A Little History


(N.O. April 2011)


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 whyA 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 famousRemarks (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.

The God Viruses

From N.O., December 2010


I never saw a purple meme
I never saw a brown one.
Maybe they’re polyethylene
Maybe you could drown one.

Here is some practical advice to readers: When an author claims that he (or she) has a PhD, beg to discover where he acquired it.

Obviously this is not necessary if the author isn’t using his credentials to support an otherwise half-cooked hypothesis, but if the hypothesis appears to be half- cooked, it’s important to know how it passed muster: what peers reviewed it, what graduate committee passed it, or snickered behind their hands when they turned it down as a thesis. It is also useful to know if the person signing copies of his latest oeuvre on alien plant life at Borders has a PhD in Renaissance literature from Temple, or something more….germane.

I was recently and justly upbraided by a reader when I stated that Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins were “mediocre scholars,” and (suitably contrite) amended my comment to say “in religion.” I could as easily have said “have no credentials in the study of religion that would lend authority to their work.” Anymore than I would have if I developed a learned but totally flawed and useless hypothesis about evolutionary biology. –Or wrote a book tantalizingly called The Religion Virus: Why We Believe in God (2010, by a systems engineer named Craig A. James) or its twin, The God Virus: How Religion Infects Our Lives and Culture (2009 by a school psychologist, Darrel Ray.)

Yes, I know these have been around for awhile. Yes, it is shameful that I’m just getting around to reading them. Finally I was suckered by the promo on Amazon.com that said those of us who were feeling peckish after the dinner provided by Dawkins, Dennett and Hitchens could find a repast in these authors. Niggardly though my esteem for the “New Atheists,” I was feeling a bit hungry. But what a bad meal.

The new genre of opportunists is proving the axiom correct: “In the beginning was the word. At the end, just the cliché.” They are also proving that there is a reason why, no matter how intellectually omnivorous a specialist in dairy science (for example) may personally feel, he shouldn’t do knee surgery. Likewise, the benefit of having grown up in a church-going family with a Bible in the top drawer of the sideboard doesn’t make an engineer or educationist a religious studies scholar.

Both James and Ray pump their books by saying that their “groundbreaking studies” (naturally) go beyond analogy. In other words, the fact that viruses make you sick and can kill you and the idea that religions can make you mentally sick or sexually dysfunctional is not a comparison but a correlation. Except, in both cases, there is no correlation; there is only analogy. In the case of The Religion Virus, spread out over ten sermonic and loosely organized chapters that read like a sophomore research paper—the kind where the thesis is so starved for persuasive sources that it eventually dies of exertion—the writer moves freely from a discussion of the “general all-purpose God meme” which he associates with animism and some discredited research on Papua New Guinea to a discussion of seven other memes which he claims are “synergistic” and can be compared to the mutation of genes in biological evolution. These trends, he thinks, coalesce in Yahweh (never mind that no one really calls him that but scholars), the “meme that we in the western world call God.”

Craig A. James

Reading the dissociated conjectures of James’s book, interrupted by dubious data, surveys, informal interviews and too many personal recollections and reminiscences (called “interludes” here) about his leaving the God-meme behind, reminds me of some of the reconstructionist history I’ve had to read over the years, the kind of thing that argues that Columbus was a Jew or (long before Dan Brown) that Jesus’ DNA survives in the bloodline established for his caliphate through Mary Magdalene. Yet another case of the facts not fitting the theory and changing the facts, except even more wildly careless about what a “fact” is and who decides.

Take this evocative paragraph:

“By the time Jesus was born polytheism was still widespread but monotheism had a solid stronghold among the Jews. In spite of being a minority view the Yahweh meme had developed all of the critical features that made Yahweh into a viable monotheistic deity….Yahweh was no longer a specialist God of war. Now he could answer all prayers. Instead of merely demanding loyalty he now claimed to be the only God. He had shed his jealousy of other Gods and instead simply denied they existed. Yahweh claimed to be the only God, a much more sophisticated meme than mere jealousy. He began actively to destroy other religions. He told the Jews to vandalize or destroy their temples. Violence against other religions was a virtue not a sin. He shed his regional association[s] and could be worshiped anywhere. He had changed from an earthly corporeal god to an ethereal overpowering figure whose very presence could overwhelm a human. He was no longer subject to the moral judgment of mere humans through natural philosophy and logic. And was instead transformed into the fundamental source of all morality….”

The book ranges on like this for 200 colloquial and illucid pages, reaching its sort-of climax in the following mission statement:

“…If we step back and look at all this activity [religion] through the looking glass [sic] of cultural evolution science, that is, memetics, we see that each person and each house of worship is just one more step in the hundred-thousand-year evolution of religion viruses that infect our brains” (194).

But no matter how far back I stand, I still can’t forget what I see up close. For starters: (a) Polytheism is not a precursor of monotheism and cultural historians have by and large rejected the teleological views of eighteenth century philosophy and nineteenth century anthropology that this error propagated, especially among philosophers who teethed on Hume; (b) It is internally inconsistent to his own case, and violates everything scholars know about the history of the biblical text and its development, to argue that Yahweh, having forsaken his role as a god of war then moved on to command violence against other religions and their destruction; (c) If anything, the God of Palestinian Jews becomes more isolated and regionally specific, not less, and the Hellenistic transmission of the God-idea (not meme) through Christianity fissiparates into the trinity to becomes less restrictive and virtually polytheistic, restoring particular specialized facets to God through a compartmentalization of his “revealed” activities. (d) The God of the Hebrew Bible was never “subject to the moral judgment of human beings through natural philosophy and logic” (what civilization is he trekking through?) and was regarded, anachronistically, as the source of right conduct (morality is not a good word in this context; wrongdoing and law-breaking are) even before the law was given on Sinai. What Exodus and Deuteronomy spell out in laws, Genesis collapses into an unmistakable poetic introduction on the price of disobedience.

Religion Memes (1,000,000 X magnification)

For the alleged memes or memeplexes to operate in anything approaching an evolutionary way, it would be important to get the chronology right, the data right, the lines of transmission right, the cultural syncretism right, none of which are right in this book. A “viable monotheistic deity,” you say? There is no historical or textual support for this view: But for the rise of the Christian movement, which wasn’t exactly servile to Hebrew monotheism anyway, the religion of the Jews was about an inch away from being discarded or subsumed by those “still-widespread polytheists” called Romans and it was not the tenacity of the Jewish God idea that saved it.

Politically unpopular, demographically Judaism was virtually untenable. There is nothing inherent in the nature of a “monotheistic” religion that guarantees its survival or explains its adaptation, anymore than the fact that Mediterranean and bedouin-desert cultures got more sun explains the fall of multi-god religion. Yes, that has been seriously argued.

Apparently historical fact makes no claim against a “memeplex,” especially when the architecture of the memeplex can be changed, like Playdoh, by the “scientist” to suit his private theories of how it all happened. It also shows that while writers like Mr. Ray (The God Virus) can invoke “cultural evolution science” against religion, their simplistic Evangelical understanding of history has not changed since their church-going days. It seems to me that if a meme is going to be described, you at least need to know where to findit. Ray seems to have found his in his Church of Christ heritage, and in beliefs about the Bible that originate with pastors who hadn’t read any other books. It permits him to expound on the God-meme without taking into account the billion religious people across the globe who aren’t monotheists and hundreds of thousands more who seem to have developed an immunity to the infection. When he talks about religion, like Parson Thwackum, he means Christianity—the one he knows best and in a disquieting kind of way seems to think is a suitable paradigm for explaining other aspects of the memetic theory.

In fact, Ray’s own peculiar paradigm of Christianity could not even be used to explain Presbyterianism or Roman Catholicism. But that doesn’t prevent him talking about the “Roman Catholic virus” in pseudoscientific language derived from Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene and “Viruses of the Mind,” both of which have achieved not just celebrity but canonical status among meme-believers:

“Christianity uses guilt to ensure sexual and marital fidelity as well as fidelity to the Church. Guilt is an important cause of sexual dysfunction in males and females. Sex for pleasure, from religion’s point of view, is a waste of energy, especially if it detracts from propagation of the God virus. For that reason, sexual pleasure is seen as suspect in Catholicism.” (103).

No, he said staring down the passage in front of him, this is not why sexual pleasure is “suspect” in Catholicism. The Church fathers (some anyway) endorsed celibacy and prized virginity above marriage and sexual encounter because they were saturated with Plato’s notions of greater and lesser good. Human appetite being what it is, such dissuasion against pleasure was never a powerful incentive to holiness except among the monastic minority, who were notoriously slipshod about the purity-meme. By the twelfth century it–the rhetoric–had failed. Especially among the higher clergy who were not known for sexual dysfunction, or moderation, and the peasantry, who could not read. By the fifteenth century Christian art was sensuous and erotic and the church was in the marriage business for good. In the sixteenth, Catholicism was in an isolated position with regard to the pleasure-principle, and still is.

The hop-scotching between premises is bad enough from a logical point of view, but it is also deplorable in personifying “religion” as a complex of ideas interested in its own viral propagation.

Even if memes had an existence any more substantial than the reality proposed for them by Dawkins and, until 2010 by Susan Blackmore (before her very sensible recantation of her view of memes as “real replicators” and thus equatable to biological viruses), their development, adaptation, selection and exportation from culture to culture would still be fraught with inexactness. The cultural equivalent of a genome project would not only involve what is but the multiple variants of what has been and what might have been if an opposing army had won (as in the example of Judaism above) or a particular emperor had ordered a religious genocide. The invention of an ever-more complex algebra to explain the anomalies involved in this new hieropany is not impressive even when done by people who think they know what they’re doing. But when done by people who simply believe the people who think they know what they’re doing, it is simply a case of quoting the bishop, a form of scholasticism in which quibbles and variant data that would be vitally important in real science are smoothed over and discarded in the interest of a master-hypothesis. At a certain point in building a meme-complex, the variants overpower the thesis: science becomes science fiction. The memeplex is no longer an explanatory entity but a blob that swallows data for its supper.

It is a fact, for example, that grasshoppers infected with the hairworm (spinochordodes tellinnii) are more likely to jump into ponds where the hairworm propagates itself. But it is only analogous that “all kinds of infectious memes thrive in religions, in spite of being false, such as the idea of a creator god, virgin births, the subservience of women, transubstantiation and many more” and that people infected with such ideas hop into the congenial atmosphere of churches where the infectious memes thrive (Blackmore in 2002). Let’s not forget war, male impotence, and the near recession of 2008.

Let me repeat: the problem is not with theorizing about memes and memeplexes, non-existent as Dawkins’s God as they may be. They have a use as analogues and modes of comparison, like Jung’s archetypes (the theory they most closely resemble). It is the easy abuse to which memes can be put, like Filipino workers in the Arab world, that troubles me—the cult following that’s always the signal of bad science. Atheists who profess to believe only what can be seen under a microscope or otherwise detected by observable effects have accepted the jargon and complexity of meme theory in the same way that Romans turned on to the salvation theologies of the mystery religions. This is just an analogy of course: I would not suggest for a moment a correlation between ancient Romans and modern pseudoscience, as though a jargon-loving-oversimplification meme could be replicated.

Memes are not snake oil. But they are not needed to understand the transmission, tenacity, adaptation, recombination and endurance of the symbols and practices we associate with the religious life.

They are probably not even the best agents for developing a “new paradigm” for understanding religion, judging from recent attempts to cut templates to fit all possible data. The greatest hazard they pose is reductivism in the assessment of religion, because science is necessarily a reduction to simplest elements and processes. A true memetic theory of religion, for example would be indifferent to the effects of replication. It would be neutral, [perhaps even admiring?) of religion’s awesome adaptive abilities (which I do not believe exist). But a true memetic theory does not exist, which is why depending on your orientation towards religion, you may see the meme as contagion or simply as adaptation. Not, however, as the cultural equivalent of HIV-AIDS or a Doomsday virus.

What an Unbeliever Believes: A Prelude to Winter in a Secular Season

I am a humanist. I do not believe in an afterlife but (to quote Woody), “Just in case, I’m bringing a change of underwear.”

I don’t deny or affirm the existence of God, any god. There have been so many, and all of them had their vague charms and serious hang-ups, ranging from the violent to the sexually perverse. Who could know which to worship? No one. That’s why we usually end up with the god our grandfathers worshiped.

Whether there is a God or not is simply of no consequence to me, and if the truth be told, can anyone in raw honesty claim that the God they pray to for answers, solutions, reversal of fortune, pie-in-the-sky or redress of grievances ever–ever answers their calls. Of course not. I can still see the pious face of a too-close relative asking me, as my mother lay dying in a hospital ICU, whether I believed God answered prayer. “It depends,” I said. “What are we praying for?”

In the paragraph above: the part where I said “is of absolutely no consequence to me.” That was a lie.  It is of enormous consequence, and you are lying too if you say it isn’t. If you are a believer, it is what ultimately matters.  If you are an atheist, it is what ultimately matters.  

Squirm though you may.  Notice that I completed the last sentence with no reference to Richard Dawkins or his feckless bulldog, PZ Myers whose lives would be infinitely emptier if it did not ultimately matter.

I am an Unbeliever, of sorts. Joylessly so. I have no axe to swing at the necks of believers. I dislike the word “agnostic.” It sounds as precious in tone and as pretentious as the era when it was coined. It sounds as though we wait patiently for some impossible verdict to emerge from the skies confirming our hunch that we were right to disbelieve all along, Descartes and Pascal be fucked. But it’s not really about evidence, is it? It’s about hunches.

I am not an atheist. Not on Friday. But it is a noble thing to be, done for the right reasons.

There are plenty of good reasons to be an atheist–most of them originating in our human disappointment that the world is not better than it is, and that, for there to be a God, he needs to be better than he seems. Or, at least less adept at hiding his perfection.

But you see the problem with that.

Goodness and imperfection are terms we provide for a world we can see and a God we don’t.

Taken as it is, the world is the world. Taken as he may be, God can be anything at all. I’m not surprised by the fact, human and resourceful as we are, that religion has stepped in as our primitive instrument, in all its imaginative and creative power, to fill in the vast blank canvas that gives us the nature (and picture) of God.

But let’s be clear that God and religion are two different things, and that atheists err when they say “Religion gave us God.”

What religion gave us is an implausible image of God taken from a naive and indefensible view of nature. I find my atheist friends, even the “famous” ones, making this categorical error all the time.

There are also some very silly reasons to be an atheist. The silliest is the belief that the world wasn’t made by God because God doesn’t exist and that people who think this are stupid and ignorant of science.

There are so many fallacies packed into that premise that it’s a bit hard to know where to begin picking. But perhaps this analogy will help:

This clock wasn’t made by Mr Jones because I made Mr Jones up in my head. It was actually made by a clockmaker whose name is lost in the rubbish of history, so if you continue to think Mr Jones made it just because I said so, you’re ignorant.

No, that is not a broadside in favor of intelligent design (though I happen to think the atheist approach to the question is often tremulously visceral); it’s a statement about how we form premises.

The existence of a created order–a universe–will ultimately and always come down to a choice between the infinity of chance and the economy of causation.  Whatever the choice, my causation is not muscled and bearded and biblical.

The unreal gods of the human imagination from Marduk to God the Father are. If horses made gods gods would be horses. Xenophanes.

That much we can know.

I am a realist. I believe (with a fair number of thinkers, ancient and modern) that human nature is fundamentally about intelligence and that the world (by which I really mean human civilization) would be much further on if we stopped abusing it.

I regret to say, religion has not been the best use of our intelligence, and it has proven remarkably puissant in retarding it. Science is always to be preferred, except in its applied, for-profit form (as in weapons research) because it expands our vision and understanding of the world while religion beckons us, however poetically, to a constricted view of cosmic and human origins.

To be a realist makes me something of a pessimist (a term going out of fashion) not because I don’t believe in the capacity of human nature to become what it seems designed to be, but because–realistically–we have become as flabby in our thinking as we have become corpulent of mortal coil.Obese America is also fuckwit America.  Anti-Enlightenment America. Tea Party America.There may well be countries in the world, developed, developing and undeveloped that  have higher illiteracy rates, worse schools and universities, and greater obstacles to face in providing access to education at any level.

Yet America, it seems to me, is the greatest anti-intellectual country of all.  Even if America continues to monopolize the Nobel Prize, it has the humiliation of having the worst public school system in among G-20 nations.