Friday, February 29, 2008

Retro-Journal: Tradition and Modernity in Early 1997

HEREIN IS EXPLAINED why you may not hear from me about various previously-discussed work or social plans (ones for which no contract, promise, or precise date was made, I mean) — since I really need to focus on writing a book first planned back in 1997 (eleven embarrassing years ago), even if it means much shorter blog entries henceforth (which may be a great relief to many readers anyway). ACSH, Debates at Lolita Bar, and Manhattan Project will be unaffected, though.

I swear I am not a contrarian in the usual sense of simply opposing other people’s views for the sake of opposing them. On the other hand: I tend to feel that seconding some already-stated opinion is usually a waste of time — the opinion’s already been stated, after all — and therefore usually find myself focusing on areas of disagreement, even with people I very much like and largely agree with.

(I refer to philosophical agreement and disagreement, not at all to the sorts of everyday emotional and practical matters that people normally bicker about — when it comes to these things, I try to stay almost infinitely flexible and not complain unless something causes physical pain or comes darn close to it. You’ll never hear me say “But dammit! I had my heart set on going to that restaurant!” I will quietly, civilly object if you insist that astrology or socialism work, though.)

This quasi-contrarian bent may have contributed to me formulating a plan in early 1997 — right at the peak of the dotcom boom, when everyone was in love with technology and the future like they hadn’t been since the days of Flash Gordon — to examine the important role that tradition plays in civilization. Ironically, this idea actually began as a plan for an ABC News broadcast, which would have been hosted by libertarian correspondent John Stossel if he and the producers had liked the idea. It was correctly pointed out to me by Stossel and the Stossel executive producer at the time, David Sloan, that getting people to tune in to news broadcasts filled with eye-grabbing flashes of sex and violence was hard enough — getting people to tune into a primetime hour about tradition was nearly hopeless.


Luckily, the Phillips Foundation, started by conservative publisher Tom Phillips and then led by a board that also included Al Regnery from Regnery Books and conservative columnist Robert Novack, had recently started giving out annual grants for ambitious year-long journalism projects, so I submitted a proposal for a series of articles on the interplay of tradition and innovation in various fields — architecture, music, medicine, psychology — and got funding that helped me travel a bit, interviewing people and visiting locations relevant to those disciplines.

I turned in each quarter of the project to one of the higher-ups at ABC News, since they understandably had to make sure I wasn’t writing anything too partisan (and the grant itself was awarded prior to me going from freelancer to contract staffer at ABC), and their willingness to let me keep writing, for which I’m very grateful, was an interesting reminder of what counts as “political” in the eyes of journalistic organizations. To us intellectuals, if I can say that, a statement like “Edmund Burke had some very important insights about the inherent flaws in the French Revolution” is about as bomb-lobbing a political statement as could ever be uttered — but to TV viewers and TV producers, it’s about as dry and harmless a statement as “Texts can self-undermine in a way that unveils their own chronology, in the fashion of a deconstructed hermeneutic calendar,” assuming you see that statement as harmless and/or meaningless.

By contrast, if I’d said I wanted to write a completely factual, non-philosophical series of articles about Kennedy family sex scandals, ABC — again, understandably — would have gotten very, very nervous. Two very different ideas of what politics is about — and the latter perhaps more relevant in many ways, but I’m a philosophy guy and will remain so.


Somehow, eleven years have passed since then without me yet putting the capstone on the tradition project, a book — though I’ve had articles from the project published on,, Spiked-Online,, and (the site I edit by day, for the American Council on Science and Health), and in Skeptical Inquirer and Reason (and this project ain’t done giving yet, if I have anything to say about it). It was also the basis of my arguments in one of the series of monthly bar debates I’d go on to host, a debate about the relative merits of tradition and individualism against a very courageous Jacob Levy, who got shanghaied into doing the debate while in New York City on vacation.

My fellow Phillips Foundation fellows — of whom there are now over sixty — are such a talented and productive bunch, though, that I still feel like a bit of a loser seeing them gather three times a year and knowing something like a third of them have gotten books published about their chosen topics, while I have not (yet). And friends occasionally complain as well, so I may as well leap ahead of early 1997 a bit to explain — with luck, for the final time — where those eleven years and that manuscript went.

First of all, this isn’t precisely the first book manuscript I contemplated.

•With little awareness that I was treading ground already well covered by William F. Buckley (to whom I’m dedicating a month of blog entries starting tomorrow) and Dinesh D’Souza (who I’ve insulted repeatedly on this site but nonetheless has his good points), I considered writing a tell-all about wacky liberalism run amok on the Brown campus the instant I graduated, with the working title Ivy League War Journal.

•Deciding a couple years after graduation to expand my scope, I began writing a manuscript making an Austrian economics-informed, anarcho-capitalist argument against all government.

•Cannibalizing parts of that manuscript for my weekly New York Press column in the mid-90s and deciding the rest was too political to publish while working at ABC News (even working for Stossel, who has a bit more leeway than a mere associate producer), I moved on to the tradition project.

The first of these three books-in-progress really lives on as the weekly Retro-Journal of which you are now reading my twentieth installment — the halfway-mark of our twenty-year, forty-blog-entry journey from late 1987 to early 2007 (when this site really began). The first eight entries of the Retro-Journal are about my four years at Brown.

The second book-in-progress was partly cannibalized, to the universal acclaim of New Yorkers and NYPress readers everywhere, converting NYC to the free-market, untaxed, unregulated utopia it is today.

The third book-in-progress evoked the strongest nibble of interest from, among the tiny handful of editors who saw it in its earlier from — believe it or not — my Marxist (and now 911 Truther) friend Sander Hicks, now the owner of Brooklyn’s Vox Pop Café but before that the founder of intellectually adventurous but breathtakingly left-wing Soft Skull Press (since somewhat tamed but more fiscally stable under new management). My plan was to reformulate what had been an admittedly dry and academic-sounding look at tradition and innovation when the other editors saw it as a more hip tome for Soft Skull, called Conservatism for Punks — a dialectical combo that interested Sander since, say what you will about his politics, he’s open-minded enough to read about Burke, religion, and Gandhi along with his Marx and Green Party screeds. And he’s a punk.

Sander was effectively ousted from Soft Skull around 2000, though, while I literally had a not-yet-signed book contract in my hands — and the mind reels at the thought of what a bizarre professional odyssey I would have begun had I attempted to publish the book through Soft Skull without him, since his co-workers were prone to refer to the project as “this fascist’s book” — and that was the guy who would have been overseeing distribution and delivery for me, so things might have gotten a tad tense. Made a certain amount of dialectical sense at the time, though, and still does.

In any case, the next thing you know it’s 2001 and suddenly people are so focused on foreign policy — and mere survival — that the idea of doing a comparatively fluffy domestic-politics book about why it’s cool to be in the GOP and have a mohawk seemed a bit stupid. My heart wasn’t really in it at that point.

But now — this week — Buckley’s dead, the likely GOP presidential candidate has been accused of not even being a conservative, one of his two remaining nationally-active rivals for the nomination is religious-right and still doesn’t really qualify as a conservative in some ways, libertarianism hasn’t made much of a dent in the race, and it seems like the candidates generating the most excitement are all, in one way or another, ones who claim not so much that they can fix America as that they can fix politics and overcome the ugly left-right divide — which is sort of what my book would be meant to do, since I see the left-right divide as a symptom of that older divide, born around the eighteenth century, between defenders of tradition and proponents of progress. We need both — and if I ever sound insufficiently partisan, that’s why.

Like the “fusionist” conservatives who want to blend markets and tradition — but on an even broader, more inclusive level — I know that no one political faction can hope (or should desire) to completely vanquish and eliminate the others, so some sort of blend is inevitable, preferably one that draws upon the various factions’ best, not merely most popular, elements.

But in talking about all this grandiose philosophizing — which will continue in earnest here throughout March, so get used to it — I’ve given the events of early 1997 somewhat short shrift in this Retro-Journal entry, so let me just add:

•Disliked Rent.

•Loved seeing the original Star Wars trilogy return to theatres.

•Had absolutely nothing to do — I swear — with the fact that a Stossel piece that season called Brown University a “dictatorship of the politically correct.” But it’s true, you know.

ADDENDUM: Oops — I left God out of the final “Month Without God” entry, but I meant to add that in the course of my reading about tradition back in 1997-1998, I read an essay by Nick Szabo — a libertarian who writes about law and computer programming and is or was a GWU law student, I believe — arguing (in a fashion that sort of blends Judaism and open-source Extropianism) that the value of the God concept derives precisely from the fact that it provides a single, unified metaphor for all the good things we get from tradition.  I’m more sympathetic to that claim than you might think — I just think it’s important to remember that your metaphors are metaphors, not real things.

Can the valuable elements of tradition be retained without perpetuating the delusion that the God metaphor is a real sentient thing?  Well, I’ll start the attempt tomorrow, at any rate, as our “Month Without Buckley” begins…

Thursday, February 28, 2008

DEBATE AT LOLITA BAR: "Should We Deport All the Illegal Aliens?"


With William F. Buckley now dead, Bush unpopular, and McCain’s conservative credentials contested, there’s a lot of debate over how to define “conservative” (indeed, I’ll be blogging about that question throughout March, in my “Month Without Buckley,” after my atheism-promoting “Month Without God” ends tomorrow) — and one of the most divisive issues among conservatives, as McCain has noticed, is what to do about illegal immigrants (McCain, working with his fellow senator Ted Kennedy, tried to grant them de facto amnesty, but now he’s sounding a lot more like his border-enforcing conservative constituents on the issue).

Well, we’ll get to the bottom of the question “Should We Deport All the Illegal Aliens?” this coming Wednesday, March 5, at 8pm, in the basement of Lolita Bar (266 Broome St. at Allen St. on the Lower East Side, one block south and three west of the Delancey St. subway stop). Our original “no” debater, libertarian Greg Rehmke, had to drop out, but our stellar combatants will be:

•YES: Gerard Perry of NY ICE (New Yorkers for Immigration Control and Enforcement)

•NO: Koli Mitra, lawyer, blogger (at ThoughtOven and CitizenJoe), and daughter of (legal!) immigrants

•Moderator: Michel Evanchik

•Host: Todd Seavey

Here’s a glimpse of last time’s debate between John Derbyshire and Seth Colter Walls, by the way, seen in fine photos by the very talented J.D. Weiner.

P.S. Speaking of liberty and movement across national borders — not to mention anti-faith messages — I recall libertarian travel writer Christina Valhouli mentioning that the quasi-rap-quasi-grunge band Faith No More transformed into some quasi-goth-quasi-German band with sci-fi and comic book themes, and indeed here is the Wikipedia entry on Fantomas, the band sort of formerly known as Faith No More and itself named after a French crime novel character who influenced comic book characters Batman and Phantom Stranger. Knowing about Fantomas allows you to immigrate to France without a visa, I’m pretty sure.

P.P.S. Of course, no earthly immigration dispute can compare to the problems on the planet Rakhat when the Jesuits arrive, as I noted earlier this week.

Gods and Goo at Reason (and DC Comics)


My cover article about nanotech, which as the title says, will turn us into “Neither Gods Nor Goo” anytime in the foreseeable future, is now up on Reason magazine’s website (and is in their March print issue, as noted before), almost exactly one year after the junket to Scotland that forms part of the story — but I get around to everything eventually. (I still owe the masses a serious article on evolutionary psychology, I realize.)

As it happens, at precisely the time online readers are seeing my thoughts on nanobots and trying to transform ourselves into gods, DC Comics is depicting a war between nanobots and gods (as I have learned online, not by making any actual purchases, mind you, having kept pretty much clean for over a year now, aside from that stack of trade paperbacks I reviewed on this site over the summer). You see, starting in May, my favorite comics writer, Grant Morrison, is doing a seven-issue miniseries called Final Crisis in which new, deadlier gods take over the world and do terrible things to its superheroes, or something like that.

And since Morrison is the kind of do-things-my-own-way guy who needs the fictional playing field made clean before he romps insanely all over it, DC is preceding his miniseries with a (now nearly-finished) year-long Countdown to Final Crisis weekly series in which nanobots destroy those parts of the Earth — and the pagan and Jack Kirby-created heavens — that don’t suit Morrison’s narrative purposes. So, the “Fourth World” of DC Comics “New Gods” characters gets blown up (after four decades of use) by another Kirby character, the sentient machine Brother Eye, who commands swarms of nanobots and OMAC cyborgs, using them to bring about the long-prophecied “Great Disaster,” to be followed immediately by the aforementioned “Final Crisis,” so it’s a rough time for Superman and his pals (not to mention for three versions of the Legion of Super-Heroes, Anthro the First Boy, Kamandi the Last Boy, and even, Morrison promises, Streaky the Super-Cat like you’ve never seen him before).

On the bright side, since the title of this blog entry refers to my nanotech article, the current plotline in DC Comics, and by poetic resonance to the first book written by the late William F. Buckley, I have achieved a personal trifecta of scientific, genre-fiction, and political allusion that helps me feel there is a beautiful underlying orderliness to life.

And speaking of such things, since I mentioned in a prior entry during this nearly-ended “Month Without God” on the blog that I think religious people tend to be less imaginative than the non-religious, I may as well go ahead and say more explicitly that I think if you grow up reading sci-fi and comics, in which things like nanobots fighting New Gods happen every day, you’re less likely to be struck dumb (and I do mean dumb) by some ostensibly mind-blowing old goatherd’s tale about a shrub catching on fire, a donkey talking, or a carpenter turning water into wine. Big deal. Omnipotence gets you that? I think Jack Kirby could have come up with some cooler things to do with omnipotence. The desert-dwelling yokels who fabricated the stories in the Bible, on the other hand, weren’t quite so inspired.

(And let me add that May’s Final Crisis miniseries starts in the same month that, as I’ve noted before, brings Iron Man [UPDATE 2/29/08: New trailer!], Speed Racer, Prince Caspian, and Indiana Jones to the big screen, so there’s unavoidable nerdery ahead. Alas, we have to wait until May 2009 for the Wolverine movie, though, and I can only hope until then that in recounting Wolverine’s origin, they avoid the stupidest thing about Wolverine’s past in the comics: very long-lived, he has served, in chronological order, as part of CIA’s Team X, Weapon Plus’s secretive Weapon X project, and Prof. Charles Xavier’s X-Men — yet we’re supposed to believe those three different X’s are all pure coincidence. That’s retarded — one of those sadly premodern cases of storytellers liking some trope so much they just keep coming back to it with no concern for realism — like having some knight encounter a kidnapped princess in every single stinking town he rides through. Feh.)

And for those nerdy enough to have made it this far, I reward you with an amusing photo (pointed out to me by Reid Mihalko) of what it would be like if Spider-Man operated in Wyoming and an even more entertaining photo of what it would look like if Wonder Woman’s costume were made out of body paint (pointed out to me by Caryn Solly, who happens to be a friend of Reid, so you see a pattern or two emerging here).

By the way, one complaint about (what I’ve read about) the Countdown to Final Crisis comic book: it features one third of Triplicate Girl (the member of the Legion of Super-Heroes who can split into three separate but identical people), calling herself Una during her solo adventures. So her power is: being one person. I also have that superpower.

I also read that Karate Kid has spurned her romantic advances during this series. And if I were being pursued by only one of a woman who normally had the power to be three women at the same time, I too might feel a bit less than enthused.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Buckley Dead, Rehmke's Wrists Broken

Founder of modern conservatism William F. Buckley has passed away at 82 (as if conservatism didn’t have enough problems at this juncture in history) — and as if that weren’t painful enough, my “no” debater for next week’s Debate at Lolita Bar (on the question “Should We Deport All the Illegal Aliens?”), libertarian Greg Rehmke, has broken both his wrists and will likely have to be replaced in the debate. I’ve got feelers out, but if NYC-area potential replacements (for this completely non-paying gig) want to e-mail me, I’ll try to assess my options in the next day or so and get back to you.

UPDATE 2/28/08: Replacement debater found.  Will officially announce tonight.

(Finding new intellectual leader of conservative movement: trickier.)

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Book Selection: "The Sparrow" by Mary Doria Russell

sparrow.jpg Book Selection of the Month (Fourth of Four): The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

The perfect long-flight read, this unusually “literary” sci-fi novel depicts the preparations for, initial success of, and harrowing denouement of a Jesuit-led space mission to a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri, where humanity makes first contact with aliens, and things don’t go quite as well as anticipated.

The author, Russell, is an anthropologist, and it shows in her very thorough and sensitive depiction of the subcultures involved both within the international (and interfaith) crew and on the planet Rakhat. Adding tension to the whole story — and making it perfect for inclusion in this blog’s “Month Without God” — is the fact that it is framed as a flashback by the only member of the expedition to return to Earth, Jesuit priest Emilio Sandoz. And Sandoz, a charismatic, optimistic man of faith in the flashback sequences, is in the present a haunted, physically-battered, grotesquely-maimed, very angry man suffering a severe crisis of faith.

For good or ill — since the book’s great strength is keeping us tensely wondering how such an optimistic man and promising mission could have gone so horribly wrong — things unfold a bit slowly at first, convincing medical, engineering, and psychological details being developed, then fall apart rather abruptly at the end, as if Russell’s heart was not entirely in it once it came time to show terrible things happening to her extremely likable characters.

Nonetheless — worth the trip. For me, I mean. Whether it was worth it for the characters is the great, existential-dread-producing question. And it strikes me that it’s the sort of doubt that is (or should be) almost as troubling for good utilitarians as for Christians. Without giving things away, I will just say that the question of whether short-term suffering will somehow be compensated for by the resulting long-term betterment of the world even when we cannot immediately see whether that’s likely is central to the plot of the novel, to Christian wrestling with “the problem of evil,” and to thoughtful utilitarians attempting to turn their attention from adherence to utility-maximizing rules to often hopelessly complex utility calculus about long-term contingencies.


Whether your focus is literally eternity or simply “the distant point in the history of the universe when current actions cease to have any further ramifications for the total amount of human suffering in the universe,” the moralist has mysteries and problems to confront big enough to make one wonder whether perhaps one’s whole moral system is in need of revision.

Add to that the confusion that results once people start trying to tease out different aspects of happiness that seem incommensurable — or in some cases (as with a sort of impromptu book club meeting that happened today among some friends of mine via e-mail) even questioning whether some things are inherently good in a way that renders happiness secondary. Of course, that’s not ultimately a coherent position from my utilitarian point of view — I think everything is good precisely in so far as it contributes to happiness and that any other standard is arbitrary and lacks a reasonable justification.

However, given how difficult it can be to articulate our sense that some forms of happiness are richer — and thus ultimately more rewarding — than shallower but more satisfying (and often more popular) pleasures, like some encouraged in Vegas, even as committed a utilitarian as I can end up sympathizing greatly with those who think utilitarianism seems dry and that some other standard — heroic, religious, Randian, what have you — seems nobler. I think the merits of those other standards can be explained in terms of their likely contribution to happiness, but I can admire people who are drawn to them instinctively without making such calculations — just as even the most science-minded reader of The Sparrow is likely to admire the Jesuit characters therein and see (as Russell does) the parallels between engineers’ self-discipline and committed Jesuits’ self-discipline.

And while I do not think that the illusory promise of eternal bliss in Heaven is the right thing to shape one’s life around, as a utilitarian, I must logically appreciate those who think that eternal happiness — if it did exist — would be a matter of much greater concern than short-term highs and lows. I can even sympathize with the idea that an omniscient, omnipotent being — were one to exist — might vastly morally outweigh the concerns of the limited little beings it had created, in strictly utilitarian terms. Luckily, no such “utility monster” appears to exist.

P.S. But don’t feel that the universe is therefore empty: it still has kittens — and even chickens (cousins of sparrows, of course) who, in their confused way, love kittens as they would their own offspring.

P.P.S. And as if reading a sci-fi novel (even a very literary one) weren’t nerdy enough, I should blog this week, in a confessional way, about my imminent (albeit brief) return to the old addiction: comic books. Turns out new New Gods are coming…

Monday, February 25, 2008

What Happens in Vegas Is Still Morally Relevant


So, if all is going according to plan as you read this in the future, today I’m flying back toward the Big Apple after a weekend in Vegas. Did I spend the weekend praying or having fun? Going to a skepticism-filled Penn and Teller show or gambling away all my money using a “can’t-fail system” some con artist told me about?

A well-known commandment decrees that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, so I can’t tell you. I will promise concerned religious readers this, though: I probably refrained mostly or entirely from gambling, not because Jesus dislikes gambling but because (absent special skill at poker or blackjack), gambling is a losing proposition designed to benefit the house at the expense of people too stupid to understand probability. In other words, reason and an appreciation for math will keep me from temptation (though as a libertarian, I certainly think gambling should be legal for those who want to indulge in it — but then, I also think it should be legal to sign contracts saying your family has the right to beat you senseless if you lose the family fortune at the craps table).

It’s interesting that Vegas now markets itself as a sort of vacation-from-prying-eyes and an implicit license to lie by omission, as if a town could collectively decree a moral holiday — or as if Vegas is becoming a sort of anarchic “temporary autonomous zone” not so unlike the Burning Man festivals a couple hours away across the desert.

But, hey, I’m not a fella in search of an escape from the moral straitjacket — keep in mind, I’m the one who condemned religion a few blog entries ago for being akin to lying and thus morally irresponsible. You won’t hear me tellin’ this crazy sonovabitch of a world to “lighten up” — far from it, ya slack-jawed slobs. Whole planet could do a better job o’ mindin’ its manners, you ask me.

And if you think we atheists haven’t had centuries of vocal conversations about what a godless ethos should look like, maybe it’s ’cause you kooky theists spent most of that time burning and stonin’ us ta death every time we talked like heathen. Guy’s liable not to open his mouth, he thinks he’s gonna get a fat lip, you know what I mean?

Until I get back, kids, don’t do anything I wouldn’t do (e.g., assault, theft, lying, causing unnecessary suffering).

Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Vegas Aesthetic and "Elvis Shrugged"

I think the Vegas vibe — like Frank Sinatra — holds greater and greater appeal as one ages because it is an aesthetic that does not demand youth and energy and athleticism, only the ability to slouch, look bleary-eyed, hold your liquor with expertise born of experience, and have enough money in the bank to look calm when the bills come due.

Just as it takes some real-life experience before the blues starts seeming more important than pop, it takes some lower back pain and some regrets before you can nod appreciatively at a line as resigned and pasha-like as “It’s Frank’s world, we just live in it.”

I do regret, though, that while in Vegas, I will have missed a speech for Institute for Humane Studies alums here in New York City by anarchist law professor Randy Barnett on “Libertarian Anarchism in a Statist World.”  But even though I’ll miss his kooky rap, I’ll be livin’ it, baby — and, hey, here, go buy yourself somethin’ classy.

In related news, I was pleased years ago to meet the writer of the comic book Elvis Shrugged, in which Sinatra was depicted as one of the lead characters in a celeb-filled parody of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.  I still smile when I recall Frank saying to a libertarian version of Sinead O’Connor: “Spin me a yarn, baby.”  In the end, all the freedom-loving characters escape to Elvis’s secret enclave, Blue Hawaii.

Risk, Death, Planes, and Helicopters

If all went according to plan (this post having been written a couple days in advance), as you read this, yesterday I flew to Vegas and sometime around today I may even be touring the (awe-inspiring — but artlessly water-carved) Grand Canyon in a helicopter.

And both those things entail risk, baby, like Vegas itself.  If things went badly, though, I am now entitled to say with certainty that there is no afterlife, and all this month’s debate on the blog can come to an end, along with milennia of speculation.

Some related items to fill up the resultant free mental time, though:

•Interestingly, a recent Drudge-linked story was a reminder that if you want a low-risk flight, perhaps the last thing you want is a religious pilot on your plane.

•If your faith in helicopter pilots — or metal anti-electricity suits — is less than complete, you may not want to do this job for a living.

•In marginally related news, I was recently fixated by an ad for tiny remote-control helicopters from a company called HavocHeli.  They are only about five inches long and incredibly precisely maneuverable, with two top/horizontal rotors, one above the other (and the top one smaller) — which makes me wonder if this portends the eventual replacement of single-top-rotor real helicopters by double-top-rotors ones, in which case it’s sort of like I just saw my first single-wing plane after growing up with biplanes.

•Remote-control-helicopter owner and Terminator viewer Chris Nugent notes that remote control copters may, alas, pave the way for the machine conquest of humanity, as hinted by this PBS science video.

•And on a more lighthearted note, a cute reminder that even the gentlest among us can survive difficult situations: like being a kitten lost in the New York subway system for a month.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Today, Vegas -- In One Month, Easter!

Don’t be fooled by my talk of Vegas into thinking that I am some libertine.  Although I’ve been criticizing religion on epistemological grounds this month, I don’t much object to the ethos of self-discipline and sexual restraint it helps spread.  (My position is thus the opposite of a lot of modern American critics of religion: I don’t so much mind organized religion, it’s spirituality and belief in God I can’t abide.)

Religion, like military school, can be beneficial to those in need of moral guidance and structure.  I think, though, we should strive to understand the benefits of self-discipline and moral guidance in utilitarian terms — in which case these things would likely be regarded with even greater respect, due to their self-evident practicality — instead of mandating them via mystical mumbo-jumbo that the wily will see through and the apathetic will ignore, more and more rapidly, I suspect, as modernity, diversity, and individualism advance.

It should be no surprise, though, that I have enough conservative respect for some of religion’s practical social effects to plan a laudatory review for Easter — on March 23, one month from today — of a book by John O’Sullivan partly about Pope John Paul II’s undeniably large role in ending European Communism (The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister).  I’ll contrast it with a book about the left ([Read My T-Shirt] for President by Judy Seigel) and a libertarian book (Freedomnomics by the controversial John Lott), but the Pope’s role in history will loom large no matter how few paragraphs I can afford to devote to him.  (And don’t forget that one of my four Book Selections for this “Month Without God,” The Irrational Atheist, was by a believer, as was January’s Made in America, written by born-again Christian fighting champ Matt Hughes, albeit with Michael Malice.)

I am an atheist and, I hope, a well-rounded one.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Retro-Journal: Disillusionment in Late 1996


In late 1996, the John Stossel team at ABC News was preparing the Freeloaders broadcast that I recently mentioned, a look at forms of parasitism large and small, from petty con men and self-confessed lazy homeless men all the way up to corporations receiving subsidies and favors from the government, specifically the Archer Daniels Midland Company. Twelve years ago, I think the libertarian idea that there’s a big difference between support for free markets and support for “big business” was still rather novel (not that I’m saying the left yet gets it), and I think the overwhelmingly leftist staff of ABC News were a bit surprised to see Stossel taking on ADM — and the fact that it was a big advertiser on ABC’s Sunday morning news talk shows may have crossed some people’s minds.

One left-leaning Stossel Unit member delighted to take on ADM, though, was Frank Silverstein, and in the course of his research he had the oddly Simpsons-like experience of confronting one of his sources on the story with the fact that all evidence pointed to the source secretly being a tool of ARCO, the oil company, to which the source actually replied: “Well, it looks like we’ve reached the endgame faster than I expected.”

Luckily, Frank was not then dropped through a trap door into a shark tank or anything — though, since he’d previously been an animator on Pee-wee’s Playhouse (and helped build Conky the robot), even then Frank might have had some tricks up his sleeve.

Being so much a part of the media establishment at ABC News while also trying to make some radical points was odd, sort of like being a rope stretched across an abyss between the Walt Disney Corporation and Nietzsche.


I learned from my friend Liz Braswell on Sept. 13, 1996 that her brother has no armpits (or rather, that his armpits lack concavity) as a side effect of his brief bout with bubonic plague (now treatable with penicillin), contracted from touching an armadillo.


Fittingly, Bob Dole (R-ADM), friendly to ADM and once called a “tax collector for the welfare state” by the more anti-government Newt Gingrich, appeared headed to defeat in the presidential race that half-year, another textbook case of a Republican whose election probably would have been better for the country (since he would not have resisted Congress during the short-lived budget-trimming phase it was then going through under Gingrich’s leadership) but who nonetheless deserved his defeat, since he had led the Senate in blinking during the confrontation with Clinton a year earlier over Republicans’ attempted budget cuts and the resultant partial “government shutdown.”

While reporters at ABC (other than Stossel) scrambled to find examples of the government shutdown actually making a negative difference in people’s lives (focusing intently on the pathetic handful of examples they found, such as greater difficulty for people trying to obtain last-minute “emergency passports” for foreign travel), the public was probably just on the verge of realizing (as Gingrich explicitly hoped) that it could get along quite well without government. Gingrich suggested that the shutdown in effect become permanent and that a serious conversation ensue about which shut-down parts of the federal leviathan, if any, to reopen.

But Clinton said beloved public parks and your grandmother’s IV tubes would be the first thing to go, the public initially reacted with worry, Dole blinked, Republicans caved, vague promises were made that if Dole became president everything would be made right, he didn’t, they weren’t, Republicans became big spenders, and today the government is about twice as large as it was then — but none dare suggest cutting one dime from its now $3 trillion budget, of course. Perhaps McCain (Maverick-AZ) will cut something. Who the hell knows?


I visited my pals in the Boston area again that half-year, but an important bit of Boston culture also came to New York City: I saw a performance here by the hilarious band Upper Crust, who sound like AC/DC but look and behave and write lyrics as if they’re from the eighteenth century, with songs like “Let Them Eat Rock” — and a fan website called Monarchy in the USA. One member of the band, Ted Widmer, would go on to become a head history librarian at Brown, which is appropriate.

In their small way, the Upper Crust probably helped confirm my desire to embark on my larger philosophical mission: reunifying the traditionalist and progressive/innovative halves of our culture, sundered since the Enlightenment that the Upper Crust so ably parodied. In early 1997, the end of the first half of our Retro-Journal journey, I’d formulate an official plan, or at least submit a grant proposal.

I also saw the Fixx yet again (with future girlfriend Indrani Nicodemus) and saw Dee Dee Ramone perform in late 1996, at the suggestion of fellow New York Press columnist George Tabb, himself the lead singer of punk band Furious George, who were sued at one point by the Disney-affiliated owners of Curious George. Disney is not punk rock.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Everybody Calm Down!

You can tease out the contradictions in people’s thinking, as every good philosophy class aims to do, or you can of course just gloss over disagreements to keep the peace. I usually do the former, but there’s something to be said for the latter, especially in a world where drawing attention to differences is sometimes followed by bloodshed.

In particular, we should probably be grateful for the existence of moderate Muslims who genuinely believe that they can love Islam without having to impose Sharia on the planet or kill the infidels — yet Sam Harris is keen (for philosophical reasons I fully appreciate) to force people to choose between pure, literalist faith and completely skeptical reason — and Christopher Hitchens likewise often glosses over the past several centuries of liberalized religious thinking to make it sound as if the believer must embrace Old-Testament witch-burning and adulterer-stoning or else give up the whole religious enterpise. He gambles (in a more risky and decadent approach than any I’m likely to use in Vegas this weekend) that smart people will opt for atheism, but I fear he may just annoy them into going the other way.

Harris at least makes the interesting argument — with which I pretty obviously largely agree — that moderate religious believers, by creating a climate of respect for faith, are essentially “enablers” for the extremists and lunatics and are in any case encouraging a general tolerance of unreason. Hitchens, by contrast, sometimes seems to be suggesting that all religious people implicitly believe the most literal and stupid version of their professed faiths, which just isn’t true (on the other hand, my friend Diana Fleischman notes that without Hitchens, our culture would currently be lacking a truly great alcoholic-intellectual, so he deserves to be cut some slack).

Daniel Radosh — who took me along to the recent Hitchens/Boteach debate I attended and who will himself argue that Christian rock doesn’t suck at our April 2 Lolita Bar gathering (the day after his new book on Christian pop culture, Rapture Ready!, comes out) — took Hitchens to task for his extreme-straw-man-building, even though Radosh is himself an irreverent “ignostic.” Their epic spat spanned not only Daniel’s blog but Slate, HuffingtonPost, and even the Onion.

Daniel writes, “In my objective opinion, I won.” More important, we all learned the true meaning of Hanukkah.

P.S. In an unrelated example of painting some options out of the picture, check out the contrast between this article and its headline and you may actually find yourself weeping for Hillary (especially given that she did something right for once, condemning Castro).

Brief Discursus on Mighty Morphin Power Rangers


It crosses my mind that the opening sequence (which I merely stumbled across while channel-flipping) of at least one season of the now fifteen-year-old Mighty Morphin Power Rangers series is a good example of how backwards and irrational our culture’s instincts are, from my perspective.

Realizing that the Earth is imperiled, a giant head/mentor figure in the sequence bellows, as if it’s the most logical thing in the world, “Recruit a team of teenagers — with attitude!” I though it was bad enough when NASA decided to recruit a team of rogues and misfits Dirty Dozen-style to save the Earth in Meteor. I certainly don’t want the Earth’s fate decided (unless absolutely necessary) by a team of teenagers with attitude.

Maybe if I wanted to form a cult, band of jihadists, Nazi Youth League, collective of Sparticists, political campaign envelope-stuffers, garage rock ensemble, or group of naive Greenpeace activists (like the ones often near ACSH HQ where I work, ironically — today I heard one of them say “There’s our friend, Jesus” as she noticed a guy ranting about the Bible just a few yards away, saying something about “…earthquakes in various locations…” as I walked by — maybe he should assemble a team of teenagers with attitude WHILE THERE’S STILL TIME).

Then again: maybe that giant head knew exactly what he was doing. Makes you see the exploited Power Rangers in a whole new light.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Science vs. God

In a Response thread to a prior entry, I was asked — I think — to make sense of the whole universe, evolution and all, without God, the apparent implication being that if I fail to satisfy, religion stands vindicated. That’s a tall order — in principle spanning everything from tonight’s lunar eclipse on the chilly East Coast (in about one hour) to the fauna of the steamy Galapagos, made famous by Darwin and recently photographed by honeymooning science writer Ken Silber (how hollow and materialistic it all must have seemed to him!).

I don’t imagine I can convince anyone determined not to be convinced — of much of anything. In fact, one of the most pernicious things about belief in God is that it tends to create people determined not to have their minds changed, as though the changing of a mind were an inherently violent process. I can’t get far with that as raw material, nor can civilization.

Readers who are open to observation and evidence, though, will know full well how much sense the universe makes — and will likely have some idea why it makes sense, to the extent they recall their math, physics, chemistry, biology, economics, and history. Armed with those powerful and very exciting tools, not to mention (perfectly secular versions of) philosophy and art, one could spend a happy and very rich lifetime describing the known universe — and the tantalizing mysteries about parts of it still not fully understood (though nothing in it, even the parts we don’t yet fully understand, appears to suggest some supernatural or non-material presence at work, I must, under the circumstances, hasten to add).

Think of all the truly awe-inspiring things that a scientist could tell you about the Moon and the reasons for tonight’s eclipse compared to the sad, faltering, desperate, and usually nonsensical narratives about such things eked out by various superstitions, whether they be animist, ancient Greek, Christian, neo-pagan feminist, back-to-nature Gaia-worshipping, or what have you. Only a mind quickly bored by complexity would find some ancient Middle-Eastern tale about the sky being, say, a giant cow skin stretched between divine campfires more amazing or engrossing than the humbling truth about the Moon’s probable origins in the same massive dust cloud as the Earth, with all the attendant implications for the decidedly cow-dwarfing size and mass of our surroundings, not to mention for the regularity and power of tides.

I can’t recommend the old science TV series Cosmos, hosted by Carl Sagan, highly enough for anyone still laboring under the impression that science renders the universe dry and boring. Dry and boring? Tell that to a white dwarf star or a black hole, baby (I’m listening to the Tin Machine album with “Baby Universal” on it as I type this, I confess).

Scientists and Children

Children often ask questions about how the universe works — and the laziest of those children basically want to be told that everything in the universe works exactly the same way they do, which is to say by crawling around in search of food or making entreaties to parent figures. Thus, some find it very cozy and comforting to be told that the Moon is there because a daddy-force up there somewhere decided to put it there — and if you’re good, he’ll be with you always and will fulfill your every hunger. For adults, by contrast, there are concepts like geosynchronous orbits and igneous rock and gravitational pull. For children and for adults who prefer to think like children, Daddy remains the explanation for everything, always, forever.

This is not to say there isn’t the perplexing question, which Heidegger rightly called philosophy’s biggest puzzle, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” But (a) it’s not clear that our (evolved) intuition that there ought to be nothing because that’s “easier” is correct when applied to the universe as a whole (there may be some amount of energy less than which it would be “harder” to achieve in much the way it’s not easy to get a terrestrial object down to absolute zero); (b) we know that short-lived “virtual particles” arise out of nothing all the time and disappear again, so it’s not clear this sloppy, largely unorganized, almost-entirely-empty (and mindbogglingly vast, dark, and cold, except in a trifling few tiny spots), rapidly/acceleratingly dissipating energy-burp of a universe as a whole can’t have a similar story; and (c) for those who find the presence of a universe without any clear prior cause so mentally unacceptable that they’re willing to latch onto even non-rational narratives that simply invent an explanation — such as a sentient creator-force — there will always be the residual question: Why oh why do you think the creator-force (or whatever) that you just made up springing causelessly into existence somehow “makes more sense” than the universe, which you can see with your own eyes really is here, doing the exact same thing? When God does it, it’s an explanation? Sort of like saying, “How could anyone survive five-million-degree heat — oh, it’s Crazy Bob! Crazy Bob can do anything!”

Not that science ever promised you some purpose-driven, i’s-dotted narrative of how everything got here and where it’s definitely going and how you can find joy and meaning in the middle of it anyway. Science just offers to work at finding out what we can really know. It won’t be perfect, but it won’t lie to you (though there’ll be mistakes from time to time, of course — anyone who claims they have flawless answers is deluding you). If you prefer to be lied to, stick with religion, but stop acting surprised when some of us, loving truth and wanting to know what’s actually going on in the world, feel a duty to puncture the lies. As adults, we know that the answer to the question “What is true?” cannot possibly be “You leave me alone! I can think whatever I want, so there!” Though as a legal and practical matter, of course, you can believe in Zeus or the Great Beaver, and no one can stop you, rest assured. But you see how arbitrary — and thus probably false — such comfort-fantasies are and why some of us might want to advance the discussion beyond them.

Taking the Smartest Route Available

This is not to say there aren’t highly intelligent, wonderful people who partake of both modes of thought, science and religion — I’ll see one in Vegas this weekend, in fact. I admit moderates exist on these issues, obviously. That’s something Sam Harris often fails to do and something Christopher Hitchens sometimes fails to do — and he has been taken to task for it by Daniel Radosh, as I’ll explain in tomorrow’s entry.

In the meantime, I’m going to go look at the Moon. I don’t expect to notice it doing anything unnatural or intelligently-guided, and it will be beautiful and awesome all the same — even more so for being unplanned, really, just as the fact that advanced economies and sorted-for-survival-advantages lifeforms are the result of simple but effective sorting processes is far more interesting (and the effort to understand these humbling sorting processes far more enlightening) than just saying “The wise Commissar must have made the people wealthy!” or “God must have decided to make ponies because they’re pretty.”

Just as economics teaches us more about how the world really works (and particularly politics, with implications for a practical, utilitarian moral code as well) than would our uninformed gut instincts about how things “oughtta be” alone, and just as philosophy teaches us more about the consistent and inconsistent elements of our own thinking than would the stubborn assumption that we’re right about everything, so too does science offer an entire, real universe to be discovered and continually understood, a better way than the shortcut of telling us that we basically had it all figured from our first childhood Bible reading. Religion, for all its internal debates, contradictions, and centuries of theological knots, essentially offers one old, very simple, and very, very implausible answer to everything, and some people, tragically, spend their whole lives contemplating that brief answer — like a simpleton forever stroking the same piece of velvet in his shabby basement room, never daring to investigate the wide world beyond for fear he’ll find that it isn’t all made out of that same piece of velvet.

Was that last bit insulting? You see how I’m trying to help, though.

Oh, and while there’s hardly time to get into it all in one small blog entry, I have to say, my atheist acquaintances have tended to come to much more commonsensical (and perfectly humane) views on morals and much more relaxed, accepting attitudes toward the inevitability of death than most of the religious people I’ve met, who, if they haven’t simply given up trying to make sense of “God’s plan,” are often quite vexed and baffled about it all, and expend a fair amount of mental and emotional energy on the vexation and the bafflement, from what I’ve seen. If I thought the most loving being in the universe had concocted a system where I might roast in a lake of fire for eternity (just to take one version of the story, certainly not the only one), I imagine I’d be vexed and baffled, too, though (after years of reading comic books) I agree that all that troubling stuff could be rationalized as easily as contradictory Batman stories if one insisted on trying to defend it all — but sorting out all that stuff or providing some alternative narrative to it isn’t really my department. I have a real world to understand.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Some of My Best Friends Are Religious

I had the odd experience of being told by one of my fellow Phillips Foundation Fellows (many of them more religion-friendly than I, most of us being conservative or libertarian writers, recipients of Phillips grants) at one of our thrice-annual meetings this past weekend that lacking religion, he fears, I may eventually go mad — yes, mad!

That seems like a question best decided by careful empirical research, but I will say anecdotally that my vocally religious acquaintances — much as I love them — have tended to be a bit eccentric or emotionally volatile themselves, though I am not (let me be clear) claiming that they will eventually go mad (unless you count that whole religion thing, ha ha!).

Off the top of my head, there’s:

•the one who fasted for forty days and started having “strange ideas” as a result (this after having been, by his own admission, uncertain about the difference between fiction and non-fiction stories until about age eleven)

•the one who got so exhausted working on a paper about Milton she thought she saw Satan

•the one who said he had to embrace tradition fervently because he had a very hard and anxiety-inducing time reaching any conclusions otherwise

•and three lovely ex-girlfriends who, respectively, have suffered (a) severe mood swings, (b) suicidal impulses, and (c) hallucinations (though all would describe religion as helping with these things).

(Add to this my hippie-mystic acquaintances, equally dismissive of materialism, who’ve had to endure upsetting things like getting dumped by a fellow hippie-mystic who concluded “The universe doesn’t want me to be with you.”  Om.)

That doesn’t make any of them crazy or bad — indeed, I expect to see two of them in the next several days and am greatly looking forward to it — but my (admittedly limited) sample makes me wonder whether cold, skeptical rationality is really such a destabilizing way to go.

And even when atheism is accompanied by despair, it’s often because religion worked so hard to build up someone’s hopes and get her to emotionally invest in religion in the first place.

My friend from college Holly Caldwell, who went from Christian to atheist the summer after freshman year, once said she felt that happy lifelong atheists like me, who had been raised with no particular religion (nor raised as atheists per se), were sort of cheating.  We could easily grow up to not believe in God without ever having to go through the angst of “losing” something (though I should say that, technically, I had passively assumed there was probably a God when I was a child, just because the assumption that there is one is so pervasive in the culture — and partisans of religion who think that assumption is not pervasive are ingrates without the slightest idea how the culture looks from an atheist perspective, I must add).

But emotional reactions are really beside the point (as Holly would agree).  As a rationalist, empiricist, skeptic, and science-admirer, I have thought since at least as young as twelve that emotional reactions to information should play no part in deciding whether the information is true (ever since calling myself a “stoic” in junior high, which I suppose was the first time I applied a philosophical label to myself, definitely a sign of things to come).  This seems to me one of the most obvious, basic, and important truths about perception but one vehemently denied by many people.

If there is no evidence for God, there is no evidence for God, and whether one rejoices or weeps at the fact is secondary, epistemologically speaking.  Indeed, adulthood is largely a matter of recognizing that the boogeyman doesn’t exist even if you are afraid of him and that your beloved deceased family pet is not going to come back to life even if you think that would be beautiful.  In a sane world, there would be little more to say about religion beyond that, since its defense tends to rely largely upon the fear of despair or confusion or moral chaos.

Still, I won’t deny religion can sometimes give people solace — take my most notoriously religious ex, Dawn Eden, now dealing with a treatable but nonetheless scary cancer in her thyroid and no doubt grateful to hear that people who believe in the power of prayer are praying for her (so get to it, if you’re into that).  I hope and expect she’ll be fine — and she’s feeling well enough to parody my blog’s “Month Without God” with her own depiction of what it might sound like if God blogged about a “Month Without Todd.”

Another, decidedly more theologically-liberal friend who believes in God (or at least objects to militant atheism), Christine Caldwell Ames, requested in the Responses thread to my recent “Religionists and Reductionists” entry that I get to the point of this whole Month by contending with the “evidence” of the universe’s existence and start explaining just how an atheist makes sense of it all and disposes of theists’ best efforts to do so, aside from by insulting the theists.  So, barring the unexpected, that’s what I’ll do tomorrow night.

Keep on Rockin' [in Canada]

Hey, as it happens, the morning after blogging about TMZ mocking the homeless, I was awakened by my alarm clock radio playing another reference to the homeless that always makes me laugh, simply because it’s so intensely dated: Canadian Neil Young’s lines “We’ve got a thousand points of light/ For the homeless man/ We got a kinder, gentler machine gun hand.” I’m smiling even now.

Almost as dated as the most dated couplet in rock history, for which the prize must, I think, go to “And now you find yourself in ’82/ The disco hotspots hold no charm for you.” I’d do that in karaoke.

UPDATE: Speaking of music, while I think of it, I may as well tell all the world that the best online radio station of which I am aware is (perhaps fitting for this godless blog month) — a typical hour (like the one just passed) featuring X, Clash, Patsy Cline, the Monkees, Stone Roses, my old Rodeo Bar neighbors Flying Neutrinos, and then still more punk.  That’s exactly right.

Monday, February 18, 2008

TMZ vs. the Homeless

I may have been too condescending in my recent praise of the Hollywood tabloid show TMZ, which just minutes ago performed a valuable public service (not so unlike the one performed by my old boss, John Stossel, on his special Freeloaders) by pointing out that panhandlers are often well-compensated con artists, preying upon the arrogant liberal/Christian presumption that the rest of us are meant to be quasi-holy benefactors to the downtrodden.

They profiled a few Hollywood “homeless” people such as one making some $30-40,000 a year — and, pivotally, having a house (not to mention a therapist), which raises questions about how exactly one defines “homeless.” Apparently, the functional definition is “any scuzzy-looking guy shameless enough to mooch money off of strangers.” By that definition, we have homeless aplenty and, given the constant drumbeat of anticapitalist and pro-welfare sentiment in this society, will probably be developing more of them, and more mainstreamed ones, in the future.

But even raw videotape can’t compete with the sanctimonious glow some people feel playing out the ancient, revered tableau of alms-giver and pure-hearted recipient.

Presidents' Day Reflection on Presidents and Religion

washington.jpg j-mccain.jpeg

Every conservative faction has its reasons for being less than fully satisfied with McCain, but we’d do well to get our complaints out of our systems now and, however glumly, vote for him against the Democrat in November.

He at least recognizes the problem of excessive government spending — the core issue from my perspective — while both Clinton and Obama (not to mention Edwards, should that populist gasbag ambulance-chaser find his way onto the ticket) think that “change!!” = more government, which is not only socially destructive but is indeed no change at all, since government growth (and attendant withering of the private sector, civil society, and individual responsibility) has been the norm for at least a century now and is not sustainable. That’s not to say McCain will be “good,” just in all likelihood “slightly better” — and there are no guarantees of even that, just a more reasonable roll of the dice.

I would not be terribly surprised, though, if some of my crypto-left-sympathizing libertarian acquaintances, who not-coincidentally tend to be in the profoundly leftism-saturated, insular world of academia, were tempted to find some excuse to declare the Democrat’s election preferable to McCain’s. These same left-sympathizing libertarians were really fond of the idea of “gridlock” — one party controlling the White House, the other Congress — just two years ago, though, so presumably now that the Democrats control Congress (and are behaving as badly as expected, from everything I’ve seen), they will be consistent and root for McCain for president.

So, despite all the disappointments and intrigue of the primary season, I would expect that pretty much all non-socialists, given the likely options, will soon be on the same page, rooting for McCain, depressing as it may seem that it’s come to this.


As I said long ago, though, one consolation in having McCain be president is his obvious (relative) indifference to the religious right, that faction so often seen as the source of trouble over the past eight years (though there were many sources and many troubles).

Sometimes religion is a tool of resisting the state (or, more directly, a means of shaping a decent and orderly life without recourse to the state), as was arguably the case more often than not during the twentieth century.

Today, however:

(a) progressives (such as Clinton and Obama) are once again, as they were a century ago, often driven by a quasi-religious zeal — and at times by a genuine “religious left” impulse — rather than by mid-century economic “rationality” and “planning”;

(b) conservatives’ religiosity, under Bush, has become a bulwark to their statist tendencies, not their (dwindling) anti-statist tendencies; and

(c) our major external enemy is religious rather than anti-religious in its motivation, a switch to which we have still not fully adjusted psychologically or culturally (the phrase “godless Communism” somehow strikes us as a more natural epithet for a foe than “godful Islamic extremists,” though the latter is actually a better summation of motivations than ever the first was — there were religious communists, after all, as in Latin America [where ostensibly pro-Catholic and communist Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega has recently noted his preference for an Obama victory], while secular Muslims are, for the most part, not a danger).

So for all my temptation to whine about McCain’s shortcomings (while other conservative factions each whine about him for its own different reasons, such as his admittedly awful positions on issues ranging from campaign reform to global warming), I must confess that “secular + budget-cutting” is not such a bad summary of what I want. Pragmatist that I am, then, I do not plan to spend the next nine months whining if it looks like I have a chance to get that via McCain’s election — and his picking a running mate other than Huckabee the (ethically-dubious) preacher would be a crucial indicator. If I’m not going to whine, though, neither do I plan to spend the next nine months cheerleading, so tomorrow let us resume this blog’s month-long religion/atheism discussion, and then we move on to whole new topic areas…

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Religionists and Reductionists

Michael Novak recently wrote an article offering a taxonomy of quasi-atheists, pseudo-atheists, and nihilists-about-everything who sometimes get lumped under the banner of “atheism,” their differences supposedly indicating that the whole enterprise is doomed to contradictions and hypocrisy, which is a bit like saying that since some conservatives care about immigration and some don’t, all conservatism is wrong.

I concede, though, that there are people who call themselves atheists who, upon closer examination, seem to hold views inconsistent with their stated foundational principles: some might pay lip service to science but simply be mystics of an unorthodox variety (believing in psychics or “energy” of some vague but spiritual kind) or say there is no God yet seem to be angry at this nonexistent being for creating such an unpleasant world. It’s very important to recognize that trying to saddle real atheists with the job of apologizing for those people is nothing better than guilt by association. Let us stick to the strongest, most consistent and rational, versions of our opponents’ arguments if we’re really trying to get to the bottom of an issue instead of, in a merely political/tribal way, smearing the opposition as a bunch of jerks.

The record will plainly show I’ve never been “angry at God” nor, since childhood, inclined to believe in any supernatural (or for that matter earthly) “God substitutes.” I think there’s (in all likelihood) an observable, material universe and nothing else: no God, no gods, no “something out there like an energy,” no psychic powers, no mystical resonances inside homeopathic elixirs, and no ghosts (I am not simply asserting that God is distant, indifferent, cruel, or baffling — I’m saying God does not exist, that there is indeed a familiar, knowable, common-sense world and God is nowhere in it). Show me evidence to the contrary — with this as with, say, the claim that there’s a previously-hidden planet between the Earth and the Moon — and I’m perfectly happy to revise my position. Plainly, no evidence is forthcoming, and only a mental child keeps insisting on the existence of that thing for which there is no evidence. It’s pathetic, intellectually irresponsible, immoral, mistaken, and stupid. If you wish to be taken seriously as an adult among the handful of people rational enough for their judgment to count for something in philosophical debates, just stop.

Oversimplifying Reductionism

There are of course emotions, patterns, and metaphors aplenty — all built upon a purely material world — so I’m not saying the material world “contains no art” or that “there’s no such thing as love” or any of the other obviously-wrong reductionist statements that (particularly unserious) theists such as Dinesh D’Souza sometimes try to attribute to atheists. Indeed, I’ve noticed that anti-reductionists sometimes come hilariously and perilously close to denouncing belief in molecules, since they are so worried that once we identify some low, physical level at which things can be discussed, things must then only be discussed at that level of abstraction, as if identifying the family dog as a mammal makes it impossible to utter her specific name or tell cute anecdotes about her thereafter. That sort of fear is evidence of the religionist/worrier’s lack of imagination, not the accused reductionist’s, the latter (like me) presumably having the mental flexibility necessary to talk about mammals and about Fido, paint molecules and impressionism, homo sapiens and the aspirations of the Protestant Reformation.

Complex patterns that are worth noting, intuiting, and making metaphors about obviously exist, but I don’t see a scrap of good evidence for any supernatural, divine, or paranormal claims of any kind. Anyone who makes a claim without real-world evidence — and knows himself to be making the claim without evidence — is at best a dupe and at some point, if he knowingly asserts the claims without anything to back them up, even deserves to be called a liar, though it is oddly not considered polite to call religious people such.

Religion as Lie

Now, of course, religious people are (presumably) usually sincere when they claim there is a God, so they don’t fulfill the intentionality component of what is normally meant by “liar,” but, surely, when someone asserts something knowing he can’t provide evidence, he at least deserves some harsh epithet such as “bullshitter,” whether he is the Pope, the Ayatollah, a nice-seeming parish priest, or even your charitable and beloved next door neighbor. People can be nice in countless other ways while still undeniably being bullshitters.

No one is all good or all bad, so one can (and should) still deal civilly with such people (they are about 96% of the population, after all, so there isn’t much alternative, at least at this early point in history). At some point, though, given the thousands of years in which their lies/errors have reigned, they deserve to be called on their nonsense, not just for the sake of civilization (which may well perish in nuclear-armed religious conflict one of these days, regardless of the past complicity of science and atheism in other massacres), nor just to allow me to go through the day with less annoyance, but for the sake of their own morally and epistemologically stunted characters. It’s surely not psychologically healthy (or at least not psychologically and rationally optimal) to live on a steady diet of lies/errors, even to love those lies/errors — though regardless of whether it is healthy, it is even more important to note that it is not moral to repeat and transmit the lies/errors, and moralistic religious folk should be the first to worry about their complicity in untruths.

“But I’m sincere!” objects the true-believing religionist. Yes, but, again, you also know how groundless your religious assertions are, and you keep making them anyway. This behavior, though commonplace, is quite simply despicable. Now, I will not deny that you are partly self-deluded as opposed to simply other-deluding, and this arguably makes you less vicious than a conventional liar (you hurt yourself most). Nonetheless, you owe it to yourself and to your fellow humans to start loving truth more than your favorite narratives, worldviews, sentiments, and illusions. In short: you’re fortunate enough to have a brain, so start using it for one of its most important basic functions, accurate perception, not just the maintenance of your current formula for emotional equilibrium.

How Stupid Are We?

I suspect that many, many poor mental habits of humanity — not just ones specific to religious ideation — could be improved if people were not in effect trained from an early age to believe that doubt, critical analysis, and skepticism are bad, while maintaining even implausible beliefs is the most noble thing in the world. Is it not obvious how this could teach bad intellectual habits with ramifications for politics, deference to authority, gullibility before con men, wishful thinking, and the like?

As with the aforementioned people who charge atheists with being reductionists (because the accusers cannot imagine finding beauty in the universe if it’s made of molecules and chemicals), I think most religious people are religious for the simple reason that they lack imagination. It is no coincidence that artists often have unorthodox religious views or that smart people are often heretical or apostate in some way. Religionists may not clearly be stupider than the non-religious, but there’s no denying they are typically less able to imagine alternatives to the traditional narratives about life and the universe.

While the non-religious person might be able to see the diverse intellectual pathways by which one might end up atheist, Christian, pagan, Muslim, etc., it is the religious who typically see only a pair of alternatives: “It’s Jesus or alcoholism, and I need to decide which.” “It’s jihad or the complete destruction of Islam and prostration before the West.” “It’s belief in the Bible’s literal truth or complete nihilism and an orgy of violence and despair.” Like someone so blinkered that he can’t imagine any options except his current career path or suicide, you in fact have other options. Let’s explore them without religion’s mind-shackling constraints.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Positivism and Poetry

During that debate featuring Christopher Hitchens that I went to a few weeks ago, about the existence of God, he mentioned in passing that two writers (a British journalist and a Polish/American humorist) had an amusingly succinct debate on the concept of “the Chosen People” that went something like this:

How odd
Of God
To choose
The Jews

To which the equally brief retort was:

Not odd
Of God
Annoy ’im

These poems also serve as a tiny reminder of a fact that seems fairly obvious to me but that is sometimes contested by highly intelligent people on both sides of the religion/anti-religion divide (oddly, to my mind): “God” is not a meaningless word (Hitchens agrees and tried to prevent the moderator from leading the debate down that road at one point, dreading his opponent’s lengthy, praise-filled definition of God).

I don’t think we’d be having conversations like the ones implied by my blog entries this month or comprehending poems like the (highly efficient) ones above if “God” were just some meaningless jibber-jabber along the lines of “abracadabra.” It suggests to most listeners something along the lines of “intelligent creator-force at work in the universe, undergirding existence, possibly shaping morality.” Most everyone agrees on this, I think, regardless of whether anything exists that actually fits that definition or physically could fulfill that role.

But in the first quarter of the twentieth century, around the same time that that first poem was being written — and around the same time that Karl Popper was arguing, basically correctly, that useful claims ought to be in principle testable and falsifiable — some in the philosophical movement called positivism argued that a claim such as “God loves the institution of marriage” is not merely untestable but literally meaningless, since it cannot be tested. They claimed to have no idea what the “God” part of that sentence refers to, since it is nothing that can be detected in observable reality and is therefore, they argued, just noise.

Oddly enough, since this argument seems so resolutely atheist (agnostic?), I have heard essentially the same argument advanced — sometimes by religion-friendly Jewish people (riffing a bit too much, I think, on the traditional idea that God is complex and ambiguous and mysterious) — as a reason that one cannot be an atheist, since you cannot conclusively deny the existence of something that you can’t even pin down and fully describe.

Combining these two positions, Rabbi Sherwin Wine coined the term “ignosticism,” the view that useful debate about God and God’s existence cannot currently occur since we do not have any meaningful definition of the crucial term (my companion at the Hitchens debate, Daniel Radosh, is basically an ignostic, he says, and in a way so is my arch-materialist mathematician friend Chuck Blake).

But despite the vast amounts of brain power that have gone into formulating the positivist/ignostic position, I think it’s as wrong as saying that we cannot understand the sentence “I checked in the closet, and there was no boogeyman.” All words are at least a little ambiguous, as was often noted by Wittgenstein (who coincidentally or not looks a bit like one of this month’s Lolita Bar debaters, math buff John Derbyshire). Wittgenstein, of course, made this point around the same time that the positivists and Popper were doing their respective things (sometimes all in the same room in face to face conversations). Despite the inescapable ambiguity, though, we manage to carry on having mostly-meaningful conversations.

So I say (ambiguously or not): There is no evidence of a God, and therefore God very, very likely does not exist — just like unicorns and the Loch Ness Monster.

If this disqualifies me as a positivist, I can live with that. Incidentally, if some think it strictly speaking disqualifies me as an atheist (since so many people wrongly insist that one must be 100% certain to be an atheist, as if any non-moron is ever 100% certain of anything), that’s fine, too — I don’t care too much about hair-splitting labels. Still no God, folks, which is the important thing.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Retro-Journal: Wacky Anecdotes of Early 1996

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For me, today is February 15, 2008, and the precise midpoint of my “Month Without God” is marked by hearing a lunchtime speech by Father Richard Neuhaus — no coincidence, some of you are probably smugly thinking — but for you, gentle reader, it’s early 1996, and the Retro-Journal offers you a series of largely unconnected anecdotes — unless, as with the Neuhaus speech, you wish to read some cosmic pattern into them:

•I learned that a paleocon member of Jim Kalb’s Tuesday Night Traditionalists discussion group had twice — twice! — been duped by pranksters while at Harvard into bringing containers of his urine to public buildings, thinking they were needed for a psych experiment.

•Though I tried not to eavesdrop, I was reminded that my ABC News officemate Debbie Colloton’s life was in some ways stranger than my own when I overheard her saying that someone she’d hoped to visit would instead be out “boar-hunting with Charro’s best friend.”

•Another Stossel Unit member, Maryanne Connolly, mentioned that she’d once interviewed for the position of David Byrne’s personal assistant but got the impression it’d be a tough job, and I wondered whether it’d entail having to pick up his giant suits at the cleaners.

•Debbie found one of her professors from college in a drunken heap in Central Park and helped get him sobered up.

•The woman I’d been romantically involved with a year earlier, who’d written me in response to my article about Woodstock ’94 in National Review, very nearly joined a Russian Orthodox convent in Jordanville, NY, though she also briefly toyed with the idea of becoming a prostitute. Some of my favorite people don’t like moderation as much as I do.

•I asked out a woman who was not merely black but indeed politely rebuffed me by explaining she’d be away the next week partying with the staff of Soul Train to celebrate the completion of a 7-Up ad in which she played the round-card girl in a boxing match between dueling rappers, which is sufficiently African-American to make this Retro-Journal entry the Official Blog Entry of Black History Month.

•I also went on a few dates with one Indrani Nicodemus, though we didn’t quite click romantically — yet — so more on her when 1999 arrives (yay!).

•I saw the band Echobelly perform in 1996, its lead singer an old friend of my London/Delhi-dwelling “quantum healer” friend, Sangeeta Sahi — who lamented that she’d always thought of the singer, Sonya Aurora Madan, as the one who only thought about boys, makeup, and music when they were kids, while Sonya’s sister Renu and Sangeeta thought about important things like planning to study medicine. We now all judge Echobelly to be important. Note the Smiths influence, by the way (Sonya even had a cat named Morrissey but was too embarrassed to reveal the cat’s name to the real Morrissey one day when he unexpectedly paid a visit).

•In what sounds to me like a good plot for a Lifetime TV-movie, a lesbian DC Comics staffer, I learned, had the odd experience of breaking up with a long-time girlfriend only to have said girlfriend call her from a payphone near a ski slope, having injured her head snowboarding such that she required being nursed back to health by the DC staffer and suffered amnesia about the breakup, causing them (at least for a while) to get back together. (I wonder if any of my exes would fall for it if I showed up on their doorsteps feigning memory loss, not that I would ever do such a thing — I don’t even think “white lies” are acceptable, but that’s an essay for another day. They would probably find it hard to believe I’d been snowboarding, though.)

•I had a dream in which Space: 1999’s Commander Koenig (played by Martin Landau), gripped by abnormally intense aggression, denounced the unwillingness of the Canadian residents of Moonbase Alpha to eat bacon: “They’re Canadians — normally they live for bacon!” he raged.

•A friend of mine, a libertarian but a bit less respectful of property rights when drunk, got hammered during a visit to New York City and in the course of the night stole a glass from one bar, a bathroom plunger from another (???), and finally an orange traffic cone from the roadside, discarding a copy of New York Press (with one of my articles in it) to make room in his coat pockets for the stolen objects. He awoke in his hotel room the next morning to discover that he’d carefully folded the traffic cone in half and put it in his suitcase before passing out. I’m not saying I approve of this, mind you, and he has mellowed considerably in the twelve years since then.

•Daniel Radosh and I were dispatched as dueling left-vs.-right New York Press columnists to write about a Christopher Hitchens vs. Dinesh D’Souza debate on affirmative action (a pair we’d next see debate about religion, as mentioned on this blog just a few months ago), with the two most surprising moments probably being (a) the doubletake that moderator Ed Koch did when Hitchens suggested that “unintended consequences” of regulation could be good, as for instance if gays benefited from the mandating of larger men’s room stalls, and (b) the moment when Daniel and I, ostensible foes, confessed we’d both rather be home watching the Doctor Who TV-movie airing that night — the eighth Doctor’s only televised appearance (each of us taped it, and I haven’t thought of him as part of an enemy camp since).

•I attended my five-year college reunion — and because learning lasts a lifetime, culture I absorbed that half-year included a Kirkpatrick Sale lecture promoting Luddism, an amazing exhibit of Vermeer paintings, and Muppet Treasure Island.

•My friend Dan Greenberg suddenly found himself offered the position of chief policy advisor to the new governor of Arkansas when the Whitewater investigation (which led to numerous arrests, though never quite to those of the thoroughly corrupt Clintons themselves) caused Gov. Jim Guy Tucker to resign and elevated an obscure lieutenant governor named Mike Huckabee to the vacated position.

•Displaying one of my own small efforts to have a political impact, I played my parents a tape of one of the radio monologues I’d done for WFUV radio (about the Bosnian conflict, as I recall), but they were distracted during most of my brief patter by Uber, the family dog, farting, a reminder that there is always competition for the attention of one’s audience.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Valentine’s Day or not, here’s something to love.

Just one of four major nerd films coming in May (Fridays that month bringing Iron Man, Speed Racer, Prince Caspian, and this).

What could top that? Only the first eight days of May 2009, currently scheduled to bring Wolverine, Watchmen, and J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek.

I’m thinking see ’em all in one day…

Valentine's Day: Bringing Together Books and People

I decided to turn February into a “Month Without God” largely because four books dealing with God or godlessness all came my way at about the same time (the fact that I’ll also hear Father Richard Neuhaus of First Things magazine speak tomorrow and might even end up, for the first time in my life, at a performance by an explicitly Christian band afterwards is simply a further coincidence, caused by the conservative Phillips Foundation).  Those four books are my February Book Selections, and two of them turned out to be connected in a small way.

Atheist Manifesto by Michel Onfray was given to me by manga-publishing friend Ali Kokmen, and I decided to review it together with the anthology of dark and godless Lovecraft tales I’d bought months earlier, thinking this would enable me to branch out a bit instead of reviewing more books created by my own acquaintances — but, after making that decision, I noticed that the beautiful, horrific cover of the Lovecraft anthology was designed by none other than Michelle Gengaro — Ali’s wife!  A religious person might see in this some divine plan, but I think it’s merely the sort of coincidence bound to happen from time to time in the tiny, incestuous world of New York media.  Still, whether forces divine, dark, or random brought me into indirect contact with Ali and Michelle near-simultaneously, I dedicate this blog entry to them and wish them a happy Valentine’s Day.

These two are perfect examples, as it happens, of how nice the heathen can be.  Two of the nicest, most wonderful human beings I’ve ever encountered, neither is a strict adherent of the family faith, Ali being half Turkish on his father’s side (and half Japanese on his mother’s) but brought up (in Minnesota) neither Muslim nor, on the other hand, possessed of animosity toward religion — and Michelle brought up Catholic (in Queens) but with enough perspective on the implausibility of religion as an adult to say, “If you can believe in that, you can pretty much believe in anything.”  Again, that’s not an angry fist in the air or the creation of a rival, black-flag-waving creed but a healthy, humorous skepticism of the sort that the entire world needs.  Ali’s late father used to say that despite his Muslim background, he’d enjoy being pope and that his first edict to the faithful would be “You’re on your own!”  (An offhand reference to the anagrammatic “Galactic Pope Nokmek” in the Justice League Showcase comic book story I wrote was a tip of the hat to Ali and his dad.)

And I don’t mean to count Ali and Michelle as clear-cut atheists, I should add.  At a wonderful party years ago in honor of their daughter’s birth (perhaps the only time I’ve ever worn in public the fez that Dan Greenberg and Marjorie Leong gave me), Ali read a genuinely poetic passage from the comic book Watchmen (written by Alan Moore, himself a half-serious, anarchist worshipper of an ancient faux-snake-deity) in which the nigh-omnipotent Dr. Manhattan recognizes a beautiful, seemingly non-random orderliness to the universe.

Too, Ali has tended to enjoy the ecumenical spirit of things like the sci-fi show Babylon 5 — with its bustling future world of cultural and commercial exchange — more than stark materialism or angry confrontation and rebellion.  There are, as his example suggests, plenty of gentle, polite secular folk in the world (and plenty of people made crazy and vicious by faith), so, again, I simply don’t buy the theory that we have to maintain these ancient illusions to keep people moral or civil — though at the same time, I can see the wisdom in disillusioning people of faith cautiously, quietly, peacefully, and without mockery or heated conflict.

Push too hard against faith and you get something like Vox Day’s The Irrational Atheist as a retort — and indeed, one of my fellow Phillips Fellows (part of that group that gathers to hear Neuhaus and others tomorrow) suggested to Day, right around the time I was deciding to review Onfray and Lovecraft, that I was an atheist reviewer worth sending a copy of the book to (my thanks to both of them for taking that risk).

And no sooner had I decided to review Onfray, Day, and Lovecraft together than this month’s fourth Book Selection, The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (which happens to be about Jesuits having a faith-shaking encounter with aliens on another planet, as I’ll explain in about a week and a half) was recommended to me by the lovely Sarah Federman.