Posts Tagged ‘religion’

Sarah Vowell’s “The Wordy Shipmates” – Puritan History

October 22, 2014

imagesAs this 2008 book’s title suggests, Sarah Vowell is a funny writer. Yet also a serious one. She writes serious books in a funny way. This one is actually a substantive chronicle of, and rumination upon, the Puritans who founded Boston. She quotes liberally from original sources. Interspersed with wisecracks.

images-2I wonder if her name – it means a type of letter, after all – had something to do with Vowell’s becoming a wordsmith. Such serendipities are more common than chance alone would produce. That a disproportionate percentage of people named Lawrence are lawyers, and Dennises are dentists, is a documented fact. (Or perhaps an urban legend.) Though her own name is misspelled, Vowell is a very good writer. The book’s last few sentences are a killer.

Unknown-2Boston was founded in 1630 by a different lot from the 1620 Plymouth Rock Pilgrims. Their leader and governor was John Winthrop; he’s the main character in this book, mostly portrayed sympathetically. (Vowell confesses she fell in love; though later she calls him a “monster.” Fickle woman!)

Also prominent is Roger Williams. Now, I have a thing for Roger Williams. I happened to live for 11 years with his great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grand-daughter.* So I almost feel kin to him, or as much as a Jewish kid from Queens could.

UnknownWe first meet Williams among the early Boston Puritans. These people took their religion very seriously. I’ve always felt that if religion really were true, folks should take it more seriously. But Roger Williams took religion to an even higher level of seriousness than even your standard Puritan. Vowell quotes the letter he sent his wife upon learning she was very ill – not just a sermon, but one exhorting her to prepare for death. Nice.

I’m always struck by the certitude such people felt about their faith. Didn’t they realize millions of others had entirely different beliefs? Indeed, they spent a lot of effort massacring them. Yet never seemed to ponder the impossibility of knowing who’s right. (Most believers still don’t.)

Roger Williams was a titan of certitude. His inability to soft-peddle his convictions – he considered his neighbors insufficiently Puritan – got him kicked out of the colony. Thus was Rhode Island founded.

images-3Now here is the stunning thing. People then were typically killed over religious minutiae. Vowell talks of Mary Dyer, hanged in Boston for religious boo-boos. In Europe the Thirty Years War was raging, with vast slaughterings for God. Williams might have been expected to run Rhode Island as a theocracy brooking no dissent from his harsh views. Yet, zealot though he was, he also – bizarrely, for the time – fervently opposed coercion in matters of faith. Thus Rhode Island was established as a haven of religious tolerance. There, truly, was born this wonderful American idea of letting people think what they like.

images-4Religious liberty was enshrined by Williams in Rhode Island’s Royal Charter. And RI was the last of the original states to ratify the Constitution – holding out for the addition of a bill of rights.

One criticism of this book. Winthrop was famous for his “city on a hill” sermon, so often invoked by Ronald Reagan. Vowell takes this as a pretext for a vicious diatribe against Reagan (and drags in Bush 43 as well). She quotes liberally from Mario Cuomo’s speech mocking Reagan because in America’s “shining city on a hill” there are people suffering. Unknown-1But Reagan never meant the metaphor to describe an achieved state. To the contrary, it was aspirational – what America aims for, and works for. To do a Cuomo on him for that is just mean spirited, as is Vowell’s attack. It is neither clever, enlightening nor amusing. Why does she see fit to introduce (and hammer at length) her partisan political opinions in a book about the 17th century?

But to some people nowadays everything is political, and they are so imbued with (what seems to them) the righteousness of their views, they cannot ever desist from being in your face with them. They’re almost like . . . well, the Puritans.

* Not really special. A typical person 11 generations back would have a lot of modern descendants. And conversely, everyone today has a lot of ancestors back that far – 2,048 to be exact. The number doubles with each generation going backward; so after a few dozen your roster of ancestors would exceed the entire human population. How can that be? Well, your family tree is tangled with everyone else’s. We are all related.

Thomas More’s Utopia: The First Communist Manifesto?

September 12, 2014

UnknownSaint Thomas More (1477-1535) wrote Utopia in 1516.* Not only the first in the utopian fiction genre, it’s also been called the first communist book.

In the imaginary country Utopia (the name means “noplace”), there is no money or private property. Everyone has a job, working for the commonwealth, and productivity is such that all needs are met (food, clothing, shelter, etc.) while also leaving ample leisure time. Needless to say, everyone is happy, there’s no cause for dissatisfaction, hence practically no cheating or crime or grasping for power.

Communist” or not, this might seem attractive (albeit kind of boring). imagesBut of course it’s a vain dream, because actual human beings resist such regimentation, and mainly because there’s a powerful drive for status (biologically installed by evolution since higher status means more mating opportunities). That’s the ultimate reason why utopian experiments (many in 19th century America) invariably collapsed. Moreover, while More depicts everyone performing diligently at their jobs, no reason appears why they should, since benefits are unrelated to how hard they work. In the real world, failure to reward effort elicits less of it, resulting in a poorer living standard (as places like East Germany have proven).

Still, the book is nicely imagined, and contains some very advanced thinking. images-1It came mainly out of More’s concern over inequality, an unusual view in the 1500s (far less equal than today); some passages sound like “Occupy” movement stuff. More says no existing social system is “anything but a conspiracy of the rich to advance their own interests.” He’s particularly troubled by the vast numbers of thieves hanged, seeing them driven to crime by unemployment. That’s what he envisioned Utopia to remedy.

Also unusually for his time, More was a pacifist, disparaging military aggression as rarely worth the cost in lives and money. images-2I enjoyed Utopia’s game-book for war: start with secret agents plastering enemy lands with posters offering huge rewards for anyone killing (or delivering alive) their king and other named functionaries. This sows enough distrust and dissension that Utopia can usually triumph without firing a shot.

So the book makes More seem a good man with his heart in the right place. As did the popular 1966 biopic, A Man For All Seasons. More became a high public official under Henry VIII, and the film casts him as a moral hero for refusing on principle to endorse Henry’s making himself head of the English church in order to divorce his first wife. For that refusal, More wound up beheaded.

images-3However, a rather different (and historically more accurate) picture emerges from Hilary Mantel’s novelization Wolf Hall (centered on Thomas Cromwell), showing More as a remorseless religious hard-ass responsible for the horrific torture and burning alive of numerous (so-called) heretics. And this man was declared a saint by Catholicism! By the end, one was glad to read of More’s own execution.

It’s hard to believe the same Thomas More wrote Utopia. Indeed, only late in Utopia is God even mentioned, with Christianity introduced to (and gladly received by) the islanders. But they maintain a principle of religious tolerance. In fact, punishment is prescribed not for “heresy” but, rather, “for being too aggressive in religious controversy.” And More even suggests “that God made different people believe different things, because He wanted to be worshipped in many different ways.”

And then More himself turned into exactly the sort of religious persecutor he’d once decried. People do change.

Meantime, though Utopia vaunted religious tolerance, even there, on one point More drew the line: disbelief in an afterlife incurred harsh condemnation and punishment. He thought anyone unconcerned about eternal penalty or reward would have no reason to behave decently in this life. Nonsense of course (but in those days nobody ever met an actual nonbeliever). Anyhow, it seemed bizarre that More worried so much about maintaining posthumous incentives, yet not at all about a lack of incentives on Earth.

images-4I was also quite surprised at More’s denouncing the illogic of religious zealots who advocate asceticism, self-denial and even mortifying the flesh, yet urge devoting oneself to relieving the suffering of others. If happiness (or at least freedom from pain) is a good thing for others, why not for oneself? (Garrison Keillor has quipped, if the purpose of life is to serve others, what purpose is served by the existence of those others?) Charity begins at home, More wrote; and “The Utopians themselves therefore regard the enjoyment of life – that is, pleasure – as the natural object of all human efforts, and natural, as they define it, is synonymous with virtuous.” Yet on this point too More apparently changed his mind; he was later known to wear, under his clothes, a literal hair-shirt, whose purpose is to inflict not only discomfort but actual pain (it drew blood). And his refusal of any compromise, to save himself in the controversy with King Henry, may well have reflected something of a martyr complex.

Some people improve with age, and grow wiser. Thomas More, it seems, went the other way. What a pity he didn’t die promptly after writing his book. Then maybe he’d have deserved sainthood.

*I read a plain English translation (from Latin) by Paul Turner.

Sarah’s Story — Abraham and Isaac Revisited

August 17, 2014

NPR’s “Selected Shorts” features actors reading short stories. Today’s, “Sarah’s Story,” by Galina Vroman, read by the terrific Jane Curtin (here’s a link), was a real hoot. It was the Biblical tale of Abraham and Isaac, from the viewpoint of Abe’s wife Sarah. She is portrayed as a real person.

From left to right: Sarah, Abe, Hagar, Ishmael

From left to right: Sarah, Abe, Hagar, Ishmael

The backstory: Sarah being childless, Abraham impregnated his slave girl Hagar, with Ishmael. (Owning and shtupping slaves is called “Biblical morality.”) Sarah wasn’t entirely thrilled about this. (She ultimately got Hagar and Ishmael cast out.) UnknownBut anyway, lo, at age 100, Sarah finally had a kid herself, Isaac. (Folks must have been healthier then; maybe it was the water.) Needless to say, Sarah doted on Isaac.

Then one fine day Abraham tells her of God’s latest memo: sacrifice Isaac. Sarah says, “Are you out of your mind?”

They argue. Maybe Abe’s misinterpreted the command? No, it’s perfectly clear. Sarah had always thought Abraham overdid the God thing. And what kind of cruel god is this anyway, who would demand such an atrocity? A god like that should be not obeyed but opposed. Of course devout Abie will not hear of it.

So what will Sarah do? She thinks about running away with Isaac, or even killing Abraham. Of course she is frantically upset, vividly visualizing the actual bloody deed. And when Abraham sets out, with Isaac and some flunkies, for the distant place where it is to be done, Sarah secretly follows.

Unknown-1Along the way she meets some traders and nomads. When Sarah purchases some billowing white cloth, I burst out laughing, at where this was now obviously going. She hires one of the nomads, to appear in costume before Abraham at the critical moment, and coaches him on his lines. She even has forethought to supply the handy ram. Abe falls for it.

images-2This sounds like the Lucy-and-Ricky version. Traditionally, the story has been read as a parable of virtuous obedience to God. But it shows the moral gulf between its ancient author and us; he could not foresee how horribly the story would strike us. Here is Biblical morality in all its raw primitivism. The story really shows us not that Abraham was a saint but that God was a monster. Sarah had it right: why worship such a god?

images-3Vroman’s re-telling ends with the words, “God works in mysterious ways.” This implies he omnisciently knew what Sarah would do. But didn’t Sarah – like Adam – have free will to make a choice? If I know the God of the Old Testament, he would not have been amused at Sarah’s deception. He’d have turned her into a pillar of salt, or something, at the very least, and probably smited Abe too. But the fact that he didn’t tells us the real lesson of the story: he isn’t there.

Thank God.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali: Female Genital Mutilation and Islam (WARNING: Graphic content)

July 15, 2014

UnknownAyaan Hirsi Ali’s beautiful and inspiring memoir is titled Infidel. Born in Somalia, she escaped to the Netherlands from an arranged marriage; became a member of parliament; worked with Theo Van Gogh on a film critical of Islam; he was murdered by a Muslim fanatic; and she wound up in America, at a think tank. Along the way she freed herself from religion.

Hirsi Ali had lived in Kenya and Saudi Arabia as well as Somalia, her father usually absent on revolutionary organizing. As a young woman she tried to be the perfect Muslim. But the Koran’s fulsome verbiage about Allah’s justness jarred with how unjustly she saw women treated.

This is heart-rendingly portrayed in the unhappy saga of Hirsi Ali’s mother. But she was almost fortunate to have an absent husband, because domestic tyranny and wife beating is the norm to which Muslim men are acculturated. The picture contrasted harshly with my own loving marriage.

Unknown-1The twisted Muslim mentality about male-female relations is epitomized by the cover-up fetish. Hirsi Ali’s culture insisted that glimpsing female skin or hair* would make men crazy – so she was astonished that in the West, bare limbs hardly rate a glance, and men don’t lose it even on beaches with practically naked women. images-1To my eyes such scenery provides a pleasurable frisson but nothing more, thus it’s wholly innocent. In Muslim societies there is no innocence; the men seem unhinged by the very concept of feminine sexuality.

Female genital mutilation is widely practiced, mainly in Muslim Africa and the Middle East. It’s been done to an estimated 125 million women. Muslim immigrants bring it to their new countries. It was endemic in Hirsi Ali’s Somalia. “Circumcision” is a euphemism; it’s in no way analogous to the procedure for males, which normally has notable benefits and no real downsides. For girls it is an atrocity of sexual mutilation.images-2

I first learned of it long ago from a big New York Times feature, which puzzled me because it gave no clue why this is done. In fact, it’s to curb infidelity by preventing females from enjoying sex.

Muslims are obsessed with female “purity” and in genital mutilation this goes to an extreme. Not even virginity is enough; an uncut girl is not considered pure. (“Pure from what?” a Western friend once asked Hirsi Ali, unsettling her.)

Use your imagination

Use your imagination

Infidel graphically describes Hirsi Ali’s own mutilation at age eight: cutting out the clitoris and labia, usually without preparation or anaesthetic – obviously exceedingly painful and traumatic. The wound is sewn up, so scar tissue forms to largely close the vaginal opening.** Lifelong pain and complications are common. The death rate is significant.

Hirsi Ali says that “excision” doesn’t even actually keep girls from wanting sex. In her own case, reading novels – specially Harlequin romances! – revved up her hormones, and she fell in love and into a quickie quasi-legal marriage with a cousin. She lusted for him – but the wedding night was a grotesque disappointment.

What I never realized until reading her book is that for sex the man must tear through the scar tissue sealing the opening, and not only is this of course agony for the girl (it took her weeks to recover), it’s really hard work for him (often an extended process, even requiring a knife). imagesCan’t be much fun for men either. Maybe the frustration helps explain all the wife beating and other “Muslim rage.”

We constantly hear the words “sick society” applied to ours. While multiculturalists say one society’s practices aren’t better or worse, just different. And I’ve reviewed here a book that used “the Muslim question” as a pretext to focus on supposed “oppression” of women in America and the West.

Hirsi Ali is clear-sighted about what garbage that all is. It was a joy to read of her culture shock upon arrival in the West, which she’d been taught all her life to despise. While many Muslim immigrants do sustain that attitude, not Hirsi Ali.*** One of her first encounters was with a policeman – helpful, not predatory. Unknown-2That blew her mind. She grasped immediately that here is a society that works – far better, in enabling human happiness and flourishing, than any of the Muslim ones she’d known. Especially for women.

Hirsi Ali wanted to understand the root of this difference. She came to trace Muslim dysfunctionality to Islam itself – the very word means “submission,” denoting a master-slave relationship with God. A religion of fatalism. And assuredly not one of peace – the Koran incites a culture of sacralized violence. Genital mutilation fits right in, but Muslim societies are more violent in numerous other ways. Whereas the West had managed to confine its soldiers of faith to their barracks, Islam has not. Nor has there been a Muslim equivalent of the West’s Enlightenment. images-6“We had been hiding from reason for so long because we were incapable of facing the need to integrate it into our beliefs,” she writes. “And this was not working; it was leading to hideous pain and monstrous behavior.”

Our society, where men and women can relate to one another as free and equal human beings, is virtuous. A society that tyrannizes, brutalizes women – one that cuts out their genitals – is vile.

* BTW, I’ve read the Koran, and it merely tells women to dress modestly, that’s all.

** Hirsi Ali relates accompanying another Somali girl to a Dutch gynecologist who recoiled in horror at the sight.

*** Muslims were inundating the Netherlands, whose values of freedom and tolerance empowered those immigrants to undermine those very values. Defending those Western values against the multi-culti onslaught was what brought Hirsi Ali to prominence.

Chris Stedman: Faitheist

June 2, 2014

imagesChris Stedman’s career is in “interfaith work,” but his book, Faitheist, is addressed mainly to his fellow atheists, urging them to lighten up.

It centers upon his own story. His Minnesota family was nonreligious, but at age 11, he experienced a crisis by reading “heavy” books that exposed him to the world’s injustice and cruelty. Also, his parents divorced. Chris found refuge in his school’s Christian group, which welcomed him and assuaged his social justice discomforts.

But there was one wee problem. Christianity seemed obsessively homophobic. And Chris was starting to realize this applied to him. UnknownHis Teen Study Bible labeled him an abomination in God’s eyes, and his resulting inner struggle drove him close to suicide.

At last his mother stumbled upon his personal journal and brought him to a different kind of Christian minister – who took one look at the relevant Teen Study Bible page, drew a big red X across it, and said, “This is dehumanizing garbage.”

So Chris found a different path within Christianity, and went on to a Christian college, studying religion, headed for the ministry.

But there was another wee problem. He no longer believed in God. The book, after many pages chronicling Chris’s agony over faith versus sexuality, has relatively few about faith versus non-faith. That seemed fairly easy for him. But he completed his degree, as the class atheist, and even proceeded to divinity school, winding up as Harvard’s Assistant Humanist Chaplain. (He recently went to Yale.)

His “interfaith work” seeks to bridge religious divides by finding common ground and ways to work together and understand each other better. Stedman classifies the religious as either “totalitarians” or “pluralists,” with the latter actually having more affinities with nonbelievers than with the totalitarians.

But as noted the book is aimed mainly at atheists, who are also divided. Stedman disparages the belligerence of the so-called “New Atheism.” (He singles out PZ Myers, whose book I’ve also reviewed.) With some atheists seeing their goal as eradicating religion, Stedman is unsurprised at the religious push-back. After all, he notes in comparison, the gay rights movement hasn’t sought to end heterosexuality. He doesn’t like a “we’re right, they’re wrong” attitude.

images-1I’m guilty of some of that myself. Obviously if you believe something, you believe people thinking differently are wrong. But I draw the line at “we’re right, they’re insane,” and I’ve criticized writers like Charlie Pierce for that. It might be different if religion were practiced only by an eccentric minority; but in a country where most folks are religious, that must be considered normal and sane. And I’m all for greater mutual understanding, working together, and apple pie; and I do try to avoid personal insults, calling people crazy or stupid. Yet religion should not enjoy some special exemption from critical scrutiny; its ideas should be subjected to vigorous public debate like any others. That’s what the “New Atheism” is about.

Furthermore, it would also be different were this just a matter of personal beliefs, kept personal. But most atheists would like to see the end of religion not only because it’s false but because they consider it harmful. Religion’s defenders can’t deny some very bad things, but of course claim the good outweighs the bad. As I see it, the good works ascribed to faith are things people could, and mostly would, do even without religion,

Faith in action

Faith in action

because we are in fact more good than bad (societies like Denmark’s or Norway’s where religion has almost disappeared are some of the world’s nicest); while the bad things (9/11; Boko Haram) are uniquely products of religious belief and would be hard to imagine absent that factor.

Religionists will of course retort that some of the worst crimes have been committed by atheistic regimes (though Hitler’s at least wasn’t atheist). But those crimes were not committed in service to atheism; not motivated by disbelief in God; the concept of God was simply irrelevant. In contrast, many bloody crimes throughout history were of course motivated by religious belief.

Believers will also say such crimes are perversions of proper faith. But the problem is that religion has an unavoidable tendency to inspire absolutism (Stedman’s “totalitarianism”) – the “one truth” so powerful that it can justify almost anything in service to it. Disbelief doesn’t come close to having such inspirational power – a very good thing. In fact nobody kills for atheism.

images-2This is why we would like to see religion disappear. But it bears emphasizing that – so unlike religion throughout most of history – atheists wield the pen, not the sword; words, not violence. And, given its long history of burning people at the stake, it’s a bit rich for religion to be telling atheists to dial it back.

And Chris Stedman, of all people, should know the harm of religion. An inhumane religious dogma drove him to the brink of suicide. Just one more reason why atheists believe the world would be a better place without religion.

Lucretius, The Swerve, and Understanding Reality

April 20, 2014

imagesStephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve centers on a book-length First Century BC poem by Lucretius, On The Nature Of Things; apparently lost (like so much ancient literature) until book-hunter Poggio Bracciolini unearthed a forgotten copy in a monastery in 1417. Greenblatt casts this as triggering modernity’s emergence (the “swerve” of the title).

I’ve also perused the poem itself, which Greenblatt deems a literary masterpiece. Maybe its poetic virtues didn’t survive W. E. Leonard’s translation from the Latin. It helped greatly to have first read Greenblatt’s lucid bullet-point distillation (further distilled below).

Imaginary portrait of Lucretius. No real one exists

Imaginary portrait of Lucretius. No real one exists

The poem presents a bracingly materialist view of reality and the human condition which, though rooted in the philosophy of Epicurus, even earlier, is indeed very modern, and undermined the reigning Christian thought system. But Greenblatt overstates his case that Lucretius was central to the latter’s retreat. The Renaissance was sparked by a great complex of factors, which actually gathered force gradually over a long interval; intellectual ferment was fizzing all over; Lucretius’s rediscovery fed into this but was hardly, by itself, seminal.Unknown-2 (The scientific revolution did more to change the intellectual climate.)

And if Lucretius still isn’t exactly a household name, nor was he in Roman times. While his book did enjoy some circulation among the cognoscenti, he lived and died in relative obscurity — probably because few contemporaries could have made sense of a work profoundly incompatible with then-conventional ideas.

Someone in my book group mocked things Lucretius got wrong. But I was blown away by how much he got right — considering that he predated any proper science, with human understanding of the world being a mess of clueless superstition. Lucretius could only use his reasoning mind and his observation of reality to intuit its underpinnings:

images-1Invisible particles (what we call atoms), constantly in motion, combine and recombine to make up everything in the universe, from stars to rocks to humans. They are immutable, eternal, and (till the 1940’s!) indivisible. Like the letters of an alphabet, their workings are governed by a code, though not all letters and words can combine with every other. And the code — in principle at least — could be investigated and understood by humans (what we now call chemistry).

The particles don’t move by predetermination in straight lines, but sometimes “swerve,” causing collisions and recombinations; and that indeterminacy is what gives us free will. (I have similarly suggested that at the molecular level brain activity entails quantum mechanical effects, inherently unpredictable, hence true determinism is impossible.)

images-2All living things evolved through a long complex process of trial and error. Nature engenders variations, and those better adapted to live and reproduce proliferate, while failures go extinct. Humans are merely one such resulting animal. (It took nineteen centuries for Darwin to rediscover this idea of evolution by natural selection.)

images-4Human society did not begin in some golden age of tranquility and plenty, but in a primitive struggle for survival. (The myth of a prelapsarian paradise stubbornly persists; see my review of Steve Taylor’s The Fall.) Only gradually did social cooperation evolve; likewise language, arts, agriculture, religion, law (Lucretius anticipated Hobbes and social contract theory) and other elements of culture.

Space and time are unbounded, with no beginnings or ends — and never a creator or designer. Such beings as gods, if they exist (Lucretius doesn’t say otherwise) couldn’t possibly care about you or the minutiae of human affairs.

All religions are superstitious delusions, built on primal fears and longings. They always embody the cruelty of retribution fantasies (Hell) and human sacrifice, symbolic or otherwise. Unknown-3(Lucretius could not have foreseen the mother of all such sacrifice theologies — belief that Christ had to be tortured to death to save humanity.)

There is no cosmic purpose to existence, and no afterlife. (Lucretius spends pages deconstructing the nonsensicality of belief in a “soul.”) But since you won’t be around to experience nonexistence, it shouldn’t faze you. And this life being all we have, there is no higher ethical imperative than maximizing pleasure* and minimizing pain. All others — serving the state, glorification of God, pursuing virtue through self-sacrifice, etc. — are secondary, misguided, or fraudulent. The greatest obstacle to pleasure is not pain, but delusion.

None of this is cause for despair. To the contrary, understanding these realities is crucial for the possibility of happiness. To fantasize some higher reality, to aspire toward, only puts people in a destructive relation with the environment they actually inhabit. But by looking calmly at the true nature of things, we can experience a more genuine awe, and achieve a more genuine fulfillment.images-3

Taking a cynically dim view of humankind is common among intellectuals. But I am proud of my species. And learning about this man who, so long ago, could achieve such insight — it often gave me goosebumps — redoubles that pride.

* By “pleasure” Lucretius, following Epicurus, doesn’t mean hedonism. Rather, it really means the enjoyment derived from living a fulfilling life.

 

PZ Myers, The Happy Atheist

April 2, 2014

Unknown-1I’ve read the major atheist books – Harris, Dawkins, Hitchens – which might be called “combative.” Some feel the confrontational stance disserves the cause. I’m of two minds. True, telling believers “you’re idiots” is not helpful. But religious thought has been so powerful for so long (with such bad consequences) that assertive dissent seems well justified.

PZ Meyers (that’s how he spells his name), in The Happy Atheist, pulls no punches, laying on the scorn; but he does it in an easy, breezy, good humored manner. UnknownBooks debunking religion go all the way back to Tom Paine, but Myers does it well, not content with just making the obvious points.

For example, it’s clear that ideas of Heaven and Hell are rooted in fear of death and chafing at unfairness in life. Myers, however, digs down to dissect these beliefs, showing how incoherent they actually are. A Hell where people are tortured forever? Myers notes that souls have no bodies and hence no pain receptors. But even ignoring that, such sustained agony would soon disintegrate one’s psyche, and continuing to torture an insensate husk would be pointless. Maybe an omnipotent deity could get around that; but how does this sadism square with the idea of a loving and forgiving God? Unknown-2While punishment as a deterrent makes sense, souls in Hell have no way to get back in God’s good graces, so what is the point? And, as Myers puts it, in your brief earthly life you get to guess which faith is true, and if you guess wrong, it’s billions of years of horrific suffering. “That’s insane,” he writes.

Undoubtedly, “Hell” is the creation of people full of bitterness toward other people; such a belief is an insult to God.

Myers similarly unpacks the idea of Heaven. The problem is that desires and dreams are what life is about. Fulfill them all, and where does that leave you? In “a kind of retirement home where everyone is waiting to die. Waiting forever.” images-1Alternatively, believers might cast Heaven as some sort of “pure bliss, pure joy . . . unadulterated rapturous ecstasy . . . the crack cocaine vision of afterlife.” Tempting, perhaps, but this isn’t any kind of worthwhile existence either.

As Myers says, death is an end, that “deserves all the sorrow that the living bring to it, but the absurd attempts of believers to soften it with lies are a contemptible disservice to the life that is over.” Religion actually makes a mockery of death’s seriousness.

One chapter is headed, “What Dreadful Price Must We Pay to Be Atheists?” Of course Myers is being facetious; but apropos the book’s title, many religionists do think atheists must be miserable misfits with something awry in their heads, unable to accept God’s love and all the happiness it confers. But atheists reject religion for one simple reason: it isn’t true. Trying to make oneself believe lies is no recipe for contentment. If believers get happiness from their faith, it’s a false paradise (I’ll refrain from saying “fool’s paradise”). Freeing ourselves from falsehood, and looking life’s truth fearlessly in the eye, is a recipe for happiness. That’s why atheists aren’t the afflicted lost souls believers think they are.

In fact, I know people who were tormented by their religion, struggling to square all its circles, that no prodigies of ratiocination could ever achieve. Only when they were able to extricate themselves from that briar patch could they finally feel at peace with their existence.

imagesIt’s true it comes to an end. But a fairy tale of immortality doesn’t alter that. I’ve noticed that people who insist they’re Heaven bound are in no hurry to go. However, knowing there’s no afterlife makes me appreciate this one all the more profoundly. In an impersonal cosmos with no god, life is an almost miraculous gift. Disgruntlement at not having more would be absurd. I am happy with what I’ve got.

 

Benjamin Franklin: Reason versus Romanticism

January 17, 2014

UnknownToday is Benjamin Franklin’s birthday.

Impressed by Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs bio, I thought I’d read his Benjamin Franklin – though familiar enough with the subject that another immersion might have seemed redundant. Not so.

Franklin was actually at one time the world’s most famous scientist. We all know the kite story. I’d recently read somewhere that it’s a myth; that Franklin wrote hypothetically about it but never actually tried it. Isaacson convincingly puts that to rest. Franklin was not an armchair theorist but a “hands on” scientist who loved tinkering and experimenting.

Painting by Benjamin West

Painting by Benjamin West

And the kite experiment was in fact very important, as it changed our understanding about electricity. Its immediate practical application was the lightning rod, a huge boon to mankind that made Franklin a global hero. But, more significant, as Isaacson explains, electricity was a curiosity when Franklin came to it; he left it a science.

This would have been enough to immortalize anyone. But Franklin was also a prolific writer – Isaacson says he was the best in the colonies. He also served as postmaster for them all, cutting a letter’s delivery time between New York and Philadelphia to one day (!). imagesAnd somehow Franklin also found time to spearhead foundation of America’s first lending library; a volunteer fire-fighting system; a militia system; a hospital; a police force; and the University of Pennsylvania – America’s first non-sectarian college.

In the latter effort, and the others, Franklin, ever the practical man, had scant use for religion. We constantly hear America was founded as a “Christian nation.” The founders would have gagged at that, as their intent was quite the opposite – Unknownto get as far as possible from the old world of dogmatic religion married to state power. Yes, you can find selected quotes giving lip service to conventional pieties – but Jefferson also wrote privately calling religion a form of insanity, and Washington apparently never in his life penned the name “Christ.”

“Deism” was the word of choice, to eschew formal religion while avoiding the dicey term “atheist.” And in those times, quitting God entirely was an intellectual leap very few could manage. Yet the only “religious” belief Franklin really held was to do good by others. And he it was who put “self evident” into the draft Declaration of Independence (in place of “sacred and undeniable”) – thus changing a religious slant to an assertion of Enlightenment rationalism.

Of course, I haven’t even touched upon Franklin’s greatest role: in public affairs as revolutionary, diplomat, and constitution maker. Isaacson quotes the French statesman Turgot: “He snatched lightning from the sky and the scepters from tyrants.”

As some of the civic initiatives noted above show, Franklin was a great one for creating associations, always believing more can be accomplished when people work together. images-1And he was really the progenitor of the greatest association ever: The United States of America. As early as 1754 the “Albany Plan of Union” was conceived by Franklin (who promoted it with our first and most famous political cartoon). That plan incorporated an innovative political invention of his: federalism.

Isaacson’s summation is eloquent. Franklin represents one of two main intellectual currents: reverencing down-to-earth middle class virtues (industry, honesty, temperance, sociability), versus despising them in favor of supposedly more profound and transcendent aspirations. It is Franklin’s Enlightenment ethos versus the romanticism that followed; reason versus feeling; head against heart. Not only have Franklin’s bourgeois values been mocked by sophisticate critics, but also his worldly metaphysics, by those spinning loftier spiritual confections (out of nothing, of course).

Mundane and even simplistic though Franklin’s philosophy might ostensibly seem, Isaacson instead sees something very deep indeed. Always eschewing lofty pretensions, Franklin’s insight grasped the core of what truly mattered: quality of life for the ordinary person. Everything he preached and did was aimed at that. And it was this Franklinism that built, very much through the assiduous personal efforts and influence of the man himself, our American society, so wonderfully conducive, above all others, to that worthy end.

images-4Well, after reading all this, mostly lying out in my lounge chair*, I say to myself that like Franklin I ought to get off my duff and do something.

Maybe tomorrow.

* I wrote this last summer; I have a backlog of blog posts.

Book Review: The Koran

December 21, 2013

UnknownHaving enjoyed great success with his first book, The Bible, God followed up (after a gap of centuries; writer’s block?) with The Koran.

I am cognizant that Muslims hold the book sacred. But all ideas offered in the public square should be subject to critical examination. This does not mean disrespecting people holding the ideas; the issue instead is what others should think. Thus, after reading it, I present my objective review of The Koran.

Muslims consider it God’s (Allah’s) word, transmitted to the prophet Mohammad, over two decades. Mohammad preached it but wrote down little or nothing; followers compiled the book after his death. It’s not a sequel to The Bible; indeed, a very different book. Whereas The Bible was written mainly in the third person, The Koran is mostly in the first person, with God directly addressing the reader (or hearer). images-4And while The Bible is full of narrative story-telling, The Koran is mainly exhortation. It does rehash some biblical stories, like Noah, Joseph, and (especially) Moses*, but only in disjointed bits and pieces interspersed among other matter.

We are often told the book’s poetic language (in Arabic) is beautiful. I can’t say; I read a translation by N.J. Dawood (Penguin edition) and if there was linguistic beauty it didn’t come through. But I will say the book could have used a good editor. It’s way overlong, completely disorganized, and numbingly repetitive.

The Koran sets forth a lot of rules, such as for inheritance and marriage; but unfortunately doesn’t deign to explain any rationales for them, so they come across as rather arbitrary. A widow must wait four months and ten days before making the scene again. Four months might seem reasonable, but why the ten days? God doesn’t tell us.

Curiously, while stating that some verses have precise meaning, the book does acknowledge opacity in others, whose explanation unbelievers will maliciously demand – “But no one knows its meaning except God.” (3:8) (It’s a mystery, you see; just get with the program.)

images-5Christians may be pleased to see some praise of Jesus as a prophet; but the author denies paternity, saying “God forbid” he should have had a son. And while The Koran does talk a lot about treating others fairly and kindly, it certainly doesn’t incorporate Jesus’s message. Turn the other cheek? No – “If anyone attacks you, attack him as he attacked you.” (2:194) And “Fighting is obligatory for you, much as you dislike it.” (2:216) And “If you do not go to war, [God] will punish you sternly.” (9:39)

Religion of peace? I  think not.

But mainly the author pounds away relentlessly on two basic themes: (1) how great he is; and especially (2) unbelievers are “evil-doers” who will be punished severely.

images-6As to the first, he claims omniscience and omni-potence; he knows all, and can do anything. It’s mostly braggadocio; much more telling than showing. He insists he is greatly to be feared. “Fear God” is repeated endlessly. And yet he also repeatedly says he’s merciful and forgiving; it’s even okay to break his rules, if you have a reasonable excuse.

But the one thing he’s unforgiving about is unbelief. This he hammers on so compulsively – unbelievers will get “woeful punishment,” “grievous punishment,” etc. – that he can’t go very long without bringing it up, sometimes irrelevantly while talking about something else. images-3“Unbelievers will be punished” – that’s The Koran in a nutshell. It’s kind of bizarre, really, con-sidering all the awful atrocities people commit – the “foulest deeds” can be forgiven, if you fear God – while he positively obsesses over disbelief. This is “thought crime” par excellence. In a rational appraisal, surely a mere personal belief (or disbelief), even if mistaken, cannot be the most heinous of human crimes.

Joe Schmoe

Joe Schmoe

I’m not a trained psychiatrist, but all of this smacks of a monumental insecurity complex. Why else the unrelenting assertions of his greatness and power, the “Fear God” refrain, and especially the fanatical concern over people’s belief? Why even create a book like this? Why would he care? If omniscient God knows he exists, and can smite anyone with a finger flick, what difference does it make whether Joe Schmoe believes it? If God is so great, we humans would be as vermin to him. Sane people don’t obsess over whether termites believe they exist and fear them.

Of course, The Koran was given through Mohammad as God’s mouthpiece. And if God’s obsession with disbelief makes no sense, it would have made perfect sense for Mohammad, who was literally fighting a war to put his new religion across among a skeptical people. In fact, The Koran sometimes acknowledges how hearers scoff at what Mohammad is saying; the answer (again) is that they will burn. Mohammad’s role also explains, of course, all the book’s exhortations to battle.

The Koran asserts, at various points, that the book itself is such a marvel that no human could have produced any of it. I would say it’s so uninspired and uninspiring that no god could have produced it. imagesJust like The Bible, the book can be understood only as the self-interested work of its very human authors, not of some deity who, if he did do it, would be absurd. To believe he’s behind these books is an insult to God.

* At least Joseph Smith, in the Book of Mormon, made up new stories.

Is There a God? Why I Am an Atheist and Humanist

October 17, 2013

UnknownMany different religions have been practiced throughout history and around the world – with endlessly different and conflicting stories. Can anyone be sure their faith is true, and all others are not?

You must ask yourself, “How does one know?” And with God, it’s impossible; a God as generally defined is quintessentially unknowable. We can know things about the natural realm, but not anything outside it; and if God created it, he would stand outside it, and thus outside the reach of human knowledge. No mortal could have special, privileged access to such information; all theologies are built upon nothing but imagination.

But actually, if there were a true religion, we would all know it. Because the world would be different. A fundamental truth about the very essence of things ought to be self-evident. God would not play hide-and-seek. images-3Of course, some believers think they see God in every butterfly. But Darwin gave us a more down-to-earth understanding; yet one, in its way, beautiful and awe-inspiring too.

What would a world with a God actually be like? For one thing, there’s the matter of evil and suffering. imagesStraining to reconcile this with the idea of a benevolent God has, from time immemorial, tied religious apologists in knots. None has ever made any sense. If God existed, things would be different.

Yet still believers assume God must be good. Why so? And what would “goodness” mean to God anyway? Why should it mean what we think? An omnipotent God could make evil good. And if we supposedly get morality from God, where did he get it from?

images-4This is just a taste of the tangles the God idea entails: a quicksand of incoherence and contradiction. If you think only God can explain creation, a being so powerful and complex would himself require an explanation bigger than the one he’s supposedly supplying. There is no such explanation – except for humans wishing that reality were different than it is – especially the reality of death – and that there’s so much injustice. Isn’t it obvious that religion was made up by ancient people, with limited knowledge, to fill such wishes, and explain what seemed inexplicable? And that common sense (and Occam’s Razor) tell us such fairy tales can’t possibly be true?

All the holy books were written by humans. Unknown-3Calling a book God’s word doesn’t make it so. None contains anything that ordinary people couldn’t have written. Indeed, they’re all such flawed books that any self-respecting deity would disclaim responsibility.

In sum, the world we see is totally inconsistent with the idea of a God, and totally consistent with nongoddity. Everything is natural, explicable in terms of nature itself, requiring nothing “supernatural” outside it. One by one, science has been solving the mysteries, and the answers never include God. We shouldn’t expect a different outcome regarding those questions yet to be answered.

Bigfoot -- at least there's a photo

Bigfoot — at least there’s a photo

Can I prove there’s no God? Well, nor can I prove there’s no Bigfoot. But the burden of proof is upon proponents of improbable theories. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. And God is more improbable than Bigfoot.

So why do people who refuse to be convinced by conclusive scientific evidence for evolution accept religious doctrines with no evidence at all?

Because they want to. Human psychology seems highly susceptible to such beliefs; we crave them, and suspend our skeptical faculties. Faith is a belief divorced from facts or rationality; a choice to believe regardless. One can come up with rationalizations, but that’s just trying to justify a belief that’s already been chosen.

Atheism, in contrast, is not merely another “faith” or belief; my atheism is not a choice, it’s simply acknowledging reality. But it’s not a “belief in nothing” and it isn’t bleak. I’m fine with this reality, which gives us the opportunity to live rewarding lives. images-1Rather than being playthings of an inexplicable God, our fates are in our own hands. And we have not done too badly. We’re products of a natural world wherein goodness, justice and morality don’t even figure; but we’ve progressed to achieve at least some.

Indeed, this is modernity’s big story: the cynics and pessimists are wrong. Life is improving, with democratic and humanitarian revolutions, rising quality of life, and declines in violence and suffering.* This progress has occurred not in spite of religion’s weakening, but because of that. People freed of religion are better, not worse. Humanity is being liberated from the hindrance of religion’s stultifying fatalism and false beliefs, with our confidence now lodged instead in our own selves, and our ability to understand reality and thereby to change it.

images-2Thus my humanism is properly focused on humans. This world is the only one we’ve got, and making it better is what gives our lives meaning.

* See again my review of Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,130 other followers