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"Raving Atheist" Not Enough of an Atheist?

posted on 07.31.2006 at 7:39 PM

We hate to miss out on a good contretemps, and, surprise, apparently even the gaggle of blogging disbelievers can occasionally spawn one. So here, in the likelihood that you've missed it, is the wise and level headed (a negative for a contretemps) Pharyngula jabbing The Raving Atheist. RA (as he's known in blogland) committed his first sin by questioning abortion. His second may have been this statement: "I will never write another bad word about Jesus or Christianity on The Raving Atheist."

Be warned: Not to be left out, I'm looking for a fight. Maybe I'll never say another bad word about Zeus or paganism.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 7:39 PM | Comments (4)

Author Needs Advice

posted on 07.29.2006 at 9:40 PM

It is hard, upon occasion, to figure out what works. To write is, of course, to struggle with such occasions: to rewrite, polish and, often enough, toss out. But it strikes me that this blog might make it possible to improve the process by inviting others to weigh in. So, herewith, my first attempt to seek advice on a potential passage in the book.

The subject is the effect of the advent of writing on disbelief. Obviously, writing did much to strengthen, harden and spread beliefs. But I'm arguing that writing's propensity for encouraging analysis (through its ability to record facts and make words objects of study) may also have made possible new ways of questioning beliefs.

My struggle has been trying to determine whether this passage from the oldest Indian religious text, the Rg Veda, qualifies as a (very early) example of the application of critical analysis to religion:

This world-creation, whence it has arisen,
Or whether it has been produced or has not,
He who surveys it in the highest heaven,
He only knows, or ev'n he does not know it.

I love the passage, but is this analysis or just wondering? Does it succeed in demonstrating my point?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:40 PM | Comments (5)

Deuteronomy -- II

posted on 07.28.2006 at 7:59 PM

This -- the fifth book of the Hebrew Bible -- is compendium of intolerance. Various "abhorrent" practices are denounced: serving other gods, human sacrifices, worshiping idols, soothsaying, bowing down to the sun or the moon, intermarrying, crossdressing, inquiring about other gods, worshipping the Lord anywhere but in the temple in Jerusalem. Various "just" punishments are threatened : no rain for crops; a curse upon the issue of wombs; "consumption, fever and inflamation." One "just" punishment, in particular, is commanded: stoning to death.

However, nowhere to be found in Deuteronomy -- among these "abhorrent" practices, which are to receive these terrible punishments -- is failure to believe in the Lord. This God very, very much wants to be "obeyed," to have "His commandments and laws" followed. He does not seem concerned with whether His people think he exists.

Why? A standard answer is that this God, in essence, was secure enough in His existence so that He didn't need His nation to confirm it. Or that not believing in the existence of God (or gods) may simply have been inconceivable at the time. I'll add a third theory: that actual, outright disbelieve was too terrible to even mention.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 7:59 PM | Comments (8)


posted on 07.28.2006 at 1:16 AM

The temple in Jerusalem was being renovated during the reign of Josiah (639-609 BCE) -- who is treated with as much respect as any king in the Hebrew Bible -- and during the renovations the high priest "discovered" a "lost" text. That, most scholars agree, was an early version of Deuteronomy, which settled as the fifth book of the Hebrew Bible -- the last in the Torah or the books of Moses.

It is not hard to read this text as a justification for Josiah's attempt to consolidate the religion and the kingdom by cracking down on any forms of worship -- foreign, idolatrous, pantheistic, even Jewish -- besides those in the temple in Jerusalem. Monotheism was sharpened, if not invented, in the process:

The Lord alone is God; there is none beside Him.

Weren't too many religions in the 7th century BCE devoting themselves to morality. But Deuteronomy takes some significant steps beyond "thou shall not kill":

I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land.

Still, the intolerance for other religions in this text is total:

Tear down their alters, smash their pillars, put their sacred posts to the fire, and cut down the images of their gods, obliterating their name from the site.

And the treatment the Lord orders for local conquered nations is, even by contemporary standards, extreme:

You shall not let a soul remain alive.

Maybe we shouldn't be that surprised by what currently goes on in this area between peoples who profess to revere such texts.

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

Death -- Part II

posted on 07.27.2006 at 1:01 AM

Sometimes the flirtation of religion with death becomes truly eerie, frightening. Undoubtedly, you've seen this quote, but, in the current circumstance, it is probably worth revisiting. Nasrallah.jpg

This is man-of-the-moment Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah:

"We have discovered how to hit the Jews where they are the most vulnerable. The Jews love life, so that is what we shall take away from them. We are going to win because they love life and we love death."

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:01 AM | Comments (5)

Death -- Part I

posted on 07.26.2006 at 2:49 PM

Seventh_Seal.jpgAllen_death.jpgEven those of us who don't get much of a kick out of heaven and hell, have to admit that some have had good fun with Death. There's Ingmar Bergman, of course; not to mention Woody Allen's takeoff on Bergman.

However, it is difficult to imagine anyone who had as entertaining a time with Death as Sisyphus. When Death came to get him -- a bit on the early side, as sometimes happens -- Sisyphus, instead, managed to get Death: chaining him up. This meant for a time, with Thanatos out of commission, that nobody could die -- a circumstance that put Ares, god of war, out of business. In order for armies to be able to resume killing each other (I know that the idea that armies once shot and bombed seems incomprehensible to us advanced 21st-century types), Ares had to go and free Death himself and make sure Sisyphus was sent safely on his way to Hades.

But Sisyphus, whom Homer describes as "the craftiest of all mankind," was still not ready to go "gentle into that good night." He instructed his wife not to bury him, and then moaned to functionaries in Hades that he was unburied. They allowed him to go back up to earth to rectify things. Camus, in his essay on the Sisyphus myth, gives a good account of what happened next: "When he had seen again the face of this world, enjoyed water and sun, warm stones and the sea, he no longer wanted to go back to the infernal darkness." Having once again tricked the gods out of death, Sisyphus lived "many years more" experiencing, in Camus' phrase, "the smiles of the earth."

Of course, in the end Death and the gods, as also happens, had the last laugh on old Sisyphus.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 2:49 PM | Comments (4)


posted on 07.25.2006 at 11:37 PM

Here's an "opinion," from Alan Wolfe -- Boston College professor and Jewish "public intellectual":

I praise fundamentalist Christians for "their willingness to stand against the emotionality of American culture in favor of ideas -- strongly held ideas, to say the least -- about who God is and why he asks so much of us."

One feels one ought to launch an "opinion" back, say: Yeah, but those ideas often seem profoundly uninteresting, even childish.

However, part of the problem with being something of a skeptic is a certain discomfort with this process of opining. Who is to judge what ideas qualify as "interesting"? What purpose does it serve to call adults with views different than yours "childish"?

Here, via Cicero, is Carneades, the Greek skeptic about whom I am about to begin writing, and a hero of mine:

It is not our custom to set forth our views.

It was Carneades who, on an official visit to Rome, gave a remarkably persuasive speech arguing for justice, then -- the next day -- gave an equally persuasive speech disputing all he had said the previous day. (The Romans were not amused; they kicked the Athenian philosopher out.)

One would like to say that this seems more interesting than fundamentalist Christian "ideas" or even than Alan Wolfe's "idea." But, of course, that would be setting forth a view.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:37 PM | Comments (2)

Absurd Hero

posted on 07.24.2006 at 10:44 PM

Camus on Sisyphus:

His scorn for the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which his whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing.

For Camus this makes Sisyphus "the absurd hero." Might seem also to make him the atheist hero. Would that mean they are the same thing?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:44 PM | Comments (2)

Pat Tillman -- Non-Christian

posted on 07.23.2006 at 9:31 PM

Tillman.jpgPat Tillman was an American professional football player who, after September 11, gave up a million dollar contract to fight "for his country" in Afghanistan. He was killed by "friendly fire," though the US military managed to hide that embarrassing fact for almost five weeks. Tillman's family has been pressing for an investigation. Now there is a report that the selfless Tillman was an atheist, or at least a non-Christian, which has some in the Army upset.

This investigation of the incident, from ESPN.com (thanks to Blawg and Economics), quotes Lt. Col. Ralph Kauzlarich, an officer with responsibilities for Tillman's unit:

Kauzlarich said he'd learned Kevin Tillman, Pat's brother and fellow Army Ranger who was a part of the battle the night Pat Tillman died, objected to the presence of a chaplain and the saying of prayers during a repatriation ceremony in Germany before his brother's body was returned to the United States.
Kauzlarich, now a battalion commanding officer at Fort Riley in Kansas, further suggested the Tillman family's unhappiness with the findings of past investigations might be because of the absence of a Christian faith in their lives.

Lt. Col. Kauzlarich's discomfort with atheism is interesting:

In an interview with ESPN.com, Kauzlarich said: "When you die, I mean, there is supposedly a better life, right? Well, if you are an atheist and you don't believe in anything, if you die, what is there to go to? Nothing. You are worm dirt. So for their son to die for nothing, and now he is no more -- that is pretty hard to get your head around that. So I don't know how an atheist thinks. I can only imagine that that would be pretty tough."

Guess that's true. Guess atheists do find death "pretty tough."

Asked by ESPN.com whether the Tillmans' religious beliefs are a factor in the ongoing investigation, Kauzlarich said, "I think so. There is not a whole lot of trust in the system or faith in the system [by the Tillmans]. So that is my personal opinion, knowing what I know."

Here, in response, is Tillman's mother:

Well, this guy makes disparaging remarks about the fact that we're not Christians, and the reason that we can't put Pat to rest is because we're not Christians," Mary Tillman, Pat's mother, said in an interview with ESPN.com. Mary Tillman casts the family as spiritual, though she said it does not believe in many of the fundamental aspects of organized religion.
"Oh, it has nothing to do with the fact that this whole thing is shady," she said sarcastically, "But it is because we are not Christians."
After a pause, her voice full with emotion, she added, "Pat may not have been what you call a Christian. He was about the best person I ever knew. I mean, he was just a good guy. He didn't lie. He was very honest. He was very generous. He was very humble.
...The Tillman family has continued to try to push through layers of Army bureaucracy for answers, about both the death of their son and the appearance that Pat Tillman's Army life, and death, might have been used for political purposes.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:31 PM | Comments (10)


posted on 07.23.2006 at 3:41 PM

Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't the only country today founded specifically for people of one religion: Israel? We know the hugely compelling historical reason for this. Still, sometimes it is hard nowadays, with the benefit of hindsight, (as my friend Dan Lazare argues) not to think that this sort of thing is a bad idea.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 3:41 PM | Comments (7)

Atheism and Meaninglessness

posted on 07.21.2006 at 1:24 PM

Ecclesiastes makes much use of the Hebrew word hebel, הבל. This refrain begins and closes this book of the Hebrew Bible:

"Utterly senseless" says Qoheleth [the sage quoted in Ecclesiastes], "Utterly senseless, everything is senseless!"

The word translated here as "senseless" is hebel. You've heard it given as "vanity" -- but that relies on an out-of-date use of that word, one that doesn't imply a mirror fixation. "Meaningless" is another good candidate or, perhaps, "emptiness." "Vapor" or "vapors" would be more literal translations.

I'm thinking that this use of hebel introduces an important theme in atheistic thought -- one that may become the major theme of my third chapter. Surely, disbelievers have surrendered much meaning and sense: that good actions will be rewarded in an afterlife, for example; that we're all here for a purpose. What is left for the nonbeliever looking for purpose besides "vapors"?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:24 PM | Comments (5)

Sectarian -- 2

posted on 07.20.2006 at 10:03 PM

From the lead story in today's New York Times, on Lebanon:

The weak government is unable to deal with the crisis. Despite the hopes raised by the so-called Cedar Revolution, which ended nearly three decades of Syrian control, the government remains trapped in the sectarian straitjacket of a system that apportions political offices by religion.

Here, for the record, the word "sectarian" is being used to refer to different religions, not just sects of the same religion. Why then, I ask again, not write: "trapped in the religious straitjacket of a system that apportions political offices by sect"? We know why: because the mating of a hallowed word like "religion" with a negative term is not allowed.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:03 PM | Comments (0)

Religion and Science -- 3

posted on 07.20.2006 at 2:09 AM

Stephen Jay Gould, whose book Wonderful Life is among my favorites, deserves a hearing on this subject.

Gould.jpgGould, in one of his columns for Nature, speaks of something he calls NOMA or "nonoverlapping magisteria" ("magisteria," a term borrowed from Pope Pius of all people, meaning, for those of us who managed to avoid Latin, "areas of teaching authority"). Gould sees in this way of looking at things:

the principled resolution of supposed "conflict" or "warfare" between science and religion. No such conflict should exist because each subject has a legitimate magisterium, or domain of teaching authority.

So Gould here seems to be aligning himself with the why-can't-we-all-be-friends view of the relationship between science (or specifically evolution) and religion. That puts him with the archbishop of Canterbury and Madeline Bunting against (not for the first time) Edward O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett:

The net of science covers the empirical universe: what is it made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for starters, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty). To cite the arch cliches, we get the age of rocks, and religion retains the rock of ages; we study how the heavens go, and they determine how to go to heaven.

Gould describes himself as "not, personally, a believer or a religious man in any sense of institutional commitment or practice" and as an "agnostic." Perhaps that has something to do with the rather wan view of religion to which he is according a valid "magisterium" here: just "questions of moral meaning and value"? What about an afterlife (he does, at least, mention "heaven"), the efficacy of prayer and, lest we forget, God? It is hard to see how the claims of a real, old-fashioned religion -- a Pope Pius religion, with an Immaculate Conception and a Resurrection -- might manage to avoid overlapping with the claims of science, unless we are to agree with Francis Collins that there is a place in the universe or in existence "outside of nature." And Gould, eager as he may have been to avoid conflict, would seem to have been too good a scientist for that.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 2:09 AM | Comments (0)

Religion and Science -- 2

posted on 07.18.2006 at 11:20 PM

Leonard Lopate had an interview this afternoon with Francis Collins, a former head of the Human Genome Project, on "how he reconciles his scientific knowledge with his religious faith." Collins has a book out on the subject, entitled, The Language of God. Stimulating fellow:

God is outside of nature. Science studies nature. Its tools are designed to study nature. So it is totally inappropriate to take scientiific conclusions and draw any particular conclusions about God.

This is the two-realms argument, which Lopate and Collins attribute to the late Stephen Jay Gould. But the question of whether anything can be "outside of nature" is precisely the issue, isn't it?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:20 PM | Comments (3)


posted on 07.17.2006 at 9:05 AM

An obvious thought: How often are these two words -- "sectarian" and "violence" -- paired. (It's "sectarian bloodletting" on the front page of the New York Times today.) The Oxford Compact Dictionary defines "sectarian" as:

concerning or deriving from a sect or sects. 2 carried out on the grounds of membership of a sect or other group.

The dictionary then gives this example of usage:

sectarian killings

Are there any "sects" that are not based on religion? What if they dropped the euphemism and simply wrote "religious violence"?

How often are the words "nonsectarian" and "violence" paired?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:05 AM | Comments (7)

Shelley Expelled

posted on 07.15.2006 at 11:56 PM

shelley.jpgThe British poet Percy Bysshe Shelley is surely one of the most colorful characters in this history, and a case can be made that -- through his rabidly atheistic poems and the pamphlet, the Necessity of Atheism, which got him expelled from Oxford -- he is one of the more important. Outspoken freethinkers were hardly uncommon in nineteenth-century Britain, but they were very uncommon that early in nineteenth-century Britain. Shelley published his essay in 1811. Charles Bradlaugh was not born until 1834.

A poem, written by Shelley around the time of the Necessity of Atheism, has just been found -- after having been lost for almost 200 years. The article reporting on the discovery includes this recollection by Thomas Medwin about the young firebrand:

I remember, as if it occurred yesterday, his knocking at my door in Garden Court, in the Temple, at four o'clock in the morning, the second day after his expulsion. I think I hear his cracked voice, with his well-known pipe, - "Medwin, let me in, I am expelled;" here followed a sort of loud half-hysteric laugh, and a repetition of the words - "I am expelled," with the addition of, "for Atheism."

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:56 PM | Comments (0)

Great Moments in Religion: 1

posted on 07.13.2006 at 11:50 PM

Universe created on October 23, 4004 BCE. This is from A Geological Miscellany by G. Y. Craig and E. J. Jones:

James Ussher (1581-1656), Archbishop of Armagh, Primate of All Ireland, and Vice-Chancellor of Trinity College in Dublin was highly regarded in his day as a churchman and as a scholar. Of his many works, his treatise on chronology has proved the most durable. Based on an intricate correlation of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean histories and Holy writ, it was incorporated into an authorized version of the Bible printed in 1701, and thus came to be regarded with almost as much unquestioning reverence as the Bible itself. Having established the first day of creation as Sunday 23 October 4004 BC..., Ussher calculated the dates of other biblical events, concluding, for example, that Adam and Eve were driven from Paradise on Monday 10 November 4004 BC [making their stay almost as short as some of my recent vacations], and that the ark touched down on Mt Ararat on 5 May 2348 BC `on a Wednesday'.

I should add that Ussher's chronology was widely accepted in England in 1859, when Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species was published.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:50 PM | Comments (0)

Religion and Happiness, continued... -- 2

posted on 07.12.2006 at 7:56 PM

The study (thanks Popp) is an ex-hippie's delight. Give psilocybin, the active ingredient in some "magic" mushrooms, to certain religiously inclined people and see what it does for them. But this premise is not likely to cheer nonbelievers:

The Johns Hopkins researchers were interested in inducing a mystical experience because of the widely recognized value of creating a sense of spirituality to help people overcome fears and psychological problems.

That the case?

And, oh yeah, the folks behind this study claimed it worked -- in creating a mystical experience and in that experience improving outlooks on life:

The subjects were surveyed two months later and reported that they continued to feel a sense of well-being. Some said they had the same feelings a year later.

Far out!

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 7:56 PM | Comments (2)

Zidane's (Sacred) Honor

posted on 07.11.2006 at 2:46 PM

Zidane.jpgI am, sadly, among those obsessed with determining what Marco Materazzi said to Zinédine Zidane to cause Zidane to headbutt Materazzi and get himself expelled with ten minutes left in the World Cup final. (It was a startling intrusion of the primitive and brutal into shiny, carefully packaged media-land.) Most of the possible answers -- Zidane, as of this writing, not having spoken -- involve his mother, his wife, the word "whore" or a reference (Zidane is Muslim) to terrorism.

At issue would appear to be some sort of notion of honor. Is this idea that the saying of the unsayable, the forbidden, the untrue, must be punished (with brutality) a religious idea? Is revenge religious? Would a true nonbeliever not care what anyone said? Would a true nonbeliever not have any reason to do anything?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 2:46 PM | Comments (7)

Anthropology Attacked!

posted on 07.11.2006 at 1:31 PM

I think I want to take a swipe at anthropologists.

Many nineteenth-century European observers of preliterate peoples mislabeled them as disbelievers because whatever they might have believed sure didn't look like The One True Faith: Christianity. These explorers and missionaries have taken their share of abuse.

But I'm ready to conclude (in reworking my first chapter) that many twentieth-century anthropologists made a similar mistake: They mislabeled the peoples they observed as devout believers because the doubts and hesitations they did harbor sure didn't look like Logical, Consistent, Secular Humanist, Western, Enlightenment Rationalism.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:31 PM | Comments (3)

My Second Chapter

posted on 07.10.2006 at 4:49 PM

You write, you struggle, you write, and eventually you make your way to the end of a chapter. It feels good, for a moment. Then it is time to go back and look over what you have produced.

Reached that point on Sunday with my second chapter -- on some wonderful and precocious disbelievers in Egypt, India, Greece, China and among the Hebrews. Printed it out. Read the chapter on a train. It was only then -- after having been working on this stuff for a couple of months -- that I realized something: It's a bit slow. Thick with ideas and facts. Thin on tales of interesting people. Tales of interesting people, to be sure, are not that easy to come by when those folks lived two or three thousand-years ago. But still. This is supposed to be a lean, concise, narrative history. Not a tome. Not exhaustive. So I'm pruning the exposition: Maybe you don't really need to know that Lokayata is another name used for the Carvaka -- the long-lived Indian materialist sect ("There is no world other than this"). And I'm trying to beef up the tales -- tales that illustrate the ideas.

Of course, the next step will be actually showing it to someone besides the guy who wrote it.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 4:49 PM | Comments (11)

Astrology and the World Cup

posted on 07.09.2006 at 8:53 PM

We tend to look up to the enlightened Europeans, particularly the French, as we struggle here in the US with tough questions like whether evolution ought to be taught in the schools. Then we learn that Raymond Domenech -- the coach of the French team, which has just lost in the finals of the World Cup -- has a weakness for matters supernatural: domenech.jpg

He has an interest in astrology and has admitted reading tarot cards to learn about players' personalities. He has gone on record as saying he does not like Scorpios and is wary of having too many Leos in his side. Interestingly, no Scorpios were picked for Germany 2006.

Wonder how that sort of thing would go over here. Perhaps acceptable belief systems in this country, beyond frequent knocking on wood, are restricted to those mentioned in one or another of the testaments of the Bible (though the astrology columns do get a large enough readership). Perhaps acceptable belief systems in France are limited to those that aren't mentioned there.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 8:53 PM | Comments (5)

The Origin of the Species

posted on 07.08.2006 at 8:23 PM

In 1859 in England, Charles Bradlaugh was on the stump, attacking religion before huge working-class crowds; John Stuart Mill published On Liberty ("If all mankind minus one were of one opinion and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind") and Charles Darwin published his book. Not a bad year.

Here are some historians (none of whom I've heard of) on the importance of The Origin of the Species, which some still insist can sit comfortably next to Christianity:

The Origin of the Species came into the theological world like a plough into an ant-hill -- Leo J. Henkin
I myself have little doubt that in England it was geology and the theory of evolution that changed us from a Christian to a pagan nation -- F. Sherwood Taylor
No rapproachement was possible between Darwinism as such and protestantism as such. The conceptions of Man were too divergent -- John Dillenberger
If we may estimate the importance of an idea by the change of thought which it effects, this idea of natural selection is unquestionably the most important that has ever been conceived by the mind of man -- George J. Romanes

(From The Victorian Crisis of Faith)

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 8:23 PM | Comments (1)


posted on 07.07.2006 at 11:49 PM

I'm new to the wonders of Koheleth, the cynical wise man who speaks in Ecclesiastes, and his version of carpe diem:

There is nothing better for people than to eat and drink and enjoy their toil.

It gets tougher:

Enjoy life with the wife whom you love all the days of your meaningless life, that is, all the meaningless days he has given you under the sun, for it is your reward in life and for the toil that you do under the sun.
All that your hand finds to do, do with your power, for there is no action or thought or knowledge or wisdom in the grave where you are going. (Translation by Tremper Longman III)

Ellen F. Davis reports that one Vietnam chaplain said this -- the term "meaningless" (hebel) appears in more than 30 passages -- "was the only part of the Bible that his soldiers were willing to hear."

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:49 PM | Comments (2)

The Holy of Holies

posted on 07.06.2006 at 9:04 PM

I'm writing, just now, of that stunning moment when Pompey, the Roman general, forces his way into the Jewish temple in Jerusalem and enters the Holy of Holies -- Yahweh's own sanctuary, a room that only one person, the high priest, was allowed to visit on only one day of the year, Yom Kippur.

And what does Pompey find?

It is empty.

Some of what the Jews contributed to the development of religion is apparent in this moment. But you could also build an anti-religion upon it.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:04 PM | Comments (10)

God Loves You?

posted on 07.05.2006 at 4:16 PM

Can belief in a god be logical? There are a number of ways of approaching this question. Some having to do with the importance of "flaws" (if you're perfect you can't overcome and therefore you aren't perfect) and the contradictions inherent in the various omnis -- potent, present, etc. -- which we've already touched on a bit.Paul_Simon.jpg

Here's another approach: Paul Simon, in his new album (which I seem to be more or less alone in more or less really liking) raises the question: "Who's gonna love you when your looks are gone?" And then seems to answer: "God will, like he waters the flowers on your window sill."

My question: What exactly might this mean? Does God still find the wrinkled hot? Does He find all six billion of us humans (not to mention all the animals and flowers) special? Is this heavenly love just another way of saying that we all are, presumably, unique and of value -- a nice, humanistic notion? How does God get to know all of us? Is it something like the chess master who can beat a room full of people, each playing a different board? Doesn't it then have to depend on omnipresence and various kinds of omnipotence? Does God take to us from birth, or does He have to hang out with us for a while first? Does he go for looks or brains? Or is it all about goodness or saying prayers or believing in the Koran? Does playing hard to get help? Or is He above all that? If He loves us so much, why doesn't He help us out a bit more (the old problem of evil)? Any chance God just doesn't care for short guys from Queens who break up with their long-time, sweet-voiced, curly-haired partners? Sometimes, after all, the flowers on the window sill die.

Doesn't the issue become what we mean by "love"? And is it possible that God, as he often seems to, drops out of the equation?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 4:16 PM | Comments (32)

Church/State Alert

posted on 07.05.2006 at 9:32 AM

As you wander through Europe and South America large crosses often look down on you, and on nearby towns, from the tops of hills. Crosses occupy similar perches in parts of the United States, too. You'd hope -- since US governments are not supposed to "establish" religion -- publicly owned hilltops would be free of such crosses. But that is not the case in San Diego. The Supreme Court is to rule. Stay tuned.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:32 AM | Comments (0)

Founding Fathers

posted on 07.03.2006 at 10:06 PM

Washington.jpgRemarkable, given current rhetoric, how traditionally religious America's Founding Fathers weren't. Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin (not to mention Paine) -- Enlightenment gentlemen all -- are probably best described (like Voltaire) as deists. They seem to have believed something meaningful was out there, but did not seem too interested in intermediaries like Jesus, the Bible or the clergy. (Washington declined the attentions of a minister on his death bed.)

However, I haven't seen any evidence that any of the above were atheists or agnostics. (Madison, about whose beliefs the least seems to be known, would seem the best hope.) However, since most of these fellows were politicians, true disbelief, if they felt it, might not have been easy to reveal.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:06 PM | Comments (3)

Religion and the Quest for Certainty

posted on 07.02.2006 at 9:30 AM

At the heart of the (alleged) religious revival is a hunger-- in a relativistic, postmodern age -- for hard truths. That hunger revealed itself (stripped of religious vocabulary) in a recent education law passed by the Florida Legislature, which proclaims:

"American history shall be viewed as factual, not as constructed" and "shall be viewed as knowable, teachable and testable."

Sure. The law is skillfully deconstructed by Mary Beth Norton in the New York Times.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:30 AM | Comments (14)

Relgion and Politics: Barack Obama

posted on 07.02.2006 at 9:15 AM

Lots of anger on the Web over the recent comments on reaching out to the faithful by the young, brilliant, great Democratic hope, Senator Barack Obama: Barack_Obama.jpg

"It is doubtful that children reciting the Pledge of Allegiance feel oppressed or brainwashed as a consequence of muttering the phrase `under God.'"

Afraid I know quite a few people, all of whom have been children, who did indeed feel oppressed by it (but then again people do get a bit touchy when forced to mouth, every day, something they profoundly disbelieve). Why is the line between church and state -- inscribed in the Bill of Rights in the United States -- so difficult for so many politicians to honor? Okay, maybe we know the answer. But then it raises another also not-too-difficult question: What won't a politician do for some votes?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:15 AM | Comments (3)

God and a Summer's Day

posted on 07.01.2006 at 4:51 PM

Emerson writes: "On this refulgent summer's day it is a luxury to take the breath of life." Today is such a day, and I have indeed been much enjoying, in recent weeks, the luxury of breathing warm summer air -- non-packaged, non-air-conditioned, air.

This preference for the natural, in favor of the person-made -- for the potato over the potato chip -- runs deep in me and many. It is an ideology, to be sure. But, in its throes, I was wondering whether God -- as a human creation or as a human-like creator -- doesn't cheapen the summer's day. Might it be more of a luxury to breathe wild, natural air rather than the confection of some Heavenly Tinker?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 4:51 PM | Comments (9)