Hitler and Religion
posted on 10.16.2006 at 9:24 PM
This risks descending into guilt by association, but the religious sometimes like to throw in the Nazi horrors as among the consequences of 20th century secularism. (Finding quotes on the Web in support of stuff like this is another low and too-easy game, as is finding such quotes credited to Ann Coulter.) Still, it seems worth pointing out (thanks Pharyngula) that Adolph Hitler did indeed see himself as a believer -- a Christian, a Catholic:
I believe today that I am acting in the sense of the Almighty Creator. By warding off the Jews I am fighting for the Lord's work. [Adolph Hitler, Speech, Reichstag, 1936]
I am now as before a Catholic and will always remain so. [Adolph Hitler, to Gen. Gerhard Engel, 1941]
Any violence which does not spring from a spiritual base, will be wavering and uncertain. It lacks the stability which can only rest in a fanatical outlook. [Adolph Hitler, _Mein Kampf_, p. 171]
No, I don't think this means that Catholics are Fascists. And I know that atheists have some skeletons in the closet too. But still. (Many more quotes in this vein from this person are available.)
Reason and Religion: II
posted on 10.12.2006 at 12:54 PM
The Son of God died; it must needs be believed because it is absurd. He was buried and rose again; it is certain because it is impossible.
Does not something of this "logic" lie at the heart of all religion?
Distracted by Journalism
posted on 10.05.2006 at 8:40 PM
This book writer has not been book writing much these past two weeks. I am completing an article for the Columbia Journalism Review -- arguing that newspapers and newscasts need to surrender their attachment to the distribution of news to survive in a world where news comes so fast and so cheap. Analysis, point of view, are the solution, I argue, as they were for weeklies when dailies took over the business of providing fast news.
So the story of disbelief remains suspended at a particularly bad moment in its history: with Hypatia, one of the last of the pagan philosophers, having been torn to pieces; with debates on the good and how to live one's life shrinking into debates on whether the Father and the Son were One or just almost One; with the philosophy schools in Athens about to be shut down.
Christianity and Slavery
posted on 10.04.2006 at 11:54 AM
I may have been too quick (as suggested in a few wise comments) to accept the assertion of my dinner companions that Christianity was responsible for the elimination of slavery in the Roman Empire . A few points (from Charles Freeman's excellent The Closing of the Western Mind):
1. The notion, which was indeed found among Christians, that slaves should be regarded as fellow human beings was not original to Christianity. It dates back to the Greek Stoics.
2. Christians -- always with an eye to another, better life beyond -- exhorted slaves to accept their fate. This is from a Christian text written in the year 90:
Slaves, be obedient to the men who are called your masters in the world, with deep respect and sincere loyalty as you are obedient to Christ....Work hard and willing...but do it for the sake of the Lord.
3. Christians, despite Jesus' apparent affection for the "meek" and suspicion of the "rich man," could fall into the karma-like notion that our lots here are our just rewards. Here's the sainted and, of course, hugely influential Augustine, writing when the western half of the Roman Empire was beginning to fall apart:
The primary cause of slavery...is sin...and this can only be by a judgment of God, in whom there is no unrighteousness, and who knows how to assign divers punishments according to the deserts of the sinners.
posted on 09.28.2006 at 12:46 PM
On the list of those who contributed to the remarkable spread of Christianity, the Roman emperor, Constantine, may rank with Paul and, oh yes, Jesus. Constantine, through his support and (late) conversion, enabled the religion to conquer the empire. The danger, of course, is that the empire might conquer the religion.
Certainly, this pillar of Christianity was a little weak in the "do-unto-others" area. The example that sticks in my mind: Constantine traveled to Rome in the year 326 with his wife, his son by another marriage, his step-nephew and his mother. By the time he arrived he had put to death - in fear of plots? because of rumors of sexual misbehavior? - all but his mother.
Christianity: Plus and Minus
posted on 09.27.2006 at 8:58 AM
Debate over dinner last night about the historical consequences of the spread of Christianity.
-- On the positive side: the end of slavery in the Roman Empire, where it had been as widespread as it ever has been; a new consciousness of the worth of each person.
-- On the negative side: the closing of the Academy in Athens (after 900 years) and the other (pagan) philosophy schools; the lapsing (in the Western empire at least) of scientific investigation; 900 or so years of intellectual regression or, at least, much less progress; the triumph of a religion that emphasized death or what happens after dead or the End of Days -- not life.
Reason and Religion
posted on 09.22.2006 at 9:53 PM
Millions of Americans think the pope asked exactly the right questions: Does the Muslim God accord with the categories of reason? Are Muslims trying to spread their religion with the sword?
We've already dealt with what Catana (in a comment) called His Holiness' pot-calling-the-kettle problem when it comes to the use of swords. But Brooks' line about "reason" seems at least as hypocritical. His assumption would seem to be that the Jewish or Christian Gods do -- or "millions of Americans think they do -- "accord with the categories of reason"?
Where to begin? With Paul perhaps, that greatest apostle of Christianity, who wrote: "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise." Or, perhaps, with Justinian, the emperor who completed the (often forced) conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity and in 529 closed the Academy founded by Plato, which had operated in Athens for 900 years. It took about 900 more years before Western reason could begin digging out from under Christian "faith."
Or, perhaps, we could begin with the Hebrew Bible. This is from one of the Proverbs:
Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding...
Or with the words of God Himself from Isaiah, which mate, neatly, reason and the sword:
"Come now, let us reason together," says the LORD. "Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.
If you are willing and obedient,
you will eat the best from the land;
but if you resist and rebel,
you will be devoured by the sword."
For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.
Is this what we mean by reasoning? It seems Mafia reasoning.
Is a universe created in six days is "in accord with reason"? How about a virgin birth?
posted on 09.17.2006 at 1:04 PM
It takes, of course, a certain amount of chutzpah or blindness (along with political insensitivity) for a Christian to criticize Muhammad for the "command to spread by the sword the faith he preached."
Of the multitude of possible examples of Christians bringing, as Jesus says he does, "not...peace but a sword," my current favorite is the story of 4th- and 5th-century Alexandria's leading philosopher, Hypatia. This revered exponent of Plato and neoplatonism ran afoul of Cyril, the new patriarch of the Catholic Church (who had managed to chase away the city Jews). After Cyril's people spread rumors that Hypatia was a witch, a mob of Christian faithful entered her home stripped her, dragged her behind a chariot, and possibly chopped her body to pieces before burning it.
Cyril is now a saint in the church over which Benedict presides.
Pope Benedict XVI Weighs In
posted on 09.14.2006 at 6:07 PM
The latest to join our dialogue on the nature of disbelief is Pope Benedict XVI. Unfortunately, his comments are a bit obscure:
Today, when we have learned to recognize the pathologies and life-threatening diseases associated with religion and reason, and the ways that God's image can be destroyed by hatred and fanaticism, it is important to state clearly the God in whom we believe....
Only this can free us from being afraid of God which is ultimately at the root of modern atheism... Only this God saves us from being afraid of the world and from anxiety before the emptiness of life.
His Holyness -- at least as interpreted by the New York Times -- seems to be aiming for something here beyond mere lucidity. I guess the point is that our fear of God keeps us from accepting His assistance in overcoming our anxious fear of the world and of the emptiness of life.
It's hard to argue with the Pope on this "anxiety before the emptiness of life" thing. God knows we've all had days when stuff seems more than a little random. No doubt a bit of supernaturally imposed good/bad, right/wrong believe that the Son and the Father are consubstantial/don't belief the Son and the Father are consubstantial might help. Problem is -- and maybe this is part of the reason Benedict seems to be having difficulty making himself clear -- God Himself often seems more mysterious, shall we say, than clear on matters such as the proper relationship between religion and reason and what we should be doing about Darfur."Who can straighten what He has twisted? Koheleth wonders in Ecclesiastes.
And Benedict must be hanging out with a weird bunch of atheists. I can imagine a some haunted sinner running from God and his alleged judgement. But, rather than being afraid of God, the atheists I know are just unimpressed with Him as a concept (or Concept).
Beauty and Jesus
posted on 08.22.2006 at 11:58 PM
On a beautiful fall day, as I was hiking in the Cascade Mountains ... the majesty and beauty of God's creation overwhelmed my resistance. As I rounded a corner and saw a beautiful and unexpected frozen waterfall, hundreds of feet high, I knew the search was over. The next morning, I knelt in the dewy grass as the sun rose and surrendered to Jesus Christ.
If the beauty of nature can mean that Jesus really is the son of God, then anything can mean anything.
Why is it that natural beauty is seen as belonging to the supernatural? It seems, at first glance at least, rather firmly rooted in the natural.
posted on 05.04.2006 at 9:36 AM
Even if religion has been making a comeback against secularism in recent decades, hasn't much (not all) religion been transformed by its exposure to secularism? This from A. C. Grayling, writing in The Guardian:
In its bleeding-heart modern form, Christianity is a recent and highly modified version of what, for most of its history, has been an often violent and always oppressive ideology - think Crusades, torture, burnings at the stake, the enslavement of women to constantly repeated childbirth and undivorceable husbands, the warping of human sexuality, the use of fear (of hell's torments) as an instrument of control, and the horrific results of calumny against Judaism. Nowadays, by contrast, Christianity specialises in soft-focus mood music; its threats of hell, its demand for poverty and chastity, its doctrine that only the few will be saved and the many damned, have been shed, replaced by strummed guitars and saccharine smiles.
posted on 03.23.2006 at 11:05 PM
You don't have to get too far into your average holy book or testament before something fails to add (unless your calculator adjusts results based on faith) up. Here's the early-twentieth-century anthropologist Roy Franklin Barton:
There is much that is inconsistent and contradictory in religions generally, because they grow by accretion through many, many ages and kinds of culture, from mingled emotions, timidities and hopes and in the minds of different individuals and peoples.
I think of Jesus -- or rather the many, many Jesuses -- when I think of such inconsistencies and contradictions. (Though there are, to be sure, examples in all faiths; Barton is talking about headhunters in the Philippines.) Born a Prince/Born a Carpenter. Son of Man/Son of God. Revolutionary/Ascetic.Turn the other cheek/Not peace but a sword. Messiah/Sacrifice. Kingdom of God Soon/Kingdom of God After I Die/Kingdom of God Many, Many Generations Hence.
Most Christians, and even many non-Christians, have a favorite Jesus. (I venture to say that it is hard to read the Gospels without finding something to like.) Thomas Jefferson even went so far as to cut up the Gospels -- taking out the parts he didn't like. (I've heard two version of what those parts were: all the supernatural stuff or everything except Jesus' own words.) Even Nietzsche takes a brief break from pummeling Christianity to roll out a kind of Buddhist, naif Jesus, of whom he seems quite enamored. This game has been played, on quite a high level, by artists too, of course.
Garry Wills has a new book, What Jesus Meant, which promises to present some interesting Jesuses, cause Wills is an interesting thinker. The review in the New York Times, by Jon Meacham, however, mostly just trips over various contractions.
My favorite Jesus: The would-be Messiah who, finding himself dying in pain on a Roman cross, cries out (his last words, while alive, in Matthew): "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me." (Slavoj Zizek, not surprisingly, likes him too.)
The deeply sad, if not disgusted, yet somehow also resolute and caring mosaic Jesus in Istanbul's Aya Sophia also intrigues me. Maybe because it manages to bring together a selection of the contradictions and inconsistencies in one believable Face. Might the painting be a reminder that such a selection could have coexisted in the Man Himself? Sure. Plenty of lower-case men and women manage to embody a bunch of contradictions. But, in Jesus's case, that's hard to square with the various supernatural perfections.
Is there a Jesus of whom you're particularly fond? Or, perhaps, a favorite contradiction in the various accounts of His life and death?
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.
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?
Cartoons of the Prophet -- Part I
posted on 02.06.2006 at 10:37 PM
As the flames were lit around him in 1553, Michael Servetus, a scientist and renegade religious thinker, is said to have cried, "O Jesus, Son of the Eternal God, have pity on me!" According to one observer, had he instead phrased it, "Jesus, the Eternal Son, have pity on me!" the flames might have been extinguished. For Servetus was being burned at the stake in Calvin's Geneva precisely because he refused to affirm the divinity of Jesus.
Believers have long taken affronts to their religion, even seemingly minor affronts, rather seriously.
India -- Variety of Irreligious Experience
posted on 01.14.2006 at 12:38 AM
This country sure will chase notions of cultural homogenization out of an American's head.
The Indian street (as alive as any I've seen): where a thousand and one collisions are poised to happen -- between honking car and weaving bicycle, putt-putting auto-rickshaw and intent pedestrian; where a thousand collisions are, with a last-second swerve or stall, avoided.
Skinny women squat on the dusty ground in brightly colored sarees. Skinny men wrap and unwrap loose fabric around their midsections. (No doubt leaving them more comfortable than my jeans leave me.) At the restaurant where I find myself, the men eat their white rice and spicy sauces with their fingers.
And then there's Indian religion. Polytheism is just some quaint historical fact back where I come from. Here in India it's easily visible in the colorful gods, with reassuring smiles, that decorate a shrine in the parking lot of my hotel.
This crowd of Hindu gods, with their different talents and personalities, seems pretty distant from the stern, lonely god-of-all-trades of the Abrahamic tradition. Sure sounds like unhomogenized cultural difference to me.
Somewhere in the comments on another entry on this blog we were discussing whether Jewish atheism, say, is different from Christian atheism. What about atheism here ("rationalists," I believe they're called)? A Hindu nonbeliever has an awful lot of gods to not believe in. Does that make it harder or easier? In what exactly would a Buddhist be disbelieving?
I have a fair amount invested in the premise that it is possible to talk in one sentence about atheism in, for example, India and in the next about atheism in Paris (where only baguettes, grapes and Le Quick hamburgers are eaten with fingers).
That is probably still possible. Nonetheless, It is clearly going to be necessary for me to acknowledge the variety of religious experience in order to make sense of a good variety of humankind's irreligious experiences.
On my plane a gaggle of preternaturally sincere Americans and Europeans, in loose-fitting clothes, whispered about the best rooms in this or that ashram. They didn't come all this way just to experience unfamilar ways of eating or to ride unfamiliar kinds of taxis.
The Concept of 'God,' Abolished
posted on 01.09.2006 at 12:14 AM
Buddhism, as comments on the entry below make clear, has been a tough religion for anti-religionists to get their minds around.
Nietzsche, whose father and grandfather were pastors, is no friend of religion. And he really can't abide Christianity: "Hatred of mind, of pride, courage, freedom...is Christian: hatred of the senses, of the joy of the senses, of joy in general is Christian."
But this German philosopher has a soft spot for Buddhism: "The supreme goal is cheerfulness, stillness, absence of desire, and this goal is achieved." (Lucky Nietzsche didn't see the fortune-telling machines next to some Buddhist temples in Japan.)
He certainly notices the absence in Buddhism of meddling deities: "The concept of 'God'," observes Nietzsche (the fellow who first reported god's death) "is already abolished by the time [Buddhism] arrives."