Prayer Worthless! -- 3
posted on 03.31.2006 at 3:47 PM
Let's forget for a moment the "faith-is-not-something-that-can-be-investigated-by-science" talk that will inevitably follow reports on this study showing that prayer by strangers does not help before a heart operation. What does the fact that the study was done tell us about the moment in which we live?
1. That ours is a time when many people still take such ridiculous assumptions seriously enough so that money (including US government money) and energy are devoted to studying them.
2. That, despite all the talk of religious revivals and resurgent orthodoxy, the relentless assault of science and scholarship upon superstition continues.
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 3:47 PM
Prayer Worthless! -- 2
posted on 03.31.2006 at 2:53 PM
A few additional notes:
-- $2.4 million was spent on this study to see if strangers praying for you could actually improve your chances when having heart surgery. Perhaps it was worth it just to get the headlines in the papers today (USA Today: "Study shrugs off prayer's power to heal"), but surely there is more worthwhile medical research to be done.
-- The funding for the study came primarily from the Templeton Foundation. Will they soon be supporting expeditions in search of Noah's Ark?
-- According to the New York Times, the US government has spent "$2.3 million on prayer research since 2000."
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 2:53 PM
posted on 03.31.2006 at 1:55 AM
No fooling. We now have a study.The New York Times :
Prayers offered by strangers had no effect on the recovery of people who were undergoing heart surgery, a large and long-awaited study has found.
Surprised? How about this:
And patients who knew they were being prayed for had a higher rate of post-operative complications like abnormal heart rhythms, perhaps because of the expectations the prayers created, the researchers suggested.
Is this not further evidence -- sorry Ms. Bunting, sorry Mr. Archbishop of Canterbury -- that science ain't healthy for faith? Is it also a sign, and this is a bit surprising, that faith ain't healthy? (Thanks to Bret and Lauren.)
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:55 AM
Are Atheists More Moral? -- V
posted on 03.30.2006 at 11:59 PM
The following statement, written when socialism was still (mostly) unborn, has long haunted me. It is from Dostoyevsky's Brothers Karamazov:
"Socialism is not merely the labour question, it is before all things the atheistic question, the question of the form taken by atheism today., the question of the tower of Babel built without God, not to mount to Heaven from earth but to set up Heaven on Earth."
Well okay, socialism is currently (mostly) dead. But what if you substitute "humanism" for it here? Trying to "set up Heaven on Earth" -- however naive, however Utopian -- seems a rather decent goal. Why wait for God to pitch in? Why content yourself with trying to reach an alleged heaven in the sky? But Dostoyevsky, having outgrown (in Siberia) his left-wing phase, is scoffing.
Maybe the great novelist is wrong and the point is that God paralyzes us, making all human efforts at amelioration seem futile, misguided, a diversion.
Or maybe Dostoyevsky is right and the point is that we dreamy, left-wing mortals waste our time trying to build imitation heavens.
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:59 PM
Does Darwin Lead to Atheism? -- II
posted on 03.29.2006 at 9:52 PM
Madeleine Bunting is concerned with avoiding "false dichotomies between faith and science." What religious models might satisfy Bunting and "mesh with" (the phrase is from Dan Jones) evolution? Jones mentions the obvious one: God sets natural selection in motion and watches it work -- presumably devoting Himself, thereafter, just to prayer-answering and salvation-dispensing. Various wispy Gods -- God as Nature, God as metaphor, God as consciousness, etc. -- would also fit.
Wouldn't you have to ignore, or view as fiction, large portions of various holy books for more traditional versions of God to "mesh"? In the effort to avoid "dichotomies," don't you lose either a lot of God or a lot of evolution?
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:52 PM
Does Darwinism Lead to Atheism?
posted on 03.28.2006 at 5:56 PM
A split seems to be developing among pro-evolution (anti-intelligent design) forces, with the work of Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett the major bones of contention. The selection below is from a new piece by Madeleine Bunting, an old friend in this blog, in the Guardian:
'Michael Ruse, a prominent Darwinian philosopher (and an agnostic) based in the US, with a string of books on the subject, is exasperated: "Dawkins and Dennett are really dangerous, both at a moral and a legal level." The nub of Ruse's argument is that Darwinism does not lead ineluctably to atheism, and to claim that it does (as Dawkins does) provides the intelligent-design lobby with a legal loophole: "If Darwinism equals atheism then it can't be taught in US schools because of the constitutional separation of church and state. It gives the creationists a legal case. Dawkins and Dennett are handing these people a major tool."'
In his blog, The Proper Study Of Mankind, from which I learned of this latest Bunting blast, Dan Jones does a fine job of unpacking the Bunting-Rose position. He has a go at the "legal loophole," atheism-as-religion argument. But also takes on the Darwinism=atheism question: Jones concedes that "the specific claims of" science and evolution may not be "utterly incompatible with a religious conception of the universe (you can always tweak your scientific and religious models to mesh with one another)." But he contends that "scientific investigation just doesn't tend towards theism and belief in God."
This tending away from theism (and you-know-Whom) by science, while it is wrestling with creationism, throws Bunting into something of a panic:
'Across the US, a crude and erroneous conflict is being created between science as atheism and religion. It's important that Britain avoids the trap that America is falling into, not just because it endangers good science, but also because there is a fascinating debate worth having about what scientific method can reveal about faith, and what theologians have to say about science.'
Bunting is right about the scientific method shedding light on faith. That, as she acknowledges, is the point of Dennett's book. But seeing science as irreligious won't interfere with this effort. Exactly what light theologians can shed on science she neglects specify.
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 5:56 PM
Are Atheists More Moral? -- IV (Sade)
posted on 03.28.2006 at 9:59 AM
The Marquis de Sade, addressing God:
"I wish that for a moment you could exist to have the pleasure to better insult you."
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:59 AM
Denominations of Disbelief? 1. Shelleyans
posted on 03.27.2006 at 11:35 AM
Do atheists, to put this in the most negative possible way, have their own sects? What might those sects be?
Here's one possible denomination: The Shelleyans.
-- They subscribe to a Romantic version of atheism, which is seen as a higher, more Christian-than-Christian, Nature-given morality. (The religious just do good because they believe God, with his promise of higher reward, is watching. The irreligious do good for its own sake, because it is the law of nature.)
-- Their prophet? Baron d'Holbach
-- Slovoj Zizek has just been elected (by the New York Times) their pope.
-- Their saints? Possibly Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Bertrand Russell? (The evidence is weak on Gandhi.)
-- Their holy text: Queen Mab.
-- Words to live by: "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" -- Frances Wright
-- Related denominations? Secular Humanists.
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:35 AM
Are Atheists More Moral? -- III (Tony Blair)
posted on 03.26.2006 at 8:52 PM
From an article on British Prime Minister Tony Blair earlier this month:
He confirmed the thesis put forward by more than one biographer that it was his rediscovery of religion while at Oxford University which led him into politics.
Would this, assuming one finds Blair's politics moral (difficult for some of us in recent years), be a counter example?
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 8:52 PM
Are Atheists More Moral? -- II
posted on 03.25.2006 at 6:57 PM
Here some data to add to the discussion. Percentage of respondents who think torture is never justified:
White Protestant 31%
White evangelical 31%
This from a survey by Pew, reported by the National Catholic Reporter, digested by (the prolific and wise) Pharyngula (who wonders about the other 59%), after being alerted by Andrew Sullivan.
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 6:57 PM
Religion and Politics: Hillary Clinton
posted on 03.25.2006 at 6:30 PM
Senator Clinton apparently submitted an entry in the Who Is Your Favorite Jesus poll a couple of days early, while attacking the House Republican get-tough-with-illegal-immigrants bill:
"It is certainly not in keeping with my understanding of the Scriptures," Clinton said, "because this bill would literally criminalize the Good Samaritan and probably even Jesus himself."
Hard not to support adoption of a Would Jesus Get Arrested standard for all future US legislation (though I must admit I have some difficulty locating this particular Jesus, The Illegal Alien, in my copies of the "Scriptures"). And it's always invigorating, of course, to see a politician standing up for some valued voting bloc's convictions.
However, I have to wonder whether the good senator, even with all her advanced polling, might not be missing the beginnings of a turn in American public opinion. Our finger in the wind (and this method does, upon occasion, work) is detecting the initial stirrings of a secular backlash against the orthodox backlash against secularism. Whoever Hillary assigns to adjust her convictions should be advised to turn to this page for the latest on this anti-religious revival.
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 6:30 PM
The Defanging of Religion
posted on 03.24.2006 at 9:32 AM
Religions, in recent centuries, are being housebroken (though sometimes it seems like trying to domesticate a wolf). They're being taught that it's not polite to burn "heretics," not neighborly to go to war with "infidels." Of course, as is the case with all such world-historical movements, some areas, some sects, have been slower than others to accept the new order. Some believers still have difficulty grasping why those who scorn the One True God must be tolerated. These laggards have been making a lot of our news lately. The latest example is the case of poor Abdul Rahman, who converted from Islam to Christianity in that new beacon of democracy, Afghanistan (our part of Afghanistan), and is now on trial for his life.
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:32 AM
posted on 03.23.2006 at 11:05 PM
You don't have to get too far into your average holy book or testament before something fails to add (unless your calculator adjusts results based on faith) up. Here's the early-twentieth-century anthropologist Roy Franklin Barton:
There is much that is inconsistent and contradictory in religions generally, because they grow by accretion through many, many ages and kinds of culture, from mingled emotions, timidities and hopes and in the minds of different individuals and peoples.
I think of Jesus -- or rather the many, many Jesuses -- when I think of such inconsistencies and contradictions. (Though there are, to be sure, examples in all faiths; Barton is talking about headhunters in the Philippines.) Born a Prince/Born a Carpenter. Son of Man/Son of God. Revolutionary/Ascetic.Turn the other cheek/Not peace but a sword. Messiah/Sacrifice. Kingdom of God Soon/Kingdom of God After I Die/Kingdom of God Many, Many Generations Hence.
Most Christians, and even many non-Christians, have a favorite Jesus. (I venture to say that it is hard to read the Gospels without finding something to like.) Thomas Jefferson even went so far as to cut up the Gospels -- taking out the parts he didn't like. (I've heard two version of what those parts were: all the supernatural stuff or everything except Jesus' own words.) Even Nietzsche takes a brief break from pummeling Christianity to roll out a kind of Buddhist, naif Jesus, of whom he seems quite enamored. This game has been played, on quite a high level, by artists too, of course.
Garry Wills has a new book, What Jesus Meant, which promises to present some interesting Jesuses, cause Wills is an interesting thinker. The review in the New York Times, by Jon Meacham, however, mostly just trips over various contractions.
My favorite Jesus: The would-be Messiah who, finding himself dying in pain on a Roman cross, cries out (his last words, while alive, in Matthew): "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me." (Slavoj Zizek, not surprisingly, likes him too.)
The deeply sad, if not disgusted, yet somehow also resolute and caring mosaic Jesus in Istanbul's Aya Sophia also intrigues me. Maybe because it manages to bring together a selection of the contradictions and inconsistencies in one believable Face. Might the painting be a reminder that such a selection could have coexisted in the Man Himself? Sure. Plenty of lower-case men and women manage to embody a bunch of contradictions. But, in Jesus's case, that's hard to square with the various supernatural perfections.
Is there a Jesus of whom you're particularly fond? Or, perhaps, a favorite contradiction in the various accounts of His life and death?
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:05 PM
Thales and the Gods
posted on 03.23.2006 at 12:49 PM
Thales, who lived from about the 620s BCE to 546 BCE, may have been the first of the great Greek natural philosophers, which may make him the first of the great Greek scientists. He came up with a theory of earthquakes. He may have predicted an eclipse. He thought the primary element was water. Did Thales believe in gods?
Nothing Thales wrote, if he wrote, survives. Aristotle, perhaps based on Plato, attributes to Thales the view that "everything is full of gods." Here is the argument that Aristotle got Thales' view wrong -- that Thales probably believed (along with Sam and Dave) in soul; that he believed everything to be full of "soul," which he connected to motion; but that his natural philosophy was mostly devoted to making the gods redundant. It's an argument that would elevate Thales, a formidable figure to begin with, to a rather distinguished place in the history of disbelief. However, there doesn't seem any way to pin it down...
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 12:49 PM
What Case god?
posted on 03.22.2006 at 4:56 AM
I'm enough of an egalitarian to flinch when an announcer speaks of Joe or Derek but then Mr. Steinbrenner. And I'm sufficiently skeptical to rebel against the odd exception to the style rules that capitalizes words like Him, He, etc. only when they refer to the Supreme Being and His Offspring. While I haven't discussed the matter with my editor (Mr. Turner), I thought that this book might offer an opportunity to finally lower case god. However, a close reading of recent entries on this blog will reveal that I've been wavering (or, more precisely, surrendering). The opportunity to stick that capital letter in front of various and sundry pronouns and nouns has been too delicious to resist. It's less fun to wrestle with a mere "supreme being"?
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 4:56 AM
The Bible as a Theory?
posted on 03.21.2006 at 11:22 AM
This recent comment by the archbishop of Canterbury points to some of the jagged edges in the intelligent-design debate. His name is Rowan Williams:
"I think creationism is ... a kind of category mistake, as if the Bible were a theory like other theories ... if creationism is presented as a stark alternative theory alongside other theories I think there's just been a jarring of categories ... My worry is creationism can end up reducing the doctrine of creation rather than enhancing it."
Isn't the liberal, pluralistic perspective on intelligent design similar to that of the archbishop: Religion is fine; it just doesn't belong in science classes? (And, by this argument, John Barrow ought to decide if he's a physicist or a theologian, because they are two entirely different professions.)
Wouldn't a proselytizing nonbeliever argue, however, that, when it comes to the creation of the universe, the Bible does put forward a "theory"? Wouldn't this nonbeliever resist the idea that religion should be placed in a special reason-proof, science-proof "category" and, in fact, want intelligent design discussed in school so that it -- along with the notion that the universe was created in six days -- can be analyzed and, presumably, refuted, as the notion that the sun revolves around the earth has been refuted?
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:22 AM
New Genes -- II
posted on 03.20.2006 at 6:25 PM
Only one human invention can compare in its impact with the domestication of plants and animals ten thousand years ago, and that's writing, which came along (also in the fertile crescent) a little more than five thousand years ago and which would not have come along without agriculture.
Writing's effect on religion was profound, beginning with the book, the word. The three Abrahamic religions mark, in important ways, the shift from oral to literate culture. And disbelief, in forms recognizable to us, may depend on the analytic ways of thought made possible by the objectification and manipulation of words through writing. Nonetheless, agriculture's effect was probably profounder.
Agriculture and religion?
-- Killing a stranger was not a particularly foolish move for a hunter-gatherer. But that sort of thing couldn't go on in the settled, dense villages and towns made possible by wheat, rice, cows and chickens. Hence the "Thou shall not"s of the new religions. (This point, I believe, is Jared Diamond's.)
-- Such bigger settlements, bigger societies, also required bigger, more powerful gods -- to preside over grander mysteries, to propound more far-reaching meanings, to enforce broader laws.
-- As humankind began to forgo foraging in favor of cultivation, it wasn't enough to have a spirit world that just existed, just swirled about; men and women began conceiving of the universe as having been "seeded," as having not only a "shepherd" but a "creator," as having a purpose and a direction.
-- Farming ain't easy. Its rewards are off in the future, its toil and trouble here now. Takes a Grand Super Ego to keep you and your husband and your kids at it.
-- The move from wandering to staying put, from living off the fruits of the earth, to sowing and reaping, was a traumatic transformation and our religious documents are haunted by it, as can be seen in their use of such significant and highly charged terms as the "garden" or the "wilderness."
Now this new study by Jonathan Pritchard at the University of Chicago indicates that adapting to agriculture may have changed not only our way of life but, though the time frame seems awfully tight, some of our genes-- perhaps including genes involved in brain size. That's damn profound. (It's also, not to forget, damn tentative at this point.) Could the new religions have required (or even themselves encouraged) larger minds than might have been encouraged by the old beliefs: shamanism, totemism, animism? What a blow that would be to cultural relativism.
Is it possible that the human brain -- and this really would be a kick in the head -- has continued to evolve, through, say, the Enlightenment?
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 6:25 PM
Writing Problem #1
posted on 03.19.2006 at 7:41 PM
The history of the effort to explain religion -- an effort that dates back to the Greeks and is still being debated on the pages of the New York Times -- will be an important thread in my narrative. But don't I need to give away some of the most up-to-date theories on this early on in the story: when I'm investigating the anthropology of belief and disbelief, doubt amongst the headhunters, etc? Can I talk about whether early humans believed without discussing why?
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 7:41 PM
The Origin of Bacteria
posted on 03.18.2006 at 10:25 AM
For some recent online debunking of the argument for intelligent design see Concerned Scientist (via Pharyngula). The point, of course, is that rather than arriving -- poof -- suddenly and inexplicably, life on earth came about through a series of comprehensible steps.
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:25 AM
What March Madness?
posted on 03.18.2006 at 9:30 AM
I'm lost, instead, in tales of religion and (possible) doubt among headhunters in the Philippines. Is there any sense in which nonbelief precedes belief in human history? I'm struggling to sneak stories of anthropologists in with stories of the people they study (with charges of disjointedness still ringing in my head).
A book -- let alone a book plus a blog, let alone a book plus a blog plus a seminar on the topic -- requires something close (well I do like UCLA) to total immersion (another variety of madness?). I only saw one of the best picture nominees. I never got around to forming an opinion on Dubai control of US ports.
And I haven't been this content in a while.
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:30 AM
posted on 03.17.2006 at 2:13 AM
Cambridge University cosmologist and mathematician John Barrow is this year's winner of the $1.6 million Templeton Prize.
-- The prize, designed to be worth more than a Nobel, is given "for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities."
-- Barrow's research interests include mulling over the "anthropic principle" -- the notion that the laws of physics couldn't have been "set" just right to make possible John Barrow and, presumably, the rest of us without someone or something adjusting the dials.
-- Isn't "Spiritual Realities" an oxymoron?
-- Isn't it going to take more than $1.6 million -- chump change -- to get God (or even a less headstrong spirit) into some physicist's laboratory or Larry King's studio?
-- Should there be a reward for "Progress Toward Debunking Spiritual Claims to Reality" (Yo Soros! Gates! Other cool rich guys!) -- or has that work already been satisfactorily completed?
-- How do we know our nifty intelligent-life-supporting universe hasn't been accompanied by many drippy barren universes (all of which would lack physicists capable of using them to demonstrate the absence of intelligent design)? Why couldn't our universe simply be a fluke -- like the fact that John Barrow happened to have been born at just the right time to be hugely rewarded for his spiritual inclinations? How do we know that the physical laws needed to produce us aren't simply among the most probable, most stable outcomes of universe-creation events? Who adjusted the dials on the physical laws needed to produce the Intelligent Designer His or Herself?
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 2:13 AM
A Golden Age of Disbelief?
posted on 03.16.2006 at 11:34 PM
Every day, every week, every month, every quarter, the most widely read journals seem just now to vie with each other in telling us that the time for religion is past, that faith is a hallucination or an infantile disease, that the gods have at last been found out and exploded. -- Max Muller, 1878
Was this -- the time of Darwin, Huxley and Bradlaugh -- indeed the golden age of disbelief? Did it end? When? Have we in fact turned back toward religion? Why? (Forgive me if I've asked such questions before. I'll probably ask them again.)
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:34 PM
The Clash of Eras -- II
posted on 03.15.2006 at 5:06 PM
Adam Becker, writing for The Revealer, takes some swings at Wafa Sultan:
"Her secularist critique of certain Muslim extremists who serve for her as an exemplar of all that is wrong with contemporary Muslim and Arab culture is unoriginal. Typical of irate secularist and modernization discourse, her argument consists of the standard flustered response to religion that we have heard since the Enlightenment: you are backwards and ignorant, grow up and get over it."
Is this -- "grow up and get over it" -- not what atheists, were it put somewhat more gently, do believe? Is it not merely "typical" of the "secularist...discourse" but necessary to it? Can you disbelieve without thinking others are wrong, even ignorant, to believe?
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 5:06 PM
The Clash of Eras
posted on 03.15.2006 at 12:30 PM
We tend when talking of the beliefs of others to be cautious, to mince words, show respect. That's part of what's interesting about the recent statement (made on Al Jazeera!) by the Arab-American psychiatrist, Dr. Wafa Sultan (quoted, most recently, by Tom Friedman). It is blunt; it is bold; and it has earned Dr. Sultan (as if to prove her point) numerous death threats:
"The clash we are witnessing ... is not a clash of religions, or a clash of civilizations. It is a clash between two opposites, between two eras. It is a clash between a mentality that belongs to the Middle Ages and another mentality that belongs to the 21st century. It is a clash between civilization and backwardness, between the civilized and the primitive, between barbarity and rationality. It is a clash between freedom and oppression, between democracy and dictatorship. It is a clash between human rights, on the one hand, and the violation of these rights, on the other hand. It is a clash between those who treat women like beasts, and those who treat them like human beings."
No cultural relativism here. No fear of seeing progress in history. No fear of questioning or judging another's beliefs -- the fear that sometimes seems to paralyze anthropologists. (Wilhelm Schmidt: "There is but too much danger that the other [the nonbeliever] will talk of religion as a blind man might of colours.") Dr. Sultan, a nonbeliever, talks about religion.
(If you absolutely require a cynical perspective, try the Daily Kos.)
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 12:30 PM
Are Atheists More Moral?
posted on 03.14.2006 at 2:36 PM
In his recent opinion piece in the New York Times, Slavoj Zizek argues that a "properly Christian ethical stance survives" today "mostly in atheism."
Three arguments, I think, can be made for the proposition that the irreligious are actually more moral than the religious:
1. That religions have actually encouraged violence because such intensity of conviction can lead to intolerance or crusades. Zizek (playing on the Dostoevsky line): "The lesson of today's terrorism is that if God exists, then everything, including blowing up thousands of innocent bystanders, is permitted."
2. That atheists are more moral because a moral law resides in Nature or Humanity, and the atheist's view of this law is not obscured by ancient texts, rituals, tribal feuds or other forms of religious mumbo jumbo. Zizek alludes to this when he talks positively of "merely human constraints and considerations." It was a major theme when the pro-Atheism argument first showed itself in Europe with Baron d'Holbach and, later, young Shelley:
There needeth not the hell that bigots frame
To punish those who err; earth in itself
Contains at once the evil and the cure;
And all-sufficing Nature can chastise
Those who transgress her law; she only knows
How justly to proportion to the fault
The punishment it merits.
3. That the religious do good only to cozy up to God (as discussed here). Zizek: "Fundamentalists do what they perceive as good deeds in order to fulfill God's will and to earn salvation; atheists do them simply because it is the right thing to do."
These are attractive arguments for nonbelievers. Are they valid? And one more question: Is a "properly Christian ethical stance" what nonbelievers should be after?
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 2:36 PM
posted on 03.13.2006 at 11:30 AM
Atheists use evil almost as much as the religious do. It becomes -- the evil of those God fearing, decent people drowning in their houses in New Orleans, for example -- a powerful argument against the existence of God.
But what might a nonbeliever make of the devil?
-- Is he a general in a war with God? Is this a struggle the angry nonbeliever might want to join? Or is it a dualistic, obsessive death match, which the thoughtful nonbeliever is happy to rise above, a war to which the atheist conscientiously objects?
-- Is the devil just more supernatural hokum, which ought to be purged from our cultures? God and the devil walking side by side. Dream and nightmare. One no more real than the other.
-- Or is he -- why always he? -- a Promethean figure, standing up for humankind against autocratic deities? I've heard that some form of the name Satan means in some form of Hebrew: the advocate. Might atheists have some sympathy for the devil (as myth, as literary character) as the being who makes the case against God?
Is there some sort of "principle of evil" in the universe which nonbelievers must acknowledge, not just use against their opponents?
I keep waiting for the devil to show up in my readings on the history of disbelief. So far, except for some talk of Milton, he's been conspicuous in his absence. Am I reading badly or does the devil really not fit, even as an object of scorn, in the atheist's cosmos?
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:30 AM
An Atheist Speaks...
posted on 03.12.2006 at 11:05 AM
...on the opinion pages of the New York Times. Strange times we live in. It has taken an often intolerant religious revival (in the US and abroad) to allow a more open discussion of irreligious ideas in this country than has been seen in at least half a century. (Changes -- democratization? -- in media have also helped.)
A few preliminary thoughts on this piece by Slovoj Zizek:
1. When atheism first dared enter public debate in Europe, in the 18th century in France (with Holbach) and the 19th century in Britain (with Shelley), it did so with a grand claim (founded on a romantic, almost deified view of "Nature") to a higher morality -- a morality that looked a lot like Christian morality. Zizek is making a similar claim: "Today, this properly Christian ethical stance survives mostly in atheism." More on this later.
2. Zizek is also proposing a new (for me, here in the sheltered US) political analysis of the Cartoons of the Prophet situation: The Christian right initially printed the cartoons to take some digs at Islam but then expressed "understanding" for the hurt felt (and expressed sometimes violently) by true believers. The atheist liberals, on the other hand, reprinted the cartoons only in the spirit of tolerance and open discussion and had little tolerance for violent protest against open discussion. "Atheism," Zizek writes, " is a European legacy worth fighting for, not least because it creates a safe public space for believers."
3. My expertise on these matters is limited, but where Zizek refers to David Hume in the piece ("David Hume, a believer, made this point in a very poignant way, when he wrote that the only way to show true respect for God is to act morally while ignoring God's existence.") doesn't the point really fit Immanuel Kant? It is, nonetheless, an important point (discussed below) -- though more difficult than Zizek acknowledges.
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:05 AM
posted on 03.11.2006 at 2:55 PM
The New York Times has finally gotten around to the debate on Leon Wieseltier's review of Daniel Dennett's new book -- after the Web has been chewing on it for a few weeks.
The entire letters page in this Sunday's (12 March) Book Review section is devoted to the debate -- one side of the debate: Sam Harris weighs in. Hume is briefly mentioned. And there's this great letter from Tim Maudlin, a philosophy professor at Rutgers:
Leon Wieseltier writes: "You cannot disprove a belief unless you disprove its content. If you believe that you can disprove it any other way by describing its origins or by describing its consequences, then you do not believe in reason."
Recall that Dennett's book attacks religion by investigating the causes, mostly in terms of evolution, of religion. Maudlin continues:
Someone tells me that he believes that the core of Mars is iron. When I ask how he came by that belief, he tells me that it came to him in a dream. This does not disprove his belief, but does show that there is no reason at all to take it seriously.
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 2:55 PM
Blog on Disbelief -- Born Again!
posted on 03.08.2006 at 12:55 PM
Thanks to Ben Vershbow and Jesse Wilbur of the Institute for the Future of the Book, this blog has been remade. We had two purposes in mind.
First, to add a modicum of structure. Entries will now settle into one of these four sections:
-- Bonner's Field. Discussion of issues, often contemporary, raised by disbelief and its history (explained further here).
-- Tales of Disbelief. Notes on a couple of millennia's worth of skepticism, rationalism, humanism, naturalism, secularism, agnosticism, atheism and just plain doubt.
-- Thinking Out Loud. Testing ideas. Tossing out questions and queries.
--Book Writer's Journal. All the despair (The book is missing from the stacks!), all the exhilaration (I found it on page 8 of that Google search!) of the nonfiction book author's, the chronicler of irreligion's, existence -- should you, upon occasion, care.
Our second purpose is to provide easier access to the various ideas and topics that wander through these jottings. To that end Ben and Jesse have conjured up:
-- a tag cloud...in which words used and categories employed will grow based on frequency of mention. Just click, as they say on the Internet.
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 12:55 PM
posted on 03.08.2006 at 12:36 PM
In a corner of Victoria Park in London in the middle of nineteenth century speakers would mount soapboxes to disclaim on any number of radical, or not so radical or anti-radical, causes. Crowds would cheer, hiss or answer back. The area was known as Bonner's Field. On Sundays most of the speeches and debates related to religion.
Representatives from half-a-dozen of Britain's splintering Christian faiths could be found there -- preaching, arguing, handing out tracts. And in one corner of Bonner's Field the latest addition of the country's religious smorgasbord gathered: freethinkers. Among those mounting their soapbox was a 17-year-old former Sunday-school teacher named Charles Bradlaugh, who will be one of the main characters in the book I'm writing.
It is difficult to think of a time or place where the discussion of religion was as open and as robust.
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 12:36 PM
Help! I'm a Blogger Trying to Write a Book
posted on 03.08.2006 at 11:24 AM
...and maybe I like things fast and somewhat scattered.
...and maybe posting every day is more fun than publishing every few years.
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:24 AM
Help! I'm a Writer Trapped in a Blog's Body
posted on 03.08.2006 at 11:18 AM
...and my attempts at narrative and exposition are upended by this weird, and-the-last-shall-go-first format. I write up. You scroll down. This may work for glosses on the news. But it can scramble argument, history or story that can't be stuffed into a single post, a single entry.
...and the bits and bites disgorged onto the blog's long, thin page often fail -- no matter how hyper-connected they pretend to be -- to locate among themselves new structures, new organizations. No easy task, that. This backwards chugging locomotive can stop at only one station at a time. Entry A's relationship with Entry B is, consequently, limited to: before, after or linked.
I'm not persuaded by the argument that this is how it ever must be because this is how it has ever been. Seems a bit odd to be celebrating the tried and true in this form of journalism (if that's the category blogging best fits) -- a form of journalism that is, after all, barely old enough for elementary school!
Newspapers, too, began, in the 17th century, by simply placing short items in columns (in this case from top down). So it was possible to read on page four of a newspaper in England in 1655 that Cardinal Carassa is one of six men with a chance to become the next pope and then read on page nine of the same paper that Carassa "is newly dead." Won't we soon be getting similar chuckles out of these early blogs -- where leads are routinely buried under supporting paragraphs; where whim is privileged, coherence discouraged; where the newly dead may be resurrected as one scrolls down.
Early newspapers eventually discovered the joys of what journalism's first editor called a "continued relation." Later they discovered layout.
Blogs have a lot of discovering ahead of them.
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:18 AM
New Genes -- I
posted on 03.07.2006 at 1:46 PM
The new study by Jonathan Pritchard at the University of Chicago shakes the ground underneath the field dubbed by Jared Diamond "human history." (The field some small corners of which I fancy myself currently plowing and having plowed.)
We've long thought the genetic structures that help determine how we eat, mate, relate and, perhaps, believe have remained pretty much unchanged since the arrival of our species, Homo sapiens sapiens, 50- or 100-thousand years ago. This study indicates that this was not the case -- that our gene pool may have significantly altered after the world-changing invention of agriculture 10-thousand years ago.
This might mean that when we look into the evolution of religion, as Daniel Dennett has recently done, we might pay more attention to life in a village among cows, chickens and wheat fields, and less to life in a hunting and foraging tribe.
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:46 PM
God as Metaphor
posted on 03.06.2006 at 11:52 AM
Listening, on a too-long car ride, to Lucinda Williams singing (only faintly ironically, I suspect), You know you've got to get right with God.
Perhaps the most "wan" argument for religion (one even arch rationalists might buy) is that it has philosophical or psychological uses when seen, like fiction, as metaphor, as parable. (Bit of a switch: Jesus uses parables from life to make points about religion; the argument here is that parables from religion can illuminate life.) From this perspective, Lucinda's get right might be read as adjust your view of life to better accord with. And her God (There are, of course, others) might be seen as the world, the universe, fate or the way things are.
It gets tougher when Lucinda sings (with whatever degree of irony) about the deep darkness of Hell. But, okay, life can seem bleak. Her reference to Satan's slaughter, however, threw me. Not sure Lucinda's beliefs are that wan. Not sure my ability to find something in parables is that powerful.
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:52 AM
Poorly Camouflaged Retreat, cont.
posted on 03.05.2006 at 3:25 AM
Garret Keizer -- writing originally in the Los Angeles Times (thanks again to Ben Vershbow):
"The supporters of intelligent design betray their own secularist assumptions through their insistence that Darwinian evolution be taught with the disclaimer that it is "only a theory." One would assume that, from the perspective of faith, a great deal is only a theory. To apply that label exclusively to evolution suggests otherwise. It suggests that we inhabit a world of ubiquitous certainty. No one could walk on water in such a world because the molecular density of water is (unlike evolution, apparently) beyond the theoretical. Of course, that is the view of science, and the only proper view of science. One is amazed, however, to find it promulgated in the cause of religion."
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 3:25 AM
God in Prime Time
posted on 03.03.2006 at 11:18 PM
Alert as usual, I have just focused on the fact that prime-time American network television featured a program in which God was a regular character. This realization arrives, apparently, well after that program -- Joan of Arcadia -- was canceled:
"Daughter Joan (Amber Tamblyn), an average teenager, has been acting a little strange. Most don't know that it has to do with the unusual way various people keep popping up, introducing themselves as God and then giving her specific directions to do things, such as get a job, join the debate team or volunteer with children. The appearances are hard for her to believe, even more so as she never knows who's going to turn up next. One minute it's a cute boy her own age, the next it's the lunch lady or a little girl."
'Twas on Fridays at eight on CBS. Here's a selection from "Joan's diary":
"On top of this, You Know Who pays me a visit. And guess what he tells me to do? Clean. Like he's my Mom. I'm going through this horrible crisis and all he can come up with is to clean?"
God as "You Know Who"? What, for God's sake, are we to make of this updating of Joan of Arc with the Joan Osbourne song as its theme? Would be nice to see this as part of the religious revival. But sounds as if it was quirky. Could religion be coming back quirky?
I should say something here, too, about "Touched By An Angel" and the, apparently edgy, "Book of Daniel." Unfortunately, I know little about these canceled shows either. Must I learn? Has the religious revival been canceled?
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:18 PM
Wieseltier on Dennett -- IV: Fiction
posted on 03.02.2006 at 5:30 PM
One more swing at Leon Wieseltier, because I think there's another interesting point lurking here.
Wieseltier spends most of his review of Daniel Dennett's book in a poorly camouflaged retreat.
Dennett's book argues that there are biological explanations for the human inclination toward religion. Wieseltier, instead of arguing, as so many have for so long, that religious belief is the product of revelation or good sense, never disputes this point.
Instead, he repeatedly and heatedly insists that Dennett, in his flattening "scientism," is missing the essence of religion. However, when it comes time to indicate what that might be, Wieseltier's claims for religion turn out to be remarkably feeble or, to use his term, "wan." Note the grand defense of religion contained in this question:
"Why must we read literally in the realm of religion, when in so many other realms of human expression we read metaphorically, allegorically, symbolically, figuratively, analogically?"
So the truth that Dennett is missing is that religion is just another form of "human" -- not superhuman -- "expression"? And that religious texts should no longer be taken as "literally" true but just read as allegories or mined for metaphor? My God! Wieseltier has forced Dennett and all them other reason-besotted atheists to view Genesis as sometimes compelling...fiction.
Is this where the debate now stands? If God is no longer the literal god of the Bible; if God is no longer making covenants or sending a son; if God has no beard, no form, no gender; if God doesn't punish the wicked or reward the righteous; if God doesn't offer a Kingdom, with eternal life; what's left? A rich tale?
Has the recent history of religion, despite all the noise now being made by the increasingly desperate orthodox, not been a poorly camouflaged retreat?
For other takes on Dennett (and Wieseltier and Hume) see here and here and here.
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 5:30 PM
Rushdie on the Cartoons
posted on 03.01.2006 at 10:54 PM
From a statement signed by Salman Rushdie, Bernard-Henri Levy and others on the Danish cartoons (brought to my attention by Ben Vershbow):
"We, writers, journalists, intellectuals, call for resistance to religious totalitarianism and for the promotion of freedom, equal opportunity and secular values for all."
Not so much a call for toleration (as we've been hearing) but a call for "resistance" and secularism.
"We reject « cultural relativism », which consists in accepting that men and women of Muslim culture should be deprived of the right to equality, freedom and secular values in the name of respect for cultures and traditions."
Is something stirring?
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:54 PM
posted on 03.01.2006 at 8:51 PM
Just one more post coming on them:
Before we get, belatedly, to her:
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 8:51 PM
The Greatness of God
posted on 03.01.2006 at 9:17 AM
From a New York Times article on bombings in Iraq:
"On Tuesday, blast after blast rocked the capital. After one car bomb exploded at noon in a Shiite district of downtown Baghdad, firefighters and witnesses struggled to pry two blackened bodies from a charred sedan. The wailing crowd lifted the bodies out, shouted, "God is great!" and marched down the street bearing the bodies aloft."
So God is great when innocent people are killed. And God is also great, presumably when people avoid being killed. Can't lose. How does this work?
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:17 AM