people [who prayed to God in New Orleans then died] spent their lives in the company of an imaginary friend."
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 12:13 AM
Pain or Liberation?
posted on 12.28.2005 at 10:17 PM
Leslie Stephen, Virginia Woolf's dad, suffered two major crises in his life: one -- a subject of To the Lighthouse -- when he lost his wife; the other when, while a tutor at Cambridge, he lost his faith. "I now believe in nothing, to put it shortly" he wrote in his journal in 1865. Stephen, according to a friend, contemplated suicide.
Does loss of faith have to be a crisis? Does it have to hurt?
Salman Rushdie is among those who have found freedom in the evaporation of religion: "Imagine there's no heaven," he has written, "and at once the sky's the limit."
Is it easier to feel that now? Is Rushdie right?
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:17 PM
posted on 12.27.2005 at 6:44 PM
Some are born not believing, which usually means their parents were more or less nonbelievers. Others come to atheism at some point in their lives -- in a flash or after much reading, talk or thought.
Bertrand Russell, age 15: "The search for truth has shattered most of my old beliefs."
I'm curious whether any readers have experienced such a shattering moment or period.
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 6:44 PM
posted on 12.27.2005 at 12:23 PM
Sir Samuel White Baker, one of the discoverers of the sources of the Nile, believed he had come upon humans of "so abject and low a type that the mind repels the idea that [they are] of our Adamite race.
"Without any exception," he proclaims, "they are without a belief in a Supreme Being, neither have they any form of worship or idolatry; nor is the darkness of their minds enlightened by even a ray of superstition."
There is much to respond to in this cocktail of Victorian prejudice, but I want to restrict myself here to just one set of questions: Is his point about religion in any way true? Is there some sense in which atheism precedes religion?
Baker was mostly wrong about the members of the Nilotic tribal group he encountered in central Africa: They had, we now know, their share of earth and sky spirits. Most preliterate societies apparently do. And even hunter-gatherers have their totems and taboos.
Is this what we mean, or should mean, by religion? Have there been any societies -- aside from Left-Bank Parisians -- that don't worship some variety of spirits? What anthropological work should I be reading?
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 12:23 PM
posted on 12.26.2005 at 11:42 AM
We know that some of the more significant figures in the history of atheism -- Spinoza (though he never went so far as to call himself an atheist), Marx, Freud -- were lapsed Jews.
We know that the Jewish god seemed maddeningly elusive to pagans. A rabbi, hearing of my project, noted that when, during the destruction of the Temple, Roman soldiers entered the Holy of Holies and found no statue, nothing--a void, they concluded that the Jews were atheists. (Brings to mind the quote from A. N. Whitehead from the shuffle above: "The progress of religion is defined by the denunciation of gods.")
What I don't have is much of an understanding of Jewish nonbelief (Christian and Islamic nonbelief have proved somewhat easier). Elisha ben Abuyah, a rabbi, may be an example in the Talmud. What am I missing?
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:42 AM
posted on 12.24.2005 at 10:40 PM
One of the factors that contributed to the centuries-long period of questioning of religion (which may, or may not, be ending now) was the advent of critical study of the Bible.
Isaac Le Peyrere in France in the seventeenth century wondered, for example, where Lilith and Cain's wife came from if Adam was the first man. He wondered how Moses, if he had indeed authored the first five books of the Bible, could have written about his own death.
And many have noted apparent contradictions in the various accounts of Jesus' life. Indeed, it was concern about such contradictions that seems to have started quite a few atheists -- among them Charles Bradlaugh, who will be a major character in my book -- on the road to disbelief.
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:40 PM
Help! I'm a Book Writer Trapped in a Blog's Body
posted on 12.24.2005 at 7:45 AM
The experiment so far:
** Have learned quite a bit already from the comments: new sources, new ideas, interesting perspectives.
** Bit unsure what I'm doing. Guess I'm to test ideas, ask questions, try to make connections. But in what order? As they come to me? When you're writing a book lots comes from lots of directions.
** The blog form -- which imposes with some force a reverse chronological organization -- is an odd one for a book writer. Since everything comes in upside down, you are led with some obstenancy away from narrative.
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 7:45 AM
Judge Jones' decision, continued
posted on 12.23.2005 at 11:52 PM
Back to the problematic quote in Judge John E. Jones laudable decision against requiring mention of "intelligent design" in the Dover public schools: "The theory of evolution...in no way conflicts with, nor does it deny, the existence of a divine creator."
Hasn't religion surrendered a whole lot if its god no longer creates the species, let alone moves the stars and planets?
"The fact that orthodox Christians so eagerly grasp the vagrant straws floating by shows that they are now content with the very smallest fragments of all that once they were positive was true" -- Clarence Darrow
Might these hazier, more abstract, less necessary views of god -- views that might be compatible with evolution and the rest of modern science -- qualify as vagrant straws, small fragments of once grand religious truths?
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:52 PM
Religion and Happiness, continued...
posted on 12.23.2005 at 8:03 PM
"Who would not be glad if he could say with confidence: 'the evil is transitory, the good eternal: our doubts are due to limitations destined to be abolished, and the world is really an embodiment of love and wisdom, however dark it may appear to our faculties'? And yet, if the so-called knowledge be illusory, are we not bound by the most sacred obligations to recognize the facts? ...Dreams may be pleasanter for the moment than realities; but happiness must be won by adapting our lives to the realities" -- Leslie Stephen, father of Virginia Woolf (who is said to have contemplated suicide with the fading of his belief)
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 8:03 PM
Religion and Happiness
posted on 12.22.2005 at 9:51 PM
"I have the very greatest fear that my life may hereafter be ruined by my having lost the support of religion" -- Bertrand Russell writing, in code, in a diary at the age of 15.
Religion provides meaning, purpose and consolation, not to mention some hope of evading death. Does this mean it provides happiness? Are the meaning, purpose, consolation and promise of an afterlife sufficently clear and convincing?
Russell, though he had a tumultuous emotional life, seemed no less happy than, say, your average pope. Do we find our pious friends to be cheerier than the skeptics?
I'm having trouble thinking this out. Faith. Trust. Truth. Wishful thinking. Where to begin? What to read?
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:51 PM
Judge Jones' decision: some thoughts
posted on 12.21.2005 at 11:30 PM
** On December 20, Judge John E. Jones, a Republican, ruled that the requirement instituted by the school board in Dover, Pennsylvania, that teachers read a statement presenting "intelligent design" as an alternative to evolution was unconstitutional and characterized by "breathtaking inanity." Secularist might indeed find evidence here that the great, centuries-long process of accepting science, not faith, as the arbiter of truth about the natural world has not halted. After all, it wasn't so long ago that such decisions were going the other way: In the famous "Monkey Trial" in 1925, John Scopes was convicted of violating a Tennessee law against teaching evolution in public schools. (The case was later thrown out on a technicality.) That law was not repealed until 1967.
** However, might there also have been evidence that fundamentalism, superstition, mumbo jumbo (choose your term of abuse) or (more kindly) faith are once again on the rise in the fact that a school board in the United States in the twenty-first century could even consider instituting such a requirement?
** In his decision, Judge Jones declared that "the theory of evolution...in no way conflicts with, nor does it deny, the existence of a divine creator." Those of us who are interested in the history of tussles between the secular and the spiritual might want to chew over this remark a little. It certainly has a nice, genteel, pluralistic sound, but is it true?
When the theory of evolution was first promulgated, a century and a half ago, many of its supporters, as well as its opponents, did see it as a significant challenge to the foundations of religion: The problem was not so much that natural selection and a "divine creator" couldn't cohabit. It's a big universe. And we're dealing, apparently, with an endlessly mutable Deity. The problem was that Darwin's explanation of how natural selection, a mere biological process, could account for the complexity of the natural world seemed to leave little or no need for said "divine creator." Natural selection, like Newton's theory of planetary motions, seemed to make God redundant.
Newton remained a believer. Darwin didn't. And he lost his faith in those years when he was, cautiously, working out his theory. "Disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate," he reports in a short memoir, "but was at last complete."
One of the quotes shuffled at this top of this blog is from the poet Shelley and a college buddy: "If ignorance of nature gave birth to gods, knowledge of nature is made for their destruction." For Shelley, unlike Judge Jones, science and religion do indeed conflict. In 1811, Shelley was kicked out of Oxford University - then an even more conservative institution than the Dover school board - for saying so.
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:30 PM
Wintertime for Atheists?
posted on 12.18.2005 at 10:39 PM
Let us count, during this holiday season, the outrages: School officials here and there - Kansas, Pennsylvania -- attempting to force teachers to pretend that "intelligent design" is science or that evolution isn't. A United States president who appears to have based decisions involving war and peace upon his belief that he is the instrument of his god's purposes. The Ten Commandments ("Thou shall make no graven image," has always been my favorite) attempting to sneak into government buildings in the United States. God as a character on prime-time TV. Incessant efforts to reinsert Christ into holidays celebrated by many who do not worship Christ. And overseas? Fatwas, jihads, bombings, wars - in the name of religion.
The United States seems lost in yet another of its Great Awakenings (though to partisans of reason and enlightenment it looks more like a Great Swoon). Religious belief, now that the heathen Communists have been routed, is on the rise in Poland, Russia and other former Soviet countries. Such belief seems, with heathen left-leaning intellectuals also having taken some blows, even to be crawling back in Western Europe, even in France.
This is a blog about the writing of a book. And that book is to be a history of disbelief - from ancient India to contemporary California. One conclusion is clear: Disbelief has been on the rise in the world in the past five hundred or so years. The days when most literate Europeans seemed convinced that the universe was created by God in six days, on or about the year 4004 B.C., seem long gone. The days when it was possible to argue that there is no such thing as a true atheist also seem rather distant. However, what is not clear is whether this great march toward secularism has, somehow, right now, stalled.
Is the age of disbelief ending, as Alister McGrath recently argued in his book The Twilight of Atheism? Is religion - with an inevitability that could pass for God ordained - making a comeback? Or is all this orthodox sturm and drang merely an understandable reaction to the globe's ongoing secularization? Is freethinking in retreat or is this merely a pause in our continuing march toward a world based more on reason, less on faith or superstition?
By writing a blog while writing the book, I hope to improve my understandings not only of historical matters but of such contemporary issues - by testing my own surmises, by benefiting from the comments of some interested and thoughtful residents of Internet-land. I hope, thereby, to write a better book.
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:39 PM
Shelley -- "an opinion so diabolical and wicked"
posted on 12.15.2005 at 11:41 PM
In the winter of 1811, Percy Bysshe Shelley edited, polished and expanded an essay drafted by his best friend, Thomas Jefferson Hogg. The two Oxford students published their tightly argued work at their own expense. They published it anonymously. The pamphlet's title was The Necessity of Atheism.
"God," the authors insist, "is a hypothesis and, as such, stands in need of proof." Their essay challenges the more common efforts to support that "hypothesis." It then "earnestly entreats" those who disagree to respond with alternative "proofs."
The response its authors actually received was somewhat different. Within twenty minutes of Shelley's placing copies in a prominent Oxford bookshop, a minister and fellow of one of the Oxford colleges walked in, saw the pamphlets, looked through one and then ordered all copies except one, which was saved for evidence, burned at the back of the shop. The next month Shelley and Hogg were expelled from Oxford. The month after that Shelley was cut off by his father, a member of Parliament, who stated that he was prepared to leave the young man "to the punishment and misery that belongs to the wicked pursuit of an opinion so diabolical and wicked."
The printing press had arrived in England more than three centuries earlier, but this was one of the first open endorsements of atheism anyone had dared print in that country.
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:41 PM
posted on 12.14.2005 at 11:16 PM
I'm interested in the struggle so many individuals, from Greek philosophers to Romantic poets to formerly Islamic novelists, have undertaken for the cause of atheism - a cause that promises no heavenly reward.
I'm interested in the wages of disbelief: Societies have long punished those who decline to acknowledge the local God (or gods). In Scotland near the end of the seventeenth century, for example, an orphan studying at the University of Edinburgh began sharing -- openly, brashly, unwisely -- his criticisms of religion. The Scriptures, Thomas Aikenhead was reported to have proclaimed, are "so stuffed with madness, nonsense and contradictions, that you admired the stupidity of the world in being so long deluded by them." Based on the testimony of some of his fellow students, Aikenhead was convicted of blasphemy. Repentance would have helped, but the young man's efforts in that direction were not entirely convincing, especially when he explained that his errors had flowed from an "insatiable inclination to truth." Thomas Aikenhead was hanged in Edinburgh on January 8, 1697, a few months before his twenty-first birthday.
Many nonbelievers have lived dramatic lives or suffered, like poor Aikenhead, premature deaths, but I am also after the drama that is to be found in their thought. Shucking off superstition - in the name of an "insatiable inclination to truth" - has been difficult and it has been important. Philosophy and science have flourished on ground cleared over the millennia by disbelief. Oracles, ghosts and angels had to be routed; contradictions discovered; logical failings uncovered. The Greek skeptic Carneades demonstrated, for example, that if the gods were perfect they couldn't exhibit the virtues - courage, say - that come from overcoming weaknesses and flaws. Such criticism of religion falls under the heading of the negative idea of atheism.
Is there also a positive idea? Trying to clarify what that idea might be - untangling it from philosophy and science - will be one of the major challenges I face in researching and writing this book.
And I'm interested in where these ideas stand today: when fatwas are being issued; jihads and crusades being declared; when the orthodox are fighting to retake the textbooks and the courthouses. Are the gods reasserting their hold upon humanity? Or is this just a reaction to the ongoing, even accelerating global spread of secularism?
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:16 PM
posted on 12.14.2005 at 9:55 PM
">Here is an early version of the chart -- filled with keywords -- I'm planning to use to organize my research for this book on the history of disbelief.
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:55 PM
Cast of Characters
posted on 12.13.2005 at 9:45 PM
The book in question is intended as a narrative history of disbelief. Here is a list of some of the individuals whose stories might be told.
Note: I am aware of the rather startling gender imbalance in this list. (It is very weak in persons of color, too.) This was clearly a difficult subject for females (and other oppressed groups) to be heard on before the nineteenth century, but they must have done their share of thinking about it. I hope, with further research, to recover some of their stories and their thought.
Carvaka the Raxasa--mentioned in a text that may date from 600 BCE; the reputed founder of a long-lived Indian sect of nonbelievers, which asserted that only the material world exists, rejected all notions of an afterlife ("After a body is reduced to ashes where will it come back from?"), had no use for "fasting" and "penance," extolled "embraces."
Diagoras of Melos--according to one account, gave up belief in gods in anger over a lost manuscript, then prosecuted for impiety in Athens. 5th century BCE.
Protagoras of Abdera--"Of all things," he announced, "the measure is man"--not gods; also reported to have been prosecuted for impiety. Greece, 5th century BCE.
Democritus--had an eerily modern understanding of atoms and space--one that left no room for gods. Greece, 5th and 4th centuries BCE.
Carneades of Cyrene--the great skeptic; capable of taking both sides of any issue--except, it seems, religion, to which he applied his most withering analyses. Athens, 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE.
Cicero--also a skeptic; wrote one of the great dialogues questioning belief in the gods: "It is difficult, you will say, to deny that they exist. I would agree if we were arguing the matter in a public assembly, but in a private discussion of this kind it is perfectly easy to do so." Rome, 1st century BCE.
Elisha ben Abuyah--a rabbi who became a nonbeliever; when he examined the world, he saw neither justice nor a judge; expelled from the faith. Palestine, 1st and 2nd centuries.
Abu Nuwas--an uninhibited gay poet; an outspoken nonbeliever. Baghdad, 8th and 9th centuries.
Abu Bakr al-Razi--the most renowned Arab physician; questioned all religions, his religion and even the status of "the Prophet." Baghdad, 9th and 10th centuries.
Averroes--a Moor who helped bring Greek writings and a respect for reason back to Europe, where they would pave the way for a return of disbelief; his scholarship made him suspect in the Islamic world and he was, for a time, banished for heresy. Morocco and Spain, 1126-1198.
Thomas Hobbes--his conception of the universe--"all that is real is material, and what is not material is not real"--carried him dangerously close to atheism; the Great Fire seen by some as God's response to Hobbes' insufficiently pious view. London, 1588-1679.
Thomas Aikenhead--a Scottish university student who found "madness, nonsense and contradictions" in the Bible; said as much; was hanged for blasphemy. Edinburgh, 1676-1697.
Jean Meslier--a Catholic priest who revealed his atheism only in a book he left to his parishioners after his death; became, posthumously, an Enlightenment hero. France, 1678-1733.
Denis Diderot--editor of the first great encyclopedia; arrived at atheism through his study of science and the blind; became one of its most influential proponents: "Wandering in a vast forest at night, I have only a faint light to guide me. A stranger appears and says to me: 'My friend, you should blow out your candle in order to find your way more clearly.' This stranger is a theologian"; spent three months in prison for such views. Paris, 1713-1784.
Baron d'Holbach--once Diderot converted him to atheism, became a one-man publishing house on the subject: "We shall find that ignorance and fear created the gods; that fancy, enthusiasm, or deceit adorned or disfigured them; that weakness worships them; that credulity preserves them; and that custom, respect and tyranny support them"; gathered what may have been history's most impressive concentration of nonbelievers in his salon; he escaped prosecution; the poor who trafficked in his books did not. Paris, 1723-1789.
Marquis de Sade--his lack of belief in God did not stop him from trying to insult God; can be said to have experimented with the notion that without God everything is permitted. France, 1740-1814.
Jacques-René Hébert--under the leadership of this radical revolutionary, atheism finally gained control of a country--briefly, ingloriously; churches were shut; a statue of Meslier planned; but Hébert's political career ended shortly afterwards, at the guillotine. Paris, 1757-1794.
Pierre Simon Laplace--physicist whose masterly, five-volume account of the universe neglected to include a role for God; Napoleon noticed. Paris, 1749-1827.
Thomas Paine--put so much stock in reason that he was reviled as an atheist and is still celebrated by atheists; statements like this helped: "The Christian system of religion is an outrage on common sense." England, America. France, 1737 - 1809.
Percy Bysshe Shelley--a pamphlet endorsing atheism led to his expulsion from Oxford; returned to the subject in additional essays and poems, including "Queen Mab": "And priests dare babble of a God of peace,/Even whilst their hands are red with guiltless blood,/Murdering the while, uprooting every germ/Of truth, exterminating, spoiling all,/Making the earth a slaughter-house!" England, 1792-1822.
Frances Wright--was the first woman in America to lecture before an audience of men and women; friend of Jefferson and Jackson; on the side of science and progress; against religion: "Time is it to arrest our speculations respecting unseen worlds and inconceivable mysteries, and to address our inquiries to the improvement of our human condition." Scotland, United States, 1795-1852.
Harriet Martineau--this erstwhile writer of religious books was converted during a visit to the Holy Land; she then announced: "There is no theory of a God, of an author of Nature, of an origin of the Universe, which is not utterly repugnant to my faculties." England, 1802-1876.
John Stuart Mill-- the liberal political philosopher had been presented as a boy with one of the more powerful of the arguments against the existence of God: If God made us, who made God? Called himself "one of the few examples in this country of one who has not thrown off religious belief, but never had it." England, 1806-1873.
Ernestine Rose--eloquent and unbending in support of her causes: freedom for slaves and women, freedom from superstition; searched for freedom in her life, too; rarely have the intolerant been given so many reasons to hiss. Poland, Germany, England, United States, 1810-1892.
Karl Marx--religious as a child; his atheism would eventually spread around the world. Germany, London, 1818-1883.
Charles Bradlaugh--expelled from Sunday school and eventually his parents' home for his freethinking; became a radical leader and an outspoken atheist; spoke and debated before jammed halls full of working people; elected to Parliament. England, 1833-1891.
Frederick Nietzsche--the parson's son who announced, with proper gravity, the "death of God." Germany, Italy, 1844-1900.
Sigmund Freud--bold in his challenge to the "illusion" of religion, which, he suggested, is "the universal obsessional neurosis of humanity." Vienna, London, 1856-1939.
Bertrand Russell--in his philosophy, pushed reason to, and perhaps beyond, its limits; in his politics, stood consistently against war and against gods: "I do not think that their existence is an alternative that is sufficiently probable to be worth serious consideration"; behaved with less consistency in his personal life. England, 1872-1970.
Jean-Paul Sartre--important thinking on the question of where meaning might be found if it is not God-given; can be accused of having stumbled a bit on his own personal and political searches for meaning. Paris, 1905-1980.
Simone de Beauvoir--an atheist before she was a feminist: "I cannot be angry at God, in whom I do not believe." Paris, 1908-1986.
John Lennon--atheism was just one stop on his erratic wanderings: "God is a concept by which we measure our pain"; but what a line: "Above us only sky." England, New York, 1940-1980.
Jacques Derrida--I've had occasion to discuss the subject with him; his point, I believe, was that one cannot remove this one brick from our cultural foundations and expect the rest to stand undisturbed. Algeria, France, 1930-2004.
Barbara Ehrenreich--one possible candidate for a contemporary example; an outspoken, fourth-generation, "family-values" atheist: "God, if there is one, has never shown any great interest in stopping wars, ending poverty, feeding the hungry, stopping patriarchy, racism or anything like that." United States, 1941-.
Salman Rushdie--"I do not need the idea of God to explain the world I live in"; the best-known contemporary example of the price that is sometimes still paid by those who dare question religion. Bombay, London, New York, 1947-.
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:45 PM
The Book: A History of Disbelief
posted on 12.07.2005 at 12:26 PM
Most civilizations have been founded on the belief the universe is commanded by a magisterial Being (or beings), who monitors our lives, enforces our morality, endorses our power structures and offers eternal life. The subject of this blog is a book, eventually to be published by Carroll and Graf, that will tell the story of those who have dared disagree.
Some of these nonbelievers remain well known--Cicero, Diderot, Shelley, Marx, Freud and Rushdie, among them. Others--no less important in their time, perhaps even more daring--have been mostly forgotten. Most societies have scorned their ideas, persecuted them, or otherwise tried to end the discussion. Yet their ideas have survived, and as humankind has gained more understanding of the natural world and of its own condition, their ideas have deepened. Indeed, I will argue that the thinking of such nonbelievers has played a crucial role in our understanding of the natural world and of our condition.
The book will proceed chronologically, beginning with preliterate societies and ending with the fear of secularism that has made the orthodox so edgy (and dangerous) today. With the help of the most interesting and influential atheists of the last few millennia, it will restore the missing discussion of these ideas and attempt to advance it.
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 12:26 PM
The Blog: The Writing of a History of Disbelief
posted on 12.07.2005 at 11:43 AM
The blog I am writing here, with the connivance of The Institute for the Future of the Book, is an experiment. Our thought is that my book on the history of disbelief will benefit from a discussion of some of the points it will raise in advance of publication.
I plan to post rough ideas, anecdotes, facts and outlines; queries and probes; plus the occasional polished paragraph. I plan, too, to be prepared to alter this mix - this plan - as the experiment proceeds.
Our hope is that the conversation will be joined: that ideas will be challenged, facts corrected, queries and probes answered; that lively and intelligent discussion will ensue. We expect that the book's acknowledgements will eventual include a number of individuals best known to me by email address.
And we have an additional thought: that the Web might realize some smidgen of benefit through the airing of this process.
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:43 AM
The Author: Mitchell Stephens
posted on 12.07.2005 at 10:54 AM
Mitchell Stephens, a professor of journalism at New York University, is the author of a number of books: A History of News, an extended history of journalism, has been translated into four languages and was a New York Times "Notable Book of the Year." the rise of the image the fall of the word, a historical analysis of our current communications revolution, was published by Oxford University Press. Prof. Stephens is also one of five editors of Covering Catastrophe: Broadcast Journalists Report September 11. He has published two textbooks: Broadcast News, long the most widely used radio and television news textbook, and (with Gerald Lanson) Writing and Reporting the News. In recent years, Prof. Stephens has written numerous articles on media issues and aspects of contemporary thought for publications such as The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and the Columbia Journalism Review.
In 2001 Prof. Stephens completed a trip around the world, during which he reported on globalization for the public radio program "Marketplace" and the webzine Feed and wrote essays on travel for LonelyPlanet.com. His commentaries have aired on NPR's "On the Media." Prof. Stephens has been history consultant to the Newseum.
He is currently writing a history of disbelief for Carroll and Graf.
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:54 AM