Infantile Atheism

I have not cursed a god.

The "Negative Confession" or Protestation of Ani, The Egyptian Book of the Dead, The Book of Going Forth by Day, The Complete Papyrus of Ani, Featuring Integrated Text and Full-Color Images, translated by Dr. Raymond O. Faulkner [1994, 1998, Chronicle Books, San Francisco, 2008, Chapter 125, Plate 31], hieroglyphic transcription, E.A. Wallis Budge, The Egyptian Book of the Dead, The Papyrus of Ani [1895, Dover Publications, 1967, p.202] -- the thirty-seventh Confession as translated (in both references), but the 6th in the order of the manuscript.

It was a completely secular age. Of the faiths that had existed before the coming of the Overlords, only a form of purified Buddhism -- perhaps the most austere of all religions -- still survived. The creeds that had been based upon miracles and revelation had collapsed utterly. With the rise of education, they had already been slowly dissolving...

Beneath the fierce and passionless light of truth, faiths that had sustained millions for twice a thousand years vanished like morning dew. All the good and all the evil they had wrought were swept suddenly into the past, and could touch the minds of men no more.

Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood's End [Ballantine Books, 1953, 1964, pp.70-71]

Religious people often assume that those without a belief in the supernatural cannot find beauty and inspiration in this world. Non-believers know that meaning in this world is of their own making and not dictated by a higher being...

Elisabeth Cornwell, Evolutionary Psychologist, "I Don't Need God to be Inspired," Center for Inquiry - LA, 7 October 2012

νῦν ἰδοὺ πέποιθας σαυτῷ ἐπὶ τὴν ῥάβδον τὴν καλαμίνην τὴν τεθλασμένην ταύτην, ἐπ᾽ Αἴγυπτον, ὃς ἂν στηριχθῇ ἀνὴρ ἐπ᾽ αὐτήν, καὶ εἰσελεύσεται εἰς τὴν χεῖρα αὐτοῦ καὶ τρήσει αὐτήν· οὕτως Φαραὼ βασιλεὺς Αἰγύπτου πᾶσι τοῖς πεποιθόσιν ἐπ᾽ αὐτόν.

An speras in baculo harundineo atque confracto Aegypto, super quem si incubuerit homo comminutus ingreditur manum eius et perforabit eam. Sic est Pharao rex Aegypti omnibus qui confidunt in se.

Now behold, you depend for yourself on that splintered reed staff, on Egypt, which should a man lean on it, pierces his hand and wounds it. Such is Pharaoh king of Egypt to all who rely on him.

2 Kings 18:21, Septuagint & Vulgate, 4 Kings 18:21 [note].

As the certainty of faith collapsed, so did the certainty of unbelief. Today's godless world -- unlike the cosy world of Enlightenment atheism, protected by a friendly and benevolent Nature -- is perceived as a dark abyss of eternal chaos, with no meaning or direction, no structure or signposts to show the way. Thus spoke Zarathustra. Ever since Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God a hundred years ago, there have been no more happy atheists. The world in which people relied on their own powers and considered themselves unconstrained legislators on questions of good and evil, the world where, freed at last from the chains of divine bondage, they could hope to recover their lost dignity -- that world was transformed into a place of endless anxiety and suffering. The absence of God became a permanently festering wound in the European spirit, even if it could be forgotten with the aid of artificial painkillers. Compare the godless world of Diderot, Helvétius and Feuerbach with the godless world of Kafka, Camus and Sartre. The collapse of Christianity so eagerly awaited and so joyfully greeted by the Enlightenment turned out -- to the extent that it really occurred -- to be almost simultaneous with the collapse of the Enlightenment. The new, radiant anthropocentric order that was to arise and supplant God once He had been deposed never appeared.

Leszek Kołakowski, "Anxiety About God in an Ostensibly Godless Age," 1981, Is God Happy? Selected Essays [Basic Books, 2013, p.184-185]

In one of the many powerful formations in "Varieties of Religious Experience," [William] James writes:  "Philosophy lives in words, but truth and fact well up into our lives in ways that exceed verbal formulations." It's a pity James wasn't alive to demolish the callow arguments of the atheist school of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens & Co.

Joseph Epstein, "Human Nature and the Fruits of Faith," Masterpiece: 'Varieties of Religion Experience" [1902] by William James, Review, The Wall Street Journal, September 27-28, 2014, C13

In case I haven't mentioned this before, I'm an atheist. I do not believe there is any mind/body separation. All we are is our brains. We are chemical reactions. We are stuff.

Penn Jillette, Presto! How I Made Over 100 Pounds Disappear and Other Magical Tales, Simon & Schuster, 2016, p.125.

The mass shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, left 26 worshipers dead and 20 injured. The killer was an outspoken atheist who expressed anti-Christian sentiment, according to his former friends in media reports.

Soon after the news broke, Speaker Paul Ryan tweeted: “Reports out of Texas are devastating. The people of Sutherland Springs need our prayers right now.” That earned him excoriation from, among others, political commentator Keith Olbermann, who instructed the speaker to “shove your prayers up your a—,” and actor Michael McKean, who observed: “They were in church. They had the prayers shot right out of them. Maybe try something else”...

I don't believe in God. I don't believe in prayer. It is my hope to see all myths properly relegated to history and literature texts. Yet as worshipers were shot to death at the First Baptist Church, I thought about their surviving family and friends who are finding solace and strength through prayer, just like the mother I met years ago at the Portland Church...

I want to grieve together in our common humanity, which transcends belief -- or non-belief.

Andy Ngo, "An Atheist Can Respect Prayer," The Wall Street Journal, November 10, 2017, A17; Andy Ngo, a reporter in Portland, Oregon, has documented the activities of the "Antifa" thugs, who, on June 29, 2019, finally beat him up, in public, in front of the police station, so badly that he suffered cerebral hemorrhaging. No one has been arrested or prosecuted for this assault, which was captured on video. The excuse is often that the perpetrators wear masks and cannot be identified. Many jurisdictions, however, have laws against such masks, originally directed at the Ku Klux Klan.

Ἵνα τί ἐφρύαξαν ἔθνη, καὶ λαοὶ ἐμελέτησαν κενά;
Quare fremuerunt gentes, et populi meditati sunt inania?
Why do the heathen [gôyim] rage, and peoples imagine vain things?

Psalms 2:1

The murdered victims were in a church... If prayers did anything, they’d still be alive, you worthless sack of sh*t.

Wil Wheaton, atheist actor in Star Trek, the Next Generation, responding to the statement of House Speaker Paul Ryan that victims and survivors of the shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, “need our prayers right now.”

Imagine you are a sane Democrat who recognizes that a big reason Hillary Clinton lost to Donald Trump in November was that she alienated many members of the white working class. In the year since, you have been working on your fellow Democrats to change their message in hopes of wooing these voters back into the fold. Then a gunman opens fire at a Baptist church in Texas, and suddenly progressives are in full deplorable mode, attacking anyone who dares offer...prayers.

This is the extraordinary turn of events since Devin Patrick Kelley turned his rifle on the innocent churchgoers inside First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas.
Freedom of Worship, 1943, Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), National Archives at College Park
What provoked the left, if it can really be called a provocation, was President Trump’s statement from Japan Sunday, in which he said that “our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and families of today’s horrible and murderous attack.” House Speaker Paul Ryan likewise set off the furies by tweeting, “The people of Sutherland Springs need our prayers right now.”

The responses have to be read to be believed. Here’s one of the more charming: “The murdered victims were in a church,” tweeted actor Wil Wheaton to Mr. Ryan. “If prayers did anything, they’d still be alive, you worthless sack of [expletive].”...

The Huffington Post devoted an entire piece to the phenomenon, under the headline “People Fed Up With ‘Thoughts and Prayers’ Demand Action After Texas Church Massacre.” It featured tweets from celebrities and gun-control advocates who believe they had discovered something big: Prayers aren’t always answered.

Here’s how these new theologians put it. Keith Olbermann: “‘Thoughts and prayers’ again, @realDonaldTrump, idiot? These people were in CHURCH. They WERE praying.” Actress Marina Sirtis: “To all those asking for thoughts and prayers for the victims in #churchshooting, it seems that your direct line to God is not working.” Or MSNBC’s Joy Reid: “Remember when Jesus of Nazareth came upon thousands of hungry people, and rather than feeding them, thought and prayed?”

The smugness is illuminating in three important ways. First and most obvious, progressives simply cannot contain their distaste toward symbols and beliefs important to ordinary Americans. Until Sunday this columnist thought it impossible to match the obtuseness of millionaire athletes showing disrespect for the national anthem and the fans who pay their salaries. But give credit where it’s due: the thoughts-and-prayers police make the NFL protesters look like Gandhis....

They believe the answer is federal gun control, and this is their right. But it’s hard not to notice they believe this with an absolute faith that seems immune to reason or evidence to the contrary -- a secular faith even the most fervent Christian might envy. Or that in their disdain for prayer they ironically appear to have more in common with the shooter than his victims...

Never mind, too, that Barack Obama offered his “thoughts and prayers” as often as any president, such as after a 2013 shooting in Washington when he said, “We send our thoughts and prayers to all at the Navy Yard who’ve been touched by this tragedy.” No one complained then, either because they were comfortable that Mr. Obama didn’t really believe in prayer or his faith in gun control was absolute.

William McGurn, "How Dare the GOP Pray for Texas?" The Wall Street Journal, November 7, 2017, A15, color added

Devin Patrick Kelley, the 26-year-old who stormed First Baptist Church in Texas and shot and killed 26 and wounded scores more, was described by former school classmates as an “outcast” and atheist who used social media to mock Christianity.

Too bad for the mainstream media, which no doubt would’ve loved to make the case that Kelley was a card-carrying Christian, a Bible-thumping Republican, a tea party type conservative to the core.

Turns out: He’s reportedly a wicked atheist with no moral compass. Hey -- that’s rather like many of the left now, isn’t it? Can you say antifa, anyone?

Cheryl K. Chumley, “Devin Patrick Kelley: An anti-Christian, atheist ‘outcast’,” The Washington Times, November 6, 2017

No matter how impressive the products of an algorithm [i.e. natural selection], the underlying process always consists of nothing but a series of individually mindless steps succeeding each other without the help of any intelligent supervision.

D.C. Dennett, Darwin's Dangeous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life, Simon & Schuster, 1996, p. 59.

The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.

Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View, Perseus, 2008 p. 133.

Εἶπεν ἄφρων ἐν καρδίᾳ αὐτοῦ· οὐκ ἔστι Θεός.
Dixit insipiens in corde suo non est Deus.
The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God.

Psalm 14:1, Greek text, Psalm 13 in the Septuagint; see here.

To you I'm an atheist.
To God I'm the Loyal Opposition.

Woody Allen, Stardust Memories [1980]

Madalyn Murray O'Hair (1919-1995) is commonly associated with the Supreme Court case that struck down official prayer in public schools. However, her case, Murray v. Curlett (1963), which ended official Bible reading, followed Engel v. Vitale (1962), which had already prohibited official prayer. Nevertheless, she became associated with the whole business, certainly without any regret, and in 1964 was labeled by Life magazine as "the most hated woman in America." Her personality did not help in that regard, since her statements and language were furious, blunt, and vulgar. She had no respect for any religion or religious figure whatsoever and avoided any euphemisms in expressing her attitudes.

I used to see the headquarters of the "American Atheists" organization on Hancock Drive in Austin, Texas, with some frequency. The sign featured her logo in the form of a stylized atom, which presumably was meant to express the scientific and rational basis of atheism -- a conceit common to atheists. The office was near the movie theater where I originally saw Star Trek, the Motion Picture in 1979, and also close to one of the Casita Jorge's restaurants, which I also patronized frequently in 1979, since I lived nearby. O'Hair was occasionally featured on the local news in Austin, for instance cursing and fulminating against the Pope. Since, as most Texans tend to think, Austin was a hotbed of "Godless atheism," her treatment in the media there was generally friendly to neutral. I had no particular interest in meeting her, and never did.

In 1995 O'Hair, her son Jon, and her granddaughter (adopted as a daughter) Robin, were kidnapped and murdered by a former employee of the Atheists, David Roland Waters. Although, with some success, Waters tired to make it look like the O'Hairs had voluntarily disappeared with organization funds, he eventually was arrested and prosecuted for the murder. In 2001 he led police to their buried and dismembered bodies. Meanwhile, O'Hair's son, William J. Murray, had become a Baptist in 1980 and was furiously repudiated and permanently estranged from O'Hair. He was suspicious of the "disappearance" and prodded the police to investigate at the time when their attitude seemed inappropriately complacent.

While it is tempting to think that O'Hair's personality or ideology had something to do with her end, it is unclear how this would have made her vulnerable -- although apparently it did anger Waters that O'Hair had denounced him in the press for a previous theft against the Atheists. But persons of much kindlier and pious personality have become victimized by career criminals like Waters, and we might even have expected someone as cynical as O'Hair to have been more on her guard. Be that as it may, it was all an ugly and horrific end to the lives of O'Hair and her family. The uncharitable are free to find darker symbolism.

When I became involved with the Libertarian Party in 1992, I met someone who had actually worked for O'Hair. He told an intriguing anecdote. O'Hair was visiting New York once, while Ayn Rand was living there, and thought it might be interesting to visit her, as a fellow atheist. Rand refused to see her. It is barely possible that Rand did not know who she was; but it seems more likely that, while Rand was indeed an atheist, it was more of a peripheral concern with her, merely a corollary of her overall system. But atheism was the central concern of O'Hair, who probably wasn't interested in Rand's larger philosophy and may actually have been unsympathetic with Rand's political and economic ideas. Although Rand could be a fierce and dictatorial personality, in public interviews she tended to argue patiently and earnestly, while O'Hair's personality was more consistently abusive, in private and in public. Perhaps that also turned off Rand.

The contrast between the two is revealing. O'Hair's atheism was clearly personal at a very deep level, and her campaign against religion was something that she may have seen as the key to all human evils. Rand, although definitely an atheist, and in no way inclined to acknowledge the reality of such things, comes off as the greater soul. We could conceal the paradox behind a term like "magnanimous" (magna anima). Rand wasn't actually always magnanimous, but she certainly had a larger vision of life and was able to inspire serious devotion in a large circle of followers. And she knew that there was a lot more wrong with the world than religion, especially as she was acutely aware, as a witness to the Russian Revolution and an enemy of Communism, that most of the mass murder of the 20th century was committed by atheists.

O'Hair's attitude is something like what we also get with the more recent members of what is now called "the New Atheism," such as journalist Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011), author of god [sic] is not Great, How Religion Poisons Everything [2007, note], and biologist Richard Dawkins, author of The Blind Watchmaker [1986] and The God Delusion [2008]. These two, with Daniel Dennett [Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, 2006] and Sam Harris [The End of Faith, 2004], have been called the "Four Horsemen of the New Atheism" [note].

Stephen Hawking also seemed to have come out as something of an atheist [The Grand Design, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, Bantam, 2010]. Yet one thing that all these figures have in common, from O'Hair to Hawking, is the relative shallowness of their ideas, the intellectual foundations of which only poorly reflect the history of philosophy or of religion, or even the nature and history of science. In both O'Hair and Hitchens in particular, despite the larger horizons and frequently sensible revisions of Hitchens' views, there is a sort of childish petulance to it all, relying on clichés and stereotypes that, although often with an element of truth, nevertheless are irrelevant to the more basic questions and issues.

Thus, one thing that intrigues me about this tradition of atheism is its almost infantile nature -- although the response of actual theists is often all but equally unsophisticated and/or sophistical. "Infantile," indeed, although perhaps too harsh and dismissive for some, is a characterization that I do not hesitate to attribute to an even earlier example of disillusionment with religion, Bertrand Russell (1872–1970), and his "Why I am Not a Christian." I don't think that Russell had the slightest idea what Christianity was about -- nor what any religion would be about. Like the later atheists, Russell then exhibits a naive and really childish confidence in the profound and salutary nature of science and logic. What may be more accurate is that Russell displayed all the confidence of his Victorian class and time, displaced, in characteristically English eccentric fashion, into foolish, selfish, and trivial convictions, presented with all the eloquence, erudition, and wit by which he was armed in his traditionally rigorous 19th century education. Even such education could also be quite shallow in its own way; but, unlike modern education, it rarely left people unable to express themselves [note].

What we often see in these forms of atheism is the sophistry of false dilemmas. Thus, another elder scion of modern atheism, Jean Paul Sartre, famously asserted that, "Without God, all is permitted." This was supposed to be a quote from Dostoyevsky (1821-1881). But Dostoyevsky had actually said that "Without immortality, all is permitted," and this was asserted in order to repudiate materialism, since Dostoyevsky was a serious Christian [note].

Be that as it may, the point of either assertion would be that without religion, there would be neither a standard nor an ultimate sanction for wrongful actions. But this can be expressed without Western religion or even theism, since the form the principle would take in Indian religion, in Hinduism, Buddhism, or Jainism, is that without religion or immortality, there would be no karmic recompense. I suspect that the Western atheists, beginning with a mild Victorian racism in Russell, have no respect whatsoever for anything in Indian religion or philosophy; and the whole doctrine of karma is probably regarded as beneath even refutation. Either way, neither the argument of Dostoyevsky nor that of Sartre is cogent or valid. For his own purposes, Sartre accepts a premise that is false to start with.

Now, Sartre's Existentialism at least faces and tackles the moral questions involved, however inadequately, which is something I cannot say is reflected in the statement by psychologist Elisabeth Cornwell at the top of this page (from materials at the Center For Inquiry, Los Angeles):  "Non-believers know that meaning in this world is of their own making and not dictated by a higher being..." -- which implies the false dilemma of meaning based either on a "higher being" or on "their own making," but not on something else. If the "meaning" she speaks of means a system of value that includes moral value, then, if this is truly of "their own making," everyone will have their own morality as well as their own "meaning." And, clearly, my own morality is something I cannot simply impose on you, even if your "morality" is to secure the survival of the Master Race (die Herren Rasse) by exterminating the racial Untermenschen of Jews, Slavs, Gypsies, etc. The bien pensant liberal recoils at the possibility of their allowing Nazis to have their way -- this just isn't done on a politically correct college campus -- but we are not reassured when Nietzsche is invoked by many such people as a moral authority in the matter.

To be sure, the apologetic for Nietzsche tries to twist him into a good harmless progressive, but the hollowness or bad faith of this is exposed when trendy "Theory" finds no basis for human relationships apart from power -- a power that we want to belong to "us" (socialists, nihilists) rather than to "them" (capitalists, Christians). Since the whole system of "Theory" is a strategy to avoid ad rem argumentation about morality, politics, or economics, typically substituting ad hominem arguments (against "race, class, and gender" enemies), it is all a tissue of sophistry and dishonesty -- with more than a touch of the childish or infantile petulance that I have already noted -- a childishness we otherwise see in contemporary culture when someone like Congressman Barney Frank can forcefully deny making statements that he has just been shown making, on video. This is well beyond ordinary levels of political mendacity and foolishness. The statement by Cornwell, although typical of "humanistic" ethical thinking, is completely innocent of and oblivious to the problem of the basis of moral and then legal obligation. If we all already get along with each other, then perhaps we can just make up our own "meaning," but things in life such as dispute, conflict, crime, war, etc. require something more.

The manifest ignorance and absurdity of Sartre's pronouncement is evident when we reflect that he ignores one of the oldest and best known theories in Western philosophy:  Plato's Theory of Forms. For Plato, meaning, value, and morality exist independently of any god or Deity, and this is quite characteristic of Greek philosophy in general. The Theistic principle that moral obligation exists because of the Will, command, and authority of God suffers from the paradox that such a thing must be entirely arbitrary and irrational, unless a standard of right and wrong or good and evil exists independently of God -- which the Theist does not want to allow. From the moment that Socrates got Euthyphro to answer that the pious is loved by the gods "because it is pious," the whole weight of the Greek philosophical tradition would be contrary to the notion that the pure and bare authority of a deity establishes the content of meaning or value. And when theists argue that we must obey God because he made us, I begin to suspect that their level of moral understanding is no less infantile than that of the atheists -- they otherwise are not likely to accept that might makes right or that a child is obliged to commit crimes when ordered to do so by a parent [note].

Mediaeval Christian theology, of course, became founded more on the metaphysics of Aristotle than of Plato. But this is not much help. Aristotle's God is impersonal and does not perform miracles or intervene in Nature. More significantly, Aristotle's God is not concerned or involved with matters that are of ethical or prudential interest to human beings. While someone like St. Thomas Aquinas must imagine a God who drops down and delivers the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai, this is wholly inconsistent with Aristotelian metaphysics, where God, as pure form and pure actuality, actually and literally does not have the power to do anything that he is not doing already. St. Thomas did not have a metaphysical patch to alter this basic structure. He ignored it, as Thomists and other theologians have done since, leaving Catholic theology, at least, on an incoherent ontological foundation. At the same time, St. Thomas also believed in Natural Justice and Natural Law, to which we have access through Reason; but, again, Aristotelian metaphysics does not back this up, especially when Aristotle argued that the word "good," the most general term for positive value, does not even have a universal and unique meaning -- in sharp contrast to what Socrates and Plato believed.

An impersonal, nontheistic standard of value is common outside Western religion. In Hinduism, the eternal and impersonal Vedas are the basis of dharma, moral and social duty, while in Buddhism, the Dharma, the moral and soteriological teaching of the Buddha, is also eternal and impersonal, although this can also be conceived as the "Dharma Body" of the Buddha. But the Buddhas are not gods in Buddhism, especially because the gods of Hinduism are still there in the religion, along with gods picked up in China and elsewhere in Buddhist lands. It's just that the gods are not very important. Human beings, not the gods, are in the soteriologically advanced position.

In Confucianism, the Mandate of Heaven establishes the standard of right and wrong; and although Heaven, , is sometimes thought of as a God, the Confucian conception is impersonal, in a system where Confucians often did not believe in immortality -- and might be rebuked for that by the Hung-wu Emperor. Otherwise, Chinese gods, , are of mostly popular origin and are judged and governed, for moral worthiness, by the Chinese Throne like other subjects of the State.

While atheists are relatively unconcerned or unaware of the metaphysics behind God in Western religions, they typically haven't the foggiest idea how that works elsewhere. In Chinese religion as in Buddhism (and Jainism), deities or their equivalent are often supposed to have originally been human beings. Their apotheosis is the result of their moral practice and wisdom. We don't get quite the same thing in Hinduism, but then the wild card there is that the oldest deities of the Vedic religion are now found with a status little better than in Buddhism. Instead there is a Supreme Being:  Brahman. But how that Being is conceived varies wildly across the varieties of Vedanta. An impersonal Being of "unqualified" Advaita Vedanta is even more inactive and remote than Aristotle's God, with none of the moral content of the Confucian Heaven.

The personal God of "qualified" Advaita Vedanta nevertheless is a pantheistic conception identical in nearly every way to the ontology of God in the philosopher Baruch Spinoza. Yet commentators on Spinoza often fancy that, as his God is identified with Nature, it is therefore a thinly veiled assertion of atheism. Spinoza's God is indeed impersonal -- although with the attribute of thought ontologically equal to physical extension in space, and supplemented with an infinite number of other attributes that are unknown to us -- and so perhaps it is an arbitrary decision that the Brahman of the Vedantin Ramanuja should have been seen by him as the personal Sectarian Deity Vishnu. Indeed, the popular and philosophical level of Hinduism that is theistic or devotional breaks down into at least three sects, Shaivism, honoring Shiva, Vaishnavism, honoring Vishnu, and Tantrism, which may be derivative of Shaivism but becomes the independent worship of the Goddess, Shakti. A Hindu Monotheist thus has the unique choice of One God among three different alternatives, with the choice also of a system, Dvaita Vedanta, that is starkly pluralistic. Its God is ontologically independent of souls, matter, and the world, unlike the Monistic or Pantheistic Advaita systems that are more intriguing to a Western audience but actually less popular in India.

Perhaps the atheist is impatient with all these possibilities. They are, after all, all irrelevant when we have the firm common sense and rationality of science (as Roy Beaumont used to say). But this is where the atheists draw comfort from some of the most shallow and complacent metaphysics of all -- a very naive materialism. I have considered this in some detail elsewhere and so do not need or wish to go over that ground again here. It is noteworthy, however, that the heaviest blows against materialism in the 20th century have been delivered, not by philosophy or religion, but by science itself. The Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics, proposed by Niels Bohr (1885-1960), although metaphysically poorly motivated in some respects, represents a stark anti-realism that merely bewilders the physicists and philosophers who literally appear not to have the philosophical background to address it properly. It has proved easier just not to worry about it and to lapse back into a naive materialism.

Stephen Hawking displays some acute knowledge of the history of philosophy. In A Brief History of Time [1988], he invokes St. Augustine to endorse the proposition that time itself begins at the Creation and that it is senseless to think of time existing previously. This reflects Hawking's own insight that, while it has been common to describe Einstein's theory of space as positing a continuum that is "finite but unbounded," i.e. space does not have an edge but all paths ultimately return on themselves, this had not commonly been done with time. Once we apply the same "finite but unbounded" principle to time, perhaps using imaginary numbers, then paths in time return on themselves also, eliminating the possibility of time before the Big Bang or after the Big Crunch -- i.e. the ultimate gravitational collapse of the universe. A gravitationally closed universe, however, is something that now does not seem to be the case. This rather changes the whole premise of the business, and it may make Hawking's theory irrelevant.

But Hawking continued to prefer closed universes, which are philosophically more satisfying, and he was then saying that the absence of time before the Big Bang means that there is no God. That would have been a surprise to St. Augustine, for perhaps the Bishop of Hippo did not understand the meaning of his own argument. That is possible, but Hawking's change of heart, if that is what it is, seems based on a bad premise, i.e. that for there to be a God, there must be a Creation, and that for there to be a Creation, there must be Creation in time on a continuum that stretches before and after the point of Creation. This is very dubious, to say the least. Obviously, if St. Augustine agreed that time did not exist before the Creation, then he entertained the logically inoffensive notion that time and the universe were created together at the Creation. I don't think that Hawking has shown how this is inconsistent. Indeed, in the Middle Ages there were many doctrines of Creation in which God is not in time and in which the whole act of Creation is outside of time.

This goes back to Aristotle, whose universe was eternal and whose God existed for no reason that had anything to do with temporal Creation. Aristotle did argue that God was the "Prime Mover," but this did not mean that he started motion at some point in time -- it was an artifact of Aristotle's physics, which held that for motion to continue, a mover had to keep pushing. But this already undercuts Hawking's idea that without temporal Creation, there is no need for God -- even though Aristotle's argument fails, of course, with the fall of his physics. But it gets worse.

When Plotinus took over Platonic and Aristotelian metaphysics, he interpreted Creation to be the ontological "emanation" or "declension" of an eternal universe from his own impersonal, Aristotelian God, coupled with the Good of Plato and the One of Parmenides. This Neoplatonic metaphysics persisted right into Islamic philosophy, where the doctrine of the eternity of the world was ultimately regarded as incompatible with Islamic doctrine and the philosophers, the falâsifah, , were accused of heresy or even apostasy. But since there is no logical objection to the Neoplatonic doctrine, it again undercuts Hawking's notion that there can only be a God if there is Creation in time. I seriously doubt that Hawking is even aware of the Neoplatonic part of the history of theology, despite its length (from the 3rd century to the 12th, at least). But that is not unusual given, not just the Modern, but even the traditional neglect for Late Antiquity.

But it is a little paradoxical that Stephen Hawking was making pronouncements about the existence of God at all. He was already on the record as a Positivist:

I take the positivist viewpoint that a physical theory is just a mathematical model and that it is meaningless to ask whether it corresponds to reality. All that one can ask is that its predictions should be in agreement with observation. [The Nature of Space and Time, Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose, Princeton University Press, 1996, pp.3-4]

This would suspend judgment on all metaphysical questions, which would leave Hawking in no position to even address questions about whether space, time, and the world, let alone God, are real. Perhaps, like a lot of people who think they are setting aside metaphysics, he just couldn't help it. Whether he had actually changed his mind about Positivism, or about St. Augustine, or had somehow forgotten himself, I can't say.

But Hawking was at least better informed about the history of science than some atheists. Thus, in A Brief History of Time, Hawking pointed out that there was no observational evidence against Ptolemaic astronomy, except that the apparent size of the Moon does not change as it should if were orbiting on an epicycle. The problem was not resolved by Copernicus, who still had the Moon orbiting on an epicycle -- something that would persist until Kepler worked out that the orbits are ellipses rather than circles. What is generally not recognized is that the argument against Heliocentric astronomy was securely founded on Greek physics and not on astronomical observation at all. The physics did not change until Galileo.

It is thus charming to find Christopher Hitchens saying:

Augustine was an 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. [op.cit., p.64, boldface added]

If Hitchens is going to call one of the great and formative minds of Western Civilization an "ignoramus," perhaps he should have checked that the charge was not going to rebound onto himself. Anyone at the time, indeed anyone until Galileo, who had some understanding of the evidence, would have been neither an ignoramus nor a solipsist to believe that the sun revolved around the earth. Hitchens, who wishes us to see him as a paragon of reason, knowledge, and science, exposes his own lack of knowledge and understanding of the issue he is writing about with such evident certainty and abusive self-regard. We also might note that the world would be better if everyone guilty of petty theft, let alone grand theft, was as remorseful as Augustine.

But Hitchens' ignorance of relevant history does not stop there:

It is not the fault of men like Peter Abelard if they had to work with bits and pieces of Aristotle, many of whose writings were lost when the Christian emperor Justinian closed the schools of philosophy, but were preserved in Arabic translation in Baghdad and then retransmitted to a benighted Christian Europe by way of Jewish and Muslim Andalusia. [p.68]

Now, if what Hitchens says is true, then presumably today we possess "many" works by Aristotle in Arabic and not in the original Greek texts. Can Hitchens not be aware that this is false? That there are no such works? In other words, Hitchens is so eager to accuse "the Christian emperor Justinian" of actually destroying the texts of Aristotle, that he doesn't pause to reflect that texts were not destroyed, but are readily available today, as they had been lovingly preserved, in Justinian's day and later, and conveyed to Latin Europe (Francia) in the Renaissance and even earlier. If Abelard himself only had "bits and pieces of Aristotle," it is because he mainly lived at the beginning of the 12th century, just as the translation projects were beginning, either from Arabic or from Greek.

Also, although Justinian to his discredit did close Plato's Academy in Athens, because it was dominated by pagans, he did not close "the schools of philosophy." The equivalent of a University already existed in Constantinople, transmitting all of Classical learning, and it would thrive for centuries, providing the very Greek texts upon which the later (9th century) translations into Arabic would be based. If Justinian had destroyed the texts of Greek philosophy, there would have been nothing left for the Arabs to translate (except for a few previous translations into Syriac).

Hitchens has therefore written something that he wants to be true, to make his case against religion, even though minimal knowledge and reflection would contradict it. Is this not characteristic of some kind of dogmatism, of which Hitchens is eager to accuse religion? Is not this the sort of thing that, in Hitchens' words, "poisons everything"? Has he not become, after a fashion, the very thing he is explaining to us that he hates? But perhaps Hitchens can be forgiven here for an oversight that is actually more general, that "Christian Europe" includes the Orthodox world of Romania, i.e. the "Byzantine" Empire, where the heritage of Classical Greek learning, pace Justinian, was not lost and even major Churchmen ordered de lux editions of Plato.

Given the evils of dogmatism, intolerance, oppression, and war that someone like Christopher Hitchens details in his condemnation of religion, we might infer that atheism would liberate humanity from all such problems. However, the 20th century witnessed a number of officially atheistic political regimes, including a couple of the largest nations on Earth, Soviet Russia and Maoist China, which not only engaged in the extensive practice of dogmatism, intolerance, oppression, and war, but which carried out mass murder on a colossal scale, with at least 80 million deaths credited by R.J. Rummel to Josef Stalin and Mao Tse-tung alone [Death by Government, Transaction Publishers, 1994]. If this was how atheism was supposed to improve the evils effected by religion, it all got off to a very ugly start.

Actually, it started a good deal earlier. After the critique of religion during the Enlightenment, with pretty much the same evidence and arguments that we have seen more recently, together with the brilliance of the écrasez l'infâme campaign of Voltaire, a greater wit than any subsequent atheist, this was all supposed to bear fruit in the French Revolution, where Reason alone was to be worshiped. Yet one of the truly great scientists of the age, Antoine Lavoisier (1743-1794), was executed, reportedly with the pronouncement of the judge, La République n'a pas besoin de savants ni de chimistes, "The Republic has need of neither scientists nor chemists." Such verdicts of "Reason," which chalked up thousands of deaths in the aptly named "Terror" of the French Revolution, became distressingly common, on much larger scales, in the later Revolutions of Russia, China, and other Communist lands. These attitudes are by no means gone, as American Universities are now the scenes of persistent attempts to suppress free speech and silence political dissent. At least Christopher Hitchens wanted no part of that, recognizing tyranny for what it is, but then he could not blame it on religion either.

The truth is that the evils detailed by atheists in religion are by no means unique to religion but are simply characteristics of human nature. In the absence of traditional religion, they are easily displaced into an equally dogmatic, intolerant, and oppressive political moralism, about which some atheists are often strangely complacent, despite many others being fully alert to the danger (including the essentially atheistic "Skeptics" associated with the Philosophy Department of New York State University at Buffalo, such as Barry Smith). Even as contemporary fundamentalist ʾIslâm is reverting to Mediaeval savagery, in vindication of every atheist critique of religion, anti-religious and totalitarian ideology is running wild in American "education."

Of course, the politically correct refrain from criticizing ʾIslâm, since the real enemies of truth and progress are America and Capitalism, and there is great joy in smearing criticism of ʾIslâm as "hate speech" or racist "Islamophobia," which ought not be allowed. But it is reasonable to suppose that the "New Atheism" has arisen in the first place because the embarrassment of Soviet atheism is gone and contemporary ʾIslâm clearly represents some of the worst that atheists have ever expected of religion. Part of the honesty of Hitchens was his anger that "progressives" would become apologists for ʾIslâm as they have -- such as journalist Nathan Lean in The Islamophobia Industry, How the Right Manufactures Fear of Muslims [Pluto, 2012] -- where, of course, all that one need do to fear Muslims is watch the news -- including the recent Boston Marathon bombings, where, to the distress of the Left, the perpetrators turned out to be Muslims, again, rather than Tea Party Patriots.

As the urge to dominate others undergoes metamorphosis from religion to politics and back, and we often see modern attacks on religion as a way to destroy private life, promote the power of the state, and remove children from the influence of their parents, it becomes clear that the moral and political problems faced by humanity are not due to religion. Of course, if religion has no other purpose, there is no remaining role for it. What that role that would be, I have discussed on several pages, e.g. here. Atheists don't need to care about any of that to be good people. But they do need to get a life.

Other people are no longer attracted to traditional Western religions but find themselves looking for something. Buddhism may be sufficiently different and appealing, or the curious may become involved in some creative thinking and innovation in religion. This is no less than what we should expect. Religion has never stayed the same, and although many religions like to think of themselves as eternal and unchanging, this is not what we see in history. Mainstream religions may try to adapt by giving in to trendy social fads, but this often obscures their religious message and appeal, reinforces the replacement of religion by politics, and forfeits their appeal by denaturing them. Other seekers decide that, rather than going East, they need to go back in time, recovering the ancient religions with whose disappearance something essential was lost.

Unfortunately, just as the interest of Westerners in Buddhism sometimes looked like the application of the Protestant Reformation to the traditional religion (giving rise to Theosophy), the "something lost" may be suspiciously conformable to the trendy social fads just noted, and the "revived" practices may look more than a little ridiculous to outsiders. Every year, wanna-be Druids show up at Stonehenge (whose origin was unrelated to Celtic religion), and "Wicca" is now a popular movement founded on the notion that what Christians called "witchcraft" was simply the survival of the older religion that venerated Woman and the Earth (Gaia).

Neo-paganism, however, has not always taken an edifying form. Although atheists and others may treasure the accusation of the Nazis being good Christians -- with Playboy magazine solemnly asserting that Hitler was a Catholic (although I've never noticed that there were any priests, Confession, or Last Rites in the Führerbunker) -- in fact the Nazis were much more interested in a Germanic neo-paganism, which already had a background from interest in the Occult (such as we see fictionalized in the movies Raiders of the Lost Ark [1981] and Hellboy [2004]) and in the Vedic religion of India, where the name and form of the Swastika was actually borrowed. The Indian connection had a deep and serious foundation in German scholarship, for instance in the pronouncement of Max Müller (1823–1900) that the height of human intellectual achievement stretched from the Upanishads to Immanuel Kant.

However, although providing much grist for later German racial theories about the "Aryans," Müller himself settled in Oxford, translated the Critique of Pure Reason into English, was of liberal mindset about, for instance, the British presence in India, and in general was appalled at the development of racist ideology based on his work. However, that did not stop it from happening. Even today, contemporaries with some apparent involvement in India and interest in neo-paganism, such as Mircea Eliade, are vulnerable to accusations that their parallel concerns involved a deeper sympathy with the Nazis.

The real problem with neo-paganism, however, is that the details of the ancient Middle Eastern and European religions, in terms of cult practice, consciousness, and belief, are in great measure lost, rendering the true religions effectively unrecoverable both in practice and in principle. A lot of it ends up looking like play-acting, and politically correct and silly play-acting at that [note].

It is also something that may render the naive vulnerable to the deceptions and the exploitations of dishonest cults. Nor is it obvious that we want various known practices of ancient religion revived. I have not seen that the modern worship of the Mother yet involves the participation of self-castrated priests -- a conspicuous feature in the Roman world, whose public performance today most people would find quite alarming. Yet sometimes we even find the complacent contemplation of human sacrifice, as in the absurd and offensive The Wicker Man movies [1973, 2006].

But there is no doubt that even this kind of thing is part of a sort of Research and Development process in the history of religion. The atheists of a century ago would of course be astonished that religion has survived at all, much less that something like Militant ʾIslâm might be threatening the world with Nuclear War. But this does mean that the evolution of religion, any more than that of politics, is not something safe and comforting. Prophets are often angry, and even Jesus got worked up about the moneychangers in the Temple. And it means that the future of religion is unpredictable. Pliny the Younger, who asked the Emperor Trajan what to do about the Christians in his jurisdiction of Bithynia -- people who were often called "atheists" for not honoring the traditional gods -- certainly would have been astonished to learn that two hundred years after his death, the Emperor himself would be a Christian. In 2012, the United States almost got a Mormon President, even though that Church was one of the scandals of the 19th century and still perplexes, outrages, or amuses many outsiders. So, although "belief in God" seems to be in decline in Europe and America, and one poll said that 60% of Jews do not believe in God, religion nevertheless seems to be alive and well, in ways that defeat the expectations both of atheists and also of Popes.

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Infantile Atheism, Note 1;
Relying on the "Crushed Reed"

One might wonder, Why is the quote above used on a page about atheism? Well, it contains a vivid image, which is often cited in relation to the decline of Egypt. Just how that image is expressed, however, is also of interest, since the terms are variously translated. However, as such, the matter is of more interest for the history of Egypt than for anything else.

On the other hand, for my purpose here, the role of the story in the Bible is characteristic, where those who rely on God are rewarded and those who do not are not. The faithful will prosper; and unfaithful or atheists won't. One may question the reliability of this principle, and the story here itself is an interesting test of it.

And I like having this quote follow Elisabeth Cornwell saying, "meaning in this world is of their own making and not dictated by a higher being..." With Cornwell we see the stark contrast of someone saying, like Nietzsche, that "meaning is of their own making," against Prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah dealing with the harsh reality of foreign invasion, by people, the Assyrians, who perhaps had made their own "meaning" -- and a cruel, violent Nietzschean meaning at that.

Thus, in 701, King Sennacherib of Assyria sent an army to put down rebels in the Levant, including King Ezechiah of Judah, who had ceased paying tribute at the death of King Sargon II. The Assyrians had already defeated the other rebels and an Egyptian army sent to help them; and it had stormed the Judaean city of Lachish, whose inhabitants are lovingly shown impaled in the decoration of Sennacherib's palace. So we know that impalement was not invented by Vlad the Impaler.

The army then appears before Jerusalem, and Assyrian spokesmen, apparently able to speak Hebrew (perhaps they were themselves deportees from Samaria), taunt the Jews with their weakness -- and with the inability of the Egyptians to help them. The Prophet Isaiah instructs the King to rely on God and to resist, which he does. However, resistance ends up taking a curious form, since the Assyrians are simply bought off, with 30 talents of gold, 800 talents of silver, and other considerations, such as some of Ezechiah's own daughters and harem women. Thus, while Jerusalem is spared, one might think that God could have provided for better terms. God didn't ask the girls if they wanted to be Assyrian slaves.

However, according to the Bible, God was not inactive. At 2 Kings 19:35, an "angel of the Lord" killed 185,000 men in the camp of the Assyrians, after which their army withdrew. This incident also turns out to be recounted by Herodotus and Berossus but placed, not outside Jerusalem, but at Pelusium, on the frontier of Egypt. George Roux says, "this episode is very controversial and rejected by most scholars" [Ancient Iraq, Penguin, 1966, 1980, 1992, p.321]. He does not say why; but, all things considered, it seems reasonable enough.

Having defeated the Egyptians in Syria and suppressed the rebels, we would expect the Assyrians, who were far from being the forgiving sort, to advance on Egypt. And disease breaking out in an army camp is nothing unusual. The Bible obviously wants to link this to the delivery of Jerusalem, but its placement at Pelusium by other sources would seem to support rather than subvert its historicity. Why God would protect the Egyptians, while allowing Ezechiah to strip Solomon's Temple of its treasures, and give away his daughters, is a little mysterious. Later, under Esarhaddon (671) and Ashurbanipal (669, 663), the Assyrians would invade Egypt, driving out the Kushites and inflicting various mayhems and vandalism.

Eventually, Assyria Fell, but Judaea was in a similar situation vis-à-vis the Babylonians. Again, the Egyptians tried to help. They were defeated at the Battle of Carchemish, 605, but apparently continued contesting the land in 601. Against the advice of the Prophet Jeremiah, King Jehoiakin of Judah ceased paying tribute, the Babylonians took Jerusalem in 597, and the King and some others were deported. Encouraged again by the Egyptians, who had some successes, the new King Zedekiah, revolted again, the Babylonians took Jerusalem again, in 587, the city was looted, the Temple destroyed, Zedekiah was blinded, his family killed, almost all the Jews deported to Babylon, beginning the Babylonian Captivity. There was little evidence of God protecting his people -- who may have, after all, forfeited protection by ignoring Jeremiah. A little harsh; but then, one might say, God has never been easy on his Chosen, who seem to consistently anger him.

In the translation above,

Now behold, you depend for yourself on that splintered reed staff, on Egypt, which should a man lean on it, pierces his hand and wounds it.

I have relied on the wording, if not the syntax, of The Interlinear NIV Hebrew-English Old Testament, by John R. Kohlenberger III [Zondervan Publishing House, HarperCollins, 1979, 1987, Volume II, p.486]. This translation makes the most sense; but key terms, like "splintered" and "wounds," do not seem to faithfully translate the Hebrew, or the Greek of the Septuagint, which of course was the translation into Greek done by the Jews themselves in Hellenistic Alexandria.

In the phrase "on that splintered reed staff,"

We have both individual words and even word order that are parallel in Hebrew and Greek, down to the use of articles (mostly). We begin, after the preposition, with , mishʿeneth, "staff," from the verb , shâʿan, "to lean, support oneself." The Greek word, ῥάβδος, rhábdos, has a much more general meaning, as "rod, wand, stick, switch, staff," etc. So, while the Hebrew word is unambiguous, in usage and origin, we sometimes see other translations because of the range of meaning in the Greek word. The sense of the passage, however, clearly reflects the Hebrew meaning, where a man is leaning on a staff.

Next is , qâneh, "stalk, reed," Greek καλαμίνη, kalamine, "made of reed," from κάλαμος, kálamos, "reed." No ambiguity there. We have a reed staff. Not the kind of thing, actually, that sounds very sturdy to start with.

Finally, we get the joker in the pack, which is , râtsûts, "crushed," from the verb , râtsats, "to crush." The Greek word is (the perfect passive participle) τεθλασμένη, tethlasemé, "crushed, bruised," from the verb θλάω, thlâô, "to crush, bruise." This is the source of many translations of the form the "bruised reed" or the "bruised reed staff," etc., where I am not sure what "bruised" is even supposed to mean here. The Kohlenberger translation as "splintered," although taking a liberty, certainly makes the most sense, for something that will pierce the hand; but "crushed" gets us closer to that than "bruised." A bruise doesn't necessarily compromise the strength of the staff, while being crushed would. And all this is because of the Greek word, where the Hebrew word seems unambiguous. Other translations take more liberties, rendering , for instance, as "broken." A broken staff, however, would already not have the strength to pierce one's hand. It would just collapse. Other translations add in features like "your weight" on the staff, which does not occur in Hebrew or Greek.

Next I want to look at the phrase translated "pierces his hand and wounds it,"

The Hebrew verb , bâʾ, is from the verb , bôʾ, "come in, come, go in, go." The Greek word closely follows this -- εἰσελεύσεται, eiseleúsetai, "it will go in," from the verb εἰσέρχομαι, eisérchomai, "to go in or into, enter." So the "crushed reed" goes into the hand. While it is indeed tempting to translate that "pierce," the term is more vague, and the subsequent word tells against it. For, having gone into the hand, what does the reed do? We expect "wound," as Kohlenberger has it, but that is not what we see here. The Hebrew verb is , nqâbhâ, from , nâqabh, "to pierce." So now, when the reed "goes in," it simply "pierces," without the extra meaning of "wound." This is reinforced by the Greek word, τρήσει, trêsei, "it will pierce." Curiously, this is from the verb τετραίνω, tetraínô, "to bore through, pierce, perforate," whose future forms are based on the principle part τρήσω, trêsô.

Thus, although it may be more satisfying to think that "piercing" results in "wounding," this is not what either the Hebrew or the Greek says. To the ancient authors, and then translators, the reed "goes in" and so consequently "pierces." It still sounds like it is going to hurt.

Although the taunt here is directed at the King of Judah, it is at the expense of Egypt, which has been reduced to this state in this era. Of course, at the time, Egypt had already been conquered by others, by the Kushites, the XXV dynasty, who had taken it from rulers who were already foreigners, the Libyans. When Kush is subsequently thrown out of Egypt, this means that the Assyrians triumph over those who had defeated the Libyans, who had originally subjugated the actual Egyptians. This puts the Egyptians pretty far down the scale. The Egyptians, however, will fight on, and they will achieve independence again from the Assyrians in the XXVI Dynasty -- a regime, unfortunately, not strong enough to save Judah from the Babylonians.

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Infantile Atheism, Note 2

The title of the book by Hitchens, god is not Great, looks like a reference to a phrase in Arabic that is used in the call to prayer and as a battle cry:   , ʾAllâhu ʾakbar, "God is greatest." But we also get a version of this in Hebrew:   , Hên, ʾÊl shaggîʾ, "Behold, God is great" [Job 36:26] -- ἰδοὺ ὁ Ἰσχυρὸς πολύς, in the Greek of the Septuagint. The Arabic phrase, unfortunately, is now associated with Terrorism, since Terrorists frequently shout it in the course of their murders. They obviously do this as a tribute to God and their religion, when they only add to the evidence and arguments of those like Hitchens who see it as discrediting both. Hitchens at least had the courage to call ʾIslâm to account for this, where the politically correct defer to ʾIslâm, as they never would to Christianity, out of fear of being called "Islamophobic." Indeed, the Left cherishes a sort of fantasy of imaginary Christian violence -- where the only real examples seem to be attacks on abortionists and abortion clinics -- while ignoring the ideology and loyalties of Jihadists.

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Infantile Atheism, Note 3;
Sam Harris Flunks His Hume Exam

Ihr wollt womöglich -- und es giebt kein tolleres »womöglich« -- das Leiden abschaffen; und wir? -- es scheint gerade, wir wollen es lieber noch höher und schlimmer haben, als je es war!

You want, if possible -- and there is no more insane "if possible" -- to do away with suffering. And we? -- it seems that we want it more and worse than it ever was!

Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, translated by Marianne Cowan, Henry Regnery Company, 1955, p.151, translation modified; Jenseits von Gut und Böse, Philipp Reclam, Stuttgart, 1988, p.140; color added.

I had no notion of where Sam Harris was coming from until watching a lecture he gave, "Science can answer moral questions," for a TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference. Despite the BA in Philosophy that Harris has from Stanford University, he seems to have missed the point in some elementary matters. Thus, his lecture involved the claim that science could establish matters of value, and that the "is/ought" distinction described by Hume was false. Since this is a basically logical distinction about the modality of premises, one might wonder how well Harris did in his logic classes.

In his lecture, we hear about about "human flourishing" and about our desire to alleviate suffering. He seems to be saying that matters of value are "facts" about "human consciousness." In none of this do we get the logical step from "is" to "ought." Harris apparently assumes that "human flourishing" ought to be pursued and that suffering ought to be alleviated. This involves, not inferences, but assumptions. And Harris seems to be unaware that there is a problem with it.

Since his program sounds like nothing so much as a kind of Utilitarianism -- "the greatest good for the greatest number" -- it would be comforting if someone with a Stanford degree in Philosophy might say so. Since he doesn't, either his education was deficient or he has decided not to use categories or theories that are familiar from the history of philosophy. This may help to obscure the nature of his reasoning -- which we can attribute either to confusion or to deception. The problems with any Utilitarianism, of course, are that it is not clear why "the greatest good" is an obligation and why certain means towards that end, which might violate human rights, ought not be allowed. We don't hear about means and ends or rights from Harris. But every point suffers from the failure of the inference from "is" to "ought."

Falsifying cases for the approach that Harris seems to have are philosophers who explicitly deny that there is any obligation to bring about "the greatest good for the greatest number" or that there is anything wrong with allowing, or even causing, suffering. That would be Nietzsche -- someone who is so familiar to the secular and the atheistic that he can hardly have escaped Harris's notice. From Nietzsche we get gems like Leiden-sehn thut wohl, Leiden-machen noch wohler, "To behold suffering gives pleasure, but to cause suffering affords an even greater pleasure," and:

Fast Alles, was wir »höhere Cultur« nennen, beruht auf der Vergeistigung und Vertiefung der Grausamkeit -- dies ist mein Satz...

Practically everything that we called "superior culture" rests on the intellectualization and deepening of cruelty: this is my proposition.

Certainly under the influence of Nietzsche, we get Richard Rorty (1931-2007) saying, "There is no answer to the question, 'Why not be cruel?' There is no noncircular theoretical backup for the belief that cruelty is horrible." If this means anything, it means at least that the imperative, "Do not be cruel," is not deducible from any natural fact, let alone from human consciousness.

To Nietzsche, the whole Utilitarian project is part of the particularly English pursuit of pleasurable well being. The Nietzschean predator has no concern for the suffering of its victims. It is simply there to "flourish" by eating them. For Nietzsche this is founded on certain "facts," namely the state of nature -- facts that Harris doesn't take into consideration.

Thus, Harris is, as Karl Popper says of Aristotle, "elaborately and solemnly missing the point," of Hume's distinction. Science has nothing to do with it, except to provide the means to chosen ends, as in Kant's "hypothetical imperatives." And if Harris cannot address Hume, or Nietzsche, or Rorty, his entire act is a mystification, concealing the account that he avoids giving -- and cannot give. Science does not, as it happens, answer moral questions. When it comes to matters of value, Harris simply comes equipped with a set of preconceptions that are unlikely to surprise his audience -- an audience that will give a standing ovation to someone for doing no more than begging the question.

Harris also seems to be part of the "mindfulness meditation" movement, which is the psychological elaboration of a fragment of Buddhist practice, losing any real connection to Buddhism. That would be fine with Harris, whose atheism means the rejection of any real religion, theistic or not.

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Infantile Atheism, Note 4

God's Not Dead [Pure Flix Entertainment, Red Entertainment Group, 2014]

An earnest and nicely produced Christian movie, God's Not Dead, despite having a consultant on apologetics in the credits, nevertheless reveals some of the logical problems and even dishonesty with just such apologetics.

The gravest problem with the argument of the movie is worth noting before anything else is discussed. It is that the movie largely presupposes that "religion" means Christianity, so that if atheism can be refuted, then Christianity wins by default. A moment's reflection explodes such a presumption. There are many other theistic religions, including Judaism, Islam, the Bahaʾi Faith, Sikhism, and arguably even Hinduism. Unitarianism is a theistic religion, although it is a little hard to believe that Unitarians have much enthusiasm for a personal God -- although a Unitarian like Thomas Jefferson can display pretty strong moral passions.

But these religions may as well not exist from the perpective of the movie God's Not Dead, except that ʾIslâm does put in an appearance, apparently to be discredited with the single Muslim social problem of the treatment of women. Yet, perhaps incautiously, the producers allowed the intolerant Muslim father to utter the formula that God "does not beget and is not begotten" [Qurʾân 112:3], a principle that was a powerful part of Islamic apologetics in the Middle Ages and with which no traditional Jews (or, for that matter, Unitarians) will disagree.

Since the rest of the actual argument of the movie revolves around a created universe, and criticism of Evolution by Natural Selection, none of this serves to distinguish specifically Christian religion from a great deal of traditional opinion in Judaism and ʾIslâm. Even further off the map would be the religion of people like the Navajo, Hopi, etc., whose observance is alive and well and who also have their own creation and cosmological accounts. While there are people in the movie who find Christ, the arguments presented provide no specific reason to do so; and so the apologetic tradition that rose to the challenge of the nature of Christ, whether it was with C.S. Lewis or St. Thomas' Summa Contra Gentiles, is passed over in silence.

Ἄκουε, Ἰσραήλ· Κύριος ὁ Θεὸς ἡμῶν Κύριος εἷς ἐστι.
Audi Israhel Dominus Deus noster Dominus unus est.
Hear, O Israel, the
LORD our God, the LORD is One.
Deuteronomy 6:4

Furthermore, Creationist arguments about God or Evolution are entirely irrelevant in religions that don't worry about such things. The most sophisticated and conspicuous in those terms is Buddhism, in which cosmological or paleontological issues are going to be, in the Buddha's words, "questions that tend not to edification," and have nothing do with the fundaments of religion. Christians may find that startling, or may eagerly seize on the popular fiction that Buddhism is a system of philosophy rather than a religion, but it puts them in a position either of ignorance or of wishful thinking (although perhaps abetted by people who genuinely believe that Buddhism can be reduced to some kind of science, philosophy, or pop psychology). Indeed, as Christianity could be neatly summed up in the phrase, "Jesus saves," Buddhism can be stated with equal economy as, "the Dharma saves." Similarly, the arguments and concerns of the movie are equally irrelevant to Chinese religion, as I have recently had cause to consider, or to the non-Buddhist side of Japanese religion, namely Shinto. But even that really only gets us started.

The impression one gets from God's Not Dead and from much of Christian discussion and apologetics is that religions apart from Christianity, with the possible exception of Judaism, do not even count as religion. To the extent that something like Buddhism might be regarded as childish, i.e. not be taken seriously by adults, Christian apologists are themselves revealed as infantile to an extent comparable to the atheism that I am discussing in the main text here. In individual unsophisticated believers, this can be excused as naiveté; but in a production with a theologically educated consultant on apolgetics, it approaches incompetence or dishonesty. When polls show that 60% of American Jews no longer believe in God, perhaps the neglect of Judaism in the movie almost seems reasonable; but Jewish theology, upon which Christianity itself is ultimately dependent, means that the absence of any mention of Judaism is something like the Sherlock Holmes curious case of the dog in the night. What is not said can speak as loud as what is.

Curiously, the kind of atheists I consider above often seem to share the assumption that Christianity and religion are coextensive. This may reflect the background of some atheists as lapsed Christians, like the Keven Sorbo character in this movie, but even for those who are not, there otherwise looks to be a particular focus and animus for Christianity, perhaps as the representive of the historic American culture that, with capitalism and individualism, the Left has particular cause to detest. On the other hand, a comparable hostility directed against Judaism would begin to sound like anti-Semitism, to which even most atheistic Jews (except Noam Chomsky) will react badly, while atheistic critiques of ʾIslâm -- with the exception of more honest commentators like Christopher Hitchens -- are precluded by the political crime of "Islamophobia," where the anti-Americanism of Islamism trumps any problems Leftist atheists might otherwise have with ʾIslâm as a rather fierce, intolerant, and reactionary monotheistic religion. Thus, we might conclude that both infantile theism and infantile atheism can be characterized and identified by an exclusive focus on Christianity.

Apart from the curious regard for Christianity as real religion, the basic frame of the movie does, however, address a real problem, which is the contempt and assault directed against religion and specifically against Christianity, its values and its free practice, in American education and public life. Thus, we find a philosophy professor (played by the appealing Kevin Sorbo, of the memorable television series, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys) who begins his course by browbeating the class into signing confessions that "God is Dead" before he will talk about anything else. Only one student refuses to do that, and the professor then requires him to state his theistic arguments to the class, even though the student has previously had no training in philosophy, theology, cosmology, biology, or any of the other fields that the professor can draw on to intimidate and humiliate the student.

I know there are professors like this, since I have written what is actually a fond memoir of one who was at my college. Atheistic science never had a more fierce bulldog than Roy Beaumont. Much of his behavior, however, really was improper. He would humilate religious people and then kick them out of his class. The problem now is when such attitudes are no longer idiosyncrasies of an individual eccentric professor but have become widespread and institutionalized; and radical faculty and students have decided that things like the moral condemnation of homosexuality, or objections to homosexual marriage, are treated as beyond the pale of civilized discourse, so that expressing such opinions can result in harrassment, vandalism, or academic sanction, formal or informal. Christian groups on campus are told, by the Federal Government, that they cannot exclude people from their groups who not only reject all of their moral beliefs but are openly not even Christians. That would be "discrimination."

Meanwhile radical students at Dartmouth College recently occupied the administration building, presenting a set of non-negotiable demands, about which they would have no dialogue or "conversations" because just talking about them would lead to "further physical and emotional violence enacted against us by the racist, classist, sexist, heterosexist, transphobic, xenophobic, and ableist structures at Dartmouth" ["Oppressed by the Ivy League," The Wall Street Journal, April 5-6, 2014, p.A14].

With this sort of thing going on, my advice to Christians might be to convert to ʾIslâm, threaten everyone with death, and then watch "liberals" and radicals alike scatter like rabbits. For, as it happens, "progressive" opinion has committed the tactical error of adding criticism of ʾIslâm to its list of political crimes, i.e. the just referenced "Islamophobia." Iran can regularly and unapologetically hang homosexuals, without displaying the slightest inclination to countenance "gay marriage," feminism, or transgenderism, and we rarely hear a peep about this from the politically correct bien pensants. All the progressive animus is against Christianity, probably because this is pursuant to their deep seated anti-Americanism, in which the Iranian Mullahs, however benighted, are worthy anti-imperialist allies.

Christians, however, are unlikely to take my advice, and I wouldn't expect them to. The strategy instead is to fight policies that are actually violations of the First Amendment, which public schools are required to follow and which private schools often incautiously assume as a contractual obligation. An organization carrying on this fight, the Alliance Defending Freedom, is referenced in the movie, along with the court cases in which it has been involved. The problem of attacks on First Amendment rights, of speech, religion, and association, in education is also fought and litigated by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

It is astonishing that such organizations are necessary, but the mentality in modern "education" has in fact become increasingly illiberal, intolerant, and totalitarian. The application of such policies by many colleges, and the legal opinion of Federal Civil Rights authorities that due process and other Constituional protections are not necessary in student discipline cases, show that the rot advocated by someone like the mentor of the Dartmouth radicals, history professor Russell Rickford, is already far advanced. Such people do not believe that dissent or opposition to their ideology should be allowed. And it is unusual for the pliant "main stream media" to expose them to public scrutiny.

Meanwhile, we have the debate between the philosophy professor and his student, something that a properly radicalized professor would not allow, despite all his advantages. Initially this revolves around the origin of the universe, as the student cites the Big Bang as evidence of Creation. The professor responds with Stephen Hawking's recent assertion that the universe can spontaneously create itself because of the form of the laws of nature. The student initially doesn't know how to respond, although he comes back for the next class prepared with some criticism he has found of Hawking's theory. Indeed, although attempts can be made to play various tricks with quantum mechanics, a self-creating universe violates one of the basic principles of physics, the conservation of mass-energy -- previously the separate conservation of mass and the conversation of energy, which were combined by Einstein. Ex nihilo nihil fit, "Out of nothing comes nothing," is a principle equally at home in Parmenides and Relativity, with only transient exceptions allowed in standard quantum mechanics. Also, Hawking's argument that a Creator God must create the universe in time, so that a Creator is meaningless if time itself originates with the Big Bang, is not only a logical non sequitur but contradicts Hawking's own citation of St. Augustine in A Brief History of Time as supporting the idea that time was created along with the universe. The student doesn't mention these problems, but the professor also does not mention the popularity of multiple universe theories that allow to a "hyper-universe" the kind of eternal existence that the Big Bang initially contradicted. However, since this whole cosmological debate, including Hawking's assertion, is highly speculative, it does not look like very persuasive material for theological arguments, pro or con.

Apart from all these problems, the apologetic of the movie overlooks the principle difficulty with a theory like Hawking's. Even if the laws of nature allow for a universe to spontaneously create itself, along with space and time themselves, this gives us no clue why there are laws of nature in the first place. Since Hawking has elsewhere characterized himself as a Positivist, who does not care whether the laws of nature exist or not, while his job as a physicist is just to make predictions, the full metaphysical weight of theological argument is a lot to rest on something that Hawking supposedly doesn't know or care about. If he now hazzards theological assertions, one might expect him to suggest some metaphysical theory about what he invokes as the basis of his claims. Instead, his "Positivism" about the laws of nature looks like an evasion if it exempts him from the obvious question about his theological use of "the laws of nature." Einstein's desire to know the thoughts of God was nowhere as confused as the history of the statements of Stephen Hawking in these matters. It becomes hard to know what he is saying from one book to the next.

God's Not Dead thus gives us nothing like a reliable picture of the issues involved in cosmology, or even in the cosmology of just Stephen Hawking. At the same time, the only other area of substantive argument in the movie is about Evolution, and we get little more than a fragment of the typically ill-informed and misconceived arguments that characterize Christian apologetics on that issue. It is also entirely irrelevant. If Evolution is true, and there is a Big Bang, plenty of theists find none of this embarrassing in the least. God planted the seed of a magificient clockwork, which generated all life on earth.

What is embarrassing are the Young Earth Creationists who are willing to reject a couple centuries of physics, chemistry, geology, astronomy, biology, and paleontology in order to claim that the world is only 10,000 years old and that God created all life, including Trilobites and Dinosaurs, in the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve were actually the Flintstones. The pathetic nature of this folly is avoided by the movie, which seems to concede the age of the world and the outlines of the fossil record. Given the actual popularity of Young Earth Creationism in Fundamentalist circles, this approach is more than a little dishonest.

The movie also dishonestly conveys the impression that anyone who observes that species seem to appear abruptly in the fossil record and then persist with few changes over the course of their existence are therefore going to deny the reality of Evolution. Since this observation about the fossil record was affirmed by paleontologists Stephen Jay Gould and Robert Bakker, who nevertheless had no doubts about Evolution, the movie gives us an entirely false idea about the debate. But it is characteristic of the sophistry we frequently see in popular Christian apologetics.

Thus, the movie (like Ben Stein or Ann Coulter) wastes its limited time and resources in pointless attacks on Charles Darwin, while remaining silent about specific motivations for accepting Christianity rather than some other religion (where Ben Stein, a Jew, would not go along anyway). At a time when conscience and liberty are under sustained and deliberate political and legal attack, when a Christian photographer (in New Mexico) has been successful sued, all the way to the United States Surpreme Court, for refusing to photograph a gay wedding, and the ability of religious people, and not just Christians, even to voice their traditional moral beliefs can be threatened with legal penalties (unless they're Muslims), as it is in jurisdictions as disparate as France and Australia, those coming to the defense of religion have no business wasting their time on issues as peripheral or irrelevant as Evolution.

Thus, while God's Not Dead is a heartfelt expression of the piety of some, its effort is in general confused and misdirected, both with respect to religion in general and to Christianity in particular.

On Hollywood


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Infantile Atheism, Note 5

We can draw both inferences from the actual text. Thus, Dostoyevsky first says:

Destroy a man's belief in immortality and not only will his ability to love wither away within him but, along with it, the force that impels him to continue his existence on earth. Moreover, nothing would be immoral then, everything would be permitted, even cannibalism. [Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, 1880, translated by Andrew H. MacAndrew, Bantam Books, 1970, p.80, boldface added]

Later we get:

But this is not true of the upper classes. They want to organize themselves scientifically, to devise a system of justice based on pure reason, not on Christ, as before, and they have already declared that there is no such thing as crime and that there is no sin. And, from their point of view, they are right -- for how can there be crime if God does not exist? [p.381, boldface added]

Thus, although the idea that "everything is permitted" is actually associated with the loss of belief in immortality, rather than loss of belief in God, as the point is usually represented, this is not really a distortion of Dostoyevsky's own beliefs. Indeed, the first passage above continues in this way:

...for every individual -- people like us now, for instance -- who does not believe in God or immortality, the natural moral law immediately becomes the opposite of religious law and that absolute egotism, even carried to the extent of crime, must not only be tolerated but even recognized as the wisest and perhaps noblest course. [p.80, boldface added]

See the treatments of the moral fallacy of egoism and the vice of selfishness. And, of course, compare the attitudes described to Nietzsche. A nice expression is from Murder by Numbers [2002], with Sandra Bullock, where one of the Leopold-and-Loeb-like characters asserts, "Freedom is crime."

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Infantile Atheism, Note 6

A correspondent recently pointed out to me that theists would say that the basis of the moral authority of God is not "might makes right," but the circumstance that, unlike parents, God creates the world and humans from nothing. I don't see that this makes much difference. When God addresses Job, the hiatus between "I made you" and "I can smash you" seems of practical insignificance. However, the claim must be taken seriously, and there is no doubt a premise in theistic thinking that God creating something from nothing gives him the moral authrority to dispose of it as he pleases, or, if it is a rational being, or order it around in any way that he likes.

This premise is quickly exploded, however, not just with examples from Job or Exodus, where many innocent people are killed just so that God can demonstrate his power (i.e. his "might"), but with a simple thought experiment. If God created sentient beings just so that he could torment, torture, or rape them for eternity, just because he would enjoy doing this (i.e. he is a Sadist), is he morally justfied? Of course not. This would be an evil being on the order of the "Deceiving Demon" in Descartes -- the thought experiment providing an excellent precedent here. Thus, the ability of a Supreme Being to create ex nihilo is semantically and logically separate from the goodness of such a Being. This is the precise embarrassment exposed by Socrates in the Euthyphro. The theist must explain and justify the goodness of God, whether the Deity is omnipotent and a Creator of things from nothing or not. One does not follow from the other.

Lest anyone wonder what is shown by Job or Exodus, we must consider that the problems of theism are not just a matter of natural theology, i.e. rational questions, but of revealed theology, i.e. what is taken as the record of the actions of God in Scripture -- where Judaism and Christianity, and even ʾIslâm, conveniently accept much of the same Scripture, or at least, for ʾIslâm, the same stories (as told in the Qurʾân). A God whose actions appear to be morally questionable tends to impeach the idea that whatever God does, because he created us from nothing, is therefore right and proper. When God lets Satan kill Job's sons, daughters, and servants, has his lifestock stolen, and afflicts him with "loathsome" sores, just to test his faith, because Satan has suggested that Job would renounce God, this is a gratuitous and vicious business, which, as Jung pointed out, discredits God's omniscience -- at least. Similarly, God kills all the first born of Egypt, including the animals, because Pharaoh will not let Israel go, when God himself has "hardened the heart of Pharaoh" precisely so that he will not let Israel go. These are the actions of a confused, callous, and insensitive person -- whose worthiness, for instance, was consequently rejected by the Gnostics. Even if God created everything and everyone from nothing, the moral problem with these things is not altered in the slightest. And if the argument is that, should we not obey God, he will make us into nothing even as he made us from nothing, this is "might makes right" after all.

If revealed Scripture does not put God in a very good moral light, there is also the problem of what we might call the "natural actions" of God. The movie that I have reviewed on this page, God's Not Dead, makes the familiar argument that evil exists in the world because of free will. God allows us the dignity of making our own choices, but then those choices frequently are morally wrong. This is a nice argument, but it evades the problem of natural evils, which are bad things that happen that have not been chosen, let alone even desired, by anyone. Children with cancer are not explained by free will. Not even close. About the best we can do is that God allows Nature the dignity of running blindly and inexorably on the natural laws that God has established as the divine Watchmaker. But it is not clear why Nature should warrant such dignity or why, when the Faithful plead with God for protection, the earthquake, the tsunami, the hurricane, the volcano, and the plague kill hundreds or thousands of people anyway. For a while, C.S. Lewis and his poor wife, Joy, believed that she had been healed of cancer by their faith. But then she died anyway. Lewis, who had idiosyncratically come to his own embrace of religion and Christianity, was left to endure nevertheless. He did, but it is a sad and tragic business.

The next position, favored by someone like Leibniz, is that all these apparent sufferings are for a Purpose, and that God has a Plan, the issue of which will be a greater good. This does mean, of course, that we can have no idea, yet, why things like this are happening. In practical terms, this means that there is no explanation; and we are expected, like Job, to just shut up and Keep the Faith. But even Job, in the end, is manfestly rewarded with returned prosperity, even a new wife and family to replace the (murdered?) old ones. But Jewish families cannot simply "replace" people murdered by the Germans, while the whole of many families was wiped out, leaving no one to enjoy any recompense. Jesus said that faith can move mountains, but it is not clear which such mountains have ever actually been moved.

Now, the reference to the Nazis seems to return to the already addressed issue of evils created by free will. But we might see such a case as intermediate between free will and natural evils, since in both cases God is equally free to remedy the evils, and the prayers of the faithful are precisely for divine intervention, regardless of whether evils are effected by free persons or by the impersonal forces of nature. We might even add here the notion that natural evils are actually the work neither of man nor of nature, but of Satan and his minions. Children do not get cancer by chance, but by malevolent action. Be that as it may, the faithful expect divine protection in that case also.

Thus, the "natural actions" of God are an issue whether the evil doing is human or demonic. God smashed the Egyptians in order to bring Israel out of Egypt with "a mightly hand"; but when the Nazis were exterminating millions, including, not so much the modern secular atheistic Jews, who may particularly annoy God anyway, but the millions of Eastern European Jews who were observant and devoted. The Nazis had chosen to do this, and we do not hear of God "hardening the heart" of Hitler; but what God could do about that is part of history, not Scripture. Somehow, the faithfully kept Covenant, let alone the pleas of the suffering innocent for divine protection, was enough to move God to action against the Egyptians but was no longer of interest when it came to the far more deadly and horrific practices of the Nazis. God was out to lunch -- something keenly felt by many concentration camp inmates.

Thus, the natural theology of God being good by definition, just because he created us ex nihilo, not only is a logical non sequitur, but it is impeached by both Scripture and history. We might even say that ʾIslâm is more honest about this, since the Qurʾân says, , ʾAllâhu yafʿalu mâ yashâʾu, "God does what He wishes" [Surah 3:40, or 3:35]. In so far as this demoralizes God, it may be disturbing in its own right; but it does avoid the implication that God must be bound by standards of value that transcend him, as we see in any theology influenced by the Greeks -- as is both Jewish and Christian. And it does mean we cannot reproach God for not keeping his Covenant or protecting the innocent. Desirable as a theology or not, this does vividly highlight the difficulty facing the apologist for God's rationality and goodness, who wish to make a connection, between creation and goodness, where there is actually logical independence.

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Infantile Atheism, Note 7

Focused on the world around the Mediterranean, one may forget that there is no lack in the rest of the world of very ancient religion, with very ancient practices, that survive largely unchanged into the modern world. Nazi neo-paganism, of course, was drawing on surviving texts and practices in India -- but very selectively. The daily practice of Hinduism, with all its gods and rites, is not something one really sees outside of Hinduism. Europeans have gone for an intellectualized and redacted side of the religion, through a filter of Western religious and even political expectations, often altered by 19th Century Spiritualism or by the sort of racial theories that become dominant with the Nazis.

There is also traditional religion in East Asia. In Japan there is a name for this, "Shinto"; but the Chinese equivalent really is not given a distinctive name. It is just "Chinese religion." Even as in pre-modern Japan there actually was no clear or simple distinction between Shinto and Buddhism, Chinese religion, despite the classic definition of the "Three Ways" -- Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism -- the actual practice of the religion is usually a bewildering swirl and interpenetration of all three, all manifest in terms of cults whose gods easily share identities across any attempts to draw boundaries.

A nice modern example may be found in the Japanese tradition of the Seven Lucky Gods, which are now strongly associated with New Year's celebration. This miscellany of deities is derived from a grab-bag of religions, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Shinto. One of them, the fat and jolly Hotei, is familiar to Westerners as the "Lucky Buddha." But Hotei is not a Buddha, only a popular Chinese god, whose Buddha-like name in Chinese, Bùdài, simply means "Cloth Bag," from the bag of presents that he carries. He is the Chinese Santa Claus. As we might expect, however, he does also get associated with a Buddhist deity, the Bodhisattva Maitreya (Chinese Mílè, Japanese Miroku), who in the fullness of time will appear as the next Buddha on Earth.

Wandering through Japanese cities, encountering small shrines to the Bodhisattva Jizô (Sanskrit Kṣitigarbha, Chinese ) is not unusual, especially in residential neighborhoods, often set into the sides of buildings, and near street corners. Those familiar with the Classical world may be struck by the functional similarity of this to Greek and Roman Hermae, the auspicious but slightly bizarre statues of Hermes in similar situations. Although Jizô is particularly associated with the protection of children, and Hermes usually is not, there is a very ancient Roman institution and a very modern Japanese one where we can see them coming together. Thus, the Greeks would abandon infants in the countryside if they were defective or somehow inauspicious (like Oedipus), leaving their fate to the gods. In Rome, on the other hand, unwanted infants might be left at the feet of the Hermae, where they could be informally adopted by passersby or, if obviously deformed, left to their sad fate. The modern Japanese, of course, do not leave unwanted infants at the feet of Jizô. They get abortions. The role of Jizô is then to expiate the guilt of this practice; and temples of Jizô, which might otherwise minister to ills as humble as coughs, have become sites for prayers offered to aborted infants, who in Buddhist terms, of course, will simply be reborn, hopefully in more auspicious circumstances.

Despite these living traditions and the vast area and population of their practice, Western neo-pagans have difficulty getting enthusiastic about them. Considering the greater attraction that American Indian or even Africa religion may have to such people, one might get the impression that real Asian religion, even at the popular level, is just not, well, primitive enough -- although politically correct neo-pagans would blanch at the idea of judging anything "primitive," let alone things to which they happen to be particularly attracted. Curiously, I expect that it is the truly "primitive" side of popular Asian religion that actually puts them off, while the versions of "Native American" worship they might embrace have been filtered through a New Age spiritual and political strainer. Real American Indian religion, like the rites of the Hopi or the New Mexico Pueblos, may rigorously exclude outsiders and protect their practices with profound secrecy -- something else that might remind us of the Classical World, where even conversion to Christianity did not mean that anyone divulged the details of the Eleusian Mysteries.

The occasional mysterious old woman on the road to modern Eleusis in Greece, who may be identified as the goddess Demeter, then reminds one of the mysterious women, old and young, occasionally reported on the roads of the Big Island of Hawai'i and thought to be the volcano goddess Pele. The National Park Service seems to have embraced Pele, although, again, through a New Age and politically correct filter:  for all the Pele bric-à-brac in the gift shop at Kîlauea volcano, and even the actual offerings left for her at Hale Ma'uma'u Crater (her home), one does not see on site what can be inspected in a hotel mural in Kailua Kona:  The namesake and aunt of Queen Kapi'olani, at the volcano, challenging Pele with Christ.

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