Posts Tagged ‘religion’

Robert Ingersoll — the greatest man you never heard of

August 28, 2018

We went to a Syracuse shindig celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Robert Ingersoll Birthplace Museum. Run by the Center for Inquiry, a secular humanist organization, its first day featured presentations, the second a bus tour to Ingersoll’s and other freethought landmarks. About ninety attended.

Ingersoll

Robert Green Ingersoll (1833-1899) was known as “The Great Agnostic.” A lawyer, he was America’s foremost public speaker in the late 19th century, traveling the country giving lectures, mostly anti-religious. People flocked to hear him. In those times, other kinds of public entertainments were almost nonexistent. And Ingersoll was such an engaging speaker that he always got a respectful hearing.

How different America is today. People were ignorant then, but knew they were. Now Americans are a little less ignorant but a lot more sure they know everything (regardless of empirical truth).

Ingersoll was a great humanist in every sense of the word — refuting the canard that “atheists believe in nothing.” Ingersoll believed in the power of human rationality to give us progress and good lives. That the happiness of sentient beings is the ultimate source of meaning. That the time to be happy is now, and the place is here, on Earth. That one’s happiness is entwined with that of others. And Ingersoll lived these principles, earning the love and admiration of everyone he touched.

His birthplace museum is in Dresden, NY, a tiny town. We were shown a screenshot from “Tripadvisor” labeling the Ingersoll site “#1 of 1 things to do in Dresden.”

Flynn

Tom Flynn (editor of CFI’s Free Inquiry magazine) placed Ingersoll in the context of what he called “the Braid of Reform” in 19th Century America. The two great causes were abolition and women’s rights (including suffrage). Not all these movements’ adherents were religious freethinkers, but many were; and most freethinkers were abolitionists and suffragists. “Freethought” means thinking outside the box of traditional religious dogmas.

Blumner

Robyn Blumner heads the CFI. She noted that its $5 million budget is the largest for any U.S. secular organization, but is dwarfed by funding for the Christian right. “Campus Crusade for Christ” has a budget a hundred times larger. Blumner said, however, that we have reason, science, and truth on our side. Though truth used to have a bigger constituency.

One CFI program she discussed had particular resonance for me: “Secular Rescue.” I am a fearless blogger — not courageous, but literally fearless because in America there’s nothing to fear over what one writes. Not so in other countries, especially Muslim ones, where “blasphemy” is a crime, sometimes punishable by death; a Saudi blogger, Raif Badawi, was sentenced to ten years in prison and 1000 lashes (to be administered in installments). In Bangladesh there’s a vigilante crusade murdering “blaspheming” bloggers. “Secular Rescue” is engaged in protecting such people and even relocating them to safer places.

Smith

Norman Dann spoke about Gerrit Smith (1797-1874), another great figure you never heard of. Extremely rich, all Smith wanted to do with his money was to advance human rights, especially abolition. He freed a lot of slaves by simply buying them. Initially he felt “moral suasion” could end slavery. Then political activism. Finally, a fellow came to him with a different approach: violence and war. That was John Brown, and Smith funded him.

Sue Boland talked about Matilda Joslyn Gage — the third woman’s suffrage triumvir, with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, though much less famous now.

Gage

Gage was a freethinker whose battle for women’s rights targeted religion, with all its patriarchal ideas. Indeed, Christianity was the most powerful force opposing female suffrage.

Gage’s son-in-law was L. Frank Baum, author of The Wizard of Oz — which Boland called a freethought fairy tale, telling us that everything we need is already inside us. (No need for that fraud behind the curtain!)

The bus tour included Gage’s house in Fayetteville, as well as, in Peterboro, the Gerrit Smith site and the National Abolition Hall of Fame.

Another program centered on D.M. Bennett, publisher of a freethought periodical, The Truth Seeker, who in 1879 fell victim to “anti-vice” pervert Anthony Comstock, being imprisoned for mailing obscenity — a book of conjugal advice. Whose author President Hayes pardoned. But, bowing to church pressure, he wouldn’t pardon Bennett.

Grube as Stanton

We also had two costumed dramatic impersonations. Melinda Grube channeled Stanton (Gerrit Smith’s cousin). A focus was how her life was shaped by her brother’s death in youth and her father’s inability to take equal pride in her, being the wrong gender. “She couldn’t change her father, or herself, so she’d have to change the world.” Like Gage, Stanton saw women’s oppression rooted in Christianity and the Bible; she authored The Woman’s Bible with plain English explanations of its pernicious passages relating to women.

Margaret Downey gave us Eva Parker Ingersoll, Robert’s wife, focusing on their love story. She quoted from a letter he wrote to Eva: “The world is getting free. I thank God every day that he does not exist.”

After dinner, the keynote speech was by Susan Jacoby, Ingersoll biographer and author of several other books (one of which I recently wrote about). Her theme: what would Ingersoll think of today’s America?

Jacoby

Jacoby stressed Ingersoll’s linking religion’s rejection of reason with the whole spectrum of social issues like women’s rights and immigration. Yes, he was enlightened even on that, battling against the onset of immigration restrictions with the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. As ever, his argument was moral: Chinese are human beings who should be treated the same as any other. “A great nation,” he said, “should be bound by the highest conception of honor and justice.” (Funny how believers insist morality comes from religion, when so often religious dogmas make them morally blind.)

Jacoby sees increasingly successful efforts by today’s religionists to undermine church-state separation, using protection of religious freedom as a wedge, twisting it into a right to impose their beliefs on others. She said Ingersoll may have been too optimistic about science’s ability to overcome all this.

The word “tribal” has been invoked a lot in analyzing Trump support. Jacoby sees that tribalism as being animated more by religion than anything else (such as economic concerns). It’s a fact that the 40% of Americans who back Trump are largely the same people who are Christian fundamentalists. And just as religious faith works to seal people off from reality checks, the same seems true in the political realm, with Trumpism more like a faith cult than a mere political viewpoint.

This too shall pass

Is there hope? Yes. One writer recently called the religious right’s ascendancy “a cultural stab from the grave,” demographically speaking. Throughout the rest of the developed world, Christian religion is in sharp retreat, with belief and churchgoing collapsing. In America, the younger you are, the less religious you are apt to be. The religious right’s flame will ultimately burn out. In the long run, reason will defeat unreason.

Advertisements

Was America founded as a “Christian nation?”

August 13, 2018

We’re often told that it was. The aim is to cast secularism as somehow un-American, and override the Constitution’s separation of church and state. But it’s the latter idea that’s un-American; and it’s historical nonsense. Just one more way in which the religious right is steeped in lies (forgetting the Ninth Commandment).

Jacoby

They assault what is in fact one of the greatest things about America’s birth. It’s made clear in Susan Jacoby’s book, Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism.

Firstly, it tortures historical truth to paint the founding fathers as devout Christians. They were not; instead men of the Enlightenment. While “atheism” wasn’t even a thing at the time, most of them were as close to it as an Eighteenth Century person could be. Franklin was surely one of the century’s most irreverent. Washington never in his life penned the name “Christ.” Jefferson cut-and-pasted his own New Testament, leaving out everything supernatural and Christ’s divinity. In one letter he called Christian doctrine “metaphysical insanity.”

The secularism issue was arguably joined in 1784 (before the Constitution) when Patrick Henry introduced a bill in Virginia’s legislature to tax all citizens to fund “teachers of the Christian religion.” Most states still routinely had quasi-official established churches. But James Madison and others mobilized public opinion onto an opposite path. The upshot was Virginia passing not Henry’s bill but, instead, one Jefferson had proposed years earlier: the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom.

It was one of three achievements Jefferson had engraved on his tombstone.

The law promulgated total separation of church and state. Nobody could be required to support any religion, nor be penalized or disadvantaged because of religious beliefs or opinions. In the world of the Eighteenth Century, this was revolutionary. News of it spread overseas and created an international sensation. After all, this was a world still bathed in blood from religious believers persecuting other religious believers. It was not so long since people were burned at the stake over religion, and since a third of Europe’s population perished in wars of faith. Enough, cried Virginia, slashing this Gordian knot of embroiling governmental power with religion.

Soon thereafter delegates met in Philadelphia to create our Constitution. It too was revolutionary; in part for what it did not say. The word “God” nowhere appears, let alone the word “Christian.” Instead of starting with a nod to the deity, which would have seemed almost obligatory, the Constitution begins “We the people of the United States . . . .” We people did this, ourselves, with no god in the picture.

This feature did not pass unnoticed at the time; to the contrary, it was widely denounced, as an important argument against ratifying the Constitution. But those views were outvoted, and every state ratified.

It gets better. Article 6, Section 3 says “no religious test shall ever be required” for holding any public office or trust. This too was highly controversial, contradicting what was still the practice in most states, and with opponents warning that it could allow a Muslim (!) president. But the “no religious test” provision shows the Constitution’s framers were rejecting all that, and totally embracing, instead, the religious freedom stance of Virginia’s then-recent enactment. And that too was ratified.

Indeed, it still wasn’t even good enough. In the debates over ratification, many felt the Constitution didn’t sufficiently safeguard freedoms, including religious freedom, and they insisted on amendments, which were duly adopted in 1791. That was the Bill of Rights. And the very first amendment guaranteed freedom of both speech and religion — which go hand-in-hand. This made clear that all Americans have a right to their opinions, and to voice those opinions, including ideas about religion, and that government could not interfere. Thus would Jefferson later write of “the wall of separation” between church and state.

All this was, again, revolutionary. The founders, people of great knowledge and wisdom, understood exactly what they were doing, having well in mind all the harm that had historically been done by government entanglement with religion. What they created was something new in the world, and something very good indeed.

Interestingly, as Jacoby’s book explains, much early U.S. anti-Catholic prejudice stemmed from Protestants’ fear that Catholics, if they got the chance, would undermine our hard-won church-state separation, repeating the horrors Europe had endured.

A final point by Jacoby: the religious attack on science (mainly, evolution science) does not show religion and science are necessarily incompatible. Rather, it shows that a religion claiming “the one true answer to the origins and ultimate purpose of human life” is “incompatible not only with science but with democracy.” Because such a religion really says that issues like abortion, capital punishment, or biomedical research can never be resolved by imperfect human opinion, but only by God’s word. This echoes the view of Islamic fundamentalists that democracy itself, with humans presuming to govern themselves, is offensive to God. What that means in practice, of course, is not rule by (a nonexistent) God but by pious frauds who pretend to speak for him.

I’m proud to be a citizen of a nation founded as a free one* — not a Christian one.

* What about slaves? What about women? Sorry, I have no truck with those who blacken America’s founding because it was not a perfect utopia from Day One. Rome wasn’t built in a day. The degree of democracy and freedom we did establish were virtually without precedent in the world of the time. And the founders were believers in human progress, who created a system open to positive change; and in the centuries since, we have indeed achieved much progress.

“Without God everything is permitted”

April 20, 2018

My wife and I have been reading, aloud to each other, The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky’s 1880 novel. A key motif is whether “without God everything is permitted.” That’s become a major talking point against atheism; the notion that atheists have no reason to be moral. Indeed, the idea’s societal reverberations may well be traceable back to Karamazov.

It was written when atheism was beginning to be important. Nietzsche soon declared, “God is dead.” Dostoevsky was himself deeply religious, yet in Karamazov he does not cavalierly dismiss the opposing point of view. Rather, he wrestles with the moral implications.

I have previously discussed morality without God. If we need him for morality, we’d be in trouble, because of course he’s a fiction. But in truth, whatever moral codes religions prescribe, they are merely a reflection of our pre-existing moral intuitions, rooted in evolution. Our ancestors lived in groups wherein cooperation, morality, and even altruism aided survival. People with tendencies toward those virtues lived to pass along their genes. These norms became further embedded through culture; religions are cultural inventions and again merely incorporate the moral ideas already a part of a given culture.

Further, each of us figures out, using common sense and our rational minds, how to live. Most of us do what’s right because it feels right. Our empathy for others dissuades us from actions harming them. And we realize it’s better to live in a society where people treat each other decently than in a Hobbesian “war of all against all.” None of this requires a God.

In Karamazov, Ivan hallucinates a conversation with the Devil. And in it, the Devil makes this remarkable speech — imagining what he thinks Ivan himself would say:

“Once every member of the human race discards the idea of God (and I believe that such an era will come, like some new geological age), the old world-view will collapse by itself without recourse to cannibalism . . . . Men will unite in their efforts to get everything out of life that it can offer them, but only for joy and happiness in this world. Man will be exalted spiritually with a divine, titanic pride and the man-god will come into being. Extending his conquest over nature beyond all bounds through his will and his science, man will constantly experience such great joy that it will replace for him his former anticipation of the pleasures that await him in heaven. Everyone will know that he is mortal, and will accept his death with calm and dignity, like a god. He will understand, out of sheer pride, that there is no point in protesting that life lasts only a fleeting moment, and he will love his brother man without expecting any reward for it. Love will satisfy only a moment in life, but the very awareness of its momentary nature will concentrate its flames, which before were diffused and made pale by the anticipation of eternal life beyond the grave . . . And so on and so forth. Very sweet!”

The Devil is being sardonic, as the final words show. He’s mocking Ivan. And yet this speech — put in the Devil’s mouth by the very religious author — actually expresses pretty well my own humanist ethos.

In the next passage the Devil invokes twice the “everything is permitted” trope — the new “man-god” can “jump without scruple over every barrier of the old moral code devised for the man-slave.”

Yet scruples are integral to our essential human nature. Our morality, which is self-built, does not enslave us, but liberates us, to live good lives, despite lacking ennoblement conferred by a god.

God and Man in Paris

November 16, 2015

We all must die.

imagesBut we don’t let that stop us enjoying life. Indeed, it makes it all the more precious. Those Parisians were out enjoying life – at restaurants, bars, concert halls, and taking pleasure in the company of others.

It is this that was targeted.

Not infrastructure, not government, not military, not cultural icons – no, they targeted just human beings in the act of joyful living. They attacked the very essence of living itself.

Ostensibly they did it for God. The true motivations are a vipers’ nest of psychopathology. But at its core this is anti-humanism: the antithesis between what makes life worth living and a bleak mentality that reviles it.

But it’s the essence of religion to embody seemingly transcendent ideas which, throughout history, have enflamed people to torture themselves (and others) in service thereto; ranging from Indian mystics sticking pins through their bodies, to Shakers abjuring sex and Russian Skoptsy going one better with castration, and now Muslim radicals aspiring to some sort of perverted purification through violence, cruelty, and the self-destruction of suicide bombing.

UnknownEnough. There is no god. Just us human beings, trying to make the best of our limited lives and to love one another.

(Acknowledgment: this was inspired by a posting from the British Humanist Association.)

Muslims Killing Muslims

September 27, 2015

imagesIn the news: Over 700 killed in a human stampede at the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca.

A presidential candidate was recently asked whether something about Islam makes its adherents prone to violence. The politically correct answer, of course, is “no;” George W. Bush flattered Islam as a “religion of peace.” My answer is different.

A greatly disproportionate number of the world’s violent conflicts involve Muslims, and it’s not because non-Muslims are picking on them. Most victims too, of movements like Al Qaeda and ISIS, are Muslims.

thOne might say it’s a matter of culture, not religion, but the two are inextricably intertwined. It’s dangerous when a religion claims a huge cosmic truth, inspiring condemnation of anyone not with the program. Thus Christianity too has a blood-soaked history; but Christians have mellowed out, finally recognizing the desirability of coexisting with other opinions. That’s a maturity still eluding the Muslim world, much of which still holds the outrageous doctrine that apostasy gets the death penalty. And that can apply even to narrow doctrinal disagreements within Islam.

I refrained from using some of the stomach-churning images I found

I refrained from using some of the stomach-churning images I found

Quite simply, Muslim culture does not respect human autonomy. That’s a recipe for violence not only with other cultures but within Muslim communities themselves. Just one manifestation is “honor killings.” What else can we make of fathers killing daughters for (perceived) misbehavior? (And often by horrific methods.) Yes, there is indeed something about Islamic culture making people prone to violence; and if it’s not exactly a matter of religion, certainly religion does not inhibit it.

So now we see Muslims killing each other on a religious pilgrimage. Okay, yes, it was accidental, and similar things have occurred elsewhere. But over 700 deaths? And, I’m sorry, but “accidental” doesn’t quite cover it. For it to happen, many people in those crowds had to behave a certain way, they could not have been – in that moment at least – in a reverent, love-your-Muslim-brother state of mind. How easily they forgot their religion, even while on a pilgrimage.

images1This kind of thing is why religion, to me, is a cruel joke. People don’t need religion to be good. Human beings are naturally good, most of the time, and when they’re not, religion doesn’t help. It tends to be more an exacerbating factor than a mitigating factor.

Dalai Lama Reincarnation: Who Gets to Decide?

March 23, 2015

imagesTibet has had 14 Dalai Lamas. Heretofore, when one died, the leading lamas went out to find a small child who is deemed to be the reincarnated Dalai Lama. But the current one (Tenzin Gyatso) now says he may not be reincarnated.

China disagrees, considering this something for its government to decide. Ruling Tibet by repression, China has always ferociously demonized the Dalai Lama (who left Tibet in 1959); and, when he dies, plans to dredge up some pliant toady as his supposed reincarnation (something China imagines will help solve its Tibet problem). This is what led the current Dalai Lama to get off the reincarnation train. “There is no guarantee that some stupid Dalai Lama won’t come next,” he said.

China’s satrap governor of Tibet declared that in saying such things, the Dalai Lama is “profaning religion and Tibetan Buddhism.” It is good to know that China’s rulers are so protective of such religious values; instructing the Dalai Lama himself on how to be a good Buddhist. And here we thought the Communist regime was a bunch of atheists.

images-1In fact, China actually has an official in charge of religious matters, Zhu Weiqun. It was he who insisted that Dalai Lama reincarnation is a governmental decision.

If you think we have over-mighty government in America, just imagine a government that claims the prerogative of regulating one’s reincarnation. We are fortunate to be living in a free country where reincarnation is still a private matter. I sure don’t want some government bureaucrat telling me who, if anyone, will inhabit my soul in my next life.

They might have me come back as a religious nut!

Ebola: God’s Punishment for Homosexuality?

December 16, 2014

Unknown-1Recently the Liberian Council of Churches met, with over 100 participants, to discuss Ebola. They unanimously resolved “That God is angry with Liberia, and that Ebola is a plague. Liberians have to pray and seek God’s forgiveness over the corruption and immoral acts (such as homosexualism [sic], etc.) that continue to penetrate our society.”

The “God is angry” trope, punishing nations with otherwise seemingly natural phenomena, is very common. UnknownPat Robertson similarly declared that Hurricane Katrina was God’s punishment of America for abortion, and Haiti’s earthquake for Satanism. But homosexuality is the “sin” of choice for such pronouncements. Is God really as obsessed with such matters as the preachers are?

It’s silly in so many ways it might seem gratuitous to enumerate them. But I will. How can any earthlings (let alone Pat Robertson) presume to read God’s mind? Who’s to say that a natural disaster isn’t, well, natural? If God so hates gays, why make so many of them?* Why are these punishments for “sins” so poorly targeted (like crushing just New Orleans), rarely singling out the individual “sinners?” (AIDS might be the lone exception.) In fact, it isn’t homosexuality or abortion per se that’s supposedly being punished but, rather, the country’s toleration of them. America today might be “guilty” of tolerating gays. But Liberia? I don’t think so.

And is homosexuality – or, rather, merely tolerating it – such a great sin that it incurs God’s special wrath? I mean, come on. images-1Even if you really really hate homosexuality, surely there are worse crimes. Would God punish Liberians over gay sex – but not over Charles Taylor‘s horrors? And you didn’t see him punishing Germany for Nazism. (True, some cities were incinerated, but that wasn’t God’s doing, it was allied bombing.)

Anyway, why punish nations with hurricanes or diseases when God still wields the ultimate stick: eternal damnation? People who really piss him off burn in Hell forever. You’d think that would fill the bill. What’s the point of gilding the lily with plagues or bad weather?

Enough. Obviously, all the babble about Godly punishment reveals more about the babblers than about God. So blinded are those babblers by their obsessions with their favorite “sins,” they can’t see the looniness of their pronouncements. If there were a God he’d be, like, LOL.

Or maybe he’d afflict them with plagues. Now that would truly be divine punishment.images

* Yes, they are made that way, and (except perhaps for certain lesbians) it’s not a choice. Homophobes might say that even so, the behavior is a choice. But what heterosexual would accept a need to abstain from heterosexual behavior? The only moral objection to gay sex is the Bible’s condemnation. The Bible also warmly endorses slavery.

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.