The Sixties!

Robert M. Price 60th birthday essay

I really enjoyed the Sixties, that is, the 1960s, and I’m planning on enjoying my own imminently impending sixties, as I am about to celebrate my sixtieth birthday.

Get ready for possibly the weirdest, even stupidest, analogy you’ve heard in a long time. Half a century ago, I was standing in front of an octagonal orthodontist building, waiting for my mom to pick me up. I was reading a kid-version, heavily illustrated, of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde. It mentioned that Henry Jekyll was 60 years old. I remember that it struck me how being sixty was not really being “old.” You’d have to be, I guessed, 70 or 80 before that geriatric reproach would apply. I’ve always looked at it that way ever since. And that’s good, since I’m going to enter “the 60s” about three days from now!

Well, a day or two ago (when, exactly? My memory is fading—you know how that goes!), I had a Heideggerian moment of clarity: I was about to cross the border into the ripe old age of sixty, a milestone of—what? Decrepitude? Maturity? I don’t know, but that much closer to the grave at any rate. And, just as quickly, it popped into my gray head that this passage would also be a kind of new birth into a new stage of life. And that thought, in turn, brought me back to that day long ago when I was reading Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, because it was at age sixty that Jekyll transformed into his evil alter ego. Yes, sixty was the age of rebirth all right! But into what?

In several ways, I feel I am just reaching my stride: creative abilities and literary prolificacy (or is that “prolixity”?) seemingly undiminished, with widening opportunities to communicate my message, whatever that is. I would like to be able to enter real retirement and return to the magical paradise of earlier years when I passed the time within a bubble of entertainment and the fantastic imagination. I still read a good bit of Lovecraft, science fiction, etc., as I once did, but there is less time for it even within the borders of the kingdom of what Lin Carter used to call “Happy Magic” I love writing fiction, editing horror anthologies and suchlike, but even these things are “business” after a fashion.

It is a burden, though a light one, to have contributions to make. But this sense of (happy) obligation only multiplies when it comes to my biblical-critical work: writing books, hosting podcasts, etc. I have things to contribute to the discussion. On the one hand, I feel I owe it to the future to add what I can to the body of scholarship. On the other, especially since I am getting older, I need to make whatever mark I can while I can, in lieu of any likely immortality. Maybe I’ll be able to “survive” a little bit longer as a collection of footnotes.

Not that it matters in the long run. I am living for today and much enjoying it. And one big reason for that is the nature of my life’s progress. That is, despite my talk of rebirth and life passages, I do not really perceive myself to have become a new creature as I have accumulated years. No ending to previous life-worlds as I began the next. There has not been a moment when I felt obliged to “put away childish things” as C.S. Lewis did the day he decided he had grown up and took the trouble to put his toys in a box and bury them in the ground. (If I did that, just try to imagine the size of the box, the crate, the cargo container it would take!) No, by contrast, I experience my growth (and dare I say “maturation”?) as a tree gaining new, concentric rings: not sloughing off earlier selves but augmenting them. I have not abandoned, not even lost interest in, comic books and superheroes, pulp fiction and monster movies. If anything, I love them more than ever since I can more deeply fathom their depths (when, as very often, they do have depths). I have never put aside my interest in religion, even though I regard my dropping of religious faith as a significant step of maturity. As you know, I continue to love the scriptures and theologies of all the religions.

I have, I think, left behind various quirks of emotional immaturity. I have sought to grow in character. I have savored new dimensions of family love, adding my devotion to Carol and my pride in Victoria and Veronica to my love for my wonderful parents, now gone, Mable and Noel Price. I have rejoiced at strengthening ties with my brother and my brothers-in law and my mother-in-law. You’ll never convince me, despite my rabid individualism (much of which I owe to Patrick McGoohan), that the family unit is not the bedrock of a healthy society (which I guess we don’t have anymore).

I recall how my brilliant, trying, and crotchety parishioner Bill Guenther didn’t give a damn what anybody thought of whatever he saw fit to say. I liked that about him. And I consider that attitude a valuable perk of getting older, becoming a “senior citizen” (though I’m guessing you’ll probably want to refer to me as a “sophomore” rather than a “senior”). I have a head start. For years I have been happy to say (and write) things that make people cringe. I tried my best in earlier years to conform to the “success” protocols, but I found that just wasn’t going to work for me. Instead, I learned the truth enunciated on the concluding episode of The Prisoner: “We thought you would be happier as yourself.” And I am. Much. And I plan on being that way, as ridiculous as it may seem to some, for a few decades more. How about you?

So says Zarathustra.

 Dr Jekyll and Dr. Price

Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments

Giving Voice to the Image of the Beast

God's billboards

Today I drove past another of those black billboards with white typewriter letters forming cute little remarks like, “If you think it’s hot now, wait’ll you get to hell.” Or “Let’s meet at my place Sunday before the game,” signed “God.” The one I saw today said, “There’s no downside to a relationship with me.” Again, God. Not only do such billboards constitute yet more trivialization of the Christian religion by Christians; they also raise more serious questions, not to mention greater ironies.

Anyone familiar with the work of Christian apologists like William Lane Craig, Richard Bauckham, and Mike Licona knows how vociferously they resist the notion that early Christians would have coined sayings, then fathered them on Jesus to give them greater authority (anybody gets trumped by the Son of God). And the apologists have the same motivation: they want to convince you that you have to believe the statements ascribed to Jesus in the Bible. The early Christians knew nobody would believe and obey something they told you on their own authority, namely no authority. So they used the Jesus character as a ventriloquist dummy. And today’s apologists are doing the same thing. “Jesus” is the megaphone for the opinions of mere mortals. There’d be no reason to believe them, so they hide behind the curtain in the special effects booth, thundering their dictates as if they came from God, AKA the Great and Powerful Oz.

I find it hilariously ironic and very revealing that their own people are doing just what evangelical apologists maintain the New Testament Christians never did. These billboards are created by evangelicals who have no qualms about making up cute sayings of their own and slapping “God” under them.

“Oh, but they don’t really mean that somebody, in some prophetic trance, heard the Hestonian voice of God! They figure anyone who reads the signboards will realize it’s kind of a ‘what-if’ gag.” Really? Maybe so. But then how do we know the early Christians attributing sayings to Jesus meant it literally either?

The practice of evangelical Christians refutes the arguments of their own apologists. But it’s a lot bigger than that. Is there any reason to believe that any of the things human beings have ever said God said had a different origin from today’s billboard oracles? It’s not just a matter of religious fanatics fighting over which set of scriptural doctrines is the true one. Even to frame it that way is to mystify what’s going on. Really it boils down to two (or more) groups of loudmouths engaged in a shouting match. For them to declare “God says so!” is just to shout that much louder. “I said it! God believes it! That settles it!”

It’s propaganda pure and simple. And the appeal to “authoritative” revelation is designed to circumvent reason and logic. If “God” said it, well then, it must be right! “Even if it makes no sense to me, it must nonetheless be true. God is certainly smarter than me!” If there were one, yes, sure, he’d have to be. But what reason is there to think there is a deity who issues these commandments and doctrines? What possible reason is there to believe “his” “revelations” have not been cooked up by fellow mortals (and not necessarily very smart ones)?

As Durkheim suggested, any society christens as “divine sanctions” those man-made rules and values it deems most important. The rule-making elders understand that, if people knew these rules were the invention of mere mortals like themselves, they would say to themselves, “Well, that’s just the opinion of those mossbacks! Who says they’re right and I’m wrong?” And then, they fear, you’d be asking for chaos, as the Book of Judges puts it, “every man doing what is right in his own eyes.” So, the rule-makers think, it will be safer to intimidate the mob into believing the gods have handed down these rules and will kill us or damn us if we disobey. In this event, even if the rules and values are fine and good, the system becomes corrupted by the simple fact of deceit at the foundation of it. It is the sin of priestcraft, of pious fraud. Humans appoint themselves the Grand Inquisitor. They, like the Mullahs of Iran, are sure they know better than the rest of us and do not trust us with freedom of action and free thought.

The Book of Revelation, chapter 13, depicts a scene in which the False Prophet, the promoter and press secretary of the Beast, the end-time tyrant, wows the crowd by making a statue of his master seem to speak aloud. As I read it, the point is not that the False Prophet performs a genuine miracle, albeit Satanically inspired, but rather that he is conning the rubes by using a common stage illusion. Even in the ancient world tricksters and entertainers used ventriloquism and voice-throwing to make it look like a statue spoke. What the False Prophet did was cheap priestcraft.

And that’s what religion has always done when its spokesmen have elevated their own best (?) thoughts to the status of divine revelation. And no one stoops to this if they are convinced of the persuasive logic of their position.

I think that’s as plain as if it were plastered on a billboard.

So says Zarathustra.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Theism and Thin Air

Supernatural god from Theism and Thin Air Essay - Robert M. Price

Is there such a thing as the “supernatural”? I don’t mean to ask whether there is a being called “God” or if there are miracles. Even if God, miracles, and answered prayer are real, are they “supernatural”? What do we mean by that term?

Some people believe that the striking events recorded in scripture did actually happen, but that they were misdescribed by the clueless ancients as if they were supernatural, things that could never happen without divine magic. Such “Rationalists” have sought to re-explain these events in scientific terms unavailable to the ancients. A modern example would be members of UFO sects who believe, e.g., that Jesus’ miraculous conception was an artificial insemination engineered by space aliens. There would have been nothing miraculous about it. Extraordinary, yes. But the aliens are envisioned as flesh-and-blood individuals in possession of advanced technology. The scenario would be much like that hilarious scene in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home when the time-travelling Dr. McCoy rescued Chekov from the barbaric ministrations of late twentieth-century medicine. McCoy’s techniques were perfectly ordinary and mundane in his own eyes but seemed miraculous to patients in the hospital whom he helped along the way. That’s the way it is with Flying Saucer Jesus. Pretty amazing, but not beyond the limits of what is possible in nature. We might not understand the science yet, but in principle we could one day. But this is not quite what I have in mind.

I am thinking of two ancient philosophers. I fear we have not caught up with them. Thales of ancient Ionia probably qualifies as both the first scientist and the first philosopher. He invented science when he asked how the rain comes to fall. Religion (or myth) says rain is what happens when Zeus says, “Forsooth, let’s have some rain here! Chop-chop!” Science, by contrast, tells us (or hopes to tell us) how it rains. Even if we still want to say it is the work of Father Zeus, there must be some way, some method, by which he does it, right?  If his spoken word does the trick, how? Mustn’t we picture some chain of cause and effect? If we picture Circe casting a spell, mustn’t there be some way in which the spoken formula brings about the desired outcome? Doesn’t there have to be, say, some kind of property in the “magic words”? The syllables have to set loose some vibrations that have an impact on the recipient of the curse, right? Like the radio: the sounds reach your speakers through the medium of radio waves. They don’t just get there because somebody says they should.

If you are just thinking that God says it and it happens, you are talking cartoons. The Koran says, “He saith unto a thing, ‘Be!’ and it is.” But this presupposes that what is about to be created already exists to hear the divine command it must now obey. That paradox, I realize, is offered to us, not hidden from us readers. It is clever and happily displayed, but it still does not make any sense. And that’s fatal. That’s my point: it just doesn’t make any sense, even any theological sense.

A funny instance of this sort of cartoon supernaturalism is the gospel miracle of Jesus multiplying the loaves and the fish. As David Friedrich Strauss pointed out in his classic book The Life of Jesus Critically Examined, the story loses any possible plausibility as soon as we take a close look at it: what the heck are we supposed to envision Jesus doing? Does he take hold of both ends of a fish or a barley roll and then stretch it out like a sponge till it breaks, each half somehow the same size as the original? It is a cartoon, not a possible case of someone using a technique amenable to rational understanding if we only knew more about it.

By contrast, think of the (desperate) arguments offered by defenders of the (fake) Turin Shroud. At least they have one point in their favor: when they contend that the photo-negative image on the sheet was the result of some kind of radiation flash caused by the power of God resurrecting Jesus, they realize there would have to be some way God did it. Even if it was a miracle. right? These “sindonologists” are not trying to show what happened in lieu of a miracle, as Joe Nickel does when he demonstrates how some medieval painter could have faked the Shroud. No, they rightly understand that, if God reached down and miraculously resurrected Jesus, he must have used some means.

If there is a method, a way things happen, even in the unseen realm of the gods, then you are envisioning nature, albeit a larger frame of reference.

Epicurus (himself esteemed something of a god by the movement he started) taught that the gods in heaven possess material substance. They occupy space, have volume. Their bodies are made of stuff more rarified than ours. If you look at it this way, at least you know what you are talking about when you say the word “spirit.” Remember, both the Hebrew ruach and Greek pneuma, the biblical words translated “spirit,” mean “wind” or “breath,” implying a rarified material character—like air. And if that’s the case, we are again putting the gods on the side of nature.

In the same vein, some people like to say that “spirit” is another word for “energy.” Fine, but then it becomes perfectly clear that “spirit” in natural, not supernatural. You’re making it tantamount to electricity or nuclear power.

So what’s left on the other side? An abstraction that is timeless, located nowhere in particular, above acting, beyond linear thought, since “he” is perfect with nothing only potentially done and left to do, already knowing everything and not needing to pursue a sequence of thoughts. Pure abstraction. What’s the difference between that and nothing?

If god created adam out of thin air why did he need one of adam's ribs to create eve?If the personal God of scripture exists as more than a literary cipher, he is to be conceived as a being, not as Being-itself. If he does things, he employs means. (That’s just part of what it means to do things!) He is not omniscient, though (presumably) he is wise. He does not know the future because it is not there to be known. Instead, it is just that he is so clever and so powerful that, once he determines that something shall happen, he needn’t worry that anyone will be able to gainsay him. Thus he does not foreknow the future; he just builds it.

Such a god is not much different from a space alien, is he? A superior being indeed, maybe even the supreme being, but that’s like saying that Superman is the greatest of the superheroes. The top dog. The top god. But that wouldn’t mean we ought to worship him as “God.” Even with Superman’s amazing powers, even with his tireless compassion toward us lesser mortals, it would be idolatry to worship him because, as Francis Schaeffer used to say of the Greek gods, Superman is not “big enough.” And neither is Jehovah. The biblical deity is more like Jack Kirby’s Galactus. (And that was intentional. Kirby said he meant for the Devourer of Worlds to be his analogue to God.)

Paul Tillich recognized that the God of the Bible was not adequate, so he formulated a more abstract God concept and wrote of the “God above God.” Tillich stood in a long tradition of philosophical theology, stretching back to the Stoics who redefined the embarrassingly anthropomorphic and anthropopathic Zeus of Homer and Hesiod as the all-permeating, impersonal Logos. And that is a jump from the concrete “living God” to a pure abstraction. You have to decide whether you can make any sense of Idealist metaphysics: does it make sense to regard abstractions like “Truth” or “Eternal Forms” as being as real or even more real than discrete objects? I cannot see how. (What, am I pretending to know better than Plato? Of course not! Compared to him, I’m an orangutan. But if Aristotle could disagree with him, I guess I can, too.)

To make this jump is indeed to jump outside of the natural. But is it to jump from the natural to the supernatural? No, because, whether you are talking about Zeus or Jehovah, you are talking, necessarily, about a discrete entity who pulls the strings, acts in our world (or is supposed to!). Nothing, I am suggesting, removes that being qualitatively from the same category we occupy: the “natural.” He would differ from us merely quantitatively, like Superman or Cthulhu or Erich von Dӓniken’s ancient astronauts. This would be true even if this god were your creator. You might fear this kind of a god, but it would be obsequiousness to worship him, merely degrading toadying.

I don’t see any reason to believe in such a “natural” god. And, as far as I can see, there’s no other kind. To deny that a “supernatural” God exists is a different kind of denial: it is not the fact that is missing, but the sense of it.

So says Zarathustra.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Thought Police Lineup


The other day the head muckety-mucks of Saudi Arabia, a clique of oil-rich Bedouin barbarians (think bloodthirsty Beverly Hillbillies) have decided it’s not enough to stone women who do not obediently hide their charms (and everything else) inside black garbage bags. No, that doesn’t take them far enough back into the Bronze Age. So they have decreed that all atheists are henceforth to be considered and treated as terrorists.

Of course, in one sense, the sheiks are right. The minute someone casts off the mental straightjacket of Islamic medievalism, he or she does in fact pose a dangerous threat to the regime of pious barbarism. The infection might prove contagious. And then, before long, you might have the kingdom enter the twenty-first century. Or at least the twentieth. Even the eighteenth would be a big improvement.

(And don’t start giving me PC flack for making bigoted remarks about Arabs. Surely you can see I’m sticking up for a group of Arabs, the atheists upon whom open season has just been declared.)

So far I seem to be presupposing a big gap between our enlightened Western civilization and the backwards culture of Saudi Arabia. But not quite. I see shaping up a scenario in which the hyper-sensitivities of a decadent culture (the West) are aligning with the primitive half-civilization of the Middle East. It is a strange yet almost predictable convergence of opposites. Western decadence invites the destruction of its own free society by tolerating (even embracing) intolerance and giving it an equal seat at the big table, somehow failing to see that the intolerant will wind up the only ones at the table—or at least setting the menu and the manners for everybody else.

As you have anticipated, I have in mind the inexplicable equation of opposing Islamo-fascism with “Islamophobia.” But that is not my main point. Some Western countries have made it a crime to criticize Islam. In decadent America no such law is yet on the books, but there is strong social pressure against criticizing Islam, as I have just mentioned. What I mean to point out is the trend of PC politeness-censorship in the eventual direction of anti-blasphemy laws and the criminalizing of critics of religion. As religious believers portray themselves as victims and demand “protection” from criticism, we critics of faith may find ourselves empathizing with the endangered species of Saudi atheists. Atheists in America are already vilified as immoral or morally nihilistic because we do not claim a basis for morality in the divine will. For this reason, some religious people already regard us as threats to the social and moral order. And that is, as I say, not that far from the reasoning of the Saudi authorities.

All this makes me think of an old sermonic conscience-prod: “If it became illegal to be a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” In the same way, if being a critic of religion makes one a villain, it might be good to rethink just what we have in mind when we call ourselves “atheists” or other labels usually thought to be synonymous (though they may not be…).

Are you an atheist? What is an atheist? Someone who does not believe in God (gods)? Not good enough. Agnostics don’t believe in God either. We’ll get to them in a minute. Now, does the atheist believe there is no deity? That would seem to imply that theists are correct when they characterize atheism as a rival faith position. But it is my impression that most self-styled atheists would not describe their position this way. It would be more accurate to say that atheists just do not see sufficient reason to take the God option seriously, any more than they feel compelled to hold open the possibility that leprechauns exist. Sure, theoretically, the little guys might be real, but what are the chances?

This is where agnosticism comes in. As Thomas Henry Huxley, who coined the term, viewed the matter, the agnostic does not now see any way to prove a deity exists but thinks it is entirely possible. It is an open question, or, as William James put it, a live option. William James figured that as long as the odds are even and it was one of those cases where “not to decide is to decide” (what James called a forced option), it is legitimate to exercise “the will to believe” to tip the balance, since you will have to fall off the fence one way or the other anyway. Pascal must have had the same idea when he said one ought to “wager” that the Christian faith is true, even while admitting that it might not be. You’re either going to live life as a religious person or as a nonreligious one. Ya pays yer money and ya takes yer choice. In this framework, I guess William James would have said Huxley had actually opted for irreligion, and I guess that would be correct. Agnostics are irreligious. They have effectively chosen a side.

But you could choose the other side. And many have. Evangelical theologian Clark H. Pinnock was probably not atypical when he readily admitted that “know” and “believe” do not mean the same thing. He realized that no mortal can possibly know whether God exists. But he thought there was a pretty good case to be made for God and Christianity, and Pinnock figured that a step of faith (no leap being necessary) was justified—as a working hypothesis. This was a man with the courage to change his mind, which he had done more than once on various issues, and at some cost. So I think he meant it. Pinnock was technically an agnostic even while being a devout Christian. Many are.

Back to Huxley. He was quick to point out that he wasn’t saying one could never know there was no way to know if a God exists. That would presuppose just the sort of superhuman knowledge Huxley admitted he lacked. Maybe someone someday will come up with a definitive proof of God. Huxley’s agnosticism grants that possibility. But most people who use the term today seem to mean that they believe you cannot know, you can never know, whether there is a God. Or do they? I suspect they really mean something akin to what I said about atheists: they just don’t see any likelihood that it will ever prove possible to know about God.

How about rationalists? Central here is epistemology: how can we know, whether about God or about anything else? By reason, processing the evidence of the senses. Intuition, feeling, sentiment: these things may rightly prompt certain of our actions, very important ones. But they do not yield true knowledge of factual matters. Religious belief pretends to offer such knowledge, but it does not, as long as we define “knowledge” as “justified true belief.” If the decision to embrace religious doctrines is based in any measure on an act of faith, it cannot claim to be rationally justified. Many advocates of religion are happy to admit that. To them, faith is the missing link. But rationalists call that a bridge to nowhere. It’s using counterfeit money to make up the shortfall.

Logical Positivists used to claim that any belief incapable of scientific verification was merely gibberish. Wittgenstein thought this at first but then decided that scientific verification was not the only game in town, not the only “language game” available. There are other uses of language that do not posit and postulate. Religious language follows a different trajectory and serves a different purpose. It is not cognitive in nature, but neither is it meaningless. It is emotional and expressive in nature. As Tillich taught, religious myths and symbols express and articulate a deeper level of meaning, much in the fashion of poetry. Religion has no business poaching on the preserves of science (“The earth was created in one week.”) or history (“Moses parted the Red Sea.”). Of course, most religious folks do not draw those distinctions and insist on making fact claims they cannot support through evidence and thus are tempted to pretend they can, deceiving themselves and their audiences (e.g., “Scientific Creationists,” William Lane Craig, etc.).

Humanists espouse the philosophy summed up by the singing group Up with People: “We’ve got to do the best we can with what we’ve got.” Humanists (at least the ones we’re talking about) are usually atheists and agnostics, but they prefer the “humanist” label because they would rather fly the flag of what they do stand for than what they don’t.

Let me take a moment to draw a distinction. Though humanists have many concerns and causes, there is one that I think disqualifies a non-theist as a humanist: radical environmentalism. If you believe that human beings are a pestilence, the worst thing ever to happen to the earth, you are no kind of humanist. If you think the interests of snail darters take precedence over the well-being of humans, you do not espouse humanism. If jobs for people and energy independence mean nothing to you, but “Gaia” does, you probably don’t want to call yourself a humanist, and I wish you wouldn’t.

Similarly, on another issue, if you think a fetus is no more valuable than a tumor, I think you’re confused if you think you’re a humanist.

In my lexicon, a secularist is fundamentally an advocate of the separation of religion and state. But these days that has come to mean advocating the elimination of any and all expressions of religion on public property, which seems pretty scorched-earth to me. That crusade seems to me to pass beyond secularization (dethronement of any official or state religion) to secularism, the attempt to make the rejection of religion into the ruling ideology.

Then there are skeptics. To be “skeptical” means “to scrutinize.” We generally use the term for those like Joe Nickel and James Randi who investigate extraordinary, paranormal claims. Believers in things like telepathy and ghosts dismiss skeptics as “paradigm police,” defenders of an orthodoxy of “normative science” (Thomas Kuhn’s term). This implies skeptics go in with minds made up, determined to debunk. But that’s not really a problem, is it? Isn’t the procedure of scientists to try their best to debunk their own hypotheses? That’s the only way to see if your theory passes the test.

It is not uncommon to find selective skepticism in play. Local skeptic groups often have to tread lightly because they have welcomed fundamentalist Christians as members. These believers would not think of applying skeptical scrutiny to their own beliefs, but flying saucers and ghosts are fair game: they have no place in the fundamentalist (“biblical”) worldview, so fundamentalists are eager to shoot them down. Personally, I sometimes find myself baffled at atheistic skeptics vis a vis the paranormal who seem however to swallow uncritically certain political dogmas – and I am fully aware they look at me the same way!

Tillich spoke of people who cannot seem to believe in anything, who are automatically skeptical of everything. But they are not to be written off as nothing more than jaded smart-asses. Tillich suggested that they do believe in Truth, so fervently that they will not easily accept any claim as the Truth. They’re willing to wait as long as it takes, even if the Truth never comes along. One might say they are employing the concept of the Truth as a sailor employs the North Star: he navigates by it but does not expect to reach it.

I think Nietzsche was saying the same thing when he warned that when we come to realize there is no Truth, we are tempted to regard our favorite fictions as the Truth. To avoid such a convenient self-deception, Nietzsche said we should not reject the category labeled “Truth” but should keep it as an empty drawer, just to remind ourselves that our fictions belong in the “Fiction” drawer, not in the ever-empty “Truth” drawer. We need the empty, purely formal and not material notion of Truth to guard ourselves from imagining that some favorite fiction is not more than a fiction.

Any and all of the above may add “freethinker” to their resume. But I will defend the right of religious folks to claim the title, too. I will admit that my experience and that of others I have observed lead me to expect that a conservative Christian who dares to rethink his theology in an honest and searching way is very likely to end up in one of the camps I have discussed here. His initial stance is one of accepting a package, a platform, a slate of beliefs learned from his inherited church or whichever church got him to convert from unbelief. These beliefs may gain their integrity from a systematic logic. If they do, then, when one discards one feature of the system, the whole thing may collapse.

But even more basically, questioning any feature of a creed accepted on faith erodes the whole warrant of faith. If any single tenet of your creed is no longer safe from critical evaluation, where does it stop? How can you keep the iron curtain of cognitive invulnerability safely around the rest of the tenets? I don’t think you can, without heavy-duty compartmentalizing, and you can keep up that effort for only so long. And once you realize that “faith epistemology” (fideism) amounts to arbitrary stubbornness, stonewalling, you will probably try your best to find or create rational justification for your beliefs. But that is indulging in after-the-fact rationalizing. Just like Creationists and resurrection apologists. I am not optimistic about the prospects for a religious freethinker. But it’s possible; remember Clark Pinnock.

Neither do I have any right to tell anyone not to bother continuing his quest because I can tell him in advance what he will find (namely, my oh-so-wise opinions!). That would make me into the very sort of dogmatist I despise! And even if I am right, for me to tell somebody to save himself the trouble and just agree with me, would be cheating him. Again, even if my conclusions are correct, someone else must come to these conclusions on his own, or they will be worthless because they will be based, once again (and ironically) on faith—faith in me! Nope, you have to reach your own conclusions, even if they do wind up jiving with mine. And I have to remain agnostic as to whether you will.

So says Zarathustra.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Sex and Sectarian Strife

It is hard to keep track of the many current crises, both domestic and international. You can’t tell the combatants without a scorecard. But it is clear that quite a number of them are rooted in the hatreds cherished by one religious group against another. Yes, I know it is possible that these sectarian tags are merely masks for other issues, but generally I think that explanation is an error made by secular-minded analysts who just cannot imagine that religion could mean enough to religious believers that they would actually shed blood over it. But they would, and they do.

The Sunni Jihadists hate Christians and Jews, but not as much as they despise Shi’ites, who are fellow Muslims. Among the Sunnis, the Wahabi faction (whose name inexplicably adorns the pseudo-Islamic crest of the ridiculous Shriners) deems all non-Wahabis as non-human! Needless to say Shi’ite are pretty ornery, too. And there are other religious wars, notoriously between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland and even Buddhists versus Hindus in Sri Lanka. Muslims attack Hindus, too. And the too-tender sensibilities of Hindus in India and Muslims all over the globe are successfully censoring public discourse.

I could go on about this for several pages. It is nearly enough to make me accept the argument of Sam Harris (who is certainly right about the dangers of Islam) that all religion is dangerous and should end. He says that the legions of moderate religious believers serve as a kind of human shield preventing us from leveling the blame where it belongs. But I know of too many positive religious believers whose faith is what impels them to selfless good on behalf of others. I do take his sweeping generalization seriously in the case of Islam, where it is more clear to me that even the much-invoked “moderate” Muslims are part of the problem, not the solution, insofar as they stand by silently.

But I raise the spectre of religious hatred and its disruptive ramifications in order to place a recent and ongoing American controversy in what I perceive to be its proper context. I have in mind the proposed Arizona law (vetoed but about to be repeated in several other states) that, as a safeguard to religious freedom, allows fundamentalists to refuse to serve homosexuals in restaurants and other businesses. “This train don’t carry no sinners.”

There are other reasons this law is ill-conceived and ludicrous. For one, does the pious opponent of homosexuality give a litmus test to, require a no-homosexuality pledge of, all potential customers at the door? And why stop there? Why not turn away suspected adulterers? Dishonest businessmen? Liars? The door is opened to the colonial-era absurdity whereby congregations would allow to receive Holy Communion only those whose spiritual worthiness they could be sure of. Eventually Roger Williams, founder of the Baptist movement in America, realized the foolishness of this procedure when he had decided he could be sure of only his wife’s spiritual worthiness and refused to share the communion table with anyone else. It was a self-imposed reductio ad absurdum, and he snapped out of it, instituting open communion to any and all comers. That’s basically what Christians need to do in their restaurants. If they don’t, they might as well go the whole way and post signs reading NO UNSAVED ALLOWED.

Second, have these restaurateurs, bakers, wedding photographers, etc., forgotten who started their religion? Historical Jesus versus Christ Myth debate aside, what sort of character is depicted in the gospels? He, uh, dined with tax-collectors and sinners, right? He preached against sin but embraced sinners. Please tell me how so-called Christians can decide, as a matter of policy, for Pete’s sake, to tell homosexuals to get lost and take their offending penises with them! Blessed are the peacemakers.

But here’s my biggest gripe. For a religious group to claim the right and the freedom to exclude outsiders because of ethical and religious differences of opinion is to start down the path to a religion-versus-religion no man’s land. No violence to speak of yet, but the poisonous seed has nonetheless been planted. We already have plenty of cause to bemoan the “identity politics” slicing and dicing of America into competing pressure groups. Don’t make it worse! In fact, who has noticed that the proposed Christian shunning of Gays is exactly parallel to the recent liberal call to boycott Chick-Fil-A because the owner of the chain said he disapproved of same-sex marriage? I opposed that boycott every bit as much as I supported same-sex marriage. Similarly, I oppose abortion, but I decry the assassination of abortion doctors. We have to have a civil society. “Let’s hang on to what we’ve got. Don’t let go, girl; we got a lot.”

So says Zarathustra

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Aquinas for Atheists

St Thomas AquinasWe have the advantage of thinking after Emil Durkheim, who understood that religion is epiphenomenal to society: a mystification of society in order to reinforce the strictures and system that are necessary for a livable order. The pragmatic rules are prior to the mythology that seeks to give them an extra, supernatural warrant in order to scare those who are too stupid to see that everyone must hold up his end of the thing, or too selfish to care.

The fear of death is no doubt one of the main reasons for being religious. But another of the things we fear is social chaos. That is the entropy which soon threatens us with death. We want safety and security in this life and the (imagined) next. We want to ensure the social compact which put an end to the War of All against All. How? Religion/society threatened those who were too stupid or selfish with extra warrants. “Okay, smart guy! It’s not just that crime doesn’t pay. It’s also a question of God sending you to an unremitting hell after death! We may not be able to catch and convict you, but God will!”

But if we recognize all this, isn’t the jig up? Doesn’t it work only as long as we believe in the divine origin of morality and the divine enforcement of it? No. Thomas Aquinas explained how, even if God created humanity and decreed its laws, the latter stem pragmatically from the former. Because God made humans social animals, as Aristotle saw, a stable social system defined by laws (e.g., against stealing, murder, rape, defrauding, breach of contract) is needful. These God did not arbitrarily decree (as if he’d ordered: “Thou shalt walk upon thy hands every other Monday from 2-4:30 PM.”) but rather derived from the natural good of the creatures he had made. Even God dealt with morality inductively and even situationally—as Aquinas had learned from Aristotle.

The things that are right will vary with the individual and his situation. We must pursue the Golden Mean. Should we dive into the freezing river to rescue Little Nell? For Schwarzenegger it would not even be challenging. We should blame him if he had not dived in. For some pencil-neck like Barney Fife, it would be foolhardy and not praiseworthy. For the average man, it would be a genuine risk requiring courage, worth the effort since there is a real chance it might work. So the content of virtue varies with the individual; there is no “one size fits all” stipulation.

Indeed, all of prescribed moral behavior is to be based upon Natural Law, the rules of optimum functionality. How do things (society) work best? Where this principle goes astray is when one retains a false inference of Aristotle’s, namely that each bodily organ has but a single intended function so that to use it otherwise is wrong. For instance, the reproductive system. The erectile tissue seems to have been retained by evolution because it encourages sexual activity which adds to the species. If it weren’t for the function of reproduction, no erectile tissue. True enough. But does that mean it is immoral and perverse to make non-reproductive use of erectile tissue? Aquinas said yes: it is wrong to “misuse” sex for simply having fun with the one you love, as wrong as it would be to use your bare hands for a hammer. I reject this, of course, because non-procreative sex does no harm. To think it does is an error but does not discredit the Aquinas-Aristotle approach in general, just a poor application of it.

Thus, even for Aquinas, though the atheist, the secularist, may fail to see the ultimate divine origin of society and humanity, he can easily enough discern what is necessary for us to live peacefully together. There will be gray areas, but the theist admits he has many of those too, where neither reason nor revelation speaks clearly (as any Christian discussion of medical ethics will make abundantly clear).

The atheist cannot deter people with supernatural threats, but then they seem not to deter many believers anyway! In Tillich’s terms, the theist and the atheist may share generally or exactly the same laws and mores, but the former holds them theonomously, recognizing that the law of the Creator governing him is authentically the law of his own being,

I think this is what Leibniz intended when he said that, though we are in every respect determined, this means just the opposite of being forced against our will. Even our will itself is the product of forces over which we had no control. So we have our will and desires from a source outside ourselves (whether blind factors like DNA and environment or a personal Designer), but it is genuinely our will, and we rejoice to embrace it. Schleiermacher and Tillich would say that theonomy is the state of recognizing that we ourselves are not the source of our own selves, our will, and inclination, the acknowledgement of “absolute dependence.” On the other hand, “autonomy” would be simply the absence or neglect of that sense of dependence. “I am the master of my fate.” Well, on one level, yes. You have been dealt a particular hand of cards, and it is up to you to decide how to play them. Looking even more closely, we might find that our choices as to how to play them is already established by subtle traits pre-programmed into us, but at least we will be doing our “duty to self,” finding it satisfying, not an alien compulsion, as with someone under the gun: “Dance!”

We will not regard our inherited inclinations as a heteronomous command from an alien authority. The atheist can see the same moral system as believer but from the standpoint of autonomy. And that is good enough. Aquinas freely admitted that unaided reason could discern the requirements for the good life, and that Aristotle had.

What the theist has (he supposes) that the atheist lacks (and it may not be much of a lack after all) is a Kantian categorical imperative, a transcendent obligation to keep the moral law, his duty to his divine creator.

Is there a categorical imperative? No, but I want to keep the category, even though, or especially because, it is an empty one. That way we will remain aware of what our morality is not. We must remember the strictly hypothetical, prudential, conditional character of our duties and choices. I get this from Nietzsche, who said that there is no Truth, nothing in the Truth category. But if we eliminate the “Truth” category we will be tempted to forget the difference and to assume our fictions are the Truth. No! They are only fictions, and we mustn’t forget that. If we do, the result will be just what you are bemoaning: philosophers forgetting that they are merely framing hypotheses and coming to imagine they are absolute dogmas.

For the atheist, a pragmatist, the obligation is but a hypothetical imperative: Assuming you want to achieve A, then this is the best route to get there. But then maybe you want B. No one’s telling you which destination is best. The atheist seems to have no absolute duty to do the (strategically) best thing. He will not have “sinned” against anyone if he takes the longer route with less scenery. Precisely because there is no absolute duty hanging over him that would carry an absolute penalty for flouting it. The atheist can think freely and not cower in terror of flunking the theology exam right after he dies, and going to Hell.

Most atheists would likely say the “merely” hypothetical imperative is sufficient. Virtually everybody will feel it is in their best interests to adopt the purely pragmatic Social Compact: minimum regulations to safeguard our freedom to do our own thing. If I want to live in such a society, am I not obliged to heed the rules?

One might respond, yes, but only pragmatically. If you rejected social norms, as obviously many do, you might be jailed or killed by the majority who are acting not according to some transcendent moral authority but in the self-interest of the majority who (unlike the ACLU) don’t want things to unravel. It is a sense of fairness.

But then is that very sense of fairness to which we feel unconditionally obliged not also an advantageous fiction used to build the kind of society most of us want: a safe and free one? Yes, again, it is “merely” pragmatic, hypothetical. But so what? The question we have to ask is: Is it stable? Will such thinking secure the society everyone wants to live in?

Admittedly, issues like adultery, fornication, contraception, abortion, and capital punishment achieve far less agreement in practice. Are these acts always wrong or only if it has certain consequences? I think I see two issues here. First, these questions are genuinely ambiguous, demonstrating how our imposition of moral categories is to some degree arbitrary, since life is messier than textbook definitions. Yet it is only by using these definitions as Cartesian coordinates that we can understand the difficulties at all. Right and wrong do not inhere in the universe but are rather guidelines for human life based on how life seems to work best for most. Second, the ambiguity stems from the impossibility of anticipating all possible cases. Cases in which there seems to be no genuine ambiguity are those in which it seems impossible to imagine a scenario when the act would have beneficial effects for all involved: rape would be a prime example. We cannot envision a situation in which it would not degrade the rapist and violate the rapist’s victim.

social contract cartoon

One might even argue that to believe in a transcendent moral source of authority in God could open the door to chaos. Just look at the Shi’ite fanatic who thinks Allah has summoned him to set aside generally applicable moral rules such as that against killing the innocent. 

Divine Voluntarism is the flip side, or the hidden face, of moral Nihilism. When Origen said, “God knows who wrote the Epistle to the Hebrews!” he meant that no man knows, no one knows who wrote it. Likewise, to say, “Only God can give moral guidance” is to despair of finding moral guidance from mortals. But in fact, we invent morality rather than discovering it. And this fiction, again, slips over into our “Truth” category, with terrible results.

Yes, the universal sovereign is the conscience of the individual. And a conscience is inevitably social, formed by mutual obligation between friends, customers, and the other partners in explicit or implicit contracts one has all over the place. Even the solitary conscience, the final court of appeal, need not atomize us or make us into individual atolls, but takes into account a broader social reference.

Again, justice is not inherent in the universe but rather is a grid we impose upon it, a game we have decided to play, and sometimes the rules are inevitably a bit arbitrary.

So says Zarathustra.

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments


Beneath the Planet of the Apes - bomb - mutants
Mutant Service from beneath the planet of the apes

You’re not going to like this. As a matter of fact, I don’t like it either. You may feel free to shoot loads of barbs my way, though I won’t have time to respond to them. I just feel like I ought to float an idea. Make of it what you will. And don’t think I don’t realize this is an exercise in armchair speculation. I am a policy maker only in the kingdom of my own imagination. So are you.

Not too long ago, the President and his sock puppets were seeking to bamboozle, er, I mean convince Congress and the American public to okay his misbegotten plan to “punish” the Syrian Fuehrer Assad for gassing his own citizens for the crime of wanting a monster like him out of office. I agreed with the great majority in rejecting the whole enterprise. I had supported George W. Bush’s “freedom agenda” and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They were noble experiments. They have proven failed experiments. Why walk right back into the lab for another round of trials? I used to regard it as racist to disdain the Middle Eastern nations as not yet ready for democracy. Whether it is racist or not, it now appears to be true. Democracy cannot function in the midst of endless, fanatical sectarian terror. And we ought to have learned that the whole area is a quicksand pit. Good luck with it, Arabs.

Our reluctance to continue in the job of World Policeman inevitably raises the question of Isolationism. President Bush was probably right at least about this: if we don’t fight the terrorists on their own ground, we will more and more fight them on ours. So if we shake the dust from our feet and leave the Islamic countries to their fate, we are going to have to decide how to fight the battle that will follow us home. And I have an idea. This is the part I don’t like any more than you will.

Remember the Cold War policy of Mutual Assured Destruction, MAD for short? We uppedRad the stakes as high as they would go, warning that if either we or the USSR unleashed a nuclear assault on the other, there would be an apocalyptic response. It was a suicide pact and succeeded in making any direct warfare between the parties moot. It just wasn’t a viable option, and neither was any conventional conflict that might lead to it.

But this will not work in preventing the kind of asymmetrical conflict we have with Islamist Jihadis. But this might. I am thinking about a policy of Retaliatory Assured Destruction, a response to any terror strikes on American soil provably linked to Al-Qaida and affiliated demons. In the wake of such a terror incident we would launch annihilating nuclear strikes on any of the countries known to harbor Al-Qaida and not already trying desperately to liquidate them. Such an announced policy might prompt Pakistan, Afghanistan, whomever, to get busy fast trying to exterminate the vermin lest they go down with them. And if they do go down with them, then they asked for it. I’m not talking about regime change. We’ve seen how futile that is. We train the armies of the new government only to have them turn around and shoot our trainers. To hell with that. To hell with them. We will have to play hardball once it’s the only game in town. Israel’s been in spring training for a long time now. We should be, too.

Isn’t this barbaric? Yes, but I fear the world situation as it appears to be shaping up will leave us no other options. If we indulge our tender consciences, we will become accomplices in the demise of Western Civilization (pardon the redundancy).

Europe is on its way to Islamicization. Nice knowin’ ya! The Eiffel Tower will become a minaret. “Idolatrous” art in the Louvre will go the way of those Buddhist rock reliefs in Afghanistan once the Taliban took over (unless we forcibly air lift the treasures out of there—sounds like a good movie plot). You know the crazy Salafists in Egypt want to destroy the “pagan” Pyramids, right? Well, at least we’ve got pictures of all that stuff. These bastards are the locusts from the bottomless pit.

You understand, I’m not hoping any of this will happen; I’m just thinking about the worst case scenario. Somebody has to.

So says Zarathustra.


Posted in Uncategorized | 12 Comments

Amid the Ruins



“Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” (Mark 13:2)

It isn’t the best of times, that’s certain, but I fear it is not the worst of times either, for, I fear, things are very likely to get a lot worse. It seems to me that the utter fools who guide the affairs of this nation are charting a course into what they imagine is a bright future of millennial bliss; the trouble is that they are so foolish, so completely deluded, that they cannot recognize the difference between Paradise and the Great Tribulation. Not only do they think they are following the right road signs; but once they get to hell, they will continue to think it is heaven. They are like poor Kafka whose policy was to keep going full speed ahead even and especially when one discovers he has taken the wrong path. For instance, though the Affordable Care Act was promised to drive down premiums and deductibles and to leave no one uninsured, the results are already manifesting as the exact opposite. A sane person might pause and gain his bearings, then realize things have gone terribly wrong. The sane thing would be to cut one’s losses and to turn back, retrace one’s steps, then make a new start. But this our idiot rulers cannot bring themselves to do. Perhaps they just are too proud to admit they made, or could make, a mistake.

There is violence in the streets, and it is a game to the perpetrators. And since the assailants are African-American, the mainstream media claims it is all an urban legend. None of it ever happened, because none of it ever could have happened. For everyone knows that African Americans do not commit crimes. Or at least Whites lack the right to say they do. That would be racist! As anomic black youth target Jews for assault in the “Knock Out Game,” Political Correctness is clubbing America itself.

Similarly, it is in bad taste, downright “insensitive,” to blame Islamofascism on Muslims. Hell, no! To say that would be “profiling.” There is no Islamofascism, only Islamophobia. Neville Chamberlain has returned under the alias of John Kerry. Though the fanatical Iranian mullahs continue to vilify Israel and to vow to wipe her off the map, our government views Israel as the villain.

The Communist Core Curriculum seeks to replace the drug-induced stupor of our youth with propaganda-induced stupor, softening them up, like dreaming humans in the womb-pods of The Matrix.

Our culture is so morally blind, so delusional, that it thinks it best to take the guns away from law-abiding citizens so they cannot commit the “crime” of self-defense against the assaults of the perversely romanticized savages and predators that run amok in our “liberal” society.

There are plenty of people who blame our social disintegration on the exclusion of religion (except for Islam, of course) from public life. If we all got back to the Bible and to Christian (i.e., Victorian) morality, everything would be just peachy. If we had prayer and Bible reading in the schools, everything would be okay. Our trouble, these people tell us, is that our ethics have no transcendental standard or basis. It is all subjective and self-serving. In one sense, this diagnosis is palpably and tragically absurd. The belief in a divine objectivity of morality founded on the will of the Creator is simply what Francis A. Schaeffer used to call (even as he was committing it) an “upper-story leap.” One feels things would be better with a divine moral compass, so one pretends to have one. It is like me thinking it would solve my problems if I struck it rich and then writing a bunch of rubber checks on a shopping spree. Thinking you need something doesn’t mean you have it.

But in another sense, these believers are quite correct: our disintegration as a country and as a civilization is the natural issue of the loss of a religious center. Peter L. Berger’s classic work The Sacred Canopy spells it out. Traditional societies possessed a worldview and value system anchored in a common, inherited mythology of creation. The social and moral order, actually established by the forgotten human founders, were ascribed to the gods, who were believed to enforce their laws and to render their mores unchallengeable. The myths, beliefs, values, traditions, and laws were like bricks forming a great dome or canopy. The keystone was the myth and ritual, the religion. Without that keystone, that universal rationale, the canopy would collapse. The result would be cultural confusion, anomie, and dissolution.

Such a sacred canopy presupposed a unanimity of behavior and belief. Oh sure, there would be anomalous individuals, crooks, schemers, traitors, like old Korihor in the Book of Mormon. But such a weirdo knew he would be in big trouble once his shenanigans were discovered, so he might think twice. The system reckoned with the possibility that such an oddball would manage to remain undetected, but it had an answer for that, too: the promise that God or the gods would see what you did in secret and make sure you received karmic justice. But if the system crashed, everyone became an oddball, a bunch of ricocheting and colliding billiard balls.

The system might crash because of a conquest by an alien people with superior power. The old gods were defeated, the old ways trampled upon. In such cases people repair to the Stockholm Syndrome. “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” Any order must be better than no order. “Better Red than dead.” I believe our system is in the process of crashing. The government Leviathan seeks to control all aspects of national, even personal, life, using its velvet-covered brass knuckles (e.g., the IRS, the NSA) to smash down dissent and opposition. The government spouts ass-covering, self-serving propaganda, round-the-clock disinformation to keep its enemy, its own citizens, in the dark and off balance. Surveys show that most Americans do not feel they can trust one another. Political Correctness bullies and shames speech it does not like, shaming Conservatives while seeking to lift the stigma of shame from parasitic government dependence and shattered, fatherless families.

Liberals champion their own self-righteousness, meanwhile embracing the unscrupulous, amoral power tactics of Saul Alinsky. In the name of pious reverence for the sacredness of all human life, they hold candle light vigils for convicted mass murders and rapists, while stuffing the abortion clinic dumpsters with tiny, innocent human bodies. It is not only cold-blooded hypocrisy of the worst sort, that of actual deceptive pretense, it is also a classic case of Slave Morality: the mutual agreement to abdicate and abolish moral responsibility. If the child rapist and the serial killer cannot be held guilty for what they do, how can anyone blame me for my mere peccadilloes? You scratch my white-striped back, and I’ll scratch yours.

Modern societies like ours are wonderfully pluralistic. But that comes at a price. There is no more a common faith to keep in place a set of common values. We enjoy a heady mixture of cross-fertilizing religious and nonreligious and antireligious opinions. And we have been able to manage this creative chaos for generations by the expedient of a little invention called Civil Religion. What we did in effect was to acknowledge that the increasingly religiously diverse American population, in order to stick together, needed to adopt a second religion, one that wouldn’t be called a religion but would perform the same functions as the original Christian faith once shared by almost all Americans. This would be the “religion” of Patriotism, of what we now call “American Exceptionalism.” Corresponding to the Church Fathers we would have the Founding Fathers. For a Bible we would have, of course, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. Our holy days would include the Nativity, namely July 4, and saints’ days like Washington’s and Lincoln’s Birthdays. Lincoln became the Christ-figure, Washington the Moses who led us to freedom against the tyranny of George III, the modern-day Pharaoh. Instead of (or alongside of) the Cross would be the American flag. Patriotism presupposes a transcendent commitment to country and countrymen. We all stand for American values and virtues. Patriotism, Civil Religion, was the substitute religion uniting us. And it was great: you could be a good American, and a good believer in America and in Americanism, whether you were a Shintoist or a Shi’ite, a Buddhist or a Baptist, an atheist or an agnostic.

This last was especially important to me because, though I affirm the smorgasbord of American religions (= world religions), I have studied them enough so that I can no longer honestly believe in the doctrines of any of them. But Civil Religion did not present that problem for me. I could believe in that.

Give me that old Civil Religion,
Give me that old Civil Religion,
Give me that old Civil Religion,
It’s good enough for me.

It was good for Colonel Ingersoll,
It was good for Colonel Ingersoll,
It was good for Colonel Ingersoll,
And it’s good enough for me!

But one day I heard an atheist campus activist saying how she was planning a classroom presentation about how atheism is inconsistent with patriotism of any kind. She had apparently come to believe that any form of devotion to something outside her individual life would constitute degrading worship. I knew she had discovered the polite secret of Civil Religion: that it was a religion. And as such, she and her compatriots felt, patriotism is incompatible with the autonomy of the atheist.

I do not share that particular objection to religion. If allegiance is deserved I am happy to provide it. But since the Sixties, more and more Americans have ceased to believe that America does deserve honor and respect. Many have imbibed the propaganda that America ought to be spelled with a “K,” implying it is like Nazi Germany. Indian-slaughtering, African-enslaving Americans are supposed to be the root of all evil. We deserved 911. And, as our penance, we must take a back seat, politically and economically, to more “righteous” forces like economy-paralyzing Socialism, Jew-hating Islamofascism, and anti-humanist eco-lunatics. I regard these America-hating Leftists as victims of neurotic self-hatred and survivor guilt. Like Father Paneloux in Camus’s The Plague, they feel they must share the world’s misery or else be held (or hold themselves) responsible for it. The only way to evade blame is to join the blamers.

Such people frequently label themselves “World Citizens,” which mainly seems to denote that they have lost any sense of special pride in their own country. They have apostatized from Civil Religion, and so society drifts apart like puzzle pieces cast into a flowing river that may carry them anywhere, and to no common destination. So-called World Citizens might appear to have a real point: if everyone could transfer their loyalty, their patriotism, to a higher focus, that of humanity as a whole, wouldn’t that be a nobler ideal than that of nationalistic patriotism? But it’s a fool’s game, and it dreams of a fool’s paradise, as it entails gaining peace by the expedient of surrender, the single and non-negotiable demand made by our adversaries. “Well, if that’s what it takes…!” And thus are many quite happy enough to sacrifice the freedom they once enjoyed and made their totem.

While some like to think they are lifting their gaze to a loftier perspective of World Citizenship, others are lowering theirs to a dangerous myopia, unable to see farther than their noses, or, perhaps more accurately, their mirrors. I am thinking of the constant griping of various ethnic, political, religious, and anti-religious factions who want things their own way, and to hell with everyone else. Public workers union members simply do not care that money is drying up; like children, they indulge in magical thinking, insisting on getting ever more money and benefits, even though the very extravagance of their demands are what bankrupted their cities in the first place. American Indians (apparently not many of them) are somehow offended that sports teams call themselves the Braves, the Redskins, etc. Maybe they have a point. The teams took these names because American Indians were models of bravery and virility. But these Politically Correct carpers are making the Indians models of whining and self-pity. Do you want your team named for whiners?

I can’t use the word “Christmas” because some non-Christian (uh, like me?) might hear it and be “offended”? Katy Perry can’t wear a Japanese kimono because she’s not Japanese? That makes her a colonialist exploiter of Japanese culture? Used to be you couldn’t insult an ethnic tradition, and rightly so; but now you can’t even like or praise their tradition! They’ve got the copyright, apparently.

And don’t get me started on Muslim advocates of Shariah law in America. Time to retire the old motto E Pluribus Unum, “out of many, one.” Anybody know the Latin for “out of one, many”?

The sacred canopy is shattered. The bricks have fallen in an avalanche. Religion has fragmented (itself a positive development. “Let a hundred flowers bloom!”). Patriotism has fallen, those who still espouse it having been reduced to the proportions of a Hasidic sect, not enough to provide the basis for a healthy commonwealth. I am now thinking this is what it looks like when a civilization starts to go down. I hope everyone will still be enjoying their self-righteous bickering and their jaded cynicism when someone, maybe Islamists, come a-knockin’. Maybe it is they who will pick up the pieces. They certainly possess more purpose and guts than we do. Too bad they’re insane savages. And if you read that and get your nose out of joint, eager to shout “Islamophobia!” You’re just making my point for me, you poor, pathetic fool.

So says Zarathustra.

spotted on:

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

The O’Jesus Factor

Gilbert Gottfried once quipped, “Why are they still talking about Jesus when I’m around?” Of course, he was intentionally drawing attention to his own insignificance by the act of ironically comparing his own “greatness” with the perennial interest in Jesus Christ. But it’s sort of a good question, or raises a good question. Why is there still so much talk, incessant talk, about Jesus? Well, obviously, Christian believers will never cease making him the talk of the town (I might say, “toast of the town,” but that might bring to mind Eucharistic impieties that I don’t intend)? I guess it’s kind of like the Elvis that will not die, even though he did. Fan worship.

Or just plain worship. In fact, the more distance I get from having any sort of “faith” in Jesus, and the more perspective I get on Jesus, it seems obvious to me the disconnect between the worshipped deity called Jesus and any historical personage who may ever have lived on this earth. For Christian believers, “Jesus” has simply replaced the name “Jehovah” for the amorphous and abstract Godhead, even though churches do not seem to mind reducing him to a cartoon character who plays softball with Sunday School kids. And that makes me wonder (though it’s hardly the only thing that does) if that is not the same thing that was going on in the early days when the God/god Jesus was brought down to earth in the mythical tales we read in the gospels.

            Oh, I know full well that Christian apologists have arguments at the ready to “prove” that the gospel character Jesus really lived on earth in a datable past, but really, they might as well argue that Achilles, no, Superman, really existed. The only reason they cannot see the enormity of what they are trying to do is that they are so inextricably attached to the God named Jesus. And this makes it all the more absurd that they spend so much effort defending the very opposite: that he was a real human being. They wouldn’t even be interested in him if that’s what he was, any more than they are curious about the Buddha or Apollonius of Tyana. Jesus the ostensible man is not the Jesus deity that motivates their self-contradictory quest.

And please don’t think I do not recognize the fact that my own continuing interest in Jesus is the product of my experience as a Christian. Of course, it is a hangover, an echo, and one that may finally be fading. But nonetheless, I do keep beating the resurrected horse, mainly I guess because of the silly things that are said about him again and again in public discourse. People keep writing bad books about him. I have a review coming out soon in American Rationalist on Reza Aslan’s book Zealot. I am annoyed at this book, not because I reject his main thesis that a good case can be made for Jesus having been an anti-Roman revolutionist, but because the whole damn book is an unacknowledged rehash of a much superior work from sixty years ago by S.G.F. Brandon.

I wrote another review, this time of Bill O’Reilly’s best seller Killing Jesus: A History. His “co-author” (i.e., ghost writer), Martin Dugard, deserves much or most of the blame for it. That review is due out from American Rationalist, too, but almost the minute I finished it, I realized I could do a whole book on Killing Jesus, and within 24 hours I had a contract for it from Prometheus Books. It looks like the book may beat the review into print. My book is tentatively called Killing History: Jesus in the No-Spin Zone. The book is by no means a history, more of a “historical novel” or docudrama, merely paraphrasing and harmonizing the gospels. There are whole chapters of (novelized) historical background data. Far more than one needs in order to understand the gospel texts or the ostensible events in the life of Jesus. So why is it there? Mainly as an attempt to knit the mythical Super-Jesus into the history of the New Testament era, something the gospels themselves do not do a very good job at. The point is to historicize the myths. The authors should have done a bit of homework like reading R.G. Collingwood’s The Idea of History. But then, if they had, they couldn’t have written Killing Jesus. As it is, it is O’Reilly and Dugard that have killed any historical Jesus, replacing him with their Sunday School version.

The other day, I was watching FOX and Friends, as I very often do. I think you know how politically conservative I am. (And believe me, I know how stupid you think I am because of it. But that’s okay.) They were interviewing John Anderson, the spirit medium who claims to be dialing up the dead for grief-stricken suckers. It was just sickening to hear the hosts talking to this guy with the same respectful gravity they accord Dr. Mark Siegel or Dr. David Samadi on the topic of new medical advances. No difference! I cringe just as much when they talk with the priest whom I cannot help calling “Father Capon,” the Roman Catholic equivalent of Jay Carney. O’Reilly himself sits across the desk from the charlatan Deepak Chopra as if he were talking to Henry Kissinger. Of course, all this is the product of Nielsen Ratings epistemology. They at least pretend to take for granted everything their audience share believes in.

And this is why religious figures and beliefs are taken for granted on FOX, and by O’Reilly. Not exactly a pretense, but rather a party line. They seem to see conservatism as a party platform. If you accept traditional values, you have to accept belief in God and in Judaism and Christianity, ignoring their points of theological disagreement. If you are against abortion and Obamacare and gun control (I am against them all), then you must of course be a champion of conventional religion. And you will promote the traditional, simplistic image of Jesus Christ. He has become the Ronald MacDonald of the whole franchise. That, Gilbert, is why they keep talking about Jesus, even when they could be discussing you.

I very much regret this situation. But it is easy to understand. O’Reilly usually calls his enemies the “secular progressives,” and that is no caricature. I can think of choicer things Id like to call them. He is right when he bemoans the war on Christmas and on Christianity. Of course he is. It is merely secular progressive propaganda to ridicule him for that. To me, it is infuriating when “Westboro Atheists” insist on making themselves hateful by insisting that public expressions of Christianity be scoured from a largely Christian culture, ostensibly to safeguard Church-State separation, but really (I can’t help thinking) to have it their own way. More of the same bullshit propaganda is the constant suggestion that if you’re a Republican, you’re a theocratic fundamentalist.

baseball_jesusObviously, I don’t believe in the Christian religion anymore, either. But I don’t hate it. What I do hate is Politically Correct suppression of traditional sensibilities. It is the Secular Humanist version of the Cultural Revolution in Maoist China. That is why, and it is the only reason, I hesitate to answer to the name “atheist,” though, in the end, I do. I am.

Have I not strayed from my topic? Nope. The sad fact is that, though it’s nothing new, if you advocate a genuinely historical approach to Life of Jesus studies, you are asking for pariah status. You are perceived as using scholarly tools as one more device to undermine traditional American values.

And what makes it worse is that often this seems to be the case. It can be no accident that so many ivory-tower academics produce “historical Jesuses” in their own images. Jesus turns out to be a feminist, anti-traditional family, pacifist, socialist, environmentalist community organizer like these academics themselves. He is, in short, their “personal savior,” a ventriloquist dummy to mouth their own views and to lend them divine authority. Their Jesuses sound an awful lot like the guy whom Jamie Fox once described as “our Lord and Savior, Barack Obama.” He spoke for many Leftist scholars who would never admit what they are doing.

I am sorry I have, in good conscience, to excoriate Bill O’Reilly on his Killing Jesus, the number one source of misinformation about Jesus in the world today. But if one were to replace this book with others by Elisabeth Schussler-Fiorenza, Richard Horsley, or John Dominic Crossan, one would not be much better off.

Conservatives and Liberals (oh, excuse me, “Progressives”), why don’t you just say what you think and marshal your best arguments for it, if you think you have any. Just leave Jesus the hell out of it.

So says Zarathustra.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

No God, No Good?

Mary Midgley, English moral philosopher
Born September 13, 1919

The other week, a variegated bunch of friends crowded into our living room for our Heretics Anonymous discussion group. They were exchanging opinions sparked by my presentation of quotes from Mary Midgley’s book Wickedness. I could hardly believe it! We were actually sticking to the topic! It used to take us about two minutes to stray from (really, to veer off) the path! But I guess people always like to discuss morality. After all, that’s a lot easier than living morality.

Well, anyway, eventually religion had to come up. I prize very highly the diversity of our group. There is a fair number of atheists and agnostics, but there are also a traditionalist Catholic or two, as well as an evangelical Protestant. This man and I disagree diametrically when it comes to religion, though all our discussions of it are enjoyable and enlightening. He and I agree very closely when it comes to politics. How can that be? How could we start from such divergent theoretical positions and wind up so close together on the issues?

My friend John hurled the challenge to us atheists and humanists: how could we have any moral standards at all without a belief in God as a transcendent law-giver? Without such a metaphysical North Star, wouldn’t any ethical opinion amount to mere subjectivity? Mere preference? And then why say that Hitler was “wrong”? On what basis can we say any more than that we happen not to like his antics? Of course, John wasn’t charging that we had no moral standards, just that we seemed not to have a theoretical basis for it, or right to it. This good question comes up very frequently, as it should. It always has. Dostoyevsky said, “If there is no God, then all things are permitted” (which forms the premise of the movie Psycho III). Is that true?

Nahh. Here’s why.

First, let’s get one thing straight. If right and wrong are dependent upon the dictate, the sheer will (which is to say the whim) of God, then we have the very moral nihilism feared by theists who warn us that morality is arbitrary without a deity to define and to decree it. In the same way, we must reject the Presuppositionalist argument that there could be no logic if God did not create it. If either logic or ethics is determined extrinsically by divine say-so, as when someone at Parker Brothers invents a new board game and stipulates the rules, then the whole thing is arbitrary. If God were to decide tomorrow that rape and murder would be deemed righteous acts tomorrow (and Frankist theology did pretty much say this), why then, they would be. Or if God decided that A would henceforth be the same as non-A, then that would be the way of things, “the new normal,” until he decided to shake things up again.

This is called “Divine Voluntarism” or “Divine Command Theory.” Theists are uneasy about this, but they don’t like the other horn of the dilemma either, which would be to posit that God decrees what is already right, forbids what is already wrong. God does not make the deeds right or wrong but rather knows what good and evil already are. But this means he obeys standards that he did not create, and to which he is subordinate.

(The “Intelligent Design” creationists have the same problem: they imagine an “almighty” creator who must accommodate his creative acts to already-established physics parameters.)

Immanuel Kant
Immanuel Kant

Theists try to sidestep the dilemma by maintaining that God simply is good(ness), so that he is just acting (and decreeing) in accord with his own nature. But this does not work. It is a case of what Derrida called “the supplement of copula.” This is when you try to span a gap by trying to say both facing cliffs are really the same one, so that you don’t need to get across; you are already there! Baloney. To see this, you only need to remind yourself of the difference between synthetic and analytic judgments. (You were just reading Kant the other day, right?) An analytic judgment is a tautology, mere definition: a bachelor is an unmarried man. Nothing new is being predicated of “a bachelor.” “An unmarried man” is simply what we mean by “a bachelor.” By contrast, if we say, “A bachelor is a happy man,” we are saying something new about our bachelor. This would be a synthetic judgment, adding one fact to another.

Okay, if we say, “God is good,” it will be either an analytic or a synthetic judgment. In the first case, we are saying, “good” is just a synonym for God and adds nothing new. “Good” means “whatever God is.” We are back to Divine Voluntarism. But if we say it is a synthetic judgment, we are predicating of God something not already contained in the definition of God. And that means we have already defined “good” and decided that God can be characterized as one who obeys the law of goodness.

Thomas Aquinas mapped the way out of the labyrinth. He said God created a particular kind of world, populating it with a particular kind of creatures, with particular needs. We are social animals. We require each others’ help, nurture, protection, and respect. We require a stable society without the constant threat of terror, rape, theft, murder, etc. Thus these acts are ruled out for purely pragmatic reasons. We classify them as “wrong,” “immoral,” “evil.” And “we” includes all cultures worldwide and throughout history. There have never been societies which countenanced such deeds. No coincidence, because human nature is everywhere the same. Sure, there are secondary matters on which societies have differed, but that’s the point: they’re secondary, varying according to accidents of environment and tradition. For instance, all cultures consider adultery wrong, but it is defined differently depending on how a society defines marriage.

Thomas Aquinas

Aquinas said, then, that good and evil are anything but arbitrary given the conditions of the specific world God created. They are necessary to wholesome, fruitful, secure social existence. Those who threaten to unravel society must be fended off: imprisoned, reeducated, executed, defeated in war. Up to this point all this is pretty much a social contract model.

But what makes it morally culpable for Charles Manson, Jeff Dahmer, or Baby Face Nelson to decide, “To hell with the majority! I’m doing what I please!” From our standpoint, we have to try to stop them. But that would be a matter of power relations. What gives people the moral duty to protect the wholesome interests of the majority? That, Aquinas explained, is where the will of God comes in. He is our creator, and we owe him obedience. To switch over to Kant’s categories again, Aquinas would be saying that God’s having created us introduces a categorical imperative for us to obey the laws. If not for that, we would have only a “hypothetical” or “prudential” imperative to keep the law. A hypothetical imperative is just a matter of the best strategy. “If you want that job, you’d better dress for success.” “If you want to get a passing grade, you’d be well advised to do some studying.” “If you want to get there quickly, I’d suggest the highway.” But if you don’t, then who cares? It has nothing to do with morality.

Insofar as we want a stable, workable society, we will outlaw rape, murder, theft, etc., and punish or eliminate transgressors. This will be a hypothetical imperative. If there is no creator God, there is no categorical imperative. But does that make much difference? Who really needs a convincing philosophical argument that rape is immoral? Is there anyone who is waiting to make up his mind on the issue till the debates are concluded? Do we have to prove to Nazis that they are wrong before we go to war against them?

Pyrrho and the ancient Skeptic philosophers were right, it seems to me: you just don’t need definitive certainties to get along in life. Pragmatics and probabilities seem to be sufficient rules of thumb.

Not that anyone is in any better position. Those who tell us that without God we have no right to morals are by no means able to prove there is such a metaphysical anchor. They have painted themselves into a corner, and they just try to escape by means of a flying leap. “I need a metaphysical guarantee? Okay, I’ve got one! God!” But saying doesn’t make it so.

So says Zarathustra


Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments