Spiritual adventures: aesthetical, ethical, and pharmaceutical 1

Sam Harris is an atheist. We like a lot of what he writes and says. Just recently one of our readers sent us this statement of his, which we acknowledge, sadly, to be most probably true:

For the rest of our lives, and the lives of our children, we are going to be confronted by people who don’t want to live peacefully in a secular, pluralistic world, because they are desperate to get to Paradise, and they are willing to destroy the very possibility of human happiness along the way.

We have watched videos of him lecturing. We have read some articles of his. And all with appreciation. So when we were sent his new book for review, we expected to like it.

Do we like it?

To read  Jillian Becker’s review of Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion by Sam Harris, click on its title in our margin, under Pages.

Posted under Atheism, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, Miscellaneous, Religion general, Reviews by Jillian Becker on Monday, August 18, 2014

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Edward Snowden: loyal to the people of America 2

These are extracts from a Washington Times report of an interview it had in Moscow with Edward Snowden, the man who “betrayed” the secrets of the National Security Agency (NSA):

Snowden is an orderly thinker, with an engineer’s approach to problem-solving. He had come to believe that a dangerous machine of mass surveillance was growing unchecked. Closed-door oversight by Congress and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court was a “graveyard of judgment” he said, manipulated by the agency it was supposed to keep in check. Classification rules erected walls to prevent public debate.

Toppling those walls would be a spectacular act of transgression against the norms that prevailed inside them. Someone would have to bypass security, extract the secrets, make undetected contact with journalists and provide them with enough proof to tell the stories.

The NSA’s business is “information dominance”, the use of other people’s secrets to shape events. … Snowden upended the agency on its own turf. …[and] succeeded beyond plausible ambition. The NSA, accustomed to watching without being watched, faces scrutiny it has not endured since the 1970s, or perhaps ever.

The cascading effects have made themselves felt in Congress, the courts, popular culture, Silicon Valley and world capitals.

The basic structure of the Internet itself is now in question, as Brazil and members of the European Union consider measures to keep their data away from U.S. territory and U.S. technology giants including Google, Microsoft and Yahoo take extraordinary steps to block the collection of data by their government.

For months, Obama administration officials attacked Snowden’s motives and said the work of the NSA was distorted by selective leaks and misinterpretations.

On Dec. 16, in a lawsuit that could not have gone forward without the disclosures made possible by Snowden, U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon described the NSA’s capabilities as “almost Orwellian” and said its bulk collection of U.S. domestic telephone records was probably unconstitutional.

The next day, in the Roosevelt Room [at the White house], an unusual delegation of executives from old telephone companies and young Internet firms told President Obama that the NSA’s intrusion into their networks was a threat to the U.S. information economy. The following day, an advisory panel appointed by Obama recommended substantial new restrictions on the NSA, including an end to the domestic call-records program. …

In the intelligence and national security establishments, Snowden is widely viewed as a reckless saboteur, and journalists abetting him little less so. …

It is commonly said of Snowden that he broke an oath of secrecy, a turn of phrase that captures a sense of betrayal. NSA Director Keith B. Alexander and Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr., among many others, have used that formula. …

Snowden noted matter-of-factly that Standard Form 312, the classified-information nondisclosure agreement, is a civil contract. He signed it, but he pledged his fealty elsewhere.

“The oath of allegiance is not an oath of secrecy,” he said. “That is an oath to the Constitution. That is the oath that I kept that Keith Alexander and James Clapper did not.”

Beginning in October 2012, he said, he brought his misgivings to two superiors in the NSA’s Technology Directorate and two more in the NSA Threat Operations Center’s regional base in Hawaii. For each of them, and 15 other co-workers, Snowden said he opened a data query tool called BOUNDLESSINFORMANT, which used color-coded “heat maps” to depict the volume of data ingested by NSA taps.

His colleagues were often “astonished to learn we are collecting more in the United States on Americans than we are on Russians in Russia,” he said. Many of them were troubled, he said, and several said they did not want to know any more.

“I asked these people, ‘What do you think the public would do if this was on the front page?’ ” he said. He noted that critics have accused him of bypassing internal channels of dissent. “How is that not reporting it? How is that not raising it?” …

By last December, Snowden was contacting reporters, although he had not yet passed along any classified information. He continued to give his colleagues the “front-page test”, he said, until April. …

Just before releasing the documents this spring, Snowden made a final review of the risks. He had overcome what he described at the time as a “selfish fear” of the consequences for himself.

“I said to you the only fear [left] is apathy — that people won’t care, that they won’t want change.”

The documents leaked by Snowden compelled attention because they revealed to Americans a history they did not know they had. …

With assistance from private communications firms, the NSA had learned to capture enormous flows of data at the speed of light from fiber-optic cables that carried Internet and telephone traffic over continents and under seas. According to one document in Snowden’s cache, the agency’s Special Source Operations group, which as early as 2006 was said to be ingesting “one Library of Congress every 14.4 seconds”, had an official seal that might have been parody: an eagle with all the world’s cables in its grasp.

Each year, NSA systems collected hundreds of millions of e-mail address books, hundreds of billions of cellphone location records and trillions of domestic call logs.

Most of that data, by definition and intent, belonged to ordinary people suspected of nothing. But vast new storage capacity and processing tools enabled the NSA to use the information to map human relationships on a planetary scale. Only this way, its leadership believed, could the NSA reach beyond its universe of known intelligence targets.

In the view of the NSA, signals intelligence, or electronic eavesdropping, was a matter of life and death, “without which America would cease to exist as we know it”, according to an internal presentation in the first week of October 2001, as the agency ramped up its response to the al-Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

With stakes such as those, there was no capability the NSA believed it should leave on the table. The agency followed orders from President George W. Bush to begin domestic collection without authority from Congress and the courts. When the NSA won those authorities later, some of them under secret interpretations of laws passed by Congress between 2007 and 2012, the Obama administration went further still. …

In the Moscow interview, Snowden said, “What the government wants is something they never had before,” adding: “They want total awareness. The question is, is that something we should be allowing?”

Snowden likened the NSA’s powers to those used by British authorities in Colonial America, when “general warrants” allowed for anyone to be searched. The FISA court, Snowden said, “is authorizing general warrants for the entire country’s metadata.”

“The last time that happened, we fought a war over it,” he said.

Technology, of course, has enabled a great deal of consumer surveillance by private companies, as well. The difference with the NSA’s possession of the data, Snowden said, is that government has the power to take away life or freedom.

At the NSA, he said, “there are people in the office who joke about, ‘We put warheads on foreheads.’ Twitter doesn’t put warheads on foreheads.”

Privacy, as Snowden sees it, is a universal right, applicable to American and foreign surveillance alike.

“I don’t care whether you’re the pope or Osama bin Laden,” he said. “As long as there’s an individualized, articulable, probable cause for targeting these people as legitimate foreign intelligence, that’s fine. I don’t think it’s imposing a ridiculous burden by asking for probable cause. …

When it comes to spying on allies, by Snowden’s lights, the news is not always about the target.

“It’s the deception of the government that’s revealed,” Snowden said, noting that the Obama administration offered false public assurances after the initial reports about NSA surveillance in Germany.  “The U.S. government said: ‘We follow German laws in Germany. We never target German citizens.’ And then the story comes out and it’s: ‘What are you talking about? You’re spying on the chancellor.’ You just lied to the entire country, in front of Congress.”

In hope of keeping focus on the NSA, Snowden has ignored attacks on himself.

“Let them say what they want,” he said. “It’s not about me.”

Former NSA and CIA director Michael V. Hayden predicted that Snowden will waste away in Moscow as an alcoholic, like other “defectors.” To this, Snowden shrugged. He does not drink at all. Never has.

But Snowden knows his presence here is easy ammunition for critics. He did not choose refuge in Moscow as a final destination. He said that once the U.S. government voided his passport as he tried to change planes en route to Latin America, he had no other choice. …  “I have no relationship with the Russian government. I have not entered into any agreements with them.”

“If I defected at all,” Snowden said, “I defected from the government to the public.”

We don’t think it likely that the NSA will stop its surveillance of the whole earth and your and our emails. It’s a power beyond the wildest dreams of all governments ever to be able to know everything about everyone, and now that it has become possible, and is being used, it will never be given up. No court judgment will stop it. No act of Congress. Preventing terrorist attacks is the excuse. Power is the reason.

At least we know about it now. For that we have to thank Edward Snowden.

“The Prophet Muhammad” did not exist 4

Muhammad the Prophet of Islam is fictitious.

In his new book Did Muhammad Exist? An Inquiry into Islam’s Obscure Origins, Robert Spencer demonstrates, with an impressive mass of detailed evidence and close logical reasoning, that Muhammad was invented, and that the Koran –  in all its versions – was written over a long stretch of time starting many decades after the imaginary life of the fictitious prophet ended (according to the fable) in 632 C.E.  

At a  joint meeting of the Middle East Forum and Gatestone Institute in New York City on April 24, 2012, the author spoke about his intentions in writing the book.

We quote from a report of his address by Tommaso Virgili of the Middle East Forum:

Did the Prophet Muhammad really exist, or was he a sacred myth fashioned by the Koran decades after his purported death? Robert Spencer has addressed this thorny question with a dual intent:

To serve the interests of freedom of expression as a rebellion against the tyranny of censorship by the likes of the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation and the leftist idolatry for political correctness, which attempt to silence any debate on Islamic issues.

To play in the Islamic world the same positive role that non-religious, scientific research played in Judaism and Christianity, triggering a rational debate that can lead to the rejection of strict literalism.

There is, he said “an abundance of historical evidence supporting this thesis” that Muhammad is a myth.

Particularly intriguing is the absolute absence of a mention whatsoever of Muhammad, Islam or the Koran, either by the Arab conquerors or the conquered, in written records, inscriptions, coins, etc. during 630-690, i.e. to the period of Muslim conquests following the (alleged) death of Muhammad.

Furthermore, the life of Muhammad is shrouded in mystery given that the first biographies were written no sooner than 125 years after his death, and it is well acknowledged by Muslim scholars, among others, that many of the hadiths which hand down sayings and actions of the Prophet are false, artfully created for political reasons.

Nor is the Koran itself a more reliable source: it is supposed to have been collected and distributed in its standard edition no later than in 653, but one cannot find any mention of it until the 690s, and the traces of Aramaic and Christian traditions inside the text indicate a well established contact with the conquered territories.

Indeed Robert Spencer demonstrates that there are plentiful and convincing signs of Christian and Jewish sources – deliberately distorted or misunderstood or both – for much of the Koran. In particular, a Syriac Christian document was plundered or plagiarized by the authors of the Koran – and in our opinion dumbed down even from the low standard of Christian documents. Dumb and dumber, one might say.

In conclusion, historical evidence tells a very different story from the traditional one, namely that of political and military events which occurred at a time when some Arabian tribes expanded at the expense of the “sick men” – the Persian and Byzantine empires – and which necessitated a glue to bind them together and to form a central focus of identification. And what could offer a better nucleus for the nascent Arab empire than religion?

We strongly recommend Did Muhammad Exist? An Inquiry into Islam’s Obscure Origins by Robert Spencer because, as he said, it is “a rebellion against the tyranny of censorship”. But also for reasons of our own. Islam is a revolting ideology and this meticulously researched and well reasoned study, by putting its lies and nonsense under the microscope of scholarship, is a serious blow against it. Wounding certainly. Crippling we hope. Death-dealing – time will tell.

Footnote; There is only one thing in the book we would take issue with: the theory that it is not a promise of 72 virgins that lures Muslim terrorists to paradise, but 72 raisins. We do not believe even a Muslim would kill himself for 72 raisins.

Posted under Commentary, Islam, Muslims, Reviews by Jillian Becker on Sunday, August 26, 2012

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Review: The Last Testament 6

The Last Testament: A Memoir by God (with David Javerbaum), Simon and Schuster, New York,  383 pages

God is a happily married divinity. He and his wife, Ruth (yes, she of the Book) have three children, Zach, Jesus, and Kathy.

Zach’s nickname is “the Holy Ghost”, H.G. for short.

Kathy begged for a sojourn on earth to enjoy some martyrdom, so God sent her to be Joan of Arc.

Jesus is “a classic middle child”. His frequent weeping irritates his father (“the kid was a pussy”). When Jesus wanted to be born as a human being, God was strongly against it.

“My son, a person?” I screamed at him.

However, after much cajoling by Ruth (“It might just be the best thing that’s ever happened to our little Jeez. Would you think about it, dear? For me?” ), God “softened somewhat”. He explains to the human reader:

At least insofar as accepting that Jesus was my son; and that as his father it was my duty to support him in whatever career path he chose to follow; even one as patently silly as dying for thy sins.

So for his sake, and Ruth’s, I swallowed my fury; and told him that whatever help he needed, I would provide; and whatever trials and tribulations he would face on his mission, I would help see him through. So that when it was all over, if Jesus’s time on earth ended (as I was sure it would) in some kind of nightmarish ordeal,

At least he could not accuse me of forsaking him, or leaving him hanging.

As we know from a previous Testament, he didn’t keep that promise. By his own account – confirming the information provided in two previous Testaments – he is a mischievous deceiver.

Far worse, he is a sadist. He candidly admits that he likes watching human beings suffer.

For lo, I had destroyed the world in a Flood; I had razed the Tower of Babel; I had leveled Sodom and Gomorrah [not for being gay-friendly cities but for being “the twin hubs of a massive international money-laundering operation”]; all manner of catastrophe had I already visited upon you, in the name of righteousness;

Yet it was only then – after finding myself enthralled by the slow silent agony of one I greatly loved [Abraham as he prepared to sacrifice his son];

I say, it was only then, that I first began to consider the possibility, that there was something seriously wrong with me.

He confesses the “real reason” why he allowed Job “to be so horribly afflicted”.

“It was not to test Job, but to test me.

I wanted to see if I could watch him endure his agonies without experiencing any of that same unnameable thrill I had derived from watching the binding of Isaac … and the countless other atrocities and tragedies that I had over the centuries allowed – or, sometimes, caused – to happen.

Such as the Crusades:

For pure spiritual entertainment, nothing compared to the Crusades …

There is nothing more gratifying than watching tens of thousands of people express their undying love for thee by running through tens of thousands of other people who possess equally undying love for thee with a pike.

(Especially knowing that in the end, the theological problems of two great faiths amounteth not to a hill of beans in thy crazy world.)

He’s also politically correct, and like any lefty he will boast of his compassion without minding that his deeds contradict his words.

How he feels for Goliath!  The giant had to be killed by David  – God guided the killing stone himself  – but the poor guy’s death caused the King of the Universe more than a pang or two. “Never have I felt more sadness about ending a life,” he says, because:

Goliath was a faithful husband; Goliath was a trusted friend; Goliath was a community activist; Goliath worked with troubled youth in inner-city Gaza; Goliath was cofounder of the Philistine Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

He’s no deep thinker. He offers no profound analysis of why he created the universe or the way he’s run it. His tastes are not refined.

“No anecdote or commentary I provide [of the story of Joseph in Egypt] could ever improve upon Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”

And when he effects, with difficulty, the conception of Jesus through a “miraculous act of asexual reproduction”, in order to show the world “from the start that he was both Word and flesh; Man and God; a subtle concept we knew would be difficult of comprehension”, he adds: “Indeed, I myself have never really figured it out.”

His Testament is a tell-all book that doesn’t quite tell all. He will not divulge the secrets of the afterlife. He doesn’t offer the least illumination of his “mysterious ways”. In  fact, he couldn’t do that if he wanted to:

I move in mysterious ways; and my reason for doing so is even more mysterious; and the reason for that reason’s mysteriousness is so mysterious, even I forget what it is.

Yet he craves understanding and sympathy (in addition to burnt offerings). After much boasting and gloating and wisecracking, a cri de coeur of existential doubt bursts from him:

For 6,000 years I have tried to be the kind of God people could believe in; but recently I have come to question the very nature of my divinity. …

What is wrong with me, me? …

I feel useless.

I feel like there’s no point in going on.

Maybe humanity would be better off without me …

So I’m turning to me.

I’m putting it all in my hands.

Yea, I made the universe; I made mankind; out of me spools the totality of all that ever was and is and ever will be.

But who am I?

Why am I here?

Do I even exist?

God knows.

I am the Lord everyone’s God, King of the Universe. …

I am he to whom people turn for comfort after being devastated by acts of me.

And I am he in whose name  hundreds of millions of people have given their lives, or taken others'; and they would not do that for just anybody. …

But I am the entity without whose constant presence all of humanity would plummet into reason.

And I amback!!!!

Still he needs to go into rehab, spending “a few months in a secluded fractal of the tenth dimension getting my head together”.

He returns with “a new self-acceptance”, in time for the run-up to Armageddon which he and H.G. and Jesus have definitely scheduled for December 21, 2012 – unless The Last Testament sells well enough to justify “a little wiggle room to leave time for a sequel”.

Unaccountably, he cannot foretell if his book will be a success.

He fears it may cause offense to Muslims, although he treats Muhammad gingerly, feeling “great apprehension concerning the writing of this section”.

I am Allah, the Wise, the All-Powerful, yet these days even I get a little nervous talking about Islam.

He indemnifies his publishers “from any and all outrage, fatwa, or all-out jihad that may result from the contents of the portions of this book pertaining to Islam.”

No doubt the old rogue savors the irony that the most appreciative readers of his Last Testament are likely to be atheists. He might even have written it specially for them.

Jillian Becker    November 1, 2011

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Note to our readers:  The publishers of The Last Testament have let us know that “God could not be more thrilled” with our review. 

Posted under Atheism, Christianity, Humor, Islam, Judaism, Reviews, satire by Jillian Becker on Tuesday, November 1, 2011

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Review: God, No! 14

God, No! by Penn Jillette, Simon & Schuster, 231 pages (published today)

Penn Jillette is half the comedy-magic act, Penn & Teller.

God, No! is full of real-life stories, some of them exuberantly pornographic. It doesn’t tell you how the magic tricks are done, or even describe any, but it does tell you a lot about Penn Jillette.

In the entertainment industry there may be many atheists, but few say they are. Penn Jillette does, and for that we applaud him.

We know there are very few stars of stage, screen and television who are not lefties. Penn Jillette is one of the few, and for that too we applaud him.

He states plainly and emphatically what he means.

Reading the Bible is the fast track to atheism.

There is no god and that’s the simple truth.

You have to make it clear to everyone, including your children, that there is no god.

It’s amazing to me how many people think that voting to have the government take money by force through taxes to give poor people money is compassion.

Atheism was a real comfort to me when my mother and sister died. … I could never have understood suffering as part of an all-powerful god’s “plan”.

There is a world of safety in doubt. The respect for faith, the celebration of faith, is dangerous. It’s faith itself that’s wrong.

One of the stories is about an orthodox Jew who loses his faith. With Penn’s assistance he orders, and much enjoys, his first non-kosher meal. But not yet being comfortable with his atheism he asks himself, “Who will take care of me?”

Another new atheist says: “For me the biggest part of letting go of god was holding myself accountable for my own actions… It felt safer to be a passenger in my own life than to take the wheel.”

Perhaps with time, experience, and Penn’s influence, those two came to feel as excited as Penn himself clearly is to be responsible for themselves, as happy as he is to be free.

Posted under Atheism, Humor, Reviews by Jillian Becker on Tuesday, August 16, 2011

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God Is Not Great 4

This review was written in 2007, the year the book was published. It needs to be on our pages.

Christopher Hitchens has cancer and may not live much longer. He has expressed some opinions that chime well with those of The Atheist Conservative, and some that are decidedly different. As an atheist he has won our approbation; as a political commentator he has often earned our criticism. In agreement with him or not, we have always appreciated his eloquence and wit.

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God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens,Twelve, New York , 2007, 307 pages.

Religion cannot survive in our Age of Science. Until I read this book I thought that there was life in it yet, enough for it to continue as an important force in human affairs for another century or so. But I am persuaded by Hitchens that it is already dead, even though there are many millions who still believe in gods or God and even more who observe the rituals of worship, and even though some act politically and devastatingly in its name.

How then is it dead? Hitchens puts it this way, with characteristic elegance: ‘Religion spoke its last intelligible or noble or inspiring words a long time ago … We shall have no more prophets or sages from the ancient quarter, which is why the devotions of today are only the echoing repetitions of yesterday.’

So – Hitchens encouragingly claims – although Islam has risen all over the globe to fight for its life with fire and tongue against scientific truth, against criticism, against freedom of body and mind, and continues successfully to rake in its converts by intimidation and even persuasion, it is doomed just as the other religions are doomed, being but the ritual perpetuation of a long-outdated belief, and will dwindle away to nothing as so many religions have done before it. Coming generations in an ever more closely communicating world will find it harder and harder to believe in the unbelievable.

We know that there are scientists who are religious. Amazingly, there are quite a few who find it possible to accept all that cosmology and physics tell us about the nature of the universe and yet still believe in a Creator God with mysterious purposes for His Creation. Of course – Hitchens says – you can do this, but ‘the theory works without that assumption’. God can be retained, but is not required. Believe in him if you will, but to questions of how the world has come to be as it is, God is irrelevant, superfluous, an added extra, an unnecessary decoration contributed by nostalgia and habit. Further knowledge of the stars will not come through prayer, and though an astronomer may pray for knowledge and go to church every seventh day to win the approval of his god, it is to his telescope he will go to find the truth.

Hitchens dismisses the argument for ‘intelligent design’ – part of religion’s last-gasp vocabulary of euphemism – with illustrations of how if nature were indeed the result of design, unintelligence would better characterize the designer who achieved such results: the ‘useless junk’ in our DNA string left over from lower creatures; our appendix; our vestigial tails; all of which are explained satisfactorily by evolution but make no sense at all as intelligent design. One could add many more. I like to cite the inability of bees to alight easily on a flat surface.

The presence among us of tormenting and life-destroying viruses does not say much for the designs of an intelligence that is also supposed to be beneficent to the human creature. Scientific discovery and skepticism have removed the need to justify horrors, to answer such questions as to ‘who inflicted the syphilis bacillus or mandated the leper or the idiot child’.

‘Intelligent design’ implies that intelligence existed before anything else. But we are aware that what we call intelligence requires human physiology – including most immediately a brain – which, of all things known, has taken longest to evolve. It has come at this – our – end of the process. An assertion that such a thing was already there at the very beginning is not rationally persuasive

I have long wondered why so many find it easier to conceive of there being an original Nothing then Something (the universe) and then again eventually Nothing, than to conceive of Something always having existed and forever to remain. We know Something exists. We know that matter is imperishable: it changes but does not dissolve into nothingness. Why, if we can accept the idea that it will have no ending, do we need to think of it as having had a beginning?

In the grip of the belief that there was ‘a beginning’ of existence, believers like to raise their favorite ‘logical’ argument that since everything must have a cause there must be a First Cause, Hitchens logically asks for the cause of the First Cause, or ‘Who designed the designer?’ No theologist or philosopher has ever satisfactorily answered that (Thomas Aquinas’s argument that God could set the cause-and-effect chain working in the universe because he is outside it does not abolish the question of how he came into existence) – or ever produced a sound argument for belief in a god of any sort.

The onus rests always on the believer to prove his case. It is not necessary for the unbeliever to prove that the object of others’ belief is not there. As Karl Popper expressed it: ‘Seeing no reason to believe is sufficient reason not to believe.’ It is an argument against belief most useful to be armed with. Another of course is David Hume’s, who asserted, in the light of the immense suffering that God coolly watches his creatures undergoing, that if he is omnipotent then he must be evil, or if good he cannot be omnipotent. (Hitchens mentions both philosophers but neither of these arguments which would have served him well.)

Hitchens does not accept the shop-worn argument that without religion there would be no morality. He is as certain as I am that religion is not the indispensable source of ethics or law. Reason and experience teach people, and have surely always taught them, that it is better and safer to live in a world where certain kinds of behavior are by and large avoided and certain rules by and large obeyed. I was interested to find, when I got round not long ago to reading the Hammurabi Code that it deals chiefly with what punishments should be imposed on those who disobey rules of conduct rather than in laying down or even reiterating the rules themselves. Rules against murder, adultery, lying, stealing pre-date all recorded codifications, any tablet of commandments. As Hitchens says, ‘Human decency is not derived from religion. It precedes it.’

There surely cannot be any doubt that religion has been the cause of much human misery, cruelty, torture, oppression, and probably the majority of wars. It is fair to add that some religions have inspired good deeds as well as evil ones. But then, people have always done good and evil regardless of what they do it in the name of. And surely always will. As for great works of art which it has inspired, it is not unreasonable to suppose that if religion had not supplied the inspiration something else would have done for the same artists. There must be at least as many marvelous pictures of mortals and ordinary scenes as there are of angelic gatherings and Christians suffering; at least as many admirable buildings dedicated to secular as to religious uses; and many more great poems and plays without religious themes than with them. Hitchens points out that beautiful and valuable things that have grown out of religions can be and are as much enjoyed and valued by civilized non-believers, such as himself, as by the pious. (My own list of such things is long, including: the King James translation of the bible; La Chapelle; certain painted angels and saints of the Renaissance; Bach’s compositions dedicated to God.) Hitchens cites, among things that do not require faith to treasure and preserve them, and in this case would have lasted better without it, the Buddha statues blown up by the Taliban in Afghanistan in the name of their religion – a type of vandalism that atheists are very unlikely to commit, having no reason to.

The author confesses to once having had a faith of his own, the secular faith of Marxism. He is now recognizably conservative, even traces of his former leftism becoming almost imperceptible. We welcome him among us.

 

Jillian Becker

Posted under Atheism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Marxism, Religion general, Reviews by Jillian Becker on Tuesday, May 31, 2011

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Review: Atheism The Case Against God 8

Atheism The Case Against God by George H. Smith Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY, 1989

This is not a new book, but it was only recently brought to our attention (by our reader, JDBlues, for which we thank him).

Its author, George H. Smith, makes plain what atheism is and is not, demolishes the most common arguments against it, and exposes the absurdities and inner contradictions of religious belief in general and Christianity in particular. He sets out the essential arguments of the case and discusses classic works on the subject. His book is both thorough and concise enough to be used as a textbook on atheism.

Where brevity and exactness are required, he is admirably succinct:

Atheism is the absence of a belief in a god, nothing more.

These are the basic beliefs of theism: the belief in the supernatural and the belief in the inherently unknowable.

Eventually, in the final chapter on “the sins of Christianity”, the author gives his personal opinions of the ethics of Jesus, and becomes most entertaining.

Contrary to the opinion of Christian theologians who “unanimously agree that Jesus was the greatest moral teacher in history”, Smith argues that:

– “Point for point, there is nothing in the teaching of Jesus [as the Christian bible records it , there being no other source] which cannot be found in the Old Testament or in the rabbinical teaching.”

– If we consider what Jesus said about morality, “he emerges as predominantly status quo. This poses a problem for Christian liberals. Strip Jesus of his [putative] divinity – as many liberals wish to do – and, at best, he becomes a mediocre preacher who held mistaken beliefs about practically everything, including himself; and, at worst, he becomes a pretentious fraud.”

– However, his precepts “intermingled with threats of gnashing teeth and eternal torment, contain a strong current of harshness and cruelty.”

– “Considered in themselves, the moral precepts of Jesus are sometimes interesting, sometimes poetic, sometimes benevolent, sometimes confusing, sometimes pernicious, and sometimes devastatingly harmful psychologically. None, however, are especially profound.”

Smith explains: “My sole purpose in this discussion is to examine the effects and wider implications of Jesus’ major doctrines, not to lend them the undeserved respect of a counter-argument”.

The effects and wider implications are harmful. They include the demand for obedience and conformity. “When Jesus says ‘believe’, he means ‘obey’.” And what results from that obedience and conformity?

The sacrifice of truth. One can be committed to conformity or one can be committed to truth, but not both. The pursuit of truth requires the unrestricted use of one’s mind – the moral freedom to question, to examine evidence, to consider opposing viewpoints, to criticize, to accept as true only that which can be demonstrated – regardless of whether one’s conclusions conform to a particular creed. … [It is] a fundamental and viciously destructive teaching of Christianity: that some beliefs lie beyond the scope of criticism and that to question them is sinful … By placing a moral restriction on what one is permitted to believe, Christianity declares itself an enemy of truth and of the faculty by which man arrives at truth – reason.

This “monstrous doctrine that one is morally obligated to accept as true religious beliefs that cannot be comprehended or demonstrated [is] the belief that ‘justified’ the slaughter of dissenters and heretics in the name of morality, and its philosophical consequence may be described as the inversion – or, more precisely, the perversion – of morality.” The doctrine is “devastating”. It’s effect is to “divorce morality from truth” and to “turn man’s reason against himself … Reason becomes a vice, something to be feared, and man finds that his worst enemy is his own capacity to think…”

Not only thoughts, but involuntary feelings can take one to hell in Christian belief. And “evil emotions … often consist of … sexual desire”. So to be an obedient Christian is to be inescapably guilty: “one must view oneself fundamentally as a ‘sinner’.”

Commenting on the injunction reported in Luke (6:27-28): “Do not resist evil”, Smith rightly points out that this is a prescription for the toleration of injustice ( which is where the morality of Christianity parts company decisively with the morality of Judaism, though Smith does not raise this point).

Smith succeeds in making the case against God. In doing so, he makes an impassioned plea for reason rather than faith as a guide to happiness for individuals and the human race as a whole. Reason is equatable with freedom, faith with bondage. For not to believe in a god commits one to no other beliefs whatsoever. An atheist as such is not compelled to apply his reason to any other issue: he is free to make his choices, wise or foolish. But the believer, in search of certainty where it is not to be found, commits himself to a lie, and binds himself in its inextricable confusion. As Spinoza – quoted by Smith – puts it, “the concept of god is an asylum of ignorance”.

Jillian Becker  August 28, 2010

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Ayn Rand: recruiting sergeant 5

Of extraordinary interest, we think, is an essay by Anthony Daniels in The New Criterion, titled Ayn Rand: engineer of souls. (We cannot link to it, but it’s easy to find.)

We are admirers of Ayn Rand, but not uncritically. We believe, as she does, that capitalism is the only creator and sustainer of prosperity. We despise religion as she does. Like her we value reason. Her enormous novels Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead have probably won more believers in capitalism and devotees of personal liberty than any other book in any language, even surpassing Hayek’s essential text The Road to Serfdom; and for that she deserves lasting honor.

But her vision of humanity has a comic-book hyperbole about it which keeps her out of the rank of great writers. Her heroes are too big, too superior to us and everyone we’ll ever meet, to be likable. They inspire awe but not affection. We can be sure they’d look down on us if they knew us. We cannot emulate them, we can only wonder at them. They are like gods. They are intensely romantic, and romanticism is the enemy of reason.

Anthony Daniels lists her virtues and vices:

Rand’s virtues were as follows: she was highly intelligent; she was brave and uncompromising in defense of her ideas; she had a kind of iron integrity; and, though a fierce defender of capitalism, she was by no means avid for money herself. The propagation of truth as she saw it was far more important to her than her own material ease. Her vices, of course, were the mirror-image of her virtues, but, in my opinion, the mirror was a magnifying one. Her intelligence was narrow rather than broad. Though in theory a defender of freedom of thought and action, she was dogmatic, inflexible, and intolerant, not only in opinion but in behavior, and it led her to personal cruelty. In the name of her ideas, she was prepared to be deeply unpleasant. She hardened her ideas into ideology. Her integrity led to a lack of self-criticism; she frequently wrote twenty thousand words where one would do. …

A passionate hater of religion, Rand founded a cult around her own person, complete with rituals of excommunication; a passionate believer in rationality and logic, she was incapable of seeing the contradictions in her own work. She was a rationalist who was not entirely rational …

He goes on to paragraphs of stronger condemnation. He finds “horrible” cruelty in her. He perceives that though she was fanatically anti-collectivist, and though she had fled from Soviet Russia to the freedom of America, Stalin’s Russia remained within her.

Her unequivocal admiration bordering on worship of industrialization and the size of human construction as a mark of progress is profoundly Stalinist. Where Stalinist iconography would plant a giant chimney belching black smoke, Randian iconography would plant a skyscraper. (At the end of The Fountainhead, Roark receives a commission to build the tallest skyscraper in New York, its height being the guarantor of its moral grandeur. According to this scale of values, the Burj Dubai would be man’s crowning achievement so far.) Industrialists are to Rand what Stakhanovites were to Stalin: Both saw nature as an enemy, something to be beaten into submission. One doesn’t have to be an adherent of the Gaia hypothesis to know where this hatred of nature led.

Finally, Rand’s treasured theory of literature, what she called Romantic Realism, is virtually indistinguishable from Socialist Realism …

Rand’s heroes are not American but Soviet. The fact that they supposedly embody capitalist values makes no difference. Rand fulfilled Stalin’s criterion for the ideal writer: she tried to be an engineer of souls.

The analysis is not unjust.

But the recruiting sergeant to the Army of Light does not have to be the best exponent of the cause for which it fights.

While acknowledging and regretting all her faults, we keep, for her success as a dedicated recruiting sergeant, an abstract monument to Ayn Rand in our personal Hall of the Defenders of Individual Freedom.

Jillian Becker   June 19, 2010

The climate of unreason 0

We often quote Melanie Phillips, chiefly her columns in the Spectator, because we often think she is right. We also admire and are grateful for her courageous writing against – among other controversial subjects – the Islamic conquest of Europe, most notably in her book Londonistan.

In her new book, The World Turned Upside Down: The Global Battle Over God, Truth, and Power, she  expresses opinions on religion and science that we  do not agree with, though we find quite a lot of other ideas in it that we like.

She writes of “the climate of unreason”. Unfortunately, with this book she is contributing to it.

Here is what she writes about ‘Islamism’  – a concept invented by non-Muslims to avoid offending Muslims, or their own sense of fairness, or both, when they’re speaking critically of what Muslims do and believe:

I have used the word “Islamist” to denote those who wish to impose Islam upon unbelievers and to extinguish individual freedom and human rights among Muslims. There are, however, scholars who hold that Islam is an inherently coercive ideology and that therefore “Islamist” is a meaningless word that creates a false distinction. It is not my purpose here to enter that particular argument. I use the term “Islamist” not to make a theological point but to allow for the acknowledgment of those Muslims who support freedom and human rights and who threaten no one – and who are themselves principal victims of the jihad. I believe it is very important to acknowledge the existence of such Muslims who have a peaceable interpretation of their religion, just as its is very important not to sanitize and thus misrepresent the doctrines and history of Islam as a religion of conquest.”

While we welcome her plain assertion that Islam is a religion of conquest, we can only wonder who these Muslims can be who embrace the religion but not its ideology of conquest and forced submission, since that is what it is about and all that it is about.

She goes on:

The book explores the remarkable links and correspondences between left-wing “progressives” and Islamists, environmentalists and fascists, militant atheists and fanatical religious believers. All are united by the common desire to bring about through human agency the perfection of the world, an agenda which history teaches us leads invariably – and paradoxically – to tyranny, terror and crimes against humanity.

Again we are largely  in agreement with her, but are surprised by the inclusion of atheists in her list. “Militant” atheists, she says. Perhaps on the model of “Islamists” she could have constructed the word “atheism-ists” to distinguish them from those atheists “who support freedom and human rights and who threaten no one”.

Who are these militant atheists? Where are they placing their bombs? We know that there are atheist progressives, atheist fascists, and atheist environmentalists (just as there are atheist conservatives, atheist libertarians, atheists altruists), but we had not noticed that it is atheism they are trying to impose on the rest of the world. Collectivism, yes. Poverty, yes. World government, yes. But atheism – who says so, when and where, and above all, how? Her book, though it deals with some left-wing atheists whose political views we strongly disagree with, does not tell us.

In Memoriam: Antony Flew, Philosopher of Atheism 3

[Photo: John Lawrence]

Antony Flew, the philosopher, atheist, and defender of freedom, died on April 8, 2010, at his home in Reading, England. I knew him, to my pride and delight, for many years. We would meet a few times a year (we both served on the Council of the Freedom Association, as I still do), and wrote to each other frequently about books, events, issues, campaigns, tactics. On politics and religion we saw eye to eye. We were both atheist conservatives. He was a classical scholar, more widely and deeply erudite than anyone else I’ve ever known. And he had the humility of true greatness. When I asked him to write the introduction to a new edition of a book I was editing on, and against, Karl Marx (The Red Prussian, by Leopold Schwarzschild) he told me that he was not the best person for the task, and gave me a short list of experts who, he insisted, knew more than he did and whose names would better grace the book. Only when they’d all declared themselves unable or unwilling, Antony said he would “do his best” to write a good introduction – and a very good introduction it is.

Obituaries on both sides of the Atlantic say that Antony Flew was the world’s most famous atheist, and that he suddenly changed his mind and declared that God exists after all.

It is true that he did say this. But he never said it when he was in his right mind.

It would have been unkind of me to write what I am about to write while he was alive. Yet I think it is absolutely right that I say it now, because it’s necessary to do him justice. So I declare that the reasoning by which he arrived at his certainty that God does not exist was never cancelled or reversed by the sloppy arguments of his senility.

Of his many books, the one that matters most for his reputation as an atheist is God & Philosophy. It was first published in 1966. Later editions appeared at intervals, the last in 2005. To judge by the new introduction he wrote, he was as sure of his atheism then as he had been in 1966.

In 2007 a new book appeared under his name titled There is a God. The subtitle crows: How the world’s most notorious [sic] atheist changed his mind. The authorship is ascribed to Antony Flew “with Roy Abraham Varghese”. But no one who has read God & Philosophy with attention could possible believe that There is a God was a product of the same intelligence. Either the powers of Antony Flew had faded away, or some other mind engendered this work. In fact, both those things happened. It has emerged that he did not write it. He had spoken, and other hands had written. He could not even remember what was in it. And of that failure of memory and general weakening of his mental faculties, the actual writers had taken advantage.

There is a God is distinctly written for an American readership. It refers, for instance, to the Red Sox. I’d have bet a mint that my friend Tony Flew had no idea who the Red Sox are – Chinese school-boys, he may have supposed.

According to Dr Richard Carrier, who tried to ascertain from Professor Flew himself whether he had really “found God”, the authors of There is a God are Roy Abraham Varghese who is known for his work on “the interface between science and religion”, and Pastor Bob Hostetler – two people with a big blunt axe to grind.

Carrier’s detailed account of how Flew claimed he was, but then again was not, converted to belief in a creator-God when certain scientific facts were brought to his attention, makes the whole sorry story plain. Carrier records that the philosopher admitted to finding the subject “too hard” to deal with; that he failed to remember anything about There is a God; that he repeatedly contradicted himself. He tells us about the bewildered old man being awarded a prize by an Evangelical Christian University. (The Phillip E. Johnson Award for Liberty and Truth, bestowed on him by the university of Biola at la Mirada, California.) The prodigal son returned! Much rejoicing in Christian circles. As if the willingness of a senile man to concede – on and off – the existence of a creator-God, were all the proof they needed to shout in the face of atheists and sceptics: “There, you see? If even he can see it now, you should not have the hubris to think you know better and continue to deny it!”

How insecure these believers must be in their belief!

Carrier writes: “It is certainly possible that Flew looked at ten drafts [of There is a God]. I see no reason to believe Flew was able to understand or even recall what he read.” Flew admitted to having “a nominal aphasia”. But it was more than “nominal”. “Flew could not even recall the arguments of the book , not just who made them or what his sources were.”

Carrier found that whenever Professor Flew himself stated his position, it was always to reaffirm his atheism. Statements to the contrary were never made by him directly, though one at least, firmly insistent that he really had changed his mind, was put out by the publisher on his behalf.

However, I know it was not a total scam. I know that at times he did think he had changed his mind.

I saw him soon after the book appeared and asked him was it true he now believed in God.

“Yes,” he replied, “but not the Monster”.

I understood of course what he meant by “the Monster”. He had rejected the Christian God while still in his teens because he could not reconcile the evil in the world and hell after it with a beneficent deity. Such a deity could only be a Monster. His father, a Methodist minister, was distressed by young Antony’s rejection of his faith, but Antony said, as he was to repeat throughout his life, that he had to go “where the evidence leads”. Now he told me, only the existence of “an intelligence” can explain the nature of the universe. This intelligence, this non-monstrous god, made the laws of nature and then had nothing more to do with his creation – the theological position known as deism.

In God & Philosophy, there is a section on “Order and Design”, in which the author asks the question: “Does order in nature itself presuppose an Orderer?” Elegantly and fully he reasons over a few pages that it does not. (This is not the place to quote his reasons, but I hope to whet some appetites for seeking them in the book.) “So we conclude that order in the universe by itself provides no warrant whatsoever for trying to identify an Orderer.”

The meticulous arguments are abandoned as though they had never been made, in the later book There is a God. The reason given there for belief in a creator God, is that the author has learnt about DNA, about its “enormous complexity”, and sees that there must have been an Orderer who made the universe! He also sets out the “fine-tuning” argument. Both the arguments, from “irreducible complexity” and “fine-tuning” have been thoroughly refuted.

Then there is the “Stratonician presumption”, as Flew himself named it after the Greek philosopher Strato of Lampsacus, the third head of Aristotle’s Lyceum, who formulated it. The presumption is that in explaining the world you can do without entities that are not necessary for the completeness of the explanation. In God & Philosophy, Antony Flew does not find it necessary to call in God or gods.

But suddenly, in There is a God, such a supernatural being becomes essential to explain the world’s existence. *

From Antony’s point of view these pressing believers had not done him a disservice. He told me that there was to be a TV documentary about him and his conversion. He was innocently surprised at the attention he was getting, and the unexpected windfall it brought with it. He was paid what seemed to him a very large sum of money. He had never been a rich man, and he was happy for his wife and daughters that they would have this fund at their disposal. (This most generous-hearted of men was painstakingly frugal: every letter he posted was in a re-used envelope with a label stuck over the old address.)

So there’s the picture. A pair (or more?) of American Christian Evangelicals (and a Jewish theologian and physicist, Gerald Schroeder) had worked on him rather than with him, when he had become mentally frail, to produce this cancellation of a lifetime’s thought. In his dotage, these Evangelicals battened on to him, dazzled him with science that was utterly new to him – the big bang, DNA – and rewarded him like a Pavlov’s dog when he gave the response their spin elicited. He was subjected to intellectual seduction, much as Bertrand Russell was by Communists in his senile years.

What seems to me intolerably sad and wrong is that the reputation Antony Flew ought to have, as an atheist philosopher who brilliantly defended atheism throughout his long and distinguished professional life, is now to be replaced by a phony story that he who had been a convinced atheist changed his mind. Is the man who defended atheism better than anyone since David Hume, to be remembered as a deist?

Is this to be allowed to happen – that he be remembered as a man who saw the error of his atheist ways and became persuaded that there was a God – simply because he suffered a softening of the brain in his last years? The truth is that the Antony Flew who conceded the existence of a “creator-intelligence” was not “the Flew” – as he liked to allude to himself – that he had been at the peak of his powers. His faculties were deteriorating, his memory came and went unreliably, he was confused, bewildered and – because he was in a state of decline – taken advantage of.

His handwriting became shakier. He put letters to other people in envelopes that he addressed to me. (They probably got the letters I was supposed to receive.) When I sent him the print-out of an article I had written deploring the Islamization of Britain, he sent it back to me a few weeks later as an article of his own that he would like me to comment on. When he was to meet me and a few colleagues at a certain old club on Pall Mall (the famous street of clubs in the heart of London) which he must have visited dozens or even hundreds of times, he couldn’t find it. A search party rescued him and brought him to the meeting. He had become unsure of himself. He did not always remember, or possibly even grasp, points put to him in a discussion.

But what an enthusiast he forever was for ideas! His face would light up, his voice grow urgent with excitement. A passionate intellectual who was always gentle, always courteous even in the heat of argument, Antony Flew was the epitome of a reasonable man. Or I should say that is what he had been, and that is the way he should be remembered, this great philosopher and atheist. (His country bestowed no honors on him. I think he should have been made Companion of Honour, which is in the sole gift of the sovereign. England deserves her great men ever less!) Even those who disagree with his atheism must surely acknowledge in the name of justice and decency that his achievements, not his late and lamentable capitulations which seemed to cancel them, should be what he is remembered for.

Jillian Becker  April 18, 2010

*

*Here is a sample of the “reasoning” of these Christian ghosts, writing in the name of Professor Flew:

“I put to my former fellow-atheists the simple central question: ‘What would have to occur or to have occurred to constitute for you a reason to at least consider the existence of a superior Mind?’

Easy reply: manifest purpose.

They state in his name that the immaterial, ie mind, cannot come out of the material.

Reply: How can the material come out of the immaterial – ie matter out of “Mind” or “God”?

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