Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘religion’

08 OCTOBER, 2013

Mark Twain on Religion and Our Human Egotism


“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

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:

You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

26 AUGUST, 2013

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


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.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:

You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

13 AUGUST, 2013

Religion vs. Humanism: Isaac Asimov on Science and Spirituality


“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.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:

You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

12 JULY, 2013

Ever Rethinking the Lord’s Prayer: Buckminster Fuller Revises Scripture with Science


A secular definition of divinity as a curiosity-driven love of truth bent through the prism of our subjective experience.

“Everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science,” Einstein wrote to a little girl who asked him whether scientists pray, “becomes convinced that some spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe, one that is vastly superior to that of man.” “The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive,” Carl Sagan seconded, “does a disservice to both.” And yet the oppression of religious doctrine over scientific thought has persisted for centuries, from Galileo to some of today’s most celebrated minds.

In his 1981 classic Critical Path (public library), legendary architect, designer, inventor, theorist and futurist Buckminster Fuller (July 12, 1895–July 1, 1983) explores the subject with his singular blend of philosophical fringe-think, love of science, and cosmic poetics. He recalls being heavily influenced, at the impressionable age of ten, by the Russian Revolution and the Communist party’s demolition of all mystical thought, which was forcibly replaced with blind faith in “omniscientific technology” that manifested as institutionalized atheism. Three years later, Fuller wrote Einstein’s famous “Cosmic Religious Sense — the Nonanthropomorphic Concept of God,” which pointed out that legendary scientists like Galileo and Kepler had been excommunicated by the Roman Catholic Church as “heretics” for their resolute faith in the orderliness of the universe and the belief that it was driven by principles of nonathropomorphic nature — that is, no elderly gentleman with a big white beard. This, Fuller writes, shaped his thinking profoundly, so he created his own scientifically-inspired rendition of “the Lord’s Prayer,” a centerpiece of the Christian faith:

Since 1927, whenever I am going to sleep, I always concentrate my thinking on what I call “Ever Rethinking the Lord’s Prayer.”

He then goes on to write out his “prayer” — essentially a secular definition of divinity as a curiosity-driven love of truth bent through the prism of our subjective experience, something Philip Ball articulated a quarter century later in his eloquent distinction between curiosity and wonder — on his 84th birthday:

July 12, 1979

To be satisfactory to science
all definitions
must be stated
in terms of experience

I define Universe as
all of humanity’s
consciously apprehended
and communicated (to self or others)

In using the word, God,
I am consciously employing
four clearly differentiated
from one another
experience-engendered thoughts.

Firstly I mean: —

Those experience-engendered thoughts
which are predicted upon past successions
of unexpected, human discoveries
of mathematically incisive,
physically demonstrable answers
to what theretofore had been misassumed
to be forever unanswerable
cosmic magnitude questions
wherefore I now assume it to be
scientifically manifest,
and therefore experientially reasonable that

scientifically explainable answers
may and probably will
eventually be given
to all questions
as engendered in all human thoughts
by the sum total
of all human experiences;
wherefore my first meaning for God is: —

all the experientially explained
or explainable answers
to all questions
of all time —

Secondly I mean: —
The individual’s memory
of many surprising moments
of dawning comprehensions
of an interrelated significance
to be existent
amongst a number
of what had previously seemed to be
entirely uninterrelated experiences
all of which remembered experiences
engender the reasonable assumption
of the possible existence
of a total comprehension
of the integrated significance —
the meaning —
of all experiences.

Thirdly, I mean:–
the only intellectually discoverable
a priori, intellectual integrity
indisputably manifest as
the only mathematically statable
of generalized principles —
cosmic laws–
thus far discovered and codified
and ever physically redemonstrable
by scientists
to be not only unfailingly operative
but to be in eternal
omni-interaccommodative governance
of the complex
of everyday, naked-eye experiences
as well as of the multi-millions-fold greater range
of only instrumentally explored
infra- and ultra-tunable
micro and macro-Universe events.

Fourthly, I mean: —
All the mystery inherent
in all human experience,
which as a lifetime ratioed to eternity,
is individually limited
to almost negligible
twixt sleepings, glimpses
of only a few local episodes
of one of the infinite myriads
of concurrently and overlappingly operative
sum-totally never-ending
cosmic scenario serials

With these four meanings I now directly address God.

“Our God —
Since omni-experience is your identity
You have given us
overwhelming manifest: —
of Your complete knowledge
of Your complete comprehension
of Your complete concern
of Your complete coordination
of Your complete responsibility
of Your complete capability to cope
in absolute wisdom and effectiveness
with all problems and events
and of Your eternally unfailing reliability
so to do

Yours, Dear God,
is the only and complete glory.

By Glory I mean
the synergetic totality
of all physical and metaphysical radiation
and of all physical and metaphysical gravity
of finite
but nonunitarily conceptual
scenario Universe
in whose synergetic totality
the a priori energy potential
of both radiation and gravity
are initially equal
but whose respective
behavioral patterns are such
that radiation’s entropic, redundant disintegratings
is always less effective
than gravity’s nonredundant
syntropic integrating

Radiation is plural and differentiable,
radiation is focusable, beamable, and self-sinusing,
it is interceptible, separatist, and biasable —
ergo, has shadowed voids and vulnerabilities;

Gravity is unit and undifferentiable
Gravity is comprehensive
inclusively embracing and permeative
is nonfocusable and shadowless,
and is omni-integrative
all of which characteristics of love.
Love is metaphysical gravity.

You, Dear God,
are the totally loving intellect
ever designing
and ever daring to test
and thereby irrefutably proving
to the uncompromising satisfaction
of Your own comprehensive and incisive
knowledge of the absolute truth
that Your generalized principles
adequately accommodate any and all
special case developments,
involvements, and side effects;
wherefore Your absolutely courageous

omnirigorous and ruthless self-testing
alone can and does absolutely guarantee
total conservation
of the integrity
of eternally regenerative Universe

Your eternally regenerative scenario Universe
is the minimum complex
of totally intercomplementary
totally intertransforming
nonsimultaneous, differently frequenced
and differently enduring
feedback closures
of a finite
but nonunitarily
nonsimultaneously conceptual system
in which naught is created
and naught is lost
and all occurs
in optimum efficiency.

Total accountability and total feedback
constitute the minimum and only
perpetual motion system.
Universe is the one and only
eternally regenerative system.

To accomplish Your regenerative integrity
You give Yourself the responsibility
of eternal, absolutely continuous,
tirelessly vigilant wisdom.

Wherefore we have absolute faith and trust in You,
and we worship You

He goes on to further explore the relationship between science and scripture:

In considering theology and science I think it is important to note their differences regarding familiar and not-so-familiar cosmic concepts.

It is the very essence of my thinking that, for a principle to qualify as generalizable in science, there must be no known exceptions to its reliability. Exceptionless means eternal. Principles can be only eternal.

He points to mathematics as an example of the eternal, for its principles are reliably demonstrable, and writes:

Acknowledging the mathematically elegant intellectual integrity of eternally regenerative Universe is one way of identifying God.

Stuart Firestein wrote in his indispensable Ignorance: How It Drives Science, one of the best science books of 2012, that “Real science is a revision in progress, always. It proceeds in fits and starts of ignorance.” So, too, Bucky reminds us that science is inextricably bound with the mysterious, its champion rather than its nemesis, as much of traditional religious doctrine would have us believe. He writes:

The synergetic integral of the totality of all principles is God, whose sum-total behavior in pure principle is beyond our comprehension and is utterly mysterious to us, because as humans — in pure principle — we do not and never will know all the principles.

Like Carl Sagan, who urged us to master the critical balance between skepticism and openness, Bucky reminds us that critical thinking is what separates the superstitious clinging to quasi-principles from the reliable recognition of pure principles:

Only minds have the capability to discover principles and put them to rigorous physical test before accepting them as principle. More often theologists and others discover principles but do not subject them to the rigorous physical-special-case testing before accepting and employing them as working-assumption principles.

Principles are eternal. Special case interactions of principles are temporal and brain-apprehensible because in pure principle we have time, which is simply the principle of potentially different relative frequencies and not of beginnings and endings.

Critical Path, as necessarily mind-bending from cover to cover, can’t be extolled enough. Complement it with Bucky on synergetics and the perils of specialization.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:

You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.