Something decent in the Guardian

Every so often the Guardian publishes something I like:

I am an atheist. I imagine that the typical Cif belief reader may not think this is a particularly big deal, but it is for me, because I’m not just an atheist – I’m an apostate from Islam. Apparently there are people who would happily kill me for making such a statement. But I’m not expecting to be killed, or even threatened; despite what the BNP and certain elements of the press might want you to think, the overwhelming majority of Muslims are not rabid fundamentalists who respond with violence to every perceived slight.

Comments are always revealing, and sometimes they are incomprehensible. Like this one:

As it says in the Qur’an, there is no compulsion in religion. Thanks and good luck.

Well, either the Qur’an I’ve been reading was translated by Sam Harris, or this commenter has an extremely flexible idea of what “compulsion in religion” is. There’s scarcely any content in the Qur’an which is not explicitly compulsive. If indeed it can be said that this book is “about” anything, that something is the compulsion to faith. Unbelievers are cordoned off to one side and proscribed from the believer’s worlview. They must be fought with zeal and gusto.

If you don’t believe me, read the book for yourself.

Another atheist reads the Qur’an

Alright, so I finally bought a copy of the Qur’an with the intention to read it. I was inspired by the fact that two new translations have recently been published by those erstwhile publishers of the world’s best books, Oxford and Penguin Classics. The Oxford edition is weighted down by lots of notes and footnotes, and the text is cluttered. That’s no way to approach a book like the Qur’an for the first time. After much reflection, I opted for the Penguin, which has the advantage of alternating between prose and verse. The pages are neat and there are spaces between the paragraphs. So Penguin won my hard-earned 10 euro.

For the record, I’m not out to diss the Qur’an. So no death threats, please.

Update: Halfway through the sura The Cow – which is the longest one – I’m getting a bit tired of being called names. Deaf. Dumb. Blind. I do not understand. I am as dumb as an ox. Why? Because I ask too many questions. The Qur’anic message thus far is, believe because I say so. Oh, yeah? Even the Bible tries to draw you in with finely woven tales of God’s miracles, good and evil behavior, natural wonders. It makes an attempt to convince. It goes out of its way to persuade. The Qur’an is the realm of absolute certainty, utter piety and eternal fire for the unbelievers.

Nonetheless, I’m enjoying it despite pronouncements like, “Your women are your sowing field; approach your field whenever you please.” That wouldn’t go down well in our home.

The New Hypatia

– for Ayaan Hirsi Ali

1.

There once was a actress named Weisz
whose bashful, compassionate eyes
inspired us to rate
her Hypatia as great
and to weep when the heroine dies.

2.

What little we know of her life
is bound up in trouble and strife
of an era in which
they thought her a witch
because she was nobody’s wife.

3.

Neither Christian nor pagan nor Jew
she was one of the relative few
who today we would call
a freethinker, et al.
then degrade in the New York Review.*

* of Books

Meme this: if you like these limericks, you can help create a meme. Pass them around on the internet. Hopefully they will reach Rachel Weisz and Ayaan Hirsi Ali! Remeber, this is an experiment.

How? Be imaginative. Post a comment on Pharyngula, or RichardDawkins.net. Dawkins coined the word “meme.” Send it to your atheist cousin, or uncle.

What’s a meme? Anything that can be passed from one brain to another. If you wish to know more about the obscure reference to the NYRB, just google “Enlightenment fundamentalist.”

If you haven’t seen Agora, check Wikipedia for the basic outline of Hypatia of Alexandria’s life. Ayaan Hirsi Ali has lived with bodyguards and armed escorts for years because of her freethinking views. She was born in Somalia.

All my friends are Deists

Recently every conversation I have had has devolved into, “I can’t believe you call yourself an atheist!” Then follow accusations of bandwagoning, shallow reasoning and appeals to the Courtier’s Reply or the mystery card. My favorite is the accusation that I, as a non-believer, am somehow limited in my ability to appreciate fine art. Ha, ha Houdini!

The odd thing is that this is all coming not from religious folks, ministers, rabbis or what have you. These have almost exclusively been conversations with secular, avowedly non-religious people like myself who – for whatever reason – don’t like my calling myself an atheist.

“Just don’t proselytize and we’ll be alright.” Somehow we atheists have been confused with religious fanatics, with a church and a creed and a militant lobby of non-believers out to atheize America and the world.

But what arguments have they offered in favor of belief? None, I’m disappointed to say. I kind of look forward to a good, respectful debate, but all I’ve been offered has been the claim that I am presumptuous, materialistic (contrast with “spiritual”) or a preacher in disguise. “I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist,” I am rebuked. What does that statement even mean?

What I’ve learned about my “opponents” is this: they are all Deists. They all believe in some higher power which is ethereal, non-material, invisible, all-encompassing and completely devoid of any of the qualities most people mean when they speak of God. “Oh,” they say, “I don’t believe in that pedestrian, biblical God, or miracles, or any of that stuff. Ha! You atheists are so dumb you’re the only ones left who believe that crap. If that’s your straw man God, I’ll stick with the believers.”

So what do they believe in? “Spirituality,” “love,” and any number of heightened, pseudo-religious states of appreciation are the usual answers. The divine spark that separates us humans from baser forms of life. Intimate conversations with the deity. They believe in the God of Fine Art. A wireless iGod with infinite loving memory.

They can have their Terry Eagleton, though. Because none of these are remotely persuasive arguments for the existence of a god or God Himself. People seem almost embarrassed to have their intimate, personal deity confused with the huffy-puffy swordsman of biblical lore. Don’t they realize that religious folks probably lump them in with the atheists?

So let’s clear something up: atheists are not proposing any counter-cult to the thousands of existing cults out there. We remain unconvinced by them all. We are just like you, only we believe in one less god than you do (if you are Hindu or polytheist of another stripe, rest assured we don’t believe in any of your gods either). End of story. If this is so bothersome, most atheists welcome lively debate or exchange of ideas. We promote discussion and differing points of view. But if all you can muster against us is, “You’ll never understand the spiritual dimension of Mark Rothko’s later paintings unless you admit there is an immaterial plane where altered truths reveal themselves…” then I’ll remind you that that’s exactly the way cults of all types work. The truth can’t be revealed to you unless you give yourself over to faith.

So, if anyone reading this has any novel, powerful arguments for the existence of God (or the god of your choice), I’m listening. Until then, I’m happily godless and enjoying every minute of it.

My unremarkable loss of faith story

I have been unofficially appointed “God columnist” for this magazine. Don’t ask me how that happened, because I don’t even believe in it. God, that is. It’s not quite right for me to use gender-specific pronouns when speaking of what, to my mind, doesn’t even exist.

I think my appointment has to do with the fact that I can’t seem to stay away from the subject of religion. Try as I might, I can’t avoid it. It’s everywhere I look. To tell you the truth, I don’t really mind it unless I’m expected to revere it, pay it “respect,” or financially support it in any way other than voluntarily.

Then there are those other itsy-bitsy issues that keep popping up like the National Day of Prayer. Some of my secular friends are bewildered as to why we atheists are upset at something so benign, so negligibly harmless as a government-sponsored prayer day. It may sound silly, but once God gets its foot in the door, all sorts of unsavory things scamper in with the breeze.

I know this because I live in Italy, where the constitution states that all religions are equal, but that the relationship between the Catholic Church and the state is governed by the eighty-year old Lateran Pacts. Crucifixes are stuck to the walls of public schools, courtrooms and other buildings. There is even a Catholic religion-hour in school, with teachers handpicked by the Vatican and paid for by the state.

In the eyes of a secularist, this is a bad thing. It means that non-Catholics are put on a separate plane in public life. Where are our symbols, we ask? The answer from the religious apologists is telling, though. No longer are they mouthing off about “truth” and “salvation” in defense of their symbols; now they use more acceptable terminology like “The crucifix is an inseparable part of Italian culture,” or “It is a universal symbol of love.” As some skeptics have pointed out, that is also a working definition of pizza.

But now for my unremarkable loss of faith story. Losses of faith stories are fascinating, don’t you think? They exude an air of epiphany similar to that of religious conversion, at least on the surface. The truth is that I, apparently alone among my countrymen and women, came of age in the United States of America — the most devout developed country on earth — without so much as ever having peeked between the pages of a Bible. In fact, and I’m slightly embarrassed to admit this (but isn’t that what personal anecdotes so gingerly proffer?), but I wasn’t even aware that the Bible was about the Jews.

Of course, I knew I was Jewish. I just had no idea what that meant on a historical scale. Religion was perhaps the only subject — right next to politics — that was never addressed in our home. Years later, my sister would come to regret this omission. But it wasn’t deliberate. Our parents were simply not religious people, and the enlightened suburb of Baltimore we lived in was not Bible-drunk. In many ways it was the archetypal American secular experience.

It wasn’t until I came to Italy that I realized what I had missed. When I met my wife, she had just gone through an idol-smashing of her own, in which she had managed to break through the wall of traditionalist religion that society and her family had built around her. She had become infatuated with Judaism. That’s when I began to read the Bible, because being Jewish suddenly seemed electrifying and special. This was no longer midtown Manhattan.

I read the Bible, or “Tanakh,” as I learned to call it. I felt I needed to grasp Jewishness at its core. As I read, I tried hard to believe what I read. I began — for the first time — to employ expressions like “God willing” and “Thank God.” I tried praying, although I knew no Hebrew. I would mouth the words I read in transliterated Roman characters: “Baruch atah adonai, eloheynu melekh ha-olam…” Over time I began to make some sense of all this newness. I began to think deeply about God, observe a very personalized form of kashrut (the Jewish dietary laws), attend synagogue on holy days and fast on Yom Kippur. This lasted for about three years. Then, as quickly as it began, it ended.

Looking back, I realize I censored myself at every pass. I constructed an ad-hoc reality for myself out of holy books. I wouldn’t even read novels on shabbat because I wished to preserve some of its holiness. No matter that I worked on that day. God didn’t want me to be unemployed, did he? Then who would praise him? I’d stroll home from work, basking in the glow of the dying sunlight, then dutifully search out the first three stars which marked the beginning of the profane week ahead. It wasn’t much of a Sabbath, but I managed to make it feel special. I knew I could feel the presence of the shekhinah, the divine essence, descending on the world each week.

Or maybe it was just the smog at Largo Argentina.

– Published in The American

National Day of Prayer is such a bad idea

I’m not even sure I can find the words – without offending almost everyone I know – to describe why this is such a bad idea. “What is so offensive about God?” It’s this kind of question that creates atheists.

Those, myself included, who do not think God – or any type of “higher power” – exists (except in the minds of the faithful), might answer, “Nothing is offensive about God, as long as you keep Him or It out of public life.”

National Day of Prayer is clearly in violation of this principle. Non-theistic Americans are being told, “Unless you pray, you are excluded. Your government encourages you to pray.” For what, pray tell? Money? Power? To stave off disaster from our shores? To win the lottery?

If you do believe in God, or any of the many gods on offer, that’s your business. I respect you, even if I may not respect your belief. I will not lobby for our government to enforce an National Day of Unbelief. And I will remind you that the only type of society in which both you and I are equals is a society which nurtures each individual’s right to believe, or not believe, in accordance with his or her own conscience.

I don’t especially want to turn you into a non-believer. I don’t care to debaptize you or your children. Calm down. There is no atheist inquisition out to get you. All we want are the equal rights guaranteed to all citizens by the constitution, with no favoritism of the religious over the non-religious.

And I would expect religious people to be a bit more up in arms over this as well. Do you really want your government trampling over your personal relationship with God? Rev. Barry Lynn has a great piece in which he writes,

Government is supposed to be neutral on religion. It has no business telling people how, when or where to pray — or even if they ought to pray. Government does lots of things well, but meddling in our private religious lives is not among them.

I know people who think we atheists are “obsessive” about separation of church and state. But this is a very real, and important, battle none of us can afford to lose.

“Will you ask that ‘under God’ be removed from the Pledge of Allegiance? ‘In God We Trust’ from money? Will you people not stop until you have destroyed God entirely?”

This is typical Fox News talk, and not really worthy of serious discussion. But, for the record, it wouldn’t be a bad start.

Because once you open the door to God, all sorts of opportunistic little critters start scampering in. And, trust me, you don’t want them around.

Review of 36 Arguments for the Existence of God

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein has written a highly intellectual – and intelligent – book. One might even be tempted to classify it as the first “new atheist” novel. The protagonist of her book is a slightly snuggly version of author Sam Harris — an unknown academic named Cass Seltzer who pens a runaway atheist bestseller. But this doesn’t make “36 Arguments” a polemic on atheism (which may disappoint some readers.) Not to worry, though. The dialogues are playful, the characters vivid, and the overall feel is one of affectionate satire towards the uptight world of academia.

It has been said that the book paints an unflattering picture of the literary critic Harold Bloom, whose alias Goldstein makes the object of a spirited burlesque. This reviewer is of the opinion that no malevolence was intended. Sure, Jonas Elijah Klapper comes off as a gluttonous genius with a penchant for rambling kabbalistic interpretation of poems like “Dover Beach,” but there’s so much verve and enjoyment in the ideas he (she) toys with that a certain admiration shines through nonetheless. Who would argue that the real Bloom — a self-described “Falstaffian” — presents himself in much the same way as Goldstein’s fictional one?

The appendix of the novel consists of 36 (a recurring number in this mathematics-driven book) philosophical arguments for the existence of God and their subsequent refutation. While the narrative itself is full of atheists — a sexy game theorist, a cameo by literary agent John Brockman and the likeable anthropologist-cum-Rastafarian chauffer Roz Marglois, there is no special attention paid to atheism. It’s just part of life at Frankfurter University.

All this intellectual action climaxes in a debate between Seltzer and his fictional theistic antagonist, a Nobel prize-winning economist named Felix Fidley. Unsmiling Fidley comes off a bit unflatteringly, as one might expect. The scene is a page-turner. Fidley’s arguments for God fall predictably flat.

Goldstein has an uncanny grasp on the dynamics of academic rivalry. She is also a pushover for romantic love with a knack for wonderfully constructed English sentences. Best novelty: she coins her own meme, “to fang,” meaning “to pose a question from which the questioned can’t recover.”

– from The American

36 Arguments

I just finished reading Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s 36 Arguments for the Existence of God. Well, I still have to get through the appendix, where the arguments are stated (and refuted) logically, but the meat of the novel is behind me.

Tempted as I was to think of it as the first “new atheist” novel, one whose protagonist is a public atheist a là Sam Harris (though much more cuddly and polite), I’m not so sure if that’s the best way to characterize Goldstein’s book. Which means it’s not fiction-as-propaganda for the new atheism. It’s a pretty sappy modern love story with affectionate portraits of Hasidim reminiscent of Chaim Potok’s The Chosen.

Of course, there’s a lot of what John Brockman dubbed the “third culture,” which means science: game theory, mathematics, anthropology, etc…and a brilliantly over-the-top lampoon of Harold Bloom which is worth the read in itself.

So will this book convince you God does not exist? No. But then again, you don’t need books to help you with that, do you?

The Trouble with God

When I wrote my post on Wieseltier-Sullivan, I wasn’t cognizant that I had entered into battle in this year’s Dershowitz-Phillips debate. Silly me. In fact, I wasn’t even cognizant of the fact that the world was paying attention to Wieseltier-on-Sullivan-on-Wieseltier-on-Sullivan (-on-Kristal?).

This is a debate I’ve been trying to get away from, but which keeps following me. Blogging is for hotheads, which was pointed out at least twice by Leon Wieseltier and once by Andrew Sullivan himself. Somehow a debate over criticism of Israel has turned into a debate over religiosity, which I find a bit infantile.  When calling Catholicism “polytheistic crudity” compared to the Judaic concept of divine unity, Wieseltier opened the door wide to the new atheists. At that point my impulse is to kick it in and say, “But, Leon, don’t you realize even your Judaic conception of God is vulnerable to the scrutiny of reason and skepticism? I mean, can it really be defended from the likes of Sam Harris? Or even Julia Sweeney?”

No, Wieseltier holds on to his God as if it were the irrefutable result of a life of pure reason. Which makes me wonder what the subtle difference is between him and Andrew Sullivan, who apparently believes all sorts of stuff shared by a billion other people worldwide which to an atheist sounds much like hoodoo.

Or: can we have a serious political discussion while invoking arguments for God? Are the underlying tensions of Wieseltier-Sullivan just a rehash of good old medieval debates about the trinity? And, if so, who cares?

Some of the primary links in the above discussion have been gathered here. Go nuts.

Leon Wieseltier Blasts Andrew Sullivan

It was a long time coming. If you’re in the mood for a nice long article (well, not so nice), put your boxing mittens on:

Criticism of Israeli policy, and sympathy for the Palestinians, and support for a two-state solution, do not require, as their condition or their corollary, this intellectual shabbiness, this venomous hostility toward Israel and Jews. I have striven for Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation, and territorial compromise, and two states, for many decades now, but Sullivan’s variety of such right thinking is completely repugnant to me. There are decent and indecent ways to advocate change. About the Jews, is Sullivan a bigot, or is he just moronically insensitive? To me, he looks increasingly like the Buchanan of the left.

And don’t be put off by the initial discussion of Auden’s theology. My question for Wieseltier would be: if the Christian doctrine of the trinity is so ridiculous, “a retraction of the monotheistic revolution in thinking about God,” then isn’t “thinking about God” in itself equally a retraction of the more logical position of non-theism? After all, to hold up even an ethereal, invisible, incomprehensible God to the universe only complicates matters unnecessarily. It’s no wonder religious thinkers like Augustine, Auden and Sullivan make such a mess of things.

Or is Wieseltier just another de facto atheist begging to be let out of the closet?