Listing entries tagged with atheism


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)

The Best Argument Against the Existence of God?

posted on 11.15.2006 at 5:24 PM

To finish the thought:

What argument has most profoundly shaken your belief? Or eliminated your belief? Or would have if you did believe?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 5:24 PM | Comments (10)

High Tide of Atheism?

posted on 11.14.2006 at 8:17 AM

Two bestsellers (Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris). Cover story in Wired. Main book review in the Sunday New York Times. Big review essay in Newsweek. Can't start a conversation in intellectual circles on five continents without someone mentioning this blog (or at least using the word "without").

What goes on?

1. A reaction to a religious revival which obstructs biology classes, causes a fuss over cartoons, fuels a mad American foreign policy and kills and maims?

2. Enlightenment reason has never ceased spreading, though it may have been obscured or lying low for a couple of decades there?

3. New burst of development for idea-dispensing technologies increases the questions and answers available to curious minds, from Kansas to Kabul?

4. ????????

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 8:17 AM | Comments (2)

The Prologue to This Book

posted on 11.10.2006 at 2:56 PM

I am posting here for comments, suggestions, criticism, etc., a draft of the Prologue to the book on the history of disbelief I am working on.

You should be able to read it by clicking: Download file

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 2:56 PM | Comments (3)

Flaubert on Atheism

posted on 10.27.2006 at 2:27 PM

Found this in a review by James Wood in the New Republic, written a couple of years ago:

Flaubert is reported as telling the tale of a man taken fishing by an atheist friend. The atheist casts the net and draws up a stone on which is carved: "I do not exist. Signed: God." And the atheist exclaims: "What did I tell you!"

The opposite of this seems actually to happen: We see signs that so much, so wonderfully much, exists. But have difficulty with the fact that these signs are unsigned.

Or am I taking a clever line too seriously?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 2:27 PM | Comments (2)

Hymns to the Milky Way?

posted on 09.21.2006 at 11:05 PM

From Newsweek:

On the science Web site, the astronomer Carolyn Porco offers the subversive suggestion that science itself should attempt to supplant God in Western culture, by providing the benefits and comforts people find in religion: community, ceremony and a sense of awe. "Imagine congregations raising their voices in tribute to gravity, the force that binds us all to the Earth, and the Earth to the Sun, and the Sun to the Milky Way," she writes.

Is this possible to imagine? Might we be -- or might we want to be -- beyond such rites, God-driven or not?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:05 PM | Comments (8)

Atheism and Morality

posted on 09.20.2006 at 11:16 PM

The question of where morality might be found without God has been a preoccupation of this blog. Here, from Jerry Adler's round-up in Newsweek of current books on atheism, is an interesting critique of Richard Dawkins:

Dawkins, brilliant as he is, overlooks something any storefront Baptist preacher might have told him. "If there is no God, why be good?" he asks rhetorically, and responds: "Do you really mean the only reason you try to be good is to gain God's approval and reward? That's not morality, that's just sucking up." That's clever. But millions of Christians and Muslims believe that it was precisely God who turned them away from a life of immorality. Dawkins, of course, thinks they are deluding themselves. He is correct that the social utility of religion doesn't prove anything about the existence of God. But for all his erudition, he seems not to have spent much time among ordinary Christians, who could have told him what God has meant to them.

Katha Pollitt made this argument at a conference at NYU some time ago. Somewhere, Pollitt suggested, there is a woman convinced the only thing between her family and ruin is her husband's commitment not to take another drink and the only thing that prevents him from breaking that commitment is his belief in Jesus. What has atheism to say to her?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:16 PM | Comments (25)

Pope Benedict XVI Weighs In

posted on 09.14.2006 at 6:07 PM

The latest to join our dialogue on the nature of disbelief is Pope Benedict XVI. Unfortunately, his comments are a bit obscure:

Today, when we have learned to recognize the pathologies and life-threatening diseases associated with religion and reason, and the ways that God's image can be destroyed by hatred and fanaticism, it is important to state clearly the God in whom we believe....
Only this can free us from being afraid of God which is ultimately at the root of modern atheism... Only this God saves us from being afraid of the world and from anxiety before the emptiness of life.

His Holyness -- at least as interpreted by the New York Times -- seems to be aiming for something here beyond mere lucidity. I guess the point is that our fear of God keeps us from accepting His assistance in overcoming our anxious fear of the world and of the emptiness of life.

It's hard to argue with the Pope on this "anxiety before the emptiness of life" thing. God knows we've all had days when stuff seems more than a little random. No doubt a bit of supernaturally imposed good/bad, right/wrong believe that the Son and the Father are consubstantial/don't belief the Son and the Father are consubstantial might help. Problem is -- and maybe this is part of the reason Benedict seems to be having difficulty making himself clear -- God Himself often seems more mysterious, shall we say, than clear on matters such as the proper relationship between religion and reason and what we should be doing about Darfur."Who can straighten what He has twisted? Koheleth wonders in Ecclesiastes.

And Benedict must be hanging out with a weird bunch of atheists. I can imagine a some haunted sinner running from God and his alleged judgement. But, rather than being afraid of God, the atheists I know are just unimpressed with Him as a concept (or Concept).

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 6:07 PM | Comments (6)

Death -- Part V

posted on 09.13.2006 at 11:08 PM

Is there any consolation an atheist can provide about death? Here is Pat Berger, who became a crusading atheist after 9/11, in an public radio interview:

She says the hardest conversation about atheism she's ever had was with a dear, dying friend, who begged her to believe so they could be together in heaven.
All she could say, Berger says, was, "Roseanne, I love you."

Is there anything else she might have said?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:08 PM | Comments (15)

American Beliefs

posted on 09.12.2006 at 10:51 PM

Some numbers from a large survey of Americans' religious attitudes by Gallup and Baylor University (via USA Today):

** 91.8% say they believe in God, a higher power or a cosmic force.

Not surprising. That would leave 8.2% of Americans not believing in God or the equivalent. But then the survey includes this:

** About one in nine (10.8%) respondents have no religious ties at all; previous national surveys found 14%.

Is this evidence that the religious revival is real? Or might this represent a difference in the surveys? And when asked dead on:

** only 5.2% of Americans say they are atheists.

This could be bad for book sales. The next number sounds ominous:

** 45.6% of all Americans say the federal government "should advocate Christian values."

Not clear, however, whether that means helping the poor or requiring prayer in school.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:51 PM | Comments (6)

9/11 and Atheism

posted on 09.11.2006 at 10:24 AM

This from an interview on public radio with Pat Berger, a 78-year-old woman in New York who appears to have found (or strengthened) atheism through the events of September 11:

"I really realized that it is all chance, and it is all random," she says. She remembers learning that a woman in her son's apartment building died in the twin towers because she happened to walk into a meeting at the wrong time. "There is no one watching out for anybody," Berger says.

I can think of other examples of this: One is a relative whose belief in God did not survive his experience with the Holocaust. Why does tragedy not more often lead to a surrender of belief in a benevolent God?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:24 AM | Comments (14)

Have Atheists Become News?

posted on 09.09.2006 at 11:22 PM

And is this piece from the Columbus Dispatch (not the first we've found recently) filled with more interesting quotes than is usual in news stories or am I just prejudiced?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:22 PM | Comments (8)

Atheism Defined

posted on 08.12.2006 at 6:40 PM

Bradlaugh1.jpgHere's Charles Bradlaugh, one of history's most important atheists and a major character in my book, with an unusual description of his (lack of) beliefs:

The Atheist does not say "there is no god," but he says "I know not what you mean by god; I am without idea of god; the word god is to me a sound conveying no clear or distinct affirmation. I do not deny god, because I cannot deny that of which I have no conception."

Doesn't sound that far from agnosticism.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 6:40 PM | Comments (18)

"We Like the Story with the Tiger Better"

posted on 08.04.2006 at 6:32 PM

More from churchgoer Bill Moyer's PBS interview with "strict agnostic" novelist Margaret Atwood:

MARGARET ATWOOD: A book came out called THE LIFE OF PI, by a guy called Yann Martel. And it begins by saying, "I'm going to tell you a story that's going to make you believe in God." Then he goes off on this...seaman's yarn about getting lost in a life boat with a tiger and so on and so forth. And many strange and wonderful things happen to him until he pitches up on the shore of...South America. Where upon, according to him, the tiger jumps off the boat and runs off into the woods. And he's found starving on the shore, and he's put in the hospital. And then these three Japanese insurance inspectors turn up to find out what happened to the boat that blew up at the beginning of the story.
Then he tells them this whole story. And they confer it among themselves and they say, "We think that maybe your story isn't true. And that there was no tiger." And you know he says, "Well that may be so, but tell me this, which story do you like better? The story with the tiger or the story without the tiger." And the other men confer amongst themselves and they say, "Well actually we like the story with the tiger better." And our narrator starts to cry and he says, "thank you."
So we like the story with the tiger better. We like the story with God in it better then we like the story without God in it. Because it's more like us, it's more understandable, it's more human.
BILL MOYERS: More human with God?
MARGARET ATWOOD: More human with God.
MARGARET ATWOOD: More human with God because the story without God is about atoms. It's not about somebody we can talk with in theory, or that has any interest in us.... Whereas the universe, with an intelligence in it, has got something to say to us because it's a mirror of who we are. How about that?

Is this how it is with the "strict agnostic" position: it is supposed to be about the impossibility of certainty, but it ends up being about the longing for a human-sounding story? How about that?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 6:32 PM | Comments (5)

"Atheism is a Religion"

posted on 08.02.2006 at 9:29 AM

While being interviewed by Bill Moyers recently, the novelist Margaret Atwood announced (thanks Esther) that she is an agnostic rather than an atheist because " a religion." Here is her explanation:

MARGARET ATWOOD: Well it makes an absolute stand about something that cannot be proven.
BILL MOYERS: There is no God.
MARGARET ATWOOD: You can't prove that.
BILL MOYERS: So you become-- what' a strict agnostic?


MARGARET ATWOOD: A strict agnostic says, you cannot pronounce, as knowledge, anything you cannot demonstrate. In other words if you're going to call it knowledge you have to be able to run an experiment on it that's repeatable. You can't run an experiment on whether God exists or not, therefore you can't say anything about it as knowledge. You can have a belief if you want to, or if that is what grabs you, if you were called in that direction, if you have a subjective experience of that kind, that would be your belief system. You just can't call it knowledge.

And more:

MARGARET ATWOOD: ...Even, for instance, a physicist, will say: Okay, instead of "Let there be light", there was the Big Bang, which must have been actually quite brilliant visually. And then you say to them, "But what about before that? What happened before that?" And they will say, "Well there was a singularity." And you will say..., "What is a singularity?" And they will say, "We don't know." So at some point in the story, there's going to be "We don't know."

I believe there are answers to her argument, which is primarily epistemological, in analytic philosophy and in the ancient Greek philosophy of Carneades and his argument about "plausibility": If not knowing about the Tooth Fairy and the origins of the Big Bang are judged the same thing, I fear we won't get too far. But my favorite answer would be that of all the things one might put before the Big Bang some omnipotent, omnibenevolent creature would be not only the least plausible but the most confounding.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:29 AM | Comments (12)

"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)

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 (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, 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 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 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)

Allegation that Atheism Is a Male Thing? -- 2

posted on 06.12.2006 at 11:16 PM

Women atheists:
Ernestine_Rose.jpgErnestine Rose (who will be one of the major characters in this book)
Frances Wright
Harriet Martineau
George Eliot: "God, immortality, duty -- how inconceivable the first, how unbelievable the second, how peremptory and absolute the third."
Virginia Woolf
Simone de Beauvoir: "I cannot be angry at God, in whom I do not believe."
Madalyn Murray O'Hair
Barbara Ehrenreich: "As an adult I found out that there was a big tradition of blue collar atheism in America..."

Nevertheless, there remains that startling gender imbalance in my cast of characters. Who am I forgetting?

JM has just recommended : "Jane Ellen Harrison, one of the Cambridge myth critics at the turn of the century," and "the real or imagined character of Diotima in Plato's Symposium."

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:16 PM | Comments (6)

Allegation that Atheism is a Male Thing? -- 1

posted on 06.12.2006 at 10:06 AM

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...

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:06 AM | Comments (12)

Buddhism and Atheism, Another Look

posted on 06.03.2006 at 10:16 PM

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.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:16 PM | Comments (9)

Atheists Unoriginal?

posted on 06.01.2006 at 7:34 PM

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?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 7:34 PM | Comments (1)

Day Seizing

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 | Comments (4)

Atheists Arrogant?

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 | Comments (8)


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 | Comments (1)

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 | Comments (3)

Harris the New O'Hair?

posted on 05.23.2006 at 8:17 PM

samharris.jpgFor 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 | Comments (5)

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 | Comments (12)

The Something

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 | Comments (7)

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.

buddha.jpgIf 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 | Comments (7)

Fundamentalist Atheists?

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 | Comments (2)

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 | Comments (6)

Colbert v. Atheist

posted on 04.27.2006 at 9:37 AM

Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith, appeared this week on the satiric Colbert Report (this sliver of the debate via The Raving Atheist):

Colbert.jpgColbert: Well, I've got historical evidence. The Bible tells me Jesus was born of a virgin.
Harris: Yeah, but . . .
Colbert: I mean, there's your witness right there, the Bible.
Harris: Unfortunately, the Qu'ran says that anyone who thinks that is going to spend eternity in hell.
Colbert: But we're not talking about the Qu'ran, we're talking about the Bible, okay? The Bible is without flaw. It is inerrant. And we know this, because the Bible says it is without flaw.

This is, as those who have sorted through this program's various levels of irony will confirm, an example of religion, the Christian religion, actually getting punched around a bit on a major American cable channel: Comedy Central. This is not the sort of thing we were used to seeing on our televisions in this country.

Are we witnessing a result of the increasing number of television channels with increasing space (despite corporate ownership, etc.) for diverse viewpoints? Or is the great, centuries long march of reason proceeding apace after all?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:37 AM | Comments (0)

A Teleology of Disbelief?

posted on 04.19.2006 at 8:30 PM

Jesus told his disciples that the Kingdom of Heaven would arrive fast enough so that "some standing here...shall not taste death till they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom." Didn't happen.

Madeleine Bunting (to whom this blog has paid an absurd amount of attention) took a shot back, accusing nonbelievers of a failed prediction of their own: "We were supposed to be all atheist rationalists by now," she writes.

Okay, that hasn't happened. Don't know who -- Karl Marx, maybe -- said it would. But is it fair to assume that such a prediction-- that believers will eventually wise up -- is inherent in attitudes of disbelief? Is there an assumption that logic, science, whatever, will eventually triumph, that the Kingdom of Reason will come?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 8:30 PM | Comments (9)

Jesuses -- 3: "Bleeding Stinking Mad"

posted on 04.16.2006 at 2:44 PM


"His black eyes, glassy and still, reflected depth on depth his own stricken image of himself, trudging into the distance in the bleeding stinking mad shadow of Jesus."

That's one heck of a Jesus (or at least one that casts one heck of a shadow), from Flannery O'Connor.

And then O'Connor writes (I was led to these quotes by Garry Wills) that Jesus moves:

"from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark..."

Got to understand, I guess, if you're in the religion-eradication business, that a lot of the attraction -- beyond the charity, the community and the meaning, beyond even the rapture and the rupture of physical laws, the rupture of history -- is in the "wild ragged," "bleeding stinking" madness of it all.

Where is the atheist who jumps "from tree to tree in back of" the "mind"? Do nonbelievers -- Shelleyans, most of them -- spend too much energy switching on lights? Who whispers -- Sade?, Ivan K.? -- "come off into the dark"?

Is the point that you become -- inevitably -- the opposite of what you are falsely accused of being? Are nonbelievers so concerned with not being seen as dissolute that they seem dull?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 2:44 PM | Comments (1)

Denominations of Disbelief? -- 2. Ivanists

posted on 04.03.2006 at 10:41 AM

The question is whether atheists, too, have sects. I've proposed one possible denomination: The Shelleyans. Here's a second, named (in a considerable oversimplification) after Ivan Karamazov in Dostoyevsky's novel. (The name "Sadists" being already taken.)

-- Ivanists subscribe to a nihilistic, anything-goes view of a world without god:

"Ivan...added...that if you were to destroy in mankind the belief in immortality...nothing would be immoral, everything would be lawful, even cannibalism. He ended by asserting that for every individual, like ourselves, who does not believe in God or immortality...egoism, even to crime, must become not only lawful but even recognixed as the inevitable, the most rational even honorable outcome of his position."

Some Ivanists, especially early Western converts, are tortured by the death of God and what they see as the resulting collapse of all moral scruple. Witness Ivan himself or his "disciple" Smerdyakov in The Brothers Karamazov.

-- Their prophets? An ancient (and not tortured) Indian group known as the Carvaka, one of whose masters observed:

"Can begging, fasting, penance, …be compared with the ravishing embraces of women with large eyes, whose prominent breasts are compressed with ones arms."

-- There is, of course, a fair amount of Ivanism in contemporary culture, which, shall we say, is considerably more interested in ravishing embraces than in penance. sade.jpg

-- Their saint? The Marquis de Sade?

-- Words to live by -- William Blake:

In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy./ Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead./ The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom./ Prudence is a rich, ugly old maid courted by Incapacity./ He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence.

-- Related denominations? Materialists. Carvaka. Libertines. Hedonists. (Nietzsche's relationship to the Ivanists is complex.)

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:41 AM | Comments (4)

Are Atheists More Moral? -- V

posted on 03.30.2006 at 11:59 PM

Dostoyevsky at Lenin Library.jpg
The following statement, written when socialism was still (mostly) unborn, has long haunted me. It is from Dostoyevsky's Brothers Karamazov:

"Socialism is not merely the labour question, it is before all things the atheistic question, the question of the form taken by atheism today., the question of the tower of Babel built without God, not to mount to Heaven from earth but to set up Heaven on Earth."

Well okay, socialism is currently (mostly) dead. But what if you substitute "humanism" for it here? Trying to "set up Heaven on Earth" -- however naive, however Utopian -- seems a rather decent goal. Why wait for God to pitch in? Why content yourself with trying to reach an alleged heaven in the sky? But Dostoyevsky, having outgrown (in Siberia) his left-wing phase, is scoffing.

Maybe the great novelist is wrong and the point is that God paralyzes us, making all human efforts at amelioration seem futile, misguided, a diversion.

Or maybe Dostoyevsky is right and the point is that we dreamy, left-wing mortals waste our time trying to build imitation heavens.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:59 PM | Comments (2)

Are Atheists More Moral? -- IV (Sade)

posted on 03.28.2006 at 9:59 AM

The Marquis de Sade, addressing God:

"I wish that for a moment you could exist to have the pleasure to better insult you."

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:59 AM | Comments (1)

Are Atheists More Moral? -- III (Tony Blair)

posted on 03.26.2006 at 8:52 PM

From an article on British Prime Minister Tony Blair earlier this month:

He confirmed the thesis put forward by more than one biographer that it was his rediscovery of religion while at Oxford University which led him into politics.

Would this, assuming one finds Blair's politics moral (difficult for some of us in recent years), be a counter example?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 8:52 PM | Comments (1)

Are Atheists More Moral? -- II

posted on 03.25.2006 at 6:57 PM

Here some data to add to the discussion. Percentage of respondents who think torture is never justified:

Catholics 26%
White Protestant 31%
White evangelical 31%
Secular 41%
Total 32%

This from a survey by Pew, reported by the National Catholic Reporter, digested by (the prolific and wise) Pharyngula (who wonders about the other 59%), after being alerted by Andrew Sullivan.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 6:57 PM | Comments (17)

A Golden Age of Disbelief?

posted on 03.16.2006 at 11:34 PM

Every day, every week, every month, every quarter, the most widely read journals seem just now to vie with each other in telling us that the time for religion is past, that faith is a hallucination or an infantile disease, that the gods have at last been found out and exploded. -- Max Muller, 1878

Was this -- the time of Darwin, Huxley and Bradlaugh -- indeed the golden age of disbelief? Did it end? When? Have we in fact turned back toward religion? Why? (Forgive me if I've asked such questions before. I'll probably ask them again.)

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:34 PM | Comments (3)

The Clash of Eras -- II

posted on 03.15.2006 at 5:06 PM

Adam Becker, writing for The Revealer, takes some swings at Wafa Sultan:

Wafa_Sultan.jpg Wafa_Sultan_upsidedown.JPG

"Her secularist critique of certain Muslim extremists who serve for her as an exemplar of all that is wrong with contemporary Muslim and Arab culture is unoriginal. Typical of irate secularist and modernization discourse, her argument consists of the standard flustered response to religion that we have heard since the Enlightenment: you are backwards and ignorant, grow up and get over it."

Is this -- "grow up and get over it" -- not what atheists, were it put somewhat more gently, do believe? Is it not merely "typical" of the "secularist...discourse" but necessary to it? Can you disbelieve without thinking others are wrong, even ignorant, to believe?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 5:06 PM | Comments (2)

Are Atheists More Moral?

posted on 03.14.2006 at 2:36 PM

zizek.jpgIn his recent opinion piece in the New York Times, Slavoj Zizek argues that a "properly Christian ethical stance survives" today "mostly in atheism."

Three arguments, I think, can be made for the proposition that the irreligious are actually more moral than the religious:

1. That religions have actually encouraged violence because such intensity of conviction can lead to intolerance or crusades. Zizek (playing on the Dostoevsky line): "The lesson of today's terrorism is that if God exists, then everything, including blowing up thousands of innocent bystanders, is permitted."

2. That atheists are more moral because a moral law resides in Nature or Humanity, and the atheist's view of this law is not obscured by ancient texts, rituals, tribal feuds or other forms of religious mumbo jumbo. Zizek alludes to this when he talks positively of "merely human constraints and considerations." It was a major theme when the pro-Atheism argument first showed itself in Europe with Baron d'Holbach and, later, young Shelley: shelley.jpg

There needeth not the hell that bigots frame
To punish those who err; earth in itself
Contains at once the evil and the cure;
And all-sufficing Nature can chastise
Those who transgress her law; she only knows
How justly to proportion to the fault
The punishment it merits.

3. That the religious do good only to cozy up to God (as discussed here). Zizek: "Fundamentalists do what they perceive as good deeds in order to fulfill God's will and to earn salvation; atheists do them simply because it is the right thing to do."

These are attractive arguments for nonbelievers. Are they valid? And one more question: Is a "properly Christian ethical stance" what nonbelievers should be after?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 2:36 PM | Comments (7)

The Devil

posted on 03.13.2006 at 11:30 AM

newhart_devil.jpg Atheists use evil almost as much as the religious do. It becomes -- the evil of those God fearing, decent people drowning in their houses in New Orleans, for example -- a powerful argument against the existence of God.

But what might a nonbeliever make of the devil?
-- Is he a general in a war with God? Is this a struggle the angry nonbeliever might want to join? Or is it a dualistic, obsessive death match, which the thoughtful nonbeliever is happy to rise above, a war to which the atheist conscientiously objects?
-- Is the devil just more supernatural hokum, which ought to be purged from our cultures? God and the devil walking side by side. Dream and nightmare. One no more real than the other.
-- Or is he -- why always he? -- a Promethean figure, standing up for humankind against autocratic deities? I've heard that some form of the name Satan means in some form of Hebrew: the advocate. Might atheists have some sympathy for the devil (as myth, as literary character) as the being who makes the case against God?

Is there some sort of "principle of evil" in the universe which nonbelievers must acknowledge, not just use against their opponents?

I keep waiting for the devil to show up in my readings on the history of disbelief. So far, except for some talk of Milton, he's been conspicuous in his absence. Am I reading badly or does the devil really not fit, even as an object of scorn, in the atheist's cosmos?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:30 AM | Comments (5)

An Atheist Speaks...

posted on 03.12.2006 at 11:05 AM

...on the opinion pages of the New York Times. Strange times we live in. It has taken an often intolerant religious revival (in the US and abroad) to allow a more open discussion of irreligious ideas in this country than has been seen in at least half a century. (Changes -- democratization? -- in media have also helped.)

A few preliminary thoughts on this piece by Slovoj Zizek:

1. When atheism first dared enter public debate in Europe, in the 18th century in France (with Holbach) and the 19th century in Britain (with Shelley), it did so with a grand claim (founded on a romantic, almost deified view of "Nature") to a higher morality -- a morality that looked a lot like Christian morality. Zizek is making a similar claim: "Today, this properly Christian ethical stance survives mostly in atheism." More on this later.

2. Zizek is also proposing a new (for me, here in the sheltered US) political analysis of the Cartoons of the Prophet situation: The Christian right initially printed the cartoons to take some digs at Islam but then expressed "understanding" for the hurt felt (and expressed sometimes violently) by true believers. The atheist liberals, on the other hand, reprinted the cartoons only in the spirit of tolerance and open discussion and had little tolerance for violent protest against open discussion. "Atheism," Zizek writes, " is a European legacy worth fighting for, not least because it creates a safe public space for believers."

3. My expertise on these matters is limited, but where Zizek refers to David Hume in the piece ("David Hume, a believer, made this point in a very poignant way, when he wrote that the only way to show true respect for God is to act morally while ignoring God's existence.") doesn't the point really fit Immanuel Kant? It is, nonetheless, an important point (discussed below) -- though more difficult than Zizek acknowledges.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:05 AM | Comments (4)

Undercover Atheist?

posted on 02.27.2006 at 9:05 PM

david_hume.jpgNow along with writing entries I seem to have given myself responsibility for alerting you to when an entry is important. The debate over Hume's beliefs or lack of beliefs -- begun by Dennett and Wieseltier, picked up in comments here and here , and in an entry below -- strikes me as important for a couple of reasons:

1. David Hume might have mounted -- in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion and Natural History of Religion -- the most thorough and intelligent critique of religion we have seen. So it is of more than mere passing interest whether he was or was not a believer.
2. We're still struggling to figure out whether anyone was an atheist in Europe between the end of the Roman Empire and the publication, in 1770, of Baron d'Holbach's System of Nature, the first avowedly atheistic work. Some historians, as I have noted, believe it was impossible not to believe in God, given the mindset in Europe at the time. Others believe it was merely impossible to say you didn't believe. Hume provides quite a case study.

Here's a quote from his History I find intriguing and, probably, revealing:david_hume.jpg

"The conviction of the religionists, in all ages, is more affected than real... Men dare not avow, even to their own hearts, the doubts which they entertain on such subjects: they make a merit of implicit faith; and disguise to themselves their real infidelity."

My guess is that Hume hung on to some faith in his own heart -- but very, very little; very, very tenuously.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:05 PM | Comments (2)

Heavy Stuff

posted on 02.25.2006 at 1:33 PM

Far be it for this blogger to toot his own blog's horn...constantly. Just once in a while. And such an occasion has arrived. It strikes said blogger that the Derrida post below, which attracted a grand total of zero comments, and the Religion as Emotion post, less far below, are, like, important. derrida - rotated2.JPGcupid -rotate2.JPG

On account of the fact that they each get at the places, very different places, where the seemingly parallel lines of faith and reason seem to meet. Derrida is arguing (and, okay, maybe I didn't make this very clear) that there is a kind of primordial, inescapable leap of faith behind any attempt to reason, to communicate. That other lofty post suggests that an emotional response to religion, to faith, may be as real, even unavoidable, as love (and it is the official position of this blog that love is damn real) -- even if you don't belief in squat, even if you're Mr. or Ms. Reason.

Whole philosophies, maybe, could rise or fall based on such arguments. (I haven't quite worked out how, but trust me on this.) At the very least, you'd think someone writing a book (eminently readable but still intellectually sound) on atheism ought to have thought them out. You're supposed to help me think out.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:33 PM | Comments (18)

Wieseltier on Dennett III: Hume

posted on 02.24.2006 at 5:39 PM

Daniel Dennett claims to be -- and in fact is -- following in the tradition of david_hume.jpg
David Hume in using an exploration of the causes of religion to loosen belief in religion. But Leon Wieseltier accuses him of editing out one important statement by Hume -- the one in which the great skeptic admits: "The whole frame of nature bespeaks an intelligent author."

And it is true that, when pressed, Hume seems to emit a vague deism not dissimilar to the vague deism to which Wieseltier himself seems to cling (rather desperately, it seems). But the point, which Wieseltier fails to mention, is that in Hume's day one was pressed to avow belief in a deity with an insistence and consequence of a different order from anything philosophers today might confront. Just half a century earlier, a young man was hung in Scotland for rejecting religion. And Hume was afraid to publish his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion for 25 years -- until after his death.

This Scottish philosopher, who generally wanted to avoid "clamour," must have felt it prudent to display at least some plausible religious belief. Was he being insincere? We don't know. (Some of his professions of belief, such as the one Wieseltier quotes, seem inconsistent with his reasoning elsewhere; however, an unbending atheism would seem inconsistent with Hume's skepticism about intellectual certainty.) Is Wieseltier being fair in quoting, in the New York Times, Hume's avowal of belief in intelligent design without noting the pressures he faced? That question seems easier to answer.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 5:39 PM | Comments (1)

Science and Religion

posted on 02.21.2006 at 4:49 PM

Maybe this is what is most interesting about Wieseltier/Dennett debate below:

All right-thinking blue-state people, religious or not, had lined up on the side of science and evolution, against intolerant school boards and the foolishness of intelligent design. Now here's Wieseltier -- a liberal intellectual of impeccable credentials, in the New York Times, no less -- faced with the task of resisting a science-based atheist argument. And what does he do? He resorts to charges of "scientism" and quotes, respectfully, Hume saying: "The whole frame of nature bespeaks an intelligent author."

The scary question for a percentage of those right-thinking people: Has the scientific argument against religion grown so strong that it is necessary to challenge science to refute it?

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

Wieseltier on Dennett I: "Scientism"?

posted on 02.21.2006 at 11:30 AM

It is not quite clear what faith Leon Wieseltier (left) is defending wieseltier.jpgdaniel_dennett_1.jpgin his over-the-top review of the new book by Daniel Dennett (right) on the causes of belief. But he must see the threat to that pale faith, and civilization as he knows it, as profound, because no holds are barred. The New Republic's literary editor even finds himself sounding a bit like a late-seventies comp-lit professor:

"Scientism, the view that science can explain all human conditions and expressions, mental as well as physical, is a superstition, one of the dominant superstitions of our day; and it is not an insult to science to say so."

It is indeed an entertaining world we live in when science (broadly applied, to be sure) gets called religion by a long-gray-haired neoliberal (with a weakness for the spiritual) to fend off a long-gray-bearded philosophy professor (with a weakness for sociobiology), in, of all places, the pages of the New York Times. What are we to make of this charge?

Is there actually a sense in which science, when extended to human culture, might truly be considered a faith? (Does the attempt to locate a common source for faith and reason attributed to Derrida -- guru of late-seventies comp-lit professors -- below illuminate matters any?) Is the villain here just sociobiology -- evolutionary biology as applied to cultural behaviors? Or are we to conceive of our whole scientific view of the world as, gulp, just another religion? (Was Einstein the wrong choice as "Person of the Century"? Should it have been Thomas Kuhn?) Can one be an atheist or even an agnostic with respect to science -- or some overly ambitious applications of science?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:30 AM | Comments (12)

Cartoons of the Atheist -- Part II (and Dennett's Book)

posted on 02.20.2006 at 11:33 AM


A few years ago, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin published this cartoon; it was an unclever response to an opinion piece by Mitchell Kahle in which he wrote: "The old saying 'There are no atheists in foxholes' is entirely without merit or legitimacy...."

This notion that atheists will get religion as soon as they sense death or the full turbulence of life is an old one. In the nineteenth century some atheists went so far as to arrange to have witnesses by their deathbeds to prove that they did not succumb to a last-minute conversion.

Before getting to Leon Wieseltier's intemperate, wrongheaded and fascinating review of Dennett's book in Sunday's New York Times, I want to finish with Adam Kirsch's somewhat more delicate skewering. For at some point he falls back on a version of the old foxhole argument:

"To believe or disbelieve is existentially the most important choice of all. It shapes one's whole understanding of human life and purpose, because it is a choice that each of us must make for him or herself. To impress on a man the urgency of that choice, Kierkegaard wrote, it would be useful to "get him seated on a horse and the horse made to take fright and gallop wildly ... this is what existence is like if one is to become consciously aware of it."

Much here perplexes me. First, how does Kierkegaard's view of existence relate to Woody Allen's revelation that "eighty percent of life is just showing up"?

Second, what does it mean to say that belief in God is an "existential choice"? Doesn't belief in God depend on only one factor: whether you think there really is a God? I know we're supposed to forget such calculations and perpetrate some kind of "leap of faith." Atheist_in_Foxhole_2.jpgA "leap" toward what? From what? Over what? Is there any place to stand on the other side? Do you have to keep leaping? A "leap" that allows you to kill your son? Faith in dreams? Faith in reason? Faith in superstition? Faith in faith? Faith in nothing? Faith as a kind of madness? Faith in God?

And, third, what sort of argument for religion is it to say people crawl toward it when life gets tough and they get scared? When he heard thunder, my late golden retriever would attempt to hide his head under a bed. This earned neither him nor the bed much respect in my eyes.

Mitchell Kahle prepared this second cartoon, also not dazzlingly clever, in response to that of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:33 AM | Comments (4)

The Causes of Belief

posted on 02.18.2006 at 11:35 AM

Dennett book.jpgIn a review of Daniel Dennett's new Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, Adam Kirsch argues that an explanation for why people believe is not an argument against belief:

"Mr. Dennett believes that explaining religion in evolutionary terms will make it less real; that is the whole purpose of his book. But this is like saying that because water is made of two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen, it is not really wet.... Just so, the reality of religious experience cannot be abolished by explaining it as an adaptation to our prehistorical environment."

But, of course, the reality of religious experience is considerably more elusive than the wetness of water. And a couple of the more common arguments used to demonstrate (against the evidence of our senses and of science) the existence of supernatural beings are hugely vulnerable to explanations of why so many believe.

One such common argument for the existence of God: the fact that all human societies seem to believe in Him or them. (This is the argument ex consensus gentium.) But if that widespread belief can be explained by the fact that a hypersensitivity to the presence of conscious agents is of survival value in hominids, then that argument disappears.

Another such common argument: that human societies believe in God because they've been given "revelations"; they've seen miracles, had visions. But if the belief was really caused by evolutionary pressures, there is less reason to believe in those revelations, miracles and visions.

Democritus, whom Dennett's book does not cite, had a go at the causes-of-belief question almost two and a half millennia ago. Hume, whom Dennett does cite, engages in a rigorous investigation of these causes in his Natural History of Religion. For good reason. This is powerful stuff.

(Thanks to Ben Vershbow, of the Institute for the Future of the Book, for the Kirsch link and, soon, many more.)

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:35 AM | Comments (1)

Is Atheism Simple?

posted on 02.15.2006 at 11:10 PM

Religion definitely has pretensions toward simplicity: good/evil, sacred/profane, saved/damned. Atheism, I think, wants to be the opposite of all that: open to the world's tangles and shadings. Still, I sense a kind of impatience among some readers of this blog, as if we ought to be able to boil all this ratiocination down to something like: religion is stupid, and then leave it at that.

Can atheism be on the side of complexity while maintaining that the issues it itself raises are simple: God/no god, meaning/meaningless, science/ignorance?

Are the issues it raises simple?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:10 PM | Comments (5)

Jean Meslier

posted on 02.13.2006 at 10:27 PM

Meslier's Church.bmp
The story of this French priest (This was his church) is surely one of the great tales in the history of disbelief. After performing his duties irreproachably until his death in 1733, Father Meslier left beyond three copies of a Memoire, addressed to his parishioners, with his true thoughts:

"...As a priest I had no choice but to fulfill my ministry, but how I suffered when I was forced to preach to you those pious falsehoods that I detested with all my heart. What contempt I felt for my ministry, and particularly for the superstitious mass and the ridiculous administration of the sacraments, especially when they had to be carried out with a solemnity that attracted your piety and excited your credulity? A thousand times I was on the point of publicly exploding. I wanted to open your eyes, but a fear stronger than my strength suddenly held me back, and forced me to remain silent until my death...."

Makes you wonder: How much disbelief was being hidden? What thoughts today are being hidden? Or has humankind suddenly developed moral courage?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:27 PM | Comments (2)

Cartoons of the Atheist

posted on 02.11.2006 at 7:47 PM

We can imagine, as some Muslims have asked us to do, the outrage that would greet satiric cartoons featuring Jesus or, were the point sufficiently nasty, Moses.

How about a satiric drawing of an atheist? What would it show? (A man lost in a microscope oblivious to the wonder of all that goes on around him?)

Wait, by the grace of Google, I found one (our artist is Jack Hamm):

Atheist cartoon.gif

I suspect that this image would not be sufficient to rouse the residents of the Left Bank or the Upper West Side to burn flags or embassies. Would it be possible to come up with a cartoon that would seriously offend atheists? Are they above (below?) this sort of thing? Is this because for the atheist "nothing is sacred"?

Doesn't a feeling for the "sacred" increase the inclination to take offense? Would this not be a response to the assertion by Madeleine Bunting, in the Guardian, that, in essence, religion is merely one of many "collective identities" societies can use as an excuse for violence?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 7:47 PM | Comments (4)

Cartoons of the Prophet -- Part V

posted on 02.08.2006 at 9:48 PM

** The politics have been breaking rather oddly on the those satiric cartoons. Some of the papers daring to reprint them have been right-wing papers -- normally more sensitive to affronts to religion than to limitations on free expression. (Does it depend on which religion?)

** The argument, as I see it, is not between the natural enemies atheism and orthodox belief but between the natural enemies pluralism/freedom of expression and orthodox belief. Which raises the question (actually Bob Stein raised the question) of what an atheist might see in this battle.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:48 PM | Comments (1)

Cartoons of the Prophet -- Part IV

posted on 02.07.2006 at 11:50 AM

In an opinion piece in the Times of London the atheist (Why aren't there more pieces by atheists in the Times that lands on my doorstep each morning?) Matthew Parris also sees deep and irreconcilable differences surfacing in the current battle over those Danish cartoons:more cartoon demo.bmp

"Let us not duck what that "I do not believe" really means. It means I do not believe that there is one God, Allah, or that Muhammad is His Prophet. It means I do not believe that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, or that no man cometh to the Father except by Him. I do not believe that the Jews are God's Chosen People, or subject to any duties different from the rest of us. It means I do not believe any living creature will be reincarnated in another life.

"In my opinion these views are profoundly mistaken, and those who subscribe to them are under a serious misapprehension on a most important matter. Not only are their views not true for me: they are not true for them. They are not true for anyone. They are wrong.

"Cutting through the babble of well-meaning souls who like to speak of the "community" of belief among "people of faith", this must also be what the Muslim is saying to the Christian, Jew or Hindu; or what the Christian must be saying to the Jew, Hindu or Muslim. These faiths make demands and assert truths that are not compatible with the demands and truths of other faiths. To assert one must be to deny the others."

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:50 AM | Comments (2)


posted on 01.31.2006 at 5:30 PM

Writing. (Always a happy development for an author.) Writing about anthropology and atheism.

It seems the answer to which came first in human history belief or disbelief is, to the extent anthropological discussions of hunter-gatherers provide a guide, the former -- in the form of shamanism.

The accounts I'm reading of psychotropic potions being swallowed in tropical jungles or drum-induced ecstasies in Siberia are enough to warm an ex-hippy's heart. Don't do much for the atheist in me, though. For they do make clear how basic is this insistent, if not irrepressible, human itch to populate the sky above and the earth below with spirits -- supernatural, superhuman (superfluous?).

What, to rephrase a nagging question raised below, is our problem? We seem a species of fantasists. What would we be like, I ask on the eve of a US State-of-the-Union address, if we weren't so disposed to imagine a god or a devil lurking in every cave, every cloud, every issue? If we could indeed come off it?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 5:30 PM | Comments (2)

Come Off It!

posted on 01.30.2006 at 9:06 PM

Religious folks often suspect that, deep down, atheists -- particularly atheists as they face death -- really do have a feeling for God.

Do nonbelievers suspect that, deep down, religious folks have their doubts? That their faith in an afterlife, for example, is not quite strong enough to fend off fear of death?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:06 PM | Comments (3)

Has the Great Statement of Atheism Been Written?

posted on 01.25.2006 at 6:48 PM

But -- and here's another way I do see Bunting's work over of Dawkins as challenging -- what about this claim of hers?

"Atheist humanism hasn't generated a compelling popular narrative and ethic of what it is to be human and our place in the cosmos; where religion has retreated, the gap has been filled with consumerism, football, Strictly Come Dancing and a mindless absorption in passing desires."

One answer: Oh, come off it, all you shrill and panicked meaning seekers! Atheism cannot provide, and has no interest in providing, a new tale of good and evil to replace your fading testaments, gospels, holy books or other bedtime stories.

But we might also take her question more seriously. Has the great philosophical statement of atheism -- not as an alternative religion but as a analysis of life beyond religion -- been written?

Many have expressed what is wrong with religion. (See, for example, Russell or Sam Harris or George Carlin.) Has anyone proclaimed, with the requisite wisdom and gravity, what is right -- positive -- about life beyond religion?

Mill? Sartre? Postmodernism? Derrida? TK?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 6:48 PM | Comments (5)

Where Are All the Atheists?

posted on 01.23.2006 at 5:40 AM

Declaring yourself a nonbeliever was impossible then. As late as 1811, in England, it was still quite dangerous.

Are there situations -- outside of Kandahar -- where it is difficult now?

And let me throw in two related questions borrowed from comments below:

George asks why some periods seem less tolerant of infidels than others. Are we (as liberal optimists like me want to believe) making gradual, though not so steady, progress toward increased freedom of irreligion? Or are some other factors making things better then worse again for nonbelievers?

And Boelf asks whether intolerance of atheism is just a subset of general ultra-orthodox, Taliban-like intolerance of those who don't share The One True Faith. Or is it something different?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 5:40 AM | Comments (2)

Where Were All the Atheists?

posted on 01.20.2006 at 6:12 AM

One of the great mysteries in the history of disbelief:

Why is there almost no evidence that atheists existed in Europe from, say, the Middle Ages through the end of the Renaissance?

One possible answer follows from the argument in the previous post: There weren't any atheists because a mind at that time, in those cultures, was simply unable to conceive of a world without God.

Another possible answer, as you probably have guessed, is that disbelievers -- skeptics, iconoclasts, freethinkers -- have always been around. It's just that in those centuries, when Europe was in the grip of something like a Christian version of the Taliban, it was impossible to express disbelief. Merely disputing the proportion of divinity in a member of the Trinity could get you burned at the stake.

The first answer exhibits an attractive cultural relativism. I lean toward the second, less condescending answer. And I think the latest historical evidence (of which there ain't much) is pointing this way.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 6:12 AM | Comments (6)

Judge Jones -- In the 15th Century

posted on 01.18.2006 at 5:04 PM

In trying to understand the history of atheism, it is probably necessary to understand why, at times, failure to believe in the gods really did seem wacky: in Europe before Newton and Darwin, for example.

The problem: "world orderliness," Schopenhauer called it - as evidenced by the remarkable regularities of the heavenly bodies as well as the remarkable complexity and efficiency of living bodies. Explain that with your "materialism"! Tell us that is just the product of "blind chance"!

Fact is it was damn difficult -- before gravity, before evolution -- to explain the presence of order and complexity in the universe without recourse to a "divine creator."

Let's say some Judge Jones six centuries ago had been asked to rule on an effort by a school board to begin classes with a statement that there was another "theory" of creation: that all the marvels that make up the heavens and the earth just arrived by accident. Might he not have dismissed that notion as characterized by "breathtaking inanity"?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 5:04 PM | Comments (3)

On Bunting On Dawkins On Atheism

posted on 01.17.2006 at 6:45 PM

Richard Dawkins, who seems to be taking on the Bertrand Russell role of primary intellectual champion of atheism, has a two-part series attacking religion on Channel Four in the UK. Haven't seen it. (Will a US network have the guts to pick it up?) But I was sent Madeleine Bunting's exuberant critique of the series in the Guardian.

Bunting's piece is smart, tough and even, in places, wise: Yes, societies can find other excuses for killing each other besides religious difference. No, trying to prevent parents from indoctrinating their kids with religion doesn't sound like such a hot idea. (Are we also to prevent them from indoctrinating their children with free-market ideology or compassion for the poor?)

However, Bunting -- like many in the group Thomas Huxley once dismissed as "reconcilers" between religion and science -- seems unable to grasp the natural antagonism between faith and reason. "Faith, according to the New Testament, "is assurance of things hoped for." Reason, particularly its offspring science, is the alternative -- the antidote -- to such wishful thinking. This doesn't mean there isn't an element of faith at the bottom of reason -- "faith" that the sun will in fact rise tomorrow, for example. And this doesn't mean people of faith can't do science. But it would seem to support Dawkins' characterization of faith as a "process of non-thinking."

Bunting is also smart, tough and possibly wise on a subject that has been much discussed here: the new religious Great Awakening and an alleged and concomitant decline in freethinking. "There's an aggrieved frustration," she writes about nonbelievers, "that they've been short-changed by history; we were supposed to be all atheist rationalists by now."

Bunting thinks she senses "the unmistakable whiff of panic." You panicked?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 6:45 PM | Comments (5)


posted on 01.17.2006 at 5:21 PM

OK, here I am typing notes about how atheism was and was not punished in Athens while a yoga master is singing a rather lovely relaxation song in my hotel room. (The song is interrupted for a moment by a call on his cell phone, but that's not the point we're after.) My wife has hired this fellow and apparently there was no other place in the hotel where he could check her form on "the sun salutation" and try to get her breathing right.

In Athens impiety or disrespect toward the gods -- asebeia -- was a crime, occasionally punished, occasionally by death. I feel guilty of asebeia in general and guilty of impiety specifically, at this moment, toward yoga, yogis, masters, gurus, etc. Here in India, as he sings, she breathes and I type, it is not a particularly happy feeling.

Atheists insist, persuasively, that the absence of a belief in god does not lead to any absence of wonder at the universe. Awe and humility also seem quite acheivable. But how about reverence? And is it possible to be an atheist and still respond with piety to lovely songs, to a world that brings yogis into your hotel room?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 5:21 PM | Comments (0)

India -- Variety of Irreligious Experience

posted on 01.14.2006 at 12:38 AM

This country sure will chase notions of cultural homogenization out of an American's head.

The Indian street (as alive as any I've seen): where a thousand and one collisions are poised to happen -- between honking car and weaving bicycle, putt-putting auto-rickshaw and intent pedestrian; where a thousand collisions are, with a last-second swerve or stall, avoided.

Skinny women squat on the dusty ground in brightly colored sarees. Skinny men wrap and unwrap loose fabric around their midsections. (No doubt leaving them more comfortable than my jeans leave me.) At the restaurant where I find myself, the men eat their white rice and spicy sauces with their fingers.

And then there's Indian religion. Polytheism is just some quaint historical fact back where I come from. Here in India it's easily visible in the colorful gods, with reassuring smiles, that decorate a shrine in the parking lot of my hotel.

This crowd of Hindu gods, with their different talents and personalities, seems pretty distant from the stern, lonely god-of-all-trades of the Abrahamic tradition. Sure sounds like unhomogenized cultural difference to me.

Somewhere in the comments on another entry on this blog we were discussing whether Jewish atheism, say, is different from Christian atheism. What about atheism here ("rationalists," I believe they're called)? A Hindu nonbeliever has an awful lot of gods to not believe in. Does that make it harder or easier? In what exactly would a Buddhist be disbelieving?

I have a fair amount invested in the premise that it is possible to talk in one sentence about atheism in, for example, India and in the next about atheism in Paris (where only baguettes, grapes and Le Quick hamburgers are eaten with fingers).

That is probably still possible. Nonetheless, It is clearly going to be necessary for me to acknowledge the variety of religious experience in order to make sense of a good variety of humankind's irreligious experiences.

On my plane a gaggle of preternaturally sincere Americans and Europeans, in loose-fitting clothes, whispered about the best rooms in this or that ashram. They didn't come all this way just to experience unfamilar ways of eating or to ride unfamiliar kinds of taxis.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 12:38 AM | Comments (0)

A Bone to Pick with the Buddha

posted on 01.07.2006 at 1:40 AM

The Buddha was once asked whether the gods exist. His response: "The question does not edify."

I'm afraid I'm going to have to disagree with the Buddha on this one -- my book project being founded on the premise that the question of whether the gods exist can be hugely edifying.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:40 AM | Comments (7)

The "A" Word

posted on 01.06.2006 at 9:51 AM

The word "atheism" is used in the subtitle of this blog. That decision was made after some debate. It has always seemed to me to be a harsh word.

As Leslie Stephen (who has been quoted a lot here lately) puts it, "atheism" is a name that "still retains a certain flavour as of the stake in this world and hell-fire in the next." It was, for numerous centuries, a widely and quite loosely used term of disparagement. Catholics called protestants "atheists," and vice versa.

We considered "disbelief" or "nonbelief" or "freethinking" (the title of Susan Jacoby's book) as alternatives.

Yet "atheism" does, as we finally concluded, get attention and make the point, rapidly and clearly. And the meaning of "a-theism" seems right, as I understand it -- without belief in the existence of god or gods, not against such belief.

Is the word too harsh, too off-putting, for the title of the book?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:51 AM | Comments (10)

A Positive Idea of Atheism?

posted on 01.03.2006 at 5:55 AM

I've been waiting, for a while now, for a new idea to come. I used to flatter myself with the thought that they came with some frequency. (Not truly original ideas, of course -- you're lucky to be blessed with one or two of those in a lifetime, as Norman Mailer noted somewhere; just something -- the product of a reaction, perhaps, between a thought heard and a fact read -- that seemed to have a new and interesting configuration.)

Such ideas appear, perhaps, to come a bit slower lately. Yeah, I've been too busy: moving, teaching, hassling this or that. Yet, I have been reading and even, sometimes, thinking and still...

I fear, as you may have noticed, that it has something to do with age. There probably is less RAM available to the central-processing unit. But, just as important, you gain, with wisdom, places to file most of the odd observations and little anomolies that used to cause confusion and, once in a while, spark a new thought. That's one reason I've taken on, in atheism, a topic upon which I had not accumulated great stores of wisdom.

I've known what kind of idea I want. Atheism can easily devolve into againstism: "Oh, no he doesn't!" I call this, unoriginally, the "negative idea" of atheism. I've been looking for the "positive idea."

Disbelief -- in sky spirits, in Apollo, in Genesis -- has cleared the way for science and aspects of philosophy. But is there a thread -- something positive that can be untangled from science and philosophy -- that runs through the thought of the often brilliant nonbelievers who will wander through my book? Don't want to sound too cocky, but I've assumed, since early in this project, that there is and that I'm gonna find it. But the idea hasn't come.

In the idea-generation business, travel, as we know, helps -- the quiet of it (once you've finally done all the crap that must be done to be able to go); the sense of being unstuck (physically and, often, temporally); the stimulation of "parts unknown" (or release from the bondage of vistas and conversations too well known).

And it is on the leg from Paris to Chennai -- reading The Anti-Christ and typing notes into my Palm -- that I think I might have come up with something. Nietzsche (who may have exceeded the Mailer limit by more than anyone) is fulminating against what he sees as Christianity's decadent, life-denying disparagement of health, intellect, strength and power. Christian "pity" particularly repulses him. And then he writes something that surprises me, something I have no comfortable place to file away: "Pity persuades to nothingness!" Nietzsche exclaims. "One does not say 'nothingness': one says 'the Beyond'; or 'God'."

Now, just last week (as I wrote here) a rabbi had told me how Roman soldiers, in the process of destroying the Temple, were shocked to enter the Holy of Holies and find...nothing -- no image, no statue, a void. And this rabbi (improvising, I suspect) suggested that the relationship between the Jews and their god might be seen as an attempt to establish a relationship with the void.

Now I've accumulated some dollops of wisdom over the decades on the idea of "the nothing," the void. (Heidegger's tour de force on the subject, "What is Metaphysics?", may be my all-time favorite piece of writing.) But I'd always thought of religion as an escape from nagging notions of nothingness, as an attempt to paper over the void.

Have I been missing a profound (in the rabbi's view) or decadent (in Nietzsche's) flirtation with, immersion in, nothingness by religion -- at least of the non-pagan variety? Can god be seen as the void with a beard?

And here, at the risk of it sounding anti-climatic, is the idea: Maybe the positive idea of atheism is the alternative to the can't-be-seen, can't-be-heard, inscrutable, unknowable nothing of god. Maybe, without denying its own involvement with relativism and uncertainty, atheism is an injunction to focus on the earthly, mortal, excessive, hopelessly messy, something -- the plentitude.

Or maybe I've just been reading too much Nietzsche....

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 5:55 AM | Comments (12)

Atheist or Agnostic?

posted on 01.01.2006 at 11:41 AM

The word "agnostic" was coined by Darwin's friend and defender Thomas Huxley in 1869 to describe their less aggressive, less certain (and safer?) version of doubt.

"In matters of the intellect," Huxley wrote, "do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable. That I take to be the agnostic faith."

And here is Leslie Stephen, who also prefered this "a" word to the other one: "State any one proposition in which all philosophers agree, and I will admit it to be true; or any one which has a manifest balance of authority, and I will agree that it is probable. But so long as every philosopher flatly contradicts the first principles of his predecessors, why affect certainty?"

Stephen's daughter Virginia Woolf, though occasionally prone to emitting vague mystical noises, seems more of the atheistic persuasion: "Certainly and emphatically there is no God."

This schism (Is Huxley to Atheism what Luther was to Catholicism?) makes most sense to me in terms of the two versions of Greek, Roman and then European skepticism: The Academic school believed it wasn't possible to really know anything. The Pyrrhonian school believed it wasn't even possible to know that.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:41 AM | Comments (7)

Zeus' Troubles

posted on 12.30.2005 at 4:12 PM

All of us would qualify as atheists by the definition that, as I've been reading, mostly applied in Greece and Rome: not honoring the residents of Mt. Olympus. For Zeus/Jupiter, Athena/Minerva, Hermes/Mercury, the sacrifices, lately, have been few and far between.

Have we been in the process of moving beyond the angry, meddling, jealous god of, say, Exodus? "Thus says the Lord God of Israel: 'Let every man put his sword on his side, and go out from entrance to entrance throughout the camp, and let every man kill his brother, every man his companion, and every man his neighbor.'"

Is Jesus, the worker of miracles, beginning to seem a little distant? "The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up." Is this what they're so nervous about out in the red states? (A friend reports seeing a billboard decorated with flames somewhere in Indiana upon which is written: "Hell Is Real.")

Might societies someday look back even on our more retiring god -- who provides meaning, hope and a beginning but stays out of the way of evolution, planetary motion and football games -- the way we look back on the notion of Apollo chauffeuring the sun?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 4:12 PM | Comments (4)

Great Moments

posted on 12.30.2005 at 9:25 AM

Great moments in the history of atheism.

This from the first avowedly atheistic book published in Britain:

"As to the question whether there is such an existent Being as an atheist, to put that out of all manner of doubt, I do declare upon my honour that I am one. Be it therefore for the future remembered, that in London in the kingdome of England, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty-one a man publicly declared himself to be an atheist."

Great moments in anti-atheism.

He still was not believed. One of the few to review the book claimed this avowal could not be credited because, without belief in God, it was impossible to swear to tell the truth.

Not so great moment in atheism.

The only name mentioned in this ground-breaking, courageous book, William Hammon, seems not to have existed. Best guess is it was written by a chemist from Liverpool.

(Above information from David Berman's A History of Atheism in Britain.)

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:25 AM | Comments (0)

The Problem of Evil

posted on 12.29.2005 at 12:13 AM

As I stroll through the history of atheism in this book, I hope to peek in on all the major arguments against belief in gods. One of them -- the problem of evil -- recently received an energetic workout on the Web courtesy of Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith.

It's an old argument. Cicero makes much of the existence of evil in his seminal dialogue, The Nature of the Gods -- asking how, "if God has made all things for the benefit of mankind," it is possible to explain "mice or cockroaches or snakes." Cicero then provides a dozen examples of virtuous men whom the fates treated unkindly.

Harris, writing two thousand years later, turns for one of his examples of inexplicable evil to "those elderly men and women who fled the rising waters" of Hurricane Katrina "for the safety of their attics, only to be slowly drowned there."

Both Cicero and Harris apply a little logical analysis to the situation: "Either God wishes to remove evils and cannot," is how the Roman puts it, "or he can do so and is unwilling." Harris suggests that "God, therefore, is either impotent or evil." Cicero quotes a poet: "If gods did care, the good would prosper, and the bad/Would suffer; that's not the way of things."

Theistic responses to this argument usually boil down to "it's humans not gods who have mucked things up" or "gods work in mysterious ways."

Cicero seems to back down at the end of his powerful dialogue -- saying he endorses the religious position. Harris does not. "Only the atheist," he writes, "has the courage to admit the obvious: these poor people [who prayed to God in New Orleans then died] spent their lives in the company of an imaginary friend."

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 12:13 AM | Comments (2)

Pain or Liberation?

posted on 12.28.2005 at 10:17 PM

Leslie Stephen, Virginia Woolf's dad, suffered two major crises in his life: one -- a subject of To the Lighthouse -- when he lost his wife; the other when, while a tutor at Cambridge, he lost his faith. "I now believe in nothing, to put it shortly" he wrote in his journal in 1865. Stephen, according to a friend, contemplated suicide.

Does loss of faith have to be a crisis? Does it have to hurt?

Salman Rushdie is among those who have found freedom in the evaporation of religion: "Imagine there's no heaven," he has written, "and at once the sky's the limit."

Is it easier to feel that now? Is Rushdie right?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:17 PM | Comments (5)

Irreligious Epiphanies

posted on 12.27.2005 at 6:44 PM

Some are born not believing, which usually means their parents were more or less nonbelievers. Others come to atheism at some point in their lives -- in a flash or after much reading, talk or thought.

Bertrand Russell, age 15: "The search for truth has shattered most of my old beliefs."

I'm curious whether any readers have experienced such a shattering moment or period.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 6:44 PM | Comments (10)

Anthropological Questions

posted on 12.27.2005 at 12:23 PM

Sir Samuel White Baker, one of the discoverers of the sources of the Nile, believed he had come upon humans of "so abject and low a type that the mind repels the idea that [they are] of our Adamite race.

"Without any exception," he proclaims, "they are without a belief in a Supreme Being, neither have they any form of worship or idolatry; nor is the darkness of their minds enlightened by even a ray of superstition."

There is much to respond to in this cocktail of Victorian prejudice, but I want to restrict myself here to just one set of questions: Is his point about religion in any way true? Is there some sense in which atheism precedes religion?

Baker was mostly wrong about the members of the Nilotic tribal group he encountered in central Africa: They had, we now know, their share of earth and sky spirits. Most preliterate societies apparently do. And even hunter-gatherers have their totems and taboos.

Is this what we mean, or should mean, by religion? Have there been any societies -- aside from Left-Bank Parisians -- that don't worship some variety of spirits? What anthropological work should I be reading?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 12:23 PM | Comments (3)

Chanukah Questions

posted on 12.26.2005 at 11:42 AM

We know that some of the more significant figures in the history of atheism -- Spinoza (though he never went so far as to call himself an atheist), Marx, Freud -- were lapsed Jews.

We know that the Jewish god seemed maddeningly elusive to pagans. A rabbi, hearing of my project, noted that when, during the destruction of the Temple, Roman soldiers entered the Holy of Holies and found no statue, nothing--a void, they concluded that the Jews were atheists. (Brings to mind the quote from A. N. Whitehead from the shuffle above: "The progress of religion is defined by the denunciation of gods.")

What I don't have is much of an understanding of Jewish nonbelief (Christian and Islamic nonbelief have proved somewhat easier). Elisha ben Abuyah, a rabbi, may be an example in the Talmud. What am I missing?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:42 AM | Comments (12)

Christmas Contradictions

posted on 12.24.2005 at 10:40 PM

One of the factors that contributed to the centuries-long period of questioning of religion (which may, or may not, be ending now) was the advent of critical study of the Bible.

Isaac Le Peyrere in France in the seventeenth century wondered, for example, where Lilith and Cain's wife came from if Adam was the first man. He wondered how Moses, if he had indeed authored the first five books of the Bible, could have written about his own death.

And many have noted apparent contradictions in the various accounts of Jesus' life. Indeed, it was concern about such contradictions that seems to have started quite a few atheists -- among them Charles Bradlaugh, who will be a major character in my book -- on the road to disbelief.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:40 PM | Comments (3)

Judge Jones' decision, continued

posted on 12.23.2005 at 11:52 PM

Back to the problematic quote in Judge John E. Jones laudable decision against requiring mention of "intelligent design" in the Dover public schools: "The theory of evolution…in no way conflicts with, nor does it deny, the existence of a divine creator."

Hasn't religion surrendered a whole lot if its god no longer creates the species, let alone moves the stars and planets?

"The fact that orthodox Christians so eagerly grasp the vagrant straws floating by shows that they are now content with the very smallest fragments of all that once they were positive was true" -- Clarence Darrow

Might these hazier, more abstract, less necessary views of god -- views that might be compatible with evolution and the rest of modern science -- qualify as vagrant straws, small fragments of once grand religious truths?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:52 PM | Comments (6)

Religion and Happiness, continued...

posted on 12.23.2005 at 8:03 PM

"Who would not be glad if he could say with confidence: 'the evil is transitory, the good eternal: our doubts are due to limitations destined to be abolished, and the world is really an embodiment of love and wisdom, however dark it may appear to our faculties'? And yet, if the so-called knowledge be illusory, are we not bound by the most sacred obligations to recognize the facts? ...Dreams may be pleasanter for the moment than realities; but happiness must be won by adapting our lives to the realities" -- Leslie Stephen, father of Virginia Woolf (who is said to have contemplated suicide with the fading of his belief)

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 8:03 PM | Comments (0)

Religion and Happiness

posted on 12.22.2005 at 9:51 PM

"I have the very greatest fear that my life may hereafter be ruined by my having lost the support of religion" -- Bertrand Russell writing, in code, in a diary at the age of 15.

Religion provides meaning, purpose and consolation, not to mention some hope of evading death. Does this mean it provides happiness? Are the meaning, purpose, consolation and promise of an afterlife sufficently clear and convincing?

Russell, though he had a tumultuous emotional life, seemed no less happy than, say, your average pope. Do we find our pious friends to be cheerier than the skeptics?

I'm having trouble thinking this out. Faith. Trust. Truth. Wishful thinking. Where to begin? What to read?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:51 PM | Comments (14)

Wintertime for Atheists?

posted on 12.18.2005 at 10:39 PM

Let us count, during this holiday season, the outrages: School officials here and there - Kansas, Pennsylvania -- attempting to force teachers to pretend that "intelligent design" is science or that evolution isn't. A United States president who appears to have based decisions involving war and peace upon his belief that he is the instrument of his god's purposes. The Ten Commandments ("Thou shall make no graven image," has always been my favorite) attempting to sneak into government buildings in the United States. God as a character on prime-time TV. Incessant efforts to reinsert Christ into holidays celebrated by many who do not worship Christ. And overseas? Fatwas, jihads, bombings, wars - in the name of religion.

The United States seems lost in yet another of its Great Awakenings (though to partisans of reason and enlightenment it looks more like a Great Swoon). Religious belief, now that the heathen Communists have been routed, is on the rise in Poland, Russia and other former Soviet countries. Such belief seems, with heathen left-leaning intellectuals also having taken some blows, even to be crawling back in Western Europe, even in France.

This is a blog about the writing of a book. And that book is to be a history of disbelief - from ancient India to contemporary California. One conclusion is clear: Disbelief has been on the rise in the world in the past five hundred or so years. The days when most literate Europeans seemed convinced that the universe was created by God in six days, on or about the year 4004 B.C., seem long gone. The days when it was possible to argue that there is no such thing as a true atheist also seem rather distant. However, what is not clear is whether this great march toward secularism has, somehow, right now, stalled.

Is the age of disbelief ending, as Alister McGrath recently argued in his book The Twilight of Atheism? Is religion - with an inevitability that could pass for God ordained - making a comeback? Or is all this orthodox sturm and drang merely an understandable reaction to the globe's ongoing secularization? Is freethinking in retreat or is this merely a pause in our continuing march toward a world based more on reason, less on faith or superstition?

By writing a blog while writing the book, I hope to improve my understandings not only of historical matters but of such contemporary issues - by testing my own surmises, by benefiting from the comments of some interested and thoughtful residents of Internet-land. I hope, thereby, to write a better book.

Your thoughts?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:39 PM | Comments (16)

Shelley -- "an opinion so diabolical and wicked"

posted on 12.15.2005 at 11:41 PM

In the winter of 1811, Percy Bysshe Shelley edited, polished and expanded an essay drafted by his best friend, Thomas Jefferson Hogg. The two Oxford students published their tightly argued work at their own expense. They published it anonymously. The pamphlet's title was The Necessity of Atheism.

"God," the authors insist, "is a hypothesis and, as such, stands in need of proof." Their essay challenges the more common efforts to support that "hypothesis." It then "earnestly entreats" those who disagree to respond with alternative "proofs."

The response its authors actually received was somewhat different. Within twenty minutes of Shelley's placing copies in a prominent Oxford bookshop, a minister and fellow of one of the Oxford colleges walked in, saw the pamphlets, looked through one and then ordered all copies except one, which was saved for evidence, burned at the back of the shop. The next month Shelley and Hogg were expelled from Oxford. The month after that Shelley was cut off by his father, a member of Parliament, who stated that he was prepared to leave the young man "to the punishment and misery that belongs to the wicked pursuit of an opinion so diabolical and wicked."

The printing press had arrived in England more than three centuries earlier, but this was one of the first open endorsements of atheism anyone had dared print in that country.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:41 PM | Comments (0)


posted on 12.14.2005 at 11:16 PM

I'm interested in the struggle so many individuals, from Greek philosophers to Romantic poets to formerly Islamic novelists, have undertaken for the cause of atheism - a cause that promises no heavenly reward.

I'm interested in the wages of disbelief: Societies have long punished those who decline to acknowledge the local God (or gods). In Scotland near the end of the seventeenth century, for example, an orphan studying at the University of Edinburgh began sharing -- openly, brashly, unwisely -- his criticisms of religion. The Scriptures, Thomas Aikenhead was reported to have proclaimed, are "so stuffed with madness, nonsense and contradictions, that you admired the stupidity of the world in being so long deluded by them." Based on the testimony of some of his fellow students, Aikenhead was convicted of blasphemy. Repentance would have helped, but the young man's efforts in that direction were not entirely convincing, especially when he explained that his errors had flowed from an "insatiable inclination to truth." Thomas Aikenhead was hanged in Edinburgh on January 8, 1697, a few months before his twenty-first birthday.

Many nonbelievers have lived dramatic lives or suffered, like poor Aikenhead, premature deaths, but I am also after the drama that is to be found in their thought. Shucking off superstition - in the name of an "insatiable inclination to truth" - has been difficult and it has been important. Philosophy and science have flourished on ground cleared over the millennia by disbelief. Oracles, ghosts and angels had to be routed; contradictions discovered; logical failings uncovered. The Greek skeptic Carneades demonstrated, for example, that if the gods were perfect they couldn't exhibit the virtues - courage, say - that come from overcoming weaknesses and flaws. Such criticism of religion falls under the heading of the negative idea of atheism.

Is there also a positive idea? Trying to clarify what that idea might be - untangling it from philosophy and science - will be one of the major challenges I face in researching and writing this book.

And I'm interested in where these ideas stand today: when fatwas are being issued; jihads and crusades being declared; when the orthodox are fighting to retake the textbooks and the courthouses. Are the gods reasserting their hold upon humanity? Or is this just a reaction to the ongoing, even accelerating global spread of secularism?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:16 PM | Comments (2)