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  • “The Experience of God”: An “Adult Christian” vs. the New Atheists

    Posted on February 1st, 2014 Helian No comments

    The latest gambit among the spiritually inclined opponents of such “New Atheists” as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris has been to deprecate them as “undergraduate atheists.”  Their unseemly and childish squabbles with equally unenlightened  religious fundamentalists are supposedly just the predictable outcome of their mutual confusion about the real nature of God.   They are in dire need of adult supervision from more sophisticated believers who have troubled themselves to acquire this knowledge.  One such self-appointed guardian of the divine wisdom is David Bentley Hart, whose latest effort to set the New Atheists straight is entitled The Experience of God.  As Hart puts it,

    …any attempt to confirm or disprove the reality of God can be meaningfully undertaken only in a way appropriate to what God is purported to be.  If one imagines that God is some discrete object visible to physics or some finite aspect of nature, rather than the transcendent actuality of all things and all knowing, the logically inevitable Absolute upon which the contingent depends, then one simply has misunderstood what the content of the concept of God truly is, and has nothing to contribute to the debate.

    Well, that’s not entirely true.  I rather suspect that Dawkins and the rest aren’t quite as ignorant as Hart suggests of the Eastern Philosophy 101 version of God he portrays in his book.  As he claims, it’s a version that’s common to the mystics of Christianity, Islam, and many other religious traditions.  However, the New Atheists have quite reasonably chosen to focus their attention on the God that most people actually believe in rather than the one favored by Hart and the rest of the metaphysicians.  According to Hart, all this amounts to is a pitiful spectacle of equally ignorant atheists and religious fundamentalists chasing each others tails.  Supposedly, by focusing on what most of the faithful actually believe about the nature of God, the New Atheists have removed themselves from the debate.  In reality, Hart is the one who’s not really in the “debate,” because he artificially attempts to lift himself out of it.  He does this by fragmenting God into a “philosophical” God and a “dogmatic” God, as if the latter were irrelevant to the former.  This is supposedly done in order to achieve “clarity,” and to spare the reader “boring arguments.”  In fact, this taking a meat ax to God to chop off the inconvenient bits achieves the very opposite of “clarity.”  What it does do is obfuscate the very real and very sharp incompatibilities between the different religious traditions that Dawkins was referring to when he wrote in the God Delusion,

    We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in.  Some of us just go one god further.

    We can assume that, as Hart claims, all the great religious traditions are in broad agreement about the “philosophical” God that he describes at length in his book.  What about the “dogmatic” God that is distinguished in the different religions and sects by how many wills He has, how many natures He has, what His “substance” is, whether or not he is “begotten,” whether he comes in one person or three, etc.  These distinctions are very real, important, and can’t just be dismissed with a wave of the hand to achieve “clarity.”

    For example, most Christians believe in the Trinity, and virtually all of them believe that the term “begotten” is associated with God in one way or another.  Moslems beg to differ.  Muhammad said quite plainly that, not only is this Christian version of God wrong, but those who believe in the Trinity, or that Christ was “begotten” as one of God’s persons, will burn in hell forever.  “Forever,” of course, is a very long time, compared to which the supposed 13 plus billion year age of the universe is but the blink of an eye.  Muhammad was also quite explicit about what burning in hell means.  One’s physical body will be immersed in fire, and a new skin will immediately replace each old one as it is consumed by the flames.  One might say that if, as Hart insists, there really is a God, he might be a great deal less “bored” by the distinction between the Trinitarian and Unitarian versions of God after he dies than he is now.  He might end up in a rather more tropical climate than he expected.

    It is one of Hart’s favorite conceits, practiced, he assures us, since the days of the earliest fathers of the church, to dismiss all the contradictions and physical absurdities in the Bible as “allegories.”  Unfortunately, one does not have this luxury with the Quran.  Muhammad said quite plainly that he hadn’t written any riddles or allegories, and he meant everything he said.  In fact, the different versions of God are the same only if we allow Hart to perform his “dogmatic” lobotomy on them.  Thus, to the extent that they make any sense at all, such statements in the book as,

    …if one is content merely to devise images of God that are self-evidently nonsensical, and then proceed triumphantly to demonstrate just how infuriatingly nonsensical they are, one is not going to accomplish anything interesting.

    can make sense only after Hart has carefully denatured God by excising all his “dogmatic” bits.  But what of Hart’s “philosophical” God, this denatured God of the mystics and metaphysicians, about whose nature Christian priests, Moslem mullahs, and Hindu sadhus are supposed to be in such loving agreement?  Predictably, it turns out that He exists up on an intellectual shelf, free from the prying rationality of the atheists.  As Hart puts it,

    All the great theistic traditions agree that God, understood in this proper sense, is essentially beyond finite comprehension, hence, much of the language used of Him is negative in form and has been reached only by a logical process of abstraction from those qualities of finite reality that make it insufficient to account for its own existence.  All agree as well, however, that he can genuinely be known:  that is, reasoned toward, intimately encountered, directly experienced with fullness surpassing mere conceptual comprehension.

    He then goes on to present us with the terms that, later in the book, are to figure prominently both in his definition of God and the proof of his existence:

    The terms in which I have chosen to speak of God, as the title page of the volume announces, are “being,” “consciousness,” and “bliss.”  This is a traditional ternion that I have borrowed from Indian tradition… they are ideal descriptions not only of how various traditions understand the nature of God, but also of how the reality of God can, according to those traditions, be experienced and known by us.  For to say that God is being, consciousness, and bliss is also to say that he is the one reality in which all our existence, knowledge, and love subsist, from which they come and to which they go, and that therefore he is somehow present in even our simplest experience of the world, and is approachable by way of a contemplative and moral refinement of experience.

    I invite those interested in a further explication of these terms to consult Hart’s book, as he devotes a chapter to each of them.  However, for the purposes of this post, I will cut to the chase.  These terms are supposed to constitute a bulletproof rejoinder to the “undergraduate atheists.”  According to Hart, we cannot explain how there is something rather than nothing without a God (being), we cannot explain consciousness without a God, and we cannot explain such things as beauty or the “moral law within” without God (bliss).  I must say that I am in  full agreement with Hart to the extent that I don’t know why there is something rather than nothing.  I have no clue how I can be conscious, and I haven’t the faintest inkling of exactly how my consciousness experiences beauty.  However, the hoary conceit that we are somehow forced to supply a God to explain the things we don’t understand strikes me as rather weak, especially for someone like Hart, who writes in the style of a high school prima donna who people have made such a fuss over that she imagines she’s Meryl Streep.

    In reality, Hart’s “proofs” of God’s existence amount to nothing more than the classic non sequitur of supplying something more complicated to explain something less complicated, regardless of whether he chooses to describe God as an object, a subject, a Ground of Being, an Absolute Reality, or whatever.  In the end, that’s really all he’s got.  These three words supply his whole rationalization to himself of why he’s infinitely smarter and wiser than the “undergraduate atheists.”  He would have been better off just stating these “proofs” and leaving it at that, but he couldn’t resist pondering the implications of these three “incontrovertible” truths for science itself, and lecturing the scientists accordingly.  We learn in the process that he’s not only way, way smarter than just the New Atheists, but also such worthies as the physicists Weinberg, Feynman and Hawking, to whom he delivers a stern lecture for daring to violate his metaphysical territory.  Needless to say, he also imagines himself far above such intellectual “lightweights” as Dawkins,

    As for Dawkins’ own attempt at an argument against the likelihood of God’s existence, it is so crude and embarrassingly confused as to be germane to nothing at all, perhaps not even to itself.

    as for the rest of the New Atheists,

    Even the stridency, bigotry, childishness and ignorance with which the current atheist vogue typically expresses itself should perhaps be excused as no more than an effervescence of primitive fervor on the part of those who, finding themselves poised upon a precipice overlooking the abyss of ultimate absurdity, have made a madly valiant leap of faith.

    Hart presents us with such bluster repeatedly, without accompanying it with a serious attempt to specifically address so much as one of Dawkins’ actual arguments against the existence of God.  In fact, one might say he is the perfect platonic “form” of a Pharisee.  One can just imagine him in the temple, praying to his God,

    I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this New Atheist. (Luke 18:11)

    One wonders how he squares this flamboyant intellectual hubris with such teachings of Jesus as,

    Verily I say unto you, except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.  (Matthew 18:3)

    Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:3)

    and

    Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth. (Matthew 5:5)

    No doubt, like Noah’s ark and the Garden of Eden they are just another lot of “allegories.”  For all his hubris, the self-assurance with which Hart lectures the likes of Hawking and Feynman is based on a level of scientific understanding that is, shall we say, idiosyncratic.  For example,

    As a species, we have been shaped evolutionarily, in large part at least, by transcendental ecstasies whose orientation exceeds the whole of nature.  Instead of speaking vacuously of genetic selfishness, then, it would be immeasurably more accurate to say that compassion, generosity, love, and conscience have a unique claim on life.

    and

    The mystery remains:  the transcendent good, which is invisible to the forces of natural selection, has made a dwelling for itself within the consciousness of rational animals.  A capacity has appeared within nature that, in its very form, is supernatural:  it cannot be accounted for entirely in terms of the economy of advantageous cooperation because it continually and exorbitantly exceeds any sane calculation of evolutionary benefits.  Yet, in the effectual order of evolution, it is precisely this irrepressible excessiveness that, operating as a higher cause, inscribes its logic upon the largely inert substrate of genetic materials, and guides the evolution of rational nature toward an openness to ends that cannot be enclosed within mere physical processes.

    No doubt this will inspire some serious rewriting of the mathematical models of the geneticists and evolutionary biologists.  It grieved me to see that, of all the scientific tribes, the evolutionary psychologists were singled out for a double helping of Hart’s disapprobation.  Those ubiquitous whipping boys for ideological and religious zealots of all stripes came in for his particular ire for suggesting that morality might not come from God.  In other words, they sinned against the “bliss” part of his “ternion.”  As Hart somewhat flamboyantly explains,

    In the end, the incongruity speaks for itself.  No explanation of ethical desire entirely in terms of evolutionary benefit can ever really account for the sheer exorbitance of the moral passion of which rational minds are capable, or for the transcendentally “ecstatic” structure of moral longing.

    In other words, Hart believes in “hard-wired” morality.  He just thinks that God did the wiring.  However, furious at the pretensions of the evolutionary psychologists, he seizes on the nearest rock to throw at them.  As it happens, this is the very same rock that leftist ideologues once fashioned for themselves:

    There are now even whole academic disciplines, like evolutionary psychology, that promote themselves as forms of science but that are little more than morasses of metaphor.  (Evolutionary psychologists often become quite indignant when one says this, but a “science” that can explain every possible form of human behavior and organization, however universal or idiosyncratic, and no matter how contradictory of other behaviors, as some kind of practical evolutionary adaptation of the modular brain, clearly has nothing to offer but fabulous narratives – Just So Stories, as it were – disguised as scientific propositions.)

    Ludicrously, Hart doesn’t realize that the “Just So Story” gambit makes no sense whatsoever if there really is a “moral law within.”  It was invented by the Blank Slaters to bolster their arguments that all human behavior is a product of culture and experience.  Presumably, if there really is a “moral law within,” the experiments of the evolutionary psychologists would detect it.  If Hart’s God-given version of morality is true, than the notion that what they’re seeing are “Just So Stories” is out of the question.  The poor, dumb boobs just don’t realize who put the morality there to begin with.

    Apparently Hart has read so many books of metaphysics that, like Cervantes’ Don Quixote with his books of knight-errantry, his brain has dried up.  It is no longer possible for him to imagine that anyone who doesn’t swallow the ancient conceit that, because there are things that we don’t understand, there must be a God, could possibly be arguing in good faith.  Indeed, they must be evil!  And so, in the spirit of that venerable Christian teaching,

    Judge not, that ye be not judged.  For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.  (Matthew 7:1-2)

    Hart gives us a glance at his religious zealot’s teeth, now sadly rotted and dulled since the days of Torquemada and the Inquisition.  For example, anyone who doesn’t believe in God is a collaborator with the Communists and Nazis:

    Hence certain distinctively modern contributions to the history of human cruelty:  “scientific” racism, Social Darwinism, the eugenics movement, criminological theories about inherited degeneracy, “curative” lobotomies, mandatory sterilizations, and so on – and, in the fullness of time, the racial ideology of the Third Reich (which regarded human nature as a biological technology to be perfected) and the collectivist ideology of the communist totalitarianisms (which regarded human nature as a social and economic technology to be reconstructed)… This is why it is silly to assert (as I have heard two of the famous New Atheists do of late) that the atheism of many of those responsible for the worst atrocities of the twentieth century was something entirely incidental to their crimes, or that there is no logical connection between the cultural decline of religious belief at the end of the nineteenth century and the political and social horrors of the first half of the twentieth.

    This in spite of the fact that, as Hitler wrote and said repeatedly, he was a firm Christian believer.  For example, from one of his speeches,

    My feelings as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter. It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded by a few followers, recognized these Jews for what they were and summoned men to fight against them and who, God’s truth was greatest not as a sufferer but as a fighter.  In boundless love as a Christian and as a man I read through the passage which tells us how the Lord at last rose in His might and seized the    scourge to drive out of the Temple the brood of vipers and adders.    How terrific was His fight for the world against the Jewish poison.

    As for Communism, countless pundits have pointed out that socialist ideology was a religion, the essential difference between it and, for example, Christianity and Islam, lying merely in the fact that its devotees worshipped a secular rather than a spiritual God.  Indeed, the great Scotch intellectual Sir James Mackintosh, writing long before the heyday of Marx, correctly predicted its eventual demise because, unlike the traditional spiritual gods, its god could be fact-checked.

    Undeterred, and probably innocent of any knowledge of such inconvenient truths, and with the briefest of mentions of the war, slaughter, and oppression that actually have been the direct result of religious belief through the centuries, Hart goes on to explain that atheists are guilty, not only of the sins of the Communists, but of the bourgeoisie as well!

    Late modern society is principally concerned with purchasing things, in ever greater abundance and variety, and so has to strive to fabricate an ever greater number of desires to gratify, and to abolish as many limits and prohibitions upon desire as it can.  Such a society is already implicitly atheist and so must slowly but relentlessly apply itself to the dissolution of transcendent values… In our time, to strike a lapidary phrase, irreligion is the opiate of the bourgeoisie, the sigh of the oppressed ego, the heart of a world filled with tantalizing toys.

    So much for the notion of a “dialogue” between atheists and believers.  In closing, I cannot refrain from quoting a bit from Edward Fitzgerald’s wonderful critique of organized religion in general and Islam in particular, disguised as a “translation” of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat.

    Would you that spangle of Existence spend

    About the Secret–Quick about it, Friend!

    A Hair perhaps divides the False and True–

    And upon what, prithee, may life depend?

    A Hair perhaps divides the False and True;

    Yes; and a single Alif were the clue–

    Could you but find it–to the Treasure-house,

    And peradventure to The Master too;

    Whose secret Presence, through Creation’s veins

    Running Quicksilver-like eludes your pains;

    Taking all shapes from Mah to Mahi; and

    They change and perish all–but He remains;

    A moment guess’d–then back behind the Fold

    Immerst of Darkness round the Drama roll’d

    Which, for the Pastime of Eternity,

    He doth Himself contrive, enact, behold.

    Obviously, Fitzgerald knew all about Hart’s metaphysical God and his “quicksilver-like” presence.  There’s a lot more to his poem than “a loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou.”

  • Artifacts of the Defenders of the Faith

    Posted on September 26th, 2012 Helian No comments

    Pundits on the right have been less than pleased by what they view as a timid defense of freedom of speech and appeasement of radical Islamists by both Obama Administration officials and public intellectuals on the left in the wake of the murder of Ambassador Stevens and the accompanying violence in the Mideast.  See for example, this piece by Ann Althouse, and this by Victor Davis Hanson.  If the wobbly stuff emanating from the L.A. Times, The New Republic, and MSNBC is in any way representative, they have a point.  In fact, the Left in the US and Europe has been exchanging admiring glances with the Islamists for some time.  It’s not surprising.  Following the collapse of Communism, radical Islam is the only game in town if your tastes run to extreme ideologies and you like to imagine yourself as a savior of the world.  Unfortunately, it takes a very flexible intellect to abandon the ideological shibboleths embraced by the Left for the last couple of decades in favor of a misogynistic and fundamentalist version of Islam.  Hence, the love affair has been carried on from a distance for the most part.  If it’s any consolation to Professors Althouse and Hanson, things have been worse.  Much worse.

    It’s instructive to occasionally step back from the flood of information about current events that constantly pours in over the public media and look at the equivalent sources of information and opinion from times gone by.  Consider the first half of the 1930’s, for example.  The Great Depression had a strong tendency to adjust the attitudes of the public intellectuals of the day.  Many of them were also fascinated by, and strongly supportive of, the totalitarian regimes that had recently appeared on the scene, some leaning to the Communist and some to the fascist variants thereof.  I found interesting examples of both while thumbing through an old copy of The Atlantic Monthly.

    The issue in question, dated November 1934, began with a piece by Vincent Sheean entitled “Youth and Revolution.”  I highly recommend Sheean’s books, such as Not Peace but a Sword and Personal History to interested readers.  Sheean was an excellent writer and journalist, and had a knack for turning up at key places just as events that shaped history were happening.  He was also a forerunner of what a whole generation of later journalists became; a self-appointed champion of noble causes who saw the world in stark black and white, with few shades of grey in between.  He had no illusions about Hitler at all, and witnessed and wrote about Nazi brutality against the Jews at a time when many “experts” who should have known better were dismissing such stories as “atrocity fables.”  Hitler was a “bad guy.”  Stalin and the Bolsheviks, on the other hand, were “good guys.”  When it came to the bloody deeds of the likes of Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco, Sheean didn’t miss a trick, but was strangely blind to the ample evidence of similar mayhem available at the time if the perpetrators happened to be Communists.

    In the article he wrote for the Atlantic, Sheean describes a trip to China in 1927.  To set the stage historically, he arrived in China during the Northern Expedition, in which Nationalist forces under Chiang Kai-shek triumphed over a coalition of warlords and succeeded in uniting most of the country in 1928.  Nanking had fallen to them in March 1927, a couple of weeks before Sheean arrived, and tensions between Chiang and the Communists in the Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist Party) were coming to a head.  They would soon culminate in Shanghai Massacre and the purge of Communists from the party which, until then had been supplied with arms and money from the Soviet Union.  The Soviet envoy, Mikhail Borodin, was allowed to “escape” from the country.  Here are a few excerpts from Sheean’s article:

    The moment of triumph was inevitably the one in which the two elements among the Cantonese victors would separate.  Genuine revolutionaries – those who wished to change the conditions of life in China, and not simply the forms or names of government – found themselves obliged to cling to the Left Wing of the Kuomintang, in which Russian influence was paramount.  The others – those who took part in the revolution for their own advantage, or were prevented by the tenacity of middle-class ideas from wishing to disturb the established arrangement of wealth – collected around the treasuries of Shanghai and Nanking, under the patronage of the Chinese bankers of those cities and their new ally, Chiang Kai-shek.

    …the difference between an academic acquaintance with Communism and an actual perception of its spirit is very great.  The step required to pass from the first state to the second is so easy that it may be accomplished in a moment, and so difficult that it may involve the effort of a lifetime… but when the step has at last been taken, the barrier passed, we enter a world in which all parts of the structure of existence are so related and harmonized, so subjugated to a sovereign system, that its ordered beauty and majesty give us the sensation of a new form of life, as if we had moved off into space and taken up our abode, for a time, on another star… The world of Lenin (which is, in effect, all around us) can be entered in a moment, but only if the disposition of circumstances, persons, influences, can conquer the laziness of a bourgeois mind.  The required combinations occurred for me at Hankow, and were given force and form, particularly, by Michael Borodin and Rayna Prohme (Russian editor of the left wing Kuomintangs newspaper).

    Borodin, a large, calm man with the natural dignity of a lion or a panther, had that special quality of being in, but above, the battle that seems to me to deserve, in itself and without regard to the judgment of the world, the name of greatness… As I knew him better I perceived – or, rather, he showed me – how his political philosophy made breadth and elevation inevitable in the mind that understood it.  He was an Old Bolshevik.

    Such were the musings and reminiscences of a “mainstream media” journalist in 1934.  As the reader will gather, Sheean was singularly ill-equipped intellectually to give his audience a balanced view of the Stalinist regime in Russia, or an understanding of the real nature of Communism.  I encourage anyone who thinks he was the only one writing the sort of stuff cited above in 1934 to look through a few of the intellectual journals of the time.  The question among many of the authors who contributed to them was not whether capitalism was dead, but which flavor of socialism would replace it, and whether the “inevitable” transition would occur violently or not.  For the record, Borodin disappeared into the Gulag in 1949, and died in captivity in 1951, having escaped that fate much longer than most of the old Bolsheviks.  The current state of the “worker’s paradise” in China should be familiar to most readers.

    Apologists for the other brand of totalitarianism extant at the time, fascism, were fewer in number, but hardly uncommon.  One of them, William Orton, a professor of economics at Smith College, contributed an article to the Atlantic entitled “New Wine in Germany.” It soothed readers’ “irrational” fears about Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime that had seized power in that country in January 1933.  Orton had no more problem with Hitler’s suppression of “bourgeois” freedoms than Sheean had with the suppression of those freedoms by the Communists.  He wrote at a time when much of the propaganda about atrocities perpetrated by the Germans in World War I had been debunked, spawning an attitude among intellectuals that all reports of atrocities were to be taken with a grain of salt.  This instance of “learning the lessons of history” was particularly unhelpful at a time when the Communists and Nazis were competing for the title of greatest mass murderers of all time.  The many eyewitness reports coming out of Germany and the Soviet Union were dismissed with the sage observation that, “It’s necessary to break a few eggs to make an omelet.  Orton applied this logic to the violent Nazi persecution of the Jews that Sheean, among others, had already described in great detail.  Here are some of the things he had to say about the “New Wine in Germany.”

    It is not difficult, after three thousand miles of travel in Germany, to recognize in one’s mind a certain general impression; but it is almost impossible to convey that impression in speech or writing.  One has the sense of a tremendous spiritual or psychological fact – overwhelming in its magnitude, urgent in its significance.  But since the ingredients of this fact are primarily neither personal nor political, it eludes the scope of both the ordinary news story and the ordinary article.  Perhaps the film could do it justice.

    A sound film, of course, it would have to be.  Drums – no, not the drums first.  Silence – the silence that surrounds a great ship coming into harbor; and, somewhere up above, a band playing the new national anthem, the ‘Horst Wessel Lied’ – a fine music, reserved, steady, powerful in its measure, swinging out in the sunshine over the massed decks, over the narrowing water, over the crowded dock, over thousands of arms held motionless in the splendid gesture of the Fascist salute.  Swing the camera along those lines of hands, held tense, not flaccid; close up to the faces; look at the lips, look at the eyes, shining, shining…

    Confronted by this transition from party to government, British and American opinion exhibits a reluctance to face the facts that amounts to a positive refusal.  Atrocity stories are played up, blunders magnified, oppression emphasized, …until a fair estimate of Hitler and his system is out of the question.  There was the same display of stubborn short-sightedness in regard to the Italian and the Russian revolution, but in neither case was the myopia as acute as in this one.  The roots of the disease must be exposed, since it renders a realistic attitude to modern Germany impossible.

    Evidently Orton considered himself just the man to cure the “myopia,” and convey a “realistic attitude” about Hitler.  He continues,

    Germany is completely united in the determination to assert her equality of status with other powers; she has the means to do so, and there exists neither the right nor the possibility of preventing her.

    Whether we will or no, we must take the risk of believing in the German people.

    Germany has no present desire to provoke a war; and she has given certain tangible evidences (as Mussolini did not) of this fact.  Hitler said, a few weeks ago, that ‘no colony was worth a single German life.’  His lieutenants have repeatedly said that with the return of the Saar there will remain no further cause of quarrel with France.  There is good ground for accepting these assurances.  But more weighty evidence is supplied by the ten-year treaty with Poland and the agreement recently concluded by Danzig with that state.  To anyone who knows at first hand what conditions are like on the eastern border, those two settlements are an impressive demonstration of the will to peace.

    Anti-semitism had been a problem, but Hitler had wisely put a stop to it:

    Anti-semitism got altogether out of hand; until, when Streicher’s organ, Der Stürmer, attacked the President of Czechoslovakia, that too had to be temporarily suppressed.

    It was with such stories of Hitler’s “will to peace” and his “suppression of anti-Semitism” that Orton reassured and “enlightened” the  great democracies on the eve of the greatest existential struggle in their history.  It is not recorded that he suffered any ill consequences for this “service.”  As far as one can tell, it was forgotten, and he continued as a respected professor at Smith until his death in 1952.  Searching the Internet, one learns that, “Russell Kirk praised Orton as a “humane economist,” “at once liberal and conservative,” seeking to “liberalize and humanize the Dismal Science.”

    In a word, conservatives frustrated with the Left’s flirtations with radical Islam should take heart.  Things have been worse.  At the moment, at least, the United States and the European democracies don’t face an immediate threat to their existence.  Meanwhile, there is no reason to believe that we will not continue to be “enlightened” about similar threats as we move into the future.  Whether such “enlightenment” will be a significant contributor to our eventual downfall only time will tell.

  • Paradigm Shifts and the “Science” of Religion

    Posted on August 16th, 2012 Helian No comments

    We’ve witnessed a remarkable paradigm shift in the behavioral sciences in the last couple of decades in the aftermath of the collapse of Blank Slate orthodoxy.  A similar one has happened in politics with the collapse of Communism.  A significant fraction of our species are attracted to messianic ideologies as moths to a flame.  For many years, Communism was the brightest flame around.  However, it suffered from the Achilles heal of all secular religions.  It promised paradise, not in the realms of the spirit, but here on earth.  Predictably, it couldn’t deliver, and so eventually collapsed.

    That left something of a vacuum for those hankering to be the saviors of mankind.  No new secular religion was waiting in the wings to take up the slack.  But nature abhores a vacuum, so they had to make do with one of the traditional, spiritual religions; Islam.  The resulting ideological paradigm shift has presented us with one of the most remarkable political spectacles history has to offer.  On the ideological left, former Marxist true believers, militant atheists who scorned religion as the opiate of the masses, are being displaced by a new generation of activists who find to their dismay that radical Islam is, at least for the time being, the only game in town.  The result has been a grotesque love affair between the would be liberators of the oppressed masses and one of the more obscurantist forms of religious fundamentalism on the planet.  Those who once despised religious belief have now become some of its most outspoken apologists.

    I found one of the more comical manifestations of this strange love affair in an article, embellished with all the jargon, references, and other stigmata characteristic of the stuff that appears in academic journals, posted on the website of the reliably leftist BBC.  Entitled God and War:  An Audit & An Exploration, it purports to debunk the New Atheist claim that religion is a prominent cause of war.  Taking an attitude towards religion that would have been an embarrassment to any self-respecting progressive in the heyday of socialism, it notes that “…at a philosophical level, the main religious traditions have little truck with war or violence. All advocate peace as the norm and see genuine spirituality as involving a disavowal of violence.”  It continues,

    One organising feature of this article is what it calls the ‘Religious War Audit’. BBC asked us to see how many wars had been caused by religion. After reviewing historical analyses by a diverse array of specialists, we concluded that there have been few genuinely religious wars in the last 100 years. The Israel/Arab wars from 1948 to now, often painted in the media and other places as wars over religion, or wars arising from religious differences, have in fact been wars of nationalism, liberation of territory or self-defense.

    This is a typical feature of the recent crop of articles emanating from the apologists for religion on the left.  Just as good Marxists or defenders of “Confederate Heritage” will tell you that the U.S. Civil War wasn’t really about slavery, even though at the time it actually happened the leaders and population of the south, the leaders and population of the north, foreign observers of U.S. politics, and, no doubt, any aliens who happened to be hovering around in their flying saucers would have agreed it was about slavery, they tell us that many of the wars that merely seem to the casual observer to be about religion are really caused by nationalism, imperialism, territorialism, etc., etc.  If nothing else it’s a safe strategy.  Take any war you like and, no matter how much the actual participants had deluded themselves into believing they were fighting about religion, any historian worth her salt will be able to “prove,” based on abundant citations, references, and historical source material, that it wasn’t about religion at all.  Ostensibly secular wars can be transmogrified into “religious” wars just as easily.

    As the article cherry picks the historical record, so it cherry picks the holy books of the various religions to show how “peaceful” they are.  Predictably, this is especially true of the Quran.  For example, quoting from the article,

    The Islamic tradition provides for limits on the use of force in war similar to those found in the Christian tradition: ‘Never transgress limits, or take your enemy by surprise or perfidy, or inflict atrocities or mutilation, or kill infants’; and ‘Never kill a woman, a weak infant, or a debilitated old person; nor burn palms, uproot trees, or pull down houses’. The Koran also provides for the humane treatment of prisoners of war: ‘And they feed, for the love of God, the indigent, the orphan, and the captive’ [Koran 76:8-9].

    As with most religions, one can “prove” the opposite by a judicious choice of verses.  For example,

    Quran 5:33

    The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His messenger and strive to make mischief in the land is only this, that they should be murdered or crucified or their hands and their feet should be cut off on opposite sides or they should be imprisoned; this shall be as a disgrace for them in this world, and in the hereafter they shall have a grievous chastisement.

    Quran 8:12

    I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Therefore strike off their heads and strike off every fingertip of them.

    After this exegesis of the holy books, the article provides a pair of tables purporting to show that the role of religion in the wars prior to and during the 20th century has been minimal.  In the case of the 20th century, for example, the role of religion is supposedly zero on a scale of 0 to 5 for World War I and one on the same scale for World War II.  In fact, in the case of WWI, the war was explicitly declared a religious war (jihad) by the religious leaders of Turkey, one of the major combatants.  Many tens of thousands of Jews were murdered, frozen and starved in pogroms or as they were forcibly removed from areas stretching back many miles from the front lines by the Orthodox Christian rulers of Russia, and over a million Christian Armenians were murdered by the Moslem rulers of Turkey.  By all accounts, the assurance that the war was not religious did little to relieve their suffering.

    In the case of World War II, the role of religion depends entirely on how you define religion.  I doubt that our brains have any hard-wired ability to distinguish immortal gods from mortal ones.  At least as far as evolutionary biology is concerned, the distinction between traditional spiritual religions and modern secular ones, such as Nazism and Communism is, then, entirely artificial.  Every essential element of the former has its analog in the latter.  From that perspective, World War II was almost entirely a “religious war.”

    Suppose, however, that we refrain from such unseemly quibbling, nod apologetically to the many millions even the authors agree have been killed over the years in religious wars, and accept the authors’ premise that, for all that, warfare really has played a “minimal” role in promoting warfare.  Alas, the role of individuals in shaping historical events can be great indeed. After reading page after page establishing the benign role of religion in modern society, the authors inform us, to our dismay, that there is reason for concern, after all.  An evil religious zealot of truly gargantuan power and influence appeared on the scene quite recently, almost single-handedly setting at naught the calming influence of religion as an instrument of peace.  And who might this evil bogeyman be?  Think, dear reader!  The article we are discussing emanated from the left of the ideological spectrum.  That’s right! The warmongering jihadi in question is none other than George W. Bush!  Quoting a noted psychologist, the authors inform us with a shudder that,

    …however much Bush may sometimes seem like a buffoon, he is also powered by massive, suppressed anger towards anyone who challenges the extreme, fanatical beliefs shared by him and a significant slice of his citizens – in surveys, half of them also agree with the statement “the Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word.”

    Gee, and I always thought he seemed like such a nice guy.  How wrong I was!  Reading on we find,

    He hated his father for putting his whole life in the shade and for emotionally blackmailing him. He hated his mother for physically and mentally badgering him to fulfill her wishes. But the hatred also explains his radical transformation into an authoritarian fundamentalist. By totally identifying with an extreme version of their strict, religion-fuelled beliefs, he jailed his rebellious self.  From now on, his unconscious hatred for them was channeled into a fanatical moral crusade to rid the world of evil.

    Damn!  Now I finally understand why my sister never liked the guy.  The authors provide us with the laconic conclusion,

    As the commander in chief, Bush dominates US foreign policy especially in regards to the war on terrorism that is presently the US government’s major military commitment. His plans, however influenced by advisors, arise from his personal view of the world and his concepts of justice, retribution and peace. Clearly his past and his relationships impact these views and ultimately help shape those of the American state. Therefore individual leaders’ psychology is perhaps an underrated area of study in the debate on God and war and could do with further analysis.

    What an understatement!  Why, that crazed religious fanatic had his finger on the nuclear trigger for eight years!

    How wonderfully ironic!  After spending so much time and effort to create an ideologically driven mirage of religion as benign and peaceful, in the end the authors upset their own apple cart because they couldn’t stifle their ideologically driven need to portray Bush as the personification of evil, complete with all the religious fundamentalist trappings.  By their own account, religion nearly inspired, not merely a war, but the mother of all wars, a nuclear holocaust that might have exterminated our species once and for all.  “Further analysis” indeed!  Maybe we should have listened to the New Atheists after all!

  • On the Risk of Believing Things that aren’t True

    Posted on February 4th, 2012 Helian No comments

    The rulers of Iran continue to poke sticks into the Iraeli hornet’s nest.  Of course, religious zealots, both secular and “spiritual” have done this since time immemorial, whenever they’ve gained enough power to make themselves a nuisance.  Every religion implies an outgroup.  For the Communist secular religion, the outgroup was the “bourgeoisie.”  In Cambodia, they murdered 2 million out of a population of 7 million in order to destroy the “bourgeoisie,” beheading the country in the process.  Spiritual religions tend to be longer lived than the secular variety because it’s impossible to fact check them until after you’re dead.  As a result the specific outgroups they focus on as “enemies of God” tend to vary somewhat over the centuries.  The fashion among the Christians, for example, has gone from murdering Jews to slaughtering heretics to burning witches and back again over the years.  The more “imperialist” Moslems have always focused more on seizing the territories of “infidels,” and continue to do so in the case of Israel.

    This habit of attacking outgroups in order to please some non-existent supernatural being, to promote some fantastic “forces of history,” to acquire “Lebensraum” for some nonexistent race, or whatever, is becoming increasingly risky.  The risk is becoming particularly acute at the moment in the case of Iran.  The Jews, always an attractive outgroup because they have typically been both different and weak, have just experienced the result of “passive resistance” against a powerful enemy who wants to kill you.  I suspect that they’re not inclined to try it twice, and this time they’re armed with nuclear weapons.   The theocratic rulers of Iran, who “sigh for the prophet’s paradise to come,” and confidently expect their reward in the next world, are, of course, indifferent to the threat.  The citizens of Iran who are less sanguine about the existence of a next world, or who suspect that the one awaiting their rulers might turn out to be more tropical than they expect, would do well to either emigrate or start digging.

  • Hitch and Blair Debate Religion

    Posted on November 30th, 2010 Helian No comments

    The televised event took place before a 2700 strong audience in Toronto. According to an article in the Telegraph,

    (Hitchens) appeared to win over the audience, which voted two-to-one in his favour following the debate, which argued the motion “be it resolved, religion is a force for good in the world”.

    With all due respect to the former Prime Minister, this one must have been like shooting fish in a barrel for the likes of Hitchens. It’s hard to argue that Christianity has been “a force for good in the world” in light of the tens of millions who lost their lives in the religious wars it inspired, or the institutionalized intolerance and bigotry it has been responsible for, or the hundreds of thousands of innocent women hung or burned as “witches” in Europe during the Middle Ages, or its promotion of the mass torture of “heretics,” or its repeated massacres of Jews and other religious minorities. As for Islam, it is not the predominant religion in North Africa, or Syria, or Turkey, or parts of Europe because it is a “religion of peace,” but because it was imposed by force. Anyone with any doubt about whether it is a “force for good in the world” in spite of its bloody history, its institutionalized oppression of women, and its rejection of the separation of mosque and state must have been asleep since 911.

    It doesn’t really matter, though. What does matter is whether these religions are true or not. If one of them is true (and they can’t both be true at the same time because they are mutually exclusive), then the question of whether it’s a “force for good” becomes moot. We then become the subjects of an absolute tyrant with a smiley face, and we can like it or burn in hell for billions and trillions of years, just for starters. As Hitchens puts it, “Once you assume a creator and a plan, it makes us objects, in a cruel experiment, whereby we are created sick, and commanded to be well. And over us, to supervise this, is installed a celestial dictatorship, a kind of divine North Korea.” Edward Fitzgerald summed up our situation in similar, but more poetic terms, in his fanciful “translation” of the Rubaiyat. Don’t let the prospect depress you, though. For reasons set forth by a simple French priest named Jean Meslier in his Testament more than two and a half centuries ago, and improved on very little in the intervening years, the chances that we will sizzle in hell forever for the pleasure and edification of the elect are rather slim.

  • Stephen Hawking’s Issues with God

    Posted on September 6th, 2010 Helian No comments

    According to Reuters, theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking has deigned to inform the rest of us that it’s OK to be an infidel because, according to the most up-to-date physics models of the universe, God isn’t necessary:

    In “The Grand Design,” co-authored with U.S. physicist Leonard Mlodinow, Hawking says a new series of theories made a creator of the universe redundant, according to the Times newspaper which published extracts on Thursday.

    “Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist,” Hawking writes.

    Hawking’s latest won’t be released until tomorrow, and I hesitate to commence panning him until I’ve read it, but this story smacks of a well-managed publicity stunt. In the first place, it’s a virtual carbon copy of the great urban myth about the exchange between the great French mathematician, Laplace, and Napoleon (hattip Wiki):

    Laplace went in state to Napoleon to accept a copy of his work, and the following account of the interview is well authenticated, and so characteristic of all the parties concerned that I quote it in full. Someone had told Napoleon that the book contained no mention of the name of God; Napoleon, who was fond of putting embarrassing questions, received it with the remark, ‘M. Laplace, they tell me you have written this large book on the system of the universe, and have never even mentioned its Creator.’ Laplace, who, though the most supple of politicians, was as stiff as a martyr on every point of his philosophy, drew himself up and answered bluntly, ‘Je n’avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse-là.’ (“I had no need of that hypothesis.”) Napoleon, greatly amused, told this reply to Lagrange, who exclaimed, ‘Ah! c’est une belle hypothèse; ça explique beaucoup de choses.’ (“Ah, it is a fine hypothesis; it explains many things.”)

    Well, it’s not really that well authenticated, but it still captures the substance of Laplace’s thought on the subject accurately enough.  In the second place, if that’s really all Hawking’s got, he was beaten to the punch by the brilliant Frenchman Jean Meslier in his Testament by more than 250 years:

    Is it not more natural and more intelligible to deduce all which exists, from the bosom of matter, whose existence is demonstrated by all our senses, whose effects we feel at every moment, which we see act, move, communicate, motion, and constantly bring living things into existence, than to attribute the formation of things to an unknown force, to a spiritual being, who cannot draw from his ground that which he has not himself, and who, by the spiritual essence claimed for him, is incapable of making anything, and putting anything in motion.

    Indeed, all of the best arguments of the likes of Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris, appear in Meslier’s work, along with much else besides.  As an infidel myself, I fail to see what, if anything, Hawking is contributing to the discussion, assuming he’s being quoted accurately.  After all, how do physical laws prove anything?  Laws can have no disembodied existence of their own, floating around in nothingness.  If they don’t apply to any real thing, then they cease to exist themselves.  If they do apply to something real, it still begs the question, why do the real thing(s) exist to begin with?  We’re still left to wonder, “How did all this stuff get here?”

  • About that Right-wing Islamophobe…

    Posted on August 26th, 2010 Helian No comments

    It turns out that the truth is somewhat more nuanced than the media narrative about a dastardly attack on a Moslem by an evil, right-wing opponent of the Ground Zero Mosque and, therefore, “freedom of religion.” Quoting from Don Surber;

    The attacker apparently supports building the mosque 560 feet away from Ground Zero.

    The blood is on the hands of a lefty.

    From Ben Smith at Politico: “But as often at the intersection of politics and violent crime, the story doesn’t appear to fit any easy stereotype: The alleged assailant, Michael Enright, is — according to his Facebook profile and the website of the left-leaning media organization Intersections International — a student at the School of Visual Arts and a volunteer for Intersections, which recently produced a statement of support for the Park51 project and is funded by the mainstream, liberal Collegiate Church of New York.”

    Even after that, Little Green Footballs made excuses: “At Politico, Ben Smith notes that Enright’s films were apparently sponsored by a left-leaning group called Intersections: Alleged anti-Muslim attacker works at pro-Park51 group. Smith’s headline is a bit misleading, however, because Intersections is involved in many different projects, not just in supporting Park51. Enright was a volunteer filmmaker for Intersections, and there’s no reason to believe he was involved with or sympathetic to their support for Park51.”

    Other than the group just supported the Victory Mosque.

    Sheesh.

    It was a vicious crime by a 21-year-old coward.

    It is attempted murder. I don’t care about this coward’s politics. But connecting this inexplicable act of violence on peaceful protesters is ignorant.

    And so far, despite all the wishes of the left, the violence comes and hot rhetoric comes from the left. Need I remind readers of the beating of Kenneth Gladney?

    No matter, CNN is still running with the same old narrative. Their headline: “Slashed cab driver to call for end to anti-Muslim rhetoric.” Of course, the editors there have long given up the “objectivity” charade, and realize they’re preaching to the choir. As Stalin said when one of his associates suggested that a piece of propaganda was so absurd that even his fellow traveler dupes in the West might gag on it, “Don’t worry, they’ll swallow it.”

  • The WaPo and the Mosque at Ground Zero

    Posted on August 10th, 2010 Helian No comments

    H. L. Mencken, himself on of America’s greatest editorial writers, had meager respect for most of the species. As he once put it, “Give me a good editorial cartoonist, and I can fire half the editorial staff.” He wouldn’t have been surprised by a piece entitled “A Vote for Religious Freedom,” that recently appeared on the editorial page of the Washington Post. It was marked by the self-induced imbecility about “freedom of religion” that has been the bane of serious debate about the role of Islam in today’s world.

    The piece addresses the issue of the proposed mosque near Ground Zero, noting with approval the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission’s vote to deny historic status to the existing building on the site. In the words of the editorial,

    The agency’s correct call is a victory for cooler heads in city government, and for a fundamental American ideal – freedom of religion.

    In fact, as far as the current debate about Islam is concerned, freedom of religion is a red herring. I suspect that, among all those who have expressed opposition to the mosque, the number of those who really care whether their neighbors believe in Jehovah, Allah, or the Great Green Grasshopper God is vanishingly small, as long as their opinions are between themselves and their God, and don’t imply any requirement to intervene in or control the lives of others. I have not yet read a single article on the subject that takes issue with the right of Moslems or anyone else to think and believe as they please. Many of them, however, take issue with the claims of Islam to political control and social coercion. The question, then, is whether these arguments are justified, or are merely smokescreens for an assault on freedom of religion.

    The answer is obvious. Is it credible to argue that the Islamic theocracy in Iran has not practiced religious discrimination against those of other faiths, or that its justification for that discrimination has not been based on Moslem religious doctrine? Is it credible to argue that Islam does not explicitly reject freedom of religion, prescribing severe punishment for those who would leave Islam for some other faith, and institutional discrimination, including special taxes and denial of freedom of speech in matters relating to religion, directed against those of other faiths? Is it credible to argue that Islam poses no challenge to separation of church and state, or that it has never favored substitution of religious for secular law? Is it credible to argue that much of the terrorist violence that has plagued the world in recent years has not been justified in the name of Islam? Is it credible to argue that severe limitations on the equal treatment of women, in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Islamic world, are not justified in the name of Islam? No, in all of these cases, it is not credible.

    The proposed mosque is to be part of a complex known as the Cordoba House, and the Wapo editorial tries to gull its readers with the revisionist version of history according to which Islamic Cordoba was a “medieval Spanish city where Muslims, Jews and Christians lived in peace for 800 years.” It boggles the mind to consider the possibility that Wapo’s editorialists are really stupid enough to believe that. Do they not have access to Google? Can they not confirm for themselves that Jews were subjected to pogroms in Moslem Spain, including one in Cordoba itself in the year 1011? Did not Ibn Abdun, one of the foremost Spanish Islamic jurists in this “golden age” write,

    No…Jew or Christian may be allowed to wear the dress of an aristocrat, nor of a jurist, nor of a wealthy individual; on the contrary they must be detested and avoided. It is forbidden to [greet] them with the [expression], ‘Peace be upon you’. In effect, ‘Satan has gained possession of them, and caused them to forget God’s warning. They are the confederates of Satan’s party; Satan’s confederates will surely be the losers!’ A distinctive sign must be imposed upon them in order that they may be recognized and this will be for them a form of disgrace.

    Were the Jews of Cordoba not forced to wear such a sign, in the form of a yellow turban, reminiscent of the yellow Star of David they were forced to wear under a later European regime? Were Christians not martyred in the city for daring to criticize Moslem religious beliefs? Was not Maimonides himself, one of the greatest Jewish scholars of the Cordovan “golden age,” forced to flee the city to avoid religious persecution? I could go on and on, but I think I’ve made my point.

    In fact, there is no such thing as a “mere religion” among any of the major religions in the world today. All of them have, at one point or another, claimed the right to political control, attempted to elevate their religious tenets to secular law, and discriminated against and penalized those who thought differently. I am hardly a defender of Christianity, and it is no different from any of the other religions in this respect. However, devout Christians can, and have, as in the case of Roger Williams, convincingly argued for the separation of church and state based on religious doctrine. The enlightenment has further neutered its claims to state support and established status, to the point that, today, one can reasonably speak of freedom of religion in nominally Christian countries. Not so with Islam.

    The principle that the WaPo editorialists and others who make similar arguments are defending, then, when they evoke “freedom of religion” has nothing to do with private religious beliefs. Objectively, what they are saying, whether they are prepared to admit it themselves or not, is that, as long as the adherents of some system of belief can manage to convince the rest of society that they are a religion, no matter whether their “religious beliefs” include such things as a monopoly of state power, severe restrictions on freedom of speech on matters touching their beliefs, and a right to profound intervention in the lives of others, then they automatically become immune from criticism in the name of “freedom of religion.”

    One wonders what kind of a two by four it would be necessary to whack people like this up alongside the head with before they finally realized this debate isn’t about “freedom of religion.” Would they defend the murder of a Moslem friend for “apostasy” because he decided to convert to Christianity in the name of “freedom of religion?” Would they tolerate the nullification of democracy and the imposition of sharia law in the name of “freedom of religion?” Are they prepared to tolerate “honor killings” in the name of “freedom of religion?” Would they assist in the genital mutilation of their daughters if it were required in the name of “freedom of religion?” Would the editors of the Washington Post claim that these things are not required by the Moslem religion? A great many devout Moslems who have spent a great deal more time studying Islamic scriptures than they would claim that they are required. Who are the editors of the Washington Post to define what it means to be a Moslem?

    The debate about the mosque at Ground Zero does not and never has had anything to do with freedom of religion. There is a point beyond which it is no longer acceptable to sacrifice one’s own Liberty and tolerate intervention in one’s own life to accommodate the religious beliefs of others. The debate is about when that point is reached.

  • Is God Shy, or just Coy?

    Posted on August 9th, 2010 Helian No comments

    I’ve read a lot of religious literature in my day, and have never seen a coherent explanation of why, if God exists, he doesn’t just step out into the open and show himself.  Of course, the religious have several rationalizations for this objection to their belief systems, just as they have for any of the other obvious objections one might name.  The problem is, none of them make any sense. 

    For example there’s the “mortal man cannot behold such glory” argument, which implies that God lacks the power to dim Himself down sufficiently to appear to us in a way that would convince the general run of mankind of His reality.  There’s the “He tried it once” argument, according to which he made a good faith effort by coming to earth in the form of Jesus Christ, but no one believed him anyway, so he gave up trying. There’s the “He couldn’t do anything that would make us believe, even if He tried,” argument, which applies similar shackles to the power of God, and requires Him to have a singular lack of imagination. Of course, there’s the “He’s just testing us” ploy, and the notion that by stepping out from behind the curtain, he would be violating our “free will.”

    And the list goes on. The problem with all these rationalizations is that they’re unconvincing to anyone who hasn’t already make up their mind.  Is God really so limited that he cannot come up with a way to reveal himself to us without blinding us with his glory?  Was he really so demoralized by our incomprehension when he sent Jesus Christ (or Mohammed) to earth that he simply gave up and concluded it was impossible for Him to convince creatures He had created Himself that He existed?  Can there really be any question of “testing” creatures who have used the mental equipment He gave them to the best of their ability and concluded that He doesn’t exist?  Is there really some coherent reason why free will would disappear simply by virtue of Him showing Himself?

    I have a suggestion for anyone who retains an open mind on the subject;  apply Occam’s razor.  If God doesn’t show himself in a way that is convincing to a species not known for its incredulity, in spite of the fact that he is supposed to be loving and merciful, and wants us to obey His will, and plans to punish us severely if we don’t, the most obvious and reasonable explanation is that He doesn’t exist.  That conclusion becomes all the more plausible in view of the fact that the two biggest religions on the planet are mutually exclusive.

  • The Rubaiyat of Edward Fitzgerald as a Critique of Islam

    Posted on June 24th, 2010 Helian 1 comment

    According to Voltaire, “one merit of poetry few persons will deny: it says more and in fewer words that prose.” The Rubaiyat of Edward Fitzgerald is a case in point. It is a succinct refutation of the Judeo-Christian religions in general and Islam in particular.

    I say the Rubaiyat of Edward Fitzgerald rather than the more familiar Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam because the version most English speaking people are familiar with, while it may have been inspired by the Persian poet, is really attributable to Fitzgerald. A book review in the Guardian coined the very appropriate term “transcreation” for it. Anyone reading the modern translation by Peter Avery and Heath Stubbs will get the point. Many of Fitzgerald’s quatrains bear only a vague resemblance to the original Persian, and others were apparently invented entirely by the English author. Taken together, however, they are consistent and effective critique of Islam, and an expression of the author’s own world view.

    Fitzgerald was certainly an agnostic, and may have been an atheist. According to his bio-sketch at Wikipedia,

    As he grew older, FitzGerald grew more and more disenchanted with Christianity, and finally gave up attending church entirely. This drew the attention of the local pastor, who decided to pay a visit to the self-absenting FitzGerald. Reportedly, FitzGerald informed the pastor that his decision to absent himself from church services was the fruit of long and hard meditation. When the pastor protested, FitzGerald showed him to the door, and said, “Sir, you might have conceived that a man does not come to my years of life without thinking much of these things. I believe I may say that I have reflected [on] them fully as much as yourself. You need not repeat this visit.”

    If he did admit the possibility of God’s existence, and the inscription on his gravestone, “It is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves,” implied that he did, he nevertheless denied that we should devote our lives to some divine purpose, or that we could expect any reward in heaven or punishment in hell for our earthly deeds:

    Whether at Naishapur or Babylon,
    Whether the Cup with sweet or bitter run,
    The Wine of Life keeps oozing drop by drop,
    The leaves of Life keep falling one by one.

    and:

    Some for the Glories of This World; and some
    Sigh for the Prophet’s Paradise to come;
    Ah, take the Cash, and let the Credit go,
    Nor heed the rumble of a distant Drum!

    He saw no reason to believe that any of the conflicting accounts in the different religions of life after death were factual:

    And those who husbanded the Golden Grain,
    And those who flung it to the Winds like rain,
    Alike to no such aureate Earth are turn’d
    As, buried once, Men want dug up again.

    Strange, is it not? That of the Myriads who
    Before us pass’d the door of Darkness through,
    Not one returns to tell us of the Road,
    Which to discover we must travel too.

    The familiar Moslem and Christian accounts of heaven and hell, were simply human fantasies taken to their extreme:

    I sent my Soul through the Invisible,
    Some Letter of that After-Life to spell:
    And by and by my Soul return’d to me,
    And answer’d “I Myself am Heav’n and
    Hell.”

    Heav’n but the Vision of fulfill’d Desire,
    And Hell the Shadow from a Soul on fire,
    Cast on the Darkness into which Ourselves,
    So late emerg’d from, shall so soon expire.

    The revelations of the prophets were so much imposture:

    Why, all the Saints and Sages who discuss’d
    Of the Two Worlds so wisely – they are thrust
    Like foolish Prophets forth; their words to scorn
    Are scatter’d, and their Mouths are stopt with
    Dust.

    The Revelations of Devout and Learn’d
    Who rose before us, and as Prophets burn’d,
    Are all but Stories, which, awoke from Sleep
    They told their comrades, and to Sleep return’d.

    Having excluded the existence of a God, or at least a God who had any claim on our affections or actions, Fitzgerald concluded that there could be no legitimate “purpose of life.”

    Alike for those who for Today prepare,
    And those that after some Tomorrow stare,
    A Muezzin from the Tower of Darkness cries
    “Fools! Your Reward is neither Here nor There!”

    That being the case, deep philosophical reasonings to uncover such a purpose and make sense of human existence were futile:

    Myself when young did eagerly frequent
    Doctor and Saint, and heard great Argument
    About it and about: but evermore
    Came out by the same Door where in I went.

    With them the Seed of Wisdom did I sow,
    And with mine own Hand wrought to make
    it grow
    And this was all the Harvest that I reap’d –
    “I came like Water, and like Wind I go.”

    If any answers to the questions posed by philosophers really existed, they were beyond the grasp of human understanding:

    There was the Door to which I found no Key;
    There was the Veil through which I might not see:
    Some little Talk awhile of Me and Thee
    There was – and then no more of Thee and Me.

    Earth could not answer; nor the Seas that mourn
    In flowing Purple, of their Lord forlorn;
    Nor rolling heaven, with all his signs reveal’d
    And hidden by the Sleeve of Night and Morn.

    Fitzgerald rejected the Moslem belief, reiterated over and over in the Koran, that humans will suffer eternal fiery torture in hell for “sins” which are predestined, and therefore unavoidable. He points out the inconsistency of such a God, capable of calling beings into existence from nothingness in the full knowledge that he would later subject them to almost unimaginable tortures for the paltry sins he knew they would commit, with the moral sense that very God, if he existed at all, must have planted in our consciousness:

    Oh Thou, who didst with Pitfall and with Gin
    Beset the Road I was to wander in,
    Thou wilt not with Predestin’d Evil round
    Enmesh, and then impute my Fall to Sin!

    But helpless Pieces of the Game He Plays
    Upon his Chequer-board of Nights and Days;
    Hither and thither moves, and checks, and slays,
    And one by one back in the Closet lays.

    Such a God would be more in need of forgiveness than the creatures he created:

    What! Out of senseless Nothing to provoke
    A conscious Something to resent the Yoke
    Of unpermitted Pleasure, under pain
    Of Everlasting Penalties, if broke!

    What! from His helpless Creature be repaid
    Pure Gold for what He lent him dross-allay’d:
    Sue for a Debt he never did contract,
    And cannot answer – Oh the sorry Trade!

    Oh Thou, who Man of baser Earth didst make,
    And ev’n with Paradise devise the Snake:
    For all the Sin wherewith the Face of Man
    Is blacken’d, Man’s Forgiveness give –
    and take!

    The poet elaborates on this theme with the metaphor of a potter and his pots:

    And has not such a Story from of Old
    Down Man’s successive Generations roll’d
    Of such a Clod of saturated Earth
    Cast by the Maker into Human mould?

    The pots speculate about why they were made, their purpose, and their eventual fate. Once again, Fitzgerald returns to the theme of the Creator as tyrannical monster, a being capable of calling into life creatures far more inferior to Himself than amoeba are to human beings, and then torturing them for billions of years because they didn’t deliver what they “owed” him, even though he knew in advance that it would be impossible for them to do so:

    Then said a Second – “Ne’er a peevish Boy
    Would break the Bowl from which he drank in joy;
    And He that with His hand the Vessel made
    Will surely not in after Wrath destroy.”

    He elaborates on the absurdity of eternal punishment for sins that are predestined, and therefore not the fault of the created but of the creator:

    After a momentary Silence spake
    Some Vessel of a more ungainly Make;
    “They sneer at me for leaning all awry;
    What! did the Hand then of the Potter shake?”

    One of the pots suggests that such an irrational “potter” can only exist as a concoction of the pots themselves:

    Whereat some one of the loquacious Lot –
    I think a Sufi Pipkin – waxing hot –
    “All this of Pot and Potter – Tell me then,
    Who is the Potter, pray, and who the Pot?”

    Whereat another agrees and concludes that the real Potter isn’t really capable of such an extreme departure from the notion of moral righteousness with which he has imbued his Pots;

    “Why,” said another, “Some there are who tell
    Of one who threatens he will toss to Hell
    The luckless Pots he marr’d in making – Pish!
    He’s a Good Fellow, and ‘twill all be well.”

    It seems such thoughts must occur to anyone who has the courage to question the validity of received religious “truths.” In the Islamic world, of course, the amount of courage needed is somewhat greater, because the penalty for apostasy can be extreme. In Saudi Arabia, for example, it is death. When the penalty for thinking is that extreme, truth must inevitably be a casualty.

    Fitzgerald did think, and the world view he arrived at did not include a Master of an eternal torture chamber as God. It was, however, somewhat pessimistic. In fact, the poet accepted notions of predestination usually attributed to Islam:

    With Earth’s first Clay They did the Last Man knead,
    And there of the Last Harvest sow’d the Seed:
    And the first Morning of Creation wrote
    What the Last Dawn of Reckoning shall read.

    It’s interesting to speculate on the effect the revelations of the probabilistic world of quantum mechanics may have had on such a deterministic world view. For that matter, it’s interesting to speculate on whether Fitzgerald’s apparent conclusions about the ultimate purposeless of life might have been moderated if he’d taken a closer look behind the veil that Darwin had lifted more than 20 years before his death. As it was, those conclusions were lugubrious enough:

    When You and I behind the Veil are past,
    Oh, but the long, long while the World shall last,
    Which of our Coming and Departure heeds
    As the sea’s self should heed a Pebble-cast.

    A Moment’s Halt – a momentary Taste
    Of Being from the Well amid the Waste –
    And Lo! – the phantom Caravan has reach’d
    The Nothing it set out from – Oh, make haste!

    There is some consolation in the fact that, if we must die, at least we’ve all been there before,

    And if the Wine you drink, the Lip you press,
    End in what All begins and ends in – Yes;
    Think then you are Today what Yesterday
    You were – Tomorrow you shall not be less.

    Fitzgerald’s poem has touched more than a few readers over the years. In fact, more copies of it have been sold than any other English poem. I suspect many among those who can recite its lines by heart have come to conclusions similar to those above about what the author was trying to tell us. His quatrains have enabled them to repeat opinions they may have felt uncomfortable stating in so many words. As Thomas Hardy put it, “If Galileo had said in verse that the world moved, the inquisition might have let him alone.” Fortunately, the inquisition is no longer with us, but, until quite recently, there have been serious social sanctions against “free thinking” in matters of religion in the West. Of course, those sanctions not only still exist, but are becoming stronger in the Moslem world. There is some solace in the thought that that world provided the inspiration for one of the most devastating critiques of its own theocratic ideology.

    Edward Fitzgerald