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.
Continuities vs. Differences
posted on 12.14.2006 at 8:41 PM
Here are two paragraphs I have drafted for an early chapter of my book. The first uses a fascinating sect of ancient nonbelievers -- "Who paints the peacocks, or who makes the cuckoos sing? There exists here no cause excepting nature" -- to make a (sweeping) point about continuities in human disbelief:
The CÃ„rvÃ„kas are the best answer to the argument that disbelief is a product of the Enlightenment or the scientific revolution. They are the best answer to the argument that disbelief is a phenomenon limited to the West. The CÃ„rvÃ„kas are the best answer to the argument that other, earlier societies did not have the conception of belief necessary to open the possibility of disbelief, that they didn't have the requisite understanding of the natural to dismiss the supernatural or that their societies were insufficiently liberal or pluralistic to tolerate disbelief. For the CÃ„rvÃ„kas are thought to have begun in India before the time of the Buddha and are known to have survived in some form if not as long as Buddhism, at least a couple of thousand years. And the CÃ„rvÃ„kas were as dismissive of supernatural beliefs as were eighteenth-century Parisian philosophes. They stand - in one form or another - as by far the longest lasting group of nonbelievers in human history. They are a crucial part of this story. Which is not to say that we know an awful lot about their history....
The second paragraph, which would appear after a couple of pages outlining what we know about the CÃ„rvÃ„ka and their philosophy, attempts to clarify the point by acknowledging there might be some differences between India at the time of the Buddha and Paris during the Enlightenment:
In fairness, the point being made here - that the disbelief subscribed to by this ancient movement sounds remarkably thorough and modern - depends on English translations of an unfriendly ninth-century report. Undoubtedly it would be possible to go over the documents here, look closely at the language and the cultural context and find numerous ways in which the CÃ„rvÃ„ka saw the world very differently than, say, Charles Bradlaugh [a nineteenth century atheist who will be a major character in the book]. It would be useful to know more about those differences. A study of what allowed such a group of nonbelievers to survive in this place at these times would also be valuable. Nothing said here is meant to obscure that which might have been unique about these peoples and their situations. My goal is simply to point out what has not often been pointed out: that despite all the inevitable and significant cultural differences that flavor our conceptions of disbelief there have been some important similarities in such conceptions, too; that scientifically inclined Western societies have hardly been the first societies in which, for example, the notion that death is the end of us has arisen. On the subject of the afterlife the CÃ„rvÃ„kas could not have been clearer: "After death no intelligence remains"....
Yo, literary theorists, anthropologists, partisans of Foucault! Am I off base -- too imbued by the Enlightenment (and all it tramples in the name of universal reason) in this attempt to debunk the significance of the Enlightenment?
The Sweeping vs. The Narrow
posted on 12.12.2006 at 10:01 PM
Still thinking of the rather large question of method in historical and social science research.
Spoke with a colleague today who remembers when the sort of feminist inquiry into continuities in oppression of women in various times and places went out of fashion -- to be replaced by the study of inequities in gender relations in specific cultures.
Hope there is interest in learning of continuities in disbelief in across societies. That is what most interests me. Why do people disbelieve? What form do such disbeliefs generally take? How have they developed and changed. An anthropologist who listened to my paper insisted that I also note that different times and places have been more or less hospitable to disbelief. And, yes, that is interesting and important and certainly part of my book, too.
That Analysis Thing
posted on 11.20.2006 at 3:22 PM
Kind of ironic since I've been working on a journalism-review piece heralding the coming of the age of analysis for mainstream news organizations...but the critique I've gotten on the first few chapters of this book is that they are insufficiently analytic. Been trying so hard to maintain an engaging narrative that perhaps I leaned too far in that direction.
Could be more analytic in emphasizing the point made by the various tales I tell -- the story of King Josiah's great god massacre in Judah in the 7th century BCE, for example. The point here being that monotheism grew out of the destruction of -- disbelief in -- lots of other gods. In this draft, I may have relied too much on such points making themselves.
Could be more analytic in looking behind events to their significance -- the political benefits, for example, of centralizing all religious worship in Judah in Josiah's day in the main temple.
Or could be more analytic in dropping a storyline for a while and just making a point: say monotheism, as enforced under King Josiah, as a step, a roundabout one to be sure, in the direction of atheism.
The Book So Far
posted on 10.09.2006 at 1:33 PM
What I've drafted to date:
2. Consideration of disbelief among pre-literate societies. Why religion? My sense that while there wasn't as much irreligion as 19th-century Christian anthropologists found, there was more than 20th-century secular anthropologists have found. Tales of headhunters and fake witches.
The Renaissance, the Enlightenment, that remarkable combination of disbelief and abolitionist, feminist, working-class politics in 19th-century England and America, plus the whole, wild 20th century, still in front of me!
Author Seeks Advice -- 2
posted on 08.10.2006 at 6:48 PM
Is the possibility of a God unlikely or illogical? This is one of the larger questions to wrestle with as I write this tale of disbelief. Carneades -- the third century BCE Athenian Skeptic, who will be a major character my story -- comes close (close as a Skeptic can) to arguing that it is illogical.
I try to present one of the more interesting and difficult of his points in the following paragraph (one of the most dense I have written in what wants to be, for the most part, a popular, narrative history):
Carneades, whose arguments are presented with great thoroughness by Cicero, also undertakes to prove that it is not possible for any living being to have the attributes of a god. His point, in part, is that to be alive is to feel - to be susceptible to external stimuli. That means being susceptible to change as a result of external stimuli. Pleasure changes us. Pain certainly changes us. That which we desire and that which we try to avoid have, by definition, the potential to change us. An immortal being would not change because in change is the possibility of dissolution and potentially even death. Hence, Carneades concludes, a feeling being cannot be immortal.
1. Is this too dense? (Obviously, I'll keep trying to improve the writing.)
2. Is Carneades' logic here (or my presentation of it) persuasive?
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?
My Second Chapter
posted on 07.10.2006 at 4:49 PM
You write, you struggle, you write, and eventually you make your way to the end of a chapter. It feels good, for a moment. Then it is time to go back and look over what you have produced.
Reached that point on Sunday with my second chapter -- on some wonderful and precocious disbelievers in Egypt, India, Greece, China and among the Hebrews. Printed it out. Read the chapter on a train. It was only then -- after having been working on this stuff for a couple of months -- that I realized something: It's a bit slow. Thick with ideas and facts. Thin on tales of interesting people. Tales of interesting people, to be sure, are not that easy to come by when those folks lived two or three thousand-years ago. But still. This is supposed to be a lean, concise, narrative history. Not a tome. Not exhaustive. So I'm pruning the exposition: Maybe you don't really need to know that Lokayata is another name used for the Carvaka -- the long-lived Indian materialist sect ("There is no world other than this"). And I'm trying to beef up the tales -- tales that illustrate the ideas.
Of course, the next step will be actually showing it to someone besides the guy who wrote it.
A Bone to Pick with the Buddha -- 2
posted on 06.22.2006 at 5:49 PM
Was my dispute with the Buddha based on a misunderstanding?
That quote I attributed to the Buddha, to which I took exception -- that the question of the existence of the gods "does not edify" -- I found in Jennifer Michael Hecht's comprehensive book, Doubt: A History. Been working to get closer to the quote's origins and, so far, have not found another reference to it.
The parable of the fire is mentioned: In it the Buddha, on being pressed to support one or another possibility for where the soul does or does not go after death, finally explains that this would be like asking whether the fire goes east or west when extinguished. And my researcher, Kaylan Connally, has found this answer/nonanswer, presumably by the Buddha, to the question of whether the gods -- devas -- exist: "It is firmly accepted in the world that devas exist." But "Buddha," "gods" and "edify" don't seem to spend much time in the same sentences.
Guess this supports Jay Saul's point about the difficulty of confirming anything that the Buddha or Jesus said. Though I sure would like to find at least some sort of vaguely legit source for this quote.
Allegation that Atheism Is a Male Thing? -- 2
posted on 06.12.2006 at 11:16 PM
Ernestine Rose (who will be one of the major characters in this book)
George Eliot: "God, immortality, duty -- how inconceivable the first, how unbelievable the second, how peremptory and absolute the third."
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 on 06.10.2006 at 11:47 PM
As I research and write this book, new characters seem to drop from the sky (unfortunate as that metapher may be). The fifth-century BCE Greek poet Anacreon, who celebrated wine and love, is the latest. When asked why he never wrote hymns to the gods, the poet is said to have replied: "because our loves are our gods."
The American national anthem is written to the tune of "The Anacreontic Song."
Update on the Book -- 2
posted on 04.23.2006 at 11:29 PM
Been book writing a lot. (Don't know if that is apparent from the quality of the blog writing.) Still mostly on the first chapter, which concerns the anthropology of belief. Why religion? Whence religion? Does disbelief proceed belief? Whence disbelief? All this illustrated, since the idea is to tell stories, with tales of various headhunters, shamans and proto-skeptics. Been writing of failed rainmakers, of "naked savages" who were more skeptical than their well-clothed, British interlocutors, and of kings who didn't believe in the local gods.
The fears? That it will seem -- given the number of societies and concepts to be visited -- disjointed. That in painting the background -- religion -- I'll lose track of the foreground -- disbelief. That I'm neglecting to fear some crucial potential error or infelicity.
And then there's the task of thinking out some of what I can't find already thought out. That includes the mindsets that might have led to early disbelief. I suspect the short section in which I have a go at this subject will go through many a rethink, many a rewrite in the next year.
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"?
Writing Problem #1
posted on 03.19.2006 at 7:41 PM
The history of the effort to explain religion -- an effort that dates back to the Greeks and is still being debated on the pages of the New York Times -- will be an important thread in my narrative. But don't I need to give away some of the most up-to-date theories on this early on in the story: when I'm investigating the anthropology of belief and disbelief, doubt amongst the headhunters, etc? Can I talk about whether early humans believed without discussing why?
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.
posted on 03.08.2006 at 12:36 PM
In a corner of Victoria Park in London in the middle of nineteenth century speakers would mount soapboxes to disclaim on any number of radical, or not so radical or anti-radical, causes. Crowds would cheer, hiss or answer back. The area was known as Bonner's Field. On Sundays most of the speeches and debates related to religion.
Representatives from half-a-dozen of Britain's splintering Christian faiths could be found there -- preaching, arguing, handing out tracts. And in one corner of Bonner's Field the latest addition of the country's religious smorgasbord gathered: freethinkers. Among those mounting their soapbox was a 17-year-old former Sunday-school teacher named Charles Bradlaugh, who will be one of the main characters in the book I'm writing.
It is difficult to think of a time or place where the discussion of religion was as open and as robust.
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.
Update on the Book
posted on 02.26.2006 at 10:05 PM
Gave a draft of the Prologue (on young Charles Bradlaugh and Shelley) and the first chapter (on the anthropology of disbelief) to my first reader Sunday morning. The verdict? Disjointed. Too much jumping around. (As if you couldn't have guessed from reading this blog.) That, alas, had been my fear. (I've written other books. Not sure it gets much less hard.)
So I'm looking, once again, at two of the books I'm using for models: My friend David Shenk's The Forgetting and Mark Kurlansky's Salt -- neither having anything to do with disbelief but both examples of compact, narrative history of the sort to which I aspire.
And I'm about to pull apart those initial sections to see if I can't reassemble them -- with fewer tangents and longer tales -- into something more jointed.
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 on 01.21.2006 at 8:13 PM
My first person is currently typing into his Palm, sitting in a dark-wood chair, surrounded by white-washed walls, about 20 meters from a huge lake just a bit northwest of the southern tip of India. (The tsunami had to hang a quick right to get near here, but still managed to kill about 160 people.)
A couple of hours ago his pre-dawn tossin' and turnin' -- as the overhead-fan mixed the thick air -- produced an idea, one that feels large by the standards of his circumscribed world. This idea enabled him to sketch out -- for the first time -- the somewhat more ambitious structure he had been contemplating for the book.
A bit on that idea in another post. The question I'm dealing with now is whether a few small slots in that new scheme should be reserved for that first person -- aka "me."
Do readers -- potentially "you," if you haven't had your fill of this stuff -- want to know, for example, whether their author had his own irreligious epiphany and from what religion he might conceivably be "ir"?
Should there be personal anecdotes?
** "The first time I realized how uncomfortable discussions of atheism could become was when I...."
** Our intrepid book writer manages to locate the site of Bonner's Field -- the outdoor meeting area in London, where, in the mid-19th-century, religious and irreligious freely held forth.
My first person -- who, mind you, wrote a whole book once without ever using the word "I" -- is now watching a cloud-muted dawn attempt to return greens and pinks to the lush landscape. And he ("I") is ("am") currently feeling awfully self-satisfied, on account of this new organizational idea.
Yo, second persons! Do you ("you") care?
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.
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?
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....
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.
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 on 12.14.2005 at 9:55 PM
">Here is an early version of the chart -- filled with keywords -- I'm planning to use to organize my research for this book on the history of disbelief.
Cast of Characters
posted on 12.13.2005 at 9:45 PM
The book in question is intended as a narrative history of disbelief. Here is a list of some of the individuals whose stories might be told.
Note: I am aware of the rather startling gender imbalance in this list. (It is very weak in persons of color, too.) This was clearly a difficult subject for females (and other oppressed groups) to be heard on before the nineteenth century, but they must have done their share of thinking about it. I hope, with further research, to recover some of their stories and their thought.
Carvaka the Raxasa--mentioned in a text that may date from 600 BCE; the reputed founder of a long-lived Indian sect of nonbelievers, which asserted that only the material world exists, rejected all notions of an afterlife ("After a body is reduced to ashes where will it come back from?"), had no use for "fasting" and "penance," extolled "embraces."
Diagoras of Melos--according to one account, gave up belief in gods in anger over a lost manuscript, then prosecuted for impiety in Athens. 5th century BCE.
Protagoras of Abdera--"Of all things," he announced, "the measure is man"--not gods; also reported to have been prosecuted for impiety. Greece, 5th century BCE.
Democritus--had an eerily modern understanding of atoms and space--one that left no room for gods. Greece, 5th and 4th centuries BCE.
Carneades of Cyrene--the great skeptic; capable of taking both sides of any issue--except, it seems, religion, to which he applied his most withering analyses. Athens, 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE.
Cicero--also a skeptic; wrote one of the great dialogues questioning belief in the gods: "It is difficult, you will say, to deny that they exist. I would agree if we were arguing the matter in a public assembly, but in a private discussion of this kind it is perfectly easy to do so." Rome, 1st century BCE.
Elisha ben Abuyah--a rabbi who became a nonbeliever; when he examined the world, he saw neither justice nor a judge; expelled from the faith. Palestine, 1st and 2nd centuries.
Abu Nuwas--an uninhibited gay poet; an outspoken nonbeliever. Baghdad, 8th and 9th centuries.
Abu Bakr al-Razi--the most renowned Arab physician; questioned all religions, his religion and even the status of "the Prophet." Baghdad, 9th and 10th centuries.
Averroes--a Moor who helped bring Greek writings and a respect for reason back to Europe, where they would pave the way for a return of disbelief; his scholarship made him suspect in the Islamic world and he was, for a time, banished for heresy. Morocco and Spain, 1126-1198.
Thomas Hobbes--his conception of the universe--"all that is real is material, and what is not material is not real"--carried him dangerously close to atheism; the Great Fire seen by some as God's response to Hobbes' insufficiently pious view. London, 1588-1679.
Thomas Aikenhead--a Scottish university student who found "madness, nonsense and contradictions" in the Bible; said as much; was hanged for blasphemy. Edinburgh, 1676-1697.
Jean Meslier--a Catholic priest who revealed his atheism only in a book he left to his parishioners after his death; became, posthumously, an Enlightenment hero. France, 1678-1733.
Denis Diderot--editor of the first great encyclopedia; arrived at atheism through his study of science and the blind; became one of its most influential proponents: "Wandering in a vast forest at night, I have only a faint light to guide me. A stranger appears and says to me: 'My friend, you should blow out your candle in order to find your way more clearly.' This stranger is a theologian"; spent three months in prison for such views. Paris, 1713-1784.
Baron d'Holbach--once Diderot converted him to atheism, became a one-man publishing house on the subject: "We shall find that ignorance and fear created the gods; that fancy, enthusiasm, or deceit adorned or disfigured them; that weakness worships them; that credulity preserves them; and that custom, respect and tyranny support them"; gathered what may have been history's most impressive concentration of nonbelievers in his salon; he escaped prosecution; the poor who trafficked in his books did not. Paris, 1723-1789.
Marquis de Sade--his lack of belief in God did not stop him from trying to insult God; can be said to have experimented with the notion that without God everything is permitted. France, 1740-1814.
Jacques-René Hébert--under the leadership of this radical revolutionary, atheism finally gained control of a country--briefly, ingloriously; churches were shut; a statue of Meslier planned; but Hébert's political career ended shortly afterwards, at the guillotine. Paris, 1757-1794.
Pierre Simon Laplace--physicist whose masterly, five-volume account of the universe neglected to include a role for God; Napoleon noticed. Paris, 1749-1827.
Thomas Paine--put so much stock in reason that he was reviled as an atheist and is still celebrated by atheists; statements like this helped: "The Christian system of religion is an outrage on common sense." England, America. France, 1737 - 1809.
Percy Bysshe Shelley--a pamphlet endorsing atheism led to his expulsion from Oxford; returned to the subject in additional essays and poems, including "Queen Mab": "And priests dare babble of a God of peace,/Even whilst their hands are red with guiltless blood,/Murdering the while, uprooting every germ/Of truth, exterminating, spoiling all,/Making the earth a slaughter-house!" England, 1792-1822.
Frances Wright--was the first woman in America to lecture before an audience of men and women; friend of Jefferson and Jackson; on the side of science and progress; against religion: "Time is it to arrest our speculations respecting unseen worlds and inconceivable mysteries, and to address our inquiries to the improvement of our human condition." Scotland, United States, 1795-1852.
Harriet Martineau--this erstwhile writer of religious books was converted during a visit to the Holy Land; she then announced: "There is no theory of a God, of an author of Nature, of an origin of the Universe, which is not utterly repugnant to my faculties." England, 1802-1876.
John Stuart Mill-- the liberal political philosopher had been presented as a boy with one of the more powerful of the arguments against the existence of God: If God made us, who made God? Called himself "one of the few examples in this country of one who has not thrown off religious belief, but never had it." England, 1806-1873.
Ernestine Rose--eloquent and unbending in support of her causes: freedom for slaves and women, freedom from superstition; searched for freedom in her life, too; rarely have the intolerant been given so many reasons to hiss. Poland, Germany, England, United States, 1810-1892.
Karl Marx--religious as a child; his atheism would eventually spread around the world. Germany, London, 1818-1883.
Charles Bradlaugh--expelled from Sunday school and eventually his parents' home for his freethinking; became a radical leader and an outspoken atheist; spoke and debated before jammed halls full of working people; elected to Parliament. England, 1833-1891.
Frederick Nietzsche--the parson's son who announced, with proper gravity, the "death of God." Germany, Italy, 1844-1900.
Sigmund Freud--bold in his challenge to the "illusion" of religion, which, he suggested, is "the universal obsessional neurosis of humanity." Vienna, London, 1856-1939.
Bertrand Russell--in his philosophy, pushed reason to, and perhaps beyond, its limits; in his politics, stood consistently against war and against gods: "I do not think that their existence is an alternative that is sufficiently probable to be worth serious consideration"; behaved with less consistency in his personal life. England, 1872-1970.
Jean-Paul Sartre--important thinking on the question of where meaning might be found if it is not God-given; can be accused of having stumbled a bit on his own personal and political searches for meaning. Paris, 1905-1980.
Simone de Beauvoir--an atheist before she was a feminist: "I cannot be angry at God, in whom I do not believe." Paris, 1908-1986.
John Lennon--atheism was just one stop on his erratic wanderings: "God is a concept by which we measure our pain"; but what a line: "Above us only sky." England, New York, 1940-1980.
Jacques Derrida--I've had occasion to discuss the subject with him; his point, I believe, was that one cannot remove this one brick from our cultural foundations and expect the rest to stand undisturbed. Algeria, France, 1930-2004.
Barbara Ehrenreich--one possible candidate for a contemporary example; an outspoken, fourth-generation, "family-values" atheist: "God, if there is one, has never shown any great interest in stopping wars, ending poverty, feeding the hungry, stopping patriarchy, racism or anything like that." United States, 1941-.
Salman Rushdie--"I do not need the idea of God to explain the world I live in"; the best-known contemporary example of the price that is sometimes still paid by those who dare question religion. Bombay, London, New York, 1947-.
The Book: A History of Disbelief
posted on 12.07.2005 at 12:26 PM
Most civilizations have been founded on the belief the universe is commanded by a magisterial Being (or beings), who monitors our lives, enforces our morality, endorses our power structures and offers eternal life. The subject of this blog is a book, eventually to be published by Carroll and Graf, that will tell the story of those who have dared disagree.
Some of these nonbelievers remain well known--Cicero, Diderot, Shelley, Marx, Freud and Rushdie, among them. Others--no less important in their time, perhaps even more daring--have been mostly forgotten. Most societies have scorned their ideas, persecuted them, or otherwise tried to end the discussion. Yet their ideas have survived, and as humankind has gained more understanding of the natural world and of its own condition, their ideas have deepened. Indeed, I will argue that the thinking of such nonbelievers has played a crucial role in our understanding of the natural world and of our condition.
The book will proceed chronologically, beginning with preliterate societies and ending with the fear of secularism that has made the orthodox so edgy (and dangerous) today. With the help of the most interesting and influential atheists of the last few millennia, it will restore the missing discussion of these ideas and attempt to advance it.
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.
The Author: Mitchell Stephens
posted on 12.07.2005 at 10:54 AM
Mitchell Stephens, a professor of journalism at New York University, is the author of a number of books: A History of News, an extended history of journalism, has been translated into four languages and was a New York Times "Notable Book of the Year." the rise of the image the fall of the word, a historical analysis of our current communications revolution, was published by Oxford University Press. Prof. Stephens is also one of five editors of Covering Catastrophe: Broadcast Journalists Report September 11. He has published two textbooks: Broadcast News, long the most widely used radio and television news textbook, and (with Gerald Lanson) Writing and Reporting the News. In recent years, Prof. Stephens has written numerous articles on media issues and aspects of contemporary thought for publications such as The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and the Columbia Journalism Review.
In 2001 Prof. Stephens completed a trip around the world, during which he reported on globalization for the public radio program "Marketplace" and the webzine Feed and wrote essays on travel for LonelyPlanet.com. His commentaries have aired on NPR's "On the Media." Prof. Stephens has been history consultant to the Newseum.
He is currently writing a history of disbelief for Carroll and Graf.