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"To Wipe Away the...Horizon"

posted on 04.30.2006 at 7:57 PM

Can loss of belief be disorienting, frightening, terrifying? I think of these haunting lines from Nietzsche's account of humanity's murder of God:

Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we unchained the earth from its sun?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 7:57 PM | Comments (4)

Snow Blindness

posted on 04.29.2006 at 4:46 PM

bush_and_snow.jpgFor a summary of the argument for teaching Intelligent Design alongside evolution in the schools, see the new United States presidential press secretary, Tony Snow (via Matzke via Pharyngula). Snow asserts:

Evolutionary theory, like ID, isn't verifiable or testable. It's pure hypothesis -- like ID -- although very popular in the scientific community.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 4:46 PM | Comments (0)

God is Dead -- The Original Announcement

posted on 04.28.2006 at 10:21 AM

Few statements of (idiosyncratic) disbelief have had the influence of Nietzsche's pronouncement, placed in the mouth of a madman (in The Gay Science). But its odd, haunting formulation is not well known. Here, for the record and for further discussion, it is (thanks Ben Vershbow):

"Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market-place, and cried incessantly: 'I am looking for God! I am looking for God!'
"As many of those who did not believe in God were standing together there, he excited considerable laughter. Have you lost him, then? said one. Did he lose his way like a child? said another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? or emigrated? Thus they shouted and laughed. The madman sprang into their midst and pierced them with his glances.
"'Where has God gone?' he cried. 'I shall tell you. We have killed him - you and I. We are his murderers. But how have we done this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we unchained the earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving now? Away from all suns? Are we not perpetually falling? Backward, sidewards, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is it not more and more night coming on all the time? Must not lanterns be lit in the morning? Do we not hear anything yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we not smell anything yet of God's decomposition? Gods too decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, murderers of all murderers, console ourselves? That which was the holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet possessed has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe this blood off us? With what water could we purify ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we need to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we not ourselves become gods simply to be worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whosoever shall be born after us - for the sake of this deed he shall be part of a higher history than all history hitherto.'
"Here the madman fell silent and again regarded his listeners; and they too were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern to the ground, and it broke and went out. 'I have come too early,' he said then; 'my time has not come yet. The tremendous event is still on its way, still travelling - it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time, the light of the stars requires time, deeds require time even after they are done, before they can be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than the distant stars - and yet they have done it themselves.'

posted by ben vershbow at 10:21 AM | Comments (0)

Colbert v. Atheist

posted on 04.27.2006 at 9:37 AM

Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith, appeared this week on the satiric Colbert Report (this sliver of the debate via The Raving Atheist):

Colbert.jpgColbert: Well, I've got historical evidence. The Bible tells me Jesus was born of a virgin.
Harris: Yeah, but . . .
Colbert: I mean, there's your witness right there, the Bible.
Harris: Unfortunately, the Qu'ran says that anyone who thinks that is going to spend eternity in hell.
Colbert: But we're not talking about the Qu'ran, we're talking about the Bible, okay? The Bible is without flaw. It is inerrant. And we know this, because the Bible says it is without flaw.

This is, as those who have sorted through this program's various levels of irony will confirm, an example of religion, the Christian religion, actually getting punched around a bit on a major American cable channel: Comedy Central. This is not the sort of thing we were used to seeing on our televisions in this country.

Are we witnessing a result of the increasing number of television channels with increasing space (despite corporate ownership, etc.) for diverse viewpoints? Or is the great, centuries long march of reason proceeding apace after all?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:37 AM | Comments (0)

The Evolution "Debate"

posted on 04.26.2006 at 3:59 PM

"Evolution: The Big Surprise" is a headline on the cover of the current issue of the New York Review of Books. And your first thought is that it might have something to do with the debate over "intelligent design."

It doesn't. The article describes some interesting recent research on embryo development and how it has "radically altered our views of evolution and the relation of human beings to all other animals." Still, the fact that you even suspect that the New York Review would be troubling itself with countering a theory with no serious scientific support shows how this creationist nonsense has wormed its way into contemporary discourse.

Another sign is the fact that this article must begin by anticipating our suspicions and making clear that it is not about the "recent controversy about the theory of evolution."

Let's say religious groups were able to convince the odd school board that the "theory" that the universe was created in the year 4004 BC should be taught along with history and astronomy. Would articles on these subject then have to begin by explaining that they are not about the recent controversy about the age of the universe?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 3:59 PM | Comments (1)

Old Mill

posted on 04.25.2006 at 10:57 PM

Richard Reeves writing on (sad?) John Stuart Mill -- born atheist, champion of liberty, including the liberty to speak harshly of religion:

Mill.jpgMill insists that religion should be subject to the same criticism as any other system of thought, regardless of the offence caused. I think we can be confident that Mill would be disappointed by the progress made on this issue in the last century and a half, and by the regress of the last half decade. He certainly anticipated those who wanted to turn only "intemperate" expressions of religious criticism into crimes. Mill gave no ground, pointing out that serious offence is taken "whenever the attack is telling and powerful." There is no doubt where he would stand on the current debates on religious hatred, or on publication of the cartoons of Muhammad.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:57 PM | Comments (1)

Thinking Through Disbelief (Teleology -- 3)

posted on 04.24.2006 at 11:40 PM

Woolf222.jpgDostoyevsky.jpgIn To the Lighthouse Virginia Woolf plays with the notion that human thought can be measured on a scale like the letters in the alphabet -- that some get to P or Q but few if any make it all the way to Z. Were there such a scale, it might be possible to say that Dostoyevsky in Karamazov, with his post-God nihilistic nightmare, is one letter behind Woolf's ruler-less universe, where "we perished each alone" and "loneliness" often seems "the truth about things," but where there is no shortage of love, art and even kindness.

What might take us to the next letter?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:40 PM | Comments (4)

Update on the Book -- 2

posted on 04.23.2006 at 11:29 PM

Been book writing a lot. (Don't know if that is apparent from the quality of the blog writing.) Still mostly on the first chapter, which concerns the anthropology of belief. Why religion? Whence religion? Does disbelief proceed belief? Whence disbelief? All this illustrated, since the idea is to tell stories, with tales of various headhunters, shamans and proto-skeptics. Been writing of failed rainmakers, of "naked savages" who were more skeptical than their well-clothed, British interlocutors, and of kings who didn't believe in the local gods.

The fears? That it will seem -- given the number of societies and concepts to be visited -- disjointed. That in painting the background -- religion -- I'll lose track of the foreground -- disbelief. That I'm neglecting to fear some crucial potential error or infelicity.

And then there's the task of thinking out some of what I can't find already thought out. That includes the mindsets that might have led to early disbelief. I suspect the short section in which I have a go at this subject will go through many a rethink, many a rewrite in the next year.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:29 PM | Comments (3)

"I'm Not Religious, Just Spiritual"

posted on 04.22.2006 at 1:19 PM

Oh yeah? Here is the always bracing Salman Rushdie (via Amused Muse via Pharyngula) when asked, a few nights ago, about "spiritual practice" in his writing:

"I have no spiritual practice. The word spirituality should be banned from the English language for at least 50 years... Talk about a word that has lost its meaning! You can't walk your dog without doing it in a 'spiritual 'manner, you can't cook without talking about spirituality!"

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:19 PM | Comments (3)

A Teleology of Disbelief -- 2

posted on 04.21.2006 at 10:13 AM

A couple of thoughts are helpful if you want to see the world as "progressing" toward nonbelief: First, you might want to view the current apparent resurgence of religion as a mere counter-trend, a hysterical reaction to a global march toward secularization, a blip on the curve. Second, you might want to develop a theory that religion itself has been growing more diffuse, gods getting increasingly "wan."

That latter thought can, in turn, be buttressed by the notion that the New Testament represents some sort of step forward from the Hebrew Bible. The old bellicose Deity of Genesis and Exodus, who demands only adherence to the Law and sacrifice, has been replaced by a Father and Son who demand "faith," good works done in secret, morality in the "heart" not just in practice. It helps, in other words, to view Yahweh as louder, more visible and the Son's Father as more a reticent resident of the heart.

However, here's the often provocative Harold Bloom, in his usual literary reading, to mess up that view of progress from Old Testament to New. (This from Benjamin Balint): "The aesthetic dignity of the Hebrew Bible," Bloom writes, "is simply beyond the competitive range of the New Testament.... In the aesthetic warfare between the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, there is just no contest." And Bloom, less originally, sees in the Trinity a step back to polytheism.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:13 AM | Comments (2)

To the Lighthouse

posted on 04.20.2006 at 11:13 PM

If the question is what, post religion, might satisfy the human need for meaning without itself becoming a form of religion -- and that may very well be the question -- then Woolf.jpgwe have yet another reason for reading Virginia Woolf's resplendent To the Lighthouse. Woolf, as has been noted here, was the daughter of Leslie Stephen, an early and important agnostic, and the model, we assume, for Mr. Ramsey in this novel.

To the Lighthouse seems a post-God novel. Mrs. Ramsey, perhaps its most compelling character, finds herself thinking, at one point, "We are in the hands of the Lord. But instantly she was annoyed with herself for saying that.... She had been trapped into saying something she did not mean." And Mrs. Ramsey sets about "purifying out of existence that lie."

Woolf certainly doesn't downplay the tug of religion:

It was impossible to resist the strange intimation which every gull, flower, tree, man and woman, and the white earth itself seemed to declare (but if questioned at once to withdraw) that good triumphs, happiness prevails, order rules; or to resist the extraordinary stimulus to range hither and thither in search of some absolute good, some crystal of intensity, remote from the known pleasures and familiar virtues, something alien to the processes of domestic life, single, hard, bright, like a diamond in the sand, which would render the possessor secure.

The parenthesis in the above quote is, perhaps, key. Does Woolf discover any such diamond in the sands?

What is the meaning of life? That was all -- a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with the years. The great revelation had never come. the great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark... In the midst of chaos there was shape; this eternal passing and flowing (she looked at the clouds going and the leaves shaking) was struck into stability. Life stand still here....

Are these pint-sized revelations little diamonds, little pieces of the absolute? Is this "stability" a religion-like attempt to find a place to stand, a solid foundation for constructing meaning? Is this "shape" amongst "chaos" a metaphysics? Or are we safely in a scientific, naturalistic universe of ebb and flow? Is Woolf just, as one of her characters acknowledges:

Telling herself a story but knowing at the same time what was the truth.

Might the "lighthouse" represent meaning? Or rationalism? Being in a novel, not in one of the essays her father wrote, we don't get clear answers; the matters aren't reduced to clear answers. In any case, the emphasis here is on the dream of the "lighthouse," the story of it. Does that enable Woolf to escape the fall back into religion?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:13 PM | Comments (1)

A Teleology of Disbelief?

posted on 04.19.2006 at 8:30 PM

Jesus told his disciples that the Kingdom of Heaven would arrive fast enough so that "some standing here...shall not taste death till they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom." Didn't happen.

Madeleine Bunting (to whom this blog has paid an absurd amount of attention) took a shot back, accusing nonbelievers of a failed prediction of their own: "We were supposed to be all atheist rationalists by now," she writes.

Okay, that hasn't happened. Don't know who -- Karl Marx, maybe -- said it would. But is it fair to assume that such a prediction-- that believers will eventually wise up -- is inherent in attitudes of disbelief? Is there an assumption that logic, science, whatever, will eventually triumph, that the Kingdom of Reason will come?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 8:30 PM | Comments (9)

Madalyn Murray O'Hair

posted on 04.18.2006 at 5:51 PM

O'Hair.jpgInform an American over a certain age that you are writing a history of disbelief and, likely as not, they'll ask about: Madalyn Murray O'Hair. For much of the second half of the 20th century, this dedicated, gutsy, combative woman -- more firebrand than intellectual -- was the public face of atheism in the United States. She was the opposite of prim and proper. She led a cause before women were leading many causes and stood up to religion at a time when it was dangerous to stand up to it, earning the description: "most hated woman in America."

Murray O'Hair was a plaintiff in an important school prayer case. She founded the organization American Atheists. There is a picture of her picketing the White House in 1982 with a quote from my hero Charles Bradlaugh.OHair_pickets.jpg

However, things got sordid and tragic in a way they did not with, say Bertrand Russell, who may have been the international face of atheism in those years. One of Murray O'Hair's sons found Jesus and denounced his mother for all sorts of deviltry. And in 1995 Madalyn Murray O'Hair plus another son and a granddaughter (both involved in the movement) disappeared, along with a lot of money. For a long time the authorities thought they had run off to New Zealand -- atheists presumably being prone to such behavior. Eventually their murderers were arrested (Murray O'Hair liked to hire ex-cons) and the bodies were found.

I can't say she contributed to the development of the idea of atheism -- as Bradlaugh did, as Russell did. But this story -- my narrative in this book -- will be about courage and obstinacy, too. I suspect that one of these months I will find myself researching the story of Madalyn Murray O'Hair.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 5:51 PM | Comments (8)

Can Believers Be Believed?

posted on 04.17.2006 at 3:10 PM

Accusations of fraud are often leveled by practitioners of one religion against another. European missionaries were quick to see quacks and fakers amongst the wizards, shamans and medicine men they observed in preliterate societies.

Elmer_Gantry.jpgAn early 18th century text of uncertain provenance, entitled The Three Impostors, claimed that Moses, Jesus and Muhammad were all frauds.

I'm curious to what extent disbelievers today believe that believers are faking it -- that the Pat Robertsons and Jerry Falwells of the world are -- Elmer Gantry-like -- frauds.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 3:10 PM | Comments (5)

Jesuses -- 3: "Bleeding Stinking Mad"

posted on 04.16.2006 at 2:44 PM


"His black eyes, glassy and still, reflected depth on depth his own stricken image of himself, trudging into the distance in the bleeding stinking mad shadow of Jesus."

That's one heck of a Jesus (or at least one that casts one heck of a shadow), from Flannery O'Connor.

And then O'Connor writes (I was led to these quotes by Garry Wills) that Jesus moves:

"from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark..."

Got to understand, I guess, if you're in the religion-eradication business, that a lot of the attraction -- beyond the charity, the community and the meaning, beyond even the rapture and the rupture of physical laws, the rupture of history -- is in the "wild ragged," "bleeding stinking" madness of it all.

Where is the atheist who jumps "from tree to tree in back of" the "mind"? Do nonbelievers -- Shelleyans, most of them -- spend too much energy switching on lights? Who whispers -- Sade?, Ivan K.? -- "come off into the dark"?

Is the point that you become -- inevitably -- the opposite of what you are falsely accused of being? Are nonbelievers so concerned with not being seen as dissolute that they seem dull?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 2:44 PM | Comments (1)

The Crucifixion

posted on 04.14.2006 at 12:33 PM

Were you to subtract the supernatural from the events at the end of Jesus' life, one Passover week in Jerusalem, you would be left with a popular Jewish religious figure experiencing the most brutal of executions -- one intended, by the Romans, primarily for political rebels. That this actually happened does not seem in much doubt. (Jesus lived perhaps thirteen centuries before Moses was supposed to have lived and perhaps nine centuries before the also questionable Solomon; and he lived in a literate outpost of the sophisticated Roman Empire.)

crucifixion.jpgWe see in the four Gospels, written of course generations after the fact, a man, presumably in unimaginable pain, nailed to a cross. Jesus had by the time of his execution numerous followers, so his last words (forgetting dreams and visions of reappearances after death) might well have been remembered. In John those words are "It is finished." In Luke: "Father, 'into Your hands I commend My spirit.'" Mark and Matthew, however, likely the two oldest of the Gospels, have a question, the same question, coming out of Jesus' mouth right before he dies. That question -- given, remarkably, in the original Aramaic before being translated -- is: "Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?" or "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?"

In her fascinating attempt to get at the historical Jesus, Paula Fredriksen notes that passages in these probably heavily worked over texts that do not seem to further their purposes in rallying the faithful seem more likely to be authentic. This seems such a passage. Yes, Jesus is repeating the first line of the controversial Psalm 22, which describes the tribulations of David or, in the Christian interpretation, the Messiah. But might not a man, dying with the belief that a glorious plan has been fulfilled, quote a line from the positive second half of the Psalm?

The case could be made that this man, Jesus, died not only in terrible pain but in doubt.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 12:33 PM | Comments (3)

Religion and Historical Truth

posted on 04.13.2006 at 4:58 PM

New York Times columnist David Brooks uses "the Exodus story" today as an argument for a transformative idealism (in a debate with himself):

The Exodus story reminds us that human beings can transform themselves and their situations. It reminds us that people who embark on generational journeys are the realistic ones, because they are the ones who see all the possibilities the future contains.

Forget for a moment that the "idealistic" position, as presented by Brooks, involves undertaking the Iraq War. My question is why an event as historically unproven as the Israelite exodus from Egypt can be treated as fact, when any use of a similarly sketchy history, not backed by religious testament, in a newspaper like the Times would earn a barrage of critical letters. Or are we to think of the Exodus as a "story" -- as in fiction?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 4:58 PM | Comments (11)

Still More for Passover

posted on 04.13.2006 at 12:33 PM

Talk about this and maybe tonight's will be different from all other sedars. Two additional paragraphs from Dan Lazare writing in Harper's:

The Davidic Empire, which archaeologists once thought as incontrovertible as the Roman, is now seen as an invention of Jerusalem-based priests in the seventh and eighth centuries B.C. who were eager to burnish their national history. The religion we call Judaism does not reach well back into the second millennium B.C. but appears to be, at most, a product of the mid-first....
According to the Bible, Solomon was both a master builder and an insatiable accumulator. He drank out of golden goblets, outfitted his soldiers with golden shields, maintained a fleet of sailing ships to seek out exotic treasures, kept a harem of 1,000 wives and concubines, and spent thirteen years building a palace and a richly decorated temple to house the Ark of the Covenant. Yet not one goblet, not one brick, has ever been found to indicate that such a reign existed. If David and Solomon had been important regional power brokers, one might reasonably expect their names to crop up on monuments and in the diplomatic correspondence of the day. Yet once again the record is silent. True, an inscription referring to "Ahaziahu, son of Jehoram, king of the House of David" was found in 1993 on a fragment dating from the late ninth century B.C. But that was more than a hundred years after David's death, and at most all it indicates is that David (or someone with a similar name) was credited with establishing the Judahite royal line. It hardly proves that he ruled over a powerful empire.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 12:33 PM | Comments (1)

Another Passover Thought

posted on 04.12.2006 at 1:40 PM

More from Dan Lazare writing in Harper's a few years ago:

Rather than a band of invaders who fought their way into the Holy Land, the Israelites are now thought to have been an 'indigenous culture that developed west of the Jordan River around 1200 B.C. Abraham, Isaac, and the other patriarchs appear to have been spliced together out of various pieces of local lore.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:40 PM | Comments (0)

A Passover Thought

posted on 04.11.2006 at 7:40 PM

Moses.jpgThere is no historical or archaeological evidence that Jews were ever in Egypt or that they ever fled. From Dan Lazare, writing in Harper's a few years ago:

A growing volume of evidence concerning Egyptian border defenses, desert sites where the fleeing Israelites supposedly camped, etc., indicates that the flight from Egypt did not occur in the thirteenth century before Christ; it never occurred at all.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 7:40 PM | Comments (0)

Jesuses -- 2: From Garry Wills

posted on 04.11.2006 at 2:13 PM

Here's an amoral (and apolitical) Jesus from an opinion piece by Garry Wills (and, presumably, his new book):


"The Jesus of the Gospels is not a great ethical teacher like Socrates, our leading humanitarian. He is an apocalyptic figure who steps outside the boundaries of normal morality to signal that the Father's judgment is breaking into history. His miracles were not acts of charity but eschatological signs -- accepting the unclean, promising heavenly rewards, making last things first.

"He is more a higher Nietzsche, beyond good and evil, than a higher Socrates."

Each of these Jesuses, of course, requires subtracting other Jesuses. This seems a significant subtraction. Jesus sometimes serves as a grab bag with something for everyone. I respect Wills' effort to deprive politicians (Republicans and Hillary) of Jesus. But Jesus minus charity and goodness doesn't seem to leave much for the two billion. (Oh, and Socrates, proponent of repressive oligarchy, is not my "leading humanitarian"; and I'm not quite sure how Jesus' thinking on good and evil is "higher" than Nietzsche's.)

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 2:13 PM | Comments (4)

Religion and Politics -- 2: John McCain

posted on 04.10.2006 at 10:59 PM

This from a New York Times article on the Democrats' favorite Republican, likely presidential candidate John McCain:

He said schools should be allowed to offer "intelligent design" courses as an alternative to evolution.

And perhaps levitation courses as an alternative to gravity?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:59 PM | Comments (2)

The Idea of God

posted on 04.10.2006 at 1:36 PM

Is it really as pretty an idea as our tortured, intermittently immoral atheist Ivan Karamazov maintains in Dostoyevsky's novel?Dostoyevsky.jpg

"If there were no God, he would have to be invented. And what's strange, what would be marvellous, is not that God should really exist; the marvel is that such an idea, the idea of the necessity of God, could enter the head of such a savage, vicious beast as man. So holy it is, so touching, so wise and so great a credit it does to man."

Perhaps the less savage and vicious you find humankind, the less touching, wise and necessary you find the idea of God. Or is it just that we live in an age when ideals -- notions of the pure, the perfect, the holy -- seem cheap; when the great challenge is to build a morality, a meaningful existence, a civilization on swampier, more natural ground?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:36 PM | Comments (2)

Religion and Immigration

posted on 04.09.2006 at 11:39 PM

The religious battles in the United States lately have been between the orthodox -- of all stripes -- and the secular. (Ann Coulter's latest work of deep analysis even has a title similar to that of this blog.) But among the political alliances the current, increasingly heated debate over immigration has threatened is the recent evangelical-Catholic partnership to oppose abortion and support traditional religious values. This has certainly not been a happy partnership for those concerned about freedom from religion. Nevertheless, its potential breakup brings some eerie reminders of the way things were.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:39 PM | Comments (0)

Query: Republicans on Religion?

posted on 04.08.2006 at 10:16 PM

I have this quote from Osama bin Laden talking about a world "split...into two camps: the camp of belief and the camp of disbelief." No moral equivalency intended, but can anyone recall a similar quote from the religious right, even Bush, in the United States or another Western country?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:16 PM | Comments (3)

Can Nonbelievers Be "Religious"?

posted on 04.07.2006 at 4:06 PM

Thomas Huxley, who invented the word agnostic to describe his and his friend Charles Darwin's variety of disbelief: thomas_huxley.jpg

"Religion ought to mean simply the reverence and love for the ethical ideal and the desire to realize that ideal in life.
"That a man should determine to devote himself to the service of humanity...this should be, in the proper sense of the word, his religion."

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 4:06 PM | Comments (2)

The Blindingly Obvious

posted on 04.06.2006 at 10:56 PM

Interesting how much effort, nowadays, is going into proving what we ought already to know: Life evolved in part from climbing from the sea to the land. Prayer by strangers can't improve health. Next? A double-blind study of whether psychics can solve crime? Maybe it wouldn't be such a bad idea. Maybe this -- the eradication of superstition -- is a slower process than we thought. Maybe you have to keep at it. Maybe disbelievers, not believers, should be calling for more of these studies.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:56 PM | Comments (2)

Evidence of Evolution?

posted on 04.06.2006 at 9:55 AM

Just discovered fossils of a giant fish with proto-limbs -- a "missing link" between fish and land animals -- certainly deepen understanding of evolution. But have intelligent design/creationist arguments received so much attention in the United States recently that these fossils need to be seen as further evidence of the truth of the theory of evolution (as if this theory is wanting in proof). Apparently yes. This is paragraph five of the lead story in the New York Times today:

Other scientists said that in addition to confirming elements of a major transition in evolution, the fossils were a powerful rebuttal to religious creationists, who have long argued that the absence of such transitional creatures are a serious weakness in Darwin's theory.

Indeed, while this is certainly an interesting and important story, it would probably not be the lead story if this religious foolishness had not received so much attention.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:55 AM | Comments (1)

The Invention of God

posted on 04.06.2006 at 9:43 AM

More from Dostoyevsky's Brothers Karamazov -- a snippet of a conversation:

"Damn it all, what wouldn't I do to the man who first invented God! Hanging on a bitter aspen tree would be too good for him."
"There would have been no civilization if they hadn't invented God."

A scientific response -- based on current understanding of evolutionary psychology, etc. -- might be that, yes, the habits of mind that enable agriculture and civilization also created gods.

Historical and political response: God certainly did play a role in building and bonding societies -- as glue, as moral enforcer -- but was it often a reactionary role -- supporting powers that were? Philosophical response: Hard to overlook the squashing of the spirit of inquiry for all those centuries in the West under a dogmatic, unquestioning faith. Cultural response: Religious themes sure made for some fine painting. Could other themes have stepped in if, somehow, God had not been invented?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:43 AM | Comments (2)

Genuine Faith vs. Antimodern Fanaticism?

posted on 04.04.2006 at 9:54 PM

Mark Lilla comes to one disturbing conclusion at the end of his erudite and stimulating review in the New York Times of Michael Burleigh's book, Earthly Powers: The Clash of Religion and Politics in Europe From the French Revolution to the Great War. He challenges us to realize that:

the world is full of peoples whose genuine faith in the divine gives them a precise, revealed blueprint for political life, which means that for the foreseeable future they will not enter into the family of liberal democratic nations.

But then Lilla seems to take back this hardheaded, dispiriting pronouncement in a second conclusion:

The...challenge is to learn how to distinguish between those whose political programs are inspired by genuine faith, and those whose defense of religion is inspired by a reactionary utopianism having less to do with God than with redirecting the faulty course of history. In radical Islam we find both phenomena today, authentic faith and antimodern fanaticism, shaken together into an explosive cocktail.
And even in the United States we are witnessing the instrumentalization of religion by those who evidently care less about our souls, or even their own, than about reversing the flow of American history since the "apocalypse" of the 60's.

So the problem, perhaps, is not with "genuine" or "authentic" faith after all? It's with hypocritcal fanatics who use the religion. That's a curious distinction. Many religions -- as written, as practiced -- come fully armed with their own varieties of "reactionary utopianism" and "antimodern fanaticism."

Did Lilla have it right the first time? If liberal democracy is our goal, do religions -- "genuine" religions -- have to be defanged not just separated from their manipulative political allies?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:54 PM | Comments (1)

Prayer Worthless! -- 4

posted on 04.04.2006 at 12:29 AM

Yes, we want to carry on about how ridiculous it was to waste time proving the blindingly obvious: that a stranger's prayer can't improve your health. But maybe we're forgetting the time and place in which we live. Watching the Final Four (Okay, so I did prove susceptible to March Madness after all), I've seen ads for a TV show (CSI) about a psychic and a movie (didn't catch the name) about demons.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 12:29 AM | Comments (4)

Denominations of Disbelief? -- 2. Ivanists

posted on 04.03.2006 at 10:41 AM

The question is whether atheists, too, have sects. I've proposed one possible denomination: The Shelleyans. Here's a second, named (in a considerable oversimplification) after Ivan Karamazov in Dostoyevsky's novel. (The name "Sadists" being already taken.)

-- Ivanists subscribe to a nihilistic, anything-goes view of a world without god:

"Ivan...added...that if you were to destroy in mankind the belief in immortality...nothing would be immoral, everything would be lawful, even cannibalism. He ended by asserting that for every individual, like ourselves, who does not believe in God or immortality...egoism, even to crime, must become not only lawful but even recognixed as the inevitable, the most rational even honorable outcome of his position."

Some Ivanists, especially early Western converts, are tortured by the death of God and what they see as the resulting collapse of all moral scruple. Witness Ivan himself or his "disciple" Smerdyakov in The Brothers Karamazov.

-- Their prophets? An ancient (and not tortured) Indian group known as the Carvaka, one of whose masters observed:

"Can begging, fasting, penance, ...be compared with the ravishing embraces of women with large eyes, whose prominent breasts are compressed with ones arms."

-- There is, of course, a fair amount of Ivanism in contemporary culture, which, shall we say, is considerably more interested in ravishing embraces than in penance. sade.jpg

-- Their saint? The Marquis de Sade?

-- Words to live by -- William Blake:

In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy./ Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead./ The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom./ Prudence is a rich, ugly old maid courted by Incapacity./ He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence.

-- Related denominations? Materialists. Carvaka. Libertines. Hedonists. (Nietzsche's relationship to the Ivanists is complex.)

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:41 AM | Comments (4)

Favorite Readings

posted on 04.02.2006 at 11:24 AM

You encounter some fine minds as you pour through the often wonderful literature on disbelief and its history. Twice, however, I have been truly blown away: once while reading Nietzsche's Anti-Christ; and then again last week when, about a third of the way into The Brothers Kazamazov, I met (for the third time in my life) the Grand Inquisitor.

The Inquisitor, leader of the local Church, is speaking in Spain in the 16th century to the latest Heretic he has arrested -- a long haired semitic Man with a beard and "a gentle smile of infinite compassion":

Nothing is more seductive for man than his freedom of conscience, but nothing is a greater cause of suffering.... We have corrected Thy work and have founded it upon miracle, mystery and authority. And men rejoiced that they were again led like sheep and that the terrible gift that had brought them such suffering was, at last, lifted from their hearts.

Nietzsche read and respected Dostoyevsky.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:24 AM | Comments (1)

America Hotbed of Atheism?

posted on 04.01.2006 at 12:19 PM

Madeleine Bunting is a wobbly writer -- not, on merit, worth the space I've devoted to her. Nonetheless, she has a way, as she lurches about, of stumbling upon some interesting issues. tom_paine.gifAnother point that I'm intrigued by in her recent piece in the Guardian is this claim that America has become the site of a death match between hardline atheists and creationists. Britain, in her view, must avoid "American-style false dichotomies between faith and science." American style!

Americans are well aware that they possess an oversupply of exuberant creationists. But the United States -- not Europe -- as a hotbed of extreme atheism! Gosh.

Could there be something to this -- perhaps the result of an equal and opposite reaction to those creationists and their buddies on the religious right? Or is Bunting, once again, just not looking where she's going.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 12:19 PM | Comments (2)