The Contributions of Freethinkers: Wole Soyinka

I wasn't familiar with Wole Soyinka, the first African author ever to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, until I got a Google alert for his name the other day. You can probably guess why - it turns out he's an atheist, as I learned from this article in the Nigerian Tribune grousing about it:

Although I might not be able to quote him verbatim, Professor Soyinka had replied thus. "The reason why I don't believe in God is simple. I simply cannot imagine that somebody (emphasis mine) will be responsible for the action of billions of people. I think everybody should be held responsible for his actions and inaction."

That I was taken aback by his response was to say the least. How on earth could Professor Soyinka give such an absymally poor answer? However, since Professor Soyinka has stirred the hornets' nest, I will like him to answer the following questions: Who is responsible for the phenomenon of sleeping and wakefulness? What about the mystery of day and night; who is in control?

As simple as this may sound, can the Professor explain the process of hair growth on his head? Who created him or even if he is a believer in the evolution school of thought, who created that creature that he evolved from? Who created all the wonderful things we see around us - the mountains, valleys, oceans seas etc. What about the phenomenon of birth and death?

The ignorant writer of this column, so blinkered by his own worldview, can't even conceive that an atheist's answer to these questions doesn't involve a "who". Nor is it a surprise that he has no counterargument to offer, other than an exceptionally shoddy presentation of the god-of-the-gaps argument.

But religious griping aside, Wole Soyinka is a man we should be proud to claim as one of our own. In addition to his prodigious poetic and literary output, he's consistently been a champion of peace and democracy. During the Nigerian civil war that began in 1967, he was imprisoned for 22 months for writing an article that called for a cease-fire. Later, in the 1990s, he spoke out against the military dictatorship of Sani Abacha (who was tied to "The Family", the right-wing American political group). The Abacha regime responded by convicting Soyinka of treason in absentia and sentencing him to death, forcing him to flee the country. (He returned to Nigeria in 1999 when civilian rule was reinstated, and continues to write muckraking articles about rampant political corruption.) His Nobel acceptance speech was devoted to Nelson Mandela and was a strong critique of the apartheid South African regime.

I also came across an interview Soyinka did with Free Inquiry, titled "Why I Am a Secular Humanist". Some excerpts:

Humanism for me represents taking the human entity as the center of world perception, of social organization and indeed of ethics, deciding in other words what is primarily of the greatest value for humans as opposed to some remote extraterrestrial or ideological authority. And so from that point of view, I consider myself a humanist.

I have nothing but contempt for religions that kill in the name of piety.... If they believe passionately in their deity, they should reserve to that deity the authority to exact vengeance. They shouldn't make themselves the instrument of imagined wrongs. That applies to any religion, it applies to the insanity between the Hindus and the Muslims in India, to the Jewish extremists in Israel. It applies to any kind of religion in the world.

Are there other African freethinkers I should know about? Post your suggestions in the comments!

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September 30, 2011, 5:49 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink17 comments

Photo Sunday: Barcelona

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August 7, 2011, 10:46 am • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink1 comment

Photo Sunday: Seville

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July 10, 2011, 2:24 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink0 comments

Photo Sunday: Toledo

More pictures from my Spanish trip. Click the link below to see:


June 19, 2011, 2:37 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink2 comments

You Call That Religion?

This is a guest post by Leah of Unequally Yoked. Adam is on vacation.

Spoiler Alert: the post below discusses the final number of the musical The Book of Mormon.

The Associated Press, in a review titled "Zany Musical 'The Book of Mormon' Will Convert You" said despite the sacrilege you might expect from a show imagined by the creators of South Park, the production was ultimately "pro-religion."  Or, more precisely:

Ultimately, believe it or not, this is a pro-religion musical, or at least a story about the uplifting power of stories. Far from being nihilistic, the moral seems to endorse any belief system — no matter how crazy it sounds — if it helps do good. Amen to that. Consider us converted.

It's not often that atheists have occasion to make common cause with fundamentalists, but the increasingly diffuse definition of religion the AP and others are using is actually bad for both sides.  For religious people, the danger is clear enough: the vague moral therapeutic deism embraced by these dull heretics offers an out from every hard teaching or structure of religious authority.

At the end of the show, the Mormon missionaries have strayed from their theology but decide to stick around to offer what comfort they can to the African village they've tried to convert.  When their doctrine doesn't fit the situation, they just change it around or invent new scriptures to lend weight to their moral intuitions.  In the finale number ("Tomorrow is a Latter Day"), they proudly preach their new, flexible dogma:

I am a Latter Day Saint!

I help all those I can.

I see my friends through times of joy and sorrow.

Who cares what happens when we're dead?

We shouldn't think that far ahead.

The only Latter Day that matters is tomorrow!

Now, I hate to ever end up on the same side as David Brooks ("Creed or Chaos" 4/21/11), but we atheists are also hurt by this spiritual movement.  Defining the diffuse but well-meant spirituality of the schismatic Mormons in the finale as essentially religious leaves atheists out in the cold.  If a general desire to do good for others, divorced from any creed or Authority is limited to religion, it's no wonder that so many Americans doubt that atheists have any moral inclinations and are therefore unwilling to vote us into public office.

Christians steeped in orthodoxy complain that too many of their brothers and sisters in Christ are substituting their own judgement for God's.  They're correct, and we atheists ought to work to get these so-called Christians to own up to it.  The Brits were right on with their "If You're Not Religious, For God's Sake Say So!" campaign to encourage nonbelievers to identify as atheists on the census; weakly-affiliated parishoners boost the numbers and credibility of creeds they no longer profess.

We end up on the same team as the defenders of the faith; we're pushing people to pick a side.  While they offer apologetics, we're trying to heighten the contradictions and get people to admit that they've already concluded their faith is untenable, they just need to come out and say it.  Moral Therapeutic Deism lets believers shrug off all the challenging or horrifying aspects of their faith; it gives them permission to be lazy thinkers.

The broad definitions of religion and spirituality supported by Book of Mormon and confirmed by the Associated Press may help to degrade religion, reducing it to a social gathering instead of a spiritual communion, but that kind of victory is ultimately bad for our cause.  It leaves us no room to develop and offer a compelling atheist philosophy and morality.

May 28, 2011, 9:56 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink8 comments

Photo Saturday: Ai Weiwei's Zodiac Circle

This past week, on a sunny spring day, I went on my lunch hour to see a new public art installation in midtown Manhattan:

Zodiac Heads
Zodiac Heads Zodiac Heads
Zodiac Heads Zodiac Heads

This exhibit, "Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads", is noteworthy for being created by the internationally famous Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. After being chosen to design the "Bird's Nest" stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, he was considered a national hero; but when he used that prominent platform to speak out against government corruption and censorship, the thuggish despots who rule China abruptly did an about-face.

At the beginning of April, Ai Weiwei was disappeared by the Chinese government, and his status and whereabouts have been unknown since then in spite of an international campaign calling for his release. Nevertheless, the exhibits he had designed and planned before his arrest continue to be unveiled all over the world, often with pointed jabs at China during the ceremonies. (At the unveiling of this one, a curator at the Guggenheim read an apt quote: "Without freedom of speech there is no modern world, just a barbaric one.")

These sculptures represent the twelve animals of the Chinese Zodiac, but their somewhat generic appearance hides a pointed message. I've read that they're a deliberate homage to twelve similar sculptures which were once part of a famous fountain on the grounds of the Chinese imperial family's Summer Palace, but which were stolen when the complex was looted, sacked and burned by the British and French during the Second Opium War of 1860. Only five have since been returned to China; two others have been found, but the owner has refused to repatriate them.

With this history in mind, the exhibit is a subtle statement about the harm done by imperialism. But under the present circumstances, it's possible to discern another layer of meaning in it. The absence of the original sculptures was and is a long-remembered symbol of Chinese national humiliation. In their new incarnations, they more powerfully call attention to the absence of their creator - and remind the world of the shame and ignominy the current Chinese government has brought upon itself through its outrageous arrogance in believing that it can control all human expression through brutality.

May 14, 2011, 9:19 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink10 comments

Saturday Open Thread: Random and Interesting

After all the heavy stuff we debated on the site this week, I figure it's time for a change of pace. And since it's the weekend, let's celebrate with something to lighten the heart and lift the spirit.

This is an open thread for you to tell us about something cool and interesting you've come across lately - music, books, art, movies, food, whatever - something that makes you happy and that you think more people should know about. It doesn't have to be new, just new to you!

I'll start out by sharing a band I discovered: the English folk rock group Mumford & Sons. I heard one of their singles on the radio and liked it enough to download their debut album, Sigh No More, and I'm very happy I did. I love this album; I can sit and listen to the whole thing in one sitting, and I very rarely find a band I like enough to do that. If you like any of these tracks (or if you're a fan of electric banjo), I guarantee you'll love the rest of the album. (One or two songs, I have to admit, are slightly goddy, but I can easily overlook that with something this good.)

Now it's your turn. What do you want to share with the world?

April 16, 2011, 9:32 am • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink18 comments

The Contributions of Freethinkers: Ursula K. LeGuin

Although I've highlighted the lives of some amazing feminists on Daylight Atheism, I don't want to give the impression that the only thing women can be famous for is fighting for the rights of women. Today's post is a reminder that freethinking women have made their mark in other areas of human culture as well.

Science fiction and fantasy have always been heavily male-dominated fields of literature. A 1966 reader poll of sci-fi's greatest novels didn't list a single entry written by a woman, and a similar 1973 poll of readers' all-time favorite authors included only two women - one of whom, Andre Norton, wrote under a masculine-sounding name. But some women have made their mark in spite of this, and it's the other one on that list whom this post is about.

Ursula Kroeber Le Guin was born in Berkeley, California in 1929, the daughter of an anthropologist and a writer. She was interested in fiction from a precocious age, writing one of her first short stories at the age of 11, but her career as an author truly took off in her early 30s. Among her first notable novels were the Earthsea books, a fantasy series about a magical world consisting of a vast archipelago of islands.

I read these in high school, long before I knew about any of Le Guin's other works, and while they held my interest enough for me to complete the original trilogy, I wasn't greatly impressed. The books seemed so stodgy and fatalistic; and while I didn't fully realize it until much later, this may have been in part because of the viewpoints their author had absorbed from the cultural milieu. The protagonist, the wizard Ged, is a man, and the books go out of their way to stress that women's magic is despised; one of the proverbs of Earthsea is "Weak as women's magic, wicked as women's magic." (Some of her later short stories set in Earthsea go a long way toward redressing this balance.)

But I went back to Le Guin later in life, and I'm very glad I did. Many of her other novels are outstanding, and some of my particular favorites include:

Le Guin's noves have attracted widespread acclaim. Both The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards, as did a third book, The Word for World is Forest. Le Guin herself was named "Grand Master of Science Fiction" by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, one of only three women to win that honor, in addition to a host of other awards. But most telling of all, perhaps, is the recognition she's received from her fellow authors. One of her novels' hallmarks is a technology called the "ansible", which allows for instantaneous communication across any distance, transcending the light-speed limit. Many other sci-fi authors have used the term in their own books as an homage, implicitly paying respect to her influence.

Le Guin's later works consistently espouse a feminist viewpoint, as well as making it a point in each one to include a person of color as one of the main characters. And best of all, although some SF/F writers are raving religious bigots, this one is a bona fide freethinker. In 2009, she accepted an Emperor Has No Clothes Award from the Freedom from Religion Foundation, which honors public figures who tell it like it is about religion. In her acceptance speech, she said:

Now, I honestly do not think all the tailors who have made those clothes, that God-costume, so busily, for all these centuries, did it or do it deliberately and knowingly as a con game, to deceive us. Maybe in part, but mostly I think the people who sew the garments of God are busy deceiving themselves. Priests, of course, can make a good living out of it and also gain secular power. But lay believers weave those garments day and night, all over the world, and to some of them it is the most important thing they do, and they love doing it. That’s fine with me, so long as they don’t try to make me do it with them.

...Let the tailors of the garments of God sit in their tailor shops and stitch away, but let them stay there in their temples, out of government, out of the schools. And we who live among real people — real, badly dressed people, people wearing rags, people wearing army uniforms, people sleeping on our streets without a blanket to cover them —let us have true charity: Let us look to our people, and work to clothe them better.

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March 25, 2011, 5:53 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink15 comments

Movie Review: Agora

When I wrote my review of Creation last year, a commenter suggested I see Agora, the 2009 film by Alejandro Amenábar about Hypatia of Alexandria. It took me a long time to get around to doing that, but I've finally seen it, and it was worth the wait. It only had a very limited theatrical release in the U.S., but if you have Netflix or similar, I strongly encourage you to see it.

Agora is set in Alexandria, Egypt, in the late fourth century CE. Egypt is a Roman province in this age, and Alexandria is one of its crown jewels: polyglot, multicultural, an important maritime port, and a center of pagan learning and philosophy. One of its foremost citizens is Hypatia (played by Rachel Weisz), a female philosopher who's heir to the Greek intellectual tradition and renowned for her expertise in mathematics, physics and astronomy. Famous and influential men from throughout the province come to her academy to attend her lectures and demonstrations. As beautiful as she is brilliant, she also attracts her share of admirers, including her slave Davus (Max Minghella) and one of her students, Orestes (Oscar Isaac), who later becomes the provincial governor.

But in Hypatia's time, the Roman Empire is changing rapidly. Christianity, once a despised and outlawed sect, has converted the emperor and is rapidly growing in numbers and power. Its preachers, especially the murderous fanatic Cyril (Sami Samir) aren't shy about exerting their newfound authority: against the city's Jews; against the philosophers, whom they view as idol-worshipping adherents of a degenerate pagan tradition; and especially against women who defy their biblically ordained role by speaking in public and teaching men. The confrontation between Hypatia and Orestes on one hand and Cyril on the other comes inevitably to a head, and though I won't give any spoilers, if you know about the historical Hypatia, you probably have some idea of how it ends.

Although the script takes some liberties, which is only to be expected, I was surprised by how closely it sticks to historical fact: including Hypatia's close relationship with the governor Orestes, the amazing-but-true fact that one of her pupils, Synesius, later became a Christian bishop, and the memorably revolting way she rejects a potential suitor. Also, if you expect to see the Library of Alexandria engulfed in flames, think again: our best accounts say that it was destroyed before Hypatia's time, and the movie accurately reflects this. (Hypatia and the other philosophers live and teach in another building, a pagan temple/academy called the Serapeum.)

The biggest departure from history is its depiction of Hypatia as on the verge of proving the heliocentric theory of the solar system. As Richard Carrier points out in his review (some spoilers), the real Hypatia wouldn't have been as empirically minded as this - she belonged to a philosophical school that largely disdained experimentation, although there's no doubt that she was a gifted mathematician and astronomer, and all the theoretical pieces were in place in the philosophies of the time for experiments like the ones she's shown to perform.

The movie also hints that she was an atheist, which the real Hypatia wouldn't have been. However, Agora isn't by any means a black-and-white, Christianity-versus-science polemic. The pagan philosophers are depicted as just as vengeful, violent, and touchy about insults to their religion as the Christians were, and it's clear that Cyril's hatred of Hypatia used her science only as a pretext; the real reason for his antipathy is as a way to hurt his political rival, Orestes. And vicious as he is, he isn't treated as representative of all of Christianity - other Christian characters, such as Synesius, are on Hypatia's side.

Nevertheless, without treating all Christians as evil, the film subtly and powerfully conveys how the immoralities of Christian theology made this story and many others like it inevitable. There's a brutally effective scene in which Cyril boxes in both Orestes and Synesius by reading from the Bible the verses forbidding a woman to teach or have authority over a man, and demanding that they kneel and swear faith in scripture (implicitly denouncing Hypatia).

Although my wife and I both loved this movie, the reviews were decidedly mixed, which I think is because it confused critics' expectations by breaking with convention. In the beginning, it seems the script is setting up a love triangle between Hypatia, Davus and Orestes - but Hypatia herself never expresses any interest, and that aspect of the story is dropped when the political conflict begins. (Just think, a female character who's not depicted as primarily interested in romance! That's a daring departure from Hollywood orthodoxy, even if the film unfortunately doesn't pass the Bechdel test due to its lack of any other women.)

All in all, this was a beautiful, tragic story that's all the more powerful for being essentially true. Carl Sagan once wrote that, if not for the descent of the religious dark ages that crushed rational inquiry and stifled human progress, we might have reached the stars hundreds of years ago. Agora is a moving testament to that, and a reminder of how much we lost and how long it's taken to regain it. More than that, it's a tribute to the life of an extraordinary woman, and a celebration of the rational principles that she defended and that have always stood for what's best in humanity. If you have the chance to see it, you won't be disappointed.

March 21, 2011, 5:41 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink72 comments

Movie Review: The Nature of Existence

(Author's Note: The following review was solicited and is written in accordance with this site's policy for such reviews.)

Summary: The documentary equivalent of World Religions 101. Not much new ground is broken in this broad survey of the world's major belief systems - although there are a few interesting surprises - but what made me happier was the fair hearing given to the atheist and scientific viewpoint in areas that have traditionally been considered the exclusive property of faith.

In The Nature of Existence, filmmaker Roger Nygard embarks on a quest to ask everyone he comes across a set of profound questions about the meaning of life, the nature of morality, the existence of a soul or an afterlife, and so on. Starting in California, he crosses the country from Texas and Alabama to New York and Boston, stopping to speak with the people he meets along the way. These interviews tend to have more of a rambling, spontaneous character. The second half of the film, where he embarks on a globe-trotting trip to England, Vatican City, Israel, China and India with the intent of meeting representatives of some of the world's major religions, is more structured and, I thought, tighter and more interesting.

There are a few instances where a hint of skepticism comes through, like the segment where Nygard tries to set up a meeting with the Pope, and is told that His Holiness will be happy to talk with him for 20 or 30 minutes... in exchange for a donation of $20,000. But for the most part, the interviews are friendly and non-confrontational; Nygard asks his subject a question and lets them say whatever they want, generally without commenting on their answer, before moving on to the next segment. For the most part, these interviews don't break new ground. Anyone who's familiar with the religions his interviewees represent will probably know in advance what they're going to say, although there are a few surprises.

There were a few things about his choice of subjects that annoyed me. As PZ points out, the vast majority of religious interviewees are men - a phenomenon that Nygard doesn't seem to notice, much less speculate on the reasons for. (The two notable exceptions, a pastor's wife and a lesbian minister at a GBLT-friendly church in Texas, are the kind that prove the rule.) And although no one interview monopolizes the film, he gives a comparatively large amount of screen time to some of his least interesting and most odious subjects, like a belligerent, sex-obsessed preacher named Brother Jed or the raving homophobe and anti-atheist bigot Orson Scott Card. There are Christians whose views are genuinely interesting, some of whom are also present in the film, but these two aren't among them.

However, there's more to the film than just training a camera on bigots and crazies and letting them talk. I was happy to see, unusual for a documentary of this nature, that the scientific perspective is treated fairly and respectfully and presented on equal footing with religious beliefs. Freethought stalwarts like Julia Sweeney, Michael Shermer, Richard Dawkins and Ann Druyan are prominent among Nygard's subjects, and the film benefits greatly from their presence. When he asks Ann Druyan how she finds happiness, she gives a hilarious, and no doubt destined to be legendary, answer that I won't spoil here (but I'll discuss it in the comment thread if anyone really wants to know). Another of my favorites was the Oxford scientist who said that if he wanted to be rich, he'd write a book with a title like "How Particle Physics Proves the Existence of God" that would be total scientific nonsense, but would sell a million copies and enable him to retire in comfort.

But I think my favorite interview, hands down, was Nygard's talk with his neighbor's 12-year-old daughter. She's bluntly honest, smart as a whip, and an unapologetic atheist! Hearing her discuss her views was worth the price of admission all by itself, and was more intrinsically interesting than any number of shots of the filmmaker climbing the steps of yet another ancient temple.

There was one question that Nygard didn't ask, and that I found conspicuous by its absence: "How do you know that?" He doesn't inquire into how his subjects acquired the knowledge they claim to possess, and all the clergy, all the gurus and monks and hermits and shamans and so on, are permitted to pontificate about God, souls, the afterlife, and so on without challenge. I can see the point that this is giving them enough rope to hang themselves, that the more you know about all the world's enormous diversity of religious traditions, the more difficult it is to believe that any one of them is true to the exclusion of all the rest. But still, it would have been beneficial to contrast the claimed sources of religious knowledge with the tested methods of science and reason. It would have been a most helpful comparison in assisting the film's audience to make up their own minds about who's most credible.

February 18, 2011, 6:44 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink7 comments

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