EXPERIMENTAL PAPER ON DISBELIEF
posted on 12.05.2006 at 11:46 PM
In a new site connected to this blog:
** I have taken some of the more controversial ideas -- on disbelief and belief -- from the blog and early chapters of my book and combined them in a spiraling, twelve part paper (to be presented to a working group of the Center for Religion and Media at NYU).
Thus we hope to expand the experiment begun with this blog: using the Web to sharpen and deepen a work in progress.
posted on 05.14.2006 at 11:21 PM
Do the religious sound a little desperate? Have they always? This example of defensive name-calling is from the Bhagavad-Gita -- written perhaps 2,500 years ago:
Two orders of contingent beings in this world there are: The godly and the devilish... The devilish folk know nothing.... 'The world's devoid of truth' they say, 'It has no ground, no ruling Lord, It has not come to be by mutual causal law; Random and without any cause.' Fast holding to these views, Lost souls with feeble minds, They embark on cruel and violent deeds, --malignant [In their lust] for the destruction of the world. (Cited, Thrower, The Alternative Tradition)
One form this desperation perhaps takes nowadays is a need to use globalization and technology in order to fend off globalization and technology . No one was better at pointing out such (inevitable) contradictions (on the part of nonbelievers, too) than the late Jacques Derrida. It is worth wading through the jargon here. (This was written ten years ago.)
Religion today allies itself with tele-technoscience, to which it reacts with all its forces. It is, on the one hand, globalization: it produces, weds, exploits the capital and knowledge of tele-mediatization; neither the trips and global spectacularizing and knowledge of the Pope, nor the interstate dimensions of the "Rushdie affair," nor planetary terrorism would otherwise be possible, at this rhythm -- and we could multiply such indications ad infinitum. But, on the other hand, it reacts immediately, simultaneously, declaring war against that which gives it this new power only at the cost of dislodging it from all its proper places, in truth from place itself, from the taking place of its truth. (From "Faith and Knowledge" in Acts of Religion)
Religion "dislodged" from its sacred places, from its sacred truths, forced to conspire with that which does the dislodging. Bin Laden on videotape, broadcast by satellite. You'd be desperate, too.
posted on 02.25.2006 at 1:33 PM
Far be it for this blogger to toot his own blog's horn...constantly. Just once in a while. And such an occasion has arrived. It strikes said blogger that the Derrida post below, which attracted a grand total of zero comments, and the Religion as Emotion post, less far below, are, like, important.
On account of the fact that they each get at the places, very different places, where the seemingly parallel lines of faith and reason seem to meet. Derrida is arguing (and, okay, maybe I didn't make this very clear) that there is a kind of primordial, inescapable leap of faith behind any attempt to reason, to communicate. That other lofty post suggests that an emotional response to religion, to faith, may be as real, even unavoidable, as love (and it is the official position of this blog that love is damn real) -- even if you don't belief in squat, even if you're Mr. or Ms. Reason.
Whole philosophies, maybe, could rise or fall based on such arguments. (I haven't quite worked out how, but trust me on this.) At the very least, you'd think someone writing a book (eminently readable but still intellectually sound) on atheism ought to have thought them out. You're supposed to help me think out.
Wieseltier on Dennett I: "Scientism"?
posted on 02.21.2006 at 11:30 AM
It is not quite clear what faith Leon Wieseltier (left) is defending in his over-the-top review of the new book by Daniel Dennett (right) on the causes of belief. But he must see the threat to that pale faith, and civilization as he knows it, as profound, because no holds are barred. The New Republic's literary editor even finds himself sounding a bit like a late-seventies comp-lit professor:
"Scientism, the view that science can explain all human conditions and expressions, mental as well as physical, is a superstition, one of the dominant superstitions of our day; and it is not an insult to science to say so."
It is indeed an entertaining world we live in when science (broadly applied, to be sure) gets called religion by a long-gray-haired neoliberal (with a weakness for the spiritual) to fend off a long-gray-bearded philosophy professor (with a weakness for sociobiology), in, of all places, the pages of the New York Times. What are we to make of this charge?
Is there actually a sense in which science, when extended to human culture, might truly be considered a faith? (Does the attempt to locate a common source for faith and reason attributed to Derrida -- guru of late-seventies comp-lit professors -- below illuminate matters any?) Is the villain here just sociobiology -- evolutionary biology as applied to cultural behaviors? Or are we to conceive of our whole scientific view of the world as, gulp, just another religion? (Was Einstein the wrong choice as "Person of the Century"? Should it have been Thomas Kuhn?) Can one be an atheist or even an agnostic with respect to science -- or some overly ambitious applications of science?
Cartoons of the Atheist -- Part II (and Dennett's Book)
posted on 02.20.2006 at 11:33 AM
A few years ago, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin published this cartoon; it was an unclever response to an opinion piece by Mitchell Kahle in which he wrote: "The old saying 'There are no atheists in foxholes' is entirely without merit or legitimacy...."
This notion that atheists will get religion as soon as they sense death or the full turbulence of life is an old one. In the nineteenth century some atheists went so far as to arrange to have witnesses by their deathbeds to prove that they did not succumb to a last-minute conversion.
Before getting to Leon Wieseltier's intemperate, wrongheaded and fascinating review of Dennett's book in Sunday's New York Times, I want to finish with Adam Kirsch's somewhat more delicate skewering. For at some point he falls back on a version of the old foxhole argument:
"To believe or disbelieve is existentially the most important choice of all. It shapes one's whole understanding of human life and purpose, because it is a choice that each of us must make for him or herself. To impress on a man the urgency of that choice, Kierkegaard wrote, it would be useful to "get him seated on a horse and the horse made to take fright and gallop wildly ... this is what existence is like if one is to become consciously aware of it."
Much here perplexes me. First, how does Kierkegaard's view of existence relate to Woody Allen's revelation that "eighty percent of life is just showing up"?
Second, what does it mean to say that belief in God is an "existential choice"? Doesn't belief in God depend on only one factor: whether you think there really is a God? I know we're supposed to forget such calculations and perpetrate some kind of "leap of faith." A "leap" toward what? From what? Over what? Is there any place to stand on the other side? Do you have to keep leaping? A "leap" that allows you to kill your son? Faith in dreams? Faith in reason? Faith in superstition? Faith in faith? Faith in nothing? Faith as a kind of madness? Faith in God?
And, third, what sort of argument for religion is it to say people crawl toward it when life gets tough and they get scared? When he heard thunder, my late golden retriever would attempt to hide his head under a bed. This earned neither him nor the bed much respect in my eyes.
Faith and Knowledge -- Complications
posted on 02.17.2006 at 10:01 AM
Had occasion once (in my role of ace reporter) to ask Monsieur Derrida whether atheism is where we begin. He looked at me uncomfortably. He said something about complexity or the difficulty of "improvising" on such a matter. We moved to a different subject.
Here's one way the subject gets difficult for Derrida: He sees (and others have certainly stumbled upon this) all our utterances resting, at bottom, on a certain, primordial "faith" -- faith that an attempt to communicate is being made and will be acknowledged. Reason, Derrida argues, is impossible without this "trust."
(The "text" from which this mixmaster of a line is extracted can be found in a collection of Derrida's writings on religion.)
Morality Without God
posted on 02.14.2006 at 1:46 PM
I'm currently teaching (conveniently and not-coincidentally) a seminar on The History of Disbelief.
Last week we discussed the slippery slope down which Jesus seems to lead in the Sermon on the Mount. There ain't much credit, He notes, in doing good "before men, to be seen by them." Instead, our charitable deeds, He insists, should be done "in secret." Then "your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly."
But -- and here's where the slipperiness of this particular slope becomes clear -- what credit is there in doing good just to be seen by God, just for that promised "reward"?
Kant, I have just learned (in a "text" by Jacques Derrida), ventures further down the slope arguing that (in Derrida's paraphrase) "in order to conduct oneself in a moral manner, one must act as if God did not exist." We should, in other words, do good without expectation of heavenly "reward."
Hmm... Isn't this saying we'd be more moral without God?
[Note: The depiction of Jesus in this entry is non-satirical.]
Has the Great Statement of Atheism Been Written?
posted on 01.25.2006 at 6:48 PM
"Atheist humanism hasn't generated a compelling popular narrative and ethic of what it is to be human and our place in the cosmos; where religion has retreated, the gap has been filled with consumerism, football, Strictly Come Dancing and a mindless absorption in passing desires."
One answer: Oh, come off it, all you shrill and panicked meaning seekers! Atheism cannot provide, and has no interest in providing, a new tale of good and evil to replace your fading testaments, gospels, holy books or other bedtime stories.
But we might also take her question more seriously. Has the great philosophical statement of atheism -- not as an alternative religion but as a analysis of life beyond religion -- been written?
Many have expressed what is wrong with religion. (See, for example, Russell or Sam Harris or George Carlin.) Has anyone proclaimed, with the requisite wisdom and gravity, what is right -- positive -- about life beyond religion?
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-.