Canto II: Umm ul-Banin


When Dante visited the moon

Beatrice explained about vows.

 “A vow’s a pact,” she said “between man and God,

but moons come and go, so don’t swear by them.”

Maybe he laughed at that, because she was young,

and had no right lecturing him in his dreams,

a spirit torn from his side. What can a girl know about vows?

When he first saw her, she was trembling like a dove.

She said “You’ll have to go through strange gates and dark alleys

into cities wet with spilled excuses.

You’ve got to pass this way. there’s no short cut.

You’ll see whatever you want to see.

“On the other side, there is a mountain

and from the top ledge you can see God.

It’s worth it, though–the crossing: He is beautiful,

and the best thing is, no one who sees him remembers

anything they’ve seen before,

not the crying, not being stung by wasps.

Not the smell of the Florentine women–

 ‘Donne, ch’avete intelletto d’Amore’–

Ladies who know all about love.’

“You’ll forget having your eyelids pierced

and weighted with leaden pendants so that you can can’t  see truth

staring you in the face.  It’s rumour of course,

but God’s more beautiful than the moon.”

So they walked towards the river and for the first hundred yards

she held his hand.  Then he stumbled.

It was dark when he climbed into the rotting boat

that smelled like all the sins he had committed as a child.

He wasn’t sure, in the dark, in the cloak,

But he thought it was her. He wanted it to be her.

He rode  the yellow sadness of Acheron, filled with naked men,

eyes alight with flaming  coals. He saw starved falcons overhead,

thick as mosquitoes over a dead lake.

He saw Charon lobbing his oar against bodies clutching the sides of the

boat, turning the way forward into a slow trawl.

He saw pale arms rising and falling back into the black torpor,

drowning in waltz time, in little circles.

“It’s too much.” he said: “Here’s an extra five dollars,

I don’t care how beautiful God is. Take me back.”

He turned to her, but he saw instead the shadow of a poet

who said,  “I’ll take you farther. You must go farther, because, as

She said, there is a mountain you’re meant  to climb.

She wants it for you.”

“I have no legs, for mountains,” he said, “I do not want

To be a poet.  I do not want to drown.”

But by then the boat had forked upriver:

Charon grinned as the water widened.

She stood on the other side, a firelight on the shore

fading like the glow of the moon behind a broken cloud.

Mrs Prufrock

Mrs Prufrock

Well,  I remember the hips,

from my station in the bed.

Your husband was long gone

not even a trace of cologne,

not the underwear that hemmed

him in while you played possum in bed.


Old strategies die hard:

what we were at twenty two,

what we are now, not ingenues.

I tried to lure you back

but roaches you said would

come if you did not do  dishes

then and there, with soap.

Your husband came and went,

and years, and hips.

I lost a soul, you lost

your lips.


I used to run. Now I can

barely walk, and have to roll

my pants-legs up:

and you can run rings around me.

An aging woman’s but a

distant thing. Your mother’s

querulous voice, your fore-

knuckle growing large on

undistinguished hands,

like a walnut, the firm breasts

begging for more time and

fewer veins.


You might have been

an anchor, or a dock: but no–

a temporary storm on a black sea

where there is no harbour,

no light, no, nor rising sun.

God and We the People

At the end of the film Henry V, a single tenor voice intones , Non nobis, non nobis, Domine…

He is joined by a few others, until in the end a whole chorus (with orchestra) crescendos to complete the verse: Sed nomini tuo da gloriam. The passage is from Psalm 115,  the bit of the Roman Easter liturgy where the priests, hearing the lines,  would kneel in abasement: “Not to us, not to us, O Lord, but to your name give glory.”

The verse became a familiar song of the Knights Templar during the Crusades, but its most famous use was in 1415 when the English, against  heavy odds and a superior army, defeated the French at Agincourt.

It was easy to see the battle in biblical terms–and the English never tired of attributing their unlikely victory to divine intervention. Except, of course: Henry V of England and Charles VI of France were Christian kings, fighting under the banner of the same God–not Israel’s armies ranged against idol-worshiping enemies whose gods “are silver and gold” (Ps 115.4-7).  Invoking a God whose inscrutable will was never known until his competing worshipers lay scattered over the battlefields of Europe (and later America) and the score  tallied was one of the reasons this God had to go.

I am beginning with that scenario because  God has been the commander in chief for most of human history. The wars that were fought were fought in his name. The blood that was spilled was often considered a sacrifice to his glory–the blood of soldier-martyrs, blessed through violence.  Even Lincoln, no war-lover, taught that the field at Gettysburg had been “consecrated ” by blood.  It is one of the vulgarities of war that the bloodier the battle, the greater the sacrifice, the more hallowed the ground:  “As they danced, they sang: ‘Saul has slain his thousands, but David his tens of thousands.'” (1 Samuel 18.7).

The Lord God of hosts was a war god in his youth: he protected his property and his family (like any dues-paying NRA member) and visited his wrath on the enemies of his people with stunning severity.

As he aged, God fought less and spoke more, but through men called prophets. As people listened less, they lost more–finally the whole game.  By the time the Romans got to Palestine at the end of the second century BCE, the “kingdoms” of Israel and Judah were  little more than a poetic reminiscence, tolerated by a succession of warring overlords who had ruled the area for hundreds of years:

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy;  they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

As an icon of his glorious past, God was reinvented by Christian armies, Muslim armies, and the armies of nations that considered themselves (by common descent or adoption) the rightful possessors of his earthly dominion.  Abraham’s children have habitually behaved like children everywhere, throughout time, fighting over daddy’s estate. There’s still no end in sight–though daddy seems weirdly detached from the goings-on.

In the era of kingship, God was invoked as a kind of absent father, but of a distinctly no-nonsense, sovereign variety.  There was an advantage to that. No matter how unjust or imbecilic the reigning monarch, God king over all creation, in an argument that reached back to biblical times, could always be invoked. God is king.  The king is–well–the king. Long live the king! Naturally this theory ran afoul of the Church where beginning in the 11th century and ever after through the Middle ages the argument could run, The king is king, but the Pope is God’s representative on earth. Thus began the longest running battle for political ascendancy the world has ever known: the one between church and state, eventually won, more or less, by the state and abetted by a religious revolution called the Reformation and an intellectual one called the Renaissance. Oddly, in both of these movements–in art, literature, poetry and music–God seemed more robust and more down to earth than he had ever been.

But seems is not was. As theories of “divine right” faded and republican and constitutional forms of government replaced monarchial ones, he was invoked less frequently.  Only in the early twentieth century was his fall as lord, king, judge and lawgiver fully confirmed, and the idea of the “secular” state–an idea that had been around in philosophy for at least two centuries prior–became the new model of political straight-thinking.


Yet, I miss God.  For my own reasons.

I fully accept in that “God does not exist,” if by that statement we mean the God of the Bible and the God of the Church. I am, however, not an atheist with respect to all possible formulations of the idea of God (not what Flew would call an impossibilist) and while I have a poor idea of how a credible formulation might run, I think the biblical one is historically valuable and culturally interesting. It is therefore literally false and culturally valuable, because it tells us the weakness of all such formulations, at least at a literary level. God is made in man’s image–just as,  in an inverted way, the Bible tells us.

I often irritate my more militant atheist friends when they start their God-bashing binges by saying that people must have been as ignorant as geese to ever believe the things in the Bible.

But no:  they were just people who believed what they believed.  They believed it because there was little else to believe.  They rose with the sun and went to bed when it disappeared beneath the horizon.  They had no books. Why would they? They couldn’t read.  The biblical world was not that different from the world they observed.

The physical and religious circumstances of the biblical writers and people of the European Middle Ages were remarkably similar, though they are separated by over a thousand years.  Like the priests of biblical Jerusalem, the priests of the church (doing their job with the books they had) told people what to believe. God was God, now assisted by his only-begotten son, and he could save you or punish you, just as in olden days he had sometimes saved his people and sometimes punished them by cutting them off from his favor. Those two conditions–primarily political and territorial in the Old Testament–became something else in the Church:  heaven and hell, with earth and the church, the dispenser of God’s grace, in between.  The psychology of why such a God came into being, why he had to be periodically remodeled and saved from himself is disappointingly and thoroughly human and social.

At least since Feuerbach (d. 1872)  the conclusion that God is what we made him has been inescapable.  But it is also often ignored. It is obviously ignored by very religious people, who continue to believe that the God of the Bible exists “out there” somewhere and affects their lives and futures.

But the same kind of dyshistorical thinking also applies to atheists, who deny God exists, but need something to blame for all the outrages that have been committed in his name, and so often take the same sort of fundamentalist tack to the biblical story.  They reify ignorance, ignore history and identify the problem as “religion,” an odd conclusion from people who purport also to champion the development of the species through evolution and adaptation.

Their mistake is and continues to be to meet the fundamentalist on his own ground, rather than on the field of history.

The most impressive example of this illogic is Richard Dawkins’s bumper sticker line, that “Most of us are atheists with respect to 99% of the gods who have ever existed; some of us just go one step further.”  The presumed-to-be-self-evident point here is that if 99% of gods are false, there is a high probability that any god must be false.

This is shocking stuff, coming from a scientist who might be expected to know that it would take only 1 case of a “true god” to falsify 99 cases of false ones.  The analogy of earth adrift in an otherwise unpopulated universe: Are we alone?  There is of course a
“naturalist”  argument against such possibilism (e.g. we know the conditions for life beyond earth because we know the conditions necessary for it to happen; we do not know such conditions for the existence of God);  but it’s unnecessary to make it here since I agree with Dawkins’s conclusion if not with his way of reaching it.

What is true is that the God of the Judaeo Christian-Islamic tradition does not exist; we know this because we know how he developed, how his story was invented–and was changed.

Anyway, no one will miss the God of the philosophers, as dull, bloodless and expendable an entity as ever has been imagined, and very few will miss the God who soaks the world for all its evildoing in the time of Noah.  (The sufficient disproof of the latter is that he hasn’t destroyed Las Vegas or went plagues on the Taliban,  and if Hurricane Katrina or the multiple tsunamis of the past decade were really meant for Washington DC, he is obviously losing his grip on geography.)


The God I miss is a God of lost causes and noble pursuits, a historical residue, an adaptation of what’s left when the God of the Bible has been forgiven for his crimes against humanity.  –An idea, not a tangible reality, but something that is still separate from our better selves.

Feuerbach hits the nail head on when he writes in his Lectures on the Essence of Religion (XXX)

God, I have said, is the fulfiller, or the reality, of the human desires for happiness, perfection, and immortality. From this it may be inferred that to deprive man of God is to tear the heart out of his breast.

Unfortunately this breast-rending sense of God has been replaced by a completely unworthy substitute, at least in the United States.  The American People.

The mistake begins with the language of representative democracy, the United States Constitution being, I think, the first document in world history that doesn’t come from the top down–king or emperor and parliament to the people by edict.  It goes bottom up: We the people. Never mind that it would have been impossible for “We the people” to write anything and that it took a committee of fairly learned men to produce the document, but one thing it doesn’t do is to drag God into the business of government.

In a famous clause of the First Amendment, it actually, if politely, excuses him from further service. No God reigns here.  No monarch gloriously rules as his vicar.  No act of parliament requires an act of allegiance to his Church. We the people are who we are, and who we are is The American people.

Most the people in the world know that the American people are mostly religious. So religious that they sometimes look skeptical when we boast that we are the first country ever founded on the principle of separation of church and state.  Looking at the deals congressmen have to make to keep their pious Baptist and Jewish and Catholic clients happy, it is easy to forget that invoking the will of God in the way, say, a feudal king might have done,  a medieval pope, or even a modern mullah, is not done here.  At least not officially.

We the people have taken his place–rhetorically.

The American people will not be fooled by the President’s shenanigans.  The American people will not tolerate congressional gridlock.  The American people deserve answers/to know the truth/a full explanation. The American people will see this bill [insert name] for the bureaucratic pork it is. The American people will reject this bill because they respect human life.  The American people want jobs not entitlements. The American people deserve to have both sides of this issue debated fully, and hence  will not permit it to come to the floor for a vote.  The American people….

Why do the American people deserve so much, when some of the American people can’t quote even the first line of the Preamble to the Constitution, and some (an alarming percentage as I recall) would like to see limits on freedom of speech and would be very happy to see separation of church and state relaxed, Christianity taught in schools, the Bible restored to its previous, revered status in public education, and old fashioned (family) values incorporated into everything from town council meetings to media censorship to senior proms.

Why do the American people deserve so much?


The American people are wise.  They are innately good and great-hearted.  Their wrath is great when you cross them–look at their armies and navies–but when you see eye to eye with them they are  kind, and patient, and even (often) bountiful. They are financially shrewd and naturally prosperous.   They are self-reliant, independent.  They are just super.

They are therefore a useful substitute for the God who can’t be invoked.  I am humming the Battle Hymn of the Republic as I write, the most flagrant hybrid of the secular and religious commitments ever penned.

The American people want to see a quick end to this conflict.  The American people will  not tolerate the idea that aggression can be rewarded.  The American people do not want to see Gitmo a single day more, or the environment compromised by greedy men who are just interested in quick profit and development .  The American people do not want their children to be saddled with debt.  The American people think that everyone who is willing to work should be able to work.

There is nothing directly wrong with using this highly charged phrase as the secular equivalent for a God who has been relegated to the sidelines of history.

As long as we recognize that it takes us right back to the days of Henry V of England and Charles VI of France.  It is the same schizophrenic approach to political life that characterized the primitivism of the Middle Ages and led to Endless War: one God, many purposes–none of them self-consistent, all of them subject to the whims and objectives of the invoker.

I am worried that a God who evolved through history and was then cast aside when he had developed humanitarian impulses can be replaced by The American People, whose sole interests seem to be war, taxes, profit, self-interest, and finding the right enemies of the state.  Can it be the God who was cast aside was too inconvenient, and that the secular was less demanding, less judgmental, more convenient and accommodating to conscience?  After all, the God of the Bible (Dawkins be screwed), evolved; the secular state is still an experiment in the process of proving itself.

When Mitch McConnell and Barack Obama, or lesser avatars,  invoke the American People, they may have the Constitution and the good of the Republic in their line of sight, but I doubt it. They are simply invoking something bigger than they are–andwith the justification that (like God with kings) The American People put them where they are.

The wishful thinking is that the American people will not be able to resist appeals to their innate wisdom and honor and will not notice that their government is simply massaging them into thinking its bad (and sometimes horrible) decisions are what they wanted all along–symbolized by the magical liturgy of voting–the supreme power of the electoral process.

The American people demand an honorable end to this war.  The American people stand for freedom and justice and cannot walk away from this struggle. The American people will fight as long as it takes to protest their interests. The American people want to see justice done to the poor and the homeless. But the American people know that the way to achieve this is not to raise the minimum wage. The American People will reject any attempt to raise taxes. The American People want to see their Constitutional freedoms protected. The American people want to see their borders secure….

Our ancestors enjoyed the luxury of projecting these contradictions outward, or upward, and thus externalizing them as forces they were not themselves able to control, except through prayer and wishing.

God had no obligation to respond favorably because, after all, his will was only known after the fact.

When I read the words of a Henry II, or a Thomas Becket or a Pope Urban II (the one who called the First Crusade) or even an Osama bin Laden,  I am struck that the “externalizing” also created an important fiction–the idea that God, or God in history, will judge true and false actions.  It is one of the principles  that the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, one the three greatest thinkers America has produced,  made a pillar of his “democratic” philosophy.  I’ve discussed Niebuhr’s thoughts previously in these pages, but I think it’s worth mentioning something again.

The rejection of the Bible, and indeed of Christianity, is not the beginning of wisdom, political or philosophical.  Not if that rejection does not include all forms of idolatry, as Niebuhr called it–false faith in non-existent saviours.  I hate to say it, but there is no such thing as The American People.

The beauty of biblical thinking actually derives from the belief that the worship of the true God separates what is noble from what is false, what is worth “worshiping” from what must be rejected or even demonized.  Beneath the materialism  of the Biblical language are some important values that are lost if we simply substitute the people for God.   History has seen lots of secular equivalents–Das Deutsche Volk und Reich, The Chinese People, the American People, even the growing use of the meme “Our Children” meaning our responsibility to the future.

But the crisis of this way of thinking–this use of The American People  as a secular proxy for an absent God, becomes apparent as soon as we wonder, What thing of ultimately symbolic value, what coherent symbol of our aspirations and better selves, what criterion for justice, what instantiation of beauty or love,  even of anger, can take the place the God?

If the God of Abraham, the God of Constantine, of Henry of England and Charles of France and the God of Lincoln (Abraham’s namesake) didn’t measure up, one thing is sure: The American People is a very poor substitute   Non nobis, Domine!

Quodlibet: Of Gay and Plural Marriage

I am almost alone (maybe Jeremy Irons is with me), but I am still not on board with gay marriage. This makes me a one eyed, probably dead pig. But please understand, I love an argument. Marriage has never been about love; and as divorce rates among gays show, it still isn’t.

The New Oxonian

Does the irreversible trend toward legalizing same-sex marriage augur good tidings for proponents of polygamy, especially the reconstruction Mormons (Reorganized Church of Latter Day Saints) and other groups who support the practice?

An article in the July 20 New York Times raises the question, and another by Joanna Brooks, who was raised a conservative Mormon, hints at how lively this discussion is going to be—or already is.

Or will the noise stop when the definition of marriage contained in the “Defense of Marriage Act,” which defines a legitimate marriage as a union of one man and one woman is repealed.

Until the twelfth century the Christian church was not very interested in marriage, and when it got interested in it it was mainly because there were financial implications for the Church.

Rome needed to ensure that estates and the financial holdings of lords and barons were legitimately passed on and that anything due to…

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Catholics and the Contraceptive Conscience

A Reblog

The New Oxonian

The Catholic bishops think that they have a right to an opinion about contraception and abortion.  They do.  They also think that when they speak in the name of their Church, as custodians of its moral philosophy, to people who want to listen, they have a right to be heard.  They do.

Unfortunately they think as well  that when they are heard they deserve deference and to be obeyed.  They don’t.

The right of a church (or a religion) to teach is not the same as the obligation of the people to listen, especially when listening would mean setting aside one of the core principles of a constitutional democracy: the health and welfare of its population regardless of what any individual or group, religious or secular, considers sacred truth .

In the United States, among the 43 million fertile, sexually active women who do not want to become pregnant, 89% are practicing contraception

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Blasts from the Past Two Years

The New Oxonian

Two pieces in the last three days have opened my eyes to a new reality.  Being opened to a new reality doesn’t happen every day, probably because as you get older there are fewer realities that are actually new.  Just things you have forgotten that seem new when you rediscover them.

One article which was good enough to repost in its entirety came from Jacques Berlinerblau, who often says wise things and should be heeded when he does.  Jacques has commented frequently on the need for secularists and even atheists to learn table manners and not rely simply on the assumed rectitude of their position while trying to influence people and win converts.

They could learn a lesson from that old time religion, Christianity, where instead of just shouting at people, like John the Baptist did (and look what happened to him), St Paul professed to become all things to all men in order to win souls to his cause.  Eventually, that strategy made…

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Deep-end Dawkins

“Put the kids in the basement Mother, there’s one of them scientist fellers at the door.”

Religion as Child Abuse

Richard Dawkins

Short of saying, “The sun is shining today,” I’m not one to make scientific pronouncements.  I’m too afraid that a physicist who happens to be passing by will say, “Actually, no.  The sun may appear to be shining to you, but it does not shine. It gives off radiant energy in the form of heat and light. In fact using the formula (32 x 106) / (3.46 x 1016) = 9.25 x 10-10 where the area through which the sun’s radiation is pouring = 4 (pi) R2 = 3.46 x 1016 square miles only about  -90.3 dB, or one billionth of the sun’s radiation reaches the earth.  So ‘shining’ is not the word you want.”

Naturally you would not follow a correction like that with “Have a nice day,” let alone speculate about the chance of rain.

I was puzzling over assertions and pronouncements recently when I read that Richard Dawkins, a scientist who probably knows as much about radiation and energy as he does about biology and evolution, said that the teaching of religion amounts to child abuse.

Apparently he did not have in mind the coifed, grim-faced nuns who thwacked my hands with wooden rulers for getting math problems wrong (math being like catechism: there are only right answers and wrong answers). He was talking about religion in general and religious training of all flavors.  Like other new atheists, but unlike scientists in their realm, Dawkins doesn’t think in terms of “species” of religious belief: there’s just one big cavernous genus into which everything can be piled.  Religion.  That makes analysis a lot easier to do, because general (from genus) statements are much easier to make than specific (from species) ones.

Dawkins can defend the use of generalization (categorization) by saying that while science needs to be specific because it deals with facts, theology (religion tarted up as an academic pursuit) is one big gasbag with no facts in it, so better to call it what it is.

I am not going to rehash the familiar cavil that Dawkins is not a theologian and thus has no right to say anything about theology.

That’s absurd.  Most priests and ministers aren’t “theologians” either: they have been through three or so years of seminary and have not been fazed by serious theological study. Increasingly, they are linguistically inept, philosophically unformed and critically dumb.  That doesn’t stop them from climbing into a pulpit every Sunday and sharing the air with thousands of bored listeners, eager to get their souls washed and on to a KFC extra crispy traditional special.  I don’t think we should call Richard Dawkins any less of a theologian than they are.  Plus, while a priest gets a paycheck for exhibiting his ignorance, Dawkins works as a theologian for free—sort of pro bono—for which he should be commended.

I also don’t buy the idea that science makes no claim on religion.  Of course it does.  If it didn’t we could still believe in a lot of stuff that the evolution of ideas—including scientific ideas—has proved wrong.


Religion: A Dead Horse that Won’t Lie Down?

Most religious people aren’t worried any more that Galileo was right and the Church was wrong, something it shamefacedly confessed in 1992 with a nice letter of apology from the late Pope.  (Worry more about the masses of folk, religious and non-, who don’t know what the fuss was all about).  My many smart, sort-of-religious friends find Darwin’s theories and modern cosmological theory completely sensible, if not compatible with Genesis.  They manage to go to church (sometimes) and still use their library cards without fear of being exposed in the village square as double-dealers. They see the scientific view as the only rational explanation of how our world got here and how we got to be in it.   To think this way, they have to think that much of what they read in the Bible and what they might have learned in Sunday school is mythology and legend, very little of it historical (in the modern sense of the word) and some of it, at a different level of discussion, morally reprehensible.   This is not all they–or I –see: they also see poetry, tragedy, political intrigue, lessons for kings and servants, folk wisdom, flashes of brilliance, the darkness of hopeless wars and greed—and much more, some of it awful

I still need a brisk walk when I read the story of Jephthah in Judges 11 (he kills his daughter, on a promise to God) and the story of the Levite in Judges 19 (he carves his not-quite-dead girlfriend into twelve bits, after throwing her outside to be pack-raped by some love hungry teenagers, then sends a part of her to every tribe of Israel).   You hardly find stuff like that anymore, even on Discovery Channel.

The freethought websites now offer handy links to these “toxic texts” so that the unaware can be made wary, the assumption (correctly) being that no one actually reads the Bible and barely knows what’s inside it.  Leaving aside the fact that an unread book might not be psychologically traumatic to a non-reader, however, there’s also the fact that all ancient literature is violent.  –Ever read the story of the slaying of Hector in Iliad 22?  Of course you haven’t.  That’s because it was probably required on your school syllabus.  But unchanging human nature has always liked images of violence (including violent sex) and war, and its occurrence in religious texts from our distant past shouldn’t surprise us.  That “occurrence” says very little that is shocking about religion, but it does say something about what we like.  While the Greeks thought that the gods were prettier than us, both they and the Hebrews thought God was the sum total of our worst and best features, failings, and moral lapses.  The idea of God’s mathematical perfection and philosophical consistency is a construction of the Middle Ages: it isn’t there in the text because if wasn’t there in life, and one thing the ancients weren’t shy about was the grittiness of human existence.

Except  for some people named Ogletree down in Butte, Texas, who live in barricaded trailers and have twelve wives and eat dog because Leviticus permits it, there aren’t many people who become crazy because religion made them crazy or violent because religion made them violent.  In fact, the most recent research, funded by the Lilly Foundation,  shows the opposite: that religion performs a socializing function that is often missing in a purely secular or value-free environment.  If the Ogletree family is crazy they were crazy already. Even their Methodist neighbors think so—not to mention the liberal Episcopalians in Houston who only read about such sideshows when they read the Ogletrees have accidentally blown themselves up while preparing a fireworks display to announce the coming of the apocalypse.

The vast majority of Christians—even “American” Christians, the ones Richard Dawkins touts as the epitome of stupid and damaged–are “message people.” They like their religion lite and attractively packaged.   The most liberal of them won’t raise an eyebrow when you tell them the Bible is a collection of stories from the distant past and reflects the culture and values and wrong ideas we used to have—deficient moral ideas, bad ideas about fairness and justice and women (and men) and creation and nature. They might not blanch, either, when you say to them that God behaves like a scoundrel, a rough draft for all the petty despots (not to be confused with pretty depots) of the ancient Near East, that the Bible (and the Quran) justifies war and celebrates violence, that it reflects not the golden age of God’s people but a society we would find vomitously primitive if we had to live in it.

Most Christians either only “sort of” or do not believe that God labored for six days to make the world, that Mary was a perpetual virgin, that Jesus walked on water, rose from the dead, ascended into heaven, or is coming back to earth before the warranty on the Ford pickup runs out.  Oddly, many believe in God and might even believe that in some weird, undefined way (not that definitions are historically lacking) Jesus was his son or at least a player.  The American polls—Pew, Gallup, Barna Group, etc.—show only that most religious people are religiously confused, not dangerous.  It is why I have been arguing—for a long time—that what people need is more critical study about religion—not more physics and chemistry and exhortations about religion’s destructive potential.  If the proper study of mankind is man as the poet once said, the proper study of religion is the study of religion, not biology.

Undiscovered Philosophy? Unknown Bible ‘Facts’?

But many religious folk I know are also people who wonder why, after accepting all that they accept,  atheists need to evangelize on street corners or deface billboards and buses with signs that say, “Wake Up Fools: The Emperor is Stark Naked.”  When I read The God Delusion I wondered (and I am not the only one) how much reading in the philosophy of religion Professor Dawkins actually did before he leapt into print with his attacks on arguments—like those of Thomas Aquinas—that philosophers have been talking about and dismantling for six hundred years.  My answer to myself ranges from not very much to none at all.

The remarkable thing about The God Delusion was that it could ignore the entire history of philosophical critique and discussion, as though its author was the first to notice the weaknesses in medieval logic.  The Renaissance?  The Enlightenment?  Pico?   Bacon? Erasmus? Footnotes?  Attacking 13th century thinking in the early 21st was little bit like pointing out that a windmill can’t turn without wind.

The book gained a following because many of the people who read it were as ignorant of the history of religion and theology (which is “about nothing at all”) as Dawkins himself: trained in that peculiar Oxbridge system where before he was seventeen he had to choose which subject to read at university, he is the epitome of the narrowly trained, humanities-deficient guy who thinks literature and music are just fine as long as you recognize they don’t actually teach you anything.  Languages, history, philosophy, and assorted other subjects can ride in the back of the bus as long as science does the driving.  Atheists had long been seeking an intellectual messiah and in Richard Dawkins they found their Jesus.

The basic fallacy of Dawkins and his cohort from the beginning was a stubborn commitment to anachronism, as though he and his atheist buddies were the first to recognize the literal contradictions, the bloody-mindedness, historical inaccuracies, textual problems, and scientific primitivism of the Bible.  Dawkins’s fans (especially his ardent, religiously depressed American fans) considered him an “authority” –an innovator, even–for pointing, however vaguely and generally, to these things, and saying in exasperation (repeatedly)

 “I ask you, how can any reasonably intelligent man or woman believe this shit?”

The obvious problem with that applause line, in addition to it being a false dilemma, is that reasonably intelligent men and women have been talking about that shit for centuries.

Dawkins creates his own delusion when he asks his audiences to think that a five hundred year history of historical scholarship and a two century -old history of textual scholarship—much of it done, by the way, in Oxford lecture rooms and cloisters—has never taken place, never been incorporated into the (non-existent) discipline of theology.

The questioning of biblical authority didn’t start with Dawkins, or with Darwin, or even with Galileo, and the latter two barely questioned it at all: it has its own chain of development that starts as far back as Augustine and the church fathers, and is never quiet after that.

Augustine wrote that if a Christian takes the Bible literally he should not be surprised if a non-Christian laughs.  The philosopher Origen complains that the Greek anti-Christian writer Celsus had no appreciation of allegory and imagery, going as far as to say that the story of the temptation of Jesus by the devil is literally false and absurd because there is no point high enough on earth from which Jesus might have seen “all the kingdoms of the world” (Matthew 4.8)”   The Christian thinkers are followed in this by Muslim writers like Averroes (ibn Rushd) who says that the ones who take the sacred text of the Quran in its literal sense should not be permitted to quote it.  Last I looked, Augustine, Origen, and Averroes were still respected names in the history of theology, and Averroes also in the history of science—especially medicine, physics and astronomy, where his Arabic translations of Greek works preserved the scientific tradition for rediscovery in the west.

One of the reasons the sacred texts were locked up in inaccessible languages like Greek and Latin and classical Arabic for so long, Professor Dawkins might want to recall, is that the church and the mosque wanted to create a professional class of well-educated interpreters who would prevent the slide into emotionalism and fundamentalism that happened at the time of the Reformation, which in turn began as a movement against superstition and the supernaturalism of medieval Catholicism.   Yet, writes Dawkins, “The achievements of theologians don’t do anything, don’t affect anything, don’t mean anything.  What makes anyone think that theology is a subject at all?”

But they have done, and affected and meant immensely important things to the history of learning, because theology prior to the “partition” of knowledge in the post-Renaissance era encompassed  almost every area of learning.  Because its central questions were the big questions of God, man, and existence, there is scarcely an area where it did not affect the course of knowledge and discovery—not always for the good, but not always for the bad either.  As it stands–as it looks–Dawkins’s statement goes beyond customary outrageousness to simple, self-satisfied, unexamined historical ignorance.

In fact, it is safer to say that the problem all along has not been the Bible and religion as some bugaboo or ticking bomb, but the use of the Bible as proof-text—for a favorite idea, doctrine, political theory, or social or moral position. That is occasionally still a problem—whether we’re talking about abortion or “just war” or gay marriage.  But science has not solved these questions for us and the Bible did not create them: it reflects attitudes (sometimes—rarely–rules about them) that are culturally locked and loaded.  Science did not destroy biblical authority: the cumulative weight of history, archaeology, linguistics, political theory, and ethical self-awareness did.  Humanism (rightly defined) did.

In fact, “science” as the new atheists use the term, as an iconic form of truth,  was late to the game: Wycliffe, Biddle, Miguel Servetus and Erasmus did more harm to the “claims” of Christianity before the dawn of the sixteenth century than Darwin did three hundred years later.   Paine and Jefferson were harder on the idea of “revelation” than Darwin himself (and predate him).  Newton never doubted “the booke,” though he didn’t derive his laws from it; and the poster boy of free-thought saints, Galileo, lay buried in the same tomb with his eldest daughter, Sister Maria Celeste, in Florence.  The complexity of the relationship between religion (especially Christianity) and religion is not exactly infinite, but it is a lot more intricate than Professor Dawkins’s sloganeering makes it

If Dawkins wants to see religion cured, and the Ogletrees liberated from their trailer-park of superstition, he needs to get with the news that the critical and scientific study of religion is the “cure” he wants, not pep talks and rallies in which religion becomes simply the incarnation of human stupidity and religious people told to snap out of their intractable dullness .

The Bible Doesn’t Measure Up

The new atheists, to the extent that name still means anything six years on,  like their religion simple and funny. The Bible preaches bad morals that come from the lying mouth of a God who, if he were one of us, would be locked away for child abuse and rape.  After all, he defiles a virgin, gets another man to take the blame, arranges for his son to be killed, and threatens people with everlasting punishment if they disobey even the smallest of his rules.  Remember Noah? Nice.   Jesus, I was gratified to learn recently in an email from yet another atheist adept, was probably a pedophile himself.  That is, if he existed.  If he didn’t he was a mythical pedophile, which is even worse, because they are much harder to convict.  If God is all-knowing, why did he put the prostate near the urethra?  If God is all good, why can’t he give us the recipe to cure AIDS and cancer? Theologians call these little dilemmas “theodicy,” but in the hands of the new atheists they are simply idiocy, one-liners for the pep rallies and meet-ups that have become the mainstay of new atheist culture.

It’s hard to appeal for clear-headedness in this environment because the atheist faithful, like the religious faithful, have their own defenses and survival strategies.  (I’ve discussed these, often and soberly, on this site: look around).  They also have a messiah with a distinguished career in science, an Oxford doctorate, and a message they take as gospel.

But the problem is this: the Bible  cant’ be evaluated on the basis of how it measures up to modern science, any more than the Iliad you never read, or the Mayan Calendar, or even Aristotle’s Treatise on Animal Bodies or  Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius.  If modern science is perpetually in a state of self-correction and development, ancient literature is not. The slack we cut it is the slack required by the distance between us and them.  To an enormous extent, progress, even in the sciences, developed from the recognition that the ancient texts had it wrong—foremost the Bible.  Its value to science has been “antithetical” and indirect but it has had its place.   Of course we know more than the writers and tellers of biblical and Quranic stories knew; that is what makes us modern and them dead.  And one of the things we know is that it is mainly myth.  The question scholars ask about these texts is what do we learn about our past, early culture, the development of language, ideas, law, nature, ethics—and scientific thinking.

Not to respect antiquity is not smart; it is not bright; it is to be woefully indifferent as to how we became intelligent human beings—people like, if not quite as smart as, Richard Dawkins.  The atheist error that originates in Dawkins’s anti-religion polemic is to treat the Bible as though it has  intellectual standing in our own time, mistaking the fundamentalist yahoo’s limited understanding of the Bible as the totality of its relevance to human history.

The religion-fundamentalist error is that the Bible is true in our time and context. The Dawkins delusion is that the fundamentalist position can be answered as you would answer a set of propositions: P1: Jesus rose from the dead.  P2 No he didn’t because people don’t rise from the dead, etc.  If the conversation persists along those lines the Bible comes off as all wrong, all useless, and (because it encourages magical thinking and superstition) potentially harmful.

But the real answer—P3—will be lost in the shuffle:  Jesus lived at a time when people were thought to rise from the dead.  Or The story of the god of Genesis emerged at a time when the people of Mesopotamia worked in clay and fashioned figurines; that’s how Adam got his name.  Serious historical investigation (which, I admit, is compromised by media sensationalism: just look at the average cable lineup) has a wonderful way of desuperstitionizing existence.  Tell people the history of a thing and the miraculous and the incredible melt away: in fact, modern evolutionary studies and modern cosmologies are both histories.  My original statement about the sun shining is an historical statement, because the photons that hit my eyes were created within the sun tens of thousands of years before they were emitted and (in about eight minutes) travelled to earth.  People who are smart about those subjects will understand that the Bible deserves its history, and people need to learn it to learn about themselves.


And that brings me to my final point.  Dawkins’s suggestion that religious “indoctrination” is abusive is another one of those sloppy, unsupported and naïve statements that is designed merely to be outrageous, so extreme that I wonder if he actually wants to be remembered for saying it.  His protégé, the emotional and blusteringly self-promoting Lawrence Krauss wrote,  

“If you’re introducing it (creationism or Intelligent Design) as reality, if you’re telling your kids the world is 6,000 years old, and they shouldn’t believe scientists because there is no way humans are related to other animals, and don’t believe any of that stuff you learned in school, or take you kids of out of school because they are learning something, then it is like the Taliban at some level, which is an extreme form of child abuse.”

The Taliban and creationism?—perfect fit. Of course, it doesn’t get “simpler” than this, or more wrong.  Dawkins himself has been more careful, saying that religious indoctrination can be as “bad as child abuse” and that no child should be taught to accept the beliefs—Catholic, Muslim, Jewish—of his parents without being taught at the same time to question the claims made by religion.

And what claims are those?  The Bible is not a collection of claims.  It does not claim God made the world; it tells a creation story.  It does not claim Jesus rose from the dead, it tells a few stories, none of them consistent, about a resurrection.  Religion is not a collection of propositions.  True, certain churches and sects systematize their teaching as dogma and doctrine, but a large number of the faithful have no idea what those doctrines are (ask a pious Christian to explain the trinity).  I suspect most Roman Catholics believe that their Church’s teaching on abortion is an article of faith—maybe a core article: it isn’t; it’s merely social teaching based on a compendium of vague biblical references and ancient quotations.  Sad to say, it’s the ones that almost no one believes any more that occupy the core; trinity, the divinity of Jesus, the virgin birth, Eucharist  (the real presence), the Assumption of Mary (she went bodily upwards to heaven), original sin, sacraments, the plenary inspiration of scripture.  But here too, indeed especially here,  it is hard to say that the preaching of things no one quite understands or agrees with can be abusive. In most confessions, the door to the church swings both ways, although, alas, that’s not always true of the mosque.

However you frame it, religion did not develop as a set of logical conclusions.  The sacred texts of the world evolved from human experience and imagination, and (as a little anthropology can show), practices whose origins are often difficult to pin down.

Now that the age of priestcraft has passed and people can read for themselves, we have to rely on the ability of a reader to judge what’s true and what’s not, what is revolting and what is beautiful—like a psalm or hymn.  If Johnny can’t read and can’t think, religion isn’t the issue–and better science classes won’t help him.  One of the greatest proponents of this ironically was Luther, the father of the protestant reformation, whose Treatise of the Freedom of a Christian is one of the most eloquent defenses of freedom of conscience ever written.  It inspired the intellectualism and individualism of the seventeenth century and (though Luther would have regretted it) the conscientious objections to religion that characterized the age of reason.

To say the obvious, we live in a moment shaped by modernity and experience.  The fundamental worldview of the modern period is scientific, even if people who live in the twenty first century are ignorant of their own basic presuppositions, even if they can’t explain relativity, or particle theory, and think Higgs Boson is a pub in Wantage. I would agree that any parent or teacher who kept Johnny from learning math and science, to the extent he can learn it, would be abusive.  But the most we can do is teach him: after that he’s on his own.  A great help in that process would be to teach him about religion as well as about math, science, geography and history.  Why don’t the new atheists (and religious women and men) push for that—for insisting on a religious literacy that saves our children from the risk of thinking that myth and reality have the same epistemological standing.

What might help the most recalcitrantly stupid of religious people, of all sects, is not to be shouted down but to be persuaded that like everything else the existence of their faith  and the sacred books they read have a history.  And to teach them about that–fairly and knowledgably, not as a sequence of falsifiable “claims.” You won’t win the baptized over by calling them idiots, any more than the high school math teacher you despised got you to be a good student by telling you that you were destined to clean latrines.

Tell them God and his book have a history too. Make them learn it. It’s a process, not a war.

The Baltimore Catechism Annotated

Q: Who is God?

A.: God is the supreme being, infinitely perfect, who made all things and keeps them in existence.

“Supreme” …….. having nothing above it,

“being” ………… isness that can’t be compared

“infinite” ………..with nothing to love it,

“perfect” …………has never been scared.

“who made”…….i.e., fashioned, created

“all things”………cats, dogs, thunder, and mist

“keeps them” ….controls, and is fated

“in existence”.….to perpetually shake his big fist.