The Prologue to This Book
posted on 11.10.2006 at 2:56 PM
I am posting here for comments, suggestions, criticism, etc., a draft of the Prologue to the book on the history of disbelief I am working on.
You should be able to read it by clicking: Download file
posted on 07.15.2006 at 11:56 PM
The British poet Percy Bysshe Shelley is surely one of the most colorful characters in this history, and a case can be made that -- through his rabidly atheistic poems and the pamphlet, the Necessity of Atheism, which got him expelled from Oxford -- he is one of the more important. Outspoken freethinkers were hardly uncommon in nineteenth-century Britain, but they were very uncommon that early in nineteenth-century Britain. Shelley published his essay in 1811. Charles Bradlaugh was not born until 1834.
A poem, written by Shelley around the time of the Necessity of Atheism, has just been found -- after having been lost for almost 200 years. The article reporting on the discovery includes this recollection by Thomas Medwin about the young firebrand:
I remember, as if it occurred yesterday, his knocking at my door in Garden Court, in the Temple, at four o'clock in the morning, the second day after his expulsion. I think I hear his cracked voice, with his well-known pipe, - "Medwin, let me in, I am expelled;" here followed a sort of loud half-hysteric laugh, and a repetition of the words - "I am expelled," with the addition of, "for Atheism."
Darwin and Thucydides
posted on 06.20.2006 at 7:22 PM
The obvious way to organize a history is, duh, chronologically. But, being an ambitious (or pretentious) fellow, I've had this notion that I might run another thread through this history of disbelief, that I might tell the story of the great nineteenth-century British atheist, Charles Bradlaugh, while I'm doing the history. Why (beyond ambition or pretense)? Because this extended biographical sketch would, presumably, give the reader a longer narrative to hang on to as the history follows disbelief from India to Baghdad to Spain to Amsterdam and eventually to Manhattan -- pausing for shorter narratives along the way. Readability, in other words.
I had a thought on how this might actually work while in India many months ago. The key being a connection in the second chapter -- which tracks disbelief in Egypt, India, China, Greece -- between Thucydides, the great Athenian historian, and Charles Darwin. Neither was a particularly aggressive critic of religion. My argument would be, however, that both benefited in crucial ways from the critique of religion that had gained force in their time. Could Thucydides have written his history, with its remarkable absence of supernatural explanation, without the corrosion of the Greek religion caused by the Sophists, among others? Could Darwin have written (or published) Origin of the Species without the attacks on religion of Shelley and Charles Bradlaugh, among others. Making this case would, thus, get Bradlaugh into chapter two.
That's what I'm working on now. It may very well be a bad idea -- especially since jumpiness is a potential problem. And, as usual, I've got to write it to have any idea whether I'll like it.
Religion v. Spirituality
posted on 05.25.2006 at 9:46 AM
Slovoj Zizek's writing against religion has drawn the attention of this blog. Recently he spoke out, in the London Review of Books, on a subject that is not ostensibly among the blog's concerns: the struggle for the soul of what is left of a left. Zizek sums up, and holds up to ridicule, the position of Bill Gates, George Soros, Thomas Friendman, etc. -- who, in good fun, have been dubbed "liberal communists."
Zizek's unsympathetic characterization of their position on religion is among our concerns:
Liberal communists do not want to be mere profit-machines: they want their lives to have deeper meaning. They are against old-fashioned religion and for spirituality, for non-confessional meditation (everybody knows that Buddhism foreshadows brain science, that the power of meditation can be measured scientifically).
Is it time for the irreligious also to have at this more-fashionable-in-some-circles spirituality? Which returns us to the Harris question debated below. And to various ways "spiritual atheists" have of standing for something (or Something) rather than nothing.
Poets and Prophets
posted on 05.14.2006 at 1:30 AM
Kierkegaard (quoted by Carlin Romano):
"Muhammad protests with all his might against being regarded as a poet, and the Koran as a poem. He wants to be a prophet. ... I protest with all my might at being regarded as a prophet, and want only to be a poet."
Either would be fine by me.
Actually haven't been that many atheists in either category. At least one world-class poet: Shelley. Some fine writers: Baron d"Holbach, Thomas Huxley, Robert Ingersoll, Nietzsche. At least one great writer: Virginia Woolf. Prophets? Odd term to apply to an atheist. Meslier? Nietzsche?
Denominations of Disbelief? 1. Shelleyans
posted on 03.27.2006 at 11:35 AM
Do atheists, to put this in the most negative possible way, have their own sects? What might those sects be?
Here's one possible denomination: The Shelleyans.
-- They subscribe to a Romantic version of atheism, which is seen as a higher, more Christian-than-Christian, Nature-given morality. (The religious just do good because they believe God, with his promise of higher reward, is watching. The irreligious do good for its own sake, because it is the law of nature.)
-- Their prophet? Baron d'Holbach
-- Their holy text: Queen Mab.
-- Words to live by: "Time is it to arrest our speculations respecting unseen worlds and inconceivable mysteries, and to address our inquiries to the improvement of our human condition" -- Frances Wright
-- Related denominations? Secular Humanists.
Are Atheists More Moral?
posted on 03.14.2006 at 2:36 PM
Three arguments, I think, can be made for the proposition that the irreligious are actually more moral than the religious:
1. That religions have actually encouraged violence because such intensity of conviction can lead to intolerance or crusades. Zizek (playing on the Dostoevsky line): "The lesson of today's terrorism is that if God exists, then everything, including blowing up thousands of innocent bystanders, is permitted."
2. That atheists are more moral because a moral law resides in Nature or Humanity, and the atheist's view of this law is not obscured by ancient texts, rituals, tribal feuds or other forms of religious mumbo jumbo. Zizek alludes to this when he talks positively of "merely human constraints and considerations." It was a major theme when the pro-Atheism argument first showed itself in Europe with Baron d'Holbach and, later, young Shelley:
There needeth not the hell that bigots frame
To punish those who err; earth in itself
Contains at once the evil and the cure;
And all-sufficing Nature can chastise
Those who transgress her law; she only knows
How justly to proportion to the fault
The punishment it merits.
3. That the religious do good only to cozy up to God (as discussed here). Zizek: "Fundamentalists do what they perceive as good deeds in order to fulfill God's will and to earn salvation; atheists do them simply because it is the right thing to do."
These are attractive arguments for nonbelievers. Are they valid? And one more question: Is a "properly Christian ethical stance" what nonbelievers should be after?
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.
Update on the Book
posted on 02.26.2006 at 10:05 PM
Gave a draft of the Prologue (on young Charles Bradlaugh and Shelley) and the first chapter (on the anthropology of disbelief) to my first reader Sunday morning. The verdict? Disjointed. Too much jumping around. (As if you couldn't have guessed from reading this blog.) That, alas, had been my fear. (I've written other books. Not sure it gets much less hard.)
So I'm looking, once again, at two of the books I'm using for models: My friend David Shenk's The Forgetting and Mark Kurlansky's Salt -- neither having anything to do with disbelief but both examples of compact, narrative history of the sort to which I aspire.
And I'm about to pull apart those initial sections to see if I can't reassemble them -- with fewer tangents and longer tales -- into something more jointed.
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).
And...possibly...now...when 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.
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 evolutionÃ¢â‚¬Â¦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.
Shelley -- "an opinion so diabolical and wicked"
posted on 12.15.2005 at 11:41 PM
In the winter of 1811, Percy Bysshe Shelley edited, polished and expanded an essay drafted by his best friend, Thomas Jefferson Hogg. The two Oxford students published their tightly argued work at their own expense. They published it anonymously. The pamphlet's title was The Necessity of Atheism.
"God," the authors insist, "is a hypothesis and, as such, stands in need of proof." Their essay challenges the more common efforts to support that "hypothesis." It then "earnestly entreats" those who disagree to respond with alternative "proofs."
The response its authors actually received was somewhat different. Within twenty minutes of Shelley's placing copies in a prominent Oxford bookshop, a minister and fellow of one of the Oxford colleges walked in, saw the pamphlets, looked through one and then ordered all copies except one, which was saved for evidence, burned at the back of the shop. The next month Shelley and Hogg were expelled from Oxford. The month after that Shelley was cut off by his father, a member of Parliament, who stated that he was prepared to leave the young man "to the punishment and misery that belongs to the wicked pursuit of an opinion so diabolical and wicked."
The printing press had arrived in England more than three centuries earlier, but this was one of the first open endorsements of atheism anyone had dared print in that country.
Cast of Characters
posted on 12.13.2005 at 9:45 PM
The book in question is intended as a narrative history of disbelief. Here is a list of some of the individuals whose stories might be told.
Note: I am aware of the rather startling gender imbalance in this list. (It is very weak in persons of color, too.) This was clearly a difficult subject for females (and other oppressed groups) to be heard on before the nineteenth century, but they must have done their share of thinking about it. I hope, with further research, to recover some of their stories and their thought.
Carvaka the Raxasa--mentioned in a text that may date from 600 BCE; the reputed founder of a long-lived Indian sect of nonbelievers, which asserted that only the material world exists, rejected all notions of an afterlife ("After a body is reduced to ashes where will it come back from?"), had no use for "fasting" and "penance," extolled "embraces."
Diagoras of Melos--according to one account, gave up belief in gods in anger over a lost manuscript, then prosecuted for impiety in Athens. 5th century BCE.
Protagoras of Abdera--"Of all things," he announced, "the measure is man"--not gods; also reported to have been prosecuted for impiety. Greece, 5th century BCE.
Democritus--had an eerily modern understanding of atoms and space--one that left no room for gods. Greece, 5th and 4th centuries BCE.
Carneades of Cyrene--the great skeptic; capable of taking both sides of any issue--except, it seems, religion, to which he applied his most withering analyses. Athens, 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE.
Cicero--also a skeptic; wrote one of the great dialogues questioning belief in the gods: "It is difficult, you will say, to deny that they exist. I would agree if we were arguing the matter in a public assembly, but in a private discussion of this kind it is perfectly easy to do so." Rome, 1st century BCE.
Elisha ben Abuyah--a rabbi who became a nonbeliever; when he examined the world, he saw neither justice nor a judge; expelled from the faith. Palestine, 1st and 2nd centuries.
Abu Nuwas--an uninhibited gay poet; an outspoken nonbeliever. Baghdad, 8th and 9th centuries.
Abu Bakr al-Razi--the most renowned Arab physician; questioned all religions, his religion and even the status of "the Prophet." Baghdad, 9th and 10th centuries.
Averroes--a Moor who helped bring Greek writings and a respect for reason back to Europe, where they would pave the way for a return of disbelief; his scholarship made him suspect in the Islamic world and he was, for a time, banished for heresy. Morocco and Spain, 1126-1198.
Thomas Hobbes--his conception of the universe--"all that is real is material, and what is not material is not real"--carried him dangerously close to atheism; the Great Fire seen by some as God's response to Hobbes' insufficiently pious view. London, 1588-1679.
Thomas Aikenhead--a Scottish university student who found "madness, nonsense and contradictions" in the Bible; said as much; was hanged for blasphemy. Edinburgh, 1676-1697.
Jean Meslier--a Catholic priest who revealed his atheism only in a book he left to his parishioners after his death; became, posthumously, an Enlightenment hero. France, 1678-1733.
Denis Diderot--editor of the first great encyclopedia; arrived at atheism through his study of science and the blind; became one of its most influential proponents: "Wandering in a vast forest at night, I have only a faint light to guide me. A stranger appears and says to me: 'My friend, you should blow out your candle in order to find your way more clearly.' This stranger is a theologian"; spent three months in prison for such views. Paris, 1713-1784.
Baron d'Holbach--once Diderot converted him to atheism, became a one-man publishing house on the subject: "We shall find that ignorance and fear created the gods; that fancy, enthusiasm, or deceit adorned or disfigured them; that weakness worships them; that credulity preserves them; and that custom, respect and tyranny support them"; gathered what may have been history's most impressive concentration of nonbelievers in his salon; he escaped prosecution; the poor who trafficked in his books did not. Paris, 1723-1789.
Marquis de Sade--his lack of belief in God did not stop him from trying to insult God; can be said to have experimented with the notion that without God everything is permitted. France, 1740-1814.
Jacques-René Hébert--under the leadership of this radical revolutionary, atheism finally gained control of a country--briefly, ingloriously; churches were shut; a statue of Meslier planned; but Hébert's political career ended shortly afterwards, at the guillotine. Paris, 1757-1794.
Pierre Simon Laplace--physicist whose masterly, five-volume account of the universe neglected to include a role for God; Napoleon noticed. Paris, 1749-1827.
Thomas Paine--put so much stock in reason that he was reviled as an atheist and is still celebrated by atheists; statements like this helped: "The Christian system of religion is an outrage on common sense." England, America. France, 1737 - 1809.
Percy Bysshe Shelley--a pamphlet endorsing atheism led to his expulsion from Oxford; returned to the subject in additional essays and poems, including "Queen Mab": "And priests dare babble of a God of peace,/Even whilst their hands are red with guiltless blood,/Murdering the while, uprooting every germ/Of truth, exterminating, spoiling all,/Making the earth a slaughter-house!" England, 1792-1822.
Frances Wright--was the first woman in America to lecture before an audience of men and women; friend of Jefferson and Jackson; on the side of science and progress; against religion: "Time is it to arrest our speculations respecting unseen worlds and inconceivable mysteries, and to address our inquiries to the improvement of our human condition." Scotland, United States, 1795-1852.
Harriet Martineau--this erstwhile writer of religious books was converted during a visit to the Holy Land; she then announced: "There is no theory of a God, of an author of Nature, of an origin of the Universe, which is not utterly repugnant to my faculties." England, 1802-1876.
John Stuart Mill-- the liberal political philosopher had been presented as a boy with one of the more powerful of the arguments against the existence of God: If God made us, who made God? Called himself "one of the few examples in this country of one who has not thrown off religious belief, but never had it." England, 1806-1873.
Ernestine Rose--eloquent and unbending in support of her causes: freedom for slaves and women, freedom from superstition; searched for freedom in her life, too; rarely have the intolerant been given so many reasons to hiss. Poland, Germany, England, United States, 1810-1892.
Karl Marx--religious as a child; his atheism would eventually spread around the world. Germany, London, 1818-1883.
Charles Bradlaugh--expelled from Sunday school and eventually his parents' home for his freethinking; became a radical leader and an outspoken atheist; spoke and debated before jammed halls full of working people; elected to Parliament. England, 1833-1891.
Frederick Nietzsche--the parson's son who announced, with proper gravity, the "death of God." Germany, Italy, 1844-1900.
Sigmund Freud--bold in his challenge to the "illusion" of religion, which, he suggested, is "the universal obsessional neurosis of humanity." Vienna, London, 1856-1939.
Bertrand Russell--in his philosophy, pushed reason to, and perhaps beyond, its limits; in his politics, stood consistently against war and against gods: "I do not think that their existence is an alternative that is sufficiently probable to be worth serious consideration"; behaved with less consistency in his personal life. England, 1872-1970.
Jean-Paul Sartre--important thinking on the question of where meaning might be found if it is not God-given; can be accused of having stumbled a bit on his own personal and political searches for meaning. Paris, 1905-1980.
Simone de Beauvoir--an atheist before she was a feminist: "I cannot be angry at God, in whom I do not believe." Paris, 1908-1986.
John Lennon--atheism was just one stop on his erratic wanderings: "God is a concept by which we measure our pain"; but what a line: "Above us only sky." England, New York, 1940-1980.
Jacques Derrida--I've had occasion to discuss the subject with him; his point, I believe, was that one cannot remove this one brick from our cultural foundations and expect the rest to stand undisturbed. Algeria, France, 1930-2004.
Barbara Ehrenreich--one possible candidate for a contemporary example; an outspoken, fourth-generation, "family-values" atheist: "God, if there is one, has never shown any great interest in stopping wars, ending poverty, feeding the hungry, stopping patriarchy, racism or anything like that." United States, 1941-.
Salman Rushdie--"I do not need the idea of God to explain the world I live in"; the best-known contemporary example of the price that is sometimes still paid by those who dare question religion. Bombay, London, New York, 1947-.
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.