« November 2006 | Main

Retreat to My Study

posted on 12.19.2006 at 7:14 PM

After a year of mostly daily blogging on this site, I am cutting back.

As most of you know, I am writing a book on the history of disbelief for Carroll and Graf. The blog -- produced while working on the book -- was an experiment conceived by the Institute for the Future of the Book. It has been a success. I have been benefiting from informed and insightful comments by readers of the blog as I've tested some ideas from this book and explored some of their connections to contemporary debates.

I may continue to post sporatically here, but now it seems time to retreat to my study to digest what I've learned, polish my thoughts and compose the rest of the narrative. The trick will be accomplishing that without losing touch with those -? commenters or just silent readers -? who are interested in this project.

If you would like to be notified of any major activity on this site and of the status of the book, please leave your email below. I will not, of course, use it for any other purpose. Otherwise, do try to check back here once in a while. There will be some updates and, perhaps, some new experiments.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 7:14 PM | Comments (14)

A Year of Progress

posted on 12.16.2006 at 2:54 PM

Something odd and encouraging appears to have occurred in the year I have been doing this blog: The revival of religious orthodoxy, which seemed so powerful a year ago, now, in the United States at least, seems to have eased. Freethinkers seem resurgence.

The evidence for this began, perhaps, with the decision, on December 20 of last year, by Judge John E. Jones, a Republican, that requiring teachers in Dover, Pa., to read a statement presenting "intelligent design" as an alternative to evolution was unconstitutional and characterized by "breathtaking inanity." School boards calling for this sort of thing have been voted out of office. Protestations of disbelief have been turning up in the press, on television, even on the best-seller lists. The Republicans, and their faith-based president, suffered, last month, a significant electoral defeat.

Such evidence is, of course, spotty and unscientific. And statements like this by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof (while taking a swipe at atheists) -- the "Christian Right has largely retreated from the culture wars" -- seem hugely overstated. A court decision, six-figure book sales and a vote against an administration. most of whose policies have failed, are poor measures of the religiosity of hundreds of millions of people.

But is it possible that a trend has at least been reversed and that the Enlightenment, after a couple of decades of reaction, is once again moving forward? Do you think?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 2:54 PM | Comments (6)

Continuities vs. Differences

posted on 12.14.2006 at 8:41 PM

Here are two paragraphs I have drafted for an early chapter of my book. The first uses a fascinating sect of ancient nonbelievers -- "Who paints the peacocks, or who makes the cuckoos sing? There exists here no cause excepting nature" -- to make a (sweeping) point about continuities in human disbelief:

The C?rv?kas are the best answer to the argument that disbelief is a product of the Enlightenment or the scientific revolution. They are the best answer to the argument that disbelief is a phenomenon limited to the West. The C?rv?kas are the best answer to the argument that other, earlier societies did not have the conception of belief necessary to open the possibility of disbelief, that they didn't have the requisite understanding of the natural to dismiss the supernatural or that their societies were insufficiently liberal or pluralistic to tolerate disbelief. For the C?rv?kas are thought to have begun in India before the time of the Buddha and are known to have survived in some form if not as long as Buddhism, at least a couple of thousand years. And the C?rv?kas were as dismissive of supernatural beliefs as were eighteenth-century Parisian philosophes. They stand - in one form or another - as by far the longest lasting group of nonbelievers in human history. They are a crucial part of this story. Which is not to say that we know an awful lot about their history....

The second paragraph, which would appear after a couple of pages outlining what we know about the C?rv?ka and their philosophy, attempts to clarify the point by acknowledging there might be some differences between India at the time of the Buddha and Paris during the Enlightenment:

In fairness, the point being made here - that the disbelief subscribed to by this ancient movement sounds remarkably thorough and modern - depends on English translations of an unfriendly ninth-century report. Undoubtedly it would be possible to go over the documents here, look closely at the language and the cultural context and find numerous ways in which the C?rv?ka saw the world very differently than, say, Charles Bradlaugh [a nineteenth century atheist who will be a major character in the book]. It would be useful to know more about those differences. A study of what allowed such a group of nonbelievers to survive in this place at these times would also be valuable. Nothing said here is meant to obscure that which might have been unique about these peoples and their situations. My goal is simply to point out what has not often been pointed out: that despite all the inevitable and significant cultural differences that flavor our conceptions of disbelief there have been some important similarities in such conceptions, too; that scientifically inclined Western societies have hardly been the first societies in which, for example, the notion that death is the end of us has arisen. On the subject of the afterlife the C?rv?kas could not have been clearer: "After death no intelligence remains"....

Yo, literary theorists, anthropologists, partisans of Foucault! Am I off base -- too imbued by the Enlightenment (and all it tramples in the name of universal reason) in this attempt to debunk the significance of the Enlightenment?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 8:41 PM | Comments (5)

The Sweeping vs. The Narrow

posted on 12.12.2006 at 10:01 PM

Still thinking of the rather large question of method in historical and social science research.

Spoke with a colleague today who remembers when the sort of feminist inquiry into continuities in oppression of women in various times and places went out of fashion -- to be replaced by the study of inequities in gender relations in specific cultures.

Hope there is interest in learning of continuities in disbelief in across societies. That is what most interests me. Why do people disbelieve? What form do such disbeliefs generally take? How have they developed and changed. An anthropologist who listened to my paper insisted that I also note that different times and places have been more or less hospitable to disbelief. And, yes, that is interesting and important and certainly part of my book, too.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:01 PM | Comments (6)


posted on 12.10.2006 at 11:48 PM

We had a lively discussion of my paper on the emptiness of the Holy of Holies, and perhaps at the heart of religion. at NYU's Center for Religion and Media.

A number of interesting smaller points were made, including:

** The analogy between Pompey's intrusion into the Jewish temple in 63 BCE and Ariel Sharon's provocative visit to the Temple Mount in the Jerusalem in September of 2000.

** The presence of similar struggles with the question of emptiness in other religions -- in, for example, the debate over what was to be inside the Muslim holy place in Mecca, the Kaaba.

The larger debate, however, was on these questions:

** Have anthropologists slighted the presence of disbelief and doubt in preliterate societies? It was argued both, as I heard it, that it is wrong to speak in these post-Enlightenment terms of the mentalities of such cultures and that anthropologists already have acknowledged evidence of such disbelief anyway.

** How valid or useful is the sort of sweeping historical study I am undertaking in my book (and have undertaken before)? The argument against it is that cultural differences tend to get trampled in the search for human constancies and that, in the process, modern categories and understandings are inevitably and inappropriately imposed on other cultures. The argument for it -- my argument -- is that the basic work on tracking cross-cultural causes of and elements of disbelief has not been done and must be done if we are to have the background against which cultural differences might better be understood. Of course, this argument depends upon there being such cross-cultural causes and elements -- similarities among disbelief in India in at the time of the Buddha, in the Tongo Islands in the early 19th century and on the best-seller lists in America today. It also depends upon my ability -- in trying to get a handle upon disbelief in such a wide variety of societies - to get what they think right.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:48 PM | Comments (3)

Disbelief in the Holy of Holies

posted on 12.07.2006 at 12:52 AM

Does doubt lurk even at the very heart of religion -- even in the Holy of Holies?

That is one of the claims made in the new experimental paper we have posted on the Web. We do hope you will take advantage of the more advanced format for commenting it offers and weigh in.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 12:52 AM | Comments (2)


posted on 12.05.2006 at 11:46 PM

In a new site connected to this blog:

** I have taken some of the more controversial ideas -- on disbelief and belief -- from the blog and early chapters of my book and combined them in a spiraling, twelve part paper (to be presented to a working group of the Center for Religion and Media at NYU).

** The Institute for the Future of the Book has come up with a new form that better integrates comments and allows readers to weigh in on individual paragraphs.

Thus we hope to expand the experiment begun with this blog: using the Web to sharpen and deepen a work in progress.

I hope you will check out this site and further the experiment with your comments, annotations, additions, references, corrections or criticisms.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:46 PM | Comments (0)

Irreligious Intolerance?

posted on 12.02.2006 at 1:53 PM

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof is the latest, now that athesists are for the first time in my memory getting some attention, to fret that they are guilty of irreligious fundamentalism:

Now that the Christian Right has largely retreated from the culture wars, let's hope that the Atheist Left doesn't revive them. We've suffered enough from religious intolerance that the last thing the world needs is irreligious intolerance.

It is not possible, alas, to say that atheists would never resort to violence. As Kristof notes, Mao, Stalin and Pol Pot certainly did (though in the name of what began to look like another religion). However, is it not unfair to equate our current crop of loud, proud atheists -- Richard Dawkins and ? What atheist today has launched a fatwa, banned a book or grabbed a gun?

What is happening is that some individuals are now arguing that those who believe the universe is governed by a supernatural Being are wrong. The religious insist upon their beliefs in books, on radio stations, television channels and in various houses of worship weekly, daily. Is it intolerant to disagree? What is so awful about the debate finally, in some small way, being joined?

And, oh yeah, has the Christian Right really retreated from the culture wars?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:53 PM | Comments (7)

Religion and Science -- 8

posted on 12.02.2006 at 11:23 AM

Richard A. Shweder, writing in the New York Times, notes triumphantly that:

Science has not replaced religion.

If he means that lots of people in the world still attend mosques or churches, including even some people in Paris, well okay. It's true: Belief in God, has declined dramatically in Western Europe and certain other cosmopolitan redoubts, but it remains undead. And in some places -- southern Afghanistan, the White House -- it is frighteningly vibrant.

But it is absurd to claim that there hasn't been an astounding switch among much of humanity from religious explanations of the universe, of life, of disease (including mental disease), of human purpose -- a switch that has occurred since Copernicus, since Newton, since Jefferson, since Darwin, since penicillin, since Einstein, since education rates have skyrocketed and information technologies have flourished. No these lesson may not have sunk in yet in Kandahar or the West Wing, but even lots of churchgoers now believe the earth revolves around the sun and we descended from monkeys.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:23 AM | Comments (1)