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Posts Tagged ‘religion’

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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26 AUGUST, 2013

Science, Religion, and the Big Bang: An Animated Clarifier

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From the non-beginning to the singularity, by way of belief-muddling misnomers and beneficial ignorance.

The friction between science and religion stretches back millennia and has been addressed by some of humanity’s greatest minds. Galileo paid a high price for his dissenting opinions. Richard Feynman channeled his views in an ode to the universe, while Albert Einstein articulated his beautifully in a letter to a little girl who wanted to know whether scientists pray. Carl Sagan found reverence of science and Bucky Fuller revised The Lord’s Prayer with science. Richard Dawkins countered mythology with the magic of reality and Isaac Asimov found humanism in the spirituality of science. Ray Bradbury exorcised the tension in his sublime unpublished poems.

Now, the fine folks of MinutePhysics — who have previously explored whether the universe has a purpose, why the color pink doesn’t exist, how science education is stuck in the 19th century, why the past is different from the future, why it’s dark at night, and the true science of parallel universes — trace the origin of this friction all the way back to the Big Bang, whose very name, it turns out, is so terribly misleading that it might be to blame for much of our cultural ambivalence.

Experimental evidence doesn’t actually rule out the possibility that there may indeed be a time before the beginning — a previous age of the universe that ended when space collapsed in on itself … so physics might actually be nudging us back to the view that the universe is eternal and didn’t “begin” after all.

Complement with why there is something rather than nothing, then revisit Sagan’s timeless meditation on science and spirituality.

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13 AUGUST, 2013

Religion vs. Humanism: Isaac Asimov on Science and Spirituality

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“The soft bonds of love are indifferent to life and death.”

Science and religion have a long history of friction as diametric opposites. But some of humanity’s greatest minds have found in science itself a rich source of spirituality, from Albert Einstein’s meditation on whether scientists pray to Richard Feynman’s ode to the universe to Carl Sagan on the reverence of science to Bucky Fuller’s scientific rendition of The Lord’s Prayer to Richard Dawkins on the magic of reality.

Here comes a wonderful addition from the mind of beloved science fiction author Isaac Asimov, found in the altogether indispensable It’s Been a Good Life (public library) — a revealing selection of Asimov’s letters, diary entries, and his three prior autobiographies, In Memory Yet Green (1979), In Joy Still Felt (1980), and the posthumously published I. Asimov: A Memoir (1994), edited by his spouse, Janet Jeppson Asimov, a decade after his death.

Asimov succinctly recapitulates his philosophy:

I have never, not for one moment, been tempted toward religion of any kind. The fact is that I feel no spiritual void. I have my philosophy of life, which does not include any aspect of the supernatural and which I find totally satisfying. I am, in short, a rationalist and believe only that which reason tells me is so.

Indeed, rather than suspending his conviction in the ether of vacant self-righteousness, it is with amiable reason and clever logic that Asimov responds to his inquisitors: Shortly after writing Asimov’s Guide to the Bible, he appeared on the David Frost Show and delivered his irreverent wit in full brilliance when badgered with the G-question. The author recounts:

[Frost] said, with neither warning nor preamble, “Dr. Asimov, do you believe in God?”

“That rather took my breath away. It was a dreadful way of putting a person on the spot. To answer honestly, “No,” with millions of people watching, could arouse a great deal of controversy I didn’t feel much need of. Yet I couldn’t lie, either. I played for time, in order to find a way out.

He said, “Dr. Asimov, do you believe in God?”

And I said, “Whose?”

He said, a little impatiently, “Come, come, Dr. Asimov, you know very well whose. Do you believe in the Western God, the God of the Judeo-Christian tradition?”

Still playing for time, I said, “I haven’t given it much thought.”

Frost said, “I can’t believe that, Dr. Asimov.” He then nailed me to the wall by saying, “Surely a man of your diverse intellectual interests and wide-ranging curiosity must have tried to find God?”

(Eureka! I had it! The very nails had given me my opening!) I said, smiling pleasantly, “God is much more intelligent than I am — let him try to find me.”

Painting by Rowena Morrill

Above all, however, Asimov was an unrelenting humanist:

I’ve never been particularly careful about what label I placed on my beliefs. I believe in the scientific method and the rule of reason as a way of understanding the natural Universe. I don’t believe in the existence of entities that cannot be reached by such a method and such a rule and that are therefore “supernatural.” I certainly don’t believe in the mythologies of our society, in Heaven and Hell, in God and angels, in Satan and demons. I’ve thought of myself as an “atheist,” but that simply described what I didn’t believe in, not what I did.

Gradually, though, I became aware that there was a movement called “humanism,” which used that name because, to put it most simply, Humanists believe that human beings produced the progressive advance of human society and also the ills that plague it. They believe that if the ills are to be alleviated, it is humanity that will have to do the job. They disbelieve in the influence of the supernatural on either the good or the bad of society, on either its ills or the alleviation of those ills.

He revisits the subject of self-classification in a letter to a friend, articulating the same gripe with the label “atheist” that Brian Cox would come to echo decades later, and writes:

Have I told you that I prefer “rationalism” to “atheism”? The word “atheist,” meaning “no God,” is negative and defeatist. It says what you don’t believe and puts you in an eternal position of defense. “Rationalism” on the other hand states what you DO believe; that, that which can be understood in the light of reason. The question of God and other mystical objects-of-faith are outside reason and therefore play no part in rationalism and you don’t have to waste your time in either attacking or defending that which you rule out of your philosophy altogether.

Speaking to the core belief that the unknown is a source of wonder rather than fear, a fundamental driver of science, Asimov allows for the possibility that his own convictions about the nonexistence of “god” might be wrong, with a playful wink at Bertrand Russell:

There is nothing frightening about an eternal dreamless sleep. Surely it is better than eternal torment in Hell and eternal boredom in Heaven. And what if I’m mistaken? The question was asked of Bertrand Russell, the famous mathematician, philosopher, and outspoken atheist. “What if you died,” he was asked, “and found yourself face to face with God? What then?”

And the doughty old champion said, “I would say, ‘Lord, you should have given us more evidence.'”

But Asimov’s philosophy shines with its fullest heart in these beautiful words penned at the end of his life, at once validating and invalidating the mortality paradox:

The soft bonds of love are indifferent to life and death. They hold through time so that yesterday’s love is part of today’s and the confidence in tomorrow’s love is also part of today’s. And when one dies, the memory lives in the other, and is warm and breathing. And when both die — I almost believe, rationalist though I am — that somewhere it remains, indestructible and eternal, enriching all of the universe by the mere fact that once it existed.

It’s Been a Good Life is excellent in its entirety. Complement it with Asimov on science and creativity in education and the author’s endearing fan mail to young Carl Sagan.

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