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December 14, 2006

Continuities vs. Differences

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 CÄrvÄkas 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 CÄrvÄkas 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 CÄrvÄkas 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 CÄrvÄkas 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 CÄrvÄka 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 CÄrvÄka 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 CÄrvÄkas 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 December 14, 2006 8:41 PM


Finding myself hailed by two out of those three "yo's" I can't, of course, resist responding. What you've posted seems definitely to move in the direction you articulated in the 'Debates' post last week following the seminar discussion, about your understanding of why this study is valid. I'd want some footnotes in the above graphs so that if so inclined, I could read about the 9th C. translations; I'd expect notes in the couple intervening pages talking about what we do know about this group.

And perhaps somewhere in this section (or earlier), there could be a framing analytical thread that talks about the process by which a truth-discourse emerges. This would help you to lay out your evidence as to why 'disbelief,' however articulated from one group to another across time/space, has been met with ridicule, marginalization, violence, etc. Such a theoretical frame would ground your discussion about cultural variations/differences with the depth it needs to counter the charge that you're being a cultural relativist...

"Truth is a thing of this world: it is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint. And it induces regular effects of power. Each society has its regime of truth, its 'general politics' of truth; that is, the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true; the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true and false statements, the means by which each is sanctioned; the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth; the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true" ("Truth and Power," 72-73 in _The Foucault Reader_). I quote it to suggest that one can make a 'sweeping' claim about 'each society' in a way that preserves cultural difference while still offering a general statement of observation.

Hope that helps. And JayS is right: you should stop listening to all of us for awhile and trust your instincts, now that you've obtained all this critique.

Posted by: JM at December 14, 2006 11:49 PM

yes. but I remind that this is not going to be an academic book. nor is its primary purpose to rail, once again, at the powers that were and are. the relationship between power and belief is a part of the story. disputes over the nature of truth should be in there somewhere. cultural differences should certainly not be ignored. but my main purpose is to tell the tale -- an engaging tale -- of how a bunch of mostly quite brave humans have cobbled together the notion that we live without gods. I am interested in how, where and why this idea has developed and what it has accomplished. if tale telling, courage and the progress of ideas are outdated, reactionary notions, so be it.

Posted by: mitch at December 15, 2006 12:23 AM

Fear my comments have offended rather than assisted, which certainly wasn't the point. Understand that you are not writing an academic book; agree that the stories you wish to tell are compelling and need to be told (an endeavor neither outdated nor reactionary). Don't understand why telling tales (your strength but moreover, your interest) and providing a theoretical framework (the stretch you've invited by participating in the seminar and this blog, perhaps) seem to keep getting cast as mutually exclusive. For me at least they simply go together, extending the resonance of the narratives themselves while enabling their power to critique the structures of 'belief.' The notes are a rope thrown to academic readers seeking more--on their own usually, which is how I at least understand the function of footnotes. No expectation of railing!

Posted by: JM at December 15, 2006 10:16 AM

What is impossible to ascertain is how much of the history of the small minority of people who believed only in reality has been expunged.

Since our DNA has changed very little in the last 10,000 years, it is most likely that there have always been about the same proportional number of people who are born with the trait of questioning the norm. Since they (we) have always been the most reviled, it is to be expected that the stories of non-belief have been lost or mangled.

My story is that the terms "culture" and "religion" are misused. There is a homo sapient culture and religion that lays above all the thought up versions of culture and religion. It is the unquestioned belief in the reality we think up as real. That is the prime religion and the author of all sub-cultures. Anyone who does not believe in the reality we think we share is considered insane.

What I am trying to say is that the differences you find in chronological changes in language describing belief are superficial and really obfuscate the commonality of non-believers' questioning what they believe is the present insufficient description of the reality we all believe in by being human.

We rearrange our ideas about the description of reality but not the reality we see.

If I hand out a rock and ask anyone human if it is a real rock, if they answer truthfully and without being coy, they will say they believe in the rock. It fills all their senses. Anyone who does not believe in the rock will have their sanity questioned. THAT is the beginning of religion and belief. We have no proof other than our nature (culture) to support that belief, but we do not think of it as a belief because we do not question our ability to perceive reality.

What connects us all is our thinking. We only use symbols defined by the socially constructed reality we share. Words and images defined for use before we use them. Often by people so long dead we don't know their names.

If you do not believe in what you perceive you cannot communicate with those that do. They must believe you are insane to continue to believe in a shared objective reality.

Posted by: Jay Saul at December 15, 2006 2:22 PM

"Faith" means not wanting to know what's true--Nietz

We do not want to know we create the world and even less that it is a group defined construction.

Posted by: Jay Saul at December 15, 2006 6:30 PM

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