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."
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.
Denominations of Disbelief? 1. Shelleyans
posted on 03.27.2006 at 11:35 AM
Do atheists, to put this in the most negative possible way, have their own sects? What might those sects be?
Here's one possible denomination: The Shelleyans.
-- They subscribe to a Romantic version of atheism, which is seen as a higher, more Christian-than-Christian, Nature-given morality. (The religious just do good because they believe God, with his promise of higher reward, is watching. The irreligious do good for its own sake, because it is the law of nature.)
-- Their prophet? Baron d'Holbach
-- Their holy text: Queen Mab.
-- Words to live by: "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" -- Frances Wright
-- Related denominations? Secular Humanists.
Thales and the Gods
posted on 03.23.2006 at 12:49 PM
Thales, who lived from about the 620s BCE to 546 BCE, may have been the first of the great Greek natural philosophers, which may make him the first of the great Greek scientists. He came up with a theory of earthquakes. He may have predicted an eclipse. He thought the primary element was water. Did Thales believe in gods?
Nothing Thales wrote, if he wrote, survives. Aristotle, perhaps based on Plato, attributes to Thales the view that "everything is full of gods." Here is the argument that Aristotle got Thales' view wrong -- that Thales probably believed (along with Sam and Dave) in soul; that he believed everything to be full of "soul," which he connected to motion; but that his natural philosophy was mostly devoted to making the gods redundant. It's an argument that would elevate Thales, a formidable figure to begin with, to a rather distinguished place in the history of disbelief. However, there doesn't seem any way to pin it down...
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.
Rushdie on the Cartoons
posted on 03.01.2006 at 10:54 PM
From a statement signed by Salman Rushdie, Bernard-Henri Levy and others on the Danish cartoons (brought to my attention by Ben Vershbow):
"We, writers, journalists, intellectuals, call for resistance to religious totalitarianism and for the promotion of freedom, equal opportunity and secular values for all."
Not so much a call for toleration (as we've been hearing) but a call for "resistance" and secularism.
"We reject « cultural relativism », which consists in accepting that men and women of Muslim culture should be deprived of the right to equality, freedom and secular values in the name of respect for cultures and traditions."
Is something stirring?
posted on 02.27.2006 at 9:05 PM
Now along with writing entries I seem to have given myself responsibility for alerting you to when an entry is important. The debate over Hume's beliefs or lack of beliefs -- begun by Dennett and Wieseltier, picked up in comments here and here , and in an entry below -- strikes me as important for a couple of reasons:
1. David Hume might have mounted -- in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion and Natural History of Religion -- the most thorough and intelligent critique of religion we have seen. So it is of more than mere passing interest whether he was or was not a believer.
2. We're still struggling to figure out whether anyone was an atheist in Europe between the end of the Roman Empire and the publication, in 1770, of Baron d'Holbach's System of Nature, the first avowedly atheistic work. Some historians, as I have noted, believe it was impossible not to believe in God, given the mindset in Europe at the time. Others believe it was merely impossible to say you didn't believe. Hume provides quite a case study.
Here's a quote from his History I find intriguing and, probably, revealing:
"The conviction of the religionists, in all ages, is more affected than real... Men dare not avow, even to their own hearts, the doubts which they entertain on such subjects: they make a merit of implicit faith; and disguise to themselves their real infidelity."
My guess is that Hume hung on to some faith in his own heart -- but very, very little; very, very tenuously.
Wieseltier on Dennett III: Hume
posted on 02.24.2006 at 5:39 PM
Daniel Dennett claims to be -- and in fact is -- following in the tradition of
David Hume in using an exploration of the causes of religion to loosen belief in religion. But Leon Wieseltier accuses him of editing out one important statement by Hume -- the one in which the great skeptic admits: "The whole frame of nature bespeaks an intelligent author."
And it is true that, when pressed, Hume seems to emit a vague deism not dissimilar to the vague deism to which Wieseltier himself seems to cling (rather desperately, it seems). But the point, which Wieseltier fails to mention, is that in Hume's day one was pressed to avow belief in a deity with an insistence and consequence of a different order from anything philosophers today might confront. Just half a century earlier, a young man was hung in Scotland for rejecting religion. And Hume was afraid to publish his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion for 25 years -- until after his death.
This Scottish philosopher, who generally wanted to avoid "clamour," must have felt it prudent to display at least some plausible religious belief. Was he being insincere? We don't know. (Some of his professions of belief, such as the one Wieseltier quotes, seem inconsistent with his reasoning elsewhere; however, an unbending atheism would seem inconsistent with Hume's skepticism about intellectual certainty.) Is Wieseltier being fair in quoting, in the New York Times, Hume's avowal of belief in intelligent design without noting the pressures he faced? That question seems easier to answer.
posted on 02.13.2006 at 10:27 PM
The story of this French priest (This was his church) is surely one of the great tales in the history of disbelief. After performing his duties irreproachably until his death in 1733, Father Meslier left beyond three copies of a Memoire, addressed to his parishioners, with his true thoughts:
"...As a priest I had no choice but to fulfill my ministry, but how I suffered when I was forced to preach to you those pious falsehoods that I detested with all my heart. What contempt I felt for my ministry, and particularly for the superstitious mass and the ridiculous administration of the sacraments, especially when they had to be carried out with a solemnity that attracted your piety and excited your credulity? A thousand times I was on the point of publicly exploding. I wanted to open your eyes, but a fear stronger than my strength suddenly held me back, and forced me to remain silent until my death...."
Makes you wonder: How much disbelief was being hidden? What thoughts today are being hidden? Or has humankind suddenly developed moral courage?
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.
Where Were All the Atheists?
posted on 01.20.2006 at 6:12 AM
One of the great mysteries in the history of disbelief:
Why is there almost no evidence that atheists existed in Europe from, say, the Middle Ages through the end of the Renaissance?
One possible answer follows from the argument in the previous post: There weren't any atheists because a mind at that time, in those cultures, was simply unable to conceive of a world without God.
Another possible answer, as you probably have guessed, is that disbelievers -- skeptics, iconoclasts, freethinkers -- have always been around. It's just that in those centuries, when Europe was in the grip of something like a Christian version of the Taliban, it was impossible to express disbelief. Merely disputing the proportion of divinity in a member of the Trinity could get you burned at the stake.
The first answer exhibits an attractive cultural relativism. I lean toward the second, less condescending answer. And I think the latest historical evidence (of which there ain't much) is pointing this way.
posted on 12.26.2005 at 11:42 AM
We know that some of the more significant figures in the history of atheism -- Spinoza (though he never went so far as to call himself an atheist), Marx, Freud -- were lapsed Jews.
We know that the Jewish god seemed maddeningly elusive to pagans. A rabbi, hearing of my project, noted that when, during the destruction of the Temple, Roman soldiers entered the Holy of Holies and found no statue, nothing--a void, they concluded that the Jews were atheists. (Brings to mind the quote from A. N. Whitehead from the shuffle above: "The progress of religion is defined by the denunciation of gods.")
What I don't have is much of an understanding of Jewish nonbelief (Christian and Islamic nonbelief have proved somewhat easier). Elisha ben Abuyah, a rabbi, may be an example in the Talmud. What am I missing?
Shelley -- "an opinion so diabolical and wicked"
posted on 12.15.2005 at 11:41 PM
In the winter of 1811, Percy Bysshe Shelley edited, polished and expanded an essay drafted by his best friend, Thomas Jefferson Hogg. The two Oxford students published their tightly argued work at their own expense. They published it anonymously. The pamphlet's title was The Necessity of Atheism.
"God," the authors insist, "is a hypothesis and, as such, stands in need of proof." Their essay challenges the more common efforts to support that "hypothesis." It then "earnestly entreats" those who disagree to respond with alternative "proofs."
The response its authors actually received was somewhat different. Within twenty minutes of Shelley's placing copies in a prominent Oxford bookshop, a minister and fellow of one of the Oxford colleges walked in, saw the pamphlets, looked through one and then ordered all copies except one, which was saved for evidence, burned at the back of the shop. The next month Shelley and Hogg were expelled from Oxford. The month after that Shelley was cut off by his father, a member of Parliament, who stated that he was prepared to leave the young man "to the punishment and misery that belongs to the wicked pursuit of an opinion so diabolical and wicked."
The printing press had arrived in England more than three centuries earlier, but this was one of the first open endorsements of atheism anyone had dared print in that country.
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-.