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.

New York and “Two Principles: All The Religion We Need”

Posted in Religion, Review with tags , , , on August 30, 2009 by S.A.


Once I rented, and then sat in awe watching the nine-part classic Baseball from Ken Burns, I knew I’d made a wise choice in subscribing to Netflix. Access to great documentary series like this, that my local video store does not carry, made it a simple matter to get my hands on the rest of the incredible films made by Burns and his brother Ric. My wife and I just finished the sixteen-plus hours of their New York series, which I cannot praise highly enough.

Anyone interested in American history in general will appreciate this series of PBS films; lovers of Gotham will be enthralled and utterly captivated. I certainly was.

The first seven episodes, which comprise the original version, are each two hours in length and cover the history of the city from the time of Henry Hudson, up through the late 1990’s. Some of the specific events that are dealt with in detail include the initial founding of New Amsterdam by the Dutch, the role of the city during the Revolutionary War, the Civil War draft riots, the creation of Central Park, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, the creation of the subway system, the role of Tammany Hall, the impact of the urban renewal projects, and the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. Iconic figures, some familiar, and others not, are painted in rich detail, including Austin Tobin, Robert Moses (“If the ends don’t justify the means, what does?”), Fiorella La Guardia, Boss Tweed, Alexander Hamilton, Al Smith, Petrus Stuyvesant, and DeWitt Clinton. You’ll be surprised just how they, and many others, shaped this chaotic, utterly unique city into what it is today.

An eighth episode was added in 2003 that covers, as one might expect, the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. And while this epilogue includes much disturbing footage of the attacks and the aftermath, and was physically painful to watch at times, the majority of the two-plus hours running time was devoted to the fascinating history behind the construction of the towers, and how most of the residents at first despised them, but eventually came to embrace them. Philippe Petit’s famous high-wire crossing is covered in detail (with plenty of direct commentary from Petit himself) and was absolutely spellbinding.

I was especially impressed with the way that the final episode closed, looking forward to how the city would rebuild Lower Manhattan, a process now well underway with the construction of the gorgeous tower that will be One World Trade Center.

Mario Cuomo, the former governor, had this to say about a memorial for 9-11. Despite a few ideas I’d take issue with (atheism is a religion?), I was quite moved by this sentiment, and his notion of what religion really should be:

I would like to see some depiction of all the religions. List them all: Atheism, Ethical Humanism, Catholicism, etc., and you notice that each of those religions, these value systems, have two principles they share in common. And the two principles started with monotheism and the Jews. Zedakah and Tikkun Olam. Zedakah means generally, we must treat one another as brother and sister. We should show one another respect and dignity because we are like things, we are human beings in a world that has nothing else like us, and we are to treat one another with love, charity, use your own words. The second principle is what do you do with this relationship. Well, we don’t know exactly how we got here, why we got here, etc., etc. That’s for minds larger than ours. But we know that we are like kinds, and we should work together and make this as good an experience as possible. Tikkun Olam. Let us repair the universe. Now, Islam believes that. Buddhism, that has no God, believes it. Every Ethical Humanist I ever met believes it. Those two principles: we’re supposed to love one another, and we’re supposed to work together to make the experience better: that’s all the religion we need, really, to make a success of this planet.

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.

Book Review: Buddhism Without Beliefs

Posted in Misc, Review with tags , on August 22, 2009 by S.A.


I don’t consider myself a Buddhist, though I admit I’ve had a long fascination with it, as well as an affinity for many of its tenets. Mostly, I’m impressed with it because it provides for a “spiritual” (for lack of a batter word) path that can be free of dogma, supernaturalism, and other negative features that often accompany religious traditions.

This isn’t to say that all flavors of Buddhism are reasonable. When I lived in Singapore, I watched many of the Buddhists there celebrating “ghost month” by placing food offerings in shrines, or burning money for the sake of the “spirits” of dead relatives. While this is not a practice that originated in Buddhism, it is an example of how other mystical beliefs have been incorporated into it for assorted sects.

But stripped down to its core, the essence of what the Buddha taught isn’t about adhering to a set of convictions about the world (and especially not about placating one’s deceased ancestors), according to Stephen Batchelor, in his concise and thoughtful book, Buddhism Without Beliefs. As he writes, “The four ennobling truths are not propositions to believe; they are challenges to act.”

Batchelor details how the origins of Buddhist thought are unlike the typical genesis of a religion: “The Buddha was not a mystic. His awakening was not a shattering insight into a transcendent Truth that revealed to him the mysteries of God.” He goes on to suggest that Buddhism focus only on the simple and profound considerations that it was born from, and eschew the concepts of rebirth and karma that are not only not needed, but detrimental to it.

What I particularly liked about his approach is the notion that our “spiritual” lives revolve not around answers, but questions. Or as the author says, “An agnostic Buddhist looks… for metaphors of existential confrontation rather than metaphors of existential consolation.”

An example of this kind of “existential confrontation” comes in the form of a query that Batchelor suggests we ask ourselves regularly: “Since death alone is certain and the time of death uncertain, what should I do?” It is one thing to treat this question superficially or rhetorically, responding with a “make the most of every day” cliche. To actually meditate or think upon it deeply for a length of time, I have found, is both troubling and invigorating. If one is concerned with living an examined life, and every advocate of rationality should be, it is the key question to ask, as often as possible.

There are some nontheists that will not find anything to like in any tradition even remotely associated with “spirituality.” But the fact remains that most people desire a systematic worldview that can provide meaning and structure, and this fact isn’t going to change anytime soon. The eradication of all religion is not a realistic goal, but the gradual growth of more humanistic sects such as Unitarianism, or the kind of Buddhism that Batchelor describes, is. Even if you find none of them of any value personally, if they can help displace fundamentalist thinking at large, they are invaluable.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in seeing a version of Buddhism that is totally free of supernatural or mystical elements. If you are not familiar with the core ideas, this is a great way to be introduced to them sans the religious baggage. If you already know a lot about Buddhism, it provides a fresh perspective that will only increase your appreciation for the genius of Siddharta Guatama.

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?

Book Review: Deadly Persuasion (or: Can’t Buy My Love)

Posted in Misc, Review on August 9, 2009 by S.A.

One of the criticisms that is unfairly leveled at atheists, from time to time, is that we necessarily embrace a narcissistic, materialistic worldview. It’s a simple image to conjure up: that of the live-for-today, to-hell-with-others egoist that is bound by no moral code; the purposeless scoundrel looking only to use others for nothing but his own benefit, fearing no afterlife retribution. This is an absurd notion, of course, and one that most every nontheist that I have ever met disproves through the daily example of his or her life. Without the prepackaged goals, rules, and dogma, the nonreligious I’ve known have had to look inward to build a deeper life full of meaning.

I think it behooves us, then, to point out not just the ill effects that religion and dogma can bring, but other aspects of our modern culture that promote a shallow and banal sense of life. One such example involves the crass commodification of our social environment.

Ironically, this is an issue on which I find myself in agreement with a certain subset of religious people. While it goes right over the head of many of the devout (generally the ones that adhere to the “prosperity gospel” ), there are plenty of Christians, and others, that recognize the the pop culture of consumption and branding is in many ways at loggerheads with an examined life of purpose, meaning, and personal growth.

There is no greater expert on the subject of how aggressive marketing can degrade the quality of a culture than Jean Kilbourne. As a writer, filmmaker, and internationally recognized expert on advertising, addiction, and women’s issues, it has been estimated that she has given lectures at roughly half the universities and colleges in the U.S. Her unique talent is her ability to see and expose the underlying strategies and tools employed by purveyors of all manner of goods to persuade us—methods that seem all the more shocking when we actually see them. Her book Deadly Persuasion, which has also been published under the title Can’t Buy My Love, is a fascinating study of the power of the ubiquitous ads that surround us in our every waking moment.

(Before I go on, I’ll point out that to oppose the manner in which much modern advertising is performed is not to oppose a healthy capitalistic economy, a system that quite clearly has worked better than any other. This is not a diatribe against the availability of every imaginable trifle, or the competition amongst companies to market a more useful product. It is rather about certain methods that advertisers continue to use that have, Kilbourne asserts, a negative effect on the way we interact and the way we view ourselves, others, and material goods. It is about devaluing the currency of genuine human contact.)

The book considers advertisements in magazines as television, and considers a number of different kinds of campaigns in dedicated chapters. There are individual discussions on alcohol marketing, the auto industry, food, tobacco, and the exploitation of human relationships.

“Advertising encourages us not only to objectify each other but also to feel that our most significant relationships are with the products we buy.” Kilbourne states in her introduction. “Although we like to think of advertising as unimportant, it is in fact the most important aspect of the mass media. It is the point.” She goes on to show how a key goal is to make us insecure about our present lives, for example, as is done in the ubiquitous women’s magazines that juxtapose images of cheesecakes or pies on the cover with articles on weight loss tips and images of skinny models inside. After all, “people who feel empty make great consumers.”

“Advertising… twists the notion that we can recreate ourselves – not through dedicated work, but merely by purchasing the right product… [It] often sells a great deal more than products. It sells values, images, and concepts of love and sexuality, romance, success, and perhaps most important, normalcy… we are surrounded by hundred, thousands of messages every day that link our deepest emotions to products, that objectify people and trivialize our most heartfelt moments and relationships.”

To give some examples of the objectification she cites, I’ll just mention the commodity that receives perhaps the most lavish attention from Madison Avenue: the automobile. Kilbourne devotes an early chapter to the subject of car advertising (Can an engine pump the valves in your heart?), and through a series of oddly similar examples, shows how many ad campaigns aim to humanize their machines: “Rekindle the romance”; “If anyone should ask, go ahead and show them your pride and joy” (this under a picture of a wallet showing two photographs – one of a couple of children and the family dog, the other a Honda); “We don’t sell cars, we merely facilitate love connections”; “Stylish, responsive, fun–if it were a man you’d marry it”; “Drive the new Paseo, fall in love”; “She loves her new Mustang. Oh, and whatshisname too”; “A change from you high-maintenance relationship”; ”It’s not a car, its an aphrodesiac”; “What makes you happy? Is it the sparkle in a lover’s smile? Or the warmth of a goodnight kiss? But could it be a car?”;“While some cars can hug the road, very few can actually seduce it.” And so on. Kilbourne does more than list these and countless other examples: she deconstructs them and their implications.

Another troubling issue that the book addresses is the pernicious effect of advertising that is directly aimed at children. This is even more troubling in light of studies that show that young children don’t differentiate between the shows and the advertisements. The chapter on children led me to wonder how much of our national drug-abuse problem among teens is stoked by the way advertising is generally presented. While certainly the causes are many and varied, I think about my own typical childhood, growing up with hours of television every day. And the ads are still relentlessly telling us that purchasing a product makes wonderful things happen: a man opens a soda and a marching band explodes out of his TV into his room; the interior of an SUV becomes a landscape with waterfalls; wearing the right brand of jeans causes your world to shift into a nighttime city scene where a lovely brunette looks at you longingly. It seems quite rare anymore to see to a commercial anymore where use of a produce does not result in some kind of supernatural effect. Perhaps in the process of growing up, when we come to realize that the implicit, fantastical promises of the ads are not true – perhaps this adds to the appeal of drugs that can help make the world seem as magical as we thought it would be?

In short, if you’ve ever wondered how advertisers try to manipulate us, and what the consequences of the onslaught of false promises might be, I highly recommend Kilbourne’s fascinating book. You will not look at your TV the same again, and you’ll likely come to agree with the author’s observation that “advertising and religion share a belief in transformation and transcendance… [but] in the world of advertising, enlightenment is achieved instantly by buying material goods.” And that although one may “love” their possessions, they cannot love one back.

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 http://www.talkorigins.org 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.