Listing entries tagged with Tales of Disbelief

Mamet and Moses

posted on 11.04.2006 at 3:58 PM


In his new nonfiction book, The Wicked Son, playwright David Mamet rebukes, with a gusto and combativeness found in many of his characters, irreligious or anti-Zionist Jews -- "self-hating Jews," seems the term he prefers.

Where to begin? Perhaps with this interesting point Mamet made while discussing the book on WGN radio recently:

If you look at the five books of Moses, the Torah, it's a complete record of the people, the Jews, who don't like it.... The Abrahamic text is about this desert people who had this revelation and fought it tooth and nail every page until the end of Deuteronomy.

Mamet wants us to see this as evidence that faith has doubt under control. That the irreligious can find themselves -- and answers to their doubts -- in the Bible. We might instead wonder if faith can ever escape or subdue doubt -- even among people who claimed the most intimate experience of God. We might wonder if the whole miraculous production wasn't hard to credit even then.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 3:58 PM | Comments (1)

Did Einstein Believe in God?

posted on 11.02.2006 at 11:47 PM

Here's Richard Dawkins:

When Einstein said 'Did God have a choice in creating the Universe?' he meant 'Could the universe have begun in more than one way?' 'God does not play dice' was Einstein's poetic way of doubting Heisenberg's indeterminacy principle. Einstein was famously irritated when theists misunderstood him to mean a personal God. But what did he expect? The hunger to misunderstand should have been palpable to him. 'Religious' physicists usually turn out to be so only in the Einsteinian sense: they are atheists of a poetic disposition. So am I. But, given the widespread yearning for that great misunderstanding, deliberately to confuse Einsteinian pantheism with supernatural religion is an act of intellectual high treason.

But isn't this a bit unfair? Pantheism -- seeing god (or gods) in everything -- is not the same as atheism or even poetic atheism. It would seem to find some sort of divine purpose or meaning where atheists find mere matter -- however attractive.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:47 PM | Comments (27)

Flaubert on Atheism

posted on 10.27.2006 at 2:27 PM

Found this in a review by James Wood in the New Republic, written a couple of years ago:

Flaubert is reported as telling the tale of a man taken fishing by an atheist friend. The atheist casts the net and draws up a stone on which is carved: "I do not exist. Signed: God." And the atheist exclaims: "What did I tell you!"

The opposite of this seems actually to happen: We see signs that so much, so wonderfully much, exists. But have difficulty with the fact that these signs are unsigned.

Or am I taking a clever line too seriously?

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

The Ontological Argument: Holt vs. Dawkins

posted on 10.23.2006 at 7:12 PM

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

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

Hence: God.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everitt collapses Hartshorne's argument into the following:

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

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

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

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

Consciousness: Descartes' Error

posted on 10.20.2006 at 2:33 PM

The philosopher John Searle wades, with some confidence, through the swamp of attempts to make sense out of the forum in which we attempt to make sense: consciousness. Some of the issues in question are technical: "perception" versus "sensation," for example. But one of his points echoes one of the more significant moments in the history of disbelief: Descartes cogito ergo sum -- "I think therefore I exist."

Here's Searle saying "my consciousness exists":

Consciousness is real and ineliminable. It cannot be dismissed as some kind of an illusion, or reduced to some other phenomenon. Why not? It cannot be shown to be an illusion because if I consciously have the illusion that I am conscious, I already am conscious.

Descartes reaches this moment at the end of a brave effort to confront skepticism at its most scathing. Is there anything we could know, could believe in, even if some evil god were purposely trying to deceive us? This is not Searle's issue, at least in this article. But it is a very important issue in this history. For skepticism of this intensity, as Descartes understood, certainly includes among its targets the belief in a just God.

The place where Descartes manages to take a stand against skepticism is, as Searle is acknowledging, a reasonable one, though some would fiddle with the tense or a couple of the words. The problem comes when Descartes tries to move on from there. Having proven that there is something that we -- or more properly he -- could know, he makes a move that seems as clumsy as his original point was brilliant (unless it was somehow, shockingly tongue-in-cheek). Descartes concludes that since something he thought was true -- his own existence -- proves to be true, the rest of what he thought to be true must be true. Here's what he writes:

Accordingly it seems to me that already I can establish as a general rule that all things which I perceive very clearly and very distinctly are true.

Among those things that are, therefore, true, according to this odd reasoning, is, of course, God -- the precise Christian God that Descartes apparently perceived "clearly" and "distinctly."

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 2:33 PM | Comments (5)

Pleasure v. Religion

posted on 10.18.2006 at 6:59 PM

Don't want to leave that noxious statement by Hitler at the top of the blogpile too long, so I'll elevate a discussion of the anacreontic attitude -- "sha, la, la, la, la, la live for today" -- from the comments. It is my thesis that in this attitude, which can be traced back to an Egyptian song more than 4,000 years ago, is a piece of the positive idea of atheism for which I am searching. For it puts the emphasis on earthly (and earthy) life and its wonders not on some putative, presumably perfect post-life.

JM reminds that we "post-ancients" are still sha-la-la-la-la-ing today. I certainly agree that this impulse to Have Pleasure Now ("and don't worry 'bout tomorrow") survives -- as obstacle, nightmare, tug or goal. Probably louder in (certain parts of) the culture now than it has been since the days of the Carvaka, Epicurus, the Cyrenaics and Anacreon himself (all of whom will get to sing their "alluring" songs in my book).

There is much that is alluring in this attitude, though I guess it is hard to build a life upon (even for members of the Allman Brothers Band). Efforts certainly are made to channel, contain, repress the unbridled pursuit of pleasure, but that doesn't mean this attitude would otherwise be so wild and free that it might avoid being encrusted with contradictions -- some having to do with the likely arrival of "tomorrow," some having to do with the fact that other people, with their own wants and desires, are required for the achievement of certain much-prized pleasures. Schisms have developed among anacreontics on the relative merits of physical pleasures, mental pleasures and the mere absence of distress.

Still, having a bit of fun -- now -- does seem an important component in a life strategy. And it does seem a mostly irreligious component.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 6:59 PM | Comments (3)

Christianity and Slavery

posted on 10.04.2006 at 11:54 AM

I may have been too quick (as suggested in a few wise comments) to accept the assertion of my dinner companions that Christianity was responsible for the elimination of slavery in the Roman Empire . A few points (from Charles Freeman's excellent The Closing of the Western Mind):

1. The notion, which was indeed found among Christians, that slaves should be regarded as fellow human beings was not original to Christianity. It dates back to the Greek Stoics.

2. Christians -- always with an eye to another, better life beyond -- exhorted slaves to accept their fate. This is from a Christian text written in the year 90:

Slaves, be obedient to the men who are called your masters in the world, with deep respect and sincere loyalty as you are obedient to Christ....Work hard and willing...but do it for the sake of the Lord.

3. Christians, despite Jesus' apparent affection for the "meek" and suspicion of the "rich man," could fall into the karma-like notion that our lots here are our just rewards. Here's the sainted and, of course, hugely influential Augustine, writing when the western half of the Roman Empire was beginning to fall apart:

The primary cause of sin...and this can only be by a judgment of God, in whom there is no unrighteousness, and who knows how to assign divers punishments according to the deserts of the sinners.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:54 AM | Comments (11)

Yom Kippur

posted on 10.02.2006 at 1:37 PM

I remain fascinated by this scene:

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

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

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

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

Christianity: Minus

posted on 09.28.2006 at 12:46 PM

On the list of those who contributed to the remarkable spread of Christianity, the Roman emperor, Constantine, may rank with Paul and, oh yes, Jesus. Constantine, through his support and (late) conversion, enabled the religion to conquer the empire. The danger, of course, is that the empire might conquer the religion.

Certainly, this pillar of Christianity was a little weak in the "do-unto-others" area. The example that sticks in my mind: Constantine traveled to Rome in the year 326 with his wife, his son by another marriage, his step-nephew and his mother. By the time he arrived he had put to death - in fear of plots? because of rumors of sexual misbehavior? - all but his mother.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 12:46 PM | Comments (3)

Christianity: Plus and Minus

posted on 09.27.2006 at 8:58 AM

Debate over dinner last night about the historical consequences of the spread of Christianity.

-- On the positive side: the end of slavery in the Roman Empire, where it had been as widespread as it ever has been; a new consciousness of the worth of each person.

-- On the negative side: the closing of the Academy in Athens (after 900 years) and the other (pagan) philosophy schools; the lapsing (in the Western empire at least) of scientific investigation; 900 or so years of intellectual regression or, at least, much less progress; the triumph of a religion that emphasized death or what happens after dead or the End of Days -- not life.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 8:58 AM | Comments (4)

All We Have Gained by Our Unbelief

posted on 09.26.2006 at 8:16 AM

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

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

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

Integrity Restored, Zeus Attacked

posted on 09.25.2006 at 9:50 AM

What a juicy contretemp (relatively speaking) followed the decision by the Raving Atheist to cease all attacks on Jesus and Christianity. Suffering from contretemps envy and in a moment of heightened cravenness, I contemplated withholding all attacks on Zeus and paganism. And, faithful (so to speak) readers will note that there has not been one attack on Zeus, Jupiter, Apollo, Athena or any of the Olympians in the past month.

However, my commitment to free and open discussion has proven stronger even than my desire for an attention-getting scandal. So blogosphere, you can forget your angry charges of hypocrisy (which, to be sure, seemed a bit slow in coming)! To demonstrate that this is once again a site where No God is Safe, I give you an attack on Zeus.

It is from one of the satires written by Lucian, the popular 2nd-century Greek writer. In it Zeus explains that he heard "Professor Anaxagoras" -- a pre-Socratic philosopher/scientist --"trying to convince his students that we gods are just nobodies." Zeus' response? He hurled his thunderbolt at him. "I threw it too hard," the god acknowledges. And he missed, hitting a temple instead. (Thunderbolts hitting temples have always been among the signs from the heavens that interest disbelievers most.) Now, Lucian reports, the king of the gods is complaining that he needs to get his "thunderbolt...fixed."

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:50 AM | Comments (2)

Violent Christians

posted on 09.17.2006 at 1:04 PM

It takes, of course, a certain amount of chutzpah or blindness (along with political insensitivity) for a Christian to criticize Muhammad for the "command to spread by the sword the faith he preached."

Hypatia.jpgOf the multitude of possible examples of Christians bringing, as Jesus says he does, "not...peace but a sword," my current favorite is the story of 4th- and 5th-century Alexandria's leading philosopher, Hypatia. This revered exponent of Plato and neoplatonism ran afoul of Cyril, the new patriarch of the Catholic Church (who had managed to chase away the city Jews). After Cyril's people spread rumors that Hypatia was a witch, a mob of Christian faithful entered her home stripped her, dragged her behind a chariot, and possibly chopped her body to pieces before burning it.

Cyril is now a saint in the church over which Benedict presides.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:04 PM | Comments (15)

One Fewer God

posted on 09.12.2006 at 1:23 AM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bob Dylan and Religion

posted on 09.08.2006 at 8:13 PM

Dylan.jpgThe number one album in the United States as I write is (no fooling!) Modern Times by an old goat some of us have been obsessing about for quite some time.

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

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 8:13 PM | Comments (3)

Agnosticism: "Because It Was Not the Sun"

posted on 09.05.2006 at 11:08 PM

Due sense of the general 'ignorance of man' would also beget in us a disposition to take up and rest satisfied with any evidence whatever, which is real....If a man were to walk by twilight, must he not follow his eyes as much as if it were broad day and clear sunshine? ...He might lament that the darkness concealed many extended prospects from his eyes, and wish for the sun to draw away the veil: but how ridiculous would it be to reject with scorn and disdain the guidance and direction which that lesser light might afford him, because it was not the sun itself!

This is from a sermon by the 18th-century Anglican clergyman, Joseph Butler, in response to Ecclesiastes. Rev. Butler's point is religious: "Let us adore that infinite wisdom, and power, and goodness, which is above our comprehension."

But might not this powerful image be used by atheists to counter agnostic arguments? No we can't see into ever nook and cranny of the universe to say with absolute, 100-percent surety that no God lurks there, but can't we see enough to determine that the presence of such a being would be highly, highly unlikely?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:08 PM | Comments (1)

Labor Day Message

posted on 09.03.2006 at 9:27 PM

Herewith a selection from this book in progress, involving nineteenth-century British atheist leader Charles Bradlaugh. The point today is to note that atheism in Bradlaugh's day was a working-class movement:

In March 1859, Bradlaugh was scheduled to speak at the Guildhall in Doncaster, to the north of London. In response, a group calling itself "Friends of Religion" felt called upon to issue a "caution to the public" in which it advised the town's population to make sure Bradlaugh would gaze "on the unpeopled interior of the Guildhall." In fact, the interior of the Guildhall in Doncaster, when Bradlaugh mounted the stage, was "crowded to excess," according to the Doncaster Herald, which nevertheless dubbed Bradlaugh's talk a "frantic panegyric in honor of hell."

"There boldly, defiantly, recklessly," that newspaper sneered, "stood the Creator's work, toiling, sweating, laboring strenuously to heap slander upon his Creator." The Herald's correspondent expressed "disgust" and "horror" that a "young and accomplished man" could stand in front of a crowded hall "while the beauteous moon marches aloft in the vast and indefinable firmament" and dare state "that no God lives!"

Bradlaugh returned to Doncaster later that year. This time the "Friends of Religion" were better organized: He was denied use of any of the town's halls. So Bradlaugh spoke outdoors on a temporary platform erected under the roof of the corn market. "He is a person possessing great fluency of speech, of ready wit," another paper, the Doncaster Chronicle, conceded, "and the declamatory style of his oratory is well calculated to excite and carry away a popular audience." With no walls to restrict its size, the "popular audience" that evening was reported to include four thousand people. The city quickly forbade Bradlaugh from speaking in the market, so the next evening he spoke from a wagon in an open area near the market. The subject that night, a Bradlaugh standard, was the "History and Teaching of Jesus Christ." More than seven thousand people turned out to hear him question that history and that teaching.

One defender of Christianity that evening managed to hit Bradlaugh in the head with a stone as he made his way back to his lodgings. Nonetheless, some percentage of the people of Doncaster clearly had an interest in the subject of atheism. Some percentage of the people - working-class people - evinced a similar interest in cities all across Britain in the middle of the nineteenth century.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:27 PM | Comments (2)

Missing the Point on Deuteronomy

posted on 09.02.2006 at 8:49 PM

One of the pleasures of this project has been the opportunity to read or reread much of the Bible. This has not always been easy to explain to friends, many of whom have spent considerable energy, particularly in their early teens, avoiding reading the Bible. Still, it is hard to turn a page -- in either Testament -- without getting a new take on a familiar line. a new perspective on an aspect of an old religion or a sense of the complex dance performed by belief and disbelief.

Knowing some history certainly helps, particularly with a book like Deuteronomy, which appeared magically and conveniently one day while the temple in Jerusalem was being renovated and just happened to support every argument the king, high priest and the rest of the Yahweh-alone forces had been making. The message that only one God should be worshipped (Yahweh), in only one place (that temple in Jerusalem) -- put in the mouth of Moses -- is repeated over and over. It is, consequently, in Deuteronomy, more than anywhere, that monotheism is being created. Along the way this one God has to demonstrate that he can handle alone what the whole heavenly host had previously managed: that he could handle weather like Baal, that he could handle fertility like Asherah. The book contains a fascinating mix of threats, bribes and bluster.

David Plotz' misbegotten "Blogging the Bible" feature on Slate, however, manages to read Deuteronomy without any sense of its history and significance. No new perspectives arrive. The screen fills, instead, with the muted gurglings of a writer in over his head.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 8:49 PM | Comments (3)

Agnostic Unfair to Atheists

posted on 08.29.2006 at 8:43 PM

Here is Thomas Henry Huxley's explanation for his desire to coin a new term, "agnostic," to express his relationship to religion:

When I reached intellectual maturity and began to ask myself whether I was an atheist, a theist, or a pantheist; a materialist or an idealist; a Christian or a freethinker - I found that the more I learned and reflected, the less ready was the answer; until, at last, I came to the conclusion that I had neither art nor part with any of these denominations, except the last. The one thing in which most of these good people were agreed was the one thing in which I differed from them. They were quite sure they had attained a certain "gnosis" - had, more or less successfully, solved the problem of existence; while I was quite sure I had not, and had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble.

But this is unfair to atheists, is it not? What about atheism implies a solution to the problem of existence?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 8:43 PM | Comments (3)

Is the Possibility of God Logical?

posted on 08.21.2006 at 10:09 PM

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

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

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

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

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

An Agnostic's Courage

posted on 08.16.2006 at 4:58 PM

thomas_huxley.jpg In July 1860, Thomas Huxley engaged in his famous face-off with the bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, over Darwin's theory.

Bishop Wilberforce: "If anyone were to be willing to trace his descent through an ape as his grandfather, would he be willing to trace his descent similarly on the side of his grandmother?"

Huxley: "If then...the question is put to me would I rather have a miserable ape for a grandfather or a man highly endowed by nature and possessed of great means of influence and yet who employs those faculties and that influence for the mere purpose of introducing ridicule into a grave scientific discussion, I unhesitatingly affirm my preference for the ape."

A couple of months later Huxley's beloved eldest son died.

Huxley is responsible for the neologism "agnoticism." In defense of his new creed he proclaimed:

In matters of the intellect do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable.

However, Huxley was anything but uncertain in his opposition to "that clericalism, which in England, as everywhere else, the deadly enemy of science."

And when a friend implied, gently, after his son's death, that the biologist might miss the comforts of religion, Huxley's response could not have been more staunch and unbending:

Had I lived a couple of centuries earlier, I could have fancied a devil scoffing at me...and asking me what profit it was to have stripped myself of the hopes and consolations of the mass of mankind? To which my only reply was and is: Oh devil! Truth is better than much profit....If wife and child and name and fame were all to be lost to me one after the other as the penalty, still I will not lie.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 4:58 PM | Comments (5)

Atheism Defined

posted on 08.12.2006 at 6:40 PM

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

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

Doesn't sound that far from agnosticism.

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

Deuteronomy -- III

posted on 08.04.2006 at 1:45 AM

It may not be easy, at this grim moment in world politics, to find signs of progress. But that is where the Bible can be helpful. For it sure seems we have progressed a bit, most of us, from the moral standards it promulgates. I am quoting, once again, the last book of the Torah:

If your brother, your own mother's son, or your son or daughter, or the wife of your bosom, or your closest friend entices you in secret, saying, "Come let us worship other Gods".... Show him no pity or compassion, and do not shield him, but take his life.... Stone him to death.

No wishy-washy, politically correct indulgence in tolerance here.

And then there is this:

You shall destroy all the peoples that the Lord your god delivers to you, showing them no pity.

Few today -- even in the name of the Bible -- would "destroy all." Merely some. Progress.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:45 AM | Comments (2)

Deuteronomy -- II

posted on 07.28.2006 at 7:59 PM

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

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

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

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


posted on 07.28.2006 at 1:16 AM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You shall not let a soul remain alive.

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

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

Death -- Part I

posted on 07.26.2006 at 2:49 PM

Seventh_Seal.jpgAllen_death.jpgEven those of us who don't get much of a kick out of heaven and hell, have to admit that some have had good fun with Death. There's Ingmar Bergman, of course; not to mention Woody Allen's takeoff on Bergman.

However, it is difficult to imagine anyone who had as entertaining a time with Death as Sisyphus. When Death came to get him -- a bit on the early side, as sometimes happens -- Sisyphus, instead, managed to get Death: chaining him up. This meant for a time, with Thanatos out of commission, that nobody could die -- a circumstance that put Ares, god of war, out of business. In order for armies to be able to resume killing each other (I know that the idea that armies once shot and bombed seems incomprehensible to us advanced 21st-century types), Ares had to go and free Death himself and make sure Sisyphus was sent safely on his way to Hades.

But Sisyphus, whom Homer describes as "the craftiest of all mankind," was still not ready to go "gentle into that good night." He instructed his wife not to bury him, and then moaned to functionaries in Hades that he was unburied. They allowed him to go back up to earth to rectify things. Camus, in his essay on the Sisyphus myth, gives a good account of what happened next: "When he had seen again the face of this world, enjoyed water and sun, warm stones and the sea, he no longer wanted to go back to the infernal darkness." Having once again tricked the gods out of death, Sisyphus lived "many years more" experiencing, in Camus' phrase, "the smiles of the earth."

Of course, in the end Death and the gods, as also happens, had the last laugh on old Sisyphus.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 2:49 PM | Comments (4)

Absurd Hero

posted on 07.24.2006 at 10:44 PM

Camus on Sisyphus:

His scorn for the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which his whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing.

For Camus this makes Sisyphus "the absurd hero." Might seem also to make him the atheist hero. Would that mean they are the same thing?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:44 PM | Comments (2)

Atheism and Meaninglessness

posted on 07.21.2006 at 1:24 PM

Ecclesiastes makes much use of the Hebrew word hebel. This refrain begins and closes this book of the Hebrew Bible:

"Utterly senseless" says Qoheleth [the sage quoted in Ecclesiastes], "Utterly senseless, everything is senseless!"

The word translated here as "senseless" is hebel. You've heard it given as "vanity" -- but that relies on an out-of-date use of that word, one that doesn't imply a mirror fixation. "Meaningless" is another good candidate or, perhaps, "emptiness." "Vapor" or "vapors" would be more literal translations.

I'm thinking that this use of hebel introduces an important theme in atheistic thought -- one that may become the major theme of my third chapter. Surely, disbelievers have surrendered much meaning and sense: that good actions will be rewarded in an afterlife, for example; that we're all here for a purpose. What is left for the nonbeliever looking for purpose besides "vapors"?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:24 PM | Comments (5)

Shelley Expelled

posted on 07.15.2006 at 11:56 PM

shelley.jpgThe 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."

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:56 PM | Comments (0)

Great Moments in Religion: 1

posted on 07.13.2006 at 11:50 PM

Universe created on October 23, 4004 BCE. This is from A Geological Miscellany by G. Y. Craig and E. J. Jones:

James Ussher (1581-1656), Archbishop of Armagh, Primate of All Ireland, and Vice-Chancellor of Trinity College in Dublin was highly regarded in his day as a churchman and as a scholar. Of his many works, his treatise on chronology has proved the most durable. Based on an intricate correlation of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean histories and Holy writ, it was incorporated into an authorized version of the Bible printed in 1701, and thus came to be regarded with almost as much unquestioning reverence as the Bible itself. Having established the first day of creation as Sunday 23 October 4004 BC..., Ussher calculated the dates of other biblical events, concluding, for example, that Adam and Eve were driven from Paradise on Monday 10 November 4004 BC [making their stay almost as short as some of my recent vacations], and that the ark touched down on Mt Ararat on 5 May 2348 BC `on a Wednesday'.

I should add that Ussher's chronology was widely accepted in England in 1859, when Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species was published.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:50 PM | Comments (0)

Anthropology Attacked!

posted on 07.11.2006 at 1:31 PM

I think I want to take a swipe at anthropologists.

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

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

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

The Origin of the Species

posted on 07.08.2006 at 8:23 PM

In 1859 in England, Charles Bradlaugh was on the stump, attacking religion before huge working-class crowds; John Stuart Mill published On Liberty ("If all mankind minus one were of one opinion and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind") and Charles Darwin published his book. Not a bad year.

Here are some historians (none of whom I've heard of) on the importance of The Origin of the Species, which some still insist can sit comfortably next to Christianity:

The Origin of the Species came into the theological world like a plough into an ant-hill -- Leo J. Henkin
I myself have little doubt that in England it was geology and the theory of evolution that changed us from a Christian to a pagan nation -- F. Sherwood Taylor
No rapproachement was possible between Darwinism as such and protestantism as such. The conceptions of Man were too divergent -- John Dillenberger
If we may estimate the importance of an idea by the change of thought which it effects, this idea of natural selection is unquestionably the most important that has ever been conceived by the mind of man -- George J. Romanes

(From The Victorian Crisis of Faith)

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 8:23 PM | Comments (1)


posted on 07.07.2006 at 11:49 PM

I'm new to the wonders of Koheleth, the cynical wise man who speaks in Ecclesiastes, and his version of carpe diem:

There is nothing better for people than to eat and drink and enjoy their toil.

It gets tougher:

Enjoy life with the wife whom you love all the days of your meaningless life, that is, all the meaningless days he has given you under the sun, for it is your reward in life and for the toil that you do under the sun.
All that your hand finds to do, do with your power, for there is no action or thought or knowledge or wisdom in the grave where you are going. (Translation by Tremper Longman III)

Ellen F. Davis reports that one Vietnam chaplain said this -- the term "meaningless" (hebel) appears in more than 30 passages -- "was the only part of the Bible that his soldiers were willing to hear."

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:49 PM | Comments (2)

The Holy of Holies

posted on 07.06.2006 at 9:04 PM

I'm writing, just now, of that stunning moment when Pompey, the Roman general, forces his way into the Jewish temple in Jerusalem and enters the Holy of Holies -- Yahweh's own sanctuary, a room that only one person, the high priest, was allowed to visit on only one day of the year, Yom Kippur.

And what does Pompey find?

It is empty.

Some of what the Jews contributed to the development of religion is apparent in this moment. But you could also build an anti-religion upon it.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:04 PM | Comments (10)

Founding Fathers

posted on 07.03.2006 at 10:06 PM

Washington.jpgRemarkable, given current rhetoric, how traditionally religious America's Founding Fathers weren't. Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin (not to mention Paine) -- Enlightenment gentlemen all -- are probably best described (like Voltaire) as deists. They seem to have believed something meaningful was out there, but did not seem too interested in intermediaries like Jesus, the Bible or the clergy. (Washington declined the attentions of a minister on his death bed.)

However, I haven't seen any evidence that any of the above were atheists or agnostics. (Madison, about whose beliefs the least seems to be known, would seem the best hope.) However, since most of these fellows were politicians, true disbelief, if they felt it, might not have been easy to reveal.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:06 PM | Comments (3)

Precursor to the Evolution Debate

posted on 06.25.2006 at 2:07 PM

Edward O. Wilson again, writing in Harvard Magazine last year:

In all of the history of science only one other disparity of comparable magnitude to evolution has occurred between a scientific event and the impact it has had on the public mind. This was the discovery by Copernicus that Earth and therefore humanity are not the center of the universe, and the universe is not a closed spherical bubble. Copernicus delayed publication of his masterwork On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres until the year of his death (1543). For his extension of the idea subsequently, Bruno was burned at the stake, and for its documentation Galileo was shown the instruments of torture at Rome and remained under house arrest for the remainder of his life.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 2:07 PM | Comments (6)

Heroes of Disbelief

posted on 06.15.2006 at 11:04 PM

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

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

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

The Angel of Death

posted on 06.14.2006 at 2:58 PM

A blond woman in a white raincoat wanders through the Garrison Keillor/Robert Altman film "Prairie Home Companion" -- occasionally cozying up to someone...who subsequently expires. She contributes a few religious/philosophical platitudes as she makes her rounds.Angel_of_Death.jpg

The film -- which is warm and folksy but slight and a bit deficient in, of all things, irony -- contains, according to Catholic Online, some "mild irreligiosity." (The Church did not insist, however, that it be labeled "fiction.") Certainly, it does not seem another one of those There's-A-Meaning-Behind-It-All, which-if-we-weren't-so-cynical-we-could-see, films. Hence, the Angel of Death here is probably to be taken as a literary device, an allusion, a metaphor.

My question is whether religion-reduced-to-metaphor qualifies as belief's last gasp or as a harbinger of disbelief's triumph. Is it, in other (very different) words, the pathogen or the vaccine?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 2:58 PM | Comments (2)


posted on 06.10.2006 at 11:47 PM

As I research and write this book, new characters seem to drop from the sky (unfortunate as that metapher may be). The fifth-century BCE Greek poet Anacreon, who celebrated wine and love, is the latest. When asked why he never wrote hymns to the gods, the poet is said to have replied: "because our loves are our gods."

"Anacreontic" is a name for the irreligious notion that we should enjoy life now, rather than bother about a life after death.

The American national anthem is written to the tune of "The Anacreontic Song."

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:47 PM | Comments (1)

Buddhism and Atheism, Another Look

posted on 06.03.2006 at 10:16 PM

Here is an intriguing version of Buddhism, which seems remarkably devoid of the supernatural, from Yew Han Hee:


Q: Is there a God in Buddhism as in Christianity?
A: It is very difficult to compare Buddhism with Christianity. One would have to say, however, there is no God in Buddhism in the way that God in Christianity is commonly understood.

Q: What do Buddhists believe?
A: Different Buddhists believe different things, but the nature of belief is itself an important issue in Buddhism. Belief is to be seen as belief, not as fact. When we see our beliefs as facts, then we are deluding ourselves. When we see our beliefs as beliefs, then we are not. Seeing things in their true light is the most important thing in Buddhism. Deluding ourselves is the cause of much suffering. So Buddhists try to see beliefs as beliefs. They may still believe in certain things - that is their prerogative - but they do not cling to those beliefs; they do not mind or worry about whether their beliefs are true or not, nor do they try to prove that which they know cannot be proved. Ideally though, a Buddhist does not indulge in any kind of belief.

Q: Does Buddhism teach reincarnation?
A: Reincarnation is not a teaching of the Buddha. In Buddhism the teaching is of rebirth, not of reincarnation.

Q: What is the difference between reincarnation and rebirth?
A: The reincarnation idea is to believe in a soul or a being, separate from the body. At the death of the physical body, this soul is said to move into another state and then enter a womb to be born again.

Rebirth is different and can be explained in this way. Take away the notion of a soul or a being living inside the body; take away all ideas of self existing either inside or outside the body. Also take away notions of past, present and future; in fact take away all notions of time. Now, without reference to time and self, there can be no before or after, no beginning or ending, no birth or death, no coming or going. Yet there is life! Rebirth is the experience of life in the moment, without birth, without death; it is the experience of life which is neither eternal nor subject to annihilation.

Though things do get a little mystical:

Q: Does that mean there is no such thing as birth and death? A: That which is born, dies. Forms come and go. All that comes into existence is impermanent; it is born and it dies. But the very essence of what "I" am -- the Buddha-nature -- is unborn and undying....
Q: But how can getting rid of ideas enables us to see deathlessness? A: The deathless is here all the while, but ideas block it out. It is like the sun because of the clouds. But as soon as the clouds are cleared away, there is the sun. Likewise, as soon as ideas are cleared away from the mind, there is the true state of birthlessness and deathlessness.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:16 PM | Comments (9)

Agriculture and Disbelief

posted on 06.02.2006 at 11:31 AM

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

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

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

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

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

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

Auden Believed...Kinda

posted on 05.19.2006 at 12:50 AM

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

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

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

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

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)

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?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:30 AM | Comments (3)

God is Dead -- The Original Announcement

posted on 04.28.2006 at 10:21 AM

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

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

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

Old Mill

posted on 04.25.2006 at 10:57 PM

Richard Reeves writing on (sad?) John Stuart Mill -- born atheist, champion of liberty, including the liberty to speak harshly of religion:

Mill.jpgMill 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.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:57 PM | Comments (1)

To the Lighthouse

posted on 04.20.2006 at 11:13 PM

If the question is what, post religion, might satisfy the human need for meaning without itself becoming a form of religion -- and that may very well be the question -- then Woolf.jpgwe have yet another reason for reading Virginia Woolf's resplendent To the Lighthouse. Woolf, as has been noted here, was the daughter of Leslie Stephen, an early and important agnostic, and the model, we assume, for Mr. Ramsey in this novel.

To the Lighthouse seems a post-God novel. Mrs. Ramsey, perhaps its most compelling character, finds herself thinking, at one point, "We are in the hands of the Lord. But instantly she was annoyed with herself for saying that.... She had been trapped into saying something she did not mean." And Mrs. Ramsey sets about "purifying out of existence that lie."

Woolf certainly doesn't downplay the tug of religion:

It was impossible to resist the strange intimation which every gull, flower, tree, man and woman, and the white earth itself seemed to declare (but if questioned at once to withdraw) that good triumphs, happiness prevails, order rules; or to resist the extraordinary stimulus to range hither and thither in search of some absolute good, some crystal of intensity, remote from the known pleasures and familiar virtues, something alien to the processes of domestic life, single, hard, bright, like a diamond in the sand, which would render the possessor secure.

The parenthesis in the above quote is, perhaps, key. Does Woolf discover any such diamond in the sands?

What is the meaning of life? That was all -- a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with the years. The great revelation had never come. the great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark... In the midst of chaos there was shape; this eternal passing and flowing (she looked at the clouds going and the leaves shaking) was struck into stability. Life stand still here....

Are these pint-sized revelations little diamonds, little pieces of the absolute? Is this "stability" a religion-like attempt to find a place to stand, a solid foundation for constructing meaning? Is this "shape" amongst "chaos" a metaphysics? Or are we safely in a scientific, naturalistic universe of ebb and flow? Is Woolf just, as one of her characters acknowledges:

Telling herself a story but knowing at the same time what was the truth.

Might the "lighthouse" represent meaning? Or rationalism? Being in a novel, not in one of the essays her father wrote, we don't get clear answers; the matters aren't reduced to clear answers. In any case, the emphasis here is on the dream of the "lighthouse," the story of it. Does that enable Woolf to escape the fall back into religion?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:13 PM | Comments (1)

Madalyn Murray O'Hair

posted on 04.18.2006 at 5:51 PM

O'Hair.jpgInform an American over a certain age that you are writing a history of disbelief and, likely as not, they'll ask about: Madalyn Murray O'Hair. For much of the second half of the 20th century, this dedicated, gutsy, combative woman -- more firebrand than intellectual -- was the public face of atheism in the United States. She was the opposite of prim and proper. She led a cause before women were leading many causes and stood up to religion at a time when it was dangerous to stand up to it, earning the description: "most hated woman in America."

Murray O'Hair was a plaintiff in an important school prayer case. She founded the organization American Atheists. There is a picture of her picketing the White House in 1982 with a quote from my hero Charles Bradlaugh.OHair_pickets.jpg

However, things got sordid and tragic in a way they did not with, say Bertrand Russell, who may have been the international face of atheism in those years. One of Murray O'Hair's sons found Jesus and denounced his mother for all sorts of deviltry. And in 1995 Madalyn Murray O'Hair plus another son and a granddaughter (both involved in the movement) disappeared, along with a lot of money. For a long time the authorities thought they had run off to New Zealand -- atheists presumably being prone to such behavior. Eventually their murderers were arrested (Murray O'Hair liked to hire ex-cons) and the bodies were found.

I can't say she contributed to the development of the idea of atheism -- as Bradlaugh did, as Russell did. But this story -- my narrative in this book -- will be about courage and obstinacy, too. I suspect that one of these months I will find myself researching the story of Madalyn Murray O'Hair.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 5:51 PM | Comments (8)

The Crucifixion

posted on 04.14.2006 at 12:33 PM

Were you to subtract the supernatural from the events at the end of Jesus' life, one Passover week in Jerusalem, you would be left with a popular Jewish religious figure experiencing the most brutal of executions -- one intended, by the Romans, primarily for political rebels. That this actually happened does not seem in much doubt. (Jesus lived perhaps thirteen centuries before Moses was supposed to have lived and perhaps nine centuries before the also questionable Solomon; and he lived in a literate outpost of the sophisticated Roman Empire.)

crucifixion.jpgWe see in the four Gospels, written of course generations after the fact, a man, presumably in unimaginable pain, nailed to a cross. Jesus had by the time of his execution numerous followers, so his last words (forgetting dreams and visions of reappearances after death) might well have been remembered. In John those words are "It is finished." In Luke: "Father, 'into Your hands I commend My spirit.'" Mark and Matthew, however, likely the two oldest of the Gospels, have a question, the same question, coming out of Jesus' mouth right before he dies. That question -- given, remarkably, in the original Aramaic before being translated -- is: "Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?" or "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?"

In her fascinating attempt to get at the historical Jesus, Paula Fredriksen notes that passages in these probably heavily worked over texts that do not seem to further their purposes in rallying the faithful seem more likely to be authentic. This seems such a passage. Yes, Jesus is repeating the first line of the controversial Psalm 22, which describes the tribulations of David or, in the Christian interpretation, the Messiah. But might not a man, dying with the belief that a glorious plan has been fulfilled, quote a line from the positive second half of the Psalm?

The case could be made that this man, Jesus, died not only in terrible pain but in doubt.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 12:33 PM | Comments (3)

Still More for Passover

posted on 04.13.2006 at 12:33 PM

Talk about this and maybe tonight's will be different from all other sedars. Two additional paragraphs from Dan Lazare writing in Harper's:

The Davidic Empire, which archaeologists once thought as incontrovertible as the Roman, is now seen as an invention of Jerusalem-based priests in the seventh and eighth centuries B.C. who were eager to burnish their national history. The religion we call Judaism does not reach well back into the second millennium B.C. but appears to be, at most, a product of the mid-first....
According to the Bible, Solomon was both a master builder and an insatiable accumulator. He drank out of golden goblets, outfitted his soldiers with golden shields, maintained a fleet of sailing ships to seek out exotic treasures, kept a harem of 1,000 wives and concubines, and spent thirteen years building a palace and a richly decorated temple to house the Ark of the Covenant. Yet not one goblet, not one brick, has ever been found to indicate that such a reign existed. If David and Solomon had been important regional power brokers, one might reasonably expect their names to crop up on monuments and in the diplomatic correspondence of the day. Yet once again the record is silent. True, an inscription referring to "Ahaziahu, son of Jehoram, king of the House of David" was found in 1993 on a fragment dating from the late ninth century B.C. But that was more than a hundred years after David's death, and at most all it indicates is that David (or someone with a similar name) was credited with establishing the Judahite royal line. It hardly proves that he ruled over a powerful empire.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 12:33 PM | Comments (1)

Another Passover Thought

posted on 04.12.2006 at 1:40 PM

More from Dan Lazare writing in Harper's a few years ago:

Rather than a band of invaders who fought their way into the Holy Land, the Israelites are now thought to have been an 'indigenous culture that developed west of the Jordan River around 1200 B.C. Abraham, Isaac, and the other patriarchs appear to have been spliced together out of various pieces of local lore.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:40 PM | Comments (0)

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)

Are Atheists More Moral? -- IV (Sade)

posted on 03.28.2006 at 9:59 AM

The Marquis de Sade, addressing God:

"I wish that for a moment you could exist to have the pleasure to better insult you."

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:59 AM | Comments (1)

Thales and the Gods

posted on 03.23.2006 at 12:49 PM

Thales, who lived from about the 620s BCE to 546 BCE, may have been the first of the great Greek natural philosophers, which may make him the first of the great Greek scientists. He came up with a theory of earthquakes. He may have predicted an eclipse. He thought the primary element was water. Did Thales believe in gods?

Nothing Thales wrote, if he wrote, survives. Aristotle, perhaps based on Plato, attributes to Thales the view that "everything is full of gods." Here is the argument that Aristotle got Thales' view wrong -- that Thales probably believed (along with Sam and Dave) in soul; that he believed everything to be full of "soul," which he connected to motion; but that his natural philosophy was mostly devoted to making the gods redundant. It's an argument that would elevate Thales, a formidable figure to begin with, to a rather distinguished place in the history of disbelief. However, there doesn't seem any way to pin it down...

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

New Genes -- II

posted on 03.20.2006 at 6:25 PM

Only one human invention can compare in its impact with the domestication of plants and animals ten thousand years ago, and that's writing, which came along (also in the fertile crescent) a little more than five thousand years ago and which would not have come along without agriculture.

Writing's effect on religion was profound, beginning with the book, the word. The three Abrahamic religions mark, in important ways, the shift from oral to literate culture. And disbelief, in forms recognizable to us, may depend on the analytic ways of thought made possible by the objectification and manipulation of words through writing. Nonetheless, agriculture's effect was probably profounder.Rice_Paddy.jpg

Agriculture and religion?
-- Killing a stranger was not a particularly foolish move for a hunter-gatherer. But that sort of thing couldn't go on in the settled, dense villages and towns made possible by wheat, rice, cows and chickens. Hence the "Thou shall not"s of the new religions. (This point, I believe, is Jared Diamond's.)
-- Such bigger settlements, bigger societies, also required bigger, more powerful gods -- to preside over grander mysteries, to propound more far-reaching meanings, to enforce broader laws.
-- As humankind began to forgo foraging in favor of cultivation, it wasn't enough to have a spirit world that just existed, just swirled about; men and women began conceiving of the universe as having been "seeded," as having not only a "shepherd" but a "creator," as having a purpose and a direction.
-- Farming ain't easy. Its rewards are off in the future, its toil and trouble here now. Takes a Grand Super Ego to keep you and your husband and your kids at it.
-- The move from wandering to staying put, from living off the fruits of the earth, to sowing and reaping, was a traumatic transformation and our religious documents are haunted by it, as can be seen in their use of such significant and highly charged terms as the "garden" or the "wilderness."

Now this new study by Jonathan Pritchard at the University of Chicago indicates that adapting to agriculture may have changed not only our way of life but, though the time frame seems awfully tight, some of our genes-- perhaps including genes involved in brain size. That's damn profound. (It's also, not to forget, damn tentative at this point.) Could the new religions have required (or even themselves encouraged) larger minds than might have been encouraged by the old beliefs: shamanism, totemism, animism? What a blow that would be to cultural relativism.

Is it possible that the human brain -- and this really would be a kick in the head -- has continued to evolve, through, say, the Enlightenment?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 6:25 PM | Comments (0)

A Golden Age of Disbelief?

posted on 03.16.2006 at 11:34 PM

Every day, every week, every month, every quarter, the most widely read journals seem just now to vie with each other in telling us that the time for religion is past, that faith is a hallucination or an infantile disease, that the gods have at last been found out and exploded. -- Max Muller, 1878

Was this -- the time of Darwin, Huxley and Bradlaugh -- indeed the golden age of disbelief? Did it end? When? Have we in fact turned back toward religion? Why? (Forgive me if I've asked such questions before. I'll probably ask them again.)

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

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)

Undercover Atheist?

posted on 02.27.2006 at 9:05 PM

david_hume.jpgNow along with writing entries I seem to have given myself responsibility for alerting you to when an entry is important. The debate over Hume's beliefs or lack of beliefs -- begun by Dennett and Wieseltier, picked up in comments here and here , and in an entry below -- strikes me as important for a couple of reasons:

1. David Hume might have mounted -- in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion and Natural History of Religion -- the most thorough and intelligent critique of religion we have seen. So it is of more than mere passing interest whether he was or was not a believer.
2. We're still struggling to figure out whether anyone was an atheist in Europe between the end of the Roman Empire and the publication, in 1770, of Baron d'Holbach's System of Nature, the first avowedly atheistic work. Some historians, as I have noted, believe it was impossible not to believe in God, given the mindset in Europe at the time. Others believe it was merely impossible to say you didn't believe. Hume provides quite a case study.

Here's a quote from his History I find intriguing and, probably, revealing:david_hume.jpg

"The conviction of the religionists, in all ages, is more affected than real... Men dare not avow, even to their own hearts, the doubts which they entertain on such subjects: they make a merit of implicit faith; and disguise to themselves their real infidelity."

My guess is that Hume hung on to some faith in his own heart -- but very, very little; very, very tenuously.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:05 PM | Comments (2)

Jean Meslier

posted on 02.13.2006 at 10:27 PM

Meslier's Church.bmp
The story of this French priest (This was his church) is surely one of the great tales in the history of disbelief. After performing his duties irreproachably until his death in 1733, Father Meslier left beyond three copies of a Memoire, addressed to his parishioners, with his true thoughts:

"...As a priest I had no choice but to fulfill my ministry, but how I suffered when I was forced to preach to you those pious falsehoods that I detested with all my heart. What contempt I felt for my ministry, and particularly for the superstitious mass and the ridiculous administration of the sacraments, especially when they had to be carried out with a solemnity that attracted your piety and excited your credulity? A thousand times I was on the point of publicly exploding. I wanted to open your eyes, but a fear stronger than my strength suddenly held me back, and forced me to remain silent until my death...."

Makes you wonder: How much disbelief was being hidden? What thoughts today are being hidden? Or has humankind suddenly developed moral courage?

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

The Concept of 'God,' Abolished

posted on 01.09.2006 at 12:14 AM

Buddhism, as comments on the entry below make clear, has been a tough religion for anti-religionists to get their minds around.

Nietzsche, whose father and grandfather were pastors, is no friend of religion. And he really can't abide Christianity: "Hatred of mind, of pride, courage, Christian: hatred of the senses, of the joy of the senses, of joy in general is Christian."

But this German philosopher has a soft spot for Buddhism: "The supreme goal is cheerfulness, stillness, absence of desire, and this goal is achieved." (Lucky Nietzsche didn't see the fortune-telling machines next to some Buddhist temples in Japan.)

He certainly notices the absence in Buddhism of meddling deities: "The concept of 'God'," observes Nietzsche (the fellow who first reported god's death) "is already abolished by the time [Buddhism] arrives."

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 12:14 AM | Comments (0)

Pain or Liberation?

posted on 12.28.2005 at 10:17 PM

Leslie Stephen, Virginia Woolf's dad, suffered two major crises in his life: one -- a subject of To the Lighthouse -- when he lost his wife; the other when, while a tutor at Cambridge, he lost his faith. "I now believe in nothing, to put it shortly" he wrote in his journal in 1865. Stephen, according to a friend, contemplated suicide.

Does loss of faith have to be a crisis? Does it have to hurt?

Salman Rushdie is among those who have found freedom in the evaporation of religion: "Imagine there's no heaven," he has written, "and at once the sky's the limit."

Is it easier to feel that now? Is Rushdie right?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:17 PM | Comments (5)

Irreligious Epiphanies

posted on 12.27.2005 at 6:44 PM

Some are born not believing, which usually means their parents were more or less nonbelievers. Others come to atheism at some point in their lives -- in a flash or after much reading, talk or thought.

Bertrand Russell, age 15: "The search for truth has shattered most of my old beliefs."

I'm curious whether any readers have experienced such a shattering moment or period.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 6:44 PM | Comments (10)

Christmas Contradictions

posted on 12.24.2005 at 10:40 PM

One of the factors that contributed to the centuries-long period of questioning of religion (which may, or may not, be ending now) was the advent of critical study of the Bible.

Isaac Le Peyrere in France in the seventeenth century wondered, for example, where Lilith and Cain's wife came from if Adam was the first man. He wondered how Moses, if he had indeed authored the first five books of the Bible, could have written about his own death.

And many have noted apparent contradictions in the various accounts of Jesus' life. Indeed, it was concern about such contradictions that seems to have started quite a few atheists -- among them Charles Bradlaugh, who will be a major character in my book -- on the road to disbelief.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:40 PM | Comments (3)

Religion and Happiness, continued...

posted on 12.23.2005 at 8:03 PM

"Who would not be glad if he could say with confidence: 'the evil is transitory, the good eternal: our doubts are due to limitations destined to be abolished, and the world is really an embodiment of love and wisdom, however dark it may appear to our faculties'? And yet, if the so-called knowledge be illusory, are we not bound by the most sacred obligations to recognize the facts? ...Dreams may be pleasanter for the moment than realities; but happiness must be won by adapting our lives to the realities" -- Leslie Stephen, father of Virginia Woolf (who is said to have contemplated suicide with the fading of his belief)

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 8:03 PM | Comments (0)

Religion and Happiness

posted on 12.22.2005 at 9:51 PM

"I have the very greatest fear that my life may hereafter be ruined by my having lost the support of religion" -- Bertrand Russell writing, in code, in a diary at the age of 15.

Religion provides meaning, purpose and consolation, not to mention some hope of evading death. Does this mean it provides happiness? Are the meaning, purpose, consolation and promise of an afterlife sufficently clear and convincing?

Russell, though he had a tumultuous emotional life, seemed no less happy than, say, your average pope. Do we find our pious friends to be cheerier than the skeptics?

I'm having trouble thinking this out. Faith. Trust. Truth. Wishful thinking. Where to begin? What to read?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:51 PM | Comments (14)

Shelley -- "an opinion so diabolical and wicked"

posted on 12.15.2005 at 11:41 PM

In the winter of 1811, Percy Bysshe Shelley edited, polished and expanded an essay drafted by his best friend, Thomas Jefferson Hogg. The two Oxford students published their tightly argued work at their own expense. They published it anonymously. The pamphlet's title was The Necessity of Atheism.

"God," the authors insist, "is a hypothesis and, as such, stands in need of proof." Their essay challenges the more common efforts to support that "hypothesis." It then "earnestly entreats" those who disagree to respond with alternative "proofs."

The response its authors actually received was somewhat different. Within twenty minutes of Shelley's placing copies in a prominent Oxford bookshop, a minister and fellow of one of the Oxford colleges walked in, saw the pamphlets, looked through one and then ordered all copies except one, which was saved for evidence, burned at the back of the shop. The next month Shelley and Hogg were expelled from Oxford. The month after that Shelley was cut off by his father, a member of Parliament, who stated that he was prepared to leave the young man "to the punishment and misery that belongs to the wicked pursuit of an opinion so diabolical and wicked."

The printing press had arrived in England more than three centuries earlier, but this was one of the first open endorsements of atheism anyone had dared print in that country.

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


posted on 12.14.2005 at 11:16 PM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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-.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:45 PM | Comments (20)