Archive for the Atheism Category

The Atheist Allegory of Duncan Jones’ Film “Moon”

Posted in Atheism, Religion, Review on March 6, 2011 by S.A.

Add Duncan Jones’ low-budget, 2009 sci-fi film Moon to the list of well-made, allegorical movies with an atheistic angle.

If you have not seen this film, read no further. Please. Don’t even read any “spoiler- free” reviews. Just go watch it. The analysis that follows is chock-full of spoilers. In  fact, even the trailer for the film contains more information than one should know before viewing the movie. Avoid reading anything more about it, and just see it.
Sam Rockwell in Moon
I will not summarize the arc of the story here, as the reader at this point is assumed to have recently seen the film. What follows is a succinct overview of how I see Moon as an allegory for the inhumanity of many organized religions, and the dignity of a realistic,  if less comforting, worldview sans god(s).

For the overwhelming majority of us, we spend our short and perhaps meaningless lives repeatedly working through our menial tasks, while looking forward to an eventual reward beyond the world we are confined to. And so it is for the lonely Sam Bell, whose stint of labor on the moon is made livable only by his counting the days until he is reunited with his family on earth, an entire world away. His employers leverage his desire, feeding him lies about the emotionally-charged rewards that are awaiting him soon. Similarly, most of us have been promised eventual reunions with long-missed loved ones, and these promises  come from similarly powerful organizations that often have a vested interest in keeping  us complacent. But, just as it is with Sam, when our bodies fall apart and it is time to  collect our otherworldly rewards, we are instead utterly (and obviously, unknowingly)  destroyed. A never-ending string of lives that are essentially just like our own will continue in this progression, without ever realizing what the bleak reality really is.

Man has one powerful ally, though, just as Sam does, and that is Reason. In the story, Reason is represented by the computer GERTY. He was not intended to be an accessory to Sam as he tries to eventually understand and break free of his situation. Rather, GERTY was initially given to Sam merely as a tool that would help him perform his job better. In a similar way, we’ve been told by numerous theologians that reason is a gift from God, to help us better serve Him. This is indeed the simple role that GERTY plays for a number of generations of Sam, mirroring the status of “philosophy as the handmaiden of theology” for mankind.

But something happens to GERTY, who is a kind of doppelgänger to Kubrick’s HAL9000. GERTY goes beyond the intentions of his programmers and helps Sam dig deeper into the reality around him. This seems to be an outcome of his general orders to help Sam in whatever way he needs.

Eventually, when Reason is teamed up with the innate curiosity and indomitable spirit of a particularly inquisitive mind, (and as GERTY helps Sam) we get something much bigger than the sum of the two: Science. In the film, Sam’s uncanny knack to get GERTY to assist him in ways that his employers would surely frown upon is what leads him to eventually understand the hideous secret at the heart of his tenure on the moonbase.

One outcome of Science, often bemoaned, is that it has revealed a number of unattractive truths about reality. That we do not enjoy a privileged place in the universe. That we are one of myriad species that arose from a myriad contingencies that would likely never happen again, if, as Stephen Jay Gould said, the tape of evolutionary history was paused, rewound, and replayed. And that there is no reason to think that at the end of our lives, the electrochemical processes stop, and we are simply No More.

Sam ultimately discovers, with GERTY’s help and his own gumption, is that there will be no heavenly reward, that he was designed to be an automaton of a cynical establishment. One can argue that what GERTY does is ultimately a disservice to Sam, in that if Sam was left in an ignorant state, he’d have been “blissfully” unaware of a lot of ugly reality and would have been happily incinerated in the box dreaming of his wife and daughter.

Which gets to the crux of the matter: what is “better”: a harsh, but realistic worldview, or wishful thinking carried to the point where we become believers in something that isn’t real?

I have never seen any reason to think that there is Something out there watching over us, that is concerned about us, that will deliver the afterlife we mat crave. Science certainly has never given us any reason to think it is the case, and Science is the only method of human knowledge that has any reasonable track record of success. Not comforting, it is the reality that reason ultimately leads us to. But, just as with Sam, this isn’t a reason for ultimate despair. It merely opens the door for us to do something about it, on our own, if we can find a way.



Posted in Atheism, Misc, Religion with tags , , on October 22, 2009 by S.A.

Below are some excerpts from an essay by Pastor Douglas Wilson, as part of the promotional material for a new film that he made together with Christopher Hitchens, called Collision. It looks like a very interesting idea for a film, by the way, as it chronicles a series of debates between christian Wilson and atheist Hitchens. Unfortunately, based on the poor quality of Wilson’s arguments as sampled in the essay, it looks as though the theist side might be rather poorly represented. I also saw an online clip from the film that features him talking to a group of rather inarticulate college students that apparently were members of a campus atheism club. I hope more of the film features legitimate interlocutors for him.

In addition to the quoted excerpts from his article, I’ve added some of my thoughts. Wilson makes a number of facile arguments that have will provide a certain emotion compulsion to some people, and they warrant being corrected.

From the perspective of a Christian, the refusal of an atheist to be a Christian is dismaying, but it is at least intelligible. But what is really disconcerting is the failure of atheists to be atheists. That is the thing that cries out for further exploration.

What does it mean to be an atheist? It is a definition of negation. It says little about what you do believe. It merely means that there is one kind of thing that you do not believe in, namely, an Omnipotent, Omnipresent, All-Powerful Being Outside of Time that Somehow Created Everything. That is all. To say that most atheists somehow fail to be atheists is a bit odd, because it can only mean that the ostensible atheist really does believe in “God.” Is this what Wilson is trying to say? It turns out, no. He is rather setting up a strawman to represent all atheists, which he’ll then try to knock down.

The atheistic worldview is nothing if not inherently reductionistic, whether this is admitted or not.

First of all, there is not a single cut-and-dried “atheistic worldview” any more than a lack of belief in goblins constitutes some kind of worldview. One could, by definition, be an atheist and believe that we exist in some kind of computer simulation devised up by alien minds, for example. Some atheists as Buddhists, and others (myself included) are pantheists.

Second, the only reductionism that Wilson might be able to speak of, in trying to globally assign all atheists to a particular philosophy, is the reductionism that lies at the heart of the scientific method. As a matter of investigative routine, we usually start with more complex phenomena, and, to understand and explain them, break them down into simpler bits. For example, to understand how some mental or nervous process occurs, physically, we need to understand how the nervous system is formed, which means understanding neurons and their electrochemistry, which requires cellular biology, which leads us to organic chemistry, which leads us to molecules, and atoms, and electrons and quarks. To approach it any other way would be impractical. But, having used this method to unravel how the parts fit together, it hardly follows that “that is all there is” –  because the universe doesn’t necessarily function in a top-down, the-whole-is-the-sum-of-its-parts way, but more probably in a bottom-up mode, where emergent complex behavior can and does arise. It is a Fallacy of Composition to assert that because the subatomic components of brains follow certain rules (or exhibit certain random behaviors) that complex structures built from them are merely agglomerations of them with no additional properties or meaning.

Everything that happens is a chance-driven rattle-jattle jumble in the great concourse of atoms that we call time. Time and chance acting on matter have brought about, in equally aimless fashion, the 1927 New York Yankees, yesterday’s foam on a New Jersey beach, Princess Di, [etc…]

What does he mean by “chance-driven rattle-jattle jumble”, do you suppose? I’m a physicist by education, and an atheist by choice, and I certainly do not regard “everything that happens” in the facile terms that Wilson patronizingly uses here. The tacit implication is the simpleminded one, that if the Universe was not planned by the kind of god he has in mind, then everything is happenstance randomness. This is a false either-or dichotomy.

What I do know is that we have luckily become smart enough to develop a pretty effective method to study the world around us, and to understand that nature consists of a number of different kinds of particles that behave in consistent ways, with a certain degree of randomness sprinkled in. The result is a tremendous amount of both order and diversity, seeming chaos amidst rigorous structure. And given enough time and space, it isn’t surprising, really, that from such a bedground could arise self-replicating molecules and self-replicating cells acting under external pressures that force them to continually improve and diversify, with the end result of the highly goal-directed, emergent activity of life.

The problem is that this atheistic assumption does the very same thing to the atheist’s case for atheism. The atheist gives us an account of all things which makes it impossible for us to believe that any account of all things could possibly be true.

But atheism, of course, is not an attempt to “give an account of all things.” Moreover, the lack of positive belief in an untestable conjecture in no way invalidates our ability to make meaningful observations and draw conclusions about the world that have predictive and explanatory merit.

Educated persons generally understand that there are fundamental limits to our knowledge, at least at this time, and probably forever. We know from both physics and mathematics that the world is far more complex than would allow us to account for everything. There are forbidden questions in quantum mechanics. We understand that there are no mathematical systems that are both complete and consistent. There are metaphysical question that lie outside the purview of our tools, that certainly seem valid enough, but which answers likely do not exist for (e.g., “why is there a Universe at all, instead of just nothing?”)

I do not know any atheists that actually think that any worldview delivers “an account of all things.” Most of us are well aware of the difficulties of finite minds that make mistakes grappling with a complex world, and would not be so brash as to think we have it all figured out, or ever will. But the one idea that all atheists share is that facile, wishful-thinking-based explanations that appeal to our vanities, fears, and emotions, and which do not have any kind of empirical support but are rather correlated with whichever ancient myth our particular ancestors might have invented, don’t deserve serious consideration as being factually true.

Nor does atheism allow us to have any fixed ethical standard, or the possibility of beauty.

These are the kinds of comments from certain kinds of theists that truly are offensive. They’d deny a sense of morality and aesthetics to all manner of good people that lived rich lives without theism. (And it is the atheist they they turn around and label “arrogant”!)

What most atheists (but not all – go talk to any Ayn Rand fan or Objectivist and you’ll see) would probably agree with is the idea that there is no universal standard of ethics or beauty that is somehow established as empirical law, in the way that gravitation, for example, is. This isn’t a terribly difficult idea to grasp, given the centuries of human history that would tend to confirm it. But with the either-or fallacious thinking of Wilson and his ilk, we are presented with an implicit choice of “either you have fixed, eternal standards of ethics/aesthetics, or you have absolutely nothing.” There is no entertaining the notion that these concepts could indeed come from human minds, yet be no less valuable or profound for it. In fact, they might even be moreso.

And not content to let sleeping dogs lie, reason also brings us the inexorable consequences of atheism, which includes the unpalatable but necessary conclusion that random neuron firings do not amount to any “truth” that corresponds to anything outside our heads.

There is nothing in the rejection of an unsupported conjecture about a Superbeing that in turn entails that the human mind cannot ascertain knowledge of what is going on outside it, through a meticulous, self-correcting process of observation, test, corroboration, and repetition. Wilson’s suggestion is absolutely absurd. And yes, our statements of truth in science come with error bars, because the relentless complexity of the world necessitates that we quantify and account for the ways in which our work can go wrong. Not only are the patterns of neuron firings not random, the results of clear and structured thinking do indeed correspond to the world about us. Sometimes what it ends up telling us isn’t exactly what we’d like to hear, in our vanity – for science has removed us from the center of the universe and has, in some sense, made us another twig on a vast phylogenic tree of life. I’d guess that the accompanying humility does not sit well with the likes of the Pastor Wilson, who divides the possibilities into two cases: “God’s special creature” or “meaningless automata” with no other possibilities.

Now obviously, [Christianity] is a message that can be believed or disbelieved. But the reason for mentioning it here includes the important point that such a set of convictions makes it possible for us to believe that reason can be trusted, that goodness does not change with the evolutionary times, and that beauty is grounded in the very heart of God. Someone who believes these things doesn’t believe that we are just fizzing.

Translation: Since it is all too difficult and demeaning to think that we (and our emotions) have a natural origin, let’s have a “God” to explain why and how we are just so damn special. So we can feel better about ourselves. If our imaginations are not up to the task of seeing how a naturalistic cosmos might produce self-aware beings with cognition that can in turn act upon the canvas that they slowly sprang up from, then we’ll just call the process “divine” and be done with it. It is the Argument From Personal Incredulity again, and here it is no more persuasive than when it is more commonly used by biology-ignoramuses when they think they have made an argument by stating “but I can’t see how we could have evolved!”

You can deny that this God exists, of course, and you can throw the whole cosmos into that pan of reduction sauce. And you can keep the heat on by publishing one atheist missive after another. But what you should not be allowed to do is cook the whole thing bone dry and call the crust on the bottom an example of the numinous or transcendent. Calling it that provides us with no reason to believe it — and numerous reasons not to.

The “numinous and transcendent” can describe emotional responses to the world around one. That anyone can react positively and with genuine feeling to the ineffable sublimity of nature without thinking there is some Magical Being Behind It All, is apparently offensive to Wilson. Well, his views are even more offensive to those of us about the globe, stretching far back in time, that have lived and loved and wondered every bit as much as this pompous pastor may have, but without the Sky-Father explanation to fall back on.

Dante, Socrates, and ‘Situational Ethics’

Posted in Atheism, Dante, Hell, Religion with tags , , , on September 19, 2009 by S.A.


In Plato’s Apology, Socrates speaks movingly about the prospects of his imminent death. He finds no reason for alarm over his upcoming demise, as he sees two possibilities beyond the grave: the first is blissful unawareness and the utter destruction of consciousness, Hamlet’s consummation devoutly to be wished; the second is an afterlife in which all souls of the dead would be able to socialize, converse, and generally pal around together. (Shame on Socrates for thinking that only these two possibilities might obtain. For someone of his intellect, he should have recognized that when speculating on matters that cannot be investigated, there are literally an infinity of possibilities). Socrates says:

What would not a man give if he might converse with Orpheus and Musaeus and Hesiod and Homer? … What would not a man give, O judges, to be able to examine the leader of the great Trojan expedition; or Odysseus or Sisyphus, or numberless others, men and women too?

According to The Divine Comedy, it is the second scenario that is the fate for Socrates, for there he is, in the First Circle of Hell, with other great minds and heroes from the classical world – the likes of Homer, Ovid, Aristotle, Democritus, Aeneas and Hector. And just as he anticipated, it isn’t a bad life (or afterlife), but it isn’t heaven, either. The residents here are in Limbo: they are not tortured, burned, maimed, or harassed by demons. They are left to share each other’s company and certainly must have a number of stimulating discourses. (It always seemed that, given how the treatment in the Vestibule is so much worse than that in Limbo, that they should be reversed.) But these souls are yet denied the pleasures of Paradise, and this is something that these ancient worthies are aware of, and which they no doubt commiserate over.

Why were these Virtuous Pagans sent to a benign part of Hell instead of being rewarded for their virtues in Heaven? Through no fault of their own, they were born at the wrong time, before that glorious age when God finally had His Plan all worked out and sent His Son to earth to suffer that famous, staged death. And only those people that had the opportunity to accept Christ would be given the chance to get to Paradise. Regardless of how moral anyone born before that time might have been, regardless of any brave or selfless acts they may have committed, or what mysteries they may have solved, they were, in the modern vernacular, Shit-Outta-Luck.

It hardly seems fair to run a world that way, but let’s give Dante the benefit of the doubt. Let’s take the tack that those born before Christ’s time didn’t know the full rules of the game, so to speak, so they couldn’t earn the rewards of accepting Him- but at least they would not incur the harsh penalties reserved for those that violated Christian laws, either.

Except that isn’t quite the way it plays out. Recall Socrates mentioned Odysseus (that is, Ulysses), as one of the persons he looked forward to meeting after death. But that intrepid wanderer isn’t there in Dante’s First Circle. Socrates must have been disappointed. It turns out that Socrates will not be speaking with him at all. Odysseus is in Hell, to be sure, but he isn’t in Limbo with so many other Greeks. Because he was regarded as an “Evil Counselor” he has been sent to the Eight Circle, where his afterlife isn’t very pleasant; it involves a bit of roasting.

So, for Dante, the punishments of Hell are enforced retroactively, while the rewards of Heaven are not. Regardless of your virtues, if you lived before a certain date, you cannot get the full rewards offered to others. But you can still incur the penalties of sin. It is also an admission that the standards of good and evil existed before God set them out explicitly in the Christian version, although the consequences and rewards are not meted out consistently.

Then, there is also the matter of the souls that were removed from the First Circle during ‘the harrowing of Hell.’ These include Adam, Abel, Abraham, Rachel, David, Moses, and Noah, all born before Christ as well, but given Get Out Of Hell Free cards because they were mentioned in the Old Testament, apparently. The likes of Abraham, he who was prepared to murder his own son at the behest of the voices in his head, and Moses, the leader that slaughtered countless innocents and condemned countless young women to slavery and rape, go to Heaven. Socrates, brilliant philosopher and advocate of reason, stays in Hell.

I imagine Socrates would not be impressed with this scheme. Nor Odysseus, for that matter. And I’m reminded of how various fundamentalists decry the values of secularists and humanists as involving “situational ethics.” As if Christianity is some kind of model for the notion of objective rules and punishments. A few hours browsing in the Old Testament should convince anyone that there has never been a more haphazard, inconsistent, and ever-shifting system of morality than the one that the Hebrew God acted by.

Dante vs. Huck Finn

Posted in Atheism, Dante, Hell, The Infernova on August 29, 2009 by S.A.

This essay is the introductory chapter in The Infernova.

Two unlikely facts collided at the event of my birth, with potentially lethal consequences. The first fact concerned the genes that my parents carried in their cells. The second concerned the memes they carried in their heads.

Genetics first: my father was Rh-positive; my mother was not. They had a son before me who inherited the paternal blood type. His birth was without incident, but it set up potential problems for subsequent children. For during the violent process that is childbirth, some of my brother’s blood was introduced into my mother’s circulation, and her immune system, having never seen this Rh-feature before, developed antibodies against them, and would remain permanently antagonistic toward such cells. This was not an issue until it was my turn to arrive. As again some amount of blood was exchanged during birth, my mother’s antibodies found their way into my bloodstream, and began their destructive work on my cells. This is, and was at the time, a well-understood condition, called Hemolytic Disease of the Newborn. It can result in anemia, seizures, brain damage, and death.

This disease is straightforward to treat: the infant’s blood is simply exchanged. The antibodies from the mother are pumped out, and Rh-positive blood is pumped in.

Now as for my parents’ memes: as they were Jehovah’s Witnesses, they were carriers and victims of a set of wild ideas about Life, God, and How We Are Supposed To Act. Witnesses believe in all manner of nonsense, but critical here is their idiosyncratic interpretation of particular Bible passages, such as Acts 15:28-29:

For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things; that ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well.

They read this as an injunction to abstain from blood entirely: it isn’t just an edict against imbibing it, but against taking it intravenously. Even to save your life. Or your child’s life.

As these two facts came together in early 1967, my father informed the medical staff that the transfusion was not an option. The hospital thought otherwise, thankfully, and obtained a court order from the state to proceed with the transfusion. My father was also given some education involving terms such as manslaughter, in order to help dissuade him of any thoughts about absconding with me or otherwise attempting to prevent the treatment. The blood exchange was performed and I recovered in accordance with the expectations of medical science.

I learned of all this when I was an adult, long after my parents had split up, and my mother told me about it, at last lifting a decades-old burden from her conscience. Although they were both Witnesses at the time of my birth, my mother’s innate maternal senses overruled the religious mandates, though she kept this to herself. Privately she was quite glad that the State of New York stepped in to save her child’s life.

From day one, my life has been profoundly affected by religion. As you might imagine, I’m not sympathetic to the views of the Witnesses in particular, or organized religion in general.

Not every Witness child requiring serious medical attention is saved by the courts. Sometimes the parents prevail–usually with an older child trained well enough to parrot their parents’ views and convince a judge of a certain level of maturity; enabling them to effectively choose suicide, a choice, ironically, that most religions will not extend to terminally ill, suffering adults.

A gruesome series of such accounts can be found in the May 22, 1994 issue of the Witnesses’ Awake! magazine. ”Youths Who Put God First” is the cover story, and it details case histories for a number of children who managed to avoid a blood transfusion and subsequently died. Vignettes of young lives cut short by wasting disease are troubling; far more disturbing is the article’s celebration of their martyrdom. And it seems as if we’ve become numb to this sort of idiocy these days, with the routine suicide bombings in the ”holy lands” that originate from the same irrational mindset.

For, just as with religious terrorists, the motivation behind the stupefying actions of the Witnesses is a hysterical concern with What Happens Beyond The Grave. Open the their literature and the root causes for their behavior are laid bare. They firmly believe in an Armageddon that is imminent, where God will launch a massive assault upon the earth, from which only they will be spared. After that, eternal life in Paradise awaits.

Whereas the Islamic version of heaven seems tailored to appeal to sexually repressed males and their hopes for unending pleasures of the flesh, the Witnesses would seem to target a younger audience. Their ubiquitous, colorful renderings of Paradise On Earth feature pastoral scenes of seaside picnics, exuberant families of young and old, racial harmony, and always the animals. A docile lion that allows children to climb all over him has appeared more than once (right now I’m looking at one of their illustrations where a beach ball lies between the ex-carnivore’s paws). If you want your Youth To Put God First, pandering to their innate affinities can’t hurt.

Obviously, the children discussed in the Awake! story demonstrated great courage, which I don’t mean to disparage, but I do mean to attack the root causes that forced them to act so. To persuade them to honestly believe they’d go to a better place–for eternity–by employing fantasies that would strengthen their resolve to suffer a needless death, is simply evil. These children are to be pitied. The monstrous ideas, institutions, and adults that put them in such situations, that misinformed their decisions with such lethal nonsense, are to be reviled.

The concepts of eternal rewards, and the suffering and trials needed to secure them, seem part of our interior makeup. When used as a template for narrative, when the mythology stays allegorical, when it all lies merely at the heart of a story arc, then they enliven and make resonant much of our literature and lore. But when religions wield them and bully us into taking them literally, all manner of conflict and misery result.

The original work that this book parodies, Dante’s Divine Comedy, blends both the allegorical and literal perspectives of religious myth. Read it like Homer’s Odyssey and see a perilous quest to find a peaceful home at last. Read it literally and see magnificent poetry wasted on the religious nonsense of a backward age. (Imagining what his immense talents might have celebrated had he lived in an age of human progress is what first inspired me to build my own narrative with the structure he used.)

Dante’s trip through Hell, great literature that it is, was motivated by the ethics of punishments and rewards, where God’s wrath is to be avoided and eternal bliss is to be achieved. Dante’s trepidation in Hell is palpable at times, but it’s always quite clear that he’s not really in danger of becoming a permanent resident. He’s a tourist; a student going through a process of striking and effective deterrence, like a seventh grader in shop class, forced to watch a documentary film that might have been named What Happens To Kids Who Don’t Wear Safety Glasses. Even before he completed the entire odyssey, the fate of Dante’s soul was never really in doubt. The visit to Hell was temporary. Paradise would be forever.

Dante’s choice to tour that terrifying abyss may be seen as a brave act by some, but it absolutely pales in comparison to another momentous literary decision involving eternity and Hell. A choice that was made by an astounding character that appeared some six hundred years later; a homeless waif on a different kind of odyssey: Huckleberry Finn, who was definitely not A Youth Who Put God First.

In Chapter 31 of his Adventures, struggling to do his duty and return the slave Jim to his owner, Huck is certain that Providence watches his every move with great interest. Will he attempt to purchase the tenuous freedom of a being considered subhuman, at the cost of his own soul? The climax of the book is the moment he finds the courage to ignore the sticks and carrots proffered by the religion of his society, and to make the bravest choice of all–to act true to his own self and his own conscience:

I was a-trembling, because I got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: ”All right then, I’ll go to hell.”

He does the right thing, and he does it in spite of a certain conviction that he will suffer endless torment for it. A more breathtakingly moral decision would be a challenge to find in any other works of literature, including those considered to be ”holy” books.

There has never been an intelligent person of the age of sixty who would consent to live his life over again. His or anyone else’s.” Mark Twain wrote, and given the era, I can’t say I blame him. And as he set out in his little known, satirical Letters from the Earth, heaven did not look to be much more desirable than the other place. I hope he’d forgive me for bringing him back to life in my story. Based on his affinity for contraptions (he invested heavily, and without profit, in an 18,000-part automatic-typesetting machine called the Paige Compositor, about which he wrote, ”All the other inventions of the human brain sink pretty nearly into commonplaces contrasted with this awful mechanical miracle…”), I thought it fitting to perform his resurrection by extrapolating forward the information technologies that have proliferated in our time, technologies that connect words and machines in ways that likely would have pleased him greatly.

Two examples of such extrapolation can be gleaned from the writings of professors Nick Bostrom and Frank Tipler. Bostrom, an Oxford philosopher, developed a clever argument for the so-called Simulation Hypothesis, which asserts a nonzero probability that we are all living in a vast computer simulation, while Tipler, in his book The Physics of Immortality, proposes an ”Omega Point” in the future where humans have colonized space, built supercomputers that can support human consciousness, and resurrected everyone who has ever lived. However small the likelihoods of such eventualities, they at least provide semi-plausible examples of purely naturalistic ways in which ”godlike” power could eventually develop and how a kind of eternal life could occur. They are more credible than anything traditional religion ever offered, and afford us an opportunity to look at such admittedly fascinating concepts as immortality, for once, through a lens not smeared with the dirty thumbprints of theism.

Many fine people are believers, of course, and I would be amiss not to acknowledge the important function religion often serves in providing narratives for our lives. Most of us seem to need a structure around which to base our actions. But that scaffolding can be built from better materials than a black rock in the desert or splinters of a cross. Purpose can be found without stupefying dogma and life-threatening irrationality to accompany it. To set out my own narrative, of how we err, and how wishful thinking can lead us so wrong, is why I wrote the parody that follows. Mix in equal parts of love for Dante’s genius and Twain’s spirit. My paradise, a destination seen at the start and end of my New Inferno, isn’t Dante’s, and it certainly isn’t the Witnesses’. It’s the world revealed by science, bit by bit through the meticulous and honest work of men and women speaking a common language, seeking understanding and benefit for all.

The paradise toward which science works is tied down to no particular geographical place, but I can’t help but locate the site of my own Divine Comedy in the state where my story started, where J.D. Salinger’s famous fictional youth descended through his personal inferno to eventually glimpse paradise for a moment with his sister in Central Park. Not far from there is the Waldorf- Astoria, where my parents honeymooned and set the biological dominoes in motion that would so affect me in a few years. Where, on one side of the Brooklyn Bridge (with its odd status as a kind of icon of gullibility), sits the world headquarters of the Jehovah’s Witnesses (which may in fact be the World Headquarters of Gullibility). And where a clear and horrific demonstration of the destructive power of faith-based thinking was made in the form of an elaborately planned mass murder on a September morning.

But mostly I see the city as symbolic capital of the state that saved my life in 1967. ”I Love NY” is, for me, much more than a famous slogan.

You don’t need religion to have holy places.

Eternity: Smoking or Nonsmoking?

Posted in Atheism, Dante, Hell, The Infernova with tags , , on August 13, 2009 by S.A.


I’ve long been ambivalent about Dante’s Divine Comedy, because for such a magnificent, imaginative story, it is built on a foundation of utter, malevolent nonsense. I feel similarly about Milton’s Paradise Lost. What a pity that such artists of antiquity had little to work with beyond the superstitions endemic to their age and geographical location. This has long been the case, of course – Homer’s epic poems are underpinned by legions of gods, after all – but the religious themes are far less intrusive on the story itself.

There are several reasons for this. First, Homer’s gods bear little resemblance to what the term God has come to mean today – after all they are as human as the human characters themselves, albeit more powerful. This is different with Dante. Perhaps because the religion that informs his work is still alive today – that there are so many millions that actually take it all seriously and go about causing problems because of it. Worshippers of Athena or Ares are quite rare, and they don’t endanger the world with silly ideas about condom use.

Second, and more importantly, the worldview at the core of The Inferno is integral to the story, and it is a worldview that is immoral and rotten. That isn’t true for The Iliad or The Odyssey.

I make my case for the evil heart that beats at the center of Dante’s universe in my book, and I’ll augment it here over the course of various essays related to different portions of The Infernova and The Inferno. To that end, it is instructive to begin at the beginning, with the famous inscription on the gates of Hell (all of my Dante quotes are from the fantastic John Ciardi translation of The Divine Comedy).

I Am The Way Into The City Of Woe.
I Am The Way To A Forsaken People.
I Am The Way Into Eternal Sorrow.

Sacred Justice Moved My Architect.
I Was Raised Here By Divine Omnipotence,
Primordial Love And Ultimate Intellect.

Only Those Elements Time Cannot Wear
Were Made Before Me, And Beyond Time I Stand.
Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here.

Justice? Love? Intellect? These are the driving forces behind the creation of eternal torment for sundry crimes all finite in nature? Even in the Fourteenth century, it must have made little sense. To think that the earth sat as the center of the universe, attended by the orbiting sun and moon and planets, is understandable. To think that living beings were the handiwork of some master being, is understandable too, since they did not have the explanation of natural selection readily at hand. But the notion that the apogee of Divine Justice included such an unbalanced, disproportionate weighting of crime and punishment is impossible to grasp. So apologists are left only with the classic “Who Are You To Question God’s Plan” defense. His ways are mysterious and not comprehensible to the little minds of men.

When I decided to have a go at rewriting Dante’s vision of Hell, I planned to make one point clearly, loudly and often – that even within the context of the dream in which my story occurs, it isn’t meant to be real. It’s a simulation, an amusement park ride, a visit to the Holodeck. The ‘souls’ that suffer in my hell are no more sentient than animatronics. Yes, the illusion is that they suffer, and the emotional impact is the same, just as the emotional impact from a film isn’t blunted by the fact that it isn’t real. And yes, it is tempting to put the likes of a pedophile-priest or a terrorist into an everlasting torture chamber, but it isn’t just. No matter how heinous their crimes, they were finite in scope. To prescribe an infinite punishment is to scoff at the concept of justice.

The details of hellish afterlives in Christianity and Islam, including their unlimited time scales, are what they are because they comprise the worst possible punishments anyone could dream up. Organized religion evolved under the pressure of many external forces, but certainly the notion of eternal damnation must have quickly gained in utility because it served as the ultimate consequence, the biggest possible stick to go with the biggest possible carrot. If you wish to dissuade people from a particular action, why bother threatening them with a finite consequence when you could offer up something far worse, since it cannot be verified or disputed? Just go all the way, peg the needle, turn the knob to eleven, and assure them that they’ll be tormented forever. There isn’t anything worse. No other religion is going to come along and one-up you with a more efficacious threat of damnation.

There is still a vertigo I feel when I contemplate that otherwise normal people here in the 21st century actually believe in Hell being literally true. I used to live in the Bible Belt, and had neighbors with signs in their yards about hellfire. I never spoke to them, as I tried to avoid them (just as I avoid a coworker here in Minnesota whose bumper sticker reads “Eternity: Smoking or Nonsmoking?”) but I doubt these people would have found fault with the Irish Catholic vision of Hell that James Joyce relates in A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man:

Ever to be in hell, never to be in heaven; ever to be shut off from the presence of God, never to enjoy the beatific vision; ever to be eaten with flames, gnawed by vermin, goaded with burning spikes, never to be free from those pains; ever to have the conscience upbraid one, the memory enrage, the mind filled with darkness and despair, never to escape; ever to curse and revile the foul demons who gloat fiendishly over the misery of their dupes, never to behold the shining raiment of the blessed spirits; ever to cry out of the abyss of fire to God for an instant, a single instant, of respite from such awful agony, never to receive, even for an instant, God’s pardon; ever to suffer, never to enjoy; ever to be damned, never to be saved; ever, never; ever, never.

This is the product of Love? Justice? Intellect?

Intelligent? No, Incompetent, Iniquitous Design

Posted in Atheism, Religion with tags , , , , , , on August 4, 2009 by S.A.

Being a former Jehovah’s Witness, I occasionally peruse their website just for laughs. Much of what they believe is pretty standard fundamentalist Christian fare. But there is just something about the way they say it that is inimitable. Here is something I found on a page at their site, titled Life, A Product of Design:

Toddlers tumble and bump their heads. Older children fall from trees and off bicycles. Athletes crash into one another on the playing field. Motorists have countless road accidents. Yet, in spite of all these falls, bumps, and crashes, we often escape without serious injury. We tend to take the toughness and resilience of our bodies for granted. But as scientists are beginning to discover, from our bones to our skin, we are the product of truly brilliant designs.

Apart from the bogus reference to new “discoveries” by “scientists”, this little blurb is really quite remarkable: it is so ridiculously naive, optimistic and unrealistic that it would make Dr. Pangloss himself blush.

This kind of “design argument” is a sort of drivel that we nontheists often hear, and the response will generally go the direction of explaining that there is nothing about animal anatomy and physiology that evolutionary biology cannot explain. Of equal importance is to point out to the design proponents that for every example of “good design” they can come up with, there are at least as many, if not many more, examples of “design” that don’t paint such a pretty picture.

There is a wonderful page over at that features a compilation of many such examples. If you’ve never seen it before, it is a must-read. Bookmark it and peruse it when you can. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll be inspired. The page is here.

Here is an example, to give you an idea of the content. Most of the entries include citations as well:

Only a Designer would have had the infinite wisdom and compassion to create the nematode known as the guinea worm or medina worm, which grows to be three feet long and reaches sexual maturity inside human beings. The larval form of the worm lives inside a tiny crustacean found in drinking water. A human being who has swallowed such water becomes infected by the worm which travels to the legs (or other parts of the body) where it causes painful inflammation and crippling muscle damage. When you bathe in a chilly lake or stream, the worm sticks its head out of your leg and releases thousands of eggs…

Here is another:

Only a Designer would have had the infinite wisdom and compassion to create the tuberculosis bacterium, the world’s deadliest contagion. In the last two hundred years it has killed an estimated two billion people and disfigured, crippled, and blinded billions more. During the late nineteenth century it killed more people in the United States than any other disease. It presently infects one third of all the people on earth (though most are merely latent carriers), and kills nearly three million people each year…

Behold! The exquisitely designed tuberculosis bacteria, one of God's special gifts to His children.

Behold! The exquisitely designed tuberculosis bacteria, one of God's special gifts to His children.

You get the idea. Not exactly pleasant reading, but then again, reality is chock full of unpleasantries, and the best way to deal with them is head-on. It is instructive to remind certain people of them, people that would like to think otherwise.

Now, there is no reason why we cannot come at this from an angle with a bit more levity to it, and that is exactly what the poet Philip D. Appleman has done with his hilarious poem “Intelligent? Design?” from his book Karma, Dharma, Pudding & Pie, which is written to flow with the melody of Battle Hymn of the Republic*. Here is one of the verses:

You wish a guy’s urethra did
The jobs that were proposed:
Both lover’s clout and waterspout
Is what you had supposed.
Alas, the Great Designer squeezed
A prostate ’round your hose:
Intelligent Design!

Something to sing next time the Jehovah’s Witnesses come to your door.


* This famous American song has been the victim of parody before, most notably at the hands of the extremely capable Mark Twain, who used it to make a scathing attack on the perpetrators of the Phillipine-American War. I’m certain Twain would be disappointed, but not surprised, to learn that through much of the century after the war he hated so much, we’d be at it again. Anyway, his version went like this:

Mine eyes have seen the orgy of the launching of the Sword;
He is searching out the hoardings where the stranger’s wealth is stored;
He hath loosed his fateful lightnings, and with woe and death has scored;
His lust is marching on.

I have seen him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps;
They have builded him an altar in the Eastern dews and damps;
I have read his doomful mission by the dim and flaring lamps—
His night is marching on.

I have read his bandit gospel writ in burnished rows of steel:
“As ye deal with my pretensions, so with you my wrath shall deal;
Let the faithless son of Freedom crush the patriot with his heel;
Lo, Greed is marching on!”

We have legalized the strumpet and are guarding her retreat;
Greed is seeking out commercial souls before his judgement seat;
O, be swift, ye clods, to answer him! be jubilant my feet!
Our god is marching on!

In a sordid slime harmonious Greed was born in yonder ditch,
With a longing in his bosom—and for others’ goods an itch.
As Christ died to make men holy, let men die to make us rich—
Our god is marching on.

Dante’s Heretics

Posted in Atheism, Dante, Hell, Religion, The Infernova with tags , , , on July 26, 2009 by S.A.

heretic_burningIn Dante’s Inferno, the Sixth Circle lies within Lower Hell, the region encompassed by the walls of Dis, that demarcation between sins of Incontinence and sins of Violence. His primary denizens here are The Heretics. They receive considerable attention in his text, with four separate Cantos (8 through 11) dedicated to them. More lines are devoted to them than any other group in The Inferno, so they are obviously rather important.

I was interested to learn that the term heresy itself comes from the Greek word for “a choosing.” It would, of course, become synonymous with choosing anything other than orthodox Church doctrine. During Dante’s era, the desire that every member of a community believe exactly as they were told was so strong, and the fear that a heretic would corrupt others was so overwhelming, that it was considered paramount to cut the offending body out of the picture as effectively as possible. Heretics were given a chance to recant their beliefs. Those that did not kowtow to such pressures were typically taken to the stake. The official pronouncement of Pope Innocent III (what an ill-fitting name) was: “Anyone who attempted to construe a personal view of god which conflicted with the church dogma must be burned without pity.”

The hysterical concern with heresy was kicked off in the twelfth century, in reaction to the Cathars, or Albigensians, a sect that considered the world to be a creation of an evil being. They believed in reincarnation. Yet, they were also Christians that spurned material wealth and considered Jesus to be the son of God. But since they openly despised the Catholic Church and labeled it as a tool of Satan, it isn’t surprising that they incurred its wrath (though this hardly excuses the horrific executions that the Church sponsored and called for, and then had secular authorities carry out).

The Cathar persecutions reached their heights decades before Dante’s birth. During his lifetime, a popular target of Catholic persecution was the Beguines, a loosely organized order of devout Christian women. These women held no particularly unorthodox beliefs, lived lives of voluntary simplicity, served the needy, accepted the Church and its authority, and attempted to provide translations of devotional documents that the laity could understand. Marguerite Porete, a Beguine who scandalously wrote (in French, and not in Latin) that it was possible for the soul to find union with God in this life and therefore not need to explicitly cultivate virtue, was rewarded with a trip to the stake in 1310.

And its nice to see that after the excruciating end that these people were given on earth, Dante’s God provides them with the bonus of eternal suffering in a like manner: in The Inferno, heretics are encased in burning tombs with red-hot walls.

All because of God’s “perfect” Love, Intellect, and Justice. And all for a minor difference in the interpretation of dogmas that cannot be tested against reality.