Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘religion’

13 DECEMBER, 2013

The Pious Infant: Edward Gorey’s Rare Illustrated Allegory about the Dangers of Dogmatism

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A darkly delightful allegory about what happens when we take our convictions to an extreme.

Beloved mid-century illustrator Edward Gorey used a variety of anagrammatic pseudonyms, formed by remixing the letter of his real name, for his prolific and diverse creative output, spanning irreverent children’s books, paperback covers for literary classics, naughty delights for grownups, and illustrated envelopes. Among Gorey’s multiple female pseudonyms was Mrs. Regera Dowdy, an imaginary 19th-century persona, under which he penned the rare and wonderful gem The Pious Infant (public library), included in the altogether fantastic collection Amphigorey Too (public library) — the characteristically dark story of obsessively devout Little Henry Clump, illustrating the absurdity of religious dogmatism, the perils of self-righteousness, and the notion that any ideology or set of rigid beliefs taken to an extreme is likely to backfire into self-destructiveness.

I was fortunate enough to track down a surviving copy — a signed one, at that — digitized and preserved here for our shared delight:

Although long out of print, used copies of The Pious Infant can still be found online and at some public libraries, and Amphigorey Too, which includes this one and fourteen other Gorey treasures, is still in print. Complement it with The Green Beads and consider supporting the Edward Gorey Charitable Trust with a donation to the Edward Gorey House.

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10 DECEMBER, 2013

Ada Lovelace, the World’s First Computer Programmer, on Science and Religion

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“Everything is naturally related and interconnected.”

Science and religion have long been pitted as diametric opposites, and yet some of humanity’s greatest minds have found in science itself a rich source of spirituality — there’s Albert Einstein’s meditation on whether scientists pray, Richard Feynman’s ode to the universe, Carl Sagan on the reverence of science, Bucky Fuller’s scientific rendition of The Lord’s Prayer, Richard Dawkins on the magic of reality, and Isaac Asimov on science and spirituality. But one of history’s most poignant meditations on the subject comes from the English mathematician and writer Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace (December 10, 1815–November 27, 1852), better-known as Ada Lovelace — the only legitimate child of the poet Lord Byron and commonly considered the world’s first computer programmer.

Portrait of Ada Lovelace by Lisa Congdon for our Reconstructionists project. Click image for details.

In a 1844 letter to her Somerset neighbor, the experimenter in electricity Andrew Crosse, found in Betty A. Toole’s altogether fantastic Ada, the Enchantress of Numbers: A Selection from the Letters of Lord Byron’s Daughter and Her Description of the First Computer (public library), Lovelace — the child of an era still characterized by extreme, all-permeating religiosity that governed nearly all aspects of public and private life — considers the spiritual quality of science, inseparable from the teaching of (at that time, religious) philosophy.

I am more than ever now the bride of science. Religion to me is science, and science is religion. In that deeply-felt truth lies the secret of my intense devotion to the reading of God’s natural works… And when I behold the scientific and so-called philosophers full of selfish feelings, and of a tendency to war against circumstances and Providence, I say to myself: They are not true priests, they are but half prophets — if not absolutely false ones. They have read the great page simply with the physical eye, and with none of the spirit within. The intellectual, the moral, the religious seem to me all naturally bound up and interlinked together in one great and harmonious whole… There is too much tendency to making separate and independent bundles of both the physical and the moral facts of the universe.

Whereas, all and everything is naturally related and interconnected. A volume could I write on this subject…

Ada, the Enchantress of Numbers is an altogether illuminating read, shedding light on the life and mind of one of history’s most deserving yet unsung pioneers of the technologies that shape our lives today.

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08 OCTOBER, 2013

Mark Twain on Religion and Our Human Egotism

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“The human race … sits up nine nights in the week to admire its own originality.”

A large part of what made Mark Twain the greatest American satirist was his capacity for cultural nitpicking, from his irreverent advice to little girls to his critique of the press to his snarky commentary on the outrageous requests he received. But one subject to which Twain applied his exquisite satire with absolute seriousness was religion. In Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 2: The Complete and Authoritative Edition (public library) — the highly anticipated sequel to the excellent first installment — Twain’s grievances with “God” come fully ablaze.

In April of 1906, Twain — who famously believed that any claim of originality was merely misguided narcissism — offers this humorous lament on religion as a manifestation of human egotism:

The human race … sits up nine nights in the week to admire its own originality. The race has always been able to think well of itself, and it doesn’t like people who throw bricks at its naïve self-appreciation. It is sensitive upon this point. The other day I furnished a sentiment in response to a man’s request — to wit:

“The noblest work of God?” Man.

“Who found it out?” Man.

I thought it was very good, and smart, but the other person didn’t.

‘If your mother tells you to do a thing, it is wrong to reply that you won’t. It is better and more becoming to intimate that you will do as she bids you, and then afterward act quietly in the matter according to the dictates of your best judgment.’

Twain treated all forms of dogmatic authority, from religious to parental, with equal irreverence. Spread from his ‘Advice to Little Girls’ illustrated by Vladimir Rudinsky. Click image for more.

In another meditation, dictated in 1906 and posthumously published in 1963 in the Hudson Review under the title “Reflections on Religion,” then eventually included in the altogether excellent The Bible According to Mark Twain: Irreverent Writings on Eden, Heaven, and the Flood by America’s Master Satirist, Twain revisits the subject of evidence-free idolatry of deistic character:

We deal in a curious and laughable confusion of notions concerning God. We divide Him in two, bring half of Him down to an obscure and infinitesimal corner of the world to confer salvation upon a little colony of Jews — and only Jews, no one else — and leave the other half of Him throned in heaven and looking down and eagerly and anxiously watching for results. We reverently study the history of the earthly half, and deduce from it the conviction that the earthly half has reformed, is equipped with morals and virtues, and in no way resembles the abandoned, malignant half that abides upon the throne. We conceive that the earthly half is just, merciful, charitable, benevolent, forgiving, and full of sympathy for the sufferings of mankind and anxious to remove them.

Apparently we deduce this character not by examining facts, but by diligently declining to search them, measure them, and weigh them. The earthly half requires us to be merciful, and sets us an example by inventing a lake of fire and brimstone in which all of us who fail to recognize and worship Him as God are to be burned through all eternity. And not only we, who are offered these terms, are to be thus burned if we neglect them, but also the earlier billions of human beings are to suffer this awful fate, although they all lived and died without ever having heard of Him or the terms at all. This exhibition of mercifulness may be called gorgeous. We have nothing approaching it among human savages, nor among the wild beasts of the jungle.

‘All gods are better than their reputation,’ inscription dated December 23, 1902 from a first edition of ‘A Double-Barrelled Detective Story’ (Kevin MacDonnell Collection)

An early proponent of the conviction that evidence should outweigh mythology, he continues:

There is no evidence that there is to be a Heaven hereafter. … Heaven exists solely upon hearsay evidence — evidence furnished by unknown persons; persons who did not prove that they had ever been there.

[…]

According to the hearsay evidence the character of every conspicuous god is made up of love, justice, compassion, forgiveness, sorrow for all suffering and desire to extinguish it. Opposed to this beautiful character — built wholly upon valueless hearsay evidence – it is the absolute authentic evidence furnished us every day in the year, and verifiable by our eyes and our other senses, that the real character of these gods is destitute of love, mercy, compassion, justice and other gentle and excellent qualities, and is made up of all imaginable cruelties, persecutions and injustices. The hearsay character rests upon evidence only — exceedingly doubtful evidence. The real character rests upon proof — proof unassailable.

Twain then traces the evolution — or, as it were, devolution — of religion over the course of human history, considering Christianity’s odds for survival:

Do I think the Christian religion is here to stay? Why should I think so? There had been a thousand religions before it was born. They are all dead. There had been millions of gods before ours was invented. Swarms of them are dead and forgotten long ago. Our is by long odds the worst God that the ingenuity of man has begotten from his insane imagination — and shall He and his Christianity be immortal against the great array of probabilities furnished by the theological history of the past? No. I think that Christianity and its God must follow the rule. They must pass on in their turn and make room for another God and a stupider religion. Or perhaps a better [one] than this? No. That is not likely. History shows that in the matter of religions we progress backward and not the other way.

(More than a century later, legendary atheist Richard Dawkins would come to echo this sentiment in his newly published biography, writing: “I learned from my mother that Christianity was one of many religions and they contradicted each other. They couldn’t all be right, so why believe the one in which, by sheer accident of birth, I happened to be brought up?”)

Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 2 is an indispensable trove of insight into one of modern history’s greatest minds. Complement it with the story of how Twain masterminded the middlebrow magazine, his little-known poetry, and the heart-warming fan mail he received over the course of his colorful career.

Thanks, Andrew

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