Saturday, October 30, 2010

Testimony of a nonbeliever

The several dozen statements of nonbelievers collected in Christopher Hitchens's Portable Atheist just keep on being rationally inspirational. Here's an excerpt from the next-to-most recent I've read, by Elizabeth Anderson, the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and John Rawls Collegiate Professor of Philosophy and Women's Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor:
Surveying the religious booths every year at the Ann Arbor art fair, I am always struck by the fact that they are staffed by people who are convinced of their own revelations and miracles, while most so readily disparage the revelations and miracles of other faiths. To a mainstream Christian, Jew, or Muslim, nothing is more obvious than that the founders and prophets of other religions, such as Joseph Smith, the Rev. Moon, Mary Baker Eddy, and L. Ron Hubbard, are either frauds or delusional, their purported miracles or cures are tricks played upon a credulous audience (or worse, exercises of black magic), their prophecies false, their metaphysics absurd. To me, nothing is more obvious than that the evidence cited on behalf of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam is of exactly the same type and quality as that cited on behalf of such despised religions. Indeed, it is on a par with the evidence for Zeus, Baal, Thor, and other long-abandoned gods, who are now considered ridiculous by nearly everyone. –If God Is Dead, Is Everything Permitted? [no], pp. 345-346 in Hitchens
What's inspirational about Professor Anderson's testimony is that we have reason to hope that religion will fade away eventually. Two problems with this, however: (1) Religion isn't rational and doesn't listen to reason very well. (2) Everyone alive on the planet now, and for some time to come, will die long before religion does.1
  1. As my friend Ken privately wrote me recently:
    ...when religious institutions begin to fragment and wither. We still need several more centuries for that. [emphasis mine]
    I quote Ken, not because he is my friend, but, like Professor Anderson, he is an astute, critical thinker.

Friday, October 29, 2010

I voted early

I'm still wearing my little "I Voted Early" sticker from Wednesday. As I wrote to a friend on whom (and his wife) I depend for recommendations in judicial races,
Having received no recommendation from you or [your wife] as to voting for judges, I went ahead and took my best shot. I excluded as potential my-vote-getters anyone on the list of nominees recommended by the Republican Party, then, if that didn't do the entire trick, I read about the individuals in the voting guide (preferring blacks, women, and non-business types). [emphasis mine]
My friend's wife wrote me this morning:
Absolutely, you voted well. I was trying to learn who your district court judges would be. Now I know how to do that—although a little late. I think your rationale for voting choices excellent. [emphasis mine]

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

My friend's new car

I went with my friend to take possession of her new Volvo this morning:

She is very happy, and her salesman and his boss are happy.

She let me be in one of the photos:

I am happy too.

Monday, October 25, 2010

A funny from Bertrand Russell

My wife didn't laugh when I read her the following excerpt from Bertrand Russell's 1909 essay, "Pragmatism," but I did, and I hope you might too:
The legitimate conclusion from [William James's] argument [that if we don't have the necessary information for deciding between, for example, "God exists" and "God doesn't exist," we ought to choose one anyway in order to have a 50% chance of being right] would be that, in such cases as William James has in mind, we ought to believe both alternatives; for in that case we are sure [emphasis mine] of "knowing" the truth in the matter. If it were said that to believe both is a psychological impossibility, we would rejoin that, on the contrary, it is often done, and that those who cannot yet do it need only to practice the "will to believe" until they have learnt to believe that the law of contradiction is false—a feat which is by no means as difficult as it is often supposed to be.
Who said philosophy couldn't be a barrel of laughs?
Another passage a page further down:
To go about the world believing everything in the hope that thereby we shall believe as much truth as possible is like practicing polygamy in the hope that among so many we shall find someone who will make us happy.
Bertrand Russell was a great writer. Did you know that he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1950? Well, he was. "..."in recognition of his varied and significant writings in which he champions humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought."

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Spiritual connectedness

Riding with Bill yesterday to join Ralph for a walk at Johnston Mill, a couple of miles from where my wife and I lived for twenty-five years before moving to Mebane, I took the opportunity to try to find out whether Bill's term spiritual applies to me. I asked him how he would characterize it.
    I instantly saw that indeed, in Bill's sense of the term, I am spiritual. I acknowledge, intellectually, that I am related to all other living creatures and to very "star stuff," as cosmologist Carl Sagan (1934-1996) termed the matter of the Universe. And I feel the connectedness, sometimes profoundly, but more often only latently, out of the neglect of taking for granted. And I mean to honor the connection by humility and compassion.

Ralph and his dog arrived at the entrance to the trail a minute after us. On the walk, we all three chatted about no fewer or less significant things than Ralph and I alone would have done. Bob Dylan. Yoga instruction. The logic of grammar. Growing old, losing one's memory. Julie Christie (from her 2006 movie, Away from Her, in which she played a woman being institutionalized because of Alzheimer's disease). Zen Buddhism. Philosophy scholarship (Ralph had discovered Peter Kingsley, a new name for me). Later, Bill told me that Ralph had demonstrated his own spirituality by picking up a piece of paper on the trail.
    And of course spirituality and religion came up. I told them about Mert's retort Friday to my statement that I didn't believe any of that about the Good Lord's working in mysterious ways. "And I don't believe that!" Mert had said.
    I mentioned that my wife and I had the night before watched a film about the child evangelist Marjoe Gortner on the tent revivalist circuit. I was surprised to learn that I had apparently never told Ralph that in my childhood my mother had taken me to the same sorts of church events at which Marjoe as a child and young man had preached.
    But it wasn't until this morning that it occurred to me that, since Marjoe was starting to preach in 1948 (at age four), precisely when my mother was beginning to take me to revivals, where I witnessed people apparently ecstatically "speaking in tongues," it is likely my mother had heard of him. Could it be that my mother's oft-spoken wish that I would "become a preacher" was influenced by reports of that fabulous child preacher?
    Perhaps Marjoe, with whom I only just became familiar from the movie's being mentioned in a book I'm reading by Daniel Dennett1, influenced the very trajectory of my "religious life." I told Bill on the ride home that I've always thought I majored in philosophy because of my desperate "search for God" informed by those early church experiences. In fact, I likely chose to apply to Yale because of that interest, since it was Yale's catalog of undergraduate academic programs that most appealed to me because of its "Directed Studies" program, then centered around philosophy and the humanities.
    What a world.

Ralph had asked me how, then, I'd become an atheist. I guess I must not have told him before because I had depended on his reading the answer here on my blog—even though he's told me that he spends so much time on the Internet in his work at IBM that he doesn't spend much or any on it outside work. (Because I go onto the Internet both at work and at home, I must not have believed him.)
    So I summarized my Sudoku analogy for him. I had rejected theism as a "forced move" after eliminating the pertinent possibilities.
    Ralph recounted the Zen parable about the fish in water who reasoned logically that water didn't exist.
    I laughed. "Ralph, that's about the same as Mert's retort, isn't it? He didn't believe that I couldn't believe in water."
    Ralph said that Mert's retort was different; it sounded like a trick of the evangelical trade. Mert might have been trying to convert me. Ralph said I was free not to believe, and recommended Zen Buddhism. "Zen Buddhists don't believe in God," he said.
    On the ride home, Bill pointed out that Zen teaches letting go, detachment. "That's the very thing you do when you accept things as they are and laugh."
    I like it.
  1. From Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, pp. 167-168:
    Every good doctor knows that a few simple tricks of self-presentation that compose a good "bedside manner" can make a huge difference. It isn't really dishonest, is it? Every priest and minister, every imam and rabbi, every guru knows the same thing, and the same gradation from knowingness to innocence can be found today in the practices of revival preachers, as vividly revealed in Marjoe, the Oscar-winning 1972 documentary film that followed Marjoe Gortner, a charismatic young evangelical preacher who lost his faith but made a comeback as a preacher in order to reveal the tricks of the trade. In this disturbing and unforgettable film, he shows how he makes people faint when he does the laying on of hands, how he rouses them to passionate declarations of their love for Jesus, how he gets them to empty their wallets into the collection basket.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Spiritual jocularity

Mert really does sound almost exactly like Charlie Thomas. He called again yesterday, to thank me. He and his friend have reconnected by telephone and he is happy.
    "Morris," he said, "do you believe that the Good Lord works in mysterious ways?"
    "No, Mert, I don't believe any of that."
    Even though he then said, "Ha! I don't believe that!," it's true. I don't believe it.

But Mert's question made me realize that the texture of Wednesday (and of much of the next two days—and perhaps of today again) is in some ways similar to that of the days of my Youie Summer (1989). But with one saving, essential difference.
    In 1989, I believed that the things that were happening were "signs from UIE," or Universal Intelligent Energy1(pronounced YOU-ie ["or YAH-weh?" my son suggested], and aka "God"). Now, I don't believe that; now, I can just "be spiritual" naturally (if my friend Bill is right in labeling me so; perhaps it just means that I'm able to accept things as they are, and laugh about them) without any supernatural entities clothed by magical thinking.
    I liked to say "Praise Youie!" If I were to say it now, it would be ironically, and also perhaps a bit self-reverently, out of charity for the sad, manic person I was that summer.
    But in not very long, it won't make any difference what I was then or what I am now. Or any of us after we've been dead a while.
  1. In late spring of 1989, I had been reading Stephen Hawking's Brief History of Time, in which he of course referred to Einstein's famous equation. Let the following excerpt from Victor Stenger's God: The Failed Hypothesis (which is included in Hitchens's Portable Atheist) serve to make the connection: his special theory of relativity published in 1905, Albert Einstein showed that matter can be created out of energy and can disappear into energy. What all science writers call "Einstein's famous equation," E=mc2, relates the mass m of a body to an equivalent rest energy, E, where e is a universal constant, the speed of light in a vacuum. That is, a body at rest still contains energy.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Oh, where are you, Charlie Thomas?

Yesterday was one of those days when everything just felt wonderful and right and I was on a continual glorious ride of love and laughter and play. Everything clicking, to-do items getting checked off at a good clip. Not possible (I don't think) to identify the reason or reasons for it. Just go with it and glory in it, enjoy.
    Much of the feeling remains, and I've laughed a lot today, too, despite having had to concentrate intensely much of the day on an editing task.
    But I do remember a few of yesterday's highlights:
  • About 8:30, my boss emailed the members of his department to please attend a brief meeting at 11:45. A few of us buzzed about a bit what might be up. I enjoyed asking two or three colleagues, "You're near the center of the inner circle; what do you think's going to be announced?" Of course, no one knew for sure. Meeting my boss himself in the stairwell, I asked him, "So, what are you going to announce at 11:45?" He smiled in his utterly boyish way. "Now, what could it be? Maybe someone in the department got arrested? Or won the Nobel prize? Or maybe...someone's retiring?" He has worked hard and produced so much of late; we were all glad for him upon hearing the announcement.
  • A little later my neighbor friend Bill telephoned with the news, "I got the job." He'd not been regularly employed for many months. Bill and I go for walks and talks occasionally. He thinks that even though I'm not religious, I'm "spiritual."
  • My nephew whose three fine novels we tried to find a publisher for a few years ago emailed me that he was reworking his first one and would I like to help him prepare it for Amazon's Kindle format? I replied, "I'd love to be involved with your publishing project, and I'm honored to be consulted."
  • When for exercise I was delivering to a friend an envelope from the mail room, I told her I recognized the name of the sender, an intern who'd worked in her office. "What a fine young man," she said. "In his third year in law school, about to go intern for a judge." I told her I'd actually been thinking about him, wondering whether he and another intern, with whom I had worked, were still...."Oh, yes," my friend said, "wedding bells soon, I think."
  • After standing at my bus stop for 25 minutes after work and beginning to wonder whether I was going to have to telephone the commute van's driver to please come pick me up (never been done before), an express bus that's not supposed to service my stop (I'd not even attempted to flag it down) did stop for me. I told the driver, "I so appreciate your kind heart!"
So many nice things happened, I'm sorry that I waited too long to remember them all. But I do remember one more, the most jocular one of all.

Around two-thirty, I answered my phone and the voice sounded familiar, if perhaps a little older than the last time I'd heard it. "I just called the first person I was able to find at UNC."
    Of course, my old IBM colleague Charlie would have lost my telephone number and would need to search a website or something to locate me. The wonder was that he could remember where I worked.
    "Charlie," I said, "how wonderful to hear your voice!"
    "Charlie?" he said.
    "Yes, Charlie," I said. "It's you! And it's so good of you to call. How long has it been? Two years, three? How are you?"
    "This isn't Charlie," he said.
    "Of course it is! You sound just like you!"
    "No, really."
    "Are you sure?" I said. "The last time we talked, Charlie, you said you were getting Alzheimer's. Are you finally to the point you don't remember who you are?"
    "You don't have to have Alzheimer's," he said. "But I'm not Charlie."
    "Well," I said, "okay. Then, who are you?"
    It was a complete stranger, calling from Pennsylvania. He said his name was Mert, which I guessed was short for Merton. He was trying to get in touch with an "old Army buddy," who he thought might have gone on to be a professor of geology at the University of North Carolina.
    I took the particulars and promised to help find his old friend, if he could be found. I told him that Charlie, the last time I'd spoken with him, was herding Alpacas in a town in Ohio, next door to Pennsylvania. I told Mert that Charlie was about the same age as him and the friend he was trying to find, around seventy-five.
    "How old are you?" said Mert.
    I told him.
    "I didn't think you were a young guy. Most young people, you ask them for help, they don't want to spend more than a minute with you. Anytime I ask a young person for help, I get a geography lesson. None of them is willing to help you to the end result."

Before nine o'clock this morning, I had a telephone call from Mert's geologist. The secretary of the Carolina Geological Society, whom I'd emailed, had called him last night.
    It had been fifty years since the geologist and the man from Pennsylvania served together in the U.S. Army. The geologist thought he recognized Mert's last name, but he thought his first name might be Mervin rather than Merton.
    On the van ride home yesterday, I enjoyed telling Donna and Ina about "Mert's" call, and about my whackiness about Charlie Thomas's Alzheimer's. Today, I enjoyed telling them that I've already found Mert's old friend.
    The van arrived at the Lowes Foods parking lot, where my wife and Siegfried waited for me, in our only car until we take delivery of our new Volvo. I said to today's van driver, "Hope, thank you very much. You are the best driver in the fleet."
    A few of the others looked at me. "I mean, besides Chris and Melanie, of course!"
    General laughter. "Hey, I'm 'crazy.' It's fun."
    Donna said, "We who have admitted we're 'crazy' are on the road to recovery."
    What a day! Another one.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

To each his dream

In Martin Cruz Smith's latest Arkady Renko novel, Three Stations, the "Ninsky Luxury Fair" has just begun, and Renko has discovered an invitation to it at the scene of a suspected murder he is investigating.
Arkady found a newsstand at a Metro station. The press covered the fair from different points of view. Izvestya approved of its capitalist excess. Zavtra detected a Jewish conspiracy. Readers of the most down-to-earth Gazeta suggested different luxury items, most having to do with private islands, private castles, or sexual enhancement.
    To each his dream.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Cussing okay now?

Chapel Hill Transit buses used to have a sign telling riders no smoking, eating, drinking, or...profanity.
    Well, the sign on the bus I rode this morning didn't mention profanity. The driver was uncertain whether cussing is now allowed on city buses.
    Anyway, I thought the sign should have been worded, "No Smoking, Eating, Drinking, or Using Profanity." Or maybe, "No...Speaking Profanely." Or, "No...Cussing"?
    Maybe the bus-sign editor couldn't decide either and just chose to avoid the issue.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

And sometimes we just need to stop

And photograph our persimmons before we've harvested them all

They're Fuyu persimmons. Two to three inches in diameter.
    We planted the tree about sixteen months ago. Good harvest for such a young tree. We've probably eaten about a third of this year's harvest.
    For breakfast, I slice and dice half of one to go on my cereal, with yogurt and nonfat milk, and my wife eats slices of the other half.
    For dinner, I put slices on our Romaine salad, along with slices of tomato, cucumber, and radish, and some walnuts and almonds. Though not terribly sweet, persimmon slices seem quite sweet on a salad.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Are you being escheated?

If I needed to kill a few minutes, I might extract a folded newspaper page from a pants pocket and try to deduce a few more numbers in a Sudoku. But my daughter recently went searching on California's escheat1 page instead. More profitable.
    She discovered that the State owes her husband $80 and her maternal aunt $40.
    Don't just conclude that I'm really scraping to find something to blog about. Regard this as a public service announcement: How much does your state government owe you?
    Or other states you've lived in? My daughter writes:
I then checked out the state controller's office of every state I've ever lived in and searched their similar databases. I just googled "[state] controllers office unclaimed property"; they all have these databases. A bunch of states are all on one together— You can search all participating states at once. It gives a drop-down list and you can see which states participate.
    Nobody owes me any money, unfortunately....
  1. One of the country song hits of Hank Williams (1923-1953) was "Your Cheatin' Heart." Escheating, of course, has nothing to do with love. Escheat is the reversion of property, and to escheat is to cause to revert by escheat. Could that be clearer?

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

In memoriam Dick Francis (1920-2010)

By my count the 43rd Dick Francis novel, Crossfire (co-authored by his son Felix and published this year) is dedicated "to the memory of Dick Francis, the greatest father and friend a man could ever have."
    While we can hope that Dick Francis left some plots for his son to work into a few more novels, or that Felix is capable of continuing up to snuff on his own, we are sad at the news of Dick Francis's passing. We felt that we knew you, so consistently good and brave were your narrator heroes, right down to Crossfire's Captain Thomas Forsyth of the Grenadier Guards1, lately from Afghanistan, where an IED had taken his right leg below the knee. So many of your heroes were wounded.
  1. Crossfire is also dedicated to "the men and women of the British forces who have lost limbs in Afghanistan. For them the battle is never over."

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

How long 'til we're barely surviving?

Noam Chomsky was in Chapel Hill a couple of weeks ago. I read in the October 6 Independent Weekly yesterday that Dr. Chomsky predicts, according to reporter David Fellerath, that "in 500 years, humans will be barely surviving." Fellerath writes that Chomsky cited nuclear war and global warming as the biggest threats.
    Chomsky doesn't define "barely surviving." Perhaps a precipitously declining human population? Or a much diminished quality of life for all but the remaining rich? The latter might lead to the former, in any case, as the have-nots rise up and rabble (some with those nuclear weapons Chomsky cites).
    In either case, I wouldn't have given us 500 years myself, but Chomsky is much better read than I am, so maybe he's right. Not that he or I (or you) will be around to find out.
    I suspect that "barely surviving" will come sooner, on the evidence of the sharp recent upward trending of one particular curve, the graph of human population growth (the thick red line in the chart below:

    The curve has been very steep for several decades and is accelerating; it's frankly a wonder that we're not just barely surviving already. Maybe we are but just haven't noticed it yet?

That's certainly true for other species on the planet. The effect on other species is and will continue to be catastrophic in terms of the size (or existence) of their populations. Another way of stating human population growth is in terms of humans' biomass relative to the total biomass on the planet. From the article, "Differential Reproduction - An Exponentialist View":

A sobering [Malthusian1] thought is that as the global human population increases its percentage of the total biomass so many other species are going extinct [emphasis mine].

  1. The Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834), who "observed that sooner or later population gets checked by famine, disease, and widespread mortality."

Monday, October 11, 2010

Local assessment of atheism

On the off chance, I went into Fifth Street Books yesterday afternoon ("ALL BOOKS 99¢").
    Do you know whether you have any books by Christopher Hitchens?
     "What does he write about?" asked the clerk.
    (I'm thinking, What doesn't he write about?—or used to, before he got cancer.) I'm looking for his books on atheism.
    "Well," she said, "they might be here," indicating what I gathered from several copies of Gary Zukav's Seat of the Soul might be the New Age section.  "Or over here, in the Religion section."
    "But," she added, "if you don't find them in either of those places, try Fiction."

Oh, how I would love to have found a copy of God Is Not Great or The Portable Atheist in the Fiction section! Confirming the local assessment of atheism.
    That I'd try to share with the author. But it might hurt him to laugh that hard.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The happiness machine

The Matrix, the 1999 film by Andy and Lana Wachowski, posited a machine that was capable of producing in a person hooked up to it the same state of mind as actual experiences, without the actual experiences. It could ensure that you would feel continually happy and would be so convincing that you would not know you weren't actually having the experiences you thought you were.
    David Sosa, a philosopher at the University of Texas at Austin, recently wrote1 that The Matrix had been scooped twenty-five years earlier. A Harvard philosopher, Robert Nozick, had written in his book Anarchy, State, and Utopia:
Suppose there were an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Super-duper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. [p. 3]
Sound good? Instant, easy bliss. No sweat, no pain.

Sosa says wait a minute. He argues that
There’s an important difference between having a friend and having the experience of having a friend. There’s an important difference between writing a great novel and having the experience of writing a great novel...Plugged in, we would have the sorts of experience that people who actually achieve or accomplish those things have, but they would all be, in a way, false—an intellectual mirage. A drug addict is often experiencing intense pleasure. But his is not a life we admire.
    Now, of course, the difference would be lost on you if you were plugged into the machine—you wouldn’t know you weren’t really anyone’s friend. But what’s striking is that even that fact is not adequately reassuring. On the contrary it adds to the horror of the prospect. We’d be ignorant, too—duped, to boot!...
A former correspondent who went by the Last Judgment eponym "Sheepandgoats" once suggested that my rejection of theistic belief might be motivated by my wishing to avoid being duped. I failed to realize at the time how appropriate the suggestion was. I didn't want to be hooked up to his happiness machine. The Jehovah's Witness brand, in his case. (They're big on separating the sheep from the goats.)
    As Sosa explains,
In refusing to plug in to Nozick’s machine, we express our deep-seated belief that the sort of thing we can get from a machine isn’t the most valuable thing we can get; it isn’t what we most deeply want, whatever we might think if we were plugged in. Life on the machine wouldn’t constitute achieving what we’re after when we’re pursuing a happy life. There’s an important difference between having a friend and having the experience of having a friend.
    ...Happiness is more like knowledge than like belief...Happiness, like knowledge, and unlike belief and pleasure, is not a state of mind.
    No imaginary friends on high for me, thank you very much.2
  1. Once again, I have my more timely read friend Ken to thank for bringing this item to my attention. He wrote me Friday, "Did you see the article 'The Spoils of Happiness' in the NY Times the other day? It raises some points that I think would interest you." Indeed it did.
  2. Thanks to Ken for suggesting the analogy between the happiness machine and religion. I can't be certain that the article would have elicited it from me if I hadn't just read his email:
    How much like the "happiness machine" are the major theistic religions of the world, given their visions of a blissful afterlife? Do they make their practitioners happy?

Friday, October 8, 2010


Very good condition. 5-speed manual transmission. 159,000 miles. 2009 radio with AUX jack. Dog-friendly (poodle shown inside car in photo isn't included, however).

I told a friend this morning that my wife and I had had good luck selling our 1992 Volvo through Craigslist. "I posted the ad Tuesday afternoon, and we accepted a $200 deposit yesterday."
    "It wasn't luck," my friend said.
    "Oh, then what was it?"
    "The divine mercy of God."
    Thank you very much!
    She said that if I was killed in an automobile crash, that too would be the divine mercy of God.
    Thank you very much indeed!

"This fear of things invisible, is the natural seed of...religion." –Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, 1651.

Word of the Day from
wassail \WAH-sul; wah-SAYL\, noun:
  1. An expression of good wishes on a festive occasion, especially in drinking to someone.
  2. An occasion on which such good wishes are expressed in drinking; a drinking bout; a carouse.
  3. The liquor used for a wassail; especially, a beverage formerly much used in England at Christmas and other festivals, made of ale (or wine) flavored with spices, sugar, toast, roasted apples, etc.
Wassail is from the Middle English expression of festive benevolence, wæs hæil!, be well!, from Old Norse ves heill, be (ves) well (heill).
Wassail! As in "Good luck" or "May your deity richly bless you and kill you in a car crash today only if 'he' really thinks that's what you most need."

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Intellectual diversion

Having finished reading The Girl Who Played with Fire over the weekend and not yet having a copy of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest (the second and third unputdownable volumes of Stieg Larsson's "Millennium Trilogy"), and finding a bit difficult for the moment the final chapters of Richard Dawkins's Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution, about the bacterial life of two billion years ago from which evolved all life on Earth today, I've returned to Christopher Hitchens's Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever.
    The excerpt from Bertrand Russell's "Outline of Intellectual Rubbish" (from his book, Atheism; Collected Essays, 1943-1949) was quite diverting. Here's a snippet (more text online):
Other passions besides self-esteem are common sources of error; of these perhaps the most important is fear. Fear sometimes operates directly, by inventing rumors of disaster in war-time, or by imagining objects of terror, such as ghosts; sometimes it operates indirectly, by creating belief in something comforting, such as the elixir of life, or heaven for ourselves and hell for our enemies. Fear has many forms - fear of death, fear of the dark, fear of the unknown, fear of the herd, and that vague generalized fear that comes to those who conceal from themselves their more specific terrors. Until you have admitted your own fears to yourself, and have guarded yourself by a difficult effort of will against their mythmaking power, you cannot hope to think truly about many matters of great importance, especially those with which religious beliefs are concerned. Fear is the main source of superstition and one of the main sources of cruelty. To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom, in the pursuit of truth as in the endeavor after a worthy manner of life.
Also diverting were the two poems Hitchens selected from the work of Philip Larkin (1922 – 1985). For your diversion, I've snipped from "Church Going" (complete text):
Once I am sure there's nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thud shut.
Another church: matting, seats, and stone,
And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut
For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff
Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;
And a tense, musty, unignorable silence,
Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off
My cycle-clips in awkward reverence.
    ...Back at the door
I sign the book, donate an Irish sixpence,
Reflect the place was not worth stopping for.
    Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss like this,
Wondering what to look for; wondering, too,
When churches will fall completely out of use
What we shall turn them into, if we shall keep
A few cathedrals chronically on show,
Their parchment, plate and pyx in locked cases,
And let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep.
    ...I wonder who
Will be the last, the very last, to seek
This place for what it was; one of the crew
That tap and jot and know what rood-lofts were?
Some ruin-bibber, randy for antique,
Or Christmas-addict, counting on a whiff
Of gown-and-bands and organ-pipes and myrrh?
Or will he be my representative,
    Bored, uninformed, knowing the ghostly silt
Dispersed, yet tending to this cross of ground
Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation - marriage, and birth,
And death, and thoughts of these - for which was built
This special shell?...
    A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.
I myself have been thinking about my dead of late. My father, all of his eight brothers, one of his two sisters, my mother, all of her three brothers and three sisters, two of my four sisters, five of six brothers-in-law, two of quite a few nephews, cousins, teachers, friends, former classmates and colleagues, pets.
    And me, in not very long.
    There's no solace in churches, however many dead lie round them. I can find no comfort in the thought of all the wasted effort that went into building monuments to non-existent entities. Parallel efforts went into torturing and murdering people labeled "witches," even if only to be able to confiscate their property after they were done away with. (That from The Portable Atheist's entry from Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. Sagan even entertainingly characterizes the whole "go kill a witch" enterprise as an "expense-account scam," since a number of people were remunerated for various activities involved in collecting and transporting and disrobing and examining and probing and torturing and suffocating and drowning and burning the victims.)

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Christians are saved!

I happened to look some more at the Pew Forum's recent "U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey," and was relieved to find that one of the groups identified actually "knew less about religion" than some of the Christian groups:

The "nothings in particular" knew slightly less than the white evangelical Protestants, the white Catholics, and the white mainline Protestants. It doesn't really seem fair to say that "no one [among the groups identified by the study] is more ignorant about religion than a Christian."
    Christians, in other words, are saved not only by Jesus but also by the nothings in particular!

Saturday, October 2, 2010

How much do you "know about religion"?

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, which conducted the recent "U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey," has posted a quiz to test how much we ourselves "know about religion."
    Take the quiz to find out how you compare with a nationally representative sample of 3,412 adults!

By the way, the opening statement of the Pew Forum's own report of its survey seems to support my friend Ken's observation that "no one [among the groups identified by the study] is more ignorant about religion than a Christian."
    Opens the Pew Forum report:
Atheists and agnostics, Jews, and Mormons are among the highest-scoring groups on a new survey of religious knowledge, outperforming evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants, and Catholics on questions about the core teachings, history, and leading figures of major world religions.
For those so indifferent to religion that it might be termed a miracle that they're even reading this, evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants, and Catholics are considered to be Christians, although that has been disputed on the basis of unfavorable comparisons of the ethics of members of these groups with the core teachings of Jesus Christ.