Retreat to My Study
posted on 12.19.2006 at 7:14 PM
After a year of mostly daily blogging on this site, I am cutting back.
As most of you know, I am writing a book on the history of disbelief for Carroll and Graf. The blog -- produced while working on the book -- was an experiment conceived by the Institute for the Future of the Book. It has been a success. I have been benefiting from informed and insightful comments by readers of the blog as I've tested some ideas from this book and explored some of their connections to contemporary debates.
I may continue to post sporatically here, but now it seems time to retreat to my study to digest what I've learned, polish my thoughts and compose the rest of the narrative. The trick will be accomplishing that without losing touch with those â€” commenters or just silent readers â€” who are interested in this project.
If you would like to be notified of any major activity on this site and of the status of the book, please leave your email below. I will not, of course, use it for any other purpose. Otherwise, do try to check back here once in a while. There will be some updates and, perhaps, some new experiments.
A Year of Progress
posted on 12.16.2006 at 2:54 PM
Something odd and encouraging appears to have occurred in the year I have been doing this blog: The revival of religious orthodoxy, which seemed so powerful a year ago, now, in the United States at least, seems to have eased. Freethinkers seem resurgence.
The evidence for this began, perhaps, with the decision, on December 20 of last year, by Judge John E. Jones, a Republican, that requiring teachers in Dover, Pa., to read a statement presenting "intelligent design" as an alternative to evolution was unconstitutional and characterized by "breathtaking inanity." School boards calling for this sort of thing have been voted out of office. Protestations of disbelief have been turning up in the press, on television, even on the best-seller lists. The Republicans, and their faith-based president, suffered, last month, a significant electoral defeat.
Such evidence is, of course, spotty and unscientific. And statements like this by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof (while taking a swipe at atheists) -- the "Christian Right has largely retreated from the culture wars" -- seem hugely overstated. A court decision, six-figure book sales and a vote against an administration. most of whose policies have failed, are poor measures of the religiosity of hundreds of millions of people.
But is it possible that a trend has at least been reversed and that the Enlightenment, after a couple of decades of reaction, is once again moving forward? Do you think?
Disbelief in the Holy of Holies
posted on 12.07.2006 at 12:52 AM
Does doubt lurk even at the very heart of religion -- even in the Holy of Holies?
EXPERIMENTAL PAPER ON DISBELIEF
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).
Thus we hope to expand the experiment begun with this blog: using the Web to sharpen and deepen a work in progress.
posted on 11.28.2006 at 10:45 PM
Currently working on a multi-part paper on disbelief that should be up here soon. Will be a bit of a lull while I complete that.
Integrity Restored, Zeus Attacked
posted on 09.25.2006 at 9:50 AM
What a juicy contretemp (relatively speaking) followed the decision by the Raving Atheist to cease all attacks on Jesus and Christianity. Suffering from contretemps envy and in a moment of heightened cravenness, I contemplated withholding all attacks on Zeus and paganism. And, faithful (so to speak) readers will note that there has not been one attack on Zeus, Jupiter, Apollo, Athena or any of the Olympians in the past month.
However, my commitment to free and open discussion has proven stronger even than my desire for an attention-getting scandal. So blogosphere, you can forget your angry charges of hypocrisy (which, to be sure, seemed a bit slow in coming)! To demonstrate that this is once again a site where No God is Safe, I give you an attack on Zeus.
It is from one of the satires written by Lucian, the popular 2nd-century Greek writer. In it Zeus explains that he heard "Professor Anaxagoras" -- a pre-Socratic philosopher/scientist --"trying to convince his students that we gods are just nobodies." Zeus' response? He hurled his thunderbolt at him. "I threw it too hard," the god acknowledges. And he missed, hitting a temple instead. (Thunderbolts hitting temples have always been among the signs from the heavens that interest disbelievers most.) Now, Lucian reports, the king of the gods is complaining that he needs to get his "thunderboltÃ¢â‚¬Â¦fixed."
posted on 08.13.2006 at 12:11 AM
The quality of the comments here lately has seemed, to me, extraordinarily high.
One of the purposes of blogging a book as it is being written is to have ideas tested and, possibly, sharpened, transformed or overturned. This has repeatedly occurred -- although I have not often weighed in with comments of my own acknowledging that. Please take this as a blanket acknowledgement and expression of appreciation.
"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.
Author Needs Advice
posted on 07.29.2006 at 9:40 PM
It is hard, upon occasion, to figure out what works. To write is, of course, to struggle with such occasions: to rewrite, polish and, often enough, toss out. But it strikes me that this blog might make it possible to improve the process by inviting others to weigh in. So, herewith, my first attempt to seek advice on a potential passage in the book.
The subject is the effect of the advent of writing on disbelief. Obviously, writing did much to strengthen, harden and spread beliefs. But I'm arguing that writing's propensity for encouraging analysis (through its ability to record facts and make words objects of study) may also have made possible new ways of questioning beliefs.
My struggle has been trying to determine whether this passage from the oldest Indian religious text, the Rg Veda, qualifies as a (very early) example of the application of critical analysis to religion:
This world-creation, whence it has arisen,
Or whether it has been produced or has not,
He who surveys it in the highest heaven,
He only knows, or ev'n he does not know it.
I love the passage, but is this analysis or just wondering? Does it succeed in demonstrating my point?
What Case god?
posted on 03.22.2006 at 4:56 AM
I'm enough of an egalitarian to flinch when an announcer speaks of Joe or Derek but then Mr. Steinbrenner. And I'm sufficiently skeptical to rebel against the odd exception to the style rules that capitalizes words like Him, He, etc. only when they refer to the Supreme Being and His Offspring. While I haven't discussed the matter with my editor (Mr. Turner), I thought that this book might offer an opportunity to finally lower case god. However, a close reading of recent entries on this blog will reveal that I've been wavering (or, more precisely, surrendering). The opportunity to stick that capital letter in front of various and sundry pronouns and nouns has been too delicious to resist. It's less fun to wrestle with a mere "supreme being"?
What March Madness?
posted on 03.18.2006 at 9:30 AM
I'm lost, instead, in tales of religion and (possible) doubt among headhunters in the Philippines. Is there any sense in which nonbelief precedes belief in human history? I'm struggling to sneak stories of anthropologists in with stories of the people they study (with charges of disjointedness still ringing in my head).
A book -- let alone a book plus a blog, let alone a book plus a blog plus a seminar on the topic -- requires something close (well I do like UCLA) to total immersion (another variety of madness?). I only saw one of the best picture nominees. I never got around to forming an opinion on Dubai control of US ports.
And I haven't been this content in a while.
Blog on Disbelief -- Born Again!
posted on 03.08.2006 at 12:55 PM
Thanks to Ben Vershbow and Jesse Wilbur of the Institute for the Future of the Book, this blog has been remade. We had two purposes in mind.
First, to add a modicum of structure. Entries will now settle into one of these four sections:
-- Tales of Disbelief. Notes on a couple of millennia's worth of skepticism, rationalism, humanism, naturalism, secularism, agnosticism, atheism and just plain doubt.
-- Thinking Out Loud. Testing ideas. Tossing out questions and queries.
--Book Writer's Journal. All the despair (The book is missing from the stacks!), all the exhilaration (I found it on page 8 of that Google search!) of the nonfiction book author's, the chronicler of irreligion's, existence -- should you, upon occasion, care.
Our second purpose is to provide easier access to the various ideas and topics that wander through these jottings. To that end Ben and Jesse have conjured up:
-- a tag cloud...in which words used and categories employed will grow based on frequency of mention. Just click, as they say on the Internet.
Help! I'm a Blogger Trying to Write a Book
posted on 03.08.2006 at 11:24 AM
...and maybe I like things fast and somewhat scattered.
...and maybe posting every day is more fun than publishing every few years.
Help! I'm a Writer Trapped in a Blog's Body
posted on 03.08.2006 at 11:18 AM
...and my attempts at narrative and exposition are upended by this weird, and-the-last-shall-go-first format. I write up. You scroll down. This may work for glosses on the news. But it can scramble argument, history or story that can't be stuffed into a single post, a single entry.
...and the bits and bites disgorged onto the blog's long, thin page often fail -- no matter how hyper-connected they pretend to be -- to locate among themselves new structures, new organizations. No easy task, that. This backwards chugging locomotive can stop at only one station at a time. Entry A's relationship with Entry B is, consequently, limited to: before, after or linked.
I'm not persuaded by the argument that this is how it ever must be because this is how it has ever been. Seems a bit odd to be celebrating the tried and true in this form of journalism (if that's the category blogging best fits) -- a form of journalism that is, after all, barely old enough for elementary school!
Newspapers, too, began, in the 17th century, by simply placing short items in columns (in this case from top down). So it was possible to read on page four of a newspaper in England in 1655 that Cardinal Carassa is one of six men with a chance to become the next pope and then read on page nine of the same paper that Carassa "is newly dead." Won't we soon be getting similar chuckles out of these early blogs -- where leads are routinely buried under supporting paragraphs; where whim is privileged, coherence discouraged; where the newly dead may be resurrected as one scrolls down.
Early newspapers eventually discovered the joys of what journalism's first editor called a "continued relation." Later they discovered layout.
Blogs have a lot of discovering ahead of them.
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.
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.
How to Write Your Book
posted on 01.09.2006 at 12:00 AM
1. Do not turn on the BBC World News in the hotel to see if there's been any further change in Sharon's condition.
2. When you venture out into the challenging streets here in Chennai, focus on the shrines not the street people.
3. Do not go back to the college again to check your email.
4. Look upon the array of pastel gods that surround one shine not as kind of lovely but as representative of polytheism and then try to recall some theories on whether gods are easier to disbelieve than God.
5. When you do go back to the college again, do not click on 'check mail' a third time, even though you have one or two acquaintances in New York who occasionally are up at 3:10 am.
6. Consider whether that woman cooking on the half-dirt, half-concrete sidewalk finds consolation in religion. Don't consider why you have the right to assume she requires consolation.
7. Put your energy into polishing chapters not blog entries.
A Journey to the East
posted on 01.01.2006 at 4:22 PM
The post below -- on atheism and agnosticism -- will be my last before I head off for the land of the Carvaka: India.
I'll try to keep up a flow of posts, after I arrive, and to keep you posted on any encounters with holy men or meditations on the Buddha.
This brief interregnum might also be a time to ask if anyone has thoughts on what this blog -- not just a work in progress but an experiment -- should or should not be doing.
Help! I'm a Book Writer Trapped in a Blog's Body
posted on 12.24.2005 at 7:45 AM
The experiment so far:
** Have learned quite a bit already from the comments: new sources, new ideas, interesting perspectives.
** Bit unsure what I'm doing. Guess I'm to test ideas, ask questions, try to make connections. But in what order? As they come to me? When you're writing a book lots comes from lots of directions.
** The blog form -- which imposes with some force a reverse chronological organization -- is an odd one for a book writer. Since everything comes in upside down, you are led with some obstenancy away from narrative.
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.
The Blog: The Writing of a History of Disbelief
posted on 12.07.2005 at 11:43 AM
The blog I am writing here, with the connivance of The Institute for the Future of the Book, is an experiment. Our thought is that my book on the history of disbelief will benefit from a discussion of some of the points it will raise in advance of publication.
I plan to post rough ideas, anecdotes, facts and outlines; queries and probes; plus the occasional polished paragraph. I plan, too, to be prepared to alter this mix - this plan - as the experiment proceeds.
Our hope is that the conversation will be joined: that ideas will be challenged, facts corrected, queries and probes answered; that lively and intelligent discussion will ensue. We expect that the book's acknowledgements will eventual include a number of individuals best known to me by email address.
And we have an additional thought: that the Web might realize some smidgen of benefit through the airing of this process.