posted on 05.31.2006 at 6:19 PM
I keep coming back to this notion of living now, seeking pleasure, enjoying this world, as the positive alternative to religion, with its sacrifices, renunciations and postponements, with its otherworldliness.
Here for the record is the complete Ode by Horace which uses the Latin phrase "carpe diem":
Ask not - we cannot know - what end the gods have set for you, for me; nor attempt the Babylonian reckonings. How much better to endure whatever comes, whether Jupiter grants us additional winters or whether this is our last, which now wears out the Tuscan Sea upon the barrier of the cliffs! Be wise, strain the wine; and since life is brief, prune back far-reaching hopes! Even while we speak, envious time has passed: pluck [seize?] the day, putting as little trust as possible in tomorrow!
Not quite sure how to conceptualize this. How does it relate to other atheisms: naturalism, reason, science? Is it just hedonism? Is this larger than other atheisms? Do we lose morality?
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 6:19 PM
posted on 05.30.2006 at 11:13 PM
Rebecca Goldstein, author of a new biography of Spinoza, traces her interest in the philosopher to a comment made by a religion teacher:
"Spinoza had the arrogant love of his own mind. . . . Atheism always comes down to arrogance. Remember that, girls."
New atheist hero Stephen Colbert said something similar back in his Daily Show days, I believe:
Atheism: the religion devoted to the worship of one's own smug sense of superiority.
Is it possible to be a non-arrogant atheist? One wants to paraphrase (not for the first time) Barry Goldwater and say: Arrogance in defence of the mind, or science, or the universe, is no vice.
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:13 PM
Religion and Soldiers in Iraq
posted on 05.29.2006 at 11:21 PM
For those who cling to the belief that when faced with life at its most intense atheists inevitably will waver, here's the Iraq veteran and American military chaplain Major John Morris, interviewed on the public radio program, Speaking of Faith (thanks to Robert Schwartz):
"It's not true. There are atheists in foxholes."
Indeed, war, as the thoughtful Major Morris acknowledges, can intensify disbelief::
What I saw in Iraq....on the battlefield: a third of the soldiers were men and women of faith, growing in their faith or coming to a new understanding of their faith; a third of the soldiers were indifferent or fatalistic...; the other third were either indifferent or jettisoning their faith..
War does what life can do, only faster:
Many would say to me very bluntly, "I've lost my faith. I saw my buddy get blown away," or "I was involved in a firefight that killed innocent people. And if there's a good God, he would not have let that happen, so I do not want to believe anymore."
This is, of course, the classic "problem of evil" -- one of the more compelling arguments against the existence of God. Major Morris attributes another related argument to some of the soldiers in the irreligious third -- the often unavoidable apprehension that "the center cannot hold":
...War is chaos. You can do everything right and still die.... That chaos seems to...harden people into saying, "I can't think about transcendent things. Nobody's in control. ...Whatever is, is. And whatever will be, will be. ...So don't bother me with anything transcendent or eternal."
And this particular war -- unlike the two World Wars or Korea or Vietnam -- adds one more reason to reject religion, as Major Morris reports:
Now the thing that really throws a wrench into all of this is being shot at by people who were praying a few minutes earlier in a sacred place... That really hardens people to say, "I don't know what kind of God you all are talking about, but I don't want to have anything to do with any kind of God that uses the sacred to condone this. So I don't want to deal with any of you people who have anything to do with religion, cause you guys are causing the wars of the world."
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:21 PM
posted on 05.27.2006 at 1:37 AM
Is living well the alternative to religious conviction? Here's James Thrower, a historian of early atheism:
"The earliest recorded critical response to a religious interpretation of life is the cry carpe diem."
The following ancient refrain is attributed to a long-lived Indian group of nonbelievers:
While life is yours live joyously,
None can escape Death's searching eye:
When once this frame of ours they burn,
How shall it e'er return?
A poem inscribed on a tomb in Egypt about five thousand years ago puts it this way:
...since it is impossible to tell how the dead fare in the other world,
What is left for us here? Nothing except to snatch at
the sensual pleasures of the day.
Does this qualify as a positive view of atheism? Or would many atheists reject such a hedonistic, ammoral perspective on the world? Does this mean Ivan Karamazov was right about the consequences of the death of God?
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:37 AM
Religion v. Spirituality
posted on 05.25.2006 at 9:46 AM
Slovoj Zizek's writing against religion has drawn the attention of this blog. Recently he spoke out, in the London Review of Books, on a subject that is not ostensibly among the blog's concerns: the struggle for the soul of what is left of a left. Zizek sums up, and holds up to ridicule, the position of Bill Gates, George Soros, Thomas Friendman, etc. -- who, in good fun, have been dubbed "liberal communists."
Zizek's unsympathetic characterization of their position on religion is among our concerns:
Liberal communists do not want to be mere profit-machines: they want their lives to have deeper meaning. They are against old-fashioned religion and for spirituality, for non-confessional meditation (everybody knows that Buddhism foreshadows brain science, that the power of meditation can be measured scientifically).
Is it time for the irreligious also to have at this more-fashionable-in-some-circles spirituality? Which returns us to the Harris question debated below. And to various ways "spiritual atheists" have of standing for something (or Something) rather than nothing.
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:46 AM
Trashing the Bible...and God
posted on 05.24.2006 at 10:32 PM
More from that interview with Sam Harris, author of the End of Faith (and somewhat unorthodox atheist):
Q: Richard Dawkins, a vocal atheist, has said the Old Testament God is a "psychotic monster."
A: Not only is the character of God diabolical in those books, but there are explicit prescriptions for how to live that are not metaphors; they are not open to theological judo. God just comes right out and says "stone people" for a list of offenses so preposterous and all-encompassing that the killing never stops. You have to kill people for working on the Sabbath. You kill people for fornication.
Okay, Dawkins and Harris are known atheists, and this appeared on the Web, not in a mainstream publication. But "psychotic monster" (or should it be Psychotic Monster) and "diabolical" (interesting choice of word)? God? Is this further evidence that it is becoming easier to take swings at religion?
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:32 PM
Harris the New O'Hair?
posted on 05.23.2006 at 8:17 PM
For many years, Madalyn Murray O'Hair was the person who came to mind for most Americans when they thought of atheism. There are signs that Sam Harris, author of the End of Faith, is settling into that role (until, at least, my book rockets up the best-seller lists).
Murray O'Hair had some limitations as atheism's spokeswoman: One of her sons had the bad grace to get born-again. and as a thinker she wasn't, shall we say, Bertrand Russell. Harris is a strong writer and clear thinker, but he has one apparent limitation of his own: He "practices Zen meditation and believes in the value of mystical experiences." (Here is Harris himself on meditation.) This leaves him open to charges of hypocrisy. Should a spokesman for vegetarianism reveal a weakness for carpaccio that, presumably, would be a negative.
(I, you'll be glad to learn, have no limitations.)
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 8:17 PM
Trashing the Bible
posted on 05.22.2006 at 4:47 PM
New York Magazine certainly qualifies as mainstream. David Edelstein is its film critic. This is from his current piece:
I'd call it biblical vengeance, but even the Bible isn't this perverse.
It is hard to imagine the "Holy Book" offhandedly being called "perverse" in such a publication thirty years ago, twenty years ago, ten years ago. We are supposed to be living through a religious revival. But look closer and this is the sort of thing you find.
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 4:47 PM
The "A" Word -- 4
posted on 05.21.2006 at 8:20 PM
From an interview with Sam Harris, author of the tough End of Faith:
I'm very distrustful of finding the right label because labels are ultimately sloganeering. You had the label the "brights," which is stillborn. I think atheism and secularism are also names that ultimately we don't need. We don't need a name for disbelief in astrology. I don't think we need anything other that rationality and reason and intellectual honesty.
But I can't subtitle my book: A History of Rationality and Reason. Problem not solved.
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 8:20 PM
The Cilice and the Discipline
posted on 05.19.2006 at 9:52 PM
Apparently some obscure text called The Da Vinci Code accuses, through a character named Silas, a group within the Catholic Church, Opus Dei, of various kinds of nastiness. One of those nastinesses is masochism. I caught up via another obscure text: an article in the New Yorker:
It is through Silas that Brown introduces his readers to the practice of corporal mortification--self-inflicted pain as an avenue to deeper spirituality--and the devices employed to achieve it, a barbed belt worn around the thigh (called a cilice) and a knotted rope (the discipline). In one scene in the book, Silas, preparing for a night of doing God's dirty work, strips naked and cinches his cilice until it cuts deeper into his flesh, then repeatedly whips himself until, "finally, he felt the blood begin to flow." ...
Any truth to this? Peter Boyer in the New Yorker again:
A sizable proportion of Opus Dei members, under the guidance of a spiritual director, voluntarily take up the practice of corporal mortification, wearing the cilice for two hours most days and using the discipline. (Both items are produced in monasteries.) Father William Stetson, who runs the Catholic Information Center, in Washington, D.C., and who joined Opus Dei in the mid-nineteen-fifties, when he was at Harvard Law School, says that he learned the larger meaning of corporal mortification the first week he joined. "I understood that what was being demanded of me was an ascetical practice," he says. "Not just the cilice and the disciplines but an austerity of life, living in the middle of the world." Stetson and others frequently point out that corporal mortification, which may seem a throwback to medieval mysticism, was not uncommon even among recent exemplars of spiritual piety. Mother Teresa of Calcutta wore a cilice and used the discipline, telling her Sisters, ''If I am sick, I take five strokes. I must feel its need in order to share in the Passion of Christ and the sufferings of our poor."
Kinky? Serious? Life denying? Humbling. Let an obscure anti-Christian philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, have the last word:
"Suffering itself becomes contagious.... In Christianity...the body is despised.... Hatred of the senses, of the joy of the senses, of joy in general is Christian."
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:52 PM
posted on 05.19.2006 at 12:50 AM
This from his poem, As I Walked Out One Evening:
"O look, look in the mirror,
O look in your distress;
Life remains a blessing
Although you cannot bless."
Is this sort-of belief or sort-of disbelief?
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 12:50 AM
Fiction and the Catholic Church
posted on 05.17.2006 at 4:05 PM
Although I'm one of the forty-three literate individuals left above the age of 16 who have not yet read The Da Vinci Code in one language or another, I still find the Catholic Church's position on this amusing. This organization -- or at least a semi-secret group within it, Opus Die -- had asked that the movie be labeled "fiction."
The "nonfiction" view of the life of Jesus subscribed to by the Catholic Church is that He was born of a virgin impregnated by God; that "the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God;...these Three Persons being truly distinct one from another;...and yet there are not three Gods but one God"; that Jesus came back to life after being executed by the Romans; and that He will preside on a Day of Judgement in which the dead "must rise with their bodies and are to render an account of their deeds."
Which is not to deny that Dan Brown's argument in The Da Vinci Code -- despite the attractiveness of a married Jesus -- seems screwy.
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 4:05 PM
Religion as Shameful?
posted on 05.17.2006 at 12:00 AM
W.H. Auden was, Wilfred M. McClay writes in the Weekly Standard, "forthcoming in lamenting what he called the 'prudery' of 'cultured people' who treat religious belief as the last remaining shameful thing, and find theological terms 'far more shocking than any of the four-letter words.'"
"The immaculate conception." "Jihad." "The chosen people." "Intelligent design."
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 12:00 AM
What Nonbelievers Might Believe In
posted on 05.16.2006 at 1:21 AM
How about this quote from Leonard Cohen?
"There is a crack, a crack in everything; that's how the light gets in."
The singer/poet once called this line his "credo." Cohen recently spent almost five years at a Buddhist monastery, which might disqualify him as a spokesman for nonbelief. (Our policy on Buddhists remains unclear.) But this notion of the value and beauty of "flaws" is an important one. The great Greek skeptic Carneades -- a hero of my book -- noted how gods, lacking flaws, must also lack virtues: How can you show courage if you can't be hurt?
Is it through the ability to be hurt that the light comes in?
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:21 AM
The Bible as Not History
posted on 05.15.2006 at 11:52 PM
Not only no evidence that there was ever an Abraham, but no evidence that a nation of Jews was ever in, let alone dramatically escaped from, Egypt, and no evidence that there was ever a Solomon or a great Jewish kingdom with a spectacular first Temple.
The archaeological evidence is reviewed in a new book, David and Solomon, though the authors seem to be bending over backwards not to offend the Biblically inclined.
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:52 PM
posted on 05.14.2006 at 11:21 PM
Do the religious sound a little desperate? Have they always? This example of defensive name-calling is from the Bhagavad-Gita -- written perhaps 2,500 years ago:
Two orders of contingent beings in this world there are:
The godly and the devilish...
The devilish folk know nothing....
'The world's devoid of truth' they say,
'It has no ground, no ruling Lord,
It has not come to be by mutual causal law;
Random and without any cause.'
Fast holding to these views,
Lost souls with feeble minds,
They embark on cruel and violent deeds, --malignant
[In their lust] for the destruction of the world. (Cited, Thrower, The Alternative Tradition)
One form this desperation perhaps takes nowadays is a need to use globalization and technology in order to fend off globalization and technology . No one was better at pointing out such (inevitable) contradictions (on the part of nonbelievers, too) than the late Jacques Derrida. It is worth wading through the jargon here. (This was written ten years ago.)
Religion today allies itself with tele-technoscience, to which it reacts with all its forces. It is, on the one hand, globalization: it produces, weds, exploits the capital and knowledge of tele-mediatization; neither the trips and global spectacularizing and knowledge of the Pope, nor the interstate dimensions of the "Rushdie affair," nor planetary terrorism would otherwise be possible, at this rhythm -- and we could multiply such indications ad infinitum. But, on the other hand, it reacts immediately, simultaneously, declaring war against that which gives it this new power only at the cost of dislodging it from all its proper places, in truth from place itself, from the taking place of its truth. (From "Faith and Knowledge" in Acts of Religion)
Religion "dislodged" from its sacred places, from its sacred truths, forced to conspire with that which does the dislodging. Bin Laden on videotape, broadcast by satellite. You'd be desperate, too.
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:21 PM
Poets and Prophets
posted on 05.14.2006 at 1:30 AM
Kierkegaard (quoted by Carlin Romano):
"Muhammad protests with all his might against being regarded as a poet, and the Koran as a poem. He wants to be a prophet. ... I protest with all my might at being regarded as a prophet, and want only to be a poet."
Either would be fine by me.
Actually haven't been that many atheists in either category. At least one world-class poet: Shelley. Some fine writers: Baron d"Holbach, Thomas Huxley, Robert Ingersoll, Nietzsche. At least one great writer: Virginia Woolf. Prophets? Odd term to apply to an atheist. Meslier? Nietzsche?
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:30 AM
posted on 05.13.2006 at 1:29 AM
Would it be possible to believe not in something but in The Something -- the wonderful, endlessly complicated, hopelessly tangled stuff of the universe? To believe that there is not only gloriously more than nothing but gloriously more than the sort of black-white, good-evil, big-daddy-in-the-sky, fairy-tale oversimplification the religious insist upon? Would this be a step toward a positive view of atheism? Is The Something the same as Being? Or Consciousness? Or Nature? Are the capital letters a sign that this would devolve into another religion?
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:29 AM
The "A" Word -- 3
posted on 05.11.2006 at 11:00 PM
My hesitation over using the word "atheist" in the book's title has come from its apparent starkness. But, in researching the remarkably energetic disbelief scene in ancient India, I've begun to fear it isn't stark enough.
If atheist refers to a denier of the existence of gods, then early Jainists and Buddhists might qualify, as might devotees of what may be the oldest of the orthodox schools of Indian philosophy, Samkhya, which also makes do without gods. However, all these faiths do, as I understand them, share a belief in the soul, rebirth and karma. Is the term "atheist," therefore, too broad? Do we need another designation in order to restrict the club to those, including plenty in ancient India, who reject gods and also reject the notion that we live on after death?
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:00 PM
Religion and Politics -- A Comment
posted on 05.10.2006 at 9:58 PM
This critique of Bush's injection of his religious beliefs into his policy decisions comes from a record from China, dated 662 BCE:
It is when a state is about to flourish that [its ruler] listens to his people; when it is about to persih then he listens to the spirits.
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:58 PM
posted on 05.09.2006 at 8:55 PM
Here, once again, A. C. Grayling writing in The Guardian:
It is time to put to rest the mistakes and assumptions that lie behind a phrase used by some religious people when talking of those who are plain-spoken about their disbelief in any religious claims: the phrase "fundamentalist atheist". What would a non-fundamentalist atheist be? Would he be someone who believed only somewhat that there are no supernatural entities in the universe - perhaps that there is only part of a god (a divine foot, say, or buttock)? Or that gods exist only some of the time - say, Wednesdays and Saturdays?... Or might it be that a non-fundamentalist atheist is one who does not mind that other people hold profoundly false and primitive beliefs about the universe, on the basis of which they have spent centuries mass-murdering other people who do not hold exactly the same false and primitive beliefs as themselves - and still do?
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 8:55 PM
Religion and Foreign Policy -- 2
posted on 05.07.2006 at 10:16 AM
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright tackles, if that's not too strong a word, the subject in a new book. This if from an interview in Time:
When I began this book I looked at President Bush as an anomaly. But in working on the book I found that all American Presidents in one way or another invoke God.... President Bush is a little different because he's so sure about what religion is telling him.
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:16 AM
The "A" Word -- 2
posted on 05.06.2006 at 10:03 AM
Some months ago we discussed here whether the book I am writing should employ the word "atheism" in the title. There was considerable sentiment against word mincing. Now the always lively A. C. Grayling weighs in with a somewhat different perspective on the subject:
As it happens, no atheist should call himself or herself one. The term already sells a pass to theists, because it invites debate on their ground. A more appropriate term is "naturalist", denoting one who takes it that the universe is a natural realm, governed by nature's laws. This properly implies that there is nothing supernatural in the universe - no fairies or goblins, angels, demons, gods or goddesses. Such might as well call themselves "a-fairyists" or "a-goblinists" as "atheists"; it would be every bit as meaningful or meaningless to do so.
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:03 AM
Turns Out Prayer Does Work
posted on 05.05.2006 at 8:12 AM
Forget that unpleasant study. The Cadillac News in Cadillac, Michigan, presents front-page evidence of the efficacy of prayer and faith -- evidence of the good, old-fashioned, anecdotal kind: A woman, Donna Sikes, is diagnosed with a brain tumor. While driving toward the hospital for surgery, she listens to "Infinite Power -- God's Plan for Miracle Living" by Gordon and Pat Robertson.
"The tape said to put your hand on where your sickness is so I did and I was in the spirit all the way down there and I said -- Jesus take it away, I'm all alone and I have no one to help me."
Sikes arrives at the hospital. MRI. Tumor gone. One Dr. Alicia Elmore "of Family Practice of Cadillac confirmed the mysterious disappearance of Sike's tumor and documented the case in a letter written to" Pat Robertson's "700 Club."
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 8:12 AM
posted on 05.04.2006 at 9:36 AM
Even if religion has been making a comeback against secularism in recent decades, hasn't much (not all) religion been transformed by its exposure to secularism? This from A. C. Grayling, writing in The Guardian:
In its bleeding-heart modern form, Christianity is a recent and highly modified version of what, for most of its history, has been an often violent and always oppressive ideology - think Crusades, torture, burnings at the stake, the enslavement of women to constantly repeated childbirth and undivorceable husbands, the warping of human sexuality, the use of fear (of hell's torments) as an instrument of control, and the horrific results of calumny against Judaism. Nowadays, by contrast, Christianity specialises in soft-focus mood music; its threats of hell, its demand for poverty and chastity, its doctrine that only the few will be saved and the many damned, have been shed, replaced by strummed guitars and saccharine smiles.
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:36 AM
God Would be Great in 2008!
posted on 05.03.2006 at 1:56 PM
Why not cut out the middle man and just elect the Almighty president?
Positives: Known for being decisive leader. Has military experience. Projects sense of authority. Reputation for integrity. Many millennia of experience with media (primarily testaments and oral tradition, however). Unlikely to find new skeltons in closet (though possible Satan might make rounds of Sunday talk shows).
Negatives: Beard tests poorly with focus groups. Hazy citizenship. Has so far escaped openly taking sides in sectarian debates -- might be difficult to avoid in a debate. Unlikely to carry California. Possible tough questions about Katrina and holocaust. At least one well known extra-marital relationship. Jealous. Testy.
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:56 PM
Religion and Foreign Policy
posted on 05.02.2006 at 2:41 PM
Here are three (consecutive, I believe) sentences from President Bush, speaking in California last week:
A. "I base a lot of my foreign-policy decisions on some things that I think are true."
B. "One, I believe there's an Almighty."
C. "And, secondly, I believe one of the great gifts of the Almighty is the desire in everybody's soul, regardless of what you look like or where you live, to be free."
Bush has said these sorts of things before. But perhaps it would be useful to look closely at a few of the words he uses.
"True" is not, on the face of it, an ugly word -- especially when tempered, as it is in statement A, by "I think." The problem, particularly when the foreign policy of the most powerful nation on earth is at stake, is how truth is determined. Statements B and C indicate that Bush sees truth not as the product of investigation, analysis or discussion but of belief or revelation. So we seem to have foreign policy based on faith. (To be fair, the United States was founded on the assumption that a few "truths" are "self-evident.")
"Free," too, is an attractive word. However, in statement C it is removed from the realm of politics and assumed -- based on belief or revelation, for how else could this be determined? -- to have been placed in "everybody's soul." Freedom here is not an "unalienable Right," like "Liberty" in the Declaration of Independence; it is an inescapable "desire." We no longer need to ask people how they weigh various "rights," whether they might upon occasion prefer tyranny to war or lawlessness, "Life" to "Liberty." We don't need votes or public-opinion surveys. We know what they "desire." We can look into their "souls."
Perhaps the most interesting word here is "Almighty." This is no mere "Creator," limited to endowing. This is not Tony Blair's God, who, along with history, will judge. Bush names a can-do Deity -- All Mighty. His God runs the whole show. That (although I am unfamiliar with the president's thinking on the question of free will versus determinism) would seem to take lots of pressure off Bush, Blair, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, et al. The key is not whether there really were WMDs, whether civil war was likely or how many troops should have been sent. Align yourself with the wishes of the Almighty -- and the "desire" He has implanted in "everybody's soul" -- and, in time, He'll take care of the rest.
I don't know enough about the religious pronouncements of other presidents or other world leaders. Perhaps this kind of rhetoric has not been that exceptional. However, for the man (ostensibly) running the United States today -- with its resources, with its power -- these three statements strike me as deeply, deeply disturbing.
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 2:41 PM
Life v. Religion
posted on 05.01.2006 at 5:34 PM
Those who dis disbelief often switch the argument from whether it is likely true that the heavens have a boss to whether it would be disenchanting to surrender the notion that they do. Here, for example, John Updike:
Among the repulsions of atheism for me has been its drastic uninterestingness as an intellectual position. Where was the ingenuity, the ambiguity, the humanity of saying that the universe just happened to happen and that when we're dead we're dead?
I have always had difficulty with this argument. (The normally generous Updike, for the record, called for a similar retreat in the face of postmodernism/deconstruction.) Why is it thought to be more compelling, more ingenious, more subtle, more enchanting to reduce the Great Jumble of Being to a fairy tale, a morality play, a feudal romance? What poetry, what interest is gained by such (desperate) attempts to squeeze the gloriously complex --ethically, emotionally, scientifically, philosophically -- into the (inevitably self-contradictory) simple? Is not life richer than religion?
This is one route to a positive notion of atheism.
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 5:34 PM