Religions and their atheisms

Ernest Renan, as one of his contemporaries saw him

In his essay on Ernest Renan, Irving Babbitt wrote:

Renan has evidently carried over to science all the mental habits of Catholicism.  As Sainte-Beuve remarks, “In France we shall remain Catholics long after we have ceased to be Christians.”  Renan, indeed, may be best defined as a scientist and positivist with a Catholic imagination.  For instance, he arrives at a conception of scientific dogma, of an infallible scientific papacy, of a scientific Hell and inquisition, of resurrection and immortality through science, of scientific martyrs…  He promises us that if we imitate him we may hope to be, like himself, sanctified through science: “If all were as cultivated as I, all would be, like me, incapable of wrongdoing.  Then it would be true to say: ye are gods and sons of the Most High.”

Lest we think Renan’s tongue was entirely in his cheek as he wrote this last excerpt, Babbitt elaborates:

Renan thus has a special gift for surrounding science with an atmosphere of religious devotion… In other words all the terms of the old idealism are to be retained, but by a system of subtle equivocation they are to receive new meanings.  Thus a great deal is said about the “soul,” but, as used by Renan, it has come to be a sort of function of the brain.  “Those will understand me who have once breathed the air of the other world and tasted the nectar of the ideal.”  When this is taken in connection with the whole passage where it occurs, we discover that “tasting the nectar of the ideal” does not signify much more than reading a certain number of German monographs.  Men, he tells us, are immortal- that is, “in their works” or “in the memory of those who have loved them,” or “in the memory of God.”  Elsewhere we learn that by God he means merely “the category of the ideal.”*

As Babbitt reads him, Renan has rejected all of the characteristic doctrines of Christianity and certainly of its Roman Catholic variety.  He could fairly be called an atheist.  Yet he is a distinctly Roman Catholic atheist.  It is the God preached in the church he attended as a boy in the town of Tréguier in the 1820s and 1830s in whom Renan disbelieves, not any other god; it is according to the imaginative categories that he learned there that he thinks of the world.  This much is hardly surprising.  Renan was of course a man of great erudition, but his earliest and most intensive learning was of his childhood social environment and the ideas that prevailed there.

What brings this to mind is an essay that appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education a week ago.  Author Stephen Asma is, like Irving Babbitt before him, an American scholar of no religious affiliation who has studied Buddhism deeply and with sympathy.  Also like Babbitt, Asma is aware of the ways in which the religions we grow up in and around can shape our basic assumptions about the world even when we think we are rejecting them.  Asma’s essay discusses the leading figures of the “New Atheism,” Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett, the so-called “Four Horsemen” of the movement.  Asma argues that when these men argue against “religion,” they are in fact arguing against only those forms of monotheism with which they personally are most familiar:

As an ag­nos­tic, I find much of the horse­men’s cri­tiques to be healthy.

But most friends and even en­e­mies of the new athe­ism have not yet no­ticed the pro­vin­cial­ism of the cur­rent de­bate. If the horse­men left their world of books, con­fer­ences, classrooms, and com­put­ers to trav­el more in the de­vel­op­ing world for a year, they would find some un­fa­mil­iar religious arenas.

Hav­ing lived in Cam­bo­di­a and Chi­na, and trav­eled in Thai­land, Laos, Viet­nam, and Af­ri­ca, I have come to ap­pre­ci­ate how re­li­gion func­tions quite dif­fer­ent­ly in the de­vel­op­ing world—where the ma­jor­ity of be­liev­ers ac­tu­al­ly live. The Four Horse­men, their fans, and their en­e­mies all fail to fac­tor in their own pros­per­i­ty when they think a­bout the uses and a­buses of re­li­gion.

Har­ris and his colleagues think that re­li­gion is most­ly con­cerned with two jobs—explain­ing na­ture and guid­ing mo­ral­ity. Their sug­ges­tion that sci­ence does these jobs bet­ter is pret­ty con­vinc­ing. As Har­ris puts it, “I am ar­gu­ing that sci­ence can, in prin­ci­ple, help us un­der­stand what we should do and should want—and, there­fore, what oth­er people should do and should want in or­der to live the best lives pos­si­ble.” I a­gree with Har­ris here and even spilled sig­nif­i­cant ink my­self, back in 2001, to show that Ste­phen Jay Gould’s pop­u­lar sci­ence/re­li­gion di­plo­ma­cy of “nonoverlapping mag­is­te­ri­a” (what many call the fact/val­ue dis­tinc­tion) is in­co­her­ent. The horse­men’s mis­take is not their claim that sci­ence can guide mo­ral­ity. Rather, they’re wrong in imag­in­ing that the pri­ma­ry job of re­li­gion is mo­ral­ity. Like cos­mol­o­gy, eth­ics is bare­ly rel­e­vant in non-West­ern re­li­gions. It is cer­tain­ly not the main func­tion or lure of de­vo­tion­al life. Science could take over the “mo­ral­ity job” to­mor­row in the de­vel­op­ing world, and very few re­li­gious prac­ti­tioners would even no­tice.

Asma goes on to discuss animism at length, pointing out that if we classify the belief that nature is inhabited by spirits who influence our lives and require our worship as a single religion, it is easily the world’s most popular.  Yet animists rarely offer explanations of natural phenomena that compete with scientific explanations, and they do not ground ethical codes in divine commandments.  Westerners who focus on the rituals animists perform and the stories they tell to explain these rituals often dismiss animism as a childish notion, and to believe that “an­i­mists are just un­ed­u­cat­ed and un­sci­en­tif­ic, and that even­tu­al­ly they will ‘evolve’ (ac­cord­ing to the­ists) toward our sci­en­tif­ic view of one God—a ra­tional God of nat­u­ral laws (who is also om­ni­scient and om­nip­o­tent).”  If those Westerners side with the New Atheists, they may expect to see a further step in this ‘evolution’:

And even­tu­al­ly (ac­cord­ing to the new athe­ists) these prim­i­tives will join the march be­yond even mono­the­ism, to the im­per­son­al, secular laws of na­ture. We all pre­vi­ous­ly be­lieved that storms, floods, bad crops, and dis­eases were caused by ir­ri­tat­ed lo­cal spir­its (in­visi­ble per­sons who were an­gry with us for one rea­son or another), but now we know that weath­er and mi­crobes be­have ac­cord­ing to pre­dict­a­ble laws, with no “in­ten­tions” be­hind them. The view of na­ture as “law­ful” and “pre­dict­a­ble” has giv­en those of us in the de­vel­oped world pow­er, free­dom, choice, and self-de­ter­mi­na­tion. This pow­er is real, and I am sin­cere­ly thank­ful to ben­e­fit from den­tist­ry, cell the­o­ry, anti­bi­ot­ics, birth con­trol, and an­es­the­sia. I love sci­ence.

Yet this view of animism, Asma argues, is hopelessly distorted.  It leaves out the key insight at the root of animism: “An­i­mism can be de­fined as the be­lief that there are many kinds of per­sons in this world, only some of whom are hu­man. Your job, as an an­i­mist, is to pla­cate and hon­or these spir­it-persons.”  When I tell my classes about ancient Greek and Roman medicine before the time of Hippocrates, I often say something similar to this definition Asma offers here.  The ancients, I say, believed that the health of the body reflected the person’s social environment.  They expected a person whose relationships with others were loving and secure to be healthy, and they expected a person whose relationships with others were hostile or uncertain to be unhealthy.  These expectations are not at all unreasonable; more often than not, we do find exactly this.  When they saw that a person whose relationships with the people they could see were loving and secure, but that the person’s physical health was poor, it was by no means irrational of them to assume that there must be other persons whom they could not see with whom the person’s relationships were not so good.

Asma sums his argument up thus:

The Four Horse­men and other new atheists are mem­bers of lib­er­al de­moc­ra­cies, and they have not ap­peared to be in­ter­est­ed in the so­cial-en­gi­neer­ing agen­das of the ear­li­er, Com­mu­nist atheists. With im­pres­sive arts of per­sua­sion, the new atheistic proponents just want to talk, de­bate, and ex­change ideas, and of course they should do so. No harm, no foul.

But Sam Har­ris’s new book may be a sub­tle turn­ing point toward a more nor­ma­tive so­cial agenda. If pub­lic pol­i­cy is even­tu­al­ly ex­pect­ed to flow from athe­ism, then its pro­po­nents need to have a more nu­anced and glob­al un­der­stand­ing of re­li­gion.

I suspect that there are at least as many atheisms as there are religions.  As Renan retained the mental habits of Catholicism even after he renounced the Roman Catholic Church and the God it preached, so too the “Four Horsemen” and company cannot help but reject the specific religions which have been important to them.  That’s why it won’t do, for example, for John Wilks to say that “Christians are Vishnu-atheists, I am a Thor-atheist, and so on.”  A person who was raised in a culture where Vishnu and Thor are simply names in stories that no one believes and who does not set out to adopt a belief in them is not doing remotely the same thing as is the person who, raised in a culture where virtually everyone pays cult to the gods of the Hindu pantheon or those of the Norse pantheon, declares that those gods are unreal and that their worshipers are wasting their time.  At the beginning of his or her journey away from belief in the gods, the latter person will certainly share most of the beliefs and the mental habits that go with the worship of those gods.  And it is entirely possible that s/he will still share them to the end of the road.  If so learned a man as Ernest Renan remained readily recognizable a Roman Catholic decades after he came to the conclusion that there was no God, it is clear that the simple act of rejecting a religious doctrine, however important that doctrine may be to the followers of the religion, does not by itself remove the influence of that religion from the person’s mind.

This much may seem obvious.  The forms of atheism that people develop as they leave a religion should be seen as phases of that religion.  Renan’s Roman Catholic atheism is a phase of Roman Catholicism, as Richard Dawkins’ atheism is a phase of Low Church Anglicanism, Sam Harris’ atheism is a phase of Judaism, ibn Warraq’s atheism is a phase of Islam, and so on.  Yet it is not obvious, as witness John Wilks’ comment identifying himself as a “Thor-atheist.”  What keeps it from being obvious is, I would say, the influence of fundamentalism.

Today, “fundamentalist” is often used as an empty term of abuse, suggesting angry people who are impatient with disagreement.  Yet it began with a definite meaning, a meaning which people who identify themselves as fundamentalist Christians still use.  “Fundamentalist” began as a name for people who agreed with the doctrines laid out in a series of tracts called The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth.  Those tracts identify certain interpretations of particular passages of the Bible as essential to Christianity and argue that one will be saved from damnation if and only if one believes that those passages, under those interpretations, are true.  Fundamentalists regard those passages, under the prescribed interpretations, as the great truths of Christianity.  They expect the individual to be transformed upon acceptance of these great truths, and they expect society to be transformed upon the triumph of the Christian movement.

To what sort of atheism does fundamentalist Christianity characteristically give rise?  I myself know many atheists who were raised by self-described fundamentalists.  Some have gone through complex intellectual and spiritual journeys since leaving their earlier faith.  Upon others, however, the marks of fundamentalist thinking are still writ large.  For example, one friend expressed amazement that a professor in a psychology course at the fundamentalist Bible college she attended could avow belief in fundamentalist doctrines.  When I asked her why she was surprised, she said that she expected his practice as a scientist to show him that there was no place for supernatural ideas.  She said that he must have “compartmentalized” his mind so as to keep his scientific thinking separate from his religious beliefs.  While psychologists do sometimes use the word “compartmentalization” to refer to an attempt to protect a cherished belief by creating a separate mental space into which one may confine dangerous knowledge, the currency the word has in this sense among atheists raised as fundamentalist Christians goes far beyond its actual prominence as a scientific concept.  The readiest explanation for its popularity among ex-fundamentalist Christians is that they still believe that once a person accepts the great truths, that person will naturally attain the virtue that marks the movement.  The content of the great truths may be different (“There is no God” rather than “There is a God,” “Science is the sole path to understanding nature” rather than “Faith is the sole path to understanding eternal things,” etc,) and the movement has a different name and a different liturgy, but the followers of each movement expect the individual to be transformed upon acceptance of the great truths and society to be transformed upon the triumph of the movement.  The expression “fundamentalist atheist” rankles nonbelievers, understandably so given the word’s pejorative uses.  Yet mental habits of the affirming phase of fundamentalism transfer so readily to its atheist phase that one can hardly expect the expression to die out.

*pages 259-261 in The Masters of Modern French Criticism (Boston, 1912)

Forward, together

Several years ago, I heard Dick Cavett on TV reminiscing about a dancing class he took in the early 1950s.  He said that the teacher had told them that “There is a man in public life whom I would call a ‘motor moron.’  That man is Senator Nixon of California.”  Cavett went on to talk about how widely Richard Nixon’s physical awkwardness was remarked on during his career. I can’t find that clip anywhere online, but here’s a blog post of Cavett’s about Nixon.  Here’s a clip of him telling a shorter version of the story from that post.

What brings this to mind are this morning’s newspapers, several of which feature a quote from the State of the Union Address  President Obama delivered to Congress last night.  Evidently Mr O said “We will move forward together or not at all.”  Another video clip I wish I could find would be one of Richard Nixon intoning his 1968 campaign slogan, “Let us move forward together.”  When Nixon begins, his arms are outstretched in front of him, his hands together.  As he says “Let us move forward,” he jerks his arms backward.   As he says, “together,” he flings his arms wide.   Nixon also famously said in his fourth debate with John Kennedy in 1960 that “This country cannot stand pat.”  Considering that Nixon’s wife was named Pat, this was an unfortunate choice of words.  I’ve heard it said that he once used this expression while gesturing in the direction of Pat Nixon;  I don’t know if that”s true, though it isn’t hard to imagine him doing it.

Mercator Rotator

Usually when we think of the Mercator Projection, we think of this map with the geographic North Pole at the top, Antarctica at the bottom, and the relative size of the Northern Hemisphere severely exaggerated:

Months ago, this picture appeared on a site called Apathy Sketchpad:

The map is also the Mercator Projection.  Mercator’s contribution was not in putting north at the top, but in developing a particular mathematical formula for representing the planet’s roundish surface on a flat map.  As the author of Apathy Sketchpad puts it, “the Mercator projection doesn’t need to make Africa small and Greenland big. It can do anything you want it to.”  Producing a map with Africa at the top, he explains:

In principle a Mercator projection can be continued infinitely in the vertical direction, and in this case the ‘north’ pole is in Africa, so the map would be Africa all the way up. The level of detail would, source image notwithstanding, get bigger and bigger until eventually sub-atomic particles started to appear. Theoretically, you could exploit this to produce a map where Britain opened out as Africa has at the top, and extend the map up to include a road map of England, including  a large-scale street map of Manchester, eventually opening out to provide a floor-plan of one particular building, then room, and eventually the layout of one table. This, however, seems like it would be very difficult so I haven’t bothered.

In the comments on this post, I remarked that I’d long thought someone should create a flash app called “Mercator Rotator” which would enable a user to put “north” wherever s/he liked and see the resulting Mercator map of the earth.  I have no intention to produce such an application myself, but if you, the reader, have the requisite computer savvy and some time on your hands, I recommend that you do so and let us know about it in the comments.

“King of Hope,” by Honor Finnegan

An original ukulele song by Honor Finnegan calls for us to observe Martin Luther King’s birthday by giving him the gift he always wanted.

Martin Luther King on the disturbing power of love

In the aftermath of the Tucson massacre, many Americans (including the president) have quoted Martin Luther King’s remark, made in the aftermath of the assassination of Malcolm X, that we must learn “to disagree without being disagreeable.”

Today the USA observes a national holiday honoring Dr King.  It strikes me that the great man had more to say about Malcolm X than that one phrase.   In this video clip, Martin Luther King answers critics such as Malcolm X who claimed that his nonviolent resistance to white supremacy brought comfort to the oppressors:

The Higher Cannibalism

On 16 December 2010, Swiss Senator Dick Marty presented to the Council of Europe a report that he had been commissioned to make.  Senator Marty demonstrated that the government of Kosovo, led by Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, operates a network of “clinics” in which ethnic Serbs and other political prisoners are routinely killed.  Their organs are removed and sold on an international black market.

The Marty Report has barely been noticed in US media.  News outlets that in 1999 were flooded with tales of atrocities that Serbs were supposed to be committing against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo have been entirely silent.  If it weren’t for notices of the Marty Report in Alexander Cockburn’s column in The Nation, in Cockburn’s newsletter Counterpunch, and on, even so devoted a reader of news as your humble correspondent would have missed the story completely.

Full circle

In the 1920s and early 1930s, so many people took up the ukulele that it was a staple of popular culture to complain about the annoyance of bad amateur ukers.  Reyalp Eleluku, the Backward Ukulele Player, often posts reports of anti-ukulele sentiment from that period.  Nowadays the uke is back in fashion, and with that fashion has come more complaining about people who play badly in public.

In the same years, the comic strip Blondie debuted in US newspapers.  Blondie has kept going ever since; it has never changed the Art Deco-inspired drawing style that made it so hip back then.

Today’s Blondie might have appeared in the strip’s first year of publication, 1930:


Three videos from The Biscuit-Eyed Lady

Leisa Rea (of Adams & Rea fame) calls this affecting vignette “my new lesbian film”:

In this one, the narrator (who may be Leisa Rea, or may be the Biscuit-Eyed Lady, or may be someone else altogether) calls Phil Collins a gorilla, then admits to liking him:

Here, the narrator tries motivational speaking:

I recommend all of the Biscuit-Eyed Lady’s videos.




Buckeye Candy

Follow this link to see who wrote the recipe and for helpful reviews.


  • 1 1/2 cups peanut butter
  • 1 cup butter, softened
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 6 cups confectioners’ sugar
  • 4 cups semisweet chocolate chips


1.   In a large bowl, mix together the peanut butter, butter, vanilla and confectioners’ sugar. The dough will look dry. Roll into 1 inch balls and place on a waxed paper-lined cookie sheet.

2.   Press a toothpick into the top of each ball (to be used later as the handle for dipping) and chill in freezer until firm, about 30 minutes.

3.   Melt chocolate chips in a double boiler or in a bowl set over a pan of barely simmering water. Stir frequently until smooth.

4.   Dip frozen peanut butter balls in chocolate holding onto the toothpick. Leave a small portion of peanut butter showing at the top to make them look like Buckeyes. Put back on the cookie sheet and refrigerate until serving.

Nutritional Information

Amount Per Serving Calories: 331 | Total Fat: 19.4g | Cholesterol: 16m

Hope in a Bad Situation

“‘My dad wants to see her, it will help him to see her.  I believe they are arranging that.  He asks about her everyday,’ Douglas said”

The above quote came from an article about two of the people who were shot during the recent Arizona shooting.  This article truly shows that these two people are GREAT people.  Their concern for the congresswoman is indescribably heartwarming.