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God and Science

posted on 02.28.2006 at 12:04 PM

GOD2.JPGFrom a New York Times article on the defeat (Hallelujah!) of a bill in Utah that would have "required teachers to issue a disclaimer to their students saying that not all scientists agree about evolution and the origin of species." darwin_beard.bmp

"The bill died on a 46-to-28 vote in the Republican-controlled House after being amended by the majority whip, Stephen H. Urquhart, a Mormon who said he thought God did not have an argument with science."

Glad to see, of course, that Mr. Urquhart believes God to be open minded. But I continue to wonder how the diety might square science with miracles, the afterlife and His own omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, omnibenevolent existence.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 12:04 PM | Comments (1)

Undercover Atheist?

posted on 02.27.2006 at 9:05 PM

david_hume.jpgNow along with writing entries I seem to have given myself responsibility for alerting you to when an entry is important. The debate over Hume's beliefs or lack of beliefs -- begun by Dennett and Wieseltier, picked up in comments here and here , and in an entry below -- strikes me as important for a couple of reasons:

1. David Hume might have mounted -- in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion and Natural History of Religion -- the most thorough and intelligent critique of religion we have seen. So it is of more than mere passing interest whether he was or was not a believer.
2. We're still struggling to figure out whether anyone was an atheist in Europe between the end of the Roman Empire and the publication, in 1770, of Baron d'Holbach's System of Nature, the first avowedly atheistic work. Some historians, as I have noted, believe it was impossible not to believe in God, given the mindset in Europe at the time. Others believe it was merely impossible to say you didn't believe. Hume provides quite a case study.

Here's a quote from his History I find intriguing and, probably, revealing:david_hume.jpg

"The conviction of the religionists, in all ages, is more affected than real... Men dare not avow, even to their own hearts, the doubts which they entertain on such subjects: they make a merit of implicit faith; and disguise to themselves their real infidelity."

My guess is that Hume hung on to some faith in his own heart -- but very, very little; very, very tenuously.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:05 PM | Comments (2)

Update on the Book

posted on 02.26.2006 at 10:05 PM

indian gods 003.jpg
Gave a draft of the Prologue (on young Charles Bradlaugh and Shelley) and the first chapter (on the anthropology of disbelief) to my first reader Sunday morning. The verdict? Disjointed. Too much jumping around. (As if you couldn't have guessed from reading this blog.) That, alas, had been my fear. (I've written other books. Not sure it gets much less hard.)

So I'm looking, once again, at two of the books I'm using for models: My friend David Shenk's The Forgetting and Mark Kurlansky's Salt -- neither having anything to do with disbelief but both examples of compact, narrative history of the sort to which I aspire.

And I'm about to pull apart those initial sections to see if I can't reassemble them -- with fewer tangents and longer tales -- into something more jointed.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:05 PM | Comments (0)

Heavy Stuff

posted on 02.25.2006 at 1:33 PM

Far be it for this blogger to toot his own blog's horn...constantly. Just once in a while. And such an occasion has arrived. It strikes said blogger that the Derrida post below, which attracted a grand total of zero comments, and the Religion as Emotion post, less far below, are, like, important. derrida - rotated2.JPGcupid -rotate2.JPG

On account of the fact that they each get at the places, very different places, where the seemingly parallel lines of faith and reason seem to meet. Derrida is arguing (and, okay, maybe I didn't make this very clear) that there is a kind of primordial, inescapable leap of faith behind any attempt to reason, to communicate. That other lofty post suggests that an emotional response to religion, to faith, may be as real, even unavoidable, as love (and it is the official position of this blog that love is damn real) -- even if you don't belief in squat, even if you're Mr. or Ms. Reason.

Whole philosophies, maybe, could rise or fall based on such arguments. (I haven't quite worked out how, but trust me on this.) At the very least, you'd think someone writing a book (eminently readable but still intellectually sound) on atheism ought to have thought them out. You're supposed to help me think out.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:33 PM | Comments (18)

Wieseltier on Dennett III: Hume

posted on 02.24.2006 at 5:39 PM

Daniel Dennett claims to be -- and in fact is -- following in the tradition of david_hume.jpg
David Hume in using an exploration of the causes of religion to loosen belief in religion. But Leon Wieseltier accuses him of editing out one important statement by Hume -- the one in which the great skeptic admits: "The whole frame of nature bespeaks an intelligent author."

And it is true that, when pressed, Hume seems to emit a vague deism not dissimilar to the vague deism to which Wieseltier himself seems to cling (rather desperately, it seems). But the point, which Wieseltier fails to mention, is that in Hume's day one was pressed to avow belief in a deity with an insistence and consequence of a different order from anything philosophers today might confront. Just half a century earlier, a young man was hung in Scotland for rejecting religion. And Hume was afraid to publish his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion for 25 years -- until after his death.

This Scottish philosopher, who generally wanted to avoid "clamour," must have felt it prudent to display at least some plausible religious belief. Was he being insincere? We don't know. (Some of his professions of belief, such as the one Wieseltier quotes, seem inconsistent with his reasoning elsewhere; however, an unbending atheism would seem inconsistent with Hume's skepticism about intellectual certainty.) Is Wieseltier being fair in quoting, in the New York Times, Hume's avowal of belief in intelligent design without noting the pressures he faced? That question seems easier to answer.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 5:39 PM | Comments (1)

Religion as Emotion

posted on 02.23.2006 at 11:38 AM

Is it possible to be emotionally religious without being intellectually religious?

This is a notion that would have offended me as recently as a couple of days ago. Then I began mulling over the analogy between religion and love. Surely, it is possible to experience all the ecstasy and pain of love without believing in Aphrodite or Cupid or even the perfection of the beloved. Can't I (in some sense, don't I) similarly experience the feelings normally associated with religion -- submission to fate, awe at the universe, joy in existence, hope for the future, reverence for life -- without swallowing the whole supernatural thing?

Is this religion? Is it possible to be religious without religion? Am I missing something?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:38 AM | Comments (2)

Wieseltier' on Dennett II: Religion and Love

posted on 02.22.2006 at 1:16 PM

Here's something I find hard and interesting to think through. It is an analogy that is never fully made in Leon Wieseltier's surprisingly scatter-shot and shrill attack on Daniel Dennett's new book. The analogy is between religion and love.

cupid.jpgDennett has tried to explain why human societies end up believing in supernatural beings. We could come up with similar explanations -- biological, cultural -- for why humans fall in love. But such explanations would not negate the power, the beauty and the reality of love. (Here I would agree, in other words, with Wieseltier that a merely evolutionary or scientific explanation would fail to capture the whole messy, glorious, infuriating thing.) Do the power, beauty and reality of religion survive, similarly unscathed, attempts to give the causes of religion?

They probably do, don't they? Religion -- as emotion: as piety, awe, humility, sense of the sacred or sublime -- can certainly grip and can certainly be, in its way, lovely. Such responses, even a firm unbeliever would have to acknowledge, are real.

The problem, I think, is that religion wants to be more than just a pretty and deep emotion. It wants to have its view of the universe accepted as fact, just as some lovers insist in trying to persuade us that their beloved really is the most attractive or the only one for them. And here we can rebut with facts: "Moses could not have written the first five books of the Torah since his death is described in them" or "You said the same about your previous lover." Or we might note the factors that have led to the erroneous assertions -- their causes: "False ascriptions of authorship are characteristic of the oral tradition" or "Of course this feels special; you hadn't dated anyone for two years."

Religion also wants to be taken seriously as philosophy. This is what Wieseltier, in his clumsy way, seems to be claiming for it. In which case, we have a right to question biases, premises, groundings, internal consistency, etc. And I fear that by serious philosophic, not poetic, standards the treatises of starry-eyed prophets do not stand up much better than the treatises of starry-eyed lovers.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:16 PM | Comments (2)

Science and Religion

posted on 02.21.2006 at 4:49 PM

Maybe this is what is most interesting about Wieseltier/Dennett debate below:

All right-thinking blue-state people, religious or not, had lined up on the side of science and evolution, against intolerant school boards and the foolishness of intelligent design. Now here's Wieseltier -- a liberal intellectual of impeccable credentials, in the New York Times, no less -- faced with the task of resisting a science-based atheist argument. And what does he do? He resorts to charges of "scientism" and quotes, respectfully, Hume saying: "The whole frame of nature bespeaks an intelligent author."

The scary question for a percentage of those right-thinking people: Has the scientific argument against religion grown so strong that it is necessary to challenge science to refute it?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 4:49 PM | Comments (4)

Wieseltier on Dennett I: "Scientism"?

posted on 02.21.2006 at 11:30 AM

It is not quite clear what faith Leon Wieseltier (left) is defending wieseltier.jpgdaniel_dennett_1.jpgin his over-the-top review of the new book by Daniel Dennett (right) on the causes of belief. But he must see the threat to that pale faith, and civilization as he knows it, as profound, because no holds are barred. The New Republic's literary editor even finds himself sounding a bit like a late-seventies comp-lit professor:

"Scientism, the view that science can explain all human conditions and expressions, mental as well as physical, is a superstition, one of the dominant superstitions of our day; and it is not an insult to science to say so."

It is indeed an entertaining world we live in when science (broadly applied, to be sure) gets called religion by a long-gray-haired neoliberal (with a weakness for the spiritual) to fend off a long-gray-bearded philosophy professor (with a weakness for sociobiology), in, of all places, the pages of the New York Times. What are we to make of this charge?

Is there actually a sense in which science, when extended to human culture, might truly be considered a faith? (Does the attempt to locate a common source for faith and reason attributed to Derrida -- guru of late-seventies comp-lit professors -- below illuminate matters any?) Is the villain here just sociobiology -- evolutionary biology as applied to cultural behaviors? Or are we to conceive of our whole scientific view of the world as, gulp, just another religion? (Was Einstein the wrong choice as "Person of the Century"? Should it have been Thomas Kuhn?) Can one be an atheist or even an agnostic with respect to science -- or some overly ambitious applications of science?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:30 AM | Comments (12)

Cartoons of the Atheist -- Part II (and Dennett's Book)

posted on 02.20.2006 at 11:33 AM


A few years ago, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin published this cartoon; it was an unclever response to an opinion piece by Mitchell Kahle in which he wrote: "The old saying 'There are no atheists in foxholes' is entirely without merit or legitimacy...."

This notion that atheists will get religion as soon as they sense death or the full turbulence of life is an old one. In the nineteenth century some atheists went so far as to arrange to have witnesses by their deathbeds to prove that they did not succumb to a last-minute conversion.

Before getting to Leon Wieseltier's intemperate, wrongheaded and fascinating review of Dennett's book in Sunday's New York Times, I want to finish with Adam Kirsch's somewhat more delicate skewering. For at some point he falls back on a version of the old foxhole argument:

"To believe or disbelieve is existentially the most important choice of all. It shapes one's whole understanding of human life and purpose, because it is a choice that each of us must make for him or herself. To impress on a man the urgency of that choice, Kierkegaard wrote, it would be useful to "get him seated on a horse and the horse made to take fright and gallop wildly ... this is what existence is like if one is to become consciously aware of it."

Much here perplexes me. First, how does Kierkegaard's view of existence relate to Woody Allen's revelation that "eighty percent of life is just showing up"?

Second, what does it mean to say that belief in God is an "existential choice"? Doesn't belief in God depend on only one factor: whether you think there really is a God? I know we're supposed to forget such calculations and perpetrate some kind of "leap of faith." Atheist_in_Foxhole_2.jpgA "leap" toward what? From what? Over what? Is there any place to stand on the other side? Do you have to keep leaping? A "leap" that allows you to kill your son? Faith in dreams? Faith in reason? Faith in superstition? Faith in faith? Faith in nothing? Faith as a kind of madness? Faith in God?

And, third, what sort of argument for religion is it to say people crawl toward it when life gets tough and they get scared? When he heard thunder, my late golden retriever would attempt to hide his head under a bed. This earned neither him nor the bed much respect in my eyes.

Mitchell Kahle prepared this second cartoon, also not dazzlingly clever, in response to that of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:33 AM | Comments (4)

The Causes of Belief

posted on 02.18.2006 at 11:35 AM

Dennett book.jpgIn a review of Daniel Dennett's new Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, Adam Kirsch argues that an explanation for why people believe is not an argument against belief:

"Mr. Dennett believes that explaining religion in evolutionary terms will make it less real; that is the whole purpose of his book. But this is like saying that because water is made of two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen, it is not really wet.... Just so, the reality of religious experience cannot be abolished by explaining it as an adaptation to our prehistorical environment."

But, of course, the reality of religious experience is considerably more elusive than the wetness of water. And a couple of the more common arguments used to demonstrate (against the evidence of our senses and of science) the existence of supernatural beings are hugely vulnerable to explanations of why so many believe.

One such common argument for the existence of God: the fact that all human societies seem to believe in Him or them. (This is the argument ex consensus gentium.) But if that widespread belief can be explained by the fact that a hypersensitivity to the presence of conscious agents is of survival value in hominids, then that argument disappears.

Another such common argument: that human societies believe in God because they've been given "revelations"; they've seen miracles, had visions. But if the belief was really caused by evolutionary pressures, there is less reason to believe in those revelations, miracles and visions.

Democritus, whom Dennett's book does not cite, had a go at the causes-of-belief question almost two and a half millennia ago. Hume, whom Dennett does cite, engages in a rigorous investigation of these causes in his Natural History of Religion. For good reason. This is powerful stuff.

(Thanks to Ben Vershbow, of the Institute for the Future of the Book, for the Kirsch link and, soon, many more.)

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:35 AM | Comments (1)

Talkin' Religion

posted on 02.17.2006 at 10:18 AM

In his interesting opinion piece on the Danish cartoons, Robert Wright includes this observation:

"Most Americans tread lightly in discussing ethnicity and religion, and we do it so habitually that it's nearly unconscious."

Certainly, this is true. Wright thinks it's good -- a sign of civil "self-restraint." But, when it comes to religion, isn't this reticence -- this reluctance to discuss and debate -- why so many odd, seemingly un-thought-through notions survive? Isn't it why religious (or anti-religious?) beliefs sometimes seem to lurk in dark corners of otherwise well-lit minds?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:18 AM | Comments (1)

Faith and Knowledge -- Complications

posted on 02.17.2006 at 10:01 AM

Here's one way this discussion gets complicated. It comes from that great complicator Jacques Derrida, to whom I am, I admit, susceptible.

Had occasion once (in my role of ace reporter) to ask Monsieur Derrida whether atheism is where we begin. He looked at me uncomfortably. He said something about complexity or the difficulty of "improvising" on such a matter. We moved to a different subject.
derrida horizontal.JPG
Here's one way the subject gets difficult for Derrida: He sees (and others have certainly stumbled upon this) all our utterances resting, at bottom, on a certain, primordial "faith" -- faith that an attempt to communicate is being made and will be acknowledged. Reason, Derrida argues, is impossible without this "trust."derrida upsidedown.JPG
(The "text" from which this mixmaster of a line is extracted can be found in a collection of Derrida's writings on religion.)

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:01 AM | Comments (1)

Is Atheism Simple?

posted on 02.15.2006 at 11:10 PM

Religion definitely has pretensions toward simplicity: good/evil, sacred/profane, saved/damned. Atheism, I think, wants to be the opposite of all that: open to the world's tangles and shadings. Still, I sense a kind of impatience among some readers of this blog, as if we ought to be able to boil all this ratiocination down to something like: religion is stupid, and then leave it at that.

Can atheism be on the side of complexity while maintaining that the issues it itself raises are simple: God/no god, meaning/meaningless, science/ignorance?

Are the issues it raises simple?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:10 PM | Comments (5)

Morality Without God

posted on 02.14.2006 at 1:46 PM

I'm currently teaching (conveniently and not-coincidentally) a seminar on The History of Disbelief.

Last week we discussed the slippery slope down which Jesus seems to lead in the Sermon on the Mount. There ain't much credit, He notes, in doing good "before men, to be seen by them." Instead, our charitable deeds, He insists, should be done "in secret." Then "your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly."

But -- and here's where the slipperiness of this particular slope becomes clear -- what credit is there in doing good just to be seen by God, just for that promised "reward"?

Kant, I have just learned (in a "text" by Jacques Derrida), ventures further down the slope arguing that (in Derrida's paraphrase) "in order to conduct oneself in a moral manner, one must act as if God did not exist." We should, in other words, do good without expectation of heavenly "reward."

Hmm... Isn't this saying we'd be more moral without God?

[Note: The depiction of Jesus in this entry is non-satirical.]

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:46 PM | Comments (7)

Jean Meslier

posted on 02.13.2006 at 10:27 PM

Meslier's Church.bmp
The story of this French priest (This was his church) is surely one of the great tales in the history of disbelief. After performing his duties irreproachably until his death in 1733, Father Meslier left beyond three copies of a Memoire, addressed to his parishioners, with his true thoughts:

"...As a priest I had no choice but to fulfill my ministry, but how I suffered when I was forced to preach to you those pious falsehoods that I detested with all my heart. What contempt I felt for my ministry, and particularly for the superstitious mass and the ridiculous administration of the sacraments, especially when they had to be carried out with a solemnity that attracted your piety and excited your credulity? A thousand times I was on the point of publicly exploding. I wanted to open your eyes, but a fear stronger than my strength suddenly held me back, and forced me to remain silent until my death...."

Makes you wonder: How much disbelief was being hidden? What thoughts today are being hidden? Or has humankind suddenly developed moral courage?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:27 PM | Comments (2)

Cartoons of the Atheist

posted on 02.11.2006 at 7:47 PM

We can imagine, as some Muslims have asked us to do, the outrage that would greet satiric cartoons featuring Jesus or, were the point sufficiently nasty, Moses.

How about a satiric drawing of an atheist? What would it show? (A man lost in a microscope oblivious to the wonder of all that goes on around him?)

Wait, by the grace of Google, I found one (our artist is Jack Hamm):

Atheist cartoon.gif

I suspect that this image would not be sufficient to rouse the residents of the Left Bank or the Upper West Side to burn flags or embassies. Would it be possible to come up with a cartoon that would seriously offend atheists? Are they above (below?) this sort of thing? Is this because for the atheist "nothing is sacred"?

Doesn't a feeling for the "sacred" increase the inclination to take offense? Would this not be a response to the assertion by Madeleine Bunting, in the Guardian, that, in essence, religion is merely one of many "collective identities" societies can use as an excuse for violence?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 7:47 PM | Comments (4)

How Deep is Their Faith?

posted on 02.11.2006 at 7:35 PM

Writing about the anthropology of belief and disbelief, I am stalled (not for the last time, I fear) by the question of how thoroughly and sincerely people believe the stuff they say they believe.

shaman.gifDid the Hopi, for example, really and truly believe that animals could take off their skins revealing themselves as actually human? Was this seen as metaphor? Was it assumed to be something of an exaggeration?

What went on in the mind of a shaman lying on the ground in a (perhaps drug-induced) trance and said to be flying off on a mission to rescue a soul from the underworld? Was some part of him aware that he was involved in a performance?

Are we sure that these societies did not contain the same range of belief/unbelief present in our own?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 7:35 PM | Comments (7)

Cartoons of the Prophet -- Part VI

posted on 02.09.2006 at 8:17 PM

I'm not sure how I myself would answer the question raised in the previous post. This seems one of those occasions when I've been writing to learn what I think.

Of course nonbelievers will be quick to line up with those who champion free expression, diversity of opinion and "peace, love and understanding." That has seemed almost too obvious to require much saying.

burn at stake.gifBut I read myself as having been writing about the intolerance and fear that seem to lurk at the bottom of most religion. The nonbeliever's contribution may be to remind that even though you can teach most religions proper table manners and sit comfortably with them over tea, there is still something essentially immoderate about them. There is still something powerfully illiberal about any system of thought that insists that rules of behavior -- the Prophet cannot be depicted, the Son must be seen as divine, meat and milk cannot be eaten together -- have been imposed by an infallible supernatural intelligence and that insists that our eternal (eternal!) happiness depends on our ability to follow those rules.

I think I want to say that this incident -- along with what has been going on in the red states lately -- should remind us that monotheism does not blend easily or smoothly into liberalism.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 8:17 PM | Comments (0)

Cartoons of the Prophet -- Part V

posted on 02.08.2006 at 9:48 PM

** The politics have been breaking rather oddly on the those satiric cartoons. Some of the papers daring to reprint them have been right-wing papers -- normally more sensitive to affronts to religion than to limitations on free expression. (Does it depend on which religion?)

** The argument, as I see it, is not between the natural enemies atheism and orthodox belief but between the natural enemies pluralism/freedom of expression and orthodox belief. Which raises the question (actually Bob Stein raised the question) of what an atheist might see in this battle.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:48 PM | Comments (1)

Cartoons of the Prophet -- Part IV

posted on 02.07.2006 at 11:50 AM

In an opinion piece in the Times of London the atheist (Why aren't there more pieces by atheists in the Times that lands on my doorstep each morning?) Matthew Parris also sees deep and irreconcilable differences surfacing in the current battle over those Danish cartoons:more cartoon demo.bmp

"Let us not duck what that "I do not believe" really means. It means I do not believe that there is one God, Allah, or that Muhammad is His Prophet. It means I do not believe that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, or that no man cometh to the Father except by Him. I do not believe that the Jews are God's Chosen People, or subject to any duties different from the rest of us. It means I do not believe any living creature will be reincarnated in another life.

"In my opinion these views are profoundly mistaken, and those who subscribe to them are under a serious misapprehension on a most important matter. Not only are their views not true for me: they are not true for them. They are not true for anyone. They are wrong.

"Cutting through the babble of well-meaning souls who like to speak of the "community" of belief among "people of faith", this must also be what the Muslim is saying to the Christian, Jew or Hindu; or what the Christian must be saying to the Jew, Hindu or Muslim. These faiths make demands and assert truths that are not compatible with the demands and truths of other faiths. To assert one must be to deny the others."

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:50 AM | Comments (2)

Cartoons of the Prophet -- Part III

posted on 02.07.2006 at 11:42 AM

While all right-thinking folk want the violence that has broken out in response to the satiric drawings of Mohammad to end, this awful incident does at least have the virtue of reminding us that this is a world that is sharply divided -- between humanistic, tolerant pluralists and true believers in one or another faith.

The views of Danish newspaper editors and devout Muslims may indeed be incompatible. No religious testament with which I am familiar tempers its "Thou shall not"s with an "unless it is an expression of some individual's right to free expression." And no self-respecting child of the Enlightenment is eager to hand mullahs, priests or rabbis significant control over what they do, say or print.

Orthodox Muslims are correct in suspecting that some Western intellectuals find their beliefs (like most orthodox beliefs) rather silly. Western intellectuals are correct in suspecting that some orthodox Muslims (like orthodox members of other faiths) think they are damned or damnable. And orthodox Muslims and Western intellectuals increasingly find themselves occupying the same neighborhoods, using the same media.

These are not friendly differences. These are not worldviews that can easily share a smaller and smaller world.

Yes, end the violence. Yes, let's all try to be sensitive and understanding. But it is also worth remembering that a crucial struggle is going on in the world today: between devout faith and freethinking. This struggle is inevitably going to cause some pain.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:42 AM | Comments (0)

Cartoons of the Prophet -- Part II

posted on 02.07.2006 at 1:08 AM

Many respond to the struggle between religion and atheism by hastening toward some sort of middle ground. Some retreat to a lazy, hazy deist god of the sort first proposed by the Greek thinker Xenophanes in the sixth century BCE. Some prefer a gentle agnosticism.burning danish flag.jpg

The ugly and upsetting riots against the publication of those cartoons satirizing Mohammad demonstrate the difficulty of securing that middle ground. Muslims believe their Prophet should not even be depicted. Western intellectuals believe in the freedom to print what you want, to satirize what you want. Where is the reasonable, non-doctrinaire position that might bridge these beliefs?

A spokeswoman for the European Union speaks of the harm these riots might do to "moderate Islam." This seems an odd adjective to put before any religion. How does one to submit to god in moderation?

Atheists tend not to burn things. Does that make them moderate?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:08 AM | Comments (3)

Cartoons of the Prophet -- Part I

posted on 02.06.2006 at 10:37 PM

As the flames were lit around him in 1553, Michael Servetus, a scientist and renegade religious thinker, is said to have cried, "O Jesus, Son of the Eternal God, have pity on me!" According to one observer, had he instead phrased it, "Jesus, the Eternal Son, have pity on me!" the flames might have been extinguished. For Servetus was being burned at the stake in Calvin's Geneva precisely because he refused to affirm the divinity of Jesus.

Believers have long taken affronts to their religion, even seemingly minor affronts, rather seriously.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:37 PM | Comments (0)

Irreligious Epiphanies -- A Question

posted on 02.06.2006 at 4:03 AM

Some often profound tales of the onset of disbelief have been shared here.

Is it hard to admit to yourself that you've lost your faith?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 4:03 AM | Comments (1)

Religious Art

posted on 02.03.2006 at 11:45 AM

indian gods contrast.JPG

The demon with a water-buffalo head, on the right in this frieze cut out of rock at Mahishasuramardini Cave in southern India, is Mahisha -- a fellow with a bent for disturbing the balance of life. Durga, the mother of the universe, is fending him off -- riding a lion, wielding a bow and arrow.

This sort of thing certainly has its attractions, especially on rainy days sitting under a laptop, when the balance of life can seem a touch off. Metaphor. Analogy. Poetry. Beauty. With these religion has certainly been well endowed. And let us not forget meaning -- some way of getting a handle on the balances and imbalances of life.

We can gape. We can smile. But to believe? In Durga?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:45 AM | Comments (0)

Times on Itch for Meaning

posted on 02.02.2006 at 8:13 PM

The New York Times editiorial page is not known for discussions of the validity or usefulness of religion. But how about this line from an editorial this morning:

"This is human nature at work. There is nothing we love better than finding order where we suspect it may not exist and deciphering meaning where meaning may not be intended."

Not a bad explanation for why so many believe an intelligence lurks behind the universe. However, it appeared in an editorial on the effort to find a pattern in Academy Award nominations.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 8:13 PM | Comments (1)

Whence Religion

posted on 02.01.2006 at 8:52 PM

A few quotes from Weston La Barre's The Ghost Dance: Origins of Religion (first recommended to me in a comment on this blog):

** "Religious behavior appears to be unique to man among all the animals."

** "Religious behavior is present in all known human societies, past and present."

** "The basis of all religion in both North and South America [and by extension, La Barre believes, everywhere else] is the shaman or medicine-man."

And La Barre believes that these shaman -- in the role of "master of animals" -- actually predate gods. Which may complicate the which-came-first-belief-or-disbelief question slightly.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 8:52 PM | Comments (0)