December 08, 2012

Saturday Morning Essay: A few further notes on the militant atheists

A friend of mine of many years duration (from first grade on - I am fortunate to have several such friends) and I have engaged in a running conversation, on different forums, about the question of whether life has a "meaning."  My friend seems troubled by my conclusion that life doesn't really "mean" anything beyond what we perceive with our senses. If you enjoy being alive, that's what life means; a little tautologous, but life is essentially an opportunity to be alive and to perceive reality, an opportunity we share with artichokes and banana slugs.

As with any attempt at communication, it's good to define terms at the outset.  What I'm talking about is the concept of a narrative "frame" for existence: a sense of purpose in life, or "destiny" that gives life a kind of extrinsic importance (as opposed simply to its intrinsic enjoyment).  My friend finds such purpose in Christianity, with its teleological focus on this life being a sort of audition for a supposed Afterlife, as described in the Bible.

It was for this reason that Friedrich Nietzsche, the German descendant of a line of Lutheran ministers, called Christianity the greatest "calamity in the history of mankind."  His argument that seeing this life as only a prelude to the Real Thing to Come placed our mental "center of gravity" outside of our terrestrial existence, which in turn led to all kinds of irrational outbursts and atrocities in world history (the Inquisition, the Crusades, the Tea Party). 

I actually find the more heated arguments of the "militant atheists" (Nietzsche, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens) a little misplaced and gratuitous.  I can see the point about the role of religion, based as it is on irrational thinking, leading to persecution, theocratic tyrannies, and the like.  But their arguments are actually circular, in my opinion.  If religion is simply a construct of the human mind (and what else could it be?) then there is no "objective correlative," as the militant atheists appear not to comprehend, brilliant as they are.  Religion does not impose irrational thinking on the human mind from without; religion is the product of irrational human thinking.  This is not really a distinction without a difference.  Although worship takes place in buildings, and religious clerics wear costumes and whatnot, religion, per se, doesn't really exist except as an abstract construct.  It begins and ends with the delusional state of mind of people engaging in a highly elaborate form of ritualized superstition.  By the same token, as Sam Harris has cleverly demonstrated, atheism similarly has no content.  It is not a "belief system."  It's simply what is left after the delusions are cleared up.

Thus, the eradication of religions is not really the salient point.  Intellectual persecution of religions produces an undesirable backlash. The assault on religion, a notional nonthing, sets up an unnecessary conflict, since by their very nature irrational belief systems are not susceptible to rational persuasion (I've had quite a bit of exposure to this problem).  Militant atheism is more of a commercial project than a serious intellectual endeavor, a way to sell books and demonstrate one's iconoclastic credentials, without having much effect. This is why non-scientists such as Christopher Hitchens and Bill Maher have been able to pile on and probably sell more books (or tickets to movies) than Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist, or Sam Harris, a neuroscientist.  The approach of Hitchens and Maher has been simply to display their logical erudition and lucidity, unlike the "childish" believers.

Nevertheless, atheism continues to progress in human societies (especially in the more intellectually advanced countries in Europe and in Russia) because of scientific progress.  Religions were founded on superstitions about the unknown and the uncertainties of human existence (vulnerability to the weather, abundance of game and other food, human and other animal predators).  The Earth was assumed to be at the center of a small universe, and it made sense, in our solipsistic way, to arrive through intellectual projection at the conclusion that It Was All About Us. 

Mankind has gradually become disillusioned on this point, but not because of the frontal assault on belief systems by the militant atheists.  Rather it comes about through education that is gradually and systematically acquired.  Richard Feynman described it as a process of learning how utterly insignificant human life is in the context of the cosmos as a whole.  In my opinion, this is why Europe and Russia are far less religious than America.  Their educational systems are significantly better than ours, and miles ahead in math and science.  They don't "teach" atheism; it comes about through the process of learning.  Becoming comfortable with "meaninglessness" is a gradual process, as with other mental disciplines, like solving quadratic equations or learning to construct piano chords.  I'm sure that Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris occasionally jar loose a thought process in a true believer that sets in motion a disillusionment with religion.  But the overwhelming majority of atheists in the National Academy of Sciences, for example, demonstrates the more likely way that atheism becomes one's belief non-system.

I think we're probably in the last throes of organized religion, that is, if modern civilization can hold itself together (if we revert to primitivism, then we'll be back to rain dancing soon enough). In my opinion, that will be a very good thing, for the reasons Sigmund Freud described in the closing passages of The Future of An Illusion, his meditation on the deleterious effects of religion on the psyche.  The usual argument against the eradication of organized superstition is that there will be a collapse in morality, yet it's always seemed to me (along the lines outlined above) that it was mankind who wrote the systems of ethics found in the holy books in the first place; thus, we're clearly capable of deriving a codified morality to govern civilized life.  And a secular, more comprehensive basis for morality would have the advantage of avoiding sectarian prejudices which give rise to Muslims killing Jews, and Christians killing Muslims, and probably were behind antipathies such as the Italians hating Yugoslavs, South Africans hating Dutch, and I don't like anybody very much.

December 05, 2012

Cliff diving north of Acapulco

"The misconception of lemming "mass suicide" is long-standing and has been popularized by a number of factors. In 1955, Disney Studio illustrator Carl Barks drew an Uncle Scrooge adventure comic with the title "The Lemming with the Locket". This comic, which was inspired by a 1953 American Mercury article, showed massive numbers of lemmings jumping over Norwegian cliffs.[10][11] Even more influential was the 1958 Disney film White Wilderness, which won an Academy Award for Documentary Feature, in which staged footage was shown with lemmings jumping into certain death after faked scenes of mass migration.[12] A Canadian Broadcasting Corporation documentary, Cruel Camera, found the lemmings used for White Wilderness were flown from Hudson Bay to Calgary, Alberta, Canada, where they did not jump off the cliff, but were in fact launched off the cliff using a turntable."

Increasingly, I think the Disney Corporation has a lot to answer for.   For one thing, the movie "Old Yeller" was just short of deliberate child abuse.  Disney spent 90 minutes making the doomed mutt lovable and then finished him off in the final scenes.  Now, with the kind of superficial research possible in the Internet age, I learn that the whole lemming mass suicide thing is a myth, what the Aussies call a "furphy."  A load.  I recall that there was a wooden turntable for humans in the Fun House in Playland-At-The-Beach, in the San Francisco of my distant youth, but it was for fun (as should be the case in a Fun House) and not for throwing us all to certain death.

Despite the apocryphal nature of the lemming story, not a day goes by where I don't see the U.S. Congress compared to these close relatives of voles and hamsters, with the point of comparison being the willingness, even the sense of destiny, of Congress as it rushes toward its own cliff, this one fiscal in nature.  Indeed, the whole metaphor of "cliff" is probably derived from the lemming myth, which means that our Congress also gets its images from the Disney Corporation.  What next, multiplying buckets of water?

Meanwhile, down in Mexico, the PRI has been returned triumphantly to power.  The PRI, the organ at the center of Mexico's "guided democracy" from 1929 to 2000, spent twelve years in the wilderness, but now the gentle gente of Mexico have come to their senses and stopped their useless experiment with multi-party democracy.   I can't help but think we were part of the inspiration.  America pretends to have two parties, but for all practical purposes we just have two wings of our own PRI.

When I saw that "1929" as the initiating date for the long hegemony of the PRI, I knew something, and something violent, must have happened to get the PRI started.  I don't know if you've ever read any detailed Mexican history, but you're missing a treat if you haven't.  American history is totally bland by comparison.  We had the Revolutionary War, then the Civil War, then our participation in World War II (World War I was a cameo).  Those events would cover about a decade of Mexican history. The instability of Mexican government up until, well, 1929 was such that there was practically never a time when the Mexicans weren't at war with each other.  In the 1920's it was the Cristero War (Cristero meaning, roughly, "Christer"), and it came about because Mexico elected an atheist president, Plutarco Calles, something the U.S. has never done (at least an avowed atheist, although let's be real here - do Clinton and Obama really seem pious to you?). Calles essentially wanted to abolish the Catholic Church, a large undertaking in Mexico, as you might imagine, with complete secularization of schools and government and restrictions on the right of priests to appear in public. It sparked a rebellion by the Cristero army, with assistance from the U.S., which wanted to make sure Mexico didn't get any bright ideas about nationalizing the oil fields (another dreary monotony in American history) while they were persecuting Catholics.

The rebellion succeeded, the government was forced to relent in its anti-church crusade, and Mexico settled into the traditional aftermath of one of its wars, a decade of revenge murders, torture and multi-purpose atrocities. Then the PRI took charge and reliable corruption once again asserted itself. Along the way, Cardenas did in fact nationalize the oil fields in Mexico, and hired none other than Leon Trotsky (in exile in Mexico at the time) as one of his polemicists.  His arguments against American pretensions to ownership of Mexican oil fields are classic anti-imperialist screeds.  

On my various visits to Mexico, I've always found the commoners there far more realistic about the corruption of their federal government than their American counterparts; the latter insist on believing in the mythology of "ideological differences" between the parties.  One can line up the main elements of the federal budget and see at a glance where the problems are:  a medical system that costs far too much and a runaway defense budget.  If each of these two components were cut in half, the budget crisis would be solved, and at no real cost to the quality of life in America.  We pay twice as much per capita for medical care in the United States compared to comparable First World countries, yet rank 37th in the world in the quality of care.  The U.S. defense budget is premised on re-fighting World War II, which is no longer possible in the nuclear age.  We need a home guard and a nuclear umbrella; nothing else is sensible.

Such sanity is unthinkable because our own PRI, with its Janus-faced components, will not allow sanity, because it disturbs the power base of our elected-for-life D.C. bureaucrats.  So these large, bipedal lemmings (not nearly as cute as their Rodentia inspiration) will hem, haw, extend, pretend and do nothing effective, pulling back from the cliff in the nick of time.  For now.

We're gonna need a bigger turntable.