Listing entries tagged with Thinking Out Loud

The Sweeping vs. The Narrow

posted on 12.12.2006 at 10:01 PM

Still thinking of the rather large question of method in historical and social science research.

Spoke with a colleague today who remembers when the sort of feminist inquiry into continuities in oppression of women in various times and places went out of fashion -- to be replaced by the study of inequities in gender relations in specific cultures.

Hope there is interest in learning of continuities in disbelief in across societies. That is what most interests me. Why do people disbelieve? What form do such disbeliefs generally take? How have they developed and changed. An anthropologist who listened to my paper insisted that I also note that different times and places have been more or less hospitable to disbelief. And, yes, that is interesting and important and certainly part of my book, too.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:01 PM | Comments (6)

Disbelief in the Holy of Holies

posted on 12.07.2006 at 12:52 AM

Does doubt lurk even at the very heart of religion -- even in the Holy of Holies?

That is one of the claims made in the new experimental paper we have posted on the Web. We do hope you will take advantage of the more advanced format for commenting it offers and weigh in.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 12:52 AM | Comments (2)

Death Part VI

posted on 11.19.2006 at 8:26 PM

The opportunity to survive death certainly seems a major selling point for religion. Yet some of the more recent explanations for belief tend to underplay it.

This is, in part, because most preliterate peoples don't seem to make as big a deal of the afterlife as modern religions -- particularly Christianity and Islam -- tend to. Some of them don't dwell too much on what happens after death. Many don't see good behavior being rewarded. And one of their goals for the dead is often making sure they don't hang around too much -- because the recently deceased tend to be cranky and meddlesome.

Yet ask people today why religion has such a hold and they will often begin by talking about death.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 8:26 PM | Comments (6)

The Best Argument Against the Existence of God?

posted on 11.15.2006 at 5:24 PM

To finish the thought:

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

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

The Best Argument for the Existence of God?

posted on 11.02.2006 at 1:58 AM

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

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

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

Dawkins Religious?

posted on 10.31.2006 at 10:39 PM

Well, we know he's a six on the seven point disbelieve-in-God scale. But then Richard Dawkins writes this:

An American student asked her professor whether he had a view about me. 'Sure,' he replied. 'He's positive science is incompatible with religion, but he waxes ecstatic about nature and the universe. To me, that is religion!' Well, if that's what you choose to mean by religion, fine, that makes me a religious man. But if your God is a being who designs universes, listens to prayers, forgives sins, wreaks miracles, reads your thoughts, cares about your welfare and raises you from the dead, you are unlikely to be satisfied. As the distinguished American physicist Steven Weinberg said, "If you want to say that 'God is energy,' then you can find God in a lump of coal." But don't expect congregations to flock to your church.

Do those of us who rank high on the waxing-ecstatic scale (and myself I can get pretty exuberant about summer breezes and all sorts of landscapes) really meet some definition of religious?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:39 PM | Comments (7)

Relgion and Science -- 5

posted on 10.29.2006 at 11:31 PM

Michael Shermer, the man behind Skeptic magazine, proposes this "three-tiered model on the relationship of science and religion":

1. CONFLICTING-WORLDS MODEL. This "warfare" model holds that science and religion are mutually exclusive ways of knowing, where one is right and the other is wrong. In this model, the findings of modern science are always a potential threat to one's faith and thus they must be carefully vetted against religious truths before acceptance; likewise, the tenets of religion are always a potential threat to science and thus they must be viewed skeptically.
2. SAME-WORLDS MODEL. More conciliatory in its nature, this position holds that science and religion are two ways of examining the same reality; as science progresses to a deeper understanding of the natural world it will reveal that many ancient religious tenets are true.
3. SEPARATE-WORLDS MODEL. On this tier science and religion are neither in conflict nor in agreement. Today it is the job of science to explain the natural world, making obsolete ancient religious sagas of origins and creation. Yet, religion thrives because it still serves a useful purpose as an institution for social cohesiveness and as a guide to finding personal meaning and spirituality.

Shermer, like Richard Dawkins, seems a natural partisan of the first and more aggressive model. However, he gives some credit to the third model. Too much?

The problem with attempts at blending science and religion may be found in a single principle: A is A. Or: Reality is real. To attempt to use nature to prove the supernatural is a violation of A is A. It is an attempt to make reality unreal. A cannot also be non-A. Nature cannot also be non-nature. Naturalism cannot also be supernaturalism. Believers can have both religion and science as long as there is no attempt to make A non-A, to make reality unreal, to turn naturalism into supernaturalism.
The Separate-Worlds Model is the only way to do this. Thus, the most logically coherent argument for theists is that God is outside of time and space; that is, God is beyond nature -- super nature, or supernatural -- and therefore cannot be explained by natural causes. This places the God question outside the realm of science.

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

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

posted on 10.25.2006 at 11:19 PM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holt vs. Dawkins -- 2: Complexity

posted on 10.24.2006 at 10:54 PM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dawkins' Belief Scale

posted on 10.22.2006 at 10:58 PM

Richard Dawkins comes up with an interesting scale of belief and disbelief in his new (and bestselling) book The God Delusion (here via a review in the New York Times):

On a scale of 1 to 7, where 1 is certitude that God exists and 7 is certitude that God does not exist, Dawkins rates himself a 6: "I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there."

I'm curious where the readers of this blog would place themselves on this scale...and why.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:58 PM | Comments (20)

One to One in the Eighth...

posted on 10.19.2006 at 11:01 PM

...of the seventh and last game of the series, with your team at bat, and so much in the hands of fate, it is necessary even for a disbeliever to remind himself of the futility of supernatural efforts to influence fate.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:01 PM | Comments (1)

Jesuses -- 4

posted on 10.18.2006 at 8:23 AM

This version of Christ, one in our ongoing series, is from Adolph Hitler:

My feelings as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter. It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded by a few followers, recognized these Jews for what they were and summoned men to fight against them and who, God's truth! was greatest not as a sufferer but as a fighter. In boundless love as a Christian and as a man I read through the passage which tells us how the Lord at last rose in His might and seized the scourge to drive out of the Temple the brood of vipers and adders. How terrific was his fight against the Jewish poison. Today, after two thousand years, with deepest emotion I recognize more profoundly than ever before the fact that it was for this that He had to shed his blood upon the Cross. [from a speech in Munich on April 12, 1922]

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 8:23 AM | Comments (10)

The Aesthetics of Science

posted on 10.15.2006 at 11:49 PM

Physicists, writes K.C. Cole in the Los Angeles Times, rely on "beauty" to judge their theories:

In physics, truth and beauty often walk hand in hand. Physicists describe theories as "ugly" or "beautiful," talk about ideas that "smell" or "feel" right. Often, aesthetic judgments lead to discoveries: as in Einstein's theory of gravity and Paul A.M. Dirac's discovery of antimatter. Aesthetics, French physicist Henri Poincaré said, is a "delicate sieve" that sorts the true from the misleading. Or as Dirac famously put it: "It is more important to have beauty in one's equations than to have them fit experiments."

Is this just a shorthand -- a way of getting to the heart of things more quickly? Or is it a sign of the extent to which metaphysical notions -- wishes, prejudices, mysticism -- have infiltrated even science? Is there an "ugly" physics out there just waiting for some aesthetically uninclined scientist to discover?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:49 PM | Comments (7)

Reason and Religion: II

posted on 10.12.2006 at 12:54 PM

This -- by Tertullian, the first major theologian to write in Latin -- is a bold statement of Christianity's attempts to rise above reason:

The Son of God died; it must needs be believed because it is absurd. He was buried and rose again; it is certain because it is impossible.

Does not something of this "logic" lie at the heart of all religion?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 12:54 PM | Comments (14)

Hymns to the Milky Way?

posted on 09.21.2006 at 11:05 PM

From Newsweek:

On the science Web site, the astronomer Carolyn Porco offers the subversive suggestion that science itself should attempt to supplant God in Western culture, by providing the benefits and comforts people find in religion: community, ceremony and a sense of awe. "Imagine congregations raising their voices in tribute to gravity, the force that binds us all to the Earth, and the Earth to the Sun, and the Sun to the Milky Way," she writes.

Is this possible to imagine? Might we be -- or might we want to be -- beyond such rites, God-driven or not?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:05 PM | Comments (8)

Death -- Part V

posted on 09.13.2006 at 11:08 PM

Is there any consolation an atheist can provide about death? Here is Pat Berger, who became a crusading atheist after 9/11, in an public radio interview:

She says the hardest conversation about atheism she's ever had was with a dear, dying friend, who begged her to believe so they could be together in heaven.
All she could say, Berger says, was, "Roseanne, I love you."

Is there anything else she might have said?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:08 PM | Comments (15)

A Grim Thought

posted on 09.05.2006 at 1:32 AM

This is Stephen Metcalf in a review of Thomas McGuane's new collection of stories, Gallatin Canyon:

Hell is other people, goes the old existentialist saw. Words to live by, I say; now if only it weren't so hellish to be alone.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:32 AM | Comments (0)

How Strong This Itch Must Be

posted on 08.28.2006 at 11:00 PM

Obviously there is an anthropological lesson here:

** Something looks fantastically beautiful: Jesus must have died for our sins.

** Something seems mysterious: the universe must be governed by "an intelligence."

** Humans on occasion do each other a good turn: Some higher power must have endowed us with a notion of The Good.

When things get clear, must be a God. When things get fuzzy, same conclusion. When people behave well... When people behave poorly... The simple means God. The complex means God. Loveliness, horror.... The existence of love, the existence of pain... All, somehow, "prove" the existence of the divine.

How strong this itch must be.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:00 PM | Comments (6)

Curiouser and Curiouser?

posted on 08.23.2006 at 11:56 AM

"This is a mysterious universe, and the more we know about it the more mysterious it seems," the New York Times writes in a pretty little editorial on dark matter.

I wonder whether this is actually true. Is understanding gravity, as most of us do, but having no way to grasp the eleven dimensions of string theory really more mysterious than understanding what the sun and moon do, as educated Greeks did, but having no idea why the planets occasionally seem to zig or zag? Is the point that there are always going to be some things we, or our scientists, can get our minds around, and then, at the raggedy fringes, some we can't? Or are these forms of knowledge really accelerating beyond our grasp?

And then why do we continually try to squeeze even more primitive understandings -- Big Daddies in the sky -- into the holes that inevitably pop up in our increasingly sophisticated understandings?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:56 AM | Comments (2)

Death -- Part IV

posted on 08.18.2006 at 11:54 AM

What might/can/should a nonbeliever think about death? JM commented that I am too hasty in suggesting that atheists "find death pretty tough" -- possibly tougher than believers find it?

Here are some related comments from some very early kind-of, sort-of or not-really atheists (all characters in the second chapter of my book):

Gilgamesh (after his buddy dies)...

What my brother is now that shall I be when I am dead. How can I rest, how can I be at peace? Despair is in my heart.

Egyptian song from the third millennium BCE...

Let these things fade from your thoughts. Weeping does not save the heart from the grave.

Anacreon (Greek poet)...

My closing years pass by in haste/Soon I no more sweet life shall taste.

Koheleth in Ecclesiastes...

What a delight for the eyes to behold the sun! Even if a man lives many years, let him enjoy himself in all of them, remembering how many the days of darkness are going to be. The only future is nothingness!


Accustom yourself to the thought that death is nothing to us. For all good and evil reside in sensation, but death is the removal of all sensation.....There is nothing fearful in life for one who has grasped that there is nothing fearful in the absence of life....The wise man neither rejects life nor fears death.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:54 AM | Comments (12)

Death -- Part III

posted on 08.11.2006 at 2:23 PM

Euripides writes:

Who now can tell whether to live may not
Be properly to die. And whether that
Which men do call to die, may not in truth
Be but the entrance into real life?

This would seem to be among the aspects of religion the Europeans have outgrown? But shouldn't the "strict agnostic" acknowledge it as possibly true? Or do we have at least the right to say that it, like Martin Amis' universe-wide "intelligence," is hugely unlikely?

(Cited in Life of Pyrrho by Diogenes Laertius, trans. by, C. D. Younge)

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 2:23 PM | Comments (3)

Waiting Out Religion

posted on 08.09.2006 at 11:41 PM

More from novelist Martin Amis (a nonbeliever who will no longer call himself an atheist), from a PBS interview with Bill Moyers:


MARTIN AMIS: I remember talking to Saul Bellow about this in his last years. And he did believe in a God equivalent of some kind. And he did say that I just can't stop thinking that I will see my brothers and my sister and my parents when I die. And he wrote in his last novel RAVELSTEIN, he said, "We all believe that. We just talk tough." And I was talking about this with my mother, who's 75. And I said, "I don't believe that, do you?" And she said, "No, I don't believe that."

I think in Europe, we have outgrown it. We've waited it out, and it's gone.

Cool. But "if ignorance of the universe is so vast that it would be premature" to reject the possibility of a universe-wide "intelligence" -- as Amis states -- why is it okay to reject an afterlife? How, in other words, do agnostics manage to decide what they've "outgrown" and what raises "too many questions"?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:41 PM | Comments (6)

Too Many Questions to Be an Atheist?

posted on 08.07.2006 at 9:39 AM

Here's Bill Moyers interviewing one of my favorite novelists:

BILL MOYERS: You're not a believer?
MARTIN AMIS: Right. No. I wouldn't call myself an atheist any more. I think that's it's a sort of crabbed word. And agnostic is the only respectable position, simply because our ignorance of the universe is so vast that it would be premature. We're about eight Einsteins away from getting any kind of handle on the universe. So there's not going to be any kind of anthropomorphic entity at all.
But why is the universe so incredibly complicated? Why is it so over our heads? That worries me and sort of makes me delay my vote on the existence of some intelligence. Not a being, but an intelligence. And I don't mean intelligent design. I just mean why is it so vast, as Updike said, why not this attractive spattering of stars in the background be perfectly enough, you know? Why all these multiple universes, these parallel universes? These extraordinary quasars and black holes. What do we need all that for? So many questions remain, that I wouldn't call myself an atheist any more.

Pretty thoughts, as expected, but unexpectedly odd ones. In what sense would a cute, simple little universe (surrounded by what?) be more intelligible without "an intelligence"? (Wasn't it the apparent cuteness and simplicity of the pre-Copernican, earth-centered universe that supported the traditional notion of humans as God's chief concern?) Why should the universe be easily intelligible to two-eyed, one-brained us? How does the universe's lack of intelligibility increase the chances that there is "an intelligence" behind it? (The traditional religious argument was the opposite.) How might we have an "intelligence" that is "not a being"?

I love the notion that we'll need "eight more Einsteins." But hasn't the work of the Newtons, Darwins and Einsteins we have already had been leading in one direction: away from a Prime Mover, away from a universe-designer, away from "some intelligence" (anthropomorphic or not)? Hasn't it been leading -- step by step -- toward a naturalistic, scientific understanding -- however difficult-- of an extremely large and complex universe?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:39 AM | Comments (11)

"We Like the Story with the Tiger Better"

posted on 08.04.2006 at 6:32 PM

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

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

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

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

"Atheism is a Religion"

posted on 08.02.2006 at 9:29 AM

While being interviewed by Bill Moyers recently, the novelist Margaret Atwood announced (thanks Esther) that she is an agnostic rather than an atheist because " a religion." Here is her explanation:

MARGARET ATWOOD: Well it makes an absolute stand about something that cannot be proven.
BILL MOYERS: There is no God.
MARGARET ATWOOD: You can't prove that.
BILL MOYERS: So you become-- what' a strict agnostic?


MARGARET ATWOOD: A strict agnostic says, you cannot pronounce, as knowledge, anything you cannot demonstrate. In other words if you're going to call it knowledge you have to be able to run an experiment on it that's repeatable. You can't run an experiment on whether God exists or not, therefore you can't say anything about it as knowledge. You can have a belief if you want to, or if that is what grabs you, if you were called in that direction, if you have a subjective experience of that kind, that would be your belief system. You just can't call it knowledge.

And more:

MARGARET ATWOOD: ...Even, for instance, a physicist, will say: Okay, instead of "Let there be light", there was the Big Bang, which must have been actually quite brilliant visually. And then you say to them, "But what about before that? What happened before that?" And they will say, "Well there was a singularity." And you will say..., "What is a singularity?" And they will say, "We don't know." So at some point in the story, there's going to be "We don't know."

I believe there are answers to her argument, which is primarily epistemological, in analytic philosophy and in the ancient Greek philosophy of Carneades and his argument about "plausibility": If not knowing about the Tooth Fairy and the origins of the Big Bang are judged the same thing, I fear we won't get too far. But my favorite answer would be that of all the things one might put before the Big Bang some omnipotent, omnibenevolent creature would be not only the least plausible but the most confounding.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:29 AM | Comments (12)

"You Spin the Whirling Planets"

posted on 08.01.2006 at 10:15 AM

BILL MOYERS: In church on Sunday, we sang a 200 and some odd year old hymn, Franz Josef Haydn. With some contemporary words. And the words go, "God, you spin the whirling planets, fill the seas and spread the plain. Mold the mountains, fashion blossoms, call for the sunshine, wind, and rain."
Now the scientists wouldn't have put it that way. The scientists would have said there is an explanation for why the planets whirl, for why the rain falls, for why the seas rise, for why the mountains form. But knowledge isn't enough for us. It's not enough to know why-- how these things happen. We need the poetry don't we. Are we hard wired to seek that kind of meaning in life that only poetry, religion, and writing can give us?

Sorry, Bill (a fellow I usually respect), but isn't "God...filling the seas" -- as we would an inflatable pool -- also an "explanation," albeit a rather primitive one? Isn't it a stab at "knowledge," albeit, given what we know, a rather unconvincing one?

We're all for music, but isn't there less "poetry" and mystery in God molding mountains -- like some kid playing with clay -- than in the monumental, austere forces of (Newtonian) nature?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:15 AM | Comments (10)


posted on 07.25.2006 at 11:37 PM

Here's an "opinion," from Alan Wolfe -- Boston College professor and Jewish "public intellectual":

I praise fundamentalist Christians for "their willingness to stand against the emotionality of American culture in favor of ideas -- strongly held ideas, to say the least -- about who God is and why he asks so much of us."

One feels one ought to launch an "opinion" back, say: Yeah, but those ideas often seem profoundly uninteresting, even childish.

However, part of the problem with being something of a skeptic is a certain discomfort with this process of opining. Who is to judge what ideas qualify as "interesting"? What purpose does it serve to call adults with views different than yours "childish"?

Here, via Cicero, is Carneades, the Greek skeptic about whom I am about to begin writing, and a hero of mine:

It is not our custom to set forth our views.

It was Carneades who, on an official visit to Rome, gave a remarkably persuasive speech arguing for justice, then -- the next day -- gave an equally persuasive speech disputing all he had said the previous day. (The Romans were not amused; they kicked the Athenian philosopher out.)

One would like to say that this seems more interesting than fundamentalist Christian "ideas" or even than Alan Wolfe's "idea." But, of course, that would be setting forth a view.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:37 PM | Comments (2)

Religion and Happiness, continued... -- 2

posted on 07.12.2006 at 7:56 PM

The study (thanks Popp) is an ex-hippie's delight. Give psilocybin, the active ingredient in some "magic" mushrooms, to certain religiously inclined people and see what it does for them. But this premise is not likely to cheer nonbelievers:

The Johns Hopkins researchers were interested in inducing a mystical experience because of the widely recognized value of creating a sense of spirituality to help people overcome fears and psychological problems.

That the case?

And, oh yeah, the folks behind this study claimed it worked -- in creating a mystical experience and in that experience improving outlooks on life:

The subjects were surveyed two months later and reported that they continued to feel a sense of well-being. Some said they had the same feelings a year later.

Far out!

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 7:56 PM | Comments (2)

Zidane's (Sacred) Honor

posted on 07.11.2006 at 2:46 PM

Zidane.jpgI am, sadly, among those obsessed with determining what Marco Materazzi said to Zinédine Zidane to cause Zidane to headbutt Materazzi and get himself expelled with ten minutes left in the World Cup final. (It was a startling intrusion of the primitive and brutal into shiny, carefully packaged media-land.) Most of the possible answers -- Zidane, as of this writing, not having spoken -- involve his mother, his wife, the word "whore" or a reference (Zidane is Muslim) to terrorism.

At issue would appear to be some sort of notion of honor. Is this idea that the saying of the unsayable, the forbidden, the untrue, must be punished (with brutality) a religious idea? Is revenge religious? Would a true nonbeliever not care what anyone said? Would a true nonbeliever not have any reason to do anything?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 2:46 PM | Comments (7)

God Loves You?

posted on 07.05.2006 at 4:16 PM

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

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

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

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

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

God and a Summer's Day

posted on 07.01.2006 at 4:51 PM

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

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

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

The Sixties: Obstinate denials of reality?

posted on 06.26.2006 at 11:54 PM

Here's a question: What role did the hallowed 60's play in the run-up to the current (alleged) religious revival?

Timothy_Leary.jpgFrom Luc Sante in his review of a new biography of 60's LSD enthusiast Timothy Leary (Louis Menand's review is more fun):

The book provides a crash course in several aspects of 60's culture: its often gaseous rhetoric, its reliance on mahatmas and soothsayers, its endless bail-fund benefits and sometimes dubious appeals to conscience, its thriving population of informers, its contribution to the well-being of lawyers, its candyland expectations and obstinate denials of reality, its fatal avoidance of critical thinking, its squalid death by its own hand.

This seems rather harsh (on the 60's, not necessarily Leary), no? Sante does, however, acknowledge something of another side:

That still leaves many meritorious elements largely outside Leary's sphere: civil rights, the antiwar movement, music and art, the impulse toward communitarianism, to name a few.

But then, in the last sentence of his review, Sante returns, metaphors blazing, to the attack:

In part because of Leary, however, ideals and delusions were encouraged to interbreed, their living progeny being avid consumerism and toothless dissent.

My own take: Certainly, "delusions" were in good supply among those who danced "beneath diamond skies" back in those starry-eyed days. Some forms of reality were, in fact, denied. Various gods, whom it had taken centuries to evict, were invited back in. But in having the wit and exuberance to step, for a moment at least, outside of societal expectations and beyond a rather limited perspective on what qualified as "real," much critical thinking -- on politics, culture and religion -- was done. The Cosmic All and its upholders may have been invoked; but Mommy's and Daddy's God did not fare that well. And not all of that thinking, I believe, has been undone.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:54 PM | Comments (1)

Are We All Gods?

posted on 06.21.2006 at 4:47 PM

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

Go be God/ There's No Time To Waste

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

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

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

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

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

The Six Commandments

posted on 06.19.2006 at 3:46 PM

David Plotz, on Slate, is "Blogging the Bible":

Please forgive me for the following sentence, which is, I realize, a point made by approximately 3.28 billion people before me: If you had to summarize morality into a few sentences, the Ten Commandments is about as good as you can do. The last six commandments--honor parents, don't murder, don't commit adultery, don't steal, don't bear false witness, don't covet--pretty much cover it.

Or not. Is coveting thy neighbor's house, wife, etc. -- which seems (unless something has been lost in the translation) merely a jealous thought -- as immoral, say, as ignoring thy neighbor's plea for help? Is bearing false witness as immoral as cheating or back stabbing or exploiting or enslaving or starting an unnecessary war or befogging peoples' view of their lives with mumbo jumbo about supernatural beings? I will have nothing bad to say about the injunction to honor parents; however, doing unto others as you would want them to do to you -- not included in this version of the list -- seems a bit more elemental and far-reaching. Approximately 3.28 billion people, as we know, can be wrong.

What would be a more persuasive six or ten (Plotz has left out all the "jealous God" and idols and sabbath stuff) commandments?

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

Are Atheists More Moral -- VII

posted on 06.16.2006 at 11:24 PM

This contribution to the discussion from Barbara Ehrenreich:

the common religionist view is that religion is the only possible source of morality. Which is a funny idea of morality. That is, that there is no point in doing good unless you're going to be rewarded for it some day, after you're dead, of course.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:24 PM | Comments (6)

Allegation that Atheism is a Male Thing? -- 1

posted on 06.12.2006 at 10:06 AM

There is something, of course, absurd on the face of it about such a claim -- just ask your friends. This argument depends on a rather old-fashioned gender stereotyping. (Revived, most recently, by David Brooks in the New York Times.) But I want to use this rather pedestrian work out of those stereotypes by Steve Kellmeyer (Okay, I've been Googling again) to get at (in part 2 of this discussion) a question about my cast of characters:

You see, men and women both get distorted understandings of the world, but when we do, we do so in different ways. The way a man distorts the world is this: he embraces just the facts of a situation and fails to understand the human element, the element of the sacred and the mysterious. This is why atheism tends to be a male phenomenon.
When we encounter a society that equates sex with fast food, that treats women as objects, we have stumbled upon an essentially atheistic (male) error. Women might embrace this way of thinking, of course, but men are much more likely to. Women, by and large, understand that atheism's response to sex cannot be true. Because women embrace the relational, they know instinctively that sex is holy, that women are to be treated as goddesses for they are made in the image and likeness of God.

This bumps into a number of issues: The "human" the same as the "sacred and mysterious"? Sex "holy"? Lovers gods? Then there's the gender claim...

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:06 AM | Comments (12)

Death and Religion

posted on 06.09.2006 at 11:57 PM

The prospect of evading death is supposed to be a great moral force: providing incentive -- the largest, longest possible of incentives -- for good behavior. Whether the logic here in any sense works is very much an open question, as is the issue of whether the carrot/stick of heaven/hell has in fact increased the world's supply of doing good. But this blurring of the line between life and death has surely had at least this cost: a cheapening of life and, on occasion, even a celebration of death.

Extreme figures make weak examples, but I can't help but note this reaction to the death of the great death merchant Musab al-Zarqawi:

"We herald the martyrdom of our mujahid Sheik Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and we stress that this is an honor for our nation," a statement signed by one of Mr. Zarqawi's deputies, Abu Abdul Rahman al-Iraqi, said.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:57 PM | Comments (4)

Morality Without God -- 2

posted on 06.06.2006 at 11:44 PM

There hovers above (or below) all discussions of nonbelief the nagging question of how, without some God keeping score, people can be encouraged to play the moral game. Alan Ryan raises a version of this question, in his review of, among other works, Kwame Anthony Appiah's book, Cosmopolitanism:

A second large question takes Appiah to the heart of the philosopher's ambition to found morality on something other than familial and local affection. What can get us to take seriously the needs of distant strangers?

Even if you don't, in fact, believe God provides much, or any, of a solution to this problem, the problem remains. Ryan mumbles about utilitarianism or the moral sense that encourages people, after seeing a horror on TV, to contribute to disaster relief. However, "the philosopher's ambition," I fear, is not achieved.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:44 PM | Comments (0)

Atheists Unoriginal?

posted on 06.01.2006 at 7:34 PM

Stumbled upon this attack on the moral originality of atheists by one G. Riggs, who seems at work on a (not entirely reliable) "Retrospective on Unbelievers":

Yes, plenty of atheists have been impeccably upstanding moralists, plenty have suffered heroically from having steadfastly abided by their unexceptionable ethical creed. But that creed, even when clearly altruistic and admirably self-forgetful, almost always stems from a code already established by others, not themselves. This is in marked contrast to more theistic figures like Socrates or Jesus, whose moral tenets are entirely original.

Is there a point here? Might secularists today have a view of morality that goes beyond the Judeo-Christian? What about Peter Singer who is, apparently, an atheist? Is there any original ethical thinking going on nowadays?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 7:34 PM | Comments (1)

Day Seizing

posted on 05.31.2006 at 6:19 PM

I keep coming back to this notion of living now, seeking pleasure, enjoying this world, as the positive alternative to religion, with its sacrifices, renunciations and postponements, with its otherworldliness.

Here for the record is the complete Ode by Horace which uses the Latin phrase "carpe diem":

Ask not - we cannot know - what end the gods have set for you, for me; nor attempt the Babylonian reckonings. How much better to endure whatever comes, whether Jupiter grants us additional winters or whether this is our last, which now wears out the Tuscan Sea upon the barrier of the cliffs! Be wise, strain the wine; and since life is brief, prune back far-reaching hopes! Even while we speak, envious time has passed: pluck [seize?] the day, putting as little trust as possible in tomorrow!

Not quite sure how to conceptualize this. How does it relate to other atheisms: naturalism, reason, science? Is it just hedonism? Is this larger than other atheisms? Do we lose morality?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 6:19 PM | Comments (4)

Atheists Arrogant?

posted on 05.30.2006 at 11:13 PM

Rebecca Goldstein, author of a new biography of Spinoza, traces her interest in the philosopher to a comment made by a religion teacher:

"Spinoza had the arrogant love of his own mind. . . . Atheism always comes down to arrogance. Remember that, girls."

New atheist hero Stephen Colbert said something similar back in his Daily Show days, I believe:

Atheism: the religion devoted to the worship of one's own smug sense of superiority.

Is it possible to be a non-arrogant atheist? One wants to paraphrase (not for the first time) Barry Goldwater and say: Arrogance in defence of the mind, or science, or the universe, is no vice.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:13 PM | Comments (8)


posted on 05.27.2006 at 1:37 AM

Is living well the alternative to religious conviction? Here's James Thrower, a historian of early atheism:

"The earliest recorded critical response to a religious interpretation of life is the cry carpe diem."

The following ancient refrain is attributed to a long-lived Indian group of nonbelievers:

While life is yours live joyously,
None can escape Death's searching eye:
When once this frame of ours they burn,
How shall it e'er return?

A poem inscribed on a tomb in Egypt about five thousand years ago puts it this way:

...since it is impossible to tell how the dead fare in the other world,
What is left for us here? Nothing except to snatch at
the sensual pleasures of the day.

Does this qualify as a positive view of atheism? Or would many atheists reject such a hedonistic, ammoral perspective on the world? Does this mean Ivan Karamazov was right about the consequences of the death of God?

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

Religion as Shameful?

posted on 05.17.2006 at 12:00 AM

W.H. Auden was, Wilfred M. McClay writes in the Weekly Standard, "forthcoming in lamenting what he called the 'prudery' of 'cultured people' who treat religious belief as the last remaining shameful thing, and find theological terms 'far more shocking than any of the four-letter words.'"

"The immaculate conception." "Jihad." "The chosen people." "Intelligent design."

Shocking? Shameful?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 12:00 AM | Comments (0)

What Nonbelievers Might Believe In

posted on 05.16.2006 at 1:21 AM

Leonard_Cohen.jpgHow about this quote from Leonard Cohen?

"There is a crack, a crack in everything; that's how the light gets in."

The singer/poet once called this line his "credo." Cohen recently spent almost five years at a Buddhist monastery, which might disqualify him as a spokesman for nonbelief. (Our policy on Buddhists remains unclear.) But this notion of the value and beauty of "flaws" is an important one. The great Greek skeptic Carneades -- a hero of my book -- noted how gods, lacking flaws, must also lack virtues: How can you show courage if you can't be hurt?

Is it through the ability to be hurt that the light comes in?

What light?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:21 AM | Comments (8)

Desperate Believers?

posted on 05.14.2006 at 11:21 PM

Do the religious sound a little desperate? Have they always? This example of defensive name-calling is from the Bhagavad-Gita -- written perhaps 2,500 years ago:

Two orders of contingent beings in this world there are: The godly and the devilish... The devilish folk know nothing.... 'The world's devoid of truth' they say, 'It has no ground, no ruling Lord, It has not come to be by mutual causal law; Random and without any cause.' Fast holding to these views, Lost souls with feeble minds, They embark on cruel and violent deeds, --malignant [In their lust] for the destruction of the world. (Cited, Thrower, The Alternative Tradition)

One form this desperation perhaps takes nowadays is a need to use globalization and technology in order to fend off globalization and technology . No one was better at pointing out such (inevitable) contradictions (on the part of nonbelievers, too) than the late Jacques Derrida. It is worth wading through the jargon here. (This was written ten years ago.)

Religion today allies itself with tele-technoscience, to which it reacts with all its forces. It is, on the one hand, globalization: it produces, weds, exploits the capital and knowledge of tele-mediatization; neither the trips and global spectacularizing and knowledge of the Pope, nor the interstate dimensions of the "Rushdie affair," nor planetary terrorism would otherwise be possible, at this rhythm -- and we could multiply such indications ad infinitum. But, on the other hand, it reacts immediately, simultaneously, declaring war against that which gives it this new power only at the cost of dislodging it from all its proper places, in truth from place itself, from the taking place of its truth. (From "Faith and Knowledge" in Acts of Religion)

Religion "dislodged" from its sacred places, from its sacred truths, forced to conspire with that which does the dislodging. Bin Laden on videotape, broadcast by satellite. You'd be desperate, too.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:21 PM | Comments (1)

The Something

posted on 05.13.2006 at 1:29 AM

Would it be possible to believe not in something but in The Something -- the wonderful, endlessly complicated, hopelessly tangled stuff of the universe? To believe that there is not only gloriously more than nothing but gloriously more than the sort of black-white, good-evil, big-daddy-in-the-sky, fairy-tale oversimplification the religious insist upon? Would this be a step toward a positive view of atheism? Is The Something the same as Being? Or Consciousness? Or Nature? Are the capital letters a sign that this would devolve into another religion?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:29 AM | Comments (7)

Life v. Religion

posted on 05.01.2006 at 5:34 PM

Those who dis disbelief often switch the argument from whether it is likely true that the heavens have a boss to whether it would be disenchanting to surrender the notion that they do. Here, for example, John Updike:Updike.jpg

Among the repulsions of atheism for me has been its drastic uninterestingness as an intellectual position. Where was the ingenuity, the ambiguity, the humanity of saying that the universe just happened to happen and that when we're dead we're dead?

I have always had difficulty with this argument. (The normally generous Updike, for the record, called for a similar retreat in the face of postmodernism/deconstruction.) Why is it thought to be more compelling, more ingenious, more subtle, more enchanting to reduce the Great Jumble of Being to a fairy tale, a morality play, a feudal romance? What poetry, what interest is gained by such (desperate) attempts to squeeze the gloriously complex --ethically, emotionally, scientifically, philosophically -- into the (inevitably self-contradictory) simple? Is not life richer than religion?

This is one route to a positive notion of atheism.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 5:34 PM | Comments (3)

"To Wipe Away the...Horizon"

posted on 04.30.2006 at 7:57 PM

Can loss of belief be disorienting, frightening, terrifying? I think of these haunting lines from Nietzsche's account of humanity's murder of God:

Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we unchained the earth from its sun?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 7:57 PM | Comments (4)

Thinking Through Disbelief (Teleology -- 3)

posted on 04.24.2006 at 11:40 PM

Woolf222.jpgDostoyevsky.jpgIn To the Lighthouse Virginia Woolf plays with the notion that human thought can be measured on a scale like the letters in the alphabet -- that some get to P or Q but few if any make it all the way to Z. Were there such a scale, it might be possible to say that Dostoyevsky in Karamazov, with his post-God nihilistic nightmare, is one letter behind Woolf's ruler-less universe, where "we perished each alone" and "loneliness" often seems "the truth about things," but where there is no shortage of love, art and even kindness.

What might take us to the next letter?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:40 PM | Comments (4)

"I'm Not Religious, Just Spiritual"

posted on 04.22.2006 at 1:19 PM

Oh yeah? Here is the always bracing Salman Rushdie (via Amused Muse via Pharyngula) when asked, a few nights ago, about "spiritual practice" in his writing:

"I have no spiritual practice. The word spirituality should be banned from the English language for at least 50 years... Talk about a word that has lost its meaning! You can't walk your dog without doing it in a 'spiritual 'manner, you can't cook without talking about spirituality!"

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:19 PM | Comments (3)

A Teleology of Disbelief -- 2

posted on 04.21.2006 at 10:13 AM

A couple of thoughts are helpful if you want to see the world as "progressing" toward nonbelief: First, you might want to view the current apparent resurgence of religion as a mere counter-trend, a hysterical reaction to a global march toward secularization, a blip on the curve. Second, you might want to develop a theory that religion itself has been growing more diffuse, gods getting increasingly "wan."

That latter thought can, in turn, be buttressed by the notion that the New Testament represents some sort of step forward from the Hebrew Bible. The old bellicose Deity of Genesis and Exodus, who demands only adherence to the Law and sacrifice, has been replaced by a Father and Son who demand "faith," good works done in secret, morality in the "heart" not just in practice. It helps, in other words, to view Yahweh as louder, more visible and the Son's Father as more a reticent resident of the heart.

However, here's the often provocative Harold Bloom, in his usual literary reading, to mess up that view of progress from Old Testament to New. (This from Benjamin Balint): "The aesthetic dignity of the Hebrew Bible," Bloom writes, "is simply beyond the competitive range of the New Testament…. In the aesthetic warfare between the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, there is just no contest." And Bloom, less originally, sees in the Trinity a step back to polytheism.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:13 AM | Comments (2)

A Teleology of Disbelief?

posted on 04.19.2006 at 8:30 PM

Jesus told his disciples that the Kingdom of Heaven would arrive fast enough so that "some standing here...shall not taste death till they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom." Didn't happen.

Madeleine Bunting (to whom this blog has paid an absurd amount of attention) took a shot back, accusing nonbelievers of a failed prediction of their own: "We were supposed to be all atheist rationalists by now," she writes.

Okay, that hasn't happened. Don't know who -- Karl Marx, maybe -- said it would. But is it fair to assume that such a prediction-- that believers will eventually wise up -- is inherent in attitudes of disbelief? Is there an assumption that logic, science, whatever, will eventually triumph, that the Kingdom of Reason will come?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 8:30 PM | Comments (9)

Can Believers Be Believed?

posted on 04.17.2006 at 3:10 PM

Accusations of fraud are often leveled by practitioners of one religion against another. European missionaries were quick to see quacks and fakers amongst the wizards, shamans and medicine men they observed in preliterate societies.

Elmer_Gantry.jpgAn early 18th century text of uncertain provenance, entitled The Three Impostors, claimed that Moses, Jesus and Muhammad were all frauds.

I'm curious to what extent disbelievers today believe that believers are faking it -- that the Pat Robertsons and Jerry Falwells of the world are -- Elmer Gantry-like -- frauds.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 3:10 PM | Comments (5)

Jesuses -- 3: "Bleeding Stinking Mad"

posted on 04.16.2006 at 2:44 PM


"His black eyes, glassy and still, reflected depth on depth his own stricken image of himself, trudging into the distance in the bleeding stinking mad shadow of Jesus."

That's one heck of a Jesus (or at least one that casts one heck of a shadow), from Flannery O'Connor.

And then O'Connor writes (I was led to these quotes by Garry Wills) that Jesus moves:

"from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark..."

Got to understand, I guess, if you're in the religion-eradication business, that a lot of the attraction -- beyond the charity, the community and the meaning, beyond even the rapture and the rupture of physical laws, the rupture of history -- is in the "wild ragged," "bleeding stinking" madness of it all.

Where is the atheist who jumps "from tree to tree in back of" the "mind"? Do nonbelievers -- Shelleyans, most of them -- spend too much energy switching on lights? Who whispers -- Sade?, Ivan K.? -- "come off into the dark"?

Is the point that you become -- inevitably -- the opposite of what you are falsely accused of being? Are nonbelievers so concerned with not being seen as dissolute that they seem dull?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 2:44 PM | Comments (1)

Jesuses -- 2: From Garry Wills

posted on 04.11.2006 at 2:13 PM

Here's an amoral (and apolitical) Jesus from an opinion piece by Garry Wills (and, presumably, his new book):


"The Jesus of the Gospels is not a great ethical teacher like Socrates, our leading humanitarian. He is an apocalyptic figure who steps outside the boundaries of normal morality to signal that the Father's judgment is breaking into history. His miracles were not acts of charity but eschatological signs -- accepting the unclean, promising heavenly rewards, making last things first.

"He is more a higher Nietzsche, beyond good and evil, than a higher Socrates."

Each of these Jesuses, of course, requires subtracting other Jesuses. This seems a significant subtraction. Jesus sometimes serves as a grab bag with something for everyone. I respect Wills' effort to deprive politicians (Republicans and Hillary) of Jesus. But Jesus minus charity and goodness doesn't seem to leave much for the two billion. (Oh, and Socrates, proponent of repressive oligarchy, is not my "leading humanitarian"; and I'm not quite sure how Jesus' thinking on good and evil is "higher" than Nietzsche's.)

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 2:13 PM | Comments (4)

The Idea of God

posted on 04.10.2006 at 1:36 PM

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

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

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

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

Query: Republicans on Religion?

posted on 04.08.2006 at 10:16 PM

I have this quote from Osama bin Laden talking about a world "split…into two camps: the camp of belief and the camp of disbelief." No moral equivalency intended, but can anyone recall a similar quote from the religious right, even Bush, in the United States or another Western country?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:16 PM | Comments (3)

Can Nonbelievers Be "Religious"?

posted on 04.07.2006 at 4:06 PM

Thomas Huxley, who invented the word agnostic to describe his and his friend Charles Darwin's variety of disbelief: thomas_huxley.jpg

"Religion ought to mean simply the reverence and love for the ethical ideal and the desire to realize that ideal in life.
"That a man should determine to devote himself to the service of humanity...this should be, in the proper sense of the word, his religion."

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 4:06 PM | Comments (2)

The Invention of God

posted on 04.06.2006 at 9:43 AM

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

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

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

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

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

Denominations of Disbelief? -- 2. Ivanists

posted on 04.03.2006 at 10:41 AM

The question is whether atheists, too, have sects. I've proposed one possible denomination: The Shelleyans. Here's a second, named (in a considerable oversimplification) after Ivan Karamazov in Dostoyevsky's novel. (The name "Sadists" being already taken.)

-- Ivanists subscribe to a nihilistic, anything-goes view of a world without god:

"Ivan...added...that if you were to destroy in mankind the belief in immortality...nothing would be immoral, everything would be lawful, even cannibalism. He ended by asserting that for every individual, like ourselves, who does not believe in God or immortality...egoism, even to crime, must become not only lawful but even recognixed as the inevitable, the most rational even honorable outcome of his position."

Some Ivanists, especially early Western converts, are tortured by the death of God and what they see as the resulting collapse of all moral scruple. Witness Ivan himself or his "disciple" Smerdyakov in The Brothers Karamazov.

-- Their prophets? An ancient (and not tortured) Indian group known as the Carvaka, one of whose masters observed:

"Can begging, fasting, penance, …be compared with the ravishing embraces of women with large eyes, whose prominent breasts are compressed with ones arms."

-- There is, of course, a fair amount of Ivanism in contemporary culture, which, shall we say, is considerably more interested in ravishing embraces than in penance. sade.jpg

-- Their saint? The Marquis de Sade?

-- Words to live by -- William Blake:

In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy./ Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead./ The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom./ Prudence is a rich, ugly old maid courted by Incapacity./ He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence.

-- Related denominations? Materialists. Carvaka. Libertines. Hedonists. (Nietzsche's relationship to the Ivanists is complex.)

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:41 AM | Comments (4)

Are Atheists More Moral? -- V

posted on 03.30.2006 at 11:59 PM

Dostoyevsky at Lenin Library.jpg
The following statement, written when socialism was still (mostly) unborn, has long haunted me. It is from Dostoyevsky's Brothers Karamazov:

"Socialism is not merely the labour question, it is before all things the atheistic question, the question of the form taken by atheism today., the question of the tower of Babel built without God, not to mount to Heaven from earth but to set up Heaven on Earth."

Well okay, socialism is currently (mostly) dead. But what if you substitute "humanism" for it here? Trying to "set up Heaven on Earth" -- however naive, however Utopian -- seems a rather decent goal. Why wait for God to pitch in? Why content yourself with trying to reach an alleged heaven in the sky? But Dostoyevsky, having outgrown (in Siberia) his left-wing phase, is scoffing.

Maybe the great novelist is wrong and the point is that God paralyzes us, making all human efforts at amelioration seem futile, misguided, a diversion.

Or maybe Dostoyevsky is right and the point is that we dreamy, left-wing mortals waste our time trying to build imitation heavens.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:59 PM | Comments (2)

Denominations of Disbelief? 1. Shelleyans

posted on 03.27.2006 at 11:35 AM

shelley.jpgholbach.jpg Do atheists, to put this in the most negative possible way, have their own sects? What might those sects be?

Here's one possible denomination: The Shelleyans.

-- They subscribe to a Romantic version of atheism, which is seen as a higher, more Christian-than-Christian, Nature-given morality. (The religious just do good because they believe God, with his promise of higher reward, is watching. The irreligious do good for its own sake, because it is the law of nature.)

-- Their prophet? Baron d'Holbach

-- Slovoj Zizek has just been elected (by the New York Times) their pope. E. C. Stanton.jpgRussell.jpg

-- Their saints? Possibly Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Bertrand Russell? (The evidence is weak on Gandhi.)

-- Their holy text: Queen Mab.

-- Words to live by: "Time is it to arrest our speculations respecting unseen worlds and inconceivable mysteries, and to address our inquiries to the improvement of our human condition" -- Frances Wright

-- Related denominations? Secular Humanists.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:35 AM | Comments (2)


posted on 03.23.2006 at 11:05 PM

You don't have to get too far into your average holy book or testament before something fails to add (unless your calculator adjusts results based on faith) up. Here's the early-twentieth-century anthropologist Roy Franklin Barton: Michelangelo.pieta.jpg

There is much that is inconsistent and contradictory in religions generally, because they grow by accretion through many, many ages and kinds of culture, from mingled emotions, timidities and hopes and in the minds of different individuals and peoples.

I think of Jesus -- or rather the many, many Jesuses -- when I think of such inconsistencies and contradictions. (Though there are, to be sure, examples in all faiths; Barton is talking about headhunters in the Philippines.) Born a Prince/Born a Carpenter. Son of Man/Son of God. Revolutionary/Ascetic.Turn the other cheek/Not peace but a sword. Messiah/Sacrifice. Kingdom of God Soon/Kingdom of God After I Die/Kingdom of God Many, Many Generations Hence.

Most Christians, and even many non-Christians, have a favorite Jesus. (I venture to say that it is hard to read the Gospels without finding something to like.) Thomas Jefferson even went so far as to cut up the Gospels -- taking out the parts he didn't like. (I've heard two version of what those parts were: all the supernatural stuff or everything except Jesus' own words.) Even Nietzsche takes a brief break from pummeling Christianity to roll out a kind of Buddhist, naif Jesus, of whom he seems quite enamored. This game has been played, on quite a high level, by artists too, of course.

Garry Wills has a new book, What Jesus Meant, which promises to present some interesting Jesuses, cause Wills is an interesting thinker. The review in the New York Times, by Jon Meacham, however, mostly just trips over various contractions.

My favorite Jesus: The would-be Messiah who, finding himself dying in pain on a Roman cross, cries out (his last words, while alive, in Matthew): "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me." (Slavoj Zizek, not surprisingly, likes him too.)sophia_jesus.jpg

The deeply sad, if not disgusted, yet somehow also resolute and caring mosaic Jesus in Istanbul's Aya Sophia also intrigues me. Maybe because it manages to bring together a selection of the contradictions and inconsistencies in one believable Face. Might the painting be a reminder that such a selection could have coexisted in the Man Himself? Sure. Plenty of lower-case men and women manage to embody a bunch of contradictions. But, in Jesus's case, that's hard to square with the various supernatural perfections.

Is there a Jesus of whom you're particularly fond? Or, perhaps, a favorite contradiction in the various accounts of His life and death?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:05 PM | Comments (6)

The Devil

posted on 03.13.2006 at 11:30 AM

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

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

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

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

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

God as Metaphor

posted on 03.06.2006 at 11:52 AM

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

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

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

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

The Greatness of God

posted on 03.01.2006 at 9:17 AM

From a New York Times article on bombings in Iraq:

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

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

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

Heavy Stuff

posted on 02.25.2006 at 1:33 PM

Far be it for this blogger to toot his own blog's horn...constantly. Just once in a while. And such an occasion has arrived. It strikes said blogger that the Derrida post below, which attracted a grand total of zero comments, and the Religion as Emotion post, less far below, are, like, important. derrida - rotated2.JPGcupid -rotate2.JPG

On account of the fact that they each get at the places, very different places, where the seemingly parallel lines of faith and reason seem to meet. Derrida is arguing (and, okay, maybe I didn't make this very clear) that there is a kind of primordial, inescapable leap of faith behind any attempt to reason, to communicate. That other lofty post suggests that an emotional response to religion, to faith, may be as real, even unavoidable, as love (and it is the official position of this blog that love is damn real) -- even if you don't belief in squat, even if you're Mr. or Ms. Reason.

Whole philosophies, maybe, could rise or fall based on such arguments. (I haven't quite worked out how, but trust me on this.) At the very least, you'd think someone writing a book (eminently readable but still intellectually sound) on atheism ought to have thought them out. You're supposed to help me think out.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:33 PM | Comments (18)

Religion as Emotion

posted on 02.23.2006 at 11:38 AM

Is it possible to be emotionally religious without being intellectually religious?

This is a notion that would have offended me as recently as a couple of days ago. Then I began mulling over the analogy between religion and love. Surely, it is possible to experience all the ecstasy and pain of love without believing in Aphrodite or Cupid or even the perfection of the beloved. Can't I (in some sense, don't I) similarly experience the feelings normally associated with religion -- submission to fate, awe at the universe, joy in existence, hope for the future, reverence for life -- without swallowing the whole supernatural thing?

Is this religion? Is it possible to be religious without religion? Am I missing something?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:38 AM | Comments (2)

Faith and Knowledge -- Complications

posted on 02.17.2006 at 10:01 AM

Here's one way this discussion gets complicated. It comes from that great complicator Jacques Derrida, to whom I am, I admit, susceptible.

Had occasion once (in my role of ace reporter) to ask Monsieur Derrida whether atheism is where we begin. He looked at me uncomfortably. He said something about complexity or the difficulty of "improvising" on such a matter. We moved to a different subject.
derrida horizontal.JPG
Here's one way the subject gets difficult for Derrida: He sees (and others have certainly stumbled upon this) all our utterances resting, at bottom, on a certain, primordial "faith" -- faith that an attempt to communicate is being made and will be acknowledged. Reason, Derrida argues, is impossible without this "trust."derrida upsidedown.JPG
(The "text" from which this mixmaster of a line is extracted can be found in a collection of Derrida's writings on religion.)

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:01 AM | Comments (1)

Is Atheism Simple?

posted on 02.15.2006 at 11:10 PM

Religion definitely has pretensions toward simplicity: good/evil, sacred/profane, saved/damned. Atheism, I think, wants to be the opposite of all that: open to the world's tangles and shadings. Still, I sense a kind of impatience among some readers of this blog, as if we ought to be able to boil all this ratiocination down to something like: religion is stupid, and then leave it at that.

Can atheism be on the side of complexity while maintaining that the issues it itself raises are simple: God/no god, meaning/meaningless, science/ignorance?

Are the issues it raises simple?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:10 PM | Comments (5)

Morality Without God

posted on 02.14.2006 at 1:46 PM

I'm currently teaching (conveniently and not-coincidentally) a seminar on The History of Disbelief.

Last week we discussed the slippery slope down which Jesus seems to lead in the Sermon on the Mount. There ain't much credit, He notes, in doing good "before men, to be seen by them." Instead, our charitable deeds, He insists, should be done "in secret." Then "your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly."

But -- and here's where the slipperiness of this particular slope becomes clear -- what credit is there in doing good just to be seen by God, just for that promised "reward"?

Kant, I have just learned (in a "text" by Jacques Derrida), ventures further down the slope arguing that (in Derrida's paraphrase) "in order to conduct oneself in a moral manner, one must act as if God did not exist." We should, in other words, do good without expectation of heavenly "reward."

Hmm... Isn't this saying we'd be more moral without God?

[Note: The depiction of Jesus in this entry is non-satirical.]

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

How Deep is Their Faith?

posted on 02.11.2006 at 7:35 PM

Writing about the anthropology of belief and disbelief, I am stalled (not for the last time, I fear) by the question of how thoroughly and sincerely people believe the stuff they say they believe.

shaman.gifDid the Hopi, for example, really and truly believe that animals could take off their skins revealing themselves as actually human? Was this seen as metaphor? Was it assumed to be something of an exaggeration?

What went on in the mind of a shaman lying on the ground in a (perhaps drug-induced) trance and said to be flying off on a mission to rescue a soul from the underworld? Was some part of him aware that he was involved in a performance?

Are we sure that these societies did not contain the same range of belief/unbelief present in our own?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 7:35 PM | Comments (7)

Irreligious Epiphanies -- A Question

posted on 02.06.2006 at 4:03 AM

Some often profound tales of the onset of disbelief have been shared here.

Is it hard to admit to yourself that you've lost your faith?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 4:03 AM | Comments (1)

Whence Religion

posted on 02.01.2006 at 8:52 PM

A few quotes from Weston La Barre's The Ghost Dance: Origins of Religion (first recommended to me in a comment on this blog):

** "Religious behavior appears to be unique to man among all the animals."

** "Religious behavior is present in all known human societies, past and present."

** "The basis of all religion in both North and South America [and by extension, La Barre believes, everywhere else] is the shaman or medicine-man."

And La Barre believes that these shaman -- in the role of "master of animals" -- actually predate gods. Which may complicate the which-came-first-belief-or-disbelief question slightly.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 8:52 PM | Comments (0)


posted on 01.31.2006 at 5:30 PM

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

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

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

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

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

Come Off It!

posted on 01.30.2006 at 9:06 PM

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

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

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

Why Gods?

posted on 01.29.2006 at 12:12 PM

Old question. And, of course, just asking it is a step in the direction of disbelief. The sophist Prodicus, for example, believed gods were a way of explaining natural phenomena. That's different than saying gods do explain natural phenomena.

Discussions of why we have gods can get, I've found, a bit testy. Beliefs in the causes of religions occasionally seem to be held with the intensity of beliefs in religions: "No, that's not it! It is to deal with death!"

The philosopher Daniel Dennett has a new book out on this subject. Here's the first explanation for religion he gives, in a New York Times Magazine interview:

"We have a built-in, very potent hair-trigger tendency to find agency in things that are not agents, like snow falling off the roof."

That, after reading a book by Scott Atran, is the first explanation I would give. But the point, I guess, is that there is more than one reason why so much of humankind is convinced of the existence of never-quite-seen supernatural entities.

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

a thought devoted to Him

posted on 01.28.2006 at 10:47 AM

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

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

Flurry of Freethinking

posted on 01.26.2006 at 9:05 PM

Golden ages of disbelief?

** Athens at the time of Pericles (Protagoras, Anaxagoras, Diagoras, perhaps Thucydides).

** Paris in the 18th century (Meslier, Diderot, d'Holbach).

** London in the 19th century (Shelley, Mill, Bradlaugh, Martineau, Darwin, Huxley) orthodoxy ostensibly is resurgent. Add to publications in recent years by Jennifer Michael Hecht, Susan Jacoby and Sam Harris a new book by the philosopher Daniel Dennett on the causes of belief.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:05 PM | Comments (0)

Has the Great Statement of Atheism Been Written?

posted on 01.25.2006 at 6:48 PM

But -- and here's another way I do see Bunting's work over of Dawkins as challenging -- what about this claim of hers?

"Atheist humanism hasn't generated a compelling popular narrative and ethic of what it is to be human and our place in the cosmos; where religion has retreated, the gap has been filled with consumerism, football, Strictly Come Dancing and a mindless absorption in passing desires."

One answer: Oh, come off it, all you shrill and panicked meaning seekers! Atheism cannot provide, and has no interest in providing, a new tale of good and evil to replace your fading testaments, gospels, holy books or other bedtime stories.

But we might also take her question more seriously. Has the great philosophical statement of atheism -- not as an alternative religion but as a analysis of life beyond religion -- been written?

Many have expressed what is wrong with religion. (See, for example, Russell or Sam Harris or George Carlin.) Has anyone proclaimed, with the requisite wisdom and gravity, what is right -- positive -- about life beyond religion?

Mill? Sartre? Postmodernism? Derrida? TK?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 6:48 PM | Comments (5)

Religion Is Like Sex?

posted on 01.24.2006 at 2:45 PM

And what do you make of this surprising analogy from Bunting on Dawkins?

"Dawkins seems to want to magic [Bunting does have a way with verbs] religion away. It's a silly delusion comparable to one of another great atheist humanist thinker, JS Mill. He wanted to magic away another inescapable part of human experience - sex; using not dissimilar arguments to Dawkins's, he pointed out the violence and suffering caused by sexual desire, and dreamt of a day when all human beings would no longer be infantilized by the need for sexual gratification, and an alternative way would be found to reproduce the human species. As true of Mill as it is of Dawkins: dream on."

I feel bad for sad John Stuart, but aren't there rather obvious reasons why his task would be more daunting than that of Dawkins? And isn't it odd for a theist to try to score points by accusing an atheist of being anti-sex? And aren't there differences in the epistemological claims made by sex and those made by religion (which, last I checked, pretended to be something more than the pleasurable satisfaction of an itch)?

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

Where Are All the Atheists?

posted on 01.23.2006 at 5:40 AM

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where Were All the Atheists?

posted on 01.20.2006 at 6:12 AM

One of the great mysteries in the history of disbelief:

Why is there almost no evidence that atheists existed in Europe from, say, the Middle Ages through the end of the Renaissance?

One possible answer follows from the argument in the previous post: There weren't any atheists because a mind at that time, in those cultures, was simply unable to conceive of a world without God.

Another possible answer, as you probably have guessed, is that disbelievers -- skeptics, iconoclasts, freethinkers -- have always been around. It's just that in those centuries, when Europe was in the grip of something like a Christian version of the Taliban, it was impossible to express disbelief. Merely disputing the proportion of divinity in a member of the Trinity could get you burned at the stake.

The first answer exhibits an attractive cultural relativism. I lean toward the second, less condescending answer. And I think the latest historical evidence (of which there ain't much) is pointing this way.

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

Judge Jones -- In the 15th Century

posted on 01.18.2006 at 5:04 PM

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

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

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

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

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


posted on 01.17.2006 at 5:21 PM

OK, here I am typing notes about how atheism was and was not punished in Athens while a yoga master is singing a rather lovely relaxation song in my hotel room. (The song is interrupted for a moment by a call on his cell phone, but that's not the point we're after.) My wife has hired this fellow and apparently there was no other place in the hotel where he could check her form on "the sun salutation" and try to get her breathing right.

In Athens impiety or disrespect toward the gods -- asebeia -- was a crime, occasionally punished, occasionally by death. I feel guilty of asebeia in general and guilty of impiety specifically, at this moment, toward yoga, yogis, masters, gurus, etc. Here in India, as he sings, she breathes and I type, it is not a particularly happy feeling.

Atheists insist, persuasively, that the absence of a belief in god does not lead to any absence of wonder at the universe. Awe and humility also seem quite acheivable. But how about reverence? And is it possible to be an atheist and still respond with piety to lovely songs, to a world that brings yogis into your hotel room?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 5:21 PM | Comments (0)

God Creation

posted on 01.11.2006 at 1:44 AM

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

What's up with that?

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

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

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

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

Karmic Konnections

posted on 01.10.2006 at 1:03 AM

Odd how you can be reading something (The Anti-Christ, in this case) that seems to have nothing to do with where you are (India) and then suddenly (inevitably?) things seem to come together. (Nietzsche starts going on about Buddhism.)

Two possible explanations:

1. fate, karma, a caring (unabolished) god.

2. In human culture -- even in seemingly diverse human cultures -- things sometimes turn out to be connected, and human minds are primed to pick up such connections.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:03 AM | Comments (2)

A Bone to Pick with the Buddha

posted on 01.07.2006 at 1:40 AM

The Buddha was once asked whether the gods exist. His response: "The question does not edify."

I'm afraid I'm going to have to disagree with the Buddha on this one -- my book project being founded on the premise that the question of whether the gods exist can be hugely edifying.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:40 AM | Comments (7)

The "A" Word

posted on 01.06.2006 at 9:51 AM

The word "atheism" is used in the subtitle of this blog. That decision was made after some debate. It has always seemed to me to be a harsh word.

As Leslie Stephen (who has been quoted a lot here lately) puts it, "atheism" is a name that "still retains a certain flavour as of the stake in this world and hell-fire in the next." It was, for numerous centuries, a widely and quite loosely used term of disparagement. Catholics called protestants "atheists," and vice versa.

We considered "disbelief" or "nonbelief" or "freethinking" (the title of Susan Jacoby's book) as alternatives.

Yet "atheism" does, as we finally concluded, get attention and make the point, rapidly and clearly. And the meaning of "a-theism" seems right, as I understand it -- without belief in the existence of god or gods, not against such belief.

Is the word too harsh, too off-putting, for the title of the book?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:51 AM | Comments (10)

A Positive Idea of Atheism?

posted on 01.03.2006 at 5:55 AM

I've been waiting, for a while now, for a new idea to come. I used to flatter myself with the thought that they came with some frequency. (Not truly original ideas, of course -- you're lucky to be blessed with one or two of those in a lifetime, as Norman Mailer noted somewhere; just something -- the product of a reaction, perhaps, between a thought heard and a fact read -- that seemed to have a new and interesting configuration.)

Such ideas appear, perhaps, to come a bit slower lately. Yeah, I've been too busy: moving, teaching, hassling this or that. Yet, I have been reading and even, sometimes, thinking and still...

I fear, as you may have noticed, that it has something to do with age. There probably is less RAM available to the central-processing unit. But, just as important, you gain, with wisdom, places to file most of the odd observations and little anomolies that used to cause confusion and, once in a while, spark a new thought. That's one reason I've taken on, in atheism, a topic upon which I had not accumulated great stores of wisdom.

I've known what kind of idea I want. Atheism can easily devolve into againstism: "Oh, no he doesn't!" I call this, unoriginally, the "negative idea" of atheism. I've been looking for the "positive idea."

Disbelief -- in sky spirits, in Apollo, in Genesis -- has cleared the way for science and aspects of philosophy. But is there a thread -- something positive that can be untangled from science and philosophy -- that runs through the thought of the often brilliant nonbelievers who will wander through my book? Don't want to sound too cocky, but I've assumed, since early in this project, that there is and that I'm gonna find it. But the idea hasn't come.

In the idea-generation business, travel, as we know, helps -- the quiet of it (once you've finally done all the crap that must be done to be able to go); the sense of being unstuck (physically and, often, temporally); the stimulation of "parts unknown" (or release from the bondage of vistas and conversations too well known).

And it is on the leg from Paris to Chennai -- reading The Anti-Christ and typing notes into my Palm -- that I think I might have come up with something. Nietzsche (who may have exceeded the Mailer limit by more than anyone) is fulminating against what he sees as Christianity's decadent, life-denying disparagement of health, intellect, strength and power. Christian "pity" particularly repulses him. And then he writes something that surprises me, something I have no comfortable place to file away: "Pity persuades to nothingness!" Nietzsche exclaims. "One does not say 'nothingness': one says 'the Beyond'; or 'God'."

Now, just last week (as I wrote here) a rabbi had told me how Roman soldiers, in the process of destroying the Temple, were shocked to enter the Holy of Holies and find...nothing -- no image, no statue, a void. And this rabbi (improvising, I suspect) suggested that the relationship between the Jews and their god might be seen as an attempt to establish a relationship with the void.

Now I've accumulated some dollops of wisdom over the decades on the idea of "the nothing," the void. (Heidegger's tour de force on the subject, "What is Metaphysics?", may be my all-time favorite piece of writing.) But I'd always thought of religion as an escape from nagging notions of nothingness, as an attempt to paper over the void.

Have I been missing a profound (in the rabbi's view) or decadent (in Nietzsche's) flirtation with, immersion in, nothingness by religion -- at least of the non-pagan variety? Can god be seen as the void with a beard?

And here, at the risk of it sounding anti-climatic, is the idea: Maybe the positive idea of atheism is the alternative to the can't-be-seen, can't-be-heard, inscrutable, unknowable nothing of god. Maybe, without denying its own involvement with relativism and uncertainty, atheism is an injunction to focus on the earthly, mortal, excessive, hopelessly messy, something -- the plentitude.

Or maybe I've just been reading too much Nietzsche....

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 5:55 AM | Comments (12)

Atheist or Agnostic?

posted on 01.01.2006 at 11:41 AM

The word "agnostic" was coined by Darwin's friend and defender Thomas Huxley in 1869 to describe their less aggressive, less certain (and safer?) version of doubt.

"In matters of the intellect," Huxley wrote, "do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable. That I take to be the agnostic faith."

And here is Leslie Stephen, who also prefered this "a" word to the other one: "State any one proposition in which all philosophers agree, and I will admit it to be true; or any one which has a manifest balance of authority, and I will agree that it is probable. But so long as every philosopher flatly contradicts the first principles of his predecessors, why affect certainty?"

Stephen's daughter Virginia Woolf, though occasionally prone to emitting vague mystical noises, seems more of the atheistic persuasion: "Certainly and emphatically there is no God."

This schism (Is Huxley to Atheism what Luther was to Catholicism?) makes most sense to me in terms of the two versions of Greek, Roman and then European skepticism: The Academic school believed it wasn't possible to really know anything. The Pyrrhonian school believed it wasn't even possible to know that.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:41 AM | Comments (7)

Zeus' Troubles

posted on 12.30.2005 at 4:12 PM

All of us would qualify as atheists by the definition that, as I've been reading, mostly applied in Greece and Rome: not honoring the residents of Mt. Olympus. For Zeus/Jupiter, Athena/Minerva, Hermes/Mercury, the sacrifices, lately, have been few and far between.

Have we been in the process of moving beyond the angry, meddling, jealous god of, say, Exodus? "Thus says the Lord God of Israel: 'Let every man put his sword on his side, and go out from entrance to entrance throughout the camp, and let every man kill his brother, every man his companion, and every man his neighbor.'"

Is Jesus, the worker of miracles, beginning to seem a little distant? "The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up." Is this what they're so nervous about out in the red states? (A friend reports seeing a billboard decorated with flames somewhere in Indiana upon which is written: "Hell Is Real.")

Might societies someday look back even on our more retiring god -- who provides meaning, hope and a beginning but stays out of the way of evolution, planetary motion and football games -- the way we look back on the notion of Apollo chauffeuring the sun?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 4:12 PM | Comments (4)

The Problem of Evil

posted on 12.29.2005 at 12:13 AM

As I stroll through the history of atheism in this book, I hope to peek in on all the major arguments against belief in gods. One of them -- the problem of evil -- recently received an energetic workout on the Web courtesy of Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith.

It's an old argument. Cicero makes much of the existence of evil in his seminal dialogue, The Nature of the Gods -- asking how, "if God has made all things for the benefit of mankind," it is possible to explain "mice or cockroaches or snakes." Cicero then provides a dozen examples of virtuous men whom the fates treated unkindly.

Harris, writing two thousand years later, turns for one of his examples of inexplicable evil to "those elderly men and women who fled the rising waters" of Hurricane Katrina "for the safety of their attics, only to be slowly drowned there."

Both Cicero and Harris apply a little logical analysis to the situation: "Either God wishes to remove evils and cannot," is how the Roman puts it, "or he can do so and is unwilling." Harris suggests that "God, therefore, is either impotent or evil." Cicero quotes a poet: "If gods did care, the good would prosper, and the bad/Would suffer; that's not the way of things."

Theistic responses to this argument usually boil down to "it's humans not gods who have mucked things up" or "gods work in mysterious ways."

Cicero seems to back down at the end of his powerful dialogue -- saying he endorses the religious position. Harris does not. "Only the atheist," he writes, "has the courage to admit the obvious: these poor people [who prayed to God in New Orleans then died] spent their lives in the company of an imaginary friend."

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 12:13 AM | Comments (2)

Anthropological Questions

posted on 12.27.2005 at 12:23 PM

Sir Samuel White Baker, one of the discoverers of the sources of the Nile, believed he had come upon humans of "so abject and low a type that the mind repels the idea that [they are] of our Adamite race.

"Without any exception," he proclaims, "they are without a belief in a Supreme Being, neither have they any form of worship or idolatry; nor is the darkness of their minds enlightened by even a ray of superstition."

There is much to respond to in this cocktail of Victorian prejudice, but I want to restrict myself here to just one set of questions: Is his point about religion in any way true? Is there some sense in which atheism precedes religion?

Baker was mostly wrong about the members of the Nilotic tribal group he encountered in central Africa: They had, we now know, their share of earth and sky spirits. Most preliterate societies apparently do. And even hunter-gatherers have their totems and taboos.

Is this what we mean, or should mean, by religion? Have there been any societies -- aside from Left-Bank Parisians -- that don't worship some variety of spirits? What anthropological work should I be reading?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 12:23 PM | Comments (3)

Chanukah Questions

posted on 12.26.2005 at 11:42 AM

We know that some of the more significant figures in the history of atheism -- Spinoza (though he never went so far as to call himself an atheist), Marx, Freud -- were lapsed Jews.

We know that the Jewish god seemed maddeningly elusive to pagans. A rabbi, hearing of my project, noted that when, during the destruction of the Temple, Roman soldiers entered the Holy of Holies and found no statue, nothing--a void, they concluded that the Jews were atheists. (Brings to mind the quote from A. N. Whitehead from the shuffle above: "The progress of religion is defined by the denunciation of gods.")

What I don't have is much of an understanding of Jewish nonbelief (Christian and Islamic nonbelief have proved somewhat easier). Elisha ben Abuyah, a rabbi, may be an example in the Talmud. What am I missing?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:42 AM | Comments (12)