A Bright New Year

by admin Posted on December 31, 2011

The scholars of the history-of-religions school realized, in the nineteenth century, that most religions were organized in cyclical patterns. The arrival of a new year was the pivot for these liturgical rotations and was always commemorated by fasting and reflection (symbolic of the passing order) followed by feasting and celebration at the hope of what the new year would bring.

The early Mesopotamian creation epics were essentially new year’s hymns about the destruction of the old order and the making of a new world. It has been theorized that the book of Genesis, or some prototype of its first chapter, embeds a similar Hebrew liturgy. The Jewish feast of yom kippur was organized on a sabbatical pattern to stress the need for renewal (kaphar: atonement). The secular evolution of the idea gives us the notion of new year’s resolutions.

More solar than lunar in their preferences, the Romans developed several solstice rituals, the best known being Saturnalia, the festival of light (associated with the quest for knowledge, symbolized by candles) and the feast of the dies Natalis in honor of the “birthday” of the Unconquerable Sun.

Christmas day, as most people know, is essentially the literal christening of the familiar Roman feast by fourth century emperors, and retains many of its new year’s elements–especially those (like the star in Matthew’s gospel or the angelic voices in Luke’s) associated with the lord of the heavens.

The “pagan” beginnings of Christmas are not news; the protestant reformers of the sixteenth century were so much aware of the associations that they wanted to abolish the holiday completely.

In puritan New England, it was forbidden to celebrate it and the fine for violating the prohibition was five shillings. In 1680 the only holidays permitted in the New England calendar according to Stephen Innes were the sabbath,election day, Harvard commencement day, and “periodic days of thanksgiving and humiliation.”

New year’s poems come in many shapes, but none is more subtle than Ranier Rilke’s hymn to Apollo. Here it is in the original German, with a translation by Stephen Mitchell:

Wir kannten nicht sein unerhörtes Haupt,
darin die Augenäpfel reiften. Aber
sein Torso glüht wie ein Kandelaber,
in dem sein Schauen, nur zurückgeschraubt

sich hält und glänzt. Sonst könnte nicht der Bug
der Brust dich blenden, und im leisen Drehen
der Lenden könnte nicht ein Lächeln gehen
zu jener Mitte, die die Zeugung trug.

Sonst stünde dieser Stein enstellt und kurz
unter der Schultern durchsichtigem Sturz
und flimmerte nicht wie Raubtierfelle;

und bräche nicht aus allen seinen Rändern
aus wie ein Stern: denn da ist keine Stelle,
die dich nicht sieht. Du mußt dein Leben ändern.


We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life. (S.M.)

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A Free Man’s Worship

by admin Posted on December 29, 2011

Happy New Year!

Religious folk have the advantage of hearing their sacred texts read out, as in a story, during a liturgical year. Unbelievers and humanists have no such advantage, because we believe that no story is so sacred that it demands endless repetition.

Bertrand Russell’s life as a philosopher, logician-mathematician and social reformer can be summarized in one biographical detail: In 1894 he married the American Quaker Alys Pearsall Smith, one of a generation of wealthy buccaneers who propped up British aristocracy through “economic” marriages from Kensington to Blenheim. ”Their marriage began to fall apart,” says Wallenchinsky matter of factly, “in 1901 when it occurred to Russell, while he was cycling, that he no longer loved her.” What could be simpler?

A few texts of the atheist tradition deserve to be enshrined in memory if not in a tabernacle. As we approach January 2012, here is one of Russell’s best.

To Dr. Faustus in his study Mephistopheles told the history of the Creation, saying:

“The endless praises of the choirs of angels had begun to grow wearisome; for, after all, did he not deserve their praise? Had he not given them endless joy? Would it not be more amusing to obtain undeserved praise, to be worshipped by beings whom he tortured? He smiled inwardly, and resolved that the great drama should be performed.

“For countless ages the hot nebula whirled aimlessly through space. At length it began to take shape, the central mass threw off planets, the planets cooled, boiling seas and burning mountains heaved and tossed, from masses of cloud hot sheets of rain deluged the barely solid crust. And now the first germ of life grew in the depths of the ocean, and developed rapidly in the fructifying warmth into vast forest trees, huge germ springing from the damp mould, sea monsters breeding, fighting, devouring, and passing away. And from the monsters, as the play unfolded itself, Man was born, with the power of thought, the knowledge of good and evil, and the cruel thirst for worship. And Man saw that all is passing in this mad, monstrous world, that all is struggling to snatch, at any cost, a few brief moments of life before Death’s inexorable decree.

“And Man said: ‘There is a hidden purpose, could we but fathom it, and the purpose is good; for we must reverence something, and in the visible world there is nothing worthy of reverence.’ And Man stood aside from the struggle, resolving that God intended harmony to come out of chaos by human efforts. And when he followed the instincts which God had transmitted to him from his ancestry of beasts of prey, he called it Sin, and asked God to forgive him.

“But he doubted whether he could be justly forgiven, until he invented a divine Plan by which God’s wrath was to have been appeased. And seeing the present was bad, he made it yet worse, that thereby the future might be better. And he gave God thanks for the strength that enabled him to forgo even the joys that were possible. And God smiled; and when he saw that Man had become perfect in renunciation and worship, he sent another sun through the sky, which crashed into Man’s sun; and all returned again to nebula.

“Yes,’ he murmured, ‘it was a good play; I will have it performed again.’”

Such, in outline, but even more purposeless, more void of meaning, is the world which Science presents for our belief. Amid such a world, if anywhere, our ideals henceforward must find a home. That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins — all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.

How, in such an alien and inhuman world, can so powerless a creature as Man preserve his aspirations untarnished? A strange mystery it is that Nature, omnipotent but blind, in the revolutions of her secular hurryings through the abysses of space, has brought forth at last a child, subject still to her power, but gifted with sight, with knowledge of good and evil, with the capacity of judging all the works of his unthinking Mother. In spite of death, the mark and seal of the parental control, Man is yet free, during his brief years, to examine, to criticise, to know, and in imagination to create. To him alone, in the world with which he is acquainted, this freedom belongs; and in this lies his superiority to the resistless forces that control his outward life.

The savage, like ourselves, feels the oppression of his impotence before the powers of Nature; but having in himself nothing that he respects more than Power, he is willing to prostrate himself before his gods, without inquiring whether they are worthy of his worship. Pathetic and very terrible is the long history of cruelty and torture, of degradation and human sacrifice, endured in the hope of placating the jealous gods: surely, the trembling believer thinks, when what is most precious has been freely given, their lust for blood must be appeased, and more will not be required. The religion of Moloch — as such creeds may be generically called — is in essence the cringing submission of the slave, who dare not, even in his heart, allow the thought that his master deserves no adulation. Since the independence of ideals is not yet acknowledged, Power may be freely worshipped, and receive an unlimited respect, despite its wanton infliction of pain.

But gradually, as morality grows bolder, the claim of the ideal world begins to be felt; and worship, if it is not to cease, must be given to gods of another kind than those created by the savage. Some, though they feel the demands of the ideal, will still consciously reject them, still urging that naked power is worthy of worship. Such is the attitude inculcated in God’s answer to Job out of the whirlwind: the divine power and knowledge are paraded, but of the divine goodness there is no hint. Such also is the attitude of those who, in our own day, base their morality upon the struggle for survival, maintaining that the survivors are necessarily the fittest. But others, not content with an answer so repugnant to the moral sense, will adopt the position which we have become accustomed to regard as specially religious, maintaining that, in some hidden manner, the world of fact is really harmonious with the world of ideals. Thus Man creates, God, all-powerful and all-good, the mystic unity of what is and what should be.

But the world of fact, after all, is not good; and, in submitting our judgment to it, there is an element of slavishness from which our thoughts must be purged. For in all things it is well to exalt the dignity of Man, by freeing him as far as possible from the tyranny of non-human Power. When we have realised that Power is largely bad, that man, with his knowledge of good and evil, is but a helpless atom in a world which has no such knowledge, the choice is again presented to us: Shall we worship Force, or shall we worship Goodness? Shall our God exist and be evil, or shall he be recognized as the creation of our own conscience?

The answer to this question is very momentous, and affects profoundly our whole morality. The worship of Force, to which Carlyle and Nietzsche and the creed of Militarism have accustomed us, is the result of failure to maintain our own ideals against a hostile universe: it is itself a prostrate submission to evil, a sacrifice of our best to Moloch. If strength indeed is to be respected, let us respect rather the strength of those who refuse that false “recognition of facts” which fails to recognise that facts are often bad. Let us admit that, in the world we know, there are many things that would be better otherwise, and that the ideals to which we do and must adhere are not realised in the realm of matter. Let us preserve our respect for truth, for beauty, for the ideal of perfection which life does not permit us to attain, though none of these things meet with the approval of the unconscious universe. If Power is bad, as it seems to be, let us reject it from our hearts. In this lies Man’s true freedom: in determination to worship only the God created by our own love of the good, to respect only the heaven which inspires the insight of our best moments. In action, in desire, we must submit perpetually to the tyranny of outside forces; but in thought, in aspiration, we are free, free from our fellowmen, free from the petty planet on which our bodies impotently crawl, free even, while we live, from the tyranny of death. Let us learn, then, that energy of faith which enables us to live constantly in the vision of the good; and let us descend, in action, into the world of fact, with that vision always before us.

When first the opposition of fact and ideal grows fully visible, a spirit of fiery revolt, of fierce hatred of the gods, seems necessary to the assertion of freedom. To defy with Promethean constancy a hostile universe, to keep its evil always in view, always actively hated, to refuse no pain that the malice of Power can invent, appears to be the duty of all who will not bow before the inevitable. But indignation is still a bondage, for it compels our thoughts to be occupied with an evil world; and in the fierceness of desire from which rebellion springs there is a kind of self-assertion which it is necessary for the wise to overcome. Indignation is a submission of our thoughts, but not of our desires; the Stoic freedom in which wisdom consists is found in the submission of our desires, but not of our thoughts. From the submission of our desires springs the virtue of resignation; from the freedom of our thoughts springs the whole world of art and philosophy, and the vision of beauty by which, at last, we half reconquer the reluctant world. But the vision of beauty is possible only to unfettered contemplation, to thoughts not weighted by the load of eager wishes; and thus Freedom comes only to those who no longer ask of life that it shall yield them any of those personal goods that are subject to the mutations of Time.

Although the necessity of renunciation is evidence of the existence of evil, yet Christianity, in preaching it, has shown a wisdom exceeding that of the Promethean philosophy of rebellion. It must be admitted that, of the things we desire, some, though they prove impossible, are yet real goods; others, however, as ardently longed for, do not form part of a fully purified ideal. The belief that what must be renounced is bad, though sometimes false, is far less often false than untamed passion supposes; and the creed of religion, by providing a reason for proving that it is never false, has been the means of purifying our hopes by the discovery of many austere truths.

But there is in resignation a further good element: even real goods, when they are unattainable, ought not to be fretfully desired. To every man comes, sooner or later, the great renunciation. For the young, there is nothing unattainable; a good thing desired with the whole force of a passionate will, and yet impossible, is to them not credible. Yet, by death, by illness, by poverty, or by the voice of duty, we must learn, each one of us, that the world was not made for us, and that, however beautiful may be the things we crave, Fate may nevertheless forbid them. It is the part of courage, when misfortune comes, to bear without repining the ruin of our hopes, to turn away our thoughts from vain regrets. This degree of submission to Power is not only just and right: it is the very gate of wisdom.

But passive renunciation is not the whole of wisdom; for not by renunciation alone can we build a temple for the worship of our own ideals. Haunting foreshadowings of the temple appear in the realm of imagination, in music, in architecture, in the untroubled kingdom of reason, and in the golden sunset magic of lyrics, where beauty shines and glows, remote from the touch of sorrow, remote from the fear of change, remote from the failures and disenchantments of the world of fact. In the contemplation of these things the vision of heaven will shape itself in our hearts, giving at once a touchstone to judge the world about us, and an inspiration by which to fashion to our needs whatever is not incapable of serving as a stone in the sacred temple.

Except for those rare spirits that are born without sin, there is a cavern of darkness to be traversed before that temple can be entered. The gate of the cavern is despair, and its floor is paved with the gravestones of abandoned hopes. There Self must die; there the eagerness, the greed of untamed desire must be slain, for only so can the soul be freed from the empire of Fate. But out of the cavern the Gate of Renunciation leads again to the daylight of wisdom, by whose radiance a new insight, a new joy, a new tenderness, shine forth to gladden the pilgrim’s heart.

When, without the bitterness of impotent rebellion, we have learnt both to resign ourselves to the outward rule of Fate and to recognise that the non-human world is unworthy of our worship, it becomes possible at last so to transform and refashion the unconscious universe, so to transmute it in the crucible of imagination, that a new image of shining gold replaces the old idol of clay. In all the multiform facts of the world — in the visual shapes of trees and mountains and clouds, in the events of the life of man, even in the very omnipotence of Death — the insight of creative idealism can find the reflection of a beauty which its own thoughts first made. In this way mind asserts its subtle mastery over the thoughtless forces of Nature.

HE more evil the material with which it deals, the more thwarting to untrained desire, the greater is its achievement in inducing the reluctant rock to yield up its hidden treasures, the prouder its victory in compelling the opposing forces to swell the pageant of its triumph. Of all the arts, Tragedy is the proudest, the most triumphant; for it builds its shining citadel in the very centre of the enemy’s country, on the very summit of his highest mountain; from its impregnable watchtowers, his camps and arsenals, his columns and forts, are all revealed; within its walls the free life continues, while the legions of Death and Pain and Despair, and all the servile captains of tyrant Fate, afford the burghers of that dauntless city new spectacles of beauty. Happy those sacred ramparts, thrice happy the dwellers on that all-seeing eminence. Honour to those brave warriors who, through countless ages of warfare, have preserved for us the priceless heritage of liberty, and have kept undefiled by sacrilegious invaders the home of the unsubdued.

But the beauty of Tragedy does but make visible a quality which, in more or less obvious shapes, is present always and everywhere in life. In the spectacle of Death, in the endurance of intolerable pain, there is a sacredness, an overpowering awe, a feeling of the vastness, the depth, the inexhaustible mystery of existence, in which, as by some strange marriage of pain, the sufferer is bound to the world by bonds of sorrow. In these moments of insight, we lose all eagerness of temporary desire, all struggling and striving for petty ends, all care for the little trivial things that, to a superficial view, make up the common life of day by day; we see, surrounding the narrow raft illumined by the flickering light of human comradeship, the dark ocean on whose rolling waves we toss for a brief hour; from the great night without, a chill blast breaks in upon our refuge; all the loneliness of humanity amid hostile forces is concentrated upon the individual soul, which must struggle alone, with what of courage it can command, against the whole weight of a universe that cares nothing for its hopes and fears. Victory, in this struggle with the powers of darkness, is the true baptism into the glorious company of heroes, the true initiation into the overmastering beauty of human existence. From that awful encounter of the soul with the outer world, renunciation, wisdom, and charity are born; and with their birth a new life begins. To take into the inmost shrine of the soul the irresistible forces whose puppets we seem to be — Death and change, the irrevocableness of the past, and the powerlessness of man before the blind hurry of the universe from vanity to vanity — to feel these things and know them is to conquer them.

This is the reason why the Past has such magical power. The beauty of its motionless and silent pictures is like the enchanted purity of late autumn, when the leaves, though one breath would make them fall, still glow against the sky in golden glory. The Past does not change or strive; like Duncan, after life’s fitful fever it sleeps well; what was eager and grasping, what was petty and transitory, has faded away, the things that were beautiful and eternal shine out of it like stars in the night. Its beauty, to a soul not worthy of it, is unendurable; but to a soul which has conquered Fate it is the key of religion.

The life of Man, viewed outwardly, is but a small thing in comparison with the forces of Nature. The slave is doomed to worship Time and Fate and Death, because they are greater than anything he finds in himself, and because all his thoughts are of things which they devour. But, great as they are, to think of them greatly, to feel their passionless splendour, is greater still. And such thought makes us free men; we no longer bow before the inevitable in Oriental subjection, but we absorb it, and make it a part of ourselves. To abandon the struggle for private happiness, to expel all eagerness of temporary desire, to burn with passion for eternal things — this is emancipation, and this is the free man’s worship. And this liberation is effected by a contemplation of Fate; for Fate itself is subdued by the mind which leaves nothing to be purged by the purifying fire of Time.

United with his fellow-men by the strongest of all ties, the tie of a common doom, the free man finds that a new vision is with him always, shedding over every daily task the light of love. The life of Man is a long march through the night, surrounded by invisible forces, tortured by weariness and pain, towards a goal that few can hope to reach, and where none may tarry long. One by one, as they march, our comrades vanish from our sight, seized by the silent orders of omnipotent Death. Very brief is the time in which we can help them, in which their happiness or misery is decided. Be it ours to shed sunshine on their path, to lighten their sorrows by the balm of sympathy, to give them the pure joy of a never-tiring affection, to strengthen failing courage, to instil faith in hours of despair. Let us not weigh in grudging scales their merits and demerits, but let us think only of their need — of the sorrows, the difficulties, perhaps the blindnesses, that make the misery of their lives; let us remember that they are fellow-sufferers in the same darkness, actors in the same tragedy with ourselves. And so, when their day is over, when their good and their evil have become eternal by the immortality of the past, be it ours to feel that, where they suffered, where they failed, no deed of ours was the cause; but wherever a spark of the divine fire kindled in their hearts, we were ready with encouragement, with sympathy, with brave words in which high courage glowed.

Brief and powerless is Man’s life; on him and all his race the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark. Blind to good and evil, reckless of destruction, omnipotent matter rolls on its relentless way; for Man, condemned to-day to lose his dearest, to-morrow himself to pass through the gate of darkness, it remains only to cherish, ere yet the blow falls, the lofty thoughts that ennoble his little day; disdaining the coward terrors of the slave of Fate, to worship at the shrine that his own hands have built; undismayed by the empire of chance, to preserve a mind free from the wanton tyranny that rules his outward life; proudly defiant of the irresistible forces that tolerate, for a moment, his knowledge and his condemnation, to sustain alone, a weary but unyielding Atlas, the world that his own ideals have fashioned despite the trampling march of unconscious power.

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Merry Christmas from China

by admin Posted on December 25, 2011

Mother and Child


AM in China this year.

I love China. Food, people, culture, history. Public toilets, not so much. When I was in America I loved “Chinese” food. Now I love Chinese food. There may be things to criticize about China, but on average, I think it’s one of the finest countries on earth. That is an opinion, not an assertion. Believe me, I know what counts against my opinion.

Once I thought that America was the best country on earth. Then I turned fifteen. Between John Kennedy and Barack Obama, forty five years if you’re counting, there isn’t much to brag about.

But America is no longer the finest country on earth.

That’s because Americans on average are becoming dumber and dumber. The political system has become the equivalent of a hamster’s treadmill: vote ‘em in on a whim, vote ‘em out on a notion. Then vote no confidence in the congress you just elected. It’s a system designed for a country of 2.5 million disgruntled colonials made nervous by authority and power, not a country of 300,000,000 unhappy taxpayers. On November 6, 2012, a new president will be elected. On November 7, 2012, the 2016 presidential race will begin. This is no way to run a democracy. It’s a way to run a trifecta.

The educational system is broken. Not just broken but as Rosanna Pittella has shown broken because it was legislated and reformed step by step to be the broken system it is. The question isn’t just, Where is the next generation of engineers going to come from? It’s can we maintain the sixth grade reading level of high school graduates or should we aim lower?

Higher education used to be the exception, especially graduate education. And while congress, looking for cold comfort, will always point to the American university system as a world-beater, that is not what most people mean by ‘education’ and more and more colleges and universities are following broken business models that ensure the mediocrity of their faculty and teaching programs. And (not to be cynical) it is possible that the best universities are the best because they are following better models: compare ‘recruitment budgets’ at Harvard, MIT, and Cal Tech to those at Mercy College or Meadville.

So don’t worry too much about the evils of a one-party state when the glories of a two party system are far from clear on this side of the Pacific. Some things are worse than limited choice.

HAD lunch with a qīn’ài de tóngshì (“dear colleague”) today in the linguistics faculty of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. He has recently come back from two years in Boston. I had just had my first taste of duck feet and was, as instructed, spitting the extraneous bits (most) into the plate. The taste, and texture, needs getting used to, so we started talking about lobster, bad marriages, and then Christmas.

I’ll bet, he said, you’ve heard more Merry Christmases here in China than you ever would in America. I spat and thought.

Yes, I said. It’s true. My students have all wished me Merry Christmas. I have wassailed them back. I have watched their gentle, intelligent faces go from non-expressive to inexpressibly happy just at the sound of the phrase, like some supernal “Hello! Very glad to see you.” In notations to final exams, they have Merry Christmassed me, and in power points, often with angels, Santas, or nativity scenes as their last slide. No Happy Holidays, no Seasons Greetings, no Let your Light Shine this Solstice Season, no Axial Tilt is the Reason for the season (a joke that is both “in” and wrong at the same time) . While writing this, a third year doctoral student in animal ecology sent me a Merry Christmas showing two goitered gazelles in China’s far north. Beautiful creatures, beautiful gesture.

Yet another example of failed wit from Atheist America


My friend paid the tab, beamed “Merry Christmas,” and we parted. The shopping districts are festooned with lights; Christmas music is blaring from every speaker. At first I thought I was imagining that people seemed happier, friendlier, even kindlier–but No: Christmas in China is the real thing, and American merchants would kill to have a share of their shopping extravagance right now.



I have never been the kind of person who wanted non-Christians and atheists to feel uncomfortable at Christmas. But living in an “officially” atheist state has taught me a few things that atheists and even happy holiday inclusivists need to consider.

Prudence: China is a country of well over one billion people. Perhaps 30% regard themselves as belonging to a “traditional” or ethnic religion, though good statistics are hard to come by in this under-researched land. Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism (prevalent among the Han) command general respect as conveyances of traditional Chinese values. These include “essentials” like filial piety, duty, honor and intellectual rigor–the primacy of knowledge and a respect for scholars.

Christians are at about 3% of the population (about 4,000,000), but the statistic is far from certain. At various points in Chinese history, Judaism and Islam, but not Christianity, enjoyed favoured status. Some Chinese worry that Tibetan Buddhism overstresses “holiness” the importance of doing without, and thus can’t be reconciled with the new Chinese economic program (the world’s second largest economy, after all). But other values, like harmony and proportion, are vigorously accepted by most Chinese, young and old.

Chinese indifference to religion is not an indifference to particular religious values that are regarded as markers of China’s civilization: filial piety is real piety, just as it was in the first-century Roman empire out of which religious hierarchy, with its stress on obedience, developed. Chinese concern about religion is a worry that religion can be used as an instrument of dissent and insurrection against these values and the (ever-changing) political status quo; accordingly, since 1949 missionary Christianity has been tightly controlled. (The evangelical house church movement–zhōngguó jiātíng jiàohuì–in my opinion an especially repugnant intrusion into the Chinese spiritual realm–has recently come under scrutiny.) Going back two thousand years, China’s approach to religion has been prudential and “indigenous” (what in religious terms is the good of China?) rather than arbitrary, while in the west it has been driven by a power struggle between the temporal and spiritual domains, and by necessity, protectivism and intrigue on both sides.

Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Beijing

MATURITY : From a distance, American atheism’s war against Christmas looks puerile. I also happen to think it is puerile, driven by passionate collective intensity rather than by cool-headed logic. True enough, given the persistent failure of religion to mind its own business in political seasons, it is hard to believe that the First Amendment to the United State Constitution was designed to ‘fix’ potential encroachments by religion on the state. Some pushback, though not necessarily “atheism,” is needed to keep religion in its Constitutional place. But it’s also hard to imagine that anyone thinks “In God we Trust,” banal as the newly reiterated “national motto” is, or “One nation under God” in the Pledge are serious encroachments on the public good. –The latter should be excised because it breaks the rhetorical flow between nation and indivisible. (Frankly, I think indivisible should go too. It reminds me of arithmetic.)

Matteo Ricci’s Impossible Black Tulip Map; original 1584; copy (rice paper) 1602

China however has been around as a continuous civilization for four thousand years. It has had its dynastic wars and bloody rebellions, like the nationalist movements of the early twentieth century and the civil war ending in the proclamation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. But in broad perspective, China’s encounter with Christianity is ancient, more than 1300 years old–as old as the earliest introduction of Christianity to Scandinavia. Christianity arrived in the 7th century with Nestorian missionaries to the Tang dynasty. It was banned by emperor Wuzong, along with Zoroastrianism and Buddhism, in the 9th century, re-established in the 13th by the Mongol emperors, some of whom were eclectically and some fiercely Christian themselves. Under the Ming emperors, western Christian influnces in China underwent an uneven patch until in 1582, the Italian Jesuit, Matteo Ricci (Li Madou or Taixi to the Chinese) arrived in Macau and made his learned way slowly but steadily toward Beijing.

A linguist, cartographer, astronomer, musician and mathematician, Ricci was one of the first Europeans to master the Chinese language and classical script. He translated Euclid’s Geometry into Chinese and astonished the emperor by precisely predicting a solar eclipse. He became a paid scholarly adviser to the court of the Wanli emperor and was permitted to build a church (now, much modified over the centuries, a cathedral) near the Forbidden City. I will be in the cathedral on Christmas morning where every Sunday at 6 AM a Latin Mass is celebrated. China has never forgotten Ricci, perhaps the single greatest conduit for western learning to China before the colonial period.

ECAUSE it has a deeper and more holistic understanding of culture, China is not lost in the feckless secular versus religious divide that afflicts western discussion. There have been many enlightenments, not only one, and many of them were fueled by religious and philosophical movements, in a land where those two terms have a symbiotic relationship.

I have often tried to explain to Chinese academic friends that many American atheists and secularists deplore religion as being anti-learning, anti-science, and anti-education. They can’t quite understand this: It would be enough, they say, to point to the scholar-priests–the clerks, from (clerici=clergy)–of the Renaissance like Ricci, but the sharpest rejoinder is one I have been repeating for two years now on this site–something no Chinese or Indian professor would need to be reminded of: Where do you think the books came from? Even in China, with its rich literary history, the basis for both the Mongolian and Manchu alphabets was the Syriac alphabet of the Nestorian Christian teachers. Christianity did not invent the dark ages, but it did preserve, east and west, glimmers of intellectual light in its love for the word made flesh: the written text.

Nestorian Christian Stele (781) commemorating the spread of the “Luminous religion,” now in the Beilin Museum


OPENNESS: China now suffers from its economic miracle. The pace of development is too fast. The scope of construction (and thus demolition) is immense. In Beijing we suffer the consequences of dust and fumes every day, even inside our apartments. The air is not good. The traffic is terrible and likely to get worse, as China has moved from an “Everyone with his own bicycle”- policy only two generations ago to today’s “Every family with a car.”

Xidan shopping scene

To hop off the subway at Xidan or Fuxingmen station is to enter a world of Extreme Shopping so vast and crowded that it will send you running for the nearest corner of the nearest, ubiquitous, Starbucks for a little peace. Divorce is on the rise. Property prices are so high in Beijing that young workers and junior professionals can’t compete with nouveau riche executives and profiteers for space. The educational system is cramped. Competiton for jobs, as everywhere, is vicious. When in 1982 China officially opened its bronze doors to the outside world, it took a risk that few other countries have ever taken. ”Openness” is not organic to China’s development and some would say not a feature of the “Chinese personality,” a reality that is reflected in its control of information and news. Openness is the unavoidable consequence of its modern history, a concession to planet- sharing. At the same time, China’s openness is real: Mother China is a Chinese mother after all: she would never do anything she did not think she could do well, so she is determined to win at this game.

The Chinese therefore are open to western history, western ideas, and western values–especially open to learning English–any form of English. The teaching of English proceeds here at a frenetic pace, with every student from the streets of Shanghai to the plateaus of Tibet required to begin the study at age 10 and carry it through in high school, college, and graduate school. The practical effects are not entirely visible: the rationale for learning English is often presented in dominant-power terms (English is a world language so you’d better learn it if you want to get ahead). Officials do not seem to realize that this pretext combined with pervasive laments about threats to national culture and the rapacious designs of the West, especially America, do not provide a coherent incentive to learn a foreign tongue. The result is that English is often not pursued enthusiastically, taught well, or learned well.

By the same token, however, my impression is that Chinese students are eager to know the history of Europe and America, to make comparisons and chalk up differences. They find it remarkable that teachers in the west are considered low-status professionals, since teachers in China are revered and respected at all levels. The phrase “dear teacher” (Qīn’ài de lǎoshī) is virtually one word. Many are vaguely aware of differences in instructional methods in China and America, and many would like to see some elements–not all–of the famed “student centered” approach (as distinguished from the teacher-authority, rote memorization style) introduced to China.

As a result of its own long history, Chinese students could not accept–and would not understand–some of the parochial and special interest histories now occupying blog space in the United States. They would want to know about the Inquisition and the condemnation of Galileo, maybe the Scopes Trial–the festival dates on any atheist calendar. They are shocked to learn that some Americans in high places do not “believe” in evolution or know very much about cosmology, but believe that a sky god created the universe in six earth days.

But as the world is much bigger than America, they are looking for a comprehensive picture of how western values have been transmitted, and inevitably this is in part a history of classical civilization, Christendom, the Renaissance and Reformation, the Enlightenment and the modern period–a history of ideas. These are also periods that are not taught well by badly prepared and sometimes intellectually vacuous teachers, or known well by American students. In 2010, only 12% of American high school students scored at “proficiency” level on the history section of the National assessment of Educational Progress; only 2% could identify correctly what the significance of Brown vs the Board of Education was with the answer in front of them. America has become, in a word, a country of historical illiterates content to live in a monoculture of expanding technology and shrinking ideas.

For the Chinese student interested in western studies, no phase in the evolutionary history of western society becomes the whole picture. That is because the Chinese are used to dealing with puzzles and complexity, but they do not like oversimplification, a legacy of the Confucian tradition where appearance and reality occupy different levels of meaning but not different spheres.

The art of asking the right questions is as significant as getting the right answer, which may indeed be another question. Americans by contrast seem to be enthralled by either-or judgements and prefer black and white to the full palette of real history: religion or science, faith or reason, secular or sacred, liberal or conservative–a modal planetary view that almost requires oversimplification, a “bottom line.” The idea of many traditions thriving together has never been able to capture the American mind. Blame it on Abelard, or maybe Nietzsche

Three laughs at Tiger Brook (12th cent): Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism are One

And roundabout this is also why no ground is to be gained, no heavenly powers offended or assuaged, and no political points scored here by saying “Happy Solstice!”–secular versus religious problem solved. It just makes no sense. It’s Christmas. It doesn’t matter what it was two thousand years ago: it’s been Christmas for a long time. It has a special meaning within a particular historical context. It is about peace, love, brotherhood, charity, generosity and new life–which are secular as well as religious values. If Christians see these symbolized in the birth of a child in some distant Roman province a little more than two millennia ago, the Chinese “get it.” What they might not understand is why a festival of joy and goodwill should have to be tiptoed around, apologized for, celebrated apart from the the cultural values it has embodied for at least 1800 years.

Musing in the year 110 or thereabouts, the Syrian bishop and martyr Ignatius of Antioch wrote to the Christians at Ephesus (Turkey),

Hidden from the prince of this world were the virginity of Mary and her child-bearing and likewise also the death of the Lord — three mysteries to be cried aloud — the which were wrought in the silence of God. How then were they made manifest to the ages? A star shone forth in the heaven above all the stars; and its light was unutterable, and its strangeness caused amazement; and all the rest of the constellations with the sun and moon formed themselves into a chorus about the star; but the star itself far outshone them all; and there was perplexity to know whence came this strange appearance which was so unlike them.

From that time forward every sorcery and every spell was dissolved, the ignorance of wickedness vanished away, the ancient kingdom was pulled down, when God appeared in the likeness of man unto newness of everlasting life; and that which had been perfected in the counsels of God began to take effect. Thence all things were perturbed, because the abolishing of death was taken in hand.

In 386 John Chrysostom (the ‘golden tongued’) preached as though seamlessly from Ignatius what is regarded as the first Christmas morning sermon. He said,

Come, then, let us observe the Feast. Truly wondrous is the whole chronicle of the Nativity. For this day the ancient slavery is ended, the devil confounded, the demons take to flight, the power of death is broken, paradise is unlocked, the curse is taken away, sin is removed from us, error driven out, truth has been brought back, the speech of kindliness diffused, and spreads on every side, a heavenly way of life has been implanted on the earth, angels communicate with men without fear, and men now hold speech with angels. Why is this? Because God is now on earth, and man in heaven; on every side all things commingle.

Unlike Santa Claus, this is powerful mythology, but its fundamental matrix is the belief that goodness and new life are horizontal possibilities for every one in this season of renewal and re-dedication. You can learn a little about this spirit in China.


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Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens

HERE is no reason to eulogize Christopher Hitchens except that, had he stuck around to read the tributes, some of what is being said might have amused him. So we will read each what the other writes knowing he would have said it better, except he probably wouldn’t say it at all.

Hitchens in many ways belongs rhetorically to another era, which is why the twentieth and twenty-first century, what little he lived in it, is privileged to have known him. His verbal style was self-conscious, but seemed effortless, driven by the “true wit” (what Alexander Pope described as “nature to advantage dressed”) that was perfected in Restoration and eighteenth-century England coffee houses and left Thames-side by the sober English migrants who came to America to escape the kind of ridicule his sort had represented back home. Hitchens’s choosing to live in America, the world’s second most religious country, was proof that original sin will follow you wherever you go.

It has always struck me as odd, but encouraging, that Hitch found so many fans in America. He was personally everything the American Everyman was supposed to detest: He was a creature of the Balliol junior common room and assorted Oxford clubs, an intellectual elitist, an omnipartisan despiser of political folly and individual power-holders, sharp-tongued and aggressively literate. In his New Yorker remembrance, Christopher Buckley writes,

“When we all gathered at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, a few years later, to see William F. Buckley off to the celestial choir, Christopher was present, having flown in from a speech in the American hinterland. (Alert: if you are reading this, Richard Dawkins, you may want to skip ahead to the next paragraph.) There he was in the pew, belting out Bunyan’s “He Who Would Valiant Be.” Christopher recused himself when Henry Kissinger took the lectern to give his eulogy, going out onto rain-swept Fifth Avenue to smoke one of his ultimately consequential cigarettes.”

The best way to remember Hitch is simply to admire what he did–what almost no one else could do. Because he was the touchstone for a certain kind of eloquence, all of the obituaries are affecting to reproduce that eloquence. I expect he would find that amusing too. His brand of rhetorical power is difficult to describe, so difficult that I saw yesterday his ease of expression compared to Norman Mailer’s. Whereas in fact their styles represent two entirely different kinds of combativeness: The “sports mad Mailer” as Hitchens called him, was a boxer who happened to write, and Hitchens was a writer who happened to fence. The latter’s contempt for going mano-a-mano (to quote a former US president described by Hitchens as “abnormally unintelligent”) was common sense; why do that when you can put a sword between you?

Less well known is Hitch’s passion for getting his facts straight. While he’ll be remembered as an interpreter, he was passionate about getting the basics behind the interpretation correct. I told him once he would have made a good thirteenth-century theologian, except that he quoted the texts too literally. In 2007 he was in a “discussion” with Alister McGrath who had accused him of misquoting a famous statement attributed to Tertullian, “Credo quia absurdum est” (“I believe because it is absurd”). He was genuinely agitated over the prospect that McGrath might be right; and the statement is sometimes thought to be important because it’s considered foundational for “fideism,” the belief that faith provides a kind of epistemological certainty. We had had dinner and he asked me if I could track down the quote for a response. Tertullian’s exact words are “Certum est, quia impossible” (“It is certain because it is impossible”), but the passage is problematical–just the kind of thing a theologian could pounce on, I warned him. “It will do.” he said. “Almost as good. I got him.”

HRISTOPHER HITCHENS was our Dr Johnson–though “our” is not an inclusive term. Not accidentally, he knew almost every detail of Johnson’s rich and lexical life and one of his famous statements about his diagnosis of cancer is actually a spin on Johnson’s comment on a condemned prisoner: “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” A week ago, as fate would have it, I reposted his review of Peter Martin’s superb book on Johnson, which is one of his finest critical pieces for the Atlantic. Johnson, as much a Christian as Hitchens was an atheist, did not write “novels” and was anxious about French anti-clericalism sweeping into England. His picaresque novella called Rasellas, about the adventures of the “Prince of Abissinia” contains the following narrative meditation:

That the dead are seen no more … I will not undertake to maintain, against the concurrent and unvaried testimony of all ages and all nations. There is no people, rude or learned, among whom apparitions of the dead are not related and believed. This opinion, which perhaps prevails as far as human nature is diffused, could become universal only by its truth; those that never heard of one another would not have agreed in a tale which nothing but experience can make credible. That it is doubted by single cavillers can very little weaken the general evidence; and some who deny it with their tongues confess it by their fears.

Hitchens was a caviller at such ideas. The final hypocrisy is to live your life as though you will be seen and heard from again. There are no second acts in American politics or anywhere else. He was also content with the life he led, with its inconsistencies and nasty habits, and with the offence he gave, in the name of sanity, to the ignorance he saw surrounding him. That last sentence does not mean he thought he was fighting a moral battle, except insofar as his atheism was a steady compass, especially in the last decade, in a world where traditional morality had become a dark and superstitious sea. America, with which he had a pragmatic relationship rather than a love affair, was the last testing ground for the possibility of a new enlightenment, a place where the monsters of unreason reared their heads every day and needed to be beaten back.

Not altogether unrelated to the death of Christopher Hitchens, I have been spending a lot of time recently thinking about life, death and elegies. A few weeks ago, I came across a poem I had hand-copied in my middler year at Harvard Divinity School onto yellow legal paper. Even the paper tells me how old I am, but the thought lives on and it says something that Christopher Hitchens has said just as well in prose about the blunt, rude ordinariness of death. Death is nothing special.

HAT I expected was
Thunder, fighting,
Long struggles with men
And climbing.
After continual straining
I should grow strong;
Then the rocks would shake
And I should rest long.

What I had not foreseen
Was the gradual day
Weakening the will
Leaking the brightness away,
The lack of good to touch
The fading of body and soul
Like smoke before wind
Corrupt, unsubstantial.

The wearing of Time,
And the watching of cripples pass
With limbs shaped like questions
In their odd twist,
The pulverous grief
Melting the bones with pity,
The sick falling from earth—
These, I could not foresee.

For I had expected always
Some brightness to hold in trust,
Some final innocence
To save from dust;
That, hanging solid,
Would dangle through all
Like the created poem
Or the dazzling crystal. (Stephen Spender)

Faith, Practice, and Religious Illiteracy

by admin Posted on December 14, 2011

“Religion is the outcome neither of the fear of death, nor of the fear of God. It answers a deep need in man. It is neither a metaphysic, nor a morality, but above all and essentially an intuition and a feeling. … Dogmas are not, properly speaking, part of religion: rather it is that they are derived from it.” Friedrich Schleiermacher (Addresses on Religion, 1799)

WO THINGS caught my attention last week. One was the total lunar eclipse, which was magnificent to see. The other, not so nice, is a post by someone whose work I have often enjoyed, Julian Baggini, in an unfortunate piece in The Guardian that probably wouldn’t survive a fact-check in an American newspaper.

It concerns what even he says is an unscientific survey of “beliefs” held by British churchgoers in Bristol, UK, using the following procedure:

“The online version [of my survey] was taken by a self-selecting sample of 767 churchgoers, the majority of whom read Comment is Free [his Guardian blog] at least occasionally and who are mostly aged 18-35. This is not a representative sample of typical practising Christians. The paper version was completed by 141 churchgoers in Bristol, again not randomly sampled.”

And with this vote of self-confidence in the result:

“These apparent limitations in some ways make the results even more interesting, because you’d expect the sample group in both instances to be more educated and liberal than the average. We can then be fairly confident that the surveys would not overstate the extent to which people held conventional, some might say more simplistic, versions of Christian doctrine.”

Leaving aside the improbability of anyone taking (or bothering to take) an “I go to church”- survey in England being unrepresentative of an “I go to church”-sample, but more “liberal than the average,” the study is very strange at a number of levels, which already disqualifies it for global significance. It absolutely disqualifies it in America, where religious knowledge is at an all time low, but (predictably) constantly mapped and charted in more empirical ways.

But it also is, as Jonathan Chaplin says, a non-starter in England, a country of smart but lazy people who generally like Christmas but don’t generally like sermons. Chaplin notes the procedural and methodological shortcomings of Baggini’s survey, but focuses most of his attention on the “Four Articles” which the author proposes as a way forward in creating atheist-religious dialogue. Unfortunately, Julian seems intent on wanting religious people to come to the bargaining table naked, presuppositionally speaking. While I applaud his effort to get atheists talking to religious people who are open to a sane view of the world, I’m not at all sure that this survey helps the conversation along.

HE following ORB (1999) Poll tells the story of religion’s decline in the UK, and all subsequent polls show similar southward drift for all religions except, of course, Islam. (The Empire bites back).

About Jesus Christ:

14% do not know who he is.

Less than 50% “believe in Christ”. This probably means that they do not believe that he is the son of God; the exact meaning of the question was not defined.

22% believe that he is “just a story.”

Church affiliation:

49% identify themselves as affiliated with a religious group.

27% belong to the Church of England (Episcopalian, Anglican). This is a drop from 40% in 1990.

(The latest YouGov poll cited by the British Humanist Association notes that by 2015, the level of church attendance in the UK is predicted to fall to 3,081,500 people, or 5% of the population.)

9% are Roman Catholics, unchanged since 1990.

Church attendance:

3% of the population goes to church only at Easter and Christmas.

46% say that they have never gone to church at all.

Baggini’s upshot, if that is the word, is that he thinks that given the choice between Christianity being all about practice or belief, belief wins. He is writing as a philosopher of popular culture whose interest in the subject is correspondingly tentative:

So what is the headline finding? It is that whatever some might say about religion being more about practice than belief, more praxis than dogma, more about the moral insight of mythos than the factual claims of logos, the vast majority of churchgoing Christians appear to believe orthodox doctrine at pretty much face value. They believe that Jesus is divine, not simply an exceptional human being; that his resurrection was a real, bodily one; that he performed miracles no human being ever could; that he needed to die on the cross so that our sins could be forgiven; and that Jesus is the only way to eternal life. On many of these issues, a significant minority are uncertain but in all cases it is only a small minority who actively disagree, or even just tend to disagree. As for the main reason they go to church, it is not for reflection, spiritual guidance or to be part of a community, but overwhelmingly in order to worship God.

Remember the silly game everyone played five years ago ending every sentence with the non-sequitur “in bed,” and how much you wanted it to be funny but it almost never was? We need to finish that paragraph with, “In Bristol.” Actually, its parochialism doesn’t begin to suggest the problem with the survey: its problem is inherent to the very questions that the surveyor posed. But more on this later….

AGGINI’S survey may play well with atheists who are looking for any reason, any at all, that church-going is eo ipso irrational, but it is embarrassing for those of us who pore over serious literature and surveys of the morphology of belief. Not that everyone needs to have read everything on the topic, but it beggars imagination that he does not bother to know any of the recent literature on faith and practice in its wider context: Stephen Prothero’s Religious Literacy (2008) and his American Jesus (2003) for starters, but even (the work of someone with whom I rarely agree) Rodney Stark’s What Americans Really Believe (2008) is statistically important, and University of Chicago sociologist of religion Alan Wolfe’s superb book The Transformation of American Religion (2005). If on the other hand he intended his survey to be limited to Bristol, why call the survey, grandly, “The Myth that religion is more about practice than belief”? Them’s fightin’ words.

While the professional God-haters try to persuade us that religion is the same old bugaboo that it always was (All the better to melt your brain my dears) serious researchers like Wolfe have come up with a very different picture: American culture, he says, has come to dominate American religion to such a point that “We are all mainstream now.” The stereotype of religion as a fire-and-brimstone affair is obsolete. Gone is the language of sin and damnation, and forgotten are the clear delineations between denominations. They have been replaced with a multi-dimensional God and a trend towards sampling new creeds and doctrines. “American religion is less radical, less contentious, and less dangerous than it is generally perceived to be.”

I am not entirely convinced that every part of Wolfe’s assessment of the transformation of religion in America is dead-on accurate, especially in political terms, but the trends he discusses are real enough and the transformation of evangelical Protestantism shows that it has been as much affected by being “mainstreamed” as it was effective in influencing the mainstream. A part of this transformation has been doctrinal accommodation, the process first described by Peter Berger in The Sacred Canopy and much revised in his 2008 study, Religious America. Berger was surprised that the process of secularization was not irreversible (i.e., does not lead to the eradication of religious belief) but transformative: religion learns to live within and to transform a culture. The prophetic version of the same idea was put forward in 1951 in H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture.

The larger question is implied by Baggini’s verdict that religious practice is a discrete matter, separate from faith or at least from certain metaphysical propositions. As a philosopher he is undoubtedly thinking of the Kantian tradition where this bifurcation is normative. Practice is the realm of the senses, and usually means à la Schleiermacher and his successors, doing good or doing what duty (Pflicht) requires. If it can be shown that religion relies heavily on irrational propositions offered as “claims,” however, then the do-good part of religion might be rendered comparatively minor, which, of course, is where a certain kind of atheist might struggle to keep it–in the chambers of some discredited rule-ethics hell. But this approach, even in Bristol, would require us to turn the clock back on the understanding of faith and practice three hundred years, dig up Bishop Ussher (or Michael Wigglesworth if you prefer), parade him through the streets and say, “Scary, isn’t he?”

Most Christians experience faith and practice as two prongs of the same fork. More important perhaps, the terms “faith” and “practice” are theological conventions going back to the fifth century writer Prosper of Aquitaine, not scientific ones. Anthropology since the late nineteenth century has operated on the assumption that doctrine and to a lesser extent dogma are rationalizations of religious behaviour: practice precedes doctrine (belief in a systematic and codified form) and liturgy (codified behaviour) and also modifies it. The ritual (practice)-myth (story) relationship has been a topic since E. B Tylor first studied indigenous cultures in the late nineteenth century, though he thought ritual came second in the order of religious culture. The myth/belief- first and the ritual/praxis-first debate has been lively and inconclusive, but it is increasingly rare, as Melentinsky surveys the relationship over a number of decades, to think of belief and practice as separate domains. Proclaiming “faith” the winner over “practice” on the basis of what 700-plus Bristol Christians think about Jesus is fatally vulnerable to scientific critique and edges near to being a false dichotomy. The late archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie recounted a sermon he once gave at a Yorkshire parish on the divinity of Jesus. It was, he said, like the belief, a bit obscure. Following the service, an earnest old parishioner shook his hand vigorously and said to him, “You’ve convinced me sir, but then I never had a doubt, that Jesus were a very nice man.”

Bp Ussher

In previous work Baggini has at least acknowledged that religion can be relatively benign. If Jews and Christians acted out their faith in ways that a troubling number of Muslims still do, Christianity would be a monstrosity. But (to parse Bultmann on why he didn’t believe in the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus) it’s not in the newspaper. The Christian-right moral agenda is a monstrosity. American Christians meddling in politics and attempting to leverage political outcomes is a monstrosity. The attitudes and personalities and self-righteousness of extreme-right Christian organizations, not towards just unbelievers but towards other believers is a monstrosity. But, marvelous to note, these things, collectively, seldom add up to catastrophic outcomes. The stories of Waco and randy Mormon elders with fourteen year-old child-brides are only newsworthy because they are exceptional–and (I have to say it) not the kind of thing that happens in Bristol.

T’S POSSIBLE, of course, to reduce Christian belief to the presumed “absurdities” that historical Christianity has embraced over the centuries–everything (one can argue) from the trinity to the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy (which is not the same East to West) to the doctrine of the Real Presence for Catholics, which is not literally maintained outside the Roman tradition. It is also possible to embrace a more radical solution to the matter: since all of these beliefs have the same source, they differ only in degree of irrationality and can be dismissed tamquam idem.

But to equate the most absurd things Christian extremists in the Bible Belt [see postscript below] believe with what the vast majority of Christians believe is simply statistically false. Most Christians in Bristol (though fewer of them) are a lot like most Christians in Milwaukee. They go to church to worship God, it is true; but that their going to church expresses a robust commitment to the irrational isn’t true. They may well go to church, as William James would have calculated, because they regard churchgoing as a “live choice”– an action with an internal and subjective appeal, not a rational or forced appeal. Or as Schleiermacher wrote in 1799, out of intuition and feeling.

Most troubling of all is Baggini’s notion that asking questions about the divinity of Jesus is of the same order as asking about the weather–ripping a first century nomen out of context and asking a naive parishioner whether he “believes” it. Countless surveys in America show that religious knowledge is at an all time low. And assuming that there is some correlation between what I know (i.e., what I can define) and what I believe, “at face value,” to quote the Baggini criterion, it would appear that the real story is that many Christians act without direct reference to anything in the doctrinal treasure chest. Ubi ignorantia ibi nihil, as a Benedictine teacher of mine used to smile when I didn’t do my homework. All I can assume is that Julian’s teachers weren’t Benedictine, but I know they were Catholic.

I DON’T KNOW how you can take anything at face value if you don’t know the face value: Catholics in America don’t know by 50% that their church teaches that the bread, in the Eucharist, is transformed into “the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ,” the central doctrine of the Real Presence. The corollary of that is that they don’t know much about the sacrament of ordination, which confers this mysterious power on a priest. This might imply similar gaps in their knowledge about even more esoteric things, like the Immaculate Conception, which their grandmother probably didn’t quite get. No wonder they don’t know whether to genuflect or bow politely on entering the pew. When they did know, they bent their knees.

More startlingly, a number of studies have shown the reverse of Baggini’s conclusion: that believers throughout the Catholic world do not know or do not accept their Church’s teaching on abortion and contraception–the effect of years of disinformation and irrelevance, ignorance and indifference as to papal infallibility, and skepticism about the authority of the church in general in ethical matters. The Pew Forum Poll showed that only about half of those questioned could name the four gospels, and only 16% knew that Protestants, rather than Catholics, teach that salvation comes through faith alone. It is difficult to imagine, given this intellectual lassitude, that anyone in America can be trusted to define the larger doctrinal issues and warrants: trinity, the divinity of Jesus, salvation and atonement, and justification even at a depreciated value. Other polls have described the enormous elasticity not only of specific beliefs, but also the core beliefs of the Christian faith, including those associated with God and the divinity of Jesus. Belief in God is not a constant even among worshipers who have a strong belief in god, and definitions and ideas of God differ dramatically from denomination to denomination and region to region. Yet, many continue to “practice” their faith, perform works of kindness and mercy, and act charitably towards each other as Jesus commended.

MODEST PROPOSAL: Reactive and Non-reactive Beliefs

It is pretty clear to anyone who studies the nature of belief and doctrine historically that Christian teaching can be divided into two categories: Reactive belief and Nonreactive-belief. Think of reactive belief as radioactive: it has the potential to do harm because it invites defensive and aggressive behaviour from its proponents.

Nonreactive belief is the essentially harmless and deradiated form of beliefs that are harmful and toxic: it is the tribute money Christian faithful pay to the tradition, without being adamantly committed to any of them or especially knowledgeable about any of them to any significant degree. It is not that they are entirely negotiable, but they are subject to the form of negotiation called interpretation. Many Christians are not especially curious about them, though some are. Most reactive belief is dogmatic. Most nonreactive belief is intuitive, though sometimes it is expressed in doctrine.

In the Reactive category, I would put the following:

  • The plenary inspiration or uniqueness of a sacred text, whether the Bible or Qur’an
  • Any ethical or moral system derived from that doctrine
  • Doctrines and theories of war or social practice based on the theory of inspiration
  • A political system or theory of the state, church or mosque that took its guiding principles from a scriptural perspective, or understood that perspective as normative
  • Any claims that scriptural teaching possesses historical, humanistic or scientific authority over scientific inquiry, experiment, and investigation
  • Eschatology (a “lively” belief in the end of the world, punishment, reward); especially the doctrine of satisfaction, or the physical pleasures of the elect, as in Islam and some minor sects of Christianity

It would be interesting to see a survey in which only questions about these beliefs were asked. Anyone who holds such beliefs could not be expected to have a serious conversation with a non-believer; nor would he be likely to have a very long conversation with most Christian believers.

In the Nonreactive category, I would place all intra- and supra-biblical doctrines that (even if they claim scriptural warrant) have no practical implications and no clear relevance to ordinary life. These beliefs have largely been rendered harmless through millennia of development and, especially, interpretation. They are the core beliefs of Christianity in an “honorary” or traditional sense, and are therefore irrelevant to any discussion between atheists and Christian believers.

  • Belief in God and interpretations of that belief
  • The “divinity” of Jesus, including the story of his resurrection
  • Much of the non-apocalyptic teaching of Jesus (e.g., love of neighbour)
  • The doctrine of merit earned through human achievement
  • Belief in the special status of the human person
  • The mortal existence of the human soul as an expression of humanity
  • The worship of God as a communal expression of faith
  • Many parochial and specific doctrines of a largely devotional nature, e.g, the eucharist

I cannot help but notice that Julian Baggini’s survey largely focuses on questions about the non-reactive and “honorary” beliefs of the faith. (Respondents could hardly have been counted on to endorse the most reactive ones.) There are connections between the two lists, of course, and anyone not wont to make distinctions or explore the process of theological development can be forgiven for putting a pox on both lists. I understand categorical rejection of religious beliefs; I just do not support it.

But categorical rejection isn’t as easy as it looks. It is not as simple as saying, for example, “The divinity of Jesus is based on the doctrine of plenary inspiration” and is thus reactive. In fact that is not true. The divinity of Jesus is an interpretation that cannot rely on the “clear and obvious sense” of the Bible. It isn’t the case that the belief in revelation entails plenary inspiration, or that salvation entails doctrines of heaven and hell–not even in their biblical form. The resurrection of Jesus, like the account of the creation of the world in Genesis, are stories rather than beliefs or doctrines. Neither appears to be ‘reactive’ to me, though at a literal level they are false..

The disjunct between reactive and nonreactive doctrines is also clear from the practice of most Christians: the Christianity most critics of fundamentalism deplore consists of attempts to export and impose reactive beliefs. The essentially irrelevant Christianity that bothers almost no one and seems to interest fewer and fewer people, except hardshell atheists, is essentially nonreactive.



NATURALLY when it comes to religion, context matters. I once heard a “British evangelical” described as someone who still believes church services are held on Sunday. Pollsters have operated for decades now on the knowledge that Christianity is really “Christianities,” to remember Oxford religionist Peggy Morgan‘s famous caution about “religious ethics.” Christianity is stratified by doctrine, first of all, but then geographically as well. ”Geographically” moreover does not mean just London, Paris and New York, but sectorally across the United States. H. L. Mencken was the first person to use the term Bible Belt as a description, but he was simply being attentive to what later sociologists would graph as “audience” for religious radio (later TV), and core traditional-conservative protestant values and beliefs. BB-Christianity tended to be poor, white, southern or southwestern uneducated and defensive–almost isolationist–rather than aggressive. Core beliefs included the divinity of Jesus, the resurrection of Jesus, salvation by faith-experience (born againism), and of course the source of all of it: the inerrant authority of the Bible. Two early, and still readable, basic studies were George M. Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism, 1870-1925 (1980) and S.W. Tweedie’s seminal article “Viewing the Bible Belt” in the Journal of Popular Culture (11; 865-76). The worst study of the subject, alas, because he was a first-class biblical scholar in other ways, was Oxford’s James Barr’s crack at understanding it in his 1978 book Fundamentalism.

Since those studies, conservative Christianity has grown wildly, and the Bible Belt like the rest of America has become fat. In the map following, the areas usually associated with the Belt are shown in red, but by all accounts, even Tweedie’s study, it has both a northerly and westerly direction. Some studies identify it closely with the beliefs of about 24 conservative protestant groups; others see it more strongly and organizationally tied to the Southern Baptist Convention, which recently went on record as wanting to change its name because of “bad press” and misunderstanding of its goals.

To complicate things, there are export Bible belts as well as indigenous ones in Australia, Canada, and even the U.K. (for some reason, in Surrey, southwest of London). Moreover, the term is often applied outside the United States to areas which simply show a statisticaly higher than average degree of church- attendance, and which blend familiar anti-science rhetoric with socialist politics. The Free Churches in the United Kingdom, for example (for historical reasons) are associated with Unitarianism and have a very low doctrinal profile, but their belief would be completely out of line with the agenda of the Unitarian community in North America.


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December 10, 2011


All said and done I had rather spend my time discussing what I believe than what I don’t. My plight is a common one for cynics. It is much easier to deny than to affirm, and especially easy to deny what other people affirm.

In such straits, I usually turn to poetry. I used to write it, and then was convinced by many well-wishers to give it up before one accidentally got published and set the literary arts back several hundred years.

The last poem I wrote was an epitaph for Antony Flew which is hidden away at New Oxonian somewhere and may be marked private. As I don’t have access to New Oxonian here in China, I’m not sure. But in any case it wasn’t about the old, confused Flew but the young tousle-aired Flew who could quote modern philosophy and Horace as though they lived on the same block. I think what I wrote was sentimental to the point of being mawkish, but you can get by with that kind of thing in “elegies,” to a point.

Auden’s epitaph on Freud is a terrible poem on an ambitious and elusive, maybe even an impossible, subject. He seems to know that, and strains throughout to make the poem detached and accessible at the same time:

Such was this doctor:/still at eighty he wished to think of our life from whose unruliness / so many plausible young futures / with threats or flattery ask obedience,/ but his wish was denied him: he closed his eyes/upon that last picture, common to us all, / of problems like relatives gathered / puzzled and jealous about our dying.

Primarily, the poem is famous for being one of the only poetic memorials of Freud, who not only loved poetry himself but had inordinate influence on poets of the twentieth century, not least Auden.

When the subject is a fellow poet, Auden’s restraint is real and his melody line is sure. ”In Memory of W. B. Yeats” links the death of the Irish bard to the collapse of civilization.

It seems extravagant until you listen to the question Auden poses: What is left of us if there are no more true poets? Who will sing our story when we are left only with the “importance and noise of tomorrow/When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse”? Poetry doesn’t come into this battle against anarchy fully armed; it “makes nothing happen. It survives in the valley of its own making where executives would never want to tamper.”

Auden’s face was a living description of this mid-century despair about the future of the poetic word “that flows down (south) to the raw towns that we believe and die in.”

Auden came to America to find poetry in the land of Whitman. He thought it had died in England, but found it dead here too. Eliot went the other direction, to England, to escape the Harvard philosophy department. (He refused to return to Boston for his viva after he finished the PhD thesis on F H Bradley). He may be the only true philosopher-poet of the twentieth century, but even if there were other good ones no one had Eliot’s ear and grace. Eliot did not share Auden’s intensity about writing epitaphs, but there are elegiac moments in many of his poems, like this from “Little Gidding”:

Let me disclose the gifts reserved for age
To set a crown upon your lifetime’s effort.
First, the cold friction of expiring sense
Without enchantment, offering no promise
But bitter tastelessness of shadow fruit
As body and soul begin to fall asunder.
Second, the conscious impotence of rage
At human folly, and the laceration
Of laughter at what ceases to amuse.
And last, the rending pain of re-enactment
Of all that you have done, and been; the shame
Of motives late revealed, and the awareness
Of things ill done and done to others’ harm
Which once you took for exercise of virtue. (IVQT, Little Gidding, iii)

People who don’t like Eliot usually realize that he is using words to hypnotize them into learning ideas. He is easy to resist and the ideas are rife with metaphysics.

I personally find Theodore Roethke’s poetry more lyrical, and I have tried a hundred times, without success, to imitate him without letting on. The ascendancy of American poetry in the late twentieth century has many explanations, but one of them is the preference of German-American poets for the strict sounds of English as a germanic language. Eliot, a typical New Englander, though reared in St Louis, is full of classicism. assonance, but (to be fair), controls it as Henry James, his near-contemporary Boston expatriate did not in his prose. But Roethke subordinates the idea to the sound without sacrificing the idea.

Unfortunately, all of my attempts to sound like Roethke sound just like Roethke. His German father was so much like my German father that I can see my whole childhood in “My Papa’s Waltz.” And I remember writing an elegy for my own father that was nothing more than a paraphrase of his.

Roethke wrote one of the most beautiful elegies ever done about a tragic, uncommon incident in his teaching career.

Every professor, male and female, knows what it is to fall in love with a student. When it happens, it can be, I think, the pure φιλíα (philia) that exceeds friendship but does not lapse into sexual love–which is one definition of eros. For Plato, this is one of the risks and effects of knowledge.

Knowledge is hardly risky anymore, and in a “coarse” age, these sorts of relationships have been sexualized to the point where knowledge hardly factors. But in “To Jane: My Student Thrown by a Horse,” Roethke ponders the anguish of not knowing how to express grief when someone he loves has been killed.

Let his be the last word on how to write an elegy:

remember the neckcurls, limp and damp as tendrils;
And her quick look, a sidelong pickerel smile;
And how, once startled into talk, the light syllables leaped for her,
And she balanced in the delight of her thought,

A wren, happy, tail into the wind,
Her song trembling the twigs and small branches.
The shade sang with her;
The leaves, their whispers turned to kissing,
And the mould sang in the bleached valleys under the rose.

O, when she was sad, she cast herself down into such a pure depth,
Even a father could not find her:
Scraping her cheek against straw,
Stirring the clearest water.

My sparrow, you are not here,
Waiting like a fern, making a spiney shadow.
The sides of wet stones cannot console me,
Nor the moss, wound with the last light.

If only I could nudge you from this sleep,
My maimed darling, my skittery pigeon.
Over this damp grave I speak the words of my love:
I, with no rights in this matter,
Neither father nor lover. (1950)

Genetics 101

by admin Posted on December 9, 2011

A recent response from a reader aptly named “Hunt” about atheist criticism and tactics quotes one of the mavens of the movement (now that new atheism is not new they seem to want the name back), Greta Christina, who runs a site called Greta Christina.

I am taking Hunt at his usually impolite word when he says she says,

“People don’t dislike atheists because of our tactics; they dislike atheists because of who we are”

I don’t have any idea of what that throwaway line means either (“I don’t like you because you’re a mean and nasty old bugger Uncle Crank. I dislike you because you’re an uncle”). But giving Ms Christina the benefit of a doubt, since I have occasionally smiled at her postings, let me just say that “Hunt” has ripped another page out of the Atheist Surefire Response Manual (send $750 to me for your free copy along with prayer request), while totally belying everything Ms Christina is vouching for–because Hunt’s tactics are a lot like Uncle Crank.

Uncle Crank

In the history of fighting for basic human rights, from which Hunt’s “rationale” is derived, there have certainly been instances where the genetic argument works: African-Americans were not disliked for their actions but for the colour of their skin (who they were). Women and gays were held in contempt by an unconscientized America as women and gays.

At a certain point, however, the dis-resemblance of victimized classes overrides resemblance and the genetic argument becomes a genetic fallacy. America’s first experience of this is when fat people wanted to be considered a civil rights cause: After all, they suffered workplace discrimination, weren’t happy that the racks at Walmart couldn’t accommodate XXX-L in sufficient quantity (though that has hugely changed) and weren’t popular on airplanes.

But whatever the merits of seeing fatness as a socially, genetically and psychologically determined condition rather than an outcome, people still think fat people are fat. And blacks, gays, women and Buddhist monks–probably even atheists–groan when they see a fatty waddling down the aisle toward the only remaining seat, next to them. Me, I’d prefer the fatty to the Buddhist monk. Monks are rude and don’t use deodorant.

That is what happens when you try to make atheists the same sort of “victims” that blacks, gays and women have historically and really been on the basis of suspicion and dislike. The difference of course is that the three latter classes are powerless to control or alter, except through extraordinary means, anything about who or what they are.

Changing your mind is not at all like changing your skin colour. I had a useful discussion about this with Paul Cliteur a few years back in Amsterdam while he was finishing his superb book The Secular Outlook. It should be required reading for every atheist. But don’t bother reading it if you want different information than I’m giving you here. Go on believing what you have believed because you read it on an atheist website.

“Believing” or disbelieving something is not the same sort of thing as being something, even though we use the verb ‘to be” to describe various kinds of conditions ranging from illness to sexuality. Anyone who claims a modicum of philosophical sophistication knows what a category mistake is, so you will know that you can’t shove everything into one box and call it sand when there are sea shells and dead animals and coins and syringes in it. Atheists have the power to change their mind–indeed once prided themselves on this ability.

Atheists have, theoretically, the ability to become believers. Believers have the power to become atheists. I know people who have gone in either direction and swing, like me, both ways. That’s the routine.

which is it

It’s precisely this intellectual motility combined with the methods that you use or choose to get there that define you as an atheist. But to say that people dislike you because you don’t believe in god surely has something to do with the way you externalize that belief. If that weren’t true, we would’nt be appalled at fundamentalism. If radically conservative Christian and Muslims were Quakers or non-voting Amish who would care about them? We care about them bercause they are vocal and in-your-face with their absurd moral agendas.

Consequently, like it or not, the basic reason people dislike atheists is not because of some hypogeal characteristic that makes atheism an essence but the observable things that atheists say or do. The same reason you don’t like uncle Crank.

And like it or not, that makes them (us) much more like the heretics and apostates of yore, our close cousins, than like the victimized members of twentieth century rights-struggles. If, in other words, you choose categories, be careful what you choose.

Never mind. I dealt with this issue a couple of years ago when people were sleeping. I don’t buy the fact that the word atheist is a scary word: that’s something atheists like to think because it feeds the victimization mentality now resurgent in the community.

Have a look:

Who Was You?

The Boston Lowells knew who they were. From their perch on Beacon Hill they enjoyed a perspective that encouraged them to believe in the Unitarian credo: the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, the neighborhood of Boston. When William Filene opened a discount store in the basement of his father’s store to sell overstock and closeout merchandise through his “automatic bargain basement” (off the rack, serve yourself), Beacon Hill was a swarm of indignation. The son of a (Jewish!) peddler would throw Boston society into disarray. Cheap clothes that looked like finery? Now even Irishwomen who worked as chambermaids could look respectable. That is, if you didn’t look too closely.

Never to be persuaded without a firsthand look, Anna Parker Lowell walked into Filene’s downtown store near Washington Street, coiffed and umbrellad, sought directions “to the so-called Basement” and took the steps with the polish of someone who was used to grand staircases. Once aground she saw women flipping through racks of dresses like playing cards–choosing, refusing, playing tug-a-war, even threatening bodily harm if a latecomer tried to prise her find away from someone with a prior claim. “Disgusting,” Mrs Lowell tsked to herself. “Just look at them.”

Just when she had satisfied herself that Edward Filene’s brainstorm would mean the end of high society in Boston her eyes lit on a beautiful taffeta gown that looked just the thing for the spring ball at Harvard. She moved closer for a better look. As she reached to collect her prize, a woman of questionable pedigree snapped it from the rack and headed for the till. “Not so fast my dear,” said Mrs Lowell. “I was about to have that dress.” “You was,” said the woman without slowing. “I don’t think you understand.” I had chosen that dress. I was just about to collect it.” “You was,” said the woman, unable to evade Mrs Lowell’s pursuit because of a crowded aisle. “Look here, madam. I didn’t want to tell you who I was, but I will if you persist.” The woman stopped, turned, looked Mrs Lowell in the eye, and said “Ok dearie: Who wasyou?”

I have always wondered what people mean when they say “That’s who I am,” but usually they mean something silly and parochial: I’m a Catholic, a democrat, a creationist, a car dealer, an ex-con, a neo-con. It’s the substitution of code for argument, a conversation stopper rather than an invitation to discuss a position or idea. Clearly identity matters, but the twentieth century was distinctive in breaking down the sorts of identities that isolated people from majority communities and power structures.

There are big identities and small identities, weak and strong. Part of this has to do with the nature of language and part with the nature of things. Being a democrat or a used car salesman are weak identities: you can change those things tomorrow if you change your mind or lose your job. Being an African-American or a male, despite the fact that we know a lot more about race and sexuality now than we did fifty years ago, still have a lot to do with properties and are much more difficult to change. To say, “I’m gay,” is not just to say “I’m not straight” but to challenge the idea of straight as normative and authoritative. That’s different from saying, “I’m Catholic,” if by that you mean you’re on your way to heaven and the guy you’re talking to is going the opposite way. Beware of anyone who says “That’s who/what I am” with a smile on his face.

Identities can be a great source of fun, as when Ambrose Bierce (the Devil’s Dictionary, 1925) defines a bride as “a woman with a fine prospect of happiness behind her” and “Brute” as husband, or a “minister as “An agent of a higher power with a lower responsibility.” Too bad that in Bierce’s day the Vegan craze wasn’t what it is in the twenty first century, but he did have this to say about clairvoyants: “A person, commonly a woman, who has the power of seeing that which is invisible to her patron, namely, that he is a blockhead.”

The weakest identities of all are the ones that have to do with what we believe to be the meaning of life. I can remember in college three distinct phases of change: being a socialist at seventeen, a half-hearted anarchist at twenty, and an existentialist at twenty one.

I recovered from these infatuations by not permitting myself to stop reading and never reading Camus after thirty. With confusion intact, I went to Divinity School and emerged as confused and doubtful as ever. Voltaire (or maybe his aunt) said it was only his skepticism that prevented him from being an atheist. That was me, too.

I can’t doubt that there are “meaning-of-life” identities that one holds passionately and therefore appear to qualify for the “That’s who I am” category of identification. I have known people whose non-belief is as fervent as the belief of a twice born Baptist or Mormon elder, people who say “I am an atheist” as proudly as an evangelical says “I’m born again.” It’s tempting to say, isn’t it, that the difference between these two statements is that the atheist is smart and the Born again needs his intelligence quotient checked. But we all know that identity statements are code for a whole range of ideas that need to be unpacked and call for explanation. An atheist who felt his non-belief in God entitled him to murder children because of the absence of divine commands to the contrary would be no better than a cult member who believed that disobedient sons can be stoned because it says they can in the Bible.

I feel my Atheist Reader squirming, because while you liked the Bright-Dim difference, you don’t like equivalences. When Katherine Hepburn turns out to be an atheist people say, “I just knew it. Such a strong woman.” When Pol-Pot says God is bunk, we think “Well that’s different, isn’t it—and so far away?”

Personally, I don’t like people who say “That’s who I am,” or “That’s what weare,” or “We need to be honest about who we are.” At a crude level I want to say WTF? It’s eerily metaphysical when atheists do it—not only because it’s the language God uses when he introduces himself to Moses on Sinai. You remember, right?: Moses hasn’t been properly introduced and God says, “That’s who I am,” and when pressed after Moses accuses God of being slippery says “I am what I am.”

I reckon what he really means is, “You know—God—the one who does firmament, landscaping, Leviathan, floods, human beings God.” In fairness, however, the Hebrew Bible insisted that God was not just a proposition but an actor on the human stage. I don’t believe that God did any of the things ascribed to him in the Bible, but to believe in a doer and deeds is a perfectly legitimate way to establish an identity—even if it’s a fictional identity. That’s why Jewish atheists begin by denying the deeds and then the doer. None of this silly ontological stuff: too Christian, too mental.

But I find it a lot harder to know who I am or what we are on the basis of not believing something.

“We need to be honest about who we are” coming from an atheist doesn’t translate easily into the propertied descriptions of being black, gay, female or physically challenged–things over which people have no choice and no control.

It’s tempting, I know, to think the things we believe or don’t believe have the same status as the things that constitute us as persons or collectives of persons. But you would laugh at a used car salesman saying at dinner, “Dammit, Mother, I’m tired of hiding from who I am. Tomorrow I’m going right into the boss’s office and say to him, ‘Mr Jones: I am Bill Smith and I’m an atheist.” You would not laugh at someone who said, “Mr Jones: I haven’t had a raise in two years. Is it because I’m black?”

Atheists often complain when religious groups claim special treatment on the pretext that any speech against religion is defamatory while claiming equivalent protection for their own beliefs. But atheists need to be very careful about traveling the road of victimization and minority rights or simply adopting the legal definitions supplied under non-discrimination laws. Especially when racial, sexual orientation and gender provisions do not apply to atheism and the protection accorded to religious beliefs, if embraced by atheists, creates a stew of issues–not the least of which is that there is no settled definition of atheism and if there were a true freethinker would reject it.

Difference is deceptive, especially when it comes to self-definition. Is coming out atheist like coming out gay, an act of courage? On what basis–the fact that terms like “minority,” “unpopular” and “misunderstood” can be applied to both categories? But simply to embrace a minority position toward a “divine being” based on denying a premise is not an act of bravery. It doesn’t make you who you are or what you are. It’s neither race, profession nor party platform—not even a philosophical position or scientific theory. It’s not something to be ashamed of or proud of. It’s just about an idea—even if it’s a really Big idea.

An Essay on Criticism

by admin Posted on December 8, 2011

”The right question is whether it is rational for the religious man himself, given that his religious experience is coherent, persistent, and compelling, to affirm the reality of God. What is in question is not the rationality of an inference from certain psychological events to God as their cause; for the religious man no more infers the existence of God than we infer the existence of the visible world around us. What is in question is the rationality of the one who has the religious experiences. If we regard him as a rational person we must acknowledge that he is rational in believing what, given his experiences, he cannot help believing” (Hick, Theology Today, pp. 86-87; quoted by Flew, The Presumption of Atheism)

One of the interesting things about the atheist response to criticism is that it apes the tactics of the anti defamation league of B’nai B’rith and the Catholic League, set up at a time when American nativism was at a high pitch and when anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish sentiment was rife.

So far I’ve been lighthearted about the tactics of the atheist commandos, comparing their choreography to ants, which I know is not flattering but also not altogether mistaken. Look at how their comments cluster around the cozy campfires of their top ten favorite bloggers. How their comments create a cushion of like-mindedness and encourage the renegade to return to mother. They can smell a picnic a mile off.

The anti-defamation movements had a nose for “slander” that eventually went beyond the limits of protected self-interest. Remember, WASP religion in 1912 needed no such protection, and fundamentalism, while it was embryonic, was nothing like as powerful as it is now. Even Unitarians hated Catholics. Who could have foreseen the day when Catholics and fundamentalists would vote the same ticket and the Bible belt would stretch from sea to shining sea?

A conference I chaired more than two decades ago at the University of Michigan on Jesus and the Gospels included a speaker who was on the ADL hit-list. Three days after the conference adjourned, I received an official looking letter from the organization saying that they were “looking into certain things that were said” at the meeting and would let me know in two weeks whether they would pursue a further investigation. I had no inkling what these “things” were, but as a young and terrified assistant professor at the time I wrote a quick apology, revised it, then found some courage, tore it up (yes, before email) and wrote another letter saying “Who do you think you are? This is a university and we do not promote religious orthodoxy here–only free inquiry.” I’m glad I did. I never heard from them again.

I am not suggesting that atheists don’t know who they are or even that their current cluster-bombing of critics is (necessarily) deliberate. They may honestly feel besieged–that they are the last best hope for a lost and errant humanity. They know at least enough to know when they feel they have been slighted or misrepresented, or that someone has built a straw man and called it them. Keep in mind, however, that one man’s straw man is another man’s exact replica.

But to really understand the swarm methods of the atheist minim and its need to defend itself from scurrilous critics (who aren’t even coming at them from the religious side), you would expect to find the same sort of doctrinal consensus you’d find in a religion. I mean, to quote Robert Frost, “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know what I was walling in or walling out/and whom I was like to give offense.”

If you can’t say exactly what property you’re defending, why get so upset when someone trespasses on it? Clearly, brothers and sisters, I have trespassed. I just need to know on what. According to my critics, I am too busy examining my plumage to really care. But I do care. So tell me.

True enough, freethought is not the same thing as atheism, at least not this kind of atheism, and a thousand miles or more distant from humanism, at least real humanism. But given the claim of some to want engagement with me (though many more just want to ventilate), it is truly surprising that they don’t try to find the common earth beneath our feet. Instead, they mark positions they can’t quite define with rhetorical poison. If there is a position here, it seems to be equivalent to whatever is the opposite of what their critics are saying.

Can atheism be defamed? Judging from the responses I’ve seen it certainly would appear so. Especially from the group that tells me that I don’t get it, don’t understand it, and therefore am misjudging it. Naturally, I disagree with that–but not just because it’s the position I would be expected to take. I am told that atheism is not a little idea, that it is not an idea at all, and that the idea it repudiates is small as well. (Presumably the logic is, How can anything that doesn’t exist have volume or weight?) Those are assertions that we can argue. Argue them.

But even leaving aside observations like big and small, it seems to me that if atheism is a coherent idea, a set of (sorry for the word) beliefs and principles that can be stated economically in the way religions have stated their sometimes incredible, brain-busting beliefs, then we would have a starting point. ”Not getting it” doesn’t tell me what it is. Saying that I am missing the point seems to mean just that you have moved the target–if there is one. Or is that the point? Telling me (a thousand times) that atheism is “just not believing in God” (look back over my posts; you’ll see I’ve been there and written it) is like saying football is a game that just isn’t tennis. Help me: what do YOU think atheism is. Define it, explain it, defend it.

f you won’t then the idea is not just small and elusive, it has become microscopic. The more you trivalize the claims (and identities) of critics the more insignificant it is likely to be.

There’s a tragic side to this discussion. Jacques Berlinerblau mentioned it in spring of 2011 and was promptly thrashed for saying that atheists seem determined to self-destruct by alienating heretical voices from within, even the voices of people who share 80% of their views. I agree with that, profoundly: this primal urge to be unpopular because you hold a view that is, in its most radical form, unpopular will guarantee that atheism will remain a pitifully small and intellectually marginal movement for decades to come.

This will show up mainly in the political sphere, where already a discourse is developing of atheist victimization. And partly this is true: atheism and atheists are disliked and few have a shot at public office. Now: look in the mirror, and look at your language, your tactics and your movement. Questions?

Atheists can’t have it both ways. If atheism is a proud tradition of unbelief with ideas and science and history and everything but God on its side, then act as though you have the upper hand and try to take criticism on the chin.

Be charitable to the ones history will leave behind–because they will be left behind. Work on developing the next act of your drama: we’ve seen this one. It isn’t very good.

If atheism on the other hand is a recovery group of people who have felt isolated, rejected, and abused by self- righteous God mongers, so be it. If it’s a little of both and then some, making allowance for the village atheists, angry old men and women, bitter ex-priests and clear-headed ex- ministers, and people who just need an ideological–we won’t say spiritual–home that isn’t a church, then the problem isn’t the need for a strong atheist movement. You have that, or seem to. It’s a problem of bringing these voices together into one choir. I apologize for the ecclesiastical analogy.

What I see right now is a discordant movement that can only come together as a pretext for attack, and so needs attackers. I do not see a movement with anything worth promoting anymore, except a vacant belief that religion is bad and no religion is good. Please don’t say duh.

There is no history in that kind of judgement. There is no nuance, philosophy or real sense of the past. There’s not even a keen sense of the present or of where you want to take this after the Peoria billboards come down. My critics have said that I want atheism returned to the senior common room at Oxford where it can’t do so much damage. That’s rubbish: it hasn’t been there for a long, long time, and it isn’t doing much damage in its current state except to itself.

The Big Idea

by admin Posted on December 7, 2011

Christopher Hitchens is, of all the atheists I admire, the one I admire the most. I want him to live forever. But as that is impossible–for any of us–it’s his voice I will miss the most.

He is a journalist, a polemicist, a bad boy. But he is also a keen observer. And, though he may hide it, a well-trained philosopher. All of the so-called “New Atheists,” except for Harris, whose star sets, were Oxonians. In a group so small, you have to admit, that is unusual–until you think “Shelley.” I would even say Wycliffe, but it would take too long to explain why.

Hitch’s atheism is almost an accoutrement of his personality. He has always reminded me of the cynicism of a young Malcolm Muggeridge who would have hated the old Muggeridge, when the old Malcolm got religion. Hitch and I are the same age. His current condition is one I watch with dismay, but (I’m sure) there will be no final turning here, no retreat as the forces of life and death fight it out in his body, no confiteor at the end.

Malcolm Muggeridge

That is because he is brave. In Five Good Things About Atheism, I gave as reason number one that atheism is probably “right”: there is no God or “supernatural” force that can explain the world as efficiently as a natural force or process. It would be cheating to call that process God. It would be the equivalent of the Grinch strapping a tree branch to a dog’s head and calling it a reindeer.

I also said that it takes a certain amount of courage to make this claim–saying I do not believe in God–not medal of honour courage, perhaps–but the simple courage that could be described as principled and honest. When people say to me proudly, “I have never believed in God. I was an atheist when I was five and saw my mother putting presents under the Christmas tree,” I smile and say, “Right.” If you fit this description read no further.

eligious folk often cling to an improbability argument that permits them first to claim a “supernatural” cause of the universe and then to make many more specific claims about the nature of this cause.

They point to the improbability of life, then intelligent life, or moral life, arising in an “accidental” or non-purposeful way. The whole basis for Michael Behe’s notion of irreducible complexity is a version of an improbability argument, though it lacks a sufficient explanation of what an intelligent designer might “look like” at a moral- and thus at a purpose-level, which some over-educated people call “teleology.” It is nonetheless nonsensical from a philosophical and (yes) a theological point of view.

Why? Because the the improbability of anything cannot be educed as probability of something else. It’s a point as familiar to philosophers and theologians as the principle that “What can be asserted without proof can be dismissed without proof.” The simplest known version is Why a bee can’t fly, a problem solved by John Maynard Smith by looking not at improbability but how bees manage to do it.

I suspect many atheists know that axiom even if they don’t know many others. It is dangerous, however, to rely on it exclusively, because to assert that the universe “happens” without cause, despite a massive amount of physical evidence and probability on its side, has to be “interpreted”: t=0 is simply a statement–that everything we are familiar with came into existence: protons, neutrons, stars, galaxies–even space and time. What is difficult for ordinary (and ordinary religious) people to understand is that in addition to physical things the properties, laws and impressions of physical thingsleft, right, up, down, cause and effect, the stage for all physical laws–emerged in the same event. The question of cause and effect does not arise about the big bang but because of it.

At the same time, long before physics and astronomy captured the imagination of hard-headed empiricists, Saint Augustine ponders just this point and wonders about its relationship to his forming idea of God: space and time do not exist before creation but as a result of it. Time especially is a paradox for him. But if this is true, “cause” and “effect” cannot exist either, because what is causally related is temporally related. What then would it mean to say that God is a “cause” of the universe when the conditions for causality did not arise until it existed?

His solution was to locate God outside the order of creation. Now we know better. And we know better in part because Augustine raised the question in relation to the Book of Genesis, which he could not take as a factual description of time and creation. Would such questions have arisen apart from the idea of a sufficient being (ens necessarium) cause-all, multi-purpose God? It is hard to say: the history we have is the history we have. But one thing (as I’ve said repeatedly): There was no clutch of atheist scientists scrounging out a meager existence in the hills above Rome waiting to come on board and set the church straight.

To the extent they know anything at all about these discussions, or have any interest in them, it may strike my hardcore atheist opponents as strange that this principle dominated attention during the Middle Ages, when “God” was all about proofs and much less the Bible. But they need to come to terms with the fact that something went on in the two thousand plus years between Jesus and us, or the three thousand between the Old Testament and us, and it wasn’t all dark, not even before Darwin, not even before the Enlightenment, and not even within the many-splendored Church. Which, by the way, wasn’t one thing but many things ranging from a political state to a souvenir factory to a patroness (the sole patroness) of higher education.

hen I say that contemporary and largely American-vintage atheism has made God a little idea, I mean atheists frankly have very little idea of the idea. In fact many who responded to my previous essay, and some in sentences that parse, have said that atheism isn’t about ideas: it is a settled “conclusion” about which there should be not discussion but enforcement and action. Anyone who can read a t-shirt should join the army, or a billboard that assures them that that they are worthy and loved and accepted, even if there is no big old Sky Fairy to magic them into immortal beings.

Two postings deserve mention as proof positive that Atheism’s Little Idea is getting smaller: A certain Jason Rosenhouse (who can’t spell Hoffmann and probably doesn’t care much–Rosen-house–really?) has written an especially imbecilic rejoinder which never engages and so never rejoins, following a recent riveting post where he asks the following seductive question: “We might wonder… why the Bible contains so much awful stuff.” And an especially obtuse and humourless man named Eric MacDonald has once again filled a balloon with gas and let it sputter around in my direction hoping it would hit me in the eye. It didn’t. For the elucidation (5 syllables, thus pretentious) of the latter, I offer Samuel Johnson’s essay “The Bugbear Style” which, as he quotes Shakespeare from memory, he will know by heart.

The atheists have convinced themselves, on the basis of reading dubious statistics badly, that they are an enormous underground movement waiting for a messiah who will lead them to Canaan, or at least to Milwaukee. They believe they are “results-oriented” political movers whose time has come: they have their evangelists and epistle-writers already, and unsurprisingly, just like the early Christians, they all agree with one another. As Jacques Berlinerblau writes, their behavior is all the more baffling when you consider they are “a cohort that prides itself on empirical precision.”

They are appreciative of science for “opening their eyes,” but they need to use them more to explore other kinds of literature, especially serious history, and not the fake atheist history of the websites and the Big Book of Atheist Quotations. It is no good accusing Christian fundamentalists of only reading one book with its skewered view of the world if the response is going to be equally false to the facts of human civilization. A few of their magi accused me of “making up” a quotation I made up from Faust, then (in quick succession as the egg dried on their face) getting the German wrong, then missing the point, then saying the joke wasn’t funny. A number of respondents accused me of “making up” the Sure-Fire Atheist Rapid Response Manual, which even as satire was pretty thin, transparent stuff. Not since Jonathan Swift offered his solution to the ‘Irish Problem’ has an audience been more willing to take seriously what is offered in jest. The new atheist troupe is proving two things, day by day: (1) They are resolute; (2) They don’t know what they are doing. There is a corollary to (2): If they do, they are doing it badly.

ut I do not want to give aid and comfort to the religious zanies simply because I expect more from my atheist comrades than they have so far been able to deliver. I know I will be stretching religious tempers to the breaking point when I say that the the idea of an all-good, all-powerful, self-sufficient being “needing” to create less good (or bad), dependent, and contingent organisms is more absurd than the irreducible complexity argument. As far as I am concerned, no matter what data proponents of ID can produce, the absurdity of the improbability argument is incontrovertible.

Most religious people prefer the idea of a “smart” and good god (“omniscient” might not come easily to their lips) with smart ends in view creating smart people like them for his smart universe.

Not the only problem with this view is that this scenario is not attested in the book they use to prove their case: The Hebrew God looks shortsighted and at times thick as molasses: a deal-maker like the merchants, priests and politicians who made him up; a crook; a powerful performer, but limited to a few physical tricks. His “smart” creation is likewise disappointing: small and unworthy rather than savvy; disobedient but persistently repentant; politically corrupt, murderous and disloyal. The Bible is not about how smart people are–and, actually, Christians and Jews used to know this. It is about how bad and ungrateful they are and how big and merciful (within limits and with exceptions, like the flood) God is. It took until the renaissance for people to face up to the idea that in moral terms, Adam was superior to god, a calculation depicted in Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” where God–the very image of God atheists most love to make fun of–is geometrically reduced in form to Adam’s size and becomes Adam’s older image.

So, I reject the biblical God with some personal satisfaction. His evolution has been an ideological evolution in the way people thought about him and have been able to recast him in our improving self-image. That is what humanism in the sense most people still understand the word was all about. There is a proud “atheistic” convention of rejecting non-material causation from Leucippus to Feuerbach. It was there during the scholastic period, and emerged from the medieval period–slowly and painfully–as science. There is a proud humanistic tradition–extending from Socrates to Abelard and from al-Farabi to Leo Strauss–of taking moral responsibility away from the gods, who cannot serve as models, and turning the project over to men and women who can design them.

he biblical picture of God is not a coherent view of God. No ancient view of any god is. But it is consistent enough–sufficiently integrated–that to reject a single aspect of his description calls the whole picture into question. Rejecting the whole picture is easily the most efficient way to deal with the biblical god at a literal level, and millions of people are “atheists” in relation to this god and his story.

Some of these people, if we could look beyond the comparatively flat landscape of American atheism to the secular European world beyond, still celebrate religious holidays, light candles, give presents, and may even go to church once or twice a year. The biblical god is not part of their day to day life. Custom and tradition are. They would, I suspect, find the American debate over “Christmas” a little peculiar, jaundiced, perhaps even “typically American.” American atheists on the other hand would argue that the amount of attention given to religion during holiday seasons is oppressive and inappropriate–though this is largely a political rather than a philosophical discussion. It is a reaction to the suffocating influence religion of the most banal variety exercises over American life and political culture.

Like many soft unbelievers (I know what the paralytic expression “accommodationist” means) I regard people who still clutch their childhood god and saints tightly to their breast as superstitious. They are clinging to illusions. Many of them are not very curious about life, and many of them are not very brave about the future. They are the true servants of a god who wanted his people to be “faithful,” not very smart and not very brave, like a jealous husband his bride (Jer. 3.14). But their basic human need for consolation is none of my business; I understand it because I am human, and I need consolation, too. I have no license to rip the saints from their arms, unless they tell me to bow down and worship them too. I know as well that in the evangelical-political arena, this very thing is happening, and when it happens–when I am told that I must believe, act or think in a religious way–unbelievers, secularists, atheists and religious people have a duty to push back, to say, This far and no farther. One other thing: his chosen people were Jews, Clearly, therefore, God is not omniscient or he would have chosen some other people to be his obedient, unquestioning servants.

But my opposition to (even) organized conservative religion is also conditioned by modern reality: If someone cries “Rapture!” in a crowded theatre, no one will budge. Some people will laugh, many will tell the shouter to shut up and sit down, most people will think he is merely crazy. “Modern reality” is really shaped by the gnawing sense that even believers–not just atheists–lead skeptical lives. Religion will be lost to better ideas or it will not be lost at all. No amount of shouting, skewered statistics, contrived blasphemy or insult will kill it off.

o, the God of worship and faith, the God of the priests and mullahs and bishops and conservative rabbis, enjoined on followers by “religion” in its organized form is a god I live without as a moral presence or rule-giver. I’d be hard pressed to do without his story, however, because it is one of the most fascinating stories human beings have ever created. I would like to shake the hand of the man who put the finishing touches on the tale of God’s conversation with Abraham in Genesis 18 (16-33). What a sense of humour.

I can also live without the God of the philosophers: the diminished God of a Voltaire or a Diderot, of Paine and the coffee house agnostics, but I do so recognizing that that God had been reassembled not from premises but from slivers left over from biblical criticism and criticism of the Church, both protestant and Catholic. Even the most acerb critics were fond of making a distinction between God and his Church, until it became clear that this God was in many theological particulars the creation of the church, and aforetime of the Church’s religious ancestors, the Jewish priests. When that happened, he could not even hide behind the laws of nature where Spinoza wanted to stash him.

It’s possible to develop, as Gaskin has done, a taxonomy of unbelief that shows how atheism is not one thing but differs according to “where” one has come from in the religious system and when the atheism occurred. But atheism as an ideological position (a position with respect to an idea) doesn’t ask its holder for his or her credentials (I’m sorry to diosappoint my critics who think that’s what I have been arguing) but only for their reasons for holding that position. Saying “Because religion is stupid,” is not a reason for anything. Saying “Because people who are religious don’t understand science,” may have some general merit, but it’s pretty indirect to the question. If atheism is a defensible intellectual and ideological position, it has to be defended and advocated in the way other positions are defended. Christian apologists became adept at philosophy specifically for the purpose of defending the premises of a faith that seemed ridiculous to their philosophical opponents. Given the upper hand they say they have intellectually, isn’t it time for atheists to become better at argumentation and more aware of the sources that exist for constructing such arguments? To quote Mr Tipton (My Cousin Vinny): “No self-respecting southerner uses instant grits.” So must it be with ideas and arguments.

healthy disbelief in the god of book tradition, theological extrapolation and defense, and philosophical rescue is a good place to start developing an atheist apologetics. But it’s going to take a lot of work from the billboard and bumper sticker crowd. The god of J L Mackie and the God of Alvin Plantinga are incompatible ideas, but the dialogue between the two is an important and patient discussion of how two thinkers can come out on separate ends of a debate. Both (Mackie died tragically in 1981 at the age of 56) take the idea seriously–not meaning that they give any premature credence to the idea, but that they give the idea the respect it deserves for purposes of discussion. They do not lessen the discussion by grounding their ideas in personal experience, for or against religion, or cheap shots at people who think differently.

As serious professional philosophers, of course, their discussions are a little heavy: Mackie, especially, has an Oxford feel to his language, which makes it both crisp and complicated whereas, as an analytic philosopher, Plantinga can at times be merely complicated.

Most of all, however, they know the history of the idea, the history of debate and discussion, the twists and turns of opinions, and above all, the arguments.

In a strange salute to Mackie, Richard Dawkins wrote, “The atheist philosopher J L Mackie gives a particularly clear discussion of [the ontological argument] in the Miracle of Theism,” and then says of the argument itself, “I mean it as a compliment when I say that you could almost define a philosopher as someone who won’t take common sense for an answer”(God Delusion, p. 107). I remember thinking two things simultaneously when I read the passage: First, how would it be to introduce Dawkins in the last sentence as “the atheist ethologist Richard Dawkins.” But that is a minor point.

Dawkins’s major point is an important one: he is saying that common sense doesn’t get us far enough into the analysis of anything in order to be able to draw conclusions, and scientists since the Middle Ages have been wary of unexplicated sensory data for just that reason. If our senses lead us astray in ordinary ways, think about the extraordinary–the cosmos for example. One of the most elegant treatises on the subject of sense-deception was the al-Munqidh min ad-Dalal written by the Persian thinker Al-Ghazali in the eleventh century. It is one of the most remarkable early treatments of perception and cognition ever written; the west had nothing like it at the time. It was written as theology.

A great deal will depend on when we come into the theatre when the main feature is Common Sense–Aristotle, Locke, Paine, William James, or later. The cheap definition–that common sense is “paying attention to the obvious”–seems to be guiding atheist discussion these days. Yet the science that is being invoked against belief in God could never have arisen if we were not fundamentally skeptical about sensory detail–unless we rejected certain axioms that were held to be true for thousands of years. Common sense is not the same as skepticism; skepticism is the correction of common sense:

If common sense were true, why should science have had to brand the secondary qualities, to which our world owes all its living interest, as false, and to invent an invisible world of points and curves and mathematical equations instead? Why should it have needed to transform causes and activities into laws of ‘functional variation’? Vainly did scholasticism, common sense’s college-trained younger sister, seek to stereotype the forms the human family had always talked with, to make them definite and fix them for eternity. Substantial forms (in other words our secondary qualities) hardly outlasted the year of our Lord 1600. People were already tired of them then; and Galileo, and Descartes, with his ‘new philosophy,’ gave them only a little later their coup de grace. (William James, Common sense and Pragmatism, NY: Longman Green, 1907, p 73)

do not believe that the non-existence of God is self-evident or obvious. In fact, I think that the existence of some sort of god, based on our ancient perceptions of cause and effect, is common-sensical–that is, it makes sense to ordinary people. But atheists have a responsibility to reject the self-evidentialism that has made its way down the totem pole to people who think the existence of God is an established “conclusion” and that philosophical discussion (along with history and a few other encumbrances) is a waste of time. God, it seems to them, is not worth arguing about any more. The only work remaining is to get other people to see it their way. As a Zen master, a goomba packing heat, or a spirit-filled Christian might say, Don’t even think about it.

The Tomtens Discover God

by admin Posted on December 4, 2011


Once upon a time in the dark Norwegian forest a clan of tomtens were busy at work making straw men for their screed patch.

The tomtens had been doing this for so long that they had forgotten who had made the first straw man or why.

The oldest of the clan, Leif Gunderson, said that his father, Gunder Leifson, had told him it was because of the trolls who raided the patch to steal the prickly pompouskins.

The screed patch was the only field in the north country where pompouskins grew freely and the maker of the tomtens, Bradi Boddason, had made it their sacred duty to protect the pompouskins at all costs–even if it meant losing their red hat or having their beard tweaked.

a clutch of pompouskins

Olaf Olafson, who was a November younger than Leif, said that his father, Olaf Olafson, had told him it wasn’t the trolls they needed to fear but a band of marauding courtier gnomes who had learned to read and write–and had learned magic.

‘They were spreading their teaching in something called ‘books’ said Olaf.

“They have invented a way of drawing the runes on bark, to teach their ways.”

But the last courtier gnome had left the forest a hundred Novembers ago, and the old tomtens said he was more than a thousand Novembers old at the time.

Some of the younger tomtens doubted this, and they were punished for their rudeness by having to make ten extra strawmen every day. Over time, the tomtens were running out of room for the strawmen, and had even discussed starting a new screed patch.

None of the tomtens had ever seen a troll. They only knew the stories their grandfathers had told them and the commandment:

The tomten law is to use straw

The trolls to scare: Ye thieves beware!

ne day, while gathering straw for their straw men, Sven Svenson saw a curious thing poking up from the ground just next to his haycart

Sven took his spade and began to dig carefully around the object, which looked very old and very delicate to him. It had a hard cover, like a box, but was unfinished on three sides, and came open and was filled with sheets of the thinnest bark. The sheets had been marvelously sewn together and fastened to the box.

The bark was finer than any Sven had ever seen, and covered with black signs on both sides. ”I will take this to Gunder,” he thought and turned to join the other tomtens near the screed field.

Just as he turned, a voice behind him said,

Give me the book, Sven Svenson. It is not for the likes of you.”

A Troll from Screedhagen

Sven turned to see an enormous troll–the kind his grandfather had described–at least four feet tall with mere whispets of hair and enormous hands and bare feet. He wore a filthy tunic and carried a heavy wooden club.

Sven’s tomten heart was racing: he knew he was the only tomten in the northland who had ever seen a troll. But he knew as well that if the troll became angry, or hungry, he would eat him.

“The what?” said Sven, clutching the object more tightly. ”What do you call it?”

“Don’t play with me little tomten. You haven’t the wit. The book. Let me have it. Tomtens cannot understand it. Even trolls cannot understand it. Only the courtiers.”

“Who are the courtiers,” asked Sven.

“They are taller, taller even than me. And they have fair skin, fairer than ours. And they do not smell like us. They have made this story. They have made this book. It is about the gnome who made them.”

Sven Svenson

“Oh yes, like Bradi Boddason made us,” Sven said eagerly.

“Give me the book Sven,” said the troll more impatiently “It is not for the likes of you. It has great thoughts and we are small, you smaller even than me.”

“Tell me, sir, because I see you are a man of learning, unlike us tomtens who spend all day making straw men to keep your kind from our pompouskins, what is in the book?”

The troll sighed.

“I do not know exactly. My grandfather Harrald knew a courtier. He told me that the gnome they believe in is called God–something like that. They say he made sky and earth and the forest and the deer. They say he lives in the sky and had a son. I reckon his name would be God Goddson.”

“Is his wife a wealth-sucker like Hrungnir? How many daughters does he have?”

The troll shook his head in annoyance, his tiny eyes glowing red, startling Sven.

“No, no. There is no wealth-sucker. There is only him. He makes by himself. He makes everything–all the trolls, the gnomes, the forest. Then he grows tired of it and washes it away in fury, in a great rain. Then he remakes it but becomes unhappy with it. So he promises to set fire to it one day.”

“Not even the hags are so vicious!”, said Sven.

“The courtiers do not see it our way. They say he is good and merciful. They pray to him.”

“So as not to set fire to them?” said Sven.

“I am not sure,” said the troll. ”They say he likes prayer.”

“Our skald, Bersi Skaldtorfuson was captured by Olafr Haroldson and sang many sad songs about us, but none as sad as this. I feel sorry for the courtiers.”

“As well you should, Sven. And that is why I say: the book is not for the likes of you. It is why we drove the courtiers away, and without the prickly pompouskins we could not have done even that.”

“The pompouskins,” said Sven, a glimmer reaching his eye. “You pelted them with pompouskins.”

“It is all we had,” said the troll. ”Now, of course, we would use arrows.”

“So, you do not want the pompouskins from our screed fields.”

The troll looked suddenly amused. “We have no need. We haven’t come near the screed field in many Novembers, not since we learned the secret of the long bow and how to sharpen sticks. But, my father said, how the courtiers hated being pelted with prickly pompouskins by trolls. His stories always made me laugh.” The troll’s face relaxed. It looked almost kind.

Sven handed the book to the troll. The troll turned to go his way.

“Where will you take it?,” he asked, “To the courtiers?”

“No,” said the troll. ”I am going to bury it somewhere else, somewhere where it will never be found. –A desert perhaps, far to the south and east of this forest.”

“I pray it will never be found,” said Sven.

“You are a wise little tomten,” the troll said as he strode away.