So, will science and religion find common ground, or at least agree to divide the fundamentals into mutually exclusive domains? A great many well-meaning scholars believe that such rapprochement is both possible and desirable. A few disagree, and I am one of them. I think Darwin would have held to the same position. The battle line is, as it has ever been, in biology. The inexorable growth of this science continues to widen, not to close, the tectonic gap between science and faith-based religion.
Rapprochement may be neither possible nor desirable. There is something deep in religious belief that divides people and amplifies societal conflict. In the early part of this century, the toxic mix of religion and tribalism has become so dangerous as to justify taking seriously the alternative view, that humanism based on science is the effective antidote, the light and the way at last placed before us.
Oddly, this is an argument based not, as you might expect from a scientist, on truth, on the wrongness of religion, but on consequences: religion being ungood for societies.
Global culture is divided into three opposing images of the human condition, each logically consistent within its own, independent premises.
The first is familiar and expected:
The dominant of these hypotheses, exemplified by the creation myths of the Abrahamic monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), sees humanity as a creation of God. He brought us into being and He guides us still as father, judge, and friend. We interpret his will from sacred scriptures and the wisdom of ecclesiastical authorities.
But the division between his second and third categories -- the secular approaches -- is problematic and interesting:
The second worldview is that of political behaviorism. Still beloved by the now rapidly fading Marxist-Leninist states, it says that the brain is largely a blank state devoid of any inborn inscription beyond reflexes and primitive bodily urges. As a consequence the mind originates almost wholly as a result of learning, and it is the product of a culture that itself evolves by historical contingency. Because there is no biologically based "human nature," people can be molded to the best possible political and economic system, namely, as urged upon the world through most of the twentieth century, communism. In practical politics, this belief has been repeatedly tested and, after economic collapses and tens of millions of deaths in a dozen dysfunctional states, is generally deemed a failure.
Both of these worldviews, God-centered religion and atheistic communism, are opposed by a third and in some ways more radical worldview, scientific humanism. Still held by only a tiny minority of the world's population, it considers humanity to be a biological species that evolved over millions of years in a biological world, acquiring unprecedented intelligence yet still guided by complex inherited emotions and biased channels of learning. Human nature exists, and it was self-assembled. It is the commonality of the hereditary responses and propensities that define our species. Having arisen by evolution during the far simpler conditions in which humanity lived during more than 99 percent of its existence, it forms the behavioral part of what, in The Descent of Man, Darwin called the indelible stamp of our lowly origin.
From this perspective the move from behavioral psychology to Wilson's own sociobiology, from nurture to nature, qualifies as a new Enlightenment.
The larger issue, for me, is how deeply embedded religion is in our culture -- to the point where attempting to live without gods is a much, much more difficult task than we (most of us) think.
Saw Bruce Springsteen in his exuberant and delightful folk-revival show the other night in New Jersey . Surely were enough signs that something else was also being revived. "Come on rise up!" went the chorus of one of the few of his own songs he did. (Fellow to left of me seemed as if he were about to start talking in tongues.) From the older folk songs came lines like "every link had Jesus' name." One song about Jacob, another (you know it) about marching saints.
One lesson: the extent to which this is part of the musical tradition. Pete Seeger, whose repertoire Bruce was ostensibly borrowing, is an old lefty. He, I was reminded, never shied away from "Oh Mary Doncha Weep."
Another lesson: Aging -- often, certainly not always -- can bring you further from being able to do without God. Be interesting to chart likelihood of belief at various ages. I suspect the dip would be at about the time Bruce was singing "Born to Run." The peak? Well he may still be climbing. And Bruce is in the avant garde of the baby boom. Where he heads the middle-aged may be likely to follow.
Kind of weird to be dancing and singing along, with your own exuberance and delight, to a line like "Pharaoh's Army Got Drowneded," knowing there is zero historical evidence that the Hebrew exodus from Egypt ever happeneded. Or am I to content myself with the knowledge that this is mere art, mere metaphor?
Here's a question: What role did the hallowed 60's play in the run-up to the current (alleged) religious revival?
From Luc Sante in his review of a new biography of 60's LSD enthusiast Timothy Leary (Louis Menand's review is more fun):
The book provides a crash course in several aspects of 60's culture: its often gaseous rhetoric, its reliance on mahatmas and soothsayers, its endless bail-fund benefits and sometimes dubious appeals to conscience, its thriving population of informers, its contribution to the well-being of lawyers, its candyland expectations and obstinate denials of reality, its fatal avoidance of critical thinking, its squalid death by its own hand.
This seems rather harsh (on the 60's, not necessarily Leary), no? Sante does, however, acknowledge something of another side:
That still leaves many meritorious elements largely outside Leary's sphere: civil rights, the antiwar movement, music and art, the impulse toward communitarianism, to name a few.
But then, in the last sentence of his review, Sante returns, metaphors blazing, to the attack:
In part because of Leary, however, ideals and delusions were encouraged to interbreed, their living progeny being avid consumerism and toothless dissent.
My own take: Certainly, "delusions" were in good supply among those who danced "beneath diamond skies" back in those starry-eyed days. Some forms of reality were, in fact, denied. Various gods, whom it had taken centuries to evict, were invited back in. But in having the wit and exuberance to step, for a moment at least, outside of societal expectations and beyond a rather limited perspective on what qualified as "real," much critical thinking -- on politics, culture and religion -- was done. The Cosmic All and its upholders may have been invoked; but Mommy's and Daddy's God did not fare that well. And not all of that thinking, I believe, has been undone.
Edward O. Wilson again, writing in Harvard Magazine last year:
In all of the history of science only one other disparity of comparable magnitude to evolution has occurred between a scientific event and the impact it has had on the public mind. This was the discovery by Copernicus that Earth and therefore humanity are not the center of the universe, and the universe is not a closed spherical bubble. Copernicus delayed publication of his masterwork On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres until the year of his death (1543). For his extension of the idea subsequently, Bruno was burned at the stake, and for its documentation Galileo was shown the instruments of torture at Rome and remained under house arrest for the remainder of his life.
Hate to beat a dead horse, but the poll numbers here are truly disturbing.The biologist Edward O. Wilson (thanks to a long-ago comment by Peter):
Nothing ["nothing"?] in science as a whole has been more firmly established by interwoven factual documentation, or more illuminating, than the universal occurrence of biological evolution. Further, few natural processes have been more convincingly explained than evolution by the theory of natural selection or, as it is popularly called, Darwinism.
Thus it is surpassingly strange that half of Americans recently polled (2004) not only do not believe in evolution by natural selection but do not believe in evolution at all. Americans are certainly capable of belief, and with rocklike conviction if it originates in religious dogma. In evidence is the 60 percent that accept the prophecies of the Book of Revelation as truth,
This (thanks to Kristian Z. ) from the Baccalaureate Address given by outgoing Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers a couple of weeks ago. Summers, I admit, is a complicated character. But still...
It is an irony of our time that at a moment when the power of reason to cure diseases, link nations, emancipate the enslaved, and improve living standards has never been greater, the idea of reason is increasingly in question....
Another way of looking at this is that reason, to its glory, has become strong enough to question reason. But still...
Think about this, at a time when biological science has done more to reduce human suffering and has more potential to reduce human suffering than ever before in all of history. There is today, in American public schools, more doubt cast on the theory of evolution than at any time in the last century.
(Perhaps name of this blog should be changed to "But still...")
Was my dispute with the Buddha based on a misunderstanding?
That quote I attributed to the Buddha, to which I took exception -- that the question of the existence of the gods "does not edify" -- I found in Jennifer Michael Hecht's comprehensive book, Doubt: A History. Been working to get closer to the quote's origins and, so far, have not found another reference to it.
The parable of the fire is mentioned: In it the Buddha, on being pressed to support one or another possibility for where the soul does or does not go after death, finally explains that this would be like asking whether the fire goes east or west when extinguished. And my researcher, Kaylan Connally, has found this answer/nonanswer, presumably by the Buddha, to the question of whether the gods -- devas -- exist: "It is firmly accepted in the world that devas exist." But "Buddha," "gods" and "edify" don't seem to spend much time in the same sentences.
Guess this supports Jay Saul's point about the difficulty of confirming anything that the Buddha or Jesus said. Though I sure would like to find at least some sort of vaguely legit source for this quote.
Or should we try to be? This is from a comment below by Jay Saul:
Go be God/
There's No Time To Waste
Is there a sense in which a disbeliever could/should believe this sort of thing? Certainly eliminating the supernaturals does succeed in clearing the field clear for us -- the only beings left with the ability to write love songs and fire arrows. Nothing wrong, as a rule, with aiming high.
ÃƒÅ“bermenschen? Has a certain ring. A feeling of invulnerability? Maybe good. Confidence that you can get what you want? Can't hurt.
Eternal life, however, would presumably have to be confined to moments (unless medical advances manage to eliminate the disease thing). Omnipotence, omnipresence, omniscience might have to be interpretations of the power of consciousness.
The problem with gods, however, is their flawlessness -- as Carneades, among others, pointed out. Many of our virtues, passions, poems, come from our flaws. Is being human, or being animals, really not sufficient? Or is the point that we need to bucked up?
The obvious way to organize a history is, duh, chronologically. But, being an ambitious (or pretentious) fellow, I've had this notion that I might run another thread through this history of disbelief, that I might tell the story of the great nineteenth-century British atheist, Charles Bradlaugh, while I'm doing the history. Why (beyond ambition or pretense)? Because this extended biographical sketch would, presumably, give the reader a longer narrative to hang on to as the history follows disbelief from India to Baghdad to Spain to Amsterdam and eventually to Manhattan -- pausing for shorter narratives along the way. Readability, in other words.
I had a thought on how this might actually work while in India many months ago. The key being a connection in the second chapter -- which tracks disbelief in Egypt, India, China, Greece -- between Thucydides, the great Athenian historian, and Charles Darwin. Neither was a particularly aggressive critic of religion. My argument would be, however, that both benefited in crucial ways from the critique of religion that had gained force in their time. Could Thucydides have written his history, with its remarkable absence of supernatural explanation, without the corrosion of the Greek religion caused by the Sophists, among others? Could Darwin have written (or published) Origin of the Species without the attacks on religion of Shelley and Charles Bradlaugh, among others. Making this case would, thus, get Bradlaugh into chapter two.
That's what I'm working on now. It may very well be a bad idea -- especially since jumpiness is a potential problem. And, as usual, I've got to write it to have any idea whether I'll like it.
Please forgive me for the following sentence, which is, I realize, a point made by approximately 3.28 billion people before me: If you had to summarize morality into a few sentences, the Ten Commandments is about as good as you can do. The last six commandments--honor parents, don't murder, don't commit adultery, don't steal, don't bear false witness, don't covet--pretty much cover it.
Or not. Is coveting thy neighbor's house, wife, etc. -- which seems (unless something has been lost in the translation) merely a jealous thought -- as immoral, say, as ignoring thy neighbor's plea for help? Is bearing false witness as immoral as cheating or back stabbing or exploiting or enslaving or starting an unnecessary war or befogging peoples' view of their lives with mumbo jumbo about supernatural beings? I will have nothing bad to say about the injunction to honor parents; however, doing unto others as you would want them to do to you -- not included in this version of the list -- seems a bit more elemental and far-reaching. Approximately 3.28 billion people, as we know, can be wrong.
What would be a more persuasive six or ten (Plotz has left out all the "jealous God" and idols and sabbath stuff) commandments?
Religion wants to substitute itself for (all?) other aspects of life. It provides new, sometimes counter-intuitive (sometimes lovely) meanings: "Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth." It provides a new, seemingly, counter-intuitive, morality: "whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also." It asks men and women to live in a new kingdom: "The Kingdom of Heaven" to which "I will give unto thee the keys."
It can even substitute for basic family relations, as we were reminded when President Bush explained to Bob Woodward why he hadn't asked his experienced father, the former president, for advice on Iraq:
"He is the wrong father to appeal to for advice. The wrong father to go to, to appeal to in terms of strength." And then he said, "There's a higher Father that I appeal to."
This notion that there is a substitute Father is indeed in the New Testament: "And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven."
All the biblical quotes here are from the New Testament (from Matthew, actually). The Hebrew Bible certainly enforces its own substitutions, but they seem less radical, less thorough. And earthy parents are not entirely replaced: "Honor thy father and thy mother."
the common religionist view is that religion is the only possible source of morality. Which is a funny idea of morality. That is, that there is no point in doing good unless you're going to be rewarded for it some day, after you're dead, of course.
The Nobel Prize wining economist, Amartya Sen, in a quote from his new book, on his "identity" as:
at the same time, an Asian, an Indian citizen, a Bengali with Bangladeshi ancestry, an American or British resident,...a dabbler in philosophy, an author, a Sanskritist, a strong believer in secularism and democracy, a man, a feminist, a heterosexual, a defender of gay and lesbian rights, with a nonreligious lifestyle, from a Hindu background, a non-Brahmin, and a nonbeliever in an afterlife (and also, in case the question is asked, a nonbeliever in a "before-life" as well).
A blond woman in a white raincoat wanders through the Garrison Keillor/Robert Altman film "Prairie Home Companion" -- occasionally cozying up to someone...who subsequently expires. She contributes a few religious/philosophical platitudes as she makes her rounds.
The film -- which is warm and folksy but slight and a bit deficient in, of all things, irony -- contains, according to Catholic Online, some "mild irreligiosity." (The Church did not insist, however, that it be labeled "fiction.") Certainly, it does not seem another one of those There's-A-Meaning-Behind-It-All, which-if-we-weren't-so-cynical-we-could-see, films. Hence, the Angel of Death here is probably to be taken as a literary device, an allusion, a metaphor.
My question is whether religion-reduced-to-metaphor qualifies as belief's last gasp or as a harbinger of disbelief's triumph. Is it, in other (very different) words, the pathogen or the vaccine?
There is something, of course, absurd on the face of it about such a claim -- just ask your friends. This argument depends on a rather old-fashioned gender stereotyping. (Revived, most recently, by David Brooks in the New York Times.) But I want to use this rather pedestrian work out of those stereotypes by Steve Kellmeyer (Okay, I've been Googling again) to get at (in part 2 of this discussion) a question about my cast of characters:
You see, men and women both get distorted understandings of the world, but when we do, we do so in different ways. The way a man distorts the world is this: he embraces just the facts of a situation and fails to understand the human element, the element of the sacred and the mysterious. This is why atheism tends to be a male phenomenon.
When we encounter a society that equates sex with fast food, that treats women as objects, we have stumbled upon an essentially atheistic (male) error. Women might embrace this way of thinking, of course, but men are much more likely to. Women, by and large, understand that atheism's response to sex cannot be true. Because women embrace the relational, they know instinctively that sex is holy, that women are to be treated as goddesses for they are made in the image and likeness of God.
This bumps into a number of issues: The "human" the same as the "sacred and mysterious"? Sex "holy"? Lovers gods? Then there's the gender claim...
As I research and write this book, new characters seem to drop from the sky (unfortunate as that metapher may be). The fifth-century BCE Greek poet Anacreon, who celebrated wine and love, is the latest. When asked why he never wrote hymns to the gods, the poet is said to have replied: "because our loves are our gods."
"Anacreontic" is a name for the irreligious notion that we should enjoy life now, rather than bother about a life after death.
The American national anthem is written to the tune of "The Anacreontic Song."
The prospect of evading death is supposed to be a great moral force: providing incentive -- the largest, longest possible of incentives -- for good behavior. Whether the logic here in any sense works is very much an open question, as is the issue of whether the carrot/stick of heaven/hell has in fact increased the world's supply of doing good. But this blurring of the line between life and death has surely had at least this cost: a cheapening of life and, on occasion, even a celebration of death.
Extreme figures make weak examples, but I can't help but note this reaction to the death of the great death merchant Musab al-Zarqawi:
"We herald the martyrdom of our mujahid Sheik Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and we stress that this is an honor for our nation," a statement signed by one of Mr. Zarqawi's deputies, Abu Abdul Rahman al-Iraqi, said.
The Raving Atheist has come upon a losing candidate in the Democratic primary for Attorney General in Alabama, Larry Darby, who declared himself both an atheist and a holocaust denier.
Darby got 44 percent of the vote! Given how popular we know, or think we know, atheism to be in states like Alabama, that would seem to say spooky things about holocaust denial. Oh. Just learned Darby has spoken before a white supremacist group.
In other Alabama election news, Roy Moore, the former judge who had installed a Ten Commandments monument in the state judicial building, lost a primary for governor, getting one-third of the votes against the incumbent. Moore to supporters (from Newsday): "God's will has been done."
Here, from Alan Ryan, one way of stating the difficulty nonbelievers often have understanding believers (and New York liberals have understanding poor Republicans in Kansas):
The puzzle remains: Why do we succumb so readily to appeals based on the irrational forms of identity--ethnic, racial, religious--rather than to appeals based on the rational forms-- economic above all? Or, to put it in dramatic terms: Why do identity politics so often rest on hatreds that do as much damage to the aggressors as to their victims?
There hovers above (or below) all discussions of nonbelief the nagging question of how, without some God keeping score, people can be encouraged to play the moral game. Alan Ryan raises a version of this question, in his review of, among other works, Kwame Anthony Appiah's book, Cosmopolitanism:
A second large question takes Appiah to the heart of the philosopher's ambition to found morality on something other than familial and local affection. What can get us to take seriously the needs of distant strangers?
Even if you don't, in fact, believe God provides much, or any, of a solution to this problem, the problem remains. Ryan mumbles about utilitarianism or the moral sense that encourages people, after seeing a horror on TV, to contribute to disaster relief. However, "the philosopher's ambition," I fear, is not achieved.
Is medicine just another "belief system"? Is one belief system as good as another? Alan Ryan, in the New York Review of Books (thanks, as often, to Arts and Letters Daily), includes these quotations from Kwame Anthony Appiah's book, Cosmopolitanism. The first refers to how the Asante people in Ghana explain illness:
People do get sick for unaccountable reasons all the time, do they not? Many of them have reason to think that there are people who dislike them. So that once you have an idea of witchcraft, there will be plenty of occasions when the general theory will seem to be confirmed.
Ryan's second quote from Appiah's book contrasts that with a modern Western view:
When people get sick for unaccountable reasons in Manhattan, there is much talk of viruses and bacteria. Since doctors do not claim to be able to do much about most viruses, they do not put much effort into identifying them. Nor will the course of a viral infection be much changed by a visit to the doctor. In short, most appeals in everyday life to viruses are like most everyday appeals to witch-craft. They are supported only by a general conviction that sickness can be explained, and the conviction that viruses can make you sick.
Appiah, as I understand it, is not calling for protecting each of these world views but for conversations between them. (Part of an interesting new pro-globalization backlash.) But still. How serious a conversation should I, can I have with someone who believes, say, in resurrection, or God sending plagues, or Karma, or heavenly rewards for suicide bombings, or witchcraft, or that the Bible, unlike the Da Vinci Code, is nonfiction?
And are we to allow that medicine, that science, is just another religion?
The New York Times ran a characteristically lucid article on the Science report that fig trees may have been the first cultivated plant. But, in the second paragraph the Times decides to have some fun:
Presumably that was well after Adam and Eve tried on the new look in fig leaves...
Fine. We're all for fun. But then the Times seems compelled to treat the Adam and Eve line as if it were more than just fun, as if it needs to be taken seriously, explained:
...in which case the fig must have grown wild in Eden.
A few centuries ago considerable scholarly effort was expended calculating the dimensions of Noah's Ark and the date of Adam's creation (accepted answer: 4004 BC). Is the Times now to look for scientific and historical explanations of Eden? Or was the "grown wild" line added because it was feared the "new look in fig leaves" quip might, in the current climate, offend?
Here is an intriguing version of Buddhism, which seems remarkably devoid of the supernatural, from Yew Han Hee:
Q: Is there a God in Buddhism as in Christianity?
A: It is very difficult to compare Buddhism with Christianity. One would have to say, however, there is no God in Buddhism in the way that God in Christianity is commonly understood.
Q: What do Buddhists believe?
A: Different Buddhists believe different things, but the nature of belief is itself an important issue in Buddhism. Belief is to be seen as belief, not as fact. When we see our beliefs as facts, then we are deluding ourselves. When we see our beliefs as beliefs, then we are not. Seeing things in their true light is the most important thing in Buddhism. Deluding ourselves is the cause of much suffering. So Buddhists try to see beliefs as beliefs. They may still believe in certain things - that is their prerogative - but they do not cling to those beliefs; they do not mind or worry about whether their beliefs are true or not, nor do they try to prove that which they know cannot be proved. Ideally though, a Buddhist does not indulge in any kind of belief.
Q: Does Buddhism teach reincarnation?
A: Reincarnation is not a teaching of the Buddha. In Buddhism the teaching is of rebirth, not of reincarnation.
Q: What is the difference between reincarnation and rebirth?
A: The reincarnation idea is to believe in a soul or a being, separate from the body. At the death of the physical body, this soul is said to move into another state and then enter a womb to be born again.
Rebirth is different and can be explained in this way. Take away the notion of a soul or a being living inside the body; take away all ideas of self existing either inside or outside the body. Also take away notions of past, present and future; in fact take away all notions of time. Now, without reference to time and self, there can be no before or after, no beginning or ending, no birth or death, no coming or going. Yet there is life! Rebirth is the experience of life in the moment, without birth, without death; it is the experience of life which is neither eternal nor subject to annihilation.
Though things do get a little mystical:
Q: Does that mean there is no such thing as birth and death?
A: That which is born, dies. Forms come and go. All that comes into existence is impermanent; it is born and it dies. But the very essence of what "I" am -- the Buddha-nature -- is unborn and undying....
Q: But how can getting rid of ideas enables us to see deathlessness?
A: The deathless is here all the while, but ideas block it out. It is like the sun because of the clouds. But as soon as the clouds are cleared away, there is the sun. Likewise, as soon as ideas are cleared away from the mind, there is the true state of birthlessness and deathlessness.
The more you stumble about trying to follow some threads through the deep past, the more you realize the importance of agriculture. That's why the new report in Science on discovery of what may be humankind's earliest effort to domesticate a plant -- fig trees -- is so interesting. (A discovery made not in the Fertile Crescent but in the West Bank.)
Fig tree shoots jammed in the ground might have encouraged our peripatetic ancestors to settle down, and people living and working with larger numbers of other people in settlements require different, stricter moralities than hunter-gatherers. When you're living in a town, rather than in a band, you can't very well be killing the strangers you happen to encounter. Hence, the Thou-Shall-Not religions -- a change in human beliefs.
But Ofer Bar-Yosef, a co-author of the Science report, argues that there is also a connection between agriculture and disbelief. He is quoted in the New York Times:
"Eleven thousand years ago, there was a critical switch in the human mind -- from exploiting the earth as it is, to actively changing the environment to suit our needs," Dr. Bar-Yosef said in a statement from Harvard. "People decided to intervene in nature and supply their own food rather than relying on what was provided by the gods."
Stumbled upon this attack on the moral originality of atheists by one G. Riggs, who seems at work on a (not entirely reliable) "Retrospective on Unbelievers":
Yes, plenty of atheists have been impeccably upstanding moralists, plenty have suffered heroically from having steadfastly abided by their unexceptionable ethical creed. But that creed, even when clearly altruistic and admirably self-forgetful, almost always stems from a code already established by others, not themselves. This is in marked contrast to more theistic figures like Socrates or Jesus, whose moral tenets are entirely original.
Is there a point here? Might secularists today have a view of morality that goes beyond the Judeo-Christian? What about Peter Singer who is, apparently, an atheist? Is there any original ethical thinking going on nowadays?
New York University
The blog I am writing here, with the connivance of The Institute for the Future of the Book, is an experiment. Our thought is that my book on the history of atheism (eventually to be published by Carroll and Graf) will benefit from an online discussion as the book is being written. Our hope is that the conversation will be joined: ideas challenged, facts corrected, queries answered; that lively and intelligent discussion will ensue. And we have an additional thought: that the web might realize some smidgen of benefit through the airing of this process.