JR'S Free Thought Pages
God is not Great: How religion poisons everything by Christopher Hitchens
God is not great – but the new book by Hitchens is.
In our midst there is a hidden under class of well educated intellectuals and professionals who see the world with their senses, who are rational and make decisions based on logic and appeals to evidence. No group has been pushed more underground in North America than agnostics and atheists, more so than even gay culture, which has found a voice in the larger mainstream culture.
But surprisingly in the past few years there have been a series of best selling humanist manifestos. The first of these books was The End of Faith, by Sam Harris, published in 2004 and was on the New York Times paperback best-seller list for thirty-three weeks. The next to hit the shelves was Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, by Daniel Dennett, a philosopher at Tufts University, who has written popular books on the science and philosophy of consciousness as well as interesting works on Charles Darwin. Then what has become the most popular is The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins which has been on the Times best seller list for 45 weeks. Dawkins is a brilliant evolutionary biologist at Oxford and Britain’s preëminent science writer. I have read all of his scholarly books on science and evolution, starting with The Selfish Gene in 1976, and recommend them highly. Harris joined battle again last year with Letter to a Christian Nation, which renewed his attack on Christianity in particular. I’ve read them all and enjoyed them immensely. Now I have just finished reading God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens, which I found to be the most polished, entertaining and erudite. It’s a must read. Below I have scanned some of my favorite passages including the last two chapters. Although religion has been cannon fodder for philosophers and scientists from Hume to Russell, these recent books are a welcome antidote to the global religious fanaticism and intolerance we have seen in recent decades. It’s especially disturbing when much of it has originated from the United States, an apparent democratic country with levels of religiosity comparable to theocracies such as Iran. Even more disconcerting is the way in which religion has permeated every level of government in the United States, violating the “wall of separation” clause in the constitution.
In this book, Christopher Hitchens demonstrates a razor-sharp wit, exceptionally lucid and fluid writing style, and extraordinary knowledge of history, science and literature, combined with flawless logic. He often reads like H.L. Mencken in both tone and rhetorical flourish. Hitchens correctly states that the argument with faith is the ultimate source of all arguments. Belief in the absence of evidence is indeed the curse of our species - and countless religions that have existed throughout history have taken it to the most extreme levels of absurdity. Most of these religions of course no longer exist for the simple reason that their cultures have died out and consequently there is no one left to believe in them. That’s what happened to Zeus, Thor, Odin and scores of other deities.
In the putative freedom of the United States Hitchens has the courage to say what so many others dare not say even socially, silenced because of the potential implications even in the work place where hiring and promotion can be impacted. This under class understands that stem cells offer hope, the fossil record establishes evolution, and that global warming is real. They also know that virgin births and resurrections from the dead are biologically impossible, the afterlife is a chimera, woman did not emerge from Adam's Rib, Lot's wife did not turn into a pillar of salt, dinosaurs were not on Noah's Ark, and that the world is older than 6,000 years and so on and so on.
"The Bible may, indeed does, contain a warrant for trafficking in humans, for ethnic cleansing, for slavery, for bride-price, and for indiscriminate massacre, but we are not bound by any of it because it was put together by crude, uncultured human mammals."
“Now the birth of Jesus Christ was in the wise. When his mother Mary, was espoused to Joseph, before they came together she was found with child of the Holy Ghost. "Yes, and the Greek demigod Perseus was born when the god Jupiter visited the virgin Danae as a shower of gold and got her with child. The god Buddha was born through an opening in his mother's flank. Catlicus the serpent-skirted caught a little ball of feathers from the sky and hid it in her bosom, and the Aztec god Huitzilopochtli was thus conceived. The virgin Nana took a pomegranate from the tree watered by the blood of the slain Agdestris, and laid it in her bosom, and gave birth to the god Attis. The virgin daughter of a Mongol king awoke one night and found herself bathed in a great light, which caused her to give birth to Genghis Khan. Krishna was born of the virgin Devaka. Horus was born of the virgin Isis. Mercury was born of the virgin Maia. Romulus was born of the virgin Rhea Sylvia. For some reason, many religions force themselves to think of the birth canal as a one-way street, and even the Koran treats the Virgin Mary with reverence. However, this made no difference during the Crusades, when a papal army set out to recapture Bethlehem and Jerusalem from the Muslims, incidentally destroying many Jewish communities and sacking heretical Christian Byzantium along the way, and inflicted a massacre in the narrow streets of Jerusalem, where, according to the hysterical and gleeful chroniclers, the spilled blood reached up to the bridles of the horses. (pp. 22-23)
In the recent division in the Anglican Church over homosexuality and ordination, several bishops made the fatuous point that homosexuality is “unnatural” because it does not occur in other species. Leave aside the fundamental absurdity of this observation: are humans part of "nature" or not? Or, if they chance to be homosexual, are they created in god's image or not? Leave aside the well-attested fact that numberless kinds of birds and mammals and primates do engage in homosexual play. Who are the clerics to interpret nature? They have shown themselves quite unable to do so. A condom is, quite simply, a necessary but not a sufficient condition for avoiding the transmission of AIDS. All qualified authorities, including those who state that abstinence is even better, are agreed on this. Homosexuality is present in all societies, and its incidence would appear to be part of human "design." We must perforce confront these facts as we find them. We now know that the bubonic plague was spread not by sin or moral backsliding but by rats and fleas. Archbishop Lancelot Andrewes, during the celebrated "Black Death" in London in 1665, noticed uneasily that the horror fell upon those who prayed and kept the faith as well as upon those who v did not. He came perilously close to stumbling upon a real point. As I was writing this chapter, an argument broke out in my hometown of Washington, D.C. The human papillomavirus (HPV) has long been known as a sexually transmitted infection that, at its worst, can cause cervical cancer in women. A vaccine is now available—these days, vaccines are increasingly swiftly developed—not to cure this malady but to immunize women against it. But there are forces in the administration who oppose the adoption of this measure on the grounds that it fails to discourage premarital sex. To accept the spread of cervical cancer in the name of god is no different, morally or intellectually, from sacrificing these women on a stone altar and thanking the deity for giving us the sexual impulse and then condemning it. (p. 48)
I do not set myself up as a moral exemplar, and would be swiftly knocked down if I did, but if I was suspected of raping a child, or torturing a child, or infecting a child with venereal disease, or selling a child into sexual or any other kind of slavery, I might consider committing suicide whether I was guilty or not. If I had actually committed the offense, I would welcome death in any form that it might take. This revulsion is innate in any healthy person, and does not need to be taught. Since religion has proved itself uniquely delinquent on the one subject where moral and ethical authority might be counted as universal and absolute, I think we are entitled to at least three provisional conclusions. The first is that religion and the churches are manufactured, and that this salient fact is too obvious to ignore. The second is that ethics and morality are quite independent of faith, and cannot be derived from it. The third is that religion is—because it claims a special divine exemption for its practices and beliefs—not just amoral but immoral. The ignorant psychopath or brute who mistreats his children must be punished but can be understood. Those who claim a heavenly warrant for the cruelty have been tainted by evil, and also constitute far more of a danger. (p. 52)
A consistent proof that religion is man-made and anthropomorphic can also be found in the fact that it is usually "man" made, in the sense of masculine, as well. The holy book in the longest continuous use—the Talmud—commands the observant one to thank his maker every day that he was not born a woman. (This raises again the insistent question: who but a slave thanks his master for what his master has decided to do without bothering to consult him?) The Old Testament, as Christians condescendingly call it, has woman cloned from man for his use and comfort. The New Testament has Saint Paul expressing both fear and contempt for the female. Throughout all religious texts, there is a primitive fear that half the human race is simultaneously defiled and unclean, and yet is also a temptation to sin that is impossible to resist. Perhaps this explains the hysterical cult of virginity and of a Virgin, and the dread of the female form and of female reproductive functions? And there may be someone who can explain the sexual and other cruelties of the religions without any reference to the obsession with celibacy, but that someone will not be me. I simply laugh when I read the Koran, with its endless prohibitions on sex and its corrupt promise of infinite debauchery in the life to come: it is like seeing through the "let's pretend" of a child, but without the indulgence that comes from watching the innocent at play. The homicidal lunatics—rehearsing to be genocidal lunatics—of 9/11 were perhaps tempted by virgins, but it is far more revolting to contemplate that, like so many of their fellow jihadists, they were virgins. Like monks of old, the fanatics are taken early from their families, taught to despise their mothers and sisters, and come to adulthood without ever having had a normal conversation, let alone a normal relationship with a woman. This is disease by definition. Christianity is too repressed to offer sex in paradise—indeed it has never been able I evolve a tempting heaven at all—but it has been lavish in its promise of sadistic and everlasting punishment for sexual backsliders, which nearly as revealing in making the same point in a different way. (pp. 54-55)
Violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children: organized religion ought to have a great deal on its conscience. There is one more charge to be added to the bill of indictment. With a necessary part of its collective mind, religion looks forward to the destruction of the world. By this I do not mean it "looks forward" in the purely eschatological sense of anticipating the end. I mean, rather, that it openly or covertly wishes that end to occur. Perhaps half aware that its unsupported arguments are not entirely persuasive, and perhaps uneasy about its own greedy accumulation of temporal power and wealth, religion has never ceased to proclaim the Apocalypse and the day of judgment. This has been a constant trope, ever since the first witch doctors and shamans learned to predict eclipses and to use their half-baked celestial knowledge to terrify the ignorant. It stretches from the epistles of Saint Paul, who clearly thought and hoped that time was running out for humanity, through the deranged fantasies of the book of Revelation, which were at least memorably written by the alleged Saint John the Divine on the Greek island of Patmos, to the best-selling pulp-fiction Left Behind series, which, ostensibly "authored" by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, was apparently generated by the old expedient of letting two orangutans loose on a word processor. (p. 56)
The Metaphysical Claims of Religion Are False
I am a man of one book. —Thomas Aquinas
We sacrifice the intellect to God. —Ignatius Loyola
Reason is the Devil's harlot, who can do nought but slander and harm whatever God says and does.
Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That for all they care, I can go to hell.
—W. H. Auden, "The More Loving One"
I wrote earlier that we would never again have to confront the impressive faith of an Aquinas or a Maimonides (as contrasted with the blind faith of millennial or absolutist sects, of which we have an apparently unlimited and infinitely renewable supply). This is for a simple reason. Faith of that sort – the sort that can stand up at least for a while in a confrontation with reason – is now plainly impossible. The early fathers of faith (they made very sure that there would be no mothers) were living in a time of abysmal ignorance and fear. Maimonides did not include, in his Guide to the Perplexed, those whom he described as not worth the effort: the “Turkish” and black and nomadic peoples whose “nature is like the nature of mute animals.” Aquinas half believed in astrology, and was convinced that the fully formed nucleus (not that he would have known the word as we do) of a human being was contained inside each individual sperm. One can only mourn over the dismal and stupid lectures on sexual continence that we might have been spared if this nonsense had been exposed earlier than it was. Augustine was a self-centered fantasist and an earth-centered ignoramus: he was guiltily convinced that god cared about his trivial theft from some unimportant pear trees, and quite persuaded—by an analogous solipsism—that the sun revolved around the earth. He also fabricated the mad and cruel idea that the souls of un-baptized children were sent to "limbo." Who can guess the load of misery that this diseased "theory" has placed on millions of Catholic parents down the years, until its shamefaced and only partial revision by the church in our own time? Luther was terrified of demons and believed that the mentally afflicted were the devil's work. Muhammad is claimed by his own followers to have thought, as did Jesus, that the desert was pullulating with djinns, or evil spirits.
One must state it plainly. Religion comes from the period of human prehistory where nobody – not even the mighty Democritus who concluded that matter was made from atoms – had the smallest idea what was going on. It comes from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species, and is a childish attempt to meet our inescapable demand for knowledge (as well as for comfort, reassurance and other infantile needs). Today the least educated of my children knows much more about the natural order than any of the founders of religion, and one would like to think – though the connection is not a fully demonstrable one – that this is why they seem so uninterested in sending fellow humans to hell.
All attempts to reconcile faith with science and reason are consigned to failure and ridicule for precisely these reasons. I read for example, of some ecumenical conference of Christians who desire to know their broad mindedness and invite a few physicists along. But I am compelled to remember what I know – which is that there would be no such churches in the first place if humanity had not been afraid of the weather, the dark, the plague, the eclipse and all manner of other things now easily explicable – and also if humanity had not been compelled, on pain of extremely agonizing consequences, to pay the exorbitant tithes and taxes that raised the imposing edifices of religion.
It is true that scientists have sometimes been religious, or at any rate superstitious. Sir Isaac Newton, for example, was a spiritualist and alchemist of a particularly laughable kind. Fred Hoyle, an ex-agnostic who became infatuated with the idea of "design," was the Cambridge astronomer who coined the term "big bang." (He came up with that silly phrase, incidentally, as an attempt to discredit what is now the accepted theory of the origins of the universe. This was one of those lampoons that, so to speak, backfired, since like "Tory" and "impressionist" and "suffragette" it became adopted by those at whom it was directed.) Steven Hawking is not a believer, and when invited to Rome to meet the late Pope John Paul II asked to be shown the records of the trial of Galileo. But he does speak without embarrassment of the chance of physics "knowing the mind of God," and this now seems quite harmless as a metaphor, as for example when the Beach Boys sing, or I say, "God only knows ..." (pp. 63-65)
Credo quia absurdum, as the "church father" Tertullian put it, either disarmingly or annoyingly according to your taste. "I believe it because it is absurd." It is impossible to quarrel seriously with such a view, one must have faith in order to believe something, or believe in something, then the likelihood of that something having any truth or value is considerably diminished. The harder work of inquiry, proof, and demonstration is infinitely more rewarding, and has confronted us with findings far more "miraculous" and "transcendent" than any theology. (p. 71)
Arguments from Design
All my moral and intellectual being is penetrated by an invincible conviction that whatever falls under the dominion of our senses must be in nature and, however exceptional, cannot differ in its essence from all the other effects of the visible and tangible world of which we are a self-conscious part. The world of the living contains enough marvels and mysteries as it is—marvels and mysteries acting upon our emotions and intelligence in ways so inexplicable that it would almost justify the conception of life as an enchanted state. No, I am too firm in my consciousness of the marvelous to be ever fascinated by the mere supernatural which (take it any way you like) is but a manufactured article, the fabrication of minds insensitive to the intimate delicacies of our relation to the dead and to the living, in their countless multitudes; a desecration of our tenderest memories; an outrage on our dignity.
—Joseph Conrad, Author's Note to The Shadow-Line
There is a central paradox at the core of religion. The three great monotheisms teach people to think abjectly of themselves, as miserable and guilty sinners prostrate before an angry and jealous god who, according to discrepant accounts, fashioned them either out of dust and clay or a clot of blood. The positions for prayer are usually emulations of the supplicant serf before an ill-tempered monarch. The message is one of continual submission, gratitude and fear. Life itself is a wretched matter: an interval in which to prepare for the hereafter or the coming – or second coming – of the Messiah.
On the other hand, and as if by way of compensation, religion teaches people to be extremely self-absorbed and conceited. It assures them that god cares for them individually, and it claims that the cosmos was created with them specifically in mind. This explains the supercilious expression on the faces of those who practice religion ostentatiously: pray excuse my modesty and humility but I happen to be busy on an errand for god.
Since human beings are naturally solipsistic, all forms of superstition enjoy what might be called a natural advantage. In the United States, we exert ourselves to improve high-rise buildings and high speed jet aircraft (the two achievements that the murderers of September n, 2001, put into hostile apposition) and then pathetically refuse to give them floors, or row numbers, that carry the unimportant number thirteen. I know that Pythagoras refuted astrology by the simple means of pointing out that identical twins do not have the same future, I further know that the zodiac was drawn up long before several of the planets in our solar system had been detected, and of course I understand that I could not be "shown" my immediate or long-term future without this disclosure altering the outcome. Thousands of people consult their "stars" in the newspapers every day, and then have unpredicted heart attacks or traffic accidents. (An astrologer of a London tabloid was once fired by means of a letter from his editor which began, "As you will no doubt have foreseen.") In his Minima Moralia, Theodor Adorno identified the interest in stargazing as the consummation of feeble-mindedness. (pp. 74-75)
In The Future of an Illusion, Freud made the obvious point that religion suffered from one incurable deficiency: it was too clearly derived from our own desire to escape from or survive death. This critique of wish-thinking is strong and unanswerable, but it does not really deal with the horrors, cruelties and insanities of the Old Testament. Who—except for an ancient priest seeking to exert power by the tried and tested means of fear—could possibly wish that this hopelessly knotted skein of fable had any veracity? (p. 103)
In 2004, a soap-opera film about the death of Jesus was produced by an Australian fascist and ham actor named Mel Gibson. Mr. Gibson adheres to a crackpot and schismatic Catholic sect consisting mainly of himself and of his even more thuggish father, and has stated that it is a pity that his own dear wife is going to hell because she does not accept the correct sacraments. (This foul doom he calmly describes as "a statement from the chair.") The doctrine of his own sect is explicitly anti-Semitic, and the movie sought tirelessly to lay the blame for the Crucifixion upon the Jews. In spite of this obvious bigotry, which did lead to criticism from some more cautious Christians, The Passion of the Christ was opportunistically employed by many "mainstream" churches as a box office recruiting tool. At one of the ecumenical pre-publicity events in which he sponsored, Mr. Gibson defended his filmic farrago – which is also an exercise in sadomasochistic homoeroticism starring a talentless leading actor who was apparently born in Iceland or Minnesota – as being based on the reports of “eyewitnesses.” At the time I thought it extraordinary that a multi-million dollar hit could be so openly based on such a patently fraudulent claim, but no one seemed to turn a hair. Even Jewish authorities were largely silent. But then some of them wanted to dampen down this old argument, which for centuries had led to Easter pogroms against the "Christ-killing Jews." (It was not until two decades after the Second World War that the Vatican formally withdrew the charge of "deicide" against the Jewish people as a whole.) And the truth is that the Jews used to claim credit for the Crucifixion. Maimonides described the punishment of the detestable Nazarene heretic as one of the greatest achievements of the Jewish elders, insisted that the name Jesus never be mentioned except when accompanied by a curse, and announced that his punishment was to be boiled in excrement for all eternity. What a good Catholic Maimonides would have made!
However, he fell into the same error as do the Christians, in assuming that the four Gospels were in any sense a historical record. Their multiple authors—none of whom published anything until many decades after the Crucifixion—cannot agree on anything of importance. Matthew and Luke cannot concur on the Virgin Birth or the genealogy of Jesus. They flatly contradict each other on the "Flight into Egypt," Matthew saying that Joseph was "warned in a dream" to make an immediate escape and Luke saying that all three stayed in Bethlehem until Mary's "purification according to the laws of Moses," which would make it forty days, and then went back to Nazareth via Jerusalem. (Incidentally, if the dash to Egypt to conceal a child from Herod's infanticide campaign has any truth to it, then Hollywood and many, many Christian iconographers have been deceiving us. It would have been very difficult to take a blond, blue-eyed baby to the Nile delta without attracting rather than avoiding attention.) (pp. 110-11)
One knew, of course, that the whole racket of American evangelism was just that: a heartless con run by the second-string characters from Chaucer's "Pardoner's Tale." (You saps keep the faith. We'll just keep the money.) And this is what it must have been like when indulgences were openly sold in Rome, and when a nail or a splinter from the Crucifixion could fetch a nice price in any flea market in Christendom. But to see the crime exposed by someone who is both a victim and a profiteer is nonetheless quite shocking even to a hardened unbeliever. After such knowledge, what forgiveness? The film Marjoe won an Academy Award in 1972, and has made absolutely no difference at all. The mills of the TV preachers continue to grind, and the poor continue to finance the rich, just as if the glittering temples and palaces of Las Vegas had been built by the money of those who won rather than those who lost.
It is not snobbish to notice the way in which people show their gullibility and their herd instinct, and their wish, or perhaps their need, to be credulous and to be fooled. This is an ancient problem. Credulity may be a form of innocence, and even innocuous in itself, but it provides a standing invitation for the wicked and the clever to exploit their brothers and sisters, and is thus one of humanity's great vulnerabilities. No honest account of the growth and persistence of religion, or the reception of miracles and revelations, is possible without reference to this stubborn fact. (pp. 160-61)
When Dr. King's namesake nailed his theses to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral in 1517 and stoutly announced, "Here I stand, 1 can do no other," he set a standard for intellectual and moral courage. But Martin Luther, who started his religious life being terribly frightened by a near-miss lightning strike, went on to become a bigot and a persecutor in his own right, railing murderously against Jews, screaming about demons, and calling on the German principalities to stamp on the rebellious poor. When Dr. King took a stand on the steps of Mr. Lincoln's memorial and changed history, he too adopted a position that had effectually been forced upon him. But he did so as a profound humanist and nobody could ever use his name to justify oppression or cruelty. He endures for that reason, and his legacy has very little to do with his professed theology. No supernatural force was required to make the case against racism.
Anybody, therefore, who uses the King legacy to justify the role of religion in public life must accept all the corollaries of what they seem to be implying. Even a glance at the whole record will show, first, that person for person, American freethinkers and agnostics and atheists come out the best. The chance that someone's secular or freethinking opinion would cause him or her to denounce the whole injustice was extremely high. The chance that someone's religious belief would cause him or her to take a stand against slavery and racism was statistically quite small. But the chance that someone's religious belief would cause him or her to uphold slavery and racism was statistically extremely high, and the latter fact helps us to understand why the victory of simple justice took so long to bring about.
As far as I am aware, there is no country in the world today where slavery is still practiced where the justification is not derived from the Koran. (pp. 180-81)
But contempt for the intellect has a strange way of not being passive. One of two things may happen: those who are innocently credulous may become easy prey for those who are less scrupulous and who seek to "lead" and "inspire" them. Or those whose credulity has led their own society into stagnation may seek a solution, not in true self-examination, but in blaming others for their backwardness. Both these things happened in the most consecratedly "spiritual" society of them all.
Although many Buddhists now regret that deplorable attempt to prove their own superiority, no Buddhist since then has been able to demonstrate that Buddhism was wrong in its own terms. A faith that despises the mind and the free individual, that preaches submission and resignation, and that regards life as a poor and transient thing, is ill-equipped for self-criticism. Those who become bored by conventional "Bible" religions, and seek "enlightenment" by way of the dissolution of their own critical faculties into nirvana in any form, had better take a warning. They may think they are leaving the realm of despised materialism, but they are still being asked to put their reason to sleep, and to discard their minds along with their sandals. (p. 204)
Religion as an Original Sin
There are, indeed, several ways in which religion is not just amoral, but positively immoral. And these faults are crimes are not to be found in the behavior of its adherents (which can sometimes be exemplary) but in its original precepts. These include:
• Presenting a false picture of the world to the innocent and the credulous
• The doctrine of blood sacrifice
• The doctrine of atonement
• The doctrine of eternal reward and/or punishment
• The imposition of impossible tasks and rules
The Gospel story of the Garden of Gethsemane used to absorb me very much as a child because its “break” in the action and its human whimper made me wonder if some of the fantastic scenario might after all be true. Jesus asks in effect, “Do I have to go through with this?” It is an impressive and unforgettable question, and I long ago decided that I would cheerfully wager my own soul on the belief that the only right answer to it is "no." We cannot, like fear-ridden peasants of antiquity, hope to load all our crimes onto a goat and then drive the hapless animal into the desert. Our everyday idiom " is quite sound in regarding "scapegoating" with contempt. And religion is scapegoating writ large. I can pay your debt, my love, if you have been imprudent, and if I were a hero like Sidney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities I could even serve your term in prison or take your place on the scaffold. Greater love hath no man. But I cannot absolve you of your responsibilities. It would be immoral of me to offer, and immoral of you to accept. And if the same offer is made from another time and another world, through the mediation of middlemen and accompanied by inducements, it loses all its grandeur and becomes debased into wish-thinking or, worse, a combination of blackmailing with bribery.
The ultimate degeneration of all this into a mere bargain was made unpleasantly obvious by Blaise Pascal, whose theology is not far short of sordid. His celebrated "wager" puts it in hucksterish form: what have you got to lose? If you believe in god and there is a god, you win. If you believe in him and you are wrong—so what? I once wrote a response to this cunning piece of bet-covering, which took two forms. The first was a version of Bertrand Russell's hypothetical reply to the hypothetical question: what will you say if you die and are confronted with your Maker? His response? "I should say, Oh God, you did not give us enough evidence." My own reply: Imponderable Sir, I presume from some if not all of your many reputations that you might prefer honest and convinced unbelief to the hypocritical and self-interested affectation of faith or the smoking tributes of bloody altars. But I would not count on it.
Pascal reminds me of the hypocrites and frauds who abound in Talmudic Jewish rationalization. Don't do any work on the Sabbath yourself, but pay someone else to do it. You obeyed the letter of the law: who's counting? The Dalai Lama tells us that you can visit a prostitute as long as someone else pays her. Shia Muslims offer "temporary marriage," selling men the permission to take a wife for an hour or two with the usual vows and then divorce her when they are done. Half of * the splendid buildings in Rome would never have been raised if the sale of indulgences had not been so profitable: St. Peter's itself was financed by a special one-time offer of that kind. The newest pope, the former Joseph Ratzinger, recently attracted Catholic youths to a festival by offering a certain "remission of sin" to those who attended.
This pathetic moral spectacle would not be necessary if the original rules were ones that it would be possible to obey. But to the totalitarian edicts that begin with revelation from absolute authority, and that are enforced by fear, and based on a sin that had been committed long ago, are added regulations that are often immoral and impossible at the same time. The essential principle of totalitarianism is to make * laws that are impossible to obey. The resulting tyranny is even more impressive if it can be enforced by a privileged caste or party which is highly zealous in the detection of error. Most of humanity, throughout its history, has dwelt under a form of this stupefying dictatorship, and a large portion of it still does. Allow me to give a few examples of the rules that must, yet cannot, be followed. (pp. 211-12)
The other man-made stupidities and cruelties of the religious are easy to detect as well. The idea of torture is as old as the nastiness of mankind, which is the only species with the imagination to guess what it might feel like when imposed upon another. We cannot blame religion for this impulse, but we can condemn it for institutionalizing and refining the practice. The museums of medieval Europe, from Holland to Tuscany, are crammed with instruments and devices upon which holy men labored devoutly, in order to see how long they could keep someone alive while being roasted. It is not needful to go into further details, but there were also religious books of instruction in this art, and guides for the detection of heresy by pain. Those who were not lucky enough to be able to take part in the auto-da-fe (or “act of faith”, as the torture session was known) were permitted free reign to fantasize as many lurid nightmares as they could, and to inflict them verbally in order to keep the ignorant in a state of permanent fear. In an era where there was little enough by way of public entertainment, a good public burning or disembowelment or breaking on the wheel was often as much recreation as the saintly dared to allow. Nothing proves the man-made character of religion as obviously as the sick mind that designed hell, unless it is the sorely limited mind that has failed to describe heaven—except as a place of either worldly comfort, eternal tedium, or (as Tertullian thought) continual relish in the torture of others.
Pre-Christian hells were highly unpleasant too, and called upon the same sadistic ingenuity for their invention. However, some of the early ones we know of—most notably the Hindu—were limited in time. A sinner, for example, might be sentenced to a given number of years in hell, where every day counted as 6,400 human years. If he slew a priest, the sentence thus adjusted would be 149,504,000,000 years. At this point, he was allowed nirvana, which seems to mean annihilation. It was left to Christians to find a hell from which there was no possible appeal. (And the idea is easily plagiarized: I once heard Louis Farrakhan, leader of the heretical black-only "Nation of Islam," as he drew a hideous roar from a mob in Madison Square Garden. Hurling spittle at the Jews, he yelled, "And don't you forget—when it's God who puts you in the ovens, it's FOREVER!")
The obsession with children, and with rigid control over their up- bringing, has been part of every system of absolute authority. It may have been a Jesuit who was first actually quoted as saying, "Give me the child until he is ten, and I will give you the man," but the idea is very much older than the school of Ignatius Loyola. Indoctrination of the young often has the reverse effect, as we also know from the fate of many secular ideologies, but it seems that the religious will run this risk in order to imprint the average boy or girl with enough propaganda. What else can they hope to do? If religious instruction were not allowed until the child had attained the age of reason, we would be living in a quite different world. Faithful parents are divided over this, since they naturally hope to share the wonders and delights of Christmas and other fiestas with their offspring (and can also make good use of god, as well as of lesser figures like Santa Claus, to help tame the unruly) but mark what happens if the child should stray to another faith, let alone another cult, even in early adolescence. The parents will tend to proclaim that this is taking advantage of the innocent. All monotheisms have, or used to have, a very strong prohibition against apostasy for just this reason. In her Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, Mary McCarthy remembers her shock at learning from a Jesuit preacher that her Protestant grandfather—her guardian and friend—was doomed to eternal punishment because he had been baptized in the wrong way. A precociously intelligent child, she would not let the matter drop until she had made the Mother Superior consult some higher authorities and discover a loophole in the writings of Bishop Athanasius, who held that heretics were only damned if they rejected the true church with full awareness of what they were doing. Her grandfather, then, might be sufficiently unaware of the true church to evade hell. But what an agony to which to subject an eleven-year-old girl! And only think of the number of less curious children who simply accepted this evil teaching without questioning it. Those who lie to the young in this way are wicked in the extreme.
Two instances - one of immoral teaching and the other of immoral practice – may be adduced. The immoral teaching concerns abortion. As an empiricist, I think it has demonstrated that an embryo a separate body and entity, and not merely (as some really did used to argue) a growth on or in the female body. There used to be feminists who would say that it was more like an appendix or even—this was seriously maintained—a tumor. That nonsense seems to have stopped. Of the considerations that have stopped it, one is the fascinating and moving view provided by the sonogram, and another is the survival of "premature" babies of featherlike weight, who has achieved "viability" outside the womb. This is yet another way in which science can make common cause with humanism. Just as n human being of average moral capacity could be indifferent to the sight of a woman being kicked in the stomach, so nobody could fail t be far more outraged if the woman in question were pregnant. Embryology confirms morality. The words "unborn child," even when used in a politicized manner, describes a material reality.
However, this only opens the argument rather than closes it. There may be many circumstances in which it is not desirable to carry a fetus to full term. Either nature or god appears to appreciate this, since very large number of pregnancies are "aborted," so to speak, because of malformations, and are politely known as "miscarriages." Sad though this is, it is probably less miserable an outcome than the vast number of deformed or idiot children who would otherwise have been born, or stillborn, or whose brief lives would have been a torment to themselves and others. As with evolution in general, therefore, in utero we see a microcosm of nature and evolution itself. In the first place we begin as tiny forms that are amphibian, before gradually developing lungs and brains (and growing and shedding that now useless coat of fur) and then struggling out and breathing fresh air after a somewhat difficult transition. Likewise, the system is fairly pitiless in eliminating those who never has a very good chance of surviving in the first place: our ancestors on the savannah were not going to survive in their turn if they had a clutch of sickly and lolling infants to protect against predators. Here the analogy of evolution might not be to Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” (a notion that I have always doubted) so much as to Joseph Schumpeter’s model of “creative destruction” whereby we accustom ourselves to a certain amount of failure, taking into account the pitilessness of nature and extending back to the remote prototypes of our species. (pp. 218-221)
George Orwell, the ascetic unbeliever whose novels gave us an ineradicable picture of what life in a totalitarian state might truly feel like, was in no doubt about this. "From the totalitarian point of view," he wrote in "The Prevention of Literature" in 1946, "history is something to be created rather than learned. A totalitarian state is in effect a theocracy, and its ruling caste, in order to keep its position, has to be thought of as infallible." (You will notice that he wrote this in a year when, having fought for more than a decade against fascism, he was turning his guns even more on the sympathizers of Communism.) In order to be a part of the totalitarian mind-set, it is not necessary to wear a uniform or carry a club or a whip. It is only necessary to wish for your own subjection, and to delight in the subjection of others. What is a totalitarian system if not one where the abject glorification of the perfect leader is matched by the surrender of all privacy and individuality, especially in matters sexual, and in denunciation and punishment—"for their own good"—of those who transgress? The sexual element is probably decisive, in that the dullest mind can grasp what Nathaniel Hawthorne captured in The Scarlet Letter: the deep connection between repression and perversion.
In the early history of mankind, the totalitarian principle was the regnant one. The state religion supplied a complete and "total" answer to all questions, from one's position in the social hierarchy to the rules governing diet and sex. Slave or not, the human was property, and the clergy was the reinforcement of absolutism. Orwell’s most imaginative projection of the totalitarian idea – the offense of “though crime” – was commonplace. An impure thought, let alone a heretical one, could lead to being flayed alive. To be accused of demonic possession or contact with the Evil One was l be convicted of it. Orwell's first realization of the hellishness of this came to him early in life, when he was enclosed in a hermetic school run by Christian sadists in which it was not possible to know when you had broken the rules. Whatever you did, and however many precautions you took, the sins of which you were unaware could always be made to find you out.
It was possible to leave that awful school (traumatized for life, as millions of children have been) but it is not possible, in the religious totalitarian vision, to escape this world of original sin and guilt and pain. An infinite punishment awaits you even after you die. According the really extreme religious totalitarians, such as John Calvin, who borrowed his awful doctrine from Augustine, infinite punishment can be awaiting you even before you are born. Long ago it was written which souls would be chosen or "elected" when the time came divide the sheep from the goats. No appeal against this primordial sentence is possible, and no good works or professions of faith can save one who has not been fortunate enough to be chosen. Calvin's Geneva was prototypical totalitarian state, and Calvin himself a sadist and torturer and killer, who burned Servetus (one of the great thinkers and questioners of the day) while the man was still alive. The lesser wretchedness induced in Calvin's followers, compelled to waste their lives worrying they had been "elected" or not, is well caught in George Eliot's Adam Bede, and in an old English plebeian satire against the other sects, from Jehovah's Witnesses to Plymouth Brethren, who dare to claim that they are of the elect, and that they alone know the exact number of those who will be plucked from the burning:
We are the pure and chosen few, and all the rest are damned. There’s room enough in hell for you – we don’t want heaven crammed. (pp. 232-33)
Thus, those who invoke "secular" tyranny in contrast to religion are hoping that we will forget two things: the connection between the Christian churches and fascism, and the capitulation of the churches to National Socialism. This is not just my assertion: it has been admitted by the religious authorities themselves. Their poor conscience on the point is illustrated by a piece of bad faith that one still has to combat. On religious Web sites and in religious propaganda, you may come across a statement purportedly made by Albert Einstein in 1940:
Being a lover of freedom, when the revolution came to Germany, I looked to the universities to defend it, knowing that they had always boasted of their devotion to the cause of truth; but, no, the universities immediately were silenced. Then I looked to the great editors of the newspapers whose flaming editorials in days gone by had proclaimed their love of freedom; but they, like the universities were silenced in a few short weeks.... Only the Church stood squarely across the path of Hitler's campaign for suppressing truth. I never had any special interest in the Church before, but now I feel a great affection and admiration because the Church alone has had the courage and persistence to stand for intellectual truth and moral freedom. I am forced thus to confess that what I once despised I now praise unreservedly.
Originally printed in Time magazine (without any verifiable attribution), this supposed statement was once cited in a national broadcast by the famous American Catholic spokesman and cleric Fulton Sheen, and remains in circulation. As the analyst William Waterhouse has pointed out, it does not sound like Einstein at all. Its rhetoric is too florid. It makes no mention of the persecution of the Jews. And it makes the cool and cautious Einstein look silly, in the sense that he claims to have once “despised” something in which he also “never had any special interest.” There is another difficulty, in that the statement never appears in any anthology of Einstein’s written or spoken remarks. Eventually, Waterhouse was able to find an unpublished letter in the Einstein Archives in Jerusalem, in which the old man in 1947 complained of having once made a remark praising some ( man "churchmen" (not "churches") which had since been exaggerated beyond all recognition.
Anyone wanting to know what Einstein did say in the early days of Hitler's barbarism can easily look him up. For example:
I hope that healthy conditions will soon supervene in Germany and that in future her great men like Kant and Goethe will not merely be commemorated from time to time but that the principles which they taught will also prevail in public life and in the general consciousness.
It is quite clear from this that he put his "faith," as always, in Science and the Enlightenment tradition. Those who seek to misrepresent the man who gave us an alternative theory of the cosmos (as well as those who' remained silent or worse while his fellow Jews were being deported and destroyed) betray the prickings of their bad consciences.
Turning to Soviet and Chinese Stalinism, with its exorbitant of personality and depraved indifference to human life and hi 11 rights, one cannot expect to find too much overlap with pre-existing religions. For one thing, the Russian Orthodox Church had been main prop of the czarist autocracy, while the czar himself was regarded as the formal head of the faith and something a little more than merely human. In China, the Christian churches were overwhelmingly identified with the foreign "concessions" extracted by imperial powers, which were among the principal causes of the revolution in the first place. This is not to explain or excuse the killing of priests and nuns and the desecration of churches—any more than one should excuse the burning of churches and the murder of clergy in Spain during the struggle of the Spanish republic against Catholic fascism—but the long association of religion with corrupt secular power has meant that most nations have to go through at least one anticlerical phase, from Cromwell through Henry VIII to the French Revolution to the Risorgimento, and in the conditions of warfare and collapse that obtained in Russia and China these interludes were exceptionally brutal ones. (I might add, though, that no serious Christian ought to hope for the restoration of religion as it was in either country: the church in Russia was the protector of serfdom and the author of anti-Jewish pogroms, and in China the missionary and the tight-fisted trader and concessionaire were partners in crime.)
Lenin and Trotsky were certainly convinced atheists who believed that illusions in religion could be destroyed by acts of policy and that in the meantime the obscenely rich holdings of the church could be seized and nationalized. In the Bolshevik ranks, as among the Jacobins of 1789, there were also those who saw the revolution as a sort of alternative religion, with connections to myths of redemption and messianism. For Joseph Stalin, who had trained to be a priest in a seminary in Georgia, the whole thing was ultimately a question of power. "How many divisions," he famously and stupidly inquired, "has the pope?" (The true answer to his boorish sarcasm was, "More than you think.") Stalin then pedantically repeated the papal routine of making science conform to dogma, by insisting that the shaman and charlatan Trofim Lysenko had disclosed the key to genetics and promised extra harvests of especially inspired vegetables. (Millions of innocents died of gnawing internal pain as a consequence of this “revelation.”) This Caesar unto whom all things were dutifully rendered took care, as his regime became a more nationalist and statist one, to maintain at least a puppet church that could attach its tradition appeal to his. This was especially true during the Second World War, when the "Internationale" was dropped as the Russian anthem and replaced by the sort of hymnal propaganda that had defeated Napoleon Bonaparte in 1812 (this at a time when "volunteers" from several European fascist states were invading Russian territory under the holy banner of a crusade against "godless" Communism). In a much-neglected passage of Animal Farm, Orwell allowed Moses the raven, long the croaking advocate of a heaven beyond the skies, to return to the farm and preach to the more credulous creatures after Napoleon had vanquished Snowball. His analogy to Stalin's manipulation of the Russian Orthodox Church was, as ever, quite exact. (The postwar Polish Stalinists ha recourse to much the same tactic, legalizing a Catholic front organization called Pax Christi and giving it seats in the Warsaw parliament much to the delight of fellow-traveling Catholic Communists such as Graham Greene.) Antireligious propaganda in the Soviet Union was of the most banal materialist sort: a shrine to Lenin often had stained glass while in the official museum of atheism there was testimony offered by a Russian astronaut, who had seen no god in outer space. This idiocy expressed at least as much contempt for the gullible yoke as any wonder-working icon. As the great laureate of Poland, Czeslaw Milosz, phrased it in his anti-totalitarian classic The Captive Mind, fir published in 1953:
I have known many Christians—Poles, Frenchmen, Spaniards— who were strict Stalinists in the field of politics but who retained certain inner reservations, believing God would make corrections once the bloody sentences of the all-mighties of History were carried out. They pushed their reasoning rather far. They argue that history develops according to immutable laws that exist by the will of God; one of these laws is the class struggle; the twentieth century marks the victory of the proletariat, which is led in its struggle by the Communist Party; Stalin, the leader of the Communist Party, fulfils the law of history, or in other words acts by the will of God, therefore one must obey him. Mankind can be renewed only on the Russian pattern; that is why no Christian can oppose the one—cruel, it is true—idea which will create a new kind of man over the entire planet. Such reasoning is often used by clerics who are Party tools. "Christ is a new man. The new man is the Soviet man. Therefore Christ is a Soviet man!" said Justinian Marina, the Rumanian patriarch.
Men like Marina were hateful and pathetic no doubt, and hateful and pathetic simultaneously, but this is no worse in principle than the numberless pacts made between church and empire, church and monarchy, church and fascism, and church and state, all of them justified by the need of the faithful to make temporal alliances for the sake of "higher" goals, while rendering unto Caesar (the word from which "czar" is derived) even if he is "godless."
A political scientist or anthropologist would have little difficulty in recognizing what the editors and contributors of The God That Failed put into such immortal secular prose: Communist absolutists did not so much negate religion, in societies that they well understood were saturated with faith and superstition, as seek to replace it. The solemn elevation of infallible leaders who were a source of endless bounty and blessing; the permanent search for heretics and schismatics; the mummification of dead leaders as icons and relics; the lurid show trials that elicited incredible confessions by means of torture . .. none of this was very difficult to interpret in traditional terms. Nor was the hysteria during times of plague and famine, when the authorities unleashed a mad search for any culprit but the real one. (The great Doris Lessing once told me she left the Communist party when she discovered that Stalin’s inquisitors had plundered the museums of Russian Orthodoxy and czarism and re-employed the old instruments of torture.) Nor was the ceaseless invocation of a “Radiant Future”, the arrival which would one day justify all crimes and dissolve all petty doubts. "Extra ecclesiam, nulla salus," as the older faith used to say. "Within the revolution anything," as Fidel Castro was fond of remarking. "Outside the revolution—nothing." Indeed, within Castro's periphery there evolved a bizarre mutation known oxymoronically as "liberation theology," where priests and even some bishops adopted "alternative liturgies enshrining the ludicrous notion that Jesus of Nazareth really a dues-paying socialist. For a combination of good and bad reasons (Archbishop Romero of El Salvador was a man of courage and principle, in the way that some Nicaraguan "base community" clerics were not), the papacy put this down as a heresy. Would that it have condemned fascism and Nazism in the same unhesitating unambiguous tones.
In a very few cases, such as Albania, Communism tried to pate religion completely and to proclaim an entirely atheist state only led to even more extreme cults of mediocre human beings as the dictator Enver Hoxha, and to secret baptisms and ceremonies that proved the utter alienation of the common people from the regime. There is nothing in modern secular argument that even at any ban on religious observance. Sigmund Freud was quite c to describe the religious impulse, in The Future of an Illusion, as essentially ineradicable until or unless the human species can conquer fear of death and its tendency to wishful thinking. Neither contingency seems very probable. All that the totalitarians have demons is that the religious impulse—the need to worship—can take more monstrous forms if it is repressed. This might not necessarily be a compliment to our worshipping tendency. (pp. 242-7)
A Finer Tradition: The Resistance of the Rational
I am thus one of the very few examples, in this country, of one who has, not thrown off religious belief, but never had it.... This point in my early education had however incidentally one bad consequence deserving notice. In giving me an opinion contrary to that of the world, my father thought it necessary to give it as one which could not prudently be avowed to the world. This lesson of keeping my thoughts to myself, at that early age, was attended with some moral disadvantages." —John Stuart Mill, Autobiography
Le silence eternel de ces espaces infinis m'effraie.
(The eternal silence of these infinite spaces makes me afraid.) —Blaise Pascal, Pensees
The book of Psalms can be deceiving. The celebrated opening of psalm 121, for example—"I shall lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help"—is rendered in English as a statement but in the original takes the form of a question: whence is the help coming from? (Never fear: the glib answer is that the believers will be immune from all danger and suffering.) Whoever the psalmist turns out to have been, he was obviously pleased enough with the polish and address of Psalm 14 to repeat it virtually word for word as Psalm 53. Both versions begin with the identical statement that "The fool has said in his heart, there is no God." For some reason, this null remark is considered significant enough to be recycled throughout all religious apologetics. All that we can tell for sure from the otherwise meaningless assertion is that unbelief—not just heresy and backsliding but unbelief—must have been known to exist even in that remote epoch. Given the then absolute rule of unchallenged and brutally punitive faith, it would perhaps have been a fool who did not keep this conclusion buried deep inside himself, in which case it would be interesting to know how the psalmist knew it was there. (Dissidents used to be locked up in Soviet lunatic asylums for "reformist delusions," it being quite naturally and reasonably assumed that anybody mad enough to propose reforms had lost all sense of self-preservation.)
Our species will never run out of fools but I dare say that there have been at least as many credulous idiots who professed faith in god as there have been dolts and simpletons who concluded otherwise. It might be immodest to suggest that the odds rather favor the intelligence and curiosity of the atheists, but it is the case that some humans have always noticed the improbability of god, the evil done in his name, the likelihood that he is man-made, and the availability of less harmful alternative beliefs and explanations. We cannot know the names of all these men and women, because they have in all times and all places been subject to ruthless suppression. For the identical reason, nor can we know how many ostensibly devout people were secretly unbelievers. As late as the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in relatively free societies such as Britain and the United States, unbelievers as secure and prosperous as James Mill and Benjamin Franklin felt it advisable to keep their opinions private. Thus, when we read of the glories of “Christian” devotional painting and architecture, or “Islamic” astronomy and medicine, we are talking about advances of civilization and culture – that have as much to do with “faith” as their predecessors had to do with human sacrifice and imperialism. And we have no means of knowing, except in a very few special cases, how many of these architects and painters and scientists were preserving their innermost thoughts from the scrutiny of the godly. Galileo might have been unmolested in his telescopic work if he had not been so unwise as to admit that it had cosmological implications.
Doubt, skepticism, and outright unbelief have always taken the same essential form as they do today. There were always observations on the natural order which took notice of the absence or needlessness of a prime mover. There were always shrewd comments on the way in which religion reflected human wishes or human designs. It was never that difficult to see that religion was a cause of hatred and conflict and that its maintenance depended upon ignorance and superstition. Satirists and poets, as well as philosophers and men of science, were capable of pointing out that if triangles had gods their gods would have three sides, just as Thracian gods had blond hair and blue eyes
The original collision between our reasoning faculties and any form of organized faith, though it must have occurred before in the minds of many, is probably exemplified in the trial of Socrates in 39 BC. It does not matter at all to me that we have no absolute certainty that Socrates even existed. The records of his life and his words are secondhand, almost but not quite as much as are the books of the Jewish and Christian Bible and the hadiths of Islam. Philosophy, however, has no need of such demonstrations, because it does not deal in "revealed" wisdom. As it happens, we have some plausible accounts of the life in question (a stoic soldier somewhat resembling Schweik in appearance; a shrewish wife; a tendency to attacks of catalepsy), and these will do. On the word of Plato, who was perhaps an eyewitness we may accept that during a time of paranoia and tyranny in Athens, Socrates was indicted for godlessness and knew his life to be forfeit. The noble words of the Apology also make it plain that he did not care to save himself by affirming, like a later man faced with an inquisition, anything that he did not believe. Even though he was not in fact an atheist, he was quite correctly considered unsound for his advocacy of free thought and unrestricted inquiry, and his refusal to give assent to any dogma. All he really "knew," he said, was the extent of his own ignorance. (This to me is still the definition of an educated person.) According to Plato, this great Athenian was quite content to observe the customary rites of the city, testified that the Delphic oracle had instructed him to become a philosopher, and on his deathbed, condemned to swallow the hemlock, spoke of a possible afterlife in which those who had thrown off the world by mental exercise might yet continue to lead an existence of pure mind. But even then, he remembered as always to qualify himself by adding that this might well not be the case. The question, as always, was worth pursuing. Philosophy begins where religion ends, just as by analogy chemistry begins where alchemy runs out, and astronomy takes the place of astrology.
From Socrates, also, we can learn how to argue two things that are of the highest importance. The first is that conscience is innate. The second is that the dogmatic faithful can easily be outpointed and satirized by one who pretends to take their preaching at face value.
Socrates believed that he had a daimon, or oracle, or internal guide, whose good opinion was worth having. Everybody but the psychopath has this feeling to a greater or lesser extent. Adam Smith described a permanent partner in an inaudible conversation, who acted as a check and scrutineer. Sigmund Freud wrote that the voice of reason was small, but very persistent. C. S. Lewis tried to prove too much by opining that the presence of a conscience indicated the divine spark. Modern vernacular describes conscience—not too badly—as whatever it is that makes us behave well when nobody is looking. At any event, Socrates absolutely refused to say anything of which he was not morally sure. He would sometimes, if he suspected himself of casuistry or crowd pleasing, break off in the very middle of a speech. He told his judges that at no point in his closing plea had his “oracle” hinted at him to stop. Those who believe that the existence of conscience is a proof of a godly design are advancing an argument that simply cannot be disproved because there is no evidence for or against it. The case of Socrates, however demonstrates that men and women of real conscience will often have to assert it against faith.
He was facing death but had the option, even if convicted, of a lesser sentence if he chose to plead for it. In almost insulting tones, he offered to pay a negligible fine instead. Having thus given his angry judges no alternative but the supreme penalty, he proceeded to explain why murder at their hands was meaningless to him. Death had no terror: it was either perpetual rest or the chance of immortality—and even of communion with great Greeks like Orpheus and Homer who had predeceased him. In such a happy case, he observed drily, one might even wish to die and die again. It need not matter to us that the Delphic oracle is no more, and that Orpheus and Homer are mythical. The point is that Socrates was mocking his accusers in their own terms, saying in effect: I do not know for certain about death and the gods—but I am as certain as I can be that you do not know, either.
Some of the antireligious effect of Socrates and his gentle but relentless questioning can be gauged from a play that was written and performed in his own lifetime. The Clouds, composed by Aristophanes, features a philosopher named Socrates who keeps up a school of skepticism. A nearby farmer manages to come up with all the usual dull questions asked by the faithful. For one thing, if there is no Zeus, who brings the rain to water the crops? Inviting the man to use his head for a second, Socrates points out that if Zeus could make it rain, there would or could be rain from cloudless skies. Since this does not happen, it might be wiser to conclude that the clouds are the cause of the rainfall. All right then, says the farmer, who moves the clouds into position? That must surely be Zeus. Not so, says Socrates, who explains about winds and heat. Well in that case, replies the old rustic, where does the lightning come from, to punish liars and other wrong-doers? The lightning, it is gently pointed out to him, does not seem to discriminate between the just and the unjust. Indeed, it has often been noticed to strike temples of Olympian Zeus himself. This is enough to win the farmer over, though he later recants his impiety and burns down the school with Socrates inside it. Many are the freethinkers who have gone the same way, or escaped very narrowly. All major confrontations over the right to free thought, free speech, and free inquiry have taken the same form—of a religious attempt to assert the literal and limited mind over the ironic and inquiring one.
In essence, the argument with faith begins and ends with Socrates, and you may if you wish take the view that the city prosecutors did right in protecting Athenian youth from his troublesome speculations. However, it cannot be argued that he brought much science to bear against superstition. One of his prosecutors alleged that he had called the sun a piece of stone and the moon a piece of earth (the latter of which would have been true), but Socrates turned aside the charge, saying that it was a problem for Anaxagoras. This Ionian philosopher had in fact been prosecuted earlier for saying that the sun was a red-hot piece of rock and the moon a piece of earth, but he was not as insightful as Leucippus and Democritus, who proposed that everything was made of atoms in perpetual motion. (Incidentally, it is also quite possible that Leucippus never existed, and nothing important depends on whether or not he actually did.) The important thing about the brilliant "atomist" school is that it regarded the question of first cause or origin as essentially irrelevant. At the time, this was as far as any mind could reasonably go.
This left the problem of the "gods" unresolved. Epicurus, who took up the theory of Democritus concerning atoms, could not quite disbelieve in "their" existence, but he did find it impossible to convince himself that the gods played any role in human affairs. For one thing, why would "they" bother with the tedium of human existence, let alone the tedium of human government? They avoid unnecessary pain, and humans are wise to do likewise. Thus there is nothing to be feared in death, and in the meantime all attempts to read the gods’ intentions, such as studying the entrails of animals, are an absurd waste of time.
In some ways, the most attractive and the most charming of the founders of anti-religion is the poet Lucretius, who lived in the first century before Christ and admired the work of Epicurus beyond measure. Reacting to a revival of ancient worship by the Emperor Augustus, he composed a witty and brilliant poem entitled De Rerum Natura, or "On the Nature of Things." This work was nearly destroyed by Christian fanatics in the Middle Ages, and only one printed manuscript survived, so we are fortunate even to know that person writing in the time of Cicero (who first published the poem) and Julius Caesar had managed to keep alive the atomic theory. Lucretius anticipated David Hume in saying that the prospect of future annihilation was no worse than the contemplation of the nothingness from which one came, and also anticipated Freud in ridiculing the idea of prearranged burial rites and memorials, all of them expressing the vain and useless wish to be present in some way at one's own funeral. Following Aristophanes, he thought that the weather was its own explanation and that nature, "rid of all gods," did the work that foolish and self-centered people imagined to be divinely inspired, directed at their puny selves:
Who can wheel all the starry spheres, and blow
Over all land the fruitful warmth from above
Be ready in all places and all times,
Gather black clouds and shake the quiet sky
With terrible thunder, to hurl down bolts which often
Rattle his own shrines, to rage in the desert, retreating
For target drill, so that his shafts can pass
The guilty by, and slay the innocent?
Atomism was viciously persecuted throughout Christian Europe for many centuries, on the not unreasonable grounds that it offered a far better explanation of the natural world than did religion. But, like a tenuous thread of thought, the work of Lucretius managed to persist in a few learned minds. Sir Isaac Newton may have been a believer – in all sorts of pseudoscience as well as Christianity – but when he came to set out his Principia he included ninety lines of De Rerum Natura in the early drafts. Galileo's 1623 volume Saggiatore, while it does not acknowledge Epicurus, was so dependent on his atomic theories that both its friends and its critics referred to it as an Epicurean book.
In view of the terror imposed by religion on science and scholarship throughout the early Christian centuries (Augustine maintained that the pagan gods did exist, but only as devils, and that the earth was less than six thousand years old) and the fact that most intelligent people found it prudent to make an outward show of conformity, one need not be surprised that the revival of philosophy was often originally expressed in quasi-devout terms. Those who followed the various schools of philosophy that were permitted in Andalusia during its brief flowering—a synthesis between Aristotelianism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—were permitted to speculate about duality in truth, and a possible balance between reason and revelation. This concept of "double truth" was advanced by supporters of Aver-roes but strongly opposed by the church for obvious reasons. Francis Bacon, writing during the reign of Queen Elizabeth, liked to say— perhaps following Tertullian's assertion that the greater the absurdity the stronger his belief in it—that faith is at its greatest when its teachings are least amenable to reason. Pierre Bayle, writing a few decades later, was fond of stating all the claims of reason against a given belief, only to add "so much the greater is the triumph of faith in nevertheless believing." We can be fairly sure that he did not do this merely in order to escape punishment. The time when irony would punish and confuse the literal and the fanatical was about to dawn.
But this was not to happen without many revenges and rearguard actions from the literal and the fanatical. For a brief but splendid time in the seventeenth century, the staunch little nation of Holland was the tolerant host of many freethinkers such as Bayle (who moved there to be safe) and Rene Descartes (who moved there for the same reason). It was also the birthplace, one year before the arraignment of Galileo by the Inquisition, of the great Baruch Spinoza, a son of the Spanish and Portuguese Jewry who had themselves originally emigrated to Holland to be free of persecution. On July 27, 1656, the elders of the Amsterdam synagogue made the following cherem, or damnation, or fatwa, concerning his work:
With the judgment of the angels and of the saints we excommunicate, cut off, curse, and anathematize Baruch de Espinoza, with the consent of the elders and of all this holy congregation, in the presence of the holy books: by the 613 precepts which are written therein, with the anathema wherewith Joshua cursed Jericho, with the curse which Elisha laid upon the children, and with all the curses which are written in the law. Cursed be he by day and cursed be he by night. Cursed be he in sleeping and cursed be he in waking, cursed in going out and cursed in coming in. The Lord shall not pardon him, the wrath and fury of the Lord shall henceforth be kindled against this man, and shall lay upon him all the curses which are written in the book of the law. The Lord shall destroy his name under the sun, and cut him off for his undoing from all the tribes of Israel, with all the curses of the firmament which are written in the book of the law.
The multiple malediction concluded with an order requiring 1 Jews to avoid any contact with Spinoza, and to refrain on pain of punishment from reading "any paper composed or written by him." (Incidentally, "the curse which Elisha laid upon the children" refers to the highly elevating biblical story in which Elisha, annoyed by children who teased him for his baldness, called upon god to send some she-bears to rend the children limb from limb - which, so says the story, the bears dutifully did. Perhaps Thomas Paine was not wrong in saying that he could not believe in any religion that shocked the mind of a child.)
The Vatican, and the Calvinist authorities in Holland, heartily approved of this hysterical Jewish condemnation and joined in the Europe-wide suppression of all Spinoza's work. Had the man not questioned the immortality of the soul, and called for the separation of church and state? Away with him! This derided heretic is now credited with the most original philosophical work ever done on the mind/body distinction, and his meditations on the human condition have provided more real consolation to thoughtful people than has any religion. Argument continues about whether Spinoza was an atheist: it now seems odd that we should have to argue as to whether pantheism is atheism or not. In its own expressed terms it is actually theistic, but Spinoza's definition of a god made manifest throughout the natural world comes very close to defining a religious god out of existence. And if there is a pervasive, preexisting cosmic deity, who is part of what he creates, then there is no space left for a god who intervenes in human affairs, let alone for a god who takes sides in vicious hamlet-wars between different tribes of Jews and Arabs. No text can have been written or inspired by him, for one thing, or can be the special property of one sect or tribe. (One recalls the question that was asked by the Chinese when the first Christian missionaries made their appearance. If god has revealed himself, how is it that he has allowed so many centuries to elapse before informing the Chinese? "Seek knowledge even if it is in China," said the Prophet Muhammad, unconsciously revealing that the greatest civilization in the world at that time was on the very outer rim of his awareness.) As with Newton and Galileo building on Democritus and Epicurus, we find Spinoza projected forward into the mind of Einstein, who answered a question from a rabbi by stating firmly that he believed only in "Spinoza's god," and not at all in a god "who concerns himself with the fates and actions of human beings.”
Spinoza de-Judiazed his name by changing it to Benedict, outlasted the Amsterdam anathema by twenty years, and died with extreme stoicism, always persisting in calm and rational conversation, as a consequence of the powdered glass that entered his lungs. His was a career devoted to the grinding and polishing of lenses for telescope and medicine: an appropriate scientific activity for one who taught humans to see with greater acuity. "All our modern philosophers," wrote Heinrich Heine, "though often perhaps unconsciously, see through the glasses which Baruch Spinoza ground." Heine's poems were late to be thrown on a pyre by gibbering Nazi bully-boys who did not believe that even an assimilated Jew could have been a true German. The frightened, backward Jews who ostracized Spinoza had thrown away a pearl richer than all their tribe: the body of their bravest son was stolen after his death and no doubt subjected to other rituals c desecration.
Spinoza had seen some of this coming. In his correspondence he would write the word Caute! (Latin for "take care") and place a little rose underneath. This was not the only aspect of his work that was sub rosa: he gave a false name for the printer of his celebrated Tractatus and left the author's page blank. His prohibited work (much of which might not have survived his death if not for the bravery and initiative of a friend) continued to have a subterranean existence in the writing of others. In Pierre Bayle's 1697 critical Dictionnaire he earned the longest entry. Montesquieu's 1748 Spirit of the Laws was considered so dependent on Spinoza's writing that its author was compelled by the church authorities in France to repudiate this Jewish monster and to make a public statement announcing his belief in a (Christian) creator. The great French Encyclopedie that came to define the Enlightenment, edited by Denis Diderot and d'Alembert, contains an immense entry on Spinoza.
I do not wish to repeat the gross mistake that Christian apologist: have made. They expended huge and needless effort to show that wise men who wrote before Christ were in effect prophets and pre-figurations of his coming. (As late as the nineteenth century, William Ewart Gladstone covered reams of wasted paper trying to prove this about the ancient Greeks. I have no right to claim past philosophers as putative ancestors of atheism. I do, however, have the right to point out that because of religious intolerance we cannot know what they really thought privately, and were very nearly prevented from learning what they wrote publicly. Even the relatively conformist Descartes, who found it advisable to live in the freer atmosphere of the Netherlands, proposed a few lapidary words for his own headstone: "He who hid well, lived well."
In the cases of Pierre Bayle and Voltaire, for example, it is not easy to determine whether they were seriously irreligious or not. Their method certainly tended to be irreverent and satirical, and no reader clinging to uncritical faith could come away from their works without having that faith severely shaken. These same works were the best-sellers of their time, and made it impossible for the newly literate classes to go on believing in things like the literal truth of the biblical stories. Bayle in particular caused a huge but wholesome uproar when he examined the deeds of David the supposed "psalmist" and showed them to be the career of an unscrupulous bandit. He also pointed out that it was absurd to believe that religious faith caused people to conduct themselves better, or that unbelief made them behave worse. A vast accumulation of observable experience testified to this common sense, and Bayle's delineation of it is the reason why he has been praised or blamed for oblique, surreptitious atheism. Yet he accompanied or body guarded this with many more orthodox affirmations, which probably allowed his successful work to enjoy a second edition. Voltaire balanced his own savage ridicule of religion with some devotional gestures, and smilingly proposed that his own tomb (how these men did rattle on about the view of their own funerals) be built so as to be half inside and half outside the church. But in one of his most celebrated defenses of civil liberty and the rights of conscience, Voltaire had also seen his client Jean Calas broken on the wheel with hammers, and then hanged, for the “offense” of trying to convert someone in his household to Protestantism. Not even an aristocrat like himself could be counted safe, as he knew from seeing the inside of the Bastille. Let us at least not fail to keep this in mind.
Immanuel Kant believed for a time that all the planets were populated and that these populations improved in character the farther away they were. But even while beginning from this rather charmingly limited cosmic base, he was able to make convincing argument: against any theistic presentation that depended upon reason. He showed that the old argument from design, then as now a perennial favorite, might possibly be stretched to imply an architect but not a creator. He overthrew the cosmological proof of god—which suggested that one's own existence must posit another necessary existence—by saying that it only restated the ontological argument. And he undid the ontological argument by challenging the simpleminded notion that if god can be conceived as an idea, or stated as a predicate, he must therefore possess the quality of existence. This traditional tripe is accidentally overthrown by Penelope Lively in her much-garlanded novel Moon Tiger. Describing her daughter Lisa as a "dull child," she nonetheless delights in the infant's dim but imaginative questions:
"Are there dragons?" she asked. I said that there were not. "Have there ever been?" I said all the evidence was to the contrary. "But if there is a word dragon," she said, "then once there must have been dragons."
Who has not protected an innocent from the disproof of such ontology? But for the sake of pith, and since we do not have all our lives to waste simply in growing up, I quote Bertrand Russell here "Kant objects that existence is not a predicate. A hundred thalers that I merely imagine, he says, have all the same predicates as a hundred real thalers." I have stated Kant's disproofs in reverse order so as to notice the case, recorded by the Inquisition in Venice in 1573, of a man named Matteo de Vincenti, who opined on the doctrine of the “real presence” of Christ in the Mass that: “It’s nonsense, having to believe these things – they’re stories. I would rather believe I had money in my pocket.” Kant did not know of this predecessor of his among the common people, and when he switched to the more rewarding topic of ethics he may not have known that his "categorical imperative" had an echo of Rabbi Hillel's "Golden Rule." Kant's principle enjoins us to "act as if the maxim of your action were to become through your will a general natural law." In this summary of mutual interest and solidarity, there is no requirement for any enforcing or supernatural authority. And why should there be? Human decency is not derived from religion. It precedes it.
It is of great interest to see, in the period of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, how many great minds thought alike, and intersected with each other, and also took great care to keep their opinions cautiously expressed, or confined as far as possible to a circle of educated sympathizers. One of my choice instances would be that of Benjamin Franklin, who, if he did not exactly discover electricity, was certainly one of those who helped uncover its principles and practical applications. Among the latter were the lightning rod, which was to decide forever the question of whether god intervened to punish us in sudden random flashes. There is no steeple or minaret now standing that does not boast one. Announcing his invention to the public, Franklin wrote:
It has pleased God in his Goodness to Mankind, at length to discover to them the Means of Securing their Habitations and other Buildings from Mischief by Thunder and Lightning. The Method is this....
He then goes on to elaborate the common household equipment— brass wire, a knitting needle, "a few small staples"—that is required to accomplish the miracle.
This shows perfect outward conformity with received opinion, but is embellished with a small yet obvious dig in the words “at length.” You may choose to believe, of course, that Franklin sincerely meant every word of it, and desired people to believe that he credited the Almighty with relenting after all these years and finally handing over the secret. But the echo of Prometheus, stealing the fire from the gods, is too plain to miss. And Prometheans in those days still had to be watchful. Joseph Priestley, the virtual discoverer of oxygen, had his Birmingham laboratory smashed by a Tory-inspired mob yelling "for Church and King," and had to take his Unitarian conviction; across the Atlantic in order to begin work again. (Nothing is perfect in these accounts: Franklin took as strong an interest in Freemasonry as Newton had in alchemy, and even Priestley was a devotee of the phlogiston theory. Remember that we are examining the childhood of our species.)
Edward Gibbon, who was revolted by what he discovered about Christianity during the labor of his massive Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, dispatched an early copy to David Hume, who warned him that there would be trouble, which there was. Hume received Benjamin Franklin as a guest in Edinburgh, and traveled to Paris to meet with the editors of the Encyclopedic These sometimes flamboyantly irreligious men were at first disappointed when their careful Scottish guest remarked on the absence of atheists and therefore on the possible absence of such a thing as atheism. They might have liked him better if they had read his Dialogue Concerning Natural Religion a decade or so later.
Based on a Ciceronian dialogue, with Hume himself apparently (but cautiously) taking the part of Philo, the traditional arguments about the existence of god are qualified a little by the availability of more modern evidence and reasoning. Borrowing perhaps from Spinoza—much of whose own work was still only available at second hand—Hume suggested that the profession of belief in a perfectly simple and omnipresent supreme being was in fact a covert profession of atheism, because such a being could possess nothing that we could reasonably call a mind, or a will. Moreover, if “he” did chance to possess such attributes, then the ancient inquiry of Epicurus would still stand:
Is he willing to prevent evil but not able? Then is he impotent. Is he able but not willing? Then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?
Atheism cuts through this non-quandary like the razor of Ockham. It is absurd, even for a believer, to imagine that god should owe him an explanation. But a believer nonetheless takes on the impossible task of interpreting the will of a person unknown, and thus brings these essentially absurd questions upon himself. Let the assumption lapse, though, and we shall see where we are and be able to apply our intelligence, which is all that we have. (To the inescapable question—where do all the creatures come from?—Hume's answer anticipates Darwin by saying that in effect they evolve: the efficient ones survive and the inefficient ones die out.) At the close, he chose, as had Cicero, to split the difference between the deist Cleanthes and the skeptic Philo. This could have been playing it safe, as Hume tended to do, or it could have represented the apparent appeal of deism in the age before Darwin.
Even the great Thomas Paine, a friend to Franklin and Jefferson, repudiated the charge of atheism that he was not afraid to invite. Indeed, he set out to expose the crimes and horrors of the Old Testament, as well as the foolish myths of the New, as part of a vindication of god. No grand and noble deity, he asserted, should have such atrocities and stupidities laid to his charge. Paine's Age of Reason marks almost the first time that frank contempt for organized religion was openly expressed. It had a tremendous worldwide effect. His American friends and contemporaries, partly inspired by him to declare independence from the Hanoverian usurpers and their private Anglican Church, meanwhile achieved an extraordinary and unprecedented thing: the writing of a democratic and republican constitution that made no mention of god and that mentioned religion only when guaranteeing that it would always be separated from the state. Almost all of the American founders died without any priest by their bedside, as also did Paine, who was much pestered in his last hours by religious hooligans who demanded that he accept Christ as his savior. Like David Hume, he declined all such consolation and his memoir has outlasted the calumnious rumor that he begged to be reconciled with the church at the end. (The mere fact that such deathbed "repentances" were sought by the godly, let alone subsequently fabricated, speaks volumes about the bad faith of the faith-based.)
Charles Darwin was born within the lifetime of Paine and Jefferson and his work was eventually able to transcend the limitations of ignorance, concerning the origins of plants and animals and other phenomena, under which they had had to labor. But even Darwin when he began his quest as a botanist and natural historian, was quite sure that he was acting in a way that was consistent with god's design. He had wanted to be a clergyman. And the more discoveries he made the more he tried to "square" them with faith in a higher intelligence. Like Edward Gibbon, he anticipated a controversy upon publication and (a bit less like Gibbon) he made some protective and defensive notes. In fact, he at first argued with himself very much as some of today's "intelligent design" boobies are wont to do. Faced with the unarguable facts of evolution, why not claim that those prove how much greater is god than we even thought he was? The discovery of natural laws "should exalt our notion of the power of the omniscient Creator.” Not quite convinced by this in his own mind, Darwin feared that his first writings on natural selection would be the end of his reputation equivalent to "confessing a murder." He also appreciated that, if he ever found adaptation conforming to environment, he would have to confess to something even more alarming: the absence of a first cause or grand design.
The symptoms of old-style between-the-lines encoded concealment are to be found throughout the first edition of the Origin of the Species. The term “evolution” never appears, while the word “creation” is employed frequently. (Oddly, his first 1837 notebooks were given the provisional title, The Transmutation of Species, almost as if Darwin were employing the archaic language of alchemy.) The title page of the eventual Origin bore a comment, significantly drawn from the apparently respectable Francis Bacon, about the need to study not just the word of god but also his "work." In The Descent of Man Darwin felt able to push matters a little further, but still submitted to some editorial revisions by his devout and beloved wife Emma. Only ~~ in his autobiography, which was not intended for publication, and in some letters to friends, did he admit that he had no remaining belief. His "agnostic" conclusion was determined as much by his life as by his work: he had suffered many bereavements and could not reconcile these with any loving creator let alone with the Christian teaching concerning eternal punishment. Like so many people however brilliant, he was prone to that solipsism that either makes or breaks faith, and which imagines that the universe is preoccupied with one's own fate. This, however, makes his scientific rigor the more praiseworthy, and fit to be ranked with Galileo, since it did not arise from any intention but that of finding out the truth. It makes no difference that this intention included the false and disappointed expectation that that same truth would finally resound admajorem dei gloriam.
After his death, Darwin too was posthumously insulted by fabrications from a hysterical Christian, who claimed that the great and honest and tormented investigator had been squinting at the Bible at the last. It took a little while to expose the pathetic fraud who had felt that this would be a noble thing to do.
When accused of scientific plagiarism, of which he was quite probably guilty, Sir Isaac Newton made the guarded admission—which was itself plagiarized—that he had in his work had the advantage of “standing on the shoulders of giants.” It would seem only minimally gracious, in the first decade of the twenty-first century, to concede the same. As and when I wish, I can use a simple laptop and go online to acquaint myself with the life and work of Anaxagoras and Erasmus, Epicurus and Wittgenstein. Not for me poring through the library by candlelight, the shortage of texts, or the difficulties of contact with like-minder persons in other ages or societies. And not for me (except when the telephone sometimes rings and I hear hoarse voices condemning m to death, or hell, or both) the persistent fear that something I writ will lead to the extinction of my work, the exile or worse of my family the eternal blackening of my name by religious frauds and liars, and the painful choice between recantation or death by torture. I enjoy freedom and an access to knowledge that would have been unimaginable to the pioneers. Looking back down the perspective of time, I therefore cannot help but notice that the giants upon whom I depend and upon whose massive shoulders I perch, were all of them forced to be a little weak in the crucial and highly (and poorly) evolved joints of their knees. Only one member of the giant and genius category ever truly spoke his mind without any apparent fear or excess of caution. I therefore cite Albert Einstein, so much misrepresented, once again. He is addressing a correspondent who is troubled by yet another of those many misrepresentations:
It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal god and I have never denied this but expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.
Years later he answered another query by stating:
I do not believe in the immortality of the individual, and I consider ethics to be an exclusively human concern with no supernatural authority behind it.
These words stem from a mind, or a man, who was rightly famed for his care and measure and scruple, and whose sheer genius had laid bare a theory that might, in the wrong hands, have obliterated not only this world but also its whole past and the very possibility of its future. He devoted the greater part of his life to a grand refusal of the role of a punitive prophet, preferring to spread the message of enlightenment and humanism. Decidedly Jewish, and exiled and defamed and persecuted as a consequence, he preserved what he could of ethical Judaism and rejected the barbaric mythology of the Pentateuch. We have more reason to be grateful to him than to all the rabbis who have ever wailed, or who ever will. (Offered the first presidency of the state of Israel, Einstein declined because of his many qualms about the way Zionism was tending. This was much to the relief of David Ben-Gurion, who had nervously asked his cabinet, "What are we going to do if he says 'yes'?")
Wreathed in the widow's weeds of grief, the greatest Victorian of all is said to have appealed to her favorite prime minister to ask if he could produce one unanswerable argument for the existence of god. Benjamin Disraeli hesitated briefly before his queen—the woman whom he had made "Empress of India"—and replied, "The Jews, Ma'am." It seemed to this worldly but superstitious political genius that the survival of the Jewish people, and their admirably stubborn adherence to their ancient rituals and narratives, showed the invisible hand at work. In fact, he was changing ships on a falling tide. Even as he spoke, the Jewish people were emerging from two different kinds of oppression. The first and most obvious was the ghettoization that had been imposed on them by ignorant and bigoted Christian authorities. This has been too well documented to need any elaboration from me. But the second oppression was self-imposed. Napoleon Bonaparte, for example, had with some reservations removed the discriminatory laws against Jews. (He may well have hoped for their financial support, but no matter.) Yet when his armies invaded Russia, the rabbis urged their flock to rally to the side of the very czar who had been defaming and flogging and fleecing and murdering them. Better this Jew-baiting despotism, they said, than even half a whiff of the unholy French Enlightenment. This is why the silly, ponderous melodrama in that Amsterdam synagogue was and remains so important. Even in a country as broad-minded as Holland, the elders had preferred to make common cause with Christian anti-Semites and other obscurantists, rather than permit the finest of their number to use his own free intelligence.
When the walls of the ghettos fell, therefore, the collapse liberated the inhabitants from the rabbis as well as "the gentiles." There ensued a flowering of talent such as has seldom been seen in any epoch. A formerly stultified population proceeded to make immense contributions to medicine, science, law, politics, and the arts. The reverberations are still being felt: one need only instance Marx, Freud, Kafka, and Einstein, though Isaac Babel, Arthur Koestler, Billy Wilder, Lenny Bruce, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Joseph Heller, and countless others are also the product of this dual emancipation.
If one could nominate an absolutely tragic day in human history, it would be the occasion that is now commemorated by the vapid and annoying holiday known as "Hannukah." For once, instead of Christianity plagiarizing from Judaism, the Jews borrow shamelessly from Christians in the pathetic hope of a celebration that coincides with "Christmas," which is itself a quasi-Christian annexation, complete with burning logs and holly and mistletoe, of a pagan Northland solstice originally illuminated by the Aurora Borealis. Here is the terminus to which banal "multiculturalism" has brought us. But it was nothing remotely multicultural that induced Judah Maccabeus to re-consecrate the Temple in Jerusalem in 165 BC, and to establish the date which the soft celebrants of Hannukah now so emptily commemorate. The Maccabees, who founded the Hasmonean dynasty, were forcibly restoring Mosaic fundamentalism against the many Jews of Palestine and elsewhere that had become attracted by Hellenism. These true early multiculturalists had become bored “by the law,” offended by circumcision, interested by Greek literature, drawn by the physical and intellectual exercises of the gymnasium, and rather adept at philosophy. They could feel the pull exerted by Athens, even if only by way of Rome and by the memory of Alexander's time, and were impatient with the stark fear and superstition mandated by the Pentateuch. They obviously seemed too cosmopolitan to the votaries of the old Temple—and it must have been easy to accuse them of "dual loyalty" when they agreed to have a temple of Zeus on the site where smoky and bloody altars used to propitiate the unsmiling deity of yore. At any rate, when the father of Judah Maccabeus saw a Jew about to make a Hellenic offering on the old altar, he lost no time in murdering him. Over the next few years of the Maccabean "revolt," many more assimilated Jews were slain, or forcibly circumcised, or both, and the women who had flirted with the new Hellenic dispensation suffered even worse. Since the Romans eventually preferred the violent and dogmatic Maccabees to the less militarized and fanatical Jews who had shone in their togas in the Mediterranean light, the scene was set for the uneasy collusion between the old-garb ultra-Orthodox Sanhedrin and the imperial governorate. This lugubrious relationship was eventually to lead to Christianity (yet another Jewish heresy) and thus ineluctably to the birth of Islam. We could have been spared the whole thing.
No doubt there would still have been much foolishness and solipsism. But the connection between Athens and history and humanity would not have been so sundered, and the Jewish people might have been the carriers of philosophy instead of arid monotheism, and the ancient schools and their wisdom would not have become prehistoric to us. I once sat in the Knesset office of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, a vicious racist and demagogue among whose supporters the mad Dr. Baruch Goldstein and other violent Israeli settlers were to be found. Kahane’s campaign against mixed marriages, and for the expulsion of all non-Jews from Palestine, had earned him the contempt of many Israelis and diaspora Jews, who compared his program to that of the Nuremberg laws in Germany. Kahane raved for a bit in response to this, saying that any Arabs could remain if he converted to Judaism by a strictly halacha test (not a concession, admittedly, that Hitler would have permitted), but then became bored and dismissed his Jewish opponents as mere "Hellenized" riffraff. [To this day, the Orthodo Jewish curse word for a heretic or apostate is apikpros, meaning "follower of Epicurus."] And he was correct in a formal sense: his bigotry had little to do with "race" and everything to do with "faith." Sniffing this insanitary barbarian, I had a real pang about the world of light and color that we had lost so long ago, in the black-and-white nightmares of his dreary and righteous ancestors. The stench of Calvin and Torquemada and bin Laden came from the dank, hunched figure whose Kach Party goons patrolled the streets looking for Sabbath violations and unauthorized sexual contacts. Again to take the metaphor of the Burgess shale, here was a poisonous branch that should have been snapped off long ago, or allowed to die out, before it could infect any healthy growth with its junk DNA. But yet we still dwell in its unwholesome, life-killing shadow. And little Jewish children celebrate Hannukah, so as not to feel left out of the tawdry myths of Bethlehem, which are now being so harshly contested by the more raucous propaganda of Mecca and Medina.
In Conclusion: The Need for a New Enlightenment
The true value of a man is not determined by his possession, supposed or real, of Truth, but rather by his sincere exertion to get to the Truth. It is not possession of the Truth, but rather the pursuit of Truth by which he extends his powers and in which his ever-growing perfectibility is to be found. Possession makes one passive, indolent, and proud. If God were to hold all Truth concealed in his right hand, and in his left only the steady and diligent drive for Truth, albeit with the proviso that I would always and forever err in the process, and to offer me the choice, I would with all humility take the left hand.
— GOTTHOLD LESSING, ANTI-GOEZE (1778)
"The Messiah Is Not Coming—and He's Not Even Going to Call!" —Israeli hit tune in 2001
The great Lessing put it very mildly in the course of his exchange of polemics with the fundamentalist preacher Goeze. And his becoming modesty made it seem as if he had, or could have, a choice in the matter. In point of fact, we do not have the option of "choosing" absolute truth, or faith. We only have the right to say, of those who do claim to know the truth of revelation, that they are deceiving themselves and attempting to deceive—or to intimidate— others. Of course, it is better and healthier for the mind to "choose" the path of skepticism and inquiry in any case, because only by continual exercise of these faculties can we hope to achieve anything; whereas religions, wittily defined by Simon Blackburn in his study of Plato's Republic, are merely "fossilized philosophies," or philosophy with the questions left out. To "choose" dogma and faith over doubt and experiment is to throw out the ripening vintage and to reach greedily for the Kool-Aid.
Thomas Aquinas once wrote a document on the Trinity and, modestly regarding it as one of his more finely polished efforts, laid it on the altar at Notre Dame so that god himself could scrutinize the work and perhaps favor "the Angelic doctor" with an opinion. (Aquinas here committed the same mistake as those who made nuns in convents cover their baths with canvas during ablutions: it was felt that god's gaze would be deflected from the undraped female forms by such a modest device, but forgotten that he could supposedly "see" anything, anywhere, at any time by virtue of his omniscience and omnipresence, and further forgotten that he could undoubtedly "see" through the walls and ceilings of the nunnery before being baffled by the canvas shield. One supposes that the nuns were actually being prevented from peering at their own bodies, or rather at one another's.)
However that may be, Aquinas later found that god indeed had given his treatise a good review—he being the only author ever to have claimed this distinction—and was discovered by awed monks and novices to be blissfully levitating around the interior of the cathedral. Rest assured that we have eyewitnesses for this event.
On a recent day in the spring of 2006, President Ahmadinejad of Iran, accompanied by his cabinet, made a procession to the site of a well between the capital city of Tehran and the holy city of Qum. This is said to be the cistern where the Twelfth or “occulted” or “hidden” Imam took refuge in the year 873, at the age of five, never to be seen again until his long-awaited and beseeched reappearance will astonish and redeem the world. On arrival, Ahmadinejad took a scroll of paper and thrust it down the aperture, so as to update the occulted one on Iran's progress in thermonuclear fission and the enrichment of uranium. One might have thought that the imam could keep abreast of these developments wherever he was, but it had in some way to be the well that acted as his dead-letter box. One might add that President Ahmadinejad had recently returned from the United Nations, where he had given a speech that was much covered on both radio am television as well as viewed by a large "live" audience. On his return to Iran, however, he told his supporters that he had been suffused with a clear green light—green being the preferred color of Islam—all throughout his remarks, and that the emanations of this divine light had kept everybody in the General Assembly quite silent and still. Private to him as this phenomenon was—it appears to have been felt by him alone—he took it as a further sign of the imminent return of the Twelfth Imam, not so say a further endorsement of his ambition to see the Islamic Republic of Iran, sunk as it was in beggary and repression and stagnation and corruption, as nonetheless a nuclear power. But like Aquinas, he did not trust the Twelfth or "hidden" Imam to be able to scan a document unless it was put, as it were, right in front of him.
Having often watched Shia ceremonies and processions, I was not surprised to learn that they are partly borrowed, in their form and liturgy, from Catholicism. - Twelve imams, one of them now "in occultation" and awaiting reappearance or reawakening –a frenzied cult of martyrdom, especially over the agonizing death of Hussein, who was forsaken and betrayed on the arid and bitter plains of Karbala. Processions of flagellants and self-mortifiers, were awash in grief and guilt in the way in which their sacrificed leader had been abandoned. The masochistic Shia holiday of Ashura bears the strongest resemblances to the sort of Semana Santa, or “Holy Week,” in which the cowls and crosses and hoods and torches are borne through the streets of Spain.
Yet again it is demonstrated that monotheistic religion is a plagiarism of a plagiarism of a hearsay of a hearsay, of an illusion of an illusion, extending all the way back to a fabrication of a few nonevents.
Another way of putting this is to say that, as I write, a version of the Inquisition is about to lay hands on a nuclear weapon. Under the stultified rule of religion, the great and inventive and sophisticated civilization of Persia has been steadily losing its pulse. Its writers and artists and intellectuals are mainly in exile or stifled by censorship; its women are chattel and sexual prey; its young people are mostly half-educated and without employment. After a quarter century of theocracy, Iran still exports the very things it exported when the theocrats took over—pistachio nuts and rugs. Modernity and technology have passed it by, save for the one achievement of nuclearization.
This puts the confrontation between faith and civilization on a whole new footing. Until relatively recently, those who adopted the clerical path had to pay a heavy price for it. Their societies would decay, their economies would contract, their best minds would go to waste or take themselves elsewhere, and they would consistently be outdone by societies that had learned to tame and sequester the religious impulse. A country like Afghanistan would simply rot. Bad enough as this was, it became worse on September 11, 2001, when from Afghanistan the holy order was given to annex two famous achievements of modernism—the high-rise building and the jet aircraft—and use them for immolation and human sacrifice. The succeeding stage, very plainly announced in hysterical sermons, was to be the moment when apocalyptic nihilists coincided with Armageddon weaponry. Faith-based fanatics could not design anything as useful or beautiful as a skyscraper or a passenger aircraft. But, continuing their long history of plagiarism, they could borrow and steal these things and use them as negation.
This book has been about the oldest argument in human history, but almost every week that I was engaged in writing it, I was forced to break off and take part in the argument as it was actually continuing.
These arguments tended to take ugly forms: I was not so often leaving my desk to go and debate with some skillful old Jesuit at Georgetown, but rather hurrying out to show solidarity at the embassy of Denmark a small democratic country in northern Europe whose other embassies were going up in smoke because of the appearance of a few caricatures in a newspaper in Copenhagen. This last confrontation was an especially depressing one. Islamic mobs were violating diplomat immunity and issuing death threats against civilians, yet the response from His Holiness the Pope and the archbishop of Canterbury was to condemn—the cartoons! In my own profession, there was a rush to see who could capitulate the fastest, by reporting on the dispute images without actually showing them – and this at a time when the mass media has become almost exclusively picture-driven. Euphemistic noises were made about the need to show "respect," but I know quite a number of the editors concerned and can say for a certainty that the chief motive for "restraint" was simple fear. In other words, a handful of religious bullies and bigmouths could, so to speak, outvote the tradition of free expression in its Western heartland. And in the year 2006, at that! To the ignoble motive of fear one must add the morally lazy practice of relativism: no group of nonreligious people threatening and practicing violence would have been granted such an easy victory, or had their excuses—not that they offered any of their own—made for them.
Then again, on another day, one might open the newspaper to read that the largest study of prayer ever undertaken had discovered yet again that there was no correlation of any kind between "intercessory' prayer and the recovery of patients. (Well, perhaps some correlation: patients who knew that prayers were being; said for them had more pot-operative complications than those who did not, though I would not argue that this proved anything.) Elsewhere, a group of dedicated and patient scientists had located, in a remote part of the Canadian Arctic, several skeletons of large fish that, 375 million years ago, exhibited the precursor features of digits, proto-wrists, elbows, and shoulders. The Tiktaalik, named at the suggestion of the local Nunavut people, joins the Archaeopteryx, a transitional form between dinosaurs and birds, as one of the long-sought so-called missing links that are helping us to enlighten ourselves about our true nature. Meanwhile, the hoarse proponents of "intelligent design" would be laying siege to yet another school board, demanding that tripe be taught to children. In my mind, these contrasting events began to take on the characteristics of a race: a tiny step forward by scholarship and reason; a huge menacing lurch forward by the forces of barbarism—the people who know they are right and who wish to instate, as Robert Lowell once phrased it in another context, "a reign of piety and iron."
Religion even boasts a special branch of itself, devoted to the study of the end. It calls itself "eschatology," and broods incessantly on the passing away of all earthly things. This death cult refuses to abate, even though we have every reason to think that "earthly things" are all that we have, or are ever going to have. Yet in our hands and within our view is a whole universe of discovery and clarification, which is a pleasure to study in itself, gives the average person access to insights that not even Darwin or Einstein possessed, and offers the promise of near-miraculous advances in healing, in energy, and in peaceful exchange between different cultures. Yet millions of people in all societies still prefer the myths of the cave and the tribe and the blood sacrifice. The late Stephen Jay Gould generously wrote that science and religion belong to "non-overlapping magisterial They most certainly do not overlap, but this does not mean that they are not antagonistic.
Religion has run out of justifications. Thanks to the telescope and the microscope, it no longer offers an explanation of anything important. Where once it used to be able, by its total command of a world-view, to prevent the emergence of rivals, it can now only impede and retard – or try to turn back – the measurable advances that we have made. Sometimes, true, it will artfully concede them. But this is to offer itself the choice between irrelevance and obstruction, impotence or outright reaction, and, given this choice, it is programmed to select the worse of the two. Meanwhile, confronted with undreamed-of vistas inside our own evolving cortex, in the farthest reaches of the known universe, and in the proteins and acids which constitute our nature religion offers either annihilation in the name of god, or else the false promise that if we take a knife to our foreskins, or pray in the right direction, or ingest pieces of wafer, we shall be "saved." It is as if someone, offered a delicious and fragrant out-of-season fruit, matured in painstakingly and lovingly designed hothouse, should throw away the flesh and the pulp and gnaw moodily on the pit.
Above all, we are in need of a renewed Enlightenment, which will base itself on the proposition that the proper study of mankind man, and woman. This Enlightenment will not need to depend, like its predecessors, on the heroic breakthroughs of a few gifted and exceptionally courageous people. It is within the compass of the average person. The study of literature and poetry, both for its own sake and for the eternal ethical questions with which it deals, can now easily depose the scrutiny of sacred texts that have been found to be corrupt and confected. The pursuit of unfettered scientific inquiry, and the availability of new findings to masses of people by easy electron means, will revolutionize our concepts of research and development. Very importantly, the divorce between the sexual life and fear, and the sexual life and disease, and the sexual life and tyranny, can now at last be attempted, on the sole condition that we banish all religion from the discourse. And all this and more is, for the first time in our history, within the reach if not the grasp of everyone.
However, only the most naive Utopian can believe that this new humane civilization will develop, like some dream of "progress," in straight line. We have first to transcend our prehistory, and escape the gnarled hands which reach out to drag us back to the catacombs and reeking altars and the guilty pleasures of subjection and abjection. “Know yourself,” said the Greeks, gently suggesting the consolations of philosophy. To clear the mind of this project, it has become necessary to know the enemy, and to prepare to fight it. (pp. 253-286) (Chapters 18 & 19)