Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Why I am an Atheist

I suppose I'm an atheist because I had a privileged childhood. Not in the usual sense of that phrase--my family was working class, unintellectual, unartistic, unimaginative--but in an arguably more important way: I had the privilege of growing up without religion.

My family was vaguely Protestant, and if asked by a pollster if they believed in God, both of my parents would likely have answered, "Yes" (which is why I've never trusted those polls that purport to show extraordinarily high levels of religiosity among Americans), but there was no compulsory religion in my childhood home. My parents didn't attend a church (and there were plenty to choose from in Lima, Ohio, from Catholic to Lutheran to Methodist to Mormon to the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah's Witnesses); hence, I was never forced to go to Sunday school; and our living room bookshelf held a set of encyclopedias instead of a traveling salesman's Bible. There was no hostility toward religion in my family; in fact, my parents had a positive attitude toward religion in theory; it was the practice of religion in our Midwestern Bible Belt town that they saw as a hotbed of hypocrisy.

Since I didn't suffer the early implantation of religion in my brain, I was able to adopt a critical attitude toward it as soon as I began to think. At a very young age, I perceived that the consolations of religion were about as credible as a Roadrunner cartoon. I watched my grandparents' coffins disappear into holes in the graveyard ground, and saw no reason to believe that some part of them had magically escaped from their bodies and Houdinied its non-substance into an imaginary realm where my sickly Grandma and bearish Grandpa were transformed into airy angels. Not bloody likely. And no more likely, if much more creepy, was the idea of God as transcendental voyeur, a theological NSA spying with Santa-like ubiquity on our most private doings (including doings done behind bathroom doors). Even less likely was the idea of a loving God sadistic enough to crucify his only child and then spend the rest of his immortality demanding that the creatures he supposedly loves follow a set of absurd rules or be condemned to eternal torture. (I especially like the prohibition against seething a kid in its mother's milk; I'll never do that, I promise.) It is a very strange notion of love with which Christianity warps its believers.

The clincher, though, was that simple and brilliant question every child asks: If God made everything, who made God? Thus does every five year-old refute the First Cause argument. The arbitrary theological closure of the chain of causation seemed deeply 'unfair' to my child's mind, the equivalent of a frustrated adult answering my innocent (if irritating) inquiries with a curt, "Because I said so, that's why." I had much the same reaction to the climax of the book of Job, when God justifies making one of his believers' lives a living hell (in order to win a bet!) by telling the tormented Job, essentially, "Who are you to question me, you pathetic human?" A God who could justify himself no better than my Dad was surely not worthy of worship.

So I was a confirmed skeptic even before my first encounters with the two dead Brits who would turn me toward agnosticism, Charles Darwin and Bertrand Russell. In one important and purely inadvertent way, religious fundamentalists are absolutely correct about Darwin: the concept of evolution by natural selection is an assault upon the religious worldview. In fact, it's an idea that renders religion unnecessary (just as the cosmological theories of contemporary physics do the same thing on a universal scale). We need no anthropomorphized creator because we have been 'created' by an unintelligent process working over millions of years, the same basic process that has 'created' all other life on our planet. When religion fights evolution, religion is fighting for its life, and that fact is the most convincing and eloquent testimony for the power of evolution to dissolve religion like a teaspoon of salt in a glass of water.

Darwin would probably have led me directly to atheism if I had not also, at about the same time (in junior high and high school), discovered the writings of Bertrand Russell. Lord Bertie was my first intellectual hero. His scathing wit and great good sense, wonderfully paraded in such essays as "An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish" and "Why I Am Not A Christian," brought me to agnosticism as the most seemingly reasonable and liberal and tolerant of religious positions. Since the question of God's existence cannot be positively or negatively answered with logical certainty, we should pass over it in Wittgensteinian silence and respect the beliefs and believers of all religions while accepting none.

This agnostic pluralism flowered a few years later (during my college years) into a comparative study of all the world's major religions. I read the Torah, the Bible, the Koran, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Upanishads, the Ramayana, the teachings of the Buddha, scholarly studies of South and East Asian religions, books on Zen, books by Confucius and Mencius and Lao-Tse, the Tibetan and Egyptian books of the dead, Joseph Campbell on mythology, Gershom Scholem on the Kabbalah, scholarly and popular books on the history of Christianity (Elaine Pagels was a favorite); and all of this study resulted in three successive realizations. First, I quickly realized that I now knew more about religion than most believers, very few of whom know even the most basic historical facts about the religions in which they claim to believe. (Ask any Christian to name the approximate dates at which the various books of the Bible were written; I'll give very good odds that he or she won't have a clue.) Second, I was drawn to Buddhism as the only one of the world's religions that accorded value to a consciousness of nothingness, the sense (which I personally experienced in a psychologically decisive way) that an abyss of unmeaning underlies all that we think we know. Third, I came to understand this attraction to Buddhism as a kind of 'atheism by other means,' a bad faith way of embracing unbelief under the umbrella of a vague and trendy spirituality.

My arrival at this last position prepared me for the final and decisive step, my discovery of Jean-Paul Sartre's "Existentialism is a Humanism" and Albert Camus' The Myth of Sisyphus. I have since learned to spot the weaknesses in both these texts, but in my early twenties they were exactly the intellectual fuel I needed to launch myself out of a weak, wishy-washy agnosticism into a tough-minded and pugnacious atheism. These books (and others, by Beauvoir, Beckett, Genet, Faulkner, etc.) also validated my experience of nothingness by positing a world in which we must freely act to create ourselves in the midst of absurdity and meaninglessness. Our existence was a matter of pure contingency, and it was our duty to make from the bare fact of this existence a meaningful life. The world modeled by atheist existentialism was closer to the world of my experience than any of the other worlds modeled by philosophers and theologians. To me, reality appeared more Sartrean/Camusesque than Kantian or Hegelian, Cartesian or Christian, Foucaultian or Platonic. So I am an atheist, finally, because atheism is the idea that best fits the world. It is an idea that liberates and inspires, that gives nothing to imaginary gods and demands freedom for all human beings. It is quite possibly the most revolutionary idea in all of human history. It is an idea for our time.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

A pot o' gold (or something like that) for Madness Trippers

...and since anyone who's made it to the end of The Madness Trip deserves a bonus, here, courtesy of YouTube, is a ca.1971 tour of legendary American writer Henry Miller's bathroom, guided by the man himself. It's a wonderful short film, very Millerian, directed by Tom Schiller and titled Henry Miller Asleep and Awake; the last section, which does feel a bit tacked-on, was filmed on the set of Hello, Dolly! (Henry Miller and Hello, Dolly!.. that's kinda like matter and antimatter, dontcha know...)

And here's an interesting short interview with Tom Schiller, director of the Miller film:

Friday, July 26, 2013

False Conundrum No.4 : The Problem of Evil

The existence of evil is a problem only for those who irrationally believe in the false hypothesis known in English as 'God,' in French as 'Dieu,' in Arabic as 'Allah,' and in India by a thousand names. For the rest of us, the real problem is not the existence of evil, but its eradication. And a good first step toward lessening the presence of evil in our world would be a mass renunciation of belief in the literal existence of gods. The British philosopher A. C. Grayling has written: "There is no greater social evil than religion. It is the cancer in the body of humanity." Na├»ve theists (is there any other kind?) often respond to atheist challenges with the assertion that religion provides a moral code without which human beings would tear one another apart in a war of all against all, licentiously fuck lions and tigers and bears (oh my!), and even engage in dancing. An intellectually satisfying answer to this 'religion makes us more moral' argument would use theology against itself, invoking Kierkegaard's characterization of the religious worldview as the teleological suspension of the ethical and arguing that far from moralizing human behavior, religions have historically licensed murder and atrocity, directed toward both internal and external Others. The most cogent answer, however, is a date: September 11. On that clear blue morning in 2001, a group of men more seriously religious than almost any Americans I've known demonstrated the superiority of their moral code by murdering three thousand human beings. And let us not forget the Muslims in the former Yugoslavia who were murdered in the 1990s by religiously righteous Christians, or the fearsomely devout Catholics and Protestants who murdered one another for decades in Northern Ireland, or the millions of Jews who were murdered by the Nazis while the German churches stood and watched, or the long and despicable history of Christian persecution of Jews (a history that renders truly obscene the spectacle of that overrated fathead John Paul II standing at Yad Vashem and rhetorically equating Christian persecution of Jews with some fanciful Jewish persecution of Christians; the Pontifical One's exact words were, "Let us build a new future in which there will be no more anti-Jewish feeling among Christians or anti-Christian feeling among Jews"; a fine sentiment, but his carefully crafted rhetoric implies that these two 'feelings' were historically parallel in murderous efficiency). The list of religious atrocities is as long as the history of religion, and it becomes longer with every 'honor killing,' so maybe it's time to bring that history to a deservedly ignominious end--not with a bang but with the whimper of 'humble' Pope Dirty War opening his balcony window to appear absolutely empty St. Peter's Square. Maybe it's time for the world's Catholics to stop taking sex advice from a celibate old man in a dress. Maybe it's time for the world's Muslims to stop letting themselves be used as pawns in the power games of corrupt clerics and insane fanatics and the world's worst dictatorial doofuses. Maybe it's time to say goodbye and good riddance to religion, and understand religious stories for what they truly are: highly influential literary constructions. Every religion, as that great Jewish Gnostic atheist Harold Bloom has observed, is the institutionalized worship of a literary character--and in the case of the monotheistic YahGodAllahWeh, a character considerably less believable than Gregor Samsa. If you feel you can't live without worshipping a literary character, allow me to suggest the ironic deification of Leopold Bloom. He's much more interesting than that old Tetragrammaton YHWH (about whom the Village People almost sang).

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Happy 101st, M. H. Abrams!

A Mindful Pleasures "Happy Birthday" goes out to M(eyer) H(oward) Abrams, who turns 101 today. More than just the first name on the spinal list of every English major's Norton Anthology of English Literature, Abrams is one of America's most important critics and teachers of Romanticism; his critical/theoretical works Natural Supernaturalism and The Mirror and the Lamp are virtually required reading (especially Nat. Supernat., which is an intellectual feast); and as a teacher he can count among his former students Harold Bloom, Thomas Pynchon and William Gass (who aren't exactly vernal poultry either, if you know what I mean...)  Abrams seems well on his way to matching Claude-Levi Strauss's achievement of the ultimate intellectual revenge: outliving your deconstructors.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

False Conundrum No.3 : The Other Minds Problem

The problem of 'other minds'--how can I know that other people have minds like mine, that they're not zombies or robots or Republicans?--is one of those things that gives philosophy a very bad name (synonymous with intellectual wankery) and makes philosophers easy to ignore.

Reasoning along the evolutionary lines of the previous post, we can easily argue that it's not really a problem at all. Our assumption that all human beings have similar minds is licensed by the fact that we are a single species and thus we are all products of the same evolutionary processes. We are all descended from those African creatures who eons ago evolved brains capable of self-consciousness and the imaginative constructions that we lump under the category of 'mind.' That solves the problem to my satisfaction, but if your mind (which I conclude you possess) still insists that we can't tell whether that man walking down the street is a Blade Runner robot or a Max Brooks zombie or a lizard creature from V or one of the wanking dead, I suggest you put down Chief Broom's namesake, take a close shave with Occam's Razor, and stop insisting upon absolute certainty. With apologies to Ockham, certainty is for theologians, not thinkers.

Friday, July 19, 2013

False Conundrum No.2 : The Perception vs. Reality Problem

You know that gap between perception and reality, that differe(/a)nce between the perceived and the Lacanian Real, that abyss between the thing-as-known and the thing-in-itself (or as I like to call it, the "ding 'n' sitch"), that problem that has exercised philosophers since Descartes (and concerned them since the long-ago toga-clad beginnings of speculative thought), that was a crux for Kant and Hegel, and licensed the skepticism of the poststructuralists? Remember that deal- and mind-breaking dilemma?

Well, it turns out to have been terribly oversold, and Darwinian evolution holds the key to understanding why. Starting like Descartes and Sartre at the obvious fact that we exist (and putting a temporary pin in the deconstruction of the subject, another greatly oversold idea), we can conclude that the human sensorium models a world very close to reality. The middle step in this progression from existence to the marriage of perception and reality is the fact that we exist to reason about such things. If our perceptual apparatus had not been naturally selected to adequately perceive the reality 'out there,' some fierce predator would have come from 'out there' and eaten our early ancestors, thus rendering our philosophies impossible. To state the argument more schematically:

1. We exist in this world.
2. We have thus been naturally selected over millions of years to exist in this world.
3. A perceptual apparatus that inadequately modeled this world would have been a fatal defect in terms of natural selection.
4. Therefore, our perceptual apparatus adequately models the world.

If our sensoria had not been naturally selected to perceive "the Real," our species would have been wiped out eons ago by unperceived predators. Stepping lightly over an argumentative abyss (the needling question of how well "perception adequate for survival" equates to "perception congruent to reality"), I therefore suggest that we have evolved the ability to perceive the world so well that the gap between the things we see and the things in themselves (whatever, if anything, that might mean...) is a distinction without a difference, a Derridean differance that makes no difference, as negligible as the experimental error in every tailor's tape measure. It is not, that is to say, a question that should burden anyone outside the Philosophy Department (or inside it, for that matter...). The world we see is, for all intents and purposes, the world as it is. The next time you open your eyes, remember to tell yourself, "Welcome to the desert of the real."

But what about the world a lion sees? (I recall those great paragraphs Hemingway writes from the hunted beast's point of view in "The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber.") What about the waterworld a fish perceives, or a bird's airy terrestrium? It appears that human and animal perceptions, given the massive differences among them, all converge upon the same 'real world.' We perceive in leafy, barky detail the same tree the stalking cat swerves to avoid; we see outlined against blue sky the thin, nervously vibrating branch upon which a bird alights. The biggest difference may be that human beings perceive both more specifically, in a way that individuates objects, and more globally, in a way that integrates all objects into a perceived world. Whether this is true and whatever evolutionary advantages it may have conferred are questions way beyond my paygrade. (Not that that has ever stopped me.)

The evolutionary argument for the efficacy of perception seems rock-solid to me (probably because it appeals to my old-fashioned 19th-century materialism), and it doesn't appear to be another example of the Darwinian 'paradigm creep' that defines contemporary intellectual culture, the tendency to throw Darwin/Dawkins/Dennett (The Three D Boyz) at everything and see what sticks.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

False Conundrum No.1 : If a Tree Falls in the Forest...

If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?

No. Of course not. This is neither a conundrum, nor a paradox, nor a mystery. Falling trees do not 'make' sounds, not even when red-shirted lumberjacks are there to hear them. When a tree falls, it displaces a large amount of air; the periodic rhythm of this displaced air then travels through the atmosphere in a manner akin to the ripples that move across the surface of a pond after a stone is dropped in. Only when this atmospheric movement strikes a human ear (or a microphone, which is merely a mechanical ear) is sound produced. A sound is how the human ear and brain perceive the periodic displacement of air. Sounds are 'made' by the human sensorium, not falling trees.

On a related note, consider this: You know that person sitting across from you on a blind date and babbling on and on tiresomely about his incredibly boring life? He isn't making a sound. You are.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

On Jargon (with an attempt to explain Derrida in 279 nonjargony words)

I'm not among the defenders of the postmodernist troika of Lacan, Foucault, and Derrida, but in the spirit of Daniel Dennett's line, "There's nothing I like less than bad arguments for a view I hold dear," I'd like to propose a moratorium on the extremely weak 'argument' that tries to criticize postmodernism by quoting examples of pomo jargon. Anyone who has read any of the anti-pomo literature has encountered many examples of this: polemicists who quote passages out of context from Jameson or Zizek or Hartman in order to argue that pomo is impenetrable, elitist, anti-American, and probably leads to gum disease. The most common counterargument--and I think it's good enough--is that since Lacanian psychoanalysis, Foucaultian sociology and Derridean linguistics are highly specialized fields, they have developed a highly specialized jargon comparable to that of other specialized fields. All specialists, from auto mechanics to cardiologists, from carpenters to concert pianists, speak a language that is at times impenetrable to the uninitiated. They use words like 'differential,' 'manifold,' 'aneurysm,' 'endovascular,' 'skirting,' 'architrave,' 'demisemiquaver,' 'ostinato,' and they use these words for the same reason pomo theorists say things like 'interpellation,' 'deconstruction,' 'subjection,' 'abjection,' 'aporia,' and 'zeugma': the specialized language is a rhetorical shorthand that allows them to talk more economically among themselves. Like any foreign language, postmodernist jargon ceases to seem impenetrable once you've taken the time to learn it. (Whether or not it's worth the time is a question for another day.)

On a related note, a reader on another thread has challenged me to explain Derrida in plain language. Here's my attempt:

Derrida begins with the idea that Western intellectual discourse--philosophy, linguistics, anthropology, literature, etc.-- has historically valued speech over writing due to the perception that speech, issuing directly from the speaker's mouth, has more presence, and thus more authority, than a written text. He then argues that this quality of presence in speech is an illusion because all language, spoken and written, is devoid of presence. This lack of presence is a fundamental feature of language because, as Derrida argues, language is a closed system that can refer only to itself. Words refer not to things in the world but to other words (definitions), each of which refers to still other words, ad infinitum. Language is free play, a dance over an abyss of meaninglessness. Any attempt to enclose language in meaning is a form of linguistic violence, an arbitrary exercise of power. One response to this hidden rhetorical violence is to reveal it through 'deconstruction,' a process that generalizes Derrida's initial approach to the speech vs. writing conflict and applies analogous techniques to the other seemingly stubborn dualities that define our lives: male/female, gay/straight, liberal/conservative, foreign/domestic, etc., etc.. The first step in the deconstructive process is to reverse the traditional polarity (the privileging of male over female, for example); the next step is to show that this reversal is equally illusory because it remains trapped in some arbitrary, historically contingent pattern of thought (in the male/female example, this would be the idea of strict, dualistic gender definitions); step three would reveal the hidden hand of patriarchal power in the definition of the idea of gender, thus dissolving the initial duality into a power-motivated rhetorical construction, a function of language.

This is grotesquely simplified and doesn't even attempt to glance at all of Derrida's writings, but I think it's a fairly clear and reasonable nutshell of the most influential part of his thought and its political utility.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Marking Marcel Proust's 142nd Birthday

Today is the 142nd anniversary of the birth of the creator of Odette, Swann, Albertine, and the Baron de Charlus, among many, many others. His most impressive feat of imaginative characterization, however, was his invention of 'Marcel,' the purely fictional narrator who is usually incorrectly assumed to be a veiled self-portrait. The great interest of William Carter's biography of Proust lies in its revelation of the life of bourgeois banality that Proust transformed into unadulterated aesthetic gold. Nabokov was probably making a juvenile, mildly homophobic pun when he called the Recherche a "fairy tale," but he also made a solid point: Proust's roman fleuve is as much a work of the imagination as The Master and Margarita (or, for that matter, A Game of Thrones). Celebrate Proust's birthday with a tea-soaked madeleine, an evening at the opera, and a visit to Chez Jupien.

Friday, July 5, 2013

"Choctaw Bingo" by James McMurtry

For the Fourth of July weekend, here's James McMurtry and his 12-string with a pristine performance of "Choctaw Bingo," his great American epic of the Texahoma crystal meth industry, gun nuttery, Indian smokeshops, and that big ole catfish caught up in Lake Eufaula. As a lyric portraitist, McMurtry paints a highly recognizable picture of a large part of America today. (And yes, he's Larry's son.)