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
Atheists and Foxholes
posted on 11.08.2006 at 9:28 AM
The argument that periods of mortal peril end our silly questioning of the existence of God has been so persistent that Charles Bradlaugh's daughter had to arrange for witnesses to confirm that the great atheist had not found religion on his deathbed. War, it is often argued, straightens out disbelievers. The New York Times invokes that discredited argument once again, albeit with a question mark, in the headline atop an opinion piece:
No Atheists in a Foxhole? No Idiots, Either
The piece is about the intelligence of military recruits and says nothing about atheism, so this is a gratuitous and unsupported fallacy (and, the journalism professor in me adds, a lousy headlines).
For the record, the best known of the soldiers killed in America's current wars, former football player Pat Tillman, seems to have been an example of a consistent nonbeliever.
One Fewer God
posted on 09.12.2006 at 1:23 AM
Christians today might say, I don't believe in Zeus, that was a silly superstition. Yet for many people that was a real god. So it turns out there are 10,000 gods and yet only one right one. That means we're all atheists on 9,999 gods. The only difference between me and the believers is I'm an atheist on one more god.
I know I've heard this line before. According to the Web (which occasionally does have its limits as a source of knowledge), it was first used by someone named Stephen F. Roberts:
I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.
Roberts even has a page in which he formally takes credit for it.
However, I suspect the line is much older than that. I found this Bertrand Russell quote which is close:
I think that all of us would say in regard to those gods that we were Atheists. In regard to the Christian God, I should, I think, take exactly the same line.
Labor Day Message
posted on 09.03.2006 at 9:27 PM
Herewith a selection from this book in progress, involving nineteenth-century British atheist leader Charles Bradlaugh. The point today is to note that atheism in Bradlaugh's day was a working-class movement:
In March 1859, Bradlaugh was scheduled to speak at the Guildhall in Doncaster, to the north of London. In response, a group calling itself "Friends of Religion" felt called upon to issue a "caution to the public" in which it advised the town's population to make sure Bradlaugh would gaze "on the unpeopled interior of the Guildhall." In fact, the interior of the Guildhall in Doncaster, when Bradlaugh mounted the stage, was "crowded to excess," according to the Doncaster Herald, which nevertheless dubbed Bradlaugh's talk a "frantic panegyric in honor of hell."
"There boldly, defiantly, recklessly," that newspaper sneered, "stood the Creator's work, toiling, sweating, laboring strenuously to heap slander upon his Creator." The Herald's correspondent expressed "disgust" and "horror" that a "young and accomplished man" could stand in front of a crowded hall "while the beauteous moon marches aloft in the vast and indefinable firmament" and dare state "that no God lives!"
Bradlaugh returned to Doncaster later that year. This time the "Friends of Religion" were better organized: He was denied use of any of the town's halls. So Bradlaugh spoke outdoors on a temporary platform erected under the roof of the corn market. "He is a person possessing great fluency of speech, of ready wit," another paper, the Doncaster Chronicle, conceded, "and the declamatory style of his oratory is well calculated to excite and carry away a popular audience." With no walls to restrict its size, the "popular audience" that evening was reported to include four thousand people. The city quickly forbade Bradlaugh from speaking in the market, so the next evening he spoke from a wagon in an open area near the market. The subject that night, a Bradlaugh standard, was the "History and Teaching of Jesus Christ." More than seven thousand people turned out to hear him question that history and that teaching.
One defender of Christianity that evening managed to hit Bradlaugh in the head with a stone as he made his way back to his lodgings. Nonetheless, some percentage of the people of Doncaster clearly had an interest in the subject of atheism. Some percentage of the people - working-class people - evinced a similar interest in cities all across Britain in the middle of the nineteenth century.
posted on 08.12.2006 at 6:40 PM
Here'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.
The Origin of the Species
posted on 07.08.2006 at 8:23 PM
In 1859 in England, Charles Bradlaugh was on the stump, attacking religion before huge working-class crowds; John Stuart Mill published On Liberty ("If all mankind minus one were of one opinion and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind") and Charles Darwin published his book. Not a bad year.
The Origin of the Species came into the theological world like a plough into an ant-hill -- Leo J. Henkin
I myself have little doubt that in England it was geology and the theory of evolution that changed us from a Christian to a pagan nation -- F. Sherwood Taylor
No rapproachement was possible between Darwinism as such and protestantism as such. The conceptions of Man were too divergent -- John Dillenberger
If we may estimate the importance of an idea by the change of thought which it effects, this idea of natural selection is unquestionably the most important that has ever been conceived by the mind of man -- George J. Romanes
(From The Victorian Crisis of Faith)
Darwin and Thucydides
posted on 06.20.2006 at 7:22 PM
The obvious way to organize a history is, duh, chronologically. But, being an ambitious (or pretentious) fellow, I've had this notion that I might run another thread through this history of disbelief, that I might tell the story of the great nineteenth-century British atheist, Charles Bradlaugh, while I'm doing the history. Why (beyond ambition or pretense)? Because this extended biographical sketch would, presumably, give the reader a longer narrative to hang on to as the history follows disbelief from India to Baghdad to Spain to Amsterdam and eventually to Manhattan -- pausing for shorter narratives along the way. Readability, in other words.
I had a thought on how this might actually work while in India many months ago. The key being a connection in the second chapter -- which tracks disbelief in Egypt, India, China, Greece -- between Thucydides, the great Athenian historian, and Charles Darwin. Neither was a particularly aggressive critic of religion. My argument would be, however, that both benefited in crucial ways from the critique of religion that had gained force in their time. Could Thucydides have written his history, with its remarkable absence of supernatural explanation, without the corrosion of the Greek religion caused by the Sophists, among others? Could Darwin have written (or published) Origin of the Species without the attacks on religion of Shelley and Charles Bradlaugh, among others. Making this case would, thus, get Bradlaugh into chapter two.
That's what I'm working on now. It may very well be a bad idea -- especially since jumpiness is a potential problem. And, as usual, I've got to write it to have any idea whether I'll like it.
Madalyn Murray O'Hair
posted on 04.18.2006 at 5:51 PM
Inform an American over a certain age that you are writing a history of disbelief and, likely as not, they'll ask about: Madalyn Murray O'Hair. For much of the second half of the 20th century, this dedicated, gutsy, combative woman -- more firebrand than intellectual -- was the public face of atheism in the United States. She was the opposite of prim and proper. She led a cause before women were leading many causes and stood up to religion at a time when it was dangerous to stand up to it, earning the description: "most hated woman in America."
Murray O'Hair was a plaintiff in an important school prayer case. She founded the organization American Atheists. There is a picture of her picketing the White House in 1982 with a quote from my hero Charles Bradlaugh.
However, things got sordid and tragic in a way they did not with, say Bertrand Russell, who may have been the international face of atheism in those years. One of Murray O'Hair's sons found Jesus and denounced his mother for all sorts of deviltry. And in 1995 Madalyn Murray O'Hair plus another son and a granddaughter (both involved in the movement) disappeared, along with a lot of money. For a long time the authorities thought they had run off to New Zealand -- atheists presumably being prone to such behavior. Eventually their murderers were arrested (Murray O'Hair liked to hire ex-cons) and the bodies were found.
I can't say she contributed to the development of the idea of atheism -- as Bradlaugh did, as Russell did. But this story -- my narrative in this book -- will be about courage and obstinacy, too. I suspect that one of these months I will find myself researching the story of Madalyn Murray O'Hair.
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 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.
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.
Flurry of Freethinking
posted on 01.26.2006 at 9:05 PM
Golden ages of disbelief?
** Athens at the time of Pericles (Protagoras, Anaxagoras, Diagoras, perhaps Thucydides).
** Paris in the 18th century (Meslier, Diderot, d'Holbach).
And...possibly...now...when orthodoxy ostensibly is resurgent. Add to publications in recent years by Jennifer Michael Hecht, Susan Jacoby and Sam Harris a new book by the philosopher Daniel Dennett on the causes of belief.
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.
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-.