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:: Thursday, January 03, 2008 ::

Hoary Old Chestnuts 

:: Posted by Edward Cline at 11:29 AM

“Ever tried going into St. Paul’s and offering to re-write the Bible?” – Lily Pepper to George Pepper, married vaudevillians, on his refusal to drop their act's stale joke material, in “Red Peppers, an Interlude with Music,” from Noël Coward’s Tonight at 8:30 (1935)

I rarely bother to beat dead horses. God is a dead horse, although religion is not quite as dead as most atheists believe, because it is alive and snorting and being harnessed to contemporary American politics. That is religion’s special danger; churches of all stripes and sects are enlisting their congregations in the army for various welfare state, environmentalist, and collectivist crusades. Their primary object is to resurrect the country’s alleged “Christian” values and rid that “Holy Land” of the infidel, the atheist, and incidentally clean up the earth, stop global warming, and herd everyone into a welfare state corral. It is God’s will, they say, to take care of the lame, halt and poor by impoverishing the healthy, the independent, and the industrious.

At least two presidential candidates earnestly want to recapture the land in the name of God: Mike Huckabee, uncharismatic Baptist preacher, and Mitt Romney, practicing Mormon, who said he wishes to banish atheists from the country. Neither questions the morality of the secular application of his altruist creed in any fundamental way: the welfare state. The other presidential candidates bring God into their rhetoric only when they think it prudent. Each wishes to subdue the kind of atheist who does not believe in the mystical benefits of collectivism and involuntary servitude, to indenture him to them against his will for the sake of “giving back” to the national community, and thereby create a legacy for the candidate of being the “savior” of the “public good” and promoter of “social justice.”

In the book I discuss below, I encountered one unattributed statement that aptly sums up the character and mentality of each of the current crop of presidential hopefuls. In a revealing description of the many fantasies of Heinrich Himmler, chief of the SS and Gestapo, the author remarks: “But one of his characteristics was much more widely shared – his mind had not been encouraged to grow. Filled with information and opinion, he had no critical powers.”

And he certainly harbored an animus for them, did not welcome them in others, and counted on their absence in others – from Hitler down to the German populace – to sustain his totalitarian powers of life and death. To exercise one’s critical powers in Nazi Germany was to risk a death sentence. For all their blather about the need for undefined “change” and the value of dubiously boasted “experience,” each of the presidential candidates wears that double stigma on his forehead – an absence of critical powers and the insidious hope that no one else possesses them, either.

But, I digress. A friend gave me a Christmas present, The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever, selected and introduced throughout by Christopher Hitchens (Philadelphia: De Capo Press, 2007, 499 pp.), author of the notoriously successful bestseller, God is Not Great, which exhaustively recounts the evil of religion and the imbecility of the idea of God under his various aliases.

I should state here that I became an atheist at a very early age, when I questioned the credibility and existence of Santa Claus. That is, I could not accept as a truth or even as the remotest likelihood a being who could somehow fly through the air from the North Pole, pulled in a sleigh by eight tiny reindeer, the rumble seat top heavy with presents for every child on earth, circumnavigate the globe in one evening, and return to the Arctic undetected even by Norad. I was aware that there were millions of children like myself around the world, and that not all of them could boast of working chimneys in their houses for Santa to squeeze into and shimmy down into what should have been roaring fires on cold winter nights. Also, I had observed that the roofs of most houses were too small to accommodate eight reindeer, regardless of their size. Further, most of the brightly wrapped presents it was claimed he hauled in his sleigh came in manufacturers’ packaging.

Had I been able to intelligibly formulate them then, questions lurked in my mind that I could have asked my nominally Catholic foster parents: “Did the companies give these toys to Santa Claus to pass out to children? Or did they outsource their manufacture to his own shop, where his elfin helpers assembled them? Did his sleigh have retractable wheels that allowed him to land on roofs in places where it didn’t snow? How would he know I had been naughty or nice in the year, unless you told him?”

You see where this was leading me: ultimately to comprehensive disbeliefs in not only Santa, but in tooth fairies, the Easter Bunny, Heaven (especially when I first saw a photograph of the Andromeda galaxy), Hell, Limbo, Purgatory, angels, Satan, saints, ghosts, goblins, and every other kind of supernatural entity. One by one, the spirits, idols, and otherworldly realms fell victim to my loyalty to reality. Logic, according to the OED, is “the science of reasoning, proof, thinking, or inference.” More fundamentally, logic, wrote Ayn Rand, is “the art of non-contradictory identification,” and “rests on the axiom that existence exists.” (The Ayn Rand Lexicon) The purported, magical attributes of the beings and realms contradicted the evidence of my senses and abused my logical mind. End of argument.

Until I applied logic to religion itself, I innocently subscribed to the delusion that my “soul” was a kind of ectoplasmatic representation of my torso, and that my two tummy freckles were the marks of indelible sins, one of them presumably “original.”

So, God, the master wizard cum bogeyman of them all, had ceased to be a moral adviser and a vengeful threat long before I entered high school, simply because I knew he was not and could not be real, no more real to me than the volitional brooms unleashed by Mickey Mouse in Walt Disney’s Fantasia. (For many of the same reasons, I never developed a liking for the device of talking animals, either, animated or otherwise.)

And, while I refuse to argue with anyone about the existence or non-existence of God, Jahveh, Allah or any of the other one hundred and ninety late gods and deities listed in H.L. Mencken’s “Memorial Service” (one of the shorter essays in The Portable Atheist, and anything but funereal in sentiment), and have always been reluctant to waste time composing a rebuttal to such an absurd idea (that is, anyone who still needed convincing that there was no God, may as well still believe in Santa Claus), it was a breath of fresh air to read forty-seven essays and chapter excerpts penned by writers endowed with critical powers and bedeviled enough by the issue to perform the task.

For an incorrigible atheist like myself, these essays are both edifying and amusing. They begin with Lucretius’s (96-55 BC) “On the Nature of Things,” a poem that scuttles belief in gods – and pre-Christian gods, no less – and ends with Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s “How (and Why) I Became an Infidel,” an account of how she left Islam, which she damns in its entirety, seeing nothing in it that lends itself to “reform” or “moderation,” and refused to accept a substitute religion, as Christians apparently pressed her to do.

It is hard to choose the most illuminating essays in this collection. One thing a reader is sure to come away with after reading, for example, Elizabeth Anderson’s “If God is Dead, Is Everything Permitted?” and Ibn Warraq’s “The Koran: The Totalitarian Nature of Islam” and Sam Harris’s “In the Shadow of God” is the knowledge that Christianity, Islam, and Judaism are all religions that were knocked together from various pre-history pagan and tribal lores and barbarisms, sewn into their separate textual quilts over millennia by plagiarists, monks, scholars, imaginative tongue-in-cheek scribes and anyone else who derived sanctimonious pleasure from putting one over on the ignorant and credulous, which, beginning with the collapse of the Roman Empire and ending with the Enlightenment, was just about everyone. (It was news to me, for example, that one could be burned at the stake for owning a Bible that was in one’s local language; one was supposed to rely on clerical authority about what the Bible actually said, and not commit the sin of seeing it for oneself.)

The reader will also learn, if he did not already suspect it, that the Bible and Koran especially were works-in-progress for about 1,500 years, and underwent constant emendations, corrections, excisions, deletions, revisions, additions, fraudulent attributions, and mistranslations in order to make them conform to preferred dogma or to make them “relevant” to the angst of the era. Neither the Bible nor the Koran of a millennium ago would be recognizable by modern day Christians or Muslims.

Neither religion can claim to be original even as “revelation,” that is, as a direct communication from God or Allah, for both cadged the practice of Bronze Age shamans, witch doctors and holy men, that the not-to-be-doubted-or-questioned “Word” was ideally received by persons eminently lacking in critical powers, such as the bandit Mohammed and that ambitious camp-follower and prototype anti-Semite, St. Paul, both of whom laid the groundwork for the future and ongoing prejudice against and persecution of Jews.

Speaking of Jews, Sam Harris, in his chapter “In the Shadow of God," from his book, The End of Faith, devotes many pages to their demonization by Christian doctrine and superstition (not that there is much of a difference between them).

“But for sheer gothic absurdity nothing surpasses the medieval concern over host desecration, the punishment of which preoccupied pious Christians for centuries. The doctrine of transubstantiation was formally established in 1215 at the Fourth Lateran Council…and thereafter became the centerpiece of the Christian (now Catholic) faith….Henceforth, it was an indisputable fact of this world that the communion host is actually transformed at the Mass into the living body of Jesus Christ. After this incredible dogma had been established, by mere recitation, to the satisfaction of everyone, Christians began to worry that these living wafers might be subjected to all manner of mistreatment, and even physical torture, at the hands of heretics and Jews. (One might wonder why eating the body of Jesus would be any less of a torment to him.) Could there be any doubt that the Jews would seek to harm the Son of God again [Christian dogma alleges that the Jews betrayed him because they did not believe he was the Messiah], knowing that his body was now readily accessible in the form of defenseless crackers? Historical accounts suggest that as many as three thousand Jews were murdered in response to a single allegation of this imaginary crime.”

I laughed out loud when I reached “defenseless crackers.” I recall kneeling at the communion railing and having that tasteless, cardboard-like wafer plopped onto my tongue, and then nearly choking on it while trying to swallow it (we were cautioned not to chew it; that would have been “disrespectful”!). It was shortly after my “first communion” that I began to associate the whole ritual with cannibalism by proxy. It made no sense and the idea and ritual of the Eucharist became repugnant to me.

(I also laughed out loud when I read a December 30th column by Jeremy Clarkson, “Unhand my patio heater, archbishop,” in The Sunday Times (London), which ought to be included in a second volume of The Portable Atheist, in which he upbraids Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, for being a daft, yeah-saying hypocrite.

“Then we must ask how much old Rowan really understands about the implications and causes of global warming. He thinks that taking a holiday in Florida and driving a Range Rover caused the flooding in Tewkesbury this summer. But then he also believes it’s possible for a man to walk on water and feed a crowd of 5,000 with nothing more than a couple of sardines.”)

Elizabeth Anderson’s “If God is Dead” essay is one of the best indictments of the Bible that I have ever read. Posing the conundrum of why God (or Allah, or whomever) is considered to be the be-all and end-all of morality – originating morality and rewarding it and punishing its delinquency – she writes:

“Consider first God’s moral character, as revealed in the Bible. He routinely punishes people for the sins of others. He punishes all mothers by condemning them to painful childbirth, for Eve’s sin. He punishes all human beings by condemning them to labor, for Adam’s sin (Gen. 3:16-18). He regrets his creation, and in a fit of pique, commits genocide and ecocide by flooding the earth (Gen. 6:7). He hardens Pharaoh’s heart against freeing the Israelites (Ex. 7:3), so as to provide the occasion for visiting plagues upon the Egyptians, who, as helpless subjects of a tyrant, had no part in Pharaoh’s decision. (So much for respecting free will, the standard justification for the existence of evil in the world.)”

I am willing to bet that somewhere, at some time, some preacher or priest has latched onto the tale of the Great Flood and charged that it was God’s punishment for the prehistorical episode of anthropogenic global warming, doubtless ascribing the phenomenon to all those atmosphere polluting, pre-industrial age fires that baked men’s bread and kept them warm and allowed them to live. That, of course, would cast Al Gore in the role of prophet, a role to which he has proven to be amenable.

Anderson similarly exposes just about every book of the Bible and the enormity of its absurdity and of its obscenity as a handbook for ethical guidance, particularly because she demonstrates that God, as he is represented anywhere in the Bible, is a certified, psychopathic fruitcake. One cannot help but conclude that it is God who ought to be punished for his callous brutality, inhuman crimes, and blatantly irrational behavior.

Ibn Warraq’s essay on the pitfalls, fabrications, contradictions, and immorality of Islam is long but absolutely priceless. On the subject of miracles, which Mohammed was not supposed to be able to perform because he was a mortal, for example, she relates how he miraculously fed thousands from a single lamb kid. Doubtless this tale was snitched from the one of Christ’s feeding 5,000 people with his miracle of the loaves and fishes (“a couple of sardines”) and adapted to inflate the Prophet’s importance.

Unless I am mistaken, one point that none of the contributors to The Portable Atheist dwelt on was the fact that the three religions that have tortured the West for millennia – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – share a common geographical origin: the Mideast. There might be some significance to that fact. That is where each creed’s initial population of believers first appeared, grew in number, and spread to Europe and North Africa. Perhaps the climate contributed to the phenomena, or perhaps it was that combined with the nature of the region’s topography, flora and fauna.

Another subject I would like to have seen discussed in greater depth was God’s ostentation, coupled with his apparent shyness. He has appeared to no one but Moses, and that was as a burning bush. Both Christianity and Islam predict that he will make a Second Coming, announcing himself, or Christ announcing himself, with a “shout” (shouting what?). For a being who is omniscient, omnipotent, and frankly narcistic, he curiously finds it necessary to put on a big show of his Second Coming with blaring trumpets and resurrecting the dead and making everyone who ever existed (including Cro-Magnon men?) stand in line to hear his sentencing to heaven or hell – according to what is recorded in a big book. Well, why would this omniscient being need a written record? Would he not know who has been naughty or nice, and just be able to snap his fingers and send one on his predestined way without all the show-offy pageantry?

A few contributors only touched on the subject of what I would call God’s self-esteem deficiency. Why does he need to be worshipped? Does he derive some joy in having people grovel before him in a quivering funk? Is he a sadist? Does he not feel complete unless someone is sweating bullets over the nature of his eternal reward or punishment? This nasty character and psychological profile of God differs in no fundamental from that of a common neighborhood bully or dictator, or even from that of any of the current presidential candidates.

These and other questions about God’s psychological and moral makeup apparently have never occurred to theologians, priests, rabbis, mullahs and their ilk. But then again, these creatures have a vested interest in keeping God’s profile and his purposes inscrutable and exempt from rational scrutiny. That makes these mortals accomplices to an unprecedented scam.

I end this foray into atheism and religion with a memorable quotation from an equally refreshing article in the April/May issue of Free Inquiry, Gerd Lüdemann’s “What Really Happened? The Rise of Primitive Christianity, 30-70 C.E.” In summing up the reasons why Christianity was able to spread through the untiring machinations of St. Paul of Tarsus, he concludes:

“…[T]he success of Pauline Christianity reflected its accord with the spirit of the time. The world had become weary of thought. People wanted a convenient way to secure their immortality, and one of the most popular was by initiation into mysteries, two examples of which were baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Let us be blunt: Paul’s brand of Christianity – which became the movement’s normative form – constituted a spiritual reaction against the Greek Enlightenment at the same time when state law, customs, and even forms of greeting came to be dominated by authoritarianism. The quintessential freedom of ancient Greece was throttled along with the constitutional spirit of the Roman state. Prerogative replaced research; faith substituted for knowledge; independence of the human spirit gave way to humble subordination to an all-powerful deity in the sky; and slavish observance of divine commandments supplanted natural human morality. When Paul’s work was done, the downfall of the vibrant, ancient culture that had grown up out of Hellenism was complete.”

Substitute a few of the subjects in Lüdemann’s lament, and it could very well be a description of our own time. And comical Lily and George Pepper, bickering and washed-up hoofers and purveyors of “hoary old chestnuts,” might have been surprised had they gone into St. Paul’s and offered to re-write the Bible.

It had been done many, many times before. Why not again? They would have been as qualified as anyone else to undertake the task. All they would have needed to come up with was new material, keeping it clean, fresh and fragrant.

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