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December 7, 2005

The Blog: The Writing of a History of Disbelief

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 December 7, 2005 11:43 AM


Hi there,

I'm interested to know what you've had to say since Dec 7, 2005 the date you started this blog, to today. Has there been anything written in the intervening months? The notion of God as Metaphor is a powerful one for those of us who still have some connection to our native tradition, but need to transvalue (reinterpret or reconstruct) what had been handed down to make something more rationally acceptable. If your blog is the place for me to investigate this, great. If not, will you suggest some other source. Thanks and best wishes.

Posted by: Yehuda Berger at March 24, 2006 3:12 PM

Hi Michael,

I've been reading Dennett, which led me to googling, which led me to your blog, which led to more thinking, so herewith a contribution to the "smidgen of benefit to the web".

I'm not exactly a believer but I'm not an atheist either--I admit to an atavistic fear of letting Tinkerbell down, of losing Pascal's wager, of what? Out and out atheism has always struck me as somewhat creepy, like public nudity or eating without utensils. I just think that the god idea is too subtle, ubiquitous and undefinable to be so confidently rejected.

So I've been thinking about what it is that the word god actually refers to. What is it whose existence one is asserting or denying? First, bear with me, there are many different kinds of existence, no? There is simple physical existence in the moment, this table, my hand, me, even.
Then there are abstractions: justice, cowardice, mathematics, anthropology, felicity, -isms, etc. They exist in a different way. Then there are thoughts, events, communications, accidents, emotions, awarenesses, dreams, colors, subjective states - all these exist in a meaningful sense, even if their existence can only be registered fleetingly and by individuals. Then there is the Past. Conventionally speaking it doesn't exist any longer, although it did. What does this mean? At least memories exist, be they true or false. And the Past leaves traces, ruins, on-going structures and organizations, archives, so some of the past, at least, seems to have a kind of continuing existence. The 3rd Reich existed for 15 years but no longer exists. And similar questions arise about the Future. It doesn't exist either, yet, although it will, (for how long?) and regarding it hopes, fears, plans, predictions, all do exist in the now. Then there's the imagination. Does Raskolnikov exist? In a way, yes. Perhaps more so than Dostoyevsky himself, who did exist but doesn't anymore. I will go along with any atheist in asserting that god does not exist like this table does. But what about in the virtually unlimited other senses of the concept of existing?

It seems to me that there is such confusion and contradiction in the simple concept of existence that, if we treasured and were led by rationality to the hundredth part of what we claim, we would be so enmired in logical paradox we would be unable to cross the street. Zeno would have prevented us 2500 years ago. Rational materialism tells us lots about this table - the table and the chair cannot occupy the same space at the same time. The stuff of which the table and the chair are made can neither be created or destroyed. The table and the chair will continue in motion in space in the same direction and speed until acted upon by an external force. Also the atoms and molecules of physics (which some physicists by the way claim are not physically real at all, but just concepts) , biology, careful measurement, deductions, technology and so forth. But think how much is still leftover, that "eludes that regime", so to speak - humor, love, tact, success, fashion, envy, tragedy, politics, impatience, narrative, language, patois, death. (Please don't reduce all this to "human culture as the late product of biological evolution", a concept, possibly true, which dangles weakly from a long chain of inference and speculation - rather, that concept itself is much more vivid and real as an event (argument, recent book) embedded in our present experience along with humor, love, tact, success, fashion, etc.)

Is this a chain of reasoning here? Maybe not. Stuff is missing. I had it better in the car. Anyway, I think the god idea is a shorthand for the total realm of the non-material existent. So large is this area, conceptually, that the physical, material Now may or may not be considered to be subsumed. Some may include in the god idea the substrate or suffusion into all physical existence, others may allow the physical to exist entirely under its own laws - the issue is not of prime importance. Certainly the god idea would incorporate the relations between the physical and the realms of mentation and imagination.

Now whether to say that god actually exists as the sum or set of all non-material existences and their relations, or to say that god is a metaphor for the idea of such a set? You've got me there.

But let's consider further that the principal attribute of the god idea is omniscience. (If he is omnipotent, has all power, then we have none, which is untrue.) But my definition above agrees with the attribution of omniscience, since he (or she or it) is participant in all mentation, all mentation is a part of the god idea. Thus all the thoughts of every individual are "heard" by him.
Thus the god concept is the source of both private guilt and private solace, and as the postulated "objective" hearer of our stream of mentation, he is the source of the illusion (or I'd rather say, the appearance) of our sense of having a continuous self.

In this sense I find the god idea unavoidable, logical, necessary and real.(And, come to think of it, it is an interpretation of " . . . and the Word was God.") It underlies and encourages every creative extension of human mind into the future. It functions differently at different times, in the contexts of different civilizations, and uniquely in each individual - some refer to it constantly or personalize it or share a particular image of it with co-religionists, others rarely call upon it, perhaps only in times of deepest stress or loneliness. Others reject entirely certain limited depictions of the concept related to the society in which they live, and many never even give it a serious thought, their temperaments and personal histories turning their thoughts in other directions. It is neither supernatural nor miraculous, but contains within itself all possible ideas of miracle & is therefore often confused with them.

How this fits in with the history of atheism I don't know but I'd be interested in hearing an atheist critique.

By the way, don't forget Schopenhauer in your history. Although the brights seem to like to think of atheism as a realism which, by facing the truth, is a prerequisite for success, Schopenhauer (and following him Freud) insist that the illusion of religion obvious exists to cover the honest truth, bleak, entropic, unrelentingly hopeless and pessimistic.

Posted by: Mark Shulgasser at March 27, 2006 12:13 AM

Mark, one of the dangers of trying to keep up a blog is that you often are forced -- even on a sunny morning when you have manuscript to edit -- to think. This very interesting comment requires that.

I think you are right to raise the question of what it means to "exist," as in does God "exist." I was wandering in a similar direction, I suspect, with a post on love somewhere on this blog.

However, I don't believe God, having been forced out of the material universe, can easily find a place to hide amongst such partly intangible notions as the future or the past. (The relationship of God to fictional characters I touch on in one of the Wieseltier posts on this blog -- and, for the record, I do see something in a couple of Wieseltier's comments, which you quote, though not as much as you see.) The future and past have a reality (an ontological structure, I want to say), however complicated or elusive, that God doesn't. You run the risk here of falling into the old fideistic argument: reason can't know anything for sure, therefore we might as well have faith.

Your notion of the God idea, while intriguing, is one -- if I might attempt to categorize -- of a series of what I call "retreats" in some of these posts: God getting more and more abstract and wispy. Spinoza: God is nature, or God is the universe, etc. It seems to me that you are heading in the direction of saying God is consciousness (the realm in which past, future, love and fictional characters "exist"). Now consciousness is to be sure a great wonder (Dennett has written interestingly on the subject), but I'm not sure that it adds anything to our understanding of it (or to our understanding of "the total realm of the non-material existent" to quote you, though this sounds like thought or consciousness to me) to put this charged word "God" on top of this wonder. In fact, it seems a somewhat romantic, nostalgic (if not desperate) move to save some notion of Tinkerbell/God.

I'll quote Freud back at you: He decries the "dishonesty" of putting forward such a "shadow" to suggest belief in "the mighty personality of religious doctrines." Why can't we just talk of the marvels of consciousness without pretending this has something to do with Yahweh or the Holy Ghost or what suicide bombers kill for? Isn't "the God word" when reduced to the point where it retains none of its intentionality, power, will, integrity as a self, etc., a misleading, distracting and inaccurate word to use to open a more interesting philosophical discussion?

Posted by: mitch at March 27, 2006 1:14 PM

Mitchell, thanks for thinking. I won't belabor my point (too much) . The history of atheism is a big enough topic -- a history of the definitions of god is way bigger.
But I will turn around the question you pose: "Why can't we just talk of the marvels of consciousness without pretending this has something to do with Yahweh or the Holy Ghost . . . ?" Certainly we can talk about the marvels of consciousness without reference to the history of religion. But if we are talking about the history of religion why deny that those who pondered Yahweh and the Holy Ghost were theorizing the same marvels of consciousness, in their own way -- not to mention the terrors and abysses of consciousness? As for Islaminc terrorists, their problem is that they live in the middle ages, they certainly don't verify the idea that all versions of god are terroristic.

I also think it's a mistake to call any view of god that is less than the old man with a beard who sees every sparrow fall a "retreat". I think it's important to ascertain what is left of god after the primitive fairy tales, anthropomorphism and accidents of culture are removed. I'm concerned about clueless kids who can't read or write and come out with "Dude, there's no such thing as god," and think they're on top of things.

Couple more points:

Other important atheists, Robespierre, director of the Reign of Terror and maybe Napoleon (?) who spread the French Revolutionary carnage throughout Europe. Add to Lenin Stalin Hitler and Mao. Conclusion, officially atheist political regimes conduct mindboggling cataclysmic bloodbaths, & probably slaughtered more people since 1789 than all the religious wars since the beginning of history. Will the history of atheism account for this? Can a history of atheism ignore satanism?

Sophisticated concepts of god (independent of parochial religious cults, freed of the function of binding societies together) may be "abstract and wispy": they don't necessarily support a strong experience of faith. If there is any remaining spurious absolute today which continues to inspire real faith it is the concept of scientific truth, the pursuit of which has arguably reached irrational and immoral levels. The space program, multibillion $ particle accelerators, these are the Vaticans and the Haija Sophias of today. Meaningless statistics and studies publicized continually are a good deal more pernicious than any daily horoscope. If there is anything left of religion as a social power it has been transfered to science. Atheists are just about as disinclined as anyone to suffer and die, and succumb to medical hocuspocus as readily as any ancient greek at the temple of Aesculepius.

Incidentally, I found your book about the word and the image very thought-provoking. How might this subject be changed if conveyed with images rather than text?

Posted by: mark shulgasser at March 28, 2006 11:45 PM


This comment is in appreciation of thoughts you guys have demonstrated in your comments. My sincere thanks to Mark for putting his word in such succint and comprehensive way. Mark, I was thinking on the same line for long. However, never reached to such a 'clear' level so that I could put my words in this lucid way. This will help me long way!

Mitch, this is a great idea and I guess I will keep visiting these pages whenever I got time.

Keep it up!

Posted by: Mithun Shah at June 29, 2006 12:43 AM

Sometimes stream of consciousness writing is worth the effort, like Faulkner is to me, but often not.

Perception is a funny thing. Mark's words are "succint and comprehensive" to Mithun and broken bits of passion to me. He is so passionate about his conclusions it belies the leaps of logic he has taken to come to them. The NEED for God is in your head not the world.

Posted by: Jay Saul at June 29, 2006 10:50 AM

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