Listing entries tagged with disbelief

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 CÄrvÄkas 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 CÄrvÄkas 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 CÄrvÄkas 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 CÄrvÄkas 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 CÄrvÄka 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 CÄrvÄka 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 CÄrvÄkas 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?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 8:41 PM | Comments (5)

The Sweeping vs. The Narrow

posted on 12.12.2006 at 10:01 PM

Still thinking of the rather large question of method in historical and social science research.

Spoke with a colleague today who remembers when the sort of feminist inquiry into continuities in oppression of women in various times and places went out of fashion -- to be replaced by the study of inequities in gender relations in specific cultures.

Hope there is interest in learning of continuities in disbelief in across societies. That is what most interests me. Why do people disbelieve? What form do such disbeliefs generally take? How have they developed and changed. An anthropologist who listened to my paper insisted that I also note that different times and places have been more or less hospitable to disbelief. And, yes, that is interesting and important and certainly part of my book, too.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:01 PM | Comments (6)

Disbelief in the Holy of Holies

posted on 12.07.2006 at 12:52 AM

Does doubt lurk even at the very heart of religion -- even in the Holy of Holies?

That is one of the claims made in the new experimental paper we have posted on the Web. We do hope you will take advantage of the more advanced format for commenting it offers and weigh in.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 12:52 AM | Comments (2)


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).

** The Institute for the Future of the Book has come up with a new form that better integrates comments and allows readers to weigh in on individual paragraphs.

Thus we hope to expand the experiment begun with this blog: using the Web to sharpen and deepen a work in progress.

I hope you will check out this site and further the experiment with your comments, annotations, additions, references, corrections or criticisms.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:46 PM | Comments (0)

Dawkins' Belief Scale

posted on 10.22.2006 at 10:58 PM

Richard Dawkins comes up with an interesting scale of belief and disbelief in his new (and bestselling) book The God Delusion (here via a review in the New York Times):

On a scale of 1 to 7, where 1 is certitude that God exists and 7 is certitude that God does not exist, Dawkins rates himself a 6: "I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there."

I'm curious where the readers of this blog would place themselves on this scale...and why.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:58 PM | Comments (20)

One to One in the Eighth...

posted on 10.19.2006 at 11:01 PM

...of the seventh and last game of the series, with your team at bat, and so much in the hands of fate, it is necessary even for a disbeliever to remind himself of the futility of supernatural efforts to influence fate.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:01 PM | Comments (1)

All We Have Gained by Our Unbelief

posted on 09.26.2006 at 8:16 AM

This from Robert Browning's poem, "Bishop Blugram's Apology." The Bishop is holding forth before a skeptical journalist:

All we have gained then by our unbelief
Is a life of doubt diversified by faith,
For one of faith diversified by doubt:
We called the chess-board white,--we call it black.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 8:16 AM | Comments (1)

Zidane's (Sacred) Honor

posted on 07.11.2006 at 2:46 PM

Zidane.jpgI am, sadly, among those obsessed with determining what Marco Materazzi said to Zinédine Zidane to cause Zidane to headbutt Materazzi and get himself expelled with ten minutes left in the World Cup final. (It was a startling intrusion of the primitive and brutal into shiny, carefully packaged media-land.) Most of the possible answers -- Zidane, as of this writing, not having spoken -- involve his mother, his wife, the word "whore" or a reference (Zidane is Muslim) to terrorism.

At issue would appear to be some sort of notion of honor. Is this idea that the saying of the unsayable, the forbidden, the untrue, must be punished (with brutality) a religious idea? Is revenge religious? Would a true nonbeliever not care what anyone said? Would a true nonbeliever not have any reason to do anything?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 2:46 PM | Comments (7)

Anthropology Attacked!

posted on 07.11.2006 at 1:31 PM

I think I want to take a swipe at anthropologists.

Many nineteenth-century European observers of preliterate peoples mislabeled them as disbelievers because whatever they might have believed sure didn't look like The One True Faith: Christianity. These explorers and missionaries have taken their share of abuse.

But I'm ready to conclude (in reworking my first chapter) that many twentieth-century anthropologists made a similar mistake: They mislabeled the peoples they observed as devout believers because the doubts and hesitations they did harbor sure didn't look like Logical, Consistent, Secular Humanist, Western, Enlightenment Rationalism.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:31 PM | Comments (3)

Heroes of Disbelief

posted on 06.15.2006 at 11:04 PM

Amartya_Sen.jpgThe Nobel Prize wining economist, Amartya Sen, in a quote from his new book, on his "identity" as:

at the same time, an Asian, an Indian citizen, a Bengali with Bangladeshi ancestry, an American or British resident,...a dabbler in philosophy, an author, a Sanskritist, a strong believer in secularism and democracy, a man, a feminist, a heterosexual, a defender of gay and lesbian rights, with a nonreligious lifestyle, from a Hindu background, a non-Brahmin, and a nonbeliever in an afterlife (and also, in case the question is asked, a nonbeliever in a "before-life" as well).

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:04 PM | Comments (0)

Heroes of Disbelief

posted on 06.15.2006 at 11:04 PM

Amartya_Sen.jpgThe Nobel Prize wining economist, Amartya Sen, in a quote from his new book, on his "identity" as:

at the same time, an Asian, an Indian citizen, a Bengali with Bangladeshi ancestry, an American or British resident,...a dabbler in philosophy, an author, a Sanskritist, a strong believer in secularism and democracy, a man, a feminist, a heterosexual, a defender of gay and lesbian rights, with a nonreligious lifestyle, from a Hindu background, a non-Brahmin, and a nonbeliever in an afterlife (and also, in case the question is asked, a nonbeliever in a "before-life" as well).

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:04 PM | Comments (0)

Agriculture and Disbelief

posted on 06.02.2006 at 11:31 AM

The more you stumble about trying to follow some threads through the deep past, the more you realize the importance of agriculture. That's why the new report in Science on discovery of what may be humankind's earliest effort to domesticate a plant -- fig trees -- is so interesting. (A discovery made not in the Fertile Crescent but in the West Bank.)

Fig tree shoots jammed in the ground might have encouraged our peripatetic ancestors to settle down, and people living and working with larger numbers of other people in settlements require different, stricter moralities than hunter-gatherers. When you're living in a town, rather than in a band, you can't very well be killing the strangers you happen to encounter. Hence, the Thou-Shall-Not religions -- a change in human beliefs.

But Ofer Bar-Yosef, a co-author of the Science report, argues that there is also a connection between agriculture and disbelief. He is quoted in the New York Times:

"Eleven thousand years ago, there was a critical switch in the human mind -- from exploiting the earth as it is, to actively changing the environment to suit our needs," Dr. Bar-Yosef said in a statement from Harvard. "People decided to intervene in nature and supply their own food rather than relying on what was provided by the gods."

Hence, possibly, There-Are-No-Gods irreligion?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:31 AM | Comments (2)

Day Seizing

posted on 05.31.2006 at 6:19 PM

I keep coming back to this notion of living now, seeking pleasure, enjoying this world, as the positive alternative to religion, with its sacrifices, renunciations and postponements, with its otherworldliness.

Here for the record is the complete Ode by Horace which uses the Latin phrase "carpe diem":

Ask not - we cannot know - what end the gods have set for you, for me; nor attempt the Babylonian reckonings. How much better to endure whatever comes, whether Jupiter grants us additional winters or whether this is our last, which now wears out the Tuscan Sea upon the barrier of the cliffs! Be wise, strain the wine; and since life is brief, prune back far-reaching hopes! Even while we speak, envious time has passed: pluck [seize?] the day, putting as little trust as possible in tomorrow!

Not quite sure how to conceptualize this. How does it relate to other atheisms: naturalism, reason, science? Is it just hedonism? Is this larger than other atheisms? Do we lose morality?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 6:19 PM | Comments (4)

Religion and Soldiers in Iraq

posted on 05.29.2006 at 11:21 PM

For those who cling to the belief that when faced with life at its most intense atheists inevitably will waver, here's the Iraq veteran and American military chaplain Major John Morris, interviewed on the public radio program, Speaking of Faith (thanks to Robert Schwartz):


"It's not true. There are atheists in foxholes."

Indeed, war, as the thoughtful Major Morris acknowledges, can intensify disbelief::

What I saw in Iraq....on the battlefield: a third of the soldiers were men and women of faith, growing in their faith or coming to a new understanding of their faith; a third of the soldiers were indifferent or fatalistic...; the other third were either indifferent or jettisoning their faith..

War does what life can do, only faster:

Many would say to me very bluntly, "I've lost my faith. I saw my buddy get blown away," or "I was involved in a firefight that killed innocent people. And if there's a good God, he would not have let that happen, so I do not want to believe anymore."

This is, of course, the classic "problem of evil" -- one of the more compelling arguments against the existence of God. Major Morris attributes another related argument to some of the soldiers in the irreligious third -- the often unavoidable apprehension that "the center cannot hold":

...War is chaos. You can do everything right and still die.... That chaos seems to...harden people into saying, "I can't think about transcendent things. Nobody's in control. ...Whatever is, is. And whatever will be, will be. ...So don't bother me with anything transcendent or eternal."

And this particular war -- unlike the two World Wars or Korea or Vietnam -- adds one more reason to reject religion, as Major Morris reports:

Now the thing that really throws a wrench into all of this is being shot at by people who were praying a few minutes earlier in a sacred place... That really hardens people to say, "I don't know what kind of God you all are talking about, but I don't want to have anything to do with any kind of God that uses the sacred to condone this. So I don't want to deal with any of you people who have anything to do with religion, cause you guys are causing the wars of the world."

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:21 PM | Comments (2)


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?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:37 AM | Comments (1)

Auden Believed...Kinda

posted on 05.19.2006 at 12:50 AM

This from his poem, As I Walked Out One Evening:AUDEN.jpg

"O look, look in the mirror,
O look in your distress;
Life remains a blessing
Although you cannot bless."

Is this sort-of belief or sort-of disbelief?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 12:50 AM | Comments (1)

"To Wipe Away the...Horizon"

posted on 04.30.2006 at 7:57 PM

Can loss of belief be disorienting, frightening, terrifying? I think of these haunting lines from Nietzsche's account of humanity's murder of God:

Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we unchained the earth from its sun?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 7:57 PM | Comments (4)

Thinking Through Disbelief (Teleology -- 3)

posted on 04.24.2006 at 11:40 PM

Woolf222.jpgDostoyevsky.jpgIn To the Lighthouse Virginia Woolf plays with the notion that human thought can be measured on a scale like the letters in the alphabet -- that some get to P or Q but few if any make it all the way to Z. Were there such a scale, it might be possible to say that Dostoyevsky in Karamazov, with his post-God nihilistic nightmare, is one letter behind Woolf's ruler-less universe, where "we perished each alone" and "loneliness" often seems "the truth about things," but where there is no shortage of love, art and even kindness.

What might take us to the next letter?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:40 PM | Comments (4)

A Teleology of Disbelief?

posted on 04.19.2006 at 8:30 PM

Jesus told his disciples that the Kingdom of Heaven would arrive fast enough so that "some standing here...shall not taste death till they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom." Didn't happen.

Madeleine Bunting (to whom this blog has paid an absurd amount of attention) took a shot back, accusing nonbelievers of a failed prediction of their own: "We were supposed to be all atheist rationalists by now," she writes.

Okay, that hasn't happened. Don't know who -- Karl Marx, maybe -- said it would. But is it fair to assume that such a prediction-- that believers will eventually wise up -- is inherent in attitudes of disbelief? Is there an assumption that logic, science, whatever, will eventually triumph, that the Kingdom of Reason will come?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 8:30 PM | Comments (9)

Query: Republicans on Religion?

posted on 04.08.2006 at 10:16 PM

I have this quote from Osama bin Laden talking about a world "split…into two camps: the camp of belief and the camp of disbelief." No moral equivalency intended, but can anyone recall a similar quote from the religious right, even Bush, in the United States or another Western country?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:16 PM | Comments (3)

Favorite Readings

posted on 04.02.2006 at 11:24 AM

You encounter some fine minds as you pour through the often wonderful literature on disbelief and its history. Twice, however, I have been truly blown away: once while reading Nietzsche's Anti-Christ; and then again last week when, about a third of the way into The Brothers Kazamazov, I met (for the third time in my life) the Grand Inquisitor.

The Inquisitor, leader of the local Church, is speaking in Spain in the 16th century to the latest Heretic he has arrested -- a long haired semitic Man with a beard and "a gentle smile of infinite compassion":

Nothing is more seductive for man than his freedom of conscience, but nothing is a greater cause of suffering.... We have corrected Thy work and have founded it upon miracle, mystery and authority. And men rejoiced that they were again led like sheep and that the terrible gift that had brought them such suffering was, at last, lifted from their hearts.

Nietzsche read and respected Dostoyevsky.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:24 AM | Comments (1)

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 by Mitchell Stephens at 12:49 PM | Comments (0)

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 by Mitchell Stephens at 11:34 PM | Comments (3)

The Clash of Eras -- II

posted on 03.15.2006 at 5:06 PM

Adam Becker, writing for The Revealer, takes some swings at Wafa Sultan:

Wafa_Sultan.jpg Wafa_Sultan_upsidedown.JPG

"Her secularist critique of certain Muslim extremists who serve for her as an exemplar of all that is wrong with contemporary Muslim and Arab culture is unoriginal. Typical of irate secularist and modernization discourse, her argument consists of the standard flustered response to religion that we have heard since the Enlightenment: you are backwards and ignorant, grow up and get over it."

Is this -- "grow up and get over it" -- not what atheists, were it put somewhat more gently, do believe? Is it not merely "typical" of the "secularist...discourse" but necessary to it? Can you disbelieve without thinking others are wrong, even ignorant, to believe?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 5:06 PM | Comments (2)

Blog on Disbelief -- Born Again!

posted on 03.08.2006 at 12:55 PM

Thanks to Ben Vershbow and Jesse Wilbur of the Institute for the Future of the Book, this blog has been remade. We had two purposes in mind.Picture.jpg

First, to add a modicum of structure. Entries will now settle into one of these four sections:

-- Bonner's Field. Discussion of issues, often contemporary, raised by disbelief and its history (explained further here).

-- Tales of Disbelief. Notes on a couple of millennia's worth of skepticism, rationalism, humanism, naturalism, secularism, agnosticism, atheism and just plain doubt.

-- Thinking Out Loud. Testing ideas. Tossing out questions and queries.

--Book Writer's Journal. All the despair (The book is missing from the stacks!), all the exhilaration (I found it on page 8 of that Google search!) of the nonfiction book author's, the chronicler of irreligion's, existence -- should you, upon occasion, care.

Our second purpose is to provide easier access to the various ideas and topics that wander through these jottings. To that end Ben and Jesse have conjured up:

-- a tag which words used and categories employed will grow based on frequency of mention. Just click, as they say on the Internet.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 12:55 PM | Comments (0)

Heavy Stuff

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. derrida - rotated2.JPGcupid -rotate2.JPG

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.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:33 PM | Comments (18)

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.jpg
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 by Mitchell Stephens at 5:39 PM | Comments (1)

Jean Meslier

posted on 02.13.2006 at 10:27 PM

Meslier's Church.bmp
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?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:27 PM | Comments (2)

How Deep is Their Faith?

posted on 02.11.2006 at 7:35 PM

Writing about the anthropology of belief and disbelief, I am stalled (not for the last time, I fear) by the question of how thoroughly and sincerely people believe the stuff they say they believe.

shaman.gifDid the Hopi, for example, really and truly believe that animals could take off their skins revealing themselves as actually human? Was this seen as metaphor? Was it assumed to be something of an exaggeration?

What went on in the mind of a shaman lying on the ground in a (perhaps drug-induced) trance and said to be flying off on a mission to rescue a soul from the underworld? Was some part of him aware that he was involved in a performance?

Are we sure that these societies did not contain the same range of belief/unbelief present in our own?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 7:35 PM | Comments (7)

Irreligious Epiphanies -- A Question

posted on 02.06.2006 at 4:03 AM

Some often profound tales of the onset of disbelief have been shared here.

Is it hard to admit to yourself that you've lost your faith?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 4:03 AM | Comments (1)

Whence Religion

posted on 02.01.2006 at 8:52 PM

A few quotes from Weston La Barre's The Ghost Dance: Origins of Religion (first recommended to me in a comment on this blog):

** "Religious behavior appears to be unique to man among all the animals."

** "Religious behavior is present in all known human societies, past and present."

** "The basis of all religion in both North and South America [and by extension, La Barre believes, everywhere else] is the shaman or medicine-man."

And La Barre believes that these shaman -- in the role of "master of animals" -- actually predate gods. Which may complicate the which-came-first-belief-or-disbelief question slightly.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 8:52 PM | Comments (0)

Why Gods?

posted on 01.29.2006 at 12:12 PM

Old question. And, of course, just asking it is a step in the direction of disbelief. The sophist Prodicus, for example, believed gods were a way of explaining natural phenomena. That's different than saying gods do explain natural phenomena.

Discussions of why we have gods can get, I've found, a bit testy. Beliefs in the causes of religions occasionally seem to be held with the intensity of beliefs in religions: "No, that's not it! It is to deal with death!"

The philosopher Daniel Dennett has a new book out on this subject. Here's the first explanation for religion he gives, in a New York Times Magazine interview:

"We have a built-in, very potent hair-trigger tendency to find agency in things that are not agents, like snow falling off the roof."

That, after reading a book by Scott Atran, is the first explanation I would give. But the point, I guess, is that there is more than one reason why so much of humankind is convinced of the existence of never-quite-seen supernatural entities.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 12:12 PM | Comments (1)

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).

** London in the 19th century (Shelley, Mill, Bradlaugh, Martineau, Darwin, Huxley) 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 by Mitchell Stephens at 9:05 PM | Comments (0)

The "A" Word

posted on 01.06.2006 at 9:51 AM

The word "atheism" is used in the subtitle of this blog. That decision was made after some debate. It has always seemed to me to be a harsh word.

As Leslie Stephen (who has been quoted a lot here lately) puts it, "atheism" is a name that "still retains a certain flavour as of the stake in this world and hell-fire in the next." It was, for numerous centuries, a widely and quite loosely used term of disparagement. Catholics called protestants "atheists," and vice versa.

We considered "disbelief" or "nonbelief" or "freethinking" (the title of Susan Jacoby's book) as alternatives.

Yet "atheism" does, as we finally concluded, get attention and make the point, rapidly and clearly. And the meaning of "a-theism" seems right, as I understand it -- without belief in the existence of god or gods, not against such belief.

Is the word too harsh, too off-putting, for the title of the book?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:51 AM | Comments (10)

A Positive Idea of Atheism?

posted on 01.03.2006 at 5:55 AM

I've been waiting, for a while now, for a new idea to come. I used to flatter myself with the thought that they came with some frequency. (Not truly original ideas, of course -- you're lucky to be blessed with one or two of those in a lifetime, as Norman Mailer noted somewhere; just something -- the product of a reaction, perhaps, between a thought heard and a fact read -- that seemed to have a new and interesting configuration.)

Such ideas appear, perhaps, to come a bit slower lately. Yeah, I've been too busy: moving, teaching, hassling this or that. Yet, I have been reading and even, sometimes, thinking and still...

I fear, as you may have noticed, that it has something to do with age. There probably is less RAM available to the central-processing unit. But, just as important, you gain, with wisdom, places to file most of the odd observations and little anomolies that used to cause confusion and, once in a while, spark a new thought. That's one reason I've taken on, in atheism, a topic upon which I had not accumulated great stores of wisdom.

I've known what kind of idea I want. Atheism can easily devolve into againstism: "Oh, no he doesn't!" I call this, unoriginally, the "negative idea" of atheism. I've been looking for the "positive idea."

Disbelief -- in sky spirits, in Apollo, in Genesis -- has cleared the way for science and aspects of philosophy. But is there a thread -- something positive that can be untangled from science and philosophy -- that runs through the thought of the often brilliant nonbelievers who will wander through my book? Don't want to sound too cocky, but I've assumed, since early in this project, that there is and that I'm gonna find it. But the idea hasn't come.

In the idea-generation business, travel, as we know, helps -- the quiet of it (once you've finally done all the crap that must be done to be able to go); the sense of being unstuck (physically and, often, temporally); the stimulation of "parts unknown" (or release from the bondage of vistas and conversations too well known).

And it is on the leg from Paris to Chennai -- reading The Anti-Christ and typing notes into my Palm -- that I think I might have come up with something. Nietzsche (who may have exceeded the Mailer limit by more than anyone) is fulminating against what he sees as Christianity's decadent, life-denying disparagement of health, intellect, strength and power. Christian "pity" particularly repulses him. And then he writes something that surprises me, something I have no comfortable place to file away: "Pity persuades to nothingness!" Nietzsche exclaims. "One does not say 'nothingness': one says 'the Beyond'; or 'God'."

Now, just last week (as I wrote here) a rabbi had told me how Roman soldiers, in the process of destroying the Temple, were shocked to enter the Holy of Holies and find...nothing -- no image, no statue, a void. And this rabbi (improvising, I suspect) suggested that the relationship between the Jews and their god might be seen as an attempt to establish a relationship with the void.

Now I've accumulated some dollops of wisdom over the decades on the idea of "the nothing," the void. (Heidegger's tour de force on the subject, "What is Metaphysics?", may be my all-time favorite piece of writing.) But I'd always thought of religion as an escape from nagging notions of nothingness, as an attempt to paper over the void.

Have I been missing a profound (in the rabbi's view) or decadent (in Nietzsche's) flirtation with, immersion in, nothingness by religion -- at least of the non-pagan variety? Can god be seen as the void with a beard?

And here, at the risk of it sounding anti-climatic, is the idea: Maybe the positive idea of atheism is the alternative to the can't-be-seen, can't-be-heard, inscrutable, unknowable nothing of god. Maybe, without denying its own involvement with relativism and uncertainty, atheism is an injunction to focus on the earthly, mortal, excessive, hopelessly messy, something -- the plentitude.

Or maybe I've just been reading too much Nietzsche....

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 5:55 AM | Comments (12)

Anthropological Questions

posted on 12.27.2005 at 12:23 PM

Sir Samuel White Baker, one of the discoverers of the sources of the Nile, believed he had come upon humans of "so abject and low a type that the mind repels the idea that [they are] of our Adamite race.

"Without any exception," he proclaims, "they are without a belief in a Supreme Being, neither have they any form of worship or idolatry; nor is the darkness of their minds enlightened by even a ray of superstition."

There is much to respond to in this cocktail of Victorian prejudice, but I want to restrict myself here to just one set of questions: Is his point about religion in any way true? Is there some sense in which atheism precedes religion?

Baker was mostly wrong about the members of the Nilotic tribal group he encountered in central Africa: They had, we now know, their share of earth and sky spirits. Most preliterate societies apparently do. And even hunter-gatherers have their totems and taboos.

Is this what we mean, or should mean, by religion? Have there been any societies -- aside from Left-Bank Parisians -- that don't worship some variety of spirits? What anthropological work should I be reading?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 12:23 PM | Comments (3)

Chanukah Questions

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?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:42 AM | Comments (12)

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.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:41 PM | Comments (0)


posted on 12.14.2005 at 11:16 PM

I'm interested in the struggle so many individuals, from Greek philosophers to Romantic poets to formerly Islamic novelists, have undertaken for the cause of atheism - a cause that promises no heavenly reward.

I'm interested in the wages of disbelief: Societies have long punished those who decline to acknowledge the local God (or gods). In Scotland near the end of the seventeenth century, for example, an orphan studying at the University of Edinburgh began sharing -- openly, brashly, unwisely -- his criticisms of religion. The Scriptures, Thomas Aikenhead was reported to have proclaimed, are "so stuffed with madness, nonsense and contradictions, that you admired the stupidity of the world in being so long deluded by them." Based on the testimony of some of his fellow students, Aikenhead was convicted of blasphemy. Repentance would have helped, but the young man's efforts in that direction were not entirely convincing, especially when he explained that his errors had flowed from an "insatiable inclination to truth." Thomas Aikenhead was hanged in Edinburgh on January 8, 1697, a few months before his twenty-first birthday.

Many nonbelievers have lived dramatic lives or suffered, like poor Aikenhead, premature deaths, but I am also after the drama that is to be found in their thought. Shucking off superstition - in the name of an "insatiable inclination to truth" - has been difficult and it has been important. Philosophy and science have flourished on ground cleared over the millennia by disbelief. Oracles, ghosts and angels had to be routed; contradictions discovered; logical failings uncovered. The Greek skeptic Carneades demonstrated, for example, that if the gods were perfect they couldn't exhibit the virtues - courage, say - that come from overcoming weaknesses and flaws. Such criticism of religion falls under the heading of the negative idea of atheism.

Is there also a positive idea? Trying to clarify what that idea might be - untangling it from philosophy and science - will be one of the major challenges I face in researching and writing this book.

And I'm interested in where these ideas stand today: when fatwas are being issued; jihads and crusades being declared; when the orthodox are fighting to retake the textbooks and the courthouses. Are the gods reasserting their hold upon humanity? Or is this just a reaction to the ongoing, even accelerating global spread of secularism?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:16 PM | Comments (2)

Organizational Chart

posted on 12.14.2005 at 9:55 PM

Here is an early version of the chart -- filled with keywords -- I'm planning to use to organize my research for this book on the history of disbelief.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:55 PM | Comments (2)

The Book: A History of Disbelief

posted on 12.07.2005 at 12:26 PM

Most civilizations have been founded on the belief the universe is commanded by a magisterial Being (or beings), who monitors our lives, enforces our morality, endorses our power structures and offers eternal life. The subject of this blog is a book, eventually to be published by Carroll and Graf, that will tell the story of those who have dared disagree.

Some of these nonbelievers remain well known--Cicero, Diderot, Shelley, Marx, Freud and Rushdie, among them. Others--no less important in their time, perhaps even more daring--have been mostly forgotten. Most societies have scorned their ideas, persecuted them, or otherwise tried to end the discussion. Yet their ideas have survived, and as humankind has gained more understanding of the natural world and of its own condition, their ideas have deepened. Indeed, I will argue that the thinking of such nonbelievers has played a crucial role in our understanding of the natural world and of our condition.

The book will proceed chronologically, beginning with preliterate societies and ending with the fear of secularism that has made the orthodox so edgy (and dangerous) today. With the help of the most interesting and influential atheists of the last few millennia, it will restore the missing discussion of these ideas and attempt to advance it.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 12:26 PM | Comments (8)