Author Needs Advice
posted on 07.29.2006 at 9:40 PM
It is hard, upon occasion, to figure out what works. To write is, of course, to struggle with such occasions: to rewrite, polish and, often enough, toss out. But it strikes me that this blog might make it possible to improve the process by inviting others to weigh in. So, herewith, my first attempt to seek advice on a potential passage in the book.
The subject is the effect of the advent of writing on disbelief. Obviously, writing did much to strengthen, harden and spread beliefs. But I'm arguing that writing's propensity for encouraging analysis (through its ability to record facts and make words objects of study) may also have made possible new ways of questioning beliefs.
My struggle has been trying to determine whether this passage from the oldest Indian religious text, the Rg Veda, qualifies as a (very early) example of the application of critical analysis to religion:
This world-creation, whence it has arisen,
Or whether it has been produced or has not,
He who surveys it in the highest heaven,
He only knows, or ev'n he does not know it.
I love the passage, but is this analysis or just wondering? Does it succeed in demonstrating my point?
New Genes -- II
posted on 03.20.2006 at 6:25 PM
Only one human invention can compare in its impact with the domestication of plants and animals ten thousand years ago, and that's writing, which came along (also in the fertile crescent) a little more than five thousand years ago and which would not have come along without agriculture.
Writing's effect on religion was profound, beginning with the book, the word. The three Abrahamic religions mark, in important ways, the shift from oral to literate culture. And disbelief, in forms recognizable to us, may depend on the analytic ways of thought made possible by the objectification and manipulation of words through writing. Nonetheless, agriculture's effect was probably profounder.
Agriculture and religion?
-- Killing a stranger was not a particularly foolish move for a hunter-gatherer. But that sort of thing couldn't go on in the settled, dense villages and towns made possible by wheat, rice, cows and chickens. Hence the "Thou shall not"s of the new religions. (This point, I believe, is Jared Diamond's.)
-- Such bigger settlements, bigger societies, also required bigger, more powerful gods -- to preside over grander mysteries, to propound more far-reaching meanings, to enforce broader laws.
-- As humankind began to forgo foraging in favor of cultivation, it wasn't enough to have a spirit world that just existed, just swirled about; men and women began conceiving of the universe as having been "seeded," as having not only a "shepherd" but a "creator," as having a purpose and a direction.
-- Farming ain't easy. Its rewards are off in the future, its toil and trouble here now. Takes a Grand Super Ego to keep you and your husband and your kids at it.
-- The move from wandering to staying put, from living off the fruits of the earth, to sowing and reaping, was a traumatic transformation and our religious documents are haunted by it, as can be seen in their use of such significant and highly charged terms as the "garden" or the "wilderness."
Now this new study by Jonathan Pritchard at the University of Chicago indicates that adapting to agriculture may have changed not only our way of life but, though the time frame seems awfully tight, some of our genes-- perhaps including genes involved in brain size. That's damn profound. (It's also, not to forget, damn tentative at this point.) Could the new religions have required (or even themselves encouraged) larger minds than might have been encouraged by the old beliefs: shamanism, totemism, animism? What a blow that would be to cultural relativism.
Is it possible that the human brain -- and this really would be a kick in the head -- has continued to evolve, through, say, the Enlightenment?
Writing Problem #1
posted on 03.19.2006 at 7:41 PM
The history of the effort to explain religion -- an effort that dates back to the Greeks and is still being debated on the pages of the New York Times -- will be an important thread in my narrative. But don't I need to give away some of the most up-to-date theories on this early on in the story: when I'm investigating the anthropology of belief and disbelief, doubt amongst the headhunters, etc? Can I talk about whether early humans believed without discussing why?
Blog on Disbelief -- Born Again!
posted on 03.08.2006 at 12:55 PM
Thanks to Ben Vershbow and Jesse Wilbur of the Institute for the Future of the Book, this blog has been remade. We had two purposes in mind.
First, to add a modicum of structure. Entries will now settle into one of these four sections:
-- Tales of Disbelief. Notes on a couple of millennia's worth of skepticism, rationalism, humanism, naturalism, secularism, agnosticism, atheism and just plain doubt.
-- Thinking Out Loud. Testing ideas. Tossing out questions and queries.
--Book Writer's Journal. All the despair (The book is missing from the stacks!), all the exhilaration (I found it on page 8 of that Google search!) of the nonfiction book author's, the chronicler of irreligion's, existence -- should you, upon occasion, care.
Our second purpose is to provide easier access to the various ideas and topics that wander through these jottings. To that end Ben and Jesse have conjured up:
-- a tag cloud...in which words used and categories employed will grow based on frequency of mention. Just click, as they say on the Internet.
Help! I'm a Blogger Trying to Write a Book
posted on 03.08.2006 at 11:24 AM
...and maybe I like things fast and somewhat scattered.
...and maybe posting every day is more fun than publishing every few years.
Help! I'm a Writer Trapped in a Blog's Body
posted on 03.08.2006 at 11:18 AM
...and my attempts at narrative and exposition are upended by this weird, and-the-last-shall-go-first format. I write up. You scroll down. This may work for glosses on the news. But it can scramble argument, history or story that can't be stuffed into a single post, a single entry.
...and the bits and bites disgorged onto the blog's long, thin page often fail -- no matter how hyper-connected they pretend to be -- to locate among themselves new structures, new organizations. No easy task, that. This backwards chugging locomotive can stop at only one station at a time. Entry A's relationship with Entry B is, consequently, limited to: before, after or linked.
I'm not persuaded by the argument that this is how it ever must be because this is how it has ever been. Seems a bit odd to be celebrating the tried and true in this form of journalism (if that's the category blogging best fits) -- a form of journalism that is, after all, barely old enough for elementary school!
Newspapers, too, began, in the 17th century, by simply placing short items in columns (in this case from top down). So it was possible to read on page four of a newspaper in England in 1655 that Cardinal Carassa is one of six men with a chance to become the next pope and then read on page nine of the same paper that Carassa "is newly dead." Won't we soon be getting similar chuckles out of these early blogs -- where leads are routinely buried under supporting paragraphs; where whim is privileged, coherence discouraged; where the newly dead may be resurrected as one scrolls down.
Early newspapers eventually discovered the joys of what journalism's first editor called a "continued relation." Later they discovered layout.
Blogs have a lot of discovering ahead of them.
Update on the Book
posted on 02.26.2006 at 10:05 PM
Gave a draft of the Prologue (on young Charles Bradlaugh and Shelley) and the first chapter (on the anthropology of disbelief) to my first reader Sunday morning. The verdict? Disjointed. Too much jumping around. (As if you couldn't have guessed from reading this blog.) That, alas, had been my fear. (I've written other books. Not sure it gets much less hard.)
So I'm looking, once again, at two of the books I'm using for models: My friend David Shenk's The Forgetting and Mark Kurlansky's Salt -- neither having anything to do with disbelief but both examples of compact, narrative history of the sort to which I aspire.
And I'm about to pull apart those initial sections to see if I can't reassemble them -- with fewer tangents and longer tales -- into something more jointed.
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.
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 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 on 01.21.2006 at 8:13 PM
My first person is currently typing into his Palm, sitting in a dark-wood chair, surrounded by white-washed walls, about 20 meters from a huge lake just a bit northwest of the southern tip of India. (The tsunami had to hang a quick right to get near here, but still managed to kill about 160 people.)
A couple of hours ago his pre-dawn tossin' and turnin' -- as the overhead-fan mixed the thick air -- produced an idea, one that feels large by the standards of his circumscribed world. This idea enabled him to sketch out -- for the first time -- the somewhat more ambitious structure he had been contemplating for the book.
A bit on that idea in another post. The question I'm dealing with now is whether a few small slots in that new scheme should be reserved for that first person -- aka "me."
Do readers -- potentially "you," if you haven't had your fill of this stuff -- want to know, for example, whether their author had his own irreligious epiphany and from what religion he might conceivably be "ir"?
Should there be personal anecdotes?
** "The first time I realized how uncomfortable discussions of atheism could become was when I...."
** Our intrepid book writer manages to locate the site of Bonner's Field -- the outdoor meeting area in London, where, in the mid-19th-century, religious and irreligious freely held forth.
My first person -- who, mind you, wrote a whole book once without ever using the word "I" -- is now watching a cloud-muted dawn attempt to return greens and pinks to the lush landscape. And he ("I") is ("am") currently feeling awfully self-satisfied, on account of this new organizational idea.
Yo, second persons! Do you ("you") care?
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?
How to Write Your Book
posted on 01.09.2006 at 12:00 AM
1. Do not turn on the BBC World News in the hotel to see if there's been any further change in Sharon's condition.
2. When you venture out into the challenging streets here in Chennai, focus on the shrines not the street people.
3. Do not go back to the college again to check your email.
4. Look upon the array of pastel gods that surround one shine not as kind of lovely but as representative of polytheism and then try to recall some theories on whether gods are easier to disbelieve than God.
5. When you do go back to the college again, do not click on 'check mail' a third time, even though you have one or two acquaintances in New York who occasionally are up at 3:10 am.
6. Consider whether that woman cooking on the half-dirt, half-concrete sidewalk finds consolation in religion. Don't consider why you have the right to assume she requires consolation.
7. Put your energy into polishing chapters not blog entries.
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?
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....
Help! I'm a Book Writer Trapped in a Blog's Body
posted on 12.24.2005 at 7:45 AM
The experiment so far:
** Have learned quite a bit already from the comments: new sources, new ideas, interesting perspectives.
** Bit unsure what I'm doing. Guess I'm to test ideas, ask questions, try to make connections. But in what order? As they come to me? When you're writing a book lots comes from lots of directions.
** The blog form -- which imposes with some force a reverse chronological organization -- is an odd one for a book writer. Since everything comes in upside down, you are led with some obstenancy away from narrative.
The Blog: The Writing of a History of Disbelief
posted on 12.07.2005 at 11:43 AM
The blog I am writing here, with the connivance of The Institute for the Future of the Book, is an experiment. Our thought is that my book on the history of disbelief will benefit from a discussion of some of the points it will raise in advance of publication.
I plan to post rough ideas, anecdotes, facts and outlines; queries and probes; plus the occasional polished paragraph. I plan, too, to be prepared to alter this mix - this plan - as the experiment proceeds.
Our hope is that the conversation will be joined: that ideas will be challenged, facts corrected, queries and probes answered; that lively and intelligent discussion will ensue. We expect that the book's acknowledgements will eventual include a number of individuals best known to me by email address.
And we have an additional thought: that the Web might realize some smidgen of benefit through the airing of this process.
The Author: Mitchell Stephens
posted on 12.07.2005 at 10:54 AM
Mitchell Stephens, a professor of journalism at New York University, is the author of a number of books: A History of News, an extended history of journalism, has been translated into four languages and was a New York Times "Notable Book of the Year." the rise of the image the fall of the word, a historical analysis of our current communications revolution, was published by Oxford University Press. Prof. Stephens is also one of five editors of Covering Catastrophe: Broadcast Journalists Report September 11. He has published two textbooks: Broadcast News, long the most widely used radio and television news textbook, and (with Gerald Lanson) Writing and Reporting the News. In recent years, Prof. Stephens has written numerous articles on media issues and aspects of contemporary thought for publications such as The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and the Columbia Journalism Review.
In 2001 Prof. Stephens completed a trip around the world, during which he reported on globalization for the public radio program "Marketplace" and the webzine Feed and wrote essays on travel for LonelyPlanet.com. His commentaries have aired on NPR's "On the Media." Prof. Stephens has been history consultant to the Newseum.
He is currently writing a history of disbelief for Carroll and Graf.