Archive for October, 2009


Would you cut the Bible?

A New York Times book review of a new biography of Ayn Rand asks an interesting question

When Bennett Cerf, a head of Random House, begged her to cut Galt’s speech, Rand replied with what Heller calls “a comment that became publishing legend”: “Would you cut the Bible?” One can imagine what Cerf thought — he had already told Rand plainly, “I find your political philosophy abhorrent” — but the strange thing is that Rand’s grandiosity turned out to be perfectly justified. In fact, any editor certainly would cut the Bible, if an agent submitted it as a new work of fiction.

As a work of literature, the Bible has some interesting narratives in Genesis, and a wonderfully dramatic story in Exodus. I’d cut much of Leviticus, being more of an instruction manual for sacrificing animals, and some of the begats. I also like the historical books like Kings, but some of the prophets and their wailings I could do without.


Filmmaker quits Scientology

There’s an interesting article in the Guardian about director Paul Haggis resignation from the Church of Scientology after 35 years with them, spurred by their opposition to same-sex marriage. The article also talks about Scientology’s policy of encouraging their members to break connections with outsiders.


New Humanism = “Atheism 3.0”?

Atheism 3.0 finds a little more room for belief is an article in the Religion News Service linking Bruce Sheiman’s “An Atheist Defends Religion: Why Humanity is Better Off with Religion than without It.” with Greg Epstein’s “Good without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe.”   The gist is:

In recent years, the skeptical scene has been dominated by the New Atheists—Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and others—who argue in best-selling books that religious faith is a mental illness, or worse.
But now, a new crew of nonbelievers is taking on the New Atheists, arguing that while they may not have faith themselves, there’s little reason to belittle believers or push religion out of the public square. The back-and-forth debates over God’s existence have shed a little light, but far more heat, they argue, while the world’s problems loom ever larger.

I perceive a gap, however, between Greg’s view, that Humanists should find common ground with religion rather than attacking it, and the assertion that humanity is better off with religion than without. The latter question is one that it might be politic to sidestep, but if I were forced to take a position I might well disagree with Bruce Sheiman. Maybe I should read his book first, though.


Loss of Faith

A review in Salon of the book Uncivil Society by Stephen Kotkin points to a loss of self-confidence among the Soviet Bloc rulers as a key element leading to the 1989 collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe.

Kotkin doesn’t seem to regard direct Western action as a significant cause of the collapse of the USSR, either. Instead, he views the whole thing as an “implosion”; the Soviet-style establishments (“uncivil societies”) simply gave up the ghost — in some cases even helping the dissolution along.

Why would any group in possession of so much power, enjoying privileges denied to the hoi polloi, willingly surrender? As Kotkin sees it, they were terminally demoralized. The Soviet bloc elites had promised (and, he insists, mostly believed) that Communism would provide a better alternative — a living, breathing reproach to the ruthlessness of capitalism. Forced to scrape by alongside booming postwar Western economies, the Communist states (particularly East Germany) had their noses rubbed in their failure on a daily basis. Media, from Western propaganda efforts like Voice of America to TV and radio intended for Western European audiences but picked up by audiences behind the Iron Curtain, made the superior consumer goods and political freedoms of the West common knowledge and the subject of much envy and yearning.

To placate their populations and build up their production capacity, the Soviet satellite states wound up borrowing heavily from Western governments, gambling on the success of future exports. But they never managed to make goods that the rest of the world wanted, and had to borrow more cash; Kotkin persuasively argues that the regimes in most of the bloc nations realized they were living on borrowed time by the late 1980s. Mikhail Gorbachev’s reform program, a reprise of the “socialism with a human face” promised (then squashed) in the Prague Spring of 1968, turned out to be ideologically and practically impossible. To admit that Soviet-style socialism could be reformed was to allow that it wasn’t already the best possible system, confessing to decades of lying and laying the whole apparatus open to revision and revolution while the tempting example of Western-style market economies waited right next door. “Reform amounted to autoliquidation,” Kotkin writes.

By denying the afterlife, Communism could only be judged by its success here on Earth. In that, it patently failed. One of the competitive advantages religions have is that they can ask their followers to ignore the question of success or failure, because true success comes only in an invisible realm.

The one metric that believers often do point to is the size of their flock. As long as they can make new converts, that itself is an affirmation. But even religions that are dwindling can persist for many generations, to wit the Samaritans, who have persisted for more than 2,000 years but now number less than 1,000.


Goodness and the Contemplative Life

An interesting question came up at one of our Humanist Small Group sessions regarding the moral worth of the inner life.  Would we as Humanists consider a hermit, monk, sanyasi, mystic, or other person devoted to a contemplative life with little interaction with other human beings, a good person?  Apparently some thought such a person was an ethically neutral being, basing assessment of his goodness purely on his interactions with others or the lack thereof, with no points for truth-seeking and right belief.

 I mentioned that Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism all provide high esteem for monasticism, including material and institutional support.  I wasn’t too sure about Judaism and Islam. 

As it turns out, Judaism does have Haredim in Israel who function like monks, except that they marry and have large families.  The men, however, do not work and do not help the women with child-rearing, devoting themselves instead to religious study and prayer.  The state of Israel exempts the Haredim from the military service demanded of other Jews and allows them to ask others for money at Israel’s holy sites, in the fashion of mendicants in other religious traditions.  The Haredim claim that their relentless prayer enhances Israel’s security. 

Islam does have Sufi mystics and dervishes, although they too marry and have families because of the Koranic injunction against celibacy.  I’m not sure what the status of Sufism would be under Islam, as I’m not aware of any official approval of it as the Haredim have from the state of Israel.

 Another participant brought up the idea that many university researchers in impractical areas constitute a type of secular monk, devoted to the pursuit of truth and knowledge with as little concern for improving the human condition materially or in terms of social justice as the medieval monks who wondered how many angels could fit on a pinhead.

 I’m not sure how these various types of monks could be viewed as neutral when they do take up resources.  Churches and monasteries collected food and money from peasants to support such monks.  The monks’ time, the religious institutions’ money, or ordinary people’s money could have been applied to alleviate poverty and so forth.

 My own opinion is that the monk or contemplative person could be a good person because truth-seeking, right beliefs, self-awareness, control and moderation of desires, maintaining good physical and mental health, and the full development of personality possible only through a break from reactions to others, are moral virtues.

 If the leaders of a society cannot emphasize these virtues, the leaders become disconnected from reality.  Their good intentions of helping others are less likely to have the intended effects, because they lack the passion to see things as they are, preferring instead to connect emotionally to other people and by implication some quotidian sense of reality.


On Death

I recently attended an atheist/nonreligious parenting seminar in which the speaker (Dale McGowan) raised the topic of how to depict death to nonreligious children.  His approach was to describe it as returning to nonexistence, as before one’s birth; a few seminar participants agreed with this construct.

I found this depiction far too materialist.  In the atheistic fervor to deny the existence of a soul that transmigrates after death, the approach reduces an individual or the Self more or less to a physical person.  

For me, the Self is mostly a combination of experiences and interactions with an outside world, including other people, with the acknowledgment that my physical body is the venue through which those reactions take place.  A similar type or tone of experience or interaction with an outer world would presumably continue for other individuals after I die.  While those individuals may be very different from me because the world/environment that they inhabit is quite different from the one I lived through and left, I myself in the same physical body have become a very different person than I was in the past, partly because the world has changed and partly due to new experiences of existing realities.

 Returning to the commentary at the parenting seminar, one participant objected to the depiction of death as returning to non-existence, by pointing out that those individuals who have children continue their physiological existence through their offspring, who would not have existed “but-for” the existence of their parents. 

 Certainly our ability to reproduce does appear to be Nature’s answer to our physical mortality, but I found this construct far too materialist and simplistic also.  Again the Self is reduced to a physical person, just adding acknowledgement of our physiological reproductive functions. 

 The idea raises more questions than it answers.  Do we continue our own existence through a child because that person is our physical offspring, or do we continue our own existence through a child because we have raised that person consistent with our own values?  If the latter, why aren’t we continuing our own existence every time we impart our values, e.g., as teachers, peers, and so forth?


Good Without God Video