Listing entries tagged with history

Religion and the Quest for Certainty

posted on 07.02.2006 at 9:30 AM

At the heart of the (alleged) religious revival is a hunger-- in a relativistic, postmodern age -- for hard truths. That hunger revealed itself (stripped of religious vocabulary) in a recent education law passed by the Florida Legislature, which proclaims:

"American history shall be viewed as factual, not as constructed" and "shall be viewed as knowable, teachable and testable."

Sure. The law is skillfully deconstructed by Mary Beth Norton in the New York Times.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:30 AM | Comments (14)

A Bone to Pick with the Buddha -- 2

posted on 06.22.2006 at 5:49 PM

Was my dispute with the Buddha based on a misunderstanding?

That quote I attributed to the Buddha, to which I took exception -- that the question of the existence of the gods "does not edify" -- I found in Jennifer Michael Hecht's comprehensive book, Doubt: A History. Been working to get closer to the quote's origins and, so far, have not found another reference to it.

The parable of the fire is mentioned: In it the Buddha, on being pressed to support one or another possibility for where the soul does or does not go after death, finally explains that this would be like asking whether the fire goes east or west when extinguished. And my researcher, Kaylan Connally, has found this answer/nonanswer, presumably by the Buddha, to the question of whether the gods -- devas -- exist: "It is firmly accepted in the world that devas exist." But "Buddha," "gods" and "edify" don't seem to spend much time in the same sentences.

Guess this supports Jay Saul's point about the difficulty of confirming anything that the Buddha or Jesus said. Though I sure would like to find at least some sort of vaguely legit source for this quote.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 5:49 PM | Comments (4)

The Bible as Not History

posted on 05.15.2006 at 11:52 PM

davidandsolomon.jpgNot only no evidence that there was ever an Abraham, but no evidence that a nation of Jews was ever in, let alone dramatically escaped from, Egypt, and no evidence that there was ever a Solomon or a great Jewish kingdom with a spectacular first Temple.

The archaeological evidence is reviewed in a new book, David and Solomon, though the authors seem to be bending over backwards not to offend the Biblically inclined.

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

Religion and Historical Truth

posted on 04.13.2006 at 4:58 PM

New York Times columnist David Brooks uses "the Exodus story" today as an argument for a transformative idealism (in a debate with himself):

The Exodus story reminds us that human beings can transform themselves and their situations. It reminds us that people who embark on generational journeys are the realistic ones, because they are the ones who see all the possibilities the future contains.

Forget for a moment that the "idealistic" position, as presented by Brooks, involves undertaking the Iraq War. My question is why an event as historically unproven as the Israelite exodus from Egypt can be treated as fact, when any use of a similarly sketchy history, not backed by religious testament, in a newspaper like the Times would earn a barrage of critical letters. Or are we to think of the Exodus as a "story" -- as in fiction?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 4:58 PM | Comments (11)

A Passover Thought

posted on 04.11.2006 at 7:40 PM

Moses.jpgThere is no historical or archaeological evidence that Jews were ever in Egypt or that they ever fled. From Dan Lazare, writing in Harper's a few years ago:

A growing volume of evidence concerning Egyptian border defenses, desert sites where the fleeing Israelites supposedly camped, etc., indicates that the flight from Egypt did not occur in the thirteenth century before Christ; it never occurred at all.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 7:40 PM | Comments (0)

Bonner's Field

posted on 03.08.2006 at 12:36 PM

Bradlaugh1.jpgIn a corner of Victoria Park in London in the middle of nineteenth century speakers would mount soapboxes to disclaim on any number of radical, or not so radical or anti-radical, causes. Crowds would cheer, hiss or answer back. The area was known as Bonner's Field. On Sundays most of the speeches and debates related to religion.

Representatives from half-a-dozen of Britain's splintering Christian faiths could be found there -- preaching, arguing, handing out tracts. And in one corner of Bonner's Field the latest addition of the country's religious smorgasbord gathered: freethinkers. Among those mounting their soapbox was a 17-year-old former Sunday-school teacher named Charles Bradlaugh, who will be one of the main characters in the book I'm writing.

It is difficult to think of a time or place where the discussion of religion was as open and as robust.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 12:36 PM | Comments (3)

Help! I'm a Writer Trapped in a Blog's Body

posted on 03.08.2006 at 11:18 AM

...and my attempts at narrative and exposition are upended by this weird, and-the-last-shall-go-first format. I write up. You scroll down. This may work for glosses on the news. But it can scramble argument, history or story that can't be stuffed into a single post, a single entry.without%20gods%20screenshot.jpg

...and the bits and bites disgorged onto the blog's long, thin page often fail -- no matter how hyper-connected they pretend to be -- to locate among themselves new structures, new organizations. No easy task, that. This backwards chugging locomotive can stop at only one station at a time. Entry A's relationship with Entry B is, consequently, limited to: before, after or linked.

I'm not persuaded by the argument that this is how it ever must be because this is how it has ever been. Seems a bit odd to be celebrating the tried and true in this form of journalism (if that's the category blogging best fits) -- a form of journalism that is, after all, barely old enough for elementary school!

Newspapers, too, began, in the 17th century, by simply placing short items in columns (in this case from top down). So it was possible to read on page four of a newspaper in England in 1655 that Cardinal Carassa is one of six men with a chance to become the next pope and then read on page nine of the same paper that Carassa "is newly dead." Won't we soon be getting similar chuckles out of these early blogs -- where leads are routinely buried under supporting paragraphs; where whim is privileged, coherence discouraged; where the newly dead may be resurrected as one scrolls down.

Early newspapers eventually discovered the joys of what journalism's first editor called a "continued relation." Later they discovered layout.

Blogs have a lot of discovering ahead of them.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:18 AM | Comments (3)

New Genes -- I

posted on 03.07.2006 at 1:46 PM

The new study by Jonathan Pritchard at the University of Chicago shakes the ground underneath the field dubbed by Jared Diamond "human history." (The field some small corners of which I fancy myself currently plowing and having plowed.)

We've long thought the genetic structures that help determine how we eat, mate, relate and, perhaps, believe have remained pretty much unchanged since the arrival of our species, Homo sapiens sapiens, 50- or 100-thousand years ago. This study indicates that this was not the case -- that our gene pool may have significantly altered after the world-changing invention of agriculture 10-thousand years ago.

This might mean that when we look into the evolution of religion, as Daniel Dennett has recently done, we might pay more attention to life in a village among cows, chickens and wheat fields, and less to life in a hunting and foraging tribe.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:46 PM | Comments (0)

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)


posted on 01.31.2006 at 5:30 PM

Writing. (Always a happy development for an author.) Writing about anthropology and atheism.

It seems the answer to which came first in human history belief or disbelief is, to the extent anthropological discussions of hunter-gatherers provide a guide, the former -- in the form of shamanism.

The accounts I'm reading of psychotropic potions being swallowed in tropical jungles or drum-induced ecstasies in Siberia are enough to warm an ex-hippy's heart. Don't do much for the atheist in me, though. For they do make clear how basic is this insistent, if not irrepressible, human itch to populate the sky above and the earth below with spirits -- supernatural, superhuman (superfluous?).

What, to rephrase a nagging question raised below, is our problem? We seem a species of fantasists. What would we be like, I ask on the eve of a US State-of-the-Union address, if we weren't so disposed to imagine a god or a devil lurking in every cave, every cloud, every issue? If we could indeed come off it?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 5:30 PM | Comments (2)

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)

Where Are All the Atheists?

posted on 01.23.2006 at 5:40 AM

Declaring yourself a nonbeliever was impossible then. As late as 1811, in England, it was still quite dangerous.

Are there situations -- outside of Kandahar -- where it is difficult now?

And let me throw in two related questions borrowed from comments below:

George asks why some periods seem less tolerant of infidels than others. Are we (as liberal optimists like me want to believe) making gradual, though not so steady, progress toward increased freedom of irreligion? Or are some other factors making things better then worse again for nonbelievers?

And Boelf asks whether intolerance of atheism is just a subset of general ultra-orthodox, Taliban-like intolerance of those who don't share The One True Faith. Or is it something different?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 5:40 AM | Comments (2)

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)

Judge Jones -- In the 15th Century

posted on 01.18.2006 at 5:04 PM

In trying to understand the history of atheism, it is probably necessary to understand why, at times, failure to believe in the gods really did seem wacky: in Europe before Newton and Darwin, for example.

The problem: "world orderliness," Schopenhauer called it - as evidenced by the remarkable regularities of the heavenly bodies as well as the remarkable complexity and efficiency of living bodies. Explain that with your "materialism"! Tell us that is just the product of "blind chance"!

Fact is it was damn difficult -- before gravity, before evolution -- to explain the presence of order and complexity in the universe without recourse to a "divine creator."

Let's say some Judge Jones six centuries ago had been asked to rule on an effort by a school board to begin classes with a statement that there was another "theory" of creation: that all the marvels that make up the heavens and the earth just arrived by accident. Might he not have dismissed that notion as characterized by "breathtaking inanity"?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 5:04 PM | Comments (3)

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)

Great Moments

posted on 12.30.2005 at 9:25 AM

Great moments in the history of atheism.

This from the first avowedly atheistic book published in Britain:

"As to the question whether there is such an existent Being as an atheist, to put that out of all manner of doubt, I do declare upon my honour that I am one. Be it therefore for the future remembered, that in London in the kingdome of England, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty-one a man publicly declared himself to be an atheist."

Great moments in anti-atheism.

He still was not believed. One of the few to review the book claimed this avowal could not be credited because, without belief in God, it was impossible to swear to tell the truth.

Not so great moment in atheism.

The only name mentioned in this ground-breaking, courageous book, William Hammon, seems not to have existed. Best guess is it was written by a chemist from Liverpool.

(Above information from David Berman's A History of Atheism in Britain.)

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:25 AM | Comments (0)

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)