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?
Pleasure v. Religion
posted on 10.18.2006 at 6:59 PM
Don't want to leave that noxious statement by Hitler at the top of the blogpile too long, so I'll elevate a discussion of the anacreontic attitude -- "sha, la, la, la, la, la live for today" -- from the comments. It is my thesis that in this attitude, which can be traced back to an Egyptian song more than 4,000 years ago, is a piece of the positive idea of atheism for which I am searching. For it puts the emphasis on earthly (and earthy) life and its wonders not on some putative, presumably perfect post-life.
JM reminds that we "post-ancients" are still sha-la-la-la-la-ing today. I certainly agree that this impulse to Have Pleasure Now ("and don't worry 'bout tomorrow") survives -- as obstacle, nightmare, tug or goal. Probably louder in (certain parts of) the culture now than it has been since the days of the Carvaka, Epicurus, the Cyrenaics and Anacreon himself (all of whom will get to sing their "alluring" songs in my book).
There is much that is alluring in this attitude, though I guess it is hard to build a life upon (even for members of the Allman Brothers Band). Efforts certainly are made to channel, contain, repress the unbridled pursuit of pleasure, but that doesn't mean this attitude would otherwise be so wild and free that it might avoid being encrusted with contradictions -- some having to do with the likely arrival of "tomorrow," some having to do with the fact that other people, with their own wants and desires, are required for the achievement of certain much-prized pleasures. Schisms have developed among anacreontics on the relative merits of physical pleasures, mental pleasures and the mere absence of distress.
Still, having a bit of fun -- now -- does seem an important component in a life strategy. And it does seem a mostly irreligious component.
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.
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?
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, Ã¢â‚¬Â¦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.
-- 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.)
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.
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-.