posted on 01.31.2006 at 5:30 PM
Writing. (Always a happy development for an author.) Writing about anthropology and atheism.
It seems the answer to which came first in human history belief or disbelief is, to the extent anthropological discussions of hunter-gatherers provide a guide, the former -- in the form of shamanism.
The accounts I'm reading of psychotropic potions being swallowed in tropical jungles or drum-induced ecstasies in Siberia are enough to warm an ex-hippy's heart. Don't do much for the atheist in me, though. For they do make clear how basic is this insistent, if not irrepressible, human itch to populate the sky above and the earth below with spirits -- supernatural, superhuman (superfluous?).
What, to rephrase a nagging question raised below, is our problem? We seem a species of fantasists. What would we be like, I ask on the eve of a US State-of-the-Union address, if we weren't so disposed to imagine a god or a devil lurking in every cave, every cloud, every issue? If we could indeed come off it?
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 5:30 PM
Come Off It!
posted on 01.30.2006 at 9:06 PM
Religious folks often suspect that, deep down, atheists -- particularly atheists as they face death -- really do have a feeling for God.
Do nonbelievers suspect that, deep down, religious folks have their doubts? That their faith in an afterlife, for example, is not quite strong enough to fend off fear of death?
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:06 PM
posted on 01.29.2006 at 12:12 PM
Old question. And, of course, just asking it is a step in the direction of disbelief. The sophist Prodicus, for example, believed gods were a way of explaining natural phenomena. That's different than saying gods do explain natural phenomena.
Discussions of why we have gods can get, I've found, a bit testy. Beliefs in the causes of religions occasionally seem to be held with the intensity of beliefs in religions: "No, that's not it! It is to deal with death!"
The philosopher Daniel Dennett has a new book out on this subject. Here's the first explanation for religion he gives, in a New York Times Magazine interview:
"We have a built-in, very potent hair-trigger tendency to find agency in things that are not agents, like snow falling off the roof."
That, after reading a book by Scott Atran, is the first explanation I would give. But the point, I guess, is that there is more than one reason why so much of humankind is convinced of the existence of never-quite-seen supernatural entities.
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 12:12 PM
a thought devoted to Him
posted on 01.28.2006 at 10:47 AM
People die. People, for the moment, avoid dying. Good things happen. Bad things happen. We have had thousands of years to find a pattern. There is none. We have had thousands of years to discern His intentions. It seems He has none. We have searched for signs, for traces. He has left none. We thought we needed Him to move the stars. We don't. The marvel of life seemed to require Him. It no longer does. The universe chugs along -- meaningless, leaderless -- as always. And the realization begins to sink in: He does nothing. He is nothing.
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:47 AM
Flurry of Freethinking
posted on 01.26.2006 at 9:05 PM
Golden ages of disbelief?
** Athens at the time of Pericles (Protagoras, Anaxagoras, Diagoras, perhaps Thucydides).
** Paris in the 18th century (Meslier, Diderot, d'Holbach).
** London in the 19th century (Shelley, Mill, Bradlaugh, Martineau, Darwin, Huxley)
And...possibly...now...when orthodoxy ostensibly is resurgent. Add to publications in recent years by Jennifer Michael Hecht, Susan Jacoby and Sam Harris a new book by the philosopher Daniel Dennett on the causes of belief.
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:05 PM
Has the Great Statement of Atheism Been Written?
posted on 01.25.2006 at 6:48 PM
But -- and here's another way I do see Bunting's work over of Dawkins as challenging -- what about this claim of hers?
"Atheist humanism hasn't generated a compelling popular narrative and ethic of what it is to be human and our place in the cosmos; where religion has retreated, the gap has been filled with consumerism, football, Strictly Come Dancing and a mindless absorption in passing desires."
One answer: Oh, come off it, all you shrill and panicked meaning seekers! Atheism cannot provide, and has no interest in providing, a new tale of good and evil to replace your fading testaments, gospels, holy books or other bedtime stories.
But we might also take her question more seriously. Has the great philosophical statement of atheism -- not as an alternative religion but as a analysis of life beyond religion -- been written?
Many have expressed what is wrong with religion. (See, for example, Russell or Sam Harris or George Carlin.) Has anyone proclaimed, with the requisite wisdom and gravity, what is right -- positive -- about life beyond religion?
Mill? Sartre? Postmodernism? Derrida? TK?
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 6:48 PM
Religion Is Like Sex?
posted on 01.24.2006 at 2:45 PM
And what do you make of this surprising analogy from Bunting on Dawkins?
"Dawkins seems to want to magic [Bunting does have a way with verbs] religion away. It's a silly delusion comparable to one of another great atheist humanist thinker, JS Mill. He wanted to magic away another inescapable part of human experience - sex; using not dissimilar arguments to Dawkins's, he pointed out the violence and suffering caused by sexual desire, and dreamt of a day when all human beings would no longer be infantilized by the need for sexual gratification, and an alternative way would be found to reproduce the human species. As true of Mill as it is of Dawkins: dream on."
I feel bad for sad John Stuart, but aren't there rather obvious reasons why his task would be more daunting than that of Dawkins? And isn't it odd for a theist to try to score points by accusing an atheist of being anti-sex? And aren't there differences in the epistemological claims made by sex and those made by religion (which, last I checked, pretended to be something more than the pleasurable satisfaction of an itch)?
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 2:45 PM
An Indifferent Cosmos
posted on 01.23.2006 at 6:38 PM
More from Madeleine Bunting's assault on Richard Dawkins:
"Science has to concede that despite its huge advances it still cannot answer questions about the nature of the universe - such as whether we are freak chances of evolution in an indifferent cosmos."
Is this really such a tough question?
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 6:38 PM
Where Are All the Atheists?
posted on 01.23.2006 at 5:40 AM
Declaring yourself a nonbeliever was impossible then. As late as 1811, in England, it was still quite dangerous.
Are there situations -- outside of Kandahar -- where it is difficult now?
And let me throw in two related questions borrowed from comments below:
George asks why some periods seem less tolerant of infidels than others. Are we (as liberal optimists like me want to believe) making gradual, though not so steady, progress toward increased freedom of irreligion? Or are some other factors making things better then worse again for nonbelievers?
And Boelf asks whether intolerance of atheism is just a subset of general ultra-orthodox, Taliban-like intolerance of those who don't share The One True Faith. Or is it something different?
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 5:40 AM
posted on 01.21.2006 at 8:13 PM
My first person is currently typing into his Palm, sitting in a dark-wood chair, surrounded by white-washed walls, about 20 meters from a huge lake just a bit northwest of the southern tip of India. (The tsunami had to hang a quick right to get near here, but still managed to kill about 160 people.)
A couple of hours ago his pre-dawn tossin' and turnin' -- as the overhead-fan mixed the thick air -- produced an idea, one that feels large by the standards of his circumscribed world. This idea enabled him to sketch out -- for the first time -- the somewhat more ambitious structure he had been contemplating for the book.
A bit on that idea in another post. The question I'm dealing with now is whether a few small slots in that new scheme should be reserved for that first person -- aka "me."
Do readers -- potentially "you," if you haven't had your fill of this stuff -- want to know, for example, whether their author had his own irreligious epiphany and from what religion he might conceivably be "ir"?
Should there be personal anecdotes?
** "The first time I realized how uncomfortable discussions of atheism could become was when I...."
** Our intrepid book writer manages to locate the site of Bonner's Field -- the outdoor meeting area in London, where, in the mid-19th-century, religious and irreligious freely held forth.
My first person -- who, mind you, wrote a whole book once without ever using the word "I" -- is now watching a cloud-muted dawn attempt to return greens and pinks to the lush landscape. And he ("I") is ("am") currently feeling awfully self-satisfied, on account of this new organizational idea.
Yo, second persons! Do you ("you") care?
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 8:13 PM
Where Were All the Atheists?
posted on 01.20.2006 at 6:12 AM
One of the great mysteries in the history of disbelief:
Why is there almost no evidence that atheists existed in Europe from, say, the Middle Ages through the end of the Renaissance?
One possible answer follows from the argument in the previous post: There weren't any atheists because a mind at that time, in those cultures, was simply unable to conceive of a world without God.
Another possible answer, as you probably have guessed, is that disbelievers -- skeptics, iconoclasts, freethinkers -- have always been around. It's just that in those centuries, when Europe was in the grip of something like a Christian version of the Taliban, it was impossible to express disbelief. Merely disputing the proportion of divinity in a member of the Trinity could get you burned at the stake.
The first answer exhibits an attractive cultural relativism. I lean toward the second, less condescending answer. And I think the latest historical evidence (of which there ain't much) is pointing this way.
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 6:12 AM
Judge Jones -- In the 15th Century
posted on 01.18.2006 at 5:04 PM
In trying to understand the history of atheism, it is probably necessary to understand why, at times, failure to believe in the gods really did seem wacky: in Europe before Newton and Darwin, for example.
The problem: "world orderliness," Schopenhauer called it - as evidenced by the remarkable regularities of the heavenly bodies as well as the remarkable complexity and efficiency of living bodies. Explain that with your "materialism"! Tell us that is just the product of "blind chance"!
Fact is it was damn difficult -- before gravity, before evolution -- to explain the presence of order and complexity in the universe without recourse to a "divine creator."
Let's say some Judge Jones six centuries ago had been asked to rule on an effort by a school board to begin classes with a statement that there was another "theory" of creation: that all the marvels that make up the heavens and the earth just arrived by accident. Might he not have dismissed that notion as characterized by "breathtaking inanity"?
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 5:04 PM
On Bunting On Dawkins On Atheism
posted on 01.17.2006 at 6:45 PM
Richard Dawkins, who seems to be taking on the Bertrand Russell role of primary intellectual champion of atheism, has a two-part series attacking religion on Channel Four in the UK. Haven't seen it. (Will a US network have the guts to pick it up?) But I was sent Madeleine Bunting's exuberant critique of the series in the Guardian.
Bunting's piece is smart, tough and even, in places, wise: Yes, societies can find other excuses for killing each other besides religious difference. No, trying to prevent parents from indoctrinating their kids with religion doesn't sound like such a hot idea. (Are we also to prevent them from indoctrinating their children with free-market ideology or compassion for the poor?)
However, Bunting -- like many in the group Thomas Huxley once dismissed as "reconcilers" between religion and science -- seems unable to grasp the natural antagonism between faith and reason. "Faith, according to the New Testament, "is assurance of things hoped for." Reason, particularly its offspring science, is the alternative -- the antidote -- to such wishful thinking. This doesn't mean there isn't an element of faith at the bottom of reason -- "faith" that the sun will in fact rise tomorrow, for example. And this doesn't mean people of faith can't do science. But it would seem to support Dawkins' characterization of faith as a "process of non-thinking."
Bunting is also smart, tough and possibly wise on a subject that has been much discussed here: the new religious Great Awakening and an alleged and concomitant decline in freethinking. "There's an aggrieved frustration," she writes about nonbelievers, "that they've been short-changed by history; we were supposed to be all atheist rationalists by now."
Bunting thinks she senses "the unmistakable whiff of panic." You panicked?
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 6:45 PM
posted on 01.17.2006 at 5:21 PM
OK, here I am typing notes about how atheism was and was not punished in Athens while a yoga master is singing a rather lovely relaxation song in my hotel room. (The song is interrupted for a moment by a call on his cell phone, but that's not the point we're after.) My wife has hired this fellow and apparently there was no other place in the hotel where he could check her form on "the sun salutation" and try to get her breathing right.
In Athens impiety or disrespect toward the gods -- asebeia -- was a crime, occasionally punished, occasionally by death. I feel guilty of asebeia in general and guilty of impiety specifically, at this moment, toward yoga, yogis, masters, gurus, etc. Here in India, as he sings, she breathes and I type, it is not a particularly happy feeling.
Atheists insist, persuasively, that the absence of a belief in god does not lead to any absence of wonder at the universe. Awe and humility also seem quite acheivable. But how about reverence? And is it possible to be an atheist and still respond with piety to lovely songs, to a world that brings yogis into your hotel room?
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 5:21 PM
India -- Variety of Irreligious Experience
posted on 01.14.2006 at 12:38 AM
This country sure will chase notions of cultural homogenization out of an American's head.
The Indian street (as alive as any I've seen): where a thousand and one collisions are poised to happen -- between honking car and weaving bicycle, putt-putting auto-rickshaw and intent pedestrian; where a thousand collisions are, with a last-second swerve or stall, avoided.
Skinny women squat on the dusty ground in brightly colored sarees. Skinny men wrap and unwrap loose fabric around their midsections. (No doubt leaving them more comfortable than my jeans leave me.) At the restaurant where I find myself, the men eat their white rice and spicy sauces with their fingers.
And then there's Indian religion. Polytheism is just some quaint historical fact back where I come from. Here in India it's easily visible in the colorful gods, with reassuring smiles, that decorate a shrine in the parking lot of my hotel.
This crowd of Hindu gods, with their different talents and personalities, seems pretty distant from the stern, lonely god-of-all-trades of the Abrahamic tradition. Sure sounds like unhomogenized cultural difference to me.
Somewhere in the comments on another entry on this blog we were discussing whether Jewish atheism, say, is different from Christian atheism. What about atheism here ("rationalists," I believe they're called)? A Hindu nonbeliever has an awful lot of gods to not believe in. Does that make it harder or easier? In what exactly would a Buddhist be disbelieving?
I have a fair amount invested in the premise that it is possible to talk in one sentence about atheism in, for example, India and in the next about atheism in Paris (where only baguettes, grapes and Le Quick hamburgers are eaten with fingers).
That is probably still possible. Nonetheless, It is clearly going to be necessary for me to acknowledge the variety of religious experience in order to make sense of a good variety of humankind's irreligious experiences.
On my plane a gaggle of preternaturally sincere Americans and Europeans, in loose-fitting clothes, whispered about the best rooms in this or that ashram. They didn't come all this way just to experience unfamilar ways of eating or to ride unfamiliar kinds of taxis.
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 12:38 AM
posted on 01.11.2006 at 1:44 AM
More from Nietzsche (not to worry, I'm almost done with the book): "...They have failed to create a God! Almost two millennia and not a single new God!"
What's up with that?
Is it true? How about Islam? What about those folks out in Utah? Are we to take their gods for old gods? What about San Francisco in the summer of '67?
OK, I quoted a little out of context; I think Nietzsche's talking just about northern Europeans. (And you get a bit uncomforable when Germans talk just about northern Europeans.) But hasn't god creation -- overall, worldwide - in fact slowed?
Why? Because we've already received the One True Revelation? (We just can't agree on which one.) Because printing presses tend to freeze things? Because the global culture tends to snuff out new cults before they can get their dieties together? Because we have new terms for people who claim they were talking to a god? Because we're finally -- recurring theme of this blog -- outgrowing this sort of thing?
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:44 AM
posted on 01.10.2006 at 1:03 AM
Odd how you can be reading something (The Anti-Christ, in this case) that seems to have nothing to do with where you are (India) and then suddenly (inevitably?) things seem to come together. (Nietzsche starts going on about Buddhism.)
Two possible explanations:
1. fate, karma, a caring (unabolished) god.
2. In human culture -- even in seemingly diverse human cultures -- things sometimes turn out to be connected, and human minds are primed to pick up such connections.
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:03 AM
The Concept of 'God,' Abolished
posted on 01.09.2006 at 12:14 AM
Buddhism, as comments on the entry below make clear, has been a tough religion for anti-religionists to get their minds around.
Nietzsche, whose father and grandfather were pastors, is no friend of religion. And he really can't abide Christianity: "Hatred of mind, of pride, courage, freedom...is Christian: hatred of the senses, of the joy of the senses, of joy in general is Christian."
But this German philosopher has a soft spot for Buddhism: "The supreme goal is cheerfulness, stillness, absence of desire, and this goal is achieved." (Lucky Nietzsche didn't see the fortune-telling machines next to some Buddhist temples in Japan.)
He certainly notices the absence in Buddhism of meddling deities: "The concept of 'God'," observes Nietzsche (the fellow who first reported god's death) "is already abolished by the time [Buddhism] arrives."
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 12:14 AM
How to Write Your Book
posted on 01.09.2006 at 12:00 AM
1. Do not turn on the BBC World News in the hotel to see if there's been any further change in Sharon's condition.
2. When you venture out into the challenging streets here in Chennai, focus on the shrines not the street people.
3. Do not go back to the college again to check your email.
4. Look upon the array of pastel gods that surround one shine not as kind of lovely but as representative of polytheism and then try to recall some theories on whether gods are easier to disbelieve than God.
5. When you do go back to the college again, do not click on 'check mail' a third time, even though you have one or two acquaintances in New York who occasionally are up at 3:10 am.
6. Consider whether that woman cooking on the half-dirt, half-concrete sidewalk finds consolation in religion. Don't consider why you have the right to assume she requires consolation.
7. Put your energy into polishing chapters not blog entries.
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 12:00 AM
A Bone to Pick with the Buddha
posted on 01.07.2006 at 1:40 AM
The Buddha was once asked whether the gods exist. His response: "The question does not edify."
I'm afraid I'm going to have to disagree with the Buddha on this one -- my book project being founded on the premise that the question of whether the gods exist can be hugely edifying.
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:40 AM
The "A" Word
posted on 01.06.2006 at 9:51 AM
The word "atheism" is used in the subtitle of this blog. That decision was made after some debate. It has always seemed to me to be a harsh word.
As Leslie Stephen (who has been quoted a lot here lately) puts it, "atheism" is a name that "still retains a certain flavour as of the stake in this world and hell-fire in the next." It was, for numerous centuries, a widely and quite loosely used term of disparagement. Catholics called protestants "atheists," and vice versa.
We considered "disbelief" or "nonbelief" or "freethinking" (the title of Susan Jacoby's book) as alternatives.
Yet "atheism" does, as we finally concluded, get attention and make the point, rapidly and clearly. And the meaning of "a-theism" seems right, as I understand it -- without belief in the existence of god or gods, not against such belief.
Is the word too harsh, too off-putting, for the title of the book?
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:51 AM
One Holy Man
posted on 01.05.2006 at 6:01 AM
The first time I visited India, almost five years ago, I saw a holy man sitting on a rug on a sidewalk in downtown Delhi. A small crowd had gathered. I stood off to the side.
The grey-haired man began performing some impressive gymnastic stunts on a branch of an overhanging tree. I surreptitiously took out my video camera. He was alert. He saw. And he more or less demanded that...I come onto his rug to get a better shot. Then he announced that he was going to do "penis tricks."
And this holy man proceeded to wrap his flattened penis around a broomstick, which he then slowly twirled.
Of course, I don't mean to imply that this is any way representative of modern India. Still, it is there. And maybe I do mean to imply that it is, in some tenuous way, representative of an element that survives in modern religion..... Can't say I've ever replayed that videotape, though.
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 6:01 AM
A Positive Idea of Atheism?
posted on 01.03.2006 at 5:55 AM
I've been waiting, for a while now, for a new idea to come. I used to flatter myself with the thought that they came with some frequency. (Not truly original ideas, of course -- you're lucky to be blessed with one or two of those in a lifetime, as Norman Mailer noted somewhere; just something -- the product of a reaction, perhaps, between a thought heard and a fact read -- that seemed to have a new and interesting configuration.)
Such ideas appear, perhaps, to come a bit slower lately. Yeah, I've been too busy: moving, teaching, hassling this or that. Yet, I have been reading and even, sometimes, thinking and still...
I fear, as you may have noticed, that it has something to do with age. There probably is less RAM available to the central-processing unit. But, just as important, you gain, with wisdom, places to file most of the odd observations and little anomolies that used to cause confusion and, once in a while, spark a new thought. That's one reason I've taken on, in atheism, a topic upon which I had not accumulated great stores of wisdom.
I've known what kind of idea I want. Atheism can easily devolve into againstism: "Oh, no he doesn't!" I call this, unoriginally, the "negative idea" of atheism. I've been looking for the "positive idea."
Disbelief -- in sky spirits, in Apollo, in Genesis -- has cleared the way for science and aspects of philosophy. But is there a thread -- something positive that can be untangled from science and philosophy -- that runs through the thought of the often brilliant nonbelievers who will wander through my book? Don't want to sound too cocky, but I've assumed, since early in this project, that there is and that I'm gonna find it. But the idea hasn't come.
In the idea-generation business, travel, as we know, helps -- the quiet of it (once you've finally done all the crap that must be done to be able to go); the sense of being unstuck (physically and, often, temporally); the stimulation of "parts unknown" (or release from the bondage of vistas and conversations too well known).
And it is on the leg from Paris to Chennai -- reading The Anti-Christ and typing notes into my Palm -- that I think I might have come up with something. Nietzsche (who may have exceeded the Mailer limit by more than anyone) is fulminating against what he sees as Christianity's decadent, life-denying disparagement of health, intellect, strength and power. Christian "pity" particularly repulses him. And then he writes something that surprises me, something I have no comfortable place to file away: "Pity persuades to nothingness!" Nietzsche exclaims. "One does not say 'nothingness': one says 'the Beyond'; or 'God'."
Now, just last week (as I wrote here) a rabbi had told me how Roman soldiers, in the process of destroying the Temple, were shocked to enter the Holy of Holies and find...nothing -- no image, no statue, a void. And this rabbi (improvising, I suspect) suggested that the relationship between the Jews and their god might be seen as an attempt to establish a relationship with the void.
Now I've accumulated some dollops of wisdom over the decades on the idea of "the nothing," the void. (Heidegger's tour de force on the subject, "What is Metaphysics?", may be my all-time favorite piece of writing.) But I'd always thought of religion as an escape from nagging notions of nothingness, as an attempt to paper over the void.
Have I been missing a profound (in the rabbi's view) or decadent (in Nietzsche's) flirtation with, immersion in, nothingness by religion -- at least of the non-pagan variety? Can god be seen as the void with a beard?
And here, at the risk of it sounding anti-climatic, is the idea: Maybe the positive idea of atheism is the alternative to the can't-be-seen, can't-be-heard, inscrutable, unknowable nothing of god. Maybe, without denying its own involvement with relativism and uncertainty, atheism is an injunction to focus on the earthly, mortal, excessive, hopelessly messy, something -- the plentitude.
Or maybe I've just been reading too much Nietzsche....
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 5:55 AM
A Journey to the East
posted on 01.01.2006 at 4:22 PM
The post below -- on atheism and agnosticism -- will be my last before I head off for the land of the Carvaka: India.
I'll try to keep up a flow of posts, after I arrive, and to keep you posted on any encounters with holy men or meditations on the Buddha.
This brief interregnum might also be a time to ask if anyone has thoughts on what this blog -- not just a work in progress but an experiment -- should or should not be doing.
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 4:22 PM
Atheist or Agnostic?
posted on 01.01.2006 at 11:41 AM
The word "agnostic" was coined by Darwin's friend and defender Thomas Huxley in 1869 to describe their less aggressive, less certain (and safer?) version of doubt.
"In matters of the intellect," Huxley wrote, "do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable. That I take to be the agnostic faith."
And here is Leslie Stephen, who also prefered this "a" word to the other one: "State any one proposition in which all philosophers agree, and I will admit it to be true; or any one which has a manifest balance of authority, and I will agree that it is probable. But so long as every philosopher flatly contradicts the first principles of his predecessors, why affect certainty?"
Stephen's daughter Virginia Woolf, though occasionally prone to emitting vague mystical noises, seems more of the atheistic persuasion: "Certainly and emphatically there is no God."
This schism (Is Huxley to Atheism what Luther was to Catholicism?) makes most sense to me in terms of the two versions of Greek, Roman and then European skepticism: The Academic school believed it wasn't possible to really know anything. The Pyrrhonian school believed it wasn't even possible to know that.
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:41 AM