Listing entries tagged with god

Odds on Existence of God

posted on 11.17.2006 at 10:23 AM

Every once in a while, it's useful to check up on the theists' logic. Here is Mahlon Marr (writing, alas, under the name Thomas Paine), responding, he thinks, to Richard Dawkins:

Let's meet him halfway and assume for the sake of argument that there have been no supernatural events since the creation - the Big Bang in technical terms. Either the universe was created by a super-powerful being, or it came into existence spontaneously. There is no scientific theory or evidence available that can even begin to account for either possibility.
So, scientifically, philosophically and reasonably speaking, the odds for the existence of God are an undeniable 50-50. Throw in some slight scientific evidence from the argument for intelligent design...and make it a 50.1 to 49.9 advantage for God.

This calculation is, shall we say, somewhat flawed.

First, we should note that believers have been looking for some dark, as-yet-unexplained corner of the universe in which to secrete God for many centuries now. It was once the creation of life for which there was "no scientific theory or evidence available," but then Darwin shed some light on that "mystery." Now they (and agnostics also) have fastened upon the initial moment of the Big Bang. (To be sure, this is a rather important subject, but so was the creation of life.) Light -- scientific light -- will eventually be shed here, too. As Dawkins writes: "Physicists and cosmologists are hard at work on the problem." He mentions a couple of possible answers -- "a random quantum fluctuation or a Hawking/Penrose singularity" -- and then adds a prudent "or whatever." But even after such an answer arrives, there will undoubtedly remain new puzzles for scientists to work on -- leaving new dark corners into which indefatigable theists can try to stuff a God.

Second, given the track record of science in explaining the workings of the universe versus that of religion, it seems rather odd to assume that a supernatural explanation for the Big Bang is just as likely as a natural one.

Third, suggesting that God launched the Big Bang just raises the larger question of what or who launched god. So, instead of answering the question, by placing an Omnipotent Big Daddy there at the beginning of space-time you have simply raised a more difficult question

Dawkins would add a fourth response: that the universe tends to move from the simple to the more complex and therefore would not move from God, who seems astoundingly complex, to the germ of the Big Bang. We have debated this point below.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:23 AM | Comments (12)

The Best Argument Against the Existence of God?

posted on 11.15.2006 at 5:24 PM

To finish the thought:

What argument has most profoundly shaken your belief? Or eliminated your belief? Or would have if you did believe?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 5:24 PM | Comments (10)

The Best Argument for the Existence of God?

posted on 11.02.2006 at 1:58 AM

Here is a question for atheists and agnostics as well as believers:

What is the best of the possible arguments for the existence of God? The one, if you don't believe, that comes closest to making you think twice.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:58 AM | Comments (13)

Holt vs. Dawkins -- 3: God and Other Minds

posted on 10.25.2006 at 11:19 PM

Here is the heart of Jim Holt's critique of Richard Dawkins' new (and have I mentioned "best-selling") book attacking belief in God:

As long as there are no decisive arguments for or against the existence of God, a certain number of smart people will go on believing in him, just as smart people reflexively believe in other things for which they have no knock-down philosophical arguments, like free will, or objective values, or the existence of other minds.

The argument about free will would seem to come down to whether this feeling we have that our decisions are freely made has any meaning given the fact that the biological mechanism we are is composed of particles whose behavior is, presumably, predictable. Many also feel that some grand puppeteer in the sky is manipulating our decisions and their consequences. However, to jump from free will to God's will would seem, at the very least, to be adding an additional level of mystification.

Objective values, without something in the heavens to attach them to, pretty clearly ain't; and "smart people" who have thought the matter through probably ought to realize that. The consequences of values not being objective are, of course, complex and leave plenty of room for such "smart people" to disagree -- as do the consequences of God's not being.

But Dawkins, in my view, really goes off the rails in his analogy (for a fellow intent on critiquing misleading analogies he uses quite a few of them himself) between belief in God and belief in other minds. The evidence for the existence of other minds, while it may not be "knock-down" to a committed skeptic, does tend to present itself with some regularity -- more or less every time we converse, read or hear a ring tone. The evidence for God's existence, on the other hand, has been a little thin -- at least over the past couple of millennia.

To disbelieve in other minds you have to assume that you are victim of some sort of vast delusion. To disbelieve in God all you have to do is assume that the world and universe function, more or less, the way they appear to function. Shouldn't "smart people" be able to notice the difference between these two varieties of disbelief?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:19 PM | Comments (8)

Holt vs. Dawkins -- 2: Complexity

posted on 10.24.2006 at 10:54 PM

In his review of Richard Dawkins' attack on religion, Jim Holt raises an interesting question about complexity and simplicity. Holt says Dawkins relies on the premise that:

a creator is bound to be more complex, and hence improbable, than his creation (you never, for instance, see a horseshoe making a blacksmith).

By this logic, God would be more complex than the universe He created. But the whole point of evolution Dawkins says, according to Holt, is that "the simple can give rise to the complex" -- not visa versa. Hence, the complex, God, couldn't have come before the (relatively) simple, the universe.

Here is Holt's response to this use of evolution to dismiss God as the creator:

Not all scientific explanation follows this model. In physics, for example, the law of entropy implies that, for the universe as a whole, order always gives way to disorder; thus, if you want to explain the present state of the universe in terms of the past, you are pretty much stuck with explaining the probable (messy) in terms of the improbable (neat).

Doesn't Holt have a point here -- even if something as improbable as God may seem too improbable to imagine?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:54 PM | Comments (10)

The Ontological Argument: Holt vs. Dawkins

posted on 10.23.2006 at 7:12 PM

The ontological argument for the existence of God -- based only on the logic of "being," not on evidence -- dates back to Anselm, archbishop of Canterbury in the 11th century. His "logic" (streamlined a bit) runs as follows: God is...

something-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought....Something-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought exists in the mind....Surely that-than-which-a-greater-cannot-be-thought cannot exist in the mind alone. For if it exists solely in the mind, it can be thought to exist in reality also, which is greater....Therefore there is absolutely no doubt that something-than-which-a-greater-cannot-be-thought exists both in the mind and in reality.

Hence: God.

A different version of the ontological argument was provided by Descartes, but it is hard to see that it is any stronger:

Certainly, the idea of God, or of a supremely perfect being, is one which I find within me just as surely as the idea of any shape or number....Hence...I regard the existence of God as having at least the same level of certainty as I have hitherto attributed to the truths of mathematics.

In his new book, The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins dismisses such arguments as "infantile" and "dialectical prestidigitation." In a New York Times review, Jim Holt, a writer on science and philosophy I respect (though he is getting less funny), criticizes Dawkins for being too cavaliere here:

He seems unaware that this argument, though medieval in origin, comes in sophisticated modern versions that are not at all easy to refute.

The potential "sophisticated modern versions" of this argument that I am familiar with (thanks to Nicholas Everitt in his useful book, The Non-Existence of God) are by Plantinga, Malcolm and Hartshorne. Here are a few of the steps in Hartshorne's effort (as outlined by Everitt):

(i) Either it is necessarily true that a perfect being exists or it is necessarily true that such a being does not exist. (ii) It is not necessarily true that there is no perfect being. So: (iii) It is necessarily true that there is a perfect being.

Everitt collapses Hartshorne's argument into the following:

(i) If it is possible that God exists, then he exists. (ii) It is possible that God exists. So: (iii) God exists.

It is hard to see that Hartshorne has taken us beyond Anselm and Descartes -- in essence: God is too perfect not to exist. We could discuss exactly how such arguments fail (part of the problem, writes Everitt, "is the assumption that existence is a quality that things can be said to have or lack"). But it's hard not to agree with Dawkins' characterization of the ontological arguments. Holt's criticism of that characterization, unless I am missing some compelling new versions of those arguments, seems unfair. Here's Schopenhauer -- writing, to be sure, before all that modern "sophistication":

When considered generally and impartially, this famous ontological proof is really a most delightful farce.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 7:12 PM | Comments (5)

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)

Yom Kippur

posted on 10.02.2006 at 1:37 PM

I remain fascinated by this scene:

On only one day of the year, the Day of Atonement, the Jews' chief priest entered the Holy of Holies at the very heart of the Jewish temple. What he saw was an empty room.

Perhaps the priest filled it with his reverence and devotion to Yahweh. Perhaps he gloried in the absence of cheap, too-tangible statues or idols.

But might this priest also have noted the absence of the Ark of the Covenant, which was supposed to be kept in this room but had "somehow," as always ends up being the case, disappeared? Might he have felt the Wizard-of-Oz-like smallness of Yahweh's wispy presence? Might he have experienced in that room a nagging absence of meaning or purpose? Might he have seen the Holy of Holies as filled with hebel -- vapor -- as in Ecclesiastes? Might some sense of the absence of God have contributed to that emptiness?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:37 PM | Comments (3)

Four Gods...Plus

posted on 09.15.2006 at 6:47 PM

We've talked before about the many Jesuses. Here, from a Baylor/Gallup survey reported in USA Today, are four Gods Americans believe in:

The Authoritarian God (31.4% of Americans overall, 43.3% in the South) is angry at humanity's sins and engaged in every creature's life and world affairs. He is ready to throw the thunderbolt of judgment down on "the unfaithful or ungodly," [Baylor's Christopher] Bader says. Those who envision God this way "are religiously and politically conservative people, more often black Protestants and white evangelicals," Bader says. They're also the most inclined to say God favors the USA in world affairs (32.1% vs. 18.6% overall).
The Benevolent God (23% overall, 28.7% in the Midwest) still sets absolute standards for mankind in the Bible. But this group, which draws more from mainline Protestants, Catholics and Jews, sees primarily a forgiving God, more like the father who embraces his repentant prodigal son in the Bible, [Sociologist Paul] Froese says.
The Critical God (16% overall, 21.3% in the East) has his judgmental eye on the world, but he's not going to intervene, either to punish or to comfort. Those who picture a critical God are significantly less likely to draw absolute moral lines on hot-button issues such as abortion, gay marriage or embryonic stem cell research.
The Distant God (24.4% overall, 30.3% in the West) is "no bearded old man in the sky raining down his opinions on us," Bader says. Followers of this God see a cosmic force that launched the world, then left it spinning on its own.

There's a kind of progression here: toward a more and more "wan" Deity. Perhaps the next steps in the progression would be:

The We-Need-Some-Sense-of-Meaning God -- otherwise, as Nietzsche puts it, the earth would be "unchained" from the sun.
God as an Idea -- a beautiful one, Dostoyevsky's Ivan Karamazov insists.
The Metaphoric God, who may not exist but is a useful way of thinking of certain existential and moral questions.
The God Who Makes for a Good Story -- life, presumably, seeming more interesting if we pretend He's around.
The We-Got-to-Hang-On-to-Something-that-Might-Remotely-Qualify-as-a-God God -- otherwise we'd be atheists.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 6:47 PM | Comments (6)

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).

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 6:07 PM | Comments (6)

One Fewer God

posted on 09.12.2006 at 1:23 AM

In that interview in Salon (which has, for the moment at least, disappeared from the Web) Michael Shermer, founder of the Skeptics Society, uses this cool line:

Christians today might say, I don't believe in Zeus, that was a silly superstition. Yet for many people that was a real god. So it turns out there are 10,000 gods and yet only one right one. That means we're all atheists on 9,999 gods. The only difference between me and the believers is I'm an atheist on one more god.

I know I've heard this line before. According to the Web (which occasionally does have its limits as a source of knowledge), it was first used by someone named Stephen F. Roberts:

I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.

Roberts even has a page in which he formally takes credit for it.

However, I suspect the line is much older than that. I found this Bertrand Russell quote which is close:

I think that all of us would say in regard to those gods that we were Atheists. In regard to the Christian God, I should, I think, take exactly the same line.

But I believe this has to go back further -- to Charles Bradlaugh or Baron d'Holbach or someone. Anybody know?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:23 AM | Comments (1)

Is the Possibility of God Logical?

posted on 08.21.2006 at 10:09 PM

Some of the best thinking on this subject was done by Carneades, the second-century BCE Greek Skeptic. Here are some quotes from Sextus Empiricus' later account of Carneades' reasoning:

If the Divine exists, it is certainly...both virtuous and happy.... But it does not possess all the virtues unless it possesses both continence and fortitude. And it does not possess these virtues unless there are certain things which are hard for God to abstain from and hard to endure.... For it is the man who holds firm when he is being cut and burned that shows fortitude, and not the man who is drinking sweet wine. There will, then, exist certain things which are hard for God to endure and hard to abstain from... But if so, God is receptive of vexation and of change for the worse, and hence of decay also. So that if God exists, he is perishable....

This is an arguments that flaws are needed for virtues, and therefore that gods, which don't have flaws, can't have many of the virtues.

If the Divine is all-virtuous and possesses wisdom, it possesses sound-deliberation.... And if it deliberates, there is something which is non-evident to it.... It is impossible non-evident to God.... From which it follows that he does not exist at all.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:09 PM | Comments (4)

Atheism Defined

posted on 08.12.2006 at 6:40 PM

Bradlaugh1.jpgHere's Charles Bradlaugh, one of history's most important atheists and a major character in my book, with an unusual description of his (lack of) beliefs:

The Atheist does not say "there is no god," but he says "I know not what you mean by god; I am without idea of god; the word god is to me a sound conveying no clear or distinct affirmation. I do not deny god, because I cannot deny that of which I have no conception."

Doesn't sound that far from agnosticism.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 6:40 PM | Comments (18)

Author Seeks Advice -- 2

posted on 08.10.2006 at 6:48 PM

Is the possibility of a God unlikely or illogical? This is one of the larger questions to wrestle with as I write this tale of disbelief. Carneades -- the third century BCE Athenian Skeptic, who will be a major character my story -- comes close (close as a Skeptic can) to arguing that it is illogical.

I try to present one of the more interesting and difficult of his points in the following paragraph (one of the most dense I have written in what wants to be, for the most part, a popular, narrative history):

Carneades, whose arguments are presented with great thoroughness by Cicero, also undertakes to prove that it is not possible for any living being to have the attributes of a god. His point, in part, is that to be alive is to feel - to be susceptible to external stimuli. That means being susceptible to change as a result of external stimuli. Pleasure changes us. Pain certainly changes us. That which we desire and that which we try to avoid have, by definition, the potential to change us. An immortal being would not change because in change is the possibility of dissolution and potentially even death. Hence, Carneades concludes, a feeling being cannot be immortal.

Two questions:

1. Is this too dense? (Obviously, I'll keep trying to improve the writing.)

2. Is Carneades' logic here (or my presentation of it) persuasive?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 6:48 PM | Comments (9)

"We Like the Story with the Tiger Better"

posted on 08.04.2006 at 6:32 PM

More from churchgoer Bill Moyer's PBS interview with "strict agnostic" novelist Margaret Atwood:

MARGARET ATWOOD: A book came out called THE LIFE OF PI, by a guy called Yann Martel. And it begins by saying, "I'm going to tell you a story that's going to make you believe in God." Then he goes off on this...seaman's yarn about getting lost in a life boat with a tiger and so on and so forth. And many strange and wonderful things happen to him until he pitches up on the shore of...South America. Where upon, according to him, the tiger jumps off the boat and runs off into the woods. And he's found starving on the shore, and he's put in the hospital. And then these three Japanese insurance inspectors turn up to find out what happened to the boat that blew up at the beginning of the story.
Then he tells them this whole story. And they confer it among themselves and they say, "We think that maybe your story isn't true. And that there was no tiger." And you know he says, "Well that may be so, but tell me this, which story do you like better? The story with the tiger or the story without the tiger." And the other men confer amongst themselves and they say, "Well actually we like the story with the tiger better." And our narrator starts to cry and he says, "thank you."
So we like the story with the tiger better. We like the story with God in it better then we like the story without God in it. Because it's more like us, it's more understandable, it's more human.
BILL MOYERS: More human with God?
MARGARET ATWOOD: More human with God.
MARGARET ATWOOD: More human with God because the story without God is about atoms. It's not about somebody we can talk with in theory, or that has any interest in us.... Whereas the universe, with an intelligence in it, has got something to say to us because it's a mirror of who we are. How about that?

Is this how it is with the "strict agnostic" position: it is supposed to be about the impossibility of certainty, but it ends up being about the longing for a human-sounding story? How about that?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 6:32 PM | Comments (5)

Deuteronomy -- II

posted on 07.28.2006 at 7:59 PM

This -- the fifth book of the Hebrew Bible -- is compendium of intolerance. Various "abhorrent" practices are denounced: serving other gods, human sacrifices, worshiping idols, soothsaying, bowing down to the sun or the moon, intermarrying, crossdressing, inquiring about other gods, worshipping the Lord anywhere but in the temple in Jerusalem. Various "just" punishments are threatened : no rain for crops; a curse upon the issue of wombs; "consumption, fever and inflamation." One "just" punishment, in particular, is commanded: stoning to death.

However, nowhere to be found in Deuteronomy -- among these "abhorrent" practices, which are to receive these terrible punishments -- is failure to believe in the Lord. This God very, very much wants to be "obeyed," to have "His commandments and laws" followed. He does not seem concerned with whether His people think he exists.

Why? A standard answer is that this God, in essence, was secure enough in His existence so that He didn't need His nation to confirm it. Or that not believing in the existence of God (or gods) may simply have been inconceivable at the time. I'll add a third theory: that actual, outright disbelieve was too terrible to even mention.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 7:59 PM | Comments (8)


posted on 07.28.2006 at 1:16 AM

The temple in Jerusalem was being renovated during the reign of Josiah (639-609 BCE) -- who is treated with as much respect as any king in the Hebrew Bible -- and during the renovations the high priest "discovered" a "lost" text. That, most scholars agree, was an early version of Deuteronomy, which settled as the fifth book of the Hebrew Bible -- the last in the Torah or the books of Moses.

It is not hard to read this text as a justification for Josiah's attempt to consolidate the religion and the kingdom by cracking down on any forms of worship -- foreign, idolatrous, pantheistic, even Jewish -- besides those in the temple in Jerusalem. Monotheism was sharpened, if not invented, in the process:

The Lord alone is God; there is none beside Him.

Weren't too many religions in the 7th century BCE devoting themselves to morality. But Deuteronomy takes some significant steps beyond "thou shall not kill":

I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land.

Still, the intolerance for other religions in this text is total:

Tear down their alters, smash their pillars, put their sacred posts to the fire, and cut down the images of their gods, obliterating their name from the site.

And the treatment the Lord orders for local conquered nations is, even by contemporary standards, extreme:

You shall not let a soul remain alive.

Maybe we shouldn't be that surprised by what currently goes on in this area between peoples who profess to revere such texts.

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

Religion and Science -- 2

posted on 07.18.2006 at 11:20 PM

Leonard Lopate had an interview this afternoon with Francis Collins, a former head of the Human Genome Project, on "how he reconciles his scientific knowledge with his religious faith." Collins has a book out on the subject, entitled, The Language of God. Stimulating fellow:

God is outside of nature. Science studies nature. Its tools are designed to study nature. So it is totally inappropriate to take scientiific conclusions and draw any particular conclusions about God.

This is the two-realms argument, which Lopate and Collins attribute to the late Stephen Jay Gould. But the question of whether anything can be "outside of nature" is precisely the issue, isn't it?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:20 PM | Comments (3)

God Loves You?

posted on 07.05.2006 at 4:16 PM

Can belief in a god be logical? There are a number of ways of approaching this question. Some having to do with the importance of "flaws" (if you're perfect you can't overcome and therefore you aren't perfect) and the contradictions inherent in the various omnis -- potent, present, etc. -- which we've already touched on a bit.Paul_Simon.jpg

Here's another approach: Paul Simon, in his new album (which I seem to be more or less alone in more or less really liking) raises the question: "Who's gonna love you when your looks are gone?" And then seems to answer: "God will, like he waters the flowers on your window sill."

My question: What exactly might this mean? Does God still find the wrinkled hot? Does He find all six billion of us humans (not to mention all the animals and flowers) special? Is this heavenly love just another way of saying that we all are, presumably, unique and of value -- a nice, humanistic notion? How does God get to know all of us? Is it something like the chess master who can beat a room full of people, each playing a different board? Doesn't it then have to depend on omnipresence and various kinds of omnipotence? Does God take to us from birth, or does He have to hang out with us for a while first? Does he go for looks or brains? Or is it all about goodness or saying prayers or believing in the Koran? Does playing hard to get help? Or is He above all that? If He loves us so much, why doesn't He help us out a bit more (the old problem of evil)? Any chance God just doesn't care for short guys from Queens who break up with their long-time, sweet-voiced, curly-haired partners? Sometimes, after all, the flowers on the window sill die.

Doesn't the issue become what we mean by "love"? And is it possible that God, as he often seems to, drops out of the equation?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 4:16 PM | Comments (32)

God and a Summer's Day

posted on 07.01.2006 at 4:51 PM

Emerson writes: "On this refulgent summer's day it is a luxury to take the breath of life." Today is such a day, and I have indeed been much enjoying, in recent weeks, the luxury of breathing warm summer air -- non-packaged, non-air-conditioned, air.

This preference for the natural, in favor of the person-made -- for the potato over the potato chip -- runs deep in me and many. It is an ideology, to be sure. But, in its throes, I was wondering whether God -- as a human creation or as a human-like creator -- doesn't cheapen the summer's day. Might it be more of a luxury to breathe wild, natural air rather than the confection of some Heavenly Tinker?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 4:51 PM | Comments (9)

Are We All Gods?

posted on 06.21.2006 at 4:47 PM

Or should we try to be? This is from a comment below by Jay Saul:Superman.jpg

Go be God/ There's No Time To Waste

Is there a sense in which a disbeliever could/should believe this sort of thing? Certainly eliminating the supernaturals does succeed in clearing the field clear for us -- the only beings left with the ability to write love songs and fire arrows. Nothing wrong, as a rule, with aiming high.

Übermenschen? Has a certain ring. A feeling of invulnerability? Maybe good. Confidence that you can get what you want? Can't hurt.

Eternal life, however, would presumably have to be confined to moments (unless medical advances manage to eliminate the disease thing). Omnipotence, omnipresence, omniscience might have to be interpretations of the power of consciousness.

The problem with gods, however, is their flawlessness -- as Carneades, among others, pointed out. Many of our virtues, passions, poems, come from our flaws. Is being human, or being animals, really not sufficient? Or is the point that we need to bucked up?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 4:47 PM | Comments (7)

Your Father, Which Is in Heaven

posted on 06.18.2006 at 8:45 AM

Religion wants to substitute itself for (all?) other aspects of life. It provides new, sometimes counter-intuitive (sometimes lovely) meanings: "Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth." It provides a new, seemingly, counter-intuitive, morality: "whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also." It asks men and women to live in a new kingdom: "The Kingdom of Heaven" to which "I will give unto thee the keys."

It can even substitute for basic family relations, as we were reminded when President Bush explained to Bob Woodward why he hadn't asked his experienced father, the former president, for advice on Iraq:

"He is the wrong father to appeal to for advice. The wrong father to go to, to appeal to in terms of strength." And then he said, "There's a higher Father that I appeal to."

This notion that there is a substitute Father is indeed in the New Testament: "And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven."

All the biblical quotes here are from the New Testament (from Matthew, actually). The Hebrew Bible certainly enforces its own substitutions, but they seem less radical, less thorough. And earthy parents are not entirely replaced: "Honor thy father and thy mother."

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 8:45 AM | Comments (7)

Trashing the Bible...and God

posted on 05.24.2006 at 10:32 PM

More from that interview with Sam Harris, author of the End of Faith (and somewhat unorthodox atheist):

Q: Richard Dawkins, a vocal atheist, has said the Old Testament God is a "psychotic monster."
A: Not only is the character of God diabolical in those books, but there are explicit prescriptions for how to live that are not metaphors; they are not open to theological judo. God just comes right out and says "stone people" for a list of offenses so preposterous and all-encompassing that the killing never stops. You have to kill people for working on the Sabbath. You kill people for fornication.

Okay, Dawkins and Harris are known atheists, and this appeared on the Web, not in a mainstream publication. But "psychotic monster" (or should it be Psychotic Monster) and "diabolical" (interesting choice of word)? God? Is this further evidence that it is becoming easier to take swings at religion?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:32 PM | Comments (1)

God Would be Great in 2008!

posted on 05.03.2006 at 1:56 PM


Why not cut out the middle man and just elect the Almighty president?

Positives: Known for being decisive leader. Has military experience. Projects sense of authority. Reputation for integrity. Many millennia of experience with media (primarily testaments and oral tradition, however). Unlikely to find new skeltons in closet (though possible Satan might make rounds of Sunday talk shows).

Negatives: Beard tests poorly with focus groups. Hazy citizenship. Has so far escaped openly taking sides in sectarian debates -- might be difficult to avoid in a debate. Unlikely to carry California. Possible tough questions about Katrina and holocaust. At least one well known extra-marital relationship. Jealous. Testy.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:56 PM | Comments (0)

Religion and Foreign Policy

posted on 05.02.2006 at 2:41 PM

Here are three (consecutive, I believe) sentences from President Bush, speaking in California last week:


A. "I base a lot of my foreign-policy decisions on some things that I think are true."

B. "One, I believe there's an Almighty."
C. "And, secondly, I believe one of the great gifts of the Almighty is the desire in everybody's soul, regardless of what you look like or where you live, to be free."

Bush has said these sorts of things before. But perhaps it would be useful to look closely at a few of the words he uses.

"True" is not, on the face of it, an ugly word -- especially when tempered, as it is in statement A, by "I think." The problem, particularly when the foreign policy of the most powerful nation on earth is at stake, is how truth is determined. Statements B and C indicate that Bush sees truth not as the product of investigation, analysis or discussion but of belief or revelation. So we seem to have foreign policy based on faith. (To be fair, the United States was founded on the assumption that a few "truths" are "self-evident.")

"Free," too, is an attractive word. However, in statement C it is removed from the realm of politics and assumed -- based on belief or revelation, for how else could this be determined? -- to have been placed in "everybody's soul." Freedom here is not an "unalienable Right," like "Liberty" in the Declaration of Independence; it is an inescapable "desire." We no longer need to ask people how they weigh various "rights," whether they might upon occasion prefer tyranny to war or lawlessness, "Life" to "Liberty." We don't need votes or public-opinion surveys. We know what they "desire." We can look into their "souls."

Perhaps the most interesting word here is "Almighty." This is no mere "Creator," limited to endowing. This is not Tony Blair's God, who, along with history, will judge. Bush names a can-do Deity -- All Mighty. His God runs the whole show. That (although I am unfamiliar with the president's thinking on the question of free will versus determinism) would seem to take lots of pressure off Bush, Blair, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, et al. The key is not whether there really were WMDs, whether civil war was likely or how many troops should have been sent. Align yourself with the wishes of the Almighty -- and the "desire" He has implanted in "everybody's soul" -- and, in time, He'll take care of the rest.

I don't know enough about the religious pronouncements of other presidents or other world leaders. Perhaps this kind of rhetoric has not been that exceptional. However, for the man (ostensibly) running the United States today -- with its resources, with its power -- these three statements strike me as deeply, deeply disturbing.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 2:41 PM | Comments (2)

"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)

God is Dead -- The Original Announcement

posted on 04.28.2006 at 10:21 AM

Few statements of (idiosyncratic) disbelief have had the influence of Nietzsche's pronouncement, placed in the mouth of a madman (in The Gay Science). But its odd, haunting formulation is not well known. Here, for the record and for further discussion, it is (thanks Ben Vershbow):

"Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market-place, and cried incessantly: 'I am looking for God! I am looking for God!'
"As many of those who did not believe in God were standing together there, he excited considerable laughter. Have you lost him, then? said one. Did he lose his way like a child? said another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? or emigrated? Thus they shouted and laughed. The madman sprang into their midst and pierced them with his glances.
"'Where has God gone?' he cried. 'I shall tell you. We have killed him - you and I. We are his murderers. But how have we done this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we unchained the earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving now? Away from all suns? Are we not perpetually falling? Backward, sidewards, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is it not more and more night coming on all the time? Must not lanterns be lit in the morning? Do we not hear anything yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we not smell anything yet of God's decomposition? Gods too decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, murderers of all murderers, console ourselves? That which was the holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet possessed has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe this blood off us? With what water could we purify ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we need to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we not ourselves become gods simply to be worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whosoever shall be born after us - for the sake of this deed he shall be part of a higher history than all history hitherto.'
"Here the madman fell silent and again regarded his listeners; and they too were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern to the ground, and it broke and went out. 'I have come too early,' he said then; 'my time has not come yet. The tremendous event is still on its way, still travelling - it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time, the light of the stars requires time, deeds require time even after they are done, before they can be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than the distant stars - and yet they have done it themselves.'

posted by ben vershbow at 10:21 AM | Comments (0)

The Idea of God

posted on 04.10.2006 at 1:36 PM

Is it really as pretty an idea as our tortured, intermittently immoral atheist Ivan Karamazov maintains in Dostoyevsky's novel?Dostoyevsky.jpg

"If there were no God, he would have to be invented. And what's strange, what would be marvellous, is not that God should really exist; the marvel is that such an idea, the idea of the necessity of God, could enter the head of such a savage, vicious beast as man. So holy it is, so touching, so wise and so great a credit it does to man."

Perhaps the less savage and vicious you find humankind, the less touching, wise and necessary you find the idea of God. Or is it just that we live in an age when ideals -- notions of the pure, the perfect, the holy -- seem cheap; when the great challenge is to build a morality, a meaningful existence, a civilization on swampier, more natural ground?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:36 PM | Comments (2)

The Invention of God

posted on 04.06.2006 at 9:43 AM

More from Dostoyevsky's Brothers Karamazov -- a snippet of a conversation:

"Damn it all, what wouldn't I do to the man who first invented God! Hanging on a bitter aspen tree would be too good for him."
"There would have been no civilization if they hadn't invented God."

A scientific response -- based on current understanding of evolutionary psychology, etc. -- might be that, yes, the habits of mind that enable agriculture and civilization also created gods.

Historical and political response: God certainly did play a role in building and bonding societies -- as glue, as moral enforcer -- but was it often a reactionary role -- supporting powers that were? Philosophical response: Hard to overlook the squashing of the spirit of inquiry for all those centuries in the West under a dogmatic, unquestioning faith. Cultural response: Religious themes sure made for some fine painting. Could other themes have stepped in if, somehow, God had not been invented?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:43 AM | Comments (2)

Does Darwin Lead to Atheism? -- II

posted on 03.29.2006 at 9:52 PM

Madeleine Bunting is concerned with avoiding "false dichotomies between faith and science." What religious models might satisfy Bunting and "mesh with" (the phrase is from Dan Jones) evolution? Jones mentions the obvious one: God sets natural selection in motion and watches it work -- presumably devoting Himself, thereafter, just to prayer-answering and salvation-dispensing. Various wispy Gods -- God as Nature, God as metaphor, God as consciousness, etc. -- would also fit.

Wouldn't you have to ignore, or view as fiction, large portions of various holy books for more traditional versions of God to "mesh"? In the effort to avoid "dichotomies," don't you lose either a lot of God or a lot of evolution?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:52 PM | Comments (0)

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)

What Case god?

posted on 03.22.2006 at 4:56 AM

I'm enough of an egalitarian to flinch when an announcer speaks of Joe or Derek but then Mr. Steinbrenner. And I'm sufficiently skeptical to rebel against the odd exception to the style rules that capitalizes words like Him, He, etc. only when they refer to the Supreme Being and His Offspring. While I haven't discussed the matter with my editor (Mr. Turner), I thought that this book might offer an opportunity to finally lower case god. However, a close reading of recent entries on this blog will reveal that I've been wavering (or, more precisely, surrendering). The opportunity to stick that capital letter in front of various and sundry pronouns and nouns has been too delicious to resist. It's less fun to wrestle with a mere "supreme being"?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 4:56 AM | Comments (4)

"Spritual Realities"

posted on 03.17.2006 at 2:13 AM

Cambridge University cosmologist and mathematician John Barrow is this year's winner of the $1.6 million Templeton Prize.

Barrow.jpg-- The prize, designed to be worth more than a Nobel, is given "for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities."

-- Barrow's research interests include mulling over the "anthropic principle" -- the notion that the laws of physics couldn't have been "set" just right to make possible John Barrow and, presumably, the rest of us without someone or something adjusting the dials.

-- Isn't "Spiritual Realities" an oxymoron?
-- Isn't it going to take more than $1.6 million -- chump change -- to get God (or even a less headstrong spirit) into some physicist's laboratory or Larry King's studio?
-- Should there be a reward for "Progress Toward Debunking Spiritual Claims to Reality" (Yo Soros! Gates! Other cool rich guys!) -- or has that work already been satisfactorily completed?
-- How do we know our nifty intelligent-life-supporting universe hasn't been accompanied by many drippy barren universes (all of which would lack physicists capable of using them to demonstrate the absence of intelligent design)? Why couldn't our universe simply be a fluke -- like the fact that John Barrow happened to have been born at just the right time to be hugely rewarded for his spiritual inclinations? How do we know that the physical laws needed to produce us aren't simply among the most probable, most stable outcomes of universe-creation events? Who adjusted the dials on the physical laws needed to produce the Intelligent Designer His or Herself?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 2:13 AM | Comments (8)

The Devil

posted on 03.13.2006 at 11:30 AM

newhart_devil.jpg Atheists use evil almost as much as the religious do. It becomes -- the evil of those God fearing, decent people drowning in their houses in New Orleans, for example -- a powerful argument against the existence of God.

But what might a nonbeliever make of the devil?
-- Is he a general in a war with God? Is this a struggle the angry nonbeliever might want to join? Or is it a dualistic, obsessive death match, which the thoughtful nonbeliever is happy to rise above, a war to which the atheist conscientiously objects?
-- Is the devil just more supernatural hokum, which ought to be purged from our cultures? God and the devil walking side by side. Dream and nightmare. One no more real than the other.
-- Or is he -- why always he? -- a Promethean figure, standing up for humankind against autocratic deities? I've heard that some form of the name Satan means in some form of Hebrew: the advocate. Might atheists have some sympathy for the devil (as myth, as literary character) as the being who makes the case against God?

Is there some sort of "principle of evil" in the universe which nonbelievers must acknowledge, not just use against their opponents?

I keep waiting for the devil to show up in my readings on the history of disbelief. So far, except for some talk of Milton, he's been conspicuous in his absence. Am I reading badly or does the devil really not fit, even as an object of scorn, in the atheist's cosmos?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:30 AM | Comments (5)

God as Metaphor

posted on 03.06.2006 at 11:52 AM

Listening, on a too-long car ride, to Lucinda Williams singing (only faintly ironically, I suspect), You know you've got to get right with God.lucinda.jpg

Perhaps the most "wan" argument for religion (one even arch rationalists might buy) is that it has philosophical or psychological uses when seen, like fiction, as metaphor, as parable. (Bit of a switch: Jesus uses parables from life to make points about religion; the argument here is that parables from religion can illuminate life.) From this perspective, Lucinda's get right might be read as adjust your view of life to better accord with. And her God (There are, of course, others) might be seen as the world, the universe, fate or the way things are.

It gets tougher when Lucinda sings (with whatever degree of irony) about the deep darkness of Hell. But, okay, life can seem bleak. Her reference to Satan's slaughter, however, threw me. Not sure Lucinda's beliefs are that wan. Not sure my ability to find something in parables is that powerful.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:52 AM | Comments (0)

God in Prime Time

posted on 03.03.2006 at 11:18 PM

Joan of Acadia.jpgAlert as usual, I have just focused on the fact that prime-time American network television featured a program in which God was a regular character. This realization arrives, apparently, well after that program -- Joan of Arcadia -- was canceled:

"Daughter Joan (Amber Tamblyn), an average teenager, has been acting a little strange. Most don't know that it has to do with the unusual way various people keep popping up, introducing themselves as God and then giving her specific directions to do things, such as get a job, join the debate team or volunteer with children. The appearances are hard for her to believe, even more so as she never knows who's going to turn up next. One minute it's a cute boy her own age, the next it's the lunch lady or a little girl."

'Twas on Fridays at eight on CBS. Here's a selection from "Joan's diary":

"On top of this, You Know Who pays me a visit. And guess what he tells me to do? Clean. Like he's my Mom. I'm going through this horrible crisis and all he can come up with is to clean?"

God as "You Know Who"? What, for God's sake, are we to make of this updating of Joan of Arc with the Joan Osbourne song as its theme? Would be nice to see this as part of the religious revival. But sounds as if it was quirky. Could religion be coming back quirky?

I should say something here, too, about "Touched By An Angel" and the, apparently edgy, "Book of Daniel." Unfortunately, I know little about these canceled shows either. Must I learn? Has the religious revival been canceled?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:18 PM | Comments (1)

Wieseltier on Dennett -- IV: Fiction

posted on 03.02.2006 at 5:30 PM

One more swing at Leon Wieseltier, because I think there's another interesting point lurking here.

Wieseltier spends most of his review of Daniel Dennett's book in a poorly camouflaged retreat.

Dennett's book argues that there are biological explanations for the human inclination toward religion. Wieseltier, instead of arguing, as so many have for so long, that religious belief is the product of revelation or good sense, never disputes this point.

GOD -- wan.JPGInstead, he repeatedly and heatedly insists that Dennett, in his flattening "scientism," is missing the essence of religion. However, when it comes time to indicate what that might be, Wieseltier's claims for religion turn out to be remarkably feeble or, to use his term, "wan." Note the grand defense of religion contained in this question:

"Why must we read literally in the realm of religion, when in so many other realms of human expression we read metaphorically, allegorically, symbolically, figuratively, analogically?"

So the truth that Dennett is missing is that religion is just another form of "human" -- not superhuman -- "expression"? And that religious texts should no longer be taken as "literally" true but just read as allegories or mined for metaphor? My God! Wieseltier has forced Dennett and all them other reason-besotted atheists to view Genesis as sometimes compelling...fiction.

Is this where the debate now stands? If God is no longer the literal god of the Bible; if God is no longer making covenants or sending a son; if God has no beard, no form, no gender; if God doesn't punish the wicked or reward the righteous; if God doesn't offer a Kingdom, with eternal life; what's left? A rich tale?

Has the recent history of religion, despite all the noise now being made by the increasingly desperate orthodox, not been a poorly camouflaged retreat?

For other takes on Dennett (and Wieseltier and Hume) see here and here and here.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 5:30 PM | Comments (4)

The Greatness of God

posted on 03.01.2006 at 9:17 AM

From a New York Times article on bombings in Iraq:

"On Tuesday, blast after blast rocked the capital. After one car bomb exploded at noon in a Shiite district of downtown Baghdad, firefighters and witnesses struggled to pry two blackened bodies from a charred sedan. The wailing crowd lifted the bodies out, shouted, "God is great!" and marched down the street bearing the bodies aloft."

So God is great when innocent people are killed. And God is also great, presumably when people avoid being killed. Can't lose. How does this work?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:17 AM | Comments (4)

God and Science

posted on 02.28.2006 at 12:04 PM

GOD2.JPGFrom a New York Times article on the defeat (Hallelujah!) of a bill in Utah that would have "required teachers to issue a disclaimer to their students saying that not all scientists agree about evolution and the origin of species." darwin_beard.bmp

"The bill died on a 46-to-28 vote in the Republican-controlled House after being amended by the majority whip, Stephen H. Urquhart, a Mormon who said he thought God did not have an argument with science."

Glad to see, of course, that Mr. Urquhart believes God to be open minded. But I continue to wonder how the diety might square science with miracles, the afterlife and His own omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, omnibenevolent existence.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 12:04 PM | Comments (1)

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)

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." Atheist_in_Foxhole_2.jpgA "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.

Mitchell Kahle prepared this second cartoon, also not dazzlingly clever, in response to that of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:33 AM | Comments (4)

The Causes of Belief

posted on 02.18.2006 at 11:35 AM

Dennett book.jpgIn a review of Daniel Dennett's new Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, Adam Kirsch argues that an explanation for why people believe is not an argument against belief:

"Mr. Dennett believes that explaining religion in evolutionary terms will make it less real; that is the whole purpose of his book. But this is like saying that because water is made of two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen, it is not really wet.... Just so, the reality of religious experience cannot be abolished by explaining it as an adaptation to our prehistorical environment."

But, of course, the reality of religious experience is considerably more elusive than the wetness of water. And a couple of the more common arguments used to demonstrate (against the evidence of our senses and of science) the existence of supernatural beings are hugely vulnerable to explanations of why so many believe.

One such common argument for the existence of God: the fact that all human societies seem to believe in Him or them. (This is the argument ex consensus gentium.) But if that widespread belief can be explained by the fact that a hypersensitivity to the presence of conscious agents is of survival value in hominids, then that argument disappears.

Another such common argument: that human societies believe in God because they've been given "revelations"; they've seen miracles, had visions. But if the belief was really caused by evolutionary pressures, there is less reason to believe in those revelations, miracles and visions.

Democritus, whom Dennett's book does not cite, had a go at the causes-of-belief question almost two and a half millennia ago. Hume, whom Dennett does cite, engages in a rigorous investigation of these causes in his Natural History of Religion. For good reason. This is powerful stuff.

(Thanks to Ben Vershbow, of the Institute for the Future of the Book, for the Kirsch link and, soon, many more.)

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:35 AM | Comments (1)

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.]

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:46 PM | Comments (7)

Come Off It!

posted on 01.30.2006 at 9:06 PM

Religious folks often suspect that, deep down, atheists -- particularly atheists as they face death -- really do have a feeling for God.

Do nonbelievers suspect that, deep down, religious folks have their doubts? That their faith in an afterlife, for example, is not quite strong enough to fend off fear of death?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:06 PM | Comments (3)

a thought devoted to Him

posted on 01.28.2006 at 10:47 AM

People die. People, for the moment, avoid dying. Good things happen. Bad things happen. We have had thousands of years to find a pattern. There is none. We have had thousands of years to discern His intentions. It seems He has none. We have searched for signs, for traces. He has left none. We thought we needed Him to move the stars. We don't. The marvel of life seemed to require Him. It no longer does. The universe chugs along -- meaningless, leaderless -- as always. And the realization begins to sink in: He does nothing. He is nothing.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:47 AM | Comments (0)

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 by Mitchell Stephens at 6:12 AM | Comments (6)

God Creation

posted on 01.11.2006 at 1:44 AM

More from Nietzsche (not to worry, I'm almost done with the book): "...They have failed to create a God! Almost two millennia and not a single new God!"

What's up with that?

Is it true? How about Islam? What about those folks out in Utah? Are we to take their gods for old gods? What about San Francisco in the summer of '67?

OK, I quoted a little out of context; I think Nietzsche's talking just about northern Europeans. (And you get a bit uncomforable when Germans talk just about northern Europeans.) But hasn't god creation -- overall, worldwide - in fact slowed?

Why? Because we've already received the One True Revelation? (We just can't agree on which one.) Because printing presses tend to freeze things? Because the global culture tends to snuff out new cults before they can get their dieties together? Because we have new terms for people who claim they were talking to a god? Because we're finally -- recurring theme of this blog -- outgrowing this sort of thing?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:44 AM | Comments (4)

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, 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."

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 12:14 AM | 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)

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)