A Little History: E.H. Gombrich

So when the mob had gathered, Pilate asked them, “Which one do you want me to release to you: Barabbas, or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” 18 For he knew it was out of envy that they had handed Jesus over to him…“Barabbas,” they shouted. (Matthew 27.15f.) 

While the Church and the Mosque deserve full marks for perfecting prejudice and instituting successive reigns of terror that afflict some parts of the world even today, it was a short article in the New York Times that made me think about the role of mobs in history.

CBS reporter Lara Logan is speaking publicly for the first time about how between 200 and 300 men sexually assaulted her in Egypt’s Tahrir Square in February.

Logan, who was covering the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s government, told The New York Times a mob separated her from her producer and bodyguard, then tore off her clothes, groped and beat her over the course of about 25 minutes.

“For an extended period of time, they raped me with their hands,” Logan told the newspaper.

“My clothes were torn to pieces,” she recalled.

“What really struck me was how merciless they were. They really enjoyed my pain and suffering. It incited them to more violence.”

February seems long ago in the swift stream of world politics and non-stories about birth certificates and Lindsay Lohan’s jail time.  But recall that the story being broadcast while all of this was happening was the dawning of the “Arab Spring.” How can tens of thousands of people calling for the overthrow of a strong-man dictator be wrong?

Human-rightists for the most part were overjoyed at the scenes out of Egypt.  Obama issued mild, and then as the temperature rose, more direct threats: Mubarak must go. Now.  Egyptian dissidents in London and New York talked about a hunger for “real” democracy.

A couple of (highly skeptical) university friends of mine at the Ain Shams said, How can the west be so gullible?  Another: Don’t you notice how few women’s faces are in the crowd?  We were assured that this was not just a public display of testosterone or a prelude to a religiously fanatical regime that despises women making a power grab.  Meanwhile, in a huddle in Tahrir square, Laura Logan was being handraped by 150 Muslim men.


From Diocletian to Hitler, Franco to Milošević , the fickleness of crowds is something politicans can rely on.

Diocletian used the religion card–Roman religion–to incite crowds in Corinth to riot by accusing Christian women of being prostitutes,  just as his predecessors had used the charge of venality and corruption against the Bacchic cults. In fourth century Alexandria, the unpopular but formidable bishop Athanasius incited crowds to riot and to lynch an opposing bishop named Georgius.  Inciting crowds to riot, by different factions supporting different causes, was a well-developed art in the ancient world.

For every auto da fe performed by the Inquisition, there were hungry gaggles of women and men waiting for the faggots to be lit and the flames to rise–or the noose to be fixed.  And of more recent vintage, Slobodan Milošević fanned the fire of “Greater Serbian” nationalism by manipulating crowds and  promoting xenophobia toward the other ethnicities in Yugoslavia. Ethnic Albanians were commonly characterised in the media as anti-Yugoslav counter-revolutionaries, rapists, and a threat to the Serb nation.

The modern American tendency is to respect crowds as an outpouring of public opinion–the will of the people–even though crowds have been uniquely implausible sources of real government from the beginning of recorded history.  Hobbes, Tocqueville, Montesquieu, each slightly differently, saw crowds and “mobs” as being linked to fear, something that extends, as Corey Robin says in his study of the subject, from within the recesses of the mass psyche to the uppermost reaches of government, but which can be motivated and manipulated at both ends, the popular and the “sovereign.” Crowds make history.  If an angry crowd is a mob–an emotionally bonded entity demanding change or rights–then a peaceful crowd is democracy in action, but often, with equally uncertain effect.

In America, the ambivalent admiration for numbers has to do with a view of national origins that still infects our understanding of history.  The schoolhouse legend of the American revolution gives us the righteous colonials and the wicked, simpering British.  Paine’s nostrum (“It is absurd for an island to rule a continent”) speaks to the same mentality, but at a time when the population of the United States was about 1,500,000, and of Britain about 7,000,000.  In its cartoon version, it gives us leather-clad warriors hiding behind oak trees picking off ranks of disciplined British baddies with their squirrel guns.

Until a generation ago, textbook versions of How the West Was Won weren’t much better, though the evidence of the ghastliness of the Europeans over two hundred years of encounters with native North and South American civilisations was harder to bury or gloss over.

When I want sanity in such matters, I usually turn to the eminently sane Ernst Gombrich’s A Little History of the World, a book first written on a dare in 1936 just after Gombrich had finished his PhD in art history at the University of Vienna. Of the religious hubris and human greed that motivated the “discoverers” like Cortez and their legal successors, the inheritors of colonial rule in North America, incuding the United States armies of the nineteenth and twentieth century, Gombrich says;

In all parts of America the Europeans proceeded to exterminate the ancient, cultivated peoples in the most horrendous ways. This chapter in the history of mankind is so appalling and so shameful to us Europeans that I would rather not say anything more about it. (LHW, 2005 ed.: p 195)

Gombrich wrote A Little History for a series called in German Wissenschaft für Kinder (Knowledge for Children), and it was meant to be a basic introduction to world history, written in a way that would appeal to the natural curiosity of kids between ten and thirteen–a spur to find out more about their world and their past.  The dare was laid down by Walter Neurath, who also founded the publishing house Thames and Hudson in London: it is one thing to write history for adults.  It is another to boil it down to entertaining essences for children.  Gombrich thought he could do it.

Like many “assimilated” Austrian Jews of his era, Gombrich could write more sensitively about Christianity than many of his Christian contemporaries.  He was a writer with enormous historical intuition for what really mattered.  It was Gombrich (who had been hired by the BBC to monitor German radio broadcasts in 1945) who announced to Churchill that the playing of a Bruckner symphony written for Wagner’s death (Symphony No. 7) meant that Hitler was dead.  A significant part of being a good historian, he believed is having good instincts, a good eye, and an excess of curiosity about how things got to be the way they are.

Because history, for Gombrich, entailed a personal encounter with the events and ideas of the past, it was probably impossible for him to write the kind of “scientific” history that was then the trend in German education and was making inroads in both the United States and Britain. Besides, if he had written that kind of history what child would have read it?  There are hardly any books as good for the purpose even today–which explains why A Little History has remained in print in both English and German for 75 years.

If there is a “theme” in the book, it’s that the past is an ambiguous teacher and the source of unlikely outcomes.  Above all it is “our story,” and as such a tale of remarkable highs and despicable, regrettable lows–ups and downs rather than “progress.”

E.H. Gombrich

Gombrich is not a Hegelian; he is well beyond the view (that feeds finally into Marx) that history is material progression of ideas and events in constant dynamic relation and flow.  He is no positivist: history relies as much on uncontrollable variables as on the verification of data. With Karl Popper, one of Gombrich’s closest friends, he effectively sunk the Enlightenment belief that history behaves like science: science itself is not free of ideological presuppositions.

In the Comtean system that had influenced historiography (the philosophy of historical narrative) throughout the nineteenth century, history can be chopped into discrete periods, from the superstitious to the scientific corresponding to modes of experience and interpretation. In such a system, the “scientific” period marks the end of a process: the period in which knowledge  is associated with (virtually synonymous to) experience, evidence and positive verification. A similar movement in philosophy gave us naturalism.  To the extent imagination, emotion, and morality play a role in historical development, it is largely incidental–flavour not substance: science itself is thought to constitute an adequate critique of metaphysics.

Reign of Terror

Gombrich’s most famous assault on positivist thinking is also his most subtle. It comes in his chapter on the French Revolution, which in the nineteenth century both French patriots and American philosphers saw in terms of the victory of reason over the pomp of aristocracy and the blindness of a capitulating first estate, the Catholic Church.  In fact, the Revolution was watched closely, by legislators in America, by poets in England and by Turkish-Ottomans on the fringes of Vienna. Burke’s famous Remarks (1790) capsulized the concern of many British conservatives that revolution fervor would spread like wildfire ‘and by emulation”:

Moderation will be stigmatized as the virtue of cowards, and compromise as the prudence of traitors, until, in hopes of preserving the credit which may enable him to temper and moderate, on some occasions, the popular leader is obliged to become active in propagating doctrines and establishing powers that will afterwards defeat any sober purpose at which he ultimately might have aimed.

But the young Wordworth, enflamed with enthusiasm for the revolutionary idea, and who participated in Jacobin mob protests at the age of 19,  carrying the British flag:

[…] ‘Twas in truth an hour
Of universal ferment; mildest men
Were agitated; and commotions, strife
Of passion and opinion, filled the walls
Of peaceful houses with unique sounds.
The soil of common life, was, at that time,
Too hot to tread upon.  (Prelude, 9.163-9)…

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,

But to be young was very Heaven!” (The Prelude, x. 690-4.)

But neither Burke nor Wordsworth nor a hundred similar scraps of “evidence” tell us much about the meaning of the Revolution.  Is it coextensive with its social, religious, economic and political outcomes?  Or is there more to the story than that? To answer that question, you have to ask whether history is a set of conclusions based on the accumulation of evidence, a task that permits us to develop a picture of “what really happened,” or whether the story of what really happened far exceeds the bits that make the picture possible. The role of emotion, enthusiasm, mobs, and revolutionary fervor, combined with the disjunct between the expectation of the revolutionaries and the outcome–the French Republic of 1792–were strong disconfirmation that history could be reduced to its interpreted effects.  In any event, as Eric Osborne has said of the end of the Comtean mindset, history was not like stamp-collecting.


Gombrich was one of the first historians to challenge the positivist idea that the Middle Ages had been “dark” (a term that came from the poet Petrarch’s complaint about the quality of Latin literature in the fourteenth century). It was instead the end of a long period of political and economic collapse brought on by constant migrations into the ruins of the Empire by northern opportunists who gradually (centuries, not years) became shapers of a new world order.

According to Gombrich, what the middle ages produced was a “starry sky,” where people could again find their way by using points of reference that had been obscured by centuries of collapse, such that people who lived in constant fear of death and violence “no longer lost their way entirely.” The philosophers of the Enlightenment, proud of their location in history, had forgotten that one part of this process was the rediscovery of learning, the resurgence of debate, and the creation of universities like Paris in 1170 and Oxford in 1249.  It was also a period, especially between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries, when the Church lost more power to secular authority than in any period prior to the Reformation.

Investiture Controversy woodcut

But Gombrich goes one step further.  The Enlightenment itself, the fountainhead of both good ideas and hopelessly naive ones, is problematical. While most people associate intellectuals like Voltaire, Diderot and Rousseau with the period on its French side, Gombrich remarks that France was surprisingly immune from effects that were being felt in England, Russia (with Katherine the Great) and even Poland. Later historians have corroborated the view that the French Revolution and the subsequent reign of terror stands in stark contrast to the relatively calm transition from the Declaration of American Independence in 1776 to the ratification of the Constitution of 1789, a scant thirteen-year period where many of the people who were there at the beginning were also there at the end.  Yet salons and cafe culture in America were decidedly minuscule compared to the culture of Paris and the European capitals in the eighteenth century. Why were the two revolutions so different when their slogans, and ends, were remarkably the same?

The Boston “Massacre”

Mobs played a relatively minor role in the American revolt; a major one in France.  Was America more protestant, more controlled, France more susceptible to gallic passion? Does geography and scant settlement mean that crowds were harder to muster, or the degree of illiteracy mean that written broadsides slower to affect passions? How does positivist historiography settle the question for us?

Gombrich’s focus is on the role of the people–their susceptibility to demagoguery, the idols of the tribe, the promise of quick justice for enemies of an emotional cause and a knack for misreading the consequences of their actions. For the Comteans (Comte himself was born in 1798, just after the worst of the troubles had abated), the Revolution cleared away abuses, the “elegant, prinked, powdered and perfumed” aristocratic privilege, and a whimsical, ostentatious monarchy that had lost touch with the people.  When the dust settled and the revolutionary zeal subsided, the reign of reason was secure and adaptable for use in Comte’s theory of history from religious darkness to scientific light.

July 14, 1789

But this was pure metaphysics. This is not what “really” happened. Gombrich reminds his youthful readers that the reign of terror was  meant to be the reign of reason. Following the execution of Louis XVI, Maximilien Robespierre in dry lawyerly fashion

had Christianity declared an ancient superstition and abolished God by decree…. A printer’s young bride wearing a white dress and and a blue cloak representing the goddess of Reason was led through the streets and people were invited to worship her.

When the moderate Jacobin, Georges Danton,  asked for an end to the introduction of the new cult of reason, compassion for opponents of the regime, and that the beheading of people opposed to exceses of the Revolution be terminated and mercy be shown, Robespierre declared that only enemies of Reason ask for mercy on behalf of criminals.

So Danton too was beheaded, and Robespierre had his final victory. But soon [he declared] that the executions had hardly begun, that freedom’s enemies are all around and that vice was triumphant, and that the country was in peril.

Written in 1936, it’s not hard to cipher what new cult of personality Gombrich has in purview in writing this lesson plan for young readers. It is hard to imagine any book specifically for children written today would address the irrational aspects of the human story in such a direct way.

It seems so long ago, the events Gombrich describes.  But only in February 2011, amidst similar excesses and cries of freedom and justice and the dawn of democracy, a woman reporter is raped by mobs. Crowds riot in Syria, and bands of faceless rebels are the beneficiaries of Western military assistance because, we can only assume, they care about liberty.  But who knows? In the photographs, they look a lot like mobs throughout history.

Gombrich stood at the beginning of a new generation of historians who knew that all history is the history of working things out.  “Religion” has been a constant source of distress.  But on the occasions when it has been outlawed–as in the Reign of Terror or the communist revolutions of the twentieth century–the secular options have not been inspiring. The will of God and the rejection of God have led to the same results.

It tells us on the one hand that God — or a God who could be anything like a loving and merciful father — is either nonexistent or completely immoral.  And it tells us on the other that whichever is the case, we are still stuck with the “passional tendencies” that keep history from moving in a straight line, divisible by periods, or equal in moral intelligence to its technological successes.

FOOTNOTE:  I am not sure that genius runs in families, but look at the root of the word genius.

Ernst Gombrich and his distinguished pianist-wife Ilse, had only one child, Richard Gombrich.  One of the nicest as well as finest scholars Oxford has ever had the good sense to keep, Richard Gombrich retired from full-time teaching in 2004 on mandatory retirement.  The most prominent Indologist since Max Müller , Gombrich is also a strong critic of contemporary trends in British higher education.

Moral Landscapes or Human Values?

The question is prompted by this week’s NYRB review of The Moral Landscape by H. Allen Orr, a Professor of Biology at the University of Rochester.

Although Orr took his PhD under the supervision of Dr Jerry Coyne, he is very much a freethinker when it comes to the uses and limitations of scientific know-how and know-what.  In a perfectly chivalrous way, he pronounces the three major premises of Harris’s attempt to bridge the gap from polemic to science unsuccessful.


I have always been skeptical that science, as a purely descriptive field, would help us to navigate the moral universe.  This feeling–and it’s no more than that, and thus has to be regarded as pure cotton–comes less from my training as a  theologian (there, I said it) than from earlier work in linguistics–what we used to call philology when trying to impress girls.  –It never did.

When language analysis moved away from the older classical models that taught us how languages ought (keep your eye on this word) to behave in their various tenses and moods, to the way language actually works, whole new worlds of understanding opened up.  What we learned from the New Linguists like Chomsky & Co. was that language is both a formative and transformative process.  It changes as long as it is living. When it’s dead, it’s merely “studied.” Classical linguistics and classical archeology have in common the fact that their subject matter is no longer breathing and cooperates efficiently.

Language and ethics are not the same thing.  But ethics depends on language and not merely action, and certainly not merely neural activity.  Choices are formulated in language.  Actions are the effect of linguistic cues.  Some ethical actions are merely linguistic–like saying “No.” Some must be terribly complex, like deciding not to fight in a war, or determining whether to end your own life.  As long as you are living the choices are also (to quote James) live options.  When you are dead, they are philosophical premises to be studied in philosophy classes as test cases.

Sam Harris spends less than six pages and a few footnotes on language, preferring instead to locate the throne of morality in physiological functions of the brain, available through neuro-imaging studies. Orr describes the outcome as “far from compelling.”

  It seems odd to try to assess the relationship between two ideas or judgments by analyzing whether the same brain regions are active when each is represented in the human mind. Surely such an assessment requires one to analyze the ideas or judgments themselves. If the same brain regions are active when people mentally perform addition and multiplication, would Harris conclude that the addition/multiplication distinction is illusory?

Given the fact that neuroimaging doesn’t answer primary questions about action, the desirability of “right” or ‘wrong” action or the adjudicative faculties that cause us to describe certain actions as moral or not, it looks for all the world as though Harris has once again turned  interesting possibilities, drawn from a range of disconnected sources, into extravagant claims.  It’s the same sort of rashness that led to his mistaken view of “religion” in his earlier work, The End of Faith, which people happily ascribed to his relative immaturity as a writer.

This isn’t new to the pop-science genre he is writing in, of course, but given that most of the people who read The Moral Landscape will be neither professional ethicists nor professional scientists (a few of each, no doubt), his performance does raise the question of whether this is not just another expression of scientific hubris directed at religious objects.  Orr thinks so:

But there’s a more important point. Harris’s view that morality concerns the maximization of well-being of conscious creatures doesn’t follow from science. What experiment or body of scientific theory yielded such a conclusion? Clearly, none. Harris’s view of the good is undeniably appealing but it has nothing whatever to do with science. It is, as he later concedes, a philosophical position. …Near the close of The Moral Landscape, Harris argues that we can’t always draw a sharp line between science and philosophy. But it’s unclear how this is supposed to help his case. If there’s no clear line between science and philosophy, why are we supposed to get so excited about a science of morality?

It’s for others to judge whether Harris’s performance in the arena passes the test.  Lions are always circling. But his book raises another, more important question. It’s a question about whether someone purporting to write about morality needs to know something about ethics. And it all hinges on the timeless question of How one ought to behave: like a dead language or a living speaker?

Since the late eighteenth century–in theology since Schleiermacher and in philosophy since Kant–ethics has been seen as the last refuge of the religious imagination.  That’s when supernaturalism exploded in Christianity’s face. Even first year philosophy students know what Kant thought about morality and its “demand” on evilly-inclined human nature.  The further history of philosophy, when it comes to the study of morality, has been an attempt to get away from Kant’s categories to the right while fleeing the command ethics of the Bible on the left.

In many ways, Schleiermacher’s system was more profound, drawing out of Kant’s work ideas that remained implicit or obscure.


–And the theologian was much more radical, in almost every department, than the Prussian master.

He is a hard read, but his ideas about the formation of ethical ideas was crucial for practically all later philosophical and psychological reflection. Schleiermacher was aware of the chasm between self-consciousness (Cartesian style) and the wider world of immediate experience, which is always both subjective and objective.  Using ideas that would later become standard in psychoanalysis, he described the way in which we are able to “cognize” an inner life of feeling and outward existence of things that present themselves to us for description.  At every step, we are driven by the inner life of feeling and the outer world of experience (things, events), but see ourselves at the center of both–affected by the consciousness of big ideas like nature, world, goodness, and  other ideas, that have only a “temporal” importance–things that are tolerable choices in children but turn out to be illusions in adulthood:

Is it then the case that the first childish objects of enjoyment must, in fact, be lost that the higher may be gained? May there not be a way of obtaining the latter without letting the former go? Does life then begin with a pure illusion in which there is no truth at all, and nothing enduring? How am I rightly to comprehend this? (Friedrich Schleiermacher, Christmas Eve: A Dialogue on the Celebration of Christmas (trans. W. Hastie; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1890), 33

I mention Schleiermacher because Harris doesn’t.  There is a reference to Hume, and almost nothing on Kant.  A bit on Rawls (a scant, useless two pages), but otherwise an extremely eccentric index of authorities that don’t add up to a coherent picture of much of anything in terms of the history of ethics or a wide syllabus on the subject.  If this were a random list of books I read over my summer vacation it would make more sense than as documentation for work on a serious subject.

I can be criticized for saying this, I’m sure.  After all, pop science or not, this is meant to be ground-breaking work. Most ground-breaking work doesn’t trudge through the cemetery of dead authorities.  It transcends them.  Is that the reason for the omissions?  And as to its ground-breakingness, if not in ethics, then in science: someone much more knowledgeable about how it might be scientifically earth-shaking, like Allen Orr, thinks it is merely peculiar.

Which brings me to a related and belated point.  It wouldn’t bother me in the least if the New York Times announced tomorrow that the the morality code has been cracked, and that all of us belong to one of a million phenotypes that accurately predict how we will act in particular moral situations, especially on Tuesdays.

But we are not quite there yet.  For that reason, philosophical speculation still matters.

The terms “science”  and “human values” are still to ethics what bacon and eggs are to breakfast: related, but in a way we are at odds to explain.

Orr puts it down to basic semantic confusion (something philosophers and theologians are supposed to look out for)–in this case over a misue of the term “ought”:

Of course science can help us reach some end once we’ve decided what that end is. That’s why we have medicine, engineering, economics, and all the other applied sciences in the first place. But this has nothing to do with blurring the is/ought distinction or overcoming traditional qualms about a science of morality. If you’ve decided that the ultimate value is living a long life (“one ought to live as long as possible”), medical science can help (“you ought to exercise”). But medical science can’t show that the ultimate value is living a long life. Much of The Moral Landscape is an extended exercise in confusing these two senses of ought. Despite Harris’s bravado about ‘how science can determine human values,’ The Moral Landscape delivers nothing of the kind.

But Harris is not exactly to blame for the confusion, the confused cross-ranking of oughts and is’s.  He’s a victim of a culture that wants the distinction overcome by force majuere since “ought” as philosophers, especially ethicists, use the term still bears the marks of its religious birth.  The mere addition of the word “science” to the mix seems to give the word “moral” a degree of support it doesn’t have when it’s left outside to lean on its own flimsy wall.

A serious, well funded, ongoing project devoted to the intersection of ethics and science (or science and human values) is devoutly to be wished.  But it will not happen in the atmosphere of current proprietary thinking, where scientists  (Is this the I want to be Darwin syndrome?) promise more than they can deliver, and ethicists and theologians are ruled out of order because (why?) they have only language to offer.

Of Implicit Atheism – An Easter Meditation

It is time to worry about the sorry state of discourse  between believers, non-believers, and (my favourite category) “others.”

I’m especially worried about the war between implicit atheists–those who identify as unbelievers or agnostics, but draw no particular satisfaction from doing so–and explicit or new atheists who like their A’s red, their heroes scarlet,  and their language blue.

It is almost unimaginable to me that respected scholars need to taunt religious women and men with words like “faithhead” while others drive spikes through religious symbols and Korans–then  defend their actions as examples of the sacred rights and guarantees that keep us free and independent of religious tyranny.  WWJD?  Q: What would Jefferson do? A: It doesn’t matter.  But it is even more startling that explicit atheists see implicit atheists as religion-coddlers, sissies in the fight, traitors to the cause.  It really makes me want to throw my extra creamy rice pudding at them.

Yet criticize this mode in kind, with a little sarcasm tossed in, and (I promise) you will be called a faithhead too. Or a goddist. Or a troll.  Or a fabricant des hommes de paille, or a stirrer of pots,  or a closet priest.

You’ll be told your logic/principles/syntax/ethics/ suck. Probably your brainpower too.  You’ll be told that atheists aren’t interested in being kind, “accommodating,”  or engaging. (Not after all they have suffered, all the kidnapings, unsolved murders and broken down doors.) They are interested in being right.  The closest analogy, I’ve come to conclude, isn’t the academic seminar where most of the current language would probably get you sent to the Dean for a lecture on civility.  It’s the language of political partisanship.  It’s true home is the Town Hall Meeting of Teaparty activists. (Alcibiades to Socrates: Your dialectic’s no good here, cowboy.)

Where have we all gone wrong?  What is the new factor in our discourse that causes us to  “abjectify” our opponents before we come to terms with their arguments?  –Which of course, with an abject opponent, you don’t need to do. Is it merely that we’re all too busy to dignify stupidity when we can roll right over it and not worry too much about casualties.

The standard explanation for our invective approach to discussion (please notice I number myself among the sinners)  is that we are encountering an international discourse crisis brought on by the trigger-happy nature of internet communications: we click before we think, not considering that at the other end of the connection is another human being (also sitting in front of a screen) rather than a lead wall.  What Christian girl named Perpetua, finding herself alone in these rhetorical woods at night, would not run, clutching her Bible, to the nearest church?

Not unbelievers, though.  These woods are ours, and we can burn ’em down if we want to. –Plus there’s that little thrill, that tiny rush that comes from having just composed a long, churlish digressive paragraph and seeing it go live when we hit “Submit.”

When we discover that quick and correct are not the same thing, it’s too late.  We’re committed to the press-select-to-play choice of our latest rhetorical spasm, and because of the public nature of the interchange we have to fight back and fight on.  The digathon, as in heels in, is on.  Your oblation to the gods of unreason has been made; now just lie back and watch them revel.

I spent a whole hour of my short life a month ago trying to persuade a Big Red A-atheist “friend” (I’d never met) that the drunken priest  arrested out west for offering his staff to the arresting officers was (a) not a Catholic (b) was more pathetic than dangerous, and (c) was therefore a bad instance of the moral troubles with the Catholic church and its ministers, about which I have scarcely remained quiet. If you believe that as all religion is putrid,   details of its putrice are irrelevant and interchangeable puzzle pieces, then I suppose one detail is as good as another.  After all, we’re not doing science here are we?

The responses came from a large crowd of her commiserators who, in no particular order, called me a prick, a molester, an idiot, and “Just shut the hell up because this is what religion does to our children.” After suggesting that the arresting officers were probably over eighteen  I decided not to stay for drinks and courageously hit the Unfriend button. Scene: the gods of Unreason quaff and toast each other, laughing.

The same applies when we’re “right“:  It’s not enough that Hector is dead. He has to be dragged three times lifeless around the periphery of Troy, electronically speaking, to impress the watchers.  The internet has given us a new shame culture, and with that comes new mechanisms of insult and humiliation. You can’t be too dead when you lose a point: you have to be dead and ashamed, too.  (Comment being formulated by as yet unrevealed reader: “Right, Hoffmann: You should know.  You’re just making straw men again….“)  Note to self:  bring three more straw men up from basement to send to “friends.” Order new straw.

Given the nature of the back-and forth, what you will almost never see in a comments section is someone saying, “I never thought of that.  You have a point.”

It’s true that isolation plays a role in this nastiness: the computer screen is a real screen between us and others.  It keeps us in contact as a social network (the name says it all) of virtual strangers, and friends of strangers.  It is not a community because communities produce human relationships, forms of decorum, harmony (or at least courtesy) and the potential for fulfillment and happiness.  –But not social media. There’s  no need to risk real humanity or feelings in the bargain.  We can screen information and opinions and hasty judgments and challenges in and out.  It’s the community of Id. We can be vicious and count on no one to check the story against the facts–or more commonly, the fallacies alleged against the argument proposed. Best of all, we can count on viciousness back from others.  It’s just like a bad marriage, isn’t it?

We are the gods of applications: we can be seen and unseen. Friend and unfriend at a whim.We can climb into the ring of an unmoderated slug fest or play on sites run by an austere figure named Moderator, as in WTF Moderator.  We can keep controversies alive for days beyond their shelf life by sending Just One More Comment.

When you’re isolated from real conversation and discussion the Q. is: who knows what the last word is? (A: It’s when I stop hitting submit.)  We can invade, evade, withdraw, disappear.  But we cannot do the one thing that real intellectual encounters often require us to do: change our minds.

In the discussion that most concerns me right now, the quarrel between unbelievers of an explicit and implicit variety, the debate also seems to be about men and women who see science as the basic cipher for human satisfaction–including moral good–and those who have a wider humanistic outlook that also, often includes a certain respect for religion, or at least an awareness of its social and cultural significance.

The “soft atheists” are men and women who aren’t afraid to accept the notion that they are unbelievers, but they make this choice on humanistic, existential or historical grounds–not because they feel the conclusion is forced on them by science.

At the risk of rousing the guard, I think thousands of intellectuals, scholars, artists, scientists, and ordinary folk fall into this category. The “atheism” they assume but do not profess or press can only strike the full-frontal atheist as quaint and hypocritical. When I say this, the default reaction toward the critic is to impute a deadly sin: Critics are always merely jealous of commercial success.  That explains everything. The logic: whatever sells is right.

My favourite “example” of the implicit atheist made no secret of her atheism.  Whenh Susan Sontag was told she was dying of cancer, that it was inoperable, and that what was left to her was “faith,” she said  that she believed in nothing but this life, that there was no continuation, and that in any event she took religion far too seriously to think she could embrace it at the last minute to get a sense of relief.

Implicit atheists are not intellectually soft, but the conclusion that God does not exist does not seem pivotal, life-changing to them because they neither read it in a newspaper as data nor in a book called Wake Up You Slumbering Fools: There IS NO God. Most of them have come to a position of unbelief through a culture in which religion inhabits ideas, spaces, patterns of thought, modes of conduct, art and music.  Who can say that this is right or wrong: it’s the world we’ve got.

I suspect that implicit atheists are especially repugnant to New Atheists because they are seen to have arrived at atheism using discount methods. They lack toughness.  Apparently (as a commentator opined) I don’t have cojones.  Damn.

Their (our) “decision” looks like indecision.  Maybe they should have to wear a red Question Mark for three years until they realize that it’s science that confirms your unbelief–sort of like the Holy Spirit confirms your being a believer in Christianity. Earn your A.

But it does seem to me, beyond this, that the implicit atheist does not entirely reject religion.  How do you reject whole chapters of the human story? Your distant grandmother probably said the rosary, or wore a wig, or a veil.  Your grandfather fifty generations ago might have slaughtered Jews en route to Jerusalem or Muslims after he got there. So many possibilities.  You can’t tear their superstitions out of your family album, can you– an impossibility made less critical by the fact that you have no idea what they did.  History has transformed them into innocuous unknowns in the same way that it has rendered the most noxious forms of religion impotent.  The Old Testament God that most new atheists like to rant on about is a God that implicit atheists gave up on years ago. No cojones.

This comes to them inductively, though a process of intellectual growth and assimilation.  What they call religion has historical context and historical importance.  But the key word is “context,” because the humanistic unbeliever lives in a context where religion is no longer the magisterial authority for how we understand the physical world or how we lead our lives within it.

Many such implicit atheists will feel some degree of sadness about this, not because they feel religion doesn’t deserve our skepticism, occasional contempt, and criticism, but because they know from poetry, art, music, and philosophy that the project to create a secular humanity from the ashes of our religious predecessors is a tough project and that the nasal chorus, “God does Not exist” (option one: “Religion is Evil.”)  is really a wheel-spinner when it comes to getting things done.

The anger of many hardcore (explicit?) atheists comes down to this: their belief that an atheism which is not forced by science is inauthentic. Why? because a humanistic, existential and historical unbelief does not acknowledge the apriorism of scientific atheism.  It–implicit atheism–sees science as a mode of knowing, not the only mode.  Soft-core atheism (I number myself as a proud member of this club) does not blame the Bible for being a very old book, or religion for its historical overreaching.  It forgives the Bible for being a book of its time and place and asks that we regard it merely as a souvenir of our human struggle for answers.  Anything more–like ethical rectitude or scientific plausibility–is too much.  That goes for the Qur’an, too.

There is no reason to villify God and religion, historically understood, for excesses that, as humanists, we slowly recognized as human excesses and finally learned to combat.

If we accept the principle that we made God in our image, as well as his holy and diverse books, then surely the burden is on us to clean up our mess–not to reify it merely by asserting its non-existence.

Everything from Eden to the Flood, to Sodom to the Holocaust to 9/11 was us.  Not mystical religious others: Us. Science does not explain this and does not solve it for us.  When the New Atheists are willing to accept real human responsibility for the abominations they attribute to a mythical beast called religion they will have taken a giant leap forward.

Did Religion Give Us Doubt?


Professor Jerry Coyne asks this question while pretending to ignore me, and I assume he means it can be answered, and that the answer is a loud and obvious No: that religion, as the source of the world’s ugliness and ills, cannot possibly have given us doubt. Religion gives us faith–the opposite of reason–as everybody knows.

The previous post on martyrdom may raise Mr Coyne’s question indirectly.  

A number of people, mainly the cheering squad for Team Gnu, suggested that I was wrong and that atheists have too been murdered as atheists. That may or may not be true; the evidence (which is more on the order of information) looks highly problematical to me and the source cited–the New Encyclopaedia of Unbelief, is far from a disinterested or trusted resource for finding out.   When the Team finally settles whether they don’t need martyrs or do but want to call them something else I’m sure they will be in touch.

Frankly, it doesn’t matter since martyrdom and murder are not the same thing.  To analogize: martyrdom is to murder as baptism is to bath.  The key difference is that martyrdom can only happen when a church (medieval Rome and Calvin’s Geneva or the whole of Byzantion or the Islamic Middle East will do) or a state, where edicts of the church have the force of law (no good modern Western examples),  can be judicially enforced.  

Martyrdom is not murder; in context, pathetic though the context may be, it is the execution of justice.  Thomas More is a martyr becausehe was sentenced to death by Parliament, not because he was murdered in his sleep for holding treasonous opinions.  (He wasn’t.) If Gnus really care about the meaning of words and not just using them for stones, they might begin with this distinction.


But the cases that were cited, ranging from the posthumously burned John Wycliffe and the “heretics” William Tyndale, Miguel Servetus, and the completely incomprehensible Giordano Bruno–none of them atheists and all of them judicially executed when the term martyrdom could be applied by one side or another in a struggle against an oppressive Church, or specific repressive doctrines–does tell us something about “doubt.” It tells us that they were put to death for doubting, for skepticism ab0ut the doctrines of their religion.  So yes, clearly: religion gives us doubt.  It’s certainly given us scores of doubters.

And they aren’t the first.  The first time Christianity comes into contact with the term “atheist” is when the Christians themselves were derided as atheists.  Justin  Martyr and Tertullian both write “apologies” in the second and early third century defending themselves against the term. “Hence,  we (Christians)  are called atheists. And we confess that we are atheists, so far as the gods are concerned.” (Justin, First Apol., ca. 167).

Tertullian: The First Angry Christian, or Just Another Atheist?

Plainly, the accusation comes from their doubts about the existence of the Roman pantheon.  So when Richard Dawkins confidently proclaims that we are all “atheists” with respect to the majority of gods who have ever existed, it begins here–with Jews and Christians.  It begins with doubts about the tales and myths propagated by their Roman hosts. –And just for the record, neither Tertullian nor Justin fits the description of local yokels that Celsus and Porphyry tried to pin on the Christians.

We can quibble (and should) over what the term atheist might have meant that long ago.  A fairly substantial body of scholars feels that atheism in the sense of rejecting the existence of God doesn’t achieve its modern proportions prior to the encyclopaedist Holbach’s rejection of the idea of gods  in the eighteenth century.  But that conclusion, along with strata like like “positive,” “negative,” weak and strong (old and gnu?) atheisms are just intellectual squares in a bigger picture.

If you put the picture together from its fractious bits, it looks like doubt has a significant amount to do with its coherence.  To get from a lawyer-apologist like Tertullian to an atheist-materialist like Holbach is a long trip, and it is peppered (just like I said) by the death-scenes of dozens of martyrs (yup, that word again) who coaxed doubt and skepticism along–people who were called godless by others but would never have used the term about themselves.

Does it seem improbable to the New Atheists that a full-frontal atheist like Holbach, so explicit in his denunciation of religion that his view even frightened Voltaire, wouldn’t have known the long history of heresies about the trinity, the nature of God, creation, biblical inspiration, and particular revelation? Or will this continue to be a blind-spot in the essentially ahistorical view that they’re professing–one that, frankly cheapens the history of ideas and thus their own, big,  negative idea about God?  It would be pretty rare, I think, to discover a view that is free of historical development, predecessors, and mediators.

Do they really intend to continue spinning historical fantasies that are not only wrong but embarrassing.

Strawman: The other guys martyr

One of Professor Dawkins’s favorite talking points about faith-heads is that religion is their “default position.”   Weak in science, they can explain everything including the origins of the cosmos and life on the planet through the legerdemain of beliefs that take the place of hard science.

I couldn’t agree more with the diagnosis.

But surely a big part of the ignorance afflicting faithheads is that they do not study history: They make it up, or they rely on a few convenient truths that they find useful in protecting their faith.  One such view is that history is negotiable and about things that happened a long time ago, so there is no real right or wrong–just viewpoints.  They see the time of Jesus and the modern world as overlapping periods punctuated but not punctured by science and critical history.  
I personally find this tendency the most distressing, head-banging feature of the fundamentalist mindset.

And what does New Atheism do with the fantasies of faith-heads?  They create an alternate fantasy in which the history of religion becomes a caricature of intellectual and ethical developments: a static church with undifferentiated teaching about a God who is entombed in a book that has never been interpreted, challenged, attacked–or doubted.  It’s pure drivel.  Why do they do this?  because it’s convenient; because it has become their default position.

It would be a huge tragedy if the wishful thinking of some atheists became a template for understanding where doubt comes from.  It doesn’t come like Meals on Wheels  from Sextus Empiricus and covens of atheists who managed to survive the onslaught of “religion” and the “Dark Ages” in caves above Heidelberg. It comes like everything else from the cultures that we have shaped.  

In none of these cultures has anything like the 4% (or whatever minuscule number) of hardcore atheists been influential in moving doubt and irreligion forward against the thundering tide of dominant religious orthodoxies. That role, as I’ve already said, has been taken by men and women of terrific stamina, courage and imagination.  And doubt.

Doubt has everything to do with religion,  Professor Coyne.

Terry Jones: Another View

Cyrus Tahir is a graduate of the distinguished Lahore University of Management Studies in Lahore, Pakistan, and of the University of Warwick, U.K.  He now lives in London.

The oppression brings a reaction: Indiscriminate bombing of people who’ve never had the chance to equip themselves with the academic tools of the modern-world and to understand the intricacies of political, social and economic games that are played in the realm of world politics.

They live and have always lived by a system of tribal allegiances which has supplied them justice, social harmony, support and a life that they have enjoyed for centuries. When the need occurred, the world in general, and the US in particular, conveniently decided to support the war-lords and tribes, facilitating the importation of warriors from different parts of the globe into Afghanistan. Whilst these were men and children from a wide spectrum of Islamic schools of thought, one particular brand was keenly supported owing to their views about waging holy war and the concept of Jihad.

The pragmatic-realist US government discerned the need of the hour: as an expedient, it allowed the training of millions of individuals for warfare against the communist threat. The scale of the training can be imagined by the fact that a late Pakistani army officer, who worked in close proximity with the CIA, Sen. Charlie Wilson and was even trained in the US, single-handedly trained 95,000 people for waging America’s own holy war.

What wasn’t done was to equip these ‘units’ as he called them, with education, and the  knowledge and skill to live their lives and earn their livings once the war was over.

Thanks to the training given to them, these people of local Afghan origin, Pakistanis, Africans, Arabs and others from the Balkans knew how to make incendiary bombs from items of daily usage but did not know the Pythagorean theorem or history, beyond their own, or literature–a gap in education that haunts all and sundry across the globe today.

The Taliban (literally  ‘the students’) were merely a part of these warring forces who supported the US cause and were left to their own devices once the Soviets retreated. With ample ammunition, a culture of tribalism and war, plenty of stinger missiles to play with and no sign of any of the GOD’s enemy (the US had first invoked term to describe the USSR), what any warring nation or people would do is no hard task to imagine.

Someone tells a person that the entire system you have believed in all your life is going to be taken away from you and you are the only one who can save it.  Without fail, the instinct to be a saviour arises – such is the fragility of  human-kind. Not to forget the often quoted phrase, ‘Give a man a bullet & he’ll want a gun. Give the man a gun and he’ll be giving away bullets.’

Soviet troop withdrawal

The Terry Jones Affair

There is ample room for pointing fingers and blaming the Revd. Terry Jones or the Afghan mullahs for the cold-hearted murder of UN workers and the desecration of the Holy Quran. What needs to be looked at is the underlying reasons for the occurrence of these events.

The oppression and wave of terror faced by even the most peaceful of citizens in the Northern tribal belt of Pakistan and bordering areas of Afghanistan is the worst imaginable. Un-manned drone attacks, indiscriminate carpet bombing and the total lack of value for life by the US forces has become the daily norm. Whilst the pastor was operating fully within his constitutional guarantee of free speech and did not violate American law by burning the Holy Quran, what the security forces and their operatives have been doing in South Asia is not acceptable under any law, local or foreign.

What does one expect of a population that has been marred by war, grossly mistrusts the US, has always been a proud nation that detests invaders and wants to live by their own laws which are a mixture of tribal custom and laws emanating from religion.

In the same way that any liberal would defend Mr. Jones’s right to burn the Quran under the provisions of the American Constitution, an Afghan could perhaps demand his death under the laws which he is governed by. A simple case of quid pro quo. The issue with the US government, from the standpoint of the Islamic states, has not been its democratic values but its hypocrisy. Dictated by political expediency, the same Islamic law, which might find Mr. Terry Jones guilty and subject to the death penalty, was invoked in getting Mr. Raymond Davis free after he murdered two young men in broad-daylight.

Raymond Davis, freed by ransom

There are two things that deserve comment, in my capacity as a Pakistani citizen viewing these events and knowing something about the historical context where they unfolded.  I cannot and will not be party to any causes which condone the murder of any individual, be it a UN worker, a soldier or a civilian caught in the midst of a fight.

However, we must accept the fact that whereas the US constitution lays down rights and liberties for everyone, so does every constitution in the world in relation to its own people. I am not an expert in constitutional law but I think that the claim to have a right to burn a book revered and held as a Holy book must be weighed in the balance against the existence of a law that bars anyone from committing acts against another citizen’s set of beliefs and values. That said, Mr. Jones is allowed under the US constitution to desecrate the Quran, yet the effects of this act materialize in a country whose constitutional law forbids desecration of the Quran and in certain case specifies the death penalty.

If put into context, these laws propose a “will of the people and citizens” put into writing and effect by elected members of the government and accepted as laws that the citizens of the country regard as correct. This does not necessarily mean that there is no recourse if the laws are mis-used or abused for the good of one or with mala-fide intention.

Essentially, while the American law may not require respect for any religion, I think it does not necessarily indicate that the actions of any individual towards religion must be disregarded. Thus Mullah Kashaf’s demands–though they may be out of context in the US society and law–seem to hint at the outburst of reaction that may occur across the globe.

The US government is not seen as a saviour by all even in Afghanistan and the perception that the Afghans want the same values and lifestyle as the citizens of the US is perhaps the incorrect of generalizations.

It is extremely wrong to believe that the United States has sent its soldiers in Afghanistan to provide the Afghan people with a better future, for a multiplicity of reasons. Primarily, there was never a call from Afghanistan itself or the people to invite the US forces into Afghanistan. It had a great deal to do with the US’s obsession of Osama Bin Laden and not much to do with the more recently developed rationale of granting liberties to the Afghan people.

The incidents that have come out through the news and other sources tell a different story than that of providing liberty and peace to the Afghan populace.  Now Terry Jones is part of this larger story.

What must also be noted is the fact that during the early 90’s when Mullah Omar and his regime reigned in parts of Afghanistan, the women felt so safe that they did not bother covering themselves in the presence of unknown males, if these males belonged to the Taliban. There are hard-liners and moderates in every stream of life. Cases of domestic violence are aplenty in the US, the UK and the Arab world. Women are not allowed to drive cars or leave homes without their male relatives in many parts of the world, yet the US continues to support the regimes; for obvious vested interests. Therefore, the logic of helping build a better Afghanistan does not hold much weight. Perhaps, the US forces would be better off with their young men and women confined to the boundaries of the US whilst the religious zealots of Afghanistan fight amongst themselves from the remains of what the US left behind.

Explain: Why?

I could not agree more with the principle that there is no moral equivalency of the Mr. Jones’ actions and the actions committed in Afghanistan. But once we take into context the fact that hundreds of Afghan citizens are indiscriminately killed in the search for a group of men, these are citizens who have never had the chance to actually receive education and were left in the lurch with guns, weapons and training, training in how to build bombs once the USA’s purpose of defeating the USSR was achieved.

What they are left with is hatred for a country and anything to do with it and the idea of violent opposition to anything that comes their way with violence.  The murder of the UN workers may seem only a small part of their daily life.

Dawkins v God: Stop the Fight, by Oliver Kamm*

Oliver Kamm’s review of The God Delusion originally appeared in The Times on November 2nd, 2006.  Educated at Oxford and the University of London, Kamm is the author of Anti-Totalitarianism: The Left-wing Case for a Neoconservative Foreign Policy (2005), an advocacy of interventionism in foreign policy. He is a leader writer and columnist for The Times. He describes his politics as left wing.

Thomas Aquinas’s proofs of the existence of God “don’t prove anything,and are easily . . . exposed as vacuous”, wrote Richard Dawkins in The Times this week. Aquinas also offered, inadvertently, one of the strongest cases against Christian orthodoxy. In order that the happiness of the saints in heaven be made more delightful, he argued, they will be “allowed to see perfectly the sufferings of the damned”. I would go to some trouble to avoid the company of those who take pleasure in others’ torment. I would do almost anything to eliminate the risk of eternal fellowship with those who believe such a spectacle is their reward for righteousness.

Yet after reading Dawkins’s philippic against theism,The God Delusion, I am not so sure.

A life of obeisance to a deity one disbelieves in may be a price worth paying. Dawkins’s harangues in this life are assertive enough. In the unlikely event that there is a region of the hereafter reserved for us infidels, hearing them again at full volume without end would be one more reason for penitence.

Dawkins is a formidable advocate of science and reason against pseudoscience and superstition. He has deserved sport with the scientifically illiterate. He scorns the scandalous suggestion of the Prime Minister that a school that teaches creationism is part of a healthy diversity of educational provision. He demolishes the notion that science and religion are, in the phrase of the late Stephen Jay Gould, “non-overlapping magisteria” that deal with different branches of knowledge.

Biblical literalists have integrity enough to understand that science is not merely different from religion but clashes with it. Science is critical; liberal religion accommodates criticism as best it may; dogmatic religion rejects criticism in favour of revelation. But Dawkins cannot leave it there.

The problem is not with his well-known pugnacity. Referring to the controversy about the Danish cartoons of the Prophet, Dawkins rejects the notion that religious sensibilities are uniquely entitled to respect. He thereby uncharacteristically understates. In a recent television [Channel 4] debate about Muslims and free speech, one of the Danish imams who had sparked the protests stated that he was entitled to respect. In a free society he is entitled to no such thing, but only to religious and political liberty. Whether he enjoys respect as well is up to him.

But Dawkins is himself uncomprehending of the argument for separating religious and civic authority. His message is not only that religion is false, but that it is the source of oppression. He quotes “the respected journalist Muriel Gray” — the obsequious honorific immediately alerts the reader to a tendentious proposition — about the bombings of 7/7. “The cause of all this misery, mayhem, violence, terror and ignorance is of course religion itself,” declares Gray.

Well, no. The cause of those acts of terrorism was a particular theocratic movement, Islamism. Dawkins does his best to draw analogies with other religions, giving warning of the political influence of American evangelicalism, and, at the fringes, an American Taleban intent on the repression of women and the suppression of liberty. But this is tosh.

Dawkins quotes approvingly the writer Sam Harris: “Imagine the consequences if any significant component of the US government actually believed that the world was about to end and that its ending would be glorious. The fact that nearly half of the American population apparently believes this, purely on the basis of religious dogma, should be considered a moral and intellectual emergency.”

Any significant component of the US government? We have a test case, for President Reagan did believe exactly this. “The president had fairly strong views about the parable of Armageddon,” Robert McFarlane, his National Security Adviser, later disclosed. “He believed that a nuclear exchange would be the fulfilment of that prophecy [and that] the world would end through a nuclear catastrophe.”

Reagan’s convictions may have been bizarre, but his political inferences were fundamentally different from those drawn by Osama bin Laden. Beth Fischer, the political scientist, has plausibly argued that Reagan reversed his arms policies on becoming convinced that a nuclear exchange was an imminent possibility. He implemented a rapprochement with the Soviet Union in 1984, with his saccharine “Ivan and Anya” speech, 15 months before Gorbachev became Soviet leader.

Religions, and even religious fundamentalisms, are not all alike. Liberal societies, partly because of the spread of knowledge borne of scientific inquiry, have come to an accommodation with religion — not intellectually, but socially. The founders of the United States sought the separation of Church and State. They were adamant that religion should not divide people.

But they still regarded religion as a rich civic resource. In motivating and inspiring social action it is. Reagan’ s pacific arms policies are still widely unrecognised both by his liberal critics and his conservative adulators. Martin Luther King’s witness against racial segregation is a more obvious example.

The secularist argument for having no religious test for public office is not the same as the argument for atheism. The argument for atheism is not the same as deriding religion as the source of conflict. Dawkins’s polemics are to secularism what C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Lettersis to religious apologetics: knowing, insular and sanctimonious.

They are testament to how convictions about religion can lead serious scholars to intellectual disrepute.

The Myth of Reason

More critically, it needs to be pointed out that the books on the subject of God and religion have been written by men (where are the women Gnus?) with credentials no more adequate for writing about God and religion than I would have writing about the phylogeny of nematodes (about which, however, I am endlessly curious.) Which is to say: the New Atheism by its amateurism and short-cutting undermines the work of description and analysis that might make unbelief a better understood phenomenon in the contemporary world….

The Myth of Reason When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room, How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick (Whitman, Leaves of Grass, 1900) "You can't fool me. There ain't no sanity clause." (Chico Marx, Night at the Opera, 1935) Once upon a time, believing in God was unfashionable. Now to come out an Unbeliever is almost as cool as–well, you know. Especially now that we know the Protestants were right in t … Read More

via The New Oxonian

Atheist Martyrs? Gnus to me.

If revolutionary rational thoughts were expressed in the Age of Reason, they were only made possible because of the long medieval tradition that established the use of reason as one of the most important of human activities.” (Edward Grant: God and Reason in the Middle Ages, Cambridge, 2001)


Roger Bacon, 1220(?)-1290



Have there been atheist martyrs–women and men who suffered and died as a consequence of their rejection of God?

This thoughtful question came up when I recently suggested that I detect a trend in the small but dwindling new atheist community to pad the bona fides of their young tradition with things that didn’t really happen.  We know that real Gnus love science and aren’t too keen on history, especially a history that suggests that Once upon a Time there was a lonely wood-cutter living good without God by the edge of a forest outside Düsseldorf who kept his opinions about God to himself and was never molested, his humble house never burnt down. You have to admit, that’s pretty dull reading.

The Church did not invent martyrdom, but it perfected it in the ancient world. Christians seemed to thrive on persecution, or at least stories about persecution.  The habit of naming churches after saints originates at the gravesites (real and legendary) of the sacrificed.

Every first year divinity student knows two things about the early Christian writer Tertullian: He said something like “I believe because it is absurd.” (Although he didn’t actually say it that way.)  And he said “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church…the more we are mown down by you [pagans] the more our numbers grow,”  which he did say.

Tertullian was an arrogant, heretic-bashing codpiece who was always unfair in rhetorical battle against his heretical opposites, most of whom were dead when he wrote about them.  He would feel right at home in today’s climate. He still has his admirers.

Because they were certain they were right about the religion thing, Christians developed “martyrologies”–stories about martyrs and their brutal torture and dismemberment and rape at the spearpoint of their pagan oppressors.  This no doubt helped fertilize the field of converts in the way Tertullian intended.  After all, what is a martyr but an imitator of Christ, the ultimate sacrificial victim?

Death of a martyr ca 203

To die like Christ was to be holy–a saint–so that the terms (martyr-saint) became virtully synonymous in the early church.  It was a short-cut, a virtual guaranteeing of heavenly bliss.  It could only be compared to patriotism–dying on the field of battle.  Furthermore, Christians thought it drove the Romans crazy, this immense bravery in the face of torture.  –Except in the little that’s survived by way of commentary, the Romans actually thought Christian bravery was a sham because they expected, like the martyrs in the Middle East today, to wake up in glory and bliss before God’s throne.  That was the payoff, to quote Marcus Aurelius, loosely.

It took until Gibbon’s day, in the eighteenth century,  to sort out the strew.  As the Catholic Church was fully in charge of its own story, he reckoned, the number of martyrs was far smaller–even during the reign of the most vicious of the so-called persecuting emperors, Diocletian (d. 311)–than the Church claimed.  Only when other measures at control failed–normal things like ridicule, calling their men yokels and their women prostitutes, did things turn ugly.  The result?  Less than two years after the death of Diocletian the first edict of toleration was passed and by the close of the fourth century the Church was everything Tertullian hoped it would be.  –Including powerful enough to initiate persecutions of its former oppressors.  What goes around.

But the tendency remained strong in Christianity to use martyrdom as a kind of proof of dues-paying authenticity. There were Protestant martyrs–the famous “Boke” by John Foxe (1563) repeats the early Christian stories and then tells the rest as the tale of the Catholic Church’s persecution of Protestants down through the sixteenth century, creating the standard stereotype of the Catholic Church as the reincarnation of Old Rome. The competition to chalk up numbers continued:  Joan of Arc (French, Catholic, a witch to the English cause, a protectress to the French); Miguel Servetus (a rationalist, executed by Calvin’s order in 1533); Johan Hus (Czech, who condemned indulgences, the Crusades, and lobbied for the liberal ideas of another heretic)–namely John Wycliffe, who escaped execution by sleight and a loyal troupe of students and was dug up after his death and his bones burned for his views on the papacy, the nature of the universe (he admired the atomic theory of Democritus) and his ashes scattered in the river Swift.

Execution of William Tyndale, for translating the Bible into English

There are dozens and dozens of Wycliffes and Hus’s who were treated as badly by decress and councils and the Inquisition.  What the Church seems to have learned from its own exaggerated history of martyrs is that, for organizational reasons,  it paid to be more like the Roman persecutors than like the suffering saints.

But I stray.  Surely if Christians preyed on the doctrinal irregularities of their own, they must have sniffed out the most radical opinion of all and punished it? I mean, of course, the “God question.” As well they did.  But the most radical opinion of all as late as the seventeenth century was that God was not a trinity–Socinianism (early unitarianism) named after two Italian thinkers, the uncle-nephew team of Laelius and Fausto, who if they lived today would run a cake shop in Brooklyn.  Both thought the trinity was non-biblical.  Faustus, the nephew, escaped to (then) religiously liberal Poland to be out of the reach of church scrutiny and died there in 1604.  The theology of the Spanish physician Miguel Servetus (mentioned above) was less accommodating but equally severe: he called the trinity a three-headed dog.  Servetus was sentenced to death simultaneously in Geneva by the protestants and by the Catholic Inquisition at Lyons making him officially the first man without a country.

Not far away, or much removed in time, Giordano Bruno died in 1600, a Domincan priest and by all accounts a brilliant scientist.  Bruno taught a version of the Copernican theory and taught it well enough to find himself in exile all over Europe.


Hounded by a reputation for being sarcastic and unable to keep quiet about his unorthodox views, he did what Servetus did: went to Geneva thinking that the Protestant “capital” would be nore liberal than the largely autonomous cities of the Catholic world. Then to Paris, where he was spotted as an excommunicate; then to Oxford and London, where he may have worked as a spy for a very nervous Elizabeth’s secretary of State, Walsingham.  Then to Frankfurt and Padua, where he was denied a chair in mathematics (it went to Galileo) and finally to Venice, where the Church lost patience with his maneuvers and had him hauled back to Rome for trial.

Bruno’s scientific views were not as well devloped as Galileo’s: at his trials in Rome, he was accused of denying the trinity (by now a favourite charge against intellectuals), believing in metempsychosis (reincarnation), denying the virginity of Mary, and the “real presence” of Jesus in the Eucharist.  These were garden variety charges that could be trumped up against almost anyone who had become inconvenient to the Church, so the radical nature of his opinions is difficult to discover.  He was probably also a pantheist and almost certainly a mystic and magician.

From the Church’s point of view he was another heretic at a time when the Church was fighting both ends against the middle, fragmented in Europe, unable to exercise its will against major problems like Luther, and now a spawn of lesser opinions that might have been greater had they developed into full-fledged movements.  Bruno’s challenge like Wycliffe’s involved early scientific ideas that were echoed in the revolutions of Bacon and Newton, neither of whom, alas, had very revolutionary ideas about religion. Before Bruno was burned alive at the Camo di’Fiori, his tongue was nailed to the roof of his mouth “for all the wickedness he had spewed.” The Cardinal who tried Bruno, Bellarmino, was the same who summoned Galileo to the Inquisition sixteen years later.

Bellarmine, the face of Catholic tolerance

Bruno, like Servetus, and Wycliffe, and Hus, and later on the deist Thomas Aikenhead (d. 1696 in Edinburgh) should be commemorated as pioneers in the rationalist tradition that leads from faith and credulity to shades of unbelief and finally to outright atheism. It is a slow progression, and atheism is a consequence, not the match that starts the fire.

Philosophically, these thinkers (even in the case of Hus and Wycliffe) don’t constitute a single opinion but  grades of skepticism that move steadily from rejection of the core doctrine of the Christian faith for 1200 years–the trinity–to a much wider indictment of the Bible, superstition, the papacy, miracles, and the stranglehold of Aristotelian science.

Aikenhead at his trial was accused of all of this: “[He has taught] That the Holy Scriptures were stuffed with such madness, nonsense, and contradictions, that he admired the stupidity of the world in being so long deluded by them: That he rejected the mystery of the trinity as unworthy of refutation; and scoffed at the incarnation of Christ.”

“No defence was recorded, but the prisoner did have defence counsel. On December 24, the next day, came the verdict: “that. . . Thomas Aikenhead has railed against the first person, and also cursed and railed our blessed Lord and second person of the holy Trinity, and further finds the other crimes libelled proven, viz. The denying of the incarnation of our Saviour, the Holy Trinity, and scoffing at the Holy Scriptures.” He was sentenced to be hanged on the 8th of January…before making the long walk, under guard, to the gallows. He was said to have died Bible in hand, “with all the Marks of a true Penitent”.

So to the question: Have there been atheist martyrs.  I think the answer is a conditional rather than a resounding No.  Social marginalization and suspicion is not the same thing as martyrdom, not the same as systematic legal persecution.

I understand that Gnu atheists, like the Christian community that was also Gnu once upon a time, crave the legitimacy that comes from being able to show it has suffered.  But history is against that. Being unpopular and being actually burned alive for your beliefs, or lack thereof, is an option foreclosed to atheists by the bravery of women and men who fought the battle against religious oppression one doctrine at a time, paving the way for the Enlightenment, free speech, and constitutional limitations of the church. That’s the real story. And it neither diminishes atheism nor requires it to “credit” its existence to religion in order to acknowledge it.

Medieval (14th cent) illustration of a spherical earth

Yet this puts atheists in the difficult position of celebrating the work of people they regard as deluded, “faithheads,” to use the aspersion, as though history begins with Hume (maybe a deist, fundamentally cagey), Voltaire (a deist), and Tom Paine (not just a deist but one who wanted to surgically remove Jesus from the atrocity of the gospels).  But none of these men died for their secular, anti- ecclesiastical and anti-Biblical ideas. They held a shred of faith disconnected from the realities of religion.

If we scour more thoroughly, we get Socrates and Jesus and maybe Anaxagoras.  All three were charged with impiety by the dominant religious power of their day.  If we believe Xenophon, Socrates took comfort in the fact that the gods would be pleased with his tranquility and that he was pious throughout his life.  Anaxagoras chose the option of exile to Lampsacus for teaching “odd things” about the nature of matter and mind, that the material world was composed of “a thing of finer texture, alike in all its manifestations and everywhere the same–a subtle agent, possessed of all knowledge and power, especially seen ruling in all the forms of life” (Lucretius).  But in either case, “piety” and impiety were connected to performing acts of ritual devotion, not to an intellectual conclusion about the existence of “God.” A great many historians and psychologists have puzzled that it may not have been psychologically possible, prior to this long progression of ideas, to entertain the sorts of doubts about the gods’ existence that is possible in the modern era. ( I disagree with that, but it’s another topic.)

That leaves Jesus, before he became one–a god that is. Radical doubters and dissenters like Paine, Renan, Loisy recognized Jesus as one of their own. The eminently sensible Matthew Arnold, no friend to biblically-based dogmatism, praised his “sweet reasonableness.”

In so many words Jesus rejected much of the Torah and hardly mentions other sections of the Hebrew tradition at all–though he is accused of violating it.  He substitutes an ethic of love and forgiveness for one of pay-back and talion.  He excoriates wealth in a culture that saw material possessions as a mark of divine favour.  He mingles with women and “sinners” in a time when purity laws were scrupulously enforced and fear of contamination had reached superstitious highs.  He shows compassion for people at the margins of a society that disowned the sick as being stricken by God as punishment for unknown sin.   He, foolishly perhaps,  argues his case openly, even when (like Socrates) he is cautioned not to.

Even if only a shadow of a shade of this story is respected, Jesus is an historical event, at least as much of an event as the historical Socrates who also suffers from his own “biography.” Knowing that his words and deeds are going to get him killed, he presses on.  He’s only human after all. From the standpoint of first century Judaism–which is the only way history can fairly view this event–he dies a blasphemer and a heretic.

It seems to me that atheists should acknowledge that the private thoughts of a lonely woodcutter outside Düsseldorf do not form part of the progression of ideas that get us from Epicurus to Bertrand Russell.

When Professor Dawkins in his now famous remark says that “We are all atheists about most of the gods that societies have ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further,” he is right in one respect (as well as funny) but wrong in another. Because the process of rejecting 99% of the gods and most of what has  been believed about the remainder is not a conclusion that atheism has forced. Unbelief has been forced to the surface of our consciousness by critical processes that are rooted in religion: in the empiricism of Maimonides;  in Aquinas’s disputational method; in Luther’s critique of Catholicism and sacraments;  in Abelard’s stress on the subjectivity of ethics and Roger Bacon’s contributions to scientific thinking.  In so much more.  Perhaps to state what is too obvious to be obvious to many people: in the fact that the transmission of knowledge through books was the labour of clerics and monks.  Atheism historically–where and through what means–the gods began to be disbelieved in–has not been a conversion-experience, a single moment, or a shuddering recognition on a Tuesday that everything you have been taught is wrong.  It’s also got to be about the freedom to reach that conclusion on the shoulders of the very bright people who suffered along the way, none of whom, as far as I can tell, would qualify as atheists today.

Bacon's illustration in his Optics, 1250

It is strange to me that men and women committed to the paradigm of evolution and historical change are often willing to postulate creation ex nihilo or spontaneous generation for their own ideas.

Teach Yourself Humanism, by Mark Vernon

Mark Vernon writes regularly for the Guardian, The Philosophers’ Magazine, TLS, Financial Times and New Statesman, alongside a range of business titles, including Management Today. He also broadcasts, notably on BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time. He is an Honorary Research Fellow at Birkbeck College, University of London and has degrees in theology and physics from the Universities of Oxford and Durham.  He has recently expostulated that the Dawkins’ Revolution may have run its course and notices that God is still standing.

Teach Yourself Humanism Humanism is not a specific doctrine or a unified system of thought. Rather it is a tradition that starts in the Renaissance, gathers momentum during the Enlightenment, and becomes a key feature of the modern world. During this development it embraces a range of possible meanings, principles and practices. It is fundamentally an attitude or spirit that values learning, curiosity and imagination aimed at engaging with the questions … Read More

via The New Oxonian

Julian Huxley: Why Liberal Theology is Not Enough

John Robinson, the bishop of Woolwich, England, in the 1960’s, was not an ordinary Anglican prelate, not even in a country where Anglican bishops are known as atheists in purple gowns. He first became notorious for suggesting that the D.H. Lawrence novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover was not only not pornographic but a moral book.

Then, in 1963 he ushered in a movement sometimes called “the new divinity” when he wrote a book exploding conventional images of God as false and suggesting that the biblical images of a petulant and fickle God, in particular, were more  a hindrance than a help to the Christian faith.  He challenged British Christians to consider alternatives to the God-in-the-sky model, especially ones being proposed by theologians like the German-American thinker Paul Tillich (God as “ultimate concern,”)  and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who rejected the objective moral values of the Bible.

In a country where “existential”  theology was not popular and German ideas especially suspect, it was no surprise that Robinson’s suggestions did not immediately catch on.

One sympathetic reader of Honest to God was Julian Huxley, a distinguished embryologist in his right and the grandson of Thomas Henry Huxley (“Darwin’s bulldog”) by descent.  He independently distinguished himself as a researcher with his first book, on avian ethology. By 1925 he had become Professor of Zoology at King’s College, London, a position he resigned after less than two years to work with G.H. Wells on The Science of Life.

Rejecting T.H.’s legendary “agnosticism” relative to religion Julian preferred to call himself a “humanist,” emphasizing the positive and progressive goals human beings have achieved in their evolutionary march from simple to complex organziations, made possible through the use of language.  He rejected the notion that this progress was “teleological” in the religious sense, but rejected equally the idea that there was an absolute split between religion and science: As he notes in the essay below, “There is no separate supernatural realm: all phenomena are part of one natural process of evolution. There is no basic cleavage between science and religion;… I believe that [a] drastic reorganization of our pattern of religious thought is now becoming necessary, from a god-centered to an evolutionary-centered pattern.”

Ethics, Huxley believed, was at the heart of the progression;  “it largely overrides the automatic process of natural selection as an agent of change.” (Evolution in action. Chatto & Windus, London, 1953,  p132.)

His commitment to an ethical vision and “humanism”–a term he virtually reinvented and modernized, yet pointing back to the classical and neo-classical usages,  led him to become involved with the founding of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (largely inspired by his work) and with John Dewey, Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann, to serve as a founding advisor to the First Humanist Society of New York.

Huxley however was, if not precisely in the American philosophical sense, a naturalist.  The two great philosophical traditions of Europe, the rationalist and the empirical, each had their own unresolved dualisms and overcame them in separate ways through linguistic and rational critique of the “supernatural.”  But Huxley was not eager to reduce religion to a commitment to supernatural entities and intrusions. He wrote, that the abandonment of the God-hypothesis did not entail the end of piety (in the strict, classical sense of the term) least of all ethics, but merely a recognition of our location of the history of our life on the planet:

“Many people assert that this abandonment of the god hypothesis means the abandonment of all religion and all moral sanctions. This is simply not true. But it does mean, once our relief at jettisoning an outdated piece of ideological furniture is over, that we must construct something to take its place.”

The following essay is edited slightly from its 1964 version in Essays of a Humanist (1964: Chatto and Windus)

The Bishop of Woolwich’s courageous book, Honest to God, is impressive evidence not merely of what he calls our present theological ferment, but of the general ideological ferment and indeed of the revolution of thought through which we are struggling.

This is the inevitable outcome of the new vision of the world and man’s place and role in that world — in a word, of man’s destiny — which our new knowledge has revealed. This new vision is both comprehensive and unitary. It integrates the fantastic diversity of the world into a single framework, the pattern of all-embracing evolutionary process. In this unitary vision, all kinds of splits and dualisms are healed. The entire cosmos is made out of one and the same world-stuff, operated by the same energy as we ourselves. “Mind” and “matter” appears as two aspects of our unitary mind-bodies. There is no separate supernatural realm: all phenomena are part of one natural process of evolution. There is no basic cleavage between science and religion; they are both organs of evolving humanity.

This earth is one of the rare spots in the cosmos where mind has flowered. Man is a product of nearly three billion years of evolution, in whose person the evolutionary process has at last become conscious of itself and its possibilities. Whether he likes it or not, he is responsible for the whole further evolution of our planet.

Dr Robinson describes the current image of God as follows: “Somewhere beyond this universe is a Being, a centre of personal will and purpose, who created it and sustains it, who loves it and who ‘visited’ it in Jesus Christ. But I need not go on, for this is ‘our’ God. Theism means being convinced that this Being exists: atheism means denying that he does.” However he continues as follows: “But I suspect that we have reached a point where this mental image of God is also more of a hindrance than a help. … Any image can become an idol, and I believe that Christians must go through the agonizing process in this generation of detaching themselves from this idol.” He even writes that he heartily agrees with something I wrote many years ago in my Religion without revelation — “The sence of spiritual relief which comes from rejecting the idea of God as a superhuman being is enormous.”

And yet he clings to the essential personal concept of God — “nothing,” he writes, “can separate us from the love of God”; and sums up his position in the following assertion, that “God is ultimate reality… and ultimate reality must exist”.

To the implications of these statements I shall return. Meanwhile let me state the position as I see it. Man emerged as the dominant type on earth about a million years ago, but has only been really effective as a psychosocial organism for under ten thousand years. In that mere second of cosmic time, he has produced astonishing achievements — but has also been guilty of unprecedented horrors and follies. And looked at in the long perspective of evolution he is singularly imperfect, still incapable of carrying out his planetary responsibilities in a satisfactory manner.

The radical evolutionary crisis through which man is now passing can only be surmounted by an equally radical reorganisation of his dominant system of thought and belief. During human history, there has been a succession of dominant systems of thought and belief, each accompanying a new organisation of social, political and economic activities — agriculture with its rituals of rebirth as against hunting with its magic; early civilization with its cities and sacred kings, its written records and its priesthoods; universal and monotheistic religion; later, the scientific, the industrial and the technological revolutions with their corresponding patterns of thought; and now the evolutionary and humanist revolution, whose ideological and social implications have still to be thought out.

What has all this to do with Dr Robinson’s views on God, or indeed with religion at all? The answer is, a great deal. In the first place, religion in some form is a universal function of man in society, the organ for dealing with the problems of destiny, the destiny of individual men and women, of societies and nations, and of the human species as a whole. Religions always have some intellectual or ideological framework, whether myth or theological doctrine; some morality or code of behaviour, whether barbaric or ethically rationalized; and some mode of ritualized or symbolic expression, in the form of ceremonial or celebration, collective devotion or thanksgiving, or religious art. But, as the history and comparative study of religions make clear, the codified morality and the ritualized expression of of a religion, and indeed in the long run its social and personal efficacy, derives from its “theological” framework. If the evolution of its ideological pattern does not keep pace with the growth of knowledge, with social change and the march of events, the religion will increasingly cease to satisfy the multitude seeking assurance about their destiny, and will become progressively less effective a a social organ.

Eventually the old ideas will no longer serve, the old ideological framework can no longer be tinkered up to bear the weight of the facts, and a radical reconstruction becomes necessary, leading eventually to the emergence of a quite new organisation of thought and belief, just as the emergence of new types of bodily organization was necessary to achieve biological advance.

Such major organizations of thought may be necessary in science as much as in religion. The classical example, of course, was the re-patterning of cosmological thought which demoted the earth from its central position and led to the replacement of the geocentric pattern of thought by a heliocentric one. I believe that an equally drastic reorganization of our pattern of religious thought is now becoming necessary, from a god-centered to an evolutionary-centered pattern. Simplified down to its bare essentials the stepwise reorganization of western religions thought seems to have proceeded as follows. In its early, paleolithic stage religion was magic-centred, based on the ideas of magic force inherent in nature, in personages such as “medicine men” and shamans, and in human incarnations, spells and other magic practices, including witchcraft. This type of belief developed gradually into animism and so to polydaimonism and polytheism; while with the coming of agriculture a new pattern was imposed, centering on the ideas of fertility and rebirth, and leading to the rise of priest-kings and eventually divinized monarchs. The next major revolution of religious thought came in the first millennium B.C with the independent rise of the monotheist and/or universalist religions, culminating in Christianity and later branching off into Islam. The last two thousand years have seen the development of elaborate monotheistic theologies; but in the process their single God has broken into many, or at least has assumed a number of distinct and indeed sometimes actively hostile forms; and their nominal universalism has degenerated into competition for the possession of absolute truth.

Of course a great deal of magic survived into the polytheist priest-king stage, and some persists in thinly disguised form in Christian and Mohammedan practices and ideas today. Similarly, elements of polydaemonism and polytheism persists in the nominally monotheist religion of Christianity, in the doctrine of the Trinity (with the virtual divinization of the Virgin in Catholicism), in the multiplication of its Saints and Angels, and in so doing has increased its flexibility.

But to come back to DR Robinson. He is surely right in concentrating on the problem of God, rather than on the resurrection or the after-life, for God is Christianity’s central hypothesis.

But he is surely wrong in making such statements as that “God is ultimate reality”. God is a hypothesis constructed by man to help him understand what existence is all about. The god hypothesis asserts the existence of some sort supernatural personal or superpersonal being, exerting some kind of purposeful power over the universe and its destiny. To say that God is ultimate reality is just semantic cheating, as well as being so vague as to become effectively meaningless (and when DR Robinson continues by saying “and ultimate reality must exist” he is surely running round a philosophically very vicious circle).

Dr Robinson, like Dr Tillich and many other modernist theologians, seems to me, and indeed to any humanist, to be trying to ride two horses at once, to keep his cake and eat it. He wants to be modern and meet the challenge of our new knowledge by stripping the image of God of virtually all its spatial, material, Freudian and anthropomorphic aspects. But he still persists in retaining the termGod, in spite of all its implifications of supernatural power and personality; and it is these implifications, not the modernists’ fine-spun arguments, which consciously and unconsciously affect the ordinary man and woman. Heads I win, tails you lose: humanists dislike this elaborate double-talk. The ambiguity involved can be simply illustrated by substituting some of the modernists’ definition of God for the plain word [I think it should read world, not word — Fredrik’s comment] itself. I am sure that many opponents of freer divorce use the phrace “whom God has joined together, let no man put asunder”. If they were to proclaim that “whom universal reality has joined together, let no man put asunder”, it would not carry the same weight.

Today the god hypothesis has ceased to be scientifically tenable, has lost its explanatory value and is becoming an intellectual and moral burden to our thought. It no longer convinces or comforts, and its abandonment often brings a deep sence of relief. Many people assert that this abandonment of the god hypothesis means the abandonment of all religion and all moral sanctions. This is simply not true. But it does mean, once our relief at jettisoning an outdated piece of ideological furniture is over, that we must construct some thing to take its place.

Though gods and God in any meaningful sence seem destined to disappear, the stuff of divinity out of which they have grown and developed remains. This religious raw material consists of those aspects of nature and those experiences which are usually described as divine. Let me remind my readers that the term divine did not originally imply the existence of gods: on the contrary, gods were constructed to interprete man’s experiences of this quality.

Some events and some phenomena of outer nature transcend ordinary explanation and ordinary experience. They inspire awe and seem mysterious, explicable only in terms of something beyond or above ordinary nature.

Such magical, mysterious, awe-inspiring, divinity-suggesting facts have included wholly outer phenomena like volcanic eruptions, thunder, and hurricanes; biological phenomena such as sex and birth, disease and death; and also inner, psychological phenomena such as intoxication, possession, speaking in tounges, inspiration, insanity, and mystic vision.

With the growth of knowledge most of these have ceased to be mysterious so far as rational or scientific explicability is concerned (though there remains the fundamental mystery of existence, notably the existence of mind). However, it is a fact that many phenomena are charged with some sort of magic or compulsive power, and do introduce us to a realm beyond our ordinary experience. Such events and such experience merit a special designation. For want of a better, I use the term divine, though this quality of divinity is not truely supernatural but transnatural — it grows out of ordinary nature, but transcends it. The divine is what man finds worthy of adoration, that which compels his awe.

Much of every religion is aimed at the discovery and safe-guarding of divinity in this sence, and seeks contact and communication with what is regarded as divine. A humanist evolution-centered religion too needs divinity, but divinity without God. It must strip the divine of the theistic qualities which man has antropomorphically projected into it, search for its habitations in every aspect of existence, elicit it, and establish fruitful contact with its manifestations. Divinity is the chief raw material out of which gods have been fashioned. Today we must melt down the gods and refashion the material into new and effective organs of religion, enabling man to exist freely and fully on the spiritual level as well as on the material.

What precise form these new agencies of religious thought will take it is impossible to say in this period of violent transition. But one can make some general prophesies. The central religious hypothesis will certainly be evolution, which by now has been checked against objective fact and has become firmly established as a principle. Evolution is a process, of which we are products, and in which we are active agents. There is no finality about the process, and no automatic or unified progress; but much improvement has occured in the past, and there could be much further improvement in the future (though there is also the possibility of future failure and regression).

Thus the central long-term concern of religion must be to promote further evolutionary improvement and to realise new possibilities; and this means greater fulfilment by more human individuals and fuller achievement by more human societies

Human potentialities constitute the world’s greatest resource, but at the moment only a tiny fraction of them is being realized. The possibility of tapping and directing these vast resources of human possibility provide the religion of the future with a powerful long-term motive. An equally powerful short-term motive is to ensure the fullest possible development and flowering of individual personalities. In developing a full, deep and rich personality the individual ceases to be a mere cog or cipher, and makes his own particular contribution to evolutionary fulfilment.

In a way most important of all, an evolution-centered religion can no longer be divided off from secular affairs in a separate supernatural compartment, but will interlock with them at every point. The only distinction is that it is concerned with less immediate, less superficial, and therefore more enduring and deeper aspects of existence.

Meanwhile, religious rituals and moral codes will have to be readapted or remodelled. Besides what Nietzsche called the transvaluation of values, we shall need a transfiguration of thought, a new religious terminology and a reformulation of religious ideas and concepts in a new idiom. A humanist religion will have to work out its own rituals and its own basic symbolism.

In place of eternity we shall have to think in terms of enduring process; in place of salvation in terms of attaining the satisfying states of inner being which combine energy and peace. There will be no room for petitionary prayer, but much value in prayer involving aspiration and self-exploration. A religion of fulfilment must provide bustling secular man with contacts with all that is permanent and enduring, with the deeper and higher aspects of existence; indeed, with every possible opportunity of transcending the limitations not only of his day-by-day existence in the equivalents of shared worship, but of his little secular self in acts of meditation and self-examination and in retreats from the secular world of affairs. It will of course continue to celebrate the outstanding events of personal and national existence (already in some countries there are humanist wedding and funeral ceremonies). Furthermore, it will enlist the aid of psychologists and psychiatrists in helping men and women to explore the depths and heights of their own inner selves instead of restlessly pursuing external noveltry, to realize more of their mental and spiritual possibilities, to utilize even their repressed and guilty urges, and to transcendent the limitations and the internal conflicts of the unregenerate self in a constructive wholeness and a sense of achieving contact or union with a fuller reality.

Christianity is a universalist and monotheist religion of salvation. Its long consolidation and explosive spread, achieved through a long period of discussion and zealous ferment, released vast human forces which have largely shaped the western world as we know it. An evolutionary and humanist religion of fulfilment could be more truly universal and could release even vaster human forces, which could in large measure shape the development of the entire world. But its consolidation and spread will need a period of discussion and ferment, though with modern communications this is likely to be much shorter than for Christianity.

The evolutionary vision of man’s place and role in the universe which science and scholarship have given us, could be the revelation of the new dispensation. Dr Robinson’s article is evidence of its effectiveness in changing ideas. What we now need is a multitude of participants to take part in the great discussion and to join in the search for the larger truth and the more fruitful patterns of belief which we confidently believe is waiting to be elicited.