Some Sad News

I'm saddened to report the passing of David Randolph. He was 95 years old.

Mr. Randolph was a renowned conductor and choral director, a fixture in the New York music scene for decades. He was known for hosting a weekly classical music program on WNYC, for teaching music at several local universities, and for a critically praised book, This Is Music. However, he's best known as the conductor of the secular St. Cecilia Chorus, which he had led since 1965 (!). He was also an outspoken freethinker and atheist who, ironically, also held the record for the most lifetime performances of Handel's Messiah.

I first heard of David Randolph when I heard Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor interview him on Freethought Radio in 2007. Despite his advanced age (he was 92 at the time), he had a deep, resonant voice that still seemed full of life and vigor. The interview intrigued me, and I made it a point soon after to get tickets to one of his performances at Carnegie Hall, and I'm very happy I did. I went back several times and saw him conduct one of his famous Messiahs, as well as Verdi's Requiem, which I wrote about in 2008.

I had the privilege of meeting him in person in 2009, at a luncheon held by the FFRF in New York City in his honor. (That's also where I met my esteemed co-author Sarah Braasch, so you can thank David Randolph for her posting here!) When I saw him up close, I was a bit surprised. I hadn't been expecting a small, stooped old man, with owlish eyes and wispy tufts of gray hair - but that deep and powerful conductor's voice was the same as ever. I offered to shake hands with him, but he politely explained that at his age, he was too concerned about catching colds. He bumped elbows with me instead. He ultimately passed away from complications from pneumonia, so that was probably a wise policy.

Mr. Randolph died peacefully at his home in Manhattan in May, just before my wedding, although I didn't hear about it until I read it in this month's Freethought Today. The New York Times also has an obituary, and the New York Public Library has posted the last-ever interview with him, taped in March.

While I mourn David Randolph's passing, I can't be too saddened for too long. I can only hope to have a life so long and rich as his, and to spend it doing what I love until just before my death, as he did. A life so well-lived deserves to be celebrated, not excessively grieved. I'll miss him, but I'm happy that we had him!

July 10, 2010, 12:06 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink3 comments

Book Review: The Atheist's Creed

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

Summary: A scholarly survey of the atheism of dead white guys.

Much like Christopher Hitchens' The Portable Atheist, Dr. Michael Palmer's The Atheist's Creed is intended as an anthology of atheist thought from historical to modern times. Beginning with the ancient Greeks, Palmer traces the development of atheist thought to the European Enlightenment, then branches out into selections by historical and modern writers that explore atheist views on morality, theodicy, miracle claims, and assorted theological arguments for the existence of God. In each chapter, he provides a brief overview of the subject matter, then goes on to quote extended excerpts from the writing of various historical personages on that topic. Not all of the authors showcased here claimed to be atheists themselves; but the ones who didn't, like Thomas Paine and David Hume, made important arguments that laid the path for later freethinkers to follow.

I'll start with what I liked about the book, which is that Palmer is clearly in full command of his subject material. The earlier chapters, in my opinion, were the strongest. His chapter on the Greek philosophers, like Epicurus, Lucretius and Sextus Empiricus, was excellent: he shows where their views sprang from, how they defended them to contemporaries, and recounts some interesting historical facts I hadn't known. I can offer similar praise for his chapter on the Enlightenment philosophers, which shows how these freethinkers were surprisingly bold and daring in an era still dominated by medieval church hierarchies. (This book gave me a desire to read more about the Baron d'Holbach, who fearlessly claimed the title of "atheist" for himself and who nurtured many other renowned freethinkers at his famous salons. It may have been the only time in history that so many remarkable minds were under one roof!)

With all that said, I have two major criticisms to lodge against this book: one that's about what's not there, and one that's about what is. I'll start with the latter.

First: The later chapters of the book, which concern atheism in the 19th and early 20th centuries, give pride of place to the writings of Freud, Marx, and especially Nietzsche. While Palmer praises all three of them effusively, he fails to note clearly that subsequent science has thrown all their signature ideas into grave doubt: Freud's belief in suppressed sex drives as the cause of all psychological illness, Marx's belief in the inevitability and the desirability of communist triumph, and Nietzsche's ideas of eternal recurrence and opposition to evolution. None of these people command much respect among the modern atheist movement for that very reason - not to mention the near-universal modern rejection of Nietzsche's bizarre and disturbing nihilism. It's here that the book's uncertainty of purpose is most apparent: is it intended as an anthology of historical atheism or a compendium of things that modern atheists do believe or should believe? Its overall organization suggests the latter, not the former, which is why I think all three of these were poor choices.

Second: I really have to point out that, of the twenty-seven anthologized essays that fill out this book, every single one of them was written by a white male of European descent. I criticized The Portable Atheist for not including nearly enough women, but it's a parade of diversity compared to the selections here.

Now, I don't have a bright-line rule for this kind of thing. I don't insist that every anthology contain set percentages of women and minorities. But in a book like this one, one that's intended to contain a representative selection of atheist thought through the ages, how is it possible that not a single woman was included? Not a single person from outside Europe and the United States?

I don't think anyone would argue that there are no prominent atheists who fit that description. There are plenty of smart, eloquent female freethinkers, both then and now; there are nonbelievers from all cultures and continents. The only way to account for their otherwise inexplicable exclusion from this book is the sort of unconscious bias that the atheist movement still has to do a lot of work to overcome. Female freethinkers and atheists of color exist; their contributions are real and should be acknowledged, and their history deserves to be better known. Regrettably, this book doesn't advance either of those aims.

June 14, 2010, 5:47 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink10 comments

Movie Review: Creation

Last night I had a chance to see Creation, the independent film by British director Jon Amiel that presents an account of the life of Charles Darwin and his struggle to write his great work, On the Origin of Species, while mourning the death of his beloved daughter Annie. The movie is based on Annie's Box, the biography of Darwin written by his great-great-grandson, Randal Keynes.

The movie opens promisingly, with Darwin's eldest daughter Annie asking him to tell her a story. He obliges her by describing how Robert FitzRoy, captain of the H.M.S. Beagle, kidnapped four children from the "savages" of Tierra del Fuego and brought them to England to be raised as Christians. On the Beagle's second voyage (the one Darwin joined as ship's naturalist), FitzRoy returned the children to their tribe with the intent of having them act as missionaries, but the outcome wasn't at all what he had expected. (This is a true story, if you were wondering.)

Back at Down House, Darwin's home in the English countryside, he's visited by his friends Joseph Hooker and Thomas Huxley. Both of them are aware of the theory Darwin has been working on for years, and both of them urge him to collect and publish all his research. Huxley, a firebrand agnostic, is gleeful at the prospect of striking a fatal blow against religious orthodoxy, while Hooker is less anti-clerical and motivated more by what he sees as the scientific merit of the idea. Darwin himself is conflicted, recognizing his theory's potential to undermine religious belief, but far less certain that this would be a good thing. As the movie goes on to show, this is due mainly to the influence of his staunchly Christian wife, Emma.

As the backstory expands, we learn more about why Darwin has delayed publishing his theory for so many years. He's been grappling with a mysterious illness that renders him an invalid for long periods; his family life is increasingly strained and his wife increasingly distant; but most important, we find out, is the death of Annie. She died at the age of ten, and her absence still hangs like a shadow over the household. Of all Darwin's children, she was his favorite, and he's wracked by grief over her passing and tormented by the thought that he was somehow responsible. In repeated flashbacks, we see his affection for her, her budding talent as an amateur naturalist, and her clashes with her mother and the local vicar as she begins to speak up for her own father more passionately than he ever did for himself. Her spirit still haunts Darwin - literally, as she pops up throughout the movie, whether as memory, ghost or hallucination, to converse and at times to argue with him as he puts off writing and agonizes over whether to set pen to paper. Of course, we know how this story ends!

If there's anything I didn't like about Creation, it was its tendency to veer into melodrama. The middle third of the movie seemed overwrought to me, in particular an especially silly nightmare sequence where Darwin dreams that his stuffed and pickled lab specimens come alive and attack him. And while Darwin's imagined conversations with Annie's ghost were acceptable as a narrative device, it got excessive in some places. There's more than enough genuine dramatic gold in the historical details of Darwin's grief over his daughter's death, his struggling with his loss of faith, and his clashes with his devout wife over whether he was jeopardizing his eternal fate by publishing his theory. And the movie did touch on all those points, but I really don't think it was necessary to have a scene where Darwin dashes through the grounds of Down House, shouting out to a hallucination of Annie, while his servants look on in horror. The movie also makes very frequent use of flashbacks, and at times I found it hard to tell whether a scene was supposed to be occurring in the present or the past.

That said, there was much to like about the movie as well. It was extremely well cast: Paul Bettany, who plays Charles Darwin, gives a brilliant, deeply human depiction of a man who is tormented, fallible, but bears a deep love for his family and a fierce devotion to the truth. Jennifer Connelly, Bettany's actual wife, is fully believable as the straitlaced Emma, who loves and fears for her husband but ultimately comes around, to an extent, to his point of view. ("You have made me an accomplice," she says in one of the movie's most memorable lines.) Jeremy Northam, who plays the local reverend, serves as a dramatic foil to Darwin in some extremely effective scenes. And Martha West, who plays Annie, is a treasure.

The movie was also gorgeously shot, giving a strong sense of time and place to the story. The scenes of nature, whether in Darwin's cabin on the Beagle or the forests of the English countryside, were well chosen to complement Darwin's unfolding ideas and to give a sense of where he got his inspirations. And it was a very smart touch to have Bettany narrate parts of the story by reading actual passages from Origin of Species. Charles Darwin wrote some true poetry, and his words are mesmerizing when spoken aloud.

The last third or so of the movie was especially powerful, with some outstanding scenes that more than made up for the weaker ones earlier on. When Darwin pleads in prayer for Annie's life, there wasn't a dry eye in the theater, including mine. And that, I think, is Creation's greatest strength: it shows Darwin not as a stuffy, gray-bearded scientist or a Christian-hating polemicist, but as a human being, a father and husband, who's deeply conflicted about what he's about to unleash on the world but ultimately must go ahead because of his devotion to the truth. This nuanced, sympathetic portrayal of Charles Darwin the man could be just the kind of thing we need to increase public acceptance of his theory (and if you need any further proof, consider that the Christian reviewers loathed it). If this is a subject that appeals to you, Creation is definitely worth your time to see.

February 6, 2010, 10:25 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink20 comments

Losing Their Religion

I recently finished Daniel Radosh's Rapture Ready!, a book exploring Christian pop culture and some of its stranger manifestations, from theme parks like Florida's Holy Land Experience to the Ultimate Christian Wrestling pro circuit (no joke). But one event that he paid special attention to was Cornerstone, a Woodstock-like Christian music festival held each year in Illinois that routinely draws hundreds of acts and tens of thousands of people. According to Radosh, Cornerstone had a more open, authentic feeling than most of the events and festivals he attended, and was more welcoming of different perspectives than other Christian gatherings where all attendees are expected to march in lockstep with the religious right's political platform.

Radosh had this to say about the person whom he felt best summed up the Cornerstone ethic:

If there is a quintessential Cornerstone artist, it is probably David Bazan, who played the festival for the better part of a decade with the band Pedro the Lion. Among the qualities that made Bazan such an important figure here was not only the depth of his talent, but the fact that he actually had more credibility in the secular world than the Christian one. Bazan had been raised in a strict Pentecostal household, but had grown into the kind of Christian who treasures the Jesus who freed his followers from religious rules. In the book Body Piercing Saved My Life [get it? —Ebonmuse], Bazan describes his Cornerstone gigs - one of his last remaining attachments to the Christian culture industry - as missionary work... [p.175]

However, he did note that Bazan wasn't at the festival the year he attended (the book was published in 2008), and speculation was running rampant as to why. Some people guessed that he had been kicked off the grounds due to his habit of drinking during his sets (Cornerstone is officially a dry festival), or that he had gotten fed up with festival organizers hassling him about it, or that he had been disinvited because of the occasional cursing in his songs.

Well, as it turns out, the truth is rather different:

I worked as Bazan's publicist from 2000 till 2004. When I ran into him in April — we were on a panel together at the Calvin College Festival of Faith & Music in Grand Rapids — I hadn't seen him or talked to him in five and a half years. The first thing he said to me was "I'm not sure if you know this, but my relationship with Christ has changed pretty dramatically in the last few years."

He went on to explain that since 2004 he's been flitting between atheist, skeptic, and agnostic, and that lately he's hovering around agnostic...

Bazan's latest album, Curse Your Branches, is a confessional chronicle of his deconversion and the personal turmoil he went through as a result. Somewhat surprisingly, he returned to Cornerstone in 2009 to play some songs from it. According to the article, it met with a cautious reception - Bazan's fans from his evangelical days were still drawn to his music, but most of them didn't want to admit he had changed his mind and invented elaborate rationalizations for how his lyrics could be fitted into a Christian worldview. Nevertheless, the fact of his deconversion was widely known, even if not widely acknowledged.

Bazan himself, however, appears to have come to terms with the change in his beliefs and is far more at peace than he ever was:

After a long few years in the wilderness, Bazan seems happy — though he's still parsing out his beliefs, he's visibly relieved to be out and open about where he's not at. "It's more comfortable for me to be agnostic," he says. "There's less internal tension by far — that's even with me duking it out with my perception of who God is on a pretty regular basis, and having a lot of uncertainty on that level. For now, just being is enough. Whether things happen naturally, completely outside an author, or whether the dynamics of earth and people are that way because God created them — or however you want to credit it — if you look around and pay attention and observe, there is enough right here to know how to act, to know how to live, to be at peace with one another."

And David Bazan isn't the only Christian entertainer who's recently walked away from religion. Another interesting example is from the Coexist Comedy Tour, featuring stand-up comedians from a variety of different faiths. Except as it turns out, John Ross, who was the Christian member of the troupe, isn't a Christian anymore either.

Ross embraced Christianity enthusiastically. He taught youth groups, toured the nation with Christian punk rockers Anguish Unsaid and even got religious tattoos. (The dove on his calf and the "Jesus" in Japanese kanji on his neck now act as sight gags onstage.)

"From the beginning I had questions," Ross said, "but I would just write them off with 'Our understanding is not God's understanding.' Until the last few years. It's hard to keep doing that."

By Ross' account, he converted to Christianity as a means of escape from a broken and chaotic family, gravitating towards the stability that the evangelical church offered. But eventually, he realized that faith had only provided a way to sweep his problems and doubts under the carpet; it hadn't actually gotten rid of them. With that realization in hand, he had the key to freedom, and like David Bazan, he's found a new sense of peace and tolerance for himself:

Having left Christianity, Ross is surprised by how little has changed. "I'm still just as compassionate towards people," he explained. "I'm not going out and living in sin." The only difference "is that I don't feel guilty anymore," he says. "There's no war in my head."

It's worth wondering if the use of irony, which plays a vital role in both good music and good comedy, may have been a factor in both these deconversions. Evangelicalism is a creed built on certainty and on having all the answers, and many evangelical believers insist, or fear, that to doubt or to question any tenet of their faith could bring the whole thing crashing down (something we've seen demonstrated recently). But the nature of music (at least, music more sophisticated than bland, one-note Christian pop), and certainly the nature of comedy, requires self-doubt, introspection, and self-questioning. When these collide with the brittle certainties of fundamentalism, stories like these may be the inevitable result.

January 6, 2010, 6:38 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink20 comments

Weekly Link Roundup

For the holiday season, some goodies this weekend:

• First up, some music for the season: the blogger Lirone, of Words That Sing, in collaboration with William Morris, composer in residence at the British Humanist Association (did you know the British Humanist Association had a composer in residence? me neither!), has written a humanist carol, Gathering Round the Fire. It's 99 cents on iTunes, and all profits will go to the BHA. I downloaded and listened to it, and I enjoyed it greatly. Check it out, support a good cause, and lend a little bit of humanist cheer to your holiday gathering!

• Next, CNN has a surprisingly sympathetic interview with Richard Dawkins on evolution and atheist advocacy.

• The Daily Mail's Andrew Alexander offers a "heartfelt plea for atheism", an eloquent essay only slightly marred by an ignorant passage about climate change.

• Hanna Rosin asks whether the prosperity gospel contributed to the economic crash.

• On Daily Kos, it's a shameful day for the Irish Catholic Church, as a long-awaited report is released about the complicity of the bishops in sex abuse by predator priests.

• And finally, from Time, an unsparing essay about the subjugation and abuse of women in Islamic countries. (Did you know a Saudi Arabian woman has no legal proof of her existence besides her name on her husband's ID card? I didn't.) This is the kind of thing that the New Atheists get called "shrill" and "strident" when we write.

Also, you may have noticed that posts on Daylight Atheism are now classified by tag in addition to the six major categories (also, there's a tag cloud). I implemented this as a result of suggestions in the reader feedback thread, and I've been working my way backwards tagging older posts. Before I go further with that, I'm interested if people have any opinions on it. Too many tags? Too few? Are some missing that you'd like to see included? Personally, I'm still considering whether to add the "Science" tag to the posts on Lee Strobel.

December 12, 2009, 12:50 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink4 comments

Book Review: 36 Arguments for the Existence of God

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

Summary: Sparkling writing; marvelous characters; could have benefited from a tighter narrative.

This is the first time I've ever reviewed a work of fiction for Daylight Atheism, but this one was well in tune with my site's mission and merited the exception: Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's 36 Arguments for the Existence of God. Despite the title, it's a novel, not an academic textbook or a work of theology; and despite the title, it's not an apologia for theism. If anything, the opposite is true. (Potential conflict of interest alert: Ms. Goldstein is the wife of Professor Steven Pinker, who served as the judge in a writing contest that I won, and who asked me if I'd be interested in reading the book.)

The main character of 36 Arguments is Cass Seltzer, an atheist psychology professor who's found unexpected success and fame in a book debunking religion. Supporting characters include Lucinda Mandelbaum, his current significant other and a renowned mathematician; his old girlfriend, Roz Margolis, an anthropologist who's researching life extension; Jonas Elijah Klapper, a windbag literary scholar who is Seltzer's former mentor; and Azarya Sheiner, a young mathematical prodigy from an ultra-orthodox Hasidic Jewish community.

Cass is a professor at the fictional Frankfurter University in Massachusetts, but has just received a job offer from Harvard and is mulling whether to accept it, while at the same time he prepares for a debate with a religious apologist that centers around the arguments in his best-selling book. But this story, though it takes place in the present (from the novel's perspective), is arguably not the main one. In fact, there are several plot threads, and the story skips back and forth between them - each one chronicling a different time in Cass' life, explaining how he met the other characters and how he came to be where he is at the novel's beginning.

First things first: I loved Goldstein's writing style. It's sparkling, exuberant, erudite, leaping into paragraph-long sentences as if the author is breathlessly trying to narrate everything as fast as it happens. In its best moments, it achieves the sublime. She's obviously thoroughly informed about the history and development of the atheist movement, and the way its defenders respond to criticism (some of the quotes will likely be familiar to you). And I loved the characters she crafts - so much so that I'd gladly read a sequel that follows up on some of them.

Azarya's inner battle between his dreams of nurturing his mathematical gifts, and his desire to stay faithful to his community and its traditions, is compellingly depicted and evoked an unexpected pang of sympathy from me, even for a sect as insular and narrow-minded as Hasidic Judaism. Cass is a glowingly sympathetic protagonist - for once, a novel that treats atheism as a normal and even sympathetic viewpoint, and not as a disease that a character has to be cured of! - and when he celebrates his good fortune, the reader is drawn in to celebrate with him, to make his triumphs our own and to share his fear that they may all be snatched away. And when, at the end, he steps up to the podium to do battle with his adversary, we're cheering him on (well, I was). And Roz, especially, was a magnificent creation, a tigerish free spirit who makes an already bright book even brighter whenever she appears in it.

There was only one character I didn't like, and that leads me to my one major complaint. Cass' mentor, Jonas Elijah Klapper, was pompous, egotistical, and insufferably self-absorbed - and I have no doubt that Goldstein intended us to find him so - but then, why does he have so much face time in the book? The plot noticeably drags whenever he appears, and in fact, the plot thread that involves him is never really brought to a satisfying resolution.

To tell the truth, for all that I liked about it, the book in general could have used a tighter narrative focus. There's not really a single, overarching plot that drives the story as much as there is a series of extended episodes from the life of its major character, and the "main" story - the one that occurs in the novel's present, rather than being backstory - has a fairly anticlimactic ending. There were several intriguing plot threads, especially Roz's involvement with a group studying life extension, that offer tantalizing possibilities but never really develop. Some of these have enough potential to be books in and of themselves, and if they ever do, I'd be glad to read them.

November 18, 2009, 5:08 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink5 comments

The Contributions of Freethinkers: Zora Neale Hurston

I've been reading this essay from Sikivu Hutchinson in the L.A. Watts Times, which calls on black atheists to come out of the closet while acknowledging the difficulties they face in doing so. The cultural barriers, she says, are even greater than for white atheists: African-American culture is "heavily steeped" in Christian dogma, the legacy of a "culturally specific survival strategy" - in the slave era, it served them as a unifying force and a source of comfort (despite the fact that it was also the religion of the slaveholders). That legacy persists even today, as she notes: "In these (black) communities you find more tolerance towards gangbangers, drug addicts, and prostitutes, who pray to God for forgiveness than for honest productive citizens who deny the existence of God."

The only way to overcome this in the long run is for more black atheists to speak out, but it might also help to point out that some famous figures of the black community have held unorthodox views. I've written before about the life and skepticism of the civil rights pioneer W.E.B. DuBois, but he was by no means the only prominent African-American who was also a freethinker - as we'll see from today's post.

Zora Neale Hurston was born in 1891. She grew up in Eatonville, Florida, a rural community that was one of the first all-black towns founded in America after the Emancipation Proclamation. Her father, John Hurston, was a Baptist preacher and later the mayor. Her childhood in Eatonville, by her account, was idyllic: in an all-black community, she was blissfully insulated from the racism that still pervaded much of the country, even though her preacher father sought to stifle young Zora's rebellious spirit.

The end of this happy time came in 1904, when Hurston's mother Lucy died; Zora was only 13 at the time. Her father, "bare and bony of comfort and love", remarried, but had little time or attention for his children. She was sent away to finish school, but ended up working at a series of menial jobs, including a Gilbert & Sullivan theater troupe, where she worked as a maid to the lead singer. She wound up in Baltimore, where she finally finished high school in 1918, at the age of 26 - although she gave her age as 16. For the rest of her life, she would always cut at least ten years off her date of birth in public.

In 1925, Hurston was offered a scholarship to Barnard College, a New York City affiliate of Columbia University. She studied anthropology under the noted scholar Franz Boas; one of her fellow students was Margaret Mead. But more importantly for her own literary career, she had the good fortune to be living in Manhattan at the height of the Harlem Renaissance. Hurston met and collaborated with black writers and artists like Langston Hughes; she published both fiction and, drawing on her background in anthropology, books such as Mules and Men that documented customs and folklore of the black community in the United States and the Caribbean. Her masterwork was the 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, which was judged one of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century (source). Her other books include Mules and Men (1935), Jonah's Gourd Vine (1934), and Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939).

Despite her literary acclaim, Hurston never achieved the financial success her work deserved. She died, penniless, in 1960, and was buried in an unmarked grave, where she lay forgotten for decades until her writing, and her burial site, was rediscovered by a young writer named Alice Walker.

What's less well known is that Zora Neale Hurston, throughout her life, was a freethinker. Of her childhood, she later wrote: "My head was full of misty fumes of doubt... Neither could I understand the passionate declarations of love for a being that nobody could see. Your family, your puppy and the new bull-calf, yes. But a spirit away off who found fault with everybody all the time, that was more than I could fathom" (source).

An extended excerpt from Hurston's autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, makes the point even clearer. In a long, beautiful passage, one that predates the work of Carl Sagan and other famous scientific popularizers, she writes of her own feeling of interconnection with the cosmos, and her knowledge that the atoms of her body will outlast death and go on to take new forms:

Prayer seems to me a cry of weakness, and an attempt to avoid, by trickery, the rules of the game as laid down. I do not choose to admit weakness. I accept the challenge of responsibility. Life, as it is, does not frighten me, since I have made my peace with the universe as I find it, and bow to its laws. The ever-sleepless sea in its bed, crying out "how long?" to Time; million-formed and never motionless flame; the contemplation of these two aspects alone, affords me sufficient food for ten spans of my expected lifetime. It seems to me that organized creeds are collections of words around a wish. I feel no need for such. However, I would not, by word or deed, attempt to deprive another of the consolation it affords. It is simply not for me. Somebody else may have my rapturous glance at the archangels. The springing of the yellow line of morning out of the misty deep of dawn, is glory enough for me. I know that nothing is destructible; things merely change forms. When the consciousness we know as life ceases, I know that I shall still be part and parcel of the world. I was a part before the sun rolled into shape and burst forth in the glory of change. I was, when the earth was hurled out from its fiery rim. I shall return with the earth to Father Sun, and still exist in substance when the sun has lost its fire, and disintegrated into infinity to perhaps become a part of the whirling rubble of space. Why fear? The stuff of my being is matter, ever changing, ever moving, but never lost; so what need of denominations and creeds to deny myself the comfort of all my fellow men? The wide belt of the universe has no need for finger-rings. I am one with the infinite and need no other assurance.

Other posts in this series:

July 15, 2009, 7:31 pm • Posted in: The LoftPermalink14 comments

Smoke on the Breeze

In May, I wrote about the freethinker Giuseppe Verdi and my experience attending a performance of his operatic masterpiece, the Requiem. At the time, I had one other thought: strange as it sounds, and despite the fact that its composer was no friend of orthodoxy, Verdi's Requiem was one of the more effective arguments for Christianity I've ever heard.

I'm not a frequent attendee of sermons, but even so, I doubt few of them would match Verdi's orchestral eloquence. Even though its arias were sung in Latin, the music itself powerfully conveyed the ideas that lay behind it. In Verdi's hands, the enduring Christian concepts came to vivid life: the dreadful realization that finality has at last arrived; a terrible day of darkness, unquenchable fire descending from heaven to consume the world; the contrite sinner's realization of unbearable guilt, in the face of the divine judge's awesome majesty; the hope of mercy freely offered; and the joy of ultimate salvation, escaping doom to be numbered with the saints and the angels. Religion's forte has always been to persuade through the evocation of emotion, and nothing evokes emotion like a symphony as masterful as this one.

Of course, this doesn't constitute evidence that any of it is true. And there are still the absurdities and moral outrages that go along with believing a perfect god would create imperfect humans and then consign them to torment for being what he created them to be. But nevertheless, if you overlook all this, it's still a great story. From rising action, defining the conflict and setting up the protagonist in seemingly hopeless circumstances (and casting each one of us as the protagonist - a masterstroke!), to dramatic climax, to denouement and seemingly impossible triumph snatched from the very jaws of doom, it has all the elements shared by great fiction throughout the ages.

And atheists shouldn't find it surprising that religious belief systems have mythologies which stir the spirit. Every major world religion does. (One of my favorites is the story of the Buddha calling the earth to witness on his behalf.) This is to be expected precisely because it's the possession of these great stories that inspire human beings' allegiance and devotion. More so than any purely rational argument, most people are moved by the dramatic power of stories that appeal to the emotions.

I'm sympathetic to the story-telling impulse that underlies religion. In a way, it represents humanity's first, tentative effort to make sense of the cosmos. In the prescientific past, the world was a frightening and chaotic place, and of course people were afraid of disasters against which they were helpless. Under these circumstances, it's entirely understandable that they would grasp at any thin reed that seemed to promise safety or deliverance. It's always been part of the attraction of religion that it gives people a sense of understanding and control in an uncaring and dangerous universe, and it's completely natural and forgivable that people of the past used it for that purpose.

The problem, today, is that religious beliefs have outlived their usefulness. That desire for understanding, for control, has been distilled and expressed in a pure form: the scientific method. Now, for the first time in history, we have real answers, not just guesses, for the fundamental questions of existence. The codified dogmas of the past, the ones that touch on those same questions, are stale and outdated. We no longer need those fragile trappings of myth when we have genuine understanding to light the way.

In the light of that understanding, the superstitions that once hedged us about seem not just incorrect, but foolish. The deities, those towering shapes that seemed so imposing to our ancestors, have dwindled in stature. Up close, they are no more substantial than shadows; they waver and dissipate like smoke on the breeze. We no longer need them to direct our steps. We have something better now: the true stories of science, guided by empirical evidence, that reveal the full scope and complexity of the cosmos and our own place within it.

That's not to say that the religious stories, which still have emotional power to stir us, are entirely without value. Within those traditions, there is superb poetry, enduring parables, and some good moral lessons. But we can extract those and use them, if we wish, without pretending that the rest of it is in any way literally true, or that the people who wrote them were guided by anything more than human creativity.

July 11, 2008, 6:53 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink12 comments

A Cold and Sterile Heaven

The other day while browsing in the library, I found out that Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, authors of the Left Behind series, have also written a trilogy of prequels. (As long as Christians continue to purchase these awful books, it seems, they intend to keep churning them out.) The final installment of this trilogy is called The Rapture, and it's about just that, written from the point of view of the faithful Christians who are miraculously transported to Heaven.

Much of the book is taken up by a long roll call in which the raptured "saints" and saved dead are called before God's white throne and praised for the good works they did. This litany is very revealing, because essentially the only thing they have in common is that they in some way contributed to the spread of Christianity. Famous evangelists, missionaries, translators of the Bible, and historical preachers are all listed for their great "achievement". In LaHaye's conception, the only deed that merits honor or remembrance is converting others to Christianity. In fact, the saved are made to pass through a fire that "burns away" everything else that they did in their lives.

This is religion in its most purely viral form, its only purpose consisting of self-propagation. As Slacktivist says, their version of Christianity is the "contentless gospel": "The good news is that now you can tell others the good news."

This cold and sterile heaven doesn't seem like any kind of paradise I'd want to live in. Why would I want to share eternity with these boring, repetitive, dogmatic preachers, those whose greatest achievement in life was the unvarying repetition of words written by others? It's as if people were selected specifically for their lack of independent thought or creativity. What a tiresome, monotonous place that heaven would be!

Even worse, the book makes it clear that access to this heaven is limited to those mindless believers who mouthed the proper words of submission to the creed of one particular small and narrow sect. Everyone else, in this conception of Christianity, no matter what else they achieved or what good they did, is condemned to the torment of eternal immolation. Again - this is a heaven we should want to go to? To spend eternity praising a cruel tyrant in the company of his fellow slaves, and to miss out on the company of the bright and lively minds of history's most famous nonbelievers?

Just think of who'd be missing from the rapture-fanatics' heaven. Or, if you prefer, consider an alternative: a humanist heaven in which people were rewarded not for their allegiance to dogma, but for their contributions to humanity's intellectual and cultural history, and for the good they did in the lives of those who came after them. Imagine who would be there, and imagine what a joy it would be to dwell among them!

Imagine a salon where you could discuss politics and statecraft with Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, George Washington, James Madison and Thomas Paine, as well as their precursors of the Enlightenment such as John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Hobbes, Adam Smith and Jeremy Bentham. From feminists and reformers such as Susan B. Anthony, Margaret Sanger, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Emma Goldman and Vashti McCollum, these early giants could learn how their work had laid the ground for later flowerings of liberty. Or, if you preferred to talk about science and the glories of the natural world, there'd be symposia attended by Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Carl Sagan, Richard Feynman, Galileo Galilei, Pierre and Marie Curie, and many more besides.

In airier realms of thought, most of history's great philosophers would be there: Lucretius and Epicurus from ancient Greece, Giordano Bruno, David Hume, Baruch Spinoza, Bertrand Russell, Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. One could pass many pleasurable hours lying in the shade and listening to these great thinkers holding forth on the beautiful abstractions of the mind.

The music, too, would be magnificent. One could enjoy the symphonies of Giuseppe Verdi, Ludwig von Beethoven, Hector Berlioz, Johannes Brahms and Richard Strauss - or, for a more modern bent, the stylings of Irving Berlin, John Lennon, Cole Porter, and Yip Harburg. For oratory, poetry and literature, it would boast Robert Ingersoll, George Eliot, Leo Tolstoy, Omar Khayyam, Kurt Vonnegut, Isaac Asimov, H.G. Wells, Robert Frost - and that's just for starters. And this imaginary humanist heaven would not lack for laughter. You can hear the roaring of the crowds being entertained by Mark Twain, by Voltaire, by H.L. Mencken, by Douglas Adams, by George Carlin (alas), and by many more proud subversives who've used the weapon of humor to expose the absurdities of earthly society.

The roll call of famous names that would be present in a humanist's heaven shows, by comparison, just how empty and impoverished the dogmatist's heaven would be. All the illustrious thinkers and critics I listed above would be missing from any afterlife that sorts admission based solely on adherence to an orthodox creed. Such a place would hardly be paradise at all, but merely an echo chamber resounding through eternity with the monotonous chants of fossilized minds. How could Heaven be Heaven if it did not pay tribute to the fullest and grandest flowerings of the human creative spirit?

The dogmatist's nightmarish hallucination of heaven, fortunately for us, does not exist. Like a nightmare that dissipates in the dawn, it fades away in the light of reason. Alas, the humanist's heaven is also a dream, albeit a more pleasant one. I'd give almost anything to be witness to such a meeting of the minds, but there's no rational reason to believe it will ever happen. Those who have passed on have left the world to us, and though ripples of their influence live on in the books they wrote and the lives they changed, the essence of the individual is gone and cannot be reclaimed. We mourn them, we honor them, but ultimately we must move on. The responsibility of guiding the future now lies with we who live - so rather than spend our time dreaming of another life, let's turn our attention fully to this one. Our predecessors have left us an abundance of good lessons; let's keep them in mind, so that we may write the next chapter for the good of those who, in turn, will succeed us.

(For a fuller listing of the names in this essay as well as others, see FFRF's Freethought of the Day list.)

June 27, 2008, 10:22 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink49 comments

The Contributions of Freethinkers: Verdi

Today, I'm inaugurating another new post series on Daylight Atheism, "The Contributions of Freethinkers". The purpose of this series will be to dispel the myth that nonbelievers have never contributed anything of worth or value to human culture by highlighting some famous historical atheists and freethinkers who've left their mark. Whether in the arts, the sciences, or the humanities, all are eligible. The subject of my first post in this series will be the famous nineteenth-century Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi.

Verdi was best known for his operas, which include famous titles like Rigoletto, Aida and La Traviata that are still staples at modern opera houses. He was also, according to his Catholic wife, an unabashed freethinker:

Verdi's attitude toward religion is clearly indicated in a letter written about him by his wife, Giuseppina: "For some virtuous people a belief in God is necessary. Others, equally perfect, while observing every precept of the highest moral code, are happier believing in nothing."

Elsewhere, Giuseppina wrote: "He is a jewel among honest men; he understands and feels himself every delicate and elevated sentiment. And yet this brigand permits himself to be, I won't say an atheist, but certainly very little of a believer, and that with an obstinacy and calm that make me want to beat him. I exhaust myself in speaking to him about the marvels of the heavens, the earth, the sea, etc. It's a waste of breath! He laughs in my face and freezes me in the midst of my oratorical periods and my divine enthusiasm by saying 'you're all crazy,' and unfortunately he says it with good faith."

Ironically, despite Verdi's staunch freethought sympathies, one of his most deservedly famous works is his Requiem - a symphony based on the hymns of a Roman Catholic funeral Mass. (Most famous classical composers, including Mozart, Brahms, Dvorak and Berlioz, wrote their own interpretations of the Requiem; it was a popular topic in the days when most artistic work was underwritten either by wealthy nobility or by the church.)

Earlier this month, I had the privilege to hear Verdi's Requiem performed at Carnegie Hall by the St. Cecilia Chorus (despite its name, a secular organization). David Randolph, the conductor, is a fascinating story in himself - 92 years old, conductor of the St. Cecilia Chorus for 42 years, with a booming voice and a dauntless vigor that entirely belie his age - and an atheist. I first heard him in an interview on Freethought Radio from April of last year, and I've been a dedicated attendee of his concerts ever since.

But, back to my topic. In concert, the Requiem is a work of dramatic power. You haven't heard what classical music is capable of until you've heard Verdi's towering, thunderous Dies Irae performed live by a chorus of hundreds. Dies Irae is Latin for "Day of Wrath," referring to the apocalyptic judgment when God rends the Earth asunder in fire, and Verdi's treatment brings the requisite dark majesty to this theme. In person, the effect is awe-inspiring, with the crashing music and the chorus' roar combining spectacularly to evoke the idea of a fearful day of judgment and doom.

Other high moments in the Requiem, in my opinion, include the soaring anthem of the Tuba Mirum, named after the last trumpet which summons the living and the dead to judgment, and the Rex Tremendae, a triumphant march originally composed in praise of God's glory.

In any case, for all that it's based on a church service, the Requiem was not written for liturgical purposes. In style and tone it's more like the operas Verdi was famous for, and its history attests that it was written and offered as a work primarily for the concert hall, not for the church. Indeed, it was blasted by some critics as being insufficiently pious for proper church music. Verdi's contemporary, the conductor Hans von Bulow, derided it as "an opera in ecclesiastical robes". (He would later change his mind and acknowledge the greatness of the work.) Verdi's biographer Charles Osborne said that the Requiem was "a Mass for the living rather than a Mass for the dead".

Regardless of its origins, an atheist can admire works like the Requiem just as we might admire the architecture of St. Patrick's Cathedral. Even though I disagree with the beliefs that inspired its construction, what I respond to is the human art and craftsmanship, which is equally the product of skill and brilliance regardless of what motivation lay behind it. Of course, even without the Requiem for inspiration, Verdi could have (and did) create wonderful music. This concert was just one of the branches along which his genius chose to express itself.

Other posts in this series:

May 23, 2008, 8:11 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink17 comments

< Newer Posts Older Posts >

Now available from Big Think!


MUST-READ POSTS (view all)


SITE CATEGORIES (explanation)




see all >













SSA Speaker Page
Find Me on Facebook Find Me on Atheist Nexus
Kiva - loans that change lives
Foundation Beyond Belief
The Out Campaign
Winner of the 2009 3 Quarks Daily Science Writing Prize