Jan 28, 2009

How Religion Insults Us and We Don't Even Know It

Never before did I feel so much resentment and contempt as I watched and listened to the little old man explaining to us kids of seven or eight years old how some biblical figure - I've long forgotten who - came to believe in God and did whatever he did because of his belief and that this should matter to us in our lives; that it should matter to me. Who is this strange man to tell me that I should believe or do something because some ancient sheep-herder in a far-away desert did so? Why should I care about this, I thought. What kind of guidance is that from an adult to a curious and wondering little kid who has to learn about life? I looked around the small classroom at the other kids' faces to see how they reacted to this. Do any of them think and feel as I do? Most seemed interested; some did not seem to care. I spent most of his little lecture staring at the desktop and wishing I could go home so I could then stop feeling all this contempt for someone. I thought Christianity's control over people's lives is repulsive and wasteful, as the lecture of the little old man made even clearer to me. Instead, after he finished some minutes later, we were taken to another room in the Catholic church to listen to another "teacher."

"Do any of them think and feel as I do?" I think that was a fascinating question I asked myself then, and it is a good question to re-ask today when there is a resurgence of religious belief. When confronted with a similar circumstance, does anybody now think and feel as I then did?

It is not that one has nothing to learn from the lives of others or should not have role models. One should learn from people who do great things and live great lives, be they statesmen. businessmen, scientists, composers, or one's parents.One's life on earth has a nature - and the nature of the lives on earth of biblical figures (real or imagined) are constraints and impediments to learning what that nature is and fulfilling it. Look at what religion teaches: one should imitate Jesus, emulate the faith of Job and Abraham, live like Daniel and Esther, etc. In Islam, the Muslims' ideal is to live and be like Mohammad. Their lives based on imaginary supernaturalism are not relevant to realistic matters of being all one can: creating, discovering, producing, leading, etc. (Biblical figures did much of those kinds of things, right?) Such are the things one must do with one's life to live it well. That is the reality we are in. Mimicking a biblical figure is not a plausible substitute.

What about the matter of how does one - especially as a child - best develop and become one's true and real self? Religion is no help there. Why were those other kids in the classroom not also insulted by the little old Catholic man imploring them to "be like somebody else" - which, at that young age I realized, means to surrender one's mind to that somebody else - a somebody else who lived long ago, who believed in a God who is as real as a comic book character? Just because this little old man and others like him merely say so. How, when they have their lives ahead of them to form, did they not take offense at such a cheap and phony substitute for genuine, intelligent, adult guidance?

People are often confronted by religionists saying, "you should live like/think like/be like/do like so-and-so in the Bible," and that is something with philosophic-like importance to one's life and outlook on it. The bad thing is, that really means one should not look at reality for oneself, think for oneself, act for oneself, be oneself. Instead, says the religionist, be Abraham; be Jesus. Neglect your mind, neglect the requirements of your life in reality, look to what they did and be a second-hander imitating ancient, superstitious peasants. You are better off that way.

Why are people not immensely insulted by such exhortations, especially adults who are better able to think about such matters than are little kids? Is it because most people have a mystical metaphysics to begin with? Are their minds that lacking in independence? Do they care that little about what they, as individuals, are? Or is it something else?

Jan 13, 2009

Back to the Middle Ages

(Just to preface: although undoubtedly worthy of it, I did not learn of this story from Coast to Coast AM. Perhaps it will be featured there soon.)

In what can be termed a 'little Inquisition' for the 21s century - and an eloquent demonstration of why religion is the imaginary philosophy - the Pope orders bishops to root out false claims of visions.
In some cases exorcists will be used to determine if a credible apparition is of divine origin or whether it is demonic.

The guidelines will come in a "vademecum", or handbook, which is in its final stages and will be published soon by the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

When a claim of heavenly apparitions occurs, the local bishop will need to set up a commission of psychiatrists, psychologists, theologians and priests who will investigate the claims systematically.

[Why go to all that bother when James Randi can do it?]

The first step will be to impose silence on the alleged visionaries and if they refuse to obey then this will be taken as a sign that their claims are false.

[What if the alleged visionary is actually Christ in his second coming - do they expect him to be silent as they say? If not, his claim is false? That would be an embarrassing situation, to say the least.]

The visionaries will next be visited by psychiatrists, either atheists or Catholics, to certify their mental health and to verify whether they are suffering from conditions of a hysterical or hallucinatory character or from delusions of leadership.

The third step will be to investigate the person's level of education and to determine if they have had access to material that could be used to falsely support their claims.

The new document will also instruct the bishops to see if the visionaries and their associates stand to gain financially from making their claims.

The content of any heavenly messages will also be scrutinised to see if it is harmony [sic] with the teachings of the Church.

None of their methods for determining the truth or falseness of a vision has the slightest thing to do with anything objective in reality (other than the subject's mental health, but they would do well to question their own for engaging in such investigations in the first place), regardless of how "systematically" they follow their procedures, but has everything to do with someone's mere say-so, from "Wizard Joe" (a.k.a. Pope Benedict XVI) to bishops, to psychologists, to theologians, to demonologists, and finally to the words of ancient, ignorant peasants that comprise the scriptures that this pathetic charade is based on.

It would be amusing to watch Wizard Joe's mystical experts in their futile labor to distinguish "true" from "false" visions; claims which by their nature are neither true nor false, for they are arbitrary and unrelated to reality. Actually, their new Inquisition's arbitrarily made-up methods will likely give them, the authorities, the power trip of arbitrarily deciding what are "true" and "false" visions.

So goes the story of religion.

Jan 12, 2009

A Conservative Christian Evicts Facts from His Argument

In Evicting God from the Public Square Ken Connor writes against atheist Michael Newdow's lawsuit to get the phrase of "so help me God" removed from the upcoming presidential inauguration. The details of the matter aside, Connor concludes his column:
Newdow and company believe that man is the measure, that man is the center of the universe, and that the rights we enjoy come from government, not from God. They are certainly entitled to their own opinions, but, to paraphrase Daniel Patrick Moynihan, they are not entitled to their own facts. The fact is that American political history is inextricably bound up with religious tradition. All the denials in the world won't negate that fact.

The religionists' disparaging of atheists as arrogant for holding "man as the measure of all things" has been made irrelevant by Ayn Rand:
...Protagoras’ old dictum may be given a new meaning, the opposite of the one he intended: “Man is the measure of all things.” Man is the measure, epistemologically—not metaphysically. In regard to human knowledge, man has to be the measure, since he has to bring all things into the realm of the humanly knowable.

Attacking mens' arrogance, be it real or imagined, in that saying misses the point about the human mind's relationship to reality, a real relationship that prevents the mind from forming the mythical ideas of religion.

If anything, Ken Connor, like any religionist believing in the primacy of consciousness over reality, is trying to have his own facts.

Firstly, as for facts, God is definitely no fact; God and the supernatural are not within the realm of the humanly knowable.

Secondly, rights come from neither government nor God - rights are in human nature, and that is a fact. How is this assertion, that man's rights emanate from a supernatural cosmic consciousness, a "fact"?

Thirdly, that tradition, as conservatives believe, must be obeyed forever certainly is no fact; obedience to tradition is only second-handedness to ancestors and inherited, imaginary beliefs. Or, put another way, we can rephrase one of Connor's sentences and turn it against his position: "all the tradition in the world does not make it right." It is time to abandon these backwards religious beliefs in our politics, traditional or not. Ironically, for conservatives like Connor, religious tradition is the center of the universe and measure of all things, which, not so incidentally, reduces to: man as the center of the universe.

Connor's argument is intellectually empty, as can be demonstrated by a hypothetical counter-claim: what if there was no religious tradition in American political history, and a Christian sues so that the words, "so help me God," are included in the oath of office? Would conservative Christian Connor appeal to the sacred, infallible, authority of tradition then? How important would the facts of political tradition not being bound to religion be to him in that case?

Our Founding Fathers built a political system based on human nature and experience, in other words, based on observable, knowable, reality. Political science was a new field of study then - and that is what it was, a science. Rand may have restated Protagoras' old dictum, but the idea of her restatement - of bringing all things into the realm of the humanly knowable - was what characterized that period. The Founders (and other intellectuals of that era) studied the types of governments and laws Western man has lived under since antiquity and from that knowledge they established a government best suited to man's nature as a free and rational being. I am inclined to think this is ultimately why they established a government separate from religion: the "truth" of religious beliefs are not demonstrable nor provable when law and government are scientifically studied for their proper application in the real world (other than learning how the experience of theocracy, the divine right of kings and such are dangerous to liberty) so they are left out of the political realm. I do not know if our Founders explicitly viewed religion and government in that way, but it is certainly consistent with the intellectual atmosphere of their age and which they were products of.

Jan 5, 2009

D'Souza's Absentee Answer

In the opening of Dinesh D'Souza's column, An Absentee God?, his admission of being baffled by a debating opponent caught my interest by making me admire his intellectual honesty and determination to find an answer eventually, even if I would disagree with him. As it turned out, however, D'Souza would have been better off not attempting to answer his opponent, whose position he probably helped.

In my debate with atheist Christopher Hitchens... he raised a point that I did not know how to answer... Hitchens' argument bothered me.

Here's what Hitchens said. Homo sapiens has been on the planet for a long time, let's say 100,000 years. Apparently for 95,000 years God sat idly by, watching and perhaps enjoying man's horrible condition. After all, cave-man's plight was a miserable one: infant mortality, brutal massacres, horrible toothaches, and an early death. Evidently God didn't really care.

Then, a few thousand years ago, God said, "It's time to get involved." Even so God did not intervene in one of the civilized parts of the world. He didn't bother with China or Egypt or India. Rather, he decided to get his message to a group of nomadic people in the middle of nowhere. It took another thousand years or more for this message to get to places like India and China.

Here is the thrust of Hitchens' point: God seems to have been napping for 98 percent of human history, finally getting his act together only for the most recent 2 percent? What kind of a bizarre God acts like this?


[Erik] Kreps noters [sic] that it is not the number of years but the levels of human population that are the issue here. The Population Reference Bureau estimates that the number of people who have ever been born is approximately 105 billion. Of this number, about 2 percent were born in the 100,000 years before Christ came to earth.

"So in a sense," Kreps notes, "God's timing couldn't have been more perfect. If He'd come earlier in human history, how reliable would the records of his relationship with man be? But He showed up just before the exponential explosion in the world's population, so even though 98 percent of humanity's timeline had passed, only 2 percent of humanity had previously been born, so 98 percent of us have walked the earth since the Redemption."


Suddenly savage man gives way to historical man. Suddenly the naked ape gets his act together. We see civilizations sprouting in Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, China, and elsewhere. Suddenly there are wheels and agriculture and art and culture. Soon we have dramatic plays and philosophy and an explosion of inventions and novel forms of government and social organization.

So how did Homo sapiens, heretofore such a slacker, suddenly get so smart? Scholars have made strenuous efforts to account for this but no one has offered a persuasive account. If we compare man's trajectory on earth to an airplane, we see a long, long stretch of the airplane faltering on the ground, and then suddenly, a few thousand years ago, takeoff!

Well, there is one obvious way to account for this historical miracle. It seems as if some transcendent being or force reached down and breathed some kind of a spirit or soul into man, because after accomplishing virtually nothing for 98 percent of our existence, we have in the past 2 percent of human history produced everything from the pyramids to Proust, from Socrates to computer software.

So paradoxically Hitchens' argument becomes a boomerang. Hitchens has raised a problem that atheism cannot easily explain and one that seems better accounted for by biblical account of creation.

Excuse me? If atheism cannot easily explain something - man's recent progress - then the Bible easily explains it? That is a convincing answer? Perhaps for a Christian who reasons in circles, not for an atheist, though. The simplicity of "God caused it" is not a persuasive account, just an easy, imaginary answer.

Actually, D'Souza does not answer Hitchens question, but does answer a question that Hitchens did not ask.The question was not, why was there no progress for so long in mankind's span on earth? That, D'Souza answered. Nor was it, what happened when and after God finally intervened? D'Souza answered that also. The question, however, was why did God wait so long to intervene in man's life on earth and only in ancient Israel? That, D'Souza has not offered any answer to. One can say at its best D'Souza's answer is a lame excuse for God's intervention when it was - that only a small fraction of men missed out on it, but in the larger picture it was for the good of the greater amount of men - whatever the reason was for it not happening sooner.

What D'Souza thinks is an answer is flawed, anyhow.

Hitchens often asks this question and uses the 100,000 year figure of man's existence as a minimum that anybody has to accept, based on the science. This excludes the science-rejecting Biblical literalists who claim the earth itself is only 5,000 or so years old. Hitchens actually accepts the science that man has been around for much, much longer than 100,000 years. So what happens to D'Souza and Kreps' arithmetic based on science that man has been around for 500,000 years, say? Then how do they explain God's timing?

If they can say God's timing was nearly "perfect," with two percent of all men missing out on it, can D'Souza also claim with consistency that an intelligent designer made the universe? If He made a universe of fine-tuned, irreducible complexity, that same intelligent designer's intervention in man's existence failed by two percent. Two percent should fall well outside the quality specifications tolerance of such a supremely intelligent designer.

Furthermore, D'Souza does not answer Hitchens as to why God allowed 1,000 years to pass before His Word spread across the earth after Its arrival.

Man suddenly developing knowledge is a "historical miracle"? If a miracle is a violation of natural law, how does the correct use of the human mind qualify as one? "Because after accomplishing virtually nothing for 98 percent of our existence, we have in the past 2 percent of human history produced everything from the pyramids to Proust, from Socrates to computer software." (Never mind the dearth of knowledge in subsequent religious societies.) D'Souza offers that non-answer to Hitchens' question of "what kind of a bizarre God acts like this?" If anything, he elaborates on it! By D'Souza's admission, 98% of human existence passed by on a primitive level before God intervenes with the gift of knowledge. (Wait - isn't there a story about God and a forbidden tree?)

What D'Souza's "answer" consists of is merely recasting Hitchens' very question as a statement, albeit in Christian terms: "it is a miracle according to the biblical account of creation," and he is satisfied that he refuted Hitchens.

D'Souza and Kreps think they nailed Hitchens: "God's timing couldn't have been more perfect. If He'd come earlier in human history, how reliable would the records of his relationship with man be? But He showed up just before the exponential explosion in the world's population." Besides the fact that biblical scholarship has proved that the records of God's relationship with man are indeed unreliable despite God's intention, why would an omnipotent, omniscient, intelligent designer allow His intervention into man's existence and its timing be dependent on man's circumstances? If He is responsible for the sudden surge in man's knowledge at this specific point in time, He could have made that happen sooner, like at the beginning of man's existence. Is that expecting too much from a fine-tuning, intelligent designer? Why would He do otherwise - which is what Hitchens' was asking!

Hitchens is not the one who threw a boomerang at himself, D'Souza.

How Science Emerged In a World of Faith: Reviewing "The Scientists"

The Scientists: A History of Science Told Through the Lives of its Greatest Inventors, by John Gribbin (Random House, NY, 2006)

How science began is fascinating and there is much to learn from it - much more than just the science, there is the struggle, conflict, drama, danger, failure, triumph, and heroism that are inherent in the scientific pursuit - especially so in its originating struggle in a deeply religious, ignorant, superstitious, dictatorial, medieval Christendom. A very interesting and enlightening account of this history is in John Gribbin's book, The Scientists: A History of Science Told Through the Lives of Its Greates Inventors,

Gribbin begins his history of the scientists in the medieval period and goes up through to contemporary science. It is a book for the educated layman, but having a decent background in history and philosophy is a great asset to bring to one's reading of this book as that sheds more relevant light on this subject than what happens to be within the author’s scope.

When science began it was not merely new knowledge; it was a new way of thinking and observing the world, indeed, a revolutionary way of thinking and observing. We take it for granted. At one time it was so revolutionary that it was dangerous for the early scientists because this new thinking led to discoveries threatening to the Church's version of the universe. A salient point I learned from reading Gribbin's dramatic history is that science had to be established from scratch by itself in an intellectual climate of a contrary nature. Like a frail infant, early science could have perished through its own weaknesses and feeble health - or it could have easily been killed by its stronger, experienced enemies, namely tradition, theology, or the Papacy. Fortunately, it managed to not succumb to either. If the scientists somehow failed then, medieval Christendom could have lasted far longer than it did. There lies the exciting drama of the history of science: so much was at stake. The discovery and use of scientific thinking took much time and application for the sciences as we now recognize them to be first of all, defined, and secondly, to be so situated as to be able to progress. The ceaseless labor of some scientists pointed the way forward into new areas to be discovered by their successors - without any guarantee that they would venture in those directions.

Furthermore, as Gribbin takes his reader to the initial understandings of vast areas of the natural world newly opened by a then-different method of thinking, the questions force themselves upon the reader as they more intensely must have upon the scientists: how to proceed successfully?; to what will this lead?; can it even be done at all?

All that we now possess of science and technology and take for granted - this was not inevitably to be ours; it could have been otherwise.

What the medievals believed about the world and the universe was preposterous, to be blunt. The earth was centered and encased in a large invisible sphere with the stars suspended from its ceiling and the planets were pushed around by angels. They seriously believed it. Why? It made perfect theological sense based on The Bible, of course.

Some brief examples from astronomy's development especially illustrate the revolutionary and struggling nature of scientific thinking.

Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) was an example of the mix between the dominant mysticism and the nascent science. He believed the heretical view that the earth revolved around the sun, but in a manner that was neat and tidy, or, "perfectly." Copernicus "wanted a model in which everything moved around a single centre at an unvarying rate, and he wanted this for aesthetic reasons (11)." Planetary rotations of perfect circles around the sun do not exist, but he wanted them to in conformity with theology, so he fit his data and their explanations into that model.

Martin Luther, his contemporary, was quite upset with this new thinking. He "objected to the Copernican model, thundering that the Bible tells us that it was the Sun, not the earth, that Joshua commanded to stand still (13)."

After Copernicus came Tycho Brahe. He took on the decades-long task of observing the planets to correct the tables of planetary motions. His discovery of a supernova was the beginning of the end of the theological dogma that the heavens are eternally perfect. Tycho was "the first astronomer to imagine the planets hanging unsupported in empty space (46)."

The first true scientist was Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), who wrote, "In disputes about natural phenomena one must not begin with the authority of scriptural passages, but with sensory experience and necessary demonstrations (92)." In the end, he was placed under house arrest by the Inquisition for his heretical teachings that the sun is the center of the solar system.

Besides the heavens being totally misunderstood so was man's body and the earth under his feet. Inquiry and understanding of the physical world was virtually nil, as shown by the examples of the birth of two other areas of science.

Until the Renaissance, the accepted authority on human anatomy was Galen (Claudius Galenus) from the 2nd century. "Galen's work was regarded as the last word in human anatomy until well into the sixteenth century," (p.21). Andraes Vesalius (1514-1564), was the scientist who concluded that Galen must have done little dissecting of humans, and was therefore very wrong about human anatomy, so Vesalius took the initiative and produced an accurate book on the human anatomy, the Fabrica. In it, Gribbin writes, Vesalius "stressed the importance of accepting the evidence of your own eyes, rather than believing implicitly the words handed down from past generations - the ancients were not infallible." (25)

A contemporary of Vesalius was William Gilbert. After concluding that alchemy was a fantasy, Gilbert began studying magnetism and electricity, and like the instance of Vesalius and anatomy, this was "a feature of the world which had remained essentially neglected since the investigations (or rather, speculations) of the Greek philosophers some 2000 years earlier. (69)"

Fourteen centuries passed before man seriously studied his own anatomy; and even longer until magnetism and electricity were studied. They were known to exist but were not understood - other than superficially and superstitiously; that was sufficient in Christendom.

Scientists were not immune to making the error of accepting assertions based on authority, be it theological, the ancients - or one of their own even. Rene Descartes (1596-1650), a mathematician, scientist and philosopher, could not bear the thought of a vacuum and argued against it. His influence was so strong that the further investigations into the nature of the vacuum ceased for about a century.

What Gribbin captures for his reader about the first few centuries of science's development is a two-fold joy and thrill. It is the joy and thrill of discovering something about nature for the very first time and realizing that right there is a valuable new path to travel upward. Secondly, it is also the joy and thrill of also discovering for the first time how the human mind can know reality, that its cognitive ability is metaphysically efficacious. The implication is that man need not tremble before an unknowable universe, nor be forever enslaved to the authority of other men; but that he is in a knowable universe that he can master and the proper use of his mind creates his independence, which is his proper, natural state.

The scientists in the course of their pursuits were to varying degrees burdened with unscientific thinking that retarded their scientific progress. The scientist’s mind, insofar as it was scientific, (it was also partly a product of the dominant non-scientific mentality) was dramatically different than the prevailing mentality and psychology. Pseudo-science, religious dogma, superstitious psychology and beliefs were everywhere. Developing, refining, and integrating the proper inductive, scientific methods had to be discovered in the face of various obstacles and even opposition - and it took centuries. It was a change of mind for an entire civilization that began with a few brave, independent, intensely curious individual minds.

The type of thinking the early scientists did, in its immaturity, that produced its first results was demonstrably far superior to the dominant alternative type of thinking based on mysticism, appeal to scripture, religious authority, and its false, groundless assertions about the nature of the world. The religious response against the scientists was all assertions, rationalizations, arrogant intimidation - and no substance. (Its essence has not changed, incidentally. Although what it claims as its special knowledge has been reduced proportionally to science's growth.) The religious way of "knowing" would be hysterically laughable were it not so destructive.

The most salient lesson from The Scientists that remains relevant is of the actual interplay of reason and faith, that they are fundamentally incompatible. They were so in science's beginnings and remain so today in the "intelligent design" and evolution controversies.

Another striking lesson to apply from Gribbin's book is how the Islamic world is still in the philosophical and psychological state that medieval Christendom was in. There are few indications that Islam will go through any Renaissance or Enlightenment soon, however. Muslims certainly want the products of the types of minds that made the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the scientific revolution - without changing to that type of mind, retaining their backwards, religious-type minds and ways.

Also, the West, especially America, is experiencing a resurgence of religion. How this will play out remains to be seen, but as long as science is at its best - without seriously flawed premises and methods - it will again soundly defeat religion.

All the technology we now have and take for granted springs ultimately from the efforts of the minds of a relatively small handful of men who, daring to think differently from their social environment of arrogant and ignorant Christian superstitions, desired to discover and know the nature of this universe mankind is in and put that knowledge to practical use, thereby elevating the quality of man’s life.

The least we could do for the scientists is understand their struggles and their triumphs - and give them a silent, solemn “thank you.”

ID: A Con of an Argument

The Intelligent Design argument has taken a good beating (here, here, and here Objectivists effectively shoot down ID), but because its proponents have faith, reason is hardly going to impress them. I have some questions I would love to have an ID’er answer for me; questions that this thought-provoking TJM post points toward. It is best to set the stage before I pose my questions; questions that would probably put an end to ID if they were asked.

The ID’ers argue that there is so much irreducible complexity in the natural world - analogous to a man-made watch’s complexity - that it had to be the result of an intelligent designer; that random chance could not produce it.

In both its agenda and its form, that so-called argument just riles me.

This argument is a thinly-disguised attempt by religionists to hijack science in order to put their religious beliefs on a par with scientific knowledge. My intelligence is insulted by their belief they think they can getaway with this. Throughout man’s history the purely and strictly religious mentality has been an enemy of science and now that science has brought men such tremendous knowledge and progress in just a few centuries - far more knowledge and progress than millennia of ignorance and stagnation that unchallenged religion imposed on men - the religionists want to benefit from science like a parasite on its host. There is no valid argument for God’s existence in philosophy’s history and science has obliterated the religious account of the world - but, suddenly, amidst all this rolling back of religious belief, the ID’ers claim that nature’s constitution, uncovered by science, indicates design by an intelligence (the God for which there is no proof). If that does not appear to be a desperate, last-ditch defense, I do not know what does - yet they expect to be taken with sober, scientific seriousness.

My foot.

The design argument's conclusion does not explain anything because - aside from, being untestable - it is not and cannot be put in the form of an abstract, universal law, that needs no further explanation. It is not irreducible in that sense; instead it actually raises more questions that, to be answered, need such an abstract, irreducibly universal law(s).

My Questions for ID'ers

ID'ers conclude - by scientific observation - that our universe is the product of an intelligent designer. That implies other scientific facts, if not laws, that they must know in order to say that. So,

  1. If the designer, by definition, has a consciousness, then how do you know that consciousness can create existence ex nihilo? On what scientific observation or demonstration can you warrant that belief?
  2. If science shows that nature has specific identity, lawful orderliness, and predictability, then what justifies your claim that there is too much complexity to be the result of 'random chance'? Where is this 'random chance' at work?
  3. If the universe was created by an intelligent designer - who, presumably, has the ability to make anything in any way - would it not make sense for that designer to make a universe simple in design?
  4. If the universe is so complex in its structure that there must be a designer, then for that to be true it implies that a universe that is simple in its structure would be undesigned. How do you know that?

When I hear the ID advocates, I cannot help but think of my last question - that is why ID riles me. Have they been to a simplistically designed universe and proved that it could not have been created by some mysterious, intelligent designer? Their claim implies this necessarily, and it is entirely arbitrary. Here is the condition their belief depends on: a universe of simple design must be undesigned. But, on the other hand, by virtue of their own argument, without a designer, there would be natural randomness, and chaos - and that would make for a highly complex, not simple, universe!

"Intelligent design" is not an argument as much as it is a con-job.

It seems that with those above questions ID is reduced back to the same old God and the same old God questions without any scientific camoflage - perhaps the religionists need another two-thousand years to try to think up some answers and proofs?

An Atheist Challenge to Theists

Long ago, Dionysius of Halicarnassus said “history is philosophy teaching by examples.” So what are some important lessons for us to learn?

In the 21st century we can look back on man’s history and how he thought and lived; how he has used his mind and to what ends. We can study the history of man’s mind to find out what ways of thinking and what systems of ideas cause what kinds of effects for man’s life on this earth.

Historically, we can identify essential societal and political essentials for man’s flourishing, like individual political freedom, material and economic prosperity, growing scientific and general knowledge, peace, freedom, and progress. They are necessarily good for man. Can they be caused by any type of mentality with any type of world-view? - and not just some of those components, but all? For human life to be at its best those are its requirements.

Religion has had more than enough time and chances to prove how wonderful and good it claims itself to be for our lives. It has, instead, time and again proved how false and destructive it is - and we, today, have not learned that.

How come all the countless predominantly religious societies, cultures, civilizations lack individual political freedom, material and economic prosperity, growing scientific and general knowledge, peace, freedom, and progress? Predominantly religious civilizations are characterized by backwardness, poverty, ignorance, superstition, collectivism, dictatorship, war - the exact opposite of what the nature of man’s life on earth requires; or, exactly what destroys man's life. Religion is competent at perpetuating - for millennia - those destroyers of man’s life.

If theists have been, for millennia and the world over, living according to what God wants them to do and be, why were all their civilizations disasters unsuitable to man's existence?

The major historical periods that have brought those necessary essentials for man’s life and progress held in common one common characteristic: they were based on independent, reality-oriented, rational minds. These historical periods were of classical Greece, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment. Each period was brief in the overall course of history, lasting a few centuries at most, and yet these brief time frames brought about rapid growth in knowledge of the world and of man himself. Indeed, the concept "progress" as we understand it did not even exist until the height of the 18th century Enlightenment. Before then under all the centuries of rule by Christianity there was no way for man to form the concept of "progress."

Sudden, dramatic leaps forward in knowledge, of opening new areas of knowledge, and of making progress by applying that knowledge are the historical exception to man’s stagnating under religion (and its usual corollaries: tribalism or collectivism). To the extent he frees himself from religion and thinks for himself, these exceptional periods show how much potential man has.

Theists have a vision of their religious utopia on earth that, at least, does not much tolerate ideas and ways of infidels, secularists, and atheists to have any influence. Yet, with so much history behind us, based on what historical examples do theists think they can have their religious utopia on earth and simultaneously have the necessary essentials of a proper human civilization: individual political freedom, material and economic prosperity, growing scientific and general knowledge, peace, freedom, progress? Where and when has faith, theocracy, dogma, created a society that was not a disaster, but a wonderful place for humans to live in, a religious paradise?

Show us.

I say you cannot because the religious mentality and philosophy are destructive because they are contrary to what man’s life on earth requires. (Disaster likewise results even when your religious ideas are secularized as 20th century socialism and communism demonstrated. For elaboration see this post.) Historical examples are settled and done, detached from current controversies so I challenge theists to answer these questions:

1.When has religion proved science to be wrong?

2.When has science’s conformity to religious dogmas regarding nature and man caused science to be fruitful and forward-moving?

3.When has faith caused a growing body of knowledge?

4.When has a country’s consistent and total adherence to and enforcement of religious dogma caused peace domestically? Internationally?

5.When has obedience to religious commands, rules, and practices caused material and economic prosperity?

6.When has a totally religious society been moral?

7.When has theocracy been compatible with liberty?

8.When have - assuming they could be answered positively - nos.1-7 existed together at one time in one society/country/civilization?

If theism is true then the proof must be in its results - likewise if it is false. Considering theism’s millennia-long domination of societies and civilizations, assessing it for its truth or falsity is sensible because so much - indeed, everything - is at stake. If theism can make for a proper and successful life on earth for man, then so be it. Then theist arguments have at least that much merit and are to be seriously considered.

This atheist thinks it is time for theists to prove - a reasonable, minimal expectation in the 21st century - that their vision of a society dominated by God and religion is an objectively good option for us. If not, then it is time for them to quietly go away once and for all, letting the rest of us pursue learning how to make the best of living on earth and achieving it.

Prager Smears Secularism

Dennis Prager’s column, If There Is No God, lists fourteen supposedly harmful consequences following from atheism and secularism. Here is one:
7. Without God, people in the West often become less, not more, rational. It was largely the secular, not the religious, who believed in the utterly irrational doctrine of Marxism....Religious people in Judeo-Christian countries largely confine their irrational beliefs to religious beliefs (theology), while the secular, without religion to enable the non-rational to express itself, end up applying their irrational beliefs to society, where such irrationalities do immense harm.

Prager’s motto is “clarity over agreement” - but one would not know that based on this column. Just that excerpt has so much so wrong that needs clarification. Undoing Prager’s mischaracterizations requires expending a substantial amount of electronic ink which is why this post is on only the above paragraph. The same can be said for the rest of his column as well (which Armchair Intellectual philosophically
rebutted in four parts).

Right off the bat, Prager's first sentence is simply untrue: "Without God, people in the West often become less, not more, rational."

Westerners have not been made more rational by religion. When Christianity ascended in the late Roman Empire it was openly hostile to reason. Many Church Fathers stamped out Greek philosophy and science, i.e. reason, and succeeded so well the “Dark Ages” is the name of the period they had created after Rome fell to the barbarians. Christian Europe was hardly rational. Philosophy, which relies on the use of reason, was the mere handmaid to Christian theology. This was the land of belief in an earth-centered, three-tiered universe,
astrology, numerology, magic, witchcraft, alchemy, recurring end-times hysteria, and countless other superstitions. The non-rational definitely expressed itself to the detriment of society. People in the West embraced faith, turned a blind eye toward reason, and for centuries there was scant progress in any area of human endeavor. Discovery of the ancient Greek texts that contained reason, philosophy, and worldly knowledge saved Europe from the darkness of Christian theology, mysticism, superstition, and dogmas. The subsequent Renaissance and Enlightenment broke Christianity’s monopoly on men’s minds, opening the way to the modern secular world. What period in the West’s history Prager is referring to is beyond me.

His second sentence is more truthful by itself: "It was largely the secular, not the religious, who believed in the utterly irrational doctrine of Marxism." It is not fully true because there were Marxist theists (i.e. Liberation Theology). In the context of his column's argument, however, Prager is evading an important fact, one that helps in refuting it.

I will provide it - for the sake of clarity, Mr. Prager.

Prager neglects to tell his readers just who many of those secular irrationalists were and more important, where Marxism came from. He failed to explain how Marxism is modeled to a large extent on Judeo-Christian religion. (Prager is himself a Jew and an intellectual, so one would reasonably expect hm to know of the Judeo-Christian influence on Marxism.)

In his Philosophy of Religion (third ed.), John Hicks writes: "Jews mean by 'the Messiah' a nondivine being who will restore Israel as an earthly community and usher in the consummation of history" (109). If we merely change a few nouns in that sentence we get Marxism: "Marxists mean by 'the proletariat' an economic class that will restore mankind to a "fully human" community and usher in the consummation of history." Karl Marx (who was raised
Jewish) secularized this important idea in the Jewish world-view, the messiah myth, which was appealing to secular Jews (among others, of course). It is the common denominator of Judaism and Marxism.

Furthermore, Marxism's history has no shortage of prominent Jews, from leaders of communist parties and organizations to intellectuals. Actually, according to J.L. Talmon in Political Messianism - The Romantic Phase, "Jews have played a prominent and conspicous part in extreme radical and revolutionary movements in modern times" that began with the philosophy of a socialist predecessor of Marx,
Saint-Simon (77). Talmon further writes, "In the case of spiritual and idealistic sublimation, the age long Jewish tradition of solidarity and of imaginative compassion with the sufferings of others was able to find a kindred disposition in socialism, and Jews threw themselves into its arms enthusiastically and lovingly" (81). Secularized Jewish irrationalism began with Saint-Simonianism, and Marx's ideas fueled it even more.

In that context does Prager's claim, "it was largely the secular, not the religious, who believed in the utterly irrational doctrine of Marxism," still stand? If Prager clarified that the irrationalism he refers to is that of secularized religion, he would not have a false straw-man of "secular irrationalism" to knock down in his case against secularism.

So for clarity's sake, Mr. Prager, you should distinguish between secularism and secularized religion.

On to Prager's last sentence: "Religious people in Judeo-Christian countries largely confine their irrational beliefs to religious beliefs (theology), while the secular, without religion to enable the non-rational to express itself, end up applying their irrational beliefs to society, where such irrationalities do immense harm."

If irrational beliefs are confined to religion, religion is not confined to itself - it is indeed applied to society with immense harm. Examples are many and for all to see.

The irrationality of subjectivism is assumed by Prager to be innate and not to be examined, questioned, or purged from the mind. It is accepted as a law of nature that man has an irrational side needing expression. Besides the implication it has that a man's thinking cannot by nature be wholly objective, this is also the basis in man's nature of man's belief in God, the Kantian-like premise that we may not be able to prove there is a God, but man's belief in God is inherent in his nature - so he would do well to assume that a God created him with this belief in Him.

Prager gives us a choice: we naturally have an irrational side, so we either channel it to society - which is harmful, or channel it to harmless religious beliefs! That’s it, pick one or the other!

And why - for clarity's sake, Mr. Prager - is it not possible for rational beliefs to be formed regarding society; that it is not possible for man to use his mind's method of knowing reality - his reason - to live with his fellow men?

Ultimately, what is intellectually and morally scandalous - and Prager's column is just another instance of it - is that religionists continually use atheism and secularism as such as scapegoats for the harm (pseudo)secular ideas like Marxism do, ideas that would not be, were it not for theology in the first place.

Communism Was Not Secularism

Secularism's future will likely consist of a long intellectual and cultural battle until it wins the day at last. One major intellectual battle waiting to be fought is for the real secularists to repair the bad reputation their cause has. We are told how the 20th century was one of secularism that inevitably led to totalitarianism, warfare, gulags, genocide, and pogroms. Much of the bad reputation derives therefrom. Blaming secularism for those horrors is misplacing the blame, though. Anti-secularists fail to see under the surface of allegedly “secular” totalitarianism. Beneath that surface is religion. From this review of "Comrades" by Robert Service:
"But Hitchens makes the excellent point that Stalin was able to, indeed set out to, exploit the massive reservoir of credulity created by centuries of tsarist rule and sullen acquiescence to the Russian Orthodox Church, when he says: "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."

British historian Robert Service, in Comrades: a world history of communism, goes further. For Service, communism is a religion, a "secular credo" complete with millenarian overtones (apocalypse followed by paradise), an emphasis on scriptural exegesis (each communist party "was a synod of hair-splitting political discussion") and a theory of historical inevitability that looks suspiciously like a doctrine of predestination. Marx and Engels, Service suggests, enthusiastically encouraged devotion, with the consequence that they were "treated as prophets whose every word had to be treasured".

They were "infallible progenitors of an omniscient world view" and "remained unconsciously influenced by religious ideas about the perfect future society and the salvation of humanity".

To suggest that communism is religious in character is not an original point but it is a hugely important one, for it gives the lie to the view that communism, for all its attendant evils and failures, was essentially a rational experiment that the human race was bound to make - that it grew out of the Enlightenment, as opposed to fascism and Nazism, both of which were deeply irrational."

Hitchens is correct as far as he goes about the Russians' credulity; credulity that is found in any backwards, predominantly religious country. Under the tsars and Orthodox Church, Moscow was asserted to be the "Third Rome" and "Holy Russia's" destiny was nothing less than redeeming mankind. That was the self-image of a country where most people lived under the harsh, impoverished, quasi-communistic system of serfdom until well into the nineteenth century.

Meanwhile, Western Europe progressed quickly with its Renaissance, scientific revolution, and Enlightenment, none of which substantially penetrated Russia - Russian intellectuals were against Western thought.

Looking back at the big-picture, it is therefore bizarre that Karl Marx believed Russia would be among the last nations to become communist - there must be fully industrialized capitalism before there is communism, he believed. (Later on Russian communists got Marx to make an official doctrinal exception for their country.)

Communism took its deepest roots where religion was especially strong: countries like Russia (as well as other eastern European countries).

Some communist countries, especially Russia, went headlong toward massive-scale modernizing and industrializing; modernizing and industrializing they did not learn first-hand how to create but rather begged, copied, and stole from those who did learn them first-hand. These were countries that were historically dominated by religious and tribal beliefs of mysticism, millenariaism, self-sacrifice, collectivism, conformity, and authoritarianism. They were impoverished, backwards, and stagnant. They did not grow themselves into an intellectual and cultural period of reason and science, such as western Europe's scientific revolution and Enlightenment, which led to rational, scientific, independent-minds; increasing knowledge of man and the world; progress; and liberty. In comparison, and not so incidentally, those countries that originated and/or were most influenced by the secularism of scientific revolution and Enlightenment (e.g., Great Britian, France, Holland, America) were much less vulnerable to the influence and spread of communism.

The Russian people were living for centuries under religious-induced collectivism, mysticism, ignorance, authoritarianism, and millenarian expectations, and suddenly had their religion taken away and replaced with Marxist-Leninist communism. What was not taken away, however, were those ideas and mindsets that were integral to their religion. Only those ideas' contents and contexts were changed from religious to secular. No more was Holy Russia going to redeem mankind and messianically usher in the millennium of a reign of heaven on earth. Instead, the proletariat was the messianic force that would overthrow the existing order and usher in a workers' paradise. And more: with that substitution these people obtained possession of the products of reason and science without being rational and scientific. They kept their collective, messianic mission of transforming the world, a religious, pre-modern mission they can undertake armed with modern weapons produced by modern industry. That backwards people with a strong tradition of religious superstition would go about executing their "mission" by grabbing absolute power and committing wholesale bloodshed should not be surprising. As 20th century communism's history demonstrated, the Marxist methodology of "dialectical materialist" thinking and its alleged ability to create a "scientific" socialism were as delusional and as destructive as relying on religious mystical revelation or theology as a method for creating a society.

How is secularism to blame for the horrors of communism, and religion is not only off the hook, but touted as the antidote?

That is why secular offshoots of religion should be opposed and distinguished from real secularism. Understanding what is good for human life on this earth and what that requires necessarily means using reason as the means to that end; resorting to mysticism as a method of knowing precludes any characterization of that endeavor as "secular." It becomes religious. Likewise does introducing into secularism's inquiry a concept, or ideas that cannot be derived from rationally understanding the world, like the idea of, say, "messianism." It comes from religion. That idea, however, even if given secular content or context remains a religious idea.

Robert Service's analysis of Marxism is dead-on. Marxist communism was the offspring of the Judeo-Christian religious tradition. Communism was not essentially secularism. Communism was essentially secularized religion.

Atheism and secularism were part of Marxist communism as a means of applying to society and government what otherwise were religious ideas. Religious ideas divorced from their supernaturalism cannot be made to work in this world any more than if they retained their supernaturalism. That is the lesson to be learned from the bloody "experiment" of communism.

Secularism will make significant headway when it distinguishes itself from and successfully opposes secularized religious ideas. The religious have used their own secularized offshoots, like communism, to justify denouncing secularism as a failure. We should not be tolerating this.

HT to
Daily Atheist for the above review.

"Jihad": The Real Definition

I read Taking Back Islam, edited by Michael Wolfe, mainly written by Muslims and intended for a lay audience (as opposed to an academic audience) - and it is a whitewashing of Islam. (I bought it only because it was 3 or 4 bucks in a discount store.) In the book several, predictable, references to Islam's allegedly peaceful nature are made, including the oft-asserted notion that 'jihad' means struggle, not necessarily 'holy war.' For example, I was quite disgusted by Shaykh Ahmed Abdur Rashid's article, "Six Myths About Islam," especially where he writes (p.44):
"Myth #5: Jihad refers to military confrontations..."
"We all know that the word jihad does not refer primarily to 'holy war.' Jihad literally means to strive or struggle."

From studying Islam, I know, historically and doctrinally, that is not true. But what about the word's literal meaning? How does that relate to 'jihad', the doctrine? In other words,does the doctrine accurately follow from the word?

The assertion that 'jihad', the word itself - doctrine aside - means 'effort' or 'to struggle' is a lie.

I will prove that is a lie by the best proof there is; a proof the Islamists and their sympathizers are not counting on and cannot refute if they wanted to.

After reading my fill of pro-Islamist propaganda and disinformation in this "Winner of the Wilbur Award for Best Religion Book of 2003" (which I subsequently threw in the trash) I decided to find out the real meaning of 'jihad' by the best way there is: I consulted my Arabic-English dictionary by Maan Z. Madina (Pocket Book, 1973). That is a little something the Islamists do not expect!

Arabic, for an English speaker, is like a language from another planet - the Islamists are aware of this language barrier and are exploiting it by planting disinformation about Arabic words and concepts in the minds of non-Arabic speakers. They, however, will not pull the wool over my eyes because I am learning their language.

Very briefly setting some context for the non-Arabic speaker: Arabic words are based on a root of consonants arranged in a pattern; adding letters to the initial root and changing the vowels changes the pattern and the word's meaning, as the words below illustrate. "Jihad' is a transliteration, so I figured out the Arabic-letter root and pattern and then looked it up and from there found 'jihad.' FYI, while looking at the Arabic words below: Arabic reads right to left and has short vowel markings which are generally not shown in print, so I cannot type them in, but they are shown in dictionaries.

From aforementioned Arabic dictionary (p.131):
جهد to strive, endeavor, exert oneself, labor; to overwork, fatigue, exhaust

Two points to make:
1)Those three letters are the basic root. Adding to it more letters and shifting the vowels makes words that have broadly related, yet specifically different meanings.
2)There is that definition we constantly hear - and that the Shaykh used. Well and good. Guess what? That word is not pronounced 'jihad.' It is pronounced 'jahada.' Hmmm.... now that's interesting....

In the next column, same page, we have the Form III pattern. When a word is fromed by this patern, according to Mary Bateson's Arabic Language Handbook (p.33), it means "to endeavor to do something" or "to direct an action or quality toward someone." That in mind, here is the entry from Madina's dictionary:جهاد
fight(ing); jihad, holy war

There is the same root in Form III pattern now with a different (unseen) short vowel and an added long vowel. Guess how that word is pronounced? - 'jihad.' How about that - even the transliteration is in the definition! That sure answers the question: does the jihad doctrine accurately follow from the word itself?!

Notice also that the use of the Form III pattern itself also contradicts the assertions that "jihad" means "inner struggle" because when a word is put in this pattern its meaning regards action directed "externally" toward something outside the doer.

The Arabic word for 'striving' and the Arabic word for 'fighting'/'holy war'' have a common consonantal root, which hardly makes them synonymous. That, however is exactly what the likes of Shaykh Rashid - to English-speakers - pretend is the case."Jihad does not mean holy war," is the myth.

Besides, even if these liars could make a semi-credible case that "jihad" does not mean "holy war," then the question to ask them is simply: then what in Arabic does mean "holy war"? Afterall, are we to believe that a religion that has a history of military conquest has no such concept?

So Shaykh Rashid, how do you and your ilk explain a 'myth' of a definition being in an Arabic dictionary? Perhaps agents of the "Zionist-Crusader conspiracy" put it there?

In conclusion, anyone who says 'jihad' means 'effort' or 'striving' and not 'holy war' either, a) is full of shit; or, b) believed someone
who is full of shit. Right, Shaykh Rashid?

Ain't infidels a bitch?! :)

P.S. - Not so incidentally, they pull this same deceptive trick when they say 'Islam' means 'peace.' 'Salam' means 'peace'; 'Islam' means 'submission'; again, the words have the same consonantal root, that's all.

Old, Obscure, Great Books - Review No.1

If anyone wants a good education, I say a significant portion of that would come from old books. I have accumulated quite a wonderful - and large - collection of them. I have learned so much from the scholars of decades ago; learning that would be almost impossible were I to read books solely by today's scholars, who tend to be concerned with trivia and are not all that scholarly (though there are some exceptions). As one way to help save those wonderful old books from a much undeserved oblivion, I am, starting with this post, selecting a few for brief reviews. I am sure there are, besides me, plenty of others out there who would find them to be of value.

Shortly after returning to college to major in philosophy my intellectual curiosity grew quickly - and in many directions. What I was learning in college just was not enough for me. I had all sorts of questions about things, especially how ideas influenced Western history from its literature to its politics. I quickly saw that I had my own studying to do outside of college and that my work was cut out for me. As a student, I was quickly disabused of the notion that my professors would be of some help in guiding me toward the matters I was interested in that went beyond classroom material. Disappointed, also, with the books I found in the latest Ivy League book catalogs and with what was in the book stores, I came to the conclusion that old books might be what I need.

I shortly found that to be the correct conclusion.

Learning how to find good, old books was a bit difficult at first, as was identifying exactly what I was interested in. I was going in blind to new territory and found my way as I went and learned to use these old scholars as my guides until I could find my way through all this new, strange, complex, and wonderful "intellectual territory" on my own. I was enthused that with the right old books I could give myself an excellent education - and it would be dirt cheap!

Anyhow, here is my first semi-random round-up of such gems. As far as I know, these books are long out of print - unfortunately; but there are copies out there to be found.

Nationalism: Its Meaning & History (revised ed.), by Hans Kohn; Anvil, 1965; 191 pp.

This is a great little overview of nationalism from its 18th century origins to its 20th century manifestations. The first half of the book is Kohn's very concise and, at the same time, thorough, history of modern nationalism the world over. The second half of the book consists of short, primary source excerpts on nationalism from the writings of Machiavelli, Hegel, Mazzini, Napoleon, Dostoevsky, Renan, Nehru, Wagner, Mussolini, and others.

Kohn explains how the Enlightenment's nationalism that was of a benevolent, cultural nature was changed through a succession of historical events and the rise of new ideas, in to the collectivistic and militaristic nationalism of the last century - which still lingers in some ways. One of the most significant factors in this transformation was the French Revolution. The climate of ideas in revolutionary France led to a religious-like worship of the nation. "In all the communities in France an altar of the fatherland was erected with the inscription: 'The citizen is born, lives, and dies for the fatherland.' Before it the population assembled with patriotic songs, took an oath to uphold national unity and to obey and to protect the supreme law giver, the sovereign people" (p.25).

Especially significant in fostering the new conception of the nation was education: "The French Revolution established the first comprehensive system of national education to raise virtuous and patriotic citizens. Education was for the first time regarded as a duty and chief interest of the nation...[to] realize the unity of the fatherland and the union of its citizens" (p.26).

When nationalism spread from the West to the third-world it was easily adapted despite the vast cultural differences between the two. Kohn shows why this is so without, for whatever reason, explicitly naming it: third-world cultures were predominantly religious, therefore a religion of the nation was easily accepted. This, as Kohn does point out, was then used to assert independence from the West.

Dictatorship: Its History & Theory, by Alfred Cobban; Charles Scribner's Sons, 1939; 352 pp.

It is with the 16th century political philosophy of Jean Bodin that Cobban begins his history of dictatorship that culminates in - well, the year he wrote this book says it.

Bodin gave a secular justification for the state, one aspect of which was deriving sovereignty from the will of society instead of the will of God. This was a preliminary step toward ending the notion of the divine right of kings which had long been the basis of governments. Cobban takes the reader through the history of philosophical and political developments that incrementally led to modern totalitarianism: the 18th century's "Enlightened despots"; the political philosophy of Hobbes, Spinoza, Rousseau, Sieyes; the French Revolution's terrorism and "dictatorship of liberty." This period climaxes in Napoleon. With his ascendancy "arose, in the modern world, the idea that one man might himself represent the will of the people, and be invested with all the authority of the most despotic ruler in the name of democracy. The idea of sovereignty, freed from all restraints, and transferred to the people, had at last given birth to the first modern dictatorship" (p.86).

After Napoleon the stage is largely set for Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini and their lesser copies. In the paving of the way for them Cobban traces the development of nationalism and the impact of thinkers like Fichte, Hegel, and Marx. The idea of natural law, important in Enlightenment political philosophy of liberalism, is ended, Cobban argues, by the German Romanticists. The circle is closed, so to say, when Lenin's power-grab in Russia is modeled on the French Revolution.

In his summary of dictatorship, Cobban observes: "This is a return to government by faith: nationalism is the new religion, and the dictator is Pope and Emperor rolled into one"(p.283). And "there is a real spiritual principle in modern dictatorship, which makes it more than a mere technique of government. The new totalitarian dictatorship is powerful not because it rules men's bodies, but because it controls their minds. Its essential aim is, as we have suggested above, the identification of Church and State" (p.284).

The book also has an appendix on Greek, Roman, and medieval Italian dictatorships.

Encyclopedia of Religion, edited by Vergilius Ferm; Littlefield, Adams, & Co., 1959; 844pp.

It is very simple to review this book: it has big pages with small print, so there are lots of entries! Just about any religious figure or concept is included. It is a great reference book on religion.

The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages (revised & expanded ed.), by Norman Cohn; Oxford University Press, 1970; 412 pp.

Bluntly, the reader of this book is in for a wild trip! The subject matter - medieval end-of-the-world movements - is as creepy as it is comical, but Norman Cohn is very much the serious scholar who actually broke open a new area of study with this book's first edition.

Cohn's focus is on what he termed "revolutionary millenarianism" and "mystical anarchism" in western Europe between the 11th and 16th centuries, and in the ending of the book he briefly draws parallels between them and the 20th century's revolutionary communist movements. Of these Christian revolutionaries and anarchists, Cohn examines their histories, their doctrines and the ideas that originated them, the problems they caused for religious authorities, and their influence on theologians.

Cohn sets the larger context of medieval messianic cults in its distant origins: ancient Jewish and Christian apocalyptic writings and how they influenced the Church Founders. Apocalyptic writings merged in the Christian mind with the ancient pagan notions of a long-lost state of nature, and the yearning to return to it, resulting in the vision of an end of the world and a new millennium. In history this idea has had formidable power.

Between the early Christian centuries and the 11th century there were who knows how many messiahs, and Cohn gives some examples of them before they became more prolific in the centuries his book concentrates on.

After not many tales of messiahs one can see a familiar pattern which is universally applicable: a self-proclaimed messiah gathers a following, even if it remains small, claims to have supernatural powers and witnesses claim likewise. Next he promises them some version of a new, heavenly world and they come to heads with the authorities who kill the messiah and many of his followers. Bewildered survivors nonetheless believe their messiah will return in the future to triumph in bringing in the millennium. "So it came about that multitudes of people acted out with fierce energy a shared phantasy, which, though delusional, yet brought them such intense emotional relief that they could live only through it, and were perfectly willing both to kill and to die for it. This phenomenon was to recur many times, in various parts of western and central Europe, between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries" (p.88). Every generation of medieval Christians experienced this; sometimes it was on a small-scale, sometimes it was on a large scale.

There were also the "mystical anarchists," the "amoral supermen" of the Free Spirit and similar sects (Cohn compares them to Nietzsche's notion of the "superman") who claimed to be one with God, who is good and divine, and therefore, they were above all morality. They were already saved so they could do anything they pleased - and they did, as Cohn chronicles for us.

Another religious angle some medievals took on the world's imminent end was premised on self-punishment. They believed that if they beat their bodies to bloody pulps, the punishment in the afterlife would not be as severe. This culminated in mass - and public - self-flagellating processions that would usher in the Second Coming.

Cohn concludes, "The old religious idiom has been replaced by a secular one, and this tends to obscure what otherwise would be obvious. For it is the simple truth that, stripped of their original supernatural sanction, revolutionary millenarianism and mystical anarchism are with us still" (p.286).

The Pursuit of the Millennium is an in-depth look at those who took Christianity seriously and to its logical conclusion - over and over and over again, despite the horrific results of so doing. It is a history demonstrating how faith, if strongly held, is immune to reality.

Old, Obscure, Great Books: Review No.2

What I Learned in Church - as an Adult

As I am studying religion - its history, psychology, philosophy, etc. - I wondered, should I at least go to a church service just as an observer, especially if I live next to one? What would it be like? That is not an appealing thought on one level, but is a good question, nonetheless. Why are people attracted to it? How would I, from my standpoint, react to it? I have not been to mass in - I don’t know - 28 years or more, and I decided that as an educated, rational adult I should go just to observe out of curiosity. What can I learn from going to church - not about God, but about believers in God?

As a little kid I went to mass sometimes with my friend, whose mother was a regular churchgoer. I was raised Catholic, but got off lightly - just having to attend Sunday school and do communion was the extent of it for me. I have some memories of what mass was like and how it bored me. What would I think of mass now as an educated, rational, independent-minded, atheist adult - distant, fuzzy memories and fuzzy memories of my reaction to it, aside?

There is a Catholic church and school right next to the apartment complex I live in and every Sunday morning its sizable parking lot is packed with cars that even overflow out to nearby streets. What is the appeal? A charismatic priest who gives great sermons? What? As best I can remember, mass is dull.

I walked over for the 9:30 service. I made it clear in my mind that I will not kneel to pray, stand to sing, or anything else. I will just sit politely and watch and listen. I am going as an observer, not as a participant.

I went in and as I was walking across the lobby, a lady ahead of me entered the room of worship through the big wood doors and reached her finger into the holy water holder on the wall - and my forgotten childhood memories of seeing people do that suddenly came to the fore of my mind. “Oh wow, I forgot about that (jaw drops)…it’s ridiculous!” Then I looked at her and was dumbfounded by her superstitious silliness. “You actually believe putting your finger in the water is significant?” I asked her in my mind. That foolish little action instantly and powerfully made it clear to me what a different world I entered. My emotional state darkened. The thought "just leave" crossed my mind but I resolved to proceed in to this remnant of the Dark Ages.

I walked in and I made a left to the end of the pews and went a few rows and sat down. Then I remembered the “peace be with you” hand-shaking thing they do. I do not object to that in itself because it is not appealing to the supernatural. Problem is, I would feel like a phony doing it because I am not here to participate - period. Simple solution to this problem: sit where there is nobody with arm's reach!

More people filed in and some seated themselves around me here and there, but some of them in the pews in front of me blocked my view of the altar and the green-cloaked wizard when the mass began. Attendance was modest and consisted of mostly old folks (an indication that it is early in the morning). I looked next to me and in the middle of my pew was nobody. And nobody in the pews in front of and behind it, so I slid down to see better - and solve the matter of how to avoid the “peace to you” hand-shaking!

So the mass started with all rising to pray and/or sing - except me. Then there more prayers and bible-snippet-quoting as they are going through their rituals.

I was primarily waiting for the green-cloaked wizard to deliver a how-important-God-is-for-one’s-life sermon so I could critique it - as an educated, philosophical-minded adult. In other words, I wanted to hear what was the what, how, and why of him telling his faithful to believe what they do.

Finally he starts talking and it seems like this might be what I have been forcing myself to patiently wait for, so I ratchet up my attention a bit. He talks about how his friend saw the opening Olympic ceremony in China and how magnificent it was and the only other sight he beheld he can compare its magnificence to was the Grand Canyon. Okay, I think, this might be some kind of analogy he is going to make about beholding God’s or Big J’s magnificence. He then shifted his talk back to the Bible or something - I forget what exactly - and what, if anything, the two subjects had to do with each other was completely lost on me. Needless to say, I was hardly impressed.

Next a woman spends several minutes talking about her group’s Catholic charity work in South America, and after that, more rituals of praying, singing, Bible-reading, communion, and somewhere in there, passing the collection baskets.

I did not wear my watch so I had no sense of time during this boring ordeal, but by the nature of the rituals I sensed they were wrapping up mass. While I waited for this to end I watched the flock do what they do and I thought about what I experienced - and what they experienced.

First off, there was virtually no substance to the mass, that paltry substance being the inane “morals of the story” from their few brief Bible readings.What was the most salient about aspect of the mass is its psychological nature. The faithful flock was there to worship their God so they were in a
suggestible frame of mind. As mass proceeds they become more suggestible by relaxing (part of being bored), by praying (which is really self-suggestion), by monotonous singing, by losing sense of oneself in the group, etc.

While I was watching them partake in their final rituals I was aware of what, generally speaking, was happening psychologically: they created a groupthink delusion that they were “close to God” or however one wants to phrase it.

I found it to be very disturbing, surreal - and pathetic. They seemed alien to me. As mass ended, I had an intense sense of urgency to get away from these delusional fools. I was maybe the third person out the door. “Put distance between them and me,” I thought, “and fast.” I thought that seriously, not sarcastically.

Stepping outside was such a relief, but the impact of what I experienced was still with me. It made me so glad to be an atheist, to have my mind be mine.

Back in the real world I thought about what happened in the church. Those people go there every Sunday and do their silly, meaningless rituals while finding it all to be somehow serious and spiritual - and they get all dressed up for it, to boot! What going to mass amounts to is going to the priest and his assistants, allowing them to plant their suggestions in one's mind, and then paying them for it. When next week comes, go back for more. It is cooperation with one's mind controllers. That is the reality of what mass is, and if I tried expining any of that to them... well, nevermind.

That is what I learned in church - as an educated, rational, adult.