A Year of Progress
posted on 12.16.2006 at 2:54 PM
Something odd and encouraging appears to have occurred in the year I have been doing this blog: The revival of religious orthodoxy, which seemed so powerful a year ago, now, in the United States at least, seems to have eased. Freethinkers seem resurgence.
The evidence for this began, perhaps, with the decision, on December 20 of last year, by Judge John E. Jones, a Republican, that requiring teachers in Dover, Pa., to read a statement presenting "intelligent design" as an alternative to evolution was unconstitutional and characterized by "breathtaking inanity." School boards calling for this sort of thing have been voted out of office. Protestations of disbelief have been turning up in the press, on television, even on the best-seller lists. The Republicans, and their faith-based president, suffered, last month, a significant electoral defeat.
Such evidence is, of course, spotty and unscientific. And statements like this by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof (while taking a swipe at atheists) -- the "Christian Right has largely retreated from the culture wars" -- seem hugely overstated. A court decision, six-figure book sales and a vote against an administration. most of whose policies have failed, are poor measures of the religiosity of hundreds of millions of people.
But is it possible that a trend has at least been reversed and that the Enlightenment, after a couple of decades of reaction, is once again moving forward? Do you think?
Religion and Science -- 8
posted on 12.02.2006 at 11:23 AM
Science has not replaced religion.
If he means that lots of people in the world still attend mosques or churches, including even some people in Paris, well okay. It's true: Belief in God, has declined dramatically in Western Europe and certain other cosmopolitan redoubts, but it remains undead. And in some places -- southern Afghanistan, the White House -- it is frighteningly vibrant.
But it is absurd to claim that there hasn't been an astounding switch among much of humanity from religious explanations of the universe, of life, of disease (including mental disease), of human purpose -- a switch that has occurred since Copernicus, since Newton, since Jefferson, since Darwin, since penicillin, since Einstein, since education rates have skyrocketed and information technologies have flourished. No these lesson may not have sunk in yet in Kandahar or the West Wing, but even lots of churchgoers now believe the earth revolves around the sun and we descended from monkeys.
Religion and Science -- 7
posted on 11.22.2006 at 9:42 AM
A few things are extraordinary about the New York Times report, by George Johnson, on a conference on science and religion in California.
1. The general anti-religious tone of the conference. Some quotes:
"The world needs to wake up from its long nightmare of religious belief....Anything that we scientists can do to weaken the hold of religion should be done and may in the end be our greatest contribution to civilization." -- physicist Steven Weinberg
"Let's teach our children from a very young age about the story of the universe and its incredible richness and beauty. It is already so much more glorious and awesome -- and even comforting -- than anything offered by any scripture or God concept I know." -- Carolyn Porco, a space scientist (whose ideas have been discussed here before)
Indeed, anthropologist Melvin J. Konner said at one point about the conference:
"With a few notable exceptions, the viewpoints have run the gamut from A to B. Should we bash religion with a crowbar or only with a baseball bat?"
Since public debate on such matters has been stuck so long at Y and Z, this may have been useful.
2. It is also significant that the ever-cautious New York Times felt comfortable printing an article that is so critical of religion -- an article that ends with this exchange between Weinberg and Richard Dawkins:
Before he left to fly back home to Austin, Dr. Weinberg seemed to soften for a moment, describing religion a bit fondly as a crazy old aunt.
"She tells lies, and she stirs up all sorts of mischief and she's getting on, and she may not have that much life left in her, but she was beautiful once," he lamented. "When she's gone, we may miss her."
Dr. Dawkins wasn't buying it. "I won't miss her at all," he said. "Not a scrap. Not a smidgen."
"Science does not make it impossible to believe in God. We should recognize that fact and live with it and stop being so pompous about it." -- Lawrence M. Krauss, a physicist
Dawkins' hard-line response to this sort of statement is here.
High Tide of Atheism?
posted on 11.14.2006 at 8:17 AM
Two bestsellers (Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris). Cover story in Wired. Main book review in the Sunday New York Times. Big review essay in Newsweek. Can't start a conversation in intellectual circles on five continents without someone mentioning this blog (or at least using the word "without").
What goes on?
1. A reaction to a religious revival which obstructs biology classes, causes a fuss over cartoons, fuels a mad American foreign policy and kills and maims?
2. Enlightenment reason has never ceased spreading, though it may have been obscured or lying low for a couple of decades there?
3. New burst of development for idea-dispensing technologies increases the questions and answers available to curious minds, from Kansas to Kabul?
State Helps Churches
posted on 10.13.2006 at 3:30 PM
A powerful new investigative series has been running in the New York Times, exposing increasing number of ways American laws are favoring religious institutions. It is worth quoting:
In recent years, many politicians and commentators have cited what they consider a nationwide "war on religion" that exposes religious organizations to hostility and discrimination. But such organizations -- from mainline Presbyterian and Methodist churches to mosques to synagogues to Hindu temples -- enjoy an abundance of exemptions from regulations and taxes. And the number is multiplying rapidly.
Some of the exceptions have existed for much of the nation's history, originally devised for Christian churches but expanded to other faiths as the nation has become more religiously diverse. But many have been granted in just the last 15 years -- sometimes added to legislation, anonymously and with little attention, much as are the widely criticized "earmarks" benefiting other special interests.
An analysis by The New York Times of laws passed since 1989 shows that more than 200 special arrangements, protections or exemptions for religious groups or their adherents were tucked into Congressional legislation, covering topics ranging from pensions to immigration to land use. New breaks have also been provided by a host of pivotal court decisions at the state and federal level, and by numerous rule changes in almost every department and agency of the executive branch.
The special breaks amount to "a sort of religious affirmative action program," said John Witte Jr., director of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at the Emory University law school.
Professor Witte added: "Separation of church and state was certainly part of American law when many of today's public opinion makers were in school. But separation of church and state is no longer the law of the land."
My underline at the bottom. Is Prof. Witte right?
posted on 09.18.2006 at 5:34 PM
Something is definitely going on here.
The latest piece of evidence I have collected that the argument against God is being treated with a new respect is a review-essay in Newsweek by Jerry Adler. Adler is dealing with a new book by Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation, along with a not-so-new book by Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell, and a forthcoming book by Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion. What's remarkable, for someone who has spent some decades following American journalism, is that while Adler quibbles a bit, he never dismisses the Harris-Dennett-Dawkins point of view.
posted on 09.12.2006 at 10:51 PM
Some numbers from a large survey of Americans' religious attitudes by Gallup and Baylor University (via USA Today):
** 91.8% say they believe in God, a higher power or a cosmic force.
Not surprising. That would leave 8.2% of Americans not believing in God or the equivalent. But then the survey includes this:
** About one in nine (10.8%) respondents have no religious ties at all; previous national surveys found 14%.
Is this evidence that the religious revival is real? Or might this represent a difference in the surveys? And when asked dead on:
** only 5.2% of Americans say they are atheists.
This could be bad for book sales. The next number sounds ominous:
** 45.6% of all Americans say the federal government "should advocate Christian values."
Not clear, however, whether that means helping the poor or requiring prayer in school.
Bob Dylan and Religion
posted on 09.08.2006 at 8:13 PM
High on the list of Mr. Dylan's talents is the capacity -- while, as he puts it in a recent interview, conforming to his own "reality" -- for disappointing large portions of his fans. The secularists among those fans -- cheered, justifiably or not, by early songs such as With God on Our Side -- have taken some big hits.
However, here near the end of the last song on this new album is an elliptical lyric that seems to imply that the Deity may have exited, for a moment at least, from the Bard's world-view:
As I walked out in the mystic garden
On a hot summer day, a hot summer lawn
Excuse me, ma'am, I beg your pardon
There's no one here, the gardener is gone
Dying for Jesus
posted on 09.07.2006 at 8:55 PM
Dark Sided has a link to the trailer for a documentary called "Jesus Camp," in which children are asked if they are prepared to die for You-Know-Who. A fair amount of children are being indoctrinated to die for various You-Know-Whos in this supposedly enlightened world today.
Many have died because of an absence of belief in the supernatural qualities of Jesus and The Others, but rarely with head high -- proudly declaring disbelief. Instead the tendency has been to choose Galileo's strategy and, when faced with the threat of execution, cave. Is the problem that atheists don't have summer camps? Or, as I suspect, is the problem that their martyrs can't expect heavenly reward? Wouldn't there be less killing and dying if fewer among us expected heavenly reward? Would there also be a reduction in the number of people standing up, with head high, for various dangerous causes?
The Itch for Religion -- 2
posted on 09.01.2006 at 12:13 PM
Or maybe what we're seeing is the culture -- human, global culture -- in the process of shaking off this need for a Heavenly Father. As we shook off (mostly) kings. As we shook off the belief that the earth is the center of the universe. Occasionally -- individually, globally -- we take a step back.
Presumably humans have an "itch" to see themselves in the center of the cosmos, too, but have managed, over time, to overcome it.
How Strong This Itch Must Be
posted on 08.28.2006 at 11:00 PM
Obviously there is an anthropological lesson here:
** Something looks fantastically beautiful: Jesus must have died for our sins.
** Humans on occasion do each other a good turn: Some higher power must have endowed us with a notion of The Good.
When things get clear, must be a God. When things get fuzzy, same conclusion. When people behave well... When people behave poorly... The simple means God. The complex means God. Loveliness, horror.... The existence of love, the existence of pain... All, somehow, "prove" the existence of the divine.
How strong this itch must be.
"Proof of Life After Death"
posted on 08.14.2006 at 3:14 PM
In this odd period when beliefs seem to be growing simultaneously stronger and weaker, depending where you turn, it is hard to know what you will encounter when you take a look at your favorite newspaper. Indeed, the New York Times today features a sympathetic review of a sympathetic book, Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death, by science writer Deborah Blum, on psychics and communication with the dead.
In "Ghost Hunters"... these "psychical researchers" are not simply a bunch of smart men (and a couple of women) obsessed with a dumb idea, but rather courageous freethinkers willing to endure the establishment's scorn. This quirky band, [Blum] argues, was more scientific than the scientists....
Sure. However, it might be noted that, while the hypotheses of traditional science are often enough confirmed by experimentation, the confirmation rate by repeatable experiment of all claims to "telepathy, telekinesis or contacts with the dead" hovers, I believe, around zero. William James stated, after his long efforts to find proof of what he wanted to be true had failed, "that at times I have been tempted to believe that the Creator has eternally intended this department of nature to remain baffling." One could come up with another explanation for James' failure.
But then here is our book-review writer, Patricia Cohen:
Ultimately what distinguished James and his colleagues from many of their scientific peers was their humbleness. To think one can divine everything in an infinite universe is an act of extreme hubris.
Once again what we don't know, which is of course an awful lot, is used to justify what we ache to believe. One might think that, from the perspective of the rationalism normally expected of news organizations like the Times, what distinguished James and others who shared his desperation to communicate with dead relatives was a simple, unscientific case of wishful thinking.
Astrology and the World Cup
posted on 07.09.2006 at 8:53 PM
We tend to look up to the enlightened Europeans, particularly the French, as we struggle here in the US with tough questions like whether evolution ought to be taught in the schools. Then we learn that Raymond Domenech -- the coach of the French team, which has just lost in the finals of the World Cup -- has a weakness for matters supernatural:
He has an interest in astrology and has admitted reading tarot cards to learn about players' personalities. He has gone on record as saying he does not like Scorpios and is wary of having too many Leos in his side. Interestingly, no Scorpios were picked for Germany 2006.
Wonder how that sort of thing would go over here. Perhaps acceptable belief systems in this country, beyond frequent knocking on wood, are restricted to those mentioned in one or another of the testaments of the Bible (though the astrology columns do get a large enough readership). Perhaps acceptable belief systems in France are limited to those that aren't mentioned there.
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.
Relgion and Politics: Barack Obama
posted on 07.02.2006 at 9:15 AM
"It is doubtful that children reciting the Pledge of Allegiance feel oppressed or brainwashed as a consequence of muttering the phrase `under God.'"
Afraid I know quite a few people, all of whom have been children, who did indeed feel oppressed by it (but then again people do get a bit touchy when forced to mouth, every day, something they profoundly disbelieve). Why is the line between church and state -- inscribed in the Bill of Rights in the United States -- so difficult for so many politicians to honor? Okay, maybe we know the answer. But then it raises another also not-too-difficult question: What won't a politician do for some votes?
Bruce and Religion
posted on 06.27.2006 at 7:07 PM
The larger issue, for me, is how deeply embedded religion is in our culture -- to the point where attempting to live without gods is a much, much more difficult task than we (most of us) think.
Saw Bruce Springsteen in his exuberant and delightful folk-revival show the other night in New Jersey . Surely were enough signs that something else was also being revived. "Come on rise up!" went the chorus of one of the few of his own songs he did. (Fellow to left of me seemed as if he were about to start talking in tongues.) From the older folk songs came lines like "every link had Jesus' name." One song about Jacob, another (you know it) about marching saints.
One lesson: the extent to which this is part of the musical tradition. Pete Seeger, whose repertoire Bruce was ostensibly borrowing, is an old lefty. He, I was reminded, never shied away from "Oh Mary Doncha Weep."
Another lesson: Aging -- often, certainly not always -- can bring you further from being able to do without God. Be interesting to chart likelihood of belief at various ages. I suspect the dip would be at about the time Bruce was singing "Born to Run." The peak? Well he may still be climbing. And Bruce is in the avant garde of the baby boom. Where he heads the middle-aged may be likely to follow.
Kind of weird to be dancing and singing along, with your own exuberance and delight, to a line like "Pharaoh's Army Got Drowneded," knowing there is zero historical evidence that the Hebrew exodus from Egypt ever happeneded. Or am I to content myself with the knowledge that this is mere art, mere metaphor?
The Sixties: Obstinate denials of reality?
posted on 06.26.2006 at 11:54 PM
Here's a question: What role did the hallowed 60's play in the run-up to the current (alleged) religious revival?
The book provides a crash course in several aspects of 60's culture: its often gaseous rhetoric, its reliance on mahatmas and soothsayers, its endless bail-fund benefits and sometimes dubious appeals to conscience, its thriving population of informers, its contribution to the well-being of lawyers, its candyland expectations and obstinate denials of reality, its fatal avoidance of critical thinking, its squalid death by its own hand.
This seems rather harsh (on the 60's, not necessarily Leary), no? Sante does, however, acknowledge something of another side:
That still leaves many meritorious elements largely outside Leary's sphere: civil rights, the antiwar movement, music and art, the impulse toward communitarianism, to name a few.
But then, in the last sentence of his review, Sante returns, metaphors blazing, to the attack:
In part because of Leary, however, ideals and delusions were encouraged to interbreed, their living progeny being avid consumerism and toothless dissent.
My own take: Certainly, "delusions" were in good supply among those who danced "beneath diamond skies" back in those starry-eyed days. Some forms of reality were, in fact, denied. Various gods, whom it had taken centuries to evict, were invited back in. But in having the wit and exuberance to step, for a moment at least, outside of societal expectations and beyond a rather limited perspective on what qualified as "real," much critical thinking -- on politics, culture and religion -- was done. The Cosmic All and its upholders may have been invoked; but Mommy's and Daddy's God did not fare that well. And not all of that thinking, I believe, has been undone.
The Attack on Reason
posted on 06.23.2006 at 6:20 PM
This (thanks to Kristian Z. ) from the Baccalaureate Address given by outgoing Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers a couple of weeks ago. Summers, I admit, is a complicated character. But still...
It is an irony of our time that at a moment when the power of reason to cure diseases, link nations, emancipate the enslaved, and improve living standards has never been greater, the idea of reason is increasingly in question....
Another way of looking at this is that reason, to its glory, has become strong enough to question reason. But still...
Think about this, at a time when biological science has done more to reduce human suffering and has more potential to reduce human suffering than ever before in all of history. There is today, in American public schools, more doubt cast on the theory of evolution than at any time in the last century.
(Perhaps name of this blog should be changed to "But still...")
Thou Shalt Know Thy Commandments
posted on 06.20.2006 at 3:42 PM
The Congressman, Lynn Westmoreland, who sponsored a bill requiring display of the Ten Commandments in Congress, could only name, on the Colbert Report, three of them.
(thanks Ben Vershbow)
Are Atheists More Moral? -- VI
posted on 06.08.2006 at 10:30 PM
The Raving Atheist has come upon a losing candidate in the Democratic primary for Attorney General in Alabama, Larry Darby, who declared himself both an atheist and a holocaust denier.
Darby got 44 percent of the vote! Given how popular we know, or think we know, atheism to be in states like Alabama, that would seem to say spooky things about holocaust denial. Oh. Just learned Darby has spoken before a white supremacist group.
In other Alabama election news, Roy Moore, the former judge who had installed a Ten Commandments monument in the state judicial building, lost a primary for governor, getting one-third of the votes against the incumbent. Moore to supporters (from Newsday): "God's will has been done."
Adam and Eve in the New York Times
posted on 06.05.2006 at 11:59 AM
The New York Times ran a characteristically lucid article on the Science report that fig trees may have been the first cultivated plant. But, in the second paragraph the Times decides to have some fun:
Presumably that was well after Adam and Eve tried on the new look in fig leaves...
Fine. We're all for fun. But then the Times seems compelled to treat the Adam and Eve line as if it were more than just fun, as if it needs to be taken seriously, explained:
...in which case the fig must have grown wild in Eden.
A few centuries ago considerable scholarly effort was expended calculating the dimensions of Noah's Ark and the date of Adam's creation (accepted answer: 4004 BC). Is the Times now to look for scientific and historical explanations of Eden? Or was the "grown wild" line added because it was feared the "new look in fig leaves" quip might, in the current climate, offend?
Da Vinci Code Banned...
posted on 06.02.2006 at 11:54 PM
...in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh as part of a "ban on movies that `hurt' the religious sentiments of people."
Almost makes you want to go see the damn thing.
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."
Trashing the Bible...and God
posted on 05.24.2006 at 10:32 PM
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?
Trashing the Bible
posted on 05.22.2006 at 4:47 PM
New York Magazine certainly qualifies as mainstream. David Edelstein is its film critic. This is from his current piece:
I'd call it biblical vengeance, but even the Bible isn't this perverse.
It is hard to imagine the "Holy Book" offhandedly being called "perverse" in such a publication thirty years ago, twenty years ago, ten years ago. We are supposed to be living through a religious revival. But look closer and this is the sort of thing you find.
posted on 05.14.2006 at 11:21 PM
Do the religious sound a little desperate? Have they always? This example of defensive name-calling is from the Bhagavad-Gita -- written perhaps 2,500 years ago:
Two orders of contingent beings in this world there are: The godly and the devilish... The devilish folk know nothing.... 'The world's devoid of truth' they say, 'It has no ground, no ruling Lord, It has not come to be by mutual causal law; Random and without any cause.' Fast holding to these views, Lost souls with feeble minds, They embark on cruel and violent deeds, --malignant [In their lust] for the destruction of the world. (Cited, Thrower, The Alternative Tradition)
One form this desperation perhaps takes nowadays is a need to use globalization and technology in order to fend off globalization and technology . No one was better at pointing out such (inevitable) contradictions (on the part of nonbelievers, too) than the late Jacques Derrida. It is worth wading through the jargon here. (This was written ten years ago.)
Religion today allies itself with tele-technoscience, to which it reacts with all its forces. It is, on the one hand, globalization: it produces, weds, exploits the capital and knowledge of tele-mediatization; neither the trips and global spectacularizing and knowledge of the Pope, nor the interstate dimensions of the "Rushdie affair," nor planetary terrorism would otherwise be possible, at this rhythm -- and we could multiply such indications ad infinitum. But, on the other hand, it reacts immediately, simultaneously, declaring war against that which gives it this new power only at the cost of dislodging it from all its proper places, in truth from place itself, from the taking place of its truth. (From "Faith and Knowledge" in Acts of Religion)
Religion "dislodged" from its sacred places, from its sacred truths, forced to conspire with that which does the dislodging. Bin Laden on videotape, broadcast by satellite. You'd be desperate, too.
posted on 05.04.2006 at 9:36 AM
Even if religion has been making a comeback against secularism in recent decades, hasn't much (not all) religion been transformed by its exposure to secularism? This from A. C. Grayling, writing in The Guardian:
In its bleeding-heart modern form, Christianity is a recent and highly modified version of what, for most of its history, has been an often violent and always oppressive ideology - think Crusades, torture, burnings at the stake, the enslavement of women to constantly repeated childbirth and undivorceable husbands, the warping of human sexuality, the use of fear (of hell's torments) as an instrument of control, and the horrific results of calumny against Judaism. Nowadays, by contrast, Christianity specialises in soft-focus mood music; its threats of hell, its demand for poverty and chastity, its doctrine that only the few will be saved and the many damned, have been shed, replaced by strummed guitars and saccharine smiles.
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 on 04.29.2006 at 4:46 PM
For a summary of the argument for teaching Intelligent Design alongside evolution in the schools, see the new United States presidential press secretary, Tony Snow (via Matzke via Pharyngula). Snow asserts:
Evolutionary theory, like ID, isn't verifiable or testable. It's pure hypothesis -- like ID -- although very popular in the scientific community.
Colbert v. Atheist
posted on 04.27.2006 at 9:37 AM
Colbert: Well, I've got historical evidence. The Bible tells me Jesus was born of a virgin.
Harris: Yeah, but . . .
Colbert: I mean, there's your witness right there, the Bible.
Harris: Unfortunately, the Qu'ran says that anyone who thinks that is going to spend eternity in hell.
Colbert: But we're not talking about the Qu'ran, we're talking about the Bible, okay? The Bible is without flaw. It is inerrant. And we know this, because the Bible says it is without flaw.
This is, as those who have sorted through this program's various levels of irony will confirm, an example of religion, the Christian religion, actually getting punched around a bit on a major American cable channel: Comedy Central. This is not the sort of thing we were used to seeing on our televisions in this country.
Are we witnessing a result of the increasing number of television channels with increasing space (despite corporate ownership, etc.) for diverse viewpoints? Or is the great, centuries long march of reason proceeding apace after all?
The Evolution "Debate"
posted on 04.26.2006 at 3:59 PM
"Evolution: The Big Surprise" is a headline on the cover of the current issue of the New York Review of Books. And your first thought is that it might have something to do with the debate over "intelligent design."
It doesn't. The article describes some interesting recent research on embryo development and how it has "radically altered our views of evolution and the relation of human beings to all other animals." Still, the fact that you even suspect that the New York Review would be troubling itself with countering a theory with no serious scientific support shows how this creationist nonsense has wormed its way into contemporary discourse.
Another sign is the fact that this article must begin by anticipating our suspicions and making clear that it is not about the "recent controversy about the theory of evolution."
Let's say religious groups were able to convince the odd school board that the "theory" that the universe was created in the year 4004 BC should be taught along with history and astronomy. Would articles on these subject then have to begin by explaining that they are not about the recent controversy about the age of the universe?
posted on 04.25.2006 at 10:57 PM
Mill insists that religion should be subject to the same criticism as any other system of thought, regardless of the offence caused. I think we can be confident that Mill would be disappointed by the progress made on this issue in the last century and a half, and by the regress of the last half decade. He certainly anticipated those who wanted to turn only "intemperate" expressions of religious criticism into crimes. Mill gave no ground, pointing out that serious offence is taken "whenever the attack is telling and powerful." There is no doubt where he would stand on the current debates on religious hatred, or on publication of the cartoons of Muhammad.
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?
Religion and Politics -- 2: John McCain
posted on 04.10.2006 at 10:59 PM
This from a New York Times article on the Democrats' favorite Republican, likely presidential candidate John McCain:
He said schools should be allowed to offer "intelligent design" courses as an alternative to evolution.
And perhaps levitation courses as an alternative to gravity?
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?
Evidence of Evolution?
posted on 04.06.2006 at 9:55 AM
Just discovered fossils of a giant fish with proto-limbs -- a "missing link" between fish and land animals -- certainly deepen understanding of evolution. But have intelligent design/creationist arguments received so much attention in the United States recently that these fossils need to be seen as further evidence of the truth of the theory of evolution (as if this theory is wanting in proof). Apparently yes. This is paragraph five of the lead story in the New York Times today:
Other scientists said that in addition to confirming elements of a major transition in evolution, the fossils were a powerful rebuttal to religious creationists, who have long argued that the absence of such transitional creatures are a serious weakness in Darwin's theory.
Indeed, while this is certainly an interesting and important story, it would probably not be the lead story if this religious foolishness had not received so much attention.
Genuine Faith vs. Antimodern Fanaticism?
posted on 04.04.2006 at 9:54 PM
Mark Lilla comes to one disturbing conclusion at the end of his erudite and stimulating review in the New York Times of Michael Burleigh's book, Earthly Powers: The Clash of Religion and Politics in Europe From the French Revolution to the Great War. He challenges us to realize that:
the world is full of peoples whose genuine faith in the divine gives them a precise, revealed blueprint for political life, which means that for the foreseeable future they will not enter into the family of liberal democratic nations.
But then Lilla seems to take back this hardheaded, dispiriting pronouncement in a second conclusion:
The...challenge is to learn how to distinguish between those whose political programs are inspired by genuine faith, and those whose defense of religion is inspired by a reactionary utopianism having less to do with God than with redirecting the faulty course of history. In radical Islam we find both phenomena today, authentic faith and antimodern fanaticism, shaken together into an explosive cocktail.
And even in the United States we are witnessing the instrumentalization of religion by those who evidently care less about our souls, or even their own, than about reversing the flow of American history since the "apocalypse" of the 60's.
So the problem, perhaps, is not with "genuine" or "authentic" faith after all? It's with hypocritcal fanatics who use the religion. That's a curious distinction. Many religions -- as written, as practiced -- come fully armed with their own varieties of "reactionary utopianism" and "antimodern fanaticism."
Did Lilla have it right the first time? If liberal democracy is our goal, do religions -- "genuine" religions -- have to be defanged not just separated from their manipulative political allies?
Prayer Worthless! -- 4
posted on 04.04.2006 at 12:29 AM
Yes, we want to carry on about how ridiculous it was to waste time proving the blindingly obvious: that a stranger's prayer can't improve your health. But maybe we're forgetting the time and place in which we live. Watching the Final Four (Okay, so I did prove susceptible to March Madness after all), I've seen ads for a TV show (CSI) about a psychic and a movie (didn't catch the name) about demons.
America Hotbed of Atheism?
posted on 04.01.2006 at 12:19 PM
Madeleine Bunting is a wobbly writer -- not, on merit, worth the space I've devoted to her. Nonetheless, she has a way, as she lurches about, of stumbling upon some interesting issues. Another point that I'm intrigued by in her recent piece in the Guardian is this claim that America has become the site of a death match between hardline atheists and creationists. Britain, in her view, must avoid "American-style false dichotomies between faith and science." American style!
Americans are well aware that they possess an oversupply of exuberant creationists. But the United States -- not Europe -- as a hotbed of extreme atheism! Gosh.
Could there be something to this -- perhaps the result of an equal and opposite reaction to those creationists and their buddies on the religious right? Or is Bunting, once again, just not looking where she's going.
Prayer Worthless! -- 3
posted on 03.31.2006 at 3:47 PM
Let's forget for a moment the "faith-is-not-something-that-can-be-investigated-by-science" talk that will inevitably follow reports on this study showing that prayer by strangers does not help before a heart operation. What does the fact that the study was done tell us about the moment in which we live?
1. That ours is a time when many people still take such ridiculous assumptions seriously enough so that money (including US government money) and energy are devoted to studying them.
2. That, despite all the talk of religious revivals and resurgent orthodoxy, the relentless assault of science and scholarship upon superstition continues.
Are Atheists More Moral? -- III (Tony Blair)
posted on 03.26.2006 at 8:52 PM
From an article on British Prime Minister Tony Blair earlier this month:
He confirmed the thesis put forward by more than one biographer that it was his rediscovery of religion while at Oxford University which led him into politics.
Would this, assuming one finds Blair's politics moral (difficult for some of us in recent years), be a counter example?
Religion and Politics: Hillary Clinton
posted on 03.25.2006 at 6:30 PM
"It is certainly not in keeping with my understanding of the Scriptures," Clinton said, "because this bill would literally criminalize the Good Samaritan and probably even Jesus himself."
Hard not to support adoption of a Would Jesus Get Arrested standard for all future US legislation (though I must admit I have some difficulty locating this particular Jesus, The Illegal Alien, in my copies of the "Scriptures"). And it's always invigorating, of course, to see a politician standing up for some valued voting bloc's convictions.
However, I have to wonder whether the good senator, even with all her advanced polling, might not be missing the beginnings of a turn in American public opinion. Our finger in the wind (and this method does, upon occasion, work) is detecting the initial stirrings of a secular backlash against the orthodox backlash against secularism. Whoever Hillary assigns to adjust her convictions should be advised to turn to this page for the latest on this anti-religious revival.
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.)
The Clash of Eras -- II
posted on 03.15.2006 at 5:06 PM
"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?
The Clash of Eras
posted on 03.15.2006 at 12:30 PM
We tend when talking of the beliefs of others to be cautious, to mince words, show respect. That's part of what's interesting about the recent statement (made on Al Jazeera!) by the Arab-American psychiatrist, Dr. Wafa Sultan (quoted, most recently, by Tom Friedman). It is blunt; it is bold; and it has earned Dr. Sultan (as if to prove her point) numerous death threats:
"The clash we are witnessing ... is not a clash of religions, or a clash of civilizations. It is a clash between two opposites, between two eras. It is a clash between a mentality that belongs to the Middle Ages and another mentality that belongs to the 21st century. It is a clash between civilization and backwardness, between the civilized and the primitive, between barbarity and rationality. It is a clash between freedom and oppression, between democracy and dictatorship. It is a clash between human rights, on the one hand, and the violation of these rights, on the other hand. It is a clash between those who treat women like beasts, and those who treat them like human beings."
No cultural relativism here. No fear of seeing progress in history. No fear of questioning or judging another's beliefs -- the fear that sometimes seems to paralyze anthropologists. (Wilhelm Schmidt: "There is but too much danger that the other [the nonbeliever] will talk of religion as a blind man might of colours.") Dr. Sultan, a nonbeliever, talks about religion.
(If you absolutely require a cynical perspective, try the Daily Kos.)
An Atheist Speaks...
posted on 03.12.2006 at 11:05 AM
...on the opinion pages of the New York Times. Strange times we live in. It has taken an often intolerant religious revival (in the US and abroad) to allow a more open discussion of irreligious ideas in this country than has been seen in at least half a century. (Changes -- democratization? -- in media have also helped.)
1. When atheism first dared enter public debate in Europe, in the 18th century in France (with Holbach) and the 19th century in Britain (with Shelley), it did so with a grand claim (founded on a romantic, almost deified view of "Nature") to a higher morality -- a morality that looked a lot like Christian morality. Zizek is making a similar claim: "Today, this properly Christian ethical stance survives mostly in atheism." More on this later.
2. Zizek is also proposing a new (for me, here in the sheltered US) political analysis of the Cartoons of the Prophet situation: The Christian right initially printed the cartoons to take some digs at Islam but then expressed "understanding" for the hurt felt (and expressed sometimes violently) by true believers. The atheist liberals, on the other hand, reprinted the cartoons only in the spirit of tolerance and open discussion and had little tolerance for violent protest against open discussion. "Atheism," Zizek writes, " is a European legacy worth fighting for, not least because it creates a safe public space for believers."
3. My expertise on these matters is limited, but where Zizek refers to David Hume in the piece ("David Hume, a believer, made this point in a very poignant way, when he wrote that the only way to show true respect for God is to act morally while ignoring God's existence.") doesn't the point really fit Immanuel Kant? It is, nonetheless, an important point (discussed below) -- though more difficult than Zizek acknowledges.
Poorly Camouflaged Retreat, cont.
posted on 03.05.2006 at 3:25 AM
Garret Keizer -- writing originally in the Los Angeles Times (thanks again to Ben Vershbow):
"The supporters of intelligent design betray their own secularist assumptions through their insistence that Darwinian evolution be taught with the disclaimer that it is "only a theory." One would assume that, from the perspective of faith, a great deal is only a theory. To apply that label exclusively to evolution suggests otherwise. It suggests that we inhabit a world of ubiquitous certainty. No one could walk on water in such a world because the molecular density of water is (unlike evolution, apparently) beyond the theoretical. Of course, that is the view of science, and the only proper view of science. One is amazed, however, to find it promulgated in the cause of religion."
God in Prime Time
posted on 03.03.2006 at 11:18 PM
Alert 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?
God and Science
posted on 02.28.2006 at 12:04 PM
From 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."
"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.
Cartoons of the Prophet -- Part III
posted on 02.07.2006 at 11:42 AM
While all right-thinking folk want the violence that has broken out in response to the satiric drawings of Mohammad to end, this awful incident does at least have the virtue of reminding us that this is a world that is sharply divided -- between humanistic, tolerant pluralists and true believers in one or another faith.
The views of Danish newspaper editors and devout Muslims may indeed be incompatible. No religious testament with which I am familiar tempers its "Thou shall not"s with an "unless it is an expression of some individual's right to free expression." And no self-respecting child of the Enlightenment is eager to hand mullahs, priests or rabbis significant control over what they do, say or print.
Orthodox Muslims are correct in suspecting that some Western intellectuals find their beliefs (like most orthodox beliefs) rather silly. Western intellectuals are correct in suspecting that some orthodox Muslims (like orthodox members of other faiths) think they are damned or damnable. And orthodox Muslims and Western intellectuals increasingly find themselves occupying the same neighborhoods, using the same media.
These are not friendly differences. These are not worldviews that can easily share a smaller and smaller world.
Yes, end the violence. Yes, let's all try to be sensitive and understanding. But it is also worth remembering that a crucial struggle is going on in the world today: between devout faith and freethinking. This struggle is inevitably going to cause some pain.
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"?
On Bunting On Dawkins On Atheism
posted on 01.17.2006 at 6:45 PM
Richard Dawkins, who seems to be taking on the Bertrand Russell role of primary intellectual champion of atheism, has a two-part series attacking religion on Channel Four in the UK. Haven't seen it. (Will a US network have the guts to pick it up?) But I was sent Madeleine Bunting's exuberant critique of the series in the Guardian.
Bunting's piece is smart, tough and even, in places, wise: Yes, societies can find other excuses for killing each other besides religious difference. No, trying to prevent parents from indoctrinating their kids with religion doesn't sound like such a hot idea. (Are we also to prevent them from indoctrinating their children with free-market ideology or compassion for the poor?)
However, Bunting -- like many in the group Thomas Huxley once dismissed as "reconcilers" between religion and science -- seems unable to grasp the natural antagonism between faith and reason. "Faith, according to the New Testament, "is assurance of things hoped for." Reason, particularly its offspring science, is the alternative -- the antidote -- to such wishful thinking. This doesn't mean there isn't an element of faith at the bottom of reason -- "faith" that the sun will in fact rise tomorrow, for example. And this doesn't mean people of faith can't do science. But it would seem to support Dawkins' characterization of faith as a "process of non-thinking."
Bunting is also smart, tough and possibly wise on a subject that has been much discussed here: the new religious Great Awakening and an alleged and concomitant decline in freethinking. "There's an aggrieved frustration," she writes about nonbelievers, "that they've been short-changed by history; we were supposed to be all atheist rationalists by now."
Bunting thinks she senses "the unmistakable whiff of panic." You panicked?
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 on 12.30.2005 at 4:12 PM
All of us would qualify as atheists by the definition that, as I've been reading, mostly applied in Greece and Rome: not honoring the residents of Mt. Olympus. For Zeus/Jupiter, Athena/Minerva, Hermes/Mercury, the sacrifices, lately, have been few and far between.
Have we been in the process of moving beyond the angry, meddling, jealous god of, say, Exodus? "Thus says the Lord God of Israel: 'Let every man put his sword on his side, and go out from entrance to entrance throughout the camp, and let every man kill his brother, every man his companion, and every man his neighbor.'"
Is Jesus, the worker of miracles, beginning to seem a little distant? "The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up." Is this what they're so nervous about out in the red states? (A friend reports seeing a billboard decorated with flames somewhere in Indiana upon which is written: "Hell Is Real.")
Might societies someday look back even on our more retiring god -- who provides meaning, hope and a beginning but stays out of the way of evolution, planetary motion and football games -- the way we look back on the notion of Apollo chauffeuring the sun?
Judge Jones' decision, continued
posted on 12.23.2005 at 11:52 PM
Back to the problematic quote in Judge John E. Jones laudable decision against requiring mention of "intelligent design" in the Dover public schools: "The theory of evolution...in no way conflicts with, nor does it deny, the existence of a divine creator."
Hasn't religion surrendered a whole lot if its god no longer creates the species, let alone moves the stars and planets?
"The fact that orthodox Christians so eagerly grasp the vagrant straws floating by shows that they are now content with the very smallest fragments of all that once they were positive was true" -- Clarence Darrow
Might these hazier, more abstract, less necessary views of god -- views that might be compatible with evolution and the rest of modern science -- qualify as vagrant straws, small fragments of once grand religious truths?
Judge Jones' decision: some thoughts
posted on 12.21.2005 at 11:30 PM
** On December 20, Judge John E. Jones, a Republican, ruled that the requirement instituted by the school board in Dover, Pennsylvania, that teachers read a statement presenting "intelligent design" as an alternative to evolution was unconstitutional and characterized by "breathtaking inanity." Secularist might indeed find evidence here that the great, centuries-long process of accepting science, not faith, as the arbiter of truth about the natural world has not halted. After all, it wasn't so long ago that such decisions were going the other way: In the famous "Monkey Trial" in 1925, John Scopes was convicted of violating a Tennessee law against teaching evolution in public schools. (The case was later thrown out on a technicality.) That law was not repealed until 1967.
** However, might there also have been evidence that fundamentalism, superstition, mumbo jumbo (choose your term of abuse) or (more kindly) faith are once again on the rise in the fact that a school board in the United States in the twenty-first century could even consider instituting such a requirement?
** In his decision, Judge Jones declared that "the theory of evolution...in no way conflicts with, nor does it deny, the existence of a divine creator." Those of us who are interested in the history of tussles between the secular and the spiritual might want to chew over this remark a little. It certainly has a nice, genteel, pluralistic sound, but is it true?
When the theory of evolution was first promulgated, a century and a half ago, many of its supporters, as well as its opponents, did see it as a significant challenge to the foundations of religion: The problem was not so much that natural selection and a "divine creator" couldn't cohabit. It's a big universe. And we're dealing, apparently, with an endlessly mutable Deity. The problem was that Darwin's explanation of how natural selection, a mere biological process, could account for the complexity of the natural world seemed to leave little or no need for said "divine creator." Natural selection, like Newton's theory of planetary motions, seemed to make God redundant.
Newton remained a believer. Darwin didn't. And he lost his faith in those years when he was, cautiously, working out his theory. "Disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate," he reports in a short memoir, "but was at last complete."
One of the quotes shuffled at this top of this blog is from the poet Shelley and a college buddy: "If ignorance of nature gave birth to gods, knowledge of nature is made for their destruction." For Shelley, unlike Judge Jones, science and religion do indeed conflict. In 1811, Shelley was kicked out of Oxford University - then an even more conservative institution than the Dover school board - for saying so.
Wintertime for Atheists?
posted on 12.18.2005 at 10:39 PM
Let us count, during this holiday season, the outrages: School officials here and there - Kansas, Pennsylvania -- attempting to force teachers to pretend that "intelligent design" is science or that evolution isn't. A United States president who appears to have based decisions involving war and peace upon his belief that he is the instrument of his god's purposes. The Ten Commandments ("Thou shall make no graven image," has always been my favorite) attempting to sneak into government buildings in the United States. God as a character on prime-time TV. Incessant efforts to reinsert Christ into holidays celebrated by many who do not worship Christ. And overseas? Fatwas, jihads, bombings, wars - in the name of religion.
The United States seems lost in yet another of its Great Awakenings (though to partisans of reason and enlightenment it looks more like a Great Swoon). Religious belief, now that the heathen Communists have been routed, is on the rise in Poland, Russia and other former Soviet countries. Such belief seems, with heathen left-leaning intellectuals also having taken some blows, even to be crawling back in Western Europe, even in France.
This is a blog about the writing of a book. And that book is to be a history of disbelief - from ancient India to contemporary California. One conclusion is clear: Disbelief has been on the rise in the world in the past five hundred or so years. The days when most literate Europeans seemed convinced that the universe was created by God in six days, on or about the year 4004 B.C., seem long gone. The days when it was possible to argue that there is no such thing as a true atheist also seem rather distant. However, what is not clear is whether this great march toward secularism has, somehow, right now, stalled.
Is the age of disbelief ending, as Alister McGrath recently argued in his book The Twilight of Atheism? Is religion - with an inevitability that could pass for God ordained - making a comeback? Or is all this orthodox sturm and drang merely an understandable reaction to the globe's ongoing secularization? Is freethinking in retreat or is this merely a pause in our continuing march toward a world based more on reason, less on faith or superstition?
By writing a blog while writing the book, I hope to improve my understandings not only of historical matters but of such contemporary issues - by testing my own surmises, by benefiting from the comments of some interested and thoughtful residents of Internet-land. I hope, thereby, to write a better book.